Artist Larry Elmore’s cover illustration in the last issue, #359, features an emerald dragon crouched atop a serene hillside. In the foreground, a busty, bronze-skinned Amazoness wearing feathered piecemeal armor wields a golden bow, its color amplified by the bright yellow of Dragon‘s fat title font. No headlines obstruct this issue’s illustration, and their absence hearkens back to the clean covers of the late nineties.
After 1998, the top strip of each cover proudly announced what each issue was going to be about, and #359 was no exception. Dragon #359 featured the return of twenty of D&D’s oldest super villains, magical relics unearthed from Castle Greyhawk, and the “Ecology of the Tarrasque”—D&D’s deadliest monster.
Ever since Dragon launched as a custom newsletter for TSR Hobbies, it operated as a house organ for its licensers. The rate for a single, full-page color ad in 2007 was $2400; at the time, the magazine was guaranteeing 50,000 worldwide distribution—a CPM of $48. Under Paizo, every article that appeared in Dragon was approved by WotC before the magazine went to print. Before the twenty-first century, almost all of Dragon‘s advertisements hawked D&D products, and this remained at least half-true in the end.
In its final incarnation, Dragon was organized into three main categories: news articles and reviews, departments, and features. The front matter always included a letter from the editor (“The Wyrm’s Turn”) and mail from subscribers (“Scale Mail”). Review articles like “First Watch” and the one-fourth page advertorial “Dragon Talk” previewed tabletop games, toys, websites, video games and other gaming products. Dragon‘s prominent video game coverage in this section starkly contrasts with the clumsy approach the magazine took in the late eighties and early nineties: awkward titles like “The Eye of the Monitor” and “The Role of Computers” evince that these technologies were unfamiliar territory for the magazine in those days. Black and white background boxes with orange or red headlines cleanly demarcated each of the non-feature columns. In this way, departments and news articles were easily distinguishable from features. Under TSR Periodicals, the reviews section also covered upcoming conventions, RPGA or industry news, and book reviews.
Only two aspects of Dragon remained consistent through the years: its comic section, which bookended the magazine, and its longest-running department, “Sage Advice,” which allowed the game’s publishers to resolve readers’ most pressing rules-related questions. The last of nearly two dozen comics Dragon acquired since the inclusion of its “Dragonmirth” department was Order of the Stick, a popular web-comic. Notably, the reprinting of the comic Knights of the Dinner Table got Dragon into the legal trouble associated with TSR’s Dragon Magazine Archive, a CD-ROM that contained the magazine’s first 250 issues in .pdf format.
Few departments survived major revisions to the Core Rules, as the content of Dragon‘s articles reflect the rules set of the most current edition. Supplements in #100, for example, are incompatible with supplements from #320, because they each support different editions of the game. Even so, columns like “Spellcraft,” “Heroic Feats,” “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “Class Acts,” “Gaining Prestige,” and “Winning Races” expanded the content of WotC’s compendiums by providing players with additional spells, magic items, rules, and races for use in their campaigns.
Dragon‘s feature well was the meat of the magazine, however. In the December 2006 issue, a patchwork green background filled the pages of “Legacy of the Ancient Empires.” The same issue’s “Savage Tides” feature—an adventure supplement—resembled the parchment of old treasure maps. Any advertisements that appeared in the feature well were squished into a quarter-width rectangle running along the edge of the page.
The content of the features varied considerably. Creating supplemental material for an RPG involves making compatible with dice rolls everything a role-player might want to introduce into her campaign. The “Dragon Magazine Writers’ Guidelines” advised readers to submit one of four types of articles to the magazine: advice articles, general interest essays, fantasy detail supplements, and expansions to the rules. Freelancers received five cents a word for their manuscripts, and authors were required to sign over all rights to the magazine upon their article’s acquisition (which they did, eagerly). Advice articles, also called “metagaming” or RPG “etiquette” by players, focused on improving play by enhancing interaction between the DM and her players. Examples included “Managing player knowledge versus character knowledge” (#305) and “He’s Got Personality; a paladin’s Charisma works differently from that of a bard or enchanter, and here’s how” (#243). General interest essays were meant to appeal to the average role-player by making applicable to the D&D campaign topics from the real world: “Campaign Components: Knights, everything you need to bring honor and chivalry to your game” (#299) detailed the chivalric codes of medieval knights while “Crystal Confusion: Everything—and we mean everything—you’ll ever need to know about gems” (#248) gave the succinct gemology lesson every adventuring thief needs. The more specific rules features focused on introducing optional dice mechanics to handle situations undocumented by the Core Rules. “Ramming Speed: Complete vehicle combat rules” (#294) and “Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Using Power Components for spells and magic items” (#317) are keen examples of D&D’s endless quest to reduce reality to polyhedrons. Finally, the most common type of article in the feature well was the fantasy detail supplement, which expanded D&D’s fantasy lore. The “Ecology Of” and “Demonicon” series are famous for introducing a plethora of monsters and demons into Dragon‘s pages over the years.