Monday, August 19, 2013

Dragons by AEG

Dragons by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) begins with the statement that this book is designed as ". . . a handbook for hunters . . ." (pg 4) and as a resource for Dungeon Masters committed to the idea of running encounters with dragons in their campaigns. As a goal in an accessory book this is admirable; though the mixed goals should be separated into different books so that each could narrow its focus eliminating the glut of material that is essentially useless to both groups.

Section One: From Whence the Legend Comes
Such triteness is just a disservice to us as consumers and as active participants in our hobby.

This section of the book begins with a short bit of fiction designed to put the reader in the proper mindset of the book. I would like to tell you that this is carried out with the sort of expertise practiced by Games Workshop or even with the steady hand of Wizards of the Coast. Unfortunately the story comes across as a poor man's version of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel only without the originality and beauty of her prose. It's a disappointing introduction to the book and sets a poor tone for the overall product.

As I worked my way through this section I found myself thinking - and not for the first time - that Dungeons and Dragons is stifled by generations of bad ideas and games. Think of the things that have become standard in your game. Are dwarves scottish or drunks? Do elves and dwarves hate each other? Are hobbits (halflings) fat and mostly lazy? Are gnomes foolish little things? Do orcs kill because they're orcs? Are ogres dumb brutes used as much for comic relief as a challenge? Do the NPCs in your campaign dominate the story?

Such triteness is just a disservice to us as consumers and as active participants in our hobby.

Anyway, there is very little worth salvaging from this section of the book.
  • The Legend of Grelig Shevik (pg 10) is an interesting touch on the idea of an eternal guardian and should be used in a different way than how it is presented in this book as it is wasted here. 
  • The red dragon Apertis (pg 14, game information on pg. 156) is interesting more as an exercise in the trope than as an original idea in and of itself but there is enough meat on its bones that it's worth mentioning. 
  • The bronze dragon Kahstyllan (pg 15), Castilian is how I would pronounce it, is a neat concept that is a bit derivative of Fizban from the Dragonlance, War of the Lance Cycle but I like how AEG was able to put this one together.

Section Two: To Touch the Sky

When was the last time you ran across a monster that had a cold?

The section is the beginning of the product's attempt at providing an extension of existing rules and the creation of its own. This is started with an attempt at expanding ten skills to provide a more 'useful' skill set for the player. I really wish that I could tell you that they succeeded in a way that made the game far better than it was before, but I can't. The way in which these skills are adjusted is mostly superfluous and the only useful idea out of the retooling is the idea that you can use Decipher Script to create a cipher. I like that idea as it creates a situation where players can actually do something really useful for themselves.

Of the new feats presented in Dragons there are only two worth incorporating into your game: Contortionist (pg 29) and Taunt (pg 32). The rest are either dependent on the pseudo narrative created in the book or are just so fundamentally useless that there's no point in wasting a feat slot on their inclusion.

When it comes to prestige classes I've always held that unless you're running a one shot there has to be a feasible way to work the class into the game otherwise there's no point in using damned thing. And the prestige classes found in Dragon (pg 32 - 44) are the worst sort of example of useless, page consuming, trite additions to the game. They are almost impossible to work into an existing narrative without convoluted intellectual contortions and would make the player who received the prestige so much more powerful than his companions that you run the risk of them dominating the other players simply because there is nothing they can do to stop them.

The new items are worthless and some of them are so poorly designed that there's no way I would allow them in my game. Take Kanegor's Bitter Pill (pg 44) which contains ". . . a small cloth bundle that holds a specially formulated mixture of chemicals that almost every living creature hideous to both taste and smell . . ." (pg 44). Now this little gem is supposed to be designed to fight dragons - a creature that it has been emphasized has heightened senses throughout the book - but what fucking dragon is going to fall for that trick? One with a cold?

When was the last time you ever ran across a monster that had a cold?

It is not until we come to Dragon Alchemy (pg 49 - 61) that there is anything really useful to be said about this book. This section alone makes up for so much disappointment with this product as it provides you with a frame work for using portions of the dragon in spells, potions, and all manner of alchemical goodness. Now is this section perfect? By no means; but it does provide you with a frame work that will allow you to create a better set of uses for the dragon and its by-products than this book ever dreamed possible.

After having waded through so much triteness with this book I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Dragon Magic section (pg. 69 - 77). Of the twenty-five spells presented six are actually worth using: Death Curse (pg. 71), Drought of Eternity's Well (pg. 72), Hibernation (pg. 73), Scour the Earth (pg. 75), Secret of the Grave (pg. 75), and Smother Magic (pg. 76). Hell, three of them (Drought of Eternity's Well, Hibernation, and Secret of the Grave) are so cool that I actually found myself wondering why this sort of creativity isn't present throughout the rest of the book.

Seriously, if you're capable of coming up with Dragon Alchemy and those six spells then why is this book so bad?

Section 3: What Lies Beyond

When you start dropping in automated dragons that are roving across the battlefield like flying tanks fed on hate and nightmares you're going to get my attention.

This section is by and large a waste of time. The new dragons are barely worth mentioning and a lot of opportunity to come up with inventive opponents for players is wasted. They came close with the Dragon Golem (pg 93) but would have been so much better off by creating a Clockwork Dragon or some other form of mechanized dragon that would have inspired so many new questions and challenges for the players. After all, we've all seen and fought golems, but when you start dropping in automated dragons that are roving across the battlefield like flying tanks fed on hate and nightmares you're going to get my attention.

The book follows up this disappointing section by giving the dragons character classes (pg 130 - 144) because obviously dragons aren't enough by themselves so you need to beef them up. No. If the dragons you're throwing at your players aren't challenging the problem lies with you not with the fucking dragon.

Be a better Dungeon Master.

The only part of this section that even comes close to presenting a good idea is A World Lit Only By Dragon Fire (pg 145 - 149). This section has a few kernels of goodness but really falls short of some real greatness as was expressed in Dragonlance and far short of the perfection that can be found in the Dark Sun setting. If you want to see how to run a game where the dragons are in charge do yourself a favor and pick up either the second edition Dark Sun game or the fourth edition Dark Sun game (which is actually really good).

Section Four: From Bone to Sinew

For me this section would have been a far better introduction to the book than for a final wind down. It's better written, though that isn't saying much, than Section One and provides a better foundation for Section Two and Three. It isn't that heavy mechanically and it has a bit of good crunch.

There really isn't that much here.

Overall Review

The art in this book is mostly crap so if you're looking for some cool pictures to inspire your imagination you might as well move on. The writing is mostly passable but nothing to get excited about. There are few ideas and spells worth reading but on the whole the book is utterly forgettable and a waste of your time.

Score: 3 out of 10

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