Back in 2012, when I had only just started to immerse myself in the OSR, I was playing in Courtney Campbell‘s Numenalla. Because of timezone fuckery, the game started at the ungodly hour of 5am for me. On a Saturday. It was always a struggle to show up, and when I did I was groggy as all get-out. But, Courtney was one of my OSR heroes at the time, and it was worth it to rub elbows with him. Plus the game was pretty damn fun.
Usually the sessions were packed, but on this particular morning, none of the regulars showed up. Aside from Courtney and I, it was just some dude I barely recognized, and a woman I’d never met before. It was a small group, but enough for a quorum, so we delved into the halls looking for a bit of adventure.
Being groggy as I was, and playing a healer to boot, I had become accustomed to letting other players take the lead in our adventures. So this dude I barely knew wound up taking the reins of the party, and leading us around the dungeon. As it turns out, he was kind of a twat.
At one point, when presented with a hall full of doors, he kicked them all open. Not one at a time, just kick, kick, kick, kick, kick. Don’t bother telling him what’s inside the rooms he’s just revealed, that would slow down the process of moving to the next door and also kicking it open. Unsurprisingly, this strategy exposed us to some serious danger. Namely, a dragon.
As soon as I heard that, I wanted to run. Most of my experience up to that point was with D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder. My context for dragons was that they were these immense creatures of unfathomable destructive ability. A challenge meant for a full group of 15th level characters. But the twat wasn’t in any mood to slow down, so he attacked. And, being the loyal dumbass that I am, I refused to leave a party member alone to die.
Then a funny thing happened: we killed it. We slew the dragon.
Not without cost, mind you. The twat got himself killed, and the rest of us were pretty banged up. But the dragon was dead, and for the most part we were alive. That’s how I was introduced to oldschool dragons, and it has stuck with me ever since. The idea of dragon designed to be fearsome and terrible, but also to be conceivably so. A creature that can be an ever-lurking threat, without being a guaranteed TPK.
Rather than like this:
“But wait!” I imagine you saying, because I’m a hack writer who relies on cliches. “Most editions of D&D have a whole range of dragon sizes, some of which are small enough to challenge a low level party without being a guaranteed TPK.
And you are correct, imaginary strawman. But what do they call those dragons? Wyrmlings, Very Young, Young, Juveniles. They’ve got these diminutive fuckin’ names that make them feel like a joke when you encounter them. Nobody tells stories about the cool time they killed a Very Young Dragon at level 3. And anyway, this is about much more than the number of hit dice a creature has. It’s about keeping the game on a relatable scale.
That one encounter in he Halls of Numenhalla changed my whole perspective. Truth be told, I’d long hated dragons at this point. I thought they were a goofy cliche. Something that might have been cool once, but which had been overplayed so often in fantasy games that it was cringe-inducing to see them used. Plus, they never really made any sense to me. They’re these friggin’ apocalypse machines that desire nothing so much as wealth and adoration–both of which they could easily take for themselves. But they don’t go out and get them because they’re…lazy.
If they wanted to, a modern fantasy dragon could rule any world it exists in. But most people don’t want their campaign setting to be ruled by the iron-scaled fist of a draconic dictator. So, instead, dragons spend most of their time sleeping on piles of wealth. It’s bourgeois, yeah, but it’s hardly an act worthy of the pride-of-place dragons hold in the annals of fantasy villainy.
Once the scale is dramatically reduced, though, all that nonsense falls away. Dragons want wealth, and they’re powerful enough to take a lot of wealth, but not all of it. They can’t just knock over castle walls with a sweep of their claws. Indeed, if they cause too much of a ruckus, knights will be sent out to kill them. And since they aren’t towering behemoths capable of squishing knights into paste, that’s a serious threat they need to worry about.
It also helps if you assume all dragons are just walking bundles of mental disorder. Traditionally they’re already portrayed as narcissists. Build on that. Narcissism doesn’t just mean that a person likes praise; it means that a person is incapable of understanding that some things are not all about them. They believe that everything good is somehow a result of their desires, and that everything bad exists only to make them suffer. If dragons are not the god kings of all monsters, then they can be pathetic.
Dragons are also noted for their hoards of treasure. They sleep upon mountains of items they’ve collected and cherish, despite having no use for those items. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that hoarding is symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Dragons should have rituals and rules which completely govern their lives and the way they interact with others. They should be carefully avoiding the cracks in the dungeon floor, or closing every door they pass through 7 times before moving on. They don’t breathe fire every 3rd round because their breath needs time to recharge, they’re doing it because they have a mental illness.
The best monsters have always been more defined by their flaws than by their strengths. This conception of dragons, as deeply flawed and broken creatures who none the less wield immense power, has transformed them into one of my favorite monsters. It’s why I include dragons on every single encounter table I use.
Which is appropriate, right? They’re literally half of the game’s name. Yet in my experience, I see way fewer dragons than I do dungeons, and that’s a shame.