Blast from the Past: Dragon Storm

I’ve been clearing out some old boxes in my garage that have been left unopened for, well…decades, now. And I was reminded that Dragon Storm exists.

Dragon Storm is a roleplaying game by Susan Van Camp and Mark Harmon (who passed in 2012) and published in a collectible card game format. I picked up one starter box and a booster from GenCon when I went in 1996. I must’ve gotten as far as unsealing the box, because the cards were organized. Then I just kind of forgot about it for 25 years. Here’s the pitch on the back of the box:

Not bad, right? Everyone’s a shapeshifter or an orc, and the people of the Stormlands are joined together to fight evil necromancers. Honestly I’ve read weaker pitches on Kickstarter.

Veterans of the CCG wars will not be surprised to hear there aren’t nearly enough cards in the starter box to play anything other than one character: a Human who shapeshifts into a Dragon. If they were gonna go with one, it’s a hot choice. I have no idea, 25 years out, whether this box was preprogrammed and identical, or if there were various mixes. But this box comes with a deck of player cards and another deck of GM cards. Lots of those player cards are unplayable out of the box without, you guessed it, boosters.

So that’s all the stuff you have access to because of your dragonocity. The character starts with the points up in the upper right corner. But besides these cards there are also backgrounds, anchors (permanent effects), aces (temporary effects, need to be recharged) and gear. All those cards besides the Human Dragon character card are aces, for example. Here are the backgrounds you can choose from:

Two of those options sound awesome! Peasant does not, but at least it’s cheap.

It turns out there are several legit builds right possible right out of the box. I did one that’s pure dragon badass, leaned all-in on the shapeshifting and the claws and all that. The other one is kind of a hippie Druid-y type thing.

So, yeah, you can see where this is going. It’s a real trad-as-it-is-now-known game. Your character exists to express cool powers and combos. You’ve got stats, you track resources. There’s a teeny character sheet you can…photocopy? Is that still a thing? Scan it, whatever.

The GM side of this game is pretty interesting: you assemble a map from terrain cards, and encounters from scene and cast cards, with features (or repurposed aces and anchors from the player’s cards, the math works the same) adding wrinkles to the cast cards. An encounter’s budget equals the value of the character(s) in play.

A couple things jumped out at me when I really dove into the game. The big one is that I was not ready to accept this design as “a real RPG” in 1996. I was as addicted to Magic (and Shadowfist and Doomtrooper and and and) as everyone else, and it was impossible for me to evaluate an RPG with this form factor. And it most definitely is: the GM has broad, discretionary authority, scenes don’t have to revolve around fighting, there’s as much or as little meaning and continuity between encounters as you want.

The other thing was, along with making me feel really old, I was reminded that independent designers have been experimenting with all kinds of RPG design innovations for a very long time. This isn’t even the wackiest design of the 90s! But when the aughts rolled around, the next generation of indie designers was convinced they were the first on the scene to do anything new. Same thing happened during the twenty-teens. Same as we head into the ’20s. It’s exciting and it’s exhausting, listening to each generation stake out their own importance and their own creation myths. Every teenager is convinced they’ve discovered sex for the first time, too. Time is a flat circle. Nobody credits what came before, but the joke’s on them: nobody’s gonna credit you, either.

I mean, of course there are a ton of problems with the whole concept: is your library of cards an interesting creative constraint or a quickly depleted resource? Is the math really that rigorous? This could be a snappy way to cook up a hexcrawl-like experience, and the cards are a great form factor for tracking complex math and providing rules at your fingertips without having to have a book or PDF on hand.

Turns out there’s been a Dragon Storm 2.0 community steadily working on this game for the past 15 years! No kidding. Every game you could ever want to love, you can find others who share that love. Probably way deeper than you ever could, even. A friend on our Slack says his cousin continues to play Dragon Storm to this day.

You can even still buy cards if you want, here.

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