Thursday, October 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Draconomicon

One of the hazards I should have come to expect in the course of this project of mine is frequent lessons in the nature of hubris. Yet somehow, it always catches me by surprise. I'll finish a book like Dragon Magic and think, "that had slightly too much dragon, but maybe it's not so bad to want ALL THE DRAGON!" And that idea will sit and stew in my head for a few days, and I'll gradually come around to agreement. "Yes," I say, "please give me all the dragon." Then, I'll pick up Draconomicon (Andy Collins, Skip Williams, James Wyatt) and it will say "Oh, you want all the dragon, do you? Prepare to learn the names of their fictional bones!!!"

Okay, Draconomicon, well played. The next D&D book on my list is Races of the Dragon, and when I go into that, I'll be hoping that it doesn't have too much dragon. I have been humbled.

(For now, mwa, ha, ha. . . )

Anyway, absurd complaints about there being too much dragon information in the dragon book aside, Draconomicon was a really fun read. I did sometimes get the feeling that WotC's behind the scenes must have resembled the Key and Peele Gremlins 2 sketch ("let's go around the table and have everyone design a dragon"), but since that sketch is absolutely adorable, that's not really a downside. Whatever the real process was, it gave us the punk-rock-looking Howling Dragon:

So, obviously, they're doing something right. The main strike against the book, other than the fact that they didn't follow up on the Howling Dragon's amazing art by ditching the original concept and just devoting a whole book to making one unique dragon for each sub-genre of rock and roll, is that dragons themselves are not mechanically diverse enough to warrant dozens of separate monster entries. At some point, someone should have realized that the twelve age categories with their increasing stats, long lists of spell-like abilities, and standard draconic chassis could have just been abstracted into a modular "create a dragon" system. 

The temptation is to call out the dozens of dragon types for being unimaginative reskins of the same basic creature, but I think the essential problem is quite the opposite. Dragons are the quintessential "this monster actually has a personality and backstory" creature type, and that's something that's best served by making each and every one unique. There are a lot of designs in this book that I really love (the howling dragon, the cloud-like storm drake, the craggy mountain landwyrm, the goth-industrial Tarterian dragon), but there's not a one of those that I'd want to put two of into the same campaign.

It's a dilemma that's eloquently demonstrated in the book's final chapter. It gives us one specific dragon in each of the twelve age categories for each of the ten basic types and the hit rate is high enough that we get a lot of decent new NPCs, but there is an undeniable redundancy going on. For crying out loud, there's a gold dragon and a red dragon that share about 90% of the same backstory (orphaned after their parents were killed by ideological foes, now dedicated to taking down their parents' enemies, though obviously this is framed differently in terms of alignment).

But it's unfair to act like this is specifically a problem with Draconomicon. It's actually baked directly into Dungeons and Dragons' overall monster design philosophy. Everything is a member of a species. You don't fight Medusa or the Minotaur, you fight a medusa or a minotaur. There are, occasionally, unique enemies - Orcus gets his own stat block - but by and large, monsters are treated as just another kind of animal.

Even when they shouldn't be. Something I will lay at the feet of Draconomicon is its continuation of WotC's deeply misguided "dragon encounters at every challenge rating" philosophy. The Introduction waxes poetic about "the tiny wyrmling at the bottom of an adventurer's very first dungeon," so let's just flip ahead to the anatomy and life-cycle chapter (skimming lightly, lest we accidentally learn the names of the dragons' fictional bones) to see exactly how a "wyrmling" is defined. . .

0-5 years?! As in a fucking literal infant?!

Dragons are intelligent creatures, capable of articulate speech. Which means they are, by definition, people. And their babies are, by extension, baby people. Sure, they've got claws and scales and deadly breath weapons, so they're not exactly as helpless as a baby human, but c'mon, they're at most five years old. No matter how you frame it, killing one is morally reprehensible.

Party Paladin: "Oh, no, that baby got their hands on a military-grade flame-thrower! Do you know what that means?"

Rest of the Party (in unison): "At-level XP!"

It's deeply unsettling, even before we get to the part about raising a dragon as a mount, where it crosses the line into just plain creepy (tip: if, at some point, you are going to have to teach them to read, you have crossed the line from "taming a steed" to "adopting a child" - that's not your pet, it's your son.)

It's a relatively small part of the book, but I just can't get over it. The Dracolyte prestige class (credit where credit's due: great name) gets a class feature at level 5 called "Foster Dragon." In the words of the book, they are "entrusted with the care of a wyrmling dragon."

And look, it's a full-caster class, so maybe it does need that kind of nerf . . . wait, is it intended as a power boost? ("the wyrmling dragon follows the dracolyte loyally, and will even accompany him on adventures")

So help me, if anything happens to that poor, innocent creature, finding an atonement spell is going to be the least of your worries. 

Also, let's take a beat to savor how fucked up it is that D&D has an atonement spell.

Although, all this talk about the atonement spell and dragon babies does threaten to get me onto the subject of one of my perennial D&D complaints: the awfulness of the alignment system and, in this particular context, the way it flattens the dragon types and makes them less interesting, but I don't really have anything new to say about that. I can't really blame this book for not solving the problem, but also, it's really weird that we were still dealing with it as late as 2003.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe it had a little too much dragon, but I have no doubt that I will once more be overcome with the hubris to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: The psychology of silver dragons really fascinates me. They're dragons, but they prefer to take humanoid form. In these forms, they fight evil, generally with zeal, but also less effectively than they would as a badass dragon. I'm not really keen on "dragon types," so I probably won't go with a whole species of silver dragons, but I think a single paladin-like character with a typical silver dragon background would make for a very interesting NPC.

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