Dragons Done Right!
The name of the game is Dungeons & Dragons. As such, many expect (and arguably should) to encounter both in the course of their adventure. When players at my tables find a new dungeon, the air is electric with excitement! New enemies, new traps, and new treasure await below!
But what should a player’s reaction be when seeing a dragon? When the air is filled with the sound of massive beating wings, the stillness is split by the roar of an ancient beast, and the smell of brimstone fills the air?
If the answer isn’t “abject terror”, watch season 2 of The Legend of Vox Machina!
Based on the internationally beloved internet sensation of Critical Role’s first streamed campaign, the show follows a band of adventuring misfits on their journey to become heroes! If you’re not already watching it, do yourself a favor! Be prepared for blood and some adult themes in the show, and some light spoilers in the rest of this article.
Season 1’s cliffhanger teases the arrival of the Chroma Conclave, a group of four ancient dragons cooperating to overthrow human civilization in Tal’dorei. The first episode of season two makes good on that promise, with four dragons systematically decimating one of the strongest and best-defended cities in the setting! Their massive bodies crush stone buildings effortlessly! they fly out of reach of any form of counterattack while breathing death below them as they go! Freezing foes solid, destroying bodies from the inside out with poison, melting them from the outside in with vile acid, and blasting fire hot enough to melt through a stone mountain! Without so much as taking a scratch, these unstoppable titans take over the city without so much as taking a scratch! And this is JUST the first episode! They’re only getting started!
What lessons can we take from Vox Machina’s portrayal of dragons? Let’s break down what makes them so terrifying!
Dragons are exceptionally long-lived intelligent creatures. Even white dragons, the least intellectual type, are above animal intelligence even when they’re still wormlings, and older ones are of humanoid intellect. As other dragons grow, they regularly achieve genius level intellect over the length of their lives. They are more than beasts: they are master tacticians, capable of planning and strategizing! Their victory in Emon began decades prior, and was brought to fruition with cruel efficiency.
In the first season of TLoVM, a blue dragon allied with the Chroma Conclave used his disguise as a trusted member of the king’s council to move the bulk of the city’s army into a vulnerable position. Under cover of darkness, and using the element of surprise, it massacred them single handedly while most of the army was resting. This alone was not the move of a mindless beast, but an apex predator! But this was merely the start of the plan… after the city’s defenses were weakened in this way, the rest of the conclave attacked the city together! Without warning, the first joint attack made by multiple dragons in recent history caught the city wholly unprepared! With only the remnants of a defensive force, Emon fell without a fight.
While dragons are among the most powerful creatures in D&D, and would almost certainly win a fair fight, they will hardly ever engage in one. Ambush tactics, striking when and where their opponents are weakest, luring their prey into their lair where they are most ready to defend themselves, and striking from the air to rob landlocked opponents of their ability to fight back… these are the tactics employed by dragons.
Many creatures that master techniques and stratagems such as these do so to compensate for natural disadvantages, but that is not the case for dragons. They do so to accentuate their many, many strengths.
Dragons are among the physically strongest creatures in existence, no matter the setting. In the show, we see dragons crumbling stone with their claws, toppling towers, breaking through immense columns, stomping armored soldiers flat like aluminum cans, and biting straight through flesh and bone of their prey. They use their mighty wings to employ guerilla tactics, in and out of an enemy’s range without fear of reprisal, and to close the distance to faraway foes in an instant.
Not only are they able to physically dominate their opponents, but their defenses are top tier as well! The defenders of Emon shatter arrows, axes, and even large ballista bolts against their armored scales. No assault that the guards, or even the legendary Vox Machina, could mount against them harmed them in the slightest. And their incredible physical and mental power (aka their incredibly high Ability Scores, in mechanical terms) mean that few spells will affect them. Even those that might have were crushed or shattered easily (I’m guessing this is a portrayal of a dragon’s Legendary Resistances, choosing to succeed on saving throws they might otherwise fail). In short, things that would kill other creatures just don’t work on dragons!
The iconic preferred toll of destruction for a dragon is their breath attack. Varying depending on its type, a dragon might be able to breathe fire, ice, lightning, poison, or acid. Their ability to affect large areas and numbers of enemies at once takes them from posing an imposing threat to individuals and elevates them to a monster that whole nations should fear!
We see Thordak fire a concentrated beam of flame into the mountainside the castle rests on in episode 1. The beam cuts through the rock, bursting out the far side moments later, and bringing the whole palace tumbling down in a flash. While Thordak certainly possessed the physical strength to tear down the mountainside rock by rock, his unique breath weapon allowed him to do in seconds what armies might have taken weeks or months to accomplish!
While Thordak’s attack doesn’t have any direct correlation to other red dragons in D&D, let’s look at the green dragon, Raishan. She belches clouds of poison down on whole districts of the city from above, and fills the castle courtyard with her noxious breath in an instant. Scores of trained soldiers and heroes that might have otherwise posed a threat to her were rendered helpless and subsequently slain. The ability to attack large numbers of foes at once in this way is a hallmark of dragonkind that earns their enemies’ respect!
Now we come to what makes dragon’s so fearsome! It is not their ability to spew fire, crush stone, or raze a city that makes them so terrifying… it is their willingness to do so, and the joy they take in it!
Dragons are the top of the food chain, and they know it! They are the strongest, toughest, longest lived creatures around, and (in most settings) once ruled all creation as undisputed tyrants! The fact that these young, upstart races that make up the D&D worlds are not worshiping them as the near-gods they are… well, it pisses them off! Putting lesser creatures in their place is just as satisfying as being given the royal treatment they feel they deserve.
Raishan admits to enjoying the taste of fear when she confronts Vox Machina. She even refers to the inhabitants of Emon as “delicious cattle” immediately after making a meal of a fleeing nobleman. The black dragon Umbrasil notes that attempts to hinder him are “pathetic,” and revels in responding with his acidic breath, ready to show his attackers “what real power is”. Vorugal, the white member of the Conclave, eagerly attacks helpless refugees with the same thorough ferocity he used against soldiers in an earlier battle.
Dragons are quick to crush hope in the hearts of their enemies. Defeat the enemy champions, crush their machines of war, eliminate the opposition’s leadership, disrupt the chain of command, strike where the enemy is strongest and watch the fight fade in the hearts of those that survive. Nobles and peasants, adults and children, warriors and pacifists… they all taste the same.
Death flies on swift wings! The Legend of Vox Machina handles dragons well, allowing them to be the terrifying flying catastrophes they are meant to be. It is inspiring the way these villains were foreshadowed by the previous season, and then revealed in all their destructive and ruthless glory in season two! If you haven’t watched it yet, it gets a strong recommendation from us (if you have the stomach for the animated gore).
How have you used dragons to great effect as a Dungeon Master? What effect have dragons had on you as a player? Have you even gotten to face one in D&D? Let us know your answers in the comments below, or tag us on our socials by clicking HERE!