Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love/Hate: AD&D Dragons

Dragons occupy a strange space in D&D. The game is Dungeons and Dragons, after all, but you really don't see them until of sufficient level - and if your group is anything like mine you won't be facing one in the foreseeable future (we just had a TPK in Session 25 of the Northern Reaches - but I digress).

I always loved the dragons from the original Monster Manual. I suppose my fondness for them - particularly the evil dragons - came from the consistency of their representation. An AD&Der knew a black dragon from a white dragon. I liked the straightforwardness. AD&D modules carried forward the aesthetic of the blue, black, green, and white dragons. This was particularly true of the Dragonlance modules. Yes, I know they get grief, and rightly so in some instances, but I adored the depiction of dragons in the early DL adventures. Spot on.

The proliferation of dragons in subsequent editions really bugs me though. I play D&D because im interested in playing archetypes and battling archetypal monsters. Now, to be fair, the proliferation of exotic dragons began in AD&D. Did we really need a Cloud Dragon (MMII)? Or how about the "Oriental Dragons" from the Fiend Folio? Carp Dragon anyone?

The aesthetic of the evil dragons mentioned above remained somewhat consistent in 2E although the inclusion of "Gem Dragons" (Amethyst, Crystal, Emerald, Sapphire, Topaz) gives me a big rubbery one. And who could forget the legendary Brown Dragon? Deep Dragon? Mercury Dragon? Mist Dragon? Steel Dragon? Yellow Dragon? Someone should have made the madness stop. The one redeeming feature of dragons in this edition was the inclusion of age categories - it was nice to biggy-size your 8HD black dragon if so desired.

Do you have any particular thoughts on dragons in the game? How many have you actually faced/set against your players over the years?


  1. I have used Dragons twice against my players. I'm not a huge fan of the flavors from AD&D. I prefer my Dragons being a bit more generic but also more mysterious, like each Dragon is its own scary thing without well known and defined breeds and colors.

  2. In my games you might *see* one below 'sufficient level' - you might even talk to one. I like to embed them in the world a bit, maybe have a less-than-evil one living under a city or something. You won't be off slaying any any time soon though.

  3. In my 1E games dragons were rare, deadly, and always memorable encounters. Oddly though, to me, dragons didn't quite seem to fit into the 1E aesthetic. I really don't know why but the 1E game to me was a bit more medieval and less fantasy so dragons always seemed a little out of place in my game, just a little.

    2E dragons seem to fit better with the aesthetic of the game and it's varied worlds. Despite the myriad worlds of 2E, dragons always seemed to play an important and iconic role. Dragonlance was great for dragons, not much else though.

    With 3E I loved the way the classic dragons were detailed and statted up, great mechanics and flavor, especially with the 3.5 update to the rules. Dragons were complex yet still very fun to play as a DM in combat. One aspect of the 3.x era of dragons I really despised was the prevalence of "young" dragons. I never want a 2 or 3rd level party to be able to kill a dragon and the abundance of young dragons just made this way too easy to do. You could fight a dragon at every level if you wanted to in 3.x. I never did this. Dragons to me always start at "adult" and only get stronger.

    Today Pathfinder has brought the dragon back to its rightful rarity. While you can still have "young" dragons by the book they just don't show up in the published works at all. The world of Golarian seems to be the exact right balance of pulp and Tolkien to allow dragons to exist in their sweet spot of deadly yet mystical creatures.

    No matter the edition I never had much use for good dragons. I always thought they made terrible NPCs or anything other than adversaries for the party.

  4. The other thing I liked about AD&D dragons is that they were "stepped" much like monsterous humanoids - you had to work your way up the ladder to fight the biggest, meanest dragons.

  5. I've never been a fan of the metallic dragons. So in my games only the five chromatic dragons existed, but they could be of any alignment.

  6. There is a recent thread on ODD74 about dragons and low-level characters. Interestingly, many of the posters there seem to relish the fact that dragons are "smaller scale" and can be encountered by characters of any level. But then, in OD&D, I guess the power inflation due to increasing character level is much milder than later editions. Personally, I like using only a single variety of archetypal (Smaug-like) dragon and dispensing with all the varieties. Depending on the flavor of the setting I may also use the classic five chromatics plus the pseudo-oriental gold (which also feels classic to me).

  7. In the 1e and 2e days I was always afraid to use dragons in my games - I was afraid the combats wouldn't be memorable enough and I wouldn't do the iconic monster justice (they're right in the name of the game after all).
    Say what you will about the 3e era's proliferation of Dragons in adventures (it did get a bit silly at times), but that's what it took for me to get over it and just use them.