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Troy’s Crock Pot: Playing a dragon

What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of GMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.

Nothing ups the ante in a fantasy roleplaying game like having the party confront a dragon. After all, dragons are the baddest actors in the realm — or at least, they think they are.

If it’s your New Year’s gaming resolution to do a better job portraying dragons to your players, then follow these suggestions and make your confrontations with these terrible creatures one of the highlights of your gaming year:

Bring your ‘A’ game

In most fantasy games — the various editions of D&D being the most obvious — dragons are monsters designed with a raft of special abilities, from breath weapons to spells. Sometimes their appearance can strike fear into the hearts of even the stoutest warriors. They also fly exceptionally well. (And don’t forget, their spiked tails also pack a wallop).

Dragons have an impressive arsenal. In accord with your game’s rules, review it thoroughly. Then come up with a list of tactics. Plan, so you have an answer to every attack the player characters might throw your way.

Defend your lair

Until proven otherwise, a dragon considers every adventuring party as nothing but trespassers and a gang of thieves. Deal with them as such.

Create a defensive perimeter around your treasure pile. Every entrance and exit should contain traps both magical and mundane. (It’s good to soften up intruders. Tenderizer, you know).

Observe the niceties

Dragons, even the most vile, are polite. They love a good conversation (especially before a meal). Observing every courtesy and exhibiting good manners is how a dragon flatters itself. A dragon doesn’t consider itself a monster, just the noblest creature  around.

Magpies with scales

Nothing diverts a dragon’s attention like something bright and shiny. A dragon is always willing to negotiate to gain new treasure (because even if the negotiation fails, it can fall back to all its awesome abilities to take what it wants).

Just remember, a dragon is smart and wise enough to bargain to its advantage, or at least, to the two parties’ mutual advantage.

Dragons are arrogant

Yes, a dragon lives on top of the food chain. It thinks and acts accordingly. Remember the politeness stuff. That makes it’s arrogance all the more insufferable.

Dragons are vain

Here is another failing of a dragon’s personality that adventurers may try to exploit. Just remember, fawning attention from adventurers can’t possibly be a ploy. From the dragon’s perspective, flattery is expected. A dragon deserves no less. Preen with pride.

Dragons are whimsical

Despite all their terrible advantages, dragons remain magical creatures at heart. Even the most black-hearted may decide to have a tea party on the spot, or if amused, allow prisoners or interlopers to go their merry way after exacting a promise or receiving an entertaining gesture.

In some ways, this part of a dragon’s arrogance and vanity, just given a bigger opportunity to bloom in full.

Dragons are long-lived

Lastly, don’t forget how long-lived dragons can be. This presents the GM with an option. You must decide what each dragon loves more, his life or his treasure. It will determine how far each dragon will go to defend its lair.

Some will fight to the death. But others, knowing they can retreat and plan their revenge, can set aside their pride to look at the big picture. If they live, they can find a new lair and acquire more treasure (so long as the word doesn’t get out that they fled out of fear).

Just make a notation about each dragon’s intention, and roleplay accordingly.

Above all, have a blast

Portraying dragons can be a challenge. It’s a big deal for player characters to meet one. Do your best to make it a memorable event — breath weapons and all!

And don’t hold back. (Your players won’t).

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Playing a dragon"

#1 Comment By Razjah On January 12, 2011 @ 9:03 am

Troy, is there a specific set of books or other fiction work that you are basing this off? I see some of the points harken back to Smaug style dragons but others don’t. For example, I don’t recall ever reading dragons to be whimsical. Where did you get this idea? If it was from a books series I have more reading to do.

#2 Comment By evil On January 12, 2011 @ 9:21 am

I think a more appropriate word than whimsical would have been fickle. Dragons can and do change their mind at the drop of a hat. Having power can do that to you.

As for my dragons, I tend to have them speak through an intermediary, because let’s face it, the PCs just aren’t good enough to talk directly to the dragon. This cuts way down on the bad acting factor.

#3 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On January 12, 2011 @ 10:05 am

For years (heck, decades) dragons were a kind of ideal to be strived for, but never achieved in RPG’s. D&D dragons (before 3.0) were just not that scary. I remember one game where my group of 5th or 6th level characters (I played a knight/cavelier type) absolutely crushed a dragon. It was supposed to be a terribly frightening ordeal, but we handed it a thorough drubbing. Heck, at later levels the caster in the group collected them as pets. They just weren’t scary. Not even Dragonlance made them the foes that we wanted to fear.

Then along came Shadowrun, and then Earthdawn. Dragons got a huge, high-octane steroid kick. A player shot an anti-tank missile at one and the dragon shrugged it off. This is how dragons were supposed to be! They could be killed, but man oh man were they smart and wiley and above all TOUGH!

That trend continued in the 3rd edition of D&D (3.0 and 3.5). Those guys got a boat load of abilities added on, and they could not only dish out the pain, they could take it, too. I haven’t done 4E dragons that much, simply because I haven’t run or played 4E that much. But that trend looks to continue.

How I play my dragons now is taken straight from Shadorun/Earthdawn. They are powerful, intelligent, and manipulative. They discard more good plans before breakfast than the entire group thinks up the entire campaign. The hows of playing a being of that experience and intelligence is time consuming and difficult, but can make for a first class adversary…or ally!

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 12, 2011 @ 10:33 am

I think the whimsy of dragons comes through pretty well in film. Sean Connery’s dragon in Dragonheart wasn’t above pausing amid a scam to be diverted by a meal of mutton. In one of James Wyatt’s recent novels, the dragon lets prisoners escape because they amused him in some fashion. I saw a lot of whimsy in the behavior of the befriended dragon in How to Train Your Dragon. And I think the fact many D&D dragons like to take human form suggests a teasing/playful aspect to their personalities.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 12, 2011 @ 10:49 am

Your tastes may vary, but I thought the dragon sisters in R.A. Salvatore’s Sellswords series fairly whimsical, or at least, manipulative in how they handled Jarlaxle.

#6 Comment By Eric Wilde On January 12, 2011 @ 11:47 am

My favorite dragon encounter happened when I was GMing a Pendragon game just last month:

Sir Lan the Brave earned his epithet in the Fall of 498AD. Voraxingluvius circled over Sir Lan’s village of Sawbridgetooth. Undaunted, Sir Lan shook his fists at the dragon. Voraxingluvius then descended into the village and taunted the hapless knight. Lan saddled his charger and armed himself for battle. The dragon continued to mock Sir Lan, playfully turning villagers into burnt coal until the knight got up the gumption to charge. While the charger was willing, Sir Lan simply couldn’t bring his legs to kick it forward. Eventually Voraxingluvius had enough fun and flew away, leaving Sir Lan still sitting in the stirrups trying to summon the courage to kick his mount into a charge.

Here’s a picture of the ol’ fellow.


#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 12, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

Cool story.

#8 Comment By BishopOfBattle On January 12, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

[2] – I don’t have the background in playing that you do, but I agree that I absolutely love how the dragons in Shadowrun are portrayed!

I got my first chance at letting the party meet a dragon a few weeks ago when I concluded my Shadowrun campaign. In my case, the dragon was included as the “leader” of the forces they were trying to fight off at the time and forced combat to quickly come to a close and turn into a negotiations tactic to get themselves out of there alive.

I really liked the “things look really bad and, oh yeah by the way, they have a dragon” approach to introducing him to the story. Encountering a dragon would have already been a pretty big deal, but having him land at the climax of the scene completely upped the ante. A few nice, crunchy details like the fact that the dragon landed by crashing THROUGH their escape helecoptor and came to stop on the edge of the rooftop they were on, collapsing the first floor completely under its weight really drilled it in and you could see the “I just crapped my pants” looks being passed around the table.

Going forward, I’d prefer to continue pitching dragons at my party (both in Shadowrun and in other systems like D&D) as movers and shakers that lead whole cults of followers and aren’t likely to just throw there lives away. If anything, encountering the dragon as the leader of the organization should be an “oh crap” surprise for the party as oppossed to them hunting the dragon’s lair down. Unless there is a particularly good story reason (a powerful guild of wizards is creating and raising baby dragons?), I would rather never have the party face off against a dragon in a “fair fight”; not that I won’t let them get in the occassional dragon kill, but it should be rare and feel hard fought just to get there.

#9 Comment By Knight of Roses On January 12, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

Dragons are the top of my world’s power structure and ecosystem. They can be killed, but not easily and not without risk.

In my campaign, characters realize that every resource they have access to, the dragons can access the equivalent and they have almost limitless money, connections and time to prepare.

I discussed long-lived villains and their plots here: [3]

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On January 13, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

One of the more surprising Dragon stories I came across many years ago was McAvoy’s Tea With The Black Dragon. Not perhaps a traditional dragon story, but very enjoyable and it could inform some of your ideas on how to play ’em.


#11 Comment By Icebreaker On January 16, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

First time I ran a dragon was the original ToEE blue dragon from the Moathouse. The party of four (FTMC) was a well-trained group and they wiped out the poor guy with interesting flanking tactics. I researched how to really play dragons, reading all the material I could find. Meanwhile, my dragons geenarlly got wiped out by the charachters, albeit I got a bit better at using their powers. Way later (several years and campaign sessions later) I played the Giants series and the two white dragons pretty much wiped out the party. It was a really lucky crit by the thief and the insane munchkinesque behaviour of the fighter that saved them (2E, Bracers of the Blinding Strike + Haste + Boots of Speed + 4 fighter attacks + a case of beer or so in the middle of the night led to a miscalculation in attacks and Mike was essentially rolling 32 attacks at 1d10+10 damage per strike), but I was still being daunted by the PCs as to how to really play a dragon.

I finally got the truly evil dragon tactics down by the end of G3, when the big red dragon in the Fire Giant fortress pulled off a TPK 3 times with the party. They kept trying their “come in the front door with the door still in hand” tactic thinking that I would fudge the rolls for them.

That was 15 years ago. Now my dragons are etiquette-styled, pompous, posh and sometimes boorish. They drink tea from porcelain dishware and walk around polymorphed into humanoid form enjoying humanity from the smaller perspective. You could expect the blue dragon from the Moathouse to ask you if you’d like to be served up a batch of scones and cream tea before being electro-fried following the nice chat.