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.