The Burnt Offering

Here Be Dragons

UW41-small

The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private. 

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This story originally appeared in Unwinnable Weekly Issue Forty-One. If you enjoy it, consider subscribing!

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Karl is moving and doesn’t want to take his staggering collection of Dungeons & Dragons books with him, so he selling them off to friends. As I sifted through his seemingly endless listings on his Facebook page, I found a short note. It got my undivided attention: “I also have like 200+ Dragon magazines. Best offer takes them all.”

I used to have a bunch of Dragon Magazines, mostly from a couple years’ subscriptions while I was in high school in the mid-nineties. I lost them one traumatic day when my basement flooded. It was my own damn fault. They shouldn’t have been down there in the first place.

Late last year, I stumbled across a guy on eBay who was selling his collection of Dragons in two year sets. Each set was going for between twenty and thirty dollars – even without shipping, that was more than I could ever justify paying for a bunch of musty old magazines. I let them get away, but it has bugged me ever since. When was I ever going to get an opportunity to buy nearly every Dragon Magazine in one fell swoop like that again?

Karl was that second chance.

I offered him fifty bucks for the lot, expecting it to start a bidding war. I spoke to my long time D&D buddies, who agreed to throw in more cash if that would bring them home, just in case.

No one else said a word. Fifty bucks was the best offer.

When Karl said he was bringing the magazines to my house in six Tupperware bins, I began to wonder if I was mistaken as to just how much space 200 or so magazines takes up, or if Karl was a little off in his estimating.

There were actually in the neighborhood of 400 issues, many in triplicate. It took just shy of four hours to sort through and collate the gigantic mass of paper. My set runs from Issue 16 to Issue 282, with about twenty issues missing in between. I neatly filed them away in a stack of five archive boxes, each issue individually bagged and boarded. Karl kept his issues in immaculate condition. I aim to keep them that way.

* * *

The collection spans twenty-three years, from 1978 to 2001. In addition to being a month-to-month chronicle of the development of Dungeons & Dragons, it also provides a kind of geological strata of board games, videogames, fantasy, science fiction and all manner of fan communities as they developed from fringe hobby to commercial success to cultural mainstay.

Much of that plays out in the advertisements. Miniatures were big from the very beginning, with Ral Partha and Grenadier appearing in my earliest issues. There are ads for other RPG and strategy games, like Chaosium’s legendary RuneQuest and the omni-present RIFTS system from Paladium Games. VHS tapes are presented as cutting edge technology. Videogames come on cassette. As the years go by, the ads evolve from DIY photocopies to the same kind of slick designs you would see in the glossy videogame magazines of the late 90s. This is a culture’s life laid out in ad copy.

There are other oddities: rave reviews for novels that you’ve never heard of, fold-out board game prototypes, cardboard model castles, hobby shop indexes, programs for GenCons and ballots for ancient lifetime achievement awards. There are the endless arcane rules, the minutiae that reflect the priorities and interests and personalities of their authors, like Gygax’s own 13-page “Weather of Greyhawk” feature.

It isn’t a history, exactly, but rather, perhaps, an assembly of interesting, idiosyncratic artifacts. Here, then, are some interesting things my excavations have unearthed.

* * *

Issue 16

The bulk of the earliest issue I own, dated July 1978, is given over to articles exploring and expanding on the original 1974 “white box” edition of Dungeons & Dragons – a list of stats for Sumerian and Babylonian deities, rules for a ninja NPC class and a rumination on why mages and clerics aren’t allowed to use swords. It isn’t a zine, nor would I call it a magazine exactly. It is something in between, a kind of trade publication for enthusiasts clustered around a very small niche interest.

I hesitate to use the word enthusiast, these days it has a slightly negative connotation, particularly in gaming spheres. However, there is no better word for the people who wrote for Dragon Magazine in the early days. These articles spawned from ideas that they implemented in their home campaigns. They weren’t truly amateurs, because there was nary a professional game designer to be found at that point in time, at least in the contemporary sense of the title. This was an industry formed of self-described hobbyists, even the handful who were getting paid for their talents.

Issue 22

Despite the fact that both the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual were available for purchase, Issue 22 (February, 1979) marks the first mention I can find of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This consists of an editorial by Gary Gygax, the game’s designer, passionately arguing that the white box Dungeons & Dragons and AD&D were separate games that would continue to grow as the years wore on.

A preview of the forthcoming Dungeon Masters Guide follows. The DMG, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in general, exists in a kind of mental superposition for me. On one hand, I vividly remember the air of intrigue the game held for me as a child because of its remoteness and its nefarious reputation. On the other hand, I am deeply familiar with those books through years of use – there are few other books I know so intimately on a page-by-page basis.

AD&D exists in my head in both these states – mysterious and nearly memorized – simultaneously. To try and conceive of a world without the Dungeon Masters Guide, though, is entirely incomprehensible. It’s like trying to remember how you spent your time before you were born.

Issue 26

Four issues later, Gygax is attempting to quash a rebellion. Some players have taken umbrage at the introduction of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and fear it will replace regular old Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax makes his best effort to appease the critics, but I can sympathize with their frustration.

There were three editions of D&D available in 1979, in varying degrees of completeness. The original white box rules, first released in 1974, recently slipped out of print. Most Dragon Magazine articles published during the early days was supplemental to these difficult to understand rules.

1977 saw the release of the Basic Set, a revision of the original rules covering levels 1-3. After that point, presumably, players were encouraged to migrate to the increasingly scarce white box. An Expert Set wouldn’t see the light of day until 1981.

At the same time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons began rolling out, with the Monster Manual was released that year and the Players Handbook in 1978. At the time of the uprising, the Dungeon Masters Guide, arguably the most important of the three volumes, still was not on shelves.

So: a difficult, scarce set of rules, an incomplete revision of those rules and an incomplete and entirely new set of rules that are incompatible with the other two.

Interestingly, while Gygax never says the actual word “vocal minority,” he does characterize his critics as such, claiming that most players view the game as, “a pastime, not something to be taken seriously.” Considering the financial success the game would see in the coming years, Gygax was at least partly right.

There are two takeaways here. First: the people publishing Dungeons & Dragons had no idea what the hell they were doing. Second: a certain subset of game fans have always resisted change.

Issue 57

In January, 1982, Dungeons & Dragons was approaching its tenth year of existence, but in the eyes of the mainstream, it was still a relatively new hobby and one largely marketed to boys and men.

Through six years of publication, I only count three Dragon Magazine covers depicting scantily clad women (in all cases, apparently magic users of some kind). In fact, the first chainmail bikini cover girl doesn’t appear until 1986. Yet, the role of women players in the game was already a topic of debate.

Issue 57’s cover is curious even by the magazine’s conservative standards, depicting a woman knitting a blanket whose decorative creatures are coming to life as she finishes them. And while there’s no chainmail bikini on the cover, the “What’s New with Phil and Dixie” comic strip tackles how ridiculous such a costume is on every practical level.

Of most interest this issue is the op-ed by Roger E. Moore (future editor of Dragon Magazine) entitled, “Dungeons aren’t Supposed to be ‘For Men Only.’” It is, in turn, an expansion of an article from Issue 39 (which is sadly missing from my set) entitled, “Women Want Equality.”

Moore’s advice for making women players feel welcome is a strange thing and, at times, even hamfisted – his five paragraphs of suggestions for handling character pregnancies, for instance, could have been revised to say “perhaps don’t make pregnancy the subject of a heroic fantasy role-playing game.” The majority of the editorial is illuminating, though.

He opens by describing a particularly pathetic DM who had made all the non-player character women in his game with high charismas and low strengths so, “they’re easier to rape when their city gets conquered.” Moore goes on to condemn the use of rape as a plot point and dismisses the idea that rape is somehow a realistic detail for a medieval roleplaying setting (“Is your fantasy world also beset by inflation, high unemployment and racism to make it more real?”). He then hits male readers over the head with an obvious observation: women likely want to play Dungeons & Dragons for the same exact reasons men do, that is, to have fun playing a fantasy character who has major impact on a fantasy world.

Surprisingly, there are no outraged letters to the editor in subsequent issues, no protests, no claims of a censorious intention on Moore’s part.

It is at once dismaying to see how long this has been a problem, encouraging that people have been calling it out for just as long and yet upsetting to see how little progress we’ve made.

Issue 127

I had this issue when I was a kid – it was my first one. It boasts one of my very favorite covers – a band of orcs or hobgoblins, the last of a defeated army defiantly refusing to surrender to the elves that bested them. I was devastated when I accidentally stepped on it (it was on the floor of my bedroom, naturally) and the cover detached. Honestly, though, the cover of a Dragon Magazine will detach if you look at it funny.

At this point (1987), Dragon Magazine was at its best, a vibrant representation of everything the pen and paper role-playing game industry had become. The production quality was high and other games, videogames, novels, miniatures and products on the outskirts of RPGs were getting coverage. The bulk of the magazine was still dedicated to TSR’s products, but it never feels advertorial. Instead, it is a glimpse into the process of creating games, where ideas are presented and workshopped in a public forum. Some would find their way into later publications, others would vanish into history.

One thing that stuck with me all these years was the op-ed on Tucker’s Kobolds. Kobolds are little dog-headed goblins. They are generally vicious, but cowardly, creatures that never posed much trouble to even a first level party. That is, except for Tucker’s Kobolds, because Tucker was a particularly vicious Dungeon Master.

These bastards were cowardly, but clever. They turned their level of the dungeon into a death trap, fighting the party guerilla style every time they came and went from other levels. It didn’t matter what level the party was or how freshly prepared they were – the kobolds always ran havoc. You can smell the fear coming off Roger Moore’s prose.

The ideas behind Tucker’s Kobolds, which I read as a boy of nine years, have influenced every Dungeons & Dragons encounter I have ever run.

Issue 224

In 1989, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition came out (all at once, can you imagine?). While this edition is the one I played the most, the one I believe had the best and most varied ideas, there came with it a sense of desperation. TSR’s slate of publications was monstrous and by 1995, marred by many inferior products. It was obvious the company was trying to take in as much money as possible.

Dragon Magazine reflected that change. Where there used to be a sense of community, where ideas were discussed for their own sake, many stories now felt like marketing pitches, published to gauge interest in future products. Products from other companies, even in the book and videogame reviews, appeared less and less.

Issue 224 was the last issue before the magazine changed to a perfect-bound digest style publication. I had let my subscription lapse a few years earlier. In two years, TSR would be bankrupt, paving the way for Wizards of the Coast to buy the company and begin working on Third Edition.

Issue 282

The last issue I own is an April Fool’s Issue from 2001.

The cover illustration is focused mostly on the butt of a lady clad in a chainmail bikini. It is by the same cartoonist who did the cartoon back in 1982 and I want it to be some clever commentary on chainmail bikinis, but the fact remains that there is a giant butt sticking out of the cover.

The graphic design is dated. It feels more late 90s than it does early 2000s.

It is a year into Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and Wizards of the Coast was well on the way to the 3.5 revision – apparently, the desire to sell ever more books didn’t die with TSR.

Nothing about this issue interests me.

* * *

I have 259 issues of Dragon Magazine stacked in white archive boxes in my studio. I have no idea where I will store them. I don’t have shelf space for them. The attic, maybe? Will storing them up there be any different from not having them at all?

When Karl sold them to me, I was baffled. Why would anyone want to get rid of them? Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but they are heavy. A good part of that weight is psychological. They throw off my Feng Shui. I feel the weight of their history.

I understand why Karl sold them and I can imagine what it would feel like to be free of them again.

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