It's in the name of the game
They’re the true hallmark of any fantasy setting – be they benevolent protectors of the wilds, raging cataclysms of fire and death, or reclusive hoarders of gems, gold, and some weird stone dug up by a troupe of dwarves, dragons are always a symbol of power and wonder in any campaign.
Dragons are a common tool to add some spice to a campaign, and players always perk up when they hear the “D” word (mind out of the gutter, guys) or recognise the description of the scaled wings and vicious eyes threatening their characters precious, precious hit points. However, no matter how troublesome they can be to a party of adventurers, the real trouble starts long before then – in the DM’s planning.
They're complex creatures.
They really are. Where a typical creature in the monster manual takes up just over half a page, Dragons take up 20 pages of the MM(Monster Manual), and that’s not counting the pseudodragons, Dragonnes (kinda like a griffon with a lion’s head), Wyverns, entries in the other 4 monster manuals in 3.5 (or other supplementaries), or the entire 286 page Draconomicron.
These entries detail their lairs, their various limbs, their veritable plethora of breath weapons (for Tiamat’s sake, there’s a dragon that breathes time) and even their religions. They’re also the only monster in the game (to my knowledge) that has separate entries for each age category. Seriously, just look at it:
So as a DM it can be daunting to plan using a dragon. But we’re here to simplify things – here are a few tips for the DM starting out, and hopefully an idea or two for the more experienced:
Start small - literally.
The smallest dragons are also usually the simplest – a newborn red dragon is a perfect high-difficulty encounter for a 1st-level party. This probably won’t survive long enough to have to delve into all of the quirks of a draconic encounter. They also have fewer limbs involved in their full attacks, and they’re not so large that you have to figure out the rules and physics of people getting stepped on.
It’s also a lot easier to neglect the complex factor of flight and maneuverability rules when it’s plausible that a newborn wouldn’t know how to fly yet! Dragon’s before the youngling age also don’t have spellcasting -which is, in itself, a lot of admin for a DM. Progressively larger dragons appearing in a campaign gives players a sense of growth, being able to keep up with bigger threats, while giving an inexperienced DM a chance to get used to dealing with more of the aspects of draconic combat one at a time.
Always leave an out.
One thing this has taught me (as a DM) is that it’s surprisingly easy to overdo it when it comes to dragons. Using a dragon’s breath weapon to put some fear into a tank who is usually difficult to put a scratch on, could very easily one-shot one of the softer characters caught in the crossfire.
However, a chase encounter – such as a party running from a dragon they accidentally robbed, can be an exciting change of pace from the usual hack-n-slash. Of course – this means creating some method by which a party can possibly escape a 300ft flight speed with perfect manoeuvrability and an 80 ft breath weapon (using Bahamut as a worst-case scenario) when most characters move 20-30ft.
Options here involve a massive head-start where your adventurers just need to make it to the safety of a well-defended city or cavern system or a deadly game of hide-and-seek or somehow removing the flight of the dragon as a factor – which leads us to the next point:
This is something I’ve often neglected as a DM – the power of terrain to affect what would normally be a fair or completely one-sided fight. I’ve had a party of 4th level adventurers escape with a chunk of an elder black dragon’s hoard by collapsing a dwarven tunnel on it.
Dragon’s flight is one of their greatest assets, and without it, their size becomes one of their greatest weaknesses. No amount of attack-of-opportunity-reach can make up for their inability to get into tight spaces if that is used well against them. But Remember – they have breathe Weapons, so getting cover can also reduce the threat of this type of weapons.
On the other hand, a narrow passageway forcing unwitting targets into one breath weapon bite-sized cluster creates a delicious look of fear on many player’s faces. This can be useful for a variety of things – emphasising the danger characters are in, forcing the party to split for later divide-and-conquer type DM shenanigans, or maybe you’ve decided it’s time for a nice cleansing TPK.
Bearing tight spaces in mind, The Draconomicron has a range of dragon’s lairs that vastly illustrate the pride of dragons. They’re really not tactically ideal for the dragon itself or an adventurer – it’s as if nobody would ever be suicidal enough to try fight one there. It’s as if they have a reputation for being omnipotent, flying death-monsters. It’s almost as if almost every religion and mythos in human history has praised these beasts. Oh wait, that’s all true – which brings me to my favourite thing about dragons.
They make a great story.
One universal truth about dragons in D&D – people notice when they show up. It’s important to be careful about overplaying dragons and watering down their significance in a campaign – It’s Dungeons and Dragons, not Dragons and Dragons, oh and look, more dragons. They are powerful, respected, rare entities, both fierce and wise.
A climactic battle against a dragon can be a very rewarding coming-of-age for a party. The victory will be a turning point from aspiring adventurers figuring things out and still growing to accomplished warriors with the courage and power to make real changes in their worlds.
Alternatively, seeing an all-powerful “end-game” enemy (such as the Tarrasque or a demon lord) effortlessly drop a large dragon is a powerful “Oh, Lolth, Sheeyit just got real” moment demonstrating the gravity of that greater threat.
The other side of the coin.
Dragons don’t always need to be the enemy, Elder Metallic dragons on the side of the players can also be great mentors – they’re known to be wise and kind, and characters tend to have great empathy towards these dragons. Having this link is great for getting a party to really connect with a quest or to get a much more personal response.
Make it fun.
A character scarred by a Black dragon’s acid breath may have a grudge against all black dragons and relish the chance to fight one. Escaping a wildfire started by an angry Elder Red without getting seen can be a harrowing experience. Being praised by a Silver dragon-paladin is a proud moment for a party. There are a thousand ways that a dragon encounter can make a DnD game more fun, more dynamic, more interesting, and more rewarding for your players.
So dig into the DnD wiki or your books and find something you can do some fun with – remember that if the rules do get too tricky, go through them one at a time. Remember, when in doubt – just wing it! I guarantee that sooner or later a player will want to try to break a dragon’s wing mid-flight and there are just too many rules involved to have them all down by-the-book. Keep having fun, keep things going, and give your players something memorable.