Friday, 23 October 2009

Come not between the dragon and his wrath

I read today something which surprised me from several different directions:
In previous editions, metallic dragons were good aligned, meaning that a DM would have to either create reasons that that the dragons were violently opposed to the PCs, or just ignore the “Always Lawful Good” and similar alignments. As we already knew from Monster Manual 2, this default assumption has changed a bit, tossing many of the metallic dragons squarely into the Unaligned category, giving some wiggle room to those playing it by the book. Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons takes it even further...
Critical hits previewing Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons, how doth thee surprise me, let me count the ways:
  1. The trivial one: You're telling me metallic dragons weren't in the first 4e Monster Manual? I suppose that makes sense from a business point of view (don't blow your load of iconics on the first book, because nobody will be interested in the second) but still.
  2. More serious: It's amazing how combat-oriented this quote reveals 4e to be. The fanboys on will say otherwise, but how else are we to interpret this radical rethink of "good" dragons, other than that it is geared to making them a more convenient enemy to fight? I'm particularly interested in this idea that in previous editions, DMs would either have to dream up reasons for metallic dragons being "violently opposed" to the PCs, or else just ignore the default alignment. It seems to imply that the only reason why you would want a monster to appear in a game is to have the PCs fight it. What happened to, you know, PCs just interacting with creatures, as opposed to fighting them?
  3. The third surprise: Where usually I read stuff about 4e and it makes me want to poke myself in the eye with a fork, I find myself conflicted about whether I think this is a bad development or a good one.

On the one hand, there is something in me that is repelled by the wimpiness of D&D dragons, and especially the good ones. The blame more or less lies with the Dragonlance books, which started off by building up dragons into terrifying demigods but wound up painting them as little more than big and talkative flying pets. Dragons should be in my opinion the most powerful and frightening D&D monsters; from The Bible to the legends of Tiamat to the works of William Blake to The Lord of the Rings, their most compelling portrayals have always been huge and mighty embodiments of malice, antagonism and cruelty. So doing away with good dragons is something I can get behind.

But on the other hand, I do think there is a place in the game for what you might call Old Testament Good - by which I mean the portrayal of God in those volumes as so Good he is to be feared. The stern, just, righteous kind of Good that sees wrongdoers turned into pillars of salt and smites the wicked. Good dragons play into that - as holy guardians and powerful fighters against evil everywhere. A bit like Batman, maybe.

So I view this development with mixed feelings. On the one hand, making Good dragons Neutral so that it's okay to fight them represents a kind of depressing banalism - yet more fodder for the Awesome Things Hitting Each Other routine that the 4e designers seem to want people to play. And yet on the other hand it represents a more-than-welcome step away from the odious Weis-and-Hicksian vision of Dragon-as-My-Little-Pony. A tough call, but I give the move a C+.


  1. #1 is true.
    #2 I don't need combat stats for things I'm not going to fight in combat, which has generally been the case before. Hence why I brought it up in the context of a book with stats in it.
    #3 Poking yourself in the eye because of a game that is clearly not your style but other people enjoy doesn't sound healthy but what do I know?

  2. #2 That's moving the goal posts a bit, isn't it? The issue isn't about whether or not there are combat stats for good dragons. The specific decision made was to change their alignment to unaligned, and my point remains: that's to make them more obviously adversarial. QED 4e has a more combat-oriented design philosophy. It's not even a criticism; I don't know why 4e fans always get so defensive when somebody says "this version is more combat oriented than previous ones". If you like combat that's a good thing presumably.

    #3 Poking yourself in the eye isn't healthy, full stop. I should stop doing that. Still, it's less painful than slamming ones own testicles in the sock draw, which is what I do when I've read something 4e-related that's particularly irksome.

  3. For what it's worth, there just plain aren't very many Good-aligned monsters in 4e, dragons or otherwise.

    The reasoning is that there's usually no reason for big ass-kicking heroes to bother with monsters that don't do nasty things to honest people. It springs out of the combat-focused design philosophy you mentioned.

    Personally, I'd prefer that they went whole-hog and chucked the whole idea of alignment in the bin, rather than publishing the new watered-down alignments we got, but that's just me...

  4. Not sure how it's moving the goal posts. You said: "It seems to imply that the only reason why you would want a monster to appear in a game is to have the PCs fight it. What happened to, you know, PCs just interacting with creatures, as opposed to fighting them?"

    Not implying that at all. I'm implying the only time I need combat stats for a monster is if I'm going to fight them, or occasionally, fighting along side them. Thus, if I want to use combat stats (as has been provided in every edition) I don't have any problem with making it so that the DM doesn't have to change as much to fight them. That was my point (and from the book, the point of the designers.)

    There's also plenty of stuff in the book talking about non-combat interactions with dragons, some mechanical, some not.

    4e is more combat oriented, not arguing with that at all. I'm not defensive about that, just defensive about how you pick apart my review.

  5. I'm glad that people have fun with 4e. Having said that, I think my sessions of Labyrinth Lord are more D&D than 4e is.

    "Hur dur we just killed an annoying Gold Dragon. Level up!"

  6. Blizack: I think it also fits into the design philosophy that the world revolves around the PCs to a greater extent than it did in previous editions. Now everything is all about how it relates to the characters (there's no point having good monsters, because the game is all about the characters fighting evil ones), rather than how the characters fit into the game world (the characters are on some quest, and happen across a gold dragon doing his own thing somewhere).

    Dave The Game: You said: "In previous editions, metallic dragons were good aligned, meaning that a DM would have to either create reasons that that the dragons were violently opposed to the PCs, or just ignore the 'Always Lawful Good' and similar alignments." You can't argue that this doesn't imply that you are only interested in having a dragon in a game in order to be fought.

    You obviously aren't only interested in having dragons in games to fight, but that isn't what that opening paragraph implies.

    All the talk about only having combat stats for monsters you want to fight is smoke and mirrors - you didn't say anything about it in the review, and that's why it's moving the goal posts to introduce it now. (Two metaphors for the price of one for you there.) I happen to agree with you to a certain degree on that issue, but it's not what you were saying in the Critical Hits piece.

    Christian: Well, to hear the Old Schoolers talk, it wouldn't be D&D unless you got no XP whatsoever for killing the dragon and could only level up if you managed to get its hoard back to town and spend it. ;)

  7. Prior to the wimpiness of AD&D2, it was quite possible that an adventuring party might have a much more mercenary or "evil" bent to it, even employing an assassin in its ranks. This type of group would certainly stalk a gold dragon in its lair hoping for a big payday...and then you need combat stats for said "good" dragon.

    Once D&D moved into heroic wankiness, well of course you might still need combat stats for a creature fighting on YOUR side against the bad dragons.

    @ Noisms (re Original Post): 4E is retarded, full-stop.

    And while of course I mean that in the pejorative slang form of the word, I also mean it in the sense of it is a stunted version of the potential gaming experience inherent in prior editions. Best to simply accept the fact that the D&D brand has moved into realms of entertainment not conducive to old school gaming sensibilities. At least until next month when I suspect a lot more bile will be spilling about the internet (Scorpionic season and all).

    As far as older edition dragons being wimpy...what have you been smoking? The aforementioned "evil" party was quite likely to get burned to the ground by a creature quite capable of doing upwards of 60+ damage to all characters in the area effect of its breath weapon, no matter how low the AC of the individuals. If that's not demi-god power (an ancient huge gold would do 96?) I don't know what is. An average 20th level fighter would have 73 hit points, maybe 91 with a 16 Constitution.


  8. JB: When I say wimpy, perhaps what I mean is underwhelming. D&D dragons never seem compellingly nasty to me. Really powerful yes, but not on a level with Smaug or Glaurung or Satan himself.

    Then again this is a problem with a lot of D&D monsters. I call it banalifying systemetization, after something China Mieville once said, and I've written about it before. Once you give an iconic mythic creature like a dragon, vampire, kraken or werewolf "stats", you make it knowable and that makes it lose its spooky lustre.

    Which oddly feeds back into the whole "you don't need combat stats for good dragons" thing.

  9. If you go with the assumption that what WoTC (and TSR before them) have been doing is publishing VERSIONS of the game (as in parallel equivalents) rather than EDITIONS of the game (as in progress from bad toward perfection) then the idea of each iteration of D&D trying to change the mythos of the game in different ways just as an experiment seems to make sense.

    This idea, I think, is more suportable now that each type of D&D (with the sort of possible exception of 2e) is completely supported now--
    Type 1 is supported by retroclones and old school gamers and ebay,

    Type 3 is supported by pathfinder

    and Type 4 is supported by whoever WoTC's hired this go 'round.

    I may not play 4e but I feel like--hey, why NOT make metallic dragons unaligned this time just for the hell of it and see what happens?

    The only argument against this way of thinking that makes sense that I can see is that whatever the current edition of D&D is--that's the gateway product for new players who are playing by themselves (rather than with an established group)--that is, for kids, mostly.

    So the argument really should be--are unaligned metal dragons good for teenagers or bad for teenagers or do we even care?

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  11. p,s,, I don;t mean that WoTC sees themselves as publishing a version of D&D rather than an edtion--I'm just saying that's how you can look at it.

  12. "Then again this is a problem with a lot of D&D monsters. I call it banalifying systemetization, after something China Mieville once said, and I've written about it before. Once you give an iconic mythic creature like a dragon, vampire, kraken or werewolf "stats", you make it knowable and that makes it lose its spooky lustre."

    Nothing like the look on a player's face when you are playing a "traditional" game of D&D and they run into an "iconic" creature like, say, a troll, or a mummy, or a minotaur, that doesn't perform "by the book" (the spellcasting troll, the fire resistant mummy, the poison gas breathing minotaur, etc). Stats should be a baseline; a good gamemaster takes the ball from there and runs it in for the touchdown.

    This, like the good dragon conundrum, is like most things shouldn't be a problem at all in play. If my character sees a silver dragon and immediately assumes ANYTHING about it except that it's big, looks mean and powerful, and could probably chew me up into tiny bits if I pissed him off, I have only myself to blame for what happens next...presuming to know the DM's world (or mind) without empirical evidence can get you dead really fast in my campaigns.

    Whether a player fights or doesn't fight a dragon (or troll, or mummy, or minotaur) should be conditional on each gamemaster's campaign and the situations presented therein. A good gamemaster will have the ocassional successful parley with a lich or hobgoblin king, as well as the occasional dust up with a brass dragon or blink dog.

  13. I had the combat stats for good creatures for two reasons:

    1.) If the PC's were evil or more common

    2.) The PC's went to convince these monsters to help them overcome other bad guys.

    Just because YOU don't fight them doesn't mean they don't fight in battles involving you.

    Look to a movie like Harryhausen's Sinbad and the Eye of the tiger, they get the gentle Troglodyte to follow them around, and jump in to protect them (at least until he dies) from the giant sabre toothed tiger.

  14. Dragon . . . Batman? O.o

    *starts furiously scribbling campaign notes*

  15. Zak: You make a point I agree with regarding the gradual changei n the mythos.

    Noisms: In response to #2, I would like to point out that of all the default gods in 4e, Bahamut is quite possibly the most staunchly Lawful Good of them all, so I wouldn't be surprised if the alignment distribution of the Metallics in practice skew toward good.

  16. I've never felt limited in any way by metallic dragons being of good alignment. The Good Guys need some heavy hitters as well. I mostly use them as patrons anyway. making metallic dragons neutral in 4E is just another nail in it's already impressive coffin.

  17. There's lots of changes in 4e that I find horribly obnoxious, but their treatment of dragons isn't one. The "More fights, yeah!" reasoning behind the alignment switch may be a little wrong-headed, but (whether or not WotC thought of them) there are other extremely good reasons to make this choice. I've always used unaligned dragons in practice. It's largely the fault of Ursula K. LeGuin and her Earthsea books.

    The Earthsea series has some terrific dragons. They are enormous, mysterious, powerful, and without exception, they are almost completely apathetic towards the 99.999% of humanity that aren't particularly powerful archwizards.

    There's a bit in the second book where the main character (a wizard and a "dragonlord") is asked exactly what a dragonlord is. His response: "The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you're a dragonlord."

    With traditional D&D dragons, the question is always "Are you a good dragon or a bad dragon?" and its boringly trivial to answer that by looking at its scales. "Can I talk with it, or will it kill me?" can be a much more powerful question, partly because it doesn't imply the same sort of black-and-white moral lenses, and partly because there isn't an obvious way to know the answer.

    And I think that's how it should be. Because honestly, why should dragons care about creatures as feeble as humans? It would be like humans making pets of mayflies. Dragons are a bit like Lovecraft monsters in this respect. Something as huge and ancient as a great wyrm has absolutely no reason to see something as tiny and ephemeral as a mortal as anything more than an annoying (and occasionally dangerous) pest. In the best-case scenario, man might qualify as "prey".

    I've played pretty much all dragons that way for years. "Evil" ones are just a little more inclined to eat first and ask questions never. "Good" dragons might slightly be more willing to chat, but I've always looked at this more as an attempt to amuse itself (and that possibly like a cat playing with its food) than genuine respect for human life. Admittedly, though, I've always thought the whole color-coding-for-alignment thing was kind of lame in the first place. Neatly cataloging something as primal as a dragon cheapens its impact, somehow.

    So yeah. I'll cast a dissenting vote and give a satisfied nod to the unaligned dragons.

  18. I agree Noisms, Dragons should be like great big invincible god-like beasts, who you fight only in desperation or at the very end of the campaign. For a game named after them, D&D dragons have always been surprisingly weak.

    I also agree with your take on plans to change the alignment of good dragons - it suggests a gaming milieu in which monsters are only ever there to fight, and "adventuring" is simply staggering from one battle to the next.

    The only 4e I ever played we were following a written adventure, and at the end we fought a dragon - even though we were only 5th or 6th level, it had just been scaled down to fit our level. So really we were fighting a big fire-breathing monitor lizard. That is the very definition of banal!