Dragon Mag Monday: #104

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

“Spinning Tales” by Denis Beauvais is the cover of Dragon Magazine (December 1985), though it is detached from my copy. [click the image to see an enlarged version]

Now we get to an issue I remember well. It is so chock full of stuff that, even if I do not need or use the vast majority of it anymore, it served as fuel for my 14-year-old imagination and helped to shape my D&D gaming preferences.

The condition of Dragon Magazine #104 (December 1985) along with the three issues that preceded it might make you think I was not very careful with my Dragon mags back in the day. But despite the lost or loose covers of these early issues, the vast majority of my collection is in much better shape. I think these early issues suffered from both overuse and often being in hands other than mine. I don’t remember exactly when I bought bags and boards for my entire collection, but it was sometime in the mid-1990s, so nearly 10 years after getting the issues I am reviewing now.

I can recall spending a long time in high school (perhaps with the aid of mind-altering substances) staring at this cover by Denis Beauvais. The classic wizard looks something like an aged Presto from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. His use of magic to conjure images of a dragon carrying off a maiden as a mounted paladin rides to the rescue is delightfully rendered, but it is all the little details that drew us to the cover. The wizard’s belt is a snake. There is an iguana’s silhouette visible atop a chair back in the foreground and a black cat in the corner. There is a Coca-Cola bottle with a funnel among the arcane containers and tubes on a back table. Above it on a chalkboard is etched a “new formula,” probably a reference to “New Coke” introduced in April of this year. There is some kind of gremlin watching on menacingly from a broken birdcage high atop a shelf and another devilish creature looks out of a crate labeled “Tasmania.” There is a bookshelf full of books, most of their titles illegible in the dark contrast of the cover—though I think one is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—while other tomes are scattered about it, one of which is clearly The Wizard of Oz. The wizard’s hat is a small gold dragon. Who knows what is in the countless jars and bottles atop the many shelves.

The table of contents for Dragon #104 (Dec 1985) [click to enlarge]

As you can tell, I love this cover.

The cover copy promises a 16-page module for the MARVEL SUPERHEROES RPG, a spotlight on thieves (and there are three articles on the topic) and another in the series of “Ecology of…” articles. But before getting to any of that, the thing that stuck out to me most immediately upon opening up the issue after a few intervening decades, was the Statement of Ownership, in which magazine publishers fulfilled their legal obligation to print their circulation numbers on a yearly basis. According to this document’s reproduction, Dragon Magazine printed an average of 123,083 copies of each monthly issue. Nearly 76k of these were circulated through shops, while around 36k were subscription issues. These seem like pretty good numbers for such a niche periodical, though to be honest the only point of comparison I have are comic books, which I studied quite a bit for my PhD dissertation and for my former blog of comics scholarship The Middle Spaces. Ultimately, I don’t have the expertise in either RPGs or periodicals to put these numbers into context, but I like having them anyway.

Statement of Ownership, 1985 [click to enlarge]

Kim Mohan’s editorial note is about William Dear’s The Dungeon Master (1984), a “true crime” book by the private detective hired by James Dallas Egbert’s parents to find the missing college kid who purportedly had gotten lost in the steam tunnels under his college campus back in 1980. It is the story that helped ignite the Satanic Panic as it applied to D&D (which was not nearly as extreme and destructive an aspect of it as the debunked satanic sexual abuse cases where children were coerced into making up and even believing false stories about abuse by daycare workers and strangers). Ultimately, D&D had little to nothing to do with Egbert’s disappearance and eventual suicide. Mohan’s response to reading the book—which was counter to his bad initial impression from the cover blurbs—was that he found it very interesting despite one criticism regarding what the author had to say about Dungeons & Dragons (which was Mohan’s primary motivation for reading the book). Mohan explains that in the one chapter Dear dedicates to his experience of trying D&D is limited to a very stilted episode, wherein D&D was approached as a PvP game. This gave the detective “a very distorted sense of how player characters, and the people playing them, operate,” which, in combination with the negative impressions he already had before ever playing led him to describing the game as “sinister and potentially dangerous.” Mohan thinks this estimation could have been different if Dear had given himself the opportunity to play more with different people.

This may or may not have been the case but seems a little over-optimistic. I do think playing D&D and other RPGs with different people is a great experience that makes you a better gamer (especially a better DM) regardless of the specific experience, but Dear was not looking for reasons to like and excel at the game.

I find these reactions to the negative atmosphere around D&D at that time fascinating. Does anyone know of any good book-length cultural analyses of the Satanic Panic as it specifically applied to D&D and other role-playing games? I know of plenty of books that mention it as a context for D&D’s explosion of popularity in the early 80s but nothing that collects the anecdotal data and tries to put it into a cultural studies/sociological framework.

Issue #104’s FORUM is mostly given over to a letter from John Maxstadt of Baton Rouge, LA, claiming that “If the AD&D game dies, it will be of terminal over-sophistication.” Is Maxstadt complaining about the surfeit of subsystems and quirky rules that plague this edition of the game? That is certainly what I imagined, given his introduction to his main point mentions the “Byzantine complexities” added to the game in the form of “new PC races, new PC and NPC classes, etc…” but when he goes on to add the “impos[ition]” of “realism,” especially “historical or moral realism” to that list of grievances we get to his main contention. Essentially, he is making an argument I have seen countless times, that D&D morality should basically be black-and-white, and based on the tautology that good is good because good people do it and evil is evil because evil people do it. Maxstadt makes this argument in response to an article on alignment from Dragon #101 (an issue I have unfortunately never owned), in which the author claimed that “the introduction of twentieth-century morality” is deplorable. This is something Maxstadt agrees with, but then argues that by using “moral relativism and moral equivalency” in critiquing the extant alignment system the author of said article is doing just that. Maxstadt then goes on to make the common claim that since “fantasy games do not take place in the real world!” (the emphasis and exclamation point are his) there is no need for a more complex moral framework than the things good guys do are good because they are good guys, with an equivalent syllogism for the bad guys. He adds that orcs are inherently evil and all that, being sure to make clear that “killing them, even as infants, is a good act.” (This time the emphasis is mine). I don’t think he makes as persuasive an argument as he thinks he is when he says of his own position, “In a fantasy game, morality has to be simple-minded.”

No, actually it doesn’t. And while I understand the complexities of moral choices are not everyone’s idea of “fun,” to claim that we must play out what we know is evil in our own lives and call it good, does not seem like much fun to me.

Gary Gygax himself has made similar arguments about good and evil and when you tie that together with his self-described position as a “biological determinist,” it does not take much to see why such a take is alarming.

I normally would not go to such length to describe the letter and the argument, but I think that since it is an argument that I still see come up commonly in online spaces, clearly there is no gamer consensus on the matter. I don’t want to argue against it, but I do find it reductive and repugnant. And more importantly, for me, the nuance is the fun. I am much more interested in the kind of game where the paladin who cares for orphaned orcs must turn against his own society when his orcish wards are ostracized and the victims of violence or must decide what to do when one of those orc youths grows to resent the society that wiped out his people and erased his culture, than I am the kind where the paladin is just killing babies, or even the kind of campaign where the question of babies never comes up (though I still prefer the third option to the second).

I guess I am just never going to be comfortable with racial essentialism in any form.

Anyway, this argument comes up about twice a year on ENWorld’s D&D forums, so you can hang out there and just wait.

Shatterman! [click to enlarge]

John Maxstadt’s letter is spread out over three pages scattered throughout the magazine (it is an odd, but I am assuming necessary, layout choice), and the central page also holds an ad for Villains & Vigilantes. As I mentioned in my discussion of Dragon #92, these ads included the stats for a hero or villain for use in the superhero game. The one for Kali I mentioned earlier has appeared in every issue I have covered so far (though I didn’t think its repetition beared mentioning until now) but this issue’s ad presents Shatterman, a military vet and a rock musician who uses his sonic powers to “continue to protect his country from the forces of crime and evil in general.” He has flight, endurance, and a power blast.

There is another FORUM letter worth mentioning, at least briefly. Nick Jamilla of Cape Coral, FL writes in to describe his experience with getting interviewed about D&D by his local news program. He objected to how the news show characterized D&D in interviewing a minister preaching against the game and wrote a letter to the reporter. Thankfully, he was offered an opportunity to go on air to make a counterpoint. Unfortunately, he was totally unprepared for the questions and the experience or even for how it’d end up edited. As such, the letter is mostly a cautionary tale about what to consider if any readers are put in a similar position of defending the game in a public forum and offers a bit of media literacy he would have benefitted from before getting involved.

I think nowadays, since the advent of social media, gamers have a much larger media presence through which their voices can be heard. TTRPGs are still a niche hobby, but there is a strong network that makes the isolating pressure of the Satanic Panic days less successful, though I do think that anyone appearing on any news show or news channel had better be prepared to be misrepresented, whether maliciously or as a result of time pressure and news outlets dumbing things down for their audience.

The various categories of thief from one of John C. Bunnell’s articles.

Dragon Magazine #104’s Spotlight on Thieves consists of three articles, two of which are by John C. Bunnell. The first, “The Well-Rounded Thief” attempts to fill out and develop the class that at that time—before they were called “rogues”—were seen as shifty types who could not be trusted, even by their own party members. It provides different possible motivations for thief characters, and while I think this kind of article was important to breaking that class out of the narrow box in which it mostly existed, the article also unfortunately makes some strange assumptions of its own about those different motivations that are narrow in their own way. For example, among the different motivations suggested—professional, revenge, artistic, and recreational—is the greed motivation, and for some reason thieves with this motivation tend towards “grab and run” tactics and “generally avoid sophisticated burglaries.” But why? There is no reason why a greedy thief might not go for the big score over the smash and grab. Furthermore, Bunnell writes that these thieves are “more likely to employ poison.” Again, I have to ask why? While I can imagine reasons, the article does not do anything to explain but takes the categorical obsessions of D&D as a given framework for playing characters. Like I said, I think this article can be useful for inspiring the kind of rogue you want to play but taken as framed it is still holding people back.

A halfling thief (by Bob Walters)

Bunnell’s other thieving article is titled, “Race is Ahead of Class.” No, he’s not arguing with a Bernie Bro about American politics and economics, but rather he is laying out what motivates different “demi-human” thieves and how they operate. As usual and as the subtitle explains, “Demi-human thieves act according to heritage” because there isn’t a degree of racial essentialism this game will not explore. Let me give you the short version: elves steal knowledge, dwarves are locksmiths, gnomes steal for fun, half-orcs are armed robber thugs (sigh), and halflings are just, you know, curious. As I said about Bunnell’s first article, there is useful stuff in here for thinking through different possible approaches to playing a roguish character, I just wish it did more to develop and complicate its ideas and divorce them from monolithic notions of race.

Bruce Barber’s “Was It Worth the Risk?” provides one of the best parts of any D&D edition, random tables! These tables provide answers to what thieves can find when they pick people’s pockets, with one table for whose pocket you randomly pick—was it an assassin, a barbarian, a goodwife, a ghoul, or a rakshasa?!—and then based on that, another table for what you might actually pull from a sly pimp or a rich panderer. I like this kind of stuff and still make use of random tables of the type found in Raging Swan Press’s products like GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing just to inspire me.

I am not sure if there have been specifically themed issues before this one, but future issues of Dragon will have themes that bind the first few articles together, though sometimes the themes will be rather loose.

“HAIIIYA!” An ad for the newly-released Oriental Adventures that gives away the level of depth being used to draw buyers.

I grit my teeth as I got ready to read David “Zeb” Cook’s “Oriental Opens New Vistas,” a kind of advertorial for the recently released Oriental Adventures book. Needless to say, the book is problematic in its reductionist mish-mash of Asian cultures that both presents a fantasy version of Asia for use in AD&D games but also uses a claim towards “authenticity” that is actually based on a western fantasy of “the Orient.” I am not going to get into it here, but if you haven’t you should read some Edward Said on “Orientalism” and the idea of a “textual attitude” in depicting and analyzing non-western cultures. In other words, the representation of these “exotic” places by so-called experts (once upon a time earnestly called “Orientalists”) in books supersedes the self-representation of peoples from those cultures. This is not to say that there cannot be problems with the so-called “insider reportage” of a culture but better to actually include those voices than present a book like this which, as far as I have been able to tell, did not include any actual Asian people of any kind in its production. As a result, it is no surprise that it sets up an over-simplified East vs. West cultural and historical dichotomy that also erases the Global South.

It is easy to dismiss contemporary concerns about the skewed perspective on Asia presented in books like Oriental Adventures (from the name itself onward) for not considering when the book came out and the common attitudes of the time, but 1985 is not really all that long ago. I bought that book when it came out and before anyone tries to make the claim that no one knew better back then, people certainly did. Heck, even 14-year-old me on the subway home from picking it up at the Compleat Strategist knew enough to obscure the cover and title as the train passed through Chinatown and filled up with Asian folks. I may not have had the vocabulary and maturity to articulate my discomfort, but the discomfort existed nonetheless.

 Aside from giving an overview of the new classes and “races” (like the shape-changing hengeyokai, the dwarf-like korobokuru, and hybrid spirit folk), Cook explains in part the new rules for “non-weapon proficiencies” (something we’d see more of in the Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and eventually as a standard part of 2E). He also says that “the oriental character would be incomplete without a family clan and history.” This notion along with the system of “Honor” the game establishes exoticizes the kinds of familial and community connections and resultant values that exist in any culture by describing it as a rigid system placed into a numeric framework while simultaneously homogenizing all the various distinctions among the cultures of Asia. As the Cool History Bro YouTube video on “Honor” explains, “There is no such thing as an all-encompassing moral value called ‘Honor’ in Asia. This is just a gross simplification of all the different values and philosophies of these various cultures condensed into an absurd catchphrase.”

Anyway, I am tired of beating that horse or cringing when I think about how WotC was ignorant enough to publish another book entitled Oriental Adventures for 3rd edition in 2001, 16 years later, when they definitely should have known better.

“Three Challenges in One” by Michael Dobson is another advertorial, this time discussing the new Battle System boxed set for running large scale battles in both D&D and AD&D. It is like the game came full circle back to wargaming, though centered around the action of characters involved in the domain management aspect that used to be the main part of the game beyond about 9th level. The article itself is not very good. Nearly a third of it is given over to describing how to create a campaign setting with nations to put to war, instead of discussing how the system’s rules work. And not mentioning Dragonlance, a new and current setting of the time based on a continent spanning war, seems like an unforgivable oversight.

Leomund’s Tiny Hut is a recurring feature by Lenard Lakofka. The first one was way before my time as a D&D player and Dragon-reader in issue #30, but even the most recent one before this was from two years earlier in Dragon #80, so I think it is fair to call the column sporadic. This might be the only issue I own with Lakofka’s column in it. From my understanding, Lakofka used the space to examine “crunchy” bits of the game. This example is no exception. He calculates averages and applies other math to figure out how much more powerful weapon specialization is than when a fighter does not avail themself of this newly arrived option from Unearthed Arcana. While his math shows that on average specialization could even up a fight between a 2nd level and 4th level fighter, he still argues that that it is nevertheless a balanced option and does not make too huge a difference. However, he also suggests against allowing double specialization and puts it on the DM to make up the difference in how encounters play out, making the monsters tougher for groups with a weapon specialization fighter or, I suppose, creating situations where the specialized weapon is not as effective.

With its equally lauded and derided bounded accuracy that keeps numbers from expanding to the unwieldy results we saw regularly in 3E and that were possible in 1E and 2E, 5E doesn’t really support specialization except in the form of some feats that modify certain kinds of weapon attacks.

I have to admit, I miss the days when fighters were actually better at hitting things than wizards or rogues or clerics.

The uncredited art that accompanies Ed Greenwood’s “The Ecology of the Ochre Jelly.”

Folks, our Greenwood Count has reached 11 with the inclusion of Ed Greenwood’s “The Ecology of the Ochre Jelly” in this issue. This article seems like a thinly veiled excuse to have Elminster tell the Realms lore regarding “How Grymmar Held the Pass” and saved the town of Eveningstar. It involves druid allies calling lightning down upon an ochre jelly dropped in the midst of a sleeping camp of an encroaching bandit army. It includes the usual end notes regarding the mechanics of things described in the narrative portion of the article.

“Assessing Not Guessing” by Lionel D. Smith provides a system for player characters to appraise valuables before the “Appraise” non-weapon proficiency was a regular part of the game. As someone who never tells players the value of what they find and thinks part of D&D is negotiating with fences and liquidating your booty and maybe holding on to some economy-shattering treasure until you can get to a big enough city where a proper buyer can be found, I appreciate this kind of article and the kind of game play it reinforces. Of course, this system is based not on character skill or ability scores, but on race and class, which is typically how D&D handled most things in the early days.

Four of the heroes available as PCs for “Sudden Dawn.” Yes, there is a guy in a yellow costume named “The Whizzer.”

“Sudden Dawn”—the 16-page adventure for TSR’s MARVEL SUPERHEROES Role-Playing game (the infamous FASERIP version)—is called “a special ARĒS section insert,” but it is not in the ARĒS section. Instead, it is in the center of the magazine to be more easily removed for use. It includes pre-generated heroes on perforated cardstock for use running the World War Two themed game which pits the American Liberty Legion against Baron Blood and his Nazi super-soldiers like Masterman, Agent Axis, and U-Man in three main scenes. The basic goal is to stop the Nazis from sabotaging the war effort at home while the Invaders (Captain America, Sub-mariner, Bucky, etc…) fight in Europe. It includes one scenario where the Legion protects the Manhattan Project.

The adventure calls for EIGHT characters (and provides them as pregens) and even makes suggestions on how to include more if you have a bigger group! RPGs sure used to be different. I can’t imagine managing even a one-shot for a group of eight and find most (non-LARP) games run best at four or five.

Nazi Super-Soldier antagonists for “Sudden Dawn.”

At the time I got this issue I was disappointed that the mag “wasted” so much space on “a dumb WW2 adventure” and not “the real Marvel Universe.” I was really into Uncanny X-Men at the time. Now, I would love to run this for a group, though I’d need to find a copy of the game’s rules and refamiliarize myself, as my version of Marvel RPG is the Marvel Superhero Adventure game using the SAGA system that TSR put out in 1998 just before going under and being bought by Wizards of the Coast.

The Kzinti.

The actual ARĒS section has a bunch of interesting content. “Star Law Returns” builds on a previous Dragon article on the Star Frontier law enforcement agency to consider, what if your players don’t want to be lousy space cops but you still want to use them as an NPC organization? “Hexes and High Guards” presents revised space war rules for the Traveller game. “The Exterminator” is a Gamma World encounter with a killer robot that I actually converted for a homemade dungeon I never got to run for my high school D&D group. “The Kzinti Have Landed!” present a new alien species of carnivorous cat people that refuse to communicate with herbivores and have “unintelligent females.” Sigh. To make them even worse, the article explains that the males of this species “frequently forget that females of other species are usually sentient beings…they instinctively consider females to be inferiors.” This is pre-Ferengi who would have their own canonically repugnant ideas about women. Their spaceships kinda look like old school Romulan vessels. “The Marvel-Phile” gives us more World War II info: the stats for Bucky, the first Baron Zemo, and Baron Strucker.

Wormy’s recruitment flyer (by Dave Trampier)

As usual, the issue ends with comics. Wormy opens with a beautiful full-page splash of a troll village up in a tree and the titular dragon’s imp servant putting up a sign calling for trolls to play in his war games. SnarfQuest has a still-addled Snarf going head-to-head with the mountain giant that walloped him and this time defeating him through sheer dumb luck. SPLOIUGH! Snarf is the fool-hero and I continue to really appreciate Larry Elmore’s cartooning. This issue’s installment also features the first appearance of Telerie Windyarm, the sexy woman warrior who is impressed with Snarf’s “prowess” and will eventually become his love interest. She invites him to join her on an adventure to seek the treasure beyond the trail the giant guarded.

The mountain giant does itself in while trying to squash Snarf (art by Larry Elmore).

So that’s it for this issue. Ultimately, back in the day, I found the thief stuff the most useful, but these days I am glad I still have it for the superhero adventure.

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