Wednesday, January 20, 2021

"The only Dragons … Lawful in nature"

One of the primary reasons I prefer OD&D and its descendants over AD&D is its "primordial" character. Being Gygax and Arneson's first stab at a published version of the game, its presentation is raw and undeveloped, often to the point that the referee has no choice but to interpret its meaning for himself. Relatedly, OD&D often contains ideas and concepts that were either forgotten or rejected by them. In some cases, these ideas and concepts were no doubt left behind for very good reasons, but I nevertheless enjoy going back to the original source and seeing if perhaps something might have been lost in doing so.

One such area concerns dragons, first described in detail in Volume 2 of the game. As first presented, there are only six varieties of dragon: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden. Earlier, in Volume 1, there's an alignment chart that includes dragons.

What you'll see is that dragons appear only in the columns for Neutrality and Chaos. However, it's clarified, in the description of the golden dragon, that these dragons "are the only Dragons which are Lawful in nature, although this exception is not noted on the Alignment table." This is in contrast to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which includes many more good-aligned dragons that first appeared in Supplement I of OD&D. 

I'll be honest: I've never been wholly on board with good-aligned dragons. Due to the influence of medieval stories of St. George, Tolkien's Smaug, and Disney's Maleficent, I've long looked on dragons as inherently evil creatures. In all my years of playing D&D, I don't believe I've ever made use of a good dragon on my own initiative (there was once a ranger in a campaign among whose followers was numbered a young bronze dragon, if I recall) and I don't think anyone complained. Indeed, as I've remarked before, dragons ought by all rights to be among D&D's iconic adversaries.

That said, I'm a sucker for stories of villainous redemption. As I continue to work on Urheim, I've started toying with the idea that golden dragons represent Chaotic dragons who turn to Law and, in the process, are physically metamorphosed by their shift in allegiance. What I like about this approach is that it not only provides an explanation of why most dragons are Chaotic but that it also emphasizes the significance of alignment, a concept that seems disappointingly downplayed in contemporary Dungeons & Dragons. 


  1. In my campaign cosmology, dragons are descended fron fallen angels, like demons and giants, who were consumed by Chaos snd Evil. While the first generation was irredeemable, their children could and did return to Law and Good. Each different kind of metal dragon corresponds to the ancestral chromatic dragon who returned to Law and was Purified in the Crucible of Holy Fire. Gold from Red, Silver from Blue, and so forth...

  2. Just like the idea of spell-casting dragons, Lawful & Good dragons came from Gygax' ideas on East & Southeast Asian dragons. Which he admitted to in one of the ENworld posts (no citation, sorry).

  3. I like the concept of a wider range of alignments for dragons in general. While most red dragons may be CE, they don't all have to be, in the same way that not all gold dragons are LG---after all, Smaug was a gold dragon....


    1. Was he? Tolkien's description was as "a vast red-golden dragon," and he is most often illustrated with quite substantial amounts of red to him:

      For what it's worth (read: not much), I always thought of him as a red.

  4. On the other hand a lot of the AD&D imagery for the Gold dragon had a distinctly oriental tinge. Given the role that Dragons play in Chinese mythology, it is quite appropriate to place them in the Lawful category, especially with their alignment with Heaven and control over the oceans and rivers.

    This is not to say that they are good (they are after all dragons), except as measured that any edict from Heaven is by definition good, even if the effects on us mere mortals are bad.

    And yes, I suspect the old Shaw Brothers films had some influence as well on the early OD&D mythos. Such as the monk. We can't credit it all to Kwai Chang Caine.

  5. Actually, I think the case can be made that Richard Snider is the one who came up with the concept of Lawful Gold dragons:

  6. The whole idea that by changing alignment, you physically transform to a different ‘species’, is super rad and I wish any of the people making bad-faith arguments against “alignments for whole races” would consider it

  7. My Gnolls are really nasty criminals (serial killers, etc.) who made a deal with unwholesome powers to escape justice, or common criminals who made a deal with those guys.