Dragons - the other dark meat

It's been said before, but I'll say it again: D&D dragons are wimps. Considering that they're the eponymous creatures of D&D, and are presented as being one of the ultimate campaign encounters, they're ridiculously easy to defeat.

One of the things I approved of when AD&D2e appeared was that they made dragons a lot more fearsome, giving them more (and more dangerous) attacks, more hit-points, and more scariness in general.
AD&D 2e PHB Frontis
I also liked the frontispiece of the AD&D2e PHB showing a classic group of five adventurers, all looking very pleased with themselves at having defeated a rather pathetic-looking little dragon about the size of an alsatian dog.

But that's slightly off the topic.

A few years ago (about '03 or '04 I think) I gave some thought to how I wanted to treat dragons in my own campaign. I didn't want to stray too far from the traditional D&D tropes, but I wanted to fill out the back-story a bit, so to speak. What follows is the text of some notes I wrote to myself back then, and which I just rediscovered.

"Dragons consider themselves to be the dominant — the highest, most perfect — life form on the face of the planet. Humans (and most of the other sentient species) are of little interest to them except as occasional pawns, or snacks — though for any dragon other than a juvenile, a single human being is a fairly unsatisfying morsel.

Dragons spawn in large numbers, and abandon their young to the vagaries of fate. The mortality rate among wyrmlings is high; few will survive to reach adulthood. Those who do, however, find themselves at the top of the food chain and are unlikely to find themselves seriously challenged.

When they are first spawned, dragons are unintelligent and operate purely on instinct. That instinct revolves around eating and avoiding being eaten. Later, as they grow, their intelligence develops along with their bodies and their instincts turn to mating. Dragons will mate and spawn only a few times in their long, long lives.

After mating and spawning, the intelligence of adult dragons increases rapidly to the point of sentience. This stage of life is when they begin to gather their hoards. The motivation behind this behavious is unknown, but there appears to be elements of competition for status with other dragons. Certainly, they don't appear to have any obvious concrete use for their gathered wealth.

As dragons grow older, their mental powers increase steadily and they begin to develop powers which may be psionic in nature. Prescience, telepathy and mental domination are all traits commonly shown by elder dragons, but a wide range of other abilities have been known to manifest."

Obviously there's a lot more that could be said on the subject, and there are many questions still to be answered, but that fragment sets up some useful gaming situations. If a young dragon spawns near an inhabited area, the resulting plague of wyrmlings could pose a significant threat that would only get worse if left alone. Elder dragons might be in demand as oracles, with their powers of prescience — but the price is bound to be steep, and there's always the danger that the supplicant might become a snack.

I've yet to think about things like how much a dragon needs to eat... maybe the need for food is something that diminishes as their other powers grow? That would explain how such huge carnivores can afford to live in isolated, relatively barren locations like mountain caves? I'm not one to be too anal about things like food chains and the like, but I do like to have some explanation for why they might be out of whack.

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I would think that dragons like yours would spend years and years slumbering, or even hibernating, in their lairs. Only to occasionally venture out to feed. That would explain why all of a sudden a particular region is terrorized by a great monster. It would also be a good way to introduce a dragon when you deem the heroes ready to face one -- on of your adults would quickly dispatch a group of low- to mid level adventurers, I would think.

    Also, this could open up for a nice dungeon crawl, with the thieves, er, heroes, sneaking in to steal some artifact from the sleeping wyrm. And then (maybe years) later have them receive the blame when the dragon wakes up and tears the country apart searching for its property.

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  3. I don't mean to be a jerk and I apologize in advance but this sounds no different and no more intriguing than any other background for dragons I've ever heard. It also contains a number of arbitrary pieces of information that I think would greatly benefit from answering the 'why' of it, even if its just for yourself (the players don't need to know).

    For example...

    "Dragons consider themselves to be the dominant — the highest, most perfect — life form on the face of the planet."

    Why? Because they're bigger?

    "The mortality rate among wyrmlings is high; few will survive to reach adulthood."

    Why? They live in remote regions with few other predators, can breath fire (or acid, or lightning, etc.) and can fly. Even a young whelp is, as you noted, the size of a large dog. What's causing a high mortality rate?

    "This stage of life is when they begin to gather their hoards. The motivation behind this behavious is unknown, but there appears to be elements of competition for status with other dragons. Certainly, they don't appear to have any obvious concrete use for their gathered wealth."

    I can only assume this is for the players' benefit and you do have an answer for this one. Right?

    I am totally in agreement with your first statement, D&D Dragons are Wimps. To solve that problem they need some element (or a group of elements) that make them stand apart from other creatures as interesting and formidible foes.

    In the (rare) fantasy campaigns that I've run, just mentioning a dragon is enough to make players rethink the whole adventure and consider travelling to the Abyss and picking on some nice, easy demons.

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  4. "Dragons consider themselves to be the dominant — the highest, most perfect — life form on the face of the planet."
    Why? Because they're bigger?


    No, because they're dragons. It's an ego thing — they're not bigger than many dinosaurs, but I have dinosaurs (and other very large critters) roaming around bits of the world too.

    "The mortality rate among wyrmlings is high; few will survive to reach adulthood."
    Why? They live in remote regions with few other predators, can breath fire (or acid, or lightning, etc.) and can fly. Even a young whelp is, as you noted, the size of a large dog. What's causing a high mortality rate?


    Wyrmlings don't neccessarily live in remote areas. Until they gain some semblence of sentience, dragons (like any other creature) will go where the food is. So young horny dragons could well be mating and laying their clutches there too. When I say "spawn in large numbers" I'm envisioning thousands of mouse-sized hatchlings, with about the intelligence of a tadpole, which will prey on each other as well as anything else they can manage.

    At that stage their breath-weapons would be pathetic; a red wyrmling might be able to produce a brief flame to rival a candle; a blue wyrmling could produce a shock about as serious as the static belt off a nylon carpet. They'd be easy prey for hawks, owls, snakes, foxes or anything else with claws or teeth until they grew big enough to be able to defend themselves.

    "This stage of life is when they begin to gather their hoards. The motivation behind this behavious is unknown, but there appears to be elements of competition for status with other dragons. Certainly, they don't appear to have any obvious concrete use for their gathered wealth."
    I can only assume this is for the players' benefit and you do have an answer for this one. Right?


    Not until I need one. Why bother until then?

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  5. I find no problem making dragons TOUGH. I just award them damage reduction (p.307 of PHv3.5 or p.291 of DMGv3.5). 5 points for a man-sized dragon and up to 20 points for a great wyrm.

    You are going to need a o.50 cal belt-fed to take down a great wyrm in my campaign.

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  6. Ah! Now there is a description. I like the thousands of mouse-sized offspring with tadpole intelligence element. That's what I wanted to read about.

    "Why bother until then?"

    Good question.

    My only answer is, "because then you have motivation, story hooks and a world that feels deeper."

    I'm not of the "to make it stronger give it more hit points or damage reduction" school of thought." I'm of the "if you learned even a little of the backstory surrounding dragons you'd steer clear of them." Of course, if you learn a lot of the backstory maybe you'd find out about a weakness...

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