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Council of Wyrms

My friend Jen dropped off another load of old RPG supplements yesterday, rather than hawk them on Ebay or simply trash them. I’m happy to have them, even the old D&D stuff.

I say “old D&D stuff” as an insult out of habit, and, in my defense, most of it is quite dreadful. Witness the “Best of the Dragon” (1985), including a two-page article on determining the weight of a giant. How likely are you to need to work that out, or any equally obscure information, like a random table to generate colors for mutants in Metamorphosis Alpha, a game out of print when I started the hobby in 1980, to justify lugging that kind of dead weight around? But even those articles beat the self-inflated screeds in which the sainted Gary Gygax announces ex cathedra that all forms of roleplaying are inferior to his own. The articles seem to be the “best of” only in the sense of being nearest to hand when someone reached blindly into the filing cabinet.

But even TSR can surprise, and even show innovation from time to time. Jen also bequeathed to me the first book of Council of Wyrms, a ruleset from TSR that purports to allow you to play dragons in an island chain where dragons are the undisputed masters of creation and de facto kings of whatever elves and dwarves and gnomes happen to live in their personal territory. Disputes over territory and pecking order are the basic elements of the campaign, settled by monstrous might or serpentine guile or even your hapless humanoid minions.

I can’t tell how good the game is, because I only have the first of three books, and that the least informative, treating the mechanics of character creation in a fashion disappointingly similar to the mechanics of creating a more ordinary humanoid PC in a more ordinary D&D game. The distinguishing features are to be found in book two, which describes the world and dragon society, and book three, offering adventure ideas. Probably not my cup of tea, but full marks to TSR for actually venturing into radically new territory, here. Starting play with god-like power? Enjoying a personal army as a sort of plaything? I mean, the very idea that treasure would be a status symbol alone, and not the means to buy ever deadlier weapons must have burned out a few of the founders’ synapses, those who hadn’t already been eased from the TSR offices.

Gygax created the hobby, with a lot of input from James Ward, and deserves a mountain of credit for that. But, having got the ball rolling, his ego and his attachment to the earliest form of roleplaying—not to mention his eagerness to sue every small press competitor—did a lot of harm to the industry, and ultimately to TSR as well. By the publishing of Council of Wyrms in 1994, TSR was already on the financial ropes, losing market share as a new generation of gamers didn’t automatically start with D&D, and therefore didn’t automatically presume that D&D was How To Roleplay. White Wolf was a rising star staking out new territory among more narrative-minded players, and GURPS was often the starting point for more traditional adventure games. By the time TSR realized it needed to adapt or die, it was too late; it died, bought by WotC.

In that window between its status of ossified hegemony and ultimate fall, desperation sparked some interesting new ideas at TSR—or perhaps desperation simply broke through the arch-conservative dike that had been holding them back. Either way, it’s a shame that talent never properly got a chance to shine. Who knows what conceptual treasures were crushed between TSR’s old guard and the assault of roleplaying’s avant garde?

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