Dragon Mag Monday: #200

n.b. Dragon Mag Monday is a feature where I take a look back the history of Dungeons & Dragons and other TTRPGs by reviewing my collection of Dragon Magazines. Dragon Magazine ran from 1976 to 2007 but I did not start buying issues until 1985 or so. This feature is not meant to be a definitive look back at the periodical, but one person’s contact with and understanding of the game and its related community, hobby, and culture as it moved from the pre-internet era towards what it is like today. 

Dragon Magazine #200 (December 1993). Cover art by Larry Elmore with a hologram of a dragon by Jeff Easley.

Rather than begin with the oldest issue of Dragon I have, I thought I’d start with one of issues I recently shared some about on Instagram and jump back from there. When I subscribed to Dragon in the early 90s after several years of picking up issues at the Complete Strategist in New York City, it was to insure that I would get issue #200. I had missed issue #100 (it sold out right before I started collecting the magazine regularly) and at the time I was a die-hard comic book collector, and the importance of anniversary numbers to a sense of (not necessarily monetary) value had imprinted onto my mind.

The cover of issue #200 is special in a couple of ways. First, it is by legendary D&D artist Larry Elmore, whose style was all over AD&D 2E at the time, though he was a mainstay of late 1E as well, having done the covers for the bestselling Dragonlance Chronicles series by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. Secondly, it incorporates what to my eyes – then and now – was a very cheesy hologram of a Jeff Easley dragon. It was like someone at TSR was a Prince fan and wanted to emulate the equally cheesy looking cover to Diamonds & Pearls. It is a more intricate subject than many of Elmore’s more famous pieces which are notable for their naturalistic but nevertheless romantic backgrounds with a one of more characters face forward in the foreground. In this one two wizards on the cover seem engaged in a complicated magical ceremony. The old wizard is stripped down to the waist in a sign of physical exertion. The wizardess is a dark elf, who is rendered with the typical beauty Elmore grants his female subjects (and more clothing than Clyde Caldwell grants his), and I think is just a sign of how popular dark elves were as characters in the 2E era, having made the transformative journey from popular villains to expressions of a power fantasy wrapped up in an adolescent sense of being an outsider or outcast. I hope that doesn’t come off as a harsh judgement, because I don’t mean it to. As someone who was in the prolonged adolescence of someone in the early 20s at this time, these various character types and the ability to play at being versions of them definitely appealed to me. This “special collector’s issue” is not an anniversary issue (the next one of those would be #206 – which I’d miss), so it does not follow the magazine’s tradition of having dragon-related content within. It does have a loose theme, however, “magic.” It is also the thickest issue of Dragon that was ever printed. I actually have no evidence of that, but looking at its spine I would wager money that claim is absolutely correct.

The National Geographic-like spine of Dragon #200.

But before digging into that theme, there is an editorial looking back at the periodical’s past and co-written by three people who mostly discuss their own experience of it: Kim Mohan, Roger Moore, and Dale Donovan. Kim Mohan is the former Editor-in-Chief (he held the role when I began to get the mag), who returned to the role with the previous issue, having originally left to follow Gary Gygax on his failed post-D&D gaming ventures when the co-creator of the game was ousted in 1985. Roger Moore was the editor I was most familiar with (esp. since for a time he also ran Dungeon Magazine) and he had taken the role to replace Mohan. Dale Donovan was a relatively recent arrival and was Associate Editor. If the editorial explains why he gets to contribute I didn’t catch it in my admittedly very brisk re-read.

A quick overview of some of the notable articles found in this issue:

  • art by Mark Nelson.

    “Magic from the Gods” by Michael John Wybo II. This article provides some African-based wizard kits (kits were a crude form of subclass or prestige class – depending on how you looked at it – from back in the 2E days). When I get back around to issue #195, which has more African-themed kits, I’ll discuss my discomfort for even the most sensitive approaches to appropriating this material into D&D. I am not saying you cannot use a variety of African folklore and traditions to inspire things in your game, but you have to be careful to no attempt direct game interpretations of real-world peoples. This article does more of that, with kits based named for real world peoples like the Baule and the Zande. It doesn’t help that Wybo writes things like “In Africa, there can be no magic without either the will of the gods, or some other more malign power.” I find stuff like that conflating a fantasy aspect of the game D&D with a varied and real world people and its traditions around magic and religion. Are DMs meant to just put “Africa” into their homebrew worlds? Are they meant to play games set in “Africa” as if it were a fantastical place? I am not too sure either a great idea.

  • The Wizards Three are visited by the Simbul. (art by Dan Burr)

    “The Wizards Three” by Ed Greenwood. This is a classic feature, which had Forgotten Realms creator and frequent contributor to Dragon, Ed Greenwood writing short fiction imagining conversations between the Realms’ Elminster, Mordenkainen from Greyhawk, and Dalamar the Black, the elven wizard of the Black Robes from Dragonlance’s world of Krynn and then detailing a handful of spells of different kinds they might have traded or discussed. The conceit is that they meet here on Earth in Greenwood’s apartment as he hides in a suit of armor to take notes. One of the spells, a 9th level one called Alamanther’s Return is particularly interesting to me (allowing the wizard to replicate a spell he has seen before even if he doesn’t know it or even its name!), but at the same time, I have never run a D&D game in 40 years where the casting of 9th level spells was ever even a possibility.

  • “The Color of Magic” by Dan Joyce provides advice for making cosmetic changes to spells in order to give them more stylistic and thematic panache. I think these days the kinds of changes Joyce recommends are a lot more commonly accepted, but at the time it was probably a revelation for many DM and players are the time.
  • “Familiar Faces” by David Howery greatly expands the number of available familiars to 2E (and let’s face it, 1E) wizards casting Find Familiar. It also breaks down the types that might be available to a wizard from the Underdark versus one who is a sea, for example.
  • “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” by Jonathan M. Richards presents a variety of very interesting magical keys, some of which I plan to convert for use in 5E because I find them that intriguing. For example, Courier Keys allow for secret messages to be implanted and locked away in someone’s mind using one key and can only be accessed with its pair, making it inaccessible by Detect Thoughts (called ESP back then) and similar spells.
  • “Arcane Lore” by Rich Stump presents a collection spells transcribed into a book called Oerthmagick by the Greyhawk wizard, Nazralte GrynClithe (“Naz” for short). Some examples include Frostfire which transforms hot fires into cold fires that either only give off light (but do not burn) or burn by means of cold. It also potentially does damage when cast of fire beings (like elementals or efreeti) that fail their saves. I plan to present my adaptation of a spell called Bands of Ice in a forthcoming post (and here it is), but that project reminded me of how clunky spells could be in the TSR days.
  • art by P. L. Wolf

    “The Whistling Skeleton” is a short module written by Ed Greenwood and presented in the format common to Dungeon Magazine (to the extent of having a faux-cover inserted before it. The scenario isn’t great by my estimation and spends way too much time explaining the way the titular skeleton was made by means of existing spells that as written don’t really work as described. All of this for what is essentially an ambush encounter.

  • “Making the Most of a Module” by Lisa Stevens (yes, I am pretty sure it is that Lisa Stevens) is a helpful article giving advice on how to prep a module and tailor it for your individual campaign.
  • The Even More Complete Psionicist” by Jon Winter presents psionicist kits, building on the ones published in Dragon #191. I definitely made use of these as possible options back when I included psionics in my campaigns, something I would not do anymore unless it was a campaign designed to replace magic with a psionics system sufficiently different from magic spells and slots. If it is going to be just another kind of magic, I just don’t see the point.
  • “Minion Matters” by Sean Patrick Fannon gives advice for handling many minions in what could become a logistical nightmare of a combat. I am not sure it is great advice, and definitely a “here’s how to manage your homework” approach over a let’s make some simple rules that are easier to deal with but still evoke the theme we want. It certainly nothing like how “minions” have been thought of in mainstream D&D since at least the 4E era. Even I have my own way of dealing with minions that makes things faster without limiting them to a single hit point or introducing too many new rules for dealing with them. Maybe one day I’ll share them on here or in a zine.
  • “The Dragon Project” was an ongoing series in the magazine presenting “dragons” for non-D&D games. This time Bill Slavicsek gives us the Galaxy Dragon, a starship for West End Games’ Star Wars RPG.
  • from Elminster’s Notebook. Art by Gary Williams

    “Elminster’s Notebook by Ed Greenwood (with art by Gary M. Williams) is evidence of how popular the Realms were in the early 1990s. This marked a new series of articles with Elminster’s point of view from his travels of Faerun. It tells the reader of Cragmyr Keep and has a splash page portrait of its lord with notes on the NPC. The Forgotten Realms was a setting about characters more than about its places, and I think there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the PCs have the feeling (if not the chance) of a chance to become as infamous as those Greenwood likes to write about. It was an approach that led to countless fantasy books of varying quality.

Other contents of the issue include: “Santa’s Hidden Helpers” (a crossword puzzle), an installment of “The Known World Grimoire” (Bruce Heard’s continuation of what started with the popular “Voyage of the Princess Ark” articles), a new serial comic series called “Libram X” (by Jeff Grub with art by Bob and Cathy Lessl), video game reviews by Sandy Peterson (of Call of Cthluhu fame), a multi-page full-color advertising insert listing TSR products, and “Role-Playing Reviews” which includes a fair but critical review of TSR’s own recent Dragon Mountain set. Of course, there is also a short fiction as all issues had back then. This time a story by Margaret Weiss called “The Best,” that I have to admit I did not re-read or even remember, but back in the day I read them all.

There’s always be an excuse for Telerie to be nearly naked, if not completely so. (art/words by Larry Elmore)

Perhaps most exciting to me at the time was the one-shot return of Larry Elmore’s occasionally saucy SnarfQuest, this time in full-color! I was a big fan of SnarfQuest at the time, and even owned an autographed copy of the complete Snarfquest collection I picked up at GEN CON in the early 2000s. I am pretty sure it doesn’t hold up because even back then I found much of it questionable, but I am a sucker for a serialized comic book story and I liked the way it mixed fantasy and trappings of sci-fi in a way very reminiscent of early D&D’s gonzo approach to including everything it could. Still, Elmore’s penchant to deprive the women characters of clothing at the drop of a dime is damn near Caldwellian. I mean, even in this one-off story Teleri Windyarm just happens to sleep in lacey yellow underwear even when camping out in the woods. I know it is meant to be humor, but it is kinda juvenile if you ask me (which might explain why I liked it so much as a juvenile).

After this issue, I’ll be jumping back to issues with double digit numbers (even the earliest ones I have are post-issue #50). This issue represents near the end of my interest in Dragon Magazine. After my subscription expired, I might have bought one or two random issues off the stand, but it would not be until 2000 and the arrival of 3E that I would subscribe again thinking that it would be helpful to have additional material for a new edition. We’ll get there eventually, but let me just put it out there, that in the end, I didn’t find it nearly as useful as I did the 1E/2E stuff, and I think that is just because of the differing expectations for the editions, some of which was good and some of which. . . .well, not so good. But all that early stuff? Good or bad, that was the stuff I cut my DMing and homebrewing teeth on and it made an indelible impression. As such, I will have a lot to say as I dig into the articles and ideas that would shape how I run D&D regardless of what edition it is.

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