Friday, October 2, 2020

In Praise of Small Dragons

"For a game called Dungeons & Dragons, there aren't a lot of published adventures featuring dragons." Variations on this sentiment were pretty common when I was a younger person – and they're not wholly mistaken. Prior to the publication of the Dragonlance modules – a series created specifically to showcase AD&D's many dragon types – the only significant early adventure to feature a dragon that I can recall is module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, though I am sure the comments will quickly fill with additional examples that I've forgotten. Regardless, I think it's fair to say that, in the grand scheme of things, dragons are much less common in D&D adventures than the name of the game would suggest, especially when ones considers that a dragon has appeared on the covers of every Basic Set or its equivalent, since 1977. 

This creates, I think, an expectation that dragons will be prominent opponents in the game, an expectation that has rarely been realized – and not just in published adventures. I'd wager that this relative paucity of dragons carries over into homebrew adventures and campaigns as well. That's certainly been my experience and I'd be surprised if I'm unusual in this regard. Dragons tend to be treated as video game-inspired "boss monsters" and are thus saved for ultimate encounters rather than being yet another foe the characters might battle while exploring a dungeon or other adventuring locale.

If you look at the monster level tables in Volume III of OD&D, you'll notice that the sixth table features dragons. According to the matrix for monster determination, that table may be used as early as the third level of the dungeon, though the odds of it are not great until the eighth level beneath the surface. The likelihood of encountering a dragon in the wilderness is slightly greater, as dragons are categorized as both "dragons" (naturally) and "flyers," each of which gets a separate entry. The Monster & Treasure Assortment, at least in its 1981 reprint, provides the possibility of encountering a dragon as early as the fifth level, while the wandering monster tables in the Cook/Marsh Expert Set don't allow for this possibility till the sixth level. Still, the very idea that a dragon could be encountered as a wandering monster no doubt seems strange to gamers who view these beasts as "big bads."

Why this is so is likely complicated, owing to a combination of cultural factors and rules changes. I can believe, for example, that Gygax felt that the presentation of dragons in Volume II of OD&D was too weak, hence the need to make them more powerful in the Monster Manual. I can also believe that media portrayals of dragons, such as the 1977 Rankin-Bass cartoon, The Hobbit, contributed to some gamers' ideas about dragons being huge and nigh invulnerable. There are undoubtedly many variables at work here, some of which present us with a chicken and egg situation. Regardless, there can be little dispute that, from 1975 on, dragons in D&D became not only more mechanical potent but also less commonplace as foes (though, again, I am prepared to be convinced I am mistaken on this)

I would like to push back against this trend. I think dragons should be more common in Dungeons & Dragons. I also think reducing dragons to the role of a "boss monster" is creatively limiting. It's interesting that, when you look at most artistic depictions of dragons, from antiquity up through the 1960s, the vast majority of them are small. Take look at any medieval image of St. George or even Arthur Rackham's illustration of Fafnir, what you'll see is a beast that looks very small by the standards of contemporary portrayals of dragons. 

I'd like to see more of that in RPGs. Why should only high-level characters face off against dragons? The first dragon that appears in the aforementioned Monster & Treasure Assortment has only 18 hit points. Even though they're focused on levels 1 through 3, both the Holmes and Moldvay rulebooks include entries for dragons. Did they do that solely out of some sense that a game called Dungeons & Dragons had to have such an entry? It's possible, I suppose. I'd prefer to think it's because, even as late as 1981, there was still a lingering sense that there's nothing special about dragons. They're just monsters, no better or worse than goblins or owlbears or green slime. I'm not advocating overusing them: dragons shouldn't be in every dungeon, but I think they should be much more common. That's something I've already done with Urheim and I urge others to consider in their own dungeons and campaigns.


  1. One reason (among many) why Sunless Citadel is such an instant classic is that it is a level 1 module that includes a dragon.

    1. I did not know that. Thanks for letting me know. I may have to look into it.

    2. Yep. WotC knew what they were doing with that one. Really grabbed a lot of people who were on the fence about trying d20.

      Small/young dragons are mechanically appropriate foes for parties in 3/3.5, and 4th, and maybe 5th as well, not so sure on that one. I made a point of starting every 4E campaign I ran with a potential dragon encounter (albeit not always a fight) in the first session, and even squeezed one into "session zero" one time as the party was sheltering in a storm with some strangers (the other PCs) at an inn when very young dragon essentially fell on place due to the weather.

    3. I remember reading one of the 3e designers (Tweet or Cook IIRC) saying that it deliberately made sure there would be monsters of every kind to fight at every level, including traditional boss monster types (like dragons or devils) when designing 3e. The thinking went something like if there wasn't a dragon to fight at 1st level, it didn't make sense to give a 1st level character some kind of bonus when fighting dragons.

  2. "I would like to push back against this trend. I think dragons should be more common in Dungeons & Dragons. I also think reducing dragons to the role of a "boss monster" is creatively limiting. It's interesting that, when you look at most artistic depictions of dragons, from antiquity up through the 1960s, the vast majority of them are small. Take look at any medieval image of St. George or even Arthur Rackham's illustration of Fafnir, what you'll see is a beast that looks very small by the standards of contemporary portrayals of dragons."

    You are singing my tune. If a dragon can't wander through 10' by 10' corridors, I'm not interested in it.

  3. In BX, dragons appear on the Dungeon Wandering Monster Tables as low as level 6 (the white dragon), then everyone shows up on 8+.

    It is on the Wilderness Wandering Monster tables in Expert that they really show up in numbers... 1 in 8 encounters are with Dragons (except in the city when there are none, and in Barren/Mountains in which you have a 2 in 8 chance of encountering a dragon).

    The Dragon list includes chimeras, hydras (doubling up on hydras in place of the balrogs from OD&D), wyverns, basilisks, and salamanders as well, but some of those are as dangerous if not more dangerous than true dragons.

    Thus the chance of encountering dragons in BX is pretty darn good.

    IIRC, the first dragon to appear in a B-series module was in B5: Horror on the Hill, which has a red dragon at the end. X1: Isle of Dread had several dragons, not to mention hydras, sea serpents, and dinosaurs.

    BX dragons ignore the age band categories for hit point, relying on a straight-up roll instead, but varies the base hit dice of each type by +/-3. So you might encounter a large red dragon with 13 hit dice and it could have anywhere from 13 to 104 hit points.

    I've never hesitated to us dragons in my games, either as a set-piece encounter or as a random encounter. Every time but one that players encountered a dragon randomly they did their damndest to hide, even if it was a "small" dragon, except once -- and they died horribly from their own stupidity. And it wasn't even a big dragon...

  4. Yes, you are correct about B5 Horror on the Hill as having a dragon. That was the look of horror on the players' faces when I revealed that.

    You're also right about the age category modifying the HD rather than hp. I had forgotten about that.

  5. One reason that I think contemporary dragons have gotten bigger is that our weapons have become more destructive. For medieval people the reference point for the destructive power of a dragon would have been a lot smaller than it would be for 20th and 21st century humans. Because we have bombs that can lay whole cities to rubble in seconds then our dragons need to be just as destructive and therefore big to be credible in our mind's eye.

  6. Isn’t there a pair of white dragons in G2? And moving into the silver era, there’s a blue dragon in the wilderness in S4 and a black in I2, and an oriental dragon in the swamp in U2. But I’m convinced your observation that the younger age categories are underused in the earlier published scenarios is spot on.

  7. Blade of Vengeance (a lovely module) had a Red Dragon as the big baddie.
    13th Age (a very modern take on D&D, I say that neither as condemnation nor praise) has a dragon in its included 1st level adventure.
    I have contrasting emotions on the topic.
    I totally understand a desire to normalize default dragons in D&D.
    The urge to satiate (or foster) the need for super-monsters is an integral part of the increasing power-creep in gaming in general, and D&D in particular.
    On the other hand dragons have had a very peculiar role in genre fiction and its mythic roots well before dragonlance: the dragons of Melniboné, Smaug, Glaurung, Fafnir, Python are all on a different level compared to other monsters.
    I also think that the symbolism of the dragon has such implications (the snake as symbol of evil in Christianity, the keeper of the earth's secret treasures in so many other religions...) that it somehow warrants its current status in gaming.

  8. Glad I read the comments first. I remember the dragon from that Dunwater adventure (Player side) although I believe our DM commuted a black dragon into the setting.

    What resonated with me on this topic - maybe it was the age of my gaming groups of the early 80's - was how incredibly inept we were at representing the intelligence and cunning of many creatures, from Dragons to Liches to humanoid tribes.

    Humanoid tribes were the most underserved, and basically came off as slaughter-fiends rather than even moderately coordinated opposing forces. Chop'm down and leave a bloody bootprint on their face!

    Dragons were the same. A 12-year old couldn't really capture the offensive, defensive and cognitive power of a dragon's menace. The exotic quality of the dragon was lost. So they were left off the menu until we were 15. By then it was time for electric guitars.

    I think we slashed a mule (using the Hoth taun-taun for reference) and hoped the dragon in the Hool Marsh would eat it, and ran.

    Hardly exotic!

  9. It's interesting that you bring up the size of dragons. I read something recently, I can't remember well, that pointed out that Tolkien didn't portray Smaug as all that large in his painting "Conversation with Smaug." When you consider the figure in the painting is Frodo, he's not the monstrosity often portrayed elsewhere.

  10. This is why I like LS’s approach to wilderness encounter tables: a 2 on a 2d6 is always a dragon, “because we need more dragons”:

  11. Amém.
    I reach that using the DMG tables to stock and refresh. The tables will always be smarter than us.

  12. When I started playing (with Mentzer's Basic Set), he suggested there be a dragon's lair somewhere in the starter dungeon that he left for the budding DM to finish. I used plenty of dragons in my early gaming days, and yes, they were tough, but they were just another monster.

    As I got older and gravitated to AD&D (in a group that played a hybrid 1E/2E), the dragons were so much more powerful, with so many more powers. 3E made them more so. And so I stopped using dragons as much, and even when I gravitated back to Classic D&D, I find I'm still not using them as often as I used to.

    But there are still plenty of dragons in my West Marches campaign, and as the PCs level up, they're encountering young ones on the random tables, and a few adult ones here and there in placed encounters or dungeons.

  13. I loved the dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham...and he was bigger than a horse, but not bigger than a house. Wicked, mean, and cowardly he sort of set the mold for me.

  14. Coming from someone who started playing first edition AD&D just a bit over a year ago, what strikes me in that game is how weak dragons are. Even relatively big ones have maybe 40-50 hit points, which is what? A few magic missiles from an archmage, a half-saved lightning bolt and a few cuts from a reasonably competent fighter.

    Their breath attacks are nasty, don’t get me wrong. Fights against dragons are over in a round or two (provided they fight alone or, at most, in a pair with another dragon), during which they often get to off a few men-at-arms or even a beloved henchman, but the end result is always to the dragon’s disadvantage. Over the last six months or so, my players (levels 4-9, most around 6) have slayed maybe half a dozen of them, encountering them in a frequency much like the one you propose (one that I second without reservations).

    Formidable foes, dragons no doubt are in first edition, but definitely not as dangerous as a couple of iron golems or, say, 40 stone giants. Which, of course, is another point with at least AD&D - danger is in numbers, not in a singular, menacing foe.

  15. This just brings back memories of the BADD Bothered About Disposable Dragons crowd, and the vacillation of dragon power and size through editions. This is why I typically have (smallish) dragons/drakes to pepper around and Wyrms for when I need the big guns.

    1. Wait: "Bothered about Disposable Dragons?" Do I want to know?

    2. Hoo boy, asking be to go into the mental way-back machine.
      My recollection is that it was "movement" perhaps tongue in cheek about how much of a pushover dragons seemed. Message board chatter and I think I recall a letter or two in Dungeon or Dragon mag.
      And obviously meant to be a play on "Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons"

  16. Oh, and I should note that apparently Mentzer thought dragons needed a boost in D&D, too, for in the Companion Rules (1983) he introduced Medium and Large dragons... The dragons in BX being relegated to "Small" size. Large dragons had double the Hit Dice if Small dragons, and Medium had an intermediate therof. So the Small base 10 HD Red Dragon was 15 HD at Medium and 20 HD at Large, all with commensurate increase in damage plus additional attack forms and more spells.

    Of course, Companion also introduced weapon specialization, so there was plenty of player character power creep to match...

  17. Errr, I meant to say Bilbo in my comment above.

  18. I'm a little split on this. I love that dragons are rare and terrifying, but I agree that they are too rare. I like to have dragons lurking in the corner of any campaign I run and I love the Dungeon Crawl Classics idea that there is never "a" dragon, it's always, "the" dragon, as in dragons are such a presence that they are known as individuals.

    I think that in a world where most people are zero level, you can strike a balance. The villagers don't care if a dragon is a threat to a level three party or a level nine party, because either dragon will wipe out their village.

    This is something that you start to lose when the tavern is run by a 4th level fighter and the town's church has a sixth level cleric. But if you don't inflate the levels of the common folk the terror is easier to maintain.

    1. I'm with you Tom. "The" dragon --- smart and clever too --- not just another beast in the wilderness to slaughter. (e.g. a Dire Crocodile?).

      Also, the naturalism of "young" mutes the mythic punch of such a beast.

      James, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. Ubiquitous dragons as yet-another-natural-hazard is not my cup of tea. I think they would feel diminished, and there are so many other creatures availble to fill that niche.