Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Review: DragonRaid

The DragonRaid RPG
I have been planning this review for a bit now, but upon hearing of the death of the creator, Dick Wulf, I am opting to move it up a bit. 

Full Disclosure: There is no way I can give this a complete review because I don't know enough about the source material.  I mean I know it, but not enough to for the level of play this learning game would require of me.

I have mentioned before that I have known about DragonRaid since at least the mid-80s. I was both amused and fascinated by it then.  When I learned more about it I was a little more impressed.

The Game

DragonRaid got a lot of grief in the gaming communities I was a part of.  I had some Christian gamer friends that thought it was a cheap attempt to capitalize on their faith and some even did not want to mix their D&D and belief.  As an Atheist, then and now, I thought it was interesting. As someone who was interested in psychology then and someone with degrees in it now I also thought it was an interesting way to learn something, in this case, Bible verses.  I always wanted to see the game for myself.   

One thing I have to keep in mind that this "game" is not really an RPG, but a teaching tool in the form of a role-playing game. 

The game's author and designer was Dick Wulf, MSW, LCSW, who is, as his degrees indicate, a licensed Social Worker and holds a Master's Degree in Social Work.  He had done a lot of work in psychotherapy and ministry. He also played D&D and Traveller. So it seems he actually likes and knows RPGs better than the guys who gave us Fantasy Wargaming!

Plus I have to admit the ads in Dragon Magazine always looked really interesting.  I mean seriously, that is an evil-looking dragon and should be stopped and those look like the brave warriors to do it. Even if they need some more armor*.  (*that is actually a point in the game! more later)

Ad for The DragonRaid RPG

A while back my oldest son and I saw this game at my FLGS and I told him all about it. He is also an Atheist (as everyone in my family is) and he wanted to get it so we could play the other, evil, side.  He wanted to do something with the dragons in the game (he loves dragons) and I of course wanted to bring witches into it (cause that is my raison d'être).   Plus this copy still had the cassette tape in it.  I mean that is just beyond cool really.  So yeah I grabbed it with every intention of having a bit of a laugh with it.

I might be a witch-obsessed Athiest, but I am also an educator and not really an asshole.

The truth of the matter is spending this past week with the game I just can't take a piss on it.  The author is just too earnest in his presentation of this game.  There is love here, and scholarship, and frankly good pedagogy behind the design.   I don't normally mix my professional education background with my game design work.  Yes, they can and they do mix.  But when I am writing a book on the Pagan witches for Old-School Essentials I am not trying to write a historical treatise on the pagan religions of Western Europe during the time of the Roman Empire.  I'll try to keep my facts in line, but I can't serve two masters. I have to write what is best for a game.

DragonRaid also doesn't serve two masters. It serves one and makes that work for both pedagogical reasons (to help young people understand Christianity and their Bible better) and game design reasons (to have a fun roleplaying experience). 

For this DragonRaid succeeds in a lot of ways.  For this, I simply can't do anything else but admire this game and its design.  So no playing dragons here, or me coming up with a witch class to fight the characters.  I might do that at home, but I am not going to be a jerk about it.

Besides look at everything, you get in this box! I mean seriously, this is some value.

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 1

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 2, Lightraider sheets

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 3, so many books!

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 4, counters

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 5 documentation

I even got the cassette tape! I don't have anything to play it on though.

The DragonRaid RPG Box contents 6, and honest to goodness cassette tape!

What do you get?

New Player Briefing
Red cover, letter-sized. 16 pages.
This is the first book all players need to read over.  This includes the LightRaiders (player characters) and the AdventureMaster (GM).  The background is really kind of fun.  The world of EdenAgain is like an idealized Earth meets Narnia.  There are humans, regular (OnceBorn), and the TwiceBorn. The TwiceBorn are the ones that follow the Maker and Overlord (thinly veiled versions of "God" and "Jesus").  There is a lot cool details on how Abaddon and Kakia, both described as dragons here, have tempted the world to evil.  

I rather like the idea of this book.  A brief 16 page (large font) booklet to get new players into the game.  It is something that is usually handled by the "What is an RPG?" and "Introduction" sections of other games.  There is cool parallelism between this book and some of the intro to playing material found in Red Box/Mentzer Basic D&D.  Makes a lot of sense since both red books cover similar ground and have the same goals.

The World depicted here is a bit simplistic, but that is also by design.  The players are supposed to explore it all together.

DragonRaid World


Rulebook
Blue cover, letter-sized, 24 pages

The Rule book covers the Basic rules for all players. 
It covers character creations (thankfully we also have the worksheet for that), how to use the StarLot and ShadowStones, Ability checks, and the various forms of combat and armor.  I can't help but feel there was also a bit of a wargamer in Dick Wulf.  

The division of the books into Red and Blue does give me solid B/X and BE Basic vibes.  I am sure that Dick Wulf was familiar with those and chose to emulate their feel even if "Basic" and "Expert" are not really a good way to describe his books.  More like "Novice" and "Basic."  But the idea still holds.

The Light Raider Test 
Orange cover, letter-sized, 44 pages
This is the first of our adventures for the LightRaiders and it is in fact set up as a first mission. It is introduced in the New Player Briefing/Red Book.  Here it is a full-blown adventure complete with player handouts and cue cards for verses. 
Players have to rescue a LightRaider, fight a giant (or drink him under the table), and fight some goblins.  It is noted that any LightRaider that dies goes to Paradise. 
This adventure is fairly straightforward to the point of almost being a railroad.  Well...not quite. I mean the player's options are limited and a lot relies on random rolls.  I suppose as a new LightRaider and AdventureMaster this makes things a little easier.  There is another reason for this. The adventures have certain academic goals or learning outcomes.  These are usually met via the design of the game and altering these would mean the designer could not really tell if the learning goals were being met. Great for a curriculum, not ideal for an adventure. 

Rescue of the Sacred Scrolls
Light Green, letter-sized, 78 pages with 28-page insert.
This is the second adventure and it is much more expansive. Here the LightRaiders must brave the castle of the dragon Thuella and rescue the captive LightRaider Zekion and recover the two parts of the Sacred Scrolls.  Along the way, they can meet a unicorn (a type of angel here) and battle orcs and cave spiders. 

These adventures, minus the quoting of scripture, would make ok D&D-style adventures. There is not much in the way of treasure and the goals really are very different.  DragonRaid players learn through these the power their LightRaiders have via faith (and therefore themselves).  

At this point though it is very, very obvious who this game is marketed to.  All of the art is whiter than the Sound of Music. You would think that there would at least be a little color.  Note: There is one darker-skinned character figure in the cardboard character cutouts.  Still though. Pretty much mayo sandwiches on white bread with milk here.

DragonRaid Book covers


Adventure Master Manual
Green cover, letter-sized, three-hole-punched for binder, 124 pages

Pretty much what it says on the cover. This is Adventure Master's book. Unlike all the other books, this one is looseleaf and three-hole-punched.  This is likely because a.) the designer wanted the Adventure Master to have a place to insert their own notes (a good idea) and b.) a lot of educational materials in the late 70s and early 80s were produced this way.  Also, there is the notion that a lot of Bible study material came published like this.  How do I know?  Back when I was working my way through college I was a night janitor at a Southern Baptist church.  If I had not already been an Atheist then those people would have convinced me.   Sadly the box, while large and sturdy, is not big enough to put a three-ring binder inside.  

Some material is by necessity repeated here.  We get more background on the OnceBorn and the other creatures populating this world that are not LightRaiders.  The OnceBorn are slaves to the DragonLords.  They might live like kings but they are slaves according to the rules.  They may seem happy but they are not we are told.  Of course no matter how evil an OnceBorn might be we have to remember that they deserve redemption; so killing them is out of the question.  

This book also includes another adventure, "Adventure as the Castle of the Falls." This is to give the Adventure Master some practice having players using the WordRunes.  Like all good Game Master books this has a section on becoming a better Adventure Master.  Nothing gamers have not seen before, but good advice all the same for the starting Adventure Master.It is good the box comes with so many adventures since there is not really much in the way of guidance on how to create adventures.  The caveat I will toss out is there are a lot of adventures that can be bought from their publisher.  Another caveat is that this is still more adventures than I am ever likely to run or play with this game. 

There are some Difficulty level charts that are keyed to the various abilities the LightRaiders have. Nice, but not portable to other games really. There are some good ideas on various dragon attacks, but again they central to the mythos and mechanics of this game.  Doing anything else with them would require a lot of work. 

Lightraider Handbook
Yellow cover, spiral-bound, digest-sized, 140 pages.

Now this one is a very neat product.  It has all the rules and even some basics on the creatures encountered, but it is designed for the players to use at the table. It is spiral-bound so it lays flat at the table.  I know the costs are prohibitive, but I do wish more companies would do this.  OSRIC would be a fine choice for this to be honest.  In fact I made my own spiral-bound copy of OSE a while back for this exact same reason.

Spiral bound player's books


This book also contains all of the Word Runes the players will need.   The creature backgrounds (but no stats) are also a nice touch.  I guess that any D&D player, even if new, is going to come to the table with ideas of what a dragon, goblin, troll or orc are.  DragonRaid has slightly different versions of these.  Shorthand if it is not human or a normal (or talking) animal, it is evil.  Tieflings? No way! Elves are even evil here. Well. Maybe not evil, but certainly surrounded by evil beings, and to reclusive to do anything about the evil around them. 

DragonRaid Player's Guide


Audio Cassette Tape
Thankfully you can go to the official Lightraider Academy website to get the audio files from the tape. 

Two Dice
D10 (StarLot)  and a d8 (Shadow Stone).
I kinda like that they give each die a bit of character.  The clear d10 is your StarLot and it is the one you will use for most rolls.  The darker d8, the Shadow Stone< is the one the forces you are fighting will use.  There is an obvious bias here towards the forces of good. 

History of the StarLots


Additionally, the box contains:
  • Character Sheets
  • Character worksheets (I used a spreadsheet for mine)  
  • A Correction sheet
  • Letter from Dick Wulf, MSW
  • Registration Letter
  • Counters (Heroes, Dark Creatures, NPCs)
  • Battle Grid (x2)
  • Ad for “Spiritual Warfare Posters”

This company is all in on this game and I have to admit I totally admire them for it. 

Final Thoughts

As I discussed back in the Character Creation challenge, a lot of the very random rolls you make can really help define who your character is. That is great, but it also confines your character in certain ways.  There are ways to increase abilities you want over ones you don't want, but this game like many others, has you play to your strengths.  Sure in the early 80s people were fine to have a character only defined by the numbers on the sheet; today?  Not so much.  

I will admit that I never felt "talked down to" as a gamer while reading this.  Yes, it is designed for someone with far less experience than myself or my readers, but all the same, the advice in the game always came across as helpful and never condescending. 

Also, I never felt "called out" as an Atheist here.  Sure by the game's standards I am one of the DragonSlaves and even though I consider my life to be good, great even, it is not truly so.   Ok. Whatever.  I am also not as attractive as an elf, strong as an orc, or interesting like a tiefling.   Though my lack of experience with Bible verses and my complete lack of desire to ever memorize any will limit my involvement with this game.  Likely to just this review.

Fighting a Dragon in DragonRaid
The quality of the materials is top-notch.  I am not sure which "printing" I have, but no dates are past 1984 on my books and it still has the cassette tape.   I did notice when doing some research that my box did not have a copy of the purple cover "The Moon Bridge Raid" nor did it have the stickers.  Maybe because I didn't buy it directly from the publisher? Looks like that the Moon Bridge Raid is in later editions/printings and these also included a CD.  So I am really rocking it old-school!

Note: A little digging online tells me there was a newer printing with 1998 and 1999 dates on the books.  Likely this is the printing that had the CD.

Digging deeper EdenAgain seems to be a planet that humans crash-landed on.  Looking at the art one assumes it was only white people on the ship. They had a copy of the Bible on their spaceship.   So is this one a post-apocalypse game?  Could characters from my Star Trek: BlackStar or Star Trek: Mercy games find their way to EdenAgain?  I mean that is not to different than the Star Trek Discovery Season 2 episode "New Eden."  Except the people of New Eden, aka Terralysium, combined all of Earth's faiths including Christianity, Hindu, Judaism, Bahá'í, and Wicca into one.   Not very much in line with what DragonRaid would have wanted.  Discovery Season 2 was fairly heavy with religious symbolism. 

One thing implicit in the game is that all other creatures except for humans do not have souls and can't be saved.  I did not get a clear read on animals and talking ones in particular though I know the rules are in there somewhere.  So ALL creatures would be considered evil; in fact the manifestation of sins.  That giant destroying a village? Evil. Kill it! That dragon eating all the maidens in the country? Evil. Kill it!  That orc sitting on a rock picking his nose? Evil. Kill it! Sleeping baby troll? Evil. Kill it! Get the idea?  There are no shades of grey here.  A human OnceBorn in charge of a child slavery ring is not to be killed.  The goblin that did nothing else but let you know about it so it can be stopped has to be killed.   That goblin isn't a real living creature but sin-made flesh.  Which is kind of cool if you think about it, but also a little too conservative for my tastes.   Combat is physical and is lethal. Combat can also be spiritual.  

One facet of this game that can't be ignored is the production value.  While the art has not aged as well it is still objectively good.  The layout is clean and easy to read.  The material is grouped together well.  The redundant text isn't really redundant at all since this is designed to teach.  The box is sturdy as hell, and mine is still in fantastic shape.  No idea about the cassette tape, but everything else in the box is top-notch.  A spiral rules guide for the game table is something that makes so much sense other companies should have been doing it (I know...cost).   

While character creation can be a chore, the core rules are pretty simple.  Percentile rolls vs some cross-referenced charts based on abilities.  Roll high.  With players using the d10s, sorry, StarLots and the bad guys using the ShadowStones (d8) advantage always goes to the LightRaiders. 

In the end, I am glad I purchased this game even if it took me forever to do anything with it.  I am never likely to play it or run it, and while there are some great ideas here I am also not likely to mine it for any.  I have to give the late Dick Wulf major credit.  He had a vision and a love for this game and it shows on every page.

Links

Here are some collected links if you want to learn more about this game.

4 comments:

Roger G-S said...

Clearly a better effort than the Redemption CCG, which didn't even have a costing mechanism, so there was no reason to play the less powerful cards if you could buy enough packs.

JB said...

As a Christian gamer myself, I never saw DR as a "cheap attempt to capitalize on their faith" ...neither at the time it came out (when I was a kid) or now (as an adult). I'm a pretty cynical guy, but to my eyes the game feels very sincere to me.

There is a portion of Christianity that finds evangelism to be far more of a priority than myself: getting people to "accept" Jesus Christ as their savior, and whatnot. DragonRaid, for me, feels much more of an attempt to take advantage of the RPG phenomenon to teach (scripture) and evangelize (the Good Word) in a fun way. I find it a pretty nifty design in this regard, and it has some rather cool mechanics.

'Course, I'm already converted and my faith is a bit more...um...nuanced than simply learning Bible verses and which sins are "deadly" ones. The game has a pretty small niche of appeal...the target demographic is extremely slim.

Once upon a time, there were families with serious concerns about the impact of games like D&D on their children, but who were still open to the idea of such games, so long as they were helpful in promoting their (very specific) faith ideas...I had two buddies growing up that fell into this category (one was a Born Again Christian, the other a Catholic from a family of a more evangelistic, er "charismatic" strain). These days it feels more like people are either "all in" or "all out" on fantasy stuff...which makes DR more an interesting relic than a playable game.

But there sure is a lot of stuff in the box!

p1r8z0r said...

A RPG based on actual and spiritual colonialism where the locals have no souls... art imitating life here?

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@p1r8z0r,

Yeah. There are some uncomfortable parallels to be sure.

@JB,

Reading it yes, it is not only very sincere but enthusiastically so. It is very interesting and huge value for the money.