I purchased Dragons at Dawn sight unseen because it purported to be a descendant of Dave Arneson's work, drawn from the 16-page manuscript Arneson submitted to Gary Gygax when Dungeons & Dragons was still in its formative stages. I was hoping to get some insight into the formative work of Arneson, more along the lines of Jon Peterson's efforts with Playing at the World, but that's not Dragons at Dawn's focus. Dragons at Dawn draws from:
...his First Fantasy Campaign(TM) (Judges Guild, 1977), his other writings and statements, and the statements of all original players of his Twin Cities campaign.
...classic fantasy roleplaying in the style of Dave Arenson rather than Dave Arneson's classic rules for fantasy roleplaying.
Anyone who wants more details is advised to consult the ODD74 discussion board.
Although this is an introduction to Arneson's style of play, it is not an introductory game. Character traits (Appearance, Brains, Cunning, Dexterity, Health, and Strength) are explained after classes, which makes for some confusing reading. Traits are created by rolling 2d6 and subtracting 2 from the result, with an opportunity to reroll the lowest score if the total number is less than 36. This section also references "Trait Throws," which are what 5th Edition D&D would introduce as Ability Saves.
Education covers skills. It essentially provides a bonus of 1 to 5 to any roll, although the bonus has to make sense. Again, this is the direction 5th Edition took with less emphasis on skill names and more on applying a bonus to a generic set of circumstances via the Proficiency Bonus.
The game system consists of Basic and Expanded versions. In Basic, representing Arneson's campaign in 1971, there are two classes (warrior, wizard). In Expanded, representing Arneson's campaign between 1971 and 1975, there are five (Elf Mage, Merchant, Priest/Monk, Sage, and Thief/Assassin). There are also four races: elf, dwarf, halfling, and human. Some of the old bugaboos of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are there -- halflings can't have higher than a 7 Strength score or lower than a 6 Dexterity, while Dwarves may never have a Health of less than 7. Interestingly enough, halflings are lucky and can reroll one saving throw a day -- a choice also made in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Harking back to the Original Dungeons & Dragons, there's an "everything else" category of play, with rules that the normal Hit Dice of the monster should be cut in half to reflect a 1st-level character.
After a dialogue about cooperative vs. competitive play, there's the classes themselves. Of note is that Warrior and Wizard references the term "hero" and "superhero" (phrases used in Chainmail) as "name" level abilities. Fighters have an ability similar to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fighters vs. low level monsters in which they get a number of attacks equal to their level -- in this case, damage is inflicted equally amongst all opponents within 10 feet -- if all opponents in range are killed, he gets another attack on an opponent within 20 feet. It's similar to the 3.5 Cleave feat, only much more powerful.
Merchants are an interesting class that takes the role of a bard in a party -- a negotiator working on intimidation and diplomacy when monsters are parleyed with. Complicated rules for persuasion are laid out, along with a side note that merchants create their own factories (but no rules for how this might work). Priests are divine casters and monks have the ability to turn away undead, which is directly tied to the morale rules. They can also do things like kill someone with a death curse and revivify a corpse.
Sages are another curious class that has the ability to know stuff as well as inflict curses on enemies. It also illustrates one of the challenges with these types of rules -- anyone can inflict a curse, but those rules are buried in a class ability. Similarly, anyone can turn undead, but you'll only find that in the priest/monk description. The thief/assassin is pretty much what it says on the tin: stealing and backstabbing (inflicting triple damage). And oh yeah, anyone can cast a spell. Speaking of spells, elfin magic uses spell points (a bit of the sorcerer vs. wizard style of 3.5 play).
The game's scale is 1 inch to 10 yards, which is a much larger scale than the typical 1 inch equals 5 feet. There are also combat matrixes that go all the way back to the original D&D boxed set. Combat is an 11-step process (e.g., modifiers include size, dexterity, level, etc.).
Overall, this is something of a hodgepodge of rules that may or may not reflect the original intent of Arenson's game. Purists who are looking for Arneson's original game will find that Dragons at Dawn does its best to fill in the blanks, but when it fills in those blanks we have to trust the author. There are occasional asides as why certain decisions were made while in other places there are no quotes from Arneson or explanations. Conversely, players who want to play old school style have many other choices to choose from that are better laid out, with more streamlined rules. Dragons at Dawn is somewhere in-between a scholarly work and a playable game: a compromise between slavishly adhering to what Arneson envisioned (if indeed, anyone can definitively say what that was) and a streamlined out-of-the-box role-playing game.
And yet despite its flaws, it's undeniable that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons went back to its roots in taking some of the very same ideas present in Dragons at Dawn and applying them to modern play. There's much to learn from Dragons at Dawn -- but your mileage may vary in how much.
Want more? Subscribe to this column; follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar. Become an Examiner and get paid to write today!