Laidback DM: Dragon Warriors Review

I don’t have a lot of free time nowadays, but I ordered this game from DrivethruRPG and thought I’d (finally) post a review of it.

Dragon Warriors is an English TTRPG first published as a series of paperbacks back in the mid-80s. Serpent King Games has reprinted the 2006 revival of that original game, which featured new layouts and images, but this book is pretty much the same text as the original 80’s books.

Dragon Warriors is set in a fantasy world inspired by the history and folklore of the late Dark Ages/early Middle Ages. Suitably grimdark, most people are poor and illiterate, resources are scant, you can fall ill just from staying overnight in a town, many follow the True Faith introduced by a Roman-style empire, paganism is frowned upon and magic users are regarded with fear and suspicion. Only the bravest become adventurers. The game uses familiar polyhedral dice, has a minimalist, class-based character creation system, straightforward combat and enough variety to the magic to keep spellcasting players happy.

The limited classes include Knights (honourable and skilled fighters), Barbarians (fast and mobile berserkers), Sorcerers (powerful wizards), Mystics (psionically gifted individuals), Elementalists (masters of the various elements), Warlocks (combining magic and swordplay) and Assassins (sneaky and stealthy). Every class has special abilities, some which are accessed at higher levels, depending on the class. There is very limited customisation (especially when compared to modern games like Pathfinder 2e or D&D 5e), within classes – basically a few class-specific skills/abilities for each. There’s no multi-classing and no separate, ‘mundane’ skills (like History or Arcana). Your class and its abilities are what you get. Don’t forget this was a game written in the 80’s.

Your class determines base scores for things like Health Points, Magical Attack and Defence, Evasion, Stealth and Perception (with the characteristics of Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Psychic Talent providing modifiers to the base scores). A handy character creation summary for all seven classes fills one page. It’s not often you can say that about an RPG.

Magic creation rules are strict and well designed, with each magic using class having specific features that help or hinder the process, depending on the type of item created e.g. Sorcerers are the only class that can build a wand at 8th rank, and they need to permanently expel 1 Magic Point (MP) to imbue the item with 1.5 MPs, thus giving the wand the power to cast spells. Magic items are difficult and time consuming to build, which is fair enough given the feel of the setting and period – the wand I mentioned takes three months of game time to create.

The differentiation and balance between classes is well thought out and put into action. Every class feels and plays differently as a result – Warlocks power up faster than other spell casters, enabling them to cast up to 2 spells per round; Barbarians get a bonus to attacks but a penalty in defence when berserk; Assassins who successfully sneak up on an opponent can do a shock attack that can stun them; classes other than the Knight are penalised for wearing armour – some spellcasters’ spells have a greater chance of failing if they choose to wear armour.

Some of the systems vary somewhat (I’m assuming for statistical purposes) to an almost frustrating degree: Stealth minus Perception plus modifiers and rolling less than the result on 2d10 to succeed at a sneak; rolling less than Perception on 1d20 to track someone; Assigning a difficulty factor to a climb and if your Reflexes score is equal or higher you climb it easily, otherwise roll under your Reflexes score on 1d20 to succeed; dodging uses a Speed between 5 and 20 set arbitrarily by the GM, the PC’s Evasion is subtracted from the Speed and that number must be less than or equal on 2d10. Combat initiative is determined by the PCs’ Reflexes scores, but strangely this is rolled for monsters and NPCs – why not just assign all monsters a Reflexes score? The lack of consistency isn’t the end of the world, but it sometimes makes you raise an eyebrow about the design process.

Your character gets one action in a 6-second combat round. This can be moving 2.5 metres and attacking, drawing a weapon, casting a spell, moving 20 metres, partially loading a crossbow (which takes 3 rounds to fully load), etc. Attacking in combat involves two rolls: your Attack score minus the target’s Defence score, then roll lower than the result on a 1d20 to hit; then roll your weapon’s Armour Bypass e.g. 1d8 for a sword, and get higher than the target’s Armour Factor. (Below and above – there’s that lack of consistency again.) Once that’s done, standardised damage e.g. 4 HP for a sword, is applied. If a target has a shield they can roll 1d6 with a 1 meaning the blow was negated completely. When fighting multiple opponents the defender splits their Defence between the multiple attacks (I like this – a much better simulation than most modern flanking rules). Missile attacks ignore Defence completely and roll less than Attack on a 1d20 +/- modifiers for range, etc., then make an Armour Bypass Roll.

The Magic system is interesting – all the spell casters work differently with their own strengths and weaknesses. Sorcerers, Elementalists and Warlocks expend Magic Points and can put extra magic points into spells to make them more powerful in order to bypass magical defences, while Mystics make a Psychic Fatigue check with failure meaning no more spell casting until dawn. Each class expends and gains magic points in a slightly different way, which adds to the flavour of the class. One great thing in this game is a caster can have any number of durational spells running at the same time, assuming they don’t fail (but you can’t ‘double up’ the same spell for added benefit). Spells can be pretty devastating – many bypass armour – but I might need to run some games to get a better idea of how balanced the 192 spells (far less than 5e) are.

Wounds take time to recover – magic is fast, but healing naturally means waiting 4 days and then getting your rank’s worth of HP back each day. I like the longevity of damage – it feels more serious because it takes longer to recover from a battle, making players more cautious about rushing into a fight.

Levelling (going up in rank) may be a time consuming process, considering each PC earns 5 XP for surviving an adventure. Then they get 1 XP per rank of any creature slain (divided by total PCs). It’s 30 XP to get to level 2 and roughly doubles after that – proportionally similar to other games of the same period. The poor old Knight doesn’t gain any special abilities until 8th rank! Other classes gain skills and abilities at lower levels, but this is NOT 5e. PCs gain +1 bonuses to attacks, HP, etc., each new rank so at high levels they could be quite formidable – if they survive that long.

The Lands of Legend setting is an analogous Europe/Africa/Middle East set in the late dark ages/early Middle Ages, with a useful gazetteer and lore highlighting specific magical items and the history associated with each. It wouldn’t take too much to work this setting into other games. The historicity and grim dark feel sets it apart from kitchen-sink fantasy settings like the Forgotten Realms or Golarion, but the sense of magic and mystery is still there. Many of the historically-based aspects of the setting – language and literacy, law and crime, property and land, disputations, travel, tournament rules – are well-developed and could easily be dropped into a homebrew setting if you’re wanting a little more ‘Middle Ages’ realism in your game.

There’s a section on rules variants, like variable damage, more lethal combat (MORE lethal?), shock damage, more critical hits and fate points to survive death or avoid permanent injuries. I’m going to run the game without these rules first to see how it goes.

The rule book includes an evocative, linear-style adventure, which provides hints about adventure design and rolls into a Dragon Warriors campaign book ‘Sleeping Gods’, as well as basic information on 110 monsters and 80 magic items/relics.

Dragon Warriors is a blast from the past that will be enjoyed by OSR gamers. Although it lacks the customisation of modern RPGs and a has a few seemingly clunky systems, it has an evocative world setting and semi-historical atmosphere that makes it well worth a look. And the softcover is relatively cheap on Drivethrurpg. It’s a good investment for anyone who may have grown bored of D&D and wants their fantasy cake grimdark-flavoured but without the complexity of Zweihander.

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Published by stevestillstanding

I’m a writer who loves tabletop role playing games, poetry and (you guessed it) writing. Occasionally I have something to say...

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