Thursday, September 9, 2010

4E Draconomicon - Chromatic Dragons: A Review

Some Perspective:

The first Draconomicon was published in 1990 for AD&D 2nd Edition. It was a 128 page softcover that was mostly fluff with a little crunch, mainly some new dragons, and then a set of dragon-centric adventures at the end. It was alright but even back then I remember being a little disappointed in the content. The adventures ate up about a 3rd of the book which I thought could have been put to better use. I did like the idea of a special book just for Dragons as they are the iconic beasties of the game, I just thought this wasn't the best effort in that direction.

Fast forward 13 years and we have the Draconomicon for 3.5 which I thought was excellent - 288 hardcover pages of mostly crunchy details covering all then-current types of dragons and adding some to the mix. While much of the book was aimed at DM's, a fair chunk of it was also aimed at players with a chapter on fighting dragons, a section of dragon-flavored spells and feats, and a section on using dragons in the party. The book wrapped up with sample lairs for each dragon type and statblocks for each type of dragon at each age category. There was fluff on environment and physiology and personality which was helpful too, but much of the book was game mechanics and details intended to be used in play. If you were planning or running a dragon-heavy campaign it was an excellent resource all the way around. WOTC would later follow a similar format for an Undead book, an Aberrations book, a Demon book, and a Devil book and I thought all of them were similarly useful.

Now jump to 2008 and we have the first 4th edition monster-specific book, 256 hardcover pages also named Draconomicon and subtitled Chromatic Dragons. Right away we know the focus of this edition has been narrowed by half - it only covers the evil dragons.It opens with 40 or so pages of Dragon background - physiology, personality, general fluff discussions. We then have 46 pages of DM material including magic items, sample adventure hooks, and hoard breakdowns. The next major chunk of the book is 76 pages of sample lairs - very nice and much more useful than the 2E adventures. We then close out the book with 90 pages of new monsters.

By section:

The Background section is nicely done and is probably more than most people really need but I think that's the way to err in this kind of book. I liked it and for a new player or DM it's a great starting place to build up your knowledge of dragons.

The DM material is fine. I thought it was the least focused section of the book. The encounter advice is fine, the adventure hooks are limited, the campaign outline is interesting, and the hoard section is almost more detail than we need (lots of tables), feeling like a throwback to 3E or even 2E in some ways - that's not a bad thing, just unusual in a 4E book.

The Lair section includes 9 dragon lairs fully mapped and statted out including traps, guards or minions, and the dragon itself. It's very well done and is instantly useful to the point that the DM could drop one of these in if the party took a sudden wrong turn in the middle of a session and decided to seek out a dragon instead of continuing on a particular adventure.

The last third of the book is monsters - descriptions and statblocks - with draconic themes. There are things in here ranging from new types of dragons to new types of kobolds including some new templates, alternate dragon powers, and some legendary dragons like Dragotha the undead dragon.

Overall I liked the book. It gives a DM much more information to work with than the Monster Manual entries alone. It gives a DM a bunch of dragon-flavored monsters to add to their campaign. It gives the DM drop-in lairs requiring no extra work. These are all great things to have even if your game does not center around dragons specifically.

The only real downside is that there is no player material in this book. The 3.5 book included a fair amount of material on dragon-slaying and even dragon-recruiting which does not appear here. It's not critical but it would be nice to see material like that somewhere as stuff like that gets players brains and creativity flowing. Maybe it's in a Dragon article somewhere but I don't know as I don't subscribe to DDI.

The only other thing I came away from this book with that might be a negative is that I'm not sure we need a separate book on each subtypes - Chromatics, Metallics, and presumably others down the road. The statblocks are longer in 4E, it's true, and I don't have a huge problem with it, but it does look a little like padding. Part of the 4E business theory appears to be that multiple books on one subject are OK - PHB 1-2-3, MM 1-2-3, Martial Power 1-2 - so I suppose Draconomicon 1-2-3 fits right in there. I don't have the Metallic Dragons book  at this point but I will and one of the considerations in  that review will be "was this book truly neccessary?"

Wrapping up, I think D&D does benefit from a separate book on Dragons - they are iconic opponents in  the game usable at all levels and they tend to be one of the more complex monsters to run with melee, ranged, and special-case attacks, 2 or 3 movement types, spellcasting in some editions, and they are supposed to be smarter than most player characters.If any creature in the game deserves a special manual, it's the dragon. If any particular type of dragon deserves to be covered in there, then it's certainly the evil ones as they tend to be the majority of the draconic opposition in a campaign and this book covers them excellently.

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