Dragon Magazine in the 1980s: Crucible for Fantasy Gaming Culture

In the annals of tabletop gaming, few publications can claim as much influence and staying power as Dragon Magazine, particularly during its formative years in the 1980s. A sister publication to the more dungeon-delving Dungeon Magazine, Dragon focused on the broader aspects of role-playing games, especially those related to Dungeons & Dragons. Throughout the 1980s, Dragon Magazine was more than just a magazine; it was a crucible where gaming culture was shaped, refined, and expanded.


Origins and Early Days

From Humble Beginnings

Dragon Magazine’s inception is deeply rooted in the early culture of tabletop role-playing games. As Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) began to rise in popularity during the mid-1970s, there was a palpable thirst for more content, guidance, and community interaction among its burgeoning fanbase. Recognizing this, Gary Gygax, one of the seminal figures in the RPG world, set out to create a platform that would cater to this growing interest.

“The Dragon”

The magazine’s initial title, “The Dragon”, was emblematic of its primary focus. Dragons, being iconic creatures in fantasy lore and a staple in D&D, represented the heart of the content that the magazine sought to deliver. The title wasn’t merely a nod to the creatures but also symbolized the majestic and vast world of role-playing, full of potential and wonder.

An Expanding Scope

While the early issues were deeply rooted in D&D, it wasn’t long before Dragon Magazine started broadening its horizons. It became a nexus for not only D&D players but also enthusiasts of other role-playing games. This expansion reflected the magazine’s commitment to the overall growth and promotion of the tabletop RPG genre, rather than just a single system.

Nurturing the RPG Philosophy

One of the standout features of Dragon Magazine during its early days was its dedication to exploring the underlying philosophy of role-playing. It wasn’t just about game mechanics or new monster stats; the magazine delved deep into the art of storytelling, character development, world-building, and the ethos of collaborative gameplay. Articles often tackled questions like: What makes a compelling antagonist? How can Dungeon Masters ensure player agency? What is the role of fate versus free will in game narratives?

Fostering a Community

Beyond mechanics and philosophy, Dragon Magazine became a beacon for the RPG community. Letters to the editor, fan-submitted content, and community spotlights were regular features. This interactive aspect transformed readers into contributors, blurring the lines between official game content and homebrewed creations. The magazine became a genuine dialogue among enthusiasts, from novices seeking advice to veterans sharing their experiences.

Diverse Content for a Growing Audience

A Varied Palette of Features

Dragon Magazine in the 1980s can be likened to a buffet of rich, varied dishes, catering to the tastes of a wide spectrum of RPG enthusiasts. Beyond mechanics, its articles touched upon cultural implications of fantasy, historical backgrounds for real-world inspired settings, and analyses of how different game systems could be optimized or blended.

The Significance of Recurring Columns

Columns like “Ecology of…” stood out not just because of their regularity but because they offered readers a fresh perspective on well-known creatures. Taking a creature from the Monster Manual and fleshing out its biology, behavior, cultural significance, and even its societal structures transformed it from a mere game adversary to a living entity. These expanded ecologies were not just lore; they offered Dungeon Masters tools to craft richer narratives and challenges.

Showcasing Fantasy Literature

Short stories in Dragon Magazine bridged the gap between tabletop gaming and fantasy literature. By featuring tales that could inspire new adventures or introduce unfamiliar fantasy elements, Dragon Magazine reinforced the intimate relationship between storytelling and role-playing. These narratives also introduced readers to emerging fantasy authors, further solidifying the magazine’s role as a nexus for all things fantasy.

A Window to the Broader RPG Landscape

While D&D was undoubtedly its primary focus, Dragon Magazine’s forays into other role-playing systems showcased the richness of the RPG landscape. By covering games like RuneQuest, Traveller, or Call of Cthulhu, the magazine became a hub for gamers interested in exploring different genres, from gritty science fiction to eldritch horror. These features also offered practical insights, such as how to transfer a game mechanism from one system to another or adapt a story theme to fit different game worlds.

Fostering Inter-System Camaraderie

One of Dragon Magazine’s more subtle achievements was its role in fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie among players of different game systems. Instead of compartmentalizing the RPG community based on their preferred games, the magazine championed the idea that all role-playing games, irrespective of their mechanics or settings, shared a common core of collaborative storytelling and imagination. This philosophy encouraged readers to venture beyond their familiar territories and appreciate the broader RPG world.

The Visual Brilliance of Dragon Magazine

A Canvas of Imagination

The 1980s, often considered the golden age of tabletop RPGs, witnessed a boom not just in game mechanics and narratives, but also in the visual representation of these fantasy realms. Dragon Magazine, as a flagship publication in this era, harnessed the power of art to evoke emotions, stir imaginations, and set the tone for the adventures contained within its pages.

The Magic of Cover Art

For many, the journey with Dragon Magazine began with the cover. A single glance at the vivid and intricate artwork could transport readers to far-off lands, teeming with danger, magic, and wonder. These covers were not mere decorative pieces; they were doorways into the world of fantasy, giving a visual prelude to the treasures held within each issue.

Titans of Fantasy Art

Artists such as Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, and Jeff Easley became household names among the RPG community, thanks to their contributions to Dragon Magazine. Their artistry was distinguished by unique styles:

  • Larry Elmore: His art resonated with warmth and depth, often characterized by its lifelike representations of characters set against expansive, breathtaking landscapes. Elmore’s works, from fierce dragon confrontations to serene elven abodes, encapsulated the essence of high fantasy.
  • Clyde Caldwell: Caldwell’s art was often sensual and intense, delving into the grittier and darker facets of fantasy. His depictions of warriors, sorceresses, and mythical creatures showcased a blend of strength, allure, and danger.
  • Jeff Easley: Easley’s pieces, many of which graced the covers of D&D core books, are emblematic of classic fantasy art. His majestic dragons, stoic wizards, and dramatic battle scenes possess a timeless quality that defines the genre.

Beyond Mere Illustration

While the primary function of the art in Dragon Magazine was to illustrate the accompanying content, it often transcended this role. Readers could derive inspiration from a single piece, spinning entire campaigns, characters, or backstories based on the emotions or tales they believed the artwork told. In this way, the visual content was as much a catalyst for storytelling as any written article or game module.

Setting the Bar for Fantasy Art

The art of Dragon Magazine in the 1980s did more than just enrich its pages; it played a pivotal role in defining the aesthetic standards of the RPG industry. Aspiring artists looked up to the likes of Elmore, Caldwell, and Easley, drawing inspiration from their techniques, compositions, and themes. The magazine, through its consistent delivery of top-tier artwork, set benchmarks for what visually compelling fantasy representation should encapsulate.

Comic Strip Humour with “Wormy” and “Phil and Dixie”

In the vibrant tapestry of Dragon Magazine’s offerings, comic strips hold a place of particular fondness for many readers. These light-hearted and often satirical strips provided a break from the more technical aspects of gameplay mechanics or in-depth lore, offering both humour and insight into the gaming subculture. Among the most celebrated of these comics were “Wormy” by David A. Trampier and “What’s New with Phil and Dixie” by Phil Foglio. Both have left an indelible mark on the legacy of Dragon Magazine.

“Wormy” by David A. Trampier

“Wormy” was more than just a comic; it was a universe unto itself. Introduced in the late 1970s and running into the 1980s, “Wormy” followed the titular character – a cigar-smoking, pool-playing dragon – and his eclectic group of monstrous friends. Set in a unique world that offered an alternative view of standard fantasy tropes, it often played with the expectations of its readers. Trampier’s detailed art style, combined with his knack for imbuing his characters with rich personalities, set “Wormy” apart.

However, what added to the comic’s mystique was its abrupt end in the mid-1980s. Trampier, for reasons not entirely known, ceased his work on “Wormy” and became somewhat of a recluse in the gaming world. The sudden absence of “Wormy” left fans with unresolved storylines and a longing for closure.

“What’s New with Phil and Dixie” by Phil Foglio

On the lighter side of Dragon Magazine’s comic offerings was “What’s New with Phil and Dixie.” A meta-commentary on the world of tabletop gaming, this comic strip was a humorous, fourth-wall-breaking escapade. Phil, representing the creator Phil Foglio himself, and his sidekick Dixie often poked fun at the intricacies, idiosyncrasies, and sometimes the sheer absurdity of role-playing games. From jokes about never-released modules to the playful teasing of eager fanbases, “What’s New” was a nod and a wink to the shared experiences of tabletop gamers.

Phil Foglio’s cartoonish and expressive art style made the strip visually distinct, and his keen understanding of the gaming community ensured the jokes resonated deeply with readers. One of the long-running gags in the series was the constant promise of an “Adult Art” episode, which was always humorously sidestepped.

Navigating the Tumultuous Waters of the 1980s

The Satanic Panic and its Ripple Effects:

One of the most infamous periods in the history of tabletop RPGs, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was a widespread moral panic where D&D and similar games were erroneously associated with occult practices, devil worship, and malevolent behavior. Parents, religious groups, and even some media outlets sounded alarms about the supposed dangers of role-playing games.

For Dragon Magazine, this was a storm that could not be sidestepped. As a leading voice in the RPG community, the magazine found itself on the defensive frontlines. But rather than shying away or bowing to the pressure, Dragon Magazine took an active role in debunking myths and misconceptions.

  • Educative Approach: Articles in the magazine sought to explain the nature of role-playing games, emphasizing the imaginative, creative, and social aspects. The aim was to demystify the game for outsiders, illustrating that D&D was more akin to collective storytelling than any dark ritual.
  • Community Solidarity: By providing a platform for gamers to share their personal stories and experiences, Dragon Magazine showcased the positive influences of RPGs, from fostering friendships to developing problem-solving skills.

Adapting to a Changing RPG Landscape:

The 1980s was not just a decade of challenges but also one of rapid evolution for tabletop gaming. New RPG systems were emerging, technological advancements began influencing gaming, and there was a palpable shift in the preferences of the gaming community.

  • Diversifying Content: While D&D remained the magazine’s core focus, Dragon Magazine broadened its horizons, covering a plethora of other RPG systems. This not only catered to the diversifying tastes of its readership but also showcased the magazine’s commitment to the growth of the tabletop gaming genre as a whole.
  • Embracing Technology: With the advent of computer RPGs and the increasing influence of technology on tabletop gaming, Dragon Magazine began incorporating articles that bridged this gap. This included reviews of computer games, discussions on how technology could enhance tabletop sessions, and even early game coding segments for tech-savvy readers.

Staying True Amidst Evolution

Despite the pressures and the changing tides, Dragon Magazine remained committed to its foundational principles: to celebrate, educate, and foster the love for role-playing games. While content adapted to the times, the magazine’s essence—a haven for RPG enthusiasts—remained steadfast.

Dragon Magazine’s Lasting Impact on the RPG World

Pioneer in Role-playing Journalism:

One of Dragon Magazine’s most significant contributions during the 1980s was its role as a pioneering force in role-playing journalism. Before the internet’s rise and the myriad of blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels dedicated to RPGs, Dragon Magazine stood out as the premier print medium where enthusiasts could delve into in-depth discussions, analyses, and explorations of the hobby.

A Showcase of Legendary Talent

The 1980s saw Dragon Magazine becoming a crucible for some of the industry’s most renowned names. Artists, writers, and game designers, many of whom would later become luminaries in the field, found a platform in Dragon’s pages. This exposure not only launched or amplified their careers but also enriched the magazine’s content, making each issue a treasure trove of creativity.

Breeding Ground for Iconic Content

Several concepts and ideas that first appeared in Dragon Magazine during the 1980s would eventually become canonical elements in future editions of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs. Whether it was a unique monster, a novel spell, or an innovative rule variant, Dragon Magazine was at the forefront, test-driving content that would eventually find its way into mainstream game manuals.

Nurturing the RPG Community

Dragon Magazine in the 1980s was more than just a monthly publication; it was a rallying point for the global RPG community. Its letters section, reader-submitted content, and the very ethos of its articles fostered a sense of unity and shared passion. For many, the magazine became a touchstone of their gaming journey, a monthly ritual that connected them with fellow enthusiasts from all corners of the globe.

The Birth of Iconic Features

Several features and columns that began or gained prominence in the 1980s became staples of Dragon Magazine and are remembered fondly even today. From detailed “Ecology of…” articles to comic strips like “Wormy” and “Phil and Dixie,” these segments offered readers a blend of entertainment, education, and inspiration.

Setting Standards in Presentation and Quality

Through its meticulous attention to design, artwork, and content quality, Dragon Magazine set the bar high for subsequent RPG publications. Its standards in the 1980s ensured that role-playing game journalism was seen not as a mere niche hobby magazine but as a professional and respected publication genre.


Dragon Magazine in the 1980s was more than a monthly periodical; it was a testament to the passion and creativity of the tabletop gaming community. Through its pages, one can trace the evolution of RPG culture, from its early days to its rise in mainstream popularity. The magazine’s dedication to quality content, captivating art, and fostering community made it a beacon for role-players around the world, securing its place in the annals of gaming history.