MMO Dragons through the Ages – Fantastic Creatures, Formidable Foes

dnddragon

D&D cover by L. Elmore

Dragons. Formidable beasts of fantasy and wonder. The stuff of nightmare in many a heroic story of folklore, mythology and children’s tales. Most beloved foe of the high fantasy genre be it in movies, books or video games. Where would our MMOs be without dragons? Who doesn’t love dragons?

From an early age I was fascinated with draco, also known as dragon, drake, sometimes wyvern or lindworm. I was a child of fairy tales and the big bad wolf aside, which mostly just scared me, dragons were the most fascinating and exotic creatures that would inspire my wild dreams like none other. I remember a particular story in my vast audio&textbook collection about a green dragon and a knight; the pictures of the ferocious beast gave me such nightmares that my mother glued a blank opaque paper over the pages so I could follow the story without seeing the dragon. Bless our early beginnings.

Remember with your heart. Go back, go back and go back. The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not here, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at the blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know. Something that was supposed to be there faded and vanished. Something that we must bring back, you and I. (Robin Hobb, Golden Fool)

White Dragon Sleet(Elm)

Dragons of Winter Night by L. Elmore

Later I discovered the dragons of D&D and in particular, the Dragonlance; that’s when I irrevocably fell for this genre, absorbed in pages full of colorful illustrations by Elmore, Parkinson, Caldwell and Easley. My first artbook was a Larry Elmore limited edition which me and my best friend ordered on that novelty called the internet. I remember sending Larry a short thank-you email for the exclusive sketch he had done in each of our books, adding this well-wish: “may there always be dragons soaring across your sky”. I imagine he can see them whenever he closes his eyes or how could he possibly illustrate them in such stunning detail?

…the Dragon is the Patron Saint of all storytellers and artists and his likeness has adorned canvases and stone and has been forged in every precious metal. (Guillermo del Toro)

The Dragonlance Chronicles also opened a new, more modern perspective on dragons for me: dragons that are more than mere alien beasts and forces of nature. Dragons that have a face, that are scheming and cunning creatures of magic (sometimes shapeshifters like Silvara whose name I’ve adopted). Dragons that can choose different allegiances – good or neutral as much as evil. I love when dragons get to be real characters in stories and not just the ultimate yet dumb antagonist for the glorious dragon slayer. When a dragon ends up being little more than a T-Rex, that’s what I like to call narrative mistreatment, a lost opportunity. As far as morphology goes, it is interesting to note that historically there’s a distinction between European and Asian dragon tradition, with European dragon imagery being the predominant representation still in our western culture (with legs, wings or the ability to breathe fire) as opposed to the more snake-like Asian dragon (also naga).

MMO Dragons through the Ages

With the amount of dragon imagery and tradition out there, it’s no surprise that fantasy MMORPGs too capitalize frequently on our fascination with the winged, fire-breathing reptiles. I’ll come forth and say that I never ever tire of dragon encounters in MMOs; give me Blackwing Lair, Onyxia and the Dragon Aspects any day of the week! My favorite boss encounter of all time will probably always be Lord Victor Nefarius aka Nefarian which in my humble opinion, was a way more fascinating figure than Deathwing.

WoW is a game that loves to flaunt its dragons and “dragonkin” as foes but also mounts or pets. GW2 features the most breathtaking dragons for me as far as sheer size and dramatic entries go, so while ANet failed to make Zhaitan and Co. a particularly interesting bunch, the Shatterer or Claw of Jormag encounters will always hold a special place in my heart. Who would not feel awe and terror facing this? –

shatt

Descent of the Shatterer (guildwars2guru.com)

Musing on dragon history and my favorite encounters in MMOs, lead me to a full-scale investigation of MMORPG dragons of the past, present and future. As far as popular mainstream titles go, there’s not a single game that didn’t feature draconic foes at some point or other – or is there? Anyway, let’s look at my quick and selective chronology of MMO dragons (you can find the full-size wallpaper of the image here):

mmodragons

While we’ve come such a long way graphically since the dragons of UO and Everquest, today’s MMO dragons have the same effect on players and still follow the same narrow design template. AION probably holds the trophy for the most beautiful and lavish dragon design. If I had to try and tackle the beast, put into words what still makes dragons so appealing to lovers of the genre, I’d call it a mixture – the fear of the unknown and supernatural as much as a fascination with the majesty, power and wisdom of a sentient being that shares traits with familiar animals. More than any other fantastic creature, dragons embody the virtues of a magical world beyond our wardrobe and maybe our longing thereof. Or as this article concludes beautifully, quoting a Tolkien essay:

Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded… The dragon had the trade-mark of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. [JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories]

That is the gift of dragon-sight; the purpose of the dragon quest. Dragons embody the beauty and the peril of an “other world” that is “richer and more beautiful” and full of strange and marvelous things.

I look forward to meeting more MMO dragons in the future. I’m not sure about Wildstar but it’s probably safe to say we’ll see more of them in Everquest Next, Elder Scrolls Online and certainly WoW. What are your favorite dragons in MMOs? And is there anyone who’s tired of all the dragons? I can’t imagine my virtual worlds without them.

20 comments

  1. Horizons (now called Istaria) has them as a playable, free-flying race, and a grown dragon is HUGE (especially compared to players who are one of the tiny races). The most unique race choice in any MMO I’ve played. Being a dragon was the funnest part of the game, tbh.

  2. The most awe-inspiring and terrifying beasts of legend from my childhood were devils. They terrified my dreams and I just couldn’t stop looking at pictures of them in books. They still scare me, actually. But a well drawn demon or devil is so beautiful to me.

    Great article and the closing quote is perfect. I think EQN will probably have some great looking demons and devils. Like you mentioned, few games actually re-imagine dragons so I fear we’ve seen it all when it comes to the aforementioned studios.

    1. Thanks Doone! I look forward to EQN indeed. they have a lot of high-fantasy baggage to live up to, so I’m glad my niche will keep being served in the future. ^^ I think it always will be.

      And devils? that’s really interesting because I have a hard time coming up with any noteworthy tales with devils that scared me. I wonder if it’s a difference between Europe and the US. the Grimm’s tales but also norse or greek mythology don’t feature too many devils. I agree it’s a very scary figure for a child though…I am thinking Legend movie here – scariest devil ever imo!

    2. That’s funny. The most terrifying beast of my childhood was the Atom Bomb. I quite literally couldn’t sleep some nights when it was windy or thundering because I was afraid it was an A-Bomb going off. It’s probably T2’s fault (;

      More on topic, this is a fantastic and amazing post; one of those things that seems so obvious in hindsight but that’s just not tackled, and the abundance of connections to other articles, quotes, and images really makes it wonderful. I’d sticky this one and keep it updated as time passes!

  3. I’m kind of ambivalent on dragons. I don’t remember them featuring all that heavily in my childhood apart from Edmund turning into a dragon because of his selfish greed in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    About a decade and a half before I discovered EQ, when I was playing tabletop RPGs, dragons featured largely as adversaries that were way out of our league. I can only remember one time that we actually defeated one, a particularly memorable fight with a Shadow Dragon. Other than that mostly we ran away or hid if we even suspected one was in the area.

    That had a lot to do with my attitude to dragons when I came to EQ. I thought it was just plain wrong that players could defeat them. I vowed early on that I’d never raid Vox or Nagafen and it was many years before I finally broke that vow, by which time dragons were as common as sparrows across Norrath and there no longer seemed any point making a big deal of it.

    Nowadays I can take dragons or leave them. If they’re big and impressive like Claw of Jormag or Tequatl then I quite enjoy the spectacle but really huge monsters aren’t very satisfying opponents – it’s like fighting an aircraft hanger. I prefer something a bit nearer my own size.

    I’d much rather see Dragons used as NPCs than as mobs. They’re far more interesting when they use their considerable cunning and charisma than when they just breathe all over you.

    @Doone – I believe American MMOs almost never use “devils” because of the religious connotations. I can’t off-hand recall any US MMO I’ve played that has them although DDO probably does, given they are a staple of D&D. I think all the MMOS I’ve played call them “Demons” or “Fiends” or some other euphemism. (Although again D&D would have it that Demons and Devils are two entirely different breeds of monster…)

    1. Hehe I hear ya….I admire your resistance! ;) I agree that we have an overkill of dragons in WoW to a point where they really can’t be taken so seriously anymore. I wouldn’t mind if they were rarer or as you say, remain undefeated. I’m all for unbeatable mobs in MMOs but whenever I bring up that particular topic, hardly anyone agrees with me. :D there was an outdoor event like that in early FFXIV I believe….

      In any case, more all-powerful, wise and cunning dragon NPCs yes please!

  4. Great article! I agree that dragons too often become pop-up targets rather than actual characters. In my D&D games, I liked to have the dragons be a bit more rare and a lot more cunning. I didn’t like D&D’s system of color-coding the dragons based on alignments, so I’d like to mix it up with virtuous red dragons and corrupt gold dragons.

    One game/setting that I thought did a fascinating job with dragons was Shadowrun. Some people think there’s too much cyberpunk their fantasy (or vice versa), so Shadowrun can be an acquired taste. But, they featured dragons as very powerful and cunning characters. They’d often have grand schemes and are active in politics. It fits well with with the concept of this powerful, long-lived being that has a mindset so much larger than your typical person.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! good point about the color coding, I wasn’t a fan either. very cheesy with the gold/silver/bronze being the good dragons. I love blue and red dragons the most!

      And Shadowrun has been on my list for a while actually – the endless steam backlog! :D

  5. True Story:

    The first time I ever played an RPG (circa 1979-1980), my friend/DM took my character (along with his 13th Level Fighter, named Sir Robert) into a homemade dungeon. I went to the first door, opened it up, and insider were “THREE RED DRAGONS!”

    Needless to say, my pitiful 1st level Fighter lasted all of one swing against the dragons, who then proceeded to turn me into an appetizer.

    Since that time, I’ve held dragons in the deepest respect.

  6. Dragons are the bad parents of fantasy worlds. They know more than the children and have lived longer. They are often stronger. They may have, or claim to have, our best interests at heart. Yet we should not think that we understand them or should trust them. Eventually they see us as competition or obstacles and will then betray us.

  7. I do love dragons, always have. Game-wise I agree the earlier dragons in Guild Wars 2 are pretty spectacular fights. I like WoW’s use of dragons as powerful and knowledgeable protagonists – Chromie for instance of the Bronze Dragonflight is a great recurring NPC. I’m not so keen on the “everybody ride a dragon and sit on the mailbox” mentality that the game inspires, dragon mounts should have been kept *much* rarer I feel.

  8. YAY DRAGONS!! I loved these growing up so much and while my interest has faded quite a bit as a grew I loved them a lot back then. I even had one of those picture book encyclopedia of dragons that catalogue names, area abilities and a little bit of lore

    1. There are actually quite a few such encyclopedias :) and more people and researchers than one would think who still totally believe in dragons. I love that. my old philosophy teacher was adamant about different cultures across the globe not being able to come up with the same type of stories or creatures without a firm truth behind them, heh.

  9. Dragons are iconic creatures, and terribly mis-used as loot piñatas. The best MMO dragons are awe-inspiring nemeses. DAoC’s dragons spring to mind – there was one in each of the three realms, and it was months after launch (and multiple dragon nerfs) before anyone, on any server, managed to kill one.
    The best non-MMO dragons may be the ones from Glorantha, the fantasy world used as a setting for Runequest and other games. These are magical beings of immense power – as described by Greg Stafford, Glorantha’s creator “one day a dragon woke up and an entire mountain range disappeared, along with everyone living on it. The mountains had only existed because the dragon was dreaming about them.”

  10. I was really into dinosaurs as a child, does that count? ;) Maybe that’s one reason I also ended up liking dragons by extension… though I’ve always been a fan of the good and noble dragon as opposed to the villainous one. I remember loving the film “Dragonheart” – hardly a masterpiece of filmmaking, but I did like the way it portrayed the dragon as something more than an evil to fight.

    Even SWTOR has dragons! Well, in name at least: there’s a raid boss who rides a “kell dragon” but it’s more of a really big, fat lizard (with no wings or special intelligence).

  11. I’ve always been such a fan of dragons too! And dinosaurs, like Shintar, let’s say I wasn’t that picky as a child. But the dragons stuck, and I’m in a constant battle to draw the best dragon (somehow I never seem to manage it). I don’t like it when dragons are just evil and dangerous, and that’s it (as they are sometimes depicted in movies etc). A true dragon is smart and villainous in that typical dragon way!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available