Wednesday, February 7, 2024

That is a Dragon

I recently watched Jonathan Pageau and Richard Rohlin discuss dragons on their Universal History video series. It is a fascinating look at dragons from symbolic, pre-modern, and Orthodox Christian points of view (which in some ways can be understood to all be the same). I wanted to share here because Dungeons and Dragons is specifically referenced. This whole discussion is contrasted with what we old gognards might call Gygaxian Naturalism — if we narrow our view to that of the modern, as expressed by the naturalistic categorization of monsters found in the various Monster Manuals of DnD, we might not completely grok what Johnathan and Richard are talking about. This is an interesting parallel to the move I was made to make when exploring how Scripture might inform the megadungeon.    


For those who don't want to sit and listen to these two geek out for over an hour, here is a short summary of the general characteristics of dragons:
  1. They are serpents.
  2. They are hybrids — the serpent aspect is mixed with pieces and parts of other animals.
  3. As hybrids, they occupy a symbolic space of flux and can be understood as harbingers of change.
  4. They function as guardians (mostly of water). This guardianship can be understood as hoarding and water needs to be understood as an essential material for civilization to function.
  5. They have an enemy, often a thunder god symbolized by a trident (which is originally a symbol for lightening, not for a sea god/creature).
The aspect of this I find most useful and interesting is the fact that not all dragons exhibit all five characteristics. Thus, from this perspective, an owlbear is a type of dragon (as are many of the hybrid creatures found in the Monster Manual). From the perspective of a DnD campaign, the appearance of such a creature could signify a major event for the campaign world as a harbinger of change.

Personally, I would be tempted to leave all hybrids out of my placed encounter areas and only have them appear as Wandering Monsters. Once one appears, this could mean a roll on a major campaign event table with various types of catastrophes both natural (such an earthquake that reveals a subterranean civilization) and man-made (such as war).

This view also reinforces the mechanics of treasure from early DnD: the gold hoarded by dragons (monsters, especially hybrids) is the main means by which the PCs (both the enemies of the dragons and the defenders of Civilization) level up to become more capable of defending Civilization.

I highly recommend taking the time watching this episode. It is a fascinating (and I would say useful) discussion even for those of you who are not of the Christian persuasion. Enjoy.


Alex Marsh said...

A very similar idea is discussed by Timothy Ferguson at his blog Games From Folktales, though his focus is on Ars Magica rather than D&D. You might like it:

FrDave said...

Excellent read! It made me realize that I have a far more medieval mind than I realize (which I see as a good thing). I have long instinctively understood most monsters as manifestations of sin, much like what Timothy rights about. Thanks!