Thursday, July 26, 2012

Brainstorming about Dragon PCs

Yesterday's DMG reading got me thinking, so I'm going to take a break from my DMG series for today and throw out some half-formed ideas for your review, specifically about running Dragons as PCs. At some point, I'd like to work them into a playable… something, but that's probably not going to happen soon. Reflections appreciated!

First off, playing a Dragon should be more challenging than playing a conventional, standard race. This should be something that a player chooses because s/he wants to make the game harder, not because s/he wants to make it easier.

Also, while I'd like to eventually figure out how to make any Dragon playable, it seems to me that the Gold Dragon is the most playable, largely because of its Polymorph ability, but because of its alignment (Lawful/Lawful Good in most sources I have access to) and its interest in humanity as well.

I really like Gary's idea to require treasure accumulation and retention, not just age, in order to level.

Motivation: Gary, in the section of the DMG I discussed yesterday, questions why a Dragon would join an adventuring party, given the difficulties involved and Dragons' tendency to be solitary and not interested in interacting with other races. I've got a few ideas about this. The first is that Dragons need treasure to level up and, especially for Lawful/Lawful Good Dragons, what better way for a young, weak Dragon to accumulate wealth than by adventuring? In addition, if we take inspiration from Pellatarrum, one path a young, weak Dragon, just starting out and without any network, might take would be disguising itself as a human and living among them for a while, building up power and a network for later in life. Finally, according to OSRIC, Gold Dragons are naturally interested in man, so it would make sense for a Gold Dragon to live among men for a time, especially since their interest in man dovetails with the other advantages of adventuring.

This is not to say that most NPC Dragons, or even most NPC Gold Dragons should spend a significant amount of time adventuring during their youth; if everyone did it, older Dragons would be more on the lookout for young Dragon adventurers! These reasons, though, I think are sufficient to justify the very occasional Dragon PC.

Dragon PCs should also have to constantly worry about detection by other Dragons. If a Dragon notices the party, there should be some chance of detection, in which case the PC's life would be sought by the NPC Dragon.

The end-game for the Dragon should have to do not so much with the creation of a stronghold (the Dragon should establish multiple lairs without many attendants) but with the creation of the Dragon's personal network and (un)diplomatic dealings with Dragons (favors, territory disputes, etc.). As the Dragon ages, perhaps other PC adventuring parties will catch its attention and it can decide whether to attempt to eradicate them or incorporate them into its network…

Most sources I've looked at have each type of dragon ranging between three different numbers of hit dice (so, 8-10 HD, for expample), as well as having a set number of hit points per hit die, that number being determined by age. Synthesizing these could result in something analogous to levels for Dragons: a Dragon starts out with the lowest number of HD available (so, 8HD for this example), with 1 hit point per die, then moves up to 9 HD, but still 1 hit point per die, then 10 HD, but only one hit point per die, then moves up to 2 hit points per die, but drops back down to 8 HD. This makes growing up as a Dragon less jumpy and more gradual.

The fact that a PC is a Dragon should be witheld from the rest of the party for as long as possible, just as a Dragon would want if adventuring with humans. This would mean staying polymorphed and refraining from using breath weapons. Depending on what class the Dragon masquerades as, the Dragon will have to hide spell-casting or fighting ability. This will add some dramatic fun and also make the Dragon harder to play. In order to facilitate this, it may be helpful to have special classes and character backgrounds that are secrets from other players (lycanthropy, or being hunted by this or that group, or secret political or religious society membership, for example) be somewhat common in the game.

Speaking of magic, Dragons should have access to Dragon magic, powerful spells that are seldom or never shared with humans and which are difficult for them to master when they are exposed to them. These spells should be rare and difficult to find, but well worth it. In addition, Dragons should not have to study spellbooks (though they may certainly pretend to), instead memorizing their spells. Possible models include the Order of the Trehaen in the Majestic Wilderlands and the spell point system at the end of Green Devil Face 4. (I'd lean towards using the Order of the Trehean model, as the GDF model feels more suited to classes for whom magic comes so naturally that it is not studied at all, like my Dryads.)

One troublesome issue is that a Dragon's strength has always been connected to the Dragon's age, and Dragons have considerable lifespans: how can a Dragon keep up with the other members of the party, or even grow/"level up" more than perhaps once during a campaign? There are a few possible ways to address the issue.

One is to have Dragon strength and growth dependent not upon both age and wealth, as Gary suggests, but instead solely upon wealth. Most Dragons take decades or even centuries to acquire enough treasure to grow to the next level, but most Dragons don't adventure, so a PC Dragon will grow more quickly than other Dragons as its hoard grows more quickly than the other Dragons' hoards.

Another possibility is to run decade-long campaigns in which time moves more quickly than in real time. The Dragon PC will slowly age and come into its own as its adventuring companions die and leave their legacy to their heirs. A variant of this option would be to take one's Dragon PC from game to game, though getting referees to allow it, especially at higher levels, might be difficult.

Another possibility is to provide some sort of time-warping mechanism for the Dragon to use. Perhaps whenever growing, the Dragon leaves for an inter-dimensional pocket where its hoard is to sleep, molt and grow and perhaps time passes much more quickly in the inter-dimensional pocket than in the normal game world; while the Dragon sleeps and grows for a few centuries, the Dragon is only absent from the game for no more than a year of game-time.

Finally, if Dragons level as they accumulate their hoards, it becomes important to figure out at what wealth levels they level up. Most OSR games I've referenced don't seem to vary hoard sizes by age, which strikes me as odd; does anyone with access to TSR editions know whether D&D or 1E or 2E varied hoard sizes by age? I know that they started doing that in 3E, because treasure depended upon Challenge Ratings, which varied with age. ACKS also varies treasure with age, so that's likely where I'll start in figuring out how much treasure must be accumulated to "level."

What are your thoughts? Would you allow something like this in your game, and if so, would you have any conditions that accompanied its inclusion? Would you be interested in playing something like this? Am I missing something? How would you improve these rudimentary building blocks for a Dragon PC?


  1. Western dragons are a pet peeve for me, because I feel they're the most misused monster in fantasy. Dragons turning into people or going adventuring or helping young heroes meet their destiny (except by killing them) do absolutely nothing for me. Once they stop being evil, monstrous and solitary, they lose their emotional power and become just big flying lizards.

    On the other hand, eastern dragons resonate in different ways. I can totally buy the Coiled River Dragon deciding to accompany the Buddhist monk on his pilgrimage of 81 tribulations, or whatever. So yes, I'd let players be eastern or gold dragons if we were running a nonhuman campaign. Since they're spiritual beings, it also seems much more plausible for them to grow in size and power at a convenient rate.

  2. In my own settings recently, I have been trying to play up the alienness of dragons, so I don't think something like this would fit there, but I do think it would be a lot of fun to play in the right setting.

    My first thought is that a lot of the draw of being able to play a creature like a dragon is to actually be a dragon, so being polymorphed all the time would be no fun. I probably wouldn't actually include a polymorph ability because it seems kind of like an easy out for what should be the hardest aspect of playing a monster: the social interactions. The dragon would need to be hidden in a cart inside towns, or stay outside (unless it was a very monstrous town).

    In terms of problem solving, flight is a big advantage. I think it is reasonable perhaps to restrict flight until 5th level (when magic-users traditionally get access to the fly spell). At first level, they would get something like a long jump, followed by limited hovering by beating wings at third, and full flight only later.

    Personally, I like variable hit dice and would rather use a hit dice progression than a fixed number of HP per die like basic D&D does it. For example, the hit dice for a red dragon in 2E range from 9 as a hatchling to 23 as a great wyrm. That's probably too much for a PC, but I could imagine starting a 2 HD at first level and working up from there. Keeping breath weapon damage equal to hit dice seems reasonable if the usage is limited somehow (one could do a flat X/day, perhaps where X = level, or give the dragon a saving throw to be able to breath again, which would introduce some fun randomness).

    In terms of game balance, I would build the powers around the idea that dragons have potent abilities, but have them "baked in" as it were; they are not flexible in the way that a magic-user is (being able to pick and find spells) or a fighter (able to accumulate gear).

    Also, big penalty to reaction rolls.

    I wouldn't have any problem with chromatic dragons. PC adventurers often act exactly as I would expect a greedy dragon to act around treasure anyways.

    Here's one idea for the levelling: maybe the dragon needs to actually consume treasure to increase in size, or perhaps is unwilling to ever spend it on anything (needing it for the hoard).