DragonQuest (1980/1982) and “old school” rules

DragonQuest Second Edition Cover (1982)

As part of the discussion on Discord about looking at “OSR” games, I visited an old friend.

Back in the  early 80s, I GMed perhaps 100 sessions of DragonQuest 2nd edition. I’ve just been combing through those old rules and I’ve found some interesting elements.

DragonQuest was first published SPI games in 1980. SPI published two editions: First Edition (1980) (herefter DQ1), Second edition (1982) (herefter DQ2). After TSR bought SPI, a third edition (1989) was published. TSR, publisher of the competing Dungeons and Dragons system, let DQ die after that.

All three editions are substantially similar. All three applied wargame design to combat, requiring a hex grid and figures that maintained a specific facing and had specific movement rates. The largest change is from First to Second, where the First Edition action point combat system was dropped in favor of a combat system which (I believe) more closely resembled the system from The Fantasy Trip. The big change from Second to Third edition was changing the name of the Courtesan profession to Courtier and removing the seduction ability — and also removing the magic Colleges of Black Magic and the College of Greater [demon] Summoning. (We can speculate that this was TSR concerned about appearances. The demon summoning college drew strongly on real world medievil Christian models for its rituals and demons.)

Combat System

Action Point Combat actually looks interesting. In fact, after comparing it to DQ2, I think it might much easier to understand and apply than DQ2. Combat.

Some comparisons.

In DQ1, each combat round was divided into an indefinite number of pulses. Each pulse every figure would act in initiative order, announcing one action, paying AP for it, and resolving it. Actions were designed to force a choice between attacking, evading, moving, and other actions like drawing a weapon. Once everyone had one action, a new pulse started, and these continued until everyone was out of AP.

In DQ2 and 3, you act in initiative order and take one action, each of which can combine movement with other actions. For each choice, the movement was conditional on what action and whether the figure was inside or outside reach of melee attack. Thinking back to my days of running the game, tracking the variations always added to my cognitive load. I think DQ1 would have been easier.

Skill System
Characters are defined by Characteristics, Major Skill, Advanture Skills, and skill in individual rituals and spells. Major skills were actually clusters of abilities that might represent professions: e.g. Military Scientist, Troubadour, Thief, etc. Each was a collection of abilities and tasks, each with their own success chance formula. Adventures skills, spells, and rituals, are single task skills.

How the Game is Played.
Ths single most interesting element were the rules on how the game is played around the table. Here are quotes from the DQ2 text p. 137-138 for your consideration:

[79. 1] The players should elect one of their number to be the leader of the party. The leader should not only be the best qualified character for the position, but the most experienced player as well, because his decisions will usually directly affect the outcome of any adventure. …. In combat, the leader may add his Military Scientist Rank (if any) to the Initiative die roll.
The leader announces the general activities undertaken by the party during the
Adventure Sequence. …. The leader usually gives the orders for the non-player characters in a party; if
there is a disagreement as to what the actions of a non-player character should be, the majority
of the players rule. The leader counts as two players for determining the actions of non-player characters.

And p. 138:

[80. 1] The real time allotted to the players to discuss the actions of their characters depends upon the current stage. 

The players have up to 30 minutes or one-tenth the game time to be spent on a single action, whichever is less, to decide on what their characters will do during the Trek/Wait Stage. The characters are assumed to be engaged in a similar conversation in tones appropriate to the occasion (e.g., hushed if hiding from a lynch mob). 

The players have up to one full real minute for each game minute during the
Chase Stage to talk with · each other. Their conversation is assumed to be that of their
characters; if their foe has some method of overhearing the characters, the GM should
have the foe act on this information.

Unless a player prefaces a remark he makes during the Encounter Stage with a
comment to indicate that he is not speaking for his character, anything he says can
logically be assumed to be said by his character.


[78 .3] When combat occurs on the Tactical Display, there should be no lapses of time between player announcements of character intentions and resolution of them. ….the GM
paces the combat in that strict sequence. When it is a character’s turn to take action,
his player must announce within five seconds…or the character is assumed to take a Pass Action.
If the players wish to discuss tactics amongst themselves during combat,… Anything said
by one character to another during combat can be overheard by their opponents….

(Note that a leader with Military Science skill can provide extra real time for players to discuss actions).


DQ is the only place where I have seen these actually codified in a rule text. I first encountered them in original Dungeons and Dragon play around 1976, where they were taught word of mouth rather than in texts.

Has anyone seen them show up in modern “OSR” play?

7 responses to “DragonQuest (1980/1982) and “old school” rules”

  1. Interesting Stuff

    DragonQuest has been on my radar for a while, actually  along while but I was never able to get a copy or play it. The idea of the leader takes the concept of "caller" to the next level.  It hands over a ton of authority to that player. 

  2. Grumping

    I have serious issues with referring to games as "OSR."

    I'd like to distinguish among the following categories and I expect I'll be kind of a pain in the ass about it, now and ongoing, without much chance of being convinced otherwise.

    • Games that were developed and published explicitly as "OSR," regardless of what the R was supposed to stand for (that keeps changing). By definition the earliest possible date for these is 2006, the publication date for the first version of OSRIC by Stuart Marshall.
    • Games that were identified by OSR proponents as obviously included or embraced in the category, although they were not designated as such by their authors or publishers. Some of these have included the label in later editions or products, and some have not. The earliest (generous) publication date that seems eligible to me for this is about 2003.
    • Games whose systems (or some facsimile thereof) are most often used under license by any of the above. Usually these are TSR publications throughout the entire historical range to the present, but not always, and some designated OSR titles don't license other systems.
    • Games that are casually referred to as OSR-tradition or the original "O" in OSR, which is obviously less of a category than a behavior that varies across publications and venues.

    In case it's not clear, I'm saying that calling any such game as Dragonquest "OSR" is an outrageous insult to the intellect. It's nothing but revisionism and appropriation.

    And as long as I'm here, the term "retroclone" is garbage too, and I don't expect anyone here to be careless enough to use it without specifying what a particular author means by it for a particular publication.

    • I guess I didn’t make my

      I guess I didn't make my thinking clear. I do not identify DragonQuest as "OSR." Instead, the discussion about "OSR" prompted me to look back at the era that these newer games seem to be nostalgic for and compare what was actually going on to what the "revivalists" actually think was going on. In DragonQuest, I discovered, codified in the text, some rules that really characterized RPG play in the 70s but which are not, to my knowledge, being reproduced by the aspiring revivalists. It's notable too that, except in DragonQuest, these rules were taught word of mouth and not written in most rulebooks of the time. 

    • You were clear! I’m in bar

      You were clear! I'm in bar-fight mode based on the Discord posts and the general internet discourse.

      What you're saying here makes a lot of sense:

      … rules that really characterized RPG play in the 70s but which are not, to my knowledge, being reproduced by the aspiring revivalists.

      That's why I've been calling as much attention as I can to the 1970s games, especially for fantasy. I've been doing this for a long time, e.g., Tunnels & Trolls and Wizard discussions at the Forge, and often felt very isolated in doing so. Every time you've talked about Chivalry & Sorcerery, Dragonquest, and James Bond 007 among others, it's like receiving a much-needed oxygen module in a deficient atmosphere.

      I mean, seriously deficient, to the point where I don't feel merely like I'm in a spacesuit on a methane-atmosphere planet, but actually on a ventilator. Every blog and video that does dip back into the era casts it as genuinely continuous with the modern jargon, and it's exhausting. Their aspirations to revivalism are outright and straightforwardly fundamentalist and, not only that, glorying in its purported success in becoming orthodox as well.

      For anyone who's interested, see the Lab Renaissance Right Here for a look at fantasy role-playing from the mid-1970s through the very early 80s. There is a lot of it with a very wide design range.

  3. Before we were so rudely interrupted

    … by none other than myself …

    You were talking about a couple of related features: first, that the group operated with a "caller" (the generic term I learned back then for this sort of player-side role); second, that certain decisions or statements of action were timed in real-life with a cut to a disadvantageous default if the player didn't meet the time limit. I agree with you that these were common table features back then, well before they made their ways into different rulebooks, obviously varying table by table.

    I also remember thinking about such things regarding the design of Sorcerer, in the mid-late 1990s. On one hand I was saying, pish and posh to all that wargaming stuff, we're past that now; but on the other, I realized that the problems these things solved hadn't gone away. I decided that "past it" had gotten worse rather than better, and even considered using minute timers (the kitchen hourglass things) as part of the game mechanics.

    In my current terms, this is about Murk and about attentiveness ("listening" as I've been saying), and my position is that anything that improves their conditions, i.e., less Murk, more listening, is better than relying on the mess that RPG culture had made of itself by about twenty-five years ago. If I were to participate in playing, say, Seventh Sea again, especially with the group size we had (eight or nine players), then I'd latch onto precisely these DragonQuest rules for what we needed most.

    Granted, these exact rules are more than a little militaristic, so I bet if a bunch of us examined their functions, and tried them in play, than a whole bunch of diverse procedures might occur to individuals among us which could well serve for current game design.

  4. This gives me a better idea

    This gives me a better idea what murk is. I'll see if I can make time to GM a game of D&D "as played in 1977"–maybing this summer.

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