Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Dragons

The game is called Dungeons and Dragons, right?

The reality is that I’ve run lots of dungeons, and I include very few dragons...

Maybe it’s because I refuse to run dragons as anything but intelligent beings of immense power. Sure, there are rules for little dragons, and on a rare occasion I’ll toss one towards my players, but for the most part, a dragon in my games tends to be a force of nature, not a combat encounter. As such, I tend to hold them back.

I’m thinking that’s a mistake.

In reading other DM’s play reports where the players regularly encounter dragons out in the wilderness (often just a flyby, rather than a combat encounter) it seems that the players don’t just come to think of them as big goblins - aka bags of XP. They still inspire awe and worry, tinged by greed.

In my 4e game, my players have finally encountered a dragon, and they kicked it’s ass! They were psyched! Had it not been a part of the adventure, if I had written the adventure they’re running through, there wouldn’t have been that encounter.

In the back of the 4e DMG there is a kobold lair adventure that wraps up with a white dragon - an adventure for 1st level characters! It’s an adventure that gives exactly what the game says it gives - Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe that’s the right approach?

Now, I don’t want to go crazy and have dragons every other encounter. I still want them rare enough that players don’t just charge right in every time. I want them to pause before even thinking about picking up their dice. However... I think I do want to see more dragons in my game. And more importantly, I think my players want to see more dragons in the game.

How this will work in the megadungeon, I have no idea, and it’s something I need to think about, but the giant chasm certainly allows for at least one dragon, maybe more...


  1. Interesting Idea, maybe make it like a winged dungeons where each wing is dominated by a different chromatic dragon with his own followers and themed traps excreta

  2. Interesting thoughts. I think one of the issues with Dragons as depicted in D&D is that they don't match the dragons of folklore. Look at any image of St. George fighting a "dragon", and you get a small, almost alligator sized creature with wings, which he single handedly is slaying. I see that creature as a wyvern, rather than a dragon.

    My own approach in the campaign I'm designing is to make "Wyrms" and "Wyverns" fairly commond mundane creatures, with "true" Dragons being something more exotic and rare, like the Dragon in Earthsea.

    That being said, I did run a few adventures using the Dragonlance modules DL1 - DL4 back when they first came out, and having players RIDING dragons, doing aerial combat with other dragons, was pretty cool.

    I've also thrown dragons at players in my own written adventures. The most memorable to me was a white dragon's lair. The ice walls of the cave were basically trophy cases for creatures the dragon had killed, and at the bottom of a long ice ramp was a large pool of water, about knee deep. The White Dragon was hanging upside down over their heads, and froze the water with its breath weapon as they were wading through it.

    When they had finally wounded the dragon to near fatality, it escaped through another exit. They got the treasure, and the XP for defeating the dragon, but didn't actually kill it.

    Here's more on my take on Wyrms and Wyverns:

  3. Spreading out a few more young and impoverished dragons doesn't hurt much. Some players do get cocky however after defeating a number of wimpy wyrmlings and race to their deaths when facing a full grown old dragon with loot.

  4. I use Drakes to give my players the thrill of a dragon fight (or a dragon-ish "pet/mount") without diluting dragons. A Drake is essentially an animal-intelligence dragon that usually has either a breath weapon or wings, rarely both. They hatch from unfertilized dragon eggs and you can make them any size or color you want.

    Keep your real dragons as super-tough bad asses and watch the players freak out while they try to figure out if that thing they spotted was a drake or a dragon.

  5. I haven't ever used a dragon in my games, and perhaps I should have after 25+ years of playing FRPGs. Have I been doing it wrong all this time?

  6. Interesting point and one that I've also thought about. The way I see it is that there are various age groups of dragons in the game (not sure about 4E but in Pathfinder and in 3.5 and older OSR games it was that way) to which a DM could toss in an encounter. One of my favorite villains for lower level parties are wyrmling and sub adult dragons who are controlling things behind the scenes. This appears to be similar to what JDJarvis is saying in his comment. I also like Matthew's idea of using Drakes (or perhaps Wyverns and other dragonesque creatures?) in a game. In my Dragonlance game I've taken some liberties and added about 100 years of future and put in the 'dragonborn' creatures from Ebbron into the mix. This way Takhisis has Draconians and dragonborn critters to torment the party.

    For me though you are right because in many ways using a wyrmling or sub adult as the villain still makes them stand up as creatures of power. I suppose you could go the other route and attach an npc dragon to a party. That can also be very fun and a challenge for the DM. Currently, in my Tuesday campaign set in Forgotten Realms the party is having to rear a bronze dragon wyrmling who is very interested in obtaining its fair share of the party loot.

    Then there's the odd random encounter fly-by which can get really old really quick.

    I guess short of building a dungeon OUT OF a dragon it can be difficult to really give the game its name. Perhaps we should change the name of the game to Dungeons and Monsters that might sometimes be but not necessarily are always Dragons?

    To get to your other point about how it works in a megadungeon that's easy! Dragons like treasure and can sleep a long-long time. Well they could be staying inside the dungeon resting in their lair for years before they have to venture into the open. Perhaps the dragons has a vertical means of getting into the world. Maybe he or she is in a deep cavern or dungeon deep beneath the entire complex and has a means of escaping through a chamber that is hidden in the very terrain around the dungeon such as a mountain or old temple complex? Also don't forget that older dragons can and will change shape so getting in and out of the dungeon shouldn't be too hard for the creature if you are worrying about how realistic it seems to have a venerable wyrm (or even a bunch of wyrmlings) residing deep beneath the bowels of the dungeon.

  7. I think it's all about whether people are having fun. I had an encounter once in 2E with a young black dragon in a swamp, in some half-submerged stone ruins. The PCs fought it for a bit, made some surprising saving throws and all survived, and it fled into a pool. They healed up real quick and dove in after it, assuming it had to have an air pocket lair. They ended up fighting it underwater and winning! It had treasure underwater which they found, but it didn't have an air pocket. Basically, they got real lucky. The dragon was something like 5 or 6 HD and the group was all first level. Technically it was the right level for the encounter, but the formula breaks down with single high-HD creatures or tons of low-HD creatures.

    (Imagine 20 first-levels against a single 20 HD monster, or 20 orcs against a single 20th level Fighter)

    I've used about a dozen dragons over the years. Sometimes the PCs don't even end up fighting it, hiding and fleeing. I think dragons work best when:

    1: The players don't know how tough it is
    2: The players don't assume all encounters are level appropriate for them

    The second is really the more important. If I'm playing a 5th level PC and I have 5 others around the table with me, and I know we can't encounter anything above 7 or 8 HD, I will get a lot braver and have a lot less fun.