Monday, October 26, 2009

Moat Dragon

This semi-domesticated aquatic offshoot of the black dragons is a product of selective breeding. While their breath weapons, wings, and legs were bred out of them centuries ago (mostly to protect their owners) and they are generally too isolated from their own kind to learn magic, their main appeal is that they grow to enormous and peasant-intimidating size at a ridiculously young age. There are dozens of known strains, and subspecies with unusual features such as venom sacs, goat horns, tentacles, and chameleonlike-skin have all been reported.

The powerful lords who own and trade moat dragons generally house them in palisaded pools or moats far too deep to escape, and have the animals killed when they outgrow their enclosures. On rare occasions, however, they escape or (even rarer) are released into the sea, where they grow bitter, ancient and coarse-scaled in the deep water, develop algae-filled beards and vast, flowing fins like tattered warship sails, and learn strange magics from the cold and cryptic things that sleep far beneath the waves. Such creatures, while no longer "moat" dragons, are so rare as to have no common name, and the few who have seen them, for panicked seconds, can perhaps be forgiven for not taking the time to thoroughly detail the many differences between the ancient moat dragon and the Eastern Sea Dragon or Lung Wang.
Design notes:

So this monster addresses two "problems":

(1)--There are dragons in moats in medieval art and stories, but not in the game,


(2)--If it's Dungeons and Dragons then low-level players may well wonder when they get to fight a dragon. And not some little not-quite-a-real-dragon like a five-foot-long wyrmling or a pseudo-dragon. So the moat dragon is a full-size, honest-to-god dragon that low-level PCs might actually have a chance with. However, it's visually different enough from standard dragons that it won't spoil the reveal when the serious villainous reptiles show up.

Now, as it says in this article:

There's a natural tension built into the notion of a monster that you can fight at low, middle, and high levels. On the one hand, scalability adds a sense of continuity. But if every monster is perfectly scalable, players don't get the sense of dread from knowing they're facing a particularly tough monster. Most D&D players shudder the first time a beholder comes floating down the corridor. But if they've been fighting 1 Hit Die beholders from their very first session, the 11 HD version is just another monster.

So, basically, that means I'd take care--when using this monster--to make the PCs realize that a moat dragon is a different and far less sophisticated animal than its land-dwelling cousins (thus the tentacles). Oh, that thing you just killed? That was just a moat dragon--didn't even have any spells.


Ordinary young moat dragons have as many hit points as they need to have in order to put up a decent fight with your PCs the first time they meet one (and they have whatever armor class, too). Offensively, beyond maybe the occasional drown or gore attack, they do roughly what you think a big sea snake would do.

Ancient moat dragons are some serious arcane mythic Lovecraftian shit and should be statted accordingly.

Images: Photo from Claire Nouvian's (rad) book The Deep, the Tom Waits -looking dragon painting's by Piero di Cosimo, the hit location sketch is by me, and the etching is by somebody who's dead and will probably be ok if I don't credit him.


Unknown said...

This is pure awesome. Distilled and bottled in a blog.

Jayson said...

Nice. It dovetails perfectly with the inaugural dragon I was preparing for my low-level B/X party--which was in fact a black dragon grown atrophied and malicious from being stuck in a sewer system. The best part is that I rolled crappy for its treasure, so all it has are 12,000cp that I decided are from the town wishing well. The moat dragon is gonna influence my presentation big time.

Matthew Slepin said...

This brings up some interesting issues; among them is Player Expectation.

On the one hand, I totally get the idea of using Player Expectation for effect--the "Oh, shit! It's a Beholder!" thing. And clearly there has been decades of expectation now since the game first codified certain monsters.

But on the other hand, the original players had no expectations. They wouldn't know what that eyeball-thing was. And that's how I tend to play--I like to change the monsters enough that you get a general reaction of "Oh shit! What is that thing!". With the consequent expectations only occurring after some experiences.

On another line, I have never been fond of the non-scaling of humanoids. Or, rather, the levels of them, where you get all these redundant gobliny things but with different Hit Dice. "Oh shit! It's a Bugbear! No...wait. No hairy ears; so it must be a Hobgoblin. Well, that's okay then."

Unknown said...


Jayson-nice to know I can put up a monster that's completely based on an old monster and with no stats and it can still be useful to someone.

the first thing you said reminds me of something i want to write about later--writing about a monster that;s NEW, yet at the same time "imaginable". It;s easy to make an all-new monster, but I think the best ones somehow have some hook or simplicity to them that makes them easy for the players to imagine. In fantasy settings this often means it;s constructed of sort of "archetypal" parts (like the Eye of Dread).

As for the kobold-goblin-hobgoblin-gnoll-bugbear-hierarchy--I totally agree. I only use different goblinoids if I can think of a way to make them seem different form each other in an interesting way.

Matthew Slepin said...

I forgot to subscribe to this thread, so I kind of made my response in the other thread. Ah well.

Anyway: yes. I agree. Totally batshit, weird monsters are nice every once in a while, but lose their punch is used more than that. The "classic" monster can be retooled over and over again and stay interesting. That might be through 3.141's scaleabiltiy, but needn't necessarily be.