SPI's DragonQuest RPG in Play

First Age

D&D h@ck3r and Hopepunk
Simulation Publication Incorporated (SPI) 1980 DragonQuest fantasy RPG was a game that passed me by, back in the day. I started the gaming hobby in 1981, my first year at university, playing AD&D 1e, Runequest 1e and Traveller. Although aware at the time of ‘another one’, as Dragonquest was statted up in Chaosium’s multi system Thieves World box set, I never dipped in or played it. SPI was certainly in my consciousness, as I would spend much too much time perusing their varied and accessibly affordable wargame boxes, eventually buying Outreach, which I extensively played solo.

I’ve noted some patterns in my gaming projects. I often go back to out of print and no longer supported games, and ones that I have passed over, due to the nexus of choices made at the time. So, perhaps no surprise that I started to research Dragonquest, which for me means, get a copy, set up a game and actually play it.

With the availability of a rich online site of digital resources, at the Dragonquest Players Association archives (https://www.dragonquest.org/files/index.html), it was quickly possible to get a copy of the game. Only a small amount of research confirmed that I would be using the 1981 2nd edition white book version, which had simplified the action economy and tidied up a few elements from their 1980 boxed first edition. My reference edition was the 2.19 open version, with some section renumbering to accommodate inserts to round out the game. Second hand copies of the game are at a minimum of £70 for aging soft covers. Instead I went for a spiral bound copy of the 2.19 reformatted text, but with the 2e cover rendered on a card fron page, to give me that authentic feel.

Spiral Bound copies of DragonQuest​

The game itself, written and organised in SPI wargame rules style, with enumerated paragraphs for handy cross referencing, is a bit of a gem, full of early hobby play assumptions. It’s a classless system, with d100% resolution, where characters are created and designed around some core characteristics that you point buy from a random dice roll table. These characteristics, missing the familiar intelligence and charisma dimensions, can be rolled using a difficulty factor (multiplier) from 0.5 to 5. This provides a percentage chance that you roll for success. Once SPI folded, due to TSR calling in a loan, and possibly after the final 3rd edition, the design team moved to Avalon Hill’s ‘Victory Games’, and worked on the James Bond 007 RPG, which has the same mechanic as its core.

Heritage and Birthright is rolled for. You are assumed to play a human, but you can roll up to three times on a table to see if you can play a non-human. If you fail three times then you are human. Characters are then built up with choices of Professional Skills, which are like classes, but packages of skills that ascend when the Profession Skill Rank is increased. Weapons are chosen and a decision is made whether to play an Adept who can use magic. The game has a nicely detailed tactical combat system, played out on a hex grid, and copious schools of magic, with a tasty array of magic.

There’s a lot to go at, but I found that the game was actually lacking in useful skills, wheer the design had largely left out anything social based. I made a number of minor adjustments. I renamed the optional ‘Physical Beauty’ characteristic as ‘Presence’, to use in social tests. In the DQPA files is a document of 96 additional professional skills that can be spliced into the game and an expansion of ‘adventurer’ skills that can be picked up individually. This extension is expected by the game’s third concept of flexible and modular design, that expects homebrew expansion. My final decision was how to ‘pro rate’ characters without having to drop into the experience point economy to buy individual skills. I needed my one shot characters to have some ‘Ranks’ under their belt. So I set up a simple process for acquiring Ranks to get a character going. They would be at about Rank4 and would be classed as early in the ‘adventurer’ tier of play. A quick Google Doc character sheet design gave me something to populate for a face to face game.

Just to say, that every skill has a completely different formula to calculate base chance and then a % increase per Rank, with skill Ranls being in a range of 1-10, but spell casting Ranks on a scale of 1-20. There is no simple integrated skill system, as per the contemporary Runequest. Although a complete pain, I have to say that is part of its 1980s charm.

I ran the game at Grogmeet, with a really great table of players, who were all happy to lean into the idiosyncrasies of the system.

My terrific group at Grogmeet 2023​

So, how does it play? The tactical combat is good fun, and even in the few hours we played, the action speeded up. You have to take a defence/evade % off your strike chance to give you your modified chance. This took some on the fly mental arithmetic. I had learned the modifiers, the difference between a passive defence and an active evade and how damage is applied. Basically, if you are going to run this game, learn it, know it. Damage is either a standard hit which armour absorbs and is taken off Fatigue in the first instance, or if 15% of your chance, then it goes straight off Endurance with no armour. Damage is rolled on a d10 with a modifier for weapon type and optional rules for high PS (strength) or skill Rank providing additional damage. You don’t have many endurance points (a range of 10-20ish). So, you hope for a standard hit, that your armour can absorb (yep, damage absorption) and that it is taken off Fatigue (range of 15-25 ish). If you roll 5% of your modified strike chance then it is an endurance hit and a chance that it is also a grievous wound, which has a d100% table of truly awful and probably fatal outcomes. There are three types of weapon: A - piercing, B - slashing, C - crushing. Each type owns a range on the grievous wound table. If your d100% falls within the right range then the gruesome effect applies.

Dragonquest combat is heart pounding and dangerous. I had printed out cards with the calculation of 15% and 5% chances for endurance and grievous wounds. For all the clunk, I find myself wanting to play the combat again, and draw on some of the other options that we didn’t explore in our game. Make sure your party has a Military Scientist Professional (I called the skill ‘Military Tactician’), as they are good at leading, and rolling the group initiative, as they add their Rank to the result.

Any hit, fatigue or endurance affecting that is equal to or greater than the target’s END/3 stuns the target. At that point the target is only able to try each 5 second pulse to un-stun themselves, leaving them vulnerable to attacks. There was a lot of stunning and hacking going on.

I included a mage in the party to give the magic rules a proper airing. Magic damage is slightly different in that it will always take of fatigue first, but armour does not count. The 15% and 5% rule also applies to the casting chance, enabling either a doubling or tripling of one dimension of the effect. Triple damage would be terrifying, especially if the mage managed to succeed with the cast!

In tactical play, a spell requires a pulse of preparation followed by casting, which costs fatigue. There is a house rule for fast casting at a cast chance penalty, but I reckon that would only be employed by much more established and confident mages. If a casting roll is 30% over what was needed (40% in non-tactical situations) then the mage suffers a backlash, rolled on a table. These are nasty, and came into play towards the end of the game.

Our mage was an adept of the College of Ensorcelments and Enchantments and had Rank 4 in some spells, but on reflection not enough. Base casting chances vary with every spell, and then increased through high Magical Aptitude characteristic and +3% per Rank. Targets typically get to roll their innate magic resistance, which is equal to Willpower, plus 20% if the target is not a member of any college of magic. The PC mage’s Bolt of Energy Spell (S2) Rank 2 was going off on a 63% chance to hit (D10-3 damage). At Rank 10, damage would be 1d10+5, about the same as a heavy blade, and with the chance of doubling or tripling. I worry slightly that I was using magic resistance like an evade, rather than a separate roll, which would have made the caster’s chance much lower. The caster also had the Spell of Charming (G1) Rank 4 at 34%. At Rank 10 (half way to mastery) it would clamber up to a 52%. Yikes.

Whilst acknowledging that there is a good chance that one magic backlash would ‘take out’ the caster, the range of colleges and spells available are great, and there is alot going on with meta magics too. Rituals of purification to improve magic resistance and casting chances, investing spells into items, warding, and counterspells are all in the mix. I think longer term play would reward this area of the ame greatly.

Action mid game​
Would I run Dragonquest again? The answer is a qualified “yes”. I like the game for its early 1980 sensibilities and expectations. The mix of flexible characteristic checks, skills and profession groups, weapons and spells, gives you lots to go at to tailor the character you want. The game has tactical detail, which I like, and some depth around a percentage based core. It has danger and something of a sword and sorcery feel. I’d want to consider character starting experience carefully.

Cleaving to the game’s ‘concept three’, the inclusion of your own Professions is a work of minutes, which the game’s expectant broad shoulders will handle with ease. As much as I could go with handling social encounters with ‘just roleplay, persuade your GM, and roll on the Reaction table’, I’ve played too many games that give such encounters some mechanical support. I’d use ‘Presence’ and some persuasion secondary skills. There are some base monsters and a lot of natural animals, so you may need to make up some of your own adversaries, but that is no sweat given all the examples in the book.

If I get stuck, then I know what to do…

Help is at hand...​

Inevitably, it will be the competing weight of other more immediately accessible and ‘in print’ games that might keep me at bay. That’s a hint by the way, to get me to run some online with you…

DragonQuest ready on the Role VTT​

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