Homebrew RPG Nostalgia

My annual summer trip to the distant wilds of Ayrshire often serves up odd bouts of nostalgia for people and events that are long since gone.  The dog days of early August tend to summon up memories of the last few days of the summer holidays, and the impending return to school.

They also remind me of The Dragon Lords.

It may sound like some kind of teenage club, but The Dragon Lords was, or perhaps I suppose is, a role playing game written by Martin Shaw who was a good friend of mine at school. I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, mainly due to a falling out we had, and my own foolish pride.The whole thing was originally written out in pencil, by Martin, in one of those hardbound A4 notebooks that inexplicably cost about a fiver nowadays. I’ve no idea how long he had been working on it before I first laid eyes on it, but from the amount of writing in that notebook of his I would say a long time.

Mark Scott, another friend of mine, who I’ve also not spoken to in a long time, also contributed a large amount of the work. Mark was also the one that convinced a friendly, if highly strung, tech studies teacher to allow him to type the thing up over the course of the summer holidays. Unusually, but perhaps not at that time, it was written up on an Acorn A3000 computer using a clunky word processor/desktop publishing program that I can’t remember the name of. I’m not entirely sure when the thing was written as time does funny things to memory, but I’d hazard a guess at it being around the mid nineties. More than likely 1994 or 1995.

Between the two of them they did a lot of work, Martin especially, and I sketched up a few maps of continents on A3 stolen from the tech studies cupboard. I also slowly, but surely created a sort of encyclopaedia of monsters and enemies that I kept in a bulging ring binder. Most of them were taken and adapted from the pages of Out of the Pit the bestiary for Advanced Fighting Fantasy, but there were a few original ones in there. Honest.

The Dragon Lords as a game was heavily influenced by Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Not the more recent D20 style system, but the original version. Martin’s elder brothers were big RPG and table top gaming enthusiasts. It was through playing with them, and through reading their copies of the first edition AD&D rules that he first conceived the idea of The Dragon Lords. It was fairly rules heavy, but not as bad as AD&D itself, and relied on a lot of D100 rolls and other obscure combinations. There were, as was the fashion then, lots of tables and modifiers to determine the outcome of events. Mark contributed a list of spells, with quite a few that departed from the norm, and there was even a fully featured price list for adventuring goods.

In those days before desktop laser printers, and duplex printing, we had to print each page by hand in an inkjet printer. Seeing as we were using a school inkjet to print the book producing even a single complete copy was a major undertaking that had to be done through stealth and subterfuge. I think eventually we had to sneak into the tech studies class and print five or ten pages at a time between classes. Then when the ink suddenly ran out someone else would get the blame, and a new cartridge would be installed in time for us to print the next batch. It was a slow, and laborious process. Nowadays with the laser printer sitting next to me I could spit out the whole hundred odd pages of the book in about three minutes, and in much higher quality, but I don’t think it would have the same feel as the originals.

We never really had any specific plans for The Dragon Lords, but there was always that nebulous teenage naivety that we might be “discovered” and “make it big” through creating it. At one point we even tried to sell copies through a gaming shop in Edinburgh’s High Street. Mark took a few copies with him when he was going through for some reason, and he handed them in. I think we even managed to sell one to a curious punter, but we never heard any more from that. I don’t know how many copies Mark gave to that shop, but they probably cost us far more to produce than we would ever have made from selling them. It’s likely we would have fallen at the first hurdles anyway. The RPG industry was moving away from the rules heavy systems like AD&D in favour of more streamlined systems like Storyteller system that White Wolf used for their World of Darkness games. The industry was also undergoing a sort of collapse with many smaller companies going under, and a lot of larger ones as well. Even TSR, the giant of the genre, had been bought over and subsumed by Wizards of the Coast. It was like aspiring to be a computer game writer on the eve of the great Video Game Crash of the 1980’s. Worse, the name “The Dragon Lords”, proved to be an exceptionally popular moniker for fantasy related products as a simple Google search shows.

I’ve still got the only, to my knowledge at least, printed copy of the rulebook in existence. Carefully secreted away inside one of the wooden chests that I use to store a lot of my old stuff. It’s a bit scuffed, and the back page has gotten a bit mangled over time, but apart from a few cosmetic marks it’s still in excellent condition. I’m hoping to raid a scanner from somewhere in the near future and immortalise the game in digital format. It took up a lot of my time, especially during my adolescence, so it seems important to preserve it somehow.

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