Dragon Mag Monday: #102

The original cover of Dragon Magazine #102 (Oct 1985) and a photo of my coverless copy.

The cover to the last Dragon Mag Monday issue was torn off and missing its back half. The cover for Dragon Magazine #102 (October 1985) is totally gone. I have no memory of what happened to it, though it does not seem like me to get rid of it intentionally after detaching. My only guess is that it got left at someone’s house after a day of gaming. Though the telltale signs of additional staples along the spine suggests that at some point I had whatever was left of the cover stapled on. Maybe it got crumpled and retorn off crammed into my frequently overfilled backpack when I’d travel around the five boroughs to run D&D.

Instead of a cover, at some point in the early 90s I wrote the issue number in marker on the first page—an ad for Iron Crown Enterprises’ Middle-Earth Role-Playing (MERP).

Looking it up, the actual cover is familiar but not one I remember having much of an opinion about back then. These days, I like Dean Morrisey’s thieving gnomes and sometimes find these kinds of covers a lot more inspirational than the high fantasy ones with dragon-riders and the like. It might be obvious from this blog, but I prefer my D&D fantasy a little closer to the ground.

The Table of Contents for Dragon #102 (Oct 1985) [click to enlarge]

In what I am starting to imagine is going to be a pattern with this re-examination of my Dragon collection, this issue has memorable articles that were very influential on my style of DMing but that are no longer relevant to how I run my current games. Nevertheless, I am not one to disregard what was helpful in the past, and I think of those old assumptions and methods as necessary phases that got me to the approach that has served me so well in terms of spending energy where it matters whether it be for campaigns, homebrewing, or world-building.

This issue has no letters of note. Kim Mohan’s editorial is a complaint about how the press covers D&D and role-playing games in general. He wonders why, when news outlets cover conventions, they never seem to send reporters who are already informed about what the games are like or just familiar with gaming in general, and how they always seem to focus on the more outlandish behaviors of attendees, like dressing up as fantasy characters or whatever—this was before the days of “cosplay”—rather than “regular people” gathered around a table to have fun gaming. He ends with a call for readers to send him any articles or segments they find that actually cover a gaming convention accurately and fairly.

I wonder if Mohan ever imagined back then that in his lifetime not only would gaming be covered in mainstream press with more genuine curiosity than novelty-gawking but would be a billion dollar industry that folks take seriously.

The Forum continues to be a disappointment and the one feature that I loved as a young adult that I can barely tolerate when I must skim it now. I just have no energy for pedantic rules arguments that take D&D rules assumptions and personal game preferences as a given. “If you played my way”—the assumption buried in that phrase being “the right way”—is a tempting argument to make against someone making some complaint about the game, but it is a foolish position to take. Not everyone wants to play like you do, and not everyone who tries it would find it to their liking. I also don’t care for arguments against “druid/rangers” as an allowed combination based on taking the convolutions of Gygaxian logic as some kind of gospel. Lord knows I did that kind of arguing aplenty back then, but these days I am mostly embarrassed by my behavior back then and wish someone could have set me straight.

Speaking of Gary Gygax, his “Realms of Role-Playing” essay is a classic of his provocative style and seems to me to be an implicit push back against what some folks call “the Hickman Revolution.” I will leave the complex reality of the shift in role-playing game campaign goals, play style, and gamer attitudes to others better informed about that history than I am. Go read Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift for that kind of stuff (a book I’d recommend except that, despite being an academic who has read some dry books in his life, I could not bring myself to finish it without having the prospect of writing a scholarly work that references it to force me through to the end). Instead, I will focus on Gygax’s effort to address what he describes as “a trend towards downplaying everything except the theatrical side of gaming.” He makes his case for “role-playing” being only one aspect of the game and for it not being synonymous with “role-assumption” but shows more restraint in his criticism of the story-focused game style than Gygax is prone to have from his other polemics. It probably bears mentioning here that the first (actual) edition of Dungeons & Dragons (not what we call 1E these days) didn’t even use the term “role-playing game” and that is something that came from community press, appearing in periodicals and zines like Alarums & Excursions long before it did in a printed game product. Gygax does call for a more “balanced” game as a way to say the pendulum has pushed too far towards “acting,” and like much of the focus of early D&D, he is obsessed with the idea of tournaments and how the meandering player-focused style of game undermines the ability for such competitive play to work as intended. It is also strange that despite being perceived as “the man in charge of D&D,” he seems to be asking for adventure modules to be published with labels “as to identify any particular stress the scenario place upon a certain aspect of the game.” You’d think he’d be able to just make that kind of thing happen with a command from on high but the truth is, we are very close to the end of his time with TSR, and at this point he’d been spending most of his time not working on the ground in writing and developing D&D but rather out in Hollywood making deals (like the one that led to the D&D cartoon) and trying to lay starlets.

Let people play how they want to play, Gary.

Roger Moore (who at this time was on Dragon’s editorial staff but would soon become Editor-in-Chief when Mohan left to follow Gygax) gets the issue’s articles going with “All About Gully Dwarves.” Gully Dwarves are a sensitive topic among many D&D gamers and fans of Dragonlance. The representation of them both in gaming material and in the Dragonlance novels is kind of offensive. I am far from the only person to write about this or run across the problem when prepping for games set in Krynn. Sure, there are no real gully dwarves to be offended by their depiction and they don’t directly represent any real-world people or culture but nevertheless the descriptions of them resonate with stereotypes of “degenerate” poor people as stupid and child-like at their very essence. Add to this the cognitive dissonance of both describing how their treatment has driven them to the margins and suggesting they bring it on themselves for being dirty and living in filth and how collectively as a “race” they are incapable of holding any “civilized” values. Moore also writes about how they are frequently exploited as slaves and are nicknamed “dumpmen” and “muckers.” Worst of all, perhaps, Krynn’s gully dwarves are the results of intermarriage between two other “races,” gnomes and dwarves, adding another layer of cringeworthy resonance with real-world racialized ideas.

While I have not read it yet, WotC’s recent Shadow of the Dragon Queen Dragonlance-based adventure path does away with Gully Dwarves altogether rather than try to fix them for more contemporary sensibilities.

Gully Dwarves in their abject glory (art by Larry Elmore)

Personally, it is not so much that the lore of gully dwarves has them historically treated abysmally by other peoples but that they are depicted and described even in the meta-materials explaining their history and culture, as actually as contemptible and abject as the prejudiced opinions of in-world characters. Moore does not hold back in describing an entire “race” as “prideful and stupid” and that just isn’t acceptable anymore and never should have been. Moore’s writing, like much of the writing for D&D in the early days through today, adopts a kind of naturalist/anthropologic tone to discuss animals and monsters but also peoples and cultures. My guess is that some scholar a lot more knowledgeable than me about the history of wargaming and RPGs has written about this perspective and its adaptation of a “neutral” view that nevertheless reinforces Eurocentric and Orientalist ideas. It is a form of writing that I not only find troubling because of its real-world reflections but because I know it has infected my own approach to D&D world-building and resonates with actual foundational and problematic anthropological reading I had to do as an undergrad back in the 80s and early 90s.

“A Collection of Canines” by Stephan Innis is an example of something I consider endemic to early D&D and that you will probably get to read me complain about quite a bit if you stick with this series—unnecessary hyperspecificity. The article presents ten different kinds of canines from bushdogs to dingos to feral dogs to new versions of the wolf and direwolf found in the Monster Manual. It also presents four version of hyenas. But why? These canines are hardly different from each other (aside from how they look, of course). Not one has a special ability. Each stat block differs in things like number appearing, size and weight, and some are slightly faster or slower, but they all have the same armor class. Of course, the descriptions of their habitats and hunting and mating habits are different, but who cares? I just can’t imagine such differentiation really mattering to almost any D&D game and if it does matter, it is not something that needs 14 different stat blocks. This is the kind of thing that an individual DM wanting bushdogs or whatever in their game can achieve by just tweaking the hit points of the standard dog stats, for example. In this article, we have the naturalist bent I mentioned earlier applied to a more obvious topic, different animal species and subspecies, but just because you can read some zoo books or encyclopedia entries on different kinds of canines doesn’t mean it isn’t a waste of time to stat them all out for D&D.

Nine of the ten canines and three hyenas presented in “A Collection of Canines” (art by Bob Maurus)

A more useful version of this article would give that kind of advice instead, tips on how to re-skin what already exists. I do like the included sketches of the different canines by Bob Maurus, however.

“Nine Wands of Wonder” by Ed Greenwood puts our Greenwood Count at 10 articles or adventures the master of the Realms has penned (or co-written) in the issues we’ve covered so far. While I am sure I missed several Ed Greenwood articles in the intervening issues I don’t own, I am starting a count of how many we come across in these deep dives. I find this an oddly titled article because while some of the wands presented therein are wonderful, not one is a variation on the Wand of Wonder. That is quite disappointing because I love Wands of Wonder and anything else that brings an element of randomness and chance to the game. I love wild magic. I love critical hits and fumbles.

Instead, these are just some wands, some better than others. In the “other” category are the wand of magical mirrors and the wand of banishment which have nothing particularly wand-ish about their powers, but I do like the quirkiness of the wand of hammerblows, which will be the subject of a Dweomer Day in the near future. This wand breaks objects. I think D&D 5E needs more object breaking.

The “special feature” in this issue is an adventure entitled “Valley of the Earth Mother” by Lise Breakey, the author of the Furry Pirates RPG. Never heard of Furry Pirates? Neither had I until I googled the author to learn more about her. There are no furries in this Celtic-themed adventure. Heck, it is from before wildshaping was a core aspect of the druid class, so even the many druids who appear in the scenario have nary a tail in sight.

The “cover” to the included module, “Valley of the Earth Mother.” (the art is unsigned).

Whether this adventure intrigues me because of or despite its lack of furries, I might never know, but I do know I want to convert it to 5E and run it. It is the kind of adventure I like to send players in my group on. An overwhelming force of orcs is about to overrun an isolated town (I’d change it from orcs or make the conflict political rather than racial) and the PCs are asked to retrieve The Tor of the Gods for the druid guardian of that area to use in resisting the conquering force. Of course, the tor is found in a desecrated temple occupied by followers of a death god who have made the local life-giving river into a river of blood. One of the most interesting things to me about the adventure is that Breakey created evil rangers called “Huntsmen” for it, foreseeing the allowance for evil rangers that would arrive 15 years later with 3E.

The site of the adventure is HUGE, however, and I think if and when I do convert and run it, I will have to find a way to shave down on the 45 numbered locations (not including several that are broken into multiple sub-locations) to something more manageable. While I have run adventures with as many as 33 numbered locations, I think somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 is best of a big adventure. What? Did you think I would be an advocate for the five-room dungeon? Have you even been reading this site?

Some of my original pencil markings from 38 years ago.

I did run this adventure at least once back in the 80s and the chicken scratch pencil marks of my running it are still written between the columns of text.

Oh, and I checked, despite the complaint from a reader in issue #94, “Valley of the Earth Mother” is not set into the center of the issue for easier removal.

“Creating a Cast of NPCs” by Jim Dutton is an article that had a lasting effect on my DMing. Sutton details his system of creating a catalog of NPCs ready for use in his games and suggests keeping an index card file box with each card inside being all the info you need for an NPC, from their stats to their description, to their personality and connections. The idea being that when you suddenly need, for example, “an influential bard NPC” you’d only need to look in your collection of pre-made bards for the one that fits best and haven’t used yet. He also suggests making similar cards for monsters. Not just for monsters of note, but detailing where monsters of each type are found and in what numbers, their local history, etc… He gives the example of a PC who suddenly declares he wants to find a pegasus mount, so the DM takes out the “pegasus” card to see where in the setting they might be found and what there is to know about pegesai in this world.

I still have a file box of NPCs, PCs, and magical items going back to my days running 2E.

Dutton also gives advice for determining ability scores for these many characters and randomizing other aspects of character creation for this purpose.

Fourteen-year-old me took this advice to heart. I had a green metal file box for three-by-five cards and inside I put tons of NPCs I’d make when I should have been doing my homework. Later, I’d graduate to four-by-six cards, and I still have the file box I used for those. It is the same box that holds the cards I make (and hand out) that represent magical items.

If Dutton’s method seems like an extreme amount of prep and the pegesai example seems to betray an assumption for sandbox style games, that is because it is, and it does. The method he suggests evolved in my own case to making cards for a handful of specific NPCs I knew would likely become important in a campaign and then creating more as individual session prep or player driven events caused me to spontaneously need a new NPC. These days I don’t even do that. I just have notes in word docs and notebooks that hold me over until a full stat block might be needed. For some characters, like villains the party might face or allies that might fight at their side, those stats might be drafted almost immediately. For the wizened sage that lives in the village? That card may never come to exist.

Nevertheless, I do feel that using even a modified version of Dutton’s method was a kind of NPC-making boot camp that made the quick or even spontaneous creation of NPCs a lot easier for me and helped me to start the habits of good record-keeping that have greatly aided my running long-term games.

More Larry Elmore art

After an article detailing machine guns of the TOP SECRET RPG, a piece of short fiction that I did not reread but remember as Das Boot in space, and a postal order form for Dragon back issues that I filled out back then but never sent off because I did not have $10.50—I needed to get copies of issues #87 and #97—is the Arēs science fiction gaming section. “Sticks & Stones & Death Machines” presents new, more balanced, encounter tables for Gamma World, whose setting has a wide range of available weapon technology that can make for mix-matched encounters. “A Thousand in One” gives advice for avoiding the assumption common to both Star Wars and Star Trek, that every planet would be a political (if not an ecological) monolith. Instead, it suggests ways to develop “balkanized” planets (i.e., broken up into different nations) for use in your sci-fi space exploration game. The regular monthly installment The Marvel-Phile presents possibly my least favorite Marvel character—second only to anything involving a symbiote—Impossible Man. As a kid I could not help but feel that Impossible Man ruined any comic he showed up in and made the absurdities of superhero comics that are always present too explicitly slapstick for my tastes. “SilverTwin!” offers a way to make your Star Frontiers game into a cop show by way of an armored combat vehicle. I guess the eventual militarization of police seen in the United States really was the future (though my guess is that the popularity of shows like Knight Rider and Air Wolf might have had more to do with this idea).

Snarf has an unfortunate encounter with a mountain giant (art, once again, by Larry Elmore)

Finally, this issue’s Wormy is a two-page story featuring two tree trolls playing their version of the Assassin game (the kind found in Steve Jackson’s Killer and popularized in movies like 1985’s Gotcha!). As usual his art and coloring is amazing. SnarfQuest is notable for developing the character of the death leach, which would come to be my favorite. It also reinforces how talented Larry Elmore is. While he is known for his paintings, he really is an expressive cartoonist who knows how to pace a page well. And heck, who doesn’t love a good—SPLUTH!—comic sound effect used to comic effect?

Oh, there is one last thing I almost didn’t bring up, but it feels weird not to. I usually don’t spend much time with DragonMirth because I find the write-in one-panel cartoons to be amateurish for the most part but one of them in this issue leans too much on homophobia for its humor for me to ignore. Two pig-faced orcs in leather jackets, marking them as members of a gang called “The Vulgar Bacons” are hanging out and up to no good. One of them is writing graffiti on the wall, “Grey Elves are Fairies.” The joke—I guess—is that in 1E AD&D lore grey elves are faeries. However, when put into the context of violent pig-men in the trappings of masculine violence and along with the slippage between “grey elves” and “gay elves” and of course, “fairy” itself being an epithet for a gay man, the cartoon is in bad taste. Even if the presumed violence of the scene was unintentional (which I assume it was), the cartoon shows the casual homophobia of the 1980s and the humor possible in terrorizing queer folks.

This DragonMirth leans on a tradition of homophobic violence for its laugh.

I know, not a very uplifting topic to end this post on, but I am not one to ignore the problematic aspects of any hobby or other activity I am a part of and in this case, I feel like calling it out is a necessary amends for whatever degree teenaged me contributed to an atmosphere of homophobia in gaming, my being a typical teenaged boy in the 1980s with a teenaged boy’s overcompensations.

< Previous | Index | Next >

2 thoughts on “Dragon Mag Monday: #102

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: