Saturday, November 1, 2008

[Article] Dragon Men

For me, one of the more surprising features of the D20/4e derivation of Dungeons & Dragons was the introduction of a race of dragon men as a default player character choice. Although I was reasonably familiar with D20/3e, I was indifferent to the debut of the "dragon born" in Races of the Dragon, and unaware that they had achieved any degree of popularity. Having read a good deal of Dragonlance as a teenager, I was familiar with the concept of dragon men in the form of draconians (evil foot soldiers of the Dragon High Lords, and surrogate orcs). Still, I was somewhat surprised to find heroic versions of them in the Player's Handbook.

I should say that I do not think that dragon men are a bad idea, quite the opposite in fact; I think that they are in good company. Traditional adventure games abound with human-animal hybrids: lizard men, snake men, hyena men, frog men, and so on. Such monsters have ancient mythological and literary precedents, which are often directly borrowed. The hybridisation of man and beast as a signifier of the fantastic has a long pedigree. Strictly speaking, dragon men stand slightly apart from this as a combination of man and imaginary beast, but this does not detract from the shared root. However, "beast men" are typically presented as an "other", outside of society and conventional experience, sometimes under a curse, and almost always dangerous for ordinary men to interact with.

Nonetheless, the appropriation and normalisation of the other is not an entirely new or modern phenomonen. A strange heritage is almost axiomatic of the heroic archetype, helping to explain their mighty deeds and emphasise their special nature, whether descended from deities, demons, or conceived through enchantment. Indeed, the traditional "demi human" races are arguably attractive because of their combination of familiar and alien qualities; elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. Presenting them as more than humans in exotic garb has been the stated aim of many a would be innovator, but the very elusiveness of that goal should be a clue that their primary function is as a foil for human experience.

I do not imagine myself alone in concluding that characters like Tanis Half-Elven and Drizzt Do'Urden are the true forerunners of the dragon born as a player character choice, rather than the more obvious draconian analogue. As a "fragmented and declining warrior race of honourable mercenaries" they have a stoic "last of their kind" quality, and are effectively constructed as an entire society of powerful and exotic loners. Whilst the more Elricesque themes have been reserved for the tieflings, it does seem to me that the D20/4e dragon born are a familiar trope in a new skin.

Of course, I wrote as much of the draconians by comparing them to orcs, and in doing so am saying little more than "there is nothing new under the sun", but that is only tangential to my purpose. One of the things I find most attractive about traditional adventure games is the simplicity of the basic rule structure and consequent ease with which additional content can be introduced. Whilst some might understandably balk at the idea of using a concept so closely associated with D20/4e as dragon men, I view them as no less appropriate for swords & sorcery adventure than more conventional human monster hybrids. Indeed, I found the prospect of adventurers encountering dragon men so appealing that I decided to write them up and make them available here.

Whilst I was not particularly interested in the "noble warrior race" angle, I did rather like the idea of dragon men as born for war. I wanted them to be similar in power level to hobgoblins and gnolls, so decided to give dragon men two hit dice and make any wings vestigial. A minor breath weapon seemed the simplest way of conveying a "draconic" aspect in combat without making them overpowering, and an immunity to magical fear a good way to make them more reliable. I like monster background to be relatively open, ideally conveying a few different alternatives for the reader to develop. As presented above, I think there are two or three directions suggested, but I would expect more imaginative souls to think of many more that would be equally or more appropriate.


Solar said...

I baulked at the idea of Dragon Men as a character class, probably for similar associations with the draconians, always the foe, never the friend. I think I had a similar reaction to any hybrid race; lizard men, hobgoblins etc. being presented as a player class.

That said character choice should be based on the campaign setting rather than a rule system and I can easily see players rolling dragon men/women or other hybrid beasties to fit with the current plot/society/theme etc.

I think my first view is probably racist from my own preference with character choice, when most fantasy exposure would cast them as fiends for the human barbarian to crush or the halfling to outwit. I think it's the baggage I carry that jarrs with the idea but still I resent being told that I need to think about being a dragon man or allowing them in a campaign.

I agree they are viable monsters and even characters in the right setting, but the choice to make then a main class for 4e simply makes me think gimmick rather than adopting the idea with enthusiasm.

Still, I like the beastiary entry Matthew, places them nicely in fantasy mythos. Although I wouldn't always have the wings vestigial - perhaps allowing some to glide or reduce falling damage. And what about different races of dragon men, black ones explode right? :D

Matthew James Stanham said...

It is funny, we have had access to the Complete Book of Humanoids since the early to mid nineties, but I have only ever seen it used for player character generation once, and that was as a joke. Most of the groups I can recall or still have records for were predominantly human, even though everyone knew the advantages and disadvantages. I suspect my youthful view that "multi classing is for munchkins" might have had something to do with that, but still...

Yeah, definitely viable monsters and almost certainly a gimmick in D20/4e. I considered writing up some conversion notes to create dragon men classed characters for OSRIC, but I would probably never use them, so not much point. Pretty simple to do, though, which is one of the strengths of these traditional adventure games.

Although I wouldn't always have the wings vestigial - perhaps allowing some to glide or reduce falling damage.

I decided to make the wings vestigial partly to keep them "footsoldiers" and partly because I am a little uncomfortable with the aesthetic. Still, I could definitely imagine a variation of dragon men capable of flight.

And what about different races of dragon men, black ones explode right?

Heh, heh. I was definitely thinking there could be multiple races and types, but I think I will leave the exploding dragon men on Krynn... :D

Jeff said...

I'm still on the fence about dragon-men. Having them as a core race strikes me as ...odd. Kind of like some sort of newness is being force-fed to me instead of being optional.

Good post. I need to think about it some more. I like your blog and postings. Always thoughtful. I sunscribed. Cheers!

Matthew James Stanham said...

Hello, Jeff. Glad you are enjoying the blog and my internet ramblings in general!

I agree that dragon men as a core race is striking in its oddness. I assume this is also what has fuelled speculation that it is largely part of a move towards recreating an identifiable intellectual property distinct from the open game license and system reference document.

I guess there is some justification in the title of the game, but really I am bit of a humanocentrist in my preferences for adventure games. I do not even like gnomes and halflings all that much as player characters, despite having played a long line of halflings myself.

On the other hand, I am loving James Mishler's session reports from his Greyhawk campaign, and there seem to be a lot of gnomes and halflings running about there! I guess sometimes I don't know what I like...

Mr Baron said...

Good post. I actually like the idea of dragon men too, and I will be including them in my next canmpaign.