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Peters’ Quick Checklist for DMing Dragons

BY Peter Adkison
“HEY, LET’S GO AFTER A DRAGON!” Aw, those words are music to my ears. There are few things more enjoyable to a DM than a party of intelligent, appropriately outfitted characters going after the AD&D® game’s most highlighted villain. It is, after all, the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® game. Because of the awe factor associated with dragons, though, it’s crucial that they be played well so that players will respect this most grand of adversaries. So, here’s a quick checklist of things to make sure prepared for when your PCs step up to the plate.

No mercy. I tell my players that they should expect no mercy when they go against dragons. Dragons are the most cunning foes likely to ever face, and I play them with a no-holds-barred attitude. For instance, dragons might purposely finish off characters who are wounded (dropping them to -10 hp), and would recognize the ransoming value of capturing a PC, even a dead one, to use against the PCs should they prove victorious.

Thorough defenses. Because dragons are smart, and because they expect to be attacked, they prepare deadly defenses. consisting of both physical and magical traps designed to fool thieves, redirect forces, and confound the intellect. Consider a teleporting dragon that has no entrance to its lair; it sleeps in a hollowed- out sphere deep within the earth.

Prepared for standard tactics. There are a number of .standard tactics. that PCs use, like thieves who hide in shadows, invisibility spells, hold monster, and so on. But if it’s in the PHB, a 500-year-old dragon has probably thought of a defense against it. Think of every spell and ability, and what a dragon could do to foil it. Examples of such defenses include a magical aura that outlines intruders with faerie fire, or a spell that causes a rock to appear in any location where someone tries to teleport or dimension door, so that the person is in effect trying to transport into solid rock.

Polymorphed dragon. The polymorph self spell allows a wizard to change into another form and retain his or her original hp and spells. A dragon with some nice magical items might be more effective fighting in human form, using those items and retaining its original hit points.

Advance warning. Dragons will do everything they can to set up early warning systems so they know of any attack that’s coming. Loud traps near the lair and spies in the outlying countryside are two possibilities.

Test the enemy. If a dragon gets wind of an attack, it could gain the initiative by attacking the PCs first. The attack might not include the dragon itself, but the dragon might be watching through a scrying device to see what abilities the PCs have. Or the attack might be an ambush designed to wipe out the PCs if possible, or at least to hit them hard enough that they choose not to pursue.

Allies. Powerful creatures in my campaign never fight alone. Work hard to avoid the situation where several PCs can attack a dragon at once; instead, use other troops to tie down PC actions, allowing the dragon to pick and choose who it fights, if anyone.

False lair. I once played a wise old wyrm who, after realizing he was outnumbered, left a simulacrum for the PCs to fight and teleported away. This false lair had enough loot to look good, but the truly cool stuff was elsewhere. The PCs to this day believe they killed the dragon and took his hoard. Of course, now that I’m placing this in print . .
Unique spells. Dragons are old and smart, and they’re spellcasters, so it stands to reason they’d have some cool spells that made up. [Some of them appear in this issue’s .Arcane Lore..] Having trouble figuring out a good way to implement any of the ideas above? Perhaps the target dragon had the same question and designed a spell to solve a ‘certain problem’ relating to defending its lair or testing the enemy.

Unique magic. It’s quite satisfying to see the look on the players face when, after playing for most of a weekend just getting to the dragon’s lair, they find the creature has exchanged all those useless human-sized items for weapons only a dragon could use. One interesting sword I used was a ‘Dragon-slayer slayer’, baneful to anyone who’d ever caused damage to a dragon.


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