This review appears in a slightly altered form on my blog.
I just downloaded Dragons at Dawn, the new release from Southerwood Publishing. This product is meant to simulate, as closely as possible, the original rules that Dave Arneson ran his games with in the days before Dungeons & Dragons. For those who don't know, Arneson was co-designer of original D&D, and TSR had agreed to pay him royalties on all D&D products. When Advanced D&D was released he was not compensated as TSR felt the advanced game was far different from what was originally published. He finally got credit as a co-creator, and nearly two decades later was paid off by Wizards of the Coast to relinquish any rights he had to D&D. His huge contribution to the hobby has been largely ignored until recently.
As a general overview, Dragons at Dawn is a pdf 62 pages in length, and set in some font that I can't readily identify. The art ranges from pretty good to okay; I didn't find any particular piece all that evocative. Quotes from Dave Arneson are scattered throughout, justifying various rules.
I despise the general layout. There's no actual "Chapter 1: Introduction" type of heading; just a list of the contents of the book in the beginning. Each topic is divided by a header in blue, each section has a slightly darker blue header. The section header is the same font and size and could be anywhere on the page, which makes it bloody hard to tell a section from a topic within the section. I would hope, if it goes through a revision, that they would make the section breaks more obvious. Perhaps a better way to do it would be to just end the section wherever it ends, then the next page would start a new section. Just a suggestion.
The first chapter is the introduction, wherein they detail the reasoning behind writing and publishing this. I always love designer notes, the "why's" behind the rules, and these are no exception. Their love of the hobby shows here, as does their reverence for one of the godfathers of gaming. Bear in mind that the author quotes a friend who called this product "Classic fantasy roleplaying in the style of Dave Arneson rather than Dave Arneson's classic rules for fantasy roleplaying," so, if you're looking for the original rules, this is as close as you'll likely get, but not the exact, unadulterated rules.
Second comes terminology. The author did a great job of laying out the terms and abbreviations you'll need to know, wisely avoiding the problems many early rpgs had.
Third is character creation. There is nearly nothing new here. 4 standard races, a handful of classes, a +1 here and a % chance there. When we get to the Ability Scores section, here we have the old standards plus a few different ones. They are Appearance, Brains, Constitution, Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom. One difference is the range; they're rolled on 2d6-2, reroll 0s. Another difference is the application, as Dexterity is used in the "to hit" calculation. Some things I would not expect in an old-school game are here too: Personality (a 1-3 word description of your character's traits) and Education (free-form-name-it-yourself skills). There are Alignments to be found here, too, divided into Chaotic, Selfish, and Lawful individuals. Lawful people are good, chaotics believe the end justifies the means, and Selfish individuals are total bastards, just out for themselves. Each class progresses through levels based on how much experience they have acquired. If you gain a level it might increase your Hit Point Value, which is static and only increases once every few levels. When it increases, it merely doubles or quadruples, except for Priests and Mages, who have a different, more gradual progression. No rolling is involved. Each classes also has Hit Dice, which in Dragons at Dawn is used to calculate Attack and Defense Values, as well as dice of damage. Obviously, the Warrior has the highest values for HPV and Hit Dice, making it extremely unlikely for a Warrior and a Mage of equal level to do the same damage using the same weapon.
The next section is titled "Equipment," but strangely only covers Armor and Armor Class. Yes, this system uses Armor Class, and it ranges from 1 to 8. Armor Class is the target number rolled under on 2d6 to see if you penetrate armor. Negative armor class was intended for Spirits and such, that can't be hit by nonmagical means. Armor Class scales upward, too, so a 5 AC is better than a 3 AC.
After the Armor section comes information on how to set up a campaign. In true wargame fashion, it assigns 2.5 points per monster Hit Die and informs you of how many points a particular room should have, 5 for a dungeon intended for first level characters, and increasing by 10 each level after that. The points for the whole place is multiplied by the number of rooms. So a first level dungeon with 10 rooms would have 50 points. The game also suggests the use of various cards to introduce more random elements -- Rumor Cards (self-explanatory), Fortune Cards (which can include fortunes, one-shot benefits, or advice), and Chance Cards (random events which occur during the campaign year).
Moving further through the book we come to Combat, which bears very little resemblance to D&D or much else I've seen. It reminded me a bit of Powers & Perils or Arduin. The outcome is decided mostly by Hit Dice and Armor. Combat is divided into Rounds (individual actions) and Turns (equalling 10 Rounds). You roll for Morale (the will to fight), determine who goes first, and calculate Attack and Defense Values (using the differences between Dex, Size and Level of each combatant) and add it to the Hit Dice of the combatant with the highest Hit Dice in that round. Compare Attack vs. Defense Value on the Combat Matrix, make a 2d6 roll, and determine if you hit. If a hit is scored, roll the Armor save and if the roll is higher, apply your Hit Dice in damage. The section goes on to describe healing and disease, etc.
Magic, the next section, is definitely different than the pseudo-Vancian magic that has never left D&D. The very first paragraph reads: "Wizards can channel raw magic energy to make Wizard Light, Lightning Bolts and Fireballs. This
magic may be thrown at will but requires the Wizard to make a Saving Throw versus Constitution for the spell to successfully trigger. Failure of the Saving Throw means failure of the magic and causes the Wizard to collapse with exhaustion..." The rest of the section describes the spells and explains they use material components. After a quote by Arneson about wanting to use spell points, it describes a system of magic using Spell Points. I know many people who think Spell Points are broken, but Spell Points allow a freedom that hundreds of pages of rules could not.
Dragons at Dawn next details Magic Items. The magical items are again different than what many roleplayers are used to. For starters, each item has an alignment, and merely touching an item of a different alignment will cause harm to the perpetrator, from a damaging jolt, to indefinite paralysis and even instant death. The pdf then describes some magic items that were used in Dave Arneson's original campaign. Reading further you will find that magic weapons are "unique and special creations" and they have the ego and alignment similar to the intelligent swords in D&D.
The book also includes a very short monster section describing various monsters. This is fairly standard stuff, including Barlogs (presumably renamed to avoid legal action), Dragons, and Trolls. Orcs seem strangely absent, though a quote by Arneson at the start of the section clearly mentions orcs. A strange omission, given the quote. The point of the quote was not about orcs in particular, but still...
After the Monster section, Experience is explained. Experience is earned for spending gold in accordance with your character; Priests donate to their religion, Wizards create new spells, etc. Leveling up is not automatic, you have to be trying to do so, and the GM has to agree you've met the requirements of your class. You may only advance one level at a time, and any excess XP simply disappears. You start over from 0.
The next section, Keeping Track, discusses hirelings, party order, sleeping order, wilderness travel, etc.
Appendix I details costs and weights for various items an adventurer may want to purchase. Weapons have no other stats other than price and weight. Appendix II contains spell descriptions. The Spells are pretty standard, having different ranges and areas of effect, Fireballs are able to hurt your party, etc.
The Final Word:
(Note: This is my opinion, not yours. YMMV)
I think this is a fantastic rpg, and I would probably play it over D&D if given a choice. A few reasons:
- Open-ended skills allow a customization usually unseen in old-school gaming. And the more popular modern games lack this as well (I'm aware that Risus and PDQ have systems entirely based on this).
- The Combat Matrix pits combat skill against combat skill, making battles seem more vibrant.
- The Magic and spell point system are superior to Vancian systems, and are at least a nice start, and seem compatible with D&D at least on the surface. The flavor seems more true to what I'm familiar with.
- The Hit Dice mechanic has a great philosophy behind it -- it's the hero (not his stuff) that makes him great. It helps make a more cinematic game, one that doesn't saddle a character with lousy damage because of weapon choice. Weapons can be selected with aesthetics in mind rather than "because this does more damage."
- There is not a rule for everything. This hails back to the days when you had to be clever, not a rules lawyer.
One question remains unanswered: How much of this is truly Arneson and how much of this is Mr. Boggs' work? A couple readings of this book sort of leave me feeling that some of this is what Mr. Boggs thought Mr. Arneson would have wanted. And that's okay. Rather than celebrate this as the hidden vault of Blackmoor from the 60s and 70s, celebrate it as a worthy addition to the old-school gaming category. It is at the very least an interesting look at what D&D
could or even should have been.
This product can be found as a downloadable pdf at
or as a softcover at