Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's THIS For...? (Best of Dragon 1-5)

After taking a look at the old Lankhmar: City of Adventure supplement and reporting upon all that which I therein beheld, people asked for more reviews of old things. So here goes...

This time, the kind people at Troll & Toad have delved into their warehouse full of used game stuff and sent along The Best of Dragon Magzine Volumes 1-5.

So, what's in there? Mostly, what's in there falls into the following categories:

-Has Long Since Been Integrated Into The Game
: i.e. Here's a new class: the ranger! If you're a historian of the game, like James M. or have a penchant for saying "what kind of great game could I throw together by taking what appears to be a misprint here in the illusionist description seriously" like Jeff R., then this is great. If you're like me and let James and Jeff comb through first drafts of old game ideas so you don't have to, this is filler.

-Conceivably Useful To Some Other DM Somewhere, But Not To Me: i.e. "Shlump Da Orc" explaining that asbestos weighs 125-175 pounds per cubic foot or Roger Moore finally explaining what exactly the fucking Astral Plane is.


-NPC Classes: If it's an NPC class, do we really need all these level-progression charts and shit? Do your PCs really go "Well we'll consult the alchemist--but only if you can tell me exactly how many experience points she has." And if you've managed to snag a professional jester or duellist and make them into a henchman long enough that s/he's started accumulating xp, can't you just say s/he advances as fast as the slowest advancing member of the party and be done with it?

Most of these NPC classes do exactly what you'd think they do, and so don't really seem worth the expense, with the exception of the oracle and the witch, which seem to have had some genuine research and/or creativity put into them and have ideas in them which might conceivably make a campaign more interesting and complex.

-Random Tables Full of Random Adjectives: Hey, I like my random tables as much as the next guy, but the day I can't find "5-Orange, 6-Blue and bumpy" on the internet or just make it up is the day they need to put me in the ground.

-Antedeluvian DM Advice: "When drawing your map, first sketch in major terrain features..." Ok, sure, I'll try to remember to do that.


Stripping out all that, what struck me as interesting was...

Volume 1 has an article on witches comparable to a really long and involved entry by one of your favorite D&D bloggers about how you might run a witch class, with spell descriptions and items that never made it into canon. Not gold, but solid. And wacky.

Also, Volume 1, predictably, corners the market on retrogroovy ads and pictures, including the wad of solid genius illuminating the top of this here blog entry. The other Best of Dragons are sadly light on cool pictures--in many cases they seem to have commissioned newer, lamer art to replace the art from the original issues.

Volume 2 is the best of the lot, and includes an article containing short but evocative descriptions of alternate vampires (including the Blautsauger, which has no skeleton and huge eyes, and the Alp, which appears to be a butterfly) complete with esoteric vampire-killing methods.

It also has two excellent articles on how to use the mathematical concept of the tesseract to generate crazy Escheresque dungeon architecture with weird gravity. They do a great job of not only explaining the geometry well enough that you could map it, but describing it convincingly enough to make it sound like fun in a game. Inspiring as fuck.

This volume also has a lot of Gygax musings, if you're into that sort of thing, and the notorious-but-boring "Politics of Hell" article wherein Satan is provided with D&D stats.

Volume 3 is pretty dull if you strip out all the stuff that later made it into Unearthed Arcana. This begins the more clearly Silver Age products--corporate design, no ads.

Volume 4 has a decent roll-a-one fumble table that includes damage to the weapon, and a detailed article on runes including both history and possible D&D uses.

Volume 5 has the Oracle class--containing 20-odd forms of -mancies, what kind of information can reasonably be gleaned from each, and what level the oracle has to be to perform them. Full of adventure seeds, if you think about it

It also has a couple Ed Greenwood articles on pre-modern firearms, in historical context and with game stats. Though I'll probably never use this stuff, it is thoughtful, careful, interesting, and displays pole-arm-like fine detail.

And if you still need to know more before handing over your hard-earned dollar, just hang on for the comments, where lots of people will write in about all the awesome articles that they like that I didn't.


  1. I'm glad you put "humor" in quotes when categorizing the contents - jesus, I always dreaded the April issue of Dragon, knowing it was going to be full of "hurr hurr, gamer humor!" shit that wasn't funny AND had no actual game use.

  2. I rather liked the assembled Spell Component table in (I think) Issue #5 (Originally #81) Forgive me if my numbers are off, I'm going from memory here. It showed up just as I was getting into my hardcore simulationist-DM-keeping-track-of-everything phase, and began my obsession with fictional resource management. The fact it also included 'alternate' sources for spell components for those unable/unwilling to just buy them at ye olde guild shoppe was also a nice touch.

    OTOH if you're barely able to get players to keep track of the number of throwing axes they're carrying, it's probably better to go with the 3e version of the 'component pouch'

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. You know what's actually good: The Dungeoneer: Adventursome Compendium, which collects the first six issues of The Dungeoneer.

    It includes groovy adventures by Paul Jaquays, most notably the famous Realm of the Slime God, which introduces aqueous zombies, or "The Walking Wet", and an awesome wilderness sandbox including a city of ghouls ruled by a Type IV Demon, and a dinosaur in an artificial lake.

    There are also things like charts that tell you how much alcohol you have to consume to kill yourself, or how many rounds you can fight before falling down, and some neat female PC classes, on the bizarre and no doubt sexist assumption that there should be gendered versions of each class. But sexism aside, the Prophetess and the Circean do a great job of providing archetypes drawn from Greek mythology and literature with a sword and sorcery flavor. Neat stuff.

  5. One of my favorite Dragon high-level adventures presents the interior of Baba Yaga's with a sprawling, fully detailed tessaeract layout.

  6. @Delta
    that's a good one, but it's not in the "best-of", unfortunately

  7. I picked up the five Best of Dragon books some time back in the 90s from a used book store in Virgina(I miss that place.). It was a bit after 2nd ed came out.

    At the time, the were interesting to me as someone who hadn't gotten to play a whole lot of 1st edition and hadn't followed Dragon until #143. I did like the Tessaract articles you mentioned, but didn't get a whole lot of game use out of them.

  8. For me Interview with a Rust Monster is sort of an ideal session report.

  9. Ahh, Best of #2 for me please. In addition to the tesseract and vampires you mention it has samurai, ninja, an essay on magical gates in literature, lycanthropy, antipaladins, and how to become a lich!

  10. I second the Interview with a Rust Monster.

    Also liked Sturmgeschutz & Sorcery.

  11. -"Humor"

    That made me choke on my coffee. Thanks for reminding me about that awful wink-and-nudge stuff they used to print.

  12. I was just looking at the AD&D Psionicist Manual & the puns in it are just appalling.