Tuesday, December 3, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Council of Wyrms

My feud with AD&D is starting to heat up. I don't know if I can forgive it for this book. Council of Wyrms is well-written and has a great high concept, but it is weighted down with far too many of AD&D's characteristic tropes and as a result it never quite comes into its own.

The quick pitch is this: there's this chain of islands where dragons are so common that they've built a civilization. They divide up territory among themselves and rule whole societies of dwarves, elves, and gnomes, filling the same general niche as aristocrats in an oligarchic society. Though each dragon is a law unto itself, to ensure they don't kill each other, the oldest and wisest dragons gather in a Council of Wyrms, to mediate duels, recognize territorial claims, and address threats to all dragon-kind. Council of Wyrms, the book, not only presents this setting (which would be pretty badass, even if you were just playing it from the demihuman perspective), but it also allows you to play as the dragons themselves.

I love this idea. The only way it could possibly go wrong is if you somehow reduced the majesty and splendor of dragon-kind to an elaborate color-coded hierarchy where nearly all of their powers, temperament, and moral philosophy was rigorously determined by their ancestry as interpreted by a slavish adherence to the parameters set down in the Monstrous Manual. Oh, and make the types completely unbalanced with each other, so that there is an objectively best choice of character and it seems like you are actively punishing players for choosing dragons based on aesthetic or sympathetic factors, so much so that the recommended style of play is to pick your dragon randomly. And don't forget to expressly forbid popular types like the Red, Green, and Black dragons because your rules say that they are always evil and you don't want to encourage evil PCs (though, at least with this last one, there's basically nothing to the rule - all of the information you need to play a chromatic dragon is in the book, they just leave them out of the random generation table).

The thing that gets me, though, is how easy it would have been to do it right. Just say that every dragon is different and that the ones in the MM are just specific examples that demonstrate tendencies. Give players a blank dragon template that they can fill up with special powers, magic, and combat abilities in whatever mix they desire. Let them design the appearance of their dragons however they want. And drop alignment off a fucking cliff, because seriously, its only purpose is to simultaneously defang the politics of the metallic dragons and make the chromatic dragons into cartoonish caricatures. There is a Green Dragon clan called Evilwood. Evilwood.

I see so much potential here, I'm very nearly losing sight of the real game. If Council of Wyrms had Ars Magica-style troupe play, where each player made a dragon and characters for all their fellow-players entourages, it could really get into the politics of the setting and dragons would feel much more like the awesome solitary monsters they're supposed to be (one of the included adventures sums itself up by saying it "pits four to six adult dragons against the evil genius of a crazed dwarf" which pretty much sums up the uncanny feeling of playing a party of adventuring dragons). If it had some kind of generational or legacy system for its demihuman "kindred" characters, so that you could skim through the epic sweep of time that's defined by a dragon's lifespan (seriously - the book sometimes makes it seem like you're going to be leveling up your dragon PCs from hatchling to great wyrm, but that's 1200 years minimum - it is completely unprepared to handle that kind of scale), it could really dig in and explore the social and psychological nuances of the demihuman-dragon relationship.

Sadly, Council of Wyrms doesn't have that kind of ambition. Or maybe it just doesn't have the room. It attempts to cover a lot of ground in just three slim, 64 page booklets. Either way, it's easy to see how the campaign can be improved and I'm not sure if that means that it's bad, because its weaknesses are so obvious, or that it's good, because I find the subject matter so effortlessly inspirational.

I guess that's just what AD&D does to me.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section that discusses what happens to dragons when time catches up to them and they begin to experience senescence. One of the suggestions is that some of them might cheat death by magically merging with the landscape and becoming guardians of nature. I'm a stone-cold sucker for mystic living scenery, so this is right in my wheelhouse. I'm thinking that at least one mountain in Ukss is going to be the semi-conscious remains of a dead dragon.

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