Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dragon Fist Reconsidered

Before I try to deconstruct Flying Swordsmen to point out what I think I did right, what I think I did wrong, and what I was sure was a good idea at the time but turned out to be not so good after all, I thought I'd go back and discuss the game I was cloning first.

Dragon Fist, if you don't know (and that's highly likely), was a free modification of 2E AD&D by Chris Pramas, who later founded Green Ronin and became one of the superstars of the d20 boom.  WotC didn't want to publish it as 3E was in the works, so they released it as a series of free downloads (one PDF per chapter, plus TOC, character sheet, an appendix and a single adventure module) through their web site.  This was back in late 1999 or early 2000.

The game comes in at around 128 pages not counting the adventure module.  Despite the length, the rules are VERY cut down from standard AD&D.  There's a lot of white space on each page, and a lot of description (or fluff, if you prefer that term).  And it's the fluff that really sold me on the game, although the novel mechanics also helped.

So what's Dragon Fist about?  It's a game of wuxia action, inspired by Hong Kong cinema.  It is class and level based, with Vancian magic, AC and HP, d20 to hit combat, all the basics of D&D.  But the theme is mystical ancient China, with martial artist heroes facing off against the soldiers, sorcerers, monsters and demons of the corrupted mad Emperor Jianmin. 

What I instantly liked about DF's mechanics was the Stunt Die system.  In order to get a bonus from an ability score, you had to choose which ability and roll a die to determine a random bonus.  You could only roll one of them each round in combat, so there were trade-offs between better hit/damage (Str), AC/ranged (Dex), temporary hit points and poison saves (Con), a floating bonus to use on any one roll (Int), initiative and magic saving throws (Wis), or reaction rolls and charm saving throws (Cha). 

Also, each class (the basic 4 from D&D) had two or three kits that not only allowed you to customize your character a bit, but also were loaded with setting information, as each one represented an organization within the campaign.

Then there were the Martial Arts Maneuvers.  These were special abilities (similar to feats in soon to be released 3E) that you could choose as you gained levels to further customize your character.  Each, of course, had a colorful name that you could shout out as you used it, just like in the movies!

Setting-wise, the world of Tianguo was only fleshed out at a skeletal level in the first chapter, but the game gave you an appropriate villain to fight (Emperor Jianmin), advice for structuring a campaign that would lead to a face-off with the emperor eventually, and just enough hints to make the game feel like it would be a blast to play through all 10 levels.  Well, actually only seven levels, since PCs started at level 3 in order not to suck at first.  It's hard to feel like a bad-ass martial arts hero with only one hit die, one special maneuver, and maybe one spell.

I liked the game a lot, although I only got to run it twice ever.  When 3E Oriental Adventures came out, I did some conversions of the Dragon Fist kits to 3E prestige classes and some monster conversions as well.  They were well received by the WotC forum community.  When BFRPG, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord became big deals, that inspired me to work on giving this game its own retro-clone.

What did Dragon Fist do wrong?  Well, the lack of company support didn't help.  WotC released it for free, and did have posts on their main page advertising it.  But there was little support for a game based on the soon to be "obsolete" (from their perspective) 2E rules.  And when Pramas got the rights to the game back from WotC, he made a lot of promises to re-do the game and re-release it through Green Ronin, but that project died a sudden death.

Within the game itself, there are some clunky mechanics and some unnecessary hold-outs from AD&D (damage vs. man sized/large opponents, for example).  The game gives plenty of wuxia flavor, but for someone who hasn't watched a lot of HK cinema or without much background in Chinese history/culture, the game might not resonate enough for a GM to build up that suggested campaign against Emperor Jianmin. 

And the game is high on action, but has no built in mechanics or XP rewards for playing up the human drama side of wuxia.  Sure, you could easily build up a campaign arc around trying to find the enemy martial arts master who killed your teacher in a duel or dealing with a jilted lover turned vengeful or seeking to master the secret technique that only your evil older brother knows because he killed the master who taught him, but there's nothing in the game to suggest that you should (rather than just killing monsters or storming the garrison in the next city to get to the magistrate who can lead to the deputy minister who can lead to the minister who can lead to emperor Jianmin).

To sum up, Dragon Fist gives us a game with mostly familiar mechanics but a few novelties to fit the genre.  It gives us a suitable campaign and setting, but with limited replayability.  It gives all sorts of genre flavor (probably the strongest point of the game), but only really delivers a game that can play one style within that genre.


  1. When you told me earlier that Flying Swordsmen was based off Dragon Fist, I spent some time looking for the DF PDFs in order to compare the original with your "knock-off." Unfortunately, I was unable to find them (WotC referred me to Green Ronin where nothing was available).

    Your summary is very helpful...and actually makes it sound like a pretty cool variation (rules-wise) from "straight D&D." I'd still like to read your planned follow-up post (specifically regarding Flying Swordsmen), but now I have a much better idea of where you were coming from when you wrote it.


  2. Follow up post is coming soon, but not tonight. Just got done with a full day (9am to 8pm) at the new university job. First day on the job actually. Not in the mental head-space to write a post. Maybe tomorrow.

    Anyway, if you want the originals, I've got them. I could email them to you if you want.

  3. @ Dennis:

    Not right now! I've got too many emails to look through as it is! However, I think Flying Swordsmen is pretty hip, and it's obviously a "labor of love" so I'm happy to offer what support I can.

    Get some rest, get your thoughts in order, and get your follow-up post. I'll be following and have comments to offer. For sure.
    : )

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  5. I really liked the need for players to describe a stunt to justify an ability bonus, some players hated it. I ran if a handfull of times as GammaFist and a coucoupleplayer thought it was the beeks knees whereas others liked to just add a bonus and not think.

  6. @ Dennis:

    Hey, man...I don't have your email address for contact. I've written up my design thoughts (comments and suggestions) for Flying Swordsmen, but I've got nowhere to send 'em. It's a little long for a straight "blog comment."

    You can contact me with YOUR contact info at:
    bxblackrazor AT gmail DOT com


  7. Cool. You can reach me at the_boy_from_illinois AT yahoo DOT com.

  8. Is there any way to get just a summary of that deconstruction? Flying Swordsmen was in the running for my next campaign, but I'd love to know about any particular issues or fixes.