Monday, September 14, 2015

More Dragons in the Dungeons

So there's this game you may have heard of called Dungeons & Dragons. It seems to have more dungeons than dragons, which is a shame.

Ancient and medieval depictions of dragons aren't of multi-story lizards breathing out gigantic fireballs. They are generally small, more slender reptiles, comparable in size to large horses, that seek out treasure hoards and guard them. It's a classic underworld trope to have dragons atop a burial mound or ancient tomb, which makes them a natural fit for dungeons.

Dragon inflation has been a constant of D&D, and it has slowly pushed the dragon out of the game, except at high levels. Dragons went up in hit points significantly in the first edition PHB, and much further in second edition, firmly ensconcing them as upper-echelon enemies. They have stayed that way ever since; a party will pretty much have to be 5th level or higher before even thinking about slaying a dragon.

OD&D dragons aren't unbeatable super-beasts. White dragons only have 5-7 hit dice, and are 25% likely to speak, and 60% likely to be sleeping when encountered. A Very Young white dragon only has 5-7 hit points and a similar score on its breath weapon; in my opinion that's not out of the question for an encounter on the first dungeon level. It's a logistical challenge, since the party will want to avoid being hit by the breath weapon, but not one that the party can never overcome. Even at 3 square inches (30 feet), the cone of a white dragon's breath will not necessarily hit multiple party members if they arrange themselves properly, using terrain obstacles or shapes to their advantage. If nothing else, they won't just assume they can kick in every door and slay the monsters.

All OD&D dragons are treasure type H. This is a hoard with literally piles of coins; there is a 75% chance of 10,000-60,000 GP. On average (and not counting magic items), a hoard should be in excess of 80,000 GP, with most of that coming in jewelry and gold pieces. Slaying a dragon and taking this much treasure would be a fine haul, although the reward stops being quite so dramatic after 5th level, when a dragon's hoard is no longer an automatic level gain. But up to level 5 or so, dragons are an efficient way to gain a level.

If you want to picture a hoard, let's say that gold pieces are about the size of a Krugerrand. 60,000 gold pieces would be about 50 gallons of space, which would be larger than the volume of a typical bathtub. This would have about 25 pieces of jewelry and/or 50 precious gems mixed in. Armored PCs could only take out about 1800 coins each; you'd probably want a few wheelbarrows. Transporting gold out of the dungeon should be almost as much of a challenge as slaying the dragon. It's impressive, but not cavernous rooms full of coins. The largest possible hoard would have 184,000 coins, which is in the area of a refrigerator.

By design, dragons should be a low to mid level monster: a hard challenge at level 1 or 2, but able to be handled with much more ease at levels 4 to 6.. If the referee is running OD&D by the book (as it were), it's a poor decision to take on a blue or red dragon. They are more likely to talk, and thus to parley, and less likely to be sleeping. And their treasure will be the same as a white dragon, which could be as much as 6 hit dice lower than its red cousins.

There's another reason to put dragons in your dungeon, though: factions. Dragons will naturally relate to the other denizens, although obviously this relationship may be more of a predator/prey one. But it will always make the dungeon more interesting if there is a dragon sitting on a big treasure hoard. Whether or not the dragon talks is a big factor in this, as a brute white dragon that picks on the goblin tribe would be very different from a crafty green dragon that has a group of gnolls or bandits doing its bidding.

The moral is simple: don't be afraid to add dragons to your dungeon. They are designed in OD&D to be things that you can handle but still have some "badass factor."


  1. Great post. I am right on board with dragons that can crawl through 10' by 10' corridors. Look at the size of the dragon St. George killed, and that's my picture of the size of D&D dragons. One nit-pick, though:

    "Dragons went up in hit points significantly in the first edition PHB."

    No. The dragons in the AD&D Monster Manual have exactly the same hit points as do dragons in Supplement I: GREYHAWK. The GREYHAWK supplement allowed for dragons to have up to 8 hit points per hit die, while in the 1974 rules dragons have only up to 6 hit points per hit dice. Where GREYHAWK really added to the power of dragons was in giving them 3 attacks per round (rather than 1), with the bite doing up to 3-36 points of damage (rather than 1-6).

  2. Throughout B/X and 1E AD&D, dragons held pretty steady in power, and were suitable opponents for even 1st to 3rd level characters. Note that the BIG bruisers in B/X were the giants, not introduced until the Expert set!

    In the AD&D DMG, dragons started out as class III monsters on the random encounter tables; level III monsters were encountered on a 1 in 20 chance on a 1st level dungeon, with dragons encountered on a roll of 31 or 32 on the % table; thus, literally, a 1 in 1000 chance of randomly encountering dragons on a 1st level dungeon! These would of course be Very Young dragons, black, brass, or white... and then the chances of *randomly* encountering a dragon went up every level deeper into the dungeon, until with Monster Level X, the chance of an encounter with a dragon (or multiple dragons, ancient, old, and very old) was 10%... and at that level, encountering Bahamut or Tiamat randomly was a non-zero chance (on the 10th level of the dungeon, in fact, it was a 1 in 1000 chance of *randomly* encountering either of them)!

    The real inflation in dragon power came with 2nd edition AD&D and with the Companion level rules of D&D. In 2E, dragons simply got boosted all over the place, hit dice, powers, attacks, damage, etc., just went way overboard. In the case of the Companion set, Mentzer added "Medium" and "Large" dragons, with the dragons of the Basic set being re-classed as "Small" dragons; this was of course to enable dragons to be a challenge at almost all levels of play... there was even an "Exalted" class of "dragon-related beings," the Draedens, very Azathothesque, at Immortal level...

  3. Smaug: 200ft wing span, larger than colossal category.
    Horde: Gold in great hall filled with coins and other loot looks about the volume of the great pyramid (88,000,000 cubic feet).
    In d&d terms I would say 400gp/cubic feet. 35,200,000,000gp with arkenstone worth another 1/14th of previous total.

    By comparison 1/10th lb diamond worth 10,000gp. If Arkenstone were a diamond it would need to be in excess of twelve tons.

  4. While I'm with you on using smaller dragons, I do have to point out that medieval art often employed distorted proportions and scales. A dragon might look smaller than its slayer because it's inferior and of less importance, not because it would be physically smaller

  5. There's a young, small black dragon on level 1 of my version of Castle Greyhawk. My boys have encountered it after battling its lizardmen minions for several rounds, and ran away before they were engaged by it. (It's hissing threats getting louder as it approached broke their morale ;) ).


  6. Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly agree. A while back, I had come to the conclusion that a B/X white dragon was about equivalent in size and bulk to a tiger, given their very similar HD and damage stats. The estimate of the physical size of a Type H treasure hoard here really completes the picture in my mind of a dungeon-dwelling dragon.

  7. Definitely agree. I've been too influenced by the Smaug factor. I do love Tolkein, but in this respect he's been holding me back for years. I need to change that.

  8. Here's an excellent long-lost piece of art by Jim Roslof in the current auction... it depicts a party battling a small blue dragon (though the dragon is breathing flames). The dragon isn't much bigger than the knight battling it, but look at the pile of treasure... and there's the thief, doing his usual sneaky thing. And the other two members of the party stay well away, ready to loose arrows as the knight takes on the dragon sword to claw... classic!

  9. Dragons aren't only present in the Christian Middle Ages; the size of the ones represented in that context is, as it has already mentioned, not too big.

    Now, the culture conditions the representation of symbols, and a Christian religion isn't going to bestow the attribute of "greatness" to anything but God. Since the devil in such a context is so often the dragon as well, it may appear diminished.

    While in other cultures, the Dragon is "God" (Hindu, Chinese, etc.), and then it's not small in size (nor meaning) but huge, having names like Ananta (Infinite).

    Thus I consider "the Smaug factor" a good one to have into account.

    PS. In AD&D Dragons increased in power with the release of the post-Dragonlance setting Forgotten Realms boxed set. This was inherited to 2nd edition.


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