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Howling Tower: Dragons—A Soar Spot

Howling Tower: Dragons—A Soar Spot

Saint George and the Dragon by Gustave MoreauDragons are the most iconic creatures in fantasy RPGs, for obvious reasons. They ought to be among the most impressive and frightening, too, but that isn’t always the case. It’s not because dragons don’t have the chops; on a stat-by-stat basis, your average dragon is terrifying. Yet player characters bring them down with shocking regularity.

How can that be? I blame two popular fancies, both of which are variations of namby-pambyism.

First is the notion that, because dragons are iconic, it’s a shame to make players wait until their characters reach high level before fighting one. Wouldn’t it be more fun if PCs could tackle a dragon at low level? Hence we get “heroes” killing baby dragons and bragging about it. St. George looks sort of cruel in many depictions, lancing a dragon that’s dwarfed by his horse. Now, even a baby dragon can be a tough foe, and a creature that’s guaranteed to grow up into a fire-belching murder machine ought to be fair game at any age, for the good of civilization. But from a heroism angle, it smacks of tying a pig to a post and letting children shoot it for fun while pretending they’re hunting wild boar. It demeans the participants and erodes respect for a creature that deserves a healthy measure of esteem, whether it’s a feral razorback or a majestic wyrm.

Second is the misplaced idea that fights ought to be fair. Fairness has nothing to do with it. The #1 concern of warriors who engage in fights to the death should be wangling matchups that are as unfair as possible, in their favor. A dragon that doesn’t use every advantage the Monster Manual or Bestiary allows against would-be dragon slayers is a poor excuse for a behemoth.

Of course, when I criticize feeble dragons, I’m really pointing a finger at DMs.

The biggest offense here is grounding dragons rather than keeping them aloft. Dragons are meant to soar majestically with widespread wings, swooping earthward only to unleash fiery doom on puny humans. This is what dragons do; it’s their signature move, their raison d’etre, their unblockable leaping crane attack, the nut punch that makes them dragons. Why would any dragon be so foolish as to give up its best defense and plant itself where it can be backstabbed by halflings with knives?

Because DMs want the fight to be fair, that’s why. They want every character to participate equally, even characters who literally bring a knife to a firefight. Not to put too fine a point on it, but . . .

No, let me put a very fine point on it. This is the height of ridiculousness. It’s gimme game mastering and PC entitlement run amok. It’s disrespectful to players, because it assumes that they can’t think their way through a problem and won’t enjoy themselves if they’re asked to.

That’s not to say PCs shouldn’t fight dragons on the ground, because they should, absolutely. That’s the only way smart heroes will engage a dragon. But the dragon should be grounded because characters forced it into a deadly corner, not because it chose to commit suicide.

How do you force a dragon to fight on your terms? That’s the $64,000 question. Anyone who picks a fight with a dragon had better have an answer. Ambushing the beast in a cave or in roofed-over ruins is a top contender, since dragons seem to like having a roof overhead when napping. Crippling its wings with long-range attacks is an option, though a dangerous one if it fails. Drugging the dragon somehow is an interesting possibility—several buckets of sleep potions in its water supply might do the trick.

The point is that the burden of gaining the upper hand against a powerful foe such as a dragon falls on players, not the DM. A dragon is the Kobayashi Maru of fantasy RPGs—the game is rigged 100% against the heroes. The only way to win is to change the rules. That’s a real test of resourcefulness and a worthy challenge for true heroes.

About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!

 

22 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Dragons—A Soar Spot”

  1. I thought that St. George towered over the dragons for iconographic reasons (he is, after all, the saint in the picture).
    Different cultures interpret art in different ways.

  2. I have encountered this situation many times in my 30+ years of gaming and I think it applys to all flying creatures. I think there is just something about the 3d dimension that confounds DM’s and players alike. It makes encouters take longer. It is harder to visualize. The minis don’t work as well. Flying creatures can easily simply fly away depriving the PC’s of victory. Trouble indeed!

  3. This is a darned good article. I’ve been guilty of the wimpy and earthbound dragon syndrome in the past. But no more. I have a party of 5th levels that I DM for, and they’re begging for a dragon fight. I’ve already got a young dragon in mind, and they’re going to regret it. The same thing happened when they requested a “dungeon crawl”. Half the party killed by giant waterbugs, all before the haunts and waves of undead that followed.

  4. How do you imagine them crippling its wings? How much damage is required? How many attacks? And if it looked like it might happen, wouldn’t the dragon just fly off?

    I’ve never run or been involved in a straight up dragon fight in all my years of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve run skill challenges that featured dragons, but no actual combat. So I can’t say that I would or wouldn’t have run it this way. However, I probably don’t have flying creatures make as much use of their abilities as they could or should.

    I think the key problem is the idea of retreat. As in, players usually have no concept of it. If the dragon just few overhead, hurling down spells and the occassional breath weapon blast, I think it would take a typical group a long time to figure out to disengage and run for cover. I think it would take longer than some of them could survive and at that point you have comrades to lug around AS you’re escaping. This assumes the DM gave any thought to cover for the PCs.

    I think if I found myself DMing a situation like this and the PCs were clueless what to do, that I’d say “Look, two people are down and dying. Going by the book, the dragon can simply chase you down if you run. So, you can either die and roll up new characters, or you lose and you accept the results I impose on you.” Then I’d give them a few options, such as equipment ruined, nearby town laid waste, lost in a forest/cavern the dragon can’t enter, and/or now in service to the dragon. Or whatever. It’d be like in Spirit of the Century, in which you can accept “concessions” instead of being “taken out” (which also doesn’t have to mean death).

    If something like that were the baseline for D&D, I think DMs could open up a lot more on how they run combat.

    That and better advice on running 3D encounters.

  5. Another problem is that ultimately people tend to want the epic fight between roughly equal groups. Assassinating the dragon might be smart, but it’s not really thrilling.

    I was going to use Smaug as an example, but that wasn’t really an epic fight either. Smaug was all set to erase Laketown and its citizenry from the sky until Bard was told how to assassinate him. It was an epic shot from a dangerous place, but it in the final analysis it was just a single cheap shot.

  6. I faced this issue with a beholder this last weekend. I didnt like what I decided, he died too fast. I really don’t get how to use flying creatures as a DM…..and to have the fight be dangerous, enjoyable, yet possibly winnable….

  7. Paul; You’re right about retreat, but the time to have a conversation with players about their options is before the fight begins, not when they’re running around on fire. A dubious look and an “are you sure this is wise? You know the dragon can fly, right?” might work wonders.

    Players push ahead with foolish ideas because they interpret a DM’s silence to be a sign that everything is going according to script. They assume that the DM won’t let them do anything lethally foolish. If they’re lining up to do something that looks lethally foolish and the DM isn’t stopping them, then it must be OK. They could even be excused for thinking this way if it’s always been true in the past.

    In such a situation, I encourage a DM to step out of character and tell players, “this plan of yours is going to get you killed. I suggest you reconsider.” Ideally, that message comes from the grizzled, fire-scarred, one-armed innkeeper at an inn called “The Dragon Always Flies Too High to be Hit with Swords.”
    I think the time to have a conversation with players about their options is before the fight begins, not when they’re running around on fire. A dubious look and an “are you sure this is wise? You know the dragon can fly, right?” can work wonders. Players often push ahead with foolish plans because they interpret a DM’s silence to be a sign that everything is going as planned. Being truly faced with doom is an unusual situation for some players, and they might not realize that’s what’s happening.

    In those cases, it

  8. Charles Carrier

    I’m happy to say that I don’t seem to fall into this category of DM. Pretty much every dragon fight for the last thirty years has seen the players scrambling hard to survive. In the process, they have come up with some wickedly inventive (and frequently suicidal) tactics.

    On one occasion the party’s bard (old-style 1E bard) threw a doomsday device guaranteed to slaughter not only the dragon, but half the party too. “Are you sure,” I asked? “Yep!” she replied. “After all, a Pyrrhic victory is still a victory.” My players can be very hard core sometimes.

  9. I remember a 2e painting of a “proud” party posing in front of a minute dragonling hanging from a tree with a paltry box of “treasure” in the foreground placed almost as in justification. I think part of the problem comes from the “must combat iconic dragons iconically” style of thinking. A friend of mine once scoffed at any mortals defeating a true dragon, and while I applauded his loyalty to his chinese year-sign I’d still bring dragons closer to earth.
    Though this may all be tangental to discussion on combatting dragons, I feel the point is still valid. Even young dragons should be majestic and ferocious beasts, and flying *should* definitely be a mainstay – but so should spell-use, item-use and allies, for those clever enough to employ them.
    Truly intelligent dragons should be able to neutralize most threats before they’ve decided to attack!

  10. “I think if I found myself DMing a situation like this and the PCs were clueless what to do, that I’d say “Look, two people are down and dying. Going by the book, the dragon can simply chase you down if you run. So, you can either die and roll up new characters, or you lose and you accept the results I impose on you.”

    Here’s what I would say, ‘The Dragon shows no signs of breaking off its attacks and a wicked voice is heard on the air. Just then you notice a narrow fissure in the nearby rocks that might – just might – lead to a hidden valley or a small cave.’

  11. “A friend of mine once scoffed at any mortals defeating a true dragon, and while I applauded his loyalty to his chinese year-sign I’d still bring dragons closer to earth.”

    It’s a much bigger concept than that. The dragon was an ancient symbol amongst pagans for the end of an age; it ushes it in and cannot be stopped. It’s not ‘merely’ a fire breathing lizard, anything could be the ‘dragon’. In our world today, if the global financial situation collapses, the ancients would have said that the dragon had risen. In this way, the dragon is a force, is a beast, is a powerful doom that few can overcome.

  12. “I remember a 2e painting of a “proud” party posing in front of a minute dragonling hanging from a tree with a paltry box of “treasure” in the foreground placed almost as in justification.”

    I always hated that illo. I think it was meant to be humorous, but it just made me angry. Still does, when I think about it.

  13. Steve, I can’t agree. The DM (if not the rules of the game) has to allow for situations in which the PCs find themselves in over their heads either though bad choices (sometimes uncharitably called “stupidity”) or through bad dice rolls (which, if the PCs didn’t plan for them, is just another form of bad choice). One way, of course, is just to have the TPK and make new characters who somehow now know to make different choices. Another way is to allow the PCs to choose death or concessions. That the DM will be offering that choice can be mentioned up front, but the choice itself can’t be offered until it comes up.

  14. Paul; I totally agree that a TPK should be the DM’s last resort. I’m not one who goes around yelling “lop off their heads” if the players make a mistake. There are all sorts of creative alternatives to TPKs, most of which are better in terms of dramatic effect and player satisfaction than a party wipe. I should write a blog about that … oh, wait, I did. It will be in the summer print edition of KQ. Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until then for the details. ;)

  15. Where we might differ is in how severe the consequences of foolishness ought to be. I’m willing to be pretty harsh. As a DM, I’m flexible enough to make a 180-degree turn in the story if the characters’ actions merit that type of setback. Even if the PCs don’t die, I have no problem saying “you messed up; the princess is dead, the villain got away, the dragon burned the village to the ground, and if the king, the villain, or the villagers ever get their hands on you, you’ll curse your mother for giving you life. She may be disowning you as we speak.” My experience is that a lot of DMs won’t go that far because they’ve put a lot of work into building an adventure and they don’t want to see it “wrecked” by PC failure. I see every possible outcome as legitimate. The DM needs to be creative when the party gets into trouble–probably more so than at any other time–but he also needs to retain his impartiality, possibly more so than at any other time.

  16. “Dragon Mountain” 2e adventure is my personal pinnacle of what you said in the OP.
    Inyfraina, the final dragon, at the bottom of 3 enormous level infested by the smartest Kobold you have ever met, did a big leap in her gargantuan cave and leaped on the party, fire breathing from the air and never landing. TPK for the victory! :-)

  17. My players never had it easy with dragons. They either died (many times) or fled. When they were high levels, they might have prevailed, but almost never killing the dragon. The beasts are simply too smart to die fighting. In a Dragonlance campaign my friends still talk about 20 years later, one of the PCs was a Solamnic Knight, stupid enough to declare his name before battling the red dragon (Flagratius.) A hard battle follows, and the PCs are almost victorious as the dragon escapes. Later on, they discover that “a man has been asking for the whereabouts of the Sir Knight” at the local circle of knights. Long story short, the PCs return to their castle (they were high level) and find it burnt to the ground, all the servants and man-at-arms killed, and a writing on a stone wall, in blood and soot: “Flagratius was here.” They still curse this name to this day :D

  18. Here is an interesting counterpoint:

    http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=monterstreasure&action=display&thread=6374

    I believe that all enemies should be played as real living creatures who will use all the advantages they can. Also, if their life is in danger they should often flee, negotiate, beg, whatever. Standing and fighting to the last man is for hopeless situations, zealots, and robots.

    But regarding dragons… I think they have been built up to overly legendary status (just check out the size inflation that has happened over the course of modern fantasy). Now, there may be specific godlike dragons (something like the tarrasque, or the herald of the apocalypse, as another poster suggested). But why not just have a monster with a hoard sometimes too? Not everything has to be a dread puppetmaster to be a fun enemy (and note I’m not suggesting that such encounters should ever be easy).

  19. In my campaigns, dragons are indeed terrifying foes. But young dragons are arrogant and not invulnerable, one could easily manipulate them into fighting on unfavorable ground.

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