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.
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.