Dragon Mag Monday: Best of Dragon, vol. IV

My well-loved copy of Best of Dragon vol. IV. [Click to enlarge and read back copy]

Rather than begin this series navigating my collection of Dragon Magazine with my earliest issue (well, the earliest I still own), I thought I’d start with the oldest Dragon-related product, Best of Dragon vol. IV (May 1985), that I made the most use of. I do have a copy of the Best of Dragon Vol. III, but I got it after vol. IV, and it never impressed me as much, so I decided to start with this one. I may come back to it. But some of the material in volume IV became such a regular part of my D&D games that within 10 years from when I got it during high school, I had adapted so much of it that I kind of forgot where it came from. Paging back through it, I was struck at how much in here was foundational to the house rules and homebrew material I used as a Dungeon Master running D&D way past 1985.

I have to admit that I have nostalgia for the clean and plain approach to covers and layout for TSR-era materials. While this would change some in the 2E era (especially as time passed), it would not be until 3E when the look would become “contemporary” and slick. I understand the marketing reason for this approach, but that old look still has an aesthetic appeal. . . at least to me. Black and white art and a focus on text material is still my preference. I sometimes hear people complain about any modern products that have “walls of text” and there being “too much to read,” but I can’t help but roll my eyes at that kind of complaint. The material and its legibility (I find glossy pages with off-color backgrounds a strain on the eyes—though still preferable to reading digital reproductions of print books) is always going to be more important to me. It is part of why (aside from cheapness) that I went with the DIY quick n’ dirty photocopied look for issues of my HOW I RUN IT zine.

The very plainly typeset table of contents [click to enlarge]

That the cover of this volume of the Best of Dragon is simply solid gray with a cut out box featuring a gold dragon by Keith Parkinson (repurposed from something else) reinforces that old school aesthetic. This product is not about visual bells and whistles but about the best of articles published in Dragon Magazine “selected from out-of-print issues.” Just look at that table of contents. It looks like someone typed it on an IBM Selectric II.

The first section—“It Takes All Kinds”—is given to NPC classes. The idea of NPC classes was something I first ran across in the pages of Dragon. NPC classes are just what they sound like, classes limited to DM play, though if other people’s tables were anything like mine (and anecdotally they seem like they were at least in this regard), these NPC classes found their way into the hands of players, sometimes as they appeared in the magazine, but more often tweaked by a DM (or a player and DM in collaboration) in order to be more balanced against the core classes found in the 1E Player’s Handbook and/or more in line with the homebrew setting they’d be used in. Editor Kim Mohan (or maybe it was Roger Moore, the editorial introductions of each section are uncredited) even suggests that some of the classes might be good for tweaking in just such a way, while others are just too overpowered to be allowed in players’ hands. In my experience, however, the interesting ones all inevitably ended up a little too powerful in comparison, but then again, we never played long-enough back then for it to make much difference.

I don’t know for sure why these classes were limited to NPCs by design, but my guess—I mean, aside from the obvious reason that playing something like a Cloistered Cleric is no actual fun in an adventure game—is that calling them NPC classes avoided a few potential problems for TSR. Firstly, it saved the staff at Dragonthe hard work of even trying to balance the new class (though clearly no one had bothered balance or playtest most of the material in the 1E Unearthed Arcana either). Secondly, and perhaps even more practically, I imagine it saved them the headache that calling them PC classes would create in terms of the inundation of inquiries about playing them. Lastly, I can imagine there being a worry that such classes would be in competition with their own game books. This might have been a real concern when, despite how many completist collectors there are out there, there are probably a significant multiple of that number who are reticent to buy the same thing twice. With that “NPC” designation, the editors of Dragon are saying “Play these at your own risk.” Personally, most of the stuff allowed these classes were (and still are) best left to a handwave, only caring about the part that faces the players. Do you really need a transparent system for how much armor a detailed NPC character of the Smith class can make? The DM is arbitrarily deciding the Smith’s level and resources anyway, so why not just make up a number that seems reasonable and makes sense for the game context?

Of course, none of this addresses the one potential pitfall of NPC classes meant for DMs to “play,” the dreaded DMPC.

NPC classes would make a comeback in 3E in a much more potentially useful but also ultimately absurd form. I have come to prefer a more bespoke approach to the creation of NPCs than to feel beholden to the same rules as player characters, and even then, I only create a stat block if absolutely necessary.

All this said, back in the day when I used to obsess about the rules and think I needed to carefully stat every possible NPC ahead of time, I made use of some NPC classes. Mostly, however, I converted them to PC classes no one ever chose to play. Primary among these was the Bounty Hunter, which writer Scott Bennie presented as a kind of assassin more than a marshal meant to return fugitives. Nevertheless, in the era when rangers were only allowed to be good in alignment, had a code of conduct that if violated could lead to their losing their ranger abilities, and had high ability score requirements, the bounty hunter would become my less frills version. They did have a ranger’s ability to track. I remember giving them the ability to more easily knock people out, since I wanted them to be the best at taking captives. The class already had the ability to assassinate (as the 1E Assassin class) which also allowed them to knock people out instead of ganking them, but my version was a lot more straughtforward than the assassination rules. I also dropped the 1E AD&D penchant of making classes into some kind of hierarchical secret society that limited the number of members of a class beyond a certain level and required them to fight for the position. It kind of made sense with druids and monks, but bounty hunters? Seems silly.

I never used the Cloistered Cleric class, which was a kind of non-martial monk who copied scrolls and lived quiet pious lives and all that junk. But a bunch of the spells that appear in this article especially for them would later appear in Unearthed Arcana and in the 2E Player’s Handbook and Tome of Magic.

The Duelist is the first NPC class I remember ever encountering and that is because it was printed in one of the first two issues of Dragon I ever got my hands on, issue #73 (May 1983). I don’t recall if it was the very first or if that was issue #87. The Strategist often had a variety of back issues on its stand, and while I tended to buy the most recent issue, I sometimes picked up a back issue if the current one was sold out or was flush enough to buy two. This would have been 1984 sometime. The Duelist is a weird take on a swashbuckler, making them an engine of vengeance, taking people on for pay. In this way, they was similar to the Bounty Hunter. I did like his fencing/dueling powers and their names like “Parrying the Death Blow!” which allows them to make a save (vs. “death magic” – early D&D was so weird) to avoid damage from a blow that drop them to 0 hps or below. It is still an interesting mechanic, as it get more difficult each time it is used before healing or rest. The next time a successful save only halves the damage (or reduces the duelist to 1 hp). It was not allowed to be used a third time. In 5E the Relentless Endurance ability is a simplified and automatic version of that, skinned differently. I still think it could make a cool short rest power. I do like the idea of it being a desperate and exhausting move. In fact, one of the stranger things about the Duelist is that the class granted a d12 hit die. This was the same as the barbarian class! In an attempt to lean into the idea that hit points do not represent flesh and blood points, the writer, Arthur Collins, explains: “Giving the duelist 12-sided hit dice is not intended to convey the impression that duelists are monstrous hulks, like sumo wrestlers.” In defense of his choice he quotes the Dungeon Masters Guide to remind readers that “a character taking damage in a long fight is not necessarily getting cut up so much as he is getting worn out; his concentration lags, his arms get tired, his feet begin to drag, until he is down to his last few hit points. That’s when one simple thrust might kill him.” The argument made sense to me back in the day, but despite the objections of the rules themselves most people I ever played with or discussed the game with had a hard time divorcing a high hit die with a tougher and more brutish character. As a DM, it is how I try to describe when PCs take damage or describing the damage the PCs do to their foes to this day. It is not until the enemy is dropping or very near to it that blood begins to flow and bones begin to crack.

The Jester class advancement tables.

I loved the Jester and still do. I played one or two in short-lived campaigns. They were bards but playable (unlike the 1E bard which required levels spent in Fighter and Rogue first before switching to Druid which was finally really Bard). They are goofy AF. I push against it, but sometimes I like goofy. I used a Jester NPC as the first recurring villain in a long-term campaign I ran back in middle school. Later in a 3E campaign I played in in the early 00s, I’d play a fighter/bard—Jonas Fawkes—with the hopes of taking a jester prestige class, but the campaign never got that far.

There are other classes, Deathmaster, Smith, Scribe, Bandit. But none ever captured my interest. The Deathmaster is basically a necromancer. The Smith makes or fixes things, the Bandit is kind of a fighterish-rogue with some anti-ranger thrown in. I never felt I needed rules for any of this beyond what already existed.

The next section of Best of Dragon vol. 4 is labeled “Players’ Perspectives.”

I am sure I read the articles in this section closely and repeatedly back in the day, but ultimately most of them are not as useful. “Be Aware, Take Care” by Lew Pulsipher provides advice for players in a D&D campaign assuming they want to “live and prosper.” It is the kind of thing that reminds you to have the proper gear for dungeon exploration, to be suspicious of the rescued princess (what if she’s a doppelgänger?!), to gather information ahead of time about where you’re going, to keep a log of all the monsters you fight, and a list of all magical items the party has in its possession so none are forgotten. Most of this is not bad advice, but its usefulness depends greatly on the style of game you prefer. The princess equals potential doppelgänger thing, for example, strikes me as a relic of adversarial DM “gotcha” era—not that it couldn’t happen, but if you have to assume bad faith in your adventure goal every time, something seems wrong with that game. A lot of this stuff seems to not apply to modern D&D gaming, but since Pulsipher contributes a regular series of posts over on the ENWorld forums exploring different aspects of RPGs and world-building—that he calls “Worlds of Design”—perhaps more up to date advice can be found in threads like this one.

An example of components from Michael Dobson’s “It’s a Material World.” The pencil line is an artifact of when I copied this all by hand, marking how far I’d gotten in one sitting.

Much more useful to me back in the day was “It’s a Material World,” which presents an exhaustive list of spell components, their rarity, and cost. I loved this stuff. Let’s be honest, I still love this stuff. Before the days of OCR and PDFs I copied the entirety of this article’s list of components by hand, and then updated it for each new edition and for new spells from supplements and my homebrews. I did this through Third Edition, but when I came around to playing 5E, I decided there was limited utility to maintaining that degree of detail in the game, and what I found fun (the obsessive collection and cataloging of material components, the expectation that a player might happily find piles of bat guano to help fulfill her desire to cast Fireball, for example) did not translate to everyday game play, so I dropped being a stickler about it. And if I am honest with myself, I was never that much of a stickler, because it was more trouble than it was worth to try to force other people who want to play wizards to care about that aspect of it. I provided the info and trusted people did it.

I do still find the list useful when wanting to come up with the contents of a wizard’s lab for an adventure.

A half-ogre art by Tim Truman

“The Whole Half-Ogre” (by Roger E. Moore) is another article that inspired game material I made use of through all the editions to follow (and even inspired me to write some terrible fantasy fiction as a teenager starring Sluggo the Half-Ogre as its protagonist and his gnome jester sidekick, whose name was something like Carrot Nose). These days I eschew the “half-races” and if I wanted to include ogre PCs, I’d just make them ogres or perhaps convert them into something along those lines.

“Riding High” is another article by Moore (funny how one of the editors who put together this collection included so much of his own work). This one presents detailed rules for aerial mounts. This could have been useful if I had ever run or played in a game that went high enough level for winged mounts to be a common thing, but I never have really. If you’ll excuse the pun, I prefer my games to be more grounded. I did once play in a Forgotten Realms game where the party paladin got a pegasus for a holy horse, but the game fell apart soon after, so we never really saw her in action.

The remaining articles are alternatives for AD&D’s overly complex unarmed combat system that I don’t think many people actually ever used. We tried to use it but it was burdensome and unnecessary. I do still have a soft spot for 2E’s unarmed and wrestling combat chart that listed the kinds of blows and moves the characters were landing. That was fun to roll on. I need to bring that back.

The final section is called “Creative Campaigns” and the editorial introduction describes the contents as help for DMs in coming up with material for their game sessions. I am not so sure it is an accurate description and most of it seems like a basis for world-building and detailed house-ruling/homebrewing, not actual adventure design and game play. Nevertheless, I did find some of it useful.

An excerpt from the explanation on how to incorporate a silver standard in your campaign setting.

“A PC and His Money” is another contribution from Lew Pulsipher. Its suggestion of using a silver (rather than gold) standard for D&D settings and applying various fantasy versions of real-world expenses is one I took to heart and still make use of to this day. Taxes, fees, levies, tolls, bribes, property, maintenance costs, hiring servants are all things that come up in my games. In my current Ghosts of Saltmarsh+ campaign (the “+” is  for the adventures from other sources I stuck into it), the PCs purchased an old noble’s hunting lodge and renovated it into their headquarters, hired servants, rebuilt the stables, dealt with a haunting and a monster infestation, and had to take out a loan from their shady fence friend to pay for it all.

I abandoned the silver standard, which I used for 20+ years in my Aquerra setting, but everyone got used to it pretty quick back when I did use it. Ultimately, it may not have made that much difference in terms of play, but it did help to give the setting its own feel as did the different types of money minted by different nations at different times and the conversion rates the PCs had to deal with when they went from one kingdom to another. That is all stuff I also dropped when I moved to 5E. I guess after years of teaching I realized I didn’t like giving people homework. These days I’d let players initiate the interest, if any, on different denominations and then I could use that for an adventure plot or running subplot. For example, in my current game all the electrum pieces the party kept finding on the bad guys was “foreign money.” It was weird and rarely seen and people looked at it askance but quickly saw its value. It was more important as clue about foreign interest in the area connected to smugglers’ misdeeds than it was as a piece of homebrew setting minutiae.

“The Care of Castles” by Katharine Kerr is from an era when domain maintenance was a big part of higher-level play in D&D. Imagine that rather than fighting astral dragons and tarrasques (or maybe in addition to) what you had to look forward to past 10th level or so was collecting taxes, hiring retainers, putting down rebellions, fighting wars against neighbors. Actually, that kind of play might interest me more than fighting a tarrasque, but I’d never know because I’ve never done either.

There are two articles on damage to weapons and their repair, something I never instituted in my games (though in both 2E and 3E I used rules for damage to armor) and “Wounds and Weeds” provides a list of types of real-world herbs to introduce in the game for their healing effects. I’ve never been interested in that type of detail, but some people still are. There has been more than one D&D 5E and Pathfinder supplement detailing herbs and herbalism for the new era. I’m glad people are into it. I have much more genericized rules for collecting herbs for the creation of healing potions and the like which I will one day share on here or in a zine.

A spread of sample runes from the article by Phil Taterczynski and Roger Raupp about their use.

The last two articles in Best of Dragon vol. IV are about runes. One entitled simply “Runes” explores the origins of runes and their history as the groundwork for introducing runes to your own game. “Runestones” by Ed Greenwood (of Forgotten Realms fame) presents information about dwarven runes (called “Dethek Runes) in his typical style, as a story of Elminster visiting the writer to discuss the history and culture of the Realms. I used this runic alphabet in all my games and still would if it became relevant.

And there you have it. Out of 23 articles that were considered “the best,” in 1985, eight of them had a profound effect on how I built settings and ran games (and in some cases, how I continue to run them to this day). It could be even more, it is just that a couple of them no longer have resonance with me and I cannot recall exactly how I felt about them then, but my guess is that Mike Beeman’s “Five Keys to Success,” Scott Bennie’s “Saintly Standards” (about religious figures), and Pulsipher’s “Be Aware, Take Care” also had an effect on me at the time.

Rereading these article now have made me curious about trying my hand at creating some subclasses based on the duelist, bounty hunter and jester. How might I handle a character with ogres in their ancestry without basing an entire lineage on rape like half-ogres and half-orcs traditionally did? The HOW I RUN IT website is designed to be just the space for me to try out that kind of stuff, so stay tuned.

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