Last week, I intended to write an explanation of how I run dragons in my games. I started the post with a little preamble about what I think the current state of dragons is, and what I don’t like about it. Somewhere around the 900 word mark, I realized my preamble had become an impassioned essay all its own. So I opted to split the post into two parts: the angry rant, and the sober rules discussion.
Welcome to the boring half of that split.
Most encounter tables I use have 2d6 possible encounters on them. On on every one of those tables, a result of 2 means the party has encountered a dragon. Because dragons are like any other kind of vermin: they can survive just about everywhere, and you’re never really going to get rid of them entirely.
The formula for a dragon has 8 parts. There’s description, hoard, toll, statline, breath, spells, minions, and specials.
The Description is a few sentences (3 or 4 max) which can be read at the table to give the referee a snapshot of who and what this dragon is. Usually I try to include a little physical description, and some details about personality.
For physical descriptions, I assume anyone reading has a basic sense of what a dragon looks like, so I limit myself to describing deviations from that norm. More relevant than appearance is personality. What drives this dragon? Do they have a particular love, hate, or desire? Give the referee something to work from while the dragon is conversing with the PCs.
(I say “the referee” as if anybody but me has read these. I do plan to publish my dragons someday, but so far they’re just my personal game aides).
As a sample, here’s the description for Grogund the Mammal:
Shaggy grey fur, a long snout, and deer antlers. She is doubly cruel to humans to mask her own insecurities about being a non-reptilian dragon.
Each dragon’s Hoard is unique. They’re not all sitting on heaps of gold. Why should they? What special significance should gold have to them? It’s not like they’re ever going to spend it, or that they need it to survive. The way dragons assign value to objects is based on a logic completely removed from human economics. Indeed, what a dragon values may seem like trash to us.
Of course, like any narcissist, dragons seek the adoration of others. Not just for their raw power, but for their fine taste. So, often, dragons do hoard objects others would consider to be of great value. But even then, it’s not necessarily going to be gold. Grogund, for example, hoards fine rugs. She rests upon a nice soft heap, and has plenty of minions meticulously cleaning her rugs day and night to keep them in beautiful condition.
The Toll of dragon is the cost of having a nonviolent encounter with them. They expect tribute, and will punish anyone who thinks themselves too good to offer it. Generally speaking, a toll will be something the dragon could add to its hoard. So, for Grogund, anyone who meets her must offer a rug, or meet their doom.
It is a quirk of the draconic psyche that that must accept an appropriate toll if it is offered. A mildewed old bathroom rug would be an insult to Grogund, but she would accept it none the less, and allow those who offered it to pass her unmolested. Of course, insulting a dragon may be fun, but it carries its own consequences.
Remember, that if a dragon leaps out in a surprise attack, you may not have time to offer them a toll before they eat you.
Note also that paying a dragon’s toll only entitles a person to turn around and walk away. If the dragon is pleased with the toll, they may be willing to converse, but they will still spring to attack if the toll payer offers any insult or encroachment.
The Statline for dragons is just a basic statline. Armor Rating, Movement, Hit Dice, Attack, and Morale. Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about this part too much, because it’s pretty boring and you already know how to do it. But, for dragons, I do have a very particular set of guidelines for how I put the basic stats together.
Armor Rating tends towards the mid-to-high end. Between 15 and 19 most of the time. Morale tends towards the low end, with 5-8 being average. Dragons are tough to hurt, but cowardly if they feel at all disadvantaged.
Weaker dragons will have around 7 Hit Dice, with the average being around 10 or 11, and tougher dragons having 16 or 17. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t throw together some 30hd dragons for higher level players, but there’s also value in letting players outpace dragons if they reach such loftily high levels. Dragons being scary should not be an inviolate, sacrosanct part of the game. If the players become badass enough, it’s okay for dragons to become less threatening. They can be replaced by other horrors.
For Movement, I just pull directly from AD&D. Dragons are typically fairly slow on the ground, with a speed of 90′ (30′). Of course, they often have flying, or some other type of unusual movement speed (swimming, burrowing, climbing, etc) with which they are much faster. 240′ (80′) is my baseline for their second type of movment.
The two types of movement at different speeds are useful. On the one hand it makes it much easier for players to flee when the dragon is stuck on foot. Most adventurers are going to be able to outrun a dragon in the corridors of a dungeon. However, if the players make the mistake of going into an open area, where the dragon can use its secondary movement, they’ve got no chance. You’ve gotta have mad runaway strats, son.
Finally, most dragons have 3 basic physical Attacks. Two claws that each deal a single die of damage, and a bite which deals multiple dice of damage. That’s the baseline, but there’s a lot of room for variation here. Some dragons have more than the usual number of claws, and so more attacks. Some have powerful tail swipes or horn gores that are more worthy of mention than their bite. The baseline only exists for those instances where no better ideas present themselves.
The Breath of a dragon is its signature. I try to be as creative with these as I can. I have my fair share of fire breathers, of course. To some extent, such traditions have to be maintained, so that deviations from them will continue to be notable. But most of my dragons tend to breath things like boiling oil, a flurry of angry pecking birds, or a suicidal sense of self loathing. Be as weird as you can be.
If a dragon’s breath deals damage, that damage is equal to the dragon’s current hit points. (So, the closer the dragon is to death, the less effective its breath is).
Traditionally, some dragons in D&D have Spells. I prefer to avoid any spells that deal direct damage, since their breath and claws and bite are already such reliable sources for damage. Rather, I like to give dragons spells which buff, debuff, ensnare, control, or alter the environment. Something that adds a new dimension to the threat they pose.
I should note that these days, when I’m giving a monster or an NPC spells, I typically don’t bother describing those spells’ effects beforehand. Usually I just put in a spell name, and maybe add a brief description if I have a good idea I want to remember at the table. Then, if the spell actually comes up in play, that’s when I’ll decide what the powers and limitations of the spell are.
I realize this may seem damaging to agency, and I admit that in some ways it is. But so long as the rules of the spell don’t change once they’ve been decided upon, I think it’s a fairly small sacrifice to make to prevent spells from becoming an overly burdensome part of monster creation.
Minions exist to feed a dragon’s need for adoration. Not every dragon will have them. Some are too moody or misanthropic to keep anyone around them for too long. Others, though, will revel in surrounding themselves with sycophants, slaves, and worshipers. These may perform any number of services for the dragon, but ultimately their true purpose is always to feed the dragon’s ego.
There’s no limit on what form the minions may take. Some dragons may prefer to have only one or two highly capable body-servants. Creatures who can become intimately familiar with the dragon’s habits, and respond to their desires before they’re even expressed. Others may have more extravagant preferences, dragging a cult of worshipers, or a harem of consorts behind them.
Last of all, I try to give every dragon at least one notable Special thing. These can be powers which make the dragon harder to deal with. They can be weaknesses, which make the dragon vulnerable if known. Other times, the special trait is just some incidental thing. Something unlikely to come up in play, but potentially interesting if it does.
So while one dragon’s special might be an immunity to fire, another dragon may take extra damage from fire, while a third perhaps has multiple personalities which they switch between every time they see fire. As with everything else, the sky’s the limit.
Now, generally speaking, I don’t bother paying the Joesky Tax. But last week was particularly gratuitous, and I’ve literally got hundreds of dragons written up that probably aren’t going to be published anytime soon. So here’s 5 of them, all created using the guidelines discussed in this post. Xulamara the Serpent Slave
A mammalian dragon with a serpentine body, white fur, eight long cloven legs, and a pair of twisting horns. Fire licks from her mouth with every word she speaks. She has no wings, but a pair of flat-toothed serpents grow from her shoulders. She is simple minded, and territorial.
Hoards: Various dyes, some of which are able to do seemingly impossible things, like dye elaborate patterns directly into cloth.
Armor 19, Move 120′(40′), 9HD, 2 Snakes 2d6, Bite 3d8, Morale 7
Snake Attack: The two snakes attack by spitting acid, which has a range of 30′.
Breath: A wall of fire, 100′ long and 10′ tall. Remains in place for 24 hours before burning out.
Special: Immune to normal missiles.
Special: Xulamara is cursed to remain forever ignorant of the snakes growing from his back. If he is told about them, or even shown a reflection of them, he will deny that they exist. The snakes whisper into his ears constantly, tricking him into doing whatever they want.
Gressen the Shedded
A translucent white creature; the shed skin of another dragon somehow animated to life and intelligence. Able to move and act as her own person. Gressen was originally shed from a male dragon, but chose a female aspect for herself. She has a tendency to sarcastically goad people into attacking her. (“Go on, I’m clearly just a waif of a thing. It’ll be easy to slay me and take my treasure. Just try it!”) In truth, she is terrified of how fragile her body is.
Hoards: Spell books.
Armor 20, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 4HD, 2 Claw 1d3, Bite 2d6, Morale 5
Breath: Cone of cold.
Spells: Enbrittle Skin, Gust of Wind, Baleful Polymorph, Charm Monster, Sow Discord, Geas, Illusory Disguise, Magic Web (An invisible web that ‘catches’ spells, so they can be studied later), Detect Lies, Maze, Invisibility, Magic Armor
Special: Any wind-based attacks used against her deal double damage, and may blow her away.
Jakasset the Silver Teeth
Jakassat wears golden rings on her talons and tail, a bejeweled necklace, and a diadem on her brow. One of these pieces of jewelry works a magical gender changing effect on her, and all the rest are worn to keep the significance of that one item a secret. Jakasset has also replaced all of her teeth with little silver daggers. She is a contemplative creature, with an unusually short temper, even for a dragon.
Hoards: Polearms of various types.
Armor 17, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 8HD, 2 Claw 1d6, Bite 3d10, Morale 6
Breath: A hail of spinning knives. These remain on the ground in heaps, and can be used for about 24 hours before they rot away.
Spells: Sleep, Water From the Earth, Teleport, Stone To Mud
Minions: A murder of 6d6 crows which fly around above her, and obey her orders to the best of their crow-abilities.
Special: One of the rings on her tail protects her from all elemental based damage. Special: One of her tail rings protects her from all elemental based damage
Special: Jakasset is highly respected among dragon kind, for some unknown deed that dragons refuse to discuss with outsiders.
A bluescale with 53 large white horns running down her back, from head to tail tip. Her body is slender and lithe, with muscles that twitch as if always ready to pounce. She is the daughter of Uruk’An, and was exiled from her father’s territory years ago for defying him. She spends hours of every day imagining elaborate ways of getting revenge on the old fool.
Hoards: Tapestries depicting historical events.
Armor 19, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 2 Claw 1d6, Bite 3d8, Morale 6
Breath: Cone of fire.
Spells: Bear’s Strength, Sphere of Insubstantiality, Animate Object, Imbue Hatred
Special: Her horns act as grounding against spells. Each horn can absorb one spell cast against her per day. After she is killed, the horns retain their function. If cut off, they can each be used once before becoming useless.
An elderly blusescale, with a cascade of soft white horns growing from his chin. Uruk’An is father to 12 other dragons–unusually prolific, even for such an elderly and distinguished patriarch. Uruk’An belives in law, and has scribed 3 tomes of law which anyone in his domains must obey, or face is wrath. Most of his laws are common sense (at least, from a dragon’s perspective), but there are some strange ones. Most notalby, there is an extensive code governing acceptable clothing for halflings, and several statues regarding the proper rate of breathing for various activities.
Armor 20, Move 60′(20′)/Fly 210′(70′), 2 Claw 1d10, Bite 4d8, Morale 8
Breath: Cone of fire.
Spells: Wall of Spears, Detect Lies, Farsight, Dispell Illusions, Anti-Magic Field, Ring of Law, Hold Person, Dimension Door, Break Weapons, Rust, Imprison, Speak with Animals, Mend Wound, Passwall, Shrink Person
Minions: 2d6 bluescaled lizard folk. 3 dragon whelps that each have 4 hit dice, and don’t have any breath yet.
Special: When Uruk’An dies, he will leave an egg behind, with himself inside. He will be reborn out of his own death. Even he does not know this will happen.