Ian Gray was going to be providing a second guest post for us today, but he’s had computer problems during the week and seems to have run out tof time. Fortunately, I had this post in reserve, just in case…
A Sad Truth
Dragons are supposed to be the most awe-inspiring, iconic creatures in D&D – they are half the name of the game after all.
Players should never be willing to attack one on the spur of the moment, in fact they should be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid a direct confrontation.
Sadly, this is not the case with the creatures provided in the 3.x Monster Manual. Instead of thinking tactics and casualties, players – and hence their characters – are thinking “Dragon Hoard”.
To be honest, this isn’t a new problem – I’ve seen the same thing with every edition of D&D that I’ve played (I can’t speak to Pathfinder or 4e on the subject) to a greater or lesser extent.
And, over the years, I’ve taken apon myself in every game to do something about it.
Here, now, are the techniques that I employ to make Dragons, once again, the ultimate menace that they should be.
The first step is always to give Dragons an age-based boost in power. The following table lives in my Monster Manual next to the entry for Dragons:
|Mike’s Draconic Bonuses Table
No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that really does say “+78 HD” next to the entry for “Great Wyrm” and “+150 HD” next to the entry for Legendary Dragons. In a campaign that did not have Epic Levels, I would divide the entries for HD, Feats, and Stat Bonuses by 3 (rounding up) and the other entries by 2 (rounding down). But my campaigns routinely run to Epic Levels and the capabilities of Dragons should reflect that.
- Age – should be self-explanatory.
- Bonus HD – an increase relative to the figures given in the MM.
- Additional Feats – these can be any feats the Dragon qualifies for – something that is discussed in more detail later in this article.
- Stat Improve – I will usually roll randomly for which stat(s) receive this bonus, just so that there is some differentiation from one dragon to another. But if a Dragon’s reputation is already established, choose accordingly.
- Natural AC – an increase in the natural AC of the Dragon.
- Attack Bonus – This can apply to any of the natural attacks of the Dragon (bite, claw, wing buffet, tail slap, crush, tail sweep). At age group 1, it is applied to 1 attack mode, at age group 2 to two, and so on. Applying it to wings or claws requires 2 age groups. The bonus persists at the level at which it is granted until the Dragon expends an additional improvement on it. Once again, I tend to choose randomly to give each individual dragon some distinguishing differences.
- Damage Bonus – This applies only to those natural attacks which benefit from the attack bonus and persist at the level at which it is granted. In theory, the same system could be applied so that some attacks get extra accuracy and some get extra damage and a few overlap, but that proved too complicated for the benefits.
- Bahamut and Tiamat – These are not always a part of my campaigns, but if they are, they get the “legendary” bonuses. No Dragons not of equivalent status can qualify for that standard. They get the Attack and Damage bonuses to ALL natural attacks.
In addition, each of my campaigns confers additional benefits apon Dragonkind based apon the entries in the table; these are discussed seperately below.
Wyverns – lesser dragonkind
Wyverns are essentially “Dragons Lite”. I differentiate wyverns into the same age categories as Dragons, and apply the bonuses from one age category less – So an adult wyvern would receive the same bonuses as a Young Adult dragon. They also have an additional attack mode, the tail sting, to which they can apply their attack and damage bonuses.
Wyverns tend not to be intelligent, and even if the stat improvement is to intelligence, this is taken to indicate additional cunning, not sentience.
Wyverns do NOT get the benefit of the additional Draconic benefits I mentioned at the end of the previous section.
Magic Item Use
If there’s a magic item in a Dragon’s hoard, they may be able to use it. Armour and Cloaks are obvious no-nos (they won’t fit) as are boots. Gloves can be used from Young Adult onwards. I decide this on a case-by-case basis.
Each Dragon is also given a vulnerability or weakness. Again, this varies from one to another, and can be anything from Hay Fever through to weakened eyesight through to a missing scale (the “Smaug” vulnerability). Dragons work hard at concealing this weakness, but diligant research and observation may permit PCs to discover it.
A Special Place In History
Dragons should always have a special place in the history of the campaign – no beings of such power can exist without leaving their mark. This special place should also answer the question of why they are not the Rulers Of The World.
Another thing that you would inevitably have with beings of such power is a mythos that has built up surrounding them. Defeating any dragonkind of adult size or greater should form the basis of an epic saga, and additional legends would build up concerning the origins and activities of anyone who is even rumoured to have achieved such a feat.
Of course, Dragons are usually smart – sometimes frightningly so – and are quite capable of formulating and distributing their own myths and legends, either in an attempt to hide a vulnerability, to enhance their own fearsomeness, or to spread rumours of a false weakness.
A dragon should use its every ability to protect its hoard, and part of the process of creating the game world should answer the question of why they accumulate hoards in the first place. They clearly fulfill some draconic need (refer back to my article on Alien Races), and that need will impact their personalities both individually and in general. The need can be psychological, biological, physical, educational, social, or even arcane, or any combination of these. These motivations should also impact the contents of the Draconic Hoard, and so the contents of a recovered hoard may well give clues as to the motivation.
Draconic Biology & Society
The final ingredients that I am always careful to consider are Draconic Biology, especially dietary needs and reproduction, and Draconic Society, especially hobbies and interests. These are frequently different from campaign to campaign, usually due to assigning a different role to the draconic hoard.
Only when you really understand the role that Dragons play can you properly assess what other advantages they should receive as part of the overall enhancement package.
The Rings Of Time Solution
The Rings of Time campaign was one thrown together off-the-cuff using ideas that had been originally formulated for my Fumanor Campaign and then discarded, for one reason or another. It ran for about 5 years before being wound down due to my having insufficient time available for game prep. Even so, it took the characters from 5th level to well over 50th level.
In ROT, humanoid Dragons were the real gods, the creators of both Elves and Dwarves; but some of their number had sabotaged the experiment for their own ends. They had an exquisite ettiquette for dealing with this type of problem – they could call apon the services of mortals from the future to investigate, discover the source of the problem, and put things right, but each mortal’s life could only ever be interfered with in this manner once.
Thereafter they would be completely free agents – though, if they abused the power and knowledge they obtained (from the point of view of the gods) they would be considered to constitute a fresh problem and a new set of mortals summoned to provide a solution. There were other technical considerations and limits concerning time travel that had to be taken into account, but that was the heart of the campaign background.
The Dragonoids were technicians and scientists, inspired by the Space Gods of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” in his DC comics of the 1970s, with a smattering of Eric Von Daniken and other sources thrown in to spice up the mixture.
But the world had been seeded with eggs whose biology had been interefered with by the rebel dragons to create “super-soldiers” who could be led by them in a war of trans-universal conquest. Much of this plot superstructure was inspired by “The Proteus Operation” by James P. Hogan – I simply cast Dragons in the role of the Nazis (and their future-time backers) from that book.
Dragonoids had immense engineering and scientific know-how, semi-humanoid bodies, and not much in the way of physical capabilities; the degenerate forms of the “super-soldiers” had the characteristics of the Dragons from the Monster Manual, plus the add-ons described above. They were Gestapo and SS and other such groups.
But the genetic engineering was carried out in secrecy and haste by technitions, not true geniuses, and as a result the “supersoldiers” contained a number of design flaws. In particular, they needed rare minerals in their diet that they were incapable of obtaining from nature – they needed bipeds to mine and refine the ores into products that they could consume. As formidible as they were, they were acutely vulnerable once early Dwarves and Elves and Humans learned to protect their valuables, and most of them died out.
Only a few survived into the “modern era” of the game setting, sustained by the arcane arts of Elves that had been corrupted by the rebel Dragonoids, each at the heart of a single Drow Clan.
To offset the depradations of the Chromatic Dragons, the Dragonoids developed Metallic variants of the creations of their rebel kin to aid and protect mortals until they were strong enough to do so themselves. Few of these had survived, either; their inherantly “good” nature was always at odds with their own need to consume refined metal and magic objects, and sooner or later each would overstep the mark and be hunted down, or exile themselves in remorse.
And to protect mortals against their own exiled brethren, they created what mortals considered “The Gods”.
Dragons In Rings Of Time
When considering how Dragons were enhanced in the Rings Of Time campaign, it’s important to distinguish between the Dragonoids (the original Dragons) and the degenerate offspring created by misapplied genetic engineering. The Dragonoids were physically not far superior to human/elven/dwarven norms, but had much greater intelligence and wer capable of anything modern science can achieve, and more. They had computers, they had nerve gas, they had space-based artillery, and so on. They had forcefield restraints and lasers and tectonic exciters to achieve the mountain-building work of eons in a matter of days. But they were essentially lab geeks with no combat skill whatsoever.
Dragons, on the other hand, were quite a different story. In addition to the standard enhancements given at the start of this article, their intelligence would rise until they reached adulthood, and then decline as more and more of their mental faculties were dedicated to operating increasingly complex and unwieldy bodies. For every age category above Young Adult, they would lose 5 points of INT and add 5 points to either STR or CON, with all the attendant consequences. Eventually they reached the point of having an amazing caster level with their spells but would only be able to cast level-0 and level-1 magics.
Allied to this progression, howeever, were a number of specific Feats that dragons could acquire and utilise. One of the most useful converted unusable spell slots into additional hit points or into once-a-day bonuses to attacks and damage or to saves. These converted those “lost” spell slots into additional physical prowess that, when added to the basic bonuses, made Dragons genuinely scary opponants.
And yet, they were second-rate compared to the enhanced draconic versions that have appeared in some of my other campaigns…
The Fumanor Solution – Class Levels
Dragons in Shards Of Divinity hatch in a nest, the location of which varies with the colour of the Dragon. They are voraciosly hungry, and the only food available are the unhatched eggs, so the first to hatch generally consumes the rest of the clutch, shells and all. These nests are usually located near a humanoid settlement of some kind, and nests have been discovered by these residents from time to time, but every attempt to provide food for the hatchlings has resulted in stunted growth both physical and mental; there appear to be some dietary needs that can only be met in this way.
A wyrmling’s instinct is to hide and scavenge for food, while remaining close to the nest. After a period of between two and ten years, they grow enough to enter the Very Young stage of growth. Their flesh becomes malleable and soft, and the dragon is compelled instinctively to seek out a humanoid, or preferably, a group of humanoids. When they encounter such a group, the dragon shape-changes instinctively to appear to be one of their number. In the process, it loses all memory of who and what it is; the humanoid group discovers a child of their own kind, naked and amnesiac, with all the natural abilities of same.
What happens next depends on the nature of the humanoid culture. Some will take the stranger in, others will abuse or kill it or drive it out. Maternal instincts generally provide the Dragon with shelter and a home life, even amongst such parents as Gnolls and Trolls. Over the next twenty years or so, the humanoid dragon makes its way through life as just another member of whatever race it appears to be, gaining in maturity and understanding, and acquiring class levels as does any other member of society.
With each level gained, there is a % chance that some unknown factor in its environment will trigger a return to it’s natural form (3% x total character levels). There is also a 1% per year chance of this occuring, cumulative. In addition, once this chance exceeds 10%, accidental ‘death’ triggers the reversion process. The new “very young” dragon has no memory of its time as a humanoid, and – humanoids being what they are – is almost certainly not in an environment that is ‘natural’ for it, and it will seek to retreat to such an environment as quickly as possible – which may mean going through the bodies of its former companions, if they try and stop it!
The odds are also low that the new home it finds will be the same location as its nest was located. This is important later in its life!
When the Very Young dragon is again ready to enter the next phase of its age cycle, a similar process occurs, though the humanoid form will begin as a physically older specimen matching the age category of the dragon it was – very young child, child, teen, young adult, adult, and so on. Each time, it has no memory of its previous incarnations as a humanoid, though it will remember the skills and abilities it learned in previous incarnations as instinctive reactions; this makes it more likely that the dragon will find itself in a similar class or occupation.
In this way, the dragon acquires a repetoire of class levels. While in Draconic form, it learns to access some of the knowlege and abiltiies learned during one of its humanoid incarnations as conscious knowledge and skill. The “bonus hit dice” from the master table indicates how many levels of ability it can call apon from those past experiences. There are a number of specific draconic feats that enable it to employ these abilities in various ways:
- Class Stack permits the attack bonuses, saving throw improvements, etc, that were learned as a humanoid, to stack with the dragon’s existing values.
- Natural Weapon permits the dragon to employ one of it’s natural attacks as though it were a weapon with which it can apply combat feats learned as a humanoid, including the ability to make multiple attacks in a full attack action.
- Silent Inhale permits a dragon to employ its breath weapon for Sneak Attacks (as per Rogue, requires levels in Rogue or equivalent).
- Hindbrain permits the dragon to employ spells that it learned to cast in humanoid state. These spells must either have no Somatic component or the forebrain must relinquish control of the dragon’s hands and claws to the hindbrain for the round. Similarly, they must have no Verbal componant or the forebrain must relinquish control of the dragon’s voice (and breath weapon) to the hindbrain. Dragons often combine this feat with metamagics to avoid these restrictions.
- Reactive Hindbrain this permits the dragon to roll seperate initiative values and surprise checks for its hindbrain. This can be especially potent as a means of neutralising spellcasting attackers – the hindbrain simply stands ready to counterspell. It also permits the dragon to take “Improved Initiative” a second time.
…and so on.
These abilities, when compounded with class levels and class abilities, and the natural abilities of the dragon, can make them a far more terrifying opponant. For example, the table below compares a standard Juvenile Black Dragon, an Enhanced Juvenile Black Dragon, and an Enhanced Juvenile Black Dragon with 10 levels of Fighter:
|The Fumanor Dragon
Instead of one breath weapon attack, 2 wing buffets, 2 claws, and 1 bite, doing an average total of 36.5 points damage (standard), or the same doing 95.5 points (default enhancement), the Fumanor dragon gets one breath weapon, 2 bites, 4 wing buffets, and 4 claws (+1 to hit, improved critical range) – and who cares that the second of each is at a measly +20 (+21 for the claws) to hit? That’s an average damage total of 162 points, almost all of which is sure to hit it’s target. Or, to look at it another way, that’s slightly more damage to each of 4 attackers as the standard dragon could do IN TOTAL in an average round.
Add to all of this more feats that enhance the breath weapon (worsened saves, double duration, double damage, faster recharge, more uses per day) and by the time you’re talking Mature-plus, even a 20th-level party will hesitate before taking one on – and will certainly baulk at handing the Dragon any extra tactical advantages!
Draconic Memories In Fumanor
As can be discerned from what’s been written above, Dragons have serious problems with long-term memory in Fumanor. For the most recent few days, events are clear; for the past few weeks, the general outline of events is clear; for the past few months, a Dragon has vague recollections; beyond that, everything a dragon knows operates at an instinctive level. This is a species badly in need of a diary.
Fortunately, they have developed one, and one with far more fidelity than perishable words on a parchment. Dragons have learned to store valuable experiences – victories, defeats, comradeship, good times, bad times – in noble metals and magic items. When they fuss over their hoards, Dragons are reliving the events that are important to their sense of identity, and when another dragon (or uncouth collection of adventurers) steals a hoard, they are really stealing that Dragon’s identity from them.
Most react poorly to this, as can be imagined. But the usual response is to obtain some more treasure from somewhere – anywhere will do – in which to record the memory of the theft, enabling the Dragon to persue the thieves for as long as it may take.
The Shards Of Divinity Solution – Spellcasting & Artifacts
I have to be careful in terms of what I write on this subject, because a lot remains unknown to the PCs, some of whom read these articles! Here’s what they DO know:
Dragons invented arcane magic in a time before the Gods. They were the undisputed masters of the art, and were eventually persuaded to teach it to the Elves, who developed much of the theory behind it; the two races collaborated extensively. Dragons created the artifacts that crop up from time to time in the world; Elvish attempts to imitate this art produced many of the more powerful but standard magic items of the world. Then, for reasons yet unkown, the Dragons retreated into isolation and have not been heard from in millennia.
Dwarves then came into contact with Elves and successfully learned the art of crafting magic items from them, though the race was anything but adept at any other form of arcane spellcasting. They then had a falling out with the Elves and severed social and political relations with their former teachers.
Eventually, humans came into contact with the Elves, and a few of them undertook the study of arcane magic, formalising many of the precepts that are associated with Arcane Spellcasting in “modern” times; Elves dismiss much of this as dogma, but have become more insular and are unwilling to identify which parts they consider flawed, and are less willing to share their knowledge and expertise with outsiders.
It is not known whether other races learned arcane spellcasting from the Elves, the Dragons, or developed the art independantly, or even acquired it from Humans.
Dragons are rumoured to still posess and utilise many of the artifacts that they created, as well as powerful magic items gifted them by Elves and Dwarves that may only be operated by those of Draconic Blood. The PCs have encountered at least one item that they would qualify as a Draconic Artifact and found that the humans who posessed it could utilize it imperfectly at best, and with substantial side effects. Even imperfectly used, this was the most powerful magic item that the characters had ever encountered.
They have had contact both prior to and subsequent to that encounter with Elven Crafting and have found it to be impressive, to say the least.
There are legends of Dragons being able to cast multiple spells simultaniously. What the truth of these legends may be is still unknown… at least to them.
These three examples of how to restore Dragons to their rightful place as iconic creatures worthy of the respect, fear, and prestige that comes with being part of the very name of the D&D game system in its many incarnations. Using the principles spelt out at the start of this article, and finding new ways to interpret the “enhancements” table, permit these techniques to be employed in any campaign.
A final note on retroactive continuity
Should Dragons already be established at MM power levels within a campaign, I suggest that you take a leaf out of Raymond E Feist’s Magician and subsequent volumes – modern Dragons (the ones that the PCs are used to) are degenerate specimens without the power of their forebears – but somewhere, locked up in some otherplanar timeless holding space, a few specimens of the original species remain, waiting for someone to accidentally unleash them…