Why do AD&D dragons seem so weak compared with their later-edition counterparts? someone on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition group Facebook page wanted to know.
The simple answer, which many provided, is that the PCs were also weaker, and therefore dragons remained terrifying in those versions However, two writers contributed thought-provoking, longer answers that went beyond that observation. We thought both were worth sharing.
One is Merric Blackman’s article about the evolution of dragon toughness over the game’s editions, which appears on the author’s own site, so we’ll just link to it here. The second was a comment on the Facebook thread by John Creed. Mr. Creed’s remark would be harder to find in a random search. However, he has kindly given us permission to share what he wrote here.
I have seen someone attempt to joust with Mr. Creed over his contentions below, but I find Mr. Creed’s argument quite credible. I’m a old-school gamer and remember how much more common a dragon fight was in the earlier editions. They weren’t just for god-level play. For a third perspective and some grognard nostalgia, see Wallace Cleaves’ sidebar to the right of this article.
by John Creed
Dragons in earlier editions were easier to kill because Uncle Gary took G. K. Chesterton’s quote about monsters to heart; you were supposed to be able to kill them. Yeah, they were tough and the fight would be dangerous, but you were supposed to be able to defeat them. In fact, you could even subdue them, and make them give up their treasure, or capture them and sell them on the open market. I mean, the game was called Dungeons and Dragons. You go into dungeons, you battle dragons…
Sometime in the 80’s, people began to fetishize dragons as unkillable engines of death, beyond the means of any player’s ability to kill. St George protested, but no one listened, and now, for no practical or thematic reasons I can discern, dragons are far harder to destroy. Which is kind of a shame really. Back in the day, you could talk about how you killed an Ancient Red Dragon, how hard it was, how some party members died, how awesome the treasure trove was — and others would know just what that felt like. They had shared the experience, and there were high fives all around. The most bad-ass monster threatening the world could be defeated by brave heroes, the wilderness could be pushed back, and civilization could be saved. GKC would be proud.
Nowadays a boast about killing an Ancient Red Dragon is the Canadian Girlfriend of game stories. Any dragon killing stories are sad, concerning the defeat of young immature lizards that just want to be left alone, and tinged with a patina of “the DM went easy on us.” Old style dragons are the one thing I truly miss about earlier editions.