Friday, November 29, 2013

A History of Draconic Races in Dungeons and Dragons

On Wednesday, November 27 James Wyatt's latest Wandering Monsters column, Born of Dragons, was released. The article was a good read, but it got me thinking about the history of Draconic races in Dungeons and Dragons and I'd like to work through that today using James' article as a framework for my own.

The First Draconic Race

The Krolli from Dragon Magazine #36
The first draconic-ish race that I've been able to identify is the Krolli from Dragon Magazine #36. While it is not explicitly stated that the Krolli are descended from Dragons it is clear from the beautiful Todd Lockwood illustration that there is a common ancestor out there - or at the very least this illustration was a forerunner of the Draconians who would premier in March of 1984, four years later. Now I should note that in actuality the Krolli does not have a clear connection to the Dragons. Instead they have a reptilian ancestry that puts them closer in line with Troglodytes and Lizardmen than does it with the draconic races. But when you look at the illustration and read the description of the race it makes more sense to set them with the draconic races then with their fellow reptilians. 

If, however, you prefer to remain close to the text and not manipulate it for your own ends, which both James Wyatt and I have done than from what I've been able to tell, the first published draconic race was the Bozak and Baaz Draconian sub-races in module DL1: Dragons of Despair which was published in March of 1984, eight months before the first novel was released in November of that same year. It's interesting reading that first Dragonlance module because there are a lot of assumptions about the sort of Dungeon Masters that would be attracted to a new campaign setting. New monsters are just stated as existing without any sort of descriptive text in the actual module until you get to Appendix 3: Monsters and Men on page 30. Which is just so damned odd for a major player in the series to be relegated to the appendix before we actually know what they look like.

Sign of the times I suppose.

Over the course of the next two years fourteen Dragonlance modules would be produced introducing the remaining Draconians to the world and launching a franchise with a rabid fan base that Wizards of the Coast has mostly ignored throughout their ownership of Dungeons and Dragons. Although that appears to be changing as there are reports that Wizards of the Coast has been talking to some of the original creators of their early settings in connection with 5th edition (see Older Editions Coming Back? from EN World).

As an aside, it has always bothered me that Wizards of the Coast has focused their attention on the Forgotten Realms to the exclusion of other settings - and that includes Eberron. I understand that the Forgotten Realms has a rabid fan base who go out of their way to bore you with their imaginary histories of a world that never existed, and that Ed Greenwood is a pretty good guy, but Dragonlance fans are just as committed to the setting and they buy an ungodly amount of materials to support their fanaticism. Why not encourage them by producing top of the line products in house instead of farming it out? Why aren't we seeing the Known World again and pulling the amazing Bruce Heard back into the fold for a setting that has humor and a long standing fan base used to it as the default?

The Second Draconic Race

The Dray
The next expansion of the Draconic races would come with the introduction of the Dray in 1994 with the publication of the City by the Silt Sea Boxed Set for the Dark Sun setting. Unlike the Draconians from Dragonlance these creatures were not corrupted dragons who became humanoid, instead they were humans who were corrupted into a dragon-like form. As with their predecessor, Dray are a form of shock trooper destined to fight in a great conflict; they are also rather weak, all things considered.

This weakness is a constant problem for these two early Draconic races as each is an alternative to the orc. They're ubiquitous in the settings and areas where they come into play and just like orcs they're incredibly easy to kill under most circumstances.

A New Breed of Draconic Races

 
Half-dragon on the left and Half-fiend on the right from the MM pg. 147
With the publication of Third Edition we had three types of officially playable draconic races: the half-dragon, the dragonborn, and the spellscales. The half-dragons (see Monster Manual I, pg. 146) came with a +3 level adjustment and were one step away from useless. Their abilities were not all that impressive and for what you were giving up to play one there were a hundred better options out there in the game that provided you with better flavor and mechanical benefits.

The dragonborn and spellscales would be introduced six years later in 2006. Each of these races represented a step in the right direction towards a player friendly race that could be implemented into the game from the get go without the sort of hand wringing that occurred with the half-dragon, but neither had the sort of flair that demanded their implementation into the game.

The Dragonborn Come Into Their Own


With the advent of Fourth Edition Wizards of the Coast finally got it right in many respects. The Dragonborn that premiered in the first Player's Handbook were usable, balanced, and quite frankly a lot of fun. Yet in making them so accessible to the players they lost a lot of what made the early draconic races so iconic and engaging.

The early races had an attitude that demanded respect.

Yes, they could be dopey at times, but by and large they were a menacing race of stormtroopers looking to grind the world beneath their clawed boots. The draconians were the Nazis of the Dragonlance setting conquering the world with lighting strikes and leaving behind them a world vastly changed by their passing. The dray were the servants of an undead Dragonking getting ready to fight in a Dark Sun Armageddon.

It's a shame that we've let them fall so far.

The New Generation
. . . A dragon requires the blessing of Bahamut or Tiamat to give birth to true dragons. If a dragon has a clutch of eggs that hasn't received the proper blessing, the hatchlings are not true dragons, but dragonborn. A dragonborn is a Medium humanoid with a scaly hide, clawed hands and feet, and draconic features (albeit no tail or wings). Its features resemble its draconic parents'. A dragonborn with red dragon parents, for example, has red scales and the distinctive horns and cheek frills of a red dragon . . . In some worlds, dragonborn are a race unto themselves, having interbred for so long that they have taken on a more uniform appearance, with scales of reddish-brown or gold . . . (Born of Dragons)
This latest iteration of the draconic races is as bland as cheese on toast. They have none of the power of the Draconians or the Dray and make Fourth Edition's version of the dragonborn one step away from John McClane.

It's a shame that we have been reduced to this ignominious end with the draconic races. Where once we found ourselves tense and on the edge our seats when we saw some new draconic race come into the game we now find ourselves yawning with disappointment. There is no fear attached to their approach, and why should there be?

8 comments:

  1. There were half-dragons in 2nd edition, most noteably in the Council of Wyrms campaign. And they were pretty rugged.

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    1. Really? I completely missed them in Second Edition. Great catch +Robert Dunham!

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    2. I was just about to mention them, but Robert beat me to the punch. They also appeared in Dragon #206. Also, the Dray from the Dark Sun setting weren't really what I would call "ubiquitous". They were mostly leftovers guarding a now-desolate ruin in one small corner of the campaign, as far as I know they never appeared again in any other area of Athas nor in any other supplement.

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    3. I was thinking more of them being ubiquitous in the area where they were found than throughout the Dark Sun setting, but you're probably right.

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    4. Council of Wryms was a campaign setting allowing players to play as Dragons but as the island chain had traditional human/oids around (some of which acting as servants to the dragons) the half dragon race was an allowed option. I actually thought this was the real precursor to what we know see as dragonborn as their ability sets were remarkably similar.
      CoW was publised in 1994 - 2 years after the Tales of the Lance Dragonlance box set for 2nd edition D&D.

      My players had immense fun with half dragons in 'normal' campaign play. So glad Dragonborn made it across to Next as they still have fun playing at part draconic beings.

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    5. The more I find out about Council of the Wryms the more that I wish I had run across it. Sounds like an interesting setting for D&D games.

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  2. On the subject of Dragonlance (and the Draconians) anyone who knows the setting knows that the draconians presence was feared. The 'death effects' of draconians was particularly problematic never mind the terror that would often follow sightings of a draconian troop early in the war.
    As for rabid fans of Ed Greenwood, Weis and Hickmans works had as many, if not more, rabid fans and a fully formed mythos, storyline and world fans could step into. WotC would be insane to carry on ignoring Dragonlance as it could form one spearhead of a new D&D product lineup that would be easy to write material for yet immediately engage many fans, perhaps encouraging a switch from 3.5 or 4E.

    Hell, I'd buy it despite owning much of the 2nd ed material and largely disliking the 5th age stuff that came with the Saga system.

    And we'd get Draconians. Maybe even rogue draconians as PCs instead of Dragonborn because of the events following the end of the dragon overlords and the return of the gods in the series.

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    1. Weis actually published most of the Dragonlance 3rd edition stuff through the Sovereign Press company she founded in 2001. The quality of much of the materials is really top notch and they have an amazing amount of good art populating their books. They also have Draconians as playable races and have updated the storylines of the setting to reflect the new era of the game.

      It's some cool stuff if you can find it.

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