Drakar och Demoner and the Rise of RPGs in Sweden

Back in March, a listener of the podcast, Gandalf Tätting, got in touch to express how interesting it is to hear about the dominance of Dungeons & Dragons in the US when in Sweden the game didn’t arrive until the 90s and, when it did, it found the market already dominated by a game called Drakar och Demoner (that was powered by Basic Role-playing!). I’ve long been interested in DoD, and Gandalf offered to write up a broad strokes history for my (and your) illumination. It kind of got lost in the shuffle for several months because of my book production, but the launch of Free League’s version of DoD gave us a good reason to get it out out. Hope you enjoy!

Stu

The rise of Swedish roleplaying games in the ‘80s were shaped by Fredrik Malmberg. He was the teenage co-owner of a game store in Stockholm when he went to the United States and, after a short while, found himself living under the roof of Steve Perrin. Before that, he and the guys in the store were mainly selling wargames with a small section of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) products. When he returned to Sweden, he brought with him the insight that RPGs were taking off. Soon after that, he landed a good deal (a one-time payment, they say) for using Chaosium’s Basic Role-playing system (BRP). 

At the time there was no real distribution of D&D in Sweden and the gang quickly figured out that they had to make their mark first, before TSR found a way into the country. And so, in 1982, the first Swedish language RPG was published. They named it Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons, shortened DoD). The rules were based on BRP and that system’s Magic World supplement (which they got before it was even published in English). The game was released by Äventyrsspel (Adventure Games), a name that came to be synonymous with RPGs in Sweden. 

From this start, Äventyrsspel grew and managed to effectively keep other RPGs out of Sweden until enough kids of the ‘80s had grown up and learned enough English to explore the worlds of D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. There were some other publishers (Lancelot Games, Neogames) that came along, but they could never effectively compete with Äventyrsspel. As in other places, Äventyrsspel had to not only make the games, but also explain them and market them; they lucked out by striking a deal with a major toy distributor. This meant that in every little town that had a toy store, kids could find their games.

The DoD basic box from 1982 didn’t take off, but in 1984, a second edition was published in which the rules were reworked slightly and the text received a major update with a further revision in 1985. This box set was what really brought RPGs to Sweden. It was also the first to feature a Michael Whelan painting of Elric on the cover. Between 1984 and 1994, Elric was a feature of the DoD boxed rule sets with one or two exceptions (much the same as Whelan’s Elric fronts all the album covers of the band Cirith Ungol). The rules were still d100 role under and this was also the edition that brought in RuneQuest-style anthropomorphic ducks as a playable race.

In 1985, the first expansion box set was published, called Drakar och Demoner Expert (EDD). It brought in more advanced (complicated) rules and switched from the percentile die to a d20. From this point on, most published material had stats for EDD. It also contained separate magic rules with specialty schools. The expert box also brought in a lot more equipment and skills, you could say it’s the plus-menu version of the original game.

DoD: Gigant brought a higher level of tactical rules, including rules for armies, fortification and guidance for how to rule over a province, along with some new magic rules and professions. DoD: Samuraj did what it sounds like, it provided a setting inspired by feudal Japan and tweaked the rules slightly to fit that setting. Similarly, DoD: Ivanhoe provided a classical medieval European setting with knights in shining armor. Neither Samuraj nor Ivanhoe were particularly long-lived.

Drakar och Demoner was a huge hit in Sweden. It’s said that at its height, it was the second most sold RPG in the world, despite being in Swedish. Because of this, Äventyrsspel had a hard time keeping up with demand and they published a many supplements and adventures without much of a plan. When they finally published a world (named Ereb Altor), it tied in several countries that were positioned next to each other but had wildly different cultures. The earlier lack of a world had opened the door for submitted manuscripts, which led to published products that varied greatly in content and quality. All these places became Ereb Altor.

Some ‘80s products for DoD that are worth mentioning for their lasting impact on RPGs in Sweden are Monsterboken and Monsterboken II (classic monster manuals) and Svavelvinter (a legendary campaign). Monsterboken was filled with the drawings of Nisse Guliksson, who already had done many illustrations for Äventyrsspel and Svavelvinter was a campaign and setting by Erik Granström. Gulliksson’s illustrations were the inspiration for the Forbidden Lands RPG and Granström was involved in designing the setting for that game. Erik Granström’s Svavelvinter (sulphur winter) also became a series of fantasy books and its own RPG, published by Free League in 2012. Another trace of DoD can be seen in the name of the old world left behind in Symbaroum: Alberetor, a not-so-hidden wink to the old Ereb Altor setting.

Äventyrsspel completely revamped DoD with a fourth edition in 1991. By that time the existing rules were quite old and they rebooted the game with an improved, simpler version of the EDD rules. Ehis edition was also boxed with Elric on the cover. For this edition, they didn’t publish many single adventures, but rather campaign-modules with themes like elves, warriors, thieves and so on. Perhaps the most interesting one was called Svartfolk (a name that literally translates to “black peoples.” These days it’s usually called Orch-kin for obvious reasons). It was a deep dive into the cultures and societies of orchs, goblins, trolls, ogres and so on. With it you could play a campaign as orchs.

The last thing Äventyrsspel did with DoD was to publish a new edition in ‘94 that broke with the tradition of launching as a box set – it didn’t have Elric on the cover and it was set in a gigantic fantasy city (DoD Chronopia). At the time, Äventyrsspel focused their energy on launching Kult and Mutant Chronicles internationally and this resulted in a departure from what DoD had always been. They still produced a handful of campaign modules and adventures until the late ‘90s.

After the ‘90s, Drakar och Demoner came into the hands of Riotminds, when Äventyrsspel/Target games went out of business. Riotminds used it and developed their Trudvang setting for it. Riotminds sold the IP to Free League, who are aiming to publish a new version to in 2022. As Free League has launched its Kickstarter for Drakar och Demoner (or, as they decided to call it in English, Dragonbane), they published a set of quickstart rule – it’s obvious that they have kept the d20 roll under with the skills, abilities and attributes system that was the backbone of classic DoD. Perhaps most importantly (for some of us), they kept the ducks. Even more exciting, Free League revealed that several legends from the ‘80s will be writing material for the revival, such as Magnus Seter, Gunilla Jonsson, Michael Petersén and Roger Undhagen.

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Check out Free League’s Drakar och Demoner/Dragonbane Kickstarter.

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