Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Not-Dragons and James Wyatt

James Wyatt
On Tuesday one of my favorite Dungeons and Dragons authors, James Wyatt, posted an article titled Not-Dragons on the Wizards of the Coast site about an argument they were having at the home office concerning drakes. As James explained in the article drakes are a bit of a nebulous term that has come to mean more, and more over the years; to the point where it has begun to encompass any dragon-like or dragon related creature in the game. This has lead to a situation where the dragonets, dragonspawn, felldrakes, and some of the dinosaurs have been lumped into the same category: drake.

This expansion of the term drake is vexing. To put it into another context, using the term dragon for all true dragons and drake for all dragon-like or dragon related creatures in the game is akin to calling wolves, wolves and all of the canine cousins of the wolf (the coyote, jackal, and domestic dog) as dogs. The terminology simply does not do justice to the vast variety of creatures under the generalized term who can not reasonably be grouped as the same animal.

As luck would have it, James Wyatt and I agree on this point as he has moved the psuedodragon away from the drake and back as a dragonet and the dinosaurs are once again dinosaurs (you can read more about James' views on the dinosaur in the article Big Beasts). Where the consternation from the home offices comes in is with the felldrakes and the dragonspawn. 

The earliest mention of the drake that I have been able to find is from Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons. In Monster Manual III the Rage Drake appears (pg. 130) and this creature is essentially a more primitive form of the dragon with a challenge rating of 9 (13 if you go with the advanced version). Far weaker than a 'true' dragon, the Rage Drake is without flight, breath weapons, or the cruel intelligence associated with the 'true' dragons. Unlike the Linnorum (Monster Manual II pg. 140) - which is the best dragon alternative in the history of the game - these creatures are only a threat to players without a creative bone in their bodies.

James also mentions several felldrakes that came from the short lived Chainmail miniatures game that Wizards of the Coast launched back in 2000: the guard drake and the crested felldrake. I was unaware that this game even existed until this article and have been unable to find any descriptions of the creatures from this era (if anyone out there reading this article has access to that information I would love to read it).

Drakes from pg. 91 of Monster Manual I, Fourth Edition
Our drake pool is vastly expanded once we get into Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and then shrunk by James' article. At the present you have the Guard Drake (Monster Manual 1 pg. 90), Needlefang Drake Swarm (Monster Manual 1 pg. 90), and Spitting Drake (Monster Manual 1 pg. 91) which have been added to the drake family and are still considered drakes. Their illustrations are beautiful in the monster manual, and that's really the only good thing I can say about them. As a group they are weak creatures designed to be easily overcome by low level parties.

If these monsters are supposed to be drawn from a similar stock as dragons then at least one of them needs to be a realistic challenge for higher level play. As they stand now I wouldn't want them in my games. 

After gaining a better understanding of the drake we can now look at the six arguments against the inclusion of drakes in the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons:

". . . Argument 1. Having drakes actually makes the D&D world less fantastic, not more. If a wizard has a pet guarding his tower, it should be a guard dog or an owlbear, not a guard dog dressed up in a lizard costume (which is all a guard drake really is) . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
Unfortunately this is a correct assessment of the Guard Drake (Monster Manual I pg. 90) as it is presented in Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It is a far less intimidating guardian than the Owlbear (Monster Manual I pg. 212) who comes in at a Challenge Rating 8 compared to the Challenge Rating 2 of the Guard Drake. If you're bound and determined to have the drakes in the new edition then the only response to this question is to increase the danger that drakes present for adventurers.

". . . Argument 2. A guard drake watching a wizard's tower is way cooler than a guard dog, and a group of hobgoblins with a tamed rage drake is much more impressive than a bear or elephant. It's a solid reminder to the players that they're not in the real world any more, and a nod to the significance of dragons in the world . . . . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
This is a true statement as long as you consider the elephant a mount rather than a dangerous creature. In Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons the elephant was a Challenge Rating 7 creature that could devastate a group in only a few short rounds, and in Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons this only got exacerbated as the Challenge Rating was raised to 8 (Adventurer's Vault I, pg. 12). 

I'm sorry but the Guard Drake is not able to put out that sort of damage let alone create the sort of dangerous impression in the minds of players; for that matter, a dinosaur is far more intimidating and dangerous than the Guard Drake. And both the elephant and dinosaur are classic, exotic creatures from pulp and fantasy literature that have a proud tradition in the game, whereas, the Guard Drake is a recent addition that barely warrants a second glance.

". . . Argument 3. Drakes are to dragons as specters are to ghosts. That is, with dragons playing such a weighty role in the game, practically demanding center stage and a lot of history and story wrapped up around them, the drakes are a version of dragon that doesn't require all that story work. A drake is a plug-and-play dragon—a story-light dragon. And they're a better opponent for low-level characters than full-on dragons . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
I reject this argument outright. Dragons need no extra work, they're fucking dragons. You kill them and take their stuff. What else is needed?
". . . Argument 4. Drakes as a concept are pretty cool, but the specific execution of the drakes in 4th Edition was flawed. For that matter, the idea from the original Chainmail game that the felldrakes were a gift to the elves from Bahamut doesn't make sense. We should just redesign a new set of drakes . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
There is no falsehood in this statement.

". . . Argument 5. We'd be better off tossing drakes out entirely than scrapping the ones that at least some people like and inventing new, untested ones . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
Fixing the drake is far preferable to tossing out a perfectly good monster. The art is there, just get the danger level above toddler and we're talking about a monster that has some real merit there.

". . . Argument 6. Felldrake is a cooler name than just drake . . ." (Not-Dragons by James Wyatt)
No, no it is not. 

Adding the word "fell" to any term only makes it a trite fantasy trope that should have been abandoned long ago. The term drake is far preferable to felldrake.

What do you mean we're lost by Keith Parkinson

Finally we come to the Dragonspawn. 

According to James these creatures first appeared in the Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons adventure Red Hand of Doom and in Monster Manual IV (pg. 128 -163); however, that simply isn't true. Bipedal Dragonspawn are simply a variation on the traditional Draconians from Dragonlance under a new name. While there are some original versions of this creature out there, the ones that draw on the Draconians are carrying on a traditional creature's role while pretending that they haven't been a part of the game since Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. To ignore their history and pretend that they are simply a new creature has bothered me since their introduction in Third Edition.

Drakkoths (Monster Manual II pg. 90 - 91) from Fourth Edition are just one more variation of the Draconians and can go right to hell. 

What I'd like to see with the new edition is a return to the Draconians. They were violent, dangerous creatures bound to the service of Tiamat and marching across the face of Ansalon putting the world under their booted heels and grinding it to dust. 

My god, they're the Nazis of D&D! You can't ask for a better villain!

Anyway, now that we've talked about all the points James Wyatt raised in the article Not-Dragons go to the article and take the survey. It's the only way we'll ever change the game for the better and not find ourselves stuck with substandard monsters that none of us want to drop into our campaigns.


  1. The Draconian is actually a Keith Parkinson, not an Elmore.

    1. You're absolutely right!

      Thank you so much for the correction.

  2. This is a good common sense Blog. Very helpful to one who is just finding the resources about this part. It will certainly help educate me.
    Manual of Mastery Wizard-

    1. Wait just a minute. You're spamming me with a Wizards101 website? Seriously?

      Dude, you have totally missed your target audience.


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