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.