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Dragonriders of the Suggestion Pot

Dragon Rider, A New Prophecy [1] by ~valadant [2] on deviantART [3]Dragon Rider by Valadant [4]

I was adding some tarragon and parsley to the suggestion pot [5] earlier, and what did I come across? Jim C asking the following:

Hey Guys,
I actually a couple of questions/suggestions/topics for thought, all from one game idea.

A while ago a friend of mine had an idea for a game about dragon riders. The game never actually happened; I think he couldn’t find a system he felt would allow his vision to play out happily. So first up: What if your homebrew setting idea doesn’t fit into an obvious system?

The obvious idea was to play using any system and just giving your fairly typical each player a loyal dragon companion, the issue here is that he wanted the dragons to be fully fledged personalities in themselves. So how’d this be possible? In essence how do you have recurring and powerful intelligent, but essentially loyal npcs. How do you manage when a players mount, rather than a well trained warhorse is fully intelligent and able to (and should) question what’s asked of it? A similar question can be asked about systems which have intelligent familiars?

Final question is about the other way of handling it; the Dragon is played by a player as is the rider. How could you handle such a potential disparity in PC ability?

There are a lot of ways to handle a game like this, but they’re specific to the experience you’re building. Are we talking about players riding something like D&D’s dragons, something “dragon-like” like a smart pterodactyl, alien beasts that are kind of dragon shaped (like Dragon Riders of Pern), Eregon, or something else? Each of these has a different feel: the D&D dragon’s rider feels a bit like a mascot, unless they’re very high level characters and you give them something appropriate like Krynn’s Dragonlances; the pterodactyl rider is much closer to a Paladin with a smart and magical warhorse, while aliens can be “space horses”, but intelligent ones are often a chance to look at a culture that’s entirely unlike our own; and Eregon was a quick read too long a go to give you good advice– sorry.

I suspect we’ll do better tackling your questions one by one, so I’ll try that from here on.

So first up: What if your homebrew setting idea doesn’t fit into an obvious system?
It all depends on your temperament and abilities. For some people, particularly GMs and tinkerers, a strong vision and no good system on the market to play will encourage them to try their hand at game design. If your friend is already twiddling with systems and is thinking about implementing a horde of house rules [6] to make it work half-way, suggest that he go full out and make a system that does what he wants from scratch. Of course, suggesting that is volunteering to be a playtester… so make sure that you’re up for that process. It’s not much like playing a game with finalized rules, especially not at first…

Another factor to consider is what type of plots you intend to use focus on. If the game is all about intrigue and the dragon rider’s guild is just another faction jockeying for influence in the kingdom, then you’ll treat it very differently from a world at war, where countries use dragons like we use aircraft today. For intrigue, you could easily play with half of the players as dragons, with their own perspectives and goals that they’re trying to achieve through their riders, and the other half as dragonriders, treated as mere soldiers by some factions, and as deluded dragon lovers by others… any system that handles intrigue well could probably handle your game well. If, on the other hand, your dragons are more like aircraft, your system might have the dragon dogfights be based using the dragon’s stats, with the characters just contributing a few modifiers.

The obvious idea was to play using any system and just giving your fairly typical each player a loyal dragon companion, the issue here is that he wanted the dragons to be fully fledged personalities in themselves. So how’d this be possible? In essence how do you have recurring and powerful intelligent, but essentially loyal npcs. How do you manage when a players mount, rather than a well trained warhorse is fully intelligent and able to (and should) question what’s asked of it? A similar question can be asked about systems which have intelligent familiars?

This depends on many factors, including group size, degree of personality the dragons have, and a few other things.

If everyone wants to play dragon riders, then you have to stretch a little. One of the best solutions I saw was in Wraith, where you played both your own character, but also the character to your left’s Shadow. During a session you would mostly play your own character, but you would also whisper temptations to the neighboring player as their shadow and offer them sweet sweet power. For this game, you could each play your own dragon rider, but also play someone else’s dragon. That would allow huge flexibility to your group: you could have dragon rider scenes, where everyone plays their primary rider character and tries to navigate human society as dragon riders; dragon scenes, where we see that dragons aren’t just mounts, but have personalities and goals of their own, and mixed scenes, where “splitting the party” isn’t a big deal because everyone still has a character to play– a few people dragons, a few people dragon riders.

You can also handle this with the GM running the dragons, but this will work best only if the dragons aren’t constantly talking to the humans. If you’ve read Mercedes Lackey’s Valedemar books, companions and bond birds are both easy to give some quick flair– like any recurring NPC– but they rarely get into long conversations with the PCs. A geas, reluctance on the dragon’s part, or the risk of driving the riders insane every time they talk might work for your game. In any case, if the GM is handling the dragons, you’ll want a smaller group– probably a 2 or 3 dragon rider game.

Final question is about the other way of handling it; the Dragon is played by a player as is the rider. How could you handle such a potential disparity in PC ability?
If players want to play dragons, you’re in luck: many systems have ways to scale back and develop “monsters” similar to PCs. If you played Mage: the Ascension, creatures like gryphons and dragons could be easily played alongside the primary PCs, and they grow using the same rules as PCs. Similarly, in D&D3, Savage Species allowed you to break monsters into levels paralleling PCs levels. It was rarely perfect, but it would make at least a roughly comparable party possible.

It also depends on what the disparity is. If the problem is that dragons are deadly in combat, then you just need to mix up scene types: not every problem can be solved by fire breath and claw. If the disparity is that the dragon PCs are better than the non-dragon PCs in every way (shapeshifting, intelligence, cool combat powers and legendary toughness…), then your answer probably depends on why the dragons bother with riders in the first place. Are there things that dragon riders are necessary to accomplish? If so, concentrate on those scenes to make sure we remember that dragon riders are necessary and cool. Make sure that the riders remain necessary throughout– for politics, turning away angry mobs, explaining the disappearance of livestock to the king, etc.

How would you handle it?
That’s my stab at how I’d approach it. It’s unfortunately pretty vague, since there are so many things a good dragons and riders game could be. How would you tackle this? Have you had much success with a “heroes and mounts” game in your group? Is there a system out there that’s perfect for this? Add your thoughts in comments and maybe Jim C will soon be soaring through the sky on dragonback!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Dragonriders of the Suggestion Pot"

#1 Comment By mougoo On May 14, 2010 @ 4:52 am

I like your approaches–I think the best one is to make some of the players dragons. That was my gut reaction.

The GM will constantly stumble if he’s trying to manage the dragons as NPCs if they’re stars of the show. You will get into situations where you are talking to yourself. Speaking from experience on both sides of the table, this isn’t fun.

If everyone needs a dragon of their own, I’d suggest you make it difficult to have a conversation with them. Perhaps

1) the dragons’ voices are so loud and otherworldly that players have to save vs fear when they talk, or take some noticeable penalties

2) the dragons speak like the Ents from Lord of the Rings–players won’t want to carry on conversations

3) “normal” dragons don’t talk, so the dragons take care to not reveal this ability around anyone but the riders

4) the dragons communication is an empathetic link. it isn’t telepathic (this doesn’t solve the language issue), instead, the player knows when the dragon is angry, or cocky, or uncertain.

As far as the dragon “questioning what is asked of it” aspect, man, that could get tough. I mean, in a sense, the GM could be trying to build a railroad with wings. It would seem like the dragons would have to either be geas-ed to the humans, or perhaps they are sort of like gods who are curious to see what puny humans do, and so go along for the ride, even when they know it is a mistake. (I’m thinking of the plot to a major show involving an island, here)

And lastly, as far as system, I’d run this in Fate. That’s probably because I have an embarrassing man-crush on Fred Hicks right now due to excitement for the Dresden Files RPG, but Fate is a great system to design exactly what you want, and not worry terribly much about issues like CR and LA and bookkeeping like that.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On May 14, 2010 @ 9:11 am

One issue with your second suggestion is that you must have a totally committed game group who never have missing players, as a no-show will double the inconvenience and require work-arounds that result in dragons with MPD. But it sounds like a good way to ave everyone have fun with co-operative dragons.

Some factors to remember: The Pern dragons were not only telepathically linked to their riders, they were emotionally linked too. The pair were in some cases really just two facets of one personality. A corpulent rider would have a fat dragon. A dead dragon usually left the rider mentally crippled. A dead rider always resulted in a dragon suiciding.

And don’t ask about what happened when the female dragons entered their mating season. Let’s just say that weyr discipline became “an issue”.

Personally, I’d make these things more of a challenge to have around. After all, if the dragons were likable, clone-like paragons of good behavior, wouldn’t 8every* adventurer-class person be riding one?

So why don’t they?

An intelligent yet un-telepathic dragon could be a blast to run for a player. Every move would be second guessed by an indecisive dragon.

A smug dragon would drive the rider mad with “I told you so”s.

A lascivious dragon would turn everything a player said into a double entendre, until the player felt like screaming.

How about a dragon who accompanies boring long distance flights with endless verses of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” or “IC Bottles of Mead on the Wall”, preventing the player from communicating with the others in the party by drowning them out?

What if a whole flight of dragons enjoy passing the time this way by working the song in close harmony, or as a round?

Any long trip would end with a -4 fatigue penalty – two for the journey itself (think: long distance motorbike ride) and two more for the wearing effect of the singing.

And a clever, avaricious dragon might steal from everyone while they slept and make stashes of treasure all over the place, just because, well, that’s what dragons do.

Or, if those don’t tickle your DM nodes, how about if the +players* rather than the characters must put up with some trade-off factor?

What if the Dragon, as an intelligent part of the team, gets a share of the XP? Who’s going to tell the dragon who has decided that *this* chest of GPs is *his* share that they can’t have it? Especially if you, the Dm, have taken the precaution of making the Dragon a worthy opponent for the team.

And if you have one quirky dragon, chances are they will *all* be as quirky as a room full of Unix sysadmins, at least, those so quirky as to submit to being a glorified warhorse. What’s in it for the Dragon? If the answer comes back “nothing really” then you need another reason for them to not just walk off into the sunset.

If there is more than one NPC dragon in the party they might often compete over incomprehensible (to humans) stuff. Imagine a party asking one dragon to burn down a door, only to have all the dragons laugh condescendingly and one of the (non asked) dragons say “You wouldn’t ask that if you understood what you were asking” or something equally as meaningless and opaque.

And what kind of dragon would willingly enter a space where it couldn’t stretch it’s wings? That’s gonna put a crimp in the old dungeoneering plans.

Whoops! Far too much stuff. I’ll stop now.


#3 Comment By mougoo On May 14, 2010 @ 9:59 am

[7] – What about a game where players played intelligent, powerful dragon mounts who had to ferry around petty, weak NPC “adventurers?”

#4 Comment By Airk On May 14, 2010 @ 10:35 am

Almost none of these questions are really what I would call “system” questions. They’re all either setting questions (“Why do the dragons listen to the humans in the first place, when they could just have them for lunch?”) or sortof meta-mechanics questions (“What’s the best way to implement a game in which there are twice as many ‘important personalities’ as there are players?”).

So it’s really not a “what system should I use?” question at all. Any -system- can be arranged to work with this, because none of the problems we’re REALLY trying to solve here are mechanical. It’s not a question of “a d20 stat based system doesn’t model this adequately”.

So we start with the setting questions. They’re going to provide the answers to the others, and unfortunately, the original request is really vague.

Are we looking at a “DragonLance” sort of setup, with pretty standard fantasy world that just happens to use dragons as mounts for combat, where the focus is going to be on cool aerial combat scenes? Then I don’t really see a need to heavily develop the dragons at all – give them a small set of traits that define their personality characteristics, some stats that define how they work in a fight, and let each player run their own dragon. This isn’t a personality driven sort of story.

On the other hand, you could be looking at more of a “Dragonriders of Pern” sort of arrangement (Note: It’s almost completely irrelevant whether the dragons are “dragons” “alien bat beasts” or whatever. You can fill in this sort of detail for color and background, but from a ‘how do I run the game’ standpoint, it’s superfluous.) where Dragon and Rider are very intimately connected in nearly all aspects of life – and tend to be similar – you can probably _still_ have players run their own dragons, just come up with an interesting way to extrapolate the dragon from the character.

On the third hand, if you really want to make life difficult, and go for something more like Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon (Aside: Highly recommended reading for anyone who intends to run a game featuring dragon riding. Or, for that matter, anyone who just thinks dragons are cool.) then you really need to go with the aforementioned Wraith-style “play the dragon for the person on your left” arrangement, I think, simply because the ’emphasis’ of the game is so broad – yes, there’s combat, and yes, there’s human/dragon interaction, but there’s also a lot of human/human politicking that doesn’t directly involve the dragons.

So start by answering the important setting questions, and they will guide the pseudo-mechanical questions. As for what system you want to use? Any reasonably flexible non-class-based Stat+Skill based system should do. I’d stay away from D&D, because the rigid class (and with 4e, powers) system doesn’t seem easily adapted to this kind of arrangement, but otherwise? Should be easy.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On May 14, 2010 @ 10:41 am

[8] – Nice suggestions for reasons the dragons don’t talk– or why the PCs don’t want to wait for such a conversation. I admit, that with something as flashy as a dragon, it seems you should be able to get players to enjoy playing the mount.

I really like your dragons as stars game– it’d be fun to drag squishy little people around, puffing up their pride so they think they’re running the show. Hmmm, could be like Douglas Adam’s mice…

[7] – Ooh, that is interesting: playing dragons as extensions and reflections of the character’s personality. That gets around some of the “playing two characters” drawback for the player running both.

Your other social and cultural quirks also seem great for keeping the players on their toes– and reminding them that the dragons are their own beasts.

#6 Comment By Gamerprinter On May 15, 2010 @ 1:44 am

Also in 3.5/Pathfinder and I’m sure 4.0 too, most intelligent dragons can shape-change into humanoids, so Dragon PCs can walk alongside Dragon Rider PCs on other adventures. With Dragon Shaman and dragon bloodlined sorcerers in Pathfinder the riders and dragons can even be more closely bound.

I’m sure any other suggested system might work as well, these are just in my experience. In fact I can’t really see what systems couldn’t work, many would work fine.

#7 Comment By aithne On May 15, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

My group has actually done this. We’re a veteran group, and all of us have at one point or another played two PCs at the same time. So each of us played a humanoid and a dragon, a bonded pair with different personalities. It was a homebrew setting with D&D 3.5 rules (with a lot of house rules).

The basic setup was that the setting was one in which dragons had pretty much ruled it for a long time. The (dragon) gods gave the dragons the gift of bonding with humanoids, the idea being that with the two minds linked together, the dragons would develop a lot more quickly than otherwise. Eventually, it became the rule that dragons who bonded with riders had to be raised by the army and do military service afterwards for a few years. So our group was a five-pair squadron. We had a couple of players have their schedule change, so we arranged an in-game event that took two of the pairs away from the rest.

Because all of us have done the two-PC thing before, we have shorthand for identifying who’s talking. WE simplified combat by saying that the pair had one initiative roll between them, so we didn’t have to remember which character of ours was on what tick.

As for challenges, we actually ended up trying to avoid combat for the first part of the game, because our guns were way bigger than our shields. Then we were fighting other dragon pairs, mostly, and the challenge leveled as we did.

I really enjoyed it. I played two characters with very different personalities–a thoughtful but moody white dragon and a drow who I blatantly modeled on Starbuck from the new BSG.

I did recaps for the campaign, if you’d like to get a taste of what we did–they start here: [9]

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On May 18, 2010 @ 8:47 am

[10] – Isn’t that what I just described?

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On May 18, 2010 @ 8:49 am

[11] – Or is my irony detector malfunctioning *again*?