Dragons at Dawn, by Daniel Hugg Boggs, is a retro-clone built upon the material, notes and even hints left by Dave Arnerson about his home campaign, which helped Gary Gygax to create the world’s first RPG. It’s unnecessary to point but Dragons at Dawn (or D@D) is about the deepest roots of our hobby (which the probable exception of the legendary Braunstien game from David Wesely).
While D@D obviously shares many elements of D&D, it’s also fascinating to see where it diverges from the Little Brown Books. You get the feeling of witnessing some kind of alternate history of the world most famous RPG.
Before going further, let’s talk about the product’s format. This review is based on the PDF version, a 65-pages book. The layout is very simple, just a single column of text, with a few black and white illustrations (some quite good). The cover is the only color illustration. D@D is sold as a PDF for a fair price, in part due to the book’s page, in part due to the beautiful research behind it – this book is clearly a work of love.
Well, to the details.
D@D has a stronger Sword-and-Sorcery flavor than OD&D. The basic game has two classes: warriors (with three levels) and wizards (with five levels). The name levels and main features of these classes reveal a lot of the common ground with OD&D and Chainmail. However, the differences are also remarkable. For example: Warriors gain extra attacks when they kill an opponent and can distribute the exceeding damage of an attack among other adversaries; wizards can see in the dark and cast fireball and lightning bolts at will (although at the risk of falling unconscious because of exhaustion).
The D@D magic system is peculiar and – in my opinion – very “Howardian” in feel. With the exception of the three powers above, all spells of a wizard are bound to physical objects and are crafted in a laboratory. Potions, flasks, mystical powders and talismans are used as spell-holders and – surprise! – there’s no limit to the number of “spells” that a wizard can carry. The only restriction is monetary. In fact, the wizards gain XP by crafting spells (while warriors gain XP by killing enemies).
Multiclassing is encouraged; you can pick another class simply by paying XP to it, instead of evolving on your first carrier. There’s a very interesting comment by Arnerson pointing that in his group most players eventually became warrior/wizards.
The character matrix (or sheet) of D@D has few stats: Appearance, Brains, Cunning, Dexterity, Health, Strength (these are the character traits); Personality, Education, Level, Hit Point Value, Hit Dice, Alignment and Armor Class.
The character traits range from 1 to 10 and are rolled with 2d6-2. The core system (including what we would call saving throws and general skill uses) are done by rolling 2d6-2 and getting a number below your trait. D@D has a little and very free-style skill system, called Education. Basically each player can pay XP to buy mastery over some field of knowledge (or even weapons), gaining a bonus to trait checks in this area.
Personality is systemless, just a short description, while Alignments use the Chaotic, Selfish and Lawful categories.
Hit Dice and Hit Point Value are radically different from what we are used to. The first determines both your chances of hitting and your damage (yes, in D@D damage is a matter of level). HD are dissociated both from level and from Hit Point Value (or HPV). In fact, in D@D most characters have few HPV (in the basic version of the game, a Warrior has a maximum of 7 HPV, but can deal 8 HD of damage). This aspect of D@D makes the morale rule extremely important, as a party’s morale can affect their current HPV – the same being valid for characters using certain magic weapons (I find this rule an excellent example of the abstract nature of hit points at the first RPGs).
Combat is pretty straightforward. Initiative is determined by common sense (no roll involved). After applying various modifiers to a character’s HD, you get his Fighting Strength. After crossing the Fighting Strengths of the attacker with that of the defender (at a combat matrix), you roll 2d6 with a hit occurring when you roll equal or less to the target number. Damage is determined by rolling a number of d6s equal to the attacker’s HD.
Armor begins at 1 and goes up until 8. In D@D armor negates damage instead of increasing the difficult of an attack. The defender makes an Armor Save (by rolling 2d6-2) and attempts to roll equal or below his armor. This helps to explain why damages are so high. Warrior gains a bonus on Armor Saves. There also short rules for skirmishes.
The expanded version of D@D has 5 new classes and 4 races. The classes are elf mage (using a spell point system and representing not only elves, but also half-elves and humans trained by elves), merchant (with persuasion and assessment skills), priest/monk (no spellcasting, but capable of invoking miracles; a very flavorful class), sage (with curses!) and thief assassin (abilities of deceit, thievery and assassination). The races are human, halfling, elf and dwarf. In the expanded game all classes have 10 levels of progression.
D@D has other (necessary and classical) elements, like equipment lists, spells, a bestiary, magic items and campaign advices – like encouraging the group to use rumor tables, fortune cards and chance cards (these last two are an interesting additions to an Old School RPG).
As a living piece of game history, D@D is a fascinating read. It is also a very rules-light game, reflecting a particular style of play (thorough the book Arnerson continually highlights the importance of roleplaying instead of rollplaying), with mechanics that may sound odd to many today. However, the final result is an engaging mixture of D&D and Sword-and-Sorcery. A unique experience, heavily recommended for any Old School fan.