For my first review in years, I selected Dragonroar, a British fantasy roleplaying game published in 1985 by Standard Games, featuring fearsome monsters like the mighty War Hedgehog and the Killer Penguin.
So let's open the box and see what we got there...
The Dragonroar basic rules come in a 12.25” x 8.8” box. It contains:
* the 48-page rulebook
* a cassette tape
* several warrior and wizard character sheets
* monster sheets with stats and hit locations for all the 17 monsters in the rulebook
* four play sheets for quick-reference of important tables
* character and monster cardstock tokens in colour
* cardstock floor tiles for a solo adventure
* a sheet with floor tiles to be cut out for the group adventure
* 6 dice: d4, d6, d8, 2d10, d12 (no d20).
The cardboard box is of medium quality, not very rigid so it easily deforms under pressure. The rulebook is saddle-stapled, printed on thick paper. The staples look as if they won't tolerate much stress.
The cover art shows a fighter towering over a killed hobgoblin and a wounded goblin while he fights another goblin and a bipedal War Hedgehog with a large twin-bladed axe. Yes, a war hedgehog, the iconic monster of Dragonroar. In the background a female fighter is ready to throw a javelin into the fray, while a dragon circles above the combatants' heads. The artwork is not of the highest quality, but it coveys an atmosphere of adventure and drama. The level of detail is nice. The only thing that looks out of place is the dragon. It makes the impression that it just discovered that it has lost the power of flight. It's just not my style of dragon.
The interior art in the rulebook is mostly average black and white art. There are very few good pieces, two nicely drawn NPCs for example, or a dynamic picture of a charging fighter on horseback who is stopped by a pikeman.
The cardstock tokens are a bit small but the colour artwork is OK. Only the floor tiles are really bland, depicting mostly grey stone floors.
The Cassette Tape
As I said, Dragonroar is an introductory RPG and it tries to be helpful to novices by providing a cassette tape and advising to listen to it first. Well, I'll follow that advice. There are two speakers who do a professional job. Their English is clear even for a non-native speaker like me. They give a short intro to roleplaying games and to the game world that is simply called “Home”. Sadly, the setting intro is not much more than a banal, esoteric creation myth. It is followed by a description of the box contents so a newbie can get an overview over the material. The unfamiliar dice are explained, especially how a d100 works, which I find nice for beginning players.
The speakers and their audience flip through the rulebook. Each section gets a few sentences: What it is about, what does the player need it for, how are some tables used. The last step is to fill out a character sheet with a sample character to get accustomed to the sheet layout.
Apart from the creation myth which fails to carry any atmosphere or insight into the setting, I think this part of the cassette tape is a good introduction to the game if you never have played an RPG. I was sceptical at first, but I liked it.
The second side of the tape contains a solo adventure that you can start after filling out the sample character sheet. When you have some experience with RPGs it will seem to you to be a dumb, illogical, railroading adventure, but it does its job to lead a player without any gaming experience through the first steps of the game. The character is a warrior who wants to retrieve a magic arrow that an evil wizard has stolen and carried to his lair. The adventure contains of 10 steps, each step adding a new floor tile to a map. The player can only go forward, but he may make some decisions: Do you want to attack the girl that you have rescued but wants a dagger to defend herself? Do you take her with you? Do you give her the dagger? This adventure has every classic element of a dungeon adventure: traps, monsters, treasure, a maid that needs rescue, and a finale against the evil wizard. Combat is explained, which dice you roll when and how damage is rolled. The cassette tape naturally has its limitations, often requiring a pause to play out a combat scene, or ignoring some sequences because you decided to take one of three possible paths.
As an adventure, the solo cassette tape part is awful when you view it from an experienced player's perspective, and it may give a player some dumb ideas what roleplaying is about. But it is a funny little addition to the box, it helps new players who don't have a game master at hand, and there have been worse introductory adventures than this one.
The cassette tape is quite a good thing in this box. I would love to see something in the same vain for newer RPGs. What about some Youtube videos that give an overview over the gaming material, show how the game is played and even present a solo adventure?
Up to this point, a player may have played his first adventure without actually reading the rulebook. He has browsed through it thanks to the cassette tape, but not much reading was required.
So what can we find in there?
The first two pages are again dedicated to the obscure creation myth and to a history table for the game world. But as this history table only lists about 200 years of “King X was killed”, “Y defeated Z”, and “Battle at A”, we only get a glimpse at the setting. Apart from a two-page colour map in the middle of the book, there is no more background material. That's a bit disappointing. A somewhat richer background could have given a better overview over what is happening in the world of “Home” and what the adventure opportunities are.
The roles of the players and the Fatemaster are described in detail. The Fatemaster is supposed to be a fair judge whose main task it is to present an interesting adventure to the players. One interesting role here is the “arbiter”. The arbiter is a player who has the final say when it comes to ties in player votes, and who negotiates with the GM when it comes to distribute treasure and honour points. The arbiter role shall further co-operative play, and having a female player as an arbiter is recommended because they are said to have the best objectivity. The book also recommends rotate the arbiter role after every one or two sessions.
This arbiter may be a nice aspect in groups that have a high potential for discussion. Just call for votes and in case of a tie, the arbiter makes his judgement call so that the adventure can proceed swiftly.
Dragonroar characters are easily created. The main rules only covers human characters, and those can be either warriors or wizards. This may seem to be a restriction, but for beginning players less choice may often be better. It also leaves room for the players and game master to invent their own professions.
Every player has five attributes: Strength, Speed, Willpower, Knowledge, and Endurance. They are determined by rolling 4d6 five times, dropping the lowest result of each roll, and assigning the values to the attributes. Strength gives damage adjustments. Speed is important for movement speed and initiative in combat. Knowledge determined the initial spells a wizard has learned, and how many areas of knowledge a character can learn. The areas of knowledge come in three levels of specialisation, and each level grants a roll and a certain percentage of success to know something about a subject from that area of knowledge. The system for areas of knowledge has some examples, but how certain areas like “combat” are used is not detailed in the rules. Willpower is used for morale checks, and endurance is mainly used to fuel spells.
There are no skills and Dragonroar also has no rules for any kind of attribute check.
A character starts the game at level 0 with 0 honour points. Honour points are basically experience points, but they are only awarded for honourable actions, and players can lose points (and levels) by performing dishonourable deeds. An example lists getting drunk as one of those offenses. Interestingly, the game advises that awards for killed, captured or routed monsters should be awarded based on the circumstances. Characters that have cornered a single goblin will only get a minor reward, if any. Characters that are wounded, low on endurance points for spells and with broken equipment, but who manage to put a superior number of foes to flight, gain a reward that is much higher than the basic honour value. I like this freedom in an introductory RPG.
Levelling up gets some rewards for a character. Warriors get an increased chance for melee hits, warriors get an increased casting chance and a reduction of the casting costs. All characters get damage reduction for every two levels.
The last detail for a character is his equipment. There is a free starter package for each class, and a random amount of money may be spent on more equipment from a list.
The main part of Dragonroar is combat as there are almost no rules for non-combat activities. Not that they don't happen, but there are no specific game rules for attribute checks and the like. Combat is straightforward. It consists of movement and attacking and takes place on a square grid. The number of squares a character may move is determined by the speed stat. There are modifiers to the speed stat like encumbrance and wounds. Speed also is the attribute for initiative. Higher speed scores attack first. The weapon carried adjusts the speed score for initiative.
To attack, a character takes his weapons to-hit percentage score, adds his level modifier, and subtracts the to-hit armor reduction. He then rolls a d100 to score lower than his to-hit value. If the to-hit value is above 100, the character scores an automatic hit and gets a second attack at the old value – 100. So if a character has a to-hit value of 135%, he scores one automatic hit, and one with a 35% chance. Missile weapons follow the same principle, but they have different to-hit bases depending on the range. There are some modifiers to the attack roll like flanking enemies, wounds, or heavy armor.
If an attack is successful, the hit location is determined randomly. Each character sheet has six hit locations, and each monster sheet shows hit locations according to the monster type. Each hit location has a number of damage points it may take before the location is crippled, which may result in death if it is the torso or head. Wizards and Warriors can sustain different amounts of damage, but every character of a given class has the same damage points. Damage is determined by weapon type. A longsword has a damage range from 1-8, and a warrior arm or leg can sustain 8 points. So one lucky blow or two average blows in one hit location can become dangerous.
There are only a few additional rules for attacks. Pikes and lances have a range of two squares. A character may attack when his opponent enters this range. A successful attack means that the enemy takes normal damage but also may not come nearer. A failure means that the enemy is not hit and may close the gap. This means that a character must drop his pike or lance because it has become useless. This easy rule in combination with the grid movement makes pikes an interesting weapon for holding off enemies in narrow corridors. There are also rules for dealing concussion damage, and a section on duels, but the duel text is only flavour text without any additional rulings.
The last combat section covers morale check which the Fatemaster may roll for either side in a fight when it seems appropriate. There may be group morale checks or individual morale checks, and they may result in surrender, ordered retreat or a wild rout.
So the combat rules are very simple. This is again great for novice players and makes combats quite fast. The grid gives some opportunities to employ tactics (flanking, pikes to hold the enemy at bay, etc.), but there is a danger that combat becomes repetitive after a while. To make things a bit more interesting, let's add some…
The knowledge stat of a wizard determines the number of spells he can learn. He may use all spells that he knows as often as he wants, but he has to reduce his endurance attribute to do so. In a dire situation, a wizard may sacrifice himself by casting a spell that leaves him with negative endurance, but it also leaves him dead. Here the book talks about an honourable death when trying to save ones comrades, and that this may be rewarded. There are one or two more such hints at a reward, but what that may be is not explained anywhere, so it is probably up to the Fatemaster.
When a character learns a spell, he in fact learns two spells. The spell itself and its counterspell. The counterspell is a spell by itself with its own stats and effects, and may be used on its own. So there is a “Flame” spell that automatically comes with the “Ice” spell. A wizard may use each spell separately, but he may also cast the counterspell in the same round to directly cancel the effects of an enemy spell. He may also cast a counterspell if he does not know which spell his enemy has cast, but by this he may waste his spell or produce an unwanted effect. Spells and counterspells each have a certain percentage chance of success that increases with the casters level.
Like the combat system, magic is easy to understand and fast to use. There is only one drawback: There are only 10 spell/counterspell combinations included. The book recommends using spell effects creatively, like using a barrier spell to create a bridge of force instead of a wall. But a slightly larger selection of spells would have been nice.
There is also a section with seven sample magic items, but there are no rules for creating them. One entry describes the flying beans which are magical beans that give the ability to fly for a certain time. Some earlier passage in the book hinted, that this could easily attract predators with a good sense of smell. Thankfully, the book does not go into further detail.
Dragonroar lists 12 different monsters. Most are the standard kind (bats, goblins, hobgoblins, wolves, trolls, snakes, giant spiders, rats, and a young dragon), but three must be looked at with a bit more detail.
The first is the Manelephant. The clunky name reveals it: humanoids with an elephant head. They are usually peaceful vegetarians, but are hunted by some people for ivory. This makes them at least wary of strangers, and some have become lone hunters that seek vengeance for the extermination of their family. The missing creativity of putting an elephants head on a human torso is made up by this story which could lead to an interesting encounter or two.
The next creature is the War Hedgehog, an 8 feet tall, bipedal hedgehog bristling with spikes and usually wielding a two-handed axe. He is prominently depicted on the box cover, and the interior illustrations manage to depict him as a fearsome foe and not simply as an enlarged version of the small, spiky guy that lives und a large heap of leaves in your garden. War hedgehogs are also described as “honourable”, they dislike humans, and they hate goblins that bake war hedgehogs in clay if they get the chance. All in all it is a creature that may find its way in other campaigns.
The last creature I would like to discuss is the Killer Penguin. Where the war hedgehog seems to be a ridiculous concept, but turns out to be one of the best creatures in this book, the killer penguin is ridiculous and stays it. It is depicted as a penguin with a sharp metal beak protection and a shield on one arm. There diet is fish, but they also like a bit of human flesh now and then. Yeah, right. I just can't picture a dangerous horde of penguin clowns waddling to the attack.
The book closes with a short group adventure. A young dragon has is terrorizing a village and the characters are sent to kill it in its lair. It is a straightforward dungeon adventure with some goblins, spiders, a troll and the dragon. The only creative thing here is the goblin bait. Hobgoblins have bound a goblin onto a chair as a bait to lure the characters into a trap. While the characters approach the unusual sight, they want to attack from the rear. Otherwise the adventure is completely unremarkable.
Dragonroar is clearly written, easily understandable and not bogged down by too much detail. If a new player has no RPG experience, he can learn the basics with this box. There are some ideas that are no longer state-of-the-art and might lead a beginning game master on a false track. For example it advises against changing monster stats once the game started, or else the players would think of the game master as "sadistic or wishy washy". But as it is unlikely that Dragonroar will be bought by a total RPG newbie these days, not much damage will arise from this.
Dragonroar could also be a sandbox system for old school gamers as it has some of the characteristics liked by many old-schoolers: simple rules, much room for house rules and creative additions, and some crazy elements like the killer penguins or the flying beans. But it is not a system that will be fun for a long time if you do not invest your own creativity.
And if you have no better excuse to snipe a copy at eBay: Dragonroar is an interesting piece of RPG history.
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The cassette idea was revolutionary, and this was certainly looked forward to before its release. It got a pretty terrible review in White Dwarf, sadly. I think there was only one module and no other supplements, so perhaps Standard Games found what Avalon Hill and SPI found - you can't sell RPGs like boardgames and expect to make a successful product.
More audio / video guides and mini-modules would be very welcome for all RPGs.
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Excellent review Sebastian.
I remember looking at this game longingly for years... I just had to know what was on that cassette!