Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Let Their Way Be Made Difficult" or, Dragons

Continuing the alphabetical monster thing. Still in the middle of the immensely difficult D's...

Dragons. It's all so complicated:

-Some people call the typical D&D repertoire "vanilla fantasy". Why use a dragon instead of--say--an undead star-urchin the size of Venus with lasers for teeth? The standard models are interesting because of their primality. Classic mythical tropes are classic because they are things that remind you (the primitive, fearful, superstitious you) of things.

-Dragons are--a few leonine variants in both the Eastern and Western imagination aside-reptiles.

Reptiles are what, then? Try imagining "a frightened expression" on a reptile's face. You can't. You can figure out how your brain reads reptiles by contrast.

Mammals always remind us of ourselves. We see their faces and invest them with personality traits-kinglike lion, the nonchalant giraffe, the stoned sloth, the endless empathic possibilites of dogs and monkeys and the cuteness of all the little rodents built like baby people. Mammals can be disturbing precisely because they seem like us--it is terrifying to watch footage of a dog or a gorilla murdering and eating a large living thing, in a way that watching a shark eat the same thing isn't.

Invertebrates strike us as totally alien and sometimes disgusting. However--the primitive imagination knows they are small and not a fight-or-flight threat (bugs can fuck you up--but if they're going to, they're likely to do it at night while you sleep, so your cavebrain doesn't register them with the do-something-about-this-alarm it reserves for big things.)

Fish and birds generally strike the primitive brain as either stupid, moving food or else as a predator. But your inner neanderthal knows that even the fiercest bird is generally not after you, and human history had gotten pretty far before people were regularly on any kind of intimate terms with predatory fish, and even then it was only in certain cultures, and, in the west, only people with certain jobs. And anyway, if you just remember to stay out of the water, fish are hardly an omnipresent threat.

So then, reptiles...Snakes are everywhere, and are genuinely dangerous. Baby humans and monkeys are actually born afraid of snakes. (Or at least that's what scientists say.) So here is an animal that--like a wolf or a leopard--can actually hurt you and you should actually run from, but--unlike those fur-covered predators--has absolutely nothing human in its eyes. To a human cognitive process that's used to reading human emotion all day just to survive, an angry snake's eyes look creepily nonfunctional--as if something's that's already dead is trying to kill you.

Reptiles--languid, sluggish, hard and angular where you expect curves or fur or feathers--always seem eerily close to the inanimate. Think how the Fiend Folio's Iron Cobra seems just about right, yet "Iron Panther" is strictly a gonzo monster. Robot snake? Sure. A snake is halfway there already.

A robot insect makes sense, but whereas an insect's face seems totally incomprehensible, the reptile face has all the same parts as ours--eyes, nose, mouth--yet has none of the curves and hollows that give mammals their warm, fuzzy (the cliches themselves are an indicator) appeal. The reptile has a body plan and a face that a mammal would recognize, but it is impossible to imagine that it has a soul. The alligator's smile seems like it's just endlessly grinning about a very new and very cruel joke. It's difficult to imagine--despite what our rational brain and neuroscience tells us--that a reptile could be scared.

In the end, it all just boils down to another cliche: the reptile is cold. But--unlike bugs--they seem just enough like us that this seems like a purposeful rejection of the pasionate mammalian way of doing things. You look at a cockroach or an octopus and figure it just doesn't know about "warm"--a snake, on the other hand, seems to have decided against warm.

-Does the often benevolent dragon in eastern myth ruin all this? I don't think so. When good, dragons are, classically, dispassionate--when they have human vices, they are the coldest vices--selfishness and greed. It got into the Manual: "Brass dragons are quite forward and officious, and they love to converse. They are rather selfish and tend toward neutrality because of this." "Despite their love of wealth, bronze dragons are basically of a benificient nature." "They tend to be rather selfish, and thus many Copper dragons are somewhat neutral in their outlook if gain is concerned." It's also worth noting that the Asian dragon has a lionlike and bearded and otherwise extensively mammalianized face.

-Christianity has the serpent, of course, in Genesis, which by Revelations, has become a great dragon with seven crowns. It's easy to see the dragon as a sort of flanderization of the serpent--basically a snake with everything bad attached to it. Fangs, talons, horns, bat wings, alligator legs.

-So the dragon represents the natural world (like all animals do) and the aspect of the natural world that it represents is it's pitilessness. The dragon wants things and these are generally things that you want (unlike the insect-who knows what the insect wants?) however unlike you, the dragon's base desires are not balanced with any "softer" concerns. The dragon is nature but only the scary, inimical parts of it.

-Even failing all that, everybody knows, in the game, that what a dragon means is it's a fucking dragon. You don't just kill it you have to go out there and slay it. Like how you can't just murder presidents, you have to assassinate them.

-This is good and bad news for the dragon in a game: on the one hand it's pretty easy to make killing a dragon feel like it really means something in a game and to set the dragon up as a sort of milestone obstacle to be overcome, on the other hand, since such a big part of the appeal is that the dragon is the primal ur-monster from the deepest murk of the id, using too many of them--to my mind--completely ruins them.

It always seems like a pathetic waste to me when there's talk in a story of a whole "tribe" or "people" or "race" or planet that rides around on dragons or dragons plural are considered responsible, as a group, for anything. Dragons shouldn't be something you can get used to. Do that and it's just the Flintstones, where something like the unbelievable, uncanny brontosaurus is domesticated into a piece of construction equipment.

-The worst part of this problem for me is that--despite the obvious monster-variant-bloat involved--there are an awful lot of interesting different dragons to use. I like the colored ones, I like the metal ones, I love Tiamat, I like the asian ones, I like the dragonne. I like the dragon-turtle, the dracolisk, the dragonell, the shadow dragon, the many eccentric medieval-style dragons, even the faerie dragon. They all seem to have a plausible niche somewhere in the world or the mind's eye.

-One thing I really don't like about D&D's dragons is the symmetry of the original dragon scheme: good metal dragons on the left--evil colored dragons on the right. I think dragons should be completely uncategorizable and unknown. It's a dragon, no-one who's gotten close enough to it to have any idea what it is or does or breathes has lived. I think D&D should've done dragons the way they originally did artifacts and relics--a few basics and then a bunch of empty lines to fill in on your own. Actually, Palmer not only said better than me, he did something about it.

As for the old standards:
-Green dragon: this one needs and implies an ecosystem. I imagine it lives in the forest, and has, over time, slowly made the forest horrible in many ways. It is scaled in clumps and uneven camouflage. The "cloud of chlorine gas" breath weapon seems disproportionate and dainty--why bother with a cloud of gas when you could just rip someone's legs off and eat them?

-Black dragon: The cruelest and most insane one--and the most modern, too, since pre-20th century art generally shied away from the true reptilian black you see in the Alien or in the beasts the Nine rode around on in the Lord of the Rings movies. The black here is not simple negation--it's a deep and devouring black--like a black pit or a black hole. I find the "acid" hard to picture. Maybe: Its breath corrodes the very air. That I can get behind.

-Red dragon: I imagine it being the impossibly rich, sleek red of those crabs that invade the Cuban coast at intervals, or Tim Curry in the movie Legend. This is the go-to dragon for when you want things to get all metaphysical. A black dragon is an abyss, a green dragon is the old legend in the woods predator--the red dragon is a symbolic evil.

-White dragon: Draco Rigidus Frigidus There are several albino and leucistic alligators in captivity in the American South. Go look at one in real life if you never have--a snow-white reptile is an amazing thing to see. The sculpted and artificial-seeming texture of reptile scales looks almost like a living bone shell: anyway, point is: the cold, white dragon is obviously the one most straightforwardly about death. More interesting and frightening by far than the skeletal dragon.

-Blue dragon: The sci-fi one. The whole "lightning breath" thing sounds cool but visually just doesn't work. I prefer it just be the locus of some profound electromagnetic anomaly. Things go all staticky and haywire around it. Iron starts to vibrate at a weird pitch.

-The Brass, Bronze, and Copper Dragons: I imagine them on their hind legs, with small, spellcasting forelimbs up, patiently explaining some simple truth to lost adventurers on a lonely mountain drawn by Moebius. Barely moving, buddhalike, dully reflecting in the sun, textured like Ultraman monsters, they never have to hunt--once a month monks kill something big and haul it to the peak and leave it baking on the rocks. Bahamut seems redundant.

-Silver Dragon: I suppose. Put it next to the unicorn.

(-Edit: Forgot The Gold Dragon. Which is weird because they have the best chicken chow mein in Los Feliz. But, seriously folks, I figure they--like the bard--were just a placeholder until they got into the genuine Oriental Adventures material, like, say...)

-The Asian Dragons: Apparently, they begin life as water-snakes, then turn into newts, then grow into lizards, and then, by stages, become the twisted fantasmagorias familiar from sleeve tattoos all over the world. At each phase they seem to become less corporeal. It's difficult to imagine an asian dragon doing anything in detail. "Grinning, the Mountain Dragon ate the yak," sure, fine, you can say it--but really, the asian dragon is so otherworldy and decorative it's difficult to picture it actually going through all the effort it'd require to do that.

And it's always flying. I can't imagine a properly pulpy combat with something that's always flying with no visible means of staying in the air--not swooping on wings, not science-fictionally hovering like a Beholder, the Asian dragon is just up in the sky as if it's a part of it.

This is the kind of dragon you definitely need some sort of intrigue or mcguffin or pearl or magic joke to get past--just waiting for it to finish conversing with the Council of the Four Winds in the tongue of the 10,000 Blessed Diplomats so you can hit it with your +3 sword isn't really going to cut it, I think.

The Dragonne seems like maybe a decent compromise if you want really want to hit something and you really want it to be kind of Asian.

-Of the lesser, later variants, the Gloom Dragon, with its breath of apathy kind of seems like it has possibilities--especially if it's very small. I imagine this one as being like those dog-sized ones St. George is always killing in Renaissace art. It curls in a cave just outside the walls of your fair city, or in a forgotten well-shaft in an abandoned building, imperceptibly ruining everyone's life just by being there: -3 to that reaction check roll in the bar, -3 to that "make that mince pie taste good" roll, -3 to that "find that sock you lost" roll...

Or, like in the John Gardner story:

Every time there was a full moon the dragon came out of his lair and ravaged the countryside. He frightened maidens and stopped up chimneys and broke store windows and set people’s clocks back and made dogs bark until no one could hear himself think. He tipped over fences and robbed graves and put frogs in people’s drinking water and tore the last chapters out of novels and changed house numbers around so that people crawled into bed with their neighbors.

In other words, an unimaginably petty dragon.

-Shadow dragon: I figure a dragon is like a god. Some are clever, and can detach themselves from their shadows before they die--kill the dragon and let the shadow escape and you get a shadow dragon, which moves ray-like across the walls of dungeons and around the twisting trucks of old forests.

-Dragonnel: Half-pterosaur/half-dragon. Awesome retro-stupid. I like it best if the real dragon is entirely off-screen, like a legend, but its brutal, screeching child is still here, terrorizing this cursed Thundarrian land.

(There is a dragonnel hidden in most episdodes of I Hit It With My Axe--find it and win a prize.)

-Dragon Turtle: Again, works especially well if there's no actual dragon to be found anywhere. I imagine inexplicable disappearances in the dense, Shanghai-like harbor. I see no reason it couldn't be as intelligent as any other dragon. Pirates should fear or worship it. Why are turtles less funny in Asia?

-Faerie Dragon: Small and weird enough that their presence won't dilute the effect of the big dragon, I think the primary function of the Faerie Dragon is to let the party know things have suddenly gotten vintage-psychedelic. Put "Pictures of Matchstick Men" on repeat as they wander into the forest, switch to the Camper Van Beethoven cover when they start talking to the Faerie Dragon, then switch to the Ozzy/Type-O-Negative cover when the faerie folk take advantage of their distraction to start spitting caustic adhesive and jabbing needles into the clerics eyes.
-Pseudodragon: Like Jerry Seinfeld hates any kid that had a pony, I think any wizard that has a little dragon is pretty crap. However, the illustration in the original Monster Manual is really nice--I just looked at it and was slightly surprised to find that the room full of shoji screens, incense burners and lacquered snuffboxes that David Trampier evokes in it is nowhere to be found in the actual picture.

-Wyvern: Ok--it has two legs, so what? Except I'm thinking every dragon should be a unique thing with its own legends and ecosystem and a funny name. So being able to call a local menace The Blacke Wyverne of Crenshing Downes is pretty good. Also good: Wyrm.

-Dracolisk: There's no reason not to just say a dragon has a petrifying gaze or decide that, aside from that one thing, a basilisk is just a kind of dragon, but actually using the word "dracolisk" implies cross-breeding.

In Medieval natural philosophy, half the time the spawn of a chicken and a donkey ends up being a cricket, so the dracolisk definitely suggests thinking about the dragon as a plausible species rather than as just a Monster, so I imagine the dracolisk in a sword-and-planet or crazy-alchemist context. Again, like the Dragonnel, the Dracolisk is a terrible spawn of mythical things you otherwise don't get to see. Also, like the Wyvern it has one of those names that's half-legendary already--fear the Dread Dracolisk of Dreeving Gate...


When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
-Enuma Elish

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
-Revelations 12:3

When Gary Gygax conjectured that chaos, our mother, was actually a many-headed dragon, he elegantly solved several problems that has been bedevilling philosophers for milennia: Where did it begin? Tiamat. How will it all end? Tiamat. Where do we come from? Tiamat. Where are we going? Tiamat.

And why is there suffering in this world?

Well, here at the start of the Babylonian creation myth in the Enuma Elish, Tiamat and Apsu are trying to sleep but the young gods won't be quiet.

Apsu opened his mouth and spake,
And unto Tiamat, the glistening one, he addressed the word:
...their way...
By day I can not rest, by night I can not lie down in peace.
But I will destroy their way, I will...
Let there be lamentation, and let us lie down again in peace."
When Tiamat heard these words,
She raged and cried aloud...
She... grievously...,
She uttered a curse, and unto Apsu she spake:
"What then shall we do?
Let their way be made difficult, and let us lie down again in peace."

A totally plausible divine motivation there--the gods are not making life hard to get us to do things, they are just trying to make our lives difficult so we'll stop trying and they can get some sleep. So: gods intervene out of sheer laziness. Try telling your cleric that next time she casts commune "Yes, you can have Cure Moderate Wounds if you just promise to shut up."

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. How many conspiracy theories have we formed in our heads assuming our parents, bosses or governments were sadistic or insane or wanted to exploit us or inspire us when really, the truth is they just did what they did because they were just too lazy to think any harder about it. David McCullough said that's why Truman dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

So, perhaps: The gods must be lazy. And The Glistening One is the laziest of them all. The Great Sleeping Mother with a basement full of shrieking children, on a Saturday morning that never ends, which we call existence.

They joined their forces and made war,
Ummu-Hubur, Tiamat, who formed all things,
Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.[
game over, man]
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;

After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.

You kids be quiet, or I'll send more monsters down there.

image credits: I have no idea. If you do, let me know.


trollsmyth said...

I adore Tiamat. I include Bahamut primarily to be her straightman, her foil. The fact that she has no Bahamut in my current campaign seems to make her scarier.

I've decided there's only one of each dragon kind in my campaign, they're not color-coded for player convenience, and I'm borrowing the wyrms of the Hamsterish Hoard to fill out their ranks and make them more mythic.

Excellent, excellent post. Thank you.

Calithena said...

Damn, that's weird about the pseudo-dragon picture...I had supplied the same background.

Tom Fitzgerald said...

Wonderful post,

I've grown a distaste for the colour coded dragons, and the big, handsome clean-limbed dragons of contemporary popular imagination in general. There is a element of anthropomorphisation about them that detracts from the reptilian alien-ness you described. Old-school mediaeval manuscript dragon tend to have a delicious awkwardness about them that I find very appealing, they are chimerical in a pure sense, lumped together from different bits, and are more authentic manifestations of primal imagination for it. The systematising, classifying, reductionist tendencies of game culture has sapped much of the mythic terror from the dragon (and monsters in general) by integrating them into a contemporary understanding of ecology. Dragons don't need to fit ecologically, they are poetic manifestations of the ideas of predator and enemy. Explainifying the primordial wonder out of them turns them into big scaly cartoons.

That said, I love your moat dragons.

Again, excellent post.

The Cramp said...

I used to work as an animal handler in a children's museum. We had snakes, I feed them. What is additionally super alarming about reptiles, and snakes in particular, is how still they are contrasted by how fast they move when they want to. They move like electricity . Constrictors have the widest range in this way. Still as the dead wood their resting on, then [enter rat] BANG. A blur, your eye can't even track it. When I think about scaling that up to the size of dragon, I think my PCs better have a fucking plan.

Unknown said...

"Thereafter," said Regin, "Fafnir slew his father and murdered him, nor got I aught of the treasure, and so evil he grew, that he fell to lying abroad, and begrudged any share in the wealth to any man, and so became the worst of all worms, and ever now lies brooding upon that treasure..."

I reread the Story of Sigurd yesterday -- I had totally forgotten that the dragon Fafnir was a man that shed his humanity with evil deeds. I agree with you about the inherent amorality of reptiles which resonated with Fafnir's loss of humanity and what he became through greed.

I'm toying with the idea of having dragons (in my current campaign) be Fafniresque in their generation. Green Dragons would be formed from an Elf that grew so greedy they transgressed against the existential meaning of Elf. I like the idea of Halflings becoming Black Dragons and Dwarves becoming White Dragons. I'm hesitant because that turns dragons into agents or morality rather than magic and that may not work with what I am running now.

About Green Dragons and chlorine gas. That's weird. I've always hated that one. I have Green Dragons breathing a dense, roiling, cloud of spores that choke and grow within their victims (flashing back to various images from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing). This also results in a very weird series of growth patterns throughout the forest as these spores grow after each attack.

It's always fun to read what you write. It makes me think and when what I have been reading syncs with what you write... good food for thought. Thanks.

E.G.Palmer said...

Most excellent Zak! And thank you for the link!

I love your treatment of the Monster Manual dragons. It's spot on.
A dragon is an embodiment of our dark urges and fears. It is Terror and Lust and Rage and Avarice and Cruelty, beyond the human limits of our feeling.
I rarely use one, and when I do it's an event.

Nick said...

Am I missing the Gold Dragon completely? Am I going blind?

Anwyay - wonderful post and thanks very much for the link to the dragon generator. I want my next fantasy game to have unique dragons and I am definitely borrowing the idea of the Wyvern as just a another word for dragon.

Jeppe said...

Really good and inspiring post, Zak. I have always had a love/hate relationship with dragons, especially when it comes to the sort of standardized and categorized approach used by D&D, but reading your thoughts on them made me consider revisiting the scaly guys in the near future.

Seth said...

This blog is a phenomenal resource. Chewing through an article with the forethought and analysis (alongside caprice and mischief) of most of your posts is unbelievably refreshing. I've been gaming since my age hit double digits and I'm not sure I've ever come across a comparable level of thought and analysis.


Zak Sabbath said...

oh yeah, thanks, corrected

nextautumn said...

"The black here is not simple negation--it's a deep and devouring black--like a black pit or a black hole."

Perfect imagery. Kind of negates the need for the gloom/shadow/whatever-else-is-black dragon, though; I just roll it all into one NONE MORE BLACK black dragon.

Tiamat gets my vote for awesomest monster. EVER.

Jomo Rising said...

I like the fire-breathing Leviathan from Job 41. Well done.

brandykruse said...

Pure brilliance!

Adam Thornton said...

Holy shit. That's the most convincing theogeny, like, ever.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> PCs better have a fucking plan.

That is how I feel about Dragons.

Anonymous said...

Miko: "How can you be certain it was evil, though? Are you not aware that there are dragons who live only to serve the greater good? Without proper training, it is nigh impossible to tell the good dragons from the evil ones? In your ignorance, you may have slain a powerful force for Good in this world! What proof do you have that you did not vanquish a stalwart defender of the weak in your mad lust for treasure?"

Roy: "Ummm... its scales weren't all shiny?"

Miko: "Ah. Then its destruction was just and necessary."

Elan: "Dragons: color-coded for YOUR convenience!"

--The Order of the Stick

Kevin said...

A dragon ecology I like is that presented in McKinley's The Hero and the Crown.

The idea is that dragons breed a whole lot. And while the protagonist has the idea that 'dragon hunter' will be the stuff of glorious legend, what she discovers is that for the most part it's a tedious and unpleasant chore: nests of dragons smaller than dogs, infesting the countryside like a plague of not-very-bright fire-breathing rodents.

The legendary dragons, the world-destroyers who can crumble kingdoms just from the aura of utter bleak despair they exude, are the ones that somehow survive centuries of being savage appetites with wings. In a sense, humanity is forcing dragons to evolve, by culling 99% of the population, leaving only the nastiest and most powerful.

The big dragon in Hero and the Crown (and there is only one, and it's suggested there's only been one for a very long time, because it's been eating all its possible competitors) is so damned horrible that just keeping its head as a trophy nearly causes the kingdom to die of malaise, mischance, and despair.

For a short time I ran a 1e campaign centered around dragon-hunting in this kind of ecology; the idea was that the PCs would be, essentially, exterminators. The end sequence, which we never actually reached, involved the PCs squaring off against the World-Serpent.

Jez said...

Funny, in all my 25+years of gaming I never actually played in a campaign where we got to fight one.

I did make a chart when I was 12 though, where my 200th Level Ranger (yep) was breeding colour dragons.

White Mother, Red Father... Pink Dragon.

Anonymous said...

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the image of the Dragon, as it exists in D&D and Medieval art, is is based on "Y Ddraig Goch", the Welsh Dragon.
Disclaimer: it is also the nation of which I am a proud member!.

For Asian dragons you don't have to look further than the Couatl, the flying snakes of the D&D world.

widderslainte said...

Great article. What are those dragon images from (particularly the 2nd and 4th)? I'd love to see bigger versions.

mordicai said...

I've always liked Wayne Reynold's Tiamat:

For having a cult gathered below her that she barely seems to acknowledge. Except maybe to scream at them.

I like Western dragons when they embody the Seven Deadlies. When the lay on treasure 'cause they are Greedy, & they want virgins to slake their Lusts, when they ravage towns out of Wrath & banter with hobbits because they are Prideful. When they target a single hero out of spite & Envy. That sort of thing.

I used one of those spark-plug-&-junk welded sculptures of the Hive Queen from Aliens to be the "final boss" dragon of one of campaigns. Looking at it now, the mini is awesome, but the rules-- eek, what a mess 3e was.

Vastad said...

IIRC the Asian Dragon looks leonine because that's one of the animals in the mix. It's supposed to be a mix of dog, lion, deer (i.e. the horns), snake and even catfish (ditto the weird whiskers it has).

Funnily enough, Dragons have never struck me as reptile. To me, that's like calling dinosaurs a kind of reptiles. Purely personal thing though.

Birds aren't scary? I never want to meet one of these:

I didn't initially mind the original dichotomy between metallic and chromatic dragons. 5 of each with an ultimate metallic (I think Bahamut was made of platinum or something) and ultimate chromatic (all 5 colours up in da bitch yo, Tiamat the world-eatin' ho), and then Io, the Creator-God Dragon who is basically the cosmos itself or something.
Things got silly when they started adding more and more variants. Gem Dragons with psychic powers, infinite sub-species of metal dragons like Adamantite, Mercury, Aluminium...
They ran out of interesting, practical breath weapons before they ran out of materials.

Another couple that could be on the list: Zombie Dragon and Dracolich.

A Dracolich is Bad-Ass Incarnate. All the powers of a dragon AND undead? Yet more immunity to it's already impressive immunity list? It's not merely long-lived, it's frickin' immortal? No need to eat, drink or sleep anymore? Magic powers turbo-boosted? Yep...a bad-ass.

Love your assessment of the Green dragon. Probably makes more sense if it had a liquid poison weapon like the Spitting Cobra, rather than bad breath.

Blue dragon: What if it had Van de Graaf generators for horns? Would that work? :P

Jonathan said...

All those belittling the typical green dragons' chlorine gas "bad breath," please, read an MSDS (materials safety data sheet) for the stuff. Or just the health effects section of the wikipedia entry: .

The gas is heavier than air, so it always sinks to the bottom of a space. It's easy to smell and it's an ominous color. It turns into acid in your lungs. It can contribute to ignition. It weakens many common metals.

Pockets of gas left in confined spaces or low areas? Weapons and armor degrading? Fire of any kind a bad idea? Nasty. Anything but dainty.

Zak Sabbath said...

I understand chlorine gas is dangerous, I'm just talking about how it feels viscerally, as a fictional element.

Like a cyanide injection is deadly, but the idea of a dragon grabbing my arm, pulling it out, and injecting me with a syringeful just doesn't seem aesthetically right. The scale seems off. That's what we're talking about.

Jonathan said...

I see your point; I guess I'm just hoping to share the way I imagine a beast that might exhale a cloud of chlorine when it's thinking maybe someone should die. On the musical spectrum, it's doom metal. Slow, calculated, vicious. It's not prideful; it's a sniper, a mine-layer, a terrorist... chemical weapons, right? Anything ornate or baroque is going to decay and fall to pieces around this thing. Swinging your axe around is just going to make you breathe harder and faster.

From a DM perspective, I think this is the kind of foe PC's may need to come back for later. Direct confrontation isn't going to work because the dragon isn't going to let a direct confrontation happen. But it's a great foe to have around in a more free-form campaign. The *dragon*, not the DM, is working the railroad angle. PC's are going to try some strange things, the game mechanics will come into play, and given adequate context the story will write itself.

I've always preferred to provide as much context as players want, then a layer or two more. For me, that's where the story happens. Green dragons are good for emphasizing peripheral details (interactions between terrain, abilities, NPCs, equipment, etc.). I imagine them less as the predator in the woods, more as a powerfully mindsick, paranoid, perhaps hallucinating beast. It is fighting for survival and territory, even though it outmatches everything near it. Hence: disproportionate force and asymmetrical tactics.

But to each their own. That's where it's interesting!

Delta said...

Great, great stuff.

I highly recommend that you get a copy of original white-box D&D (and Chainmail). Reading my copy (since 2007) has clarified and highlighted a lot of the traditions of D&D. For example:

"One thing I really don't like about D&D's dragons is the symmetry of the orginal dragon scheme good metal dragons on the left--evil colored dragons on the right."

The "original" dragon scheme had just 6 dragons (as in, roll d6 to see which one). 5 were evil and base (white, black, green, blue, red). Only 1 was good and intelligent (gold/oriental). I really, really like that view for my fantasy world: 5/6 awful and cruel and in need of fighting. Just 1/6 peaceful and wise, "barely moving, buddhalike, dully reflecting in the sun," as you put it.

I too think that the introduction of symmetry to the good/evil dragon types (in Supplement-I) was a grievous mistake.

DeadGodBirk said...

Does said dragonnel live on the left side of your thought box?

redmold said...

Regarding the "chlorine gas" breath: it's a matter of terminology. I don't like the way it's phrased either, I would never put it that way to my PCs. Forget about chlorine. What matters is this: it breaths poison. Its breath is death. When men attack it, they die choking. Metal corrodes, plants wither, animals die. The mouths of its lair leak deadly fumes - you have to draw it out to fight it, because if you go inside you'll find yourself stumbling around in dark, cramped tunnels, blind and unable to breath, and then the dragon will come. Its bite, presumably, is also poison - like the old night-scather of Beowulf.
Fafnir breathed poison. Lots of dragons breathed poison, especially the older ones, pre-Christian era. It's got good mythological basis. It also provides more plot-hooks than firebreathing - even if the dragon's not doing anything, it's still poisoning the land by its very presence, metaphysically or otherwise. I had a green dragon that was poisoning a lake it had taken up residence by - causing death in a town miles and miles away that bordered the same lake, and blighted and killed all the crops for a mile around the water, all without actually doing anything.

piles said...

It is big fun to go through your posts. It triggers so many ideas. The talk about dragons makes me want to:
- Use a blue dragon that is entirely made out of lightning. Similar to the Gandalf-dragon-fireworks in LoTR. Your mentioning of vibrating metal did me make wanting to do something with metal armor/weapons: maybe in stead of a straight jolt of electricity, use a branching lightning streak, jumping from one metal object (armor/swords) to another

Your talk about albino reptiles made me totally want to trick the players into believing that they are about to fight a white dragon, but in fact it is an albino [insert any other color] dragon. Like they show up fearlessly knowing that they all have protection vs cold or something and then get toasted by fire

Godjaw said...

Reading back to these posts really inspires me to make my games both evocative and uniquely mine.

Green Dragons have always been a favourite of mine. I love how they're manipulative and corrupting, how they collect the living like treasures. Their breath being poison is something I take quite literally. Some of the greatest past-times of humans are poisons, drugs and alcohol. The Green Dragon is that to me, it is insidious, corrupting, sweet, and strange. It will take hold of you and manipulate you to do it's bidding.