Archives of Candlekeep: No, My Mother Did Not Hook Up With a Dragon: Dragonborn
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Ninety Four on 5th January 2022.
Lennon (through sending stone, angry voices in background): Ostron? Ostron! Oh please don’t let ROSTRO be active and he’s out on the floor-
Ostron: Yes, I’m here, what’s going…you’re being chased, aren’t you?
Lennon: How did you know that?
Ostron: I can hear them. All right, where are you?
Lennon: Tim-ah-ree, I think it’s called? Time of weee? No, that doesn’t sound right-ow! That was a rock!
Ostron: Thymari? Okay, that’s the name of the people, not the place but I know where you are. How did you get there?
Lennon: I’ll tell you if you get me out of here!
Ostron: Yeah, yeah, hang on.
(Gnomish Workshop door opens)
Ryu: What’s going on?
Ostron: Lennon went abroad and made friends again.
Ryu: Oh come on! I already used up all our favors with the Blackstaff, how many wars did he start this time?
Ostron: Based on where he is, probably none, but let’s find out.
Ryu (sarcastically chipper): Hi Lennon! Nice to see you! How was your trip? Your robe’s on fire…and melting.
Lennon: Oh darn it! I just bought this thing too! I thought I was keeping a good distance from them.
Ryu: And “they” were…?
Ostron: That figures.
Ostron: He was in Tymanther.
Ryu: Which is…?
Ostron: Dragonborn nation out west. It was semi-founded-
Ryu: Okay, no, you stop. You, why were you being attacked by the dragonborn?
Lennon: It was more chased than attacked, I mean they didn’t start getting violent until the end there-
Ryu: Do you see this? Does this look like my “tell me a story and I’ll make you feel better“ face? I want to find out if an army of dragonborn are about to start rampaging across Toril looking for you.
Lennon: Well my patron teleported me there so I don’t think they know where we are.
Ostron: What did your patron want in Tymanther? The dragonborn there don’t do gods, or worship, at least not for the most part.
Lennon: The exotic plants! They’ve got the plants from the other planet and my patron has trouble connecting to it for whatever reason so she wanted some cuttings.
Ryu: Wait, why do they have plants from another planet? Is… (whispering conspiratorially) Do they do spelljammer stuff?
Ostron: No! This has nothing to do with that. It’s because of the spellplague convergence.
Ryu: All right that sounds like another long explanation I don’t need right now. Why were they attacking you?
Lennon: Well I was trying to do you a favor.
Ryu: I’m lost.
Lennon (becoming progressively more embarrassed): Since I was there and there were all the dragonborn around, I know you like dragons so I figured I could ask one of them where you know their…ancestor might hang out?
Ryu: Oh holy Bahamut are you kidding me!?
Lennon: Well how was I supposed to know?
Libby (annoyed): BOOK!
Lennon: Yes, thank you I know there are books on it but-
Ostron: Okay, okay, it sounds like we have a few…details about the dragonborn we need to review. Ryu needs to brush up on her history.
Ryu (whiny): Do I?
Ostron: And Lennon needs racial sensitivity training…again.
Lennon: You ask one half-orc which one was the orc…
Ostron: Then you asked the dwarf to identify a rock for you.
Ryu: And you wanted the fire genasi to heat up your tea.
The Mimic: And the unnecessary roughness with mimics.
Ostron: Okay there’s no need to be sarcastic.
Lennon: I’m British! And what are you talking about?
Ryu: Ugh, let’s just get on with this.
Dragonborn are a central feature of 5th edition D&D. They are one of the original playable races that debuted with the 5th edition player’s handbook, and are usually seen as one of the more unique and exciting options for playable races. But what’s their story?
Well to find that, you have to go all the way back to…3.5.
That’s right. Despite being what Wizards’ refers to as a “core” race now, the dragonborn are relatively new to the scene. And even though they were in edition 3.5, they showed up fairly late; their first appearance was in a resource called “Races of the Dragon”, published in 2006. That’s three years after 3.5 was released, and only two years before 4th edition would come in and try to wipe the slate clean, so to speak.
In that edition, the dragonborn were a special racial option well off of the mainstream. Of course, this is 3.5, so there were so many different character options that “mainstream” is a bit of a misnomer, but the dragonborn didn’t even enter into most people’s awareness unless they picked up that specific book.
They did have a chance of finding out about them if they grabbed the 3.5 edition Monster Manual 4, released that same year, but the only mention of them is a lore section buried in the middle of the book where it talks about Tiamat’s experiments with creating draconic monstrosities. A few other references showed up in some issues of dragon magazine, but again all of them were mixed in with other content. They were never made a showcase.
All of that changed for 4th edition. Rather than an exotic special option hidden in a secondary sourcebook, the dragonborn were given top billing, to the point where a dragonborn was one of two characters featured on the first player’s handbook published for 4th edition.
In material published in advance of 4th edition’s debut, the design team stated that the inclusion of the dragonborn as a primary race mostly went to the “rule of cool” mentality. Ever since D&D began, for the most part, there had been stories and pleas from players about bending rules and homebrewing characters to allow them to play some sort of a dragon in the campaign. Prior to the 3.5 dragonborn option, the only official ways to do that involved some odd character or class choices that allowed a transformation of some kind to occur. Even if those options were selected, though, the dragon-form of the character wasn’t accessible until later levels. Having the dragonborn as a core race gave players access to it immediately, and the breath weapon built into the race was a unique feature with no real equivalent in the other 4th edition races of the debut.
The positive reception of the race, which continued even through all the other issues and gripes people had about 4th edition, led Wizards to keep it as a core option for 5th edition. It had a bit of a rough transition as the high-powered, ability slinging characters of 4th edition had to be toned down and reigned in for 5th edition. It joined the vanishingly small list of races not granted darkvision, and the mechanics of the breath weapon often made it only applicable at lower levels. The recent re-release of the dragonborn racial options with Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons has breathed new life into the racial option, however, so it’s likely to continue seeing use as the edition continues.
Now with all of the publication stuff out of the way, let’s move to the basic details. To start with, dragonborn are not the product of any sort of mating between a humanoid and a dragon. Not even between a humanoid and a dragon shapeshifted into a humanoid. They’re their own thing.
Lennon: Okay, okay, I get it. But I mean…you can see where one might-
Ryu: No! I can’t! Because I actually research stuff like that before making assumptions about people’s heritage!
Lennon: You only know that stuff about the dragonborn because they’ve got “dragon” in the name.
Ryu: That is so not true!
Lennon: Really? How about that time you went up to the drow shopkeeper and asked her if she had any poison because you were running low!?
Ryu (uncertainly): She was a merchant! It was a market! I didn’t know her shop didn’t sell poison!
Ostron: Wasn’t she standing next to racks of quilted tapestries?
Ryu: …didn’t Ostron give you more stuff to read?
Lennon (smugly): Yes, sorry, let’s continue.
Dragonborn physiology has the same odd mix of reptilian and mammalian aspects as dragons’ does. They are born from eggs, however once born they take milk from their mothers like mammals do. At least until the teeth come in, because that probably stings a bit.
Dragonborn have a similar lifespan to humans, but they mature much faster. By the time a dragonborn is three years old it has the physical and mental development of a human 10 year old, and they’re considered fully mature adults by age 15. Physically they’re among the larger races. Few dragonborn are shorter than 6 feet or 1.8 meters, and some of them get as tall as 7 feet, or just over 2 meters. They’re also dense; average weight for healthy dragonborn is between 250 and 300 pounds, or 113 to 136 kilos.
Contrary to popular belief, that is not due to their body being covered in scales. In fact, most of a dragonborn’s skin is similar to a dragon’s underbelly; tough leathery hide in a lighter color like tan or light brown. The scales are only present on the dragonborn’s lower legs, forearms, hands, feet, and head. Tails can be found on some dragonborn but they are very rare and in some cultures have either a stigma or superstition around them. Also, none of them have horns or wings at birth, though various rituals, magical experiments, and other things can cause those to manifest later in some cases.
Dragonborn scales’ color is another aspect that is often misrepresented. The dragonborn can ascribe to a heritage from any of the major dragon types (including gem dragons as of Fizban’s release in 5th edition). However that heritage doesn’t usually apply to their outward appearance. It’s stated that the first dragonborn had vibrant scales that matched whatever their progenitor dragons were. However, as can happen with human skin tones, interbreeding among dragonborn types dulled the vibrancy of the colors, so finding dragonborn with brightly colored scales is very rare. Instead, most dragonborn scales are mostly a dull yellow-brown color resembling brass or bronze. Reddish, gold, and copper-green patina hues are also possible but are less common.
Also, regardless of the color of the scales, none of them are made of metal or have any trace amounts of the metal they may look like. So killing a dragonborn with gold scales doesn’t suddenly represent a cash windfall.
Lennon: Okay, you all need to stop giving me those looks. It was a misunderstanding. I certainly didn’t try to tear someone’s skin off!
Ryu: Can you honestly say you never thought about it?
Lennon: Didn’t Ostron give you stuff to read?
Ryu (smugly): He did.
The other slightly contradictory thing about dragonborn is that they aren’t cold-blooded. They actually run a bit warmer than a lot of humanoids; the average body temperature of a healthy dragonborn will actually run closer to a dangerously high fever for a human. And while they don’t necessarily prefer it more than other climates, many dragonborn won’t have a problem living in colder areas or traveling through them. And no, the dragonborn that breathe fire don’t run hotter than the others, although putting a thermometer in their mouth is a good way to lose the thermometer.
Also, despite not having any mechanical benefit, the dragonborn do have actual claws on the ends of their fingers and feet.
Ryu: Getting into the origins…hey!
Ryu: You tricked me!
Ryu: You said we were going over the history of the dragonborn.
Ryu: There’s two different histories here!
Ostron: How is that my fault?
Ryu: Why can’t they just pick one!?
Ostron: Because there was a whole cosmic convergence thing.
Ostron: You look upset.
Ryu: This isn’t upset. This is annoyed. If you want upset, I have this festive hat here-
Ostron: No, no, no, I’ll…look just give me that part of the notes and you read this part.
Ryu: I’m still not happy.
The origins of the dragonborn and their history, as far as the Forgotten Realms is concerned, is a bit of a mess. As with all the other lore messes that exist, that’s because of 4th edition, though in this case it isn’t quite as much of a mess as, say, rationalizing what happened to Neverwinter.
The issue is that there are two major sources for dragonborn heritage in the Forgotten Realms; the native dragonborn and the Abeirian dragonborn.
To quickly sum up an entire short rest, two major events formed the basis of the lore around 4th edition; the spellplague and the convergence. The second one is what we care about. The Forgotten Realms exist on a planet called Toril. Toril has a sort of “mirror world” named Abeir.
Normally, the two worlds exist in basically alternate dimensions, and not even in the way the planes are different realities that can be traveled to. This is more like an alternate universe situation.
Anyway, when the spellplague happened, it caused the two worlds to merge a bit. Where the more populous races on Toril are Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, and Goblins, the major populations of Abeir consist of Dragonborn and Genasi. After the worlds were separated, a few groups from Abeir stayed on Toril, not entirely by choice.
The group of Dragonborn that stayed on Toril from Abeir are concentrated in the territory now called Tymanther.
Now we get into the split origins issue. Native dragonborn trace their heritage to the information that came out of the 3.5 resource. Sometime after the huge war between the dragons and the giants, Tiamat decided to up her world domination game and started creating a bunch of monstrous creatures that were mostly dragon but also had a healthy portion of weird physiology that she borrowed from things in the 9 hells. That meant she had unnatural, partially draconic servants working for her that replenished their numbers without hoping some of the chromatic dragons could put aside their massive egos and general dislike of anything that isn’t them and find some way to make eggs.
Bahamut actually has scruples, so he wasn’t about to start grabbing creatures from the astral sea and gluing wings and scales to them. However, he still only had the 7 canaries and that wasn’t going to cut it, so he began soliciting for help from the humanoid devotees he had available. Through divine rituals of devotion, he created the dragonborn as we know them, initially dedicated to him and to fighting Tiamat.
However, this wasn’t an angel-god relationship; the dragonborn have free will and breed true, so Bahamut was responsible for the creation of a new species that eventually did its own thing.
“Its own thing” ended up being the establishment of an empire called Arkhosia. As their primary purpose was to fight minions of Tiamat, the entire culture of Arkhosia was very martial in nature, and Bahamut’s influence also meant they valued concepts like honor and loyalty. The whole description of the culture has more than a few similarities to a romanticized interpretation of medieval feudal codes, but without the actual feudalism, for the most part.
Unfortunately for the dragonborn of Arkhosia, while their fight with Tiamat’s minions went well enough, their fight with the Tieflings did not. See, they were the other species that set themselves up as the apex civilization around that time, and of course neither side was really into backing down or negotiating. Some accounts say that the reason the Tieflings actually made their agreement with Asmodeus was for help against the Dragonborn empire in the war. If that was the case it only partially worked; the empire of Arkhosia was a complete ruin following the war, but so was the tiefling empire. Both species were essentially left to wander the lands of Toril, setting up where they could and making a living somehow, giving rise to the stereotype of dragonborn being nomadic sellswords with an unusually acute sense of honor and integrity.
The Aberian dragonborn have a different tale to tell, even if they don’t present as very different in person.
On Abeir the dragons are very much in charge, and most don’t bother looking up what “benevolent” even means. Dragonborn from that world are not certain what their ancestry is, and if any of the dragons know they aren’t telling, but the most commonly accepted theory is that the dragonborn were created by the gods of Abeir to act as servants for the dragons. Unfortunately for those dragonborn, “slaves” ended up being a more accurate term. Much like the gith and the mindflayers, the dragonborn in Abeir eventually learned to do math and figured out there were a whole lot more of them than dragons and decided to make a go of it without the winged overlords.
A group of dragonborn managed to get a fairly successful rebellion going and actually seized territory from one of the dragon empresses. They established the land of Tymanchebar and set to work organizing themselves and fending off retaliatory attacks from dragons and their underlings. They had a good thing going until the spellplague literally ripped the whole area from the planet and dropped it in the western area of the Forgotten Realms, right in the middle of a country called Unther.
It was a while ago but some of you might remember Unther from when we talked about the Red Wizards. Unther is an old civilization whose religion focuses mostly on the idea that they want their gods to manifest themselves and directly help with day-to-day life. Regardless of how well that’s working, they managed to carve out a large territory for themselves, and then part of it was ripped out and replaced with a land of militaristic dragonborn from another planet. Unther representatives with armor and sharp things visited and asked if they could please have their land back, and the Aberian dragonborn’s response essentially amounted to “you can’t even fly or breathe fire, why are you bothering us?” War has been pretty much constant between those two from that point on.
Unlike the Arkhosian dragonborn, the Aberian (or Thymari, which is how they identify their culture in the Forgotten Realms) dragonborn are very clan-centric. Their whole culture is divided into feudal clans, and the ideal is that loyalty to one’s clan supercedes everything. They have similar senses and devotion to loyalty and honor as the native dragonborn, but their adherence to it comes more from a desire to distance themselves from how their draconic masters treated them rather than an inborn sense of duty or devotion.
If they aren’t wearing some sort of identifying mark, the easiest way to tell the difference between a native dragonborn and a Thymari one is to see what happens when they meet an actual dragon.
Native dragonborn for the most part will act like any other humanoid and their response will be based on their personal experience. Depending on their parents or whatever group of dragonborn they may have grown up with, they may actually revere the metallic dragons and have aggressive hatred toward the chromatics. That would be true if they were taught the original tenets and beliefs of the group of dragonborn that initially swore themselves to Bahamut and helping his cause.
On the other hand, the best reaction you can hope for from a Thymari is immediate distrust of any dragon, and violent hatred is far more likely. Remember; the Thymari dragonborn just recently came out of a world where all the dragons treated dragonborn like chattel. While they may have been informed by someone that the dragons on Toril don’t all try to enslave anyone smaller than them, it’s very much a case of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And of course it doesn’t help that a non-zero number of the dragons will try to enslave or kill humanoids if given half a chance.
There isn’t anything particularly unique or unusual about the cultural sense of honor that both groups exhibit. Again, it’s mostly based on a romanticized version of feudal honor codes like Chivalry or Bushido, although not as much with the romantic elements or gender roles.
Some sources, mostly from fourth edition, say that while the dragonborn can exhibit any alignment, they tend to be extreme in that exhibition. So lawful good characters will be militant about following the laws, neutral characters will be adamant about avoiding picking sides, etc. That characterization has been mostly eliminated from 5th edition, although the description does emphasize that most dragonborn like to be perfectionists and fiercely independent. Also, 5th edition extends the emphasis on clan loyalty to all dragonborn and doesn’t distinguish between those from Abeir and Toril.
There won’t be much work to do for anyone as far as integrating dragonborn into a campaign; at this point they’re supposed to be fully assimilated members of the Forgotten Realms as a whole. While a large group of them or an entire city would be unusual, particularly in Faerun, seeing them wandering around or as part of a business wouldn’t be remarkable.
What some players or DMs may want to do, however, is check their assumptions about portrayals of dragonborn based on the information we gave. Some of the more common misconceptions, again, relate to the color of dragonborn’s scales and their attitudes about dragons.
That’s also something that can be leveraged as a backstory or campaign element. The differences in attitude between the two groups of dragonborn can serve as a social challenge for individual dragonborn or a party. For example, the party could be contracted by a silver dragon whose child was taken by marauders, but upon tracking them down they don’t discover a group of demon-worshiping gnolls, but a settlement of dragonborn that are otherwise law abiding and good-natured but have an intense hatred of dragons. On the other side of the screen, a dragonborn with a heritage stemming from the society distrustful of dragons would likely have issues working for a dragon or doing anything to directly help them.
As far as the land of Tymanther is concerned, it’s another piece of Forgotten Realms lore that hasn’t yet made the jump to 5th edition. However, as with most of the realms in the western part of Toril, there hasn’t been much if anything to contradict established lore either. If you want more information about Tymanther there was a brief section covering it in the 4th edition Forgotten Realms Campaign guide, but more information was contained in a series of D&D novels written in the mid 2000s. One set is called “Brotherhood of the Griffon” written by Richard Lee Byers, and the other is “Brimstone Angels” authored by Erin M. Evans.
Some brief notes on dragonborn in the larger multiverse. As mentioned, Dragonborn weren’t a thing until late in edition 3.5’s production, so most of the other settings didn’t have them, including Greyhawk and Krynn (aka Dragonlance). Nothing so far has been done to fit them into Dragonlance (because nothing has been done with dragonlance yet) but fitting them into Greyhawk is fairly easy if you just take the “blessed of Bahamut” storyline and port it over; after all, Bahamut and Tiamat got their start in Greyhawk.
They were obviously left out of Spelljammer but due to the nature of Spelljammer you can toss pretty much anything in there and it will fit somehow.
Ryu: Bitter much?
Ostron: Do you want me to find more history for you to read?
Eberron and Dark Sun have the benefit of getting releases in 4th edition and because the dragonborn had been upgraded to a core race, the creators of those settings had to work on getting them to fit somehow.
Dark Sun is the brutal post-apocalyptic setting and while it would have been easy to make the dragonborn more primitive and lizard-like in behavior, the 4th edition design team decided to focus on the charisma boost that dragonborn were afforded by default. Therefore dragonborn (or dray, as they’re called on that world) are portrayed as wandering merchant clans. Fiercely loyal to each other and very capable combatants, their claim to fame is that they peddle in semi-forbidden or dangerous goods like slaves and magical solutions that are outlawed or reviled in most places.
Keith Baker has a very special place for dragons in his world and that place is Argonnessen. Since dragons in Eberron are a lot more mystical and removed from regular civilization, Mr. Baker ran with that. Essentially most of the dragonborn in Eberron are assumed to be living on Argonnessen and assisting and serving the dragons, except unlike the ones on Abeir they kind of like their jobs, probably because the dragons are busy deciphering line 3,698 of the draconic prophesy and are therefore too busy to do anything like mistreat their servants. The dragons wouldn’t have a problem with the odd dragonborn wandering off to do their own thing, but everyone else in Eberron basically has no clue dragonborn even exist, so if one shows up they’ll be a spectacle. In order to avoid curious onlookers everywhere, Keith suggested that most people would probably assume dragonborn were some sort of odd, oversized breed of lizardmen, which people have at least heard of. What the lizardmen would think is anyone’s guess.
Ryu: Okay, so are we all set on what the appropriate questions to ask a dragonborn are now?
Lennon: Yes. Do not ask about their mother, their scales, or dragons…maybe.
Ostron: Close enough.
Ryu: They’re big on honor and they have a martial society. Close enough isn’t going to work.
Ostron: Well it’s not like he’s going back there; he just had to pick up a bouquet for his patron.
Lennon: Yeah, see, about that…
Ryu: Oh come on!
Lennon: You could do it! You’re quick and sneaky and they don’t even know what you look like!
Ryu: I have dark skin and bright white hair! Do you how many dragonborn look like me? I’ll give you a hint…
Ostron: Ugh, we…have to figure this out later. I see RaeRae waving from the scrying pool.
Lennon: This is kind of important you know.
Ostron: Well let me put it this way, RaeRae’s either waving or she’s making hand signs for a spell casting. Do you want to find out which?
Lennon: Fine. But I still need my flowers.