Players expend fatigue points to cast spells, and must roll percentile dice to succeed. Many of the more powerful spells have a very low chance of success, and may backfire with random results (many quite unpleasant). By expending experience points, a mage may improve their ability to cast specific spells by gaining rank in them. There are also advanced spells which can be obtained from more powerful mages in ones Magic College. This advanced knowledge may require a substantial cash payment or some kind of quest to obtain, however. Certain spells require expensive or rare elements to work properly, while the majority are merely spoken.
It is possible in the context of the game for player Mages to create magic items (such as rings, amulets, weapons, etc.) for later use by themselves or other party members. Such items are also found on occasion, either "in the field" or for sale at a well-stocked market or shop.
Weapons are learned in much the same manner as Vocations. The limitation is that weapons have various maximum ranks (levels) which can be achieved, while other skills usually top out at rank 10. Magic spells gain improved chances of success and better strength when rank is gained in them also, and this is done on a spell-by-spell basis (eg. character is a fire mage and has improved his skill to rank 6 in Fireball, but rank 0 in many other spells of his magic college which he considers less important).
Characters are required to spend many weeks training after an experience-generating adventure in order to increase skill levels. Weapons training typically requires the aid of a person of greater skill than the player, and hiring a weapon-master can be expensive as well. Often, a group will return to town laden with gold, only to realize that between the several months spent training (room & board) and the cost of experts to assist them with training, most of the money is already spent! It is also possible that a character may actually be the expert in his/her local area, and thus might have to travel some distance to receive instruction from a person of greater ability.
Each character has a strike chance % based on (mostly) their manual dexterity and the base chance of the weapon used to attack. Additional factors, such as running into an attack or achieving surprise -- as in an ambush -- modify this base chance. The defender's defensive % is subtracted from this number, and percentile dice rolled to see if a hit is achieved. When a hit is delivered, the attacker rolls a d10, adds the weapon's attack bonus, and subtracts the target's armor rating. In some cases, such as a target with plate armor, few weapons can do much damage directly. Only certain special hits can damage the target severely. But with time, even the most heavily-armored Knight can usually be worn-down.
Unlike other systems, which use "hit points" to tally damage, DQ has a two-tiered system of fatigue and endurance. Normally a weapon does fatigue damage only, but an especially lucky hit may immediately cause endurance damage or even a grievous injury, which allows the attacker to roll again on a table of nasty hits to the eyes, guts, etc. Once a character has lost all of his fatigue, he begins taking endurance damage instead. This is bad, since endurance damage requires magical intervention or extended bed rest to be recovered. Fatigue can be recovered by simply relaxing and getting a hot meal and a good night's sleep. Especially realistic or cruel referees may also check to see if an infection sets in from endurance damage.
Another DQ feature is a three-tiered combat range system: Ranged, Melee, and Close Combat. Ranged Combat typically involves bows, slings, and thrown knives, while Melee is swords, spears, maces and most other weapons. Close Combat in DQ is wrestling on the ground with knives, fists, rocks, etc. DQ allows a party of heroes to be surrounded and ultimately overwhelmed by large numbers of peasants, who rather than attacking singly and being cut to ribbons, will instead seek to surround and leap into Close Combat to subdue and pin down Player Characters. Some weapons, such as daggers, can be used at all ranges, but most cannot and are useless when the character is being shot with bows or engaged in Close Combat.
DragonQuest combat falls midway in complexity between D&D and systems such as Runequest or Harn. It can take several hours to resolve battles. Tactics, choice of weapon, and use of spells are keys to victory. The main drawback to DQ is that novice characters and mighty heroes have nearly the same ability to absorb damage -- ie. they can both be killed fairly easily (unlike D&D in which high-level characters can take remarkable amounts of damage without dying). This requires parties to have a balance of fighting and magic skills, since a party cannot be centered on a single nigh-invulnerable figure (a "Conan the Barbarian" type).
As characters grow in skills and abilities, the cost to rise to higher skill levels increases greatly, but the amount of base experience points awarded at the successful completion of an adventure increases as well. In addition, the Dungeon Master may award characters bonus experience points for valiant, clever or outstanding performance during gameplay.
The DragonQuest trademark prevented the Dragon Quest video game series from being published in North America under that title. In 2003, Square Enix registered the Dragon Quest trademark in the US. This trademark abandonment by Wizards of the Coast indicates that they have no interest in future DragonQuest publications.
The first SPI edition came in a cardboard box containing three separate, softcover books, "Character Generation," "Magic" and a "Monster/Skills" manual. The second edition came as an all-in-one softcover version published by SPI. The third edition published by TSR came in yet another all-in-one softcover version with different cover graphics.
The differences between editions lies mainly in the addition and subtraction of some magical colleges as well as some modifications to combat mechanics. Most DragonQuest players consider the revised second edition to be the best edition of the game, but many faithful players have been known to combine elements from all editions, creating their own version of the game.
There were supplemental materials released during the game's publication. At least one pre-written gaming module adventure was made for the DragonQuest system. A rolling screen for game masters was offered at one point, bearing helpful charts and tables necessary during gameplay. A large map of the fictional Kingdom of Alusia was released as well, which provided game masters a variety of habitats, environments and islands on which to place the action.
Despite the game's relative obscurity and continued neglect by its copyright holders, the game continues to be played by DragonQuest devotees. Over the years, DQ groups throughout the world have devised and playtested additional secondary skills (such as swimming and hunting), magic colleges, races (rules for half-elves, half-orcs, etc.), and monsters for the game since it ceased being actively published. An unofficial player's association exists online at http://www.dragonquest.org. Additional materials, including newer/untested material not in the original rules can be found at http://www.igs.net/~eric/dq/