Dragons Conquer America: Does It Conquer My Heart?

In one of the random RPG groups I am a part of, a friend shared a link to a game called “Dragons Conquer America.” The name alone caught my eye (because who doesn’t love dragons?), but the setting captured my attention.

For once, we have a game that has a sole purpose of adventure and strife in South America, focusing on the clash between the Mexica, the Maya, and the Spanish. As I mentioned during my discussion of The New World last week, this area doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the history (and legends!) deserve.

That said, I decided to jump at the chance to read this early draft before the Kickstarter launches on November 1st.

So what am I thinking of it? Well, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?

Note: This is a preview of the game and not the full game. I have been assured that some concerns, such as “efficient writing”, unclear rules, and typos will be resolved after the item is funded on Kickstarter.

==The Pitch==

To quote (almost) directly from the press release:

Dragons Conquer America (aka DCA) is a living fantasy role playing setting that is currently under development. It will take you back to the 16th Century when European invaders reached American soil with a host of dragons.

DCA is a fantasy setting where magic is real and used in everyday life; fantastic beasts as Dragons and Feathered Serpents exert real influence in societies.  

The magical elements will find their way to the mechanics of the game, and you, as a player, will be able to perform awesome supernatural deeds.

Dragons Conquer America uses the RPC Engine, a cinematic and agile system that allows players to manage their luck.

Curious about how this looks? This pitch was enough to get me to grab the Quickstart PDF and get right to reading while giving me inspiration to back this Kickstarter!

==What You Get==

The Quickstart for Dragons Conquer America currently weighs in at 111 pages of rules, setting, sample characters, and artwork. It is free to download at DriveThruRPG, and has been undergoing revisions as we get closer to the Kickstarter.

Setting-wise, the game takes place in the early 16th Century, during the time that Cortes and his allies invaded Mexico and South America. The game takes a fantasy approach by including dragons (winged in Europe, feathered in South America), magic, and other fantasy elements/tropes into the setting to add some new life, while still keeping some key points of history included.

Mechanically, the game uses a modified version of the RPC system used in their previous RPG, the sci-fi game FAITH (which you can download the details for here). The game utilizes poker decks (or specialized cards) to determine effort, which also determine success/failure in specific situations. Dice can be used instead, but the game really shines with the card approach (in my opinion, of course), especially since poker decks are easier to find that enough different-colored dice.

==Mechanical Rundown==

For those of you who don’t want to run through all 111 pages, here’s a summary of the game mechanics:

There’s a deck per player (ideally; optional solutions for fewer decks and dice alternatives are provided), with the cards 1-6 of each suit and a single Joker, leaving a total of 25 cards within the deck. The GM will need their own deck.

All players (not the GM) draw a “hand” of 7 cards, and draw back up the 7 after each scene. The number on the card denotes the bonus to a task, while the suit is a designation for the type of situation (Conflict is Spades, Exploration is Clubs, Social is Hearts, Divine is Diamonds).

Cards are spent each turn to show the effort used on an action, adding the card’s face to the Skill Value (a different score than Level). Players are able to spend as many cards in an action as they have in Skill Level in a single action, but once a player is out of cards, they will be unable to act for the remainder of the scene. By using a card with a suit that matches the task at hand, or by using a card that has a value equal to or less than the skill rating, the player will be able to draw a new card, leaving them in the running for more actions.

For example: if your Priest is casting a Miracle in a scene and has a Skill rating of 4, any card played that is under a 4 allows them to draw a card. If they played a Diamond, which represents Divine, they may draw two cards and keep one of them.

From there, difficulties are set based on Advantages/Disadvantages (each one modifying the result by 3 in either direction; much like invoking for Fate), and are then either contested (by a draw from the GM’s deck) or have a flat difficulty (from 0-12, in increments of 3).

For a flat Skill check that is considered passive (like noticing a trap, an ambush, noticing tension in the air, etc), players pull a number of cards from the top of their deck equal to their skill and choose one to keep.

The game rules do note that if it is something the character is able to do if given the time, they will automatically succeed…unless time is of the essence, or they need it done right the first time.

There are other mechanics in the game, such as item Deterioration, Magic, and Prejudice, but the above covers the core mechanic and others will be touched upon later.

==The Good==

Not going to lie: the idea of the game itself is worth noting. I had a few conversations with fellow gamers, old-school grognards, and everyone in between, and we all agree: there is a severe lack in games set in this area. Sure, RIFTS had a book set in the region (with vampires), the World of Darkness has a few sourcebooks/adventures set in the area, 7th Sea will have one released soon, and Forgotten Realms had Maztica (until the 4th Edition, anyway). That’s…about it, as far as I can tell. You don’t get too much set in the area as-is, and when you do, the natives are usually treated like savages.

Not so with Dragons Conquer America.

The broad scope of the game is also a good selling point, again, in my opinion. The game shows both sides of this conflict with historical references, and is written by parties on both “sides” of the conflict (writers and producers are from both Mexico and Spain); we don’t get that “savage” feel promoted in the work that we see in others. I’m also a fan of it being historic fantasy with that spark of hope of changing history.

Some of the mechanical elements are rather appealing to me as well. Weapons, for example, offer alternative actions/methods/bonuses as well as flat damage. A Conquistador’s Sword, for example, gives you options to ignore heavy armor (and automatically ignore soft armor) or to attack an opponent’s weapon, while a spear gives you an Advantage when you are alongside other allies armed with spears.

Item Deterioration is also interestingly done. While repairing Deterioration hasn’t been explained yet, it is an interesting mechanic to show how much abuse an item can take before breaking (certain items automatically reduce each use, while others need to be literally abused), while also being a consumable resource for abilities. As previously mentioned, a sword could damage someone’s weapon (causes Deterioration to the target) at the cost of Deterioration. An object also picks up certain qualities/complications as it hits certain ranks of Deterioration, again, based on the item (i.e. a Sword will take much more to be Broken than a Stone Spear). It’s a bit simplified, but it is honestly something that could easily be taken into other games with relative ease, or even promote using the RPC system for other settings (Fallout, anyone?).

To tie into both setting and mechanics, Dragons Conquer America assumes that a player will have Prejudices, including Xenophobia, Racism, Sexism, or even Traditionalist/Modernist. The mechanic is pretty simple to use, as it requires a check to see how drastically it will get in the way (failing could lead to violence, but barely succeeding would raise tensions). This is an element of the time that is hard to quantify in a game, and I think the crew behind DCA gave us something to work with that won’t be annoying to track or too offensive to use. There’s a sidebar included here that gives us a note on why it’s here and ways to bypass it (or utilize it for character development!) if needed.

As with most other Quickstart materials, you have an abbreviated set of the core rules and an adventure. In this case, the adventure is Episode 0 for the setting, and not only does it act as a means of introducing players to the game, but there’s a form at the end of the document that allows you to record what happened here for publisher use.

Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that this is a sign of a Living Campaign, and Burning Games has stated that they will be using results of games as a means of influencing the story going forward.

Honestly, props need to be given to them for making a historic fiction with a what-if tied in, and then basing that what-if on the actions of players. We might see peace between the native tribes and the Spanish, or we might see one side reach victory (and it might not be who we expect). I’m a sucker for a good story, and living campaigns, if done right, can lead to great stories. The submissions here and those from the Kickstarter rulebooks (Episodes I & II) will influence the story for later rulebooks.

If anything, that kind of reminds me of a cross of 7th Sea and Orpheus; players influence the game storyline while acting within that specific storyline, altering later publications and rules. These can be great fun with the right group, and an easy framework to tweak with a good GM.

I’m also digging the current customer support. There’s a Discord channel to discuss things with Dragons Conquer America and Faith, and I’ve gotten a number of answers to my questions that I needed a better understanding of so I could clarify things in this post. The designers are also open to player concerns and not only help with rules explanations, but also balance issues, to the point of making changes in the text to fix the issue (much better than some of the other playtests/early access projects I’ve been on!). They are also pretty active on Twitter, and should be checked out there as well for much the same reason.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the art in this packet. Whoever the artists and design team members are, they deserve praise for the level of detail in some of these images. “Gorgeous” isn’t a good enough descriptor for this artwork, and while there are a few that are not up to this word, there are others that are stunning to view.

==The Bad==

Right out of the gate, the biggest problem is in the language. The crew behind this are non-native speakers of English, and while I give them credit for having something that is functional in many respects, the work overall has a number of elements that are difficult to understand at best or impossible at worst. Having a background in languages (especially English and Spanish) might help you figure out what the goal was, but between odd wording and a large number of typos, it can be a rather rough read.

A tweet explaining the issue. I have been assured (in more words than this tweet) that the work will be reviewed and edited by a native English speaker as part of the Kickstarter campaign. This negative note currently pertains to the Quickstart and not to what the finished product will be.

Speaking of language, we are given names and words from various dialects and languages, but no tips for pronunciation. Considering that the majority of English speakers have no idea what a number of native dialects sound like (and some aren’t even certain about Spanish!), it makes it difficult to pronounce some of these words and names. I hope we will see tips for this in a later version of the Quickstart, but I have been assured that the team is working on providing these tips as well as a number of setting appropriate names for Spanish and Native Cultures to assist those who are terrible at names (I know I’m guilty of that).

The current files are also incomplete, which brings up a number of issues for readers. Between the challenge of language and the lack of details on some mechanics, there are some part of this book that are tough to grasp and would benefit from an example, but are lacking. Deterioration, Timed Sequences, and even Damage are among these that could be better explained or are missing elements, while other narrative mechanics, such as the “Character Traits”, have a weird cross of positive and negative (Addicted and Beautiful, for example) but are treated equally.

The creators did note there will be corrections made and more details made available within an updated version of the document when the Kickstarter goes live; I do hope they follow through with that promise, as I’d love to see more of the setting, rules, and some of these typos cleaned up!

==Magic: The In Between==

Magic in Dragons Conquer America takes the form of Miracles (Christianity) or an element tied to an unknown Mesoamerican Religion (details should be available later; not in the Quickstart available at this time), each having rules of use and a cost in Spirit. The problem is, the player thinks they have a set amount of Spirit, when in reality they can have much more (or even less!), and if they overspend their Spirit, they gain Corruption.

For example, say you are playing a Catholic Priest looking to convert the natives and “show them the light of God.” After helping slay a group of their warriors who had burned down a newly built church, you “Transcend” (as “Fighting Heresy” is a “ritual”). You perform a Rites check, and the GM draws a card from the deck; let’s say a 4. You, as a player, add 4 Spirit to your sheet.

In reality, depending on how well you did (or how badly you failed), you may have lost 4 Spirit, gained 3 Spirit, gained 4 Spirit, or even gained 8 Spirit.

Alternatively, the player may gain just one Spirit for completing a “ritual,” but who’s really going to pass up the option of something more?

Of course, this is a built-in mechanic to show the folly of man and to get players to “overspend” on spells/miracles to give them Corruption, which can then be used (not spent; it becomes a per-session penalty) to cause ill fortune or demon possession (other effects are still to come). I feel that such a mechanic is a bit off-putting, as it keeps players from wanting to use their abilities for fear that they may end up losing their character, and I mean that literally. I did the math, and 7 corruption with a bad skill check will just about automatically kill a character, leaving a demon behind for the party to face (4 Corruption for a level 4 Demon, then 3 Corruption to gain 3 Disadvantages, causing -9 to the check; max skill value is 9). Hell, even 1 Corruption can make the PC a ghost when they die, haunting the party or causing problems for them.

Sadly, gaining Corruption is pretty easy, and it’s kept entirely in secret. If you perform a Miracle and didn’t have enough Spirit (due to the aforementioned Transcending action being secret), you gain 1 Corruption. Some abilities even cause Corruption, and again, it’s all in secret.

Say you believe you have 5 Spirit (but the GM notes you actually have 4), and decide to use the Word of God to speak to the natives. This brings you to 3 Spirit (actually 2). Then you decide to perform the Eucaristia to give a group of Catholic Conquistadors (other party members) a bonus. This costs 3 Spirit, but since you actually had 2, you gained a Corruption. Additionally, if there were three members of that group that had Corruption (secret to you and, if they were PCs, secret to them!), that’s another 3 Corruption for your character.

It’s a slippery slope with a bad end, and the player won’t even realize it until it’s over.

I like the idea of having some mystery with falling into Damnation, but I feel that the effects that players gain from miracles (so far, giving Advantages, removing Corruption, expelling demons, having a summoned snake follow your orders, and creating/cleansing food) aren’t going to be enough to offset the damnation/problems they will face. It also feels too much like a “f*ck you” mechanic, which I am not very fond of.

I’d consider tweaking the mechanic a bit to make Corruption a more subtle force (based on deeds or abusing power), or possibly keep the mystery of Spirit gain/loss but keep the cost of the Miracle a secret as well (“God works in mysterious ways”). I’d even consider setting guidelines for basic Rituals (a simple +1) vs Transcending (something that needs to be worked for) instead. There are a few other ways it could be possible to tweak, but as written, I’m not a fan with things as written.

Thankfully things are still being discussed via Discord (and the team is reading reviews of the product, including this one. Hi guys!) and we might be seeing some changes in the finished product, whether full revamps or just changes in the placeholders that we are looking at.

==The Verdict==

At this time, I am unable to give a rating to Dragons Conquer America. Do note that this isn’t due to a flaw with the game, but rather due to a lack of information that would make the game complete (character creation, character progression, complete magic rules, etc). Everyone that knows me (or read my reviews) that every one of these elements impacts the score I give a game, so I would feel like a bad reviewer if I didn’t wait until the product was a bit more complete before giving it a rating.

That said, should you back Dragons Conquer America when it goes live? That will depend entirely on you, but I know I’m leaning toward “yes.”

If you want a game that has an interesting overall mechanic that doesn’t require fistfuls of dice (unless you want to,of course!), a setting that is both historical and fantastic that approaches a seldom explored part of the world, has more of an “RP for bonuses” approach to dealing with numbers, and are curious as to how the story within the setting will pan out, then you should absolutely look at backing Dragons Conquer America on November 1st.

If you are the kind of gamer that prefers gritty realism, heavy combat, heavy fantasy tropes, dislikes historic fiction, and/or would prefer tons of dice of different varieties (or prefer your own lucky dice), you’d probably want to step away from this…but it does have redeeming qualities to borrow from if you like any of the previously mentioned elements. If you are not fond of South American history, or if you dislike the 16th Century, you probably should give this a pass (but if the mechanic is of interest, look into their sci-fi game instead!).

Personally, I am going to see which PDF options will be available and back based off of that. I don’t think finances will allow me to swing for a print copy and shipping from the EU, but I’d like to help this project succeed, even if it is just a small bit.

If you’d like to give the game a look before the Kickstarter goes live and to determine if it’s going to be right for you and your gaming group, feel free to follow this link to find the free Quickstart rules. If you prefer to see these rules with a sci-fi twist, then check out their game FAITH instead via the free downloads.

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