Friday, March 16, 2012

So, Dragons, eh?

I have been kind of apprehensive about writing this now, the promise of this piece was made over a month ago; so, I assume, there has been some anticipation and that means it had better be good. The fact of the matter is I never intended to wait this long to write this, I was just distracted by other stuff, then sick for a couple of weeks, then kind of distracted by other mini-projects, and a little worried about making this actually be worth the wait. Then I remembered this is the Garnia Development Blog, a blog I set up so Darryl and I and anyone else who wanted to could spit-ball half-baked ideas back and forth to see what stuck, what developed out of the process.

I have some pretty definite ideas about dragons and their use in D&D and other fantasy games, frankly I think they are over used and have become somewhat mundane end bosses for too many adventures. I actually blame D&D for this. The codification of Dragons with the color and metallic categories made them seem too normal, regular. Dragons in literature, pre-D&D, and in ancient and medieval myth and legend were so much more bad ass. They were singular and powerful. In Norse mythology they mention two of the beasts, Nidhogg, the corpse-render, that tears at the corpses on Nastrond in Niflheim and he also gnaws at one of the roots of the world tree; then there is Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, who is a child of Loki and who will ultimately die killing Thor at Ragnarok. In Beowulf the unnamed, but suitably bad-ass, Dragon kills Beowulf before being slain by Wiglaf. In the Saga of the Volsungs, or Nibelungenlied if you prefer the German version, Sigurd slays Fafnir, the singular and bad-ass Dragon. When we get to the honorable Professor Tolkien's "The Hobbit", the entire quest is based around ultimately slaying the Dragon Smaug.

In each instance, the Dragon is THE Dragon not A Dragon, and I think that's an important difference. In Garnia I want each and every Dragon that ever appears to be something special and memorable, they should be singular and unique like Demon Princes or Arch-Devils. My thinking on this may have been colored by my early play experiences. When I was a kid, my DM Tim had the Grenadier Ancient Red Dragon miniature from their "Gold Box" official AD&D line, and it only got broke out for special occasions, the end of a major quest, the deepest level of some mad Arch-Mage's mega-dungeon or some such major end game. We might see that miniature get used once or twice a year. He always had it with him, but it rarely came out, and sometimes when it did it was a statue or an illusion or something. When it wasn't, the first few times, we learned our lesson that we weren't quite up to snuff yet, and ran away as fast as we could. Later on we stood our ground a little longer and suffered for it, Dragons are tough as nails and we still weren't ready. After a while we were tougher, and planned better and we started hunting it and had some inconclusive fights. We wanted to be Dragon-Slayers. Bad. That damned Ancient Red Dragon became one of the focal points of our multi-year campaign. It was THE Dragon, not A Dragon.

Now, I have made some errors in Judgment regarding Dragons in the past myself. One of the first adventures I made for the same group of players that was in Tim's campaign included not one, but two Dragons, and neither of them was Red, there was a White Dragon and a Green Dragon. I wanted to set myself apart stylistically from Tim I guess and use a greater range of AD&D monsters than he ever did. I also made extensive use of Kobolds and Goblins instead of Orcs, just because they were his signature, go-to humanoids, again, because he owned the official AD&D boxed set from Grenadier.

So what corrected these missteps? In a word- Dragonlance. The overwhelming popularity of Dragonlance caught me totally off guard, I was reading Dragon Magazine at the time they were preparing the project, so I guess I knew it was coming, but I didn't read the books or get the modules and play them, so the Dragonlance mania that took the D&D community by storm caught me by surprise. Dragonlance took Dragons and made them commonplace adversaries, and for characters that were too low level to fight Dragons, invented Draconians for them to fight. As a multi-level marketing scheme for TSR, I can't fault the idea; it was new and somewhat innovative to tie books to the modules. I have other issues with the setting and characters in the books, because I did read the short stories as they were published in Dragon Magazine and I did eventually get around to reading the first Dragonlance trilogy, but they are beyond the scope of this post. I never did play in or DM the modules, but I am slightly familiar with their content. Making Dragons an everyday occurrence is a problem though, and I recognized it as such, so I started taking a step back.

Now, I understand the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but does that really mean we have to have Dragons everywhere? I had, in fact, already moved away from a dungeon-based model of gaming and was more of a wilderness exploration, smaller dungeon/location with some politics and war type of a DM. I am, even now, re-learning the basic points of running a more mega-dungeon based game, trying to bring back a little of the older school of gaming to my kids and the rest of my gaming buddies. But having Dragons everywhere eliminates some of the majesty of the Dragon. One of the things that I liked, then didn't like, about 3e was the adventure path series of modules starting with "The Sunless Citadel" and the fact that it featured a wee Dragon for newbie adventurers to slay, on the first level of the dungeon. It was the same problem that I had when I started DMing for my buddies in Tim's D&D group, they wanted to use more of the monsters, particularly the iconic Dragon, but they did it in such a way that it was a huge misstep. I didn't DM that entire adventure path, I switched to playing after a while, then I quit playing it a while after that, but I seem to remember Dragons showing up quite a bit along the way.

How does this relate to Dragons in Garnia? I want to have rare, awesome, unique Dragons that can be the focal point of campaigns. The D&D chromatic/metallic axis of Evil and Good Dragons with their set Hit Dice and Breath Weapons and Sizes and Age Categories doesn't really quite do that for me. I want every single Dragon in Garnia to be THE Dragon. They'll all look different, wings, no wings. They'll all have different Hit Dice or Hit Points assigned and different abilities, Fire-Breathing, Poison-Breath, Poisonous Bite, or something else. Maybe they'll be immense creatures, maybe they'll be rather smaller than you'd have expected. Maybe they'll have names, like Nidhogg, or maybe they'll be known as the Great Dragon of the Averyraen, or maybe they'll be some nameless beast that comes to ravage the land like in Beowulf. The only thing that is going to be certain is that they are going to be ancient and deadly.

So I guess what I am saying is, naturalism be damned when it comes to Dragons, the age of Dragons is passed, over with; there aren't any breeding pairs, you won't find any eggs and you aren't going to be able to subdue the Dragon and sell it or use it as a mount. The Dragon doesn't necessarily have to be Evil, although the rest of this post certainly seems to be pointing that way, and I am mostly basing the campaign world on European myth and legend, which tends to paint Dragons in a certain less than Good aligned light, there is the possibility of a particular Dragon being Good aligned or Neutrally aligned, certainly there have been human cultures that saw them as such. I am merely positing that they should be unique, special creatures.

Now, how does this relate to lesser Draconic creatures like Wyverns or Dragonnes? I didn't really give this much thought, but I would say that we can either decide to exclude them from the world, keep them as is, or change them too. I am for keeping them as is and either assuming that they are devolved Dragons, not fully evolved Dragons, or that the similarity in appearance is merely coincidental; I don't want to throw out the whole AD&D Monster Manual. I also have a section of the world with Dinosaurs, a real lost world kind of a place, the place that looks like a giant version of the Congo basin, only ringed in by mountains, on the alt-Africa continent way south of the alt-Mediterranean where the Romans live; I haven't explained them to myself yet, so they are a mystery to the setting. Maybe all these Draconic species evolved from them, and they were saved from extinction on earth? But by who then? That is a long time ago, I had not considered an Elven civilization that was 65 million plus years old, and I don't think they are time travelers either. Any thoughts?

To be fair, the only reason they existed originally was because I thought "Wouldn't it be cool to have an adventure where the PCs went and captured Dinosaurs for use in Gladiatorial games in the arena?", and I ran with the idea when I was building that part of the world. That part of the world is also chock full of savage tribes of humanoids, it's where the Goblins that overran and destroyed the Egyptian empire came from, full of Lizard Men and is the only place I have ever placed either Bullywugs or Lizard Kings in Garnia.


  1. William, you attitude and feelings about dragons in D&D matches mine exactly. I've never been happy with the status quo.

    And nothing to do with nothing but I first read the bit about Gladiatorial games as "where the PCs were captured by Dinosaurs for use in Gladiatorial games". Now that would be a world to adventure in. :-)

  2. Having the PCs captured by Dinosaurs for use in Gladiatorial games is a pretty awesome idea. I am attempting to envision what kind of Dinosaurs would like to watch Gladiatorial games and what their arena would look like right now. That would certainly add a twist to the Roman adventurer's journey when they go hunting Dinosaurs for their arena.

  3. The hunter becomes the hunted. :-)

  4. Part of this issue revolves around the central construct of the world - ie it is THE homeland of the elves, and also a primary battlefield in the cosmic battle between the Darkness and the Light. The elves helped seed a lot of sentient cultures here, largely out of altruism, but a lot of other species are here due to the machinations of those nebulous forces of good and evil.

    I am all for dragons being far less common and far more awe inspiring. I too believe that they should be largely forces of evil, or at best uninterested and unaligned forces of just sheer bad-assery. We don't necessarily have to address dragon origins or any of that here - dragons come from somewhere else. How they evolved, developed, etc, doesn't matter. For our purposes all that is important (and then really only marginally important to the campaign setting if perhaps more important and interesting to us as developers) is why they are here. As extremely potent, powerful creatures, typically with high intelligence, my belief is that any dragons here were either enlisted, enslaved, tricked or convinced to come here to fight for the Darkness (or possibly for the light - this could be for the rare "good" dragons, but also for other "evil" dragons enlisted out of desperation to combat the dragons aligned with the darkness...) How many, etc is for the chroniclers most likely.

    I need some clarification (I originally mistyped that as clarifiction, a new non-word whose supposed meaning I found rather amusing) - isn't the whole cosmic battlefield situation (which, if I am correct, is millennia old, almost timeless really, spanning gods knows how many realms, lands and worlds) experiencing a bit of a lull, at least on this front? Do we have a far-reaching outline of this overall conflict in mind (or should we?)(I know I've asked this before...)

    Regarding dinosaurs, I dig having them in there, I'll add them to the maps - we need to talk on that too (maps that is) - I think sentient dinosaurs who build coliseums (I hate the modern spelling of this word btw - colosseum, from colossus, makes much more sense to me. At least The Colosseum gets to keep my preferred spelling...) to watch tiny bipedal gladiatorial contests sound a lot like dragons, perhaps particularly sadistic one...

    Back to dragons then - if there are no breeding pairs and no broods or eggs, then either the dragons here are probably pretty damn old, or "new" dragons must still be coming over from somewhere, right?

    Since this response is now long enough to have qualified as its own post - I'll end for now...

    1. Maybe, if Dragons still breed, they need to return to their own plane of origin to do so, like Salmon returning to their spawning grounds. If that is so, then maybe the only Dragons we ever see are Draconic Adventurers or something? Maybe they need to accumulate so much treasure to attract a mate?

    2. The cosmic battle between Darkness and Light, I should have addressed this before, but I was all focused on the Dragon stuff. You are right, it is millennia old and I guess I should have some sort of rough timeline for it too. I kind of do, but only as it pertains to the planes that have directly affected the development of Garnia, like the lost Dwarf home world.

  5. this dragons on Garnia thing is interesting to me. I could see some novels around this theme - I think I'm up to 4 different novels ideas now...

    1. 3 sets of trilogies - 1 set in the modern day "current" GW, 1 during the Celtic migration and the Sidhe wars and 1 centered on the New-Med from the Egyptians thru the Goblins to the Romans.

  6. Interesting OD&D counterpoint:

    Not to say your take is bad or anything.

    Myself, I like to play up the alien nature of dragons. And not make them too too big. This was my somewhat recent attempt: