To others, we were a bunch of misfit kids, sat around a desk with strange dice and lots of books and papers, talking animatedly while caretakers cleaned the school corridors. We knew better. We were explorers, adventurers, dungeon delvers, each with amazing abilities that meant we could face down almost any foe. Be it wizard, thief, warrior, or ranger of the wilds, there was a character to suit all tastes. The skinny kid who was always picked last became a mighty warrior, the kid who struggled in class became a wise old mage… Too tall? No problem, in this world, you’re a dwarf or a hobbit if you like. Granted, it wasn’t the most fashionable pursuit in the eighties but we just called it ‘rugby club’ when around others and then got on with the business of having a good time.
It’s a special sort of hobby that enables people of all ages and from all walks of life to gather around a table, leave their everyday lives behind for a while and join in adventures to rival the best found in books, comics and film. Table top roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) offer experiences like no other, being fuelled almost entirely by the power of our shared imaginations. The hobby is perhaps more popular now than ever before, having a much better mainstream awareness (certainly a far cry from the ‘witch-hunt’ mania that plagued the hobby in the eighties) supported by both pop culture inclusion and a broader means of access.
Currently, on its immensely successful 5th edition, D&D is the public face of roleplaying games, being for many their first experience of the hobby by way of podcasts, YouTube or Stranger Things, even. No longer the sole province of ‘that bunch of weirdos’, D&D is enjoying a new and different heyday.
There are countless resources available to fuel and fire the imaginations of modern players, both online and in traditional print. It can be difficult to know where to start, following on from that first game or experience with a starter set or board/card game. One staple of the D&D player’s arsenal has always been Dragon (formerly ‘The Dragon’) magazine.
Filled with great art, engaging writing and bursting with ideas and cool new rules variants, almost every issue was, and is, an invaluable aid to deeper enjoyment of D&D. It’s interesting then, to return to the roots of the magazine (and indeed the hobby as a whole) and take a look at the inaugural issue. Perhaps more so now than ever, considering not only the modern popularity of 5th ed. but also the resurgence in recent years of what is now referred to as OSR or Old School Renaissance (games which are closer in tone and rules to the early iterations of the game).
The formative days of D&D came out of the desire to expand wargaming (often recreating historical military battles with table top miniatures) into something more fantastical, reflecting a love of heroic fantasy fiction. The Chainmail fantasy miniature wargame rules, written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren and published in 1971 would eventually form the basis for Dungeons and Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson collaborated on this first outing for D&D, releasing it in 1974 as three booklets in a cardboard box. The game would go on to see numerous revisions and countless additions.
Publication of The Dragon magazine started in 1976, following on from the great success of the D&D game (its first three printings having sold out). It was a bi-monthly publication, replacing the in-house magazine The Strategic Review and aimed at support of the hobby about which its creators were so clearly passionate. By this point, it was already clear that the D&D ruleset was quite open, inviting ‘homebrew’ additions and adaptations of the rules. People were hungry for more, and The Dragon was there to help feed them.
Issue #1 could only have ever featured one thing on its cover and Bill Hannan didn’t disappoint, rendering a dragon which was sure to draw the eye of prospective adventurers and Dungeon Masters alike. The colours were lurid and, while they might simply have been a limitation of the printing process, evoked a surrealistic feeling of some magical miasma surrounding the dragon. The magazine’s logo meanwhile, was faintly ichorous, with oozing serifs and a hidden serpent, very seventies, very cool and very much appealing to the aesthetic of the hobby at the time.
Opening the issue, we find the first article to have been written by Fritz Leiber, a real luminary of the Sword and Sorcery fiction genre by way of his Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser stories. It’s a fun read, presented as a conversation with said characters, with Leiber attempting to gain their insight in order to enrich his writing of the then-upcoming table top game Lankhmar. By way of some dimension-crossing in the depths of the Caverns of Ningauble, the author sets about picking the brains of the two rogues and eventually comes away arguably none the wiser. The article will be of considerable interest to both gamers and fans of the ‘Swords’ stories, a curious and humorous piece of history for both.
Next up is a piece from Larry Smith detailing how to convert his Battle of the Five Armies game into a miniature wargame. It uses a modified form of the Chainmail ruleset and features in-depth options for re-enacting the battle from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This sort of adaptation and modification was common throughout Dragon’s history, and encouraged the ‘homebrew’ approach taken by many players. It’s a necessarily rules-heavy article that spans several pages which gives an insight into how early rules were balanced. An interesting piece of history for fans of Tolkien-related gaming.
This is followed up by an article with suggested ‘standardised’ approaches to handling in-game situations where a player wants to do something in D&D not fully covered by the existing rules. It’s almost a formative example of later skill-based systems using the core attributes found in D&D to this day. Wesley D. Ives demonstrates his system nicely with some examples of use in play featuring ‘Grod the fighter’, which makes learning and applying the system all the easier.
Another ‘ideas’ article follows, asking the question, ‘Magic and Science – Are They Compatible in D&D?’ Here James M. Ward presents his ideas based on a race of ‘Artificers’ who had transported their ‘Atlantis’ to another dimension. This race work with the intersection of magic and science and are suggested as a good challenge for powerful characters. There are some nice ideas here, offering a slightly different take on ‘standard D&D’ and while similar topics have been covered many times since, this would have been one of the earlier examples.
‘Languages or, Could you repeat that in Auld Wormish?’ is an essay on the then-current coverage of languages in D&D and the implications in game. It’s an engaging piece which provides plenty of food for thought through questions posed and examples provided. Ever an important component of the game, certainly in roleplaying terms, languages can sometimes have just as much impact as a stat or dice roll.
Jake Jaquet then brings us the first part in a light-hearted and somewhat ‘fourth wall breaking’ serialised story, ‘The Search for the Forbidden Chamber’. The antics of the misfit group are filled with good humour in a similar vein to that of the early Terry Pratchett novels and the whole thing serves as great chuckle fuel. More of this desire to entertain and amuse comes through in other parts of the magazine, with cartoons which would prove to be a regular feature in the future. Tabletop gamers rarely take themselves too seriously, and it’s nice to see the humorous side of the hobby represented in these pages.
The ‘Creature Features’ have always been a favourite of mine, and this very early example focuses on the Bulette, or Landshark. It’s presented in a way that would broadly become standard practice for future monster manuals and creature compendiums. There’s a great drawing showing the beast locked in fearsome combat with some knights in full plate followed by in game statistics for the Dungeon Master or referee. We then get some flavour text and guidance for play. Considering the Bulette is one of the D&D monsters based off the now hugely collectible ‘Chinasaurs’ (small plastic dinosaurs of imaginative morphology and dubious authenticity made in China as cheap toys), it’s a formidable foe, and an enduring D&D classic.
Reading on, there’s ‘Hints for D&D Judges, Part 2: Wilderness’. This title offers potential for confusion until it’s put together with the ‘Part 1’ published in The Dragon’s predecessor, The Strategic Review (Vol. II, No. 2, for those wanting to track it down). The article itself offers great guidance on expanding the scope of a game from a dungeon crawl or castle game into a broader campaign, in this instance by mapping out the larger terrain and wilderness areas. It’s the sort of article I used to eagerly pore over, looking to find new ways to world build. This one is helped out further by a very cool depiction of what is either Conan or a fantasy warrior that goes to the same tailor/hairdresser/gym.
This segues nicely (at least, it will do if I ignore the ‘Mighty Magic Miscellany’ piece on p.23, which wouldn’t be fair, as it’s got some cool spell ideas for illusionists) into an article about ‘Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age Additions’ by Lin Carter and Scott Bizar. As Lin Carter worked on expanding the stories of Conan and the Hyborean age, the article is written on good authority. It’s an expansion and companion piece to their main game and covers some of the ‘peripheral nationalities’ from the fictional worlds of Robert E. Howard and, as with the main game is a series of rules and information aimed as a guide for wargamers to enact battles in that setting.
None other than Gary Gygax presents the next article, a brief piece on the use of Hobbits and thieves in the Dungeon game. A similarly brief article appears near the end of the magazine concerning ‘The Three Kindreds of the Eldar’, being some extra information for the inclusion of Tolkien style elves in D&D.
Rounding off the issue, there is a ‘Press Release’ section, which features promotional overview coverage of three new games, followed by the first installment of a new fantasy novel from Garrison Ernst, ‘The Gnome Cache’.
The Dragon’s premier issue is fascinating not only as a time capsule, revealing the state of tabletop gaming in its formative years but also as a potential supplement for modern gamers, especially given the flexibility of 5th Ed. D&D and the various OSR games out there. The linework of the illustrations has a reassuring ‘old-school’ feel and will prove massively nostalgic for many, as will the occasional ads for miniatures and conventions. As with any old publication, it’s a product of its time and as such some content will be anachronistic in use today but, as has been proven many times over, gamers are an inventive bunch and will brew strange new concoctions out of almost anything…
That the essence of the content provided in The Dragon remained in a similar vein for many years suggests that Gygax and co. hit on a winning formula, just as they had with their now-famous game. Granted, the production values and volume increased, as did the level of illustration but the feeling of an exciting publication aimed at a hobby loved by many never went away. It’s like they were saying, ‘you’re not alone, guys… here’s something cool for you.’ As would so often be the case, it’s a promise they deliver on, with content covering everything from Middle Earth through to the realms of Conan and beyond. Not everyone will enjoy the rules-heavy articles or appreciate the rough-edged presentation but if you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re the sort of person that’ll find a lot to like in this fabled tome!
Article by Andy Flood