Monday, September 14, 2020

Dragons of the Great Game

This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of fluff in D&D history, but is, unfortunately, almost completely lost to history. Maybe someone reading this will give it another look.

In the days of 3rd Edition D&D, there was a lot of content bloat. In just eight years they came out with five monster manuals, each filled with several hundred new baddies for you to use. They were mostly garbage, aiming for quantity over quality every step of the way. By Monster Manual III, nearly every page had a goofy, ridiculous concept someone pulled from their ass in desperation to sell more books. But all of them contained nuggets of gold, if you scoured through them. The Monster Manual V was the most ignored of all, coming out near the end of the 3rd edition life cycle. Right when everyone was looking forward to 4th edition or, at the very least, already had plenty of monsters to use. But this monster I want to talk about wasn’t really something that you needed the stat block for. This was an idea.

The gist: dragons have a favorite board game they play, and it can make for the coolest campaign ever.

“The Great Game,” or Xorvintaal* as it is known in the dragon tongue, is an ancient tradition played between dragons young and old, weak and powerful. It’s a very complex game that only dragons can understand. It takes years to learn and centuries to play. You can think of it like a cross between Chess and Poker. Except the dragon players use people, places, and objects from the world around them as their pieces, and the campaign world as their board. That’s right, the kingdoms of men and elves that your party travels through are also actively being manipulated by dragons in their lairs, commanding their agents from afar to maneuver pieces into place. Kings, wizards, minion armies, hoards of treasure, dungeons, adventuring parties, secret societies, and even other dragons are all being played, combined, discarded, and advanced like cards or resources in a modern board game.

Fucking cool, right?

Like, we could stop right here and just take that as-is and have a hugely potent concept to play with. But of course there’s a lot more detail to work with, and I think most of it will be easy enough to appreciate. But also, like, you should run with “dragon board game” and do something weird with it as its own concept.

More Fluff

So the book says that dragons who play are of a special variety who undergo a magical metamorphosis process, spending a month in a cocoon and then arising in a new form that somehow allows them to play. It’s a pretty dumb justification for why there’s a separate stat block (template, actually) for Xorvintaal dragons than normal ones. Because this is third edition, and every last detail in the fluff needs a way to be represented in the crunch and vice versa. God forbid dragons just have a hobby.

It explains quite thoroughly that the rules are meant to be so complicated and obtuse that they cannot (and should not) be written down or explained. The rules are, functionally, a plot device the DM can use to justify any weird contrived quest or plot direction they need to. “Your dragon boss says you need to go to this dungeon and get this item.” “Why?” “Because the rules say they have to get it in the next 24 hours or else they have to sacrifice three of their settlement pieces, and that would mean your boss would have to go out and burn three cities to the ground.” Or something like, “can we just go to the Oracle to find the answer to where the captured princess is?” “No, that’s an illegal move in the fourth quarter of the game unless you fully upgraded all your temples and completed the Theurgy tech tree.” It recommends that, if asked about rules or strategy, you should try to improvise a long-winded, nonsensical explanation drawing from as much jargon as you can muster from whatever game you are really familiar with. So if you’re into Magic: the Gathering, then you start railing on and on about Aggro-Control, Burn, Board Wipe, Topdeck, and so on. If you play DotA 2 then you’ll be ranting about carries and supports and lanes and juking and whatever. If you play World of Warcraft, then you talk about DPS and Tanking and AoE and Cooldowns (unless you play 4E D&D, in which case you’re already using these terms. BOOM. Roasted). To quote the text: “Consistency and clarity should be your last priority—portray xorvintaal as a tortured mess of contradictory rules and exceptions that only a dragon with centuries to study could understand.”

But it also says that, as solitary creatures, this is one of the only ways that you can gain prestige among dragonkind. So that helps us to get it a little better. In broad terms, we can understand Xorvintaal as a contest of power. The winner is the dominant dragon, at whatever time the game’s completion is triggered. Calculating this is probably complicated, and there are probably many ways to secure a technical victory. It is made explicitly clear that the players themselves (the dragons) cannot directly attack one another. This is a cold war-style game. It also says that there’s a “feudal element” to the game. Older players take younger ones under their wing and train them. An old patron gets a share of their young vassal’s hoard winnings. In a similar fashion, a new mechanic was created for “Exarchs,” which are pieces that a dragon player deems so valuable that they can be granted bonus powers. So the evil warlock cultist leader guy at the end of the dungeon may have been an Exarch of a Xorvintaal dragon. In fact, player characters themselves may become Exarchs. They can communicate with their dragon patron telepathically and get some dragon powers, like Frightful Presence, immunity to breath weapons of their dragon’s type, and some temporary wings for flying. Goofy, but fun. And thus, the feudal structure has Exarchs analogous to knights, young dragons analogous to counts and dukes, and old dragons analogous to kings and emperors.

What to Do With This

There can be more than two players, by the way. You might have a complicated game between two black dragons, a blue dragon, a silver dragon, and a jade dragon, with weird temporary alliances and combo moves and whatnot. The Council of Wyrms D&D setting from back in the day could be completely overhauled as a Xorvintaal-focused game world. You can incorporate it into your own world by having just a small game taking place between two dragons sharing a single valley, competing over its resources and toying with the village in the center. You could have the Underdark be full of overlapping Xorvintaal matches. You could write much of the history of your world as the results of previous, important Xorvintaal games. You could do a political campaign of burgeoning war between two countries as a Xorvintaal mess. You could have just one single enormous game currently in play, an ancient match that’s been going on for more than a millennium and basically serving the high-conspiracy “Illuminati” role in your world.

See, even if the players are caught up in the game, they aren’t necessarily aware of it. The game is usually secretive, played in the shadows behind society. If a dragon wants to use you as a piece, they may shapeshift into a beautiful enchantress and approach you with a noble quest rather than fully letting you in on it. I’ve long wanted to play an extended, 15+ level campaign that has a huge plot twist ⅔ of the way through, when players learn that almost everything that’s happened up to this point has been part of an ancient dragon game.

When I first read about all this around the year 2012, I thought it was cool and tried finding more information online. Unfortunately, at that time there was almost nothing. There was, as I recall, one blog for some group’s campaign that seemed to be Xorvintaal-focused, but which was almost completely empty (maybe their campaign never got off the ground?) and one thread in some forum (ENworld maybe?) where somebody asked, “hey fellow 3.5 players. Anybody know anything about this? Looks kinda neat.” and the consensus among everyone answering was, “don’t bother with this stupid piece of shit waste of time. Why would you ever apply a template to dragons that removes their spellcasting in exchange for a few stupid powers? Underpowered garbage, GTFO.” Completely dismissive of the fluff surrounding the concept, 100% focused on the stat block. The culture of 3rd Edition was very different, okay? Nowadays, there isn’t that much more to be found about this online, but I wish there were.

I once spun a tale that the first game of Xorvintaal was played between the gods Bahamut and Tiamat. Bahamut won when he made Marduk into an Exarch and sent him to banish Tiamat, winning the game and granting Marduk godhood as a reward. Although I also love the idea that, instead of this, that same first game has not been won yet. It’s ongoing. The rivalry between metallic and chromatic dragons is part of the eternity-long cosmic Xorvintaal match between the dragon gods, and all dragons are being used as pieces.

Some Mechanics Maybe

The book also offers a handful of common plays that you can use as simple ways to incorporate the Great Game, or inspire more ideas, or at least come to a clearer understanding of what this hypothetical game is like. Most of them revolve around “Hoards,” one of the key pieces in the game. These descriptions are lifted directly from the Monster Manual V.

Castling: Moving a xorvintaal dragon’s personal hoard should be an incredibly complex maneuver, requiring years of preparation and multiple levels of fail-safe and counterstrike plotting. That’s the impression some xorvintaal dragons like to give. So, how do a few players move their hoards so quickly, easily, and regularly? Are they moving into prepared positions? Are their networks of xorvintaal resources laid out across the world in a way that few if any rivals can see?

Claw Test: On precise dates that only players of the great game can fathom, exarchs and unwitting agents of different players are maneuvered into prearranged locations. The engagement seems reasonable to each of the combatants at the time, but if anyone survives to investigate the true causes, the origins of the conflict quickly grow murky. Apparently, the winning player in these small contests is the player whose agents are deemed to have accomplished the most while possessing the fewest resources or least power. Survivors of such arranged conflicts have a way of growing into positions of power that make them even better exarchs than agents who start with all the advantages. Would-be PC exarchs are sure to be involved in a claw test.

Seed Hoard: One of the most aggressive moves in xorvintaal is establishing a new hoard in an area the dragon player doesn’t intend to personally occupy. Relying on exarchs and pawns to protect this so-called seed hoard earns high points, especially if the seed hoard is near a rival player’s personal hoard. Moving a seed hoard within the 10-mile radius in which a xorvintaal dragon can communicate telepathically with its own exarchs is a bold maneuver, leading to great losses if the rival can’t locate and eliminate the seed hoard within a reasonable amount of time. In the PCs’ lives, a seed hoard creates an odd situation in which a dragon’s hoard seems to be defended by everything but the dragon.

Seed Sham: Some seed hoards are bluffs. Instead of consisting of an actual hoard, they are mixtures of bizarre traps and threats designed to cut away at the rival dragon’s resources. Such trickery might be why xorvintaal dragons seem reluctant or unable to move directly to investigate curious happenings near their territory. The best and highest-scoring seed shams are played in such a fashion that the target of the bluff should be able to figure out that the supposed seed hoard might be a bluff, using all the rules of the game. But calling a bluff that turns out to be a true seed hoard can have disastrous consequences, so lesser players are prone to using newly acquired and expendable assets to investigate questionable seeds. That sounds like a job for the PCs.

As for being able to explain the rules, the book’s advice presents an issue for me. See, the one game whose mechanics and strategies I know best and could easily spout off about… is D&D. I really wouldn’t want Xorvintaal to get too meta, and moreover, it should feel like a ridiculously complicated board game. I have seen a couple attempts to create real mechanics for the game, and if you insist on it then I have some suggestions. There are a handful of real board games that seem to correspond with the general outline of Xorvintaal pretty nicely.

First to come to mind is Diplomacy. It’s the classic grand strategy game that is incredibly expansive in its scope and flexible in its gameplay. Unfortunately, I don’t see it really working for a few simple reasons. First, it is narrowly focused on military power and engagements at the expense of all other strategy elements, and that doesn’t seem very Xorvintaal to me. Secondly, while it quite nicely can accommodate many players at once, it can’t be limited to just two players. I mean, technically you can play Diplomacy with only two players, but that would be such a hilarious exercise in futility that it would defeat the whole point of the game.

Second to come to mind is Twilight Imperium. The other ever-popular grand strategy game that everyone describes as “if Civilization were a board game.” It doesn’t have either of Diplomacy’s problems. While the box says that the minimum player count is 3, that’s just the requirement for it to stay interesting. But the mechanics mostly work with only 2 players, and even up to 8! On top of that, this game accounts for fucking everything. It has military forces and battles, trade, politics and voting, research and tech trees, resource management, negotiations, territory control, and on and on and on. It’s also full of a billion rules and requirements and little asterisks and whatnot. The big limitation I see is that Twilight Imperium still feels very much like “open warfare,” where nothing happening could really be interpreted as a secretive, Illuminati-controlled Cold War scenario. Not only that, but I feel like the dragon players’s holdings shouldn’t so cleanly map onto one civilization or another. There should be lots of overlap, where each player has a hand in every piece of the pie simultaneously.

Third to come to mind is Twilight Struggle (no relation). The once-popular grand strategy game that simulates the actual 20th century Cold War in truly ridiculous, Dr Strangelove fashion. It’s probably my favorite board game. It also is incredibly expansive, and seems to capture the secrecy and “subtle influence” style of Xorvintaal flawlessly. There are a million things to keep track of, so it takes forever to learn. Everything affects everything else, so strategy is opaque and unintuitive. There are many technicalities and exceptions and one-time events and frustrating conditionals. There are many ways to win or lose the game. Best of all (and I really love this aspect), you constantly have to do things which benefit your opponent at least as much as, if not more than, yourself. You both draw a hand of cards, and every card is accorded to either the USA, the USSR, or neither, but they all share a deck. So as the USA, you’ll have USSR cards in your hand that you have to play, and the strategy involves figuring out the best way to nullify those benefits to your opponent. It’s brilliant. The major limitation of Twilight Struggle is that it’s only built for 2 players and cannot easily be expanded to more. Everything in the game is built as a binary, unfortunately.

That said, this is where I would personally start if I wanted to “design” Xorvintaal. And of course, this is the game I’d borrow jargon from. I take it as an assumption that Xorvintaal is a popular game in my own setting of Underworld, and have in mind a handful of adventures that could feature it.


*Unfortunately, a pretty terrible name. It falls squarely into that category of “dumb sounding made-up fantasy words,” although I’ll admit it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen.


  1. It’s funny to me that Xorvintaal, in addition to being a cool idea, also pioneered a lot of the mechanical design around dragons (and monsters generally) that D&D would iterate on in the following two editions. The template ditches the complicated spellcasting that is unlikely to come up in a straight, CR-balanced fight in favor of abilities that make the dragon work better as an MMO boss that needs to make an impact before it gets action-economied to death within 3-5 combat rounds.

    1. That's a really good point. I think pretty much anyone who came into the hobby in 5th edition probably has no idea what a huge difference it made that spellcasting was taken away from dragons (by default).

      Which makes it kind of funny to think that, mechanically speaking, nowadays the "Xorvintaal dragon" wouldn't really be distinct at all. If you want to include it now, it's just a fluff thing. Unless of course, you DO want to equip your Xorvintaal dragons with those special powers like scrying and telepathy and stuff. Which, ironically, would give them MORE spellcasting than the default dragon.