[Review] Dragons (AD&D 3PP); Here be Dragons Pt. II

Pt. VI; The Dragonlands has always been a nation of immigrants…

Leaving aside “ze human kwestion” the campaign setting itself is a thing of beauty with a format that is almost reminiscent of ole GG’s Greyhawk. A sprawling hexmap with rivers, mountains, forests and swamps and a few key settlements. The description of the settlements is key; in lieu of pages of poetic navelgazing the campaign setting focuses on the details you need to understand how they INTERACT. A breakdown of dragons per faction per clan is given so you get a firm grip on the scale of the civil war, with a useful distinction being made between combatants and non-combatants. Overall, while each faction has numbers in the thousands, the total number of Dragonic combatants is slightly less then a full thousand.

Settlements are broken down in terms of imports, exports, human population and garrison strength, since after all, they are at war, along with a paragraph or two of general description followed by the current situation. This can include such elements as Drow Spies in a republican settlement, a city flooded with mercenaries from the southern kingdom who are willing to fight for both sides [1] or the presence, hidden or otherwise, of important NPCs of both sides. Troop strength is described in somewhat binary terms; there are flights of Dragons (a flight is about 6) and there are auxilliaries, which is everything else. Bam!

What sets apart the boys from the men in these types of campaign settings is largely how much of the description may be converted into adventure-fuel. For all the attention to detail of supply trains and other such fluff pieces, the setting never slows down when it comes to give you a series of readily game-able situations. It’s all about volatility; spies who will inform a flight of blue dragons nearby if the town is abandoned, an injured dragon crawling away after he has seen the secret location of some headquarters, a supply train about to be attacked, a secret refuge and so on. Yet the setting never gets too bogged down in the mundane elements of the conflict, injecting some fantastic elements in just the right dosage; A lake that generates an aura of peace around it, with the inhabitants clinging to the shore and a siege going on just beyond it. Forests where even dragons fear to thread, haunted by 15 HD Giant tigers of human like intelligence that are immune to breath weapons and stalk like 15th level thieves. I am also pleasantly surprised by the COMPLETE ABSENCE OF DUNGEONS. The Dragonlands have enough shit going around for one not to resort to this trope, tried and true it may be, and I would have called foul since both the Dragonmaster and the Dragon are candidates ill-suited for dungeon crawling. Get yourself a ranger, a druid, an assassin I say. Let’s fight the fucking war!

There are a few things I would have liked to see that are sadly absent. A list of random encounters and a list of hooks would have made the place a little friendlier to sandbox play. The setting as it is require the GM to do a little bit more railroading but if one can stomach some structure what you have is a DAMN FINE off brand campaign setting. Something actually new made with mostly traditional ingredients as opposed to something that is the same, only with all the orcs given a palette swap. Bravo.

Part VII: Adventures.

Almost a third of the book is adventures. The first one is by far the best effort but the whole ends up being satisfactory in a strange, off-beat sort of way.

I was pleasantly surpised that the adventure provides you with five ready-made PCs to run the gauntlet with, each fairly diverse, going so far as to include a Veteran Dwarf of evil alignment. They are about appropriate for a 5-9 level party; a haughty elven prince in exile, a cleric of the god of truth who is passionate about fighting untruth but indifferent to evil, a vain and self-serving magician for a leader and a grotesquely mutilated thief in an iron Bane mask and his half-orc side-kick. Orson welles clap motherfuckers. You have earned it.

The premise is as follows. The PCs have been drafted by a recruiter in the Southlands to join the Republican side. The scene is set pretty well, and the PCs are surrounded by all manner of criminal riffraff that has signed up in search of loot (relatively paltry loot for 9th level characters, mercenary work seems a little bit under your pay grade but perhaps the adventuring market is saturated by an influx of high level guest labourers from another plane so what do I know). They are then tasked to smuggle a box past enemy lines and bring it to Fort Pellam. The box is proof against sorcery and tampering, and if they fuck up, they get eaten by their employer, who is A FUCKING DRAGON.

There is some sort of bizarre larping segment where the adventure tells you how to make green milk in some sort of way too involved introductionary bar sequence that earns the PCs bonus xp that would be more in place in a Vampire the Masquerade official adventure but since it is unconnected to everything else you can just ignore it.

The first part of the adventure proper is a novel concept with solid encounters and great execution; part boardgame part rpg. The PCs must travel from one side of the map to Fort Pellam, using the world map first and a special hex map when they get within one hex of Fort Pellam. The idea is that the PCs get a blank hex map and the GM secretly places tokes on certain hexes that that have a chance of finding the PCs depending on the weather, what precautions they take (elvencloaks/invisibility is great here). The Gm gets 30 points worth of units which he may then place in one of twelve sections of the map.

The interesting feature here is that some units are weak on their own but have a special ability that involves detecting the PCs (the telepathic Sensor Dogs) whereas other units are veritable PC killing machines (Mature Red Dragon) with high speed but garbage detection skills. Movement, detection, killing power and point cost have to be taken into consideration by the GM, though everyone is going to buy THE MONSTER. THE MONSTER is an immortal alien werewolf creature that can track the PCs like a 5th level ranger and will regenerate all injuries up and to total destruction of all of its tissue, which merely slows it and continue to do so until the end of fucking time. It has nothing to do with the rest of the quest but its presence here is so frickin’ awesome I cannot help but comment.

The first part deserves a lot of credit for covering all bases. Multiple modes of transportation (horses, boats, flying carpets etc.) are all covered. Modifiers to your speed can include anything from being wounded/poisoned to being loaded down with goal are included, though base speed does not vary with encumbrance, which is odd considering AD&D and some hex crawling rules would have been around at the time. There is a weather table with different events for different modes of travel (say, a Log Jam will slow down all forms of river travel whereas an explosion in an unstable swamp region can destroy it entirely). Terrain not only effects movement but also search chance, again offering a meaningful trade off between speed and stealth.

I’m stunned how solid the first section is actually. Each region also has a special location with encounters of a somewhat eerie almost faery-tale vibe. Ancient dwarven altars in caverns, an abandoned river post still holds a useable ferry, you can get into a fight with the guardian spirit of a forest (which manifests as a Zordon-like shaft of light with a reptillian FACE in it that turns RED if you fight it and throws lightning bolts FUCKING AWESOME). There is even some roleplaying. Searching a hex means your movement ends for a turn and the effects can be negative as well as positive, in some cases (trapped poison chest in swamp containing flying carpet) serving to redirect someone entirely.

The Second part is more of an encounter then an adventure. After the PCs reach Fort Pellham NPCs will jammer at them a little and you get a rumor table and the opportunity to meet a new NPC buddy, also a thief. Thus far the ratio of thieves has been excellent in this adventure. Many of the NPCs have to or can be rescued during the attack on the fortress by a flight of Blue Dragons later on, which is generally beneficial to the party.

The attack is A FLIGHT OF BLUE DRAGONS of levels 4 and 7 and their molt abilities MUST BE SELECTED BY THE GM, making this relatively straightforward section unnecessarily difficult to run. There is another larping section where the GM is supposed to get everyone some snacks and force them to obey impractical dining gestures but again, it’s only a paragraph and it is easily ignored. Thank god the Royalists show up, take out the sentries with some sort of fantasy sarin gas, and proceed to strafe the town with  breath weapons. FUCK. YOU. This encounter is marginally survivable because presumably the Dragons use up most of their daily uses laying waste the town. If you draw too much attention you will likely be turned into a torch, if you cower or try to save people like a good samaritan you might make it. Also, it might be worth mentioning you have a 5% chance of sleeping through the initial attack which causes the granary to explode and the chance of sleeping through the attack entirely is halved every turn. In keeping with their german ww2 counterpart, the Stuka Bomber, Dragons are too expensive and cowardly to fight to the death and thus they simply strafe the village and focus fire any source of opposition until everyone runs out of Breath weapons, after which they leave. A good encounter, if batshit insane (but then again that is the idea).

The last part cuts all the breaks and goes straight for the gold. The adventure figures that FUCK IT all that gradual buildup is for nerds and people want to see ACTION. The box you have been couriering turns out to contain one of the long-thought lost Keys to the GATE kept in Sacred Mountain. Your mission, double oh-seven, is to team up with a Dragonlord and his Dragonbro, infiltrate Sacred Mountain, and close the gate, cutting off the Royalist’s supply off alien raw materials for the fantasy sarin they tested on Fort Pellham. The Republicans, those godless human-loving serf-owning proto-communists, figure that closing the gate is the only shot they have to keep the war going and usher in the glorious communal farm utopia they have envisioned.

The preparation is reasonable, and for once the NPCs actually seem helpful and willing to provide whatever mundane equipment the PCs might need because this is an important fucking mission. You get transported in secret to the valley where lies Sacred Mountain, after that you are on your own. There are a few wilderness encounters and the map is interesting, more like a keyed picture then anything else. And this;

The village has been put to the torch. Dead human bodies lie half-eaten in the mud. As you inspect the carnage, a Dragon flies above. It does not seem to notice you. 

Grim as fuck too. There is an encounter where the re-animated bodies crucified humans leap off their crosses and attack you. That’s the stuff I am talking about. Fantasy fucking Vietnam.

The stronghold properly is rather bizarre and it’s fairly dissapointing that there is really only one way of entering the place properly, via a secret tunnel that only opens if you solve a riddle that is too easy. The monster selection is likely to be polarizing, multiple 6 HD dragons at the same time means that positioning and precautions had better be damn perfect or your party will be cut to shreds by simulteanous breath weapon fire. There is some interesting open-endedness going on with a number of secondary objectives or events that can trigger if the party saved a certain NPC in section two or just goes exploring. One of those events is that ONE OF THE OLDEST DRAGONS IN THE DRAGONLANDS JOINS YOUR FRONTAL ASSAULT AFTER 2 ROUNDS FOR THE MOST METAL SMACKDOWN EVER. That is if you can get past his extremely convoluted bullshit interactions which is damn unlikely but then again this event should be a rare occurence.

There are some shenanigans going on with the clues to the secret entrance scattered everywhere because the party absolutely must find the secret entrance. I guess it would theoretically be possible to fly or climb to the top and enter the complex while invisible, but as soon as the alarm is raised, anyone who is not 100% undetectable is going to be turned into a torch. The complex, which must be navigated if you do not use the convoluted tunnel of plot convenience contains A full Flight of six dragons, two mature blue dragons and Sark, 76 hp Ancient Red Dragon, to beat the shit out of you if they are awakened.

The tunnel is literally a single file with the odd branching pathway, but I like the encounters. Various traps, most of them designed for dragons so they will only be triggered by humans in rare cases (a very subtle detail that I appreciate immensely) and again, some unique creatures (an elemental snake made of gold, aaah the simple genius of it!). There is a bizarre section of the hallway where a termite hive is essentially bolted on to it but all the tactical complexity of navigating a cramped labyrinth is essentially lost. I hope your mage memorized Cloudkill. The tunnel of terror ends with the mother of all rolling ball death traps. Whoever wrote this knows his shit. A linear deathtrap but a linear deathtrap I respect. It’s very hard to render a verdict on this thing since it’s so strange. It doesn’t have any glaring irritating flaws so I suppose that means it is good.

It’s time to wrap up this badboy. Dragons is one of the more pleasant surprises I have come across in the Role Aids catalog, showing that they couldn’t just do adventures, they did some badass work on campaign settings as well. Off-beat, unconventional, unwieldy, sometimes weirdly intelligent or even brilliant, Dragons represents the wild side of DnD before everything became too codified and mapped out. The only glaring flaw is the omission of a proper aerial combat system, and the audience for this thing is likely to vary wildly. If you are a fan of slightly more linear, post 1e epic DnD where the party becomes part of a larger whole and there is more of a focus on roleplaying then this might be just what the doctor ordered. I can vaguely imagine some sort of sandbox play emerging from Dragons, though it would need a lot of work, and traditional Dungeon-crawl GM’s are likely to find it too unwieldy to use.
Nevertheless, a unique and well-written take on Dragons that has something for everyone and merges crunch and fluff into a seamless whole.Fuck yeah 8 out of 10.

[1] Again, a plausible element. There has not been an era that did not have multitudes of men who would willingly take up arms against their own kind as long as they are paid on time.

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