Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Dragons Should Never Be Just Another Encounter"

So commented Blueskreem on my last post. Right after he said, "screw balance."


I've got three or five blog posts on the tip of my fingertips that I've been trying to decide how to order (which to type first: the begging, the gushing, or the ranting?), and one dude comments and completely throws me into a tizzy.

Dragons should never be just another encounter.

Those words just keep ringing in my head, even as I need to get some sleep before the morrow. Ugh.

How often do YOU throw dragons into your game as an off-hand encounter? Me, I never did. Hell, I hardly ever saw a dragon in one of my games. Ever. Generally, if there was a dragon, then it WAS the adventure, i.e. the whole enchilada.

I can clearly recall getting together with my buddy, Matt, shortly after acquiring the Cook/Marsh Expert Set. Anxious to try out the high level characters. Finally, players could have PCs able to take on the dragons in Moldvay's basic! We rolled up a 9th level (or higher, I don't recall) cleric for Matt, outfitted him with a bunch of mercenary soldiers (those were new with the Expert set also), and sent him out into the desert to find...and fight...a blue dragon.

As far as I can recall, that was the first time I used a dragon in a game of D&D. I don't recall if Matt survived or not (though I almost certainly recall letting his cleric use a lance...those rules were new with the Expert set as well). Ha...even then I treated clerics like paladins.

The next time I recall putting a dragon into a game...hmmm...I think there may have been a green dragon in X1:Isle of Dread, but I'm not sure it was ever encountered. Later...much later (as in, AD&D later) I got ambitious after reading The Hobbit and made a knock-off of Smaug and Lonely Mountain. Again, the red dragon WAS the adventure...get to the mountain, kill the dragon, get the treasure.

I don't remember anyone ever making it that far.

Back when I was younger (before my "creative metabolism" started slowing down), I drew a LOT of maps, nearly all "dungeons" of one type or another. And almost none had a dragon. Frankly, there was always the odd question of how did a dragon get IN to the dungeon in the first place...especially a deep, nether level. Not to mention what did the thing do for food.

[good morning! I fell asleep in the middle of posting!]

But mainly I had a problem thinking up any dungeon where a dragon would be another cheap-o encounter. I mean, they have such incredible killing power. And their treasure hordes are so big. And, and...

I get a little intimidated at the prospect.

I know I've mentioned before, at least in passing, how few old TSR modules had dragons in them. The giant series (white in G2, red in G3). Old I2 had a great black dragon. Um...there was a gold dragon polymorphed into a goody-good humanoid in a couple (X2 and UK1)...but really, not all that many. I mean, considering the game is called Dungeons & Dragons.

But this was fine by me. I always wanted dragons to stay "special" and rare and powerful (and rich!). The idea that you could "scale down" (starting in 3rd edition and I'm sure continuing into 4th) was always...well, at first it seemed nice that low level characters could actually have a chance at confronting a dragon. Now it seems...well, a cop out. Like giving kids trophies for everything just so they feel like they accomplished something. I know, I know...that's a "generational thang." But it feels the same.

In my opinion, you SHOULD have to work hard (at playing a game...sheesh, is that really work?) to have the stuff you need to take on a legendary creature with any chance of survival. You know, back in the "old days" an ancient red dragon was right at the top of the food chain. 88 points of damage with a breath attack? That's instant barbecue to most 4th level "heroes" (or 8th level "superheroes" that fail their save). Non-fighter classes might as well toss their character sheets if they accidentally wake the wyrm.

But now, dragons seem like "just another monster." Oh, a big monster...a "boss" monster (or whatever the term is). But just a monster. Maybe one that talks.

I did throw some Ancient Wyrms into my B/X Companion...what I like to call "Smaug-class" critters...though I didn't devote nearly as much space to it as Mentzer's Companion with his "large" and "huge" dragons (would you like that super-sized, sir?)...just enough to keep 'em interesting up to the highest levels of play. Personally, I think they're fine and dandy as "big bads" and they definitely deserve to have whole adventure scenarios built around themselves alone.

Just wanted to say I agreed with Mr. Blue's sentiment. How could you dare to call a dragon "just another encounter?"


  1. The only times I've used a dragon in my adventures, they are always smart, always tough, and never just a "throwaway." The last two times I've used a dragon, one blue and one black, there has been a PC death and/or the party failed to kill the creature.

  2. Two dragons so far if I remember correctly--and I'm talking about 24 years of gaming.

    Dragons are never on my random encounter tables.

  3. I was specifically thinking of the Kobolds Keep adventure in the 4th ed DMG when I made that comment.

    4th ed is my wife's favorite RPG, and I've spent quite a bit of time with running and flipping through 4th ed books since its release. We've had some great times running and playing 4th ed despite many of the flaws that others see in it.

    With that said there still is something I can't quite get past. The intro adventure in the DMG ends with the PCs going toe to toe with a dragon...AT FIRST LEVEL!

    Some one at WotC thought it would be Ok to hae the one adventure that every new DM will run conclude with a battle that will completely destroy all the wonder, mystique, and threat from one the most iconic monster in the game...

    It's the one sin I can not forgive WotC for. I'm getting angry now just thinking about it.

  4. Yeah, that shouldn't go well for those PCs at all. Just feels wrong.

    I have been reading and re-reading X4 (Master of the Desert Nomads) in prep for running it later this year, and it has a blue dragon on a special random encounter table...which doesn't feel quite right either.

  5. @ Jayson: As a wandering desert encounter, a blue dragon doesn't seem to bad...just so long as it's played intelligently (living in the desert, blues need to hunt, right?). Make a couple passes with lightning, carry off a horse or two and leave the party in wonder at their luck of seing such a magnificent creature without getting fried.

    Just make it DAMN hard to track the thing to its lair (how do you track something that flies anyway?). A suitable encounter for Expert level characters.
    : )

  6. Oh, I agree whole-heartedly. In fact, when I began my group with Keep on the Borderlands I had them spy a dragon-shaped silouette off near the horizon, just for some wonderment.

    I just don't think it should happen purely by chance. In fact, I think I've decided to lay it on them just as you've described. :-)

  7. @ Jayson: Exactly man. Kick ass.
    : )