Revitalizing Overused Tropes: The Dragon
As we prepare for the launch of the Zurn Kickstarter this afternoon (Woot!), we are revisiting an article on Buzzfeed regarding roleplay campaign design. One of the overused tropes they mention is that dragons are overused in campaigns, and in today's post we want to tackle the question of how to use dragons well in a campaign.
By the by, you can find all of the pictures below on the "Fantasy Creatures" board on the Zurn Pinterest Page, along with more pictures of dragons (and other creatures), in case you want to see more dragon ideas for your campaign, :)
1. Remember the "High Concept" of the Campaign
If your campaign involves traveling to a distant country in search of lost gold, a dragon is not out of place along that journey (or at the end, where Bilbo and Beowulf find the dragons in their stories). But don't simply include a dragon because it's a dragon. You want the creatures that interact with your adventurers to fit the theme and feel of the campaign you're telling, and dragons (believe it or not) don't fit every campaign.
There are also some stories where a dragon would not only be out of place but detrimental to the story. A great example from recent literature: The Percy Jackson series. If your lead villain is Kronos, a large titan with great strength and power, the presence of a dragon becomes just a "dress rehearsal" before the "main event," not an integral interaction that develops the plot.
You want each piece of the story to move the story forward, and if you want to foreshadow danger to come (another trope that deserves its own discussion), don't use a smaller version of something that will come later. So keep to the high concept of the campaign: what kind of story do we want to tell, and how to the pieces play into the development of that story?
2. Give Your Dragon Flesh
By this I don't mean "use a dragon that lacks scales," because frankly that's ugly (and lacks the Platonic form of the dragon), ;) By this I mean that if you are going to use a dragon in your stories, give the dragon character and depth. A brief example may help to explain this.
I had a group of adventurers once in a Zurn campaign that were sailing across the world in a floating ship. It was high time for them to run into a dragon (I'd be promising it for a while), and for our regularly scheduled session they were flying over a large mountain range to a new, unexplored portion of the world.
As they flew over, they saw, rising from the peak, the large form of a dragon, and rising with it were several other forms - what appeared to be more dragons. As the dragons approached one of them bellowed, "We must prevent the prophecy from coming true: bring it down!" And the dragons began to fly toward the ship.
Suddenly the adventurers were not just confronting a large, avaricious, meat-eating beast: they had a mystery on their hands. The large, terrifying creature (that could tear them to pieces if they were not careful) was a sage, a sage who knew an ancient prophecy that the players didn't know. And just like that, there was a reason to stop, talk, and to foreshadow a prophecy regarding future events in the campaign.
The dragon had flesh: he was more than just a superficial reused frame of a creature from another story (The Hobbit, Sleeping Beauty, King George and the Dragon, etc.). Suddenly he had a character of his own, he had depth, and there was a reason for the characters to engage him in ways other than combat.
In a word, he was a real person - and that is the easiest way to avoid the abuse of this trope. If we are going to build a character for the players to interact with, the character will not smell of overused tropes if he's real to the players.
The problem with the dragon in Beowulf is that we don't know why the dragon is living in the cave on the edge of Beowulf's country. We know he has a large hoard of gold, and we know that he doesn't want to part with it, and we know he eats Beowulf's people (ergo the conflict), but we don't have a reference frame for why the dragon would live near a troop of deadly huscarles.
And thus when the dragon dies (Spoilers!), we are left thinking, "Eh, the hero killed another dragon," and we move on to the end of the story and the touching scene on the last page. We feel nothing, because the dragon has no flesh. We want fleshy creatures: creatures with substance, not just the form of something we have seen before.
3. Plan for Parties
Remember: your dragon may be up against an entire party of adventurers (as the dragon to the left is in this portrait by Todd Lockwood). This means that there are two great difficulties in creating a dynamic, fascinating dragon for your adventurers to encounter.
First, not everyone will have the same options for damage types (some do magical damage, some elemental damage, some physical damage), characters will vary on the volume of damage they deal (the dude with the big mace often does more damage than the dude with the knife), and range is a factor (how many weapons are rendered obsolete against a flying opponent? All of them? Most of them?). We want to keep in mind that if the dragon is built a certain way, it may leave a lot of players powerless (and thus bored) for a very long time if they have nothing to contribute.
At the same time, though, we also need to keep in mind that the dragon will almost never be in a 1v1 against a party member: we will often have the whole party ganging up on this one creature (who has less actions than they do). So just something to keep in mind: if you build him too close to the profile of a character the sheer volume of actions done by the party could take down the dragon quickly, and that's no fun.
So plan your creature around the existence of a party of adventurers, not individual players. Perhaps he has tough armor (to present a challenge to the swordsmen and archers in the party), and is also a masterful dispeller of magic (to make things interesting for the magic users), but he has a soft spot for Classical music, which lowers his defense (call it, reminders of a past love - no one expects that from a dragon), and conveniently one of the party members likes to play (call it motivation to the party; they see it as a minor annoyance from the bard).
Notice how the window of opportunity is not a missing scale in the hide of the dragon. Doing this would play into the overused portion of the trope: everyone expects this (because of course a dragon is so vain as to not notice a single scale missing from his majestic body). We use something they 1) don't expect, but 2) also plays well to what we know the party members - and especially the party member(s) who don't usually contribute to the damage total - tend to do. This allows them to do something constructive without having to bring the armor rating of the dragon down to their damage level.
All of this to say, use your judgment when you are crafting your story. If you are going to include a dragon (or any other trope), put time into planning its character, worldview, and place in the story. If it turns out that you can't find a lot of depth in the dragon, perhaps we need to rework that element of the story.
Whatever you do, though, don't shy away from the use of tropes. Just do the trope well, :)
Until next time, may ideas flow like mountain streams, may the Light shine around every corner, and may you find joy in the creation of beautiful things,