n.b. Dragon Mag Monday is a feature where I take a look back at 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
Probably the most notable aspect of Dragon Magazine #103 (November 1985) is that it includes lengthy and detailed errata for the recently published Unearthed Arcana (1985), a book with a well-earned reputation for being full of errors, unnecessary minutia (like a dozen or more pole-arm variants), and unbalanced new classes that some people like to say were insufficiently playtested (though personally, I think all you’d need to do is read the cavalier or the barbarian classes to see the problems). It was this book that created the retroactive coining of the term “1.5E” in the early 2000s soon after the release of the 3.5 edition D&D rules, since it represented a new set of rules that revised some things appearing in 1979’s AD&D Player’s Handbook.
But before getting to the errata (and the other items of interest inside the issue), I should probably discuss the cover briefly, which, like the previous issue’s, is completely missing from my copy. I have no idea what happened to it except I am pretty sure the cover was lost before the 80s were over. Once I looked online for the issue’s cover, I noted its familiarity, but it is not one that I would have likely remembered without that refresher.
The illustration’s title is “Birth of the Blues.” It is Robert Pritchard’s first cover for the mag. It depicts a party of adventurers happening upon a blue dragon lair, with a couple of unhatched eggs (perhaps mid-hatching?) and one wyrmling. I don’t think it is a bad cover by any stretch of the imagination, and I think it’d be a great addition as a full-page illustration inside a D&D book, but as a cover it never quite lit my imagination on fire. Looking at it now though, I cannot exactly explain why, since adventuring parties in action is probably my favorite genre of fantasy art.
What I can explain is why the Unearthed Arcana errata insert is missing from my copy, and that’s because I removed it from the issue and added it to my own now long-gone copy of the book. You see, in addition to the issues with the content of the book I mentioned above, the book binding (and the binding of many TSR books of the era) was notoriously terrible and mine was no exception. I had not even had the book a year (I got mine in mid-1986) when the pages started falling out. So, instead of risking the loss of some pages as more and more got loose with use, I decided to (carefully) tear them all out and three-hole punch them to add them to a binder. This made adding the errata presented in Dragon #103 and any additional house rules and options easier as well. Maybe in the future, I will mention when articles from Dragon discussed on this site were photocopied for inclusion in my custom version of UA. Leaning into the crappy book’s autoclastic characteristics also made making copies of the book for my friends a lot easier too, as that summer (1987) I worked for the Creative Services division of Chemical Bank (on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center) and had access to a high-end Xerox machine. I fed it through the machine, which collated multiple copies and then I “borrowed” some binders from the supply closet.
I don’t remember when I dumped my binder copy of UA into the recycle bin, but my guess would be that it was sometime around 2000 when Third Edition came out and the idea of ever going back to AD&D seemed highly unlikely. Do I regret getting rid of it? Only as an heirloom, as I still doubt I’d ever find an actual gameplay use for it, given that even if I were to go back to AD&D, it’d be 2E not 1E.
“Arcana Update, part 1” is by Kim Mohan, editor-in-chief of Dragon at this time and the editor of the book being errata-ed (“with ideas and aid from Gary [Gygax], Frank [Mentzer], and Jeff [Grubb]”). Honestly, I am not trying to be a jerk, but I’d be embarrassed if I had edited a book with the number and degree of errors found in Unearthed Arcana. Most of the errors were identified because people wrote in with corrections and pointed out problems, which Mohan attempts to joke about. I guess laughing is better than crying about a marginal book from a hodge-podge of sources that was not satisfactorily edited, as it mostly represented TSR’s attempt to be liquid, not a true innovation in the AD&D rules (at least not for the most part) and was probably pushed through to print way too fast for any outcome other than this one to be likely.
He promises future printings of Unearthed Arcana will contain the errata in some form, if not corrected pages in the book itself, then in the form of an insert like that produced for this mag. Such a thing never happened, and there would not be a corrected version of the text until the 2013 Premium Edition was printed for the nostalgia market.
The article itself is four pages of rules corrections and clarifications, along with explanations of what is included in the actual errata pages in the magazine’s center for easy removal. It mentions things like how the list for penalties and bonuses to Comeliness (the seventh ability score introduced in UA) for valley elves, wild elves, and dark elves is now included (and how “dark elf males and dark elf females” get separate entries). It explains how half-elves can belong to any class (remember this was back in the day of “racial restrictions”) that their specific subracial “elf-side” qualifies for. Mohan also clarifies a discrepancy in the pole-vaulting rules for thief-acrobats, which I am sure must have ground countless campaigns to a halt. The errata pages are exactly that, two pages of small text in two columns simply presenting corrected or previously missing information—like seven rows of entries in the “Racial Reaction Table.” I can’t help but shake my head at that kind of stuff in 1E. It is a strange obsession to reduce different people’s attitudes to other “races” to a table of preferences and antipathies. That kind of monolithic racial thinking is scary AF but also in line with the problematic anthropological tone so much of the rules around races and monsters can take in more than just the first edition of AD&D and that has both its origin and continued expression in a lot of fantasy fiction.
The errata also introduces a handful of brand-new rules that didn’t make it into the book at all, none of which is very profound. Mostly these rules are minutia about what kinds of armor multi-classed thieves can wear, things like that. The fidgety details of these old editions are not as surprising to me, when I am reminded they exist, as the fact that at one time in my life had most of them memorized, and if not fully memorized, then familiar enough with them to have a consistent working knowledge of the game.
Unearthed Arcana, in addition to a rush job for more money, since hardcover rules expansions, whether good or bad tended to sell well (at least up to this point), was also a kind of stop-gap until a planned second edition of AD&D could be put together. This planned second edition was not the one we’d eventually get in 1989 (though the original plan would have had it out around the same time) but one that Gary Gygax would write (or have ghost-written) himself. As such, in addition to the errata discussed above, it seems fitting that this issue also includes an installment of “From the Sorceror’s Scroll” entitled “The Future of the Game,” with Gygax discussing his plans for his second edition.
Gygax’s view of a second edition is telling. What he describes seems more like an editor’s job of cleaning up the rules for consistency and re-organizing material from the existing books with new material drawn from Dragon Magazine and other sources than an actual new version of the core rules. AD&D’s Oriental Adventures had recently been published, and something Gygax imagines is combining some of its classes with the standard Player’s Handbook (though still siloed into what he calls the “Oriental-themed campaign section”), along with material from Unearthed Arcana. He also plans to do some things that would end up happening in 2E without him, like revising the AD&D bard so it is its own class instead of a dual-classed monstrosity that is next to impossible to actually achieve in gameplay. He also plans to add new classes: the Mystic is a new sub-class of the cleric (joining druids which already were a subclass), and the Savant, being a second sub-class of wizard to go along with the only one that existed at this time, the Illusionist. He is also planning a Jester class, as a sub-class of bard, which I wish had actually come to fruition somehow. As I mentioned when I covered Best of Dragon vol. IV, I loved the Jester NPC class published in Dragon.
The new Monster Manual would require even less revision and new material, culling the best creatures from the existing MM, along with the Fiend Folio, the Monster Manual II, and some others from sources such as Dragon and various modules. One thing he wants to include are colorized plates that would second as guides for painting miniature versions of the monsters.
There will also be a new Dungeon Master’s Guide, of course, which he talks up by explaining it will have a revised version of the elemental planes (as detailed in a past issue of Dragon Magazine), which makes me roll my eyes. I am not saying a DMG shouldn’t have stuff like that, but mostly it should present clear and well-organized info for running the game and its idiosyncratic understanding of elemental planes seems beside the point. Then again, what do I know? I hardly look at any DMGs anymore and buy them more out of habit than usefulness with each new edition. I guess there is some irony to the fact that here I am complaining about Gygax’s unrealized plans for a 2nd edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, but the DMG I still refer to most when running my 5E games is the 1st edition one.
Gygax then goes on to bemoan the re-titling of Deities & Demigods to Legends & Lore, which he characterizes as “bowing to pressure from those who don’t buy our products anyway.” He makes it explicit that he does not agree with the name change, and I agree with him, but ultimately it is another sign that Gygax does not have the power at TSR at this point that many of his supporters probably thought he had. In fact, the saddest part of this whole piece is that very soon (I don’t remember exactly which issue, but we’ll get to it), rather than announcing a start on a new edition, Gygax would be using this space to say goodbye after his ouster from the company and would never again have any say about an “official” D&D product.
Aside from all that, the thing that stands out most to me about Gygax’s discussion of a new edition is that there is no mention of playtesting, player surveys, or design philosophy. The whole piece gives the sense that AD&D does not need much more than a “cleaning up,” with Uncle Gary smoothing over a few of the contradictions that emerged between and among the countless subsystems used to run the game at that time. We all know that it takes many people, not just one man, to create something like a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but at this time Gygax banked on his name being synonymous with the game, something he worked to establish as part of his strategy to write Dave Arneson out of the game’s origins. But it would not be enough to keep the game’s fate tied to his.
Personally, I think in terms of both the game and the folk culture, Gygax’s exile was for the better.
Oh, and there is one last thing Gygax discusses. He mentions how he might be able to get away with a very slim Player’s Handbook (maybe 128 pages for the whole thing) and have the majority of the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, leading to one thin book and one oversized one. I find this interesting because the two books’ relative thickness to each other tells a story of a shift in the power dynamics of Dungeons & Dragons. The size of the two main rulebooks have actually moved in the opposite direction than what Gygax proposed. This was immediately the case when 2E would come out in 1989 with a substantially thicker Player’s Handbook and a too slim version of the DMG. Over time it has shifted from being a game where the DM is the conduit through which the campaign is experienced to a potentially more cooperative creative endeavor. Of course, the degree of that collaboration varies wildly from table to table.
This issue also includes a profile of the boss man that is perhaps unsurprisingly hagiographic and retells a version of the origins of D&D that erases Dave Arneson completely. There are profiles of various TSR creators like this one in several issues of this era, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned one in this series before.
Let’s move on and cover the rest of Dragon Magazine #103.
Kim Mohan’s editorial commentary is a warning that prices are about to go up. Not only the cover price of the magazine (from three bucks to three-fifty), but the price of the hardcover books and modules as well. Three dollars and fifty cents is $9.73 in today’s dollars, which puts it in line with several third party mags that currently exist. He also explains that the hardcover books are going up to $15 from $12 or $13.50, which is $41.71 today. So less than the typical WotC hardcover list price, but on par with what you’ll actually pay on Amazon (for example) when accounting for inflation.
In this issue’s FORUM, Richard Silva of West Roxbury, Massachusetts writes in to argue with Frank Mentzer’s letter from issue #101 about the lethality of the revised dragons in the D&D Companion Set (the “C” in BECMI). He takes Mentzer’s obviously hyperbolic claim that these dragons would stand up to the capabilities of 25th level characters “with +5 everything” at face value. He narrates just such a dragon encounter to explain how quickly the dragon would be destroyed with no other point than to prove Mentzer wrong. Normally that kind of hyper-literalism would annoy me, but I can’t help but like his description of how such a fight might play out even if his ultimate goal seems like unnecessary pedantry (is there any other kind?).
Hooray! Finally, a FORUM letter I appreciated! Unfortunately, I can’t say that about any of the others printed this month.
Roger Moore presents—“All About Krynn’s Gnomes”—the final article in the series on demi-humans of Krynn, this one on the gnomes of Dragonlance. I do find it noteworthy that the word “demi-human” has so fallen out of favor in D&D circles that it took me aback a bit to see it here. In an environment where the word “race” has been dropped in favor of “species” or “ancestry,” to use the prefix “demi” for racial categories is a bit cringey. At the time, of course, few people thought twice about it.
Also at the time, the tinker gnome archetype felt new to me, though nowadays it feels repetitive and honestly a little too goofy for my tastes. I don’t even allow rock gnomes or artificers in my D&D games. I prefer forest gnomes, and while I think they still tinker, I just see them as good with tools and mills and bellows, not artificing ridiculous magitech doodads, which I doubt will ever fit my own conception of a D&D world (except perhaps occasionally when the plot of an adventure requires it as a kind of one-off thing). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when magic becomes just another form of technology, it ceases to be magic.
There is a lot in this article about Mount Nevermind and its absurd contraptions and Moore makes the claim that these gnomes “can never learn from previous experience” and suffer from “innate incompetence.” What he is describing here is a gimmick, not a people. As usual Larry Elmore provides the art, which is the highlight of the article (and of Dragonlance in general, truth be told).
Remember last issue’s article “A Collection of Canines?” Well, not 30 days later and we have another article on dogs—“A Dozen Domestic Dogs”—by the same author, Stephen Innis. Back in the day I probably didn’t give much thought to the repetitiveness and unnecessary hyper-specificity of this kind of thing, but this time my first thought was “Jesus Christmas! More freakin’ dogs!?” At least this era of D&D provided a lot of choices, though I am not sure it is the kind of choice anyone wants or needs.
“The Role of Books” has John C. Bunnell presenting a mostly positive review of Dragons of Spring Dawning, the final book in the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, which had just come out. Of course, it would not be a D&D review without the pedantry of taking the authors to task for portraying Raistlin casting the reverse of a spell that is not reversible according to the rules of the AD&D PHB. He also defends the trilogy against comparisons to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, arguing that while Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman captured the “epic flavor” of Tolkien’s work, Dragonlance is not a rip-off of Middle-Earth. Honestly, while there are elements of the Dragonlance Chronicles I will forever cherish, even when I read them at age 15 and 16, I knew that to call them Tolkien rip-offs would have been to give them too much credit. They are not nearly as well-written or thought-out as LotR, and the series’ emotional beats often fall flat. The reviewer wonders if they will become fantasy classics, suggesting only time will tell. I can’t say that they have, but I guess there is still time before our civilization has its own Cataclysm for that to happen.
“The Centaur Papers” by Stephen Inniss and Kelly Adams is a long article that was created by combining two similar manuscripts that the Dragon staff accepted on the subject of centaurs. Like most articles of its kind that dig into the culture and ecology of D&D peoples, this one adopts the naturalist approach, discussing anatomy, birth and aging, diet, and behavior and psychology. Of course, it also includes “interspecies relations,” since early AD&D was obsessed with reducing cultural interaction to a handy-dandy chart of antipathies (as evidenced by the UA errata mentioned earlier). There are also rules for centaur PCs, which at the time I was excited to get my hands on. I soon realized, however, that as neat as a centaur might seem as a PC, the practicalities of a centaur in many (if not most) of the environments in which D&D adventures occur, make them a poor choice. Horses struggle with stairs and most climbing. Not to mention a ladder or a ten-foot pit can basically stop a centaur in its tracks. I can’t imagine centaurs doing much better in urban environments either.
Of course, 5E tries to get around this with its version of the centaur by making them medium-sized, but that doesn’t work for me. Are they supposed to be pony-people or horse people? I have had folks argue that rather than get hung up on whether a centaur’s man arms have the strength to drag its equine body up a ladder, I should handwave it and “focus on fun,” but allowing such a thing is the opposite of fun to me. Perhaps it is a limit of my own faulty imagination, but I just cannot imagine a centaur pulling itself through trap doors meant for humanoids or climbing a mountain face.
The article does make sure to address the legendary rapaciousness of centaurs as in, for example, Eurytus who started a war when he attempted to kidnap and rape the bride at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia in Greek myth.
Even more common and less believable than accounts of centaur violence and drunkenness are tales of the abduction and rape of human women by centaurs. These fables probably have more to do with human fears and preoccupations than centaur behavior, but they may have some basis in a centaur’s idea of a joke. To carry off a woman (and later release her unharmed) would be just the sort of rough jest that is considered the height of wit and humor among centaurs.
So, in other words, centaurs aren’t rapists of human women, they just tend to be jerky enough to pretend like they might in order to mock human preoccupation with the threat of their horse dicks.
This month’s short fiction is “The Wages of Stress” by Christopher Gilbert, which I actually reread, remembering that I enjoyed it when I first read it nearly 40 years ago. The story has a Kurt Vonnegut-flavor, envisioning a future where feeling stress, it having been identified as a major cause of ill-health and humor in the world, is rewarded with payouts. The citizens of this future all wear badges that indicate how much stress they are feeling, leading others to (hopefully) stop their stressful social assault on others. As such, the protagonist becomes the sci-fi equivalent of the welfare scammer (perhaps reflecting a common misapprehension about people on public assistance that reverberated through the anti-poor Reagan Era of the 80s, and one that still exists in too many circles today), tweaking the machine to misrepresent how much stress he is feeling so that the source will not stop. In this way, he can earn enough money to move back to New Zealand with his mother and retire. The story ends with a twist on the dystopian fear of the state getting moment to moment reports on your heart rate, perspiration and blood pressure, etc… wherein the protagonist is able to convince government agents that rather than reward suffering (as the current system essentially does), they should pay those who help to calm the stress of others. It makes more sense to reward those who do good by their fellow citizens. The story feels one or two revisions away from being great—the ending is kind of abrupt—but the premise makes me think of the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House.
The Arēs science fiction gaming section includes a supplement to the Tarsus module for GDW’s Traveller game, “StarQuestions,” which serves as “Sage Advice” for sci-fi games (this time for Gamma World), an article introducing a new PC species for Star Frontiers called the Saurians (who look suspiciously like Sleestaks from Land of the Lost), and an article presenting corrections for a piece on tanks in Star Frontiers from issue #99. Roger Moore also re-presents a seminar on superhero-themed RPGs that took place at GEN CON 18, while the “Marvel-Phile” presents a hodge-podge of Marvel characters like Armadillo and Count Nefaria.
Wrapping things up, we get another installment of Wormy and its continued take on troll assassin games, and Dragon Mirth’s usual disappointing cartoons. However, there is one cartoon by Joseph Pillsbury that while not really funny, does seem to be a dig at the infamous 60 Minutes segment on Dungeons & Dragons from September of 1985. A dragon seems to have just eaten a CBS news crew, commenting “Gee, that didn’t take sixty minutes…” Like I said, it is not really very funny or inventive, but it does provide a glance at gamers’ attitudes towards how the media was covering the overblown and misguided D&D “controversies” of the time. In Larry Elmore’s SnarfQuest, Snarf is so addled from the mountain giant clubbing he suffered in the last issue that he is suggestible enough to think he’s a gagglezoomer, which is bad news when his robot buddy ties a rope around him.