This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixteen on 21st March 2018.
Raerae: So were you guys debating dragons this week?
Raerae: Why not?
Ryu: Because there isn’t a debate.
Ostron: No, the point is that we’re asking if you should add dragons to a campaign or not.
Ryu: I don’t understand the question.
Ostron: I’m not sure how to rewrite that
Ryu: Look, here, guys, why don’t we just read over this paper I wrote up on dragons instead, huh?
Dragons are probably the most iconic creatures in the entire D&D mythos. I mean, they’re the second “D” in the name; it’s hard to argue they aren’t significant. That said, there’s sometimes confusion about how exactly they fit into the stories.
Part of this confusion stems from dragons being part of so many different mythologies through millennia. We aren’t going to go into all the details of dragon lore in this segment, though I do see Ryu waving a lot of paper suggesting she’s got that covered too. Instead, we’re going to touch on a few key points that help determine how to add a dragon (or dragons) to a campaign.
First, we’ll take the most common modern misconception. D&D dragons are NOT Game of Thrones dragons. The dragons in game of thrones are closer to D&D wyverns. If you need a flying monster that breathes fire and generally terrorizes a countryside at random, or a beast that could be trained by NPCs to incinerate on command, you want a wyvern or possibly a drake of some variant.
The biggest thing to remember is that D&D Dragons are sapient creatures; they can reason, talk, scheme, plan, and have motivations that go way beyond “am hungry, eat anything that moves.” If, for whatever reason, you absolutely must have a mostly mindless dragon who just attacks people at will, your best bet is to either use a young dragon (I mean, teenagers basically eat anything that moves and can be pretty selfish, so that fits) or use a white dragon; they’re often portrayed as brutes who don’t give a lot of thought into who or what they’re attacking or eating. Other dragons are going to behave more like intelligent foes who may threaten, negotiate, or outsmart foes rather than just attacking them, and they won’t necessarily fight to the death just because they were attacked. If they’re outmatched, they may not even fight at all.
Beyond that, Dragons in D&D are designed to be the end bosses of campaigns. Many campaign storylines focus on the idea of players spending time unraveling a political plot or facing off against an evil warlord or king only to defeat them and find out that they were getting all their influence and direction from a dragon that was sitting behind the throne (sometimes literally, if it was a mountain castle). And even if it’s immediately obvious a dragon is the problem that needs to be solved, most D&D dragon lore goes into detail about groups of creatures dragons will recruit or that will volunteer themselves to be guardians and allies of the Lizard in Chief. Before anyone gets to the dragon itself, they have to make their way past the welcoming committee. Who that welcoming committee is can vary a lot as well. Almost any dragon can have kobolds around supporting it (sometimes regardless of whether the dragon wants that to happen) but some of the chromatic dragons can acquire groups of giants working for them, and many of the metallics cultivate relationships with local communities and settlements who will come to the dragon’s aid.
In fifth edition, dragons can also have an influence without even meaning to. Older dragons have what’s called “regional effects” around their primary lairs that will alter the landscape and even the inhabitants of an area to be more like the dragon living near them. The area around a blue dragon’s lair has thunderstorms raging for six miles in all directions, for example.
Despite having retainers or allies, most dragons are not what you’d call social creatures. Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D, is said to have been influenced a lot by Tolkien, and that seems to be true of his dragons. Descriptions of their behavior in most books are reminiscent of Smaug from the Hobbit; they like to stay in their lairs and they do NOT want to be bothered, except MAYBE by a few people they like or someone bringing them a lot of sparkly, shiny goodies. You’re unlikely to see them winging around the countryside on a daily basis.
Note that Bronze Dragons are a major exception to this: they will literally stalk and abduct people just so they have someone to talk to.
That brings up another point. Most of the information above applies to Chromatic or traditionally evil dragons. Metallic dragons tend to be a bit more willing to engage with societies and settlements in a benevolent or advisory fashion, and even the more reclusive ones are usually willing to give adventurers hints or advice if they’re on a quest that interests the dragon. For some dragons there is a particular quirk players might leverage to get a dragon directly involved. Brass dragons, for example, love to experience warfare, so if the players can organize a large resistance against another large evil force, that may be a hook that will get a brass dragon to come down and join the party.
Now obviously, DMs are free to construct campaigns and use dragons in any way they see fit. There’s nothing against making a campaign that just has characters killing one of every color dragon and that’s fine; no one’s going to stop them. The point here is that if you’re using or playing in an official campaign or adventure guides or even some of the third party resources that adhere to D&D’s lore, everything we just described is how they are going to approach dragons. For example, and this is a rise of Tiamat spoiler of sorts so skip ahead 30 seconds if you don’t want to hear it: In Hoard of the Dragon Queen, arguably a dragon-centered adventure, the story as written only has the characters fighting two full-fledged dragons, and one of those is not a combat to the finish. So keep in mind if something says you’re fighting a dragon, you probably have a long way to go before you even see the winged adversary.
Raerae: Um…Ryu? This goes on for another 50 pages
Ryu: And your problem is what?
Ostron: We can’t cover all this now! we have the rest of the show to do!
Ryu: *sigh* fine.