The ‘Smaug Problem’

red dragon from monster manualOne of the things I intend to do with our new 1e AD&D game is to put the “dragons” back into “Dungeons & Dragons.”

I’ve rarely seen dragons used, either as a player or as DM, and I think that’s a shame. From what I see online, it appears that many players have had similar experiences. A lot of it, I think, has to do with how they’ve been pumped up over the years into truly horrendous monsters who can wipe out everyone before you can say “TPK.” And this pumping up has a lot to do with how they’re portrayed in literature and film as the biggest, baddest monsters around.

No one wants Smaug to be killed by a party of well-equipped mid-level adventurers, of course, as a huge ancient red dragon could be in 1e. This is part of why, back in the day, I was strongly in favor of pumping up dragons significantly…the first time I ever placed a dragon in a dungeon, it was defeated in a couple of rounds. It was a blue dragon, I fudged hit points and dice rolls to make it tougher, and it was still killed rather quickly with only moderate harm to the party.

But I now believe that, rather than turning all dragons into supermonsters who are a serious threat to even the most powerful adventurers, the solution to the ‘Smaug Problem’ is not to beef up dragons across the board. Rather, it’s to decide that “name” dragons like Smaug and other legendary wyrms are exceptional examples of dragons, with their own special increases or extra abilities, but that most dragons conform to those detailed in the Monster Manual.

Declare Smaug a huge ancient red dragon with extra hit dice, a better AC (remember the gems embedded in his scales?), the ability to use his breath weapon five or six times per day instead of three, and a +2 on all saving throws. Just don’t do it for all huge ancient red dragons, scaling all other dragons upward similarly, because you need a Smaug-like dragon in your game to be a truly fearsome opponent. This will have a couple of benefits.

First, the special “name” dragons will seem a lot more exceptional. Smaug won’t be just an ancient huge red dragon, he’ll be “Smaug” and will have special abilities to go with the name.

Secondly, it will keep non-name dragons normal. And this will allow them to be placed into dungeons and the wilderness much more frequently without killing off every last living thing in a five mile radius. They’re tough, for sure, and at the apex of the predator pyramid. But they won’t throw the entire game out of whack if their numbers are bumped up a bit.

Dragons in the original D&D game were quite weak, even compared to the 1e AD&D versions. And, I’m guessing, not nearly so uncommon as they weren’t the thermonuclear supermonster that they became in later editions.

Who wouldn’t like to see more dragons in the game?

UPDATE: All this said, I do think the claw/claw/bite numbers could stand a little fiddling. I will have a follow-up post on how I’m going to do that.

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13 Responses to The ‘Smaug Problem’

  1. bighara says:

    I’ve often pondered (and rambled) about this issue myself. I like the idea of dragons being relatively rare in general, but not so rare that a party never sees one. I’ve also “jacked up” a dragon or two in order to make the encounters more memorable, but not every single time.

    One of the things about rare dragons I do like is that it keeps their hoard more remarkable. I want the players to be hopping up and down when the beast drops and that cave full of loot is theirs for the taking.

    • Kilgore says:

      Yeah, I don’t mean that dragons should be popping up all over like kobolds and hobgoblins, just that they shouldn’t be a “special cases only” monster all the time. Maybe used with frequency along the lines of a medusa or a specter.

      Historically in my games, they’ve barely been more common than Archdevils and Demon Princes.

  2. Hugo says:

    I quite agree. In any case, not all encounters with dragons need to end in combat. There are plenty of fantasy examples of dragons not turning the heroes into fodder, from The Hobbit to The Magician. Dragons can be intelligent antagonists or powerful allies. They may have something the heroes need and bargain for it, justifying further adventures. My point is that dragons don’t have to be reduced to another monster players need to kill in the game (as if there aren’t enough of those already).

    • Kilgore says:

      I agree, but I think that can apply to most powerful monsters. While I don’t want dragons to be “just another monster,” I also don’t want them held in some special place where they’re always regarded differently than other monsters with similar numbers.

      • bighara says:

        (spoilerish) That’s sort of what I was after in Skull Mountain. I wanted the dragon to have an intelligently laid out lair, but not have it be this unbeatably powerful creature in and of itself.

  3. Also good to remember that “D&D”as a name has no special meaning originally. It was only an alliterative last-minute replacement for the more generic “The Fantasy Game.” This is why it first treated dragons as just another monster (an approach I approve of).

  4. Have you seen this:

    I’m planning on using it when I come to write up some dragons.

  5. Brendan says:

    I agree, and I would probably even go a bit further than you. I don’t mind if dragons are just another monster, as long as they are rather fearsome. (And as long as PC power is not at super-hero levels.) Remember, in OD&D, a “dragon” could often be encountered in many of the wilderness encounter tables with a chance of 1 in 8 (though “dragon” included some related monsters, not just dragons as commonly understood).

    This is an interesting thread:

    I like to keep my dragons closer to the mythological base, which is much more manageable compared to the huge demigods of modern fantasy.

    • Kilgore says:

      Wow. Nice find. I follow that board a bit, but had missed that discussion.

      Funny, because the thing that first got me wanting to put more dragons into my game was the Swords & Wizardry White Box game (based on 3LBB OD&D) which had the dragons more or less written up as they originally were. The first time I saw that I was all “Can that possibly be right?” But the more I thought about it the more I liked it.

  6. The Bane says:

    Funny, back in the day, I didn’t like how prolific dragons were. I guess it depends on the setting though, at least for me. I just can’t help trying to rationalize how humans/demi-humans would be the premier predator if dragons abound. If they were common, as opposed to rare or even ultra-rare, then humanity in my humble opinion, wouldn’t resemble what we see in a traditional D&D setting. A city, for example, would be a smorgasbord for a pair of dragons… assuming the Smaug variety. If they are presented as common dungeon inhabitants, as suggested, or at least the weak ones, then they would lose their appeal, at least for me. Even when I ran across a ‘named’ one.

    The above is just my knee jerk reaction and not meant to be argumentative. This post has given me something to reflect on, and that is always a good thing. Changing one’s mind usually leads to something creative, so I will continue to follow this and see if my years of ingrained thought won’t break loose long enough for me to see the light…


  7. Pingback: Dragon Damage | Lord Kilgore

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