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Dragons Revisited
By James Wyatt

I t's been a while since I talked about dragons, and we’ve had a number of additional conversations about them here since then. You’ve seen some of the results of those conversations in Mike’s Legends & Lore column, where he showed off the way that a dragon might interact with its environment—particularly in its lair. But about a month ago we did an exercise where we tried to think about a dragon’s lair as a dungeon in itself—what does it look like, what else might live in and around it, and that sort of thing. All of these are best demonstrated with examples!

Green Dragons

Personality: Green dragons are wily, seductive, manipulative, controlling, scheming, and subtle. Just because a green dragon can swallow you whole in a single bite doesn’t mean it’s going to—it would rather wrap you around its finger until you’ll do whatever it suggests.

A green dragon seeks dominion over the forest and treasure, like other dragons. It has a broad definition of treasure that includes the minions and pawns it can use to gain more treasure. Control is its driving desire—control over its environment and every living thing therein.

A master of misdirection, a green dragon bends others to its will by letting them think they’re getting what they want, right up until it’s too late. It’s very skilled at assessing the desires of its opponents and playing off of them. Anyone foolish enough to subdue a green dragon learns sooner or later that it is only pretending to serve, while actually manipulating its “master.”

Environment: Green dragons live in forests and jungles in any climate. They sometimes compete with black dragons in marshy forests (or mangrove swamps) and with white dragons in subarctic taigas. But it’s not hard to tell, upon entering a forest, whether it’s controlled by a green dragon or some other sort.

A perpetual fog hangs in the air of a green dragon’s forest, with a hint of green to it and just a whiff of the acrid chlorine the dragon exhales. The trees grow close together, except where winding pathways trace their way like a maze toward the center. Moss grows thick on tree trunks, making the whole forest a bright, emerald green with otherworldly beauty. Light barely reaches the forest floor and every sound seems muffled by the fog. Branches seem to reach out to snag clothing, and roots twist up to catch feet and twist ankles. Half-glimpsed shapes appear and vanish in the fog, inspiring sometimes fear, sometimes desire—leading you in or scaring you out, depending on the dragon’s wishes. The fog makes it nearly impossible to keep track of one’s path through the forest, too, which sometimes keeps intruders out and sometimes hems them in.

No creature living in the dragon’s forest is unaffected by its presence. A silent squirrel frozen on a branch as the party passes by is the dragon’s eyes and ears. Crows calling to each other in the uppermost branches are issuing warnings and tracking the party’s movement. Snakes dangle from branches overhead, lizards crawl upon the forest floor and scurry up gnarled trunks, and snapping turtles lurk in burbling streams. Deer and other large game are even more skittish than usual, knowing they could become the dragon’s prey at any moment.

Servants: Above all else, a green dragon delights in corrupting elves and bending them to its will. Sometimes (as was the case of King Lorac of Silvanesti), a green dragon so wracks its minion’s mind that the fog throughout its forest reflects the tortured dreams of the imprisoned minion.

Green dragons view other fey only as a food source, but other forest dwellers make fine minions for the dragons.

  • Bugbears and goblins
  • Ettercaps
  • Fomorians
  • Kobolds
  • Peryton
  • Yuan-ti

Hoard: A green dragon’s favored treasures include people bent to its will, famous or significant people it has subverted (such as a renowned bard), emeralds, sculpted wood, musical instruments, and artistic busts and other sculptures of humanoid subjects.

Lair as a Dungeon: At the heart of a green dragon’s dominion is an enormous tree with a thick tangle of roots at its base. Among the roots is the opening to a cave. Or it might be a tree grown over an ancient elven ruin, like you see in Angkor Wat and other old temples in Southeast Asia.

Inside the cave, the tunnels branch like a root network as they proceed down into the earth, with occasional small caves that serve as dens for the dragon’s minions. Roots hang down from the ceiling everywhere in the tunnels, even at their deepest extent, and the dragon can cause them to extend and grasp at intruders.

The fog that shrouds the forest above is here in force, reeking of pungent chlorine and disorienting intruders to the point where they can’t keep track of the branches or even their direction of travel. The dragon can thicken the fog to obscure vision (like obscuring mist), slow movement (solid fog), weaken the mind (mind fog), and even sicken (stinking cloud) or kill (cloudkill) intruders.

Nestled in the midst of all the branching passages is a large cave that serves as the dragon’s nest. It often has a small stream flowing through it. Many passages lead into the cave, giving the dragon an easy way to escape from intruders—and then circle around behind them when they get lost in the passages again.

Black Dragons

By Chris Perkins

Black dragons are the living embodiments of corrosion and decay. They inhabit the dark, dismal swamps of the world, as well as the desiccated and worm-ridden ruins of bygone civilizations. They collect the wreckage and half-forgotten treasures of fallen empires, to remind them of their superiority and invincibility, and they loathe seeing the weak and vainglorious prosper. They revel in the collapse of elven, dwarven, and human kingdoms and will make their homes in the gutted, hollowed-out remains.

Personality: Black dragons are sadistic, cruel, and vile. They like nothing more than to watch their victims beg for mercy, perhaps even offering the illusion of mercy or escape before finishing them off. A black dragon might attack a party of adventurers, fly off with the cleric in its clutches, and torment the survivors by leaving pieces of the cleric and his equipment in places for the party to find.

The dragon strikes at its weakest enemies first. It seeks out quick, brutal victories, even during larger struggles, to bolster its ego and terrify its foes. It never allows itself to appear weak. If on the verge of defeat, it will do anything to save itself, but it will die before it allows anyone to claim mastery over it.

Black dragons hate and fear other dragons. A black dragon spies on rivals from afar, and it attempts to slay weaker dragons and avoid stronger ones. If a stronger dragon threatens a black dragon, that dragon is likely to seek new territory.

Black dragons hoard the treasures and magic items of crumbled empires and conquered kingdoms. These salvaged relics remind black dragons of their greatness. Everything else dies, but they live on. The more civilizations a dragon outlasts, the more entitled it feels to claim the wreckage of its former neighbors as trophies.

Environment: Black dragons live in swamps and moors on the frayed edges of civilization, where privacy is assured and food abundant. A black dragon’s lair is typically a dismal cave, grotto, or ruin located within its territory. The dragon will at least partially flood this place, using a great pool of water as a place to rest and “pickle” the flesh of its victims. Its lair is littered with the acid-pitted skulls and bones of previous victims, the rotted and fly-ridden carcasses of slaughtered beasts, and crumbled, mold-encrusted statues scavenged from dead kingdoms.

A black dragon uses a hidden, submerged tunnel to come and go from its home. The dragon usually has one locked or sealed aboveground entrance to entice and capture adventurers. Such passages are rife with traps and might be guarded by the dragon’s servants, such as lizardfolk or dragonborn.

If confronted in its lair, the dragon remains within its pools of water. It swims from one to the next through submerged passages between them, relying on its reach and breath weapon to slay its foes.

Due to the dragon’s innate magic, its lair becomes a place of great magical power. The land twists and changes while under the sway of the dragon’s influence. Intruders must contend with grasping tendrils of fog and pools of acid. When fighting in its lair, the dragon can use its link to the land to draw strength from its surroundings and turn them against invaders.

All sorts of vermin (centipedes, scorpions, snakes, worms, and maggots) infest the black dragon’s domain, and the horrible stench of death and decay pervades the place.

Servants: Evil lizardfolk venerate black dragons. They raid settlements for treasure and food for their master and build crude, eerie effigies of the dragon along the borders of the dragon’s domain. Entrances to the dragon’s lair often have elite lizardfolk defending them.

The dragon’s malevolent influence can also cause the spontaneous creation of evil shambling mounds that seek out and slay good creatures approaching the dragon’s lair.

Evil druids may ally with a black dragon, although the dragon sees the druids as useful servants rather than true partners.

Kobolds infest a black dragon’s lair like vermin. They tend to be as sadistic and cruel as their dark master, often torturing and weakening their captives with centipede bites and scorpion stings before delivering them to the dragon’s waiting jaws.

What Do You Think?

Here’s a pair of similar dragons—hopefully we’ve differentiated them enough.

 How do you think the green dragon presented here squares with its history and place in the game?  
1—I hate it.
2—It's not working for me at all.
3—I'm ambivalent—it has its points, but it still needs work.
4—It's pretty good, and I can imagine using a dragon in this way in my game.
5—It's awesome, and I can’t wait to use a dragon like this in my game.

 How do you think the black dragon presented here squares with its history and place in the game?  
1—I hate it.
2—It's not working for me at all.
3—I'm ambivalent—it has its points, but it still needs work.
4—It's pretty good, and I can imagine using a dragon in this way in my game.
5—It's awesome, and I can’t wait to use a dragon like this in my game.

 What do you think of this overall direction for dragons (making them truly legendary, with significant impact on their environment both short-term and long-term)?  
I hate it. Dragons should be dirt simple.
I like it, but it’s a little too complex.
I hate it—dragons should be incredibly rare and virtually godlike.
I like it, but it needs something more.
I like it, but individual dragons of the same type should be more different from each other.
I really like it—it looks like a lot of fun to play with.
I love it—I can’t wait to play dragons like this!

 Do you think these write-ups sufficiently differentiate the green dragon from the black?  
No, they’re too much alike. Different types of dragons should be very different from each other.
No, they’re too similar and need to be pushed apart a little more.
They’re OK, but could use a few more points of differentiation.
Yes, they’re distinct in really interesting ways.
Yes, but right now they’re too different. Dragons should be more similar to each other.

Previous Poll Results

1) In general, how do you like the idea of giving a standard D&D monster a unique origin story like this?
1—I hate it. 73 5%
2—It’s not working for me at all. 75 5%
3—I’m ambivalent—I can see how some might like it, but it’s not for me. 244 17%
4—It’s pretty good, and I can imagine using a story like this in my game. 576 40%
5—It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to use a story like this in my game. 462 32%

2) What do you think of making dryads fey creatures who are banished to the world for their love of a mortal?
1—I hate it. 99 7%
2—It’s not working for me at all. 134 10%
3—I’m ambivalent—I can see how some might like it, but it’s not for me. 341 24%
4—It’s pretty good, and I can imagine using dryads like this in my game. 632 44%
5—It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to use drayds like this in my game. 213 15%

3) What do you think of making redcaps people who have fallen under a hag’s curse?
1—I hate it. 81 6%
2—It’s not working for me at all. 127 9%
3—I’m ambivalent—I can see how some might like it, but it’s not for me. 337 23%
4—It’s pretty good, and I can imagine using redcaps like this in my game. 592 41%
5—It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to use redcaps like this in my game. 289 20%

4) Do you think associating redcaps with hags helps these monsters?
It makes redcaps a lot more interesting. 246 17%
It makes redcaps a lot more interesting. 76 5%
It makes both more interesting. 750 52%
It doesn’t help the redcaps at all. 120 8%
It doesn’t help the hags at all. 68 5%
It makes both of them worse. 150 10%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
Hello to everyone.
As for me, I like these descriptions, but notice that the black dragon have two favourite place for his lair: swamp and ancient ruin. So, why not differentiate the minions by the place?
Evil lizardfolks and swarm of parasite for swamp, and undead (who are perfect for death and decay aspect) for ancient ruin.
Ok for the green, whit fog-like attack and to have little animal for informant, but avoid the idea that the dragon dominate the entire lair, or the adventurers become only puppets in dragon claws.
And please, d'ont forgot the 12 dragon age system and change the recharge system for breath-like attack; whit lucky rolls it can breath only one time, but unlucky rolls can cause devasting consecutive breaths.
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (9/19/2013 10:08:34 PM)


Pretty cool, but the game should offer different versions of dragons to support different style games. In particular, dragons as epic beasts is quite common in fiction (Harry Potter series for example).
Posted By: Goken100 (9/13/2013 10:45:38 AM)


I really like the ability to vote on different posts with stars. Wish we'd had that forever. Nice way to track the comments that really resonate with people and the ones that represent the fringes. Granted...I'm probably more the fringes. Heh.
Posted By: Grimcleaver (9/13/2013 9:16:10 AM)


I much prefer the black dragon write-up. It feels much more like a cultural look at black dragon behavior and philosophy. The green dragon write-up has got too much of that idea of dragons mutating the world around them. Not a huge fan of that really. The everpresent fog and animal spies really feels like too much.

Dragons aren't scary because they warp the world into dungeon environments. They're scary because they're big (huge creatures, medium and large dragons have never sat well with me, regardless of the minis), nearly invulnerable (dragonscale should trump most other materials), flying death machines with breath weapons, teeth, claws, tails and wings. They never get weaker as they age, just tougher and bigger and meaner. They always see you as food--regardless of alignment or disposition. They always have plans for any contingency and are never suprised by anything because they are generally orders of magnitude smarter than you.

If they've got this, I don't... (see all)
Posted By: Grimcleaver (9/13/2013 9:06:52 AM)


Just so long as their NEXT stats get fixed and they are moved away from the flat math, I'll be fine with it. In a recent playtest, I had a party of 5 level 3 characters take out a level 10 black dragon without any problem. That made everyone at the table feel less impressed by dragons in DnD Next.
Posted By: JoeyLast (9/12/2013 8:42:05 AM)


The important thing to me is that dragons come in 12 age categories, and that this system doesn't invalidate that.

As far as the specifics--it's pretty darn cool.
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (9/11/2013 9:25:51 PM)


I like the idea of giving a particular kind of Dragon a "favoured enemy" like greens and elves, but if you do that, you ought to explain how the enmity between the two came to be in the first place, to make it interesting enough to use it in a campaign.
Posted By: Schmieth (9/11/2013 7:01:00 PM)


I like these but I did not see any mention of if dragons will retain the change shape ability.
Posted By: richmacj (9/11/2013 2:17:52 PM)


I loves it!
Posted By: FReeXenon (9/11/2013 9:01:07 AM)


WTF happened to the comments section? It's sloppy, hard to read, and annoying. Change it BACK, PLEASE! Did your web page skills revert to the mid 90's all of a sudden?

Anyway, I think the designers are forgetting that dragons are intelligent beings; just as unique as people. You need to make that clear. Not all elves wear plant-themed clothing and are thin and pretty, not all dwarves are bearded metal or stone workers who drink a lot of ale, and not all dragons abide by the above stereotypes.

For people who like Middle Earth/Forgotten Realms style fantasy, this kind of dragon is great. Don't leave out everyone else when you publish a monster manual again.
Posted By: seti (9/11/2013 12:56:54 AM)


All the comments are a wall of text now.

Why would any sane person do this.
Posted By: wetsail (9/11/2013 9:54:44 AM)


"Did your web page skills revert to the mid 90's all of a sudden?"

What do you say? There's no revert, just the latest installment of the same ole, sad Wizards web show.
Well, I dunno how long you been following this site, though...but I've have got used to things like this happening, after four years. I more or less expect it, even. Look at the builder and the compendium, it's the same bug-infested s***, sometimes it makes one think "For what exactly did I pay those 70-odd bucks to DDI again?"
Posted By: Schmieth (9/11/2013 7:18:07 PM)


At least we don't have to continually click "expand" on every comment. Seems like an improvement to me.
Posted By: necropraxis (9/15/2013 5:26:00 PM)


These are a good direction to be evolving the dragons -- giving them a long-lost character that could easily fill a page of the old-style ADnD monster manuals. They should not be simple as much as they should be great jumping-off points for someone to evolve or play with the 'given' story of and then consider the 'given' story as 'rumor', allowing room for the story to grow.
Posted By: DarkTemplar (9/10/2013 10:43:30 PM)


I like the idea of older dragons affecting their environment this way, but dragons aren't just born huge and godlike. There should be representations of dragons at younger ages; still apex predators, but not quite forces of nature yet.
Posted By: Dragonklaw82 (9/10/2013 10:10:42 PM)


I never understood why dragons coveted musical instruments. They can't play human sized lute or flute so why would they bother?
I could understand it better if the green dragon had these instruments collected so its servants could play them. It would add another aspect to its domain, having eerie must drift across the emerald fog to confound sound as well as vision. It could be another form of dominance and mind games, perhaps employing an evil bard to fill the domain with musical spells that hinder foes and bolster allies.
Adding this will make the green dragon presented almost perfect in my mind.
Posted By: Rartemass (9/10/2013 9:47:15 PM)


Think of it this way: I can't paint but that doesn't stop me from wanting art on my walls.

I like the ideas you put forth, nasty, evil bard included.
Posted By: Komomachi (9/10/2013 11:11:29 PM)


I think you just invented a great reason for a dragon to demand a tithe of human slaves from the nearby village!
Posted By: mordicai (9/13/2013 11:55:45 AM)


I think this is the first article I've voted "5" in every poll.
Posted By: Dark_T_Zeratul (9/10/2013 8:32:20 PM)


I rarely if ever use dragons myself, because I feel a dragon should be both rare enough to be special and apocalyptic in proportion.

This article definitely fits my vision of dragons, and I can't wait to see the write-ups for the other chromatic and metallics.
Posted By: wetsail (9/10/2013 7:01:52 PM)


I personally HATE low level dragons. I know dragons are cool, but first level characters Should never be fighting dragons. A level 3 dragon makes all dragons seem a bit lamer and more common. Characters need something to aspire to.
Posted By: Fallen_Star_02 (9/10/2013 7:26:07 PM)


I don't like low level dragons either...BUT I do like it when dragons are solo monsters, which is one of the good lessons of 4e. I mind low level dragons much less when they are at least clearly badasses.

What I want are for the staggered "CRs" of the dragons to go away. I don't need white to be weaker than red...especially not, to again look at 4e, when you've got the idea of "combat roles" to replace that. Just make one breed of dragons brutes, another snipers, another sneakers, whatever. Yes.
Posted By: mordicai (9/13/2013 11:58:13 AM)


I hate it when game designers force you to follow every fantasy trope since Tolkien first wrote them all down.

Dragons are people too, lol. Some strong, some weak, some god-like, some average.
Posted By: seti (9/11/2013 1:11:33 AM)


It just doesn't get any better than this.

Even in a dragon-heavy society like Argonessen in Eberron, I could use this fluff to describe elder dragons, ratcheting it up or down depending on the pecking order of each dragon.

Bring it on.
Posted By: tomtill (9/10/2013 6:30:22 PM)


I really like this, though I don't think all of this info should necessarily be in the Monster Manual. I'd prefer to see a summary of how to create something like this in the DMG and then save this sort of thing for a Fiend Folio or Draconomicon.
Posted By: OskarOisinson (9/10/2013 5:22:34 PM)


This is fantastic, I can't wait to read the other colors and the similar effects of the metallics. This turns dragons from simple superpowered monsters into adventure and campaign-defining parts of the landscape. I love this kind of thing.
Posted By: redkat85 (9/10/2013 5:05:00 PM)


I would only use this type of dragon as a BBE as the effect it has on its surroundings should take time and not happen quickly. Also these legendary types to me are the big one off rulers for that type of dragon and should there fore be used sparingly.

Most dragons would not fit into this category and those would be very tough oppenent but would not neccessarily warp the surroundings.
Posted By: TorsonShieldbreaker (9/10/2013 5:03:53 PM)


I feel like it depends on your setting and the relative rarity of dragons. Obviously in Skyrim or Dragonlance, you can't have dragons with this kind of Presence, but those worlds have the "dragons everywhere" as sort of a feature. In DnD plain, I've never in a single campaign encountered a dragon, and even in the Forgotten Realms novels they're extremely rare, spoken of with awe, and considered with caution by the most powerful rulers of kingdoms. Fits perfectly with this kind of description.
Posted By: redkat85 (9/10/2013 5:08:45 PM)


Agree completely.

There should (and probably will) be wyrmling and drake options for plentiful dragons that don't come with their own flora and fauna, but for the traditional "oh hell that thing just ate a kingdom" boss dragon, these descriptions are excellent.
Posted By: wetsail (9/10/2013 7:04:46 PM)


+1, although I prefer fewer, more powerful dragons myself, it really does depend on the world.
Posted By: Mechagamera (9/10/2013 6:20:02 PM)