The big name fantasy RPGs have struggled with the mechanical presentation of dragons for a while now. 3e was miserable, PF had some slight improvements, and 5e took the nuclear option, making them lame, but easy to present.
In 3e, I’ve never been able to actually prep a dragon for play in less than 2 hours. That’s fine if its a primary antagonist, but when I need to think on the fly, because my players did something crazy, I end up with an early end to the session, or an underwhelming dragon. And lets not even talk about the folks who put 3e dragons on random encounter tables. Who knows what they are thinking.
See, in 3e, to make a dragon you turn to the dragon entry in the PHB on page 68. You read about the 12 age categories and pick the one based on age that is appropriate. Then read about its abilities based on age. Page 69 has a chart showing you size by age, and you may want to reconsider, if you actually need a bigger or smaller dragon. Then, you can flip to each specific dragon, by color, and see yet another chart. This third chart is different for each color, and tells you what those dragons get stat wise. There is a fourth chart for each color as well. This is the one that tells you special powers like spells and whatnot. Oh, but we aren’t done. CR is found in a FIFTH place, under the header for that dragon type. For black dragons, I’m flipping between chart#/page# 1/68, 2/69, 3/70, 4/71, and 5/70. If I were to do one like silver, its even more spread out. Its 3 specialty charts are on page 86, and 87.
That’s a lot of page flipping, and in the end that only tells me how to build a dragon. It doesn’t build the dragon for me. If building a Very Old Black dragon, I know its CR 18, huge size, has 28d12+168 HP, has a base attack of +28, a strength score of 31, and 9th level spell casting. Because its huge, I know it has a bite, 2 claws, 2 wings, a tail slap and a crush attack. You’d I can run with that, but you’d be wrong. See, I still have to do some basic things, like add its strength to its base attack bonus to determine its to hit, and then apply multi-attack penalties to it. I also have to do some complicated things. I know it casts like a 9th level sorcerer, but I have to go and actually pick those spells. Not only that, but I shouldn’t go with my defaults. A CR 18 beast with 31 strength and 350 HP plays a lot different than a sorcerer. I’m probably wise to pick buff spells, like mage armor, and mirror image over spells like scorching ray. A staple of sorcerers. Why? I’m going to be CR 18 and spending my turn blasting for 8d6? Waste of time and we all know it. A real sorcerer of the same level is at minimum doing 12d6, assuming he isn’t buffing it at all.
Alright, Krusk you say. I’ve got my stats figured out, and I went through and picked spells. That’s great, but we aren’t done. See, Dragons, like all monsters get skills and feats. Unlike other monsters, dragons get ability score increases every 4 levels that are not added to their stats already, because of the build your own nature. So first, I need to assign 28 HD worth of skill points, and dragons, oh dragons get 6+int mod per level, so you will have a bunch (279 assuming you don’t change your int score). Then, I can pick feats. Our 28 HD gets us 10 feats, some of which might be epic feats. Lastly, our 28 HD gets us 7 free ability points to spend at our discretion. One could dump them all into strength, dexterity, constitution, or charisma and no one would bat an eye. Changing any of these requires we redo some of that math. So if you are smart, you did this step first. Fuck. Ok, we have it all done, and this dragon is one bad mother f’er. Not yet! You wanted to include a dragon, right? Well what do dragons have? A horde. Your dragon specifically has triple standard treasure. Go ahead and roll that and take a look (god bless you if you actually use the book to roll treasure and not an online tool). Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were an int 16, wis 17, cha 16 dragon, and I’ve got a horde like that, I may consider using some of that when attacked. So go and think about each magic item and see if the dragon uses it. Scrolls and potions? For sure. Wands, probably. It probably isn’t putting on the suit of medium full plate, but what about the elemental gem fire? No reason he doesn’t carry that around. An amulet of natural armor, maybe? And man… what do you do if you roll one of the books that boost his stats yet again. Does he read it, and destroy it, (turning his loot into raw power, robbing the PCs?) or is he too covetous to decrease his horde, even against his own survival. One of these options is a lot less work, that’s for sure.
Painful. Right? Well at least … wait they don’t? OK never mind, they don’t include any sample pre-built dragons in the monster manual. So you can’t just grab one and go, or even compare to see if you did it right.
Pathfinder is a gem of a game. Its basically 3e with some tweaks. Some improvements and some less so. Pathfinder follows roughly the same process to make dragons. But different. Its Pathfinder, that’s what it is.
Pathfinder puts all our charts on the same page (91 of the bestiary), mostly. Each color dragon gets its own chart, on its own page, but overall a lot less page flipping. I won’t subject you to the same wall of text, and will just highlight the differences. First, its ability score increases are pre-done. Checking the stats, I don’t actually see them included or reflected, but maybe whoever built Pathfinder’s dragons decided they get weaker as they age in some stat, and the +1 from leveling is applied to the weaker stats to balance it out. The other thing Pathfinder did that’s a godsend, is they include 3 sample dragons of each color. With spells, and feats, and everything (except items) pre-chosen. This means I can flip to the book and just grab a dragon and go. Assuming its the right size, and I am ok ignoring its items.
Pathfinder’s work on dragons is a big improvement on 3e’s take, simply because they do the work for us in a lot of places.
5e Went a totally different way with dragons. They decided dragons should be lame. You may not realize that, if you’ve only ever played 5e, but the options presented to 5e dragons are lame.
Before we get into why they are lame now, I want to comment on something. Flipping through the 5e Monster Manual, we see Dragons, and Dragons, Shadow. Someone decided to put Dragons, Shadow before Dragons alphabetically. That’s not how the alphabet works. I can get behind changing the order if it made sense, but its also a bad order. So bad, I’d argue we should change the natural order to put dragons in front of dragons, shadow. If it didn’t naturally come that way. Dragons, Shadow is a template applied to Dragons. Why wouldn’t you put it at the end of the Dragons section. (I am forgiving Dracolich coming first because of the alphabet).
Back to the point at hand. 5e dragons are lame. In 5e dragons only have 4 age categories, down from 12. They cut out the option for tiny cat sized dragons which were always kind of fun. They also top out their ancient dragons at the new 5e gargantuan, which is 20ft square, and a broad complaint I have about 5e in general.
Now, instead of a build your own spellcaster/tank/monster type who gets “everything cool” they are fliers with a breath weapon. Powerful sure, but no ice walking or summoning air djinn to build them palaces, or any of the other weird, fun powers. Spellcasting is added on as a variant, and I recommend it, if only to make them a little more fun. Instead they can cast a number of spells equal to their charisma mod 1/day each, and the level can be no higher than 1/3 its CR. Its not much, but you should take it.
5e does include status for each dragon at each of the (4) age categories, and while I’m griping about the lack of options presented, the pre-built nature of 5e dragons is a clear win over the build your own mess of 3e.
To Conclude …
I’ve got to give the win to Pathfinder here. They kept the cool powers of 3e dragons and did the hard work for me. At least some of it. I can see why they don’t put out all sizes of dragons in the Bestiary, because then its a thousand pages, but for the other sizes, you basically have the 3e problem.
This all leads me to a pet project of mine, that I’ll trickle out over the next [time period]. A collection of prebuilt, core only dragons for 3.5 with fully prepped stat blocks, hordes, backstories and lairs. Why core only? Because then all your info is in an SRD and you won’t have to go dumpster dive books (and I can print the whole thing here). Why 3.5? Because I first started the project a long time ago. Like I said, they take forever to do.
To follow along with this project as it goes on, entries have been tagged with the dragon tag.