dragons, again

This is a good post: co-DMing a boss fight.

It’s interesting in the sense of mechanics, especially a counter-balancing of the mechanical action economy (in favor of the players) with a second DM, who can keep track of the overload of options and potential tactics available and come to intelligent conclusions while another DM adjudicates the actions called. This is doubly-true for genius-level opponents (a dragon, a lich, a beholder) rather than juggernauts (a tarrasque), where a creativity of tactics, a clever use of terrain can make a powerful, compounding difference. But, while not mentioned in the above post, such reasons also apply to fights with many smaller opponents. When one DM is running twenty goblins against the PCs, there simply isn’t enough time for that DM to step into the head of each individual opponent and faithfully replicate it. Such fights very quickly exhaust the options a single DM can keep track of, and that group of individual opponents is only thought of a mass—and a mass that tends to just charge.

But back to the post. A maximal red dragon. And how it turned into a war of dice and cleverness, a puzzle to be solved, as much storytelling and emotion as the twisting of a Rubik’s cube.1 What is more interesting to me is what it feels like to be attacked by a dragon, to go hunt one.

The closest I can come to is something like this.

Not seeing the breath weapon doesn’t make you alive again. Also, it’s even got teeth.

Imagine that swooping down on you out of the blue sky. You first saw it seven seconds ago, in a screaming dive. Something lethal will erupt from its maw, and it will be gone. Maybe you have those seven seconds to stop what you’re doing, formulate a plan, prepare yourself. Maybe a generous second-and-a-half to fight back. In other words, you have the rest of your life to figure it out.

What are you going to do? No, I mean really. You’re there. Put yourself there. It’s happening now. You look up, it’s there. Right now. What does it feel like?

Is that how you felt reading the blog post? Unlikely.

Let’s get some emotional distance. You’re hunting the dragon. Let’s continue with the A-10 analogy. A dragon doesn’t just sit in a cave. It has the time, resources, and intelligence to put itself in a safe place. Don’t think that you’ll just tromp through the woods, following footprints, and get the jump on it. I’ll posit that the A-10 can be used as further analogy. How do you go destroy that? The dragon has an area under its control, maybe like an airbase. Even when it’s at its most vulnerable, on the ground, what do you have to do to get to it? Its intelligence network has known of your plans for weeks, and probably calculated that it is most efficient just to send someone to stick a knife through your eye when you sleep. It’s surrounded by obstacles—fences and concertina wire?—and traps—mines?—and early-warning sensors. All of those are overwatched by fighting creatures, who will not only notify the dragon, but actually fight you. And they communicate: not just with the dragon, but with the reinforcements who will also come fight you. And when you get through all of that, the dragon has scrambled: it’s not where you wanted it to be, it’s behind you, in the air, raining its own death upon you. Or it just left and will be five hundred miles away in a couple hours. Now you get to walk for weeks, to start the process over.

And what if, by happenstance, you find it on the ground? Somehow pinned, somehow cornered? You still have to fight it. It’s armored. That strafing attack works just as well on the ground. And you’re going to go hit it with your sword, because it’s super-powerful when you swing it with both hands? What does it feel like to try to creep up on an armored beast that spews fire?

Save for half, I guess?

I fall back on my previous views. Dragons—and their epic-level concomitants—are best seen not as individual beings to attack, but as institutions to be overthrown.

1 Okay, you caught me. The post describes a con game specifically designed to be a tactical puzzle. Let’s ignore that. How often does your game’s combat turn into a puzzle rather than a scene? . . . Yeah, me too.