Stop Abusing Dragons!

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 29, 2010

Dragons should be like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster – often talked about but rarely, if ever, seen. Just because the second “D” in D&D stands for Dragons doesn’t mean that you have to use them all the time. Overusing Dragons amounts to nothing more than abuse. Leave the Dragons alone and leave them out of your campaign.

Call me old school but I believe that Dragons should be feared and revered. When the PCs face a Dragon they should be scared. There should be no smug air of confidence. Any time a Dragon is part of the combat there should be a very real chance that PCs will die. However, very few DMs seem to hold this belief any more. It seems that Dragons have become the standard go-to villain for many adventures, especially low-level adventures. Just look at a random sampling of LFR (Living Forgotten Realms) adventures and D&D Encounters: Keep on the Borderlands and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. From where I’m sitting this amounts to nothing more than Dragon abuse. Stop throwing Dragons at every party!

Dragons were originally some of the most powerful, dangerous and feared creatures in the game of D&D. When you faced a Dragon you knew it would be an epic battle. The Dragon was the big bad guy at the end of a long quest. It was the master that all of the other villains served. The idea that a level 1 party would ever fight and hope to defeat a Dragon was absurd. No one ever thought to try it because it was a crazy idea.

Yet over the years Wizards of the Coast (and TSR before them) felt an obligation to give DMs stats for Dragons at all stages of their life-cycle. This meant that PCs could face smaller, weaker Dragons and have a reasonable chance at victory. What most DMs forgot was that just because they had low-level Dragons in their Monster Manual didn’t mean that they had to use them. Dragons have always been among the rarest monsters in the book, so the likelihood of even finding and fighting one was still rare.

Do you recognize this painting? It’s called “Dragon Slayers, And Proud of It!” By Larry Elmore and it was on page 7 of the AD&D 2e Players Handbook. I love this painting. When I look at it I see more than just the five adventurers standing victorious over a very young Green Dragon. I see experienced heroes who likely threw everything they had at this Dragon in order to defeat it. The Dragon itself doesn’t even look that powerful. After all it’s only about 10-feel long from tip to tail, yet it still took five heroes to kill it. When I look at this painting I’ve often wondered if the adventuring party always had five members or if some companions died during the fight. This painting more than any other made me realize just how powerful and dangers Dragons are, no matter how young or how small.

As a DM, I like Dragons. I like they raw power they represent and the multitude of options they have to eliminate threats. They scheme, plan, plot and use their superior intellect to the best of their ability. They often employ minions and henchmen to act as go-betweens, scouts and guards. Rarely will a party find a Dragon completely alone, especially in his liar. But as cools as Dragons are, I know that they have to be used in moderation. Overusing them is nothing more than abuse.

My plea to all DMs is to suppress your desire to make every major villain a Dragon. Hold the Dragons back for special occasions and important story arcs. Given the rarity of Dragons PCs shouldn’t see more than one in their lifetime. If they do, they should never see more than one at each tier of play. In fact, a Dragon that faces the party at heroic tier will likely flee before being killed and eventually battle them again at paragon tier when both the PCs and the Dragon are more powerful.

Dragons need to be withheld. As tempting as it might seem to pit a party against a Dragon early in their adventuring career, DMs must resist this urge. By keeping Dragons out of the mix and more importantly out of combat, the PCs will better understand just how rare these creatures really are.

Just because there are rules and mechanics to create a balanced encounter that includes a Dragon doesn’t mean that you should include a Dragon. In fact I beg DMs not to do so until the PCs are ready for it. Perhaps an example from my very own gaming table will illustrate my point and reinforce the value of doing so.

A couple of years ago in my home game the PCs inadvertently stumbled into a Green Dragon’s hunting grounds while travelling through a secluded forest. We were level 6 at the time and certainly capable of defeating any balanced encounter the DM threw at us. But when we saw the Dragon we trembled with terror. We knew that fighting it was suicide. Fortunately our leader, a Warlord with a good head on his shoulders, decided that parley was the only option if we were to escape with our lives.

The Warlord made a quick monster knowledge check and then humbled himself before the Dragon, appealing to the creature’s ego and greed. As compensation for disturbing the Dragon, the Warlord offered his most powerful magic item (an Amulet of Protection +2) and all of the party’s gold in exchange for letting us go unharmed. A few Diplomacy checks later and the Green Dragon accepted the offer. The party fled as fast as they could, considering the exchange more than fair since we suffered no casualties.

After the encounter was completed the DM asked us why we didn’t just fight the Dragon. We explained that we had no way to gauge the Dragon’s power and considering their rarity we assumed it was pretty tough. It turned out that the Dragon was a level 6 monster and probably something we could have defeated, but none of the players even thought to try fighting. Our experience (both in and out of character) trumped the encounter’s mechanics. So even though the DM wasn’t trying to make us fight a foe we couldn’t defeat, we didn’t know that. And even if we did, I think the idea of role-playing made a lot more sense then having them fight the Dragon.

The players all agreed that until we hit paragon tier, fighting a Dragon wasn’t a very good idea. Months later upon reaching paragon, the DM presented us with an opportunity to return and fight the Green Dragon. The resulting battle was huge and the victory ended a long-term story arc for the party. Those PCs are now approaching the epic tier and in all that time they only ever encountered the one Dragon. During their travels they’ve never even heard whispers of other Dragons. That’s how rare these creatures are, or should be.

If you ignore my earlier plea and continuing to abuse Dragons they become commonplace. The idea that Dragons are everywhere is incredibly silly to me, but I know that some people do indeed play in this kind of world. Some players enjoy playing in a campaign where they fight Dragons all the time. I’ll admit that defeating a Dragon is pretty cool, but if I fight one (or more) every level it’s bound to cheapen the experience.

Think about it, if you fought ten or more Dragons as you progress through the heroic tier, would a paragon level Dragon seem powerful and scary? Probably not. You’d yawn as you realize that you’re facing yet another Dragon. DMs who throw Dragons at you all the time belittle their camping and rob the players of the thrilling experience that slaying a Dragon should bring.

The only exception that I can think of for a campaign that has multiple Dragons in it is if the party intentionally goes looking for them. If they are a party of would-be Dragon slayers then this is a possible exception to the one Dragon per tier rule. I see this kind of campaign being rich in role-playing since anyone who deliberately seeks out Dragons (plural – more than one) must have some pretty heavy emotional baggage or a loose screw in the head. But outside of this unique campaign exception, Dragons should continue to be exceptionally rare in all campaign.

Are you abusing Dragons? Do you find that the players still enjoy fighting Dragons after seeing them all the time? As players do you want to fight Dragons over and over again? Do you feel that facing more than one Dragon per tier cheapens the awe that Dragons should inspire? What about those who have played in Dragon slayer campaigns, did fighting Dragons eventually get boring? Let us know where you stand on Dragon abuse.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 d20sforlife November 29, 2010 at 9:50 am

My rule of thumb: 1 dragon per tier, max. Unless the campaign has a dragon as the BBEG, still maybe only 2 or 3 encounters with him.

2 Dyson Logos November 29, 2010 at 10:11 am

Abuse more dragons.

Take out the dragons and then you had might as well take out the dungeons.

Dragons are the apex predator of the game. The reason we go dungeon-delving. They are the primary repository of gold and treasure. They are the scariest creatures in the game, and a source of many great TPKs, and when handled properly they still remain a serious and dire threat to an adventuring party.

3 Ameron November 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

@d20sforlife
It sounds like you and I are on exactly the same page. I’m not saying remove Dragons from D&D entirely, just make sure when you do use them they have a huge impact. Once per tier seems like a good balance.

@Dyson Logos
You qualified your comment by saying “when handled properly.” Therein lies the point of my argument. Most DMs aren’t using Dragons properly. They’re making them as common as orcs, kobolds and skeletons. If you’re going to use them, use them properly — as powerful creatures with hordes of treasure. If you just keep throwing Dragons at your party without handling these creatures properly then you diminish their importance to the game. Stop the abuse!

4 Alton November 29, 2010 at 11:33 am

I am very lucky that I play with a group who reveres fights with Dragons. In our retired campaign, my 26th level Rogue-Sorcerer only fought 3 dragons. The first one was in the Moathouse in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Ashardalon on the plane of Positive Energy, and a two-headed Ancient Red Dragon on the Astral Plane. In all three instances we ran like crazy, and coming close to death every time.

They should be feared. And should remain that way. You are right that the WOW! is diminishing from the game.

Remember the Daragonlance series was based on the return of the Dragons in the world of Krynn. That was awe inspiring!

5 Neuroglyph November 29, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I agree dragons should be fearful encounters, but I disagree with making them too rare. PCs at any level get a thrill fighting a dragon, and as an introductory adventure to a group containing several new-to-D&D Players, I droppped a nice youngling White Dragon on them. As a Level 4 Solo with a few kobold minions mixed in to hassle the caster type, it was one heck of a fight, and very memorable for the newbie players.

Of course, the next dragon encounter was something far more nasty, and was meant to be instructive as to just how lucky the heroes were to encounter that youngling white. The adventurers stumbled into an adult gray dragon’s hunting ground, and after some nerve racking negotiations (skill challenge) and a hefty bribe, the party felt thrilled to be high-tailing it out of its lands – it gave them the old western line “be outta here by dawn… or else!”. It definitely helped to re-establish the fear of dragons, and wiped out that smugness you talked about very quickly!
Neuroglyph´s last blog post ..News in Review for Nov 22 to Nov 28 2010

6 Captain DM November 30, 2010 at 12:54 am

I am also of the opinion that dragons should be held in particularly high esteem in campaigns. If you are going to use them frequently then I think most of those times should be for role play. There is a massive amount of situations and variants on encounters that can be created and used. It would be a waste of those resources to focus too much on dragons, in my opinion. I love mixing up encounters and just finding reasons to throw creatures from all over into the campaign I’m running.

7 Steven Verbridge November 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I always kind of felt bad for the dragon in Dragon Slayers, And Proud of It! I don’t know why, I always just did.

I have always used dragons sparingly and not always as the BBED. In my current campaign, the dragons were a part of the creation mythology of the world. Some were corrupted by power and fell from grace.

Right at the moment, I have a Black Dragon in the campaign that the characters ran into early on, they didn’t defeat them but did foil his plans, and so he now has a grudge against the party and has been working long and hard behind the scenes to get back at them. It will take some time before the players figure this out, though. But that is the one and only dragon the players have run into. It will be interesting when they figure it out, though, because they will not be able to defeat him overtly and will have to negotiate and play at the game of houses. I figure once they get up to high paragon or beginning epic they will eventually come head to head. (Right at the moment the dragon has been polymorphed into humanoid form to attain his goals against the party and looks like a large humanoid with obsidian skin. They have seen this, but they did not get close enough to see that the ‘skin” is actually composed of tiny black shinny scales. Yeah, it might not be rules appropriate, but it works for the party.

8 Tallyn Rhoades November 30, 2010 at 3:59 pm

I have made the counter argument just recently. In my 10 years of playing d&d I have only ever slayed one dragon. I have run only a handful of dragon encounters but only have fought 2 or 3 and lived through one. I understand the build up for the dragons but the game is Dungeons and Dragons. If you go through a dungeon every other week why not fight a dragon every once in a while. Now I do agree it should not be every game but I hate the level thought that, “we are first level we need to pay our dues and fight goblins.” That’s hog wash every level has the chance to be exciting and heroic. Break the mold, have the party fight a dragon at first and then ride the fame or consequences of their actions. At the moment I am running a gith yanki invasion in Eberron. It going to be a wild ride with lots of dragons. The first day the party fought and killed a dragon and when they saw it the first words out of their mouth was, “WTF a dragon at first!” Well they slayed it and it was a tremendous way to start a game. So yes don’t use dragons all the time in every game because the game would get duel but really how many times have you started at first and killed a tone of goblins and kobolds.

9 Acheron November 30, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Conccur, Dragons should be held very high for the adventuring party, and I think that they could be faced in different leves, they do add the “omg please let it be 17or+ I roll or i am dead…” and they have this way of making things simply awesome!

So agreed, haven’t throw any dragons at my players but will definetly think twice before doing so, specially to the point of making dragon encounters boring that… indeed is blasphemy… In my opinion :D.

Regards

10 Soklemon November 30, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Dragons…. All dragons, or just living? Fettered Dracholiches have made 2 appearances alone.

And, throwing this out there for dragons in general, what do you all say to “Ongoing Damage (No Save)” in their breath attacks? Ehh?

11 The Hopeless Gamer December 4, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I appreciate the gist of the article, but how can anyone say what “most GM’s” do? Categorizing GM’s into any one action is like trying to herd cats. Maybe the GM’s that you personally encounter over use dragons, but I’ve still to fight even a single dragon in 4th Edition.

12 Ameron December 7, 2010 at 9:15 am

@Alton
It sounds like your DM understands the rarity of Dragons and has only used them at important parts in the ongoing campaign. I like that your instinct was to run and not to just assume an easy victory and fight.

@Neuroglyph
I agree that fighting a Dragon is thrilling, especially for newbies. If you want to throw a Dragon at your players early (like at the lower heroic tier) then just make sure they understand how unique this meeting really was – which you seem to have done nicely.

@Captain DM
I remember an old campaign where the PCs knew a really old Red Dragon had transformed into a humanoid form and taken up residence in a nearby town. They didn’t know who he was but they didn’t want to cross him. They were always on their best behaviour when they visited those townsfolk. The role-playing was amazing and they never did discover who the Dragon really as (although I knew that they interacted with him numerous times). It just never made sense in the bigger story to have the Red Dragon reveal his true form to the PCs.

@Steven Verbridge
My home game is in Eberron which also includes Dragons as part of the creation mythology of the world. The likelihood of finding a random Dragon is practically non-existent.

Players forget that Dragons are very long-lived and as such are likely to possess very long memories and a considerable amount of patients. A Dragon wronged by PCs at level 1 may not rear its head for 10 or even 20 levels. Sounds like your players are going to be in for a rude awakening when you give them the big reveal.

@Tallyn Rhoades
Excellent example and you make a great point. With the Monster Builder tool at our fingertips DMs can easily down-grade more powerful and iconic monsters to make them suitable opponents for lower level games. I agree that fighting orcs, goblins and kobolds at the lower levels gets boring fast. So definitely throw in something big and unexpected early; just don’t over do it. Sounds like you’ve found a good balance.

@Acheron
I agree that when battling a Dragon every roll needs to be a do or die situation. If it’s not then the PCs won’t feel the danger they should when fighting a Dragon.

@Soklemon
Good question. My original thought was just living Dragons, but I suppose the argument could easily be extended to undead Dragons. It all depends on how prevalent you want undead Dragons to be in your game. They’re pretty tough (hello, stun breath) so I’d likely limit their appearances too.

@The Hopeless Gamer
You’re absolutely right. When I refer to “most DMs” I am talking about the DMs I’ve played with or talked to or read about. It’s certainly not a scientific sampling, but it was enough people that I noticed a clear trend. If the DMs you’ve played with in your experience don’t fit this mold then consider yourself lucky.

13 Tallyn Rhoades December 7, 2010 at 11:00 am

@ Ameron
I agree that don’t over do it. Like anything moderation is key. Fighting dragons all the time would be boring or stressful (extremely hard encounters every couple minutes would make a rough game) but mixing up the encounters and allowing the pcs to fight any monster at any level is my argument. The old adage of low level characters need to pay their dues is outdated and needs to end. This is not wow were you have to get to the end game to fight kewl stuff or at low levels you are just grinding. No role playing is more in-depth. If you were sent out to kill 20 goblins their friends may come looking for you. Any who I’m rambling lol I agree that the dragon abuse needs to end. Dragons should be used in moderation depending on your campaign. However, other monsters should be more thot out and used in new and different ways. I say stop the goblin and kobold abuse.
Great read i really like your stuff keep up the great work

14 JSchuler February 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I’m going to be starting a campaign soon and have decided to kick things off with a dragon fight at level 1. The thing is, I actually agree with Ameron that dragons should not be cheapened by doing things like this. However, I’m also with Tallyn that just because you’re level 1, you shouldn’t have to wait for cool, iconic things to happen. So, how am I going to square this circle?

Well, my idea is that the characters won’t be facing a real live dragon. Instead, a wyrmpriest that is the leader of this kobold sewer infestation has a minor consumable artifact, represented as an encounter power that triggers when bloodied or reduced to zero hit-points, that will surround said wyrmpriest in a dragon-shaped storm of rimefire. At that moment, the wyrmpriest’s stat block becomes very similar to a level 3 white dragon’s stat block (I’m actually going to hybridize that with the level 1 white dragon’s stat block, to make it less lethal when bloodied), and I swap out his mini with a dragon’s mini.

With that, I will have an encounter that feels, in every way, like an encounter with a dragon, but will in no way diminish the awe and fear the characters will experience if they encounter an actual dragon in the future.

15 Zilfer October 7, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Only ever fought one dragon and my party was i think level 5 or 6 at the time. We stepped through a portal that we had no idea were it lead in the bottom of this dungeon into a room with a door. We walk through the icey room right out into a huge open stone room with a frozen ground and no ceiling but the sky, and we see a drow talking to a Ice Dragon.

During battle we were hit hard with the dragon’s breath and then the drow caster used a cone of cold almost right after. It was a fight for survival as we dropped an orb of darkness on the dragon’s head to even the odds, and I the clever rogue used a ring I had that could summon up walls to summon it up as high as i could (100 feet or so) and let it come falling down to crash ontop of the dragon. First the DM let me do 1d6 for each 10 feet because the dragon didn’t know it was coming. The second time the dragon got a reflex expecting that to happen again, well he rolled it in front of us and it got a 1. XD

Only thing that saved our asses. Fun fun encounter. I however haven’t seen any one you are talking about using many dragons in encounters and stuff like that. In two years of playing I’ve only encountered one and I would like to encounter another. ^.^

I agree with previous points that it’d Dungeon’s and Dragons. I don’t think there are as many Dungeons in the world as the PC’s visit however they seem to find them like no tomorrow. Dragons while rare shouldn’t be almost none existant. It’s not like they’ve been hunted down into none existance. I’d like to note the game I play moves much slower than usual after 2 years my highest level character is level 7. And we play weekly, that lets you know how much exp we get. :P

16 Joe Lastowski March 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm

The longest D&D game I ever ran started the night of the premiere of the D&D movie. We were so upsets that they had turned dragons into nothing more than glorified fighter planes that we said “Darnit, we can do that better!” and went home to start a campaign that centered around an ancient, clever, multi-faceted dragon whom nobody ever thought to fight. They just tried to find ways to make themselves valuable to her long-term goals so that she wouldn’t destroy them. In the end, it turned out she grew fond of them, and actually developed a bit of a conscience as a result. But there was never a question of fighting her… only finding clever ways to stay out of her way.

17 Shelby Hewitt November 23, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Dragons deserve our respect, but sadly hardly anyone does :’(
I never played a game where u have to kill a dragon to complete the game(Skyrim) mainly cause I love them too much to kill them, and I draw them all the time killing knights/slayers or befriending a damsel:)

18 Archivincognito January 25, 2014 at 2:55 pm

I immediately appreciate the idea that just because a party has an interaction with a dragon (nearly capitalized the ‘d’ for a moment), it does not inherently suggest it is to fight a bloody battle.
Many are aware that dragons assume other forms from time to time for their own mysterious purposes. They are often more intelligent than a party could hope to be and have access to enormous resource and charisma. Territorial land-grabbing schemes, governmental intrigue, thrall development, …why not to organize a banking or minting ‘ponzi scheme’ to add huge wealth to its personal hoard without physical exertion? So many ways we as players might interact with dragons, and perhaps not ever being made aware of their level/breath weapon/natural form.

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