Regarding Dragons

Been doing some work with my setting... and I'm almost completely sold on scrapping the entire Chromatic/Metallic dragons idea. While I've never been a huge fan of "colour coded dragons", recently I've felt really stymied by the trope. The idea that players (whether intentionally metagaming or not) can get a ridiculous amount of information from just knowing what colour a dragon is I find really crippling to building tension and creating Dragons as realistic NPCs with realistic motivations.

For example:

Local folk talk about a dragon seen flying around the peak of Mount Dragonplace (clue's in the name, really). The intrepid adventurers track the creature back to its lair, but when they arrive they see it has silver scales. They are immediately put at ease, and openly greet their new friend, "Shimmershine the Uber-Powerful-Pandimensional-Beast-Who-For-Some-Reason-Is-Really-Nice-To-Everyone".

Another example:

Same setup above, but when they reach the mountain, they see a flash of Red Scales. Immediately, they know a) This is going to be a fight (most likely), or at least a situation where they will be facing an aggressive foe b) Fire spells and attacks won't work. c) They need to load up on fire resist.

Even if you buck the Alignment conventions and let Dragons all have their own personalities, within the confines of this system, they're still predictable in terms of their capabilities. To my mind, this takes a lot of the terror and splendour out of dragons... they become a "stock encounter" (You're not a real adventurer until you've beaten a Dragon!). Like with all my villains/allies, a prefer a more nuanced and flawed approach.

Sure, that dragon is nice to you now. But he's still a DRAGON; a supergenius intellect in a flying dinosaur's body that oh yeah can also breathe fire. So you'll want to tread REALLY carefully, in case you accidentally insult his Mom or something.

What's everyone else's take on Colour-Coded dragons in D&D / Pathfinder? Do you agree that they're a bit outdated? Or is there an elegance there that I'm missing?
 

Celebrim

Legend
I personally like the color coded dragons probably for the same reason that they were originally introduced - diversity. My fear in getting rid of color coded dragons is that I would be subtracting and not adding.

Personally, I think this comes down to what you want from dragons. I've never really had a desire to have dragons as NPCs per se, since I think that demystifies them. I've never actually used a good aligned dragon in my 30 years of DMing. My preference is for dragons to be alien forces of nature, and if they have anything like human personalities then that is what would turn me off to their presentation. I don't really want dragons to be something you have a normal relationship with, or at least a conversation with that isn't fraught to terror and danger. And to me, that has only something to do with alignment and more to do with these things aren't human.

I've been working on building dragons to my taste, starting from first principles - what should have dragons been in 1e AD&D - and working up from there to what the blocks should look like converted to say 3e.

You can read the thread here:

But then, I've never looked at alignment as something that makes anything simplistic. I look at it only as a convenient marker or abstraction for something more complicated, not as something that erases that complication. Alignment is not and never has been personality and it is very difficult to actually predict personality from alignment. Nor am I the sort that is the slightest bothered by players metagaming based on their knowledge as players. I have no desire to cheaply impress, confuse, or awe my players. All that will come all on its own in due time (and sometimes undo time). Players are more often in the dark than they are supremely confident of everything, much less actually correct in their supreme confidence and not actually ridiculously over confident and acting entirely on wrong assumptions.

Give you some examples based on your examples:

"...they see it has silver scales. They are immediately put at ease, and openly greet their new friend, "Shimmershine the Uber-Powerful-Pandimensional-Beast-Who-For-Some-Reason-Is-Really-Nice-To-Everyone"."

Read my write up on Silver dragons. Players in my game world that act like that will probably be killed. They have just trespassed on a Silver dragon's property, and the Silver's first motivation will be to protect her lair, using nonlethal force if she is able to. However, since these are PC's, they'll probably be able to resist strongly enough that she'll just kill them. TPK. Stop being stupid players that metagame, and instead think this through - you are complete strangers that have just invaded what a powerful and dangerous being considers her property and she has absolutely no reason to trust that you aren't thieves and murders. As far as both sides will be concerned, they are acting in self-defense. And actually, if the silver isn't taken by surprises in this, it will almost certainly not present itself in true form anyway.

Why the heck do you think that 'good' means, "Is nice to everyone?" Why the heck should a silver dragon be nice to random heavily armed strangers? I mean, if a group of scruffy people with M-16s and hand grenades showed up on your front porch, would your first thought be, "Yeah, I can definitely trust those people. I'm not in any danger, and neither is my children or my property."
 
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Celebrim

Legend
A bit more on the idea of "Why the heck do you think that 'good' means, "Is nice to everyone?""

From the perspective of a good dragon, they have a relationship with you not unlike your relationship with dogs. On the one hand, you might just be a good, loyal, somewhat intelligent creature that won't chew the slippers or widdle much on the floor, and who can be endearing with their unabashed affection for you and obedience to you as a superior creature. On the other hand, you are probably just some mangy feral stray, ravenous with hunger and thirst, and driven mad by rabies and for which the dragon will be perfect reasonable to simply just put down. And somewhere in the middle, you are just another stray dog begging for scraps, as if there weren't a 100,000 just like you being equally tiresome and digging up the flower beds in order to poop in them. The dragon is totally justified in firing some rock salt in to your behind, or taking you off to animal control to be spade, neutered, or put to sleep. And the dragon will not in the slightest think less of itself for having done so, or that it is a bad dragon, even if the dragon feels some tinge of compassion at the tragedy of a world with far too many stray animals in it.

And if the dragon gives you a bit of an undeserved chance, and the first thing it does is leap up on the sofa with its smelly muddy paws and snatch your dinner right off your plate, well you tried to be nice to the stupid b1tch but clearly this was a very bad idea. And if the dang thing snarls at you when you try to get it off the sofa, well it's just going to die.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The dragon is totally justified in firing some rock salt in to your behind
I am not sure how many will consider injuring an animal (who is a nuisance, but only doing what animals do, so you can't really blame them) and leaving them out in the wild to bleed, get infected, and die in pain is much of a "good" act.

"Good" creatures should be using as humane a method as is possible under the conditions, not the moral equivalent of a shotgun of rock salt. Good creatures go out of their way to reduce the pain and suffering in the universe, after all.
 

Kaodi

Adventurer
The list of creatures in D&D in its variations whose general capabilities are can be ferreted out by metagame knowledge is probably pretty long so I am not sure this issue is quite unique per se. That said I sometimes think colour coded dragons have had their day and I even wrote up a "universal dragon" outline for PF1. There is actually a second aspect to this though too: the "form factor" of dragons in D&D and Pathfinder tends to be very similar too - what kind of horns, frills, or fur (if any) they have. With a more universal dragon template people could be more creative with them in more ways than just their breath weapons and spells.

The Universal Dragon (Green Dragon Base)
Neutral Dragon
CR 4; Sz Small; Hit Dice 5d12
Spd 40 ft, Swim 40 ft
Natural Armour +4; Breath Weapon Varies
Str 17 Dex 14 Con 15 Int 8 Wis 15 Cha 14


Wyrmling Water Breathing
Very Young Change Shape
Young Detect Magic, CL 1
Juvenile Frightful Presence, Fog Cloud, CL 3
Young Adult DR 1/-, Spell Resistance, CL 5
Adult Suggestion, Luck, CL 7
Mature Adult DR 2/-, CL 9
Old Detect Thoughts, Poisonous Bite (Injury, Fort 10+1/2HD+Con , 1/r 6 rounds 1 Str/Dex/Int, Cure 1 saves)?, CL 11
Very Old DR 3/-, CL 13
Ancient Dominate Person, Clinging Breath (like Miasma), CL 15
Wyrm DR 4/-, CL 17
Great Wyrm Discern Location, True Courage, CL 19
(Elemental Resistances, Sonic Resistance, DR / Piercing & Magic = Age Category)
 

Celebrim

Legend
I am not sure how many will consider injuring an animal (who is a nuisance, but only doing what animals do, so you can't really blame them) and leaving them out in the wild to bleed, get infected, and die in pain is much of a "good" act.

"Good" creatures should be using as humane a method as is possible under the conditions, not the moral equivalent of a shotgun of rock salt. Good creatures go out of their way to reduce the pain and suffering in the universe, after all.
So you are suggesting that the dragon quickly and humanely just kill the creature?

No analogy is perfect, but I suspect good dragons would be quite as appalled by cruelty to a dog as you or I would be. That said, rock salt is highly unlikely to be anything but an irritant to a wild animal at any sort of reasonable range (cardboard is a reasonable defense against rock salt rounds beyond like the first couple yards, and it's not the salt itself that is the problem but the wad), and I'd have to actually live in area with wild bears, lions, or say dingos before I'd be too judgmental at even using bird shot to dissuade an aggressive animal on my property. Go check out the statistics on North American bear deaths. Plenty of people have died despite being armed because they were reluctant to kill an aggressive bear, or worse had to watch a family member mauled to death while they were loading their second round. I love wild animals. I've never had a problem with a bear and they are generally more afraid of me than I am of them. But I suspect my analogy with the dragon's view of people isn't that far off of what I'd think were I choosing between a bear and a person.

In the dragon's case, this probably means trying to scare off or control the perceived threat with those "non-lethal" breath weapons that it has at it's disposal, but if it actually gets hurt trying to protect the life of those feral humans, it will probably re-prioritize.

EDIT: Before someone decides that shooting rock salt at something is harmless, I should point out that at point blank ranges the wad itself - just some cloth or a bit of light plastic - can kill, that the powder discharge of even a blank can kill within the first few feet, and that the reason rock salt tends to just bruise is that it shatters and then very quickly loses velocity. Plus, no destructive device should ever be fired at something you don't intend to destroy, because mistakes in the load can happen.
 
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Saelorn

Adventurer
What's everyone else's take on Colour-Coded dragons in D&D / Pathfinder? Do you agree that they're a bit outdated? Or is there an elegance there that I'm missing?
I've always taken exotic dragons as more of a game mechanic, and less of something that actually makes sense with the world. Given how few dragons actually show up in a campaign, I see nothing wrong with all of them being dark green and breathing fire.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
For example:

Local folk talk about a dragon seen flying around the peak of Mount Dragonplace (clue's in the name, really). The intrepid adventurers track the creature back to its lair, but when they arrive they see it has silver scales. They are immediately put at ease, and openly greet their new friend, "Shimmershine the Uber-Powerful-Pandimensional-Beast-Who-For-Some-Reason-Is-Really-Nice-To-Everyone".
Until Shimmershine's illusion wears off. And the PCs recognize him as the illusion-casting color of dragon.

Another example:

Same setup above, but when they reach the mountain, they see a flash of Red Scales. Immediately, they know a) This is going to be a fight (most likely), or at least a situation where they will be facing an aggressive foe b) Fire spells and attacks won't work. c) They need to load up on fire resist.
It's too late to load up on fire resist when the flash of red scales is diving at you.

I'm with you though. Color-coded dragons is a little...Dragonlance. It's not unreasonable for them to have some abilities by type. I mean, when you're out licking frogs, you have to make sure you're licking the hallucinogenic ones, right? :sick:
 

Celebrim

Legend
Let me back off and take another punt at this.

"To my mind, this takes a lot of the terror and splendor out of dragons... they become a "stock encounter""

In the last 40 years that this particular comment has come up a lot, and every time it seems to have a different idea to 'fix' the problem? I don't know that your the first person to think that the problem is that the dragons have some sort of knowable form and are thus demystified by that, but your the first I've encountered that has blamed the problem solely on the color coding. The stock way that eventually won out is what I call the 2e paradigm, where the biggest of the big dragons have epic CR and are far more dangerous and powerful than just about anything else that they print in Core, and every edition seems to try to crank that up to 11.

So, to begin with, RPGs demystify magical things. That's just what they do. They put numbers to things and give mechanics for the numinous and mysterious so that you can game them and the players have some agency when doing so. So understand that at the heart of this complaint you are dealing with something that is almost inevitable. Whatever is magical and terrifying will ultimately become common place to a gamer sometime after the first session.

Secondly, beware your motivation here. If your motivation is to over awe the players, then chances are you are GM ego gaming in some form, where you are staking your enjoyment of the game on getting some sort of worshipful or fearful response from the players. The symptoms of this are all powerful NPCs, DM PCs, tuckers kobolds or any variant, worrying about whether players are metagaming, and spending a lot of time imagining the players panicking, cowering, and freaking out about how dangerous or clever or frightening your encounters are. Beware tendencies to introduce every encounter as an ambush, and spending too much time imaging monsters dishing out punishment to the PCs. Truth is, most of your monsters will go down like chumps, and that's OK. PC's will get into plenty of tough fights without you explicitly planning for it, and you as the DM have unlimited resources and this isn't a contest.

Thirdly, most of your complaints don't seem to match your stated problem. Your stated problem is with the color coding. But I'm at a loss to see color coding prevents ideas like, "So you'll want to tread REALLY carefully, in case you accidentally insult his Mom or something.", nor how removing it would enable that idea in a way that wasn't already enabled with chromatic dragons. Nor am I really understanding what you mean by "realistic NPC" when you are speaking of a completely non-real magical creature that, by virtue of being non-real, is whatever the primary the author defines them as being. You get to decide what is realistic in personality for your dragons, and I don't see what the color wheel is doing to prevent that. What is a realistic motivation for a nigh immortal gigantic magical carnivore? Smaug and Glaurung have a bunch of great speaking lines, but they don't seem to have very human motivations. In fact, in The Hobbit, the thing that seems to bother the dwarfs about dragons even more than their well known fondness for dwarf flesh, is that they don't seem to have any sort of motivations. To a dwarf, all that treasure has a purpose and is meant to be used for something either practical or beautiful, but they bitterly complain that the dragon has no purpose at all and won't even spend or use a brass coin! They are just agents of destruction that are either sleeping or destroying, but they don't have any more complex thoughts than delighting in sleeping and destroying.

As I said, my version of dragons are alien beings with inhuman emotional range and motivations, but there are plenty of examples of talking dragons in D&D that act like humans who happen to be fire breathing winged dinosaurs if that is what you prefer.

I almost feel like this is a contradiction on your part, in that you on the one hand say you are upset that the "terror and splendor" is taken out of dragons, and yet on the other hand you also say that you want to normalize them so that they aren't any different than anything else - "Like with all my villains/allies, a prefer a more nuanced and flawed approach."

Which is it to be? Are they going to be terrible and splendid super-genius intellects in a flying dinosaur's body, or are they going to be nuanced and flawed things just like everything else? Are they going to be EVIL and GOOD, or are they going to be nuanced and flawed things with perfectly normal motivations and personalities that weird bodies aside are basically just like ordinary humans and everything else? And whatever your answer, what does that got to do with the color coding?

Let's say that all dragons have Red Dragon stats, and different personalities. How does this improve the situation? What are you hoping for?
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
I think you can keep the colors but change the names/descriptions. Instead of brass and black and green dragons you have "Desert, and swamp, and forest dragons." No, that won't fix the metagame knowledge thing.

But you can fudge things with the alignments if you want..."all dragons are Neutral with personal motivations toward one moral compass or the other"...Red dragons who are good might be a bit "brighter/shinier' or have some golden plummage or mane or something. Wicked silvers seem a bit tarnished, with blackening edges to their scales or dark circles beneath sunken eyes, etc... Throw the player's off.

You can swap breath weapons or add additional ones...in my setting, I let every dragons have a "dragonfire" breath weapon of varying size/range/shape in addition to their traditional ones. The gaseous breaths are great fun to swap around or add different effects since battling/getting arouund gases is something few groups [imhe] really devote resources to. Expand energy types outside of "fire, ice, electric, acid, poison." Maybe powerful good dragons get a radiant energ breath or some of their normal energy type daage is radiant. Maybe more than only shadow dragons can access/breathe "umbral"/necrotic/negative energy. Add a polymorph gas for one particular dragon -not a color/genus- just this one dragon the party happens to have found who figured out how to make [or was born with] breath do this.

You dont have to completely "annul" the color-coding. Doesn't have to be EVERY dragon that's encountered. But doing it once or twice will be enough that players will KNOW they can't assume that the blue ["sky" or "storm'] dragon heading toward them is automatically Evil and will be breathing lightning.
 
What's everyone else's take on Colour-Coded dragons in D&D / Pathfinder? Do you agree that they're a bit outdated? Or is there an elegance there that I'm missing?
I suppose it's been 45 years, all things D&D may be a tad outdated.

An alternative could be elemental correspondence: Fire, Cloud, Earthquake, & River dragons, for instance. Or, Stone, Earth, Metal, Wood, Void? (is that right?)

...or, dragons /could/ just be really big warm-blooded saurian hexapods, who don't even breath fire. Or Big Durn Snakes (maybe that do breath fire, or more likely, have really nasty venom). Or actual dinosaurs.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
In my system, dragons come in a couple basic types.

The dragons of Chevar are mortal creatures of humanoid intelligence, most breath fire, and they can form powerful psychic bonds with other mortal creatures.

These dragons have travelled via Crossroads to many other worlds, and form some of the legends of dragons as scary megafauna.

The Great Dragons are not mortal, and are more similar to dnd’s gods and powers. They are beings of immense power.

In dnd, I tend to treat dragons as a sentient mortal race with many phenotypes. The alignment stuff just doesn’t exist at all.
 

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