You have probably never played Dragonraid. You probably never will. It’s an especially odd duck in a hobby full of odd ducks. It’s a role playing game for Christians, published in 1984 as a safe alternative to Dungeons and Dragons.

I first encountered Dragonraid while attending a Christian school in spring, 1987. I’d just started playing the FASA Doctor Who RPG during lunch hour with a small group of friends. A player’s father expressed concern our games lacked a clear moral compass. And, he was entirely right. The game was full of random death, greed, misanthropy and the usual sorts of stupid stuff that 13-year-old boys come up with when left to their own devices.

Dragonraid was presented to us as an alternative. Not one of those shady “roleplaying games”, but an “Adventure Learning System” that would instil important moral lessons and scriptural familiarity. I was the GM, so the player handed the rulebook over to me for review. I was both fascinated and appalled. I was intrigued by the setting, a weird mix of SF and fantasy, where “monsters,” like Goblins are actually the descendants of criminal aliens.


The PTL Club Renn Faire

The game takes place on a planet called EdenAgain. During the creation of this world by “The Overlord of Many Names,” an evil dragon released an egg onto the planet, which split into nine and became the seed of all unrest and wickedness. Over time, the descendants of dragons born from that first egg gained the upper hand, and the Overlord of Many Names had to sacrifice himself to save the world. Sort of. He came back to life a while later. Let me know if this sounds  familiar…

Humanity is divided into two factions. The TwiceBorn, the servants of the Overlord, live in a magical enclave known as the “Liberated Lands.” The Liberated Lands are a small peninsula protected from the dragon dominated lands by a magical mountain chain to the north and a turbulent, misty seas in all other directions. The Liberated Lands are essentially a Renn Faire designed by Jim and Tammy Bakker. TwiceBorn humans are taught that outsiders, the OnceBorn, or Dragonslaves, are miserable slaves. The OnceBorn may have fine stone houses and plentiful food and leisure time, but as they don’t have the saving grace of the Overlord, they are not really happy. They may think they are happy, but they aren’t!

"Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!"

“Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!”

The Dragonlands are ruled by nine different breeds of dragon, each race embodying a moral failing or representative of one of the snares of Satan. They once brutalized the humans under their control, but realized that it’s easier to dominate humans when they’re happy. So, they turned to other planets to supply their victims, inviting them to send their wretched, their depraved, their poor addled masses, their revolutionaries, lunatics and criminals. So arrived Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Ogres, Flusterbeasts and other weird creatures. These races were tortured and further abused by the dragons, and thoroughly Stockholm Syndromed into liking it. They now serve specific roles in the dragon kingdoms. Goblins are sadists, torturers and the like. Orcs are the warriors. Other monsters serve as greedy merchants, spies, and so on.

Too Pagan? And Too Violent?

Two things unsettled me, at age 13.  First, the game explicitly states that humans are off limits. If you kill a OnceBorn human, no matter how evil, you’ve failed. However, evil creatures – humanoid monsters – are fair game. Not only are they fair game, God expects you to slaughter some monsters out of hand, regardless of age or infirmity. Killing orcs and goblins in their sleep is specifically condoned and encouraged.

Now, I realize that killing sleeping goblins is an essential part of every 13-year-old boy’s gaming experience. But very few games encourage the behaviour. In D&D, the secular game that lacked the supposed moral compass of Dragonraid, killing sleeping or helpless sentients is an evil act, even if they are goblins. And, the combat system is actually more explicitly violent than D&D, with critical charts that contain, for example, two “groin hit” locations.

The second thing that bothered me was the requirement to memorize scripture passages (“Wordrunes”) to achieve in-game effects. You cannot proceed in any of the modules, as written, without memorizing and parroting verses from the New International Version of the Bible. While the memorization didn’t bother me (at the time), I was bothered by the use of scripture verse as “magic spells.” You want to open the mysterious cave? You need to repeat a verse. All of you.

We decided the game was too violent and too pagan.

Think about that.

We were a quartet of 13-year-old boys at a private Christian school, which one would think was the ideal market for the game. But we thought it was theologically inferior to the Doctor Who game and went back to fighting Daleks. In other words, the game that was given to us as a holy alternative to the violence and magical thinking of Dungeons & Dragons… was full of violence and magical thinking.

I finally acquired my own copy of Dragonraid in the late 1990s. It was the very first thing I ordered on the Internet. When it arrived, I was amazed at the bulk of the package. Dragonraid, whatever its’ faults, does not skimp on contents and quality. Some of the game support materials would still be perfect for introducing someone to the hobby. Sadly, no one would play the darn thing with me. It went to live in my closet for another 14 years, occasionally being brought as a joke at the conclusion of campaigns, when players asked “What shall we try next?”

Team Thac0s at Midnight!

Team Thac0s at Midnight!

Last month, Team THACOs at Midnight decided to try the game on for size. We scheduled the session, aptly enough, over the Easter weekend. I retrieved the box from its dusty closet and studied the introductory module, “The Lightraider Test,” and prepared to adventure for the greater glory of God…

Character generation was straightforward, but tiresome. Some stats were generated randomly with rolls of the “Starlot,” a ten-sided die used by TwiceBorn creatures. (Evil creatures use the “Shadowstone,” an eight-sider. The origin of these terms comes from crystals that play an ill-defined role in the setting, but I liked it as a bit of flavour and as a mechanic. Evil creatures cannot succeed as readily, and are more likely to fail… as well as cause grievous harm.) The most important stats are the “Fruits of the Spirit,” characteristics like Patience, Faith, Joy and Love. They help define purely physical stats and the additional abilities. The additional abilities run the gamut of generic high fantasy skills to curiously specific talents like “Mingle Righteously with Evil.” These additional talents caused some degree of hilarity.

My wife, Desiree, ran Pavonis Mons, an immensely strong, excitable and joy-filled (but impatient) young woman with a warhammer. Rachelle was Sarnia Huron, a similarly powerful young woman with a bow, and Rob was Leslie De Ville, a young man less physically gifted than his fellow Lightraiders, but one actuated by a powerful spirit of mercy and compassion.

The Lightraider Test Begins

The adventure begins as the players walked along a moonlit beach beside an ocean. They are newly minted Lightraiders, TwiceBorn who are sent among the Dragonslaves to fight evil and win souls. Though Lightraiders in name, they have never been on a quest. As they walked, they spotted a bottle floating in the ocean, reflecting the moonlight.  The bottle was found to contain a note from the Overlord of Many Names, directing them on a quest. The time of their first Lightraid had come!

They acquired horses from the locals, who, the text notes, are always eager to assist Lightraiders without the need for recompense. They arrived at the shores of a mountain lake, in the foothills of the Himalaya-sized peaks that protect the Liberated Lands from the dragons. There, an elderly quartermaster provided them with adventuring gear, but apologetically explained that there is no rope. Not to fear, he assures the raiders. The Overlord will provide!

(The scene reminded me nothing so much as the Paranoia RPG. “If you needed rope, the Computer would have given you rope, Troubleshooter. Are you saying the Computer is wrong?” In fact, the whole description of the Liberated Lands reminded me of some dystopia where the residents are assured, over and over again, that everything is fantastic in the homeland, and everyone outside the borders is starving and miserable. Now, let’s all promise to eat only two meals a day, just like the Dear Leader!)

One by one the Lightraiders stepped into the waters of the lake, are enveloped in mist, and magically transported to the interior of a hollow tree. They emerged, blinking, into a sunlit clearing in the midst of a dense forest, with only one visible trail… somewhere nearby they can smell woodsmoke.

Taking Candy from Strangers

A short way down the path, the nascent Lightraiders met an older man, busily making beans and toast. Is this one of the feared Dragonslaves? Is he here to tempt them from the path of righteousness? Does he, perhaps, have a length of rope he can spare? No, to all those questions. The man turned out to be a fellow Lightraider, Darren, and also a very large plot hook. He is returning to the Liberated Lands after a failed Lightraid. Darren and another Raider, Gareth, were ambushed by goblins, and Gareth was captured. The Overlord is sending Darren home, but not before sending the players on to rescue Gareth from being eaten by dragons. The toast and beans are for the players, to nourish them on the road.

Before Darren left, he pointed out a nearby cave, sealed and printed with a Bible verse. Or, as the game puts it, a “Word Rune.” He says he is unable to open the cave, but if the Lightraiders each restate the message of the word rune, it MIGHT open for them.

"I swear, magic pills. Also, have this bag of innocent brownies."

“I swear, magic pills. Also, have this bag of innocent brownies.”

As Darren leaves, he tosses the party a bag of “magic tablets” of various colours. He doesn’t know what they do, but he got them from the Overlord, so they must be okay. He does note that there were originally only 10 of these tablets, but now there are 11, after the goblins messed with the contents. Still, not a problem, right?


So, a stranger in the forest gives the players a bag of magic candy that goblins messed with in some unspecified way.

Nothing unusual about that.

Sarnia immediately scarfed a blue tablet, and threw it up as her stomach cramped in agony. On a random roll she happened to choose one of the sabotaged tablets. Pavonus took the regurgitated tablet and put it back in the bag. Poison might come in handy, later, after all.

The Cave of “Afterschool Special” Temptations

So, the players are left with beans, toast, a bag of questionable magic candy, and a path that ends at a sealed cave. Taking the advice of Darren, Leslie Deville restated the message of the Word Rune. The cave opened, and Leslie ran in. The others tried to go in after, and the cave shut them out. Each of them must parrot or paraphrase the words written on the stone doors. Once they do, they can enter.

Inside they find a torchlit tunnel that ends in a door with three levers. Now, in the module as written, the players are supposed to puzzle out the proper combination of lever positions to move forward. Rob dislikes these kinds of puzzles, and noted “There are only 27 combinations. Can’t we just say we work through them till we get it?”

I allowed this, and the door opened, leading to another tunnel… which leads in turn to a large, bright room with two doors. One door has the letters “OLMN” inscribed on it. Through the other emerges a smiling troll. The Lightraiders ready themselves for combat, but the troll wants to talk.

“I am Glushrank, the Gift Giver! I am here to greet tourists in the blessed Dragon Lands with gifts…”

Immediately, the suspicious Lightraiders prepare their weapons…

“No, no! I mean you no harm! Is not hospitality one of the virtues of a Lightraider? Consider my gifts…”

"'s a new car!"

“…it’s a new car!”

Glushrank lists a selection of fabulous prizes that would seem corny on a 1984 episode of The Price Is Right. A trip to sunny beach with attractive humans! A coupon to go clothes shopping in a Dragonslave village! A free ticket to a concert, where Pleasure Potion” is handed out! As he speaks, the letters “OLMN” glow brighter and brighter on the door behind him.

The players laughed long and hard. Of course their Lightraiders are not going to fall for such obvious blandishments. Except… they are. The game forces them to make a saving throw. It is quite possible for the whole group to fail, and choose one of the gifts… whereupon the adventure ends because they have failed the Overlord. Roll better, next time!

Happily, only Leslie failed in our case. He chose the beach vacation, and had to be saved from temptation by the righteous application of apt Bible verses! These administered, the “sin enchantment” was broken, and the furious troll attacked!

Now, the troll is actually a very powerful creature,  more than a match for any of the newbie Lightraiders. Happily, the engine has a rule whereby multiple combatants can easily pile on a single opponent. The players swiftly took out the troll, though they took a few nasty knocks.

Taking stock of the empty room, the players decided to go through the door marked with the glowing initials of the “Overlord of Many Names.” This is fortunate, because the other passage led to a group of two dozen trolls that would have killed them in a single round of combat.

The Overlord is a Dick?

The door opens in a beautiful underground grove. Sunlight streams in from a vast crack in the ceiling, 150 feet above, and butterflies gambol among the subterranean flowers. Beautiful! Yet, the door has disappeared behind them, and there is no way out of this underground garden. Gee, if only they had some rope…

After a few minutes of puzzling about their situation, a note drifted down in a shaft of sunlight. It directed the players to ask the Overlord for help, and then show thanks to the Overlord for his support. It also warned that the captured Lightraider is to be tortured to death and consumed by dragons at nightfall, which is fast approaching. So, essentially, the players have to pray for rope and be thankful about it, or someone is going to die, Rather than force my players to pray, as the module states, we did this abstractly. Once they prayed for help and thanked the Overlord, a magical rope ladder appeared, along with three healing potions.

Yes, The Overlord of Many Names was, in not so many words, fucking with them.  While they are standing around the underground garden, the captured Lightraider is being tortured. But the Overlord of Many Names thinks it more important to pray for rope than provide it at the beginning.

“You need rope to save a man’s life? Say pretty please. Again. Louder. Now say THANK YOU.”

The players emerged in… yet another forest clearing, but this time in the foothills of a mountain range.

The Mediocre Giant

A trail leads from the forest up a nearby mountain. It winds up and up and up, and as the players climb, they hear piteous wails coming from the peak. Someone is being tortured! They eat some of the tablets, just in case, and gain a bit of healing. Pavonus gains keen hearing, and Sarnia’s tablet materializes a magic golden bow.

They hurry upward, and the path grows narrower, and the mountain steeper. As they near the peak, the path became a narrow ribbon of flat ground with a wall on one side, and a fatal fall on the other… as though they were being railroaded to an encounter.

And yes, just before they reach the peak, they meet a giant. A giant with a pumpkin full of “Friendship Juice.”

Now, each of the evil creatures in Dragonraid personifies a temptation or challenge. Giants in Dragonraid represent mediocrity. They want everyone to get along and not make waves. So, the giant is actually quite friendly, though he doesn’t want the players to proceed on the trail. He’s also drunk. You can sort of imagine him as your genial bachelor uncle who keeps getting fired from sales jobs.

Interlude with the mediocre giant.

Interlude with the mediocre giant.

“Hello, friend! Come, sit with me! Share my Friendship Juice! It will make you feel warm and happy all over! Let me tell you about how kind the dragons are.”

The players, naturally, are leery of his offer, especially as they can still hear their fellow Lightraider screaming up ahead. When they ask about the screams, the giant tells them not to worry about it. Hey, let’s be friends!

There is no way past the giant, aside from fighting him, or drinking with him. If the players drink with him, they take spiritual damage. There is no way to sneak past him, bribe him, or trick him. So, my Lightraiders chose to fight. The combat was a very narrow win for them, as giants, despite being mediocre, are dangerous opponents. Still, we got to try out the Advanced Combat rules, when Pavonus slammed her warhamer into the giant’s groin and killed him…

They pushed his pumpkin full of hooch off the mountain, and gobbled some tablets at random in hopes of healing. Leslie DeVille turned invisible as a result, and in this state they crested the peak…

Barbecue at Sunset

Atop the peak they found Gareth tied to a stake, with four sadistic goblins dancing about him, cutting open his limbs with sharp knives and pouring on a sort of acidic barbecue sauce. Occasionally, they swig from flasks of “Friendship Juice.”  Rather than immediately engage the creatures, Rob’s invisible Lightraider crept forth to survey the scene.

Poisoning goblins in the name of Jesus.

Poisoning goblins in the name of Jesus.

He took the two tablets the goblins had sabotaged, two of the same colour that caused Sarnia to retch, and dropped them into the goblin flasks. Soon enough, two of the goblins were clutching their bellies and whimpering. I should note that in classic Dungeons & Dragons using poison was considered an evil act. Not so in Dragonraid!

The resulting combat ended quickly. The goblins, peppered with arrows and smushed with warhammer and Rob’s invisible club, were dispatched in a couple of rounds, making for a rather disappointing “boss fight.” Gareth collapsed in a swoon as soon as he was released. The Lightraiders carried him down the mountain, getting to the safety of the forest just as the first dragons arrived at the peak, only to howl their frustrated hunger and rage to the winds.

Unicorns and Talking Wolves

The party had to take the long way home. The mysterious cavern was gone, as is the apparent shortcut they took through the cave of the Giftgiver troll. It took two days to return to the hollow tree, partly led by Gareth and partly directed by friendly talking wolves. Like Narnia, some of the animals talk. They learn of Gareth’s quest – to recover a lost sacred scroll – and are handed the next big plot hook. The Lightraiders finally arrive back in the Liberated Lands where an angel in the form of a pure white unicorn greets them and congratulates them on their success.

Milk and cookies all round.

The Good

The game engine is fairly solid, though simple. Character generation is the most frustrating part, but it is straightforward. I’ve played much more recent games where combat and social interaction was a puzzling morass.

The game comes with a ton of material. Miniatures, modules, battle maps. and even an audio tape that walks you through character gen and the basic details of the setting. You get a lot of bang for your buck. Or did, until recently. I’m not sure how the game is currently sold.

The Bad

The Lightraider Test is an introductory module, but even so, it is the most linear adventure I’ve ever run. A Choose Your Own Adventure book has many more options and resolutions. At any point where it seems like the players can diverge from the set path of the adventure, doing so ends the game.

The internal logic is shaky. There is a cave that leads directly to the end of the adventure, sealed by the Overlord, containing a door with his name on it. Yet within that cave is a party of trolls who are there specifically to stop the players. Did the Overlord put them there…?

“Word Runes”. The whole practice of memorizing out of context scripture to progress in the game was objectionable to me when I was 13 and devout. It has not become less so. They certainly limit the appeal of the game. But then, it is intended as an educational game for Christians, or as a tool for evangelism.

So… what did you think?

  1. The Overlord is a jerk.

  2. The game is about learning to obey the counter-intuitive whims of the Overlord/Jerk.

  3. Those two points together have the potential to make a really fantastic game.

The Overlord of Many Names acts a lot like a tinpot charismatic dictator, ruling through fear and promises. He encourages his servants to memorize a series of thought-terminating bromides, and punishes those who are not thankful enough by keeping them from achieving necessary goals. Consider the scene in the underground garden. If the players had not prayed for rope, they’d have starved there, and Gareth would have died in terror and pain and then been eaten by dragons.

There is a definite attraction to the idea of subverting the setting. Maybe the Overlord is wrong. Maybe he’s just the galactic equivalent of a cult leader, hiding in his compounds with his followers while all along claiming that only “his people” have salvation. I also got a strong hint of North Korea from the background material, which states that the Overlord could win the war anytime he wants, and banish the evil dragons forever. But he doesn’t want to, for some obscure reason of his own. Could it be he is actually less powerful than he claims?

Maybe the Lightraiders are the equivalent of Taliban terrorists, spreading mayhem and death in the name of fulfilling the word of God? And sure, there is a lot of evil in the Dragonlands for them to fight and point to as an obvious example of corruption. But there’s a lot of evil anywhere. Taliban fighters in our world don’t need to look far to find instances of the enlightened Western powers acting hypocritically.

It would also be interesting to have an initial subversion of the concept, and then twist that around again. So, the Lightraiders are convinced the Overlord is a cosmic bully, then find out, perhaps too late, that he was actually the good guy, just as he claimed. Or maybe they discover there are no “good guys.” Just factions to choose.

There is a lot of potential in the setting, even if you are not running it as intended. And, if you do happen to be, say, a Sunday school teacher or Christian homeshooler, this probably would be a lot of fun. I used to be a teen Bible class teacher in my more pious days, and I definitely would have tried to get a game of Dragonraid running. These days, not so much.

My group had fun, even though I played it pretty straight. But no one wanted to play again. I suspect most gamers would have the same feeling – good for a novelty or a laugh, and that’s about it.

I give Dragonraid a 6 out of 10.

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