Monday, September 14, 2015

More Dragons in the Dungeons

So there's this game you may have heard of called Dungeons & Dragons. It seems to have more dungeons than dragons, which is a shame.

Ancient and medieval depictions of dragons aren't of multi-story lizards breathing out gigantic fireballs. They are generally small, more slender reptiles, comparable in size to large horses, that seek out treasure hoards and guard them. It's a classic underworld trope to have dragons atop a burial mound or ancient tomb, which makes them a natural fit for dungeons.

Dragon inflation has been a constant of D&D, and it has slowly pushed the dragon out of the game, except at high levels. Dragons went up in hit points significantly in the first edition PHB, and much further in second edition, firmly ensconcing them as upper-echelon enemies. They have stayed that way ever since; a party will pretty much have to be 5th level or higher before even thinking about slaying a dragon.

OD&D dragons aren't unbeatable super-beasts. White dragons only have 5-7 hit dice, and are 25% likely to speak, and 60% likely to be sleeping when encountered. A Very Young white dragon only has 5-7 hit points and a similar score on its breath weapon; in my opinion that's not out of the question for an encounter on the first dungeon level. It's a logistical challenge, since the party will want to avoid being hit by the breath weapon, but not one that the party can never overcome. Even at 3 square inches (30 feet), the cone of a white dragon's breath will not necessarily hit multiple party members if they arrange themselves properly, using terrain obstacles or shapes to their advantage. If nothing else, they won't just assume they can kick in every door and slay the monsters.

All OD&D dragons are treasure type H. This is a hoard with literally piles of coins; there is a 75% chance of 10,000-60,000 GP. On average (and not counting magic items), a hoard should be in excess of 80,000 GP, with most of that coming in jewelry and gold pieces. Slaying a dragon and taking this much treasure would be a fine haul, although the reward stops being quite so dramatic after 5th level, when a dragon's hoard is no longer an automatic level gain. But up to level 5 or so, dragons are an efficient way to gain a level.

If you want to picture a hoard, let's say that gold pieces are about the size of a Krugerrand. 60,000 gold pieces would be about 50 gallons of space, which would be larger than the volume of a typical bathtub. This would have about 25 pieces of jewelry and/or 50 precious gems mixed in. Armored PCs could only take out about 1800 coins each; you'd probably want a few wheelbarrows. Transporting gold out of the dungeon should be almost as much of a challenge as slaying the dragon. It's impressive, but not cavernous rooms full of coins. The largest possible hoard would have 184,000 coins, which is in the area of a refrigerator.

By design, dragons should be a low to mid level monster: a hard challenge at level 1 or 2, but able to be handled with much more ease at levels 4 to 6.. If the referee is running OD&D by the book (as it were), it's a poor decision to take on a blue or red dragon. They are more likely to talk, and thus to parley, and less likely to be sleeping. And their treasure will be the same as a white dragon, which could be as much as 6 hit dice lower than its red cousins.

There's another reason to put dragons in your dungeon, though: factions. Dragons will naturally relate to the other denizens, although obviously this relationship may be more of a predator/prey one. But it will always make the dungeon more interesting if there is a dragon sitting on a big treasure hoard. Whether or not the dragon talks is a big factor in this, as a brute white dragon that picks on the goblin tribe would be very different from a crafty green dragon that has a group of gnolls or bandits doing its bidding.

The moral is simple: don't be afraid to add dragons to your dungeon. They are designed in OD&D to be things that you can handle but still have some "badass factor."

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Appendix N in 2015

I went through my Barnes & Noble today, and this is everything that I could find related to Gary Gygax's Appendix N:

Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Barnes & Noble has two $10 volumes that between them print the first 5 Mars novels, which have gone into public domain. A pretty good deal overall, although there is no art.

Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
A single volume from the Conan series sits on the shelves. The other Del Rey volumes have all disappeared.

Lovecraft, H. P.
Huge collections, including from Penguin and Barnes & Noble. There are also multiple anthologies of short stories similar to Lovecraft's.

Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the first three books)
Not Elric or Hawkmoon, but Corum is actually being reprinted.

Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
There are two shelves full of Tolkien. This has been pretty much a given for the last twenty years or more, as long as I've been reading fantasy. George R.R. Martin is the only comparable author in terms of shelf space.

Assiduous hunting in the anthologies revealed that one of Vance's stories is in a The Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction volume. The Dying Earth proper is gone from shelves.

Wellman, Manley Wade
Wellman's name is on the cover of Acolytes of Cthulhu, a volume of Lovecraft-inspired fiction. It's interesting to note that the flood of Lovecraftian stories has not meant any kind of resurrection of August Derleth; he lies dreaming with dead Cthulhu.

Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al
A single, stately volume of The Complete Amber has closed out the Science Fiction & Fantasy section in Barnes & Noble for as long as I can remember. It's a massive tome and it's always present. The omnibus has been reprinted at least once, because it has a different cover than my copy, but its presence is kind of a fitting bookend to the SFF section.

The book I actually wound up buying (I already own everything of interest from the above) is from one of the "collateral" Appendix N authors: DAW just reissued The Birthgrave, the debut novel of Tanith Lee. Lee's short story "In the Balance" is in Swords Against Darkness III, the one anthology that made Gygax's list. (The contents are listed on its Wikipedia page.)

It's sad to note of Appendix N, now a 36 year old list, that of its twenty-eight named authors only Michael Moorcock is still alive. Several of the Swords Against Darkness III authors, including Lee (edited to note: Tanith Lee passed away in 2015), are also with us. Even some of the greats have been moved on from: Andre Norton's books used to fill a respectable slot, but now it skips her entirely.

Given the ongoing fandom for Lovecraft, it is somewhat odd that nobody's been putting out any of Dunsany's longer work in good print volumes; The Gods of Pegana, The Sword of Welleran and the other early work is all in the public domain, but I guess it's still not as profitable as the Martian tales. Merritt's work, likewise: we could easily have print versions of The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster, but even his name seems to be lost to the years. Both were major influences on Lovecraft; perhaps someone should lobby S.T. Joshi.

Barring a movie or HBO miniseries (or maybe True Detective taking up Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" stories), I don't see any grounds for a serious revival of the rest of the Appendix N authors. Burroughs, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Moorcock, and Howard are the anchors keeping Appendix N literature accessible to new generations, and it's probably going to stay that way for a while to come.

In a way, that's a damn shame. The best of this stuff is rip-roaring adventure. Norton and Brackett are two of the bigger losses, I think, both being women with a great knack for a science fiction or maybe science fantasy yarn.