Dragons, Gods and Liches and why they can be fun to play

This post was inspired by a discussion I had with another GM on the topic of a player who seems to always want to either play a dragon or play something thematically close to a dragon.

I’ve had players in my groups that had similar fascinations, some with undead, some with dragons or a totally awesome character they saw in an anime or movie. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been there at some point. Hell, I had a pretty big fascination with playing a Deathknight when Exalted 2nd edition’s Abyssals supplement came out. (And can you blame me? They were both cool AND overpowered!)

So why make a post about something so common? Because there are many, many ways of dealing with it. Most GMs won’t indulge in these sorts of fantasies, citing reasons such as ‘Dragons are too powerful’ or ‘make up something original instead of playing another clone of Wolverine’ or ‘undead don’t fit into my setting’ (this one makes sense). I’ve been one of those GMs, getting snippy at players who, in my eyes, can’t come up with something original.

But you know what? Coming up with an original concept is hard work. It takes time, effort and practice, something that not everyone has in spades. So often people fall back on familiar tropes and concepts. You make a dragon cultist because dragons are cool and cultists are cool. You show up at the table with a paladin and a plan for their fall and eventual transcendence to undead immortality already in motion. Your character is built from tropes and pre-existing ideas and that’s fine. Why is it fine? Let me tell you.

For a moment, cast your mind back in time. Back to the year 1977. The year when the pop culture behemoth Star Wars first appeared in cinemas. Many people think of Star Wars as some sort of unique and original masterpiece and it is. But it’s also built on some of the oldest tropes in the book.

The Hero’s Journey is a style of storytelling that has existed for centuries, with studies of it going back well over 100 years and Star Wars is, when it comes down to it, a 1 to 1 retelling of that blueprint. There’s a call to action, an initial refusal, a mystic mentor and many, many more. And you’d think that would make Star Wars boring and predictable and yet, even today, it’s an exciting movie.

The reason it’s exciting instead of dull and predictable is that Lucas took an old idea and put a brand new spin on it. And that’s where we get back to our topic of tropey characters and pet ideas. Sure, they’re predictable and sometimes even a little trite, but as a GM you have the change to take these uninspired ideas and turn them into the next Star Wars for your group. Let your players play these characters and then challenge them. Give them an NPC Darth Vader to their Luke Skywalker. Turn their princesses into a version of Leia (strong, independent, a little sassy and possibly their sibling). Throw them curve-balls and watch these characters come to life like you’ve never seen before. Because even a halfway decent roleplayer can make a character come to life in unexpected ways if you give them the chance.

But perhaps you want a bit more practical advice. We can do that. But before I do that, know that any advice given here only works if you can make it work in your rule set and game’s setting. No matter the advice give, there’s just no way you’re going to make a dragon work in the Mouseguard Roleplaying Game or get an undead sorcerer to work in The Sprawl. The rule sets just don’t work with those character concepts, the concepts don’t work in the world and if a player still insists on playing them, it’s time for a serious conversation about what this campaign is about.

Onward to the actual practical advice. So you have a player who really likes dragons. Your first step starts where all good roleplaying games start: Session Zero. Before dice are rolled, before characters even have a name, have a chat with your players about who they want to play, what the world will be about and so on. Once you’ve done that (and there will be a post on Session Zero somewhere down the line) it’s time to let your brain get to work. Take a few minutes to get some ideas and spend some time thinking about the characters. If you notice something odd, now’s the time to go and do something about it because after this, you’re into the campaign proper and it’ll be hard to deal with.

So you’ve noticed that one of your players wants to play a dragon. Not a draconic bloodline sorcerer or a dragon-blooded but an honest to god dragon. Talk to them about it and just ask questions. Let me repeat and bold that statement because it’s so important: Talk to them about it and just ask questions. Unless the premise of the campaign explicitly excludes dragons (such as playing adorable mice or gunslingers in the wild west) don’t shoot them down. Ask question and figure out why they want to play a dragon. Ask for the Why and the How until you are satisfied with the answer. ‘Because it’s cool’ or ‘I dunno’ are not valid answers here. Press your player (but don’t make them uncomfortable, you’re all there to have fun after all) and get those answers. Don’t be afraid to involve the rest of the group. Ask the other players for input on how their characters would interact with a dragon. Ask the other players if they would be okay with a dragon in the party.
But most importantly of all, show that you are excited about their dragon. Show them that you WANT to incorporate them into your world and game. But also make it clear that you can’t really do that without them also putting in the effort to be part of the game world.

And that’s really the key here: Let them play their pet class, let them have fun but make sure it fits in the world. That way, you can incorporate their ‘last undead dragon sorcerer from Zeist’ into your world by giving them meaningful NPCs to interact with (other undead, other dragons, other sorcerers from Zeist). Your game world will be richer for it and your players will remember the awesome game you ran. And maybe they’ll get it out of their system after a few sessions and play something a little less insane than an undead dragon sorcerer from the planet of the highlanders next time.

And now that I’ve spent close to a thousand words describing how you should totally let them play their pet class, here comes the part where I tell you not to do that. The above advice only works if the player is willing to work with you and is flexible in their concept. If they absolutely have to play not-Niv-Mizzet, genius dragon who also runs a guild of inventors and they refuse to work within the setting of the game, you might have to apply some tough love. If it doesn’t work in the setting or game, no amount of whining or pleading is going to change that.
Similarly, also tell them no if their concept requires them to be exceptionally powerful in the context of the game. You can play gods or dragons just fine as long as it’s within the scope of the game. But playing an immortal dragon in a party of 1st level commoners is probably a bad idea. Especially if the rest of the players are not too happy about the idea. Make sure their weird concepts work with the game, both mechanically and in terms of world-building.

And that’s it really: If it’s possible, let them play their weird concepts. Your world and games will be richer for it. But don’t be afraid to put your foot down if you can’t find a way to make them work.

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