Monday, January 7, 2013

Here There Be Dragons!

Dragon! Perhaps the most evocative word in all of fantasy. Dragon, great, scaly, winged, fire-breathing, behemoth. Ancient, wise, treasure hoarding, mentor or nemesis. Big, overgrown lizard; kill it, take its treasure and move on. Wait! What was that last bit?

Sadly, dragons in T&T just don't quite seem to measure up. In J R R Tolkien's "The Hobbit" Smaug the great and terrible described himself thusly "My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!" Compare this to a dragon (with flame) from T&T "MR 1760" at level 5. I will grant that 177d6+880 (an average of 1500 hits including 30 spite) on the first round is nothing to sneeze at, but it lacks a certain gravitas.

Traditionally in fantasy RPGs a dragon attacks with the standard Claw/Claw/Bite routine of so many monsters plus a breath weapon up to three times a day. Still rather plain vanilla for my tastes.

My dragons attack with claw/claw/bite/wing buffet/rear foot kick-stomp/tail slap if on the ground and fighting to all sides, bite/snatch/rend/drop if flying, or can opt to breathe/spit or cast spells if they know any. Breath type weapons may include fire, poison gas, cold or frost, lightning bolts, acid spittle, venomous fangs, paralyzing or petrifying gas, and more. Especially clever dragons may also employ magical items such as rings, amulets, wands, staves, potions, even weapons if the weapon is large enough or the dragon small enough. Stooping on a delver like a hawk on a mouse, carrying him to a great height and releasing him to plummet onto rocks below is a great way to crack even the toughest armour.

Speaking of armoured delvers, let us consider the typical dragon-slaying as portrayed in song and legend. The evil wyrm is threatening to devour a fair maiden, usually a princess, and the best and bravest knights in the land decide to rescue her. The first order of business is to hold a tournament to determine who is the strongest and most valorous knight among them. This important question having been decided, the champion polishes his armour until it is mirror bright, mounts his noble steed, usually a snow white stallion and rides off to confront the beast in its lair. Arriving at the mouth of the cave the knight reigns in and issues his challenge to the dragon to come out and face him. In due course the dragon emerges, it and the knight square off, they charge together with great force and the dragon is impaled on the knights lance. Should he lance blow not prove fatal, the knight dismounts and finishes off he wounded monster with his sword. Knight, Lady, and suitable dragon trophies then ride back to feast at the castle.

A pretty story, but what really happens?

The fair maiden in peril is usually just a symbolic stand-in for the economic dangers of having a dragon as a neighbor. Ruined crops, burned villages and devoured caravans are all very bad for business. The younger and brasher warriors likely do have a tournament of sorts, which mostly serves to dull swords, splinter lances, and tenderize, err, bruise bodies. The older and wiser warriors watch as the young hotheads boldly ride forth, sound the challenge and are invited to a barbecue dinner with the dragon. Eventually the older and wiser warriors, together with some wizard friends if they can manage them, get together an assortment of nets, pole axes, poisons and balistae. With these they set out to butcher the dragon. Heavy nets are strung across the entrance of the lair to entangle the emerging beast. Barbed spears and stakes are driven into the ground to curtail the creature's movements. Men are placed above and to the sides of the entrance with pole axes and harpoons, liberally smeared with poison, their job is to hack and pinion the wings, stab eyes, mount and any vulnerable parts they can and get as much toxin into the beast as possible. Spells like Slush-Yuck will be targeted on the stone around the dragon, again to impair its mobility and possible trap it. Take-That-You-Fiend! and other direct combat spells are likely to be of little use initially due to the resistance of the dragon's phenomenally high Kremm. Better to target the environment around the beast.

It as this point that everyone gasps and says "But! That's not a fair fight!" No, it isn't. But in a fair fight the dragon almost always wins, not much of an incentive for the dragonslayers to fight fair, is it?

It is usually a better option to try to talk to and negotiate with the dragon instead. Dragons are well known for their vanity and their love of riddles. Either or both of these can provide a conversational in. Bribery is not generally a recommended tactic. Most of what a dragon wants they are quite capable of taking by force. As for the rest, what king is going to be happy giving away his crown to a lizard?

Having a dragon as a peaceable neighbor or sovereign is not without its advantages. For one thing many of them prefer to spend the bulk of their time sleeping or contemplating weighty philosophical questions (like which weighs more good coins or gold bars?). When they are awake their chief concerns are likely to be eating, defending what is theirs, and increasing the size of their hoard. The first is likely to produce a large but happily infrequent burden for farmers and ranchers. The second coincides nicely with the desire of the people of the realm to live their lives in peace. The third is likely to result in annual taxes and tributes. Some portion of the taxes and tributes can doubtless be raised from tariffs and tolls imposed on foreigners. Another good source of ample gold and riches is taxing delvers. Dragons frequently lair in caverns or mines full of forgotten tunnels and passageways many of which attract undesirable tenants. A resident dragon will often quite happily allow parties of delvers to venture into these spaces as exterminators. To be certain, the delvers will have to pay a large portion of their recovered wealth to the dragon, but may be able to strike a deal for provision of healing magics or other aid in return for their services.

Dragons are more than just a combat encounter or potential ruler however. Lesser dragons are a preferred mount of wizards, sorcerers and powerful warriors. Greater dragons may serve as councilors, mentors to wizards or sages of great knowledge. Dragons are often in possession of spells known only to dragonkind and can work powerful magics when they choose.

Dragons cannot properly be numbered amongst either the "good" kindreds or the "monsters". The majority are neutral, concerned only with their own ends and affairs. Individuals may ally themselves with good or evil causes, sometimes both over their tremendously long lifespans.

Dragons have a tremendous variety of appearance. They may be large or small, serpentine or stocky. Most possess wings, commonly similar to those of a bat although fan-like or feathered wings are not unknown, some dragons fly without the use of wings. Dragons may have two legs or four, rarely six, in addition to wings. Their tails may be hooked, barbed, stinger-tipped, spade-ended or even prehensile. They may be decked with a variety of horns, frills, spines, crests, tendrils, manes, etc. Most are scaled. Scales may vary in texture from fine to coarse. They may be ridged, rough or polished. Some dragons have flat scutes on their bellies like snakes, others sport dermal denticals like sharks, or plates like crocodiles, some even have shelled carapace a like turtles. Occasional dragons will have fur or feathers either instead of or in addition to scales. They are found in a rainbow of colours and patterns. Most seem to be of a single predominant colour with a lighter colour on their underparts. Metallic scales and colours are not unknown. There are reports that the colour of a dragon's scales is determined by the type of breath weapon it employs, but these are not always accurate.

One last point about dragons ought to be touched on here. That is the subject of dragon curses. The treasure hoards of dragons are often protected by powerful curses, the severity of which tend to increase with the age and power of the dragon.

Every dragon seems to know the contents of its horde down to the last cup and coin. Taking so much as a single brass farthing may be enough to alert the beast that someone has been there. The response is often to seek vengeance far beyond the value of what was taken. Whole villages have been laid waste for the sake of a single cup.

Dragon-greed or "gold fever" is a common sickness contracted by those who pilfer a dragon's den. This is an unquenchable thirst for ever increasing amounts of gold. Eventually those stricken become so miserly that they will not part with a single copper and so greedy that they will stop at nothing to obtain more coin, even robbing beggars and stealing from the poor box.

The most terrible curse is that which befalls those who sleep on a bed of dragon's gold. They are transformed into dragons themselves. The transformation may be abrupt and sudden or gradual and subtle, but in the end the result is the same. The new dragon retains the knowledge and much the same personality it possessed before. It must learn to adapt to life in its new form, initially being even unable to speak or use draconic abilities such as flying or breath weapons. Although initially the personality is much he same as it was before the transformation over time it becomes more dragon-like. Desiring solitude, covetous of gold and wealth, arrogant and predatory.

I hope that this will allow for more depth in the presentation of dragons in the game. All of the above can be applied without a single change to the rules. Breath weapon and special attacks can be assumed to count as part of the dragon's MR and described narratively. Spite damage if used can occur in the normal way. If the GM prefers more rules crunch special damage effects, breath weapons, and spells can be triggered by spite damage thresholds as is standard under 7e rules.

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