Thursday, June 16, 2016

How dragons are the flagship monsters of (early) D&D (using the Rules Cyclopedia)

I was writing a short scenario for the blog (which will be up next) and while I fleshed out the encounter, it occurred to me why dragons are so important as showcases what D&D was meant to be. Or could be in the hands of a capable DM. Anyway I took a closer look at the dragon in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (big surprise there). Here meander my thoughts on the matter.

Why is it called "Dungeons & Dragons"?

I sometimes wonder how Gygax and Arneson came to call their game "Dungeons & Dragons". It is, if you think about it, an odd choice. Genius in its elusiveness and spurning the imagination more than many other similar word combinations I can think of*, but odd nonetheless. Sure, dungeons had become big with the early play testing groups in the 70s and it was kind of an obvious choice. But it must have sounded very weird to those not familiar with the background, since "dungeons" as they had been used in the game, had been no where close to what popular culture endorsed at the time. Even at it's fringes.

That's mostly due to the fact that the "dungeon crawl", as it is experienced in role playing games, is something genuinely unique to that very medium (or at least was at the time). You just don't have it in books, comics, tv shows or movies back then and computer games weren't even a thing at the time (and would use D&D for inspiration later on). Today it's still pretty rare in anything but computer and role playing games. And with reason. The thrill of exploration comes from doing it, not from tagging along.
And why is it "Dragons" and not "Demons" or, I don't know, "Daggers" (assuming the alliteration was a must-have in the decision process ...)? Well, this is me guessing, because I have no idea what exactly went down there (tempted to google it, too, but where would be the fun in that?). Might be the easier one, though. Dragons had always been a thing in literature. Heroes fight dragons and if you read the word, you have a mental picture what it's all about or where it's headed.

There is another dimension to the whole thing. Dungeons are very dangerous locations full with treasure and promise. So that's something to explore. Dragons are famous for being intelligent, mean and unbelievably rich, they are some of the most dangerous monsters out there. So that's a challenge to overcome and get famous by (well, and stinking rich, of course).

Both words describe goals and  to reach those goals means having an adventure. I think there is something to the idea that they describe goals to aspire to: you want to get to the dungeon to explore it and you want to get strong enough to beat a dragon. The way is the goal. Doing it, not being there.

Following that argument, you'll end up asking if D&D actually delivers in both regards. For dungeons it's quite simple (I'd say) as the whole game in it's early editions is rigged towards exploration as a team of adventurers with the goal to get more powerful and treasure directly connected to that (treasure = xp). The sum of the available classes are able to overcome level appropriate challenges in a dungeon environment (finding traps and secret passages, orientation, fit for combat action and magic challenges, plus healing support to complete the package). The rest is player skill, which is just as important to invoke a sense of danger and exploration.

About right, right? [source]
Dragons are a little bit more tricky, as they are on the monster side of the game and that's the Dungeon Masters (sic!) area of expertise.

Let's start with monsters in the Rules Cyclopedia ...

I'm talking Rules Cyclopedia here and this changed focus somewhat over the different editions. But the D&D Rules Cyclopedia was understood as complete in one book, so the information that is in it is assumed to be essential to the experience of playing D&D (1e). In that it's not only a collection of rules, but also a collection of exceptions and examples. I think this is where it gets interesting. The D&D RC is a tool box and it's important to realize this when talking about monster entries.

Here is a word on short monster entries: they do nothing for a DM but giving him numbers he could have come up with just as easy all by himself. Even having all the general information that is available about a specific monster, it will always lack the most important part and that is how an individual version of that general monster entry fits into a campaign world.

The specific is where the work is, so to say. Not even the number of hitpoints per monster, but cultural background (cloths and equipment, behavior), territory, allies and enemies. All those beautiful things that bring the game to life and make it still hard for computer games to beat their analogue ancestors in terms of depth and flexibility.

Some of that can be randomized, like with monster reaction rolls in D&D to see how the monster interacts with the adventurers or random encounters that show how probable it is to encounter a monster in a certain area at a certain time (day/night, etc.). Depending on the possible variety of how a specific an entry could take specific form in the game, the book will be either very vague or very specific about it and gives general and/or individual guidelines what directions a DM could go with it.

Goblins, for instance, are held relatively vague. They live in caverns (infravision, don't like daylight), stealing what they need is their modus operandi and they really don't like dwarves. Might have a king with bodyguards, might have a spellcaster. Not even a quarter of a page in the RC (see p. 180), but lots of possibilities (as per pages 214 to 218). Make them bigger, smaller or make them smarter, combine them with other monsters, give them special attacks or a culture ...

The list of possibilities goes on and goblins are famous for the huge amount of variety in publications and home brews. I mean, who doesn't like a mean little monsters that breeds like bunnies, die even faster and are intelligent enough to fulfill the basic requirements needed to adapt to every environment and weak enough to make them the perfect minions.

And then there are the more specific monsters, the dragon being the one with the biggest focus in the book. There is, after all, even a saving throw named after it, ffs**!

Smaug by Tolkien [source]
Dragons are showcases of what can be done in D&D?

Yes, I think so. There are 5 pages dedicated to dragons in the RC with lots of information to make any one encounter with  dragon something very special and dangerous. There's still enough variety that just by using the information on those 5 pages, no dragon will be like the other and there's always the option to change it even beyond that.

But that's not the point. It's more about the fact that each dragon is an individual and powerful enough to matter even as a NPC enough to have a full set of stats and background. Dragons matter in a game. It's nothing you encounter randomly, it's something that announces itself. Big time. Or it knows you are there while you don't know a thing about it being in control (it happens to be on random encounter lists, by the way, but a 15 HD monster doesn't drop out of the sky most of the time, so if it comes up, a DM is adviced to handle it with care ...).

Thought through it means that each dragon in a campaign world will have a huge territory, it will have contacts and minions and it will actively seek to keep all that or even expand. It is prepared and that means its lair will be trapped and protected. It'll also have spies in strategic positions and will be warned if someone is out for its hide. It'll furthermore have a very significant position in the power balance of a region, even if those living there are not aware of that fact. Shifting such a power balance, on the other hand, will have repercussions that will be felt by all ...

Anyway, what you get is far more interesting than what you have to add. You get combat tactics, several different physical attacks like crushing, tail attacks, hovering or wing attacks from a mean flying creature that is smart and might also be able to talk and cast spells. Add rules to subdue dragons, different power levels, alignments and colors ... It's as detailed as they get and when you actually sit down and plan an encounter like that, you'll see that what the D&D Rules Cyclopedia can do.
Yeah, I know that trap ... [more often than not NSFW source]
And that's why I think it's the showcase monster in the book. Not only because it's in the title but because the diversity in tactics, strategy and combat options with all their little special rules in combination with posing a versatile opponent in the mental department gives a DM a great idea how flexible the rules are and that fights don't necessarily follow the you-hit-me-I-hit-you routine the game usually is reduced to.

We are encouraged to make this happen at the table. Why not have the goblins cut off a characters ears when he's down instead of going for the next opponent? Why not allow a signature move for a orc tribe if a 19 to 20 comes up? Don't think in categories of weapons, think in effects. I had a fat goblin once fight using a big fish as a club. Make them attack the knees. No damage, but you need to make a save to stay upright ... Stuff like that.

Little details like that will make encounters unique and the dragon shows the way how to do it.

And what now?

I'll have an encounter with a dragon ready for the blog next weekend. I can say it will happen, because it's almost done :P It is an interesting experience to prepare an encounter like that and I think every DM should do this at least once. It's one of those monsters that are around anyway and if done early in a campaign, they can grow alongside of it, like the characters do.

Maybe that's something that should be done with every major threat in a campaign world and I was just to lazy to do it until now. In that case all of this might be old news to all of you. But if nothing else, it makes a point for details in monster entries and individual monster creations for every campaign.

It's not about the numbers, not even about the special abilities a monster has, it's all about the individual (non-player) character you produce when it appears in your setting ... Ah well, let me show you what I mean in that next post :) Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the adventure scenario "The Dragon's Cough".

* The only really sweet combination of words I'm aware of would be Shotgun Shogun and that's entirely +Mark Van Vlack's fault, who brought it up and should do something about it ...

** It is interesting, in that regard, that the Saving Throws vs. Wands and vs. Dragon Breath are (optionally) both modified with Dexterity, which not only makes DEX the only ability score affecting two saving throws, it also makes the only remarkable difference between the two, in terms of what happens to a character that he needs to save against it, is  the change of the difficulty in the threat the character is facing. Funny also, that it's only for halflings and dwarves significantly harder to save versus Dragon Breath :) Man, that's a post on it's own, the more I think about it ... 


  1. "The only really sweet combination of words I'm aware of would be Shotgun Shogun and that's entirely +Mark Van Vlack's fault, who brought it up and should do something about it ..."
    This has to happen someday....

    In my game Dragons are so rare they are thought to be extinct (I just wrote too much), for all the reasons you just wrote. Finding a dragon, getting there, preparing, then finding yourself under prepared... that is a quest in itself.
    Though back to the subject.
    I'm not sure how much influence the Hobbit book had on the initial work of D&D. The dwarves, orcs, elves and halflings of D&D are Tolkien's In my mind I could make the jump that "Dragon" as the ultimate quest end enemy also comes from Tolkien's Smaug, Glaurung, Scatha and so on.
    The colored dragon varions being a latter additions to the theme?

    1. No dragons?! Sacrilege! :) No, I understand. It really is a lot of work to set up such a beast. Tolkien definitely had an influence, of course. But in Tolkien's world it has just a hand full of dragons and D&D goes beyond that a notch or two (like you say, the color variants), adding armies of additional powerful monsters while they are at it. And going 36 levels, one dragon just won't be enough as end game by a long shot, so there is that :)

  2. This, and the adventure seed you wrote are really well done! I love the idea of a dragon with a bad cold!!

    1. Thanks, David! Glad you like it. Really started out quite harmless with exactly that idea and hasn't stopped growing just yet. There are at least two more posts like that happening :)

  3. Look up the cultural phenomenon, "Frodo Lives," and the social context in which it occurred; then compare this with the time when the makers were in college.

    1. Sorry for the taking the time. I actually forgot where the suggestion came from until yesterday. Still checked it out, though. Yeah, I see what you mean. There's definitely a connection. It just doesn't stop there. Or in other words, the dragon, as he appears in the D&D RC has several other trappings that allow the assumption that Smaug was not the only dragon they had in mind, like the possibility to tame a dragon, for instance. So I don't think they just tried to be popular here, but instead would have been into Tolkien anyway and just had been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, hitting a nerve as they wrote and published D&D 1e.


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