Dragon Subdual

Randall over at RetroRoleplaying has recently posted a couple of items that make reference to his party subduing a young dragon that crossed their path.

I know it’s been a part of the game since the hoary mists of its genesis, but I’ve always hated the idea of subduing dragons. Why the hell should dragons, the iconic big badass monsters of the game, be able to be vanquished with only a fraction of their hit points gone, only to roll over and provide a big pot of gold when they’re sold? That never made any sense to me. Does anyone have any literary antecedent for this? Giants throwing rocks comes from Tolkien. Fine. Where the heck did this come from?

I’ve never used dragon subdual, and never will. (Spoiler for those following the Emprise!™ development process.)

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “Dragon Subdual

  1. This is only the second or third time a dragon has been successfully subdued by low level characters in 35 years of GMing. It only worked because the dragon was young and very dumb (see this blog entry for just how dumb. Even so, the dragon killed about 75% of their hirelings, wounded everyone else, and destroyed several magic items before being subdued.

  2. I know of only one precedent for this—in Tolkien's story "Farmer Giles of Ham". In this short Story, a Dragon (Named Chrysophylax) is 'subdued' by the title character, Farmer Giles. But in this case, there were a couple reasons for it—1) The dragon was cowardly and 2) The Farmer had accidently come into the possession of a Dragon Slaying sword (that the Dragon recognized and feared). I don't know if this is the /root/ of the 'Subdual' rules, but its the only example I know of.

  3. Aww, GG, why take away such fun possibilities?

    I've had dragons trick parties into thinking they've subdued them. Dragons can be very playful creatures: tricking the party into encountering a giant (it actually was several) in a lair the dragon had been kicked out of (it was actually the giants own lair) where the majority of its hoard still remained (not!), mischieviously getting the party to fight amongst themselves over its hoard of treasure and magic, letting the party take it into a town and start causing mayhem and fires, etc, which the party would then be liable for…oh, good times.

    I like to allow the possibility of 'anything goes'. You just have to be very careful how you go about it.


  4. There's precedent (of a sort) for subduing dragons in medieval legends about the lives of the saints. It's not really much like classic D&D dragon subdual, but it's an interesting alternative. You got me thinking, so I went ahead and put together a blog post on it: Exorcising Dragons

  5. I can't recall anyone ever subduing a dragon in any game I have been involved in… but wonder if after 'Dragonriders of Pern,' players might have been clamoring for dragons as steeds.
    I find it somewhat amusing to contemplate dragons lined up at a used car lot with muzzles on, whisps of smoke or frost or acid escaping from their nostrils… chained to the ground as interested buyers stroll the lot and sales men proclaim, "One owner!" and "Ready to deal!" and "What do I have to do to get you to go home on the back of THIS dragon today!?!"

  6. I like Grendelwulf's example.

    Although I'd just as soon say that subdual isn't in the rules and the occasional dragon might be roleplayed as susceptible to enslavement or else "fake it" like Grendelwulf's did.

    I could see so much fallout from that one faked subdual … and the great thing is, the adventurers now have to keep the dragon alive, and protect it, otherwise they lose their cash payout! It's perfect! Best if the dragon comes up with some kind of "ancient draconic code" that means whoever bests him in combat owns him.

    Of course I always hated the subdual rules from the AD&D MM1. I never used them. After all, if you aren't powerful enough to kill the dragon outright, why would you be able to subdue him? I think it probably came about because one of Gygax's players wanted to have a dragon to ride around on, and the ad hoc ruling made its way into the written rules (like a Light spell cast upon the eyes causing blindness).

    And of course from that, the dragon as a possession has to have a value for purposes of selling one or (!) buying one.

    "This dragon is completely clean, only had one owner, and it was a little old lady who only flew it to the monastery on Sundays."

    "As you can see, this one is just loaded with after-market parts."

    "So were you in the market for the fastest possible dragon, or more of an economy style? This one here is boxy, but safe."

  7. While they certainly are iconic—with their name right there in the title of the game—I’m not sure they were always meant to be quite as big and bad as they are often presented today.

    As far as subduing vs. killing: As I recall the rules correctly, it is as hard (if not harder) to subdue a dragon than to kill it. The point is that you’ve proven to the dragon that you could have killed it.

    I can’t speak to the inspiration, but I think I’ve read that this goes back to Blackmoor.

    Anyway…all that said…I’ve never actually seen the rules used in game.

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