Last time on Talkin’ ‘bout Dragons we discussed a lot of the issues that come with trying to use dragons in your RPG adventures. Today I’m going to talk about ways to mitigate those issues and run really effective and fun encounters focused on dragons. In the interest of being able to be specific and readable, this article is written with D&D and Pathfinder rules as a reference. Sorry if you were hoping I’d talk about using Shadowrun dragons or any other RPG dragon.
Step 1: Know Your Dragon
Really this applies to any monster that’s central to an encounter, but I feel like it cannot be stressed enough with Dragons. They have so many abilities beyond running at you with claws and gnashing teeth and a breath weapon that almost never get used. For example, did you know that even a young white dragon can see perfectly in a blizzard and has +12 to stealth? Or that they can effectively spider climb on icy surfaces? Or what about green dragons? They can chase you through a forest without taking any movement penalty for the foliage, entangle you, and breath underwater for a dramatic entrance. Red Dragons can use clouds of smoke to conceal themselves until they charge out at you.
It’s also important to remember that dragons are intelligent creatures capable of conversation, bargaining, and intimidation. They also tend to have some amount of spellcasting and spell-like abilities. They can also use skills! An adult Red Dragon has +23 to intimidate, and that’s a lot easier to shake someone up with than his frightful presence. Oh yeah, don’t forget that most dragons have frightful presence.
My point is that if you have the party face a dragon, and all they do is swap attacks then you’re wasting the use of a dragon. You could put any giant, powerful monster in that space, like a T-Rex or a Dire Rhino or a Murder Elemental. If you choose to have a dragon then use all of it’s resources.
“But what if I want something that feels and looks like a Dragon, but I don’t want to deal with magic and a bunch of special powers and spells and stuff?” Well, voice in my head, you want to look at wyverns and drakes. Drakes in particular are what you get if you want the whole dragon package: flight, breath weapon, vicious bite and tail slap, and none of the really complicated stuff that will bog you down. Wyverns are great because while they can fly, all of their offense is melee which means that when nobody in your party brings a bow, crossbow, sling, or set of javelins, you don’t end up wiping the party. That actually brings us to..
Step 2: Use Terrain
You should do this anyway, really. Fights in 30×30 square rooms with no terrain are boooooring, but a lot of DMs don’t want to worry about terrain rules and cover. The thing is, most higher CR enemies get part of their challenge rating from mobility powers. Not just flight, but things like the aforementioned ability of green dragons to run unhindered through the woods, or the power of the black dragon to move through swamps similarly unhindered.
The thing about terrain, beyond the mechanics, is that it adds flavor to the encounter. Fighting in ruins? Fallen buildings leave rubble and heavy enough overgrowth don’t just give your players a reason to have acrobatics and climb skills, they also add flavor to the scenery. For dragons even more than other monsters, the lair is very important. Why is the lair so important? Because it’s one of the ways that you give your dragon flavor beyond “Is a dragon.” If all your dragon has for character is “is a dragon” then use a monster with a lower intelligence and charisma score that is more easily roped into stereotype. Use something with no personality, like an ogre, or a zombie, or Keanu Reeves.
If you take care to marry the mechanics of the terrain to the flavor then you not only have a wonderful backdrop for your encounter or adventure, but the mechanics represent that backdrop so that the players feel immersed and interested, even if the encounter is relatively short.
Step 3: Make the Encounter More Than a Fight
The thing about Dragons is that they, unlike many other monsters, have individual personalities. However, unlike most NPCs, the players don’t get a lot of chances to interact with them if her job is to fight them. This means that the dragon’s personality has to come through things like their lair and the details of the encounter with them.
It’s like a professional wrestling match, and yes, I am going to use this comparison as the justification for the links to Brock Lesnar’s Wikipedia page that I’ve been littering my past few articles with. You see, Brock Lesnar is probably the best wrestler to use for this example. Why? Because he almost never talks. All of the details that we have about him come from someone else talking about how great and powerful he is. Even still, there are a lot of things we know about him: we know he’s brutal, we know he’s arrogant, we know that he likes to toy with his opponents. We also know that he has some sense of honor, but he’s still selfish and brash.
We know all of this because of the way he behaves during his matches. Just like professional wrestling uses pretend fights to tell a story, you have to do that with your dragon encounters. If your dragon wants to play with his food, have him skulk in his cover of choice. Have him stalk the players through his lair, with them having the chance to catch glimpses of him in the distance or as a vague outline in a fog. If you want her to be powerful then give her the awesome blow feat. Let her charge one of the players and slam them into a wall with a massive claw. You have a lot of options but it’s important that you use every opportunity you can to develop the dragon’s personality, because once the actual fight starts he might not last that long.
Step 4: Know the Why As Well As the How
It’s important to know why the players are going to fight your dragon. Dragons have an advantage over other monsters because their are so many angles you can work with a dragon as your antagonist. Maybe the dragon is marauding a city near his lair, or maybe the player characters are simply going to raid the dragon’s hoard of treasure. Or maybe the villain being a dragon is actually a surprise that no one saw coming, because more powerful dragons tend to have enough spellcasting ability to take human form.
If you’re going to have more than just an encounter, if you want the dragon to be a central part of your adventure, then it’s important to know why the players are going to fight him. Remember how I said in the last entry that you rarely see an adventure based around dragons, even though they’re really better suited as final bosses than standard encounters? Well, and don’t quote me on this because it’s not based on any serious research, but I think that’s because going to slay a dragon is so iconic that it seems played out. You think “Well yeah, you’re going to slay a dragon, so what? It’s been done a bajillion times!”
But it doesn’t have to be like that. At their very least dragons are very very intelligent, ancient and powerful monsters. They can rule empires, they can be raiders or hoarders or mad scientists or evil wizards. There’s really no reason that a dragon-themed adventure should be the same as any other.