My primary blogging focus for this site is the “Good, Fast, Cheap” roleplaying game and documenting its development. This is the first journal entry in that series.
In order to understand a primary driving force behind “Good, Fast, Cheap” and why I try to design games at all, I need to introduce you to DragonRaid.
No, that’s not Dungeons and Dragons, or DragonStrike or even Dragon’s Gold. It’s DragonRaid and I have an epic love-hate relationship with this game that would inspire bards to song if they only knew.
I’m willing to bet no more than one of you has ever heard of DragonRaid( I totally played that –ed. ). If you have, you are my type of guy or gal and I want to buy you a cookie. For the rest of you (who are still cool and likely cookie-worthy), here’s the basic premise:
DragonRaid was the first (and as far as I know only) tabletop RPG meant to teach Christian discipleship. Players take on the role of LightRaiders, journeying into the dangerous and deadly DragonLands to show the enslaved peoples (aptly named DragonSlaves) the light of the OverLord of Many Names. Once converted, the LightRaiders would lead the newly freed “TwiceBorn” back into the Liberated Lands and to safety. Along the way, the LightRaiders face deceit, temptation and outright violence at the hands of the Grand Dragon’s personal army of Dark Creatures.
(The game is totally late ‘80s/early ‘90s as evidenced by the DualCapitalized CompoundNames.)
This is the game that got me back into gaming after some years of absence, mostly because I was able to convince my mom that it was about Jesus and stuff. I tried to run the game for my circle of friends for both fun and evangelism, but it didn’t work too well. I accept some of the blame for that failure. I’ve never been a particularly good evangelist. Then again, this isn’t a particularly good game either.
In some ways, DragonRaid was ahead of its time. It attempted to employ some innovative mechanics with various degrees of success. First, it used non-standard, persona-based stats: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self-Control. There were also Strength and Agility stats, but they weren’t nearly as meaningful. At a time when all the ‘secular’ games were still hellbent on measuring your intelligence, attractiveness and carrying capacity this was new and refreshing. The stats were even leveraged in what might be identified today as a sort of prototypical Compel system, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Second, it codified experience points for role-playing. Sure you’d get some experience for battling the demon but not nearly as much as if you convinced your friend to tell the truth in an awkward situation or refrained from stealing the obviously unguarded shiny object. Show a repentant enemy mercy? Have some points toward Love. Refute the troll’s blasphemy? Here’s a few experience into Faithfulness.
Finally, the “magic” system. Of course “magic” equals “witchcraft” so the LightRaiders didn’t actually do magic. However, they had WordRunes – little snippets and verses of Scripture they could quote from memory for supernatural benefit. Since the verse had to match the effect, you ended up with a “spell list” that was VERY different that what you’d get in D&D or Storyteller. Some of it was your standard “create food and water” and “find the right path stuff;” others were utterly unique. The Possibility WordRune summoned a mirror that, when gazed into, would show you and your friends some part of the Overlord’s life plan for you. The Sea of Faith TeamRune (some had to spoken by the whole group at once) calmed storms and waves. One of my favorites, if for no other reason than being really weird, was the Food Unbinding WordRune which cured someone of the desire to overeat. Point being, “magic” wasn’t Vancian – it was always available to all characters and that was amazing.
Turns out a lot of what I explained for Good also counts for Bad. The ‘compel’ mechanic I mentioned above was really awkward and ham-fisted. If one of your stats wasn’t high enough in a certain situation, you would automatically succumb to some temptation and your party would have to rescue you. (“Your Self-Control is only a 3, eh? Guess you’re downing that whole bottle of Friendship Juice!”) Then, because you did the bad thing, even though the game forced you to, you were docked experience points. You could usually make up for it by reciting WordRunes down the road (which also netted experience for you), but it felt really forced.
The WordRune system became bland quickly once you got past the first set of utility WordRunes. Most of them were “add two to a stat,” “reduce damage from this dragon’s breath by 5” or “reduce the power of this Dark Creature’s sin enchantment (don’t even ask) by three.” Also, your secondary skills like swimming, detecting evil and tracking enemies had weird equations (“2 Goodness + 1 Joy + 1 Love + 1 Self Control / 5”) so even though the battle math was gone, there was still a ton of non-combative math. Good ideas badly executed.
The morality decisions…. Lord, help me the morality decisions were TERRIBLE. “Cardboard” doesn’t begin to describe it. F’rinstance in the first module, a well-dressed goblin or something shows up in a cave and tries to distract you from your mission by offering you tickets to a private beach somewhere. If you take the tickets – game over! Later, you run into a giant who offers you alcohol (Friendship Juice) and you are IMMEDIATELY punished if you so much as TOUCH it. I personally don’t drink, but come on, really? No sense of moderation? ::sigh:: Others are just wildly obtuse. A squirrel drops pinecones on you and you get experience as long as you don’t attack the squirrel or complain. You run into a guy wandering the world who compliments you for seemingly being independent and making your own way. You have to explain that not only are you actually in service to the Overlord of Many names but you must also try to convince him that in being a ‘free man’ he is in fact slave to his own selfish desires and thus ultimately the evil Grand Dragon. I could never get my players on board with these scenes though now that I’m older I don’t feel so bad about it.
As a lesser point, rescuing the Dragon Slaves had a funky mechanic as well. You had to be able to recite five specific Bible verses correctly, with chapter and verse number, in order. That was it. No attention to the character’s motives or family or the repercussions of conversion.. nothing. I thought it would be that easy in real life. Turns out it’s not that easy at all. Thanks for nothing, DragonRaid.
DragonRaid showed me that a role-playing game could do more than entertain – it could teach. It provided a safe environment, allowing you to make decisions and try things you would normally never attempt. RPGs could explore the nature of what is and what should be in a way that books could never do because books don’t respond to you. For as long as I’ve been gaming, I’ve looked back at DragonRaid with both fondness and consternation and thought ‘maybe someday I can fix it. I can make it live up to the potential buried within.’ Every half-finished game on my hard drive (now my Google Drive) has some small nod to DragonRaid; “Good, Fast, Cheap” is no exception.
Where DragonRaid ultimately failed for me was the lack of sacrifice. Martin Luther traced all vice back to idolatry; I trace all virtue back to self-sacrifice. When I choose to tell the truth in a hard situation, I sacrifice my chance to make a clean escape. When I’m faithful to my wife, I sacrifice the chance to enjoy other partners. When I refrain from stealing, I sacrifice an opportunity to get ahead in life or enjoy some luxury I didn’t earn. DragonRaid never really asked the LightRaiders to sacrifice. “Good, Fast, Cheap” does. While the game is religiously and spiritually agnostic, I want the constant stream of judgement calls – what is important and what can be sacrificed – to be the core play experience.
Who knows? Maybe when this is all done, I can show it to the folks over at Adventure Learning System, Inc. and we can do this thing the right way. Maybe. There’s still a long road ahead and where it leads, I do not know.