By Thilo Graf
This massive book from Mongoose Publishing is 250 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 5 pages advertisement, 1 page back cover, 1 page SRD, leaving a whopping 241 pages of content on dragons, so let#s dive right into draconic glory.
First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear to you – while “Van Graff” evoked associations with the Van Richten guides of old, this book cannot be considered a fluffy PC handout with a lot of narratives, instead catering specifically to the DM and his ability to present dragons, perhaps the most iconic beast of them all in a way that makes them fearsome foes indeed. After a short introduction and fluff-text, we are introduced to the first of many of supplemental ideas that primarily serve to enhance a dragons iconicity and may or may not be adapted to your campaign world.
The first of these concepts is the dragon’s domain, or, as the book calls it, its desolation (or sanction in the case of good dragons). The intensely magical nature of the dragon bleeds into the land, changing it for the better or for worse and powers magical perceptions of the dragons. The environmental ideas are quite nice – I like this section due to its iconicity, as the respective areas have several sub-sections with progressively more intense draconic influence.
We all know that dragons tend to amass wealth, followers, be the object of worship for cults and sleep a lot. Thus, it makes sense for them to have not only a plethora of followers, but a system to track them from rousing from sleep. The alarm system covers the PCs trying to infiltrate the desolation of the dragon and makes for a very complex, simulationialist approach to tracking the general level of alertness of the dragon and its forces. I did actually like this system, but I guess tracking the alertness-levels might be a bit complex for some DMs, in spite of the system’s simplicity. If you want to simulate a dragon and its follower’s smartness and emphasize the feat that is reaching such a creature, then you’ll like this system.
The next chapter details servants of the dragons, including quick write-ups for creature types, extensive leadership tables for fiefdoms, networks, armies etc., including modifiers to track loss and leadership damages when suffering major and minor defeats. This chapter also includes new draconic sentry creatures, goldghosts and golems made from discarded skin. Have I mentioned the draconic ability to buy undead from Charon via cursed coins that borrow into his foe’s skulls through the eyes.
After that, we are introduced to dragon lairs and their individual defense mechanisms, providing information for all of the draconic subspecies as well as Gp-costs for outfitting rooms. Abyssal Serpents and Hell Worms are covered as well as several other neat ideas to make venturing into the lairs of dragons not something your PCs are likely to forget.
Of course, once the PCs have reached the dragon, they might have to grovel and flatter their way back out of the cave, thus we are presented with a conversational matrix to track a dragon’s attitude as well as a rather extensive selection of flattering, riddle-posing and groveling, including, of course, consequences for failure and in-character prose to give you an idea what to expect. If diplomacy fails, though, tactics and warfare are covered in the follow-up chapters, providing extensive information for the Dm to properly portray the cunning reptiles in battle and make maximum use of their wide variety of strategic options. This chapter also includes specific weapons and armor that dragons may put on to boost their already formidable defenses.
But their formidable prowess in just about all fields are not only what makes dragons iconic in literature and myth – their parts, from dragonbone weapons to eating the heart and bathing in their blood has been a staple for human myths and fantasy for centuries and subsequently, the following chapter includes a wide variety of things that can be crafted from the carcass of a dragon – from a discussion of their anatomy (including rules for called shots on dragon parts) to curses on the hoard and aforementioned symbolic adaptions/consumptions of the dragon’s strength, all the staples and tropes are covered in glorious detail, making this one of my favorite chapters in the whole book and one that is vastly superior to its 3.5 Draconomicon counter-point. Hoards are, of course, also covered and while the chapter goes into some detail and provides e.g. a one-page table of hook-ladden jewelry, I would have loved some more tables of this kind.
Customizability is king and thus, the next chapter offers us a wide variety of different age advancements for dragons, enabling you to create wyrms with more of an arcane bent, roaring engines of destruction etc. While these rules make dragon-building potentially more complex, they also are optional and provide a distinctly versatile backdrop for lending variability to the most iconic of all monster species.
Of course, this is not enough and if you recall the Draconomicon, you might have an idea what#s up next – bingo, new draconic feats, mostly centering on improving the control/lethality of their already formidable breath and natural attacks. Especially when creating the Draco Invictus, dragons even older and more powerful than Great wyrms, these feats make for deadly choices and some are sure to leave PCs whimpering for their mothers. These super dragons all come with their final age advancement in their very own chapter, by the way.
And if that is not what you’re looking for, but rather guidelines on how to develop your own draconic species, we get a complex, yet easy to grasp build-your-own-dragon-species-kit, which has also been used to create the new dragons presented in this book. The new dragons e.g. cover the 7 deadly sins via the Sin Dragons (creatures that feed on sins) and cool hellish miniature versions of Tiamat (which are perhaps the most lethal dragons released for PFRPG!) to, unfortunately lame dragons like Web dragons and stupid beasts of burden if you’re inclined to play in a world where all-out dragon-based warfare is common.
Being the originators (at least in some worlds) of magic, no book on dragons would be complete without a section on draconic magic and I have to say: I like this particular one. From transforming the dragon’s gullet into a bag-of-holding like space to Power Word: KNEEL!, the new space feel distinctly like they cater to the vain and glorious reptiles. Magical scales and draconic dream-avatars are covered as well, ensuring that even when asleep (or in the plane of dreams), the PCs might be harassed by their draconic foes. Even better from a DM’s perspective, the dream avatar often is subconsciously controlled and thus might differ in alignment, providing a fine excuse for the PCs to fight otherwise noble metallic dragons.
Dragon culture, mindset, draconic steeds and even rules for hatching and raising wyrmlings are covered in the following chapters before going into 3 different takes on dragons in a given campaign as well as detailed suggestions on how to incorporate them in different play-styles and going so far as to even provide a sketchy (post-)apocalyptic world of exceedingly common dragons. The adventure hooks provided throughout these pages are well-thought out, smart and exciting, as befitting of the creatures.
The final chapter provides the Dragon Rider and Dragon Binder PrCs as well as short guidelines for playing dragons, though the latter can be considered rudimentary at best and the 5-level PrCs feeling rather bland. The adventure hooks, on the other hand, neatly round out this tome and leave you with several interesting ideas to incorporate in your game.
Editing and formatting are top-notch – I only encountered 2 glitches over almost 250 pages. Layout adheres to an easy to read, printer-friendly b(w-2-column standard. My point of reference for reviewing this book will be the 3.5 Draconomicon and at least in the art-division, WotC’s book blows this guide out of the water – while the b/w-illustrations are many and ok, they fail to capture the threat and majesty of the dragons and never reach the quality of the cover artwork. More importantly, the pdf version of this book has no bookmarks – at this length, that’s inexplicable and just unacceptable, as navigation on screen thus rather is problematic – especially due to the nature of the rules and the matrixes presented herein, bookmarks would have been neat to have.
That being said, we don’t get stupid, unbalanced PrCs for the dragons, which is a plus in my humble opinion. The social rules for flattering, the dragon-creation rules, the draco invictus and more importantly, the section on anatomy, tactics, hooks etc. make for awesome content that is undermined in its stellar quality by some rather boring dragons, lamely executed PrCs and resurfacing bits of content, that, while never truly bad, stand out among the excellent pieces of content. It should also be noted that the original new creatures presented are mostly on the bland side of dragons. The new rules provided make it possible to run truly complex draconic encounters, but not all DMs will get the maximum out of this book. Those of you who want to shoot for more or less simulationalist approaches and emphasize the smartness of dragons, though, this book finally does what the Draconomicon failed to do: Making running smart dragons easy. While there are crunchy bits to make your dragons harder to beat, the true strength of this book lies in the fluff that enables you to better capitalize on the dragon’s experience and intellect rather than its stats to make it challenging, making running dragons thus more logical in the formidable challenges they represent. Were it not for the subpar parts and the lack of bookmarks, I’d give this 5 stars – with the distinct blemishes, though, I’ll settle for a final verdict of 4 stars and pronounce this the most comprehensive resource on dragons for PFRPG yet. (By the way, if you’re looking for fully stated dragons, check out SGG’s Codex Draconis series.)
Van Graff’s Journal of Dragons is available from: