Saw the latest Hobbit movie yesterday. It’s good. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other LotR/Hobbit movies by Peter Jackson, you’ll like this one.
Okay, now that’s out of the way, what this post is really about: Dragons and their badassedness.
Watching the movie, particularly towards the end when Bilbo awakens Smaug, I was struck by the thought that D&D dragons just aren’t that scary. If you’ve seen the movie already, you know what I mean. You really get the sense that Smaug is a guy you screw around with at your own peril, that death could come for you at anytime. D&D dragons just don’t convey that sense of imminent peril and doom. “Look, it’s a red dragon. It breathes fire three times a day. Now everyone run up and hit it with your swords.” Seriously, no one is going to run up to Smaug and hit him with a sword. It’s telling that the namesake monster of Dungeons & Dragons only ranks as a mid-tier baddie anymore.
The dragon’s de-badassification is, in part, due to long familiarity with the game. It’s also due, in part, to the class-and-level nature of D&D: PCs tend not to go hunting dragons until they have plenty of hit points to soak damage and plenty of magic items to help them out; also, as the game’s level cap increased new bad guys were needed to challenge increasingly powerful PCs. And finally, it’s due in part to uncreative play on the part of some GM’s (including myself): failing to leverage all of a dragon’s natural advantages; failing to play them as the hyper-intelligent creatures they are; failing to use the environment to the dragon’s advantage; and, ultimately, a failure to treat them as little more than a collection of stats and a loot-piñata waiting to shower the PCs with goodies.
What to do about it? First, go see Desolation of Smaug to get an idea of just how badass dragons really should be. Next, step away from the standard dragon templates that everyone is familiar with. Throw your players some surprises to keep them on their feet. And, finally, improvise. Really, unless you want your dragons to go down like chumps, you’re going to have to fudge some things, particularly when it comes to playing the dragon’s intelligence.
You see, I’m just a poor slob of a GM. I’m no super-genius, so there’s no way I could possibly cover every angle in my preparations. Even if my players are no smarter than I am, they still outnumber me, so by shear weight of numbers they’ll come up with something I never considered. Do I just let them roll over my poor dragon just because I’m not a genius? For, you see, the dragon is a genius, and likely would have thought of the things that never occurred to me. So whatever crazy plan the players come up with, the dragon probably has a contingency for it…GMs just have to think quick on their feet.