Thursday, October 26, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Dragon

Now, at last, I get to utter the phrase that's been at the back of my mind, as a dream of pure hubris, since I started reading Dragon Magic: "I want MOAR DRAGON!"

It's not that Races of the Dragon (Gwendolyn FM Kestrel, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Kolja Raven Liquette) is really lacking in that regard, just that, by its very nature, it's a book about creatures that are definitely not dragons. I mean, technically, so is the rest of the Races of . . . series, but this book especially takes pains to remind you. Kobolds claim to be descended from dragons, and maybe they are, but that's not what's interesting about them, what's interesting about them is their Koboldness.

And granted, one particularly interesting part of their Koboldness is that they are apparently responsible for filling the hoards of random dragons by compulsively mining precious metals and then casting them into special commemorative coins that are not legal tender in any sovereign state, but which bear the likeness of the specific dragon the kobolds are trying to ingratiate themselves to, but even with that bit of trivia, there's more to the species than that.

Which maybe makes it sound like I'm asking for less dragon, but honestly it's more that I wish the kobolds were in a book that had a different overarching theme. The kobolds have to be made more dragon, to justify their inclusion in this book, but aside from the hoard thing, they aren't actually made dragon enough. They hold grudges, they like traps and alchemy, and they are all-around better mascot characters than their arch-rivals, the gnomes and they kind of deserve to be in a game that doesn't have racial alignments (although, if the chart in the "Campaigns" chapter is to be believed, one in ten kobold settlements has a "good" alignment). The contrast between the grandeur of the dragons and the scrappy underdog nature of the kobolds is a joke with a really short half-life.

So, I'm in this awkward position where the kobolds are the best part of the book, I enjoyed reading about them, but I do not agree that they should count as a "race of the dragon." Which just leaves us with the dragonborn, the spellscales, and the dragon-descended, which are plausibly "races of the dragon," but which aren't as interesting as dragons themselves.

In fact, they're universally kind of . . . sigh. It's like they're trying to borrow the glamor and majesty of dragons, but completely miss the point. Take the dragonborn. They're fanatics who worship Bahamut and are waging an eternal war against evil dragons, which might be an interesting hook for a species of dragon-people . . . except they're not a species. The dragonborn are just humanoids who undergo a magical ritual to become dragon-like in a way that translates to a lateral move in power. Being dragonborn has certain advantages, but they're balanced against the typical PC race advantages and in order to become a dragonborn, you have to give up your racial advantages. So they're basically just a bunch of people who put on dragon costumes in order to fight dragons. It's weird.

And spellscales? They're nothing. Just literally no point to the entire character type. There's this bad habit that used to be endemic to d20 race descriptions where they'd just tell you about one really specific character and be like, "imagine a whole society filled with that guy," and then you'd have to rely on 20 years worth of deconstructions, remixes, parodies, and forum arguments to establish that no, there actually is a second dwarf personality, but you can read through the spellscale sections in complete confidence that no one is ever going to do that because the one guy they chose to depict isn't cool enough to anchor a brand. That's spellscales. Sorcerers, in D&D lore, claim descent from dragons, so imagine a guy whose parents were such big sorcerers that he was born with dragon scales. He really plays up the hurtful "trust fund magic" stereotype that sometimes clings to sorcerers, but this time with an over-the-top wardrobe (a cloak made of pegasus feathers) and the worst kind of chaotic neutral "let's spin the wheel to determine my loyalties for the day" personality. 

Literal roleplaying advice for this character: "Most of the time, don’t offer apologies. If one is demanded of you, be very specific about what you’re sorry about. Don’t apologize for what you did; apologize for unforeseen or unwanted consequences."

Show of hands who wants this guy at their table? Anyone?

The dragon-descended also fail to find a niche. They're plagued by two problems. The first is that 3.5's level adjustment rules make them nearly unplayable (something that is discussed at length in the text, so it's not like they didn't know). The second is that half-dragons have this really grim "abandoned by their dragon parent, outcast from their other parent's society" narrative that attaches to them, which really goes to undercut the fact that most people want to play them because they are metal as fuck. I just want to play a cool dragon man with sick-ass wings and the ability to breathe fire, he doesn't need a tragic backstory, WotC.

That goal is reachable with the right feats and prestige classes, so it's not as if this book is entirely out of pocket, but it was also kind of achievable in Draconomicon, so what am I even doing here?

A lot of these 3.5 books task me, because the great thing about them is the way they can act as a clearinghouse for ideas, and I don't need a 100% hit rate for that to be worthwhile to me. And yet, sometimes it can be frustrating to read ideas that I know aren't going to pan out. My main take away from Races of the Dragon is that I'm really interested in reading a kobold-focused supplement that treats them as protagonist-ready demihumans.

Ukss Contribution: The Dragon Devotee prestige class had a line that really leapt out at me: "You love to speak Draconic and to talk about dragons with others who likewise admire this most noble of creatures." And on the one hand, this is just WotC doing the "overly-specific character" thing again, but on the other hand, I get it. Unlike the Single Spellscale Character, I could picture using this person in a game - someone who is just super-obsessed with how cool dragons are and takes any opportunity to rattle off dragon facts, even in socially inappropriate contexts. I'd be tempted to learn the names of the dragons' bones, just so I could properly roleplay this character (I may, in fact, already be this character, but with rpgs). So Ukss will have a dragon devotee.

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