D&D Alumni Archive | 4/25/2014
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Draco Historia
Shannon Appelcline

T he name of the game is Dungeons & Dragons, so it’s not exactly surprising that dragons have always been a part of the game. In fact, their appearance in OD&D (1974) would largely form the template for their depictions forever after.


The Original Ten: 1974-1988

In the beginning, there were six types of dragons: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden, appearing on pages 11-14 of Monsters & Treasures for OD&D. Since the book offered just a paragraph of description for most monsters, the amount of material on dragons was notable—immediately showing how important they were to the game.

In that first appearance, dragons already had their unique breath weapons: cold for the white dragons; acids for the blacks; chlorine gas for the greens; lightning for the blues; fire for the reds; and fire or gas for the golds. They also each inhabited unique terrains and level niches: from levels 5-7 for the whites, to 9-11 for the reds, and 10-12 for the golds. They could also appear in different age groups, which defined their hit points and breath weapon damage. And, lest you think otherwise, the golds were indeed lawful, while the chromatic dragons were chaotic.

In other words, the dragons from the original OD&D book looked a lot like they would for the next few decades.

One of the few aspects of OD&D’s dragons that would be largely ignored in later books was their vulnerability or resistance to certain elements. For example, blue dragons were vulnerable to fire, but resistant to lightning and water.

Where most monsters were defined solely by their combat stats, dragons had percent chances that they might be willing to talk or would be sleeping, probably reflecting the actions of Smaug from The Hobbit (1937)—who was likely a model for the red dragon itself. OD&D also contained extensive rules for subduing dragons and even selling them on the open market!

The four missing dragons appeared shortly thereafter in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975), which revealed brass, copper, bronze, and silver dragons. Like the gold dragon, each had two breath weapons.

And then there were ten.

The biggest change between dragons in Greyhawk and later sources is that the metallic dragons are first said to be either lawful or neutral—where they’d soon be lawful only; other dragons would eventually appear to fill the neutral niche. Greyhawk also introduced the draconic gods, Bahamut and Tiamat, though they weren’t yet named.

When AD&D rolled around with its Monster Manual (1977), Gygax slightly increased the power of the dragons—something that would become an ongoing task over the decades. Most notably, they picked up a fear power that allowed them to scare away weaker foes; beyond that they were very similar to the OD&D monsters. And that was the state of the ten basic dragons through the entirety of AD&D’s first edition (1977-1988).

Row One: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White Dragons
Row Two: Brass, Bronze, Copper, Gold, Silver Dragons


Expanding the Ten: 1980-1988

The dragons of OD&D and the Monster Manual defined a strong paradigm: lawful dragons were metallic and chaotic dragons were chromatic. Though the official D&D rules only listed five each of type, fans were willing to look deeper.

Len Lakofka began the trend in The Dragon #38 (June 1980) where he introduced three new evil dragons: brown, orange, and yellow. Similarly the evil gray dragon and the good steel dragon appeared in Dragon #62 (June 1982). Richard Alan Lloyd more methodically filled in “the tints of the color wheel” in Dragon #65 (September 1982) with his own yellow, orange, and purple dragons.

None of these new chromatic and metallic dragons really expanded the scope of D&D’s dragons: they just filled in the blanks. Much the same could be said of the gem dragons that first appeared in The Dragon #37 (May 1980). These new dragons by Arthur W. Collins rounded out the alignments by providing five neutral dragons: amethyst, crystal, emerald, sapphire, and topaz. Like their predecessors, these gem dragons each had their own terrains and breath weapons—and they were innovative enough to become official in 2e’s MC14 Monstrous Compendium Fiend Folio Appendix (1992). As we’ll see, many more dragon articles would appear in Dragon over the years.

Meanwhile, D&D’s official products were more clearly breaking new draconic ground. The Fiend Folio (1981) introduced six “oriental” dragons, while the Monster Manual II (1983) expanded dragons beyond the categories of the previous years by introducing a motley crew of cloud dragons, faerie dragons, mist dragons, and shadow dragons. Basic D&D revealed its own “gemstone” dragons in the D&D Masters Rules (1985). These amber, crystal, jade, onyx, ruby and sapphire dragons had no relation to the neutral dragons of Dragon Magazine, but instead followed a variety of alignments.

There was one thing that all of these dragons of the ‘80s had in common, from Lakofka’s colorful monsters to Frank Mentzer’s gemstones: they didn’t change the fundamental paradigm of how dragons worked in D&D. They were powerful monsters, but not necessarily the horrific creatures of legend and lore. They fit into a pretty standard range of monster levels (approximately 5-12) and although they had more powers than most monsters, they weren’t impossible to deal with.

Row One: Pan Lung (Coiled), Shadow, Faerie, Mist, Cloud Dragons


Dragonlance: 1984-2010

Though dragons appeared in every early Monster Manual, they weren’t given much love in D&D adventures. TSR published modules about giants (1978), drow (1978), lizard men (1982), and elemental evils (1979, 1985), but there were scarcely any dragons to be seen. Recognizing this deficit, TSR decided to publish a trilogy of adventures all about dragons. They took proposals from in-house designers, and the result was an epic adventure by Tracy Hickman called Dragonlance.

Dragonlance (1984-1986) grew from those small beginnings into TSR’s first true epic. It ended up running 12 modules—one for each of the ten types of dragons, plus Bahamut and Tiamat. The rules for dragons didn’t change, but they generally acted more intelligently—appearing as real characters in the adventures, not just monsters. They were also quite central to the plot, where dragon armies marched across the world of Krynn, commanded by Takhisis (a version of Tiamat).

Dragons have continued to be important to Krynn over the years. For example, when TSR released Dragonlance: Fifth Age (1996) it told the story of huge, alien dragons settling the world of Krynn and taking over great territories. They were some of the biggest (and most dangerous) dragons ever seen in a D&D game world.


Print Magazine Writing: 1981-2007

Meanwhile, Dragon Magazine was increasing its focus on dragons, expanding upon those early articles by Collins and Lakofka. It began with Dragon #50 (June 1981); the magazine’s fifth anniversary issue was advertised as having a “Special Dragon Section”. The most notable article in the issue was probably Gregory Rihn’s “Self Defense for Dragons”, which stated that dragons couldn’t “stand up to the invariably large and well equipped parties that are thrown against them.” It was an early recognition that dragons needed to be tougher—and so picked up extra attacks and dirty tricks.

From there, two or three articles about dragons appeared in every anniversary issue for decades. Sometimes this meant more new dragons, such as in Dragon #62 (June 1982) and Dragon #74 (June 1983). Dragon #170 (June 1991) even introduced a new breed of dragon, the “ferrous” heavy metal dragons—which included iron, chrome, cobalt, tungsten, and nickel. More often it was rules variants, such as an article on dragon clerics or still another attempt to improve dragon damage in “Dragon Damage Revised” by Leonard Carpenter in Dragon #98 (June 1985). The final draconic anniversary issue, Dragon #356 (June 2007) was notable for both detailing many of the most famous dragons from D&D adventures* and revamping the ferrous dragons for 3e.

The anniversary issues were a great source of (unofficial) draconic lore that over time ensured that dragons were the best-detailed monsters in the D&D universe. However, that wasn’t Dragon’s only contribution to them. Ed Greenwood’s “Wyrms of the North” column, which ran from Dragon #230 (June 1996) to Dragon #259 (May 1999), detailed almost thirty unique draconic personalities—again highlighting the fact that dragons were more than just monsters.


2e Monstrositities: 1989-2000

After AD&D was revamped in a second edition (1989), dragons unsurprisingly reappeared in Monstrous Compendium Volume One (1989). This sourcebook revised dragons more thoroughly than had been the case either in Dragonlance or in most Dragon articles—primarily by powering them up. As TSR announced in Dragon #146 (June 1989): “They’re back… and more dangerous than ever!”

Dragons in 2e were given new special attacks like snatch and wing buffet. They also received more hit dice: the weak white dragon, which once ran 5-7 HD now had 11, while the red dragons which once ran 9-11 HD now had 15. Total hit points were also increased for older dragons. All around, dragons were far more dangerous in 2e, as was appropriate.

Overall, 2e was a great time to be a monster. TSR released over 25 Monstrous Compendiums. Which meant, of course, lots of monsters. Chromatic dragons, gem and gemstone dragons, metallic dragons, neutral dragons, and oriental dragons all reappeared in official books. There were also tons of one-off dragons, such as the planar adamantine dragon, the astral dragon, the cloud dragon, the radiant dragon, the steel dragon of Greyhawk, and the weredragon. However, there were no large-scale revisions of the major categories of dragons that had been created back in 1974.

The first draconic sourcebook, FOR1: Draconomicon (1990), was also released during the 2e years. Though Nigel Findley’s book theoretically focused on the Forgotten Realms, it had lots of information on dragons of any land, including notes on psychology and magic. There were of course new dragon species, too—including official mercury, steel, and yellow dragons.

The biggest expansion of the era might have been the dracolich—an undead dragon species that originated with Ed Greenwood in Dragon #110 (June 1986) and the novel Spellfire (1987)**. However dracoliches really came of their own in the 2e era, when they became a standard part of the AD&D cosmology and were the heart of AD&D’s second draconic sourcebook: Cult of the Dragon (1998).

Then again, the biggest 2e draconic expansions might also have been the Council of Wyrms (1994, 1999), a setting where players got to take on the roles of dragonkind themselves.

Whichever way you count it, the ‘90s was an expansive time for dragons.

Row One: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White Dragons
Row Two: Brass, Bronze, Copper, Gold, Silver Dragons


3e Revisions: 2000-2007

During D&D’s 3e years, Wizards of the Coast revamped many of the traditional draconic groups without expanding them. Thus the standard lists of chromatic dragons, gem dragons, metallic dragons, and oriental dragons all appeared for d20.

The biggest change for dragons in 3e was that draconic age levels were now used to broadly distinguish a species. For example, white dragons went from 4HD wyrmlings to 37HD great wyrms, where before age had modified hit points within a smaller range. Draconic attacks also became more dangerous, as part of a general power increase for monsters. Finally, dragons were more frequent spell casters. All told, dragons were more obviously the dangerous creatures of legend that they were always meant to be—at least if they lived to a sufficiently advanced age.

There were also three notable expansions of dragonkind: several Realms-specific dragons appeared in Monsters of Faerûn (2001); more powerful epic dragons appeared in the Epic Level Handbook (2002); and new planar dragons abounded, especially in Draconomicon: The Book of Dragons (2003).

The last book, another major look at dragons, featured details on psychology and physiology, related prestige classes and feats, and loads more. Draconomicon also expanded the scope of dragonkind, not just with the planar dragons but also with such lesser cousins as the drakes and landwyrms. Though drakes and wyrms had both been touched upon in the ‘90s, this was their most comprehensive so far.

Draconomicon wasn’t the only draconic book for 3e, which also saw the publication of Dragons of Faerûn (2006) and Races of the Dragon (2006). The last book was particularly interesting because it introduced a humanoid dragon race called the dragonborn. Though similar races had been around since Dragonlance introduced the draconians, this was the first big push for a humanoid dragon PC race, something that would only gain importance in 4e.

Row One: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White Dragons
Row Two: Brass, Bronze, Copper, Gold, Silver Dragons


4e Icons: 2008-2012

Dragonborn became one of the core D&D races with the release of D&D 4e (2008). However the real story of dragons in 4e is how important they became to the game. Most notably, dragons weren’t just for high-level parties anymore. Instead, 4e continued with the expansion of 3e, which allowed younger dragons to be face by lower-level parties. The Free RPG Day adventure Treasure of Talon Pass (2008) featured a climatic encounter with a black dragon, as did some of the later D&D Encounters adventures—even though these were intended for 2nd or 3rd level characters. This was a big change from the high-level dragons of AD&D.

The 4e Monster Manual (2008) largely used the same tactic as 3e: varying ages allowed dragons to be widely differentiated in level. A young white dragon was level 3, while an ancient white dragon was level 24; as a result, the weakest of the dragons could now be used for beginning parties and epic-level adventurers alike. Of course the statistics for the dragons were dramatically revamped, primarily to make them more thematic, as was generally the case with 4e. A white dragon might now do cold damage with its claws, while all the dragons received more potent fear effects and breath weapons that recharged in new ways.

The 4e Monster Manual included the standard five chromatic dragons, but after that monster designers became ever more creative. When metallic dragons finally showed up, they appeared in a new range of types: brass, bronze, cobalt, mercury, mithral, orium, and steel. Official brown, gray, and purple dragons also appeared. More notably, a totally new category of dragons arrived: the catastrophic dragons of Monster Manual 3 (2010), who embodied such forces as blizzards, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

Row One: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White Dragons
Row Two: Brass, Bronze, Copper, Gold, Silver Dragons
Row Three: Adamantine, Cobalt, Iron, Mithral, Orium Dragons


What’s Next: 2014-Present

Over the last four decades, dragons have become increasingly important to the D&D game. Not only have they become more epicly powerful, but they’ve also appeared in weaker forms for low-level adventures. Meanwhile, frequent sourcebooks have helped to entrench them as a core part of the game.

That should only improve this summer as D&D’s newest multimedia storyline takes center stage. In “Tyranny of Dragons” the Cult of the Dragon seeks to free Tiamat, the queen of evil chromatic dragons. It also suggests that in the D&D edition that comes next, dragons will continue to be core from the start.


* Notable adventures for dragons include Dungeon #1 (1986), The Sunless Citadel (2000), Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001), Bastion of Broken Souls (2002), and the Age of Worms adventure path (2005-2006). Note the lack of early adventures prior to Dragonlance (1984-1986).

** Or if you prefer, on the map of White Plume Mountain (1979), which warned of an “undead dragon”.

About the Author

Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early '80s. He's the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons—a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Shannon thanks the folks at RPGnet for suggesting some of Dragon’s best articles and giving other insights into the magazine's history.

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