You know who I don’t think gets enough love? Well, you do if you read the title. I’ve been playing games like Dungeons and Dragons for nearly half of my life. Now while that statement comes with many implications, most of which are probably unfortunate, I say it to give you perspective when I point out that I haven’t played in many campaigns that were centered around or even heavily included dragons. Now, that just doesn’t seem like a fair treatment for the creatures who are half of the game’s title.
There are actually a LOT of good reasons for this, most of which probably sit in the back of people’s minds without ever really coming to the forefront. Most of it is how the lore conflicts with the crunch, I think, but we’ll get to all of that later. Right now, let’s start by talking about dragon lore.
Dragon Mythology in Games
Where to even begin with this. Whether we’re talking about video games or tabletop games or card games, dragons are a varied bunch of creatures. Sometimes they’re beasts, apex predators motivated by hunger or bloodlust. They are forces of nature to be feared for their unpredictability and maybe their cunning, but as with any other beast they can be put down by force. Other times they’re physical gods, with more intelligence and understanding than a mortal is likely to be able to contend with in addition to their physical prowess and actual magic. Other times they’re somewhere in between.
So, if a GM is going to have dragons in their game, it would certainly help to be able to answer the question of what kind of dragons to use. If you’re playing in an established setting, this may already be decided for you, which might already be enough to make dragons more intimidating to run than they are to fight.
In Dungeons and Dragons canon, they’re somewhere between god and beast. In addition to their physical might, they have high mental stats (usually around peak human when they get older), and in addition to their breath weapons they usually have an array of spells and magical abilities. They’re also regarded in canon as being very powerful, on par with the strongest angels and demons, which is troublesome for reasons that we’ll get to later. D&D also has wyverns, and probably a few weaker draconic creatures, but those get so little attention that I don’t remember any of them.
In Shadowrun there are regular dragons, which are very much final boss material, and greater dragons which are clearly not meant to be fought. I mean, they have stats, but why would you want to do that to yourself? In Magic: the Gathering we get everything from the Shivan Dragon, which is just a big, fire breathing monster to Nicol Bolas, who I’m pretty sure is some kind of god by now.
In Pathfinder you get a lot more variety, which is why Pathfinder gets its own paragraph. Sure, you have varying levels of “True Dragon,” which are on the D&D power scale and with powers that include manipulating space and time, but there are numerous other draconic creatures to use if you want to play the predatory beast angle. Heck, every bestiary after the first one has included a section for drakes, which are basically dragons that are just big and scary monsters more fit to rule caves than kingdoms.
So, going through this I think we’ve found that typically RPGs expect for dragons to be big scary end boss creatures. The type of thing that you don’t throw into a dungeon but instead build a dungeon or an entire adventure around. So… why doesn’t that happen more often? Well we’ll get to that later. Next, we look at the mechanics of dragons.
Dragon Mechanics in Games
That’s right, I’m talking about mechanics again. I know there are GMs out there who like to gloss over the crunch but the crunch is really why dragons in RPGs don’t get the respect that I feel they deserve. I mean, most of them boil down to issues with boss fights in general, which I talked about last time.
You see, Dragons tend to have a few very devastating attacks. They get their bites and claws and tail swipes and wing attacks, all of which they can usually use in one go if they’re standing still. They’ve also got flight and a breath weapon, which means they can drench the party in waves of fiery, or icy, or electric pain. However, they get to do that once. Then they’re on the receiving end of who knows how many haste-induced full attacks, obliterating spells, and what have you.
The other issue is that monsters in games like 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder tend to be balanced against decently built, but not heavily optimized player characters. This means that a party of optimized heroes are very likely to mop the floor with your dragon, even if it’s above their level. I put a group of level 11 heroes against an adult red dragon, a CR 14 threat that should have been terrifying. And during his build up he was terrifying, but the match lasted all of three rounds as the party’s optimized fighter burned through the dragon’s 212 hit points much quicker than I had expected. You see, in Pathfinder dragons aren’t particularly resilient. I mean, they’ve got a decent well of hit points, but they’re pretty easy to hit and their damage reduction is overcome by any type of magical weapon. In a setting where magical items are so common that you trip over them walking down the street, this means that’s it’s actually surprisingly easy to bring a dragon down.
Now of course, different games have different mechanics and that means that not every dragon in every game is going to be as easily chumped as they are in games like Pathfinder. As usual I tend to focus more on the d20 system because I have a lot more experience in that than other systems.
Next time we meet I’m going to talk about some ways to make encounters and even entire adventures based around dragons more interesting, so stay tuned.