Wednesday 3 October 2012

Dungeons and No Dragons; Or, RuneQuest Wins Again

On G+ Jez Gordon remarks:

you know, I've been playing D&D for.... 28 years? never once fought a dragon.
Huh. But he's right - DMs do tend to hold back on the iconic monster of the game. . And this all just illustrates how sometimes "iconic" can be a curse, and how RuneQuest won in the end.

3rd edition D&D represented a wholesale capitulation to RuneQuest design principles - stats for monsters, skills, unified resolution system, damage to objects. Even now RQ is mopping up on the silver coinage standard,apparently to be incorporated in D&D 5th. And another thing it won on was dragons.

In AD&D your first baby dragon would have less than a dozen hit points and you could bag it at 2nd level or so with a few lucky arrow shots, like those Elmore guys I unloaded on last year. Even high level dragons were distinguished mainly by giving and taking large amounts of damage, rather than anything truly amazing.

RuneQuest reached in and grabbed D&D by its second D. Dragons in RQ were demigod-level power mongers and the best you could realistically do was to fight their larval form, the humanoid dragonewts.

Following suit, second edition D&D made dragons more badass, although some of the new abilities backfired - I dare you to think about wing buffets without thinking of Buffalo wing buf-fays. Third edition had hurk gurk colossal great wyrms with their RQ serial numbers filed off.

Not Russ' finest hour.
When the ultimate dragons are Galactus-level challenges, you feel cheap giving the players anything less - kind of like the Firedrake and Ice Lizard in the Fiend Folio weren't popular because they dialed down the value of the dragon brand even further, leaving aside the "Pete's Dragon" influence in their art.

And back to the curse of the iconic. Dragons set up the DM in a double bind. You want your players' first time with a dragon to be special, whereas a minotaur or a manticore can just pop out from behind any old bush. But at the same time there's the nagging doubt that the dragon is also the ultimate cliche, like the skull mountain or idol with giant gem eyes. Both these factors work together to inhibit the dragons from coming out and playing in a lot of campaigns.

The final excuse is that lot of campaigns hover in the low levels, where dragons aren't seen as appropriate foes. The one time I put a dragon in the dungeon it came out of a random room stocking roll on the fly as a party explored the upper works of the Mad Archmage's castle. I think the way I used that dragon - as a self-aware philosophical dilemma - was both suitable to low level players, and broke out of the cliche mold, "the great worm asleep on its pile of treasure" &c. What dragons have going for them is intelligence, which means that old school DMs can drop them in at every level, assuming players are smart enough to grovel abjectly or bargain desperately rather than fight.


  1. Mummy Grognard loves dragons and my life would not be worth living if anything bad happened to them in my campaign. So they're not included.

  2. Use those dragons, a campaign without fight-able dragons is like a fairy forest with no Unicorns. Dragons are also a good training tool to explain to players not every encounter will be survived by sword and spell.

  3. I've fought a couple dragons. I've also placed at least one in every campaign I've run, but my players have always avoided them, which I guess is sensible, if pretty disappointing.

    I like the high-level 1e AD&D dragons as a model. They're tough but not unbeatably so - about a match for a mid-level party in melee - but they also have a breath weapon which can probably incinerate even a high level party that makes its saving throws. I really like that "big gun" effect as a way of setting them apart from other powerful monsters. It means that if you want to fight a dragon, you can't just go toe to toe with it. You've got to carefully strategise, maximise your every advantage, minimise your vulnerabilities, take calculated risks. It's a high risk proposition. Casualties are expected, you might all die, but if you survive, the reward is a mountain of treasure. Much, much more fun than a simple brawl with a big barrel of hit points.

  4. One time I had the party witness a fight for territory between a green dragon and a dire bear, rolling the combat out. the dragon won, but just barely, and the party was able to finish it off. that was very popular

  5. I used a great wyrm a dungeon dressing for a group of 3rd and 4th level players. It was a blue dragon that had been captured by a powerful NPC (a long time ago) and turned into a battery; it had a bunch of copper wires and rods stuck into it, which siphoned the electrical energy into a machine. By the time the players found it, so many centuries had passed that the dragon was barely alive. They took pity on the creature and destroyed the machine, thus ending the dragon's life.

    I use this story to illustrate a point: dragons can be used in so many ways, just like anything else in the game. The only limit is the imagination of the DM. What helps the most, I think, is DM self-awareness. When you realize that you're avoiding dragons because they're too iconic, you've become aware of a self-imposed limitation. That lets you identify the problem and work to overcome it.