A Rant on Dragons

Dragons irritate me.

Maybe it’s because they’re popular with designers. After all, they’re in the name of the system, and I can think of five first-party books off the top of my head all about dragons and how players can better interact with them. Let alone that I can only think of one book in the last ten years that deals expressly with dungeons, the half of the game that receives top billing (Dungeonscape, 3.5, last of the environment series). The capstone creatures of the first D&D Miniatures set with huge models were two dragons, and I think that of the four Gargantuan and Colossal miniatures released, three are dragons (the other is Orcus, the guy from the cover of the 4th Edition Monster Manual and the highest-level creature in the original books). Every time something is released that deals with dragons, it means that something isn’t being released that could instead deal with something that hasn’t been done to death.

Maybe it’s because they’re popular with DMs. I know one DM who’s an incredibly smart guy, and he knows that dragons are also smart and should be run as such. When we fought our first dragon in his last campaign, the first thing it did was take to the sky where the players couldn’t reach and use Flyby Attack to make strafing runs with its breath weapon. Powerful, yes. Hard to defend against, yes. But fun? Two runs in, the players had determined that they had little ranged capability and no way to get cover, flee, or lead the dragon into a less advantageous position, so the DM settled the dragon down to ground level so that we had a fighting chance. It still had ridiculous attack bonuses, defenses, and hit points, and a host of other magical abilities to back it up, so it was still a worthwhile encounter, but it feels like dragons have a huge amount of power for their CR. Nobody can convince me that a 13th-level fighter is the same difficulty as a huge red dragon, but that’s where we are.

Maybe, most irritatingly, it’s because they’re popular with players. Most people look at the glut of dragon-based books, feats, spells, and powers as a good thing. Dragons hit a nerve in players’ minds as scary boss encounters, deeply powerful sages, and long-lived master manipulators, so any time a character emulates a dragon, there’s an element of power in it. There are also enough of them that a dragon-based campaign can run without being boring, in the way other creatures really can’t manage; Races of the Dragon listed forty-one different types of true dragons alone. Further, killing them feels like an accomplishment, more than other monsters do, and the idea of “triple standard loot” sweetens the deal, so no matter how infuriating a properly-run dragon is, the rewards are worth it. One only has to look at the sheer amount of books, movies, and television programs that involve dragons to see exactly how vast their reach is.

I have a long history of not liking things that are popular, usually because I’m tired of them hogging the spotlight while other things go unnoticed, but dragons also just don’t strike me as fun. As above, a dragon fight run accurate to the dragon’s intellect is rough, but I also don’t get how interacting with them is a positive play experience. Dragons are haughty, standoffish, petty creatures, whose types differ primarily in their color, innate powers, and what kind of jerk they are. Fighting a red dragon is the same as fighting a blue dragon, except that you have to remember a different elemental affinity. They still have breath weapons, spells, frightful presence, spell resistance, the same bite/claw/claw/wing/wing/tail slap routine, and so on. All dragons consider themselves above the PCs, and I’ve never understood why somebody would be so happy to meet a creature who talks down to them as a racial trademark. Even the most noble are entitled in a way that’s mostly reserved for villains in children’s movies, and the disproportionate affection hurled at them from all sides only perpetuates it.

One of the rare things that 4th Edition did better than 3rd is tagging all dragons as solo encounters. It does limit encounter design from the standpoint of XP budget, as the designers said “a dragon is an entire fight, and if you want to make it interesting by adding minions or traps or anything else, we wash our hands of it” until the Draconomicon 2. But it tells the DM and players straight-out that this is not a creature to throw somewhere for the sake of having a neat dragon fight. Dragons work best (and by that, I mean they work only) as climactic boss fights, that last gasp at the end of an arc when the dragon finally gets its comeuppance for being born better than everybody else and flaunting it. Alternately, they can work very well as the dragon (see what I did there?) to the main villain, as a smart and powerful enemy intended to wear the PCs down so the true boss can pick them apart.

Even in the best of situations, dragons steal the spotlight whether or not they deserve it. They’re every kind of bad design decision (except the ones that created the 3rd Edition Monster Manual 2) and bad personality decision rolled into one idea that doesn’t deserve nearly the focus it gets. Far too much time and energy is wasted by players, DMs, and designers who think of them as some great fantasy archetype, when they’re just irritating blocks of copy-pasted material. At least Pathfinder had the good sense to only devote two pages to each dragon and let DMs sort it out, but the problem won’t be solved until people realize that every role of a dragon can be filled by another creature, making encounters and plots more fun for the difference.

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2 Responses to A Rant on Dragons

  1. Dave Fried says:

    It’s not just in D&D. One of the most anticlimactic things about fighting dragons in Dragon Age (and believe me, there were several – it’s in the freakin’ name of the game) was that they never flew, except at scripted times. So dragon fights basically consisted of:
    1. enter melee, spreading your party out so that its breath and sweep attacks wouldn’t wreck you
    2. stand there and pound forever (dragons have tons of HP)
    3. if the dragon flies to a different place, follow it
    4. repeat step 1

    Now, admittedly, dragons in DA were much clumsier in the air than D&D dragons are supposed to be, and several of them were fought in situations where intervening terrain made it hard for them to make anything resembling a flyby attack. But they still had firebreath, which (IIRC – I could be wrong) they could use while flying.

    The same thing happens in Skyrim, from what I’ve seen. You can’t really engage a dragon in the air, but they’re big dumb animals that want to come down and fight you for some reason. Supposedly, giant beats dragon handily, but only because the dragon is stupid enough to try to engage it in melee.

    I think we love the idea of dragons – terrible, enormous predators who can rain death down on us from above – but in practice, they’re no better enemies in games than any other flying monster with long-range attacks. You might as well have the party fight an attack helicopter or a fighter jet.*

    * Which would be hilarious, by the way.

  2. Jake says:

    In all the campaigns I’ve played dragons either mean: A) A super long fight that takes the whole session and gives you loot I would have been much happier finding in a dungeon chest. Or B) A five minute party wipe because somebody forgot to pray to RNG Jesus before the session began and we all rolled Nat Ones right of the bat.

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