Tuesday, December 17, 2013

“I am fire…I am death!"


Well they are a tricky subject aren’t they?  From the tales of Beowulf (PDF version here) to the modern CGI Smaug, Dragons have captured the imagination for hundreds of years. Some DMs like to have at least one in every campaign, some players don’t feel as though they’ve really played the game unless they get to fight one, and others still won’t touch them at all, despite being 50% of the title track. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these magnificent and intimidating icons.

Part 1: History
The original designers of D&D were Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and both men drew heavily from the popular works of fantasy fiction available to them during the 1960’s. Works from such authors as: Jack Vance (Wiki), Poul Anderson (Wiki), and a newfound popularity for more traditional reading such as the Arthur Legend, Beowulf, and the works of Lewis Carroll (For more info...). Interestingly enough, Gygax stated in an interview by Dragon Magazine that D&D was influenced very little by J.R.R. Tolkien. He admitted that certain elements from his books were added to the game but only for “popularity”. (DRAGON #95) Of course this may have just been a conscious effort to stave off copyright issues.

So, if we look at Dragons in particular, Beowulf seems to have some of the best references for what would become a typical D&D Dragon:

“The Beowulf dragon is the earliest example in literature of the typical European dragon and first incidence of a fire breathing dragon.[9] But the characterization goes beyond fire breathing: the Beowulf dragon is described with Old English terms such as draca (dragon), and wyrm (worm, or serpent), and as a creature with a venomous bite.[10] Also, the Beowulf poet created a dragon with specific traits: a nocturnal, treasure hoarding, inquisitive, vengeful, fire breathing creature.”

So, when it did come time to create an original creature for AD&D, the designers went for some basic archetypes. Dragons were large, intelligent reptiles with wings and breath weapons. And, for the sake of variety and possibly to sell more miniatures, Dragons were given multiple colors with different personalities and attacks to match. The original colors were white, black, green, blue, red, and gold. Very few were considered to be of good alignment, most were considered neutral, and some downright evil.

As the game evolved into 2nd and 3rd edition, dragons became much more versatile and numerous. So much so that by 4th edition there were more than twenty different types of Dragons and their personalities were as varied as imaginable.

Part 2: Roleplaying An Icon (For the DMs)     
When compared to your average PC or NPC, Dragons are supposed to be on an entirely different level. Cunning, devious, masterminds with size, strength, magic, and fighting ability rolled into one impressive and almost god like package. Think of Superman’s body with Batman’s mind. This can be daunting for DMs. After all, and I don’t think I’m divulging any huge secret here, most DMs are not super geniuses. However, particular planning, excellent execution, and inspired improvisation can make for a very impressive substitute. When I think ahead to an encounter my PCs are going to have with a Dragon, I try to keep three things in mind:

a)   Make the encounter worth something. Dragons should not be thrown in on a whim or as a vehicle for “Deus Ex Machina”. It cheapens the affect Dragons should have on PCs and it smacks of laziness.
b)   Keep conversations with Dragons short yet memorable. I’m thinking of quality over quantity. When a Dragon speaks it never wastes any of its words. Also, the longer a DM drags the encounter with a Dragon out the more opportunity there is to make them look silly/dull.
c)   When a Dragon makes a threat or a promise, it keeps it. PCs have to learn, some of them the hard way, that to insult, offend, or deceive a Dragon has very grave consequences. If ever there was an excuse to make an example out of someone, this type of encounter would be it.

I also find that the most important aspect of encountering a Dragon, or any epic creature for that matter, is the buildup to the encounter. While it can be a supreme shock for the PCs to encounter a Dragon without any warning, telling them outright that a Dragon exists in this campaign and you are most likely to encounter it will heighten the anticipation. Throw in some references, maybe a survivor of a previous encounter, or a story told by the hearth of an inn. The PCs will do most of the building-up work for you, all you have to do is deliver.

Part 3: To Slay or Not to Slay (For the PCs)   
Going head to head against a Dragon can be the most exciting, terrifying, and important encounter in all of D&D. You just get a sense when fighting this epic creature that death is right around the corner. Even those who have played this game for decades dare not slouch when a Great Wyrm is present.

Stealth is always tried but usually fails; Traps are sometimes set but have little success; and diplomacy is often attempted but you are dealing with a creature who thinks of the world as a giant chess match and is planning three moves ahead of you. Intimidation is totally out of the question. This leaves you with three fundamental options: Fight, Flight, or Surrender. The option that your group chooses will say a lot about them and the outcome of the campaign.

The group that chooses to fight may think very highly of themselves and feel as though this beast is an affront to everything they stand for. Perhaps this Dragon is pure evil and has done things to inspire the group to rid the world of a flying horror. The group that chooses to flee have doubts concerning their abilities or simply value their lives over the potential rewards. Words such as “maybe when we’re higher level” might get thrown about. And finally, the group that surrenders may be the bravest of all. To submit themselves to the will of such an infamous beast could spell their doom or it could be the beginning of a spectacular adventure. This option was explored thoroughly in the writings of R.A. Salvatore during the Promise of the Witch-King (Wiki).

However you play or run an encounter with a Dragon, I hope that everyone ups their game a little. Moments and memories playing this game can last a lifetime if the feeling is powerful enough, and Dragons are certainly a very good foundation.

Have you had a memorable encounter with a Dragon as either a player or a DM? Feel free to comment about it below!              

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