From the back of the box:
The designers of the Bard’s Tale series, Wasteland, and Battle Chess pooled their talents to create the ultimate role-playing fantasy. They knew it had to be a first-rate story with sophisticated graphics. The result was Dragon Wars.
Sailing across uncharted seas, you and your party are in search of a legendary paradise called Dilmun – a place where the streets are paved with gold and no one wants for anything.
However, King Drake of Phoebus has declared all magic illegal – magickers have been slain or fled into exile. In retaliation, enemy islands have threatened to unleash their guardian dragons, the most destructive force in the world. While docked at a harbor in Dilmun, you are arrested on suspicion of spellcasting.
Imprisoned and stripped of everything but your wits, you are sentenced to a life in a cesspool called Purgatory. Magic is your only salvation – a worldly possesion in a world possessed.
Dragon Wars was the third game released under Interplay Productions’ own label outside of EA. It was developed by many of the same people involved with the Bard’s Tale and Wasteland and as a result, shares many concepts and ideas from those titles within its design. It is also considered the spiritual successor to the Bard’s Tale series, even so far as being referred to by some accounts as Bard’s Tale IV, but because EA owned the rights to the name, Interplay had to create a new world from scratch. The box also featured art from artist Boris Vallejo with a poster copy inside and there were many references to Sumerian mythology within the game.
The game casts the player along with their party as prisoner exiles amidst the slums of the city of Purgatory. Originally on a pilgrimage to the land of Dilmun, the ship they were traveling on was immediately placed under arrest by the city when it came into port. The player and their party are among the lucky few not to be consigned as sacrifices to the dragons, but they are stripped of everything other than the rags on their backs and dumped into Purgatory’s streets to survive on their own wits. It is up to the player to somehow find a way to survive and escape Purgatory and eventually seek revenge against Namtar, the Beast From The Pit, who seeks to dominate the world of Oceana.
In the world of Dragon Wars, dragons are considered as a form of nuclear deterrence albeit with a fantasy flavor. City-states scattered across the island nations of Oceana each have a dragon within their walls, kept under lock and key and fed well to protect their city from all rivals. A sort of “Cold War” exists where the dragons are held back and to be used only as the final option in war. Part of the mystery is why the city-states haven’t yet used their dragons to strike back at Namtar’s aggression as a united front.
Many of the gameplay systems are a hybrid of ideas from both Wasteland and the Bard’s Tale. For example, while the game uses the ranged attack system present in both titles, it does not use classes and instead relies on the skill system first used by Interplay in Wasteland. The automapping feature used in titles such as Bard’s Tale III was also included.
The game also uses the grid-based, 3D system wherein the world is viewed from a first-person perspective with 90° turns and movement spaces similar to the Bard’s Tale series with a few cosmetic differences. Within the ever-present interface, on the upper left quadrant of the screen displayed the world with the party listed to the right along with any encounter messages and options. A text box on the bottom quadrant of the screen would display messages such as combat results. Random enemy encounters would provide combat opportunities within the game against mixed groups of foes. Hit and spell points are represented by bars instead of numbers.
Copy protection took the form of a series of paragraphs that served as descriptors for various areas within the game proper. When prompted, the player was asked to read the appropriate paragraph for the required information. This method had also been used in Wasteland.
The game challenged players immediately from the start. After character creation was completed and a party assembled, the player was tested to find a way to survive as they would start the game with nothing in their inventory.
As with most RPGs of this type, party setup and character selection were left entirely up to the player. If the player so chose to create a party of warriors, they could expect extreme difficulty ahead without a mage to help teleport them back home, out of a dungeon, or heal them adequately in combat. A party is limited to seven characters, although the manual suggests leaving one slot open for summoned monsters or special encounters that may join the party.
Characters could be imported from any of the three games in the Bard’s Tale series which would give them an advantage in statistics early on.
As noted earlier, it is suggested that players do so in order to survive the initial encounters, or grind the first dungeon until they are able to hold their own in combat. It will only get worse from there. However, there are a variety of exploits that can dramatically level parties up with experience early on in the game.
Dragon Wars did not feature any races within the game to choose from for character creation. Everyone on Oceana was human.
Death was also somewhat permanent and there were no listed spells within the manual that could perform resurrection.
Parties consist of seven characters. Players can only create four characters of their own and the last three slots are reserved for NPCs that can be hired into the group as they are encountered in the adventure. Unlike the Bard’s Tale or Wasteland, however, there is no Adventurer’s Guild or HQ for players to swap out characters or create new ones on the fly. Once a party was created, the only way to create a new character would be to start the game over.
During character creation, the player can determine their name, sex, and then distribute fifty character points to improve their statistics and purchase skills. Statistics in Dragon Wars are not rolled during creation. Every character starts out with a ten in every attribute and further changes are made using the points that they are given.
During creation, the player is given the chance to adjust the starting statistics for their character. While playing the game, a character’s profile could be viewed by simply hitting an appropriate number key to show a character’s abbreviated statistics along with various other pieces of information. The abbreviated value for how these attributes appear onscreen are listed in parenthesis.
- Strength (STR): Ideal for fighters as well as for performing physical tasks. Weapons in the game have a particular strength requirement and anything over that limit translates into additional damage.
- Intelligence (INT): As with most RPGs, it’s an important attribute for potential spellcasters and for solving puzzles that require a high INT score. It also determines whether a spell will hit its opponent.
- Dexterity (DEX): Helps in hitting opponents along with avoiding incoming blows. It also determines who goes first in combat making it essential for fighters.
- Spirit (SPR): This is important for spellcasters and determines how many power points magic users have at their disposal.
- Power (POW): This represents the current number of points that a spellcaster has at their disposal. These do not regenerate naturally requiring the player to find alternate means of recharging their mages such as using a Dragonstone or other source.
- Health: When reduced to zero, the character dies. It can only be restored through the use of magic, finding a healer, or using the bandage skill.
- Stun: Characters will typically run out of this first before they run out of health. When reduced to zero, they fall unconscious and are unable to fight but they aren’t dead. This regenerates automatically after combat.
- Sex: As the manual states, male, female, sometimes, or never.
- Experience: This measures how many points must be earned until the next level. Level progression in Dragon Wars is particularly slow making character development and the distribution of points extremely important to consider in the long term.
- Level: When a level is earned, a character gains two points with which to spend on attributes or skills.
- Armor Class (AC): This more directly shows the quality of your armor versus the chance that an enemy blow has to connect. The better, or higher, this value is, the less damage a character’s health or stun levels will receive.
- Attack Value (AV) & Defense Value (DV): These are based on a character’s dexterity divided by four and are the basic statistics governing combat. These determine how often you hit in combat and how often a character receives the same treatment. Heavier armor may improve your armor class, but it may drive down your defense value because of its weight.
These determine how well your characters will survive the game with a variety of fields that can help them. Because of the slow rate of character development and the low number of skill points given to each character when they level, character specialists are increasingly important to consider when building your party. Although Wasteland uses a skill system, the one in Dragon Wars is not dependent on the intelligence level of any particular character. Having the right number of character points is all that is needed.
The skills available to characters are:
- Bandage: This is the healing ability of a character. The greater this skill, the more health is restored.
- Cave Lore: May reveal hidden pieces of information during the exploration of underground places.
- Climb: This skill is used to climb over rocks, into trees, and down to certain doom. Having a high climb skill is necessary in several places.
- Forest Lore: Operates in the same way as Cave Lore by providing certain pieces of information to characters that have this.
- Hiding: Useful for hiding from potential enemy encounters. Useless once combat begins.
- Tracker: Allows the character to track various creatures by the trail they leave behind.
- Lockpick: Allows a characer to get into places where they aren’t invited. Extremely useful and the manual suggests that it is an important skill to have in resolving your quest.
- Magic Skills: Characters hoping to learn magic must first learn the LOW MAGIC discipline before they can access any of the othres. The higher one’s expertise is in a particular discipline, the better of a chance they will have for their spells to hit their target.
- Mountain Lore: Similar to Cave and Forest Lore skills, can reveal hidden secrets while traveling amidst the mountains.
- Fistfighting: Determines how well a character can fight with their hands.
- Arcane Lore: A mage with both magical ability and knowledge is a well rounded character. The skill helps with matters pertaining to magic.
- Bureaucracy: This determines how charismatic a character can be in trying to get their way.
- Swim: Can help with water hazards but not for swimming in between the islands of Dilmun.
- Town Lore: Helps by revealing certain pieces of legend and lore concerning a town the party may be visiting.
- Pickpocket: Allows a character to borrow a few coins from unsuspecting NPCs.
- Weapon Skills: Weapon use is not determined by having the skill to use it, although investing points into the appropriate category will improve a character’s ability to use it.
As in Wasteland, characters can use any of their skills in order to solve puzzles or on certain NPCs.
With the restrictions on magic in the world of Dragon Wars, being a magic user comes at a high price. Namtar, the main antagonist of the story, has become the most powerful sorceror of Dilmun by manipulating King Drake to declare his ban on magic. With no other opposition, Namtar is free to monopolize his power and has already acted. The other city-states took to warfare to defy King Drake’s decree, losing their spellcasters in the opening stages of the war. Namtar’s Stosstrupen, a sort of magical secret police, had also worked to assassinate Dilmun’s top sorcerors before they could organize an effective resistance. It is the player’s task to recover this magical knowledge and use it against Namtar before he can move ahead with his plans to conquer what is left.
Learning a spell in Dragon Wars requires finding a scroll with the appropriate knowledge and then using it, causing it to vanish forever. Because most of those that even knew of how to teach magic are dead, in hiding, or worse, discovering any piece of magic is one of the challenges.
Low Magic is initially available as a skill purchase to new characters, but the disciplines of High, Sun, and Druid magic must be learned from their respective masters.
There are four major spell classes:
- Low Magic: Weak, widespread, and of little threat, Namtar has done little to purge this discipline. Purgatory still maintains a working Low Magic shop as a result.
- High Magic: The acknowledged master of High Magic was the Stosstrupen’s first target. He was turned to stone and then smashed. With his demise, the practice of High Magic had all but ended. High magic has a number of powerful spells for combat, healing, and even summoning purposes but characters will need to find someone who can teach them. It cannot be chosen at the start of the game.
- Sun Magic: Oddly enough, Sun Magic remains public and legal and the master of this art lives in Phoebus at the Temple of the Sun. It has the most potent offensive spells in the game. Characters will need to meet with Mystalvision, the master of Sun Magic and a public hero, to learn how to use this discipline. As with High Magic, it cannot be learned during character creation.
- Druid Magic: The “purest” discipline focused on nature, it has a number of useful utility spells that allow passge through stone walls as well as potent healing. Finding someone who will be able to teach characters is easier said than done. As with High and Sun Magic, Druid magic cannot be chosen at the start of the game.
Encounters and Combat
When the party encounters a random enemy, a descriptive list is given at the start. Any group of monsters within 10′ (feet) of your party are within melee range. Some monsters, however, will also use ranged attacks. Combat is divided into a series of rounds and it is up to the player to decide what they should do next.
The player’s options during such an encounter are are:
- Fight: Initiates combat with the typical options.
- Quickly Fight: This initiates combat but with fewer options than Fight in order to quickly resolve the encounter.
- Run: The party will attempt to flee.
- Advance Ahead: Moves the party closer to a ranged encounter to narrow the distance.
If the Fight option is chosen, melee character will have the option of striking a normal blow (as in Quick Fight), a mighty blow (reduced hitting chance but greater damage), or a disarm which will deal some damage but attempt to knock an enemy’s weapon away. Players will also be able to rearrange their party. They will also be able to block when this option is used.
Under both types of fighting options, players will always be able to use an item, run like a coward, dodge an attack, or cast a spell. If players run from combat, the computer will randomly run the party across the map. This can sometimes place them in a far more dangerous area than the one they had just left.