Dragon Extras Through the Ages

One of the key lessons from Book of War play (for example) is that OD&D dragons are quite distinctly not Smaug-like. They are hittable by normal men (AC2), and their breath weapons really aren't large enough to hit hundreds at a time, so they are quite vulnerable to a mass of human archers, say. And thus: They are best used tactically against some other type, best of all as a pouncing anti-hero weapon, say.

But the other day, commentator UWS Guy asked one of his usual troubling questions. So I figured I'd look at the "extra" abilities of dragons in different versions of D&D -- not the primary stuff like toughness, flight, and breath-weapons, but the other little gifts that dragons get (and that you might overlook).

Chainmail Fantasy -- There are three notable extra benefits for dragons in Chainmail fantasy, which I quote here:
They cause enemy troops within 15” of them to check morale just as if they had suffered excess casualties. Dragons have the power to detect any hidden or invisible enemies they are within 15” of... They melee as if they were four Heavy Horse being impervious to missile or melee hits in normal combat (see Hero and Super Hero sections for the only exceptions). [CM, p. 35]
The latter part, "impervious to missile or melee hits in normal combat", is enforced by not giving them any combat stats except for their appearance on the Fantasy Combat Table, where they might be eliminated by other exceptional beings (such as Heroes, Superheroes, Giants, etc.) Note that the defense here is practically identical to that of Elementals: "impervious to normal attacks against them" [CM p. 36], again appearing on the Fantasy Combat Table, etc.

Original D&D -- None of the abilities listed above are mentioned in the OD&D writeup on dragons. However, recall that all of Chainmail is supposed to be incorporated into OD&D by reference. At the start of Vol-2 Monsters and Treasure: "Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter..." [p. 5]. Moreover, you can see the effect of their detection power in the OD&D description of Pixies, for example: "They [pixies] can be seen clearly only when a spell to make them visible is employed, although certain monsters such as Dragons and high-level fighters will be aware of their presence." [p. 16]

But the "impervious to... normal combat" is quite troublesome indeed. In the case of Elementals, this was converted explicitly in OD&D to a hit-only-by-magic requirement: "Only magical weapons/attacks affect Elementals." [as underlined on p. 18] But no such conversion or reference was made for dragons, and without it, the status of the Chainmail rule seems difficult to adjudicate in the new context. If one were to use it, one might ask: What now counts as "normal" (under the unified, d20-based Alternative Combat System)? If Heroes at 4th-level can clearly hit a dragon, where is the cutoff from 1st-3rd? Is the magic-weapon requirement implied by the example of Elementals? Etc.

I didn't include the three special abilities above in Book of War, and I can't say that it was intentional -- frankly, I just overlooked the implied reference. But you can see if we did include them, that OD&D dragons suddenly really would look Smaug-like -- detecting hiding/invisible halflings, menacing to human armies, killed only by a magic arrow. Was that the intention?

Advanced D&D 1E -- If it was the intention, then Gygax again acknowledges the first two, but not the last one, in his AD&D work. The Monster Manual -- whose prime directive was to consolidate the scattered monster entries from OD&D, after all -- says nothing about any magic-to-hit requirement, but it otherwise provides continuity by saying this:
Because of these keen senses, all dragons are able to detect hidden or invisible creatures within 1" per age level. Dragons also develop the power to panic enemies as they mature. At adult age and older they radiate a powerful aura which causes a fear reaction, when a dragon flies overhead or charges... [several cases of effect by hit-die levels follow; p. 29]
So at this point we have two editions in sequence written by Gygax which provide evidence of having scrubbed or discarded the hard-to-hit quality that dragons formerly had in Chainmail.

Advanced D&D 2E -- 2E usually copies things like spells, magic, and monsters forward from 1E pretty directly, but due to overall power inflation, it specially rewrote dragons (and giants) in numerous ways, so as to keep them atop the heap of the monster ecology -- giving them multiplied Hit Dice, extra defenses, and about a dozen new attack forms each. Separate sections, each a few paragraphs long, are included on both "Dragon Senses" (detect invisible and hidden, as well as clairaudience and even telepathy) and "Dragon Fear" (with a somewhat consolidated mechanic compared to 1E). In addition, a requirement for magical attacks starts to creep back in, but only at the topmost levels, and only for missile attacks (perhaps to specifically counter the case of masses of human archers being deployed against them):
Old dragons or older dragons are immune to normal missiles; their gem-encrusted hides deflect arrows and other small projectiles. Large missiles (from catapults, giants, etc.) and magical missiles affect them normally. [2E MM, Dragons]

Dungeons & Dragons 3E -- 3E retains all those attacks and special abilities, and again boosts Hit Dice, etc. It includes the abilities of "Blindsight" and "Frightful Presence" which duplicate the see-invisible and fear-aura abilities which have been a constant. And it also includes a general Damage Reduction defense which requires magic-to-hit or else a penalty to damage is applied (and not just for missiles). For example, from the entry for Black Dragons:
  • Young adult... Damage reduction 5/+1
  • Mature adult... Damage reduction 10/+1
  • Very old... Damage reduction 15/+2
  • Wyrm... Damage reduction 20/+3 [3E SRD]

Basic D&D -- Interestingly, there is no evidence of any of the dragon's "extra" abilities (fear, detection, or hit-ability) in any version of the D&D "Basic" line -- including Holmes Basic D&D, Moldvay Basic D&D, Mentzer Basic D&D, or the Allston D&D Rules Cyclopedia.
This is pretty easy to explain, actually, if we look back to the legacy above. In the aftermath of the bifurcated Basic-versus-Advanced D&D lines, the start of the "Basic" line was kept more firmly rooted in the OD&D texts, ignoring most of what Gygax did with AD&D. But again, the problem here is that dragon "extras" don't appear anywhere in the OD&D text itself, but only by reference back to Chainmail -- so inasmuch as Gygax was mentally cognizant of that, he kept continuity by copying them into the AD&D line (at least for fear & detection), but the B/X authors kept a different kind of continuity, one where the OD&D LBB text was taken in isolation (and so missing any of the "extras").

Therefore, it seems like we have a steady tradition of dragons with special fear and detection abilities throughout OD&D/AD&D, and a parallel fixed tradition lacking those abilities throughout the OD&D/Basic line. Meanwhile, magic-to-hit wasn't included anywhere except piecemeal in 2E and 3E. But again we note: To the extent that any of these abilities are included for our D&D dragons, they look more and more like a Smaug-type creature from the works of Tolkien.

Poll Question: Should OD&D Dragons require magic to hit? Feel free to interpret that question any way you wish. (See poll results here.)
[Photo by Falashad under CC2.]


  1. I'd say no, since the example of combat with a dragon just mentions three fighters without calling out either their levels or possession of magic swords.

  2. I voted no, but I do think if using Chainmail combat only fantasy matrix rated figures should be able to harm a dragon.

  3. Joshua -- It's a good example to look at, but I didn't want to say anything because it didn't seem decisive either way. Like, just to play devil's advocate: One could possibly argue that "it goes without saying that characters attacking a Very Old dragon will be high-level and carrying magic weapons". (I've still never played with that requirement myself, of course.)

  4. Jeff -- Agreed. I was mostly thinking about the d20-based Alternative system myself. Do you actually run with the Chainmail tables?

  5. I voted no, but they should get immunity to missile weapons (as should wizards, actually).

  6. Upon reflection, I think I would go with a chainmail/2e hybrid. The largest dragons (age category 4+) be impervious to non magic arrows perhaps.

  7. The way I read it (especially when you include the FAQ article from Strategic review v1 #2), even when using the d20 "alternative combat" system in OD&D, you're still supposed to be using the distinction between fantastic combat and normal combat. Fighters below 3rd level and Clerics/MUs below 6th/7th level were vulnerable to multiple attacks per round from monsters with 2 or more hit dice. (conversely, 1HD monsters were vulnerable to multiple attacks from PCs of 3rd/6th/7th level and above).

    So I'd be inclined to say that dragons in OD&D are special: not only do they get as many attacks vs low level PCs as they have hit dice, but the low level PCs cannot hurt the dragon at all, even if it's very young and they catch it asleep.

  8. I would be fine with having all dragons be immune to non-magical missile weapons.

    If particularly venerable dragons were to be immune non-magical weaponry that would be alright by me. Although I am of the school of thought that the titular monster should be the utmost dangerous creature in the manual, compendium or bestiary.

    I think it would be suitable for a critical hit to bypass this restriction though, provided crits exist in mass combat.

  9. Interesting ideas, everyone. Sounds like the missile fire in particular is a sensitive point.

  10. And as a follow-up: I'll just say that in BOW play to date no one's managed to kill a dragon by missile-fire -- their high move rate means they've never yet been in range when they didn't want to be. So far dragon kills have all been in melee (either by enemy hero/dragon or troops returning melee combat). So although missile-immunity would seem like in important ability, on further reflection it wouldn't have changed any of our games so far. (Somewhat unexpectedly.)