Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reading Dragons at Dawn Part V

In this installment we will look at magic and some general ideas on campaign building in Dragons at Dawn.

The first thing you notice is that mages can cast spontaneous spells. Not only can they do that, the things they can lob around at will is lightning strikes and fireballs! As in other parts of D@D, there are more than one system, shadowing the development in the Blackmoor campaign.

A few things are consistent in all systems, like that are the fact that magic and technology or at least alchemy are tightly intertwined. All spells are based on physical components. I also like the idea of having to roll a save to cast, which reminds me of how Rolemaster handles things like casting spells above your capability and suchlike. Magic should be capricious, I think. It makes it more "arcane", kind of.

Much have been said about magic swords through the ages. In these rules they all have some intelligence. It feels like Arneson liked his Stormbringer. It will probably feel very different from regular D&D to have ray guns, intelligent swords, singing elves and a Sleep spell which you might literally throw in the face of your opponents.

Otherwise can be seen his inspiration from Tolkien, since in the expanded games elves may sing their magic. This system, like Arneson's original idea for magic, uses spell points. Personally I'm not that fond of spell points, since it's just another fiddly thing to keep track of. I do feel for the designer who likes to transcend the hard limits of a slot based system, though.

Like so many times we can see how this is a game from the school of hard knocks. No flowchart to help you design "balanced" spells or magic items. It's wild and wooly. From what I've read of Tekumel, that other campaign where Dave Arneson played, the idea of technology indistinguishable from magic was prevalent there as well. 

Campaign Rules
There are a few intriguing parts of D@D for campaign and adventure building. The first are the role random events must have played in Blackmoor. Having both a set of index cards with divination and seer consultation results, and also a set of index cards with strategic evens in the campaign. Picking randomly from those during the campaign time frame is an interesting way to add to classical rumours and that dreaded "story campaign" where events are plotted out in advance. Have your cake and east it too. I like this way of steering the events in a campaign, since it will probably be just as much fun for the GM as the players to pick a card and see what great events are a foot this month in the campaign.

The other thing I want to mention is Arnesons way of using points to populate his dungeons. Sometimes you might hear critics of D&D3 talk like having Challenge Ratings somehow destroyed the game. Nothing stops you from ignoring the idea of the "balanced encounter" just because you have the means to calculate something like an encounter difficulty depending on the strength of your party, you know! Apparently Dave thought that way, for he seemed to have used the idea of quickly stating a dungeon by deciding on how many points of opposition there were, and then later deploy those points as actual hit dice of enemies. I like this idea.

All in all, this rule set really makes me want to sit down and roll up a character. The combat rules are interesting, and the idea of saving rolls for resolving general challenges talks to my Trollish heart. Sometimes they lay out of the book isn't great, and I think it would have benefited from a more tight structure with a short discussion of the sources and Arneson's ideas together with the presentation of a specific set of rules. Now there are great snippets spread around, but some rules are presented with less reflection on what came before and I can't help wonder how much of that section was invented whole cloth by Dan Boggs? I like what I see, I just had wanted to know. The only read problem with this book is that it's 30 years over due! Just imagine if this had been done while Dave could have seen it and given feedback. But, who knows. Maybe he would just have shrugged and told us to invent some on our own, since he didn't remember. Great games makes you co-creator and entice you to house rule and add to it. This is such a game.

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