The other day, I saw this show up in my Facebook feed:
My first thought was, “Whoa. The proportions in that painting are all so whackass. Is that an Elmore? Elmore’s art is usually better than that.” Then what the meme was saying actually registered and I thought, “Huh. That’s kinda true. At least, I’ve fought more dragons in video games than I ever have in Dungeons & DRAGONS.”
There are plenty of dungeons in D&D (I’ve even played campaigns where we never left the dungeon), but I’ve been playing roleplaying games for about twenty-five years and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a character go up against a dragon or even had a dragon show up in a game. Half of those were one-shots. Video games clearly win. Digitally, I have fought hundreds of dragons. Everquest counts for most of those numbers, thanks to being a member in a high end raiding guild during the Scars of Velious expansion. For those that missed those glorious, Ever-Crack days, that means many nights attempting to, and eventually succeeding at clearing the Temple of Veeshan’s North Wing, which was loaded to the gills with named dragons. Add three complete play-throughs of Dragon Age: Origins and one of Dragon Age II, and those numbers get even bigger. I’ve never even played Skyrim and I can still say video games easily beat out pen and paper games when it comes to dragons.
Why are we so much more likely to face dragons in video games than in the pen and paper game that advertises them in its title? I chalk it up to the ‘good china’ effect. Like the good china that you got as a wedding present or was handed down through the family, dragons are intended for special occasions. The nice dinnerware is pulled out for holidays and fancy events that are planned long in advance. The general feeling I’ve gotten from most gamers and GMs is that coming face to face with a dragon should be epic. It should mean something! Just like pulling out the good china. You don’t pull out the good china for leftovers and you don’t pull out a dragon just because you’re bored.
Unfortunately, this too often means that you never get to the special occasion where that dragons shows up. Other games and settings have similar issues, but none are quite as obvious as the missing dragons in D&D. I’ve played plenty of games where something epic is hinted at throughout the game, but it’s very rare that I’ve ever played in a game that actually reached that epic plot point. Too many games fade away without getting finished (which could be another article topic). For whatever reason, some understandable, some silly, games end before reaching the full conclusion that the GM may have envisioned or wanted. It may not have been a literal dragon showing up for the players to defeat, but there always seems to be something major the players never got to see.
This issue isn’t quite as bad in one-shots – games meant to be played and concluded in one night, not games that you just play once and then never pick up again. This probably explains why most of the dragons I’ve encountered in my gaming career have appeared during one-shots. Since your time is limited, the pacing is important and most good GMs know how to work in the important things they want to throw at you. Like a dragon. In a one-shot, if the GM wanted to throw a dragon at you, more than likely you’re going to see that dragon.
Campaigns have the luxury of more time, but that leads to more chances that you won’t actually get to play the game’s story through to completion. GMs want to save the most awesome, epic bits until the climax at the very end, but that ends up meaning the dragon’s sitting out there in her lair, tapping her claws, just waiting for someone to show up and try and take her shiny loot.
Even if a video game has fifty-plus hours of play-time built into it, it’s crafted more like a one-shot than a campaign. The creators of the game already built the epic finale on top of Denerim’s highest tower into the code. If you as a player don’t get to it, it’s your own damn fault, not lack of energy or enthusiasm on the part of the GM.
As a GM, it’s tough, but important, to learn how to keep a balance between keeping epic things special and making sure they’re not just gathering dust in our virtual gaming cabinet because we never actually get to them. Good games have an abundance of awesome throughout every session, not just in climactic finales. It’s also important to note that most modern versions of D&D (3.5, 4.0, and Pathfinder) have dragons set up at a variety of challenge levels, meaning you can bring them into the game well before any epic level end-games.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go stat out some dragon-related encounters for my Eberron game. My players are currently trekking across Argonnessen, after all.
Oddly while I’ve used dragons numerous times in FRPGs, I’ve never once faced one as a player. Well, not that I recall anyway… You’d think you’d remember a dragon.
In 2e AD&D dragons are fraking murder-machines. Dunno if that’s true in 3+ D&D. Never played those editions enough to suss it out. Though I’ve heard tell, the big lizards aren’t necessarily as bad-ass in the later versions of the game.
I think that the Hobbit and Dragonlance had too great an impact on my early conception of Fantasy for dragons not to play a seminal part in my games. I used dragons as both nemesis and friend. I especially liked bronze dragons (they enjoy to poly-morph into small animals & interacting with people) and steel dragons (sages who liked to study humanity from within). When there’s a friendly dragon on your team even lower level characters stood a chance of facing an evil dragon and living to speak of it.
Dragons (and other serpents) have such a strong psychological impetus behind them (thanks Dr. Campbell) that they still find a frequent home in my games. I suppose, to extend the metaphor, I don’t really think of dragons as rarely used fine China. I think of the more as Decorative platters. When you’ve got something big (epic enough) enough to warrant a serving platter (dragon) go ahead and drag ’em out. Nothing else will hold all the epic quite as well. Not everyday, but you ought to have a nice, sit-down meal (grandiose denouement [yay, pretentious French words!]) once in while. (Okay. I think the metaphor just broke.)
On the other hand, I’ve never fought nor used a Beholder as a Player/GM, IIRC. It makes me sad, and I think it hurts my nerd credibility.
You’re definitely right about the Hobbit and Dragonlance being a big influence on how dragons are used. Not to mention, the brutality of how hard they were in 1st and 2nd edition. Some of my old school gamer friends still regard dragons as impossible, even though the newer versions definitely put in dragons of all challenge levels. Pathfinder has them starting at CR6 and going up from there. Definitely doable by a lower-mid level party.
Oddly enough, one of my few encounters with a dragon was a low-level 4th edition game. It was actually really well done and, despite being so low of level, the fight really felt epic. We were something like 2nd or 3rd level and it was a very young white, but it was still a dragon and we won.
I am proud to be the GM who brought you 2 or 3 of those dragons, Ang. And one was a Dracolich!! =)
4th edition D&D gets a lot of fFlak. But one of the lesser noticed awesome things in 4th edition is that there are level appropriate dragons fFor every character group. A party of 4-6 level-1 people can take down a White Dragon. You could completely run a campaign of dungeons, comprised entirely of dragons!
One of my fondest dragon fights was the white dragon we fought in that first 4th edition game Julie ran. Having her let me pull that cool move sliding across the ice to get behind the dragon made me feel awesome. That dracolich fight in your 4th edition game is a close second. 🙂 We thought we were so hosed.