The most iconic of creatures, dragons can be one of the hardest things to handle in your game. Today’s theme will focus on lending some advice on how to incorporate dragons as a gamemaster.
Dragons must be used differently from most other monsters. What I generally want out of my other monsters are a few simple things: an easy-to-use mechanic, adaptable text, and the ability to pick it up as a quick challenge with the possibility of developing such a creature into a lengthier story. There will be the occasional monster that’s “just another monster.” And that’s fine, because sometimes that’s just what is needed.
Dragons, on the other hand, should never be “just another dragon” (unless the commonality of dragons is a major theme of the campaign). They need to be special, they need to be memorable, and they need to be a little terrifying. Why? Because since their first imagining, dragons have always been the greatest, most terrible of challenges for any hero. For reference, look at Beowulf; he faces three legendary monsters, the third and greatest of which is a dragon awakened from a long sleep. A dragon is the culmination of any story arc, the boss of the fight, the greatest challenge out there. And for this reason, they need to be rare until the right moment arrives.
Dragons need to be EPIC. At the same time, they are quite deadly, so you need to avoid slaying the party with what you THOUGHT was an epic encounter, but was really much more difficult than the party was expecting. This is quite an easy trap to fall into as a GM, but especially with Dragons, who can be much more dangerous than their CR ratings. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating them safely into your campaign:
The ruins this creature inhabits are a landmark on the world map. Nobody goes to the tower in the north–don’t ask why. The terrible beast sleeps there, guarding his legendary hoard with one eye open. This is a take-me-as-you-find-me adventure, with a set CR that is quite obviously high to the players.
This method allows the players to prepare appropriately for the challenge, and they should only enter the dangerous area with great caution. It also allows you to impress the players with a sense that this adventure has been long in the making, with great setup and lead-ins to an adventure, all without doing much work. It also makes certain that the players understand there are beings more powerful than they are, and this will lend them the desire to be circumspect in their actions, nipping the problem of wild players in the bud.
As the adventurers travel through the wilderness, they come to a place laid bare as if by fire. Great bones rise up instead of trees, the remains of great beasts slain by something even more terrible. A constant wind seems to snarl in their ears like the omen of bloodthirst.
Letting the players know that there’s going to be an encounter is rarely a bad thing. Even monsters that attack by surprise can be presaged by a shadow, a distant beat of wings, or a prickly feeling. It’s an old writing technique.
From nowhere in the fog-shrouded sky, black-winged shapes appear, hurtling down like sudden death. The roar of the dragon sets the rocks ringing and shaking at it swoops upon you, jaws open to reveal terrible fangs.
This method utilizes the element of surprise, so play gently with your players. Don’t compensate by making the dragon a lower CR: that falls into the trap of “just another dragon.” Just don’t play the dragon to the absolute best of its ability. Use this method to terrify and enrage your players, who thought they could safely rest where dragons prowl.
Dragons are really complex to design and run, so don’t be afraid to start with the amazing work of others! The excellent PFSRD has taken the trouble to stat out all the dragons for you. Don’t let that work go to waste!