Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dragons

I have a real love-hate relationship with Greyhawk. On the one hand, Supplement I introduces lots of things that I like a great deal or that I strongly associate with D&D, but it also introduces lots of things I don't like and that I think, taken as a whole, narrow the possibilities of the game rather than expand them. For once, I'm not thinking of the Thief class (my opinion of which is in a state of flux at the moment, but more on that later). No, instead, I'm thinking about dragons.

One of the oddities of the old days was that, in a game called Dungeons & Dragons, dragons were actually very rarely encountered. I know I rarely use them in my games and I don't ever recall encountering other referees who used them much either. Of the old school modules I have a strong memory of, I recall dragons only in Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Queen of the Demonweb Pit, although I am sure they did appear in other adventures I'm just forgetting. True or false, the impression even at TSR was that dragons had been under-used in published material, hence the need to emphasize them further.

Prior to the release of Greyhawk, dragons came in only six varieties: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden. Of these varities, only golden dragons were non-Chaotic. Supplement I filled out the ranks of the Lawful dragons, for the first time grouped the Chaotic dragons under the name "chromatic dragons," and introduced us to the King of Lawful Dragons and the Queen of Chaotic Dragons. While I'm actually a big fan of the full Gygaxian schema for dragons, I don't think this schema did anything to make dragons more attractive to use as opponents. If anything, they probably made them less so, because they helped lay the groundwork for the now nearly-universal belief that dragons ought to be "special" in some way. That is, they're not just ordinary monsters you encounter in a dungeon and kill because they're probably asleep on a big pile of loot.

Dragons are now seen as "story monsters" and, as such, can't be encountered without a good -- and probably lengthy -- understanding of who they are and what they want. Please make no mistake: I don't think this is a bad thing in and of itself. One of the tenets of Gygaxian naturalism is that monsters do have lives and interests outside of being killed by whatever adventurers who happen to stumble upon them. Where the problem sets in is when a monster's having a life and interests of its own prevents its being used effectively in play, because the referee starts to think the monster in question is "too good" to be a mere opponent. Dragons aren't the only monsters that suffer from this problem -- demons and devils do too -- but dragons are such iconic creatures that it bugs me all the more to see them placed on a pedestal and thus exempted from the slaughter due all such beasts.

I suppose I shouldn't lay all the blame with Greyhawk. Like everything associated with OD&D, it's just a collection of options that one can take or reject as one wishes. Unfortunately, the schema it presents, complete with draconic rulers at the top of it all, was so powerfully suggestive that it took hold over many people's imaginations, my own included. Dragons very quickly ceased to be ravenous, scheming beasts but members of a larger "society," one that inevitably was seen as ancient, wise, and potent beyond the ken of mere mortals. That's the image that's stuck and I don't have anything against it; it's just not the one I favor these days. I've lately been in the mood for dragons who are more solitary and bestial, the slaying of which, at least for smaller versions, isn't necessarily unheard of or the stuff of legends. In short, I'd like my dungeons to have dragons in them again.

29 comments:

  1. I've seen dragons in about half of the OD&D games I've run because in most terrain types, they show up as wilderness encounters 1 time in 8 according to the wandering monster tables on vol. 3 p. 18. The very first time I tried out the White Box, I rolled two dragons in a row, and the party managed to run away while they fought each other. I've also seen two dragons killed during wilderness travel.

    The frequency of dragon encounters took me by surprise, but in trying to make sense of it I decided that dragons are the alpha predator of unsettled areas; each nest of dragons patrols a huge area, making it likely to see one wherever you go as it flies overhead, and most travelers bring gems or magic items to pay tribute for safe passage through the territory of the dragons on their route.

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  2. Hm. I don't think we ever made that transition. The Platinum Dragon was a major NPC in our early campaign(s) (and owned all the magic shops), but he certainly wasn't called Bahamut and wasn't the literal King of the dragons. I don't think the Tiamat or any such queen of the chromatic dragons was ever even mentioned. The metallic dragons existed, but you hardly ever ran into one, because, well, if they're good then there's no reason to kill them. Chromatic dragons kept their place as something that powerful characters (or unlucky weak characters) encountered as one of the normal hazards of the dungeons and the world in general.

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  3. dragons are such iconic creatures that it bugs me all the more to see them placed on a pedestal and thus exempted from the slaughter due all such beasts.

    I'm bugged from the opposite direction: "dragonslayer" should be a pretty impressive sobriquet, no? I always thought the colour-coded dragons did too much to demystify what could be a really powerful device/set of encounters, a tendency that was perhaps best exemplified by Deities and Demigods, which gave all the gods hit points, so you could break into heaven and kill them (or pwn them), Monkey-style. But then, I was raised on Tolkien.

    I also never really encountered the (McCaffreyite?) society-of-dragons interpretation in play, but then I stopped playing before Dragonlance. Dragons as kings makes sense to me, because so many kings have represented themselves as dragons, but I think I prefer the serpent/drake/worm/dragon classification of Ars Magica, overall: that gives you both your great beasts and your scaly godlings, while being nicely vague about what YOUR dragon in YOUR campaign might be like.

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  4. There's a big red dragon in the bottom of G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King. Then there's a red-herring in a "fire lizard" to make you think it's a red dragon, too.

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  5. My above comment aside, I agree that introducing the family of metallic dragons, all good to counter the evil ones, was a mistake. The original 6 was very nice, manageable in the 7+/-2 sense, useful in a game for evil opponents, with 1 single "good" one if the DM needed that in the context of a game.

    The whole half-dozen good dragons is not inherently useful, and causes world-building problems if you feel compelled to actually include all of them.

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  6. I have most of the seem feelings as James: I can't help but be intrigued by the cosmology of the dragons, but don't really like it for play.

    Anyway, at this time, I'm using the Northlander Wyrm from Monsters of Myth as my default dragon. What is lacks in wacky, Gygaxian grandeur, it makes up in playabiltiy and folkloric "rightness".

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  7. I don't have dragons encountered often, but the games they are in are almost always memorable even years later.

    As given in the rules, I was sometimes reluctant to use dragons in my early gaming days. They seemed to be both weak and powerful. That is to say, they had reletivly few hit points for a major magical monster (usually between 30 - 40 for grown-ups), but those hit points suddenly seemed like a lot when you don't save against the breath weapon.

    Dragons sleeping on piles of treasure. More proof of Tolkien's huge influence on the game...

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  8. you probably have to blame 19th century Germans for that one, not 20th century English professors, though dragons have been sleeping on treasure at least since "Classical times."

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/291124

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  9. Indeed, dragons and treasure have a long association, Beowulf being perhaps the most obvious.

    I cannot say I have underused dragons (or underexperienced them) myself. It has been a while since I used one, but that was as a result of overexposure.

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  10. I always thought Dragons were best treated like weather. They come and go, sometimes passing overhead, sometimes laying waste to a place without a reason. Some primitive folk might worship a local one, but that doesn't mean much to the dragon, if it's even aware of it. -Dragons just do their thing.

    I think having a dragon fly overhead while the PCs are traveling outside is nice. Especially if they never see it again. It's a humbling thing that raises the tension, and reminds them that consequential things are going on outside thier little sphere of influence.

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  11. >think having a dragon fly overhead while the PCs are traveling outside is nice. Especially if they never see it again<

    Given the frequency of wandering monsters as given in most versions of D&D, you should probably see all kinds of things constantly flying overhead, or creeping across the roadway a few hundred yards away...

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  12. ... though dragons have been sleeping on treasure at least since "Classical times."

    Tru dat. Dragons hoarding 'treasure' predate Tolkien by several millennia. Think Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the kraken. Monsters have often guarded that which must be obtained, be it an object, a person, or something esoteric (immortality). It's mythic roots are as old as humanity itself.

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  13. Jay: Perseus rescued Andromeda from Cetus, not the Kraken. The Kraken is Norse in origin. Your point still stands though.

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  14. oh god, what have I done: now I think brunomac was being ironic. Sorry, mate.

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  15. Personally, I like how you don't neccessarily need to choose which dragon approach you use. Given that they can't even all talk (nevermind use magic) in some editions, it's easy enough to have raging bestial dragons and smart, wise dragons based on those distinctions.

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  16. Rach, my bad, I meant that to be more of a tongue-in-cheek reference.

    /humor attempt = fail!

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  17. Sham has a great point that OD&D dragons are a lot smaller than AD&D dragons. OD&D dragons can easily crawl through all those 10'x10' dungeon corridors. I quote:

    One aspect of this version of Dragons is that there is no guide for detailing how large these beasts actually are. The later rules made Dragons so large that they were difficult to squeeze into a dungeon without properly planning around their lair. Not so in Monsters & Treasure. I’m thinking of the St. George types here. Assuming a small Dragon might be horse sized, a standard one half-again that size, and ‘very large’ ones two or three times that size, Dragons would still be menacing, but could actually fit into and roam around most dungeons, even through ten-foot corridors and tunnels. This is open for interpretation, of course, and it does go on to state under the Subduing Dragons guide that no more than eight man-sized creatures can attempt to subdue any one Dragon. This gives us some clue to the size of the beast. I’d assume that means the ‘very large’ Dragons have a body about 12’ long (and perhaps 24‘ long with tail) in original D&D. Just my take on it, which conveniently allows Dragons to prowl the underworld without me having to worry about how they manage to do so being twice that size (48’ long for a Red Dragon in 1e). Counting tail, that would make my Dragons 12’, 18’ and 24’ long, respectively. (link: http://shamsgrog.blogspot.com/2008/12/d-cover-to-cover-part-24.html )

    So let's fill those dungeons with dragons!

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  18. I always liked how Rolemaster (2e) distinguished between 'greater drakes' and 'lesser drakes'. The former are similar to the 1e AD&D dragons: intelligent, large, powerful creatures. The latter are smaller, generally earthbound, generally less intelligent, and easily fit into dungeons. The latter are also appropriate foes for lower/mid-level characters.

    Matt's recommendation of the 'Northlander Wyrm' from Monsters of Myth is a good way to partially establish something like RM's hierarchy for A/0 D&D.

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  19. I always considered the D&D dragons to be "drakes" rather than true dragons. In other words they were the lesser, more animalistic (and pretty much unintelligent) version of dragons. A wilderness encounter of a dragon was usually one flying overhead looking for food (and usually ignoring the adventuring party in favour of some nice juicy herd animals - especially if the players had a stronghold nearby).

    Of course this did mean ignoring the ability to talk (or rather using it as an indication of the innate cunning of the dragon), and reducing their available treasure (although they did have a raven-like attraction to "bright shiny things" and would collect such things in their nests). And speaking of which, old ruined keeps on hill tops were ideal nesting sites for dragons.

    I think a major influence for this was the fact that they were the only OD&D creature that had specific rules for being subdued, or it may just be because I thought they were pretty wimpy dragons.

    Actual true dragons were always individual characters, and I don't think the players ever met one. Or realised they did, in the one case where they actually met one (the Immortal Emperor of the Sun Empire).

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  20. Damn it James, you're right. Old Style AD&D that I ran did not have many Dragons in it. I remember reading that one of the justifications for Dragonlance (and the the Hickmanian Revolution it spawned) was that many were complaining that D&D had plenty of Dungeons but hardly any Dragons.

    Whilst, I am more a Hickmanian heretic/hermit (as I don't play D&D of any sort any more) there is something to be said for Gygaxian naturalism. My Campaign did follow that script rather tightly although I had players transverse the Flanness quite extensively before they found the mega-Dungeon that defined the Campaign. I rarely used Dragons in a big way, save the bearers of doom. Such as Iuz's abortive attempt to take the Shield Lands, Dragons were used much as the Luftwafle was in WW2...inspire fear and terror.

    Dragons were also the keepers of Ancient lore that sometimes Paladins of the party had to be bound as the rest of the party "consulted" with an Ancient Red Dragon whom they would never be able to kill.

    Dragons also walked amongst as (wo)men...which also had interesting dynamics in my campaign.

    James, I understand, your problems with Gygax's colour scheme but I used those as guides rather than absolute colours.

    For example, the sickly scarlet serpent raised its head to face Dubitor. "I have lived for hundr-r-reds-s-s of your years-s-s...collected tomes that your ancestors found blasphemous-s-s...what is it you s-s-seek."

    Dubitor: "We seek the Orb of Angelica."

    The vile crimson serpent laughed and puffs of smoke came from its huge nostrils and flames licked the air. Then looking amongst its hoard of belongings that formed its putrid nest. Turning a shade carmine, "What if I told you I no longer have it."

    The Paladin unsheaths his sword, "Tell us, wurm or die..."

    It is then the Alizan serpent uncoils itself showing its giantic form, belching fire and smoke, melting the gold closest to the Thief, "You threaten me, little man, with that toothpick. Leave now before I get very angr-r-ry."

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  21. >Think Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the kraken. Monsters have often guarded that which must be obtained, be it an object, a person, or something esoteric (immortality)<

    But we are talking about a sleepy dragon laying on top of a giant pile of gold and loot, not just any monster. While monsters depicted as hording treasure throughout goes way back, that particular image of Smaug we have is probably how most people depicted their dragons in D&D, at least the evil ones.

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  22. >god, what have I done: now I think brunomac was being ironic. Sorry, mate<

    Hey, I don't appreciate...oh wait, you said I was ironic, not moronic. Although both often apply...

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  23. I was going to chime in with my take on the more open-ended treatment of Dragons in OD&D, but Geoffrey saved me the effort! It took me reading OD&D without my AD&D 1E sunglasses on to realize that dungeons need not be built around dragons.

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  24. richard:
    "I'm bugged from the opposite direction: "dragonslayer" should be a pretty impressive sobriquet, no? "

    No moreso than "giant killer", IMO. Uber-dragons have always irritated me; I much prefer them as ravening beasts, and potentially as steeds for high level N/PCs. I had an order of dragon-riding evil knights IMC (1e) who were a definite highlight. 2e & then 3e made that kind of thing much harder to do. In 3e it went totally crazy with day old Tiny wyrmlings having 30+hp, machiavellian schemes and hordes of minions! *ugh* :(

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  25. No moreso than "giant killer", IMO.

    I guess that depends on how big your giants are, too - and on that side I've always thought the D&D ones stopped short, as well.

    I take your point about 3e, though, which I confess I still haven't investigated... I didn't really understand James' annoyance (and mild hyperbole, I think) until I went and saw just what the nature of the problem is. Really, if you want your dragons to be exciting story bits make them up on an individual basis for your campaign. Sheesh

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  26. Dragons in Dungeons and Dragons, of any stripe after 2nd ed, are weak and useless. It was one of my biggest disappointments with the 2nd edition system - they were completely killable. The first time anything in the D&D world described dragons adequately was dragonlance, where they were genuinely scary. I think D&D3 tried to do something about that.

    By contrast in Rolemaster they are completely destructive.

    I never played OD&D, so I'm interested to know - since dragons have become more powerful in every edition, were they really weak in the original?

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  27. >were they really weak in the original?<

    Decent AC, but the breath weapon was the only fearful thing about them. I'm not sure how the breath weapon damage panned out in later editions, in the first Monster Manual they did damage based on their hit points, not any kind of dice roll. Any character failed a save, and they were probably dead if they were not a fighter and less than 6th level (of course in old timey games the hirelings were often there to take the fall of the first breath).

    I don't have a MM at work with me, but I always thought they had low hit dice for such legendary monsters of destruction. Only very old dragons seemed to have formidable hit dice. Take away the breath weapon, and a couple of ogres could take down an adult dragon with only a few scrapes and bruises. At some point early on in D&D other monster types seemed to take the piss out of dragons. Around 1985 they should have just changed the name of the game to "Dungeons and Beholders."

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  28. The whole half-dozen good dragons is not inherently useful, and causes world-building problems if you feel compelled to actually include all of them.

    I'm increasingly inclined to agree. Mind you, I also tend to prefer dragons as unique creatures, each one being its own type rather than conforming to some kind of system.

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  29. I think the big problem with implying any kind of society among dragons is they end up being an extreme example of the problem with elves "like us, only better at everything"

    Implying an organized culture of ultrapowerful, nearly immortal super dinosaurs comes with the problem of having that co-exist with your pseudo-midieval society without totally warping it out of any recogniseable shape. Or coming up with a reason why they're not ruling the world anymore. That's perfectly cool if you want to figure that out, but it does leave an open question if that's not something you want to deal with.

    A great example of a more bestial dragon from folklore is the Lambton Worm. Sort of the medieval legend equivalent of alligators in the sewers.

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