Dragon Pass: Monsters and Angels

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Dragon Pass Game

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When I was about 8 years old I found an old book at a book sale called "What is Dungeons and Dragons". It described some bizarre sort of game where the players wandered about being minor heroes in some Tolkeinesque fantasy world, which sounded like it might be fun. But right at the back of the book was the passing mention of something that sounded even better - a game where the players got to be god-like rulers over tribes of bizarre and frightful creatures such as sentient pumpkins,  mutated bats and talking duck warriors. As a result of that book I ended up playing D&D - it was my introduction to hobby games. But what I really wanted to play was that other game. That other game was Dragon Pass.

It took my about fifteen years to realise that ambition. By the time I got into fantasy boardgames thoroughly enough to hunt down and buy a copy the game was long out of print. But I eventually did find and purchase a copy – un-punched as it turned out - and, burning with desire I sat down to skim through the rules and almost gave up then and there. But I persevered, and in due time, I was rewarded.

Dragon Pass is a fantasy wargame in the truest sense of the word - the basic mechanics are all very much the bread-and-butter of hex and counter wargamers. Units move around on a map covered by terrain symbols, form stacks and attack each other by totalling up attack and defence factors, applying terrain modifiers, working out a ratio and then throwing the dice and looking up the results on a combat resolution table. Archers take the place of heavy weapons, firing into combats to disrupt and weaken enemy units and magicians take the place of artillery, sending "spirits" far across the map into combats to add their attack and defence factors to those of the participants. There's even a kind of spirit-vs-spirit combat which could be seen as counter-battery fire. The only unusual rule in the basic mechanics is "defensive doubling" which means that any defending units which survive an attack get to instantly counter-attack at double strength. Which means an attacker had better be damn sure of causing massive casualties before he wades in. So far, aside from the fantasy unit names, so ordinary.

Those basic system rules take up maybe six pages of the dreadfully written, impenetrable rulebook. But the entire rules run to a massive thirty pages. So what's in the rest? Scenarios? Well yes, but they only take up another few pages. There's also a nifty set of diplomatic rules concerning the recruiting of neutral units for a couple more. The remainder is taken up by descriptions of the powers of all the non-standard combat units in the game, known as "exotics". There are a lot of them. And they take up a lot of rules. The dwarf and his strange and grotesque cannon-cult. Sir Ethelrist and his cloak of Shadows. And of course the dreadful Crimson Bat (whose counter I use as my avatar), who can destroy counters on a whim every single turn without picking up a dice but who has to be fed huge numbers of units every turn to keep him satisfied - and he cares not whether they're enemy units or friendly ones. There are also heroes and superheroes, single counters who are the combat equivalents of five or six elite units.

These add an absurd amount of detail to the game. They also add an incredible amount of confusion, colour and randomness. In short, they absolutely make the game what it is. How do you plan tactics against a creature like the Doom Hound who can run through an entire line of hexes and destroy everything in its path, no questions asked? Well, often the game will challenge you to do just that - and whether you believe the result adds tactical depth or whether you think it results in a chaotic, random game over-burdened with rules is entirely up to you. The truth is that it's both at once. I've come to see Dragon Pass as a poster child for everything which is both great and dreadful about Ameritrash games. If you play the full game scenario it'll probably take you an entire day, much of which will be time spent flicking through the rulebook to remind yourself exactly what it is that all these fantastical units under your command actually do. The full game represents all the worst excesses of the genre - pages of rules are given over to situations that will probably never happen and strategy and balance will almost certainly get totally buried in the mish-mash of huge number of super-powered exotics charging around the map slaying anything in their path. But the sense of fantasy, of creativity, of otherness, of myth and story that the game creates is, as a result, absolutely palpable. Who can forget Beat-Pot Aelwrin, the kitchen servant armoured in pans and armed with a cleaver who ventures out to do battle and becomes a hero? Or the full moon corps who descend from the red moon to defend their homeland when the need arises? The depth and uniqueness of the Gloranthan setting seeps through every counter, every dice roll, and every push of a stack across the board and it could not do so were it not for that morass of exceptions and special rules. And yet the game is, by many modern standards, virtually unplayable. What's a gamer to do?

Fortunately the game provides an answer. It's a simple, but effective answer. At the back of that monster rulebook, hidden away are those few pages of scenarios we mentioned earlier. There's quite a few of them if you flick through - far more than you'd expect to find in a historical wargame of a similar scale. And each one gets slowly bigger and more complex. The first gives each player a few units of infantry and cavalry. The second gives you different basic units and adds archers. The third offers magicians and the fourth onward give you different combinations of exotics to play with, all the way up to the full game with its mind-boggling array of choices. There's even a three-player scenario. So the choice is yours. You can buy this game and play as many 1-2 hour scenarios with a limited counter mix as you like. Or you can slowly build up rules and play time until you're ready to spend a whole day playing through the entire campaign hopefully in the process either learning to use those exotics properly or coming to accept that they way they can torpedo carefully considered strategies in an instant is just a part and parcel of the charm of the game.

The game offers more answers in the form of optional rules. By far the most important of these is the concept of fog-of-war. You can, if you wish, play with hidden stacks - your opponent can't look through what you've got stacked together but can only see what's on the top. The presence of the exotics in the game means that playing with hidden stacks can become a complete farce - you'll drop your most powerful magical attack onto an enemy stack only to discover that unbeknown to you your enemy has squirreled away in there the only single other unit on the board that can counter your offense. There's quite a lot of these "uber-powerful but with one weakness" units in the game so this can become a real problem. Or is it just that you've been the victim of some clever strategic bluff? Over-random mess or cunning psychological warfare? Again - it's left up to the gamer to decide because in a manner which would be totally frowned upon in a modern title the precise "optionality" of this rule is never made clear - the game states you can use one or the other, but doesn't tell the players which is "officially" the "best". Personally I like playing with open stacks, as not only do I not really buy the bluff bit but it helps resolve some other minor rules inconsistencies. But I also like the way the rules treat gamers like grown-ups and allows them to explore the game and decide for themselves which options and play styles suit them the best.

One thing I do have to call out is the concept of the saving throw. Heroes and superhero units can sometimes, if killed, simply come back from the dead, fresh as a daisy and with no wounds or extra weaknesses, governed by the throw of a single, unmodified dice. These units are extremely powerful - perhaps the most powerful on the board. In addition to their astonishing combat prowess they also have the ability to shield units stacked with them from the effects of malevolent spirits and spells. Leaving the fate of a destroyed hero entirely up to the whims of fate is not, in my opinion, acceptable - these units are of such importance that the survival or otherwise of one can swing a game one way or the other, making the saving roll a genuine instance of an entire game being decided by the single roll of a dice. That's not good even in a short scenario. In a long one, it's entirely out of order. It's easily fixed with a house rule mind - you can ignore the saving throws altogether, replace or them with a "points" system. But I'm still surprised those rules made it into the game unmodified.

The presence of so many powerful heroes and exotics for whom a counter represents an individual or a tiny group means that sessions of Dragon Pass often manage that rare feat of feeling like epic adventures set against the background of a much wider conflict. The only other game I know of that can boast this ability is War of the Ring. It adds hugely to the narrative potential of the game to be able to think of it not only in terms of the movement of armies around the board but in terms of the travels and actions of individual heroes.

I'm fascinated by this game on so many levels its untrue. I'm fascinated by the way that it indirectly reached out to me and drew me into the gaming hobby. I'm fascinated by the world of Glorantha, one of the few fantasy creations that has managed to almost entirely bypass the influence of Tolkien. I'm fascinated by the incredible stories about Glorantha that Dragon Pass allows the players to tell to each other as they play. But most of all I'm fascinated by how this, a game originally published under the name White Bear, Red Moon 5-10 years before the heyday of Ameritrash in the mid-eighties, can contain within itself the seeds of both the destruction of the genre and its rebirth. Everything that made so many late-era Ameritrash games truly awful is here - the bloated rules, extended play time, disregard for balance, situations where an entire game can shift away from the control of the players on a whim of fate. All the stuff that lead to gamers abandoning the rubbish that publishers were churning out at the time and going instead to embrace the first games making it across the Atlantic from Germany. But look under the hood and you'll see everything they started to miss a few years later - the excitement, the stories, the immersion, the open and adult choices on offer both in rules application and strategic play and most of all the incredible sense of being another person in another time and place.

So is Dragon Pass a great game? No. I pull it out only occasionally. And I'm not the best person to offer an objective opinion on the game, biased as I am by the fact that it was my "gateway" into the hobby (ever wondered where the DP in my nickname comes from?). But though not a great game, it is certainly a good one, certainly worth trawling through at least enough rules to play the lighter scenarios and certainly capable of offering some great experiences and some important lessons for future designers about what Ameritrash should be and what it should not. I've never played the full campaign game. I doubt I ever will. But whether you ever play this game, short scenario or long, or even whether you ever get to see a copy this game deserves a small place in your hearts - Dragon Pass is the very essence of the Ameritrash dream.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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