Monday, June 24, 2013

Homebrewing and the Tabletop Origins of King of Dragon Pass

Rereading this morning the interview I did with David Dunham, the creator of the brilliant King of Dragon Pass (after blogging for five years I find myself forgetting the details of my own copy), it struck me that one of the things—besides the charming hand-drawn artwork, deep setting and challenging game play—that makes the game great and not just merely good is that it evolved in part out of two creative DIY-tinkering tabletop campaigns.
Clan Raiding scene [Source: King of Dragon Pass wiki]
If you remember (or if you are just tuning in) Dunham had played in the 90s in “The Taming of Dragon Pass”, a tabletop campaign run by Jeff Richards, chief editor of Glorantha's most recent home Moon Design Publications. That campaign ran off a home-brewed system called PenDragon Pass, a hack of Pendragon rpg and Runequest. (You can check out a partial version here on Dunham's website and a full version in Enclosures #1 if you are lucky bastard)

Mash-up seems inadequate, synthesis is the better word, as Pendragon Pass takes an unusual campaign premise, modeling small-scale “domain game” activity centuries before the usual Glorantha canonical setting, bending the elements of the two games with a great array of new subsystems and variant rules.

Here is a whole mini-game on cattle raiding, there an adaption of the Arthurian traits and glory system to a more organically Gloranthan system. You have the grafting simplified RQ magic system and the generations-long saga system of Pendragon noble family life into an Orlanthi clan system.

There's a simplified variant skill system working off of a d20 with a new skills appropriate to the colonizing/warring backdrop. The Enclosure version (yes, I know a lucky bastard) has a tight, interesting character generation system, an exploration mini-game and a bunch of other lovable chrome.

Fans of the computer game may recall a scene when some pre-Roman looking Briton types, exotic but still Orlanthi tribesmen from the distant west, come rolling up in open-walled chariots. That scene seems to be a bit of an easter egg homage to an East Ralios campaign by Dunham again using PenDragon Pass with further customization to fit the particular cultural and religious features of that other region.

Both accounts fire all my gaming pistons and strike me as a fully-realized vision of the kind of backwards engineering that me and my comrades in the DIY wing of the so-called OSR love to do: take crazy, individualized worldbuilding visions and bend, break and mutilate all the elements of our favorite games until they fit. (Sometimes the process works exactly in the opposite direction, with the mad tinkering informing the shape of the world, but I think you get my drift.)

That kind of spirit—when it works at the table—can create a vitality and freshness to the game. Further having some roots in the open “who knows what's going to happen” kind of play that is more typical of tabletop than that of the storyboarding lock-step of most modern crpgs grown purely in staff meetings.

Or maybe I'm just rationalizing breaking my self-imposed ban on computer games (again) as I fire up the PC version for the umpteenth time?  


  1. Now I have to see if I can find my copy of Dragon Pass.

    1. It's available at Great Old Games ( for cheap, and it's a legitimate product.

    2. Whoops. I was talking about King of Dragon Pass. My mistake.

  2. If you haven't tried the iPad version of this game, go for it. Its also quite awesome.

  3. I have spent ridiculous amounts of hour playing the game on my Iphone.