On the same day I posted the previous #DragonMagMonday, the news came down that former Dragon editor-in-chief Kim Mohan had passed away. I don’t know that much about Mohan except that I knew his name from the days when I first started picking up the mag, and I remember when he left TSR to follow an ousted Gary Gygax to start up the failed New Infinity Productions and then returned to Dragon and then stayed on as an editor when Wizards of the Coast took over. From the tributes to him I saw online, it looks like he was still editing D&D products on a freelance basis for WotC fairly recently, despite being in his retirement. The issue I am covering today was edited by Mohan, so I wanted to at the very least acknowledge the work he did to make the periodical one of my favorite gaming supplements—and nearly every one of the write-ups to come (including this one) will stand as evidence of how much influence it had on how I see and run D&D to this day.
Despite there being no date on this issue for some reason, Dragon Magazine #92 is the December 1984 issue. By the time this came out, I had been playing D&D for about a year and a half, but despite not quite remembering how I got my hands on this issue, I know it wasn’t until sometime after this. What I do know is that I did not buy it off the rack at the Compleat Strategist as I did the majority of the issues in my collection, and I definitely did not get it from a subscription because I would not get my first subscription issue until nearly 100 issues later. So where did I get it? I have narrowed it down to two possibilities: either it was in the stack of D&D books I got from a schoolmate who gifted them to me in 9th grade because he had given up playing. Or I picked it up for cheap at a con in the late 80s or early 90s because it was in bad shape. In fact, that is part of why I know for sure that I did not get it off the rack, I cannot remember it ever not being in about the same shape it is today, with a tattered and creased cover nearly coming off the staples and with stained interior pages like it once took some minor water damage.
But what a cover it is! One of the all-time best if you ask me. Called “Bridge of Sorrows” and painted by Denis Beauvais, I love the dark shades of purple evoking a night sky, the crumbling stone bridge and wizard in white evoking the classic “Bridge of Khazad-Dum” scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (something the fire-breathing dragon reinforces despite not being a balrog), and the centaur hero dressed in partial full-plate armor is a unique touch, something I had not seen before and have rarely seen much of since (though I am one of those people who is fairly skeptical of centaurs as viable adventuring player characters for any quests involving dungeons and other hard to reach places). Furthermore, I have a confession to make, for all the years I’ve had this mag and looked at its cover, I only noted for the first time just now that the dragon is carrying off a scantily clad woman. Or perhaps I noticed before and forgot. Either way, while the scantily clad women of fantasy is a tired and demeaning trope (and already was by the mid-80s), Beauvais renders her well. He’d go on to do several other of my all-time favorite Dragon covers, though I don’t think he did much other art specifically for D&D products.
Before moving on to the actual articles in this issue, I do want to point out that in his brief editorial intro, Mohan, in discussing what is forthcoming for the magazine, mentions that they are pretty close to publishing “a package of programs for various home computers—a couple of player-character generators for the AD&D game, a program that creates NPCs, and some utility programs for designed to make the DM’s life easier” (21). It makes me wonder if these were ever published and if so, in what format for which computers? Back in 1984, I was deep into making programs (mostly using BASIC) on my Commodore 64. Were they planning to just print lines of code to be copied keystroke by keystroke into your home computer? Or were they planning to include an actual floppy disk with the programs on them? If they ever did, I never got those issues, so I’d love to hear from anyone who knows. It seems so quaint and novel now in the era of D&D Beyond and the Wizards of Seattle doubling down on digital D&D, but it would be nice to see where it started (at least officially).
One of my favorite regular features in Dragon from back in the day was the Forum. Before the days of Twitter and Reddit and online forums like ENWorld, if you wanted to argue with gamers besides the ones in your circle, you had to buy a stamp and write a letter and hope it got published. I wrote several letters to the Forum back in the 90s. Only one got published, and I don’t even really agree with it anymore! (We’ll get to that issue eventually). These days, burnt out by the general D&D discourse I find it difficult to go back and read Forum letters in these old issues. The positions just seem so narrow-minded and facile that I kinda feel sorry for these folks for caring so deeply. And yes, I know that is hypocritical given how much I can care about D&D shit, but I am also burnt out on all the usual D&D topics from years arguing and reading the arguments about things like alignment, race, gender, role-playing vs. roll-playing, simulationism vs. narrativism and all that other garbage on ENWorld (mostly). I only care about the early forms of these arguments from the perspective of how “nothing is new under the sun,” but don’t want to engage with them ever again, at least not from the perspective of whether or not they are actual problems. I was gaslit enough for a lifetime back in the 00s whenever the topic of racism and sexism in gaming came up online. Nevertheless, as I do these Dragon Mag Monday deep dives, I am going to make an effort to at least skim the Forum section to get a sense of what the argument du jour might be and see if it is worth reporting on.
In this issue’s Forum (which is unusually short, just three letters) the topic at hand seems to be a letter from issue #89 criticizing the playing of evil characters (save for the one letter on the realism of falling damage). While I don’t have the original letter, it seems that someone suggested that anyone who’d want to play “evil” has “emotional problems.” Or at least, that is how the first letter in response characterizes it. One letter disagrees, another agrees, saying “Evil characters bother my sense of propriety.” I say, “Yawn.” I don’t allow people playing evil characters in my campaigns, not because I think those people are actually evil, but rather because I think they tend to disrupt the collective/team aspect of the game. While I think that someone playing through some evil acts can be disturbing (though as a DM, you have to play the bad guys, too), in general D&D evil is the broad mustache twirling kind or the literal diabolical kind, where reference to bad things done is more common and acceptable than detailed representations of it (which should be used sparingly). Anyway, I didn’t mean to rehash the argument.
Moving on, back in 1984, Dragon Magazine was not yet doing monthly themes for their issues but nevertheless, the first two included here are both about clerics, and a third is about gods.
The first, “First, Spread the Faith” by Paul Vernon is one that had a huge influence on me in my early days of creating a setting and a feel for the 2E D&D games I’d run. (Remember, while this issue came out in the 1E era, I did not get my hands on it until after I’d switched to 2E). The article explores developing the cleric class beyond its usual position as a combat medic, to think about the goals and motivations of someone who is dedicated to a deity and gets their powers from one. Without giving a specific system like 2nd Edition would give us with its Spell Spheres, the article discusses adjusting the spell lists for clerics based on their gods. A cleric of Kos, the God of Dooms from the Newhonian Mythos, for example would be unlikely to be granted a spell like sanctuary. It then goes on to suggest that the clerical prohibition on sharp weapons needs to be re-thought for such a god, and it would make little sense for a god whose symbol is a crossed sword and axe to be limited to maces and hammers or for healing to be their main focus. I already started introducing some changes to clerics based on gods (clerics of Zeus got access to Lighting Bolt) in 1E, and in 2E creating specialty priests was my jam. I basically made a bespoke cleric/druid class for each god available in my old homebrew, and when I moved on to 3E, the very first homebrewed things I did were versions of these classes to subsume the cleric and druid. Priests of the abolition god could dispel charm. Priests of the god of war and honor used Strength, not Wisdom for their casting ability score. I made Priests of Thor into Constitution-based casters, etc.
But more important than the crunchy stuff, is the stuff that drives such characters. Priests of the abolition god, put slavers to the sword and work to free slaves and undermine corrupt systems (they tend to be chaotic good), while priests of the goddess of good magic might be concerned about healing people, but also making sure magic is not put to nefarious use, compelling her followers to respect the arcane gifts she grants, and so on. This also creates conflicts between different gods’ followers even when not at odds due to differences in alignment. By adhering to Vernon’s claim that “[h]aving a detailed religious background adds enormously to the flavor of any fantasy campaign,” I did just that for two decades. In fact, it was so much a central part of so many games I ran, that I moved away from the centrality of it for my current setting (though my Revenants of Saltmarsh games still has strong religious overtones due to the characters a couple of players made).
“The More, The Merrier” by Bruce Barber presents a system for clerics converting people to their faith and getting XP for it. It includes a reaction table for these potential converts. While reaction tables are something that went away with the advent of 3E, I can imagine a product for 5E presenting a similar system using persuasion and/or religion checks.
“Gods of the Suel Pantheon” by Leonard Lakofka is not specifically about clerics but does present the three final gods in an ongoing series presenting info on the gods of Greyhawk. The article is weird in that there is no introduction putting this info into the context of the installments that came before it. Instead, there is a paragraph at the end telling readers who want to see all 16 deity descriptions to check out issues #86 to 90. One of the gods, Jascar—God of Hills and Mountains—is depicted looking something like Thor from the Norse mythos, with a red bushy beard and a hammer. So much so, that when I detailed Thor for my old homebrew, I added mountains to his portfolio. I’ve always played fast and loose with gods, using familiar names but granting them dominion over what made sense for the setting.
An ad for Villains & Vigilantes—a superhero game I played a lot of back in the day—follows the articles on the Suel gods. It was a great ad campaign because each one presented the stats for a villain in the game. This one is for “Kali,” a criminal martial arts mystic who uses “Power-Nunchucks” and a katana.
“Let the Horse Buyer Beware” adds some complexity to the buying and using of horses in D&D to keep them from all being the same, and to allow flush heroes to pay more for better horses. I am not sure if that level of detail is worth the trouble, but the article does make one good point: that horses quickly become weaker than their player character owners and thus can become an adventuring liability. I have seen this in action, as in my 3E “Second Son of a Second Son” campaign in which one character who was built for horse combat lost her horse twice during the time we played. One of them fell into a pit of yellow musk creepers and another was killed by a bulette.
“Duh ‘Cology of Duh Ettin!” by Ed Greenwood is a classic. I am not sure if it is the first “Ecology of. . .” article in Dragon Magazine, but it is the first that made an impression on me. Written in the form of in-game documents collected from “the Trail Notes of Raujur the Ranger,” most of these articles (even the ones Greenwood did not write) follow a similar format of in-game fiction followed by endnotes detailing rules considerations for running the monster in question with some flavor and interest. One thing I do not like about this article is its claim that “an ettin never ‘argues with itself,’” which seems like a sad and quotidian waste of a perfectly good dumb two-headed giant trope.
“Pages from the Mages” gives us even more of Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms lore from before the days when the Realms were a product you could buy and instead it was just some dude in Canada’s homebrew. This time he gives us four spell books with different spells and properties and some of the legends of their scribes. There are some spells in here that I think made their way in different forms into later editions, but I think I will be converting a few of these for my Dweomer Day feature here on HOW I RUN IT. Phase Trap forces phasing monsters that move between the prime and ethereal or other parallel planes to remain in one phase or another and Grimwald’s Greymantle makes its target unable to benefit from healing spells. I think I’ll try to make 5E versions of both.
“The Sword of Justice” by Jon Mattson is what makes this issue of Dragon a standout for me. Before the days of Dungeon Magazine, you could count on this mag to have a couple of decent-sized modules each year. It is a great deal for a magazine with a $3 cover price! While it is a D&D adventure meant for use with the Basic or Expert sets, I was always of the school that adventures for the two different rulesets (B/X, later BECMI, and AD&D) were interchangeable, and I used (and still use) both. Any module is going to need tweaking to work for your own home game, so what difference does it make if one uses slightly different rules from the other? Despite what Gygax and TSR tried to claim to bilk Dave Arneson out of his cut, D&D and AD&D were not distinct games—at least not distinct enough for it to matter in any practical way at the table. I ran this adventure both using 1E and later 2E rules (speaking of interchangeable, but really only remember the second time because it was one of the first adventures I ran for a very successful campaign that would come to be known as “The Sign of Four.” (Sure the name comes from a Sherlock Holmes story, but a. I didn’t come up with it, and b. it is still a great moniker for an adventuring party!) And regardless, if we couldn’t borrow liberally from our favorite literature or other cultural artifacts for our games, we wouldn’t have this hobby!
The adventure mostly sticks in my mind mostly because during the course of it a new player’s first ever character, an elven wizard named Cieladorn Le Verde (how do I remember this?) was killed when he fell into a 10-foot deep pit, taking six points of damage when he only had four. A friend from back then who I still regularly game with to this day still brings up this death to rib me about my DMing. It is funny. We soon instituted the “Death’s Door” optional rule after that.
Anyway, I am not going to give much away about “the Sword of Justice” except that I love the premise. A local wizard was killed and the only suspect is an eccentric elf who lives on the edge of town and had a bit of a rivalry with the mage. There was some circumstantial evidence of the elf’s guilt but nothing damning. Arrested, the elf is put on trial and asked to testify before the town’s prized magical possession, “The Sword of Justice” which glows blue when in the presence of spoken falsehoods and corruption. The elf grew panicky at the suggestion and when the sword was brought before him, he disappeared with a flash! Invisibly, he grabbed the sword and fled, the blade glowing blue the whole time. While posses set to hunt down the elusive elf, the town judge discovered that someone else was guilty of the murder. So why did the elf steal the sword and flee if he were innocent? Why did the sword glow blue if he were trustworthy? The party is hired to find the fugitive elf and retrieve the sword, and if possible find out why he ran.
What I really like about this set up is that the party goes in knowing of the elf’s innocence, meaning they have to try to bring him in without harming him. Of course, the elf has fled to an abandoned manor house used as the headquarters of a fearsome local ogre bandit, so that complicates matters. There is something in this scenario that reveals some essence of my style as DM and preference for the kinds of twisty conflicts with no straightforward answers.
Paging through the adventure, I can’t help but smile at my younger self who used correction tape to remove the majority of treasure and magic items from the location and make some other minor changes. I also highlighted the stat blocks. I love the arrogance of not only writing in my revisions but making sure no one else would be able to ever read what the original text said. Then again, I just spent some time today with a sharpie blacking out portions of some feats in the 5E Player’s Handbook, so I have not changed too much, I guess.
Oh and one other thing, despite being published several years before 2E AD&D came out, this adventure uses THAC0, something I was already familiar with from its use in some of the UK series of modules. While compared to 3E and beyond’s straightforward approach to attack bonuses and armor classes, THAC0 seems needlessly complicated, for someone like me who found the attack matrices of AD&D and D&D hard to read on the fly, it was a godsend. I still don’t think it was nearly as hard as people like to say it was looking back. That said, I am not going back any time soon either.
There is a review of the TOON TTRPG by Steve Jackson Games, a “beer-n-pretzels” style game where PCs play cartoon characters. Imagine it being something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which would not come out for another three and a half years. The review is mostly positive but guarded. I played the game a handful of times and found it lost its appeal quickly. But I am a notorious sourpuss.
This issue’s fiction, “The Multi-Dimensional Caper” by Mark Acres is not very good. It has NPCs from role-playing games traveling dimensions to discover who is committing bizarre murders, only to find the culprits seated around a gaming table.
Arēs was a science fiction gaming section within the pages of Dragon that ran from issue #84 to #111, named for a short-lived science fiction gaming mag printed first by SPI and later by TSR. In this issue it includes “The Six-Million Dollar Mutant,” which provides rules for running cyborgs in Gamma World, an installment of “The Marvel-Phile” feature for TSR’s MARVEL SUPER HEROES Role-Playing game (the popular FASERIP edition) presenting stats for three heralds of Galactus. “StarQuestions” was basically “Sage Advice” for Star Frontiers (another game I played a lot of).
Lastly, the one-off cartoons of “Dragonmirth” are followed up with an installment of Snarfquest by Larry Elmore, which introduces one of my favorite creatures, the Gagglezoomer.
Overall, this is a fantastic issue that I am glad to have had access to back in the day and to still have in my current collection. I may need to do an update of “Sword of Justice” for this site or a future issue of the HOW I RUN IT zine, and next time I am homebrewing a religious system for a setting I am going to return to those articles on clerics. And finally, while I am unlikely to ever make use of those horse-buying rules, the information about different kinds of horses could lend some flavor to any game where horses feature.
Next up for Dragon Mag Monday is Dragon Magazine #94, an issue I specifically remember buying at the Compleat Strategist some time in the summer of 1985.
I believe Ecology of the Piercer in issue 74 was the first ecology article.
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