Dragon Mag Monday: #94

My copy of Dragon Magazine #94 (cover by Clyde Caldwell) is so well-loved the cover is completely detached and the back part of it is missing.

Dragon Magazine #94 is the February 1985 issue and is (to the best of my memory) the third issue I bought off the rack at the Compleat Strategist and the only one of those three I still have.

While the last issue of Dragon I wrote about had its splitting cover barely hanging on by one staple, my copy of issue #94 only has the detached front cover remaining. The back cover is long gone and what remains is protected by the mylar bags and acid-free boards I bought for my entire collection sometime in the late 90s. There is small hole just below the center of the cover, too. The cover illustration is painted by Clyde Caldwell and I should have been able to figure that out based on the ranger woman on the cover in bikini bottom buckskin and fringed low-cut top revealing the shadow of her cleavage. I mean, as a 13-year-old straight boy obsessively reading and re-reading this magazine, staring at this cover and imagining past her décolletage was a big part of its appeal but these days it just makes me smirk, and wonder if appealing to the desires of adolescent boys was a goal of TSR art direction.

I do like the little badger animal companion (at least I think it is a badger, a friend says he thinks it is a tarsier) by her side, though. The tiny harness and sheathed sword is a nice touch.

If this issue looms large in my mind because of the cover, I found the contents familiar but nothing feels that like a huge influence in my D&D gaming (except maybe the “Reptiliad Attack” award-winning diorama). Nevertheless, there are things in this issue that strike me as indicative of the game and game culture of the time.

Dragon Magazine #94’s Table of Contents [Click to Enlarge]

Editor-in-Chief Kim Mohan’s note this month—”Drop a Name and Make a Point”—is a weird and roundabout attempt to say that, despite appearances, Dragon does print articles about non-TSR games so people should send them in. But in doing so, he also mentions that the periodical is a lot pickier about accepting those articles. Thus the impression that it might be so difficult as to not be worth it is actually kind of accurate. Ultimately, he is trying to be clever by putting this in the context of a conversation he had with Greg Stafford—whom he calls “the counterpart to Gary Gygax” over at Chaosium games—in which Stafford was inquiring about such submissions on behalf of younger Runequest players, but Mohan comes off as obnoxious. He essentially says, “if we already know who you are, you have a better chance of having non-TSR material accepted,” which to my mind makes the likelihood of acceptance even lower! This kind of insular stuff is par for the course for the gaming world—especially back then—and strikes me as evidence of why the hobby’s creators lacked diversity for decades. If you rely on accepting the work of people you already know, those people are going to reflect the limits of your own network. Nevertheless, I do think that Dragon Magazine of this era and just beyond it had a lot more non-TSR/non-D&D material than it would have in a decade’s time. And by the time Wizards of the Coast would take over Dragon would include only D&D material.

In the area of feedback from the readership there are a couple of letters that stuck out to me. One complains about how the modules in the magazine are not always laid out to perfectly fit in the middle of the mag, so as to allow for more easily bending back the staples and removing just those pages for use during play. It uses “The Sword of Justice” from issue #92 as an example. Mohan explains that while they try to do that, it just isn’t always possible, depending on what else they print. In addition, he explains that not everyone is keen on prying apart their issue. Personally, I always ran the adventures printed in Dragon straight from the mag, and as I demonstrated last time, have no qualms about writing right on the pages. Another letter asks questions about the “Ecology of the Ettin” article from that same issue, complaining that while the article claims an ettin can survive with only one head, surely it would bleed out before such a wound could heal. Mohan suggests that maybe ettins have some special physiological feature wherein a muscle closes off such a neck wound as is described for the chimera later in this very issue. Essentially, he is just exercising the imagination that a DM should have rather than pedantically quibbling about jugular veins and attempting a gotcha requiring an official response. Anyway, all the more reason to use a giant two-headed troll over an ettin.

This month’s Forum is not really worth commenting on in detail. The letters are mostly suggesting overly convoluted rules subsystems and arguments about realism or the ethics of playing evil characters.

The logo/header for Gary Gygax’s irregular feature in the pages of Dragon.

Instead, let me move on to what I do find fascinating, an article by Gary Gygax for his “From the Sorceror’s Scroll” column. “Official Changes for Rangers”—as the quotidian title suggests­—presents new rules for rangers’ tracking ability, something that used to play a more central part in the class’s appeal as rangers were the only class who could possess such an ability. (Yes, barbarians could do it some too but not everyone played with rules from Unearthed Arcana). However kludgy the rules for it might be, tracking provided a way to engage a character with a core pillar of the game: exploration/travel. When you have a character who can never get lost and is never slowed by difficult terrain, the adventure of overland travel is diminished. Or perhaps I am just showing my preference for games that include that element of play, both as a player and a DM, and grousing a little bit about 5E (for which I have rewritten ranger powers regarding travel through the wilderness to make them less handwavey). However, what interests me here are not the overly detailed rules Gygax presents themselves, but the way they are presented.

When Gygax explains in his introduction that he has been using these rules in his own games for “for some years,” superseding the rules in the AD&D Player’s Handbook and presents them as “official” changes, he is equating his own table with what is “official.” This may seem like too obvious an observation, but it is one that bears examining. The cult of Gary Gygax—of which I, sans any reason to know otherwise, was a member in 1985—elevates his takes on how to run a game to canonical status. It seems absurd to me now and was probably absurd to plenty of people back then too. But to imagine someone’s home game as synonymous with what is “official” is amazing and foolish. Everything else in Dragon was optional and as likely to be ignored as it was to be worked into a new and existing campaign by an ambitious DM. But Gygax spoke from on high in these instances, giving these new rules a sense of authenticity. In reality, when not driven by the necessity of trying to drive the sales of TSR game material, Gygax was as much a proponent of each table doing what works for them as anyone. In fact, some cynical part of me doubts he ever really used the rules he presents here.

Personally, I want more granular rules for differences in types of difficult terrain. I can even imagine homebrewing them, stealing them from a previous edition or other game, or some even selling a product with variant rules of this type. But what I cannot quite imagine is being in a position where I could claim the rules from my home game supersede the published rulebook for everyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons, wherein my preferences for that level of detail shape the game. It doesn’t feel healthy for any game to be beholden to an autocratic figure like that.

I also find it funny how long the ranger has been a problematic class that never quite seems to live up to what many folks in the community think a ranger should be or do. It seems to have reached its apex in 5E, but there were discussions and common house rules about rangers in 2E and 3E as well. (As usual, I have no idea about 4E because I didn’t play enough to be that familiar with its rules or what the discourse around its classes might have been). As I suggested above, in my own current 5E games I have made changes to the “Natural Explorer” ability and eliminated the “Favored Enemy” ability (replacing it with something called “Hunter’s Vision”). If I were to go further in re-doing this class I’d also remove its spell-use, if not completely, then delay it until after the selection of a sub-class, so that some subclasses would have spells and others wouldn’t. All that said, I would never return to the basically useless rules of the type Gygax presents (I guess I was lying when I said I wasn’t interested in the details of the rules). Rather than a complex calculation of the number of creatures tracked, intervening weather and other environmental events, how long it has been since the tracks were made, etc… I prefer a simple DM adjudication along the lines of quickly eyeballing if who/what they are tracking would be very easy, easy, average, hard, very hard, or nearly impossible to track down and using the DC that accompanies those categories.

Anyway, enough about that, let’s take a quick look at some of the other articles included in this issue:

  • “An Army Travels on its Stomach” by Katherine Kerr is another article in the mode common to Dragon at the time. Taking historical information and using it to extrapolate and build on for considering the logistics of events in a D&D campaign. In this case, Kerr is exploring how to determine an army has sufficient tack for the campaign and its effects on the areas it passes through. I like articles like these for some of the concepts and concerns to keep in mind when building and playing through a campaign involving building and leading armies and the like but am less interested in detailed rules for trying to simulate it. Instead, again, I prefer ad hoc DM adjudication to make for interesting challenges to overcome.
  • “Same Dice Different Odds” by David G. Weeks presents a weirdly interesting method of determining odds with polyhedral dice. In his method, players and DM roll two dice and divide the larger die’s result by the smaller’s. Thus, for example, “d20/d4” would call on you to roll both a d20 and a d4 and divide the result of the former by the result in the latter. His presentation of distribution charts of various odds is relatively clear, as is his explanation of how a DM may want for some roll to have a chance at a high numerical result (like a ’20’ in the example above), but still want an overall lower average result (which is likely because of the chance of the d4 divisor being a 2 or higher). However, in reality this kind of article is of a type that is probably only interesting to math nerds and hardcore game designers. I think many players (and DMs) would have to rub sleep from their eyes when reading this kind thing and not care enough to muck around with the die roll methods. Furthermore, if people still complain to this day about how hard it is to subtract when discussing THAC0, I can’t imagine dividing would be much more popular.
“Reptiliad Attack” (photos by Dan Sample) was the 1984 GEN CON Miniature Open winner by Eric Heaps.
  • I don’t know what these spike-tailed kangaroo-like mounts were called.

    My heart was warmed to see “Reptiliad Attack Wins Big” by Kim Eastland with photos by Dan Sample. Despite only being photos of the miniature diorama that won the 1984 GEN CON Miniature Open, the two-page spread was a huge influence on my early DMing and developing a feared antagonist for my first homebrew setting (called “Ourphe” – pronounced “Oh-roo-fay” – I was 15, gimme a break). The reptilian creatures and their mounts pictured in these poorly lit photos were a font of inspiration. The “Reptiliads,” from a line of RAFM miniatures, became “anacondians” in my re-creation, with a poisonous bite and the ability to stretch their bodies to grapple foes, like the super-villain, Anaconda, from Marvel’s Serpent Squad. The horned turtle mounts with recessed shells that allow them to be armored troop transports reminded me of a turtle-shaped soap dish I had as a kid with a similar depression (for soap) in its shell which my LEGO figures rode. I don’t remember what I named them. I also don’t remember what I called the kangaroo-like mounts (kangaroids?) that I gave the ability to shoot spikes from their tails like manticores (another of my favorite monsters). For a while, I used these things incessantly and had my players living in fear of the encounters as they explored a wild archipelago with their ship. I would eventually drop these creatures, since I decided that D&D already had enough lizard-like monster people, and these baroque examples of excess were unnecessary. Some part of me is considering bringing them back just for the fun of it. Look for them some Troglodyte Tuesday when the whim has struck me. Remembering all this has made me nostalgic for the earnest goofiness of D&D back then.

  • “The Ecology of the Chimera” is another in this series by Ed Greenwood. This article introduces the Thessalmera, a variant crossbreed of a chimera and a thesselhydra to go along with the existing gorgimera variant. The latter crosses the chimera with the bull-like monsters with a breath capable of turning creatures to stone called “gorgons”—not to be confused with medusae. As is typical for this type of article, it is presented in the format of a fiction, a scene of Elminster telling the author about the creature on one of his visits to Earth, followed by footnotes explicating things in terms of game rules. Two things strike me about this article: First, it just makes me laugh at how concerned early D&D was with how and what monsters can fuck to make more monstrous things. We get the breakdown of how each different crossbreed works, including explaining that when chimera and red dragons get busy their hanky-panky results in “true chimeras,” as opposed to the variant weirdos that have something other than just a dragon head, a lion head, and a giant goat head. I understand that this stuff emerges from the naturalist pose that worldbuilders often adopt in creating a simulation of their world, but it is still kinda funny. Secondly, once again Greenwood makes sure to include a note about how chimeras “are too stupid for their heads to argue among themselves,” but somehow are still smart enough to have their own language and negotiate with red dragons and other monsters. This seems like a contradiction to me, but then again, perhaps the scene of a dragon, a lion, and a goat arguing is too absurd even for Greenwood. I think a better explanation is that despite their three heads they have one consciousness or even do more with the strict hierarchy of heads he also details.

  • “My Honor is My Life” by Tracy Hickman details the history and organization of the Knights of Solomnia who had recently first appeared in the figure of Sturm Brightblade in the first few Dragonlance modules that had been published and the release of the first book in the Dragonlance Chronicles The ad for Dragons of Autumn Twilight in this issue was probably the first I ever saw for the Dragonlance novels. This article is all lore and does not include any crunch whatsoever. In every edition after the first I can only imagine that an article like this would include a kit, prestige class, or subclass emulating these legendary knights.
  • The giant lightning bug (one of the 18 monsters included in the “Creature Catalog II”) shoots actual lightning from is tail.

    “Creature Catalog II” is oddly titled. I am not sure when the first “Creature Catalog” was printed, but this one is presented as if it were a mini monster book in the center of the magazine, with a full-page cover and everything. The 18 monsters included here are nothing special and looking back over them, I can’t say I ever used or was very impressed by any of them. Some of them seem particularly absurd, and I have to wonder who wanted, for example, statistics for a giant betta fish (as opposed to any other big version of a fish, just use a shark stat block and call it a giant betta), or the giant lightning bug, which seems like a giant version of the common type, except they are drawn to metal and shoot actual lightning out their butts. There is also the two-mouthed “land leech” (called the Orgautha), Urisk (which are goat-headed satyrs), and the Great Wyrm, which is just another form of dragon (except with six legs), as the name suggests. The tiny phase dragon shows some promise upon reflection, however. These monsters were created by several different people and drawn by different people as well, who are all credited on the inside cover page. The last detail of interest is that the XP values listed for these monsters were calculated using a system suggested in a previous issue of Dragon, not the method in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.

SHIELD Helicarrier Blueprints [click to enlarge]

The Arēs Section for science fiction gaming in Dragon #94 is a boon for any Marvel fan of the time, especially if you were running TSR’s MARVEL SUPERHEROES ROLE-PLAYING GAME. There is an article on SHIELD by William Tracy and an installment of “The MARVEL-Phile” that presents some Spider-Man related material: stats for the Hobgoblin (the identity of the Hobgoblin was a very popular storyline at the time in Spidey comics) and for Kingpin. Lastly, it includes info on Spider-Man’s symbiote suit! I add that exclamation point because this article came out way before Venom was ever a thing, and the suit itself was the threat. The article even includes a note about the destruction of the suit in Web of Spider-Man #1 (April 1985) in a story by one of my all-time favorite comic book writers Louise Simonson, with art by Greg LaRocque, Jim Mooney, and George Roussos. Despite the cover date, the issue referenced would have come out just the month before this issue of Dragon. I just wish that story had really been the end of the suit, its noble sacrifice retaining some meaning. Alas, nothing in superhero comics ever dies. It just returns and re-doubles with mounting absurdity until eventually all you can hope for is for the occasional good story amid the grist they churn out.

The other article in the Arēs section that I would have found useful back when this came out is “From Anarchy to Empire” by David Cook, which explores interstellar governments in the Star Frontiers game (a game I have not played since the 80s but did love in that moment). As someone who was greedily reading every one of the Isaac Asimov Robot/Foundation/Empire books he could get his hands on at this time, the notion of how to organize and present such governments was fascinating to me.

Dave Trampier’s WORMY

There are a few other items of interest in this issue. It includes two different pieces of short fiction (usually it is just one). One of the stories has a folktale feel and the other is a sci-fi story about a gun that works too well. “Playing in the Modern Era” is a review of a modern-setting RPG by Arlen P. Walker, “Mercenaries, Spies, & Private Eyes,” a game I had never heard of before or since. “The Role of Books” includes short book reviews for novels in the fantasy genre. While in the future some of these reviews would inspire me to seek out the books or even just steal an idea for my D&D game from the review without ever actually reading the book, this one contains no such works. There is an installment of Dave Trampier’s fantastic (and unfinished) Wormy comic strip, which follows the machinations and adventures of the eponymous dragon and his love of miniature wargames using actual living tiny trolls (that can regenerate wounds suffered in the game). Larry Elmore’s SnarfQuest continues, this time including a neat panel of a map showing a portion of Snarf’s world. I love maps, and I love comics that render a text in a panel from the point of view that transforms the reader into the character perusing said text.

A map from SnarfQuest (by Larry Elmore).

Something else that caught my eye was a full-page ad for the D&D Companion Set (that puts the “C” in BECMI). At this time I was hovering between B/X D&D and AD&D and kind of using rules and modules interchangeably. When the Companion set came out I did get it, but it would be the last of those boxed sets I’d get (and I regret not getting the Master and Immortal sets). Twenty years later I’d buy a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia on eBay,  when you could still get them for twenty-five bucks. It contains all the material from the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master sets. Anyway, I bring this up because it feels like evidence in my claim that “it is all D&D”—whatever you put to work towards your D&D game, regardless of publisher, edition, or even game system(!) counts as “D&D” in my book.

The ad for WizardCon ’85.

Lastly, the Convention Calendar includes an ad for WizardCon ’85, a gaming con held at Columbia University’s Ferris Booth Hall. I was unable to go that year because I didn’t get my hands on this mag until after the date had passed, and I was not familiar enough with that part of New York City to head up town on my own at 13 even if I had, but I did make a note of it. You can bet I sent that self-addressed stamped envelope the following year. (Notice the cheeky [mis]spelling of “New Ork” in the address!) I would attend the first of three I’d end up going to the following year. My first con! When we get there in a few months’ time, I’ll write a bit about it.

So, there you have it, a mixed bag of material in this issue, and not one I imagine going back to for anything these days (save perhaps creating a stat block for the reptiliads and related monsters). I am considering purging my collection of issues like this one and just holding on to the ones that remain useful, but I doubt anyone would want to pay anything for an issue in such rough shape and I am not going to recycle it. Maybe one day I’ll do a giveaway of some of my well-loved issues.

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