The Analog Gamer: "Hic Sunt Dracones"
“Here, There Be Dragons…” is a phrase you’d expect to hear in a Dungeons and Dragons game, so I guess it’s only fitting that one of the first monster focused books released for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition would center on the iconic creature that is synonymous with the fantasy RPG experience.
The Dragonomicon series of books is not new to Dungeons and Dragons, in fact the two previous titles – a Forgotten Realms oriented dragon manual in the 2nd edition and a more fluffy, conceptual work in 3rd edition set high standards for what fans of dragons and even dungeons might expect from such a tome.
The 4th edition version takes a different tact than its predecessors. Sure there is still a bit of enjoyable fluff: things like the anatomy of dragons is discussed in the book, explanations of how a huge reptilian creature could possibly fly or breathe magical energy like fire or acid – but the book walks the line between a guide to species and a collection of game mechanics fairly well. This volume appears to be the first in a line of Dragonomicons and focuses exclusively on the chromatic varieties of dragon in Dungeons and Dragons.
Those who love dragons but don’t follow Dungeons and Dragon’s versions may not understand that they considers the various colors and types of dragons as distinct species. The two primary dragon types traditionally separated along a coloration line with the evil dragons being chromatic in nature i.e. red, green, black, white, brown, etc. while the good dragons were metallic – gold, bronze, copper, silver and so on. Aside from the colored and metal dragons there are also crystal dragons and other more esoteric dragon lines but the core of Dungeons and Dragons dragonology has always revolved around colored dragons and metallic dragons.
While 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons has backed off the hard and fast good vs. evil split – meaning you can on occasion meet a good elder red wyrm or an evil ancient Gold dragon, mechanically the various colors of dragons divide more along the lines of the monster roles they occupy.
4th Edition introduced the concepts of monster roles alongside the hero roles so while a Fighter class character is a Defender, an old Green Dragon is considered a Skirmisher and this book does a good job of explaining in non-statistical terms why that role was assigned. The behaviors and psychology of the creatures is expanded upon and their differences and perspectives from normal humanoids fairly clearly explained.
While dragons as opponents might fascinate player characters who for instance want to become dragon slayer knights or some other such fantasy archetype, the majority of this book is aimed at the person running the game. Most of the content in Dragonomicon I is meant to help Dungeon Masters integrate dragons into their campaigns and offers a lot of support material to make dragons not only an interesting enemy but also to help inform their lairs, hoards and associates.
The book provides a number of sample scenarios and plot hooks for DMs to integrate non-traditional dragon encounters into their games as well as a fair number of pre-designed drop-in scenarios for players at many levels along side an extensive list of remarkable lairs ready made for the big dragon encounter.
Dragonomicon I is not as interesting a read for players and DMs as its 3E predecessor as it lacks some of the more interesting dragon-related theory and contains almost no player oriented rule information, but as the first in a series of books it has potential on the whole to eclipse that work. The book includes three lesser known chromatic dragons – the purple, brown and gray, as well as a number of new dragon related monsters or expansions of those listed in the core Monster Manual book – there are new Dragonborn, Drakes and Kobolds along new creatures like the Living Breath. These additions are well fleshed out and are immediately applicable in a 4E campaign which makes the book a better utility for storytellers to be sure.
The final part of the book includes updated information for a number of Dungeons and Dragon’s more renowned chromatic dragons. Information on the 4E conversions of Dragonlance iconic dragons like Ashardalon, Ashardalon from the 3E Adventure Path modules and Dargotha the Dracolitch is included but fans of these settings and characters will likely be disappointed by the simplified descriptions of the dragons. While there is setting detail and statistics I felt that the iconic dragons got a somewhat short shrift that reduced an often deep and interesting entity into a two paragraph description that didn’t capture the reason players or GMs should care about them or want to use them in their game.
Overall the Dragonomicon I: Chromatic Dragons is a good start to the series. I’m hoping that Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, which is due out early in 2009, takes a similar approach with maybe a bit more player oriented material for the undead hunters in the group. A few unique class builds with new supporting powers might be nice, but I suspect it won’t happen since the design guide for 4E is apparently to keep player oriented products in the core releases with power or setting player expansions only.