Dragons… they’re in the name of the game, if the game is Dungeons & Dragons which I imagine it is for most people reading this. Almost certainly the most iconic creature in fantasy, from The Hobbit to Skyrim to Game of Thrones to (appropriately enough) Dragon Age, there’s a vast array of options when it comes to how to approach these creatures, and everyone who sits down to play your game will almost certainly have their own preconceptions and expectations when it comes to interacting with them on the tabletop.
In this Worldviews article, we’re going to take a look at these most majestic of monsters and talk about how you can use them in your fantasy campaign in a way that makes the more interesting, threatening and compelling than just using them as an end-of-dungeon boss. Read on for some thoughts on how to imbue your dragons with a sense of character and uniqueness and place them in the world in a way their influence can be felt across your campaign.
Characters, Not Creatures
To my mind, just about the least interesting thing you can do with a dragon is have it sit on a treasure hoard at the end of a lengthy dungeon. This isn’t to say they’re not good for that, especially in D&D 5e where the range of available Dragons, from Wyrmlings to Ancients, will mean you easily have something to challenge your party whatever their capability. All dragons, with their powerful breath weapons and flight, are certainly powerful combatants in a tactical sense, and can give your players a memorable final scrap before they divide up the now-liberated loot.
However, there are plenty of other monsters that can fulfil that role just as well, and it strikes me as a missed opportunity to do something more with the most well-known, iconic creatures in the fantasy genre. My suggestion, then, is to think about dragons not as a creatures, but as characters who can contend with the party on multiple levels outside of combat encounters, and may not even fight them at all. This is something you can’t really do with Behirs or Rocs or Chimeras, whereas the high mental scores of dragons really lend themselves to development as genuine characters, perhaps even more NPC than Monster.
When characterising a dragon, there’s very little you can’t do, but there are a few factors that can help guide you towards making them compelling characters the players want to interact with. The first of these is their sheer power. Especially when you’re talking about Adult or Ancient dragons (at least in D&D parlance), they’re some of the most fearsome creatures going, and you can reflect this in a number of ways in how you choose to play them.
For instance, you might adopt the Spider-man thesis and have your dragon believe that with great power comes great responsibility. Picture an ancient silver dragon who has stood guard over vital entryway to the kingdom for time immemorial, keeping the enemy beyond the borders at bay and swearing fealty to each new generation of the monarchy. Selfless, heroic, noble on account of its ability to act as a one-being army.
Conversely, that power can also be turned nefarious. The dragon who exists simply as a force of greed and destruction is perhaps more of a cliché, although as I discussed in a previous article, that’s no bad thing. The fact remains that should a dragon turn their effort towards these darker purposes, they will be incredibly good at it, able to take regions or even nations for their own. They may simply destroy, or they may take advantage of great intelligence and charisma to rule the region as an overlord, building an army of dark creatures to fend off the inevitable band of pesky adventurers seeking to dethrone them and putting the population to work mining gems and precious metals for their horde.
Of course, not all dragons are made equal, and should you wish to use a younger dragon, the fact they’re less powerful can directly tie into their characterisation. Perhaps they are bitter and jealous of a more powerful member of their kin, resorting to underhand tactics to gain an advantage over them. Perhaps they believe themselves to be as powerful as legend would have it, but suffer a defeat early in life and become timid and fearful of the dangers of the world, doubting their own strength.
Such a dragon would make a great recurring character, with scope to introduce early and form a bond with the PCs, growing more confident and powerful as they do to ultimately become a strong ally as the campaign nears its end.
The second factor in characterising dragons is their immense lifespans. Whether noble or nefarious, the vast ages dragons can reach means their machinations can span centuries, becoming so subtle or slow that to the fleeting lives of men, it appears that the dragon is totally inactive for generations before it finally sets is master plan into action. Alternatively, a more passive dragon might use this lifespan to gather knowledge or master a craft, making them useful allies to the PCs or vital contributors to the march of progress in your setting.
In mechanical terms, consider giving your dragons some appropriate Class Levels or features to represent this. A dragon who has devoted their life to studying the arcane might also be a high-level Sorcerer, making them a hugely imposing villain should you deploy them in that role. Conversely, a dragon that has spent centuries as a scholar of lore might gain additional Proficiency in History, Arcana or Nature, or simply be in possession of crucial information that cannot be found anywhere else in your setting.
A third axis along which you can characterise your dragon is their relation to the world and its inhabitants. This is somewhat a function of power and age, but still a worthwhile question. Does your dragon see the creatures of the world as petty, insignificant and fleeting beings who will be generations dead by the time it next wakes from slumber? Or does it see itself as a protector and guide for them, using its knowledge and power to assist monarchs, scholars, adventurers or cultures? Does it have a particular hatred or affinity for once type of denizen over another, perhaps resenting the Dwarves who plundered its home but having great care for the Elves who brought it back to health in the wake of said incursion? This leads us nicely into the next thing to consider when using dragons: how they fit into, and shape, the world they exist in.
The Dragons Are Returning, Probably
It’s never just an ordinary Tuesday when the Dragons Return, is it? And while that’s a somewhat overused trope, it does speak to one of the most important aspects of using dragons, and it’s something that makes them very unique compared to other high-power monsters.
Due to their vast power, age, intelligence and general capability to make things happen, its very difficult for a dragon to simply exist. Much like Mages who can cast spells like Wish, or powerful Celestial or Fiendish beings who choose to walk the material plane, dragons are capable of exerting an influence on the world around them by doing nothing more than living. This category of beings are essentially the nuclear weapons of the fantasy world, in that even if they are never involved, their very presence shapes the course of history and politics.
The Monster Manual goes into some detail about the effects that will occur within a few miles of a dragon’s lair, but think bigger and you can play with the true scope of their influence. Smaug, perhaps the most famous dragon in modern literature, appears, levels a city or two then sleeps on a big pile of gold for the better part 60 years.
But that’s all he has to do to set the events of that era in motion. The Dwarves become destitute, fail in their attempt to reclaim their ancestral home of Moria and suffer decades of hardship. The Elves’ refusal to help combat the dragon drives a wedge between them and the Dwarves. The people of Dale, then Laketown are forced to rebuild from scratch leagues from their former city for fear of raising Smaug’s ire. The dragon’s eventual demise is enough that pretty much every power in that region turns up to stake their claim on his territory and horde, kicking off the Battle of the Five Armies.
That’s just one example of the influence a creature like this can have. Imagine a kingdom that secured an alliance with an ancient dragon some generations prior; such a realm might be all but untouchable by conventional military means. Or perhaps your dragon is the monarch, ruling over generations of citizens in a society that thus becomes stagnant, unchanging, hubristic, maybe even coming to deify their draconic ruler as a god-king.
And that’s just one dragon. Critical Role’s Chroma Conclave show what a handful can do to the geopolitics of a world, and had Vox Machina not been there to combat them, the status quo of the land would have been forever changed. Perhaps you could go even further; imagine an empire built and ruled by dragons, spanning centuries and continents, at once supremely powerful but slowly rotting with arrogance and complacency as the world moves on without them.
This sort of thing, of course, is definitely skewed towards the upper end of the draconic scale, Ancient Dragons exerting influence over realms and eras. But the same principle works on a smaller scale as well. Perhaps the bogeyman of a halfling tribe is a young dragon who returns once a generation to take a dozen of the village’s inhabitants for purposes unknown. Perhaps an unwitting archaeologist uncovers a nest of Wyrmlings and the surrounding region is placed under quarantine until the fledgling dragons are dealt with, lest they escape to terrorise the land a century from now.
The key to all of this is that it elevates your dragons to a unique place among the ecosystem of your world. They are so much more than predators and hoarders, and by making them more interesting than your run-of-the-mill boss monster, you are already a step closer to getting your players to invest. They’ll want to know more about them, they’ll relish the chance to interact with them as allies or antagonists, and when you do choose to bring one of these creatures into the story, it’s an immediate que that something significant is about to happen, which your players will want to be a part of.
That’s a wrap for now! Hopefully this article has inspired you to use these most fascinating and iconic of creatures in a way that befits their status, and given you some ideas on the great stories you can tell with them as principal characters, allies, villains and more besides. In a follow-up to this piece, we’ll be looking at some dragons from our own campaigns, but in the meantime, if you’ve used a dragon in a cool and unique way, please do tell us about it in the comments below! Until then, happy adventuring!