Dragons: The Great Victims of Worldbuilding

 I'm not a fan of Wizards of the Coast dragons.

I don't really feel like this should be that controversial. The organization of dragons based on the colors of their scales and their kind of breath weapon which also allows for good dragons in the metallic variety seems like an utter bastardization of what ought to be one of the most fantastic and magical things in fantasy. 

For instance, what in the world is a good dragon? These are embodiments of predation and destruction. They are a combination of like everything that humans fear on a primal level. The arrival of a dragon is like a natural disaster that hates you. The dwarves of Erebor learned that the hard way. By all accounts, dragons undyingly believe in their own superiority over all life, are prone to pride, vulnerable to flattery. I can't find an angle where that could be "good." 

Yes, there are no limits to worldbuilding and you should do whatever makes you happy.

No, I don't think you should make good-aligned dragons anything but incredible rarities.

Dragons are fire and death. Dragons are pride and greed. Dragons are predators and conquerors.

That is all so completely awesome that it feels like such a shame to have dragons be reduced to just another fantasy creature that could be good or evil. This all wildly depends on your setting and what fits in it, but these are gut feelings for me in any kind of traditional fantasy setting. Now I've used good dragons before but more as things in a mythical past. Dragons can be neutral, after a fashion, always dangerous, never safe, but manageable, self-interested enough that they can be dealt with.

By Paul Bonner

So what are the essential parts of a dragon?

  • Big
  • Snake-like
  • Flight
  • Breathes fire
That, to me, is the visual essence of what a dragon is. I would also add secondary essences that feel right:
  • Hoards gold
  • Proud
  • Magical
  • Kidnap princesses
  • Fight knights
Dragons also tend to have a strange place in a lot of cosmologies. Dragons are like gods. How do gods and dragons get along? Are dragons gods? Once again, if dragons are just another kind of creature you might come across in the world, it just kind of seems like a waste, but where dragons come from and what relationship they have to higher powers is a hazy area in some settings that I think ought to be considered. Dark Souls does a cool thing by making the dragons basically Titans, the primordial divinities before the gods that the gods have to slay to create their world.

What are some things that ruin dragons? (A 1d6 Table)
  1. Dragon Riders: Nothing neuters dragons more than sticking a guy on top of them. The idea of riding a dragon should be something reserved for the most legendary of heroes or gods. It is akin to taking the primal chaos of the world and turning it into a fluffy doggo. The idea that dragons would consent to be mounted with their pride and superiority complex strains belief.  
  2. Scale Color Restrictions: The best dragon designs are not one color at all. Dragon scales are opalescent, they shift color depending on the angle of the sun and the viewer. Red dragons tend to have flecks of gold in their scales. Blue dragons are bedazzled with silver. A dragon that looks black may turn out to be a deep emerald green in the right light. That's awesome! Also, why were their alignments and their scale colors ever connected in the first place? That just seems silly? Why were their scale colors and their breath weapons ever connected? Dragons breathe fire. That's what they do. It seems like such a strange thing to just change it to lightning or acid when it is so crucial to what a dragon is.
  3. Shapeshifting Dragons: There could be room for this one, but I just don't get it. Dragons are enormous creatures of fire and death whose very existence is anathema to civilization. Shapeshifting just seems to be a way of taking away that core essence with the goal of making dragons more flexible. Sometimes making something flexible is watering it down. The only way I could see this working is if it is not a common thing for dragons but a working of magic done by a particularly cunning dragon to mess with a king or lust after a princess and give some motivation for kidnapping her. Shapeshifting should probably make a dragon very vulnerable that way an adventurer could take advantage of it, or maybe a dragon could conceivably shape shift, but why would they want to? Look at them, they're the most beautiful thing ever!
  4. Dragonborn: Dragons are alien and anti-human. The existence of a dragon means that human civilization has to clear out for miles or live in fear or total obliteration. How, when, or why would humans and dragons (presumably shape-shifted ones, although that begs more questions) ever "get together" and how could such a thing not be a nightmarish abomination? Make dragonborn ill-begotten mutants begging for death and you might be onto something cool. Exception: I once thought of a race of dragonborn nobility who were a dynasty set apart from other humans by the blood of the dragon (magically infused rather than through mating). This fits some of the tropes of dragons. They are proud and so want better lieutenants than mere humans to govern their slave empire. The dragon dies. The dragonborn ruling class is left behind. I think the problem is dragonborn just being another mortal species that is totally common to see in the world. That seems to just ruin the mystique of dragons. 
  5. Dragons are common: having a bunch of dragons definitely waters them down. Honestly, dragons being on the verge of extinction is the best population level for them. No civilizations could ever develop if there were so many dragons around.
  6. Many dragon breeds: having one dragon being very different from another is great. Having a bunch of breeds and species of dragons turns them into regular animals. Having dragons be just like regular animals once again takes away their mystique although you could do some neat things with that. Call this one a maybe.
What are some neat things you could do with dragons? (A 1d8 Table)
  1. Dragons are fire made flesh: A dragon is hot to the touch, its very presence heats a space. The gold that makes up its hoard and nest is likely slowly melting. Dragons are the primordial essence of one of the most destructive things in human history. They are the atomic bomb before the atomic bomb. 
  2. Dragon fire does strange things to the land: Dragon flame makes the land barren, never to grow anything green again or perhaps only strange lift begins to grow there like the luminous, biting Snapdragon flowers that like their meat well-done.
  3. Dragons are demons: Go full biblical with one. Dragons are creatures of hell. They are fallen angels, corrupted gods. They could be the embodiments of deadly sins, the product of mass corruption and moral failure. That is the implication with the dwarves of Erebor anyway, that the king hoarded too much gold and for his greed, the dragon came. After the violence of a massacre, the blood of the innocent seeps into the soil, eventually finding itself pooling in a deep dark cave, all the hatred of the souls lost in the cruelty joins together until a scarlet being of pure rage emerges to take vengeance on the whole world.
  4. Dragons were human. Greed turns me a human or other mortal creature into a dragon. Hoard enough gold. Eat your own children out of jealousy. Get cursed by a god or wizard for denying them hospitality out of your miserliness. Those are ways you get turned into a dragon. 
  5. A dragon's eyes hypnotize. That's a Tolkien detail that often gets forgotten but I think it's super cool. That is a way you could involve a dragon in intrigue if they can enchant mortals or even assume direct control. Honestly, make your dragons like Mass Effect reapers. That'd be sweet. 
  6. Powerful wizards turn into dragons. Take a note straight out of Sleeping Beauty. A fight with a regular wizard is a lot less cool than a fight with a fearsome wyrm. 
  7. Dragons are proud and bored. Dragons love riddles and flattery. Their pride can easily be used to manipulate them. Issue them a challenge and they will do it just to prove they can. It's a distinctive characteristic that smart players will make great use of. Dragons are also intrigued by new things and all kinds of novelty because they generally believe that they are old enough to have seen everything. 
  8. Dragons underwater. Dragons swimming underwater is sweet don't @ me. Think about the massive body of a dragon swimming towards you in the water. Terrifying.
However, I encourage you to not ask "What dragons?" but rather "Whether dragons?"

The presence of dragons in a setting says a lot about the setting. A dragon in the area stunts the growth of nations. Who would ever go to war with such a terrifying possibility as drawing the wrath of a dragon? Dragons are terrifying embodiments of savage nature and any setting with a dragon is bound to be more about man vs nature than man vs man. This plays itself out in the Hobbit where all the kingdoms immediately go to war once Smaug is dead. Dragons also necessarily create swathes of wilderness where all manner of monsters and things that wouldn't fit in civilization live and an easy reason for ruins to exist. The dragon burned it all down. Get rid of the dragon and now the kingdoms can trade, squabble, and expand in peace. 

You could also make a different monster a "dragon." Dragons establish a lot of the themes of the setting. Being the biggest, baddest thing around will do that. The sandworms of Dune are the "dragons" of that setting. They fit exactly into the themes of ecology and resource dependency. There was another setting that was coming out for Lamentations where the "dragons" were psychic whales in an early modern nautical fantasy setting.

1d6 Other "dragons" 
  1. An Undead Plague: If the main problem of the setting is that the dead constantly come back to life or that there is a plague making people into zombies then that is your "dragon." A Dark Lord with an army of horrors plays a similar role.
  2. The Kraken: Perfect for a pirate campaign. No explanation needed. 
  3. A Giant: A single giant with a castle in the clouds with wondrous treasures adds a lot of fairy tale vibes.
  4. A Giant Boar or other Great Beast: You can do a lot with this. I once had a setting that used to be home to a godly giant snake until it was slain by a legendary hero that become the central god for a new pantheon. I had cultists trying to resurrect the snake, questions about whether the wild world before the snake was better than the world of industry in the present. 
  5. Colossi: Straight out of Shadow of the Colossus: divine beasts that roam the land, beast gods that hold the world under their sway until you slay them. Were they created by an ancient civilization? Are they imprisoned deities that need to be freed to return to their normal state? 
  6. The Fey: Primordial terrors of nature that hold back the advance of civilization? Why weren't these on the list sooner? They do a lot of similar things too: steal maidens, be prideful, delight in deals and riddles, use great magic. 
So those are just some idle musings about dragons in fantasy settings. I think they are overused and under-appreciated. None of this is meant to stop you if you have a cool idea that goes contrary to what I'm saying here. Quite the contrary. I find dragons to be frustrating elements to include well. If you can manage to do it well, then by all means.

Comments

  1. I think I stole this from Goblin Punch, but whenever I describe an encounter with a dragon to players, I like to emphasize the sudden realization of how gossamer and illusory the world is, including the PCs, compared to the dragon. The dragon is the most essentially *real* thing they've ever encountered. Perhaps the only essentially real thing they ever have or ever will encounter.

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    1. Making the dragon feel like something genuinely important and menacing is a huge thing for me and it's a main impetus for this post

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  2. This feels too restrictive. I feel like *most* mythological and/or popular dragons in fantasy don't obey these rules.

    D&D's color-coded dragons are admittedly silly, but they do at least contain spaces for more of the classics. You've got epic ancient dragons and dragon gods, but other stuff too.

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    1. Admittedly, trying to fit *every* take on dragons in your setting simultaneously might be a mistake.

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    2. Granted a lot of fiction works in different ways and there are actually a ton of different ways to use dragons. I just think that a lot of generic fantasy makes dragons far less than they could be

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  3. I love this. Agree, agree.

    #4 of Neat Things reminds me of Voyage of the Dawn Treader were Eustace takes a gold armband, greed takes hold of him and he turns into a dragon.

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    1. Ooooo I didn't even remember that from Voyage! Nice pick!

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  4. While I largely agree with your points, I want to point out that most mythological dragons (at least here in Europe) are associated with poison instead of fire. Which ironically makes for a rather refreshing change from most post-Tolkien fantasy settings.

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    1. Fair play and I think poison goes better with metaphysical, shape shifting dragons, "dripping poison" in the king's ear

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  5. Can only agree. I always imagined dragons as the terror from above bringing empire and napalm. Good dragons are like vegans, having exterminated a few village when younger but got convinced that humans actually deserve to live.

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    1. I can imagine a good dragon essentially starving itself and being weak because it has refused to give in to it's nature. That would be interesting and tragic.

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  6. I agree. Although I've always imagined that dragonriders would be squires/spotters to their dragons, not combatants.

    I wrote some blogposts about dragons after watching Shin Godzilla. Something beyond biology.

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    1. Thanks Arnold! Dragons definitely have to be more than biological creatures. There has to be something more to them magically or demonically or whatnot. I think it's often best for dragons to run on mythic logic rather than the weird D&D naturalism

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  7. "There was another setting that was coming out for Lamentations where the "dragons" were psychic whales in an early modern nautical fantasy setting."

    I believe this was a scam.

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