The Cub Report – Dragons Shape Our Tactics

For a while now, we’ve been going into Onyxia’s lair, Cassie and Alex and I.

To me, the Onyxia encounter is one of the single finest encounters in the game.

It has a little bit of everything.

To begin with, the aesthetics are awesome.

A single, remote cavern in the backwoods swampy marshland. A foreboding entrance, in the shape of a dragon’s skull, the passageway barred by massive teeth that move aside with a grinding snarl.

A dimly lit tunnel, dark and still, with the smoking remains of prior victims still frozen in postures of terror.

A massive cavern, with an enormous black dragon, sleeping the hours away. Sleep helps in digesting all those crunchy plate bits, didn’t you know?

The mechanics are awesome, too.

Once you begin the fight, you’re facing a pissed off, fearing, flame breathing dragon that knocks you into the wall, smacks people around with it’s tail, takes to the sky to rain destruction down upon you, summons waves of whelplings to swarm you and big bruising dragonkin to stomp you, and it even shatters the very ground beneath your feet with it’s roar, causing spurts of lava to jet up to fry you.

It’s awesome!

One of the things that could sometimes cheapen early pen and paper D&D games was the prevalence of dragons. Dragons here, dragons there, ho hum another dragon in a cave, let’s kill it and see what the loot table gives us this time.

To me, and I know some of my friends who gamed shared this gripe, the big thing about a dragon was supposed to be that they were the very top of the food chain. They were Smaug, old and wise and powerful, nearly invulnerable, and cruel if they thought they were disrespected.

If you wanted something from a dragon, you tried to finesse it. You snuck around, you riddled, you lured it away or distracted it with tricks. If you intended to fight a dragon in a stand up battle, you brought out the army, the siege equipment, and packed a lunch.

You also brought a lot of burn ointment.

If the dragon came on you unexpected? Well, better hope you’ve got a good friend with a strong bow and a lucky arrow, and a keen-eyed bird that likes to spy weaknesses and gossips, all I’m saying.

In pen and paper RPGs, we hated seeing dragons treated as just another loot piñata.

So, Onyxia. This was a dragon you treated with respect.

You wanted to bring this proud lady down, you brought 40 people, a plan, and prepared for a long night.

She would throw your tank up against the wall like a rag doll, if you annoyed her too much she wold flat out ignore the tank and EAT you, her tail would swipe you across the room, she would scream sending you running around in a blind panic that, if it drove you into the whelp caves, saw you then running around being eaten alive, pecked to death by little winged lizards, and too bad for you, boyo.

And then, omigod and then, she showed us that she had wings, and lived in a big cavern for a reason. She would say, to hell with this noise, and take to the air. Death from above, my friends. Ahhhh. Deep breath, where is she looking, because I do NOT want to be standing anywhere near.

I do not need to outrun Onyxia, I just to outrun YOU, dragonbait.

The first time taking down Onyxia, I don’t care what level you are, that is a satisfying battle. You fought a dragon, and that dragon did not just roll over and show you the bare spot missing an armored scale, with a little arrow and a sign saying “Insert sword here. If you’re a Paladin, the pointy end goes first.”

The first time we took Alex in there, this was my opportunity to give Alex Dragonfighting 101.

This was the bestest thing ever. This is why a geek spawns.

I told him, “Okay, now you don’t want to get in front of a dragon, because they will breath fire and destroy you. And you don’t want to stand behind a dragon, because they will whomp you with the tail, a tailwhomp if you will, and knock you across the room.”

He looks at me, eyes wide. “Really?!?”

“Oh, yes. You don’t mess around with a dragon.”

“Where is it safe to stand then?”

“You have to get in the middle, get in right at the ribs, far enough back to be safe from the flaming breath and the jaws that shred, claws that catch, and far enough forward to be safe from the tail.”

“But what if I have to move?”

“Well then, you’ll likely die, son. I mean, it is a dragon.”



The best part of this training for Alex, aside from how awesome fighting a dragon is, was that it taught him that the dragon was to be treated not as a big black blob, but as a living creature with multiple avenues of attack.

This was a dragon. It was a relevation to him that the back of the dragon, where there was a big spiky tail, could be dangerous too.

This, to him, was only right and proper, but too often in video games in general, the enemy you fight does not seem to be able to do all that his graphics promise. They react like… big blobs of color with a dangerous side, a safe side, and no brains.

He loves that for a dragon, you fight it as if you were fighting, well, a dragon. You don’t get behind it, good lord, that tail is the size of a tree. Can you imagine what it’d be like getting hit by that? And the front, whoo, flaming breath, claws, halitosis, big shiny teeth, you get the picture.

To have to be careful where you stand when attacking, in case you get stepped on… well, that makes it all feel more real.

He wants things to be able to be reasoned out. He wants to be able to look at something, and to infer from visual cues what it may be able to do, and how to try and attack it safely and successfully.

I have to say, Onyxia was designed magnificently with that in mind.

I don’t want to be overly critical, but I do find myself wishing we had more intuitive boss encounters like that, and fewer of the “Deadly Boss Mods says there will be tentacles so run in. Yes, the boss is standing there, but it’s okay, he can’t step on you. It’s just graphics looking like a giant. Stand wherever you like.”

You know… if you only have Warlocks dot her up and the rest of the casters use white damage wands, when she Deep Breaths it will be 33.3% more likely to be on the left side of the cave. Yup, true story.

18 thoughts on “The Cub Report – Dragons Shape Our Tactics

  1. Cyberpunk 2020 had a shopping book that had vehicles in it… one of them was the Dragon, a helicopter version of Puff the Magic Dragon. A double blade copter the size of the Flying Banana, with ALL the guns and a cargo copter’s capacity of ammo. It was described as ‘Use it as you would a real dragon, to kill big things and frighten small children.” After all these years, I still remember that line. 😀


    • True that… absolutely true.

      I can assure you of one thing… if you met a dragon unprepared in a game I was running, you’d just piss your pants knowing this one was going to be bad.

      I think the first time I ran a new group that had dragon pinata expectations, I gave the dragon a pet kitty cat, and the dragon was asleep when they entered the lair. They saw the kitty, and decided the dragon was a polymorphed kitty, and the kitty was the actual dragon… and killed the kitty.

      Turned out, the kitty was the dragon’s familiar… and the dragon was also an Archmage.

      After they rerolled new characters, they had a renewed respect for dragons.

      Or, to misquote The Order of the Stick, “Take away our magic, and you become an elf, but I remain a dragon”. Now, treat that dragon as a dragon… AND add being an archmage, played with all the cruel edge I could muster.

      Poor bastards should have NEVER min/maxed characters and tried to game the system against me. Dump stats my ass.


  2. “He wants things to be able to be reasoned out. He wants to be able to look at something, and to infer from visual cues what it may be able to do, and how to try and attack it safely and successfully.”

    This should be drilled into every game designer’s head. Twice.


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  4. Talking about dps positioning for fighting dragons in WoW reminds me that when I first fought Onyxia, our raid leader demonstrated how to ‘assume dragon fighting dps position’ with a photo of his cat (playing the part of ‘sleeping dragon’) and a lego figurine.


  5. I remember us 7 manning Classic!Ony during BC. Our tank had the axe from Kara that you could throw as well and that bugged her into the whelp alcove. We ended up nickel & diming her to death there (ah, back when Holy Shock had an obscenely long CD…).

    Somehow though, I did not get credit for killing her classic self on my pally when achievements showed up.


  6. I loved the Onyxia fight, both 40 and 10 man. (Never in a big enough guild to do 25, until now that we can over-gear it with 8) Both my favorite kind of fight, and something that shows how kickass a dragon SHOULD be. Only thing I didn’t like was the buggy ‘tank is forced to run onto the wall and now she ignores him and eats the raid’ thing.

    I love a fight where skill makes a difference. I can watch where she is, I can watch where she’s facing, I can get out of the way of the incoming fire and if I get hit it’s my fault, not some BS raid mechanic (Spine of Deathwing, I’m looking at you). If we fail, it’s because we weren’t good enough, and I can work with that, I can get better. When we fail because I ran out of mana because I have to heal through a 200k sponge before I can make someone not die, that’s BS.

    And she looks (profoundly overused word, but as the Cub said, very appropriate here) awesome while she’s doing it. A fight that could only be done by a dragon, to where you have to pay attention to the fact that she is a dragon and not just Random_Whatever_#69,105.

    Biggest problem with the fight, in fact, is all the lame ‘jokes’ people drag out of their graves…


  7. Up till the end of Wrath our guild app had a question: Describe the three typical dragon mechanics, and standard DPS positioning.

    We dropped it at the end of Wrath because too many people couldn’t answer it that we weren’t able to recruit.


    • That… if that is true, that is quite possibly the saddest thing I have heard in weeks.

      Seriously, how terrible is it that people don’t know, and respect, the dragon?


  8. Yep, never liked wimpy dragons. they should scare the crap out of a party. even an old-fashioned high level D&D style party. I still remember the “I can take on anything” paladin who found out that plate armor and a sword (no matter how powerful) simply are know defense for 30-40 tons of pissed off flame breathing reptile> Especially when said reptile decides to simply fly up the the air and crash land on your lawful good, holier than thou armor plated ass…squish.


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