In the first two parts of this series (linked below), I covered the majority of the player-facing mechanics. In Chapter 3, the book shifts toward primarily DM-facing text. I like Chapters 1 and 2, but this is where the book sets itself apart: it’s going to tell us how to deliver characterization on dragons, tell stories about them, and make them some of the most memorable characters your PCs will ever meet. Uh, spoilers on my opinion, I guess!
Chapter 3: Dragons in Play
You know how the DMG has tables of character quirks and features to help your players remember how this NPC is different? The chapter starts with that, but for dragons. I love the table here – they range from “large scar” to “constantly venting elemental energy,” which is on the edge of visually designing a whole new creature. But then, giving even your dragons a single trait or attack that is different from every other creature of that stat block is a fine best practice, and matches the narrative weight of dragons very well.
Following that, there are new mannerisms (what your Background calls “personality traits”), bonds, and flaws/secrets. Of course I love this—it’s what I did for a bunch of nonhuman races in “Through Their Own Eyes” (available now on DriveThruRPG). Many of these suggest whole stories. Then a table for randomly constructing dragon names, always nice to have.
Customizing a Dragon is a section on that thing I just said about stat customization, as well as roleplaying things like the language the dragon knows or chooses to address you in. This is all great stuff, especially since you’re almost never staging a dragon’s first appearance without prep (aside from you true zero-prep DMs).
Life Span digs into how the major phases of life—wyrmling, young, adult, ancient—affects their goals and activities. It’s absolutely not a coincidence that the four age categories align with the four tiers of play. Accordingly, the goals of each age category match up with the kinds of stories you expect to see in each tier. D&D PCs grow from zero to hero; red dragons, zero to Nero.
The book’s lore around dragonsight and dragons spanning multiple worlds gets tons of time and attention here. I always like to see books incorporate ideas seamlessly across chapters. On the other hand, the next section is Reproduction, and it’s a reminder that there’s still a lot of room to customize the lore of dragons in your game even when D&D is setting out multiversal lore. The origin of half-dragons gets a similar build-your-own-lore offering.
We can skim through the next several sections. The material is good, but I don’t have a lot to say about it. The sidebar “Dragons of Song and Steel” is an interesting piece of retcon work, explaining away some of the idiosyncratic dragon types (song dragons, steel dragons, weredragons) of FR and Greyhawk as customized metallic dragons. Based on the last nearly-fifty years of D&D publishing, even a flimsy statement that they’re not going to publish another dozen types of true dragons in future books is a baffling move. On the other hand, I appreciate an effort toward a consistent and comprehensible lore around the game’s most important creature.
Dragon Organizations is yet another great section. It offers four organizations, each with a d6 table of goals or adventure hooks. Everything here would be a perfect encounter, story thread, or whole story arc of a campaign, or even a published adventure. I want to play most of these (but especially Inheritors of the First World) and see where they go.
Followers covers ways people follow dragons, not dragons as followers. (Other than the companion entry, for dragons who enjoy slumming.) Here again—recurring theme, be ready—every one of these is all you need for a few different storylines. Especially in my podcast, I engage in a lot of commentary about DM-facing content and how to make it usable and engaging. One of the specific things we cover all the time is whether a table of 1-3 word concepts says enough to spark ideas, or if it needs to be more. Think of this section as a d10 table, but without the table and with multiple paragraphs talking about how to implement each idea.
Relationships and Adventures actually is a table (d20), with two story hooks for each entry in the section before it. The lesson here? If you have the freedom to do 224 pages on a narrow topic, take full advantage of that. More importantly, the writing quality stands up—we’ve all seen writers phone it in for collections of story hooks, but not here.
Dragons’ Minions offers some unique features to spice up, you know, a dragon’s minions. Some of these are more exciting than others, but at worst it’s a quarter-page.
Dragon Encounters is more deep DM advice, followed by a collection of d20 ways to change up encounters and keep your players guessing—or on their back foot tactically. Some of these are light-touch quirks, while others require drawing a whole new map. A few of these are firmly in oldest-trick-in-the-book territory, which is to say that I could play them for laughs in my group, but my players would see right through them if played straight.
Dragon Adventures is here in case everything before now hasn’t suggested enough storylines to you. But wait, after that comes Dragon Campaigns, with the most delightful nods to Krynn, the Council of Wyrms, and Tarkir. It’s really interesting to see the reference to a M:tG setting, albeit one not yet adapted for D&D. Are they stitched into the multiversal quilt that this book reveals?
Anyway, Dragon Campaigns is a big collection of dragon-centric storylines, along a bunch of different vectors. All I have to say is that this is some of the best writing I’ve seen out of WotC. I’m sure there are readers at some level of DMing experience—too new or too long in the tooth—who find this text useless, but I’m no spring chicken myself and I’m pretty sure it would have blown my little mind if I’d read this at age 12.
Chapter 4: Lairs and Hoards
This section has a lot to offer on the plug-and-play side. If you know you want a dragon’s lair encounter and you’re all out of quarters at the arcade, you can open to the dragon flavor in question and there’s a dungeon map ready to go. There are also a substantial number of proposed quirks and tweaks to the lair and the dragon’s regional effects. If you’re running a sufficiently dragon-heavy game to need a lot of these, I salute you. Doing the work to be something more than a bare cavern with a mound of gold is always worthwhile, though.
I’m sure Council of Wyrms isn’t the only D&D source that set treasure quotas for various age categories of dragons, but that’s where I first saw it, so that’s what I think of when it’s mentioned here. There’s a lot of mystical business about the hoards, linking hoards together so the dragon’s coins aren’t all in one offshore bank account, and depowered a dragon by carrying out enough heists against it. That sounds like a really fun way to pit tier 2 PCs against an ancient dragon, in an ongoing “only technically not Leverage” campaign. Hoards get quirks, too, and could be haunted or cursed.
The curse rules are worth a callout: “In general, ending the curse on a dragon’s hoard is not as simple as casting a single spell.” Yep, getting right to business with the fundamental problem of remove curse. The game needs a consistent way to say “this is a more important narrative curse, you’re going to have to work to lift it.” For better or worse, there’s a different single spell suggested as one of the ways to break the curse, higher-level and carrying a 1000-gp cost, but still trivial once it’s available and you have the dragon’s hoard in hand.
Two of my major wish-list items for the 2024 revisions is a formal mention within lesser restoration and remove curse that some diseases and curses don’t use the standard rules and can’t be lifted with a 2nd– or 3rd-level slot, respectively; a disease or curse imposed by spell should require a spell slot at least on-level with the spell used to place that disease or curse. Just sayin’.
Have we touched on how there are a lot of story hooks going on in this book? Here’s a few more: reasons other than cash value for various magical groups to seek hoards. Hoards, dragons, and magic are intertwined enough that people who know how can turn that power toward other ends.
The rest of the chapter rehashes the early part of Chapter 7: Treasure from the DMG, with descriptions of treasure, treasure tables, and so on. You couldn’t get much luckier if you’re looking for lucre. Really, though, I have no problem with some additional characterization for one of the most D&D moments that any game can offer.
Chapter 5: Draconomicon
Funny enough, this is separate from the Bestiary, which is Chapter 6. I’m not going to cover this in detail, but it’s great content, with an incredible density of connections, adventure hooks, personality traits, ideals, and art objects for the fifteen main dragon types (five chromatic, five gem, five metallic), plus deep dragons, dragon turtles, faerie dragons, moonstone dragons, and shadow dragons.
It’s a deep dive into each dragon type, and includes a sidebar with a noted named dragon and description for almost all of the types. Oh, and most of the dragons have a Dyson Logos lair map, description, and additional lair action and regional effect content.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I have met Aremag in-game and now I am ready to chow down on some frickin’ dragon turtle soup. I hate that guy so much. (In a fun way.)
In short, if you want to run dragon lairs and make sure that every dragon lair feels different from one another, this chapter is worth the cost of the book. The same week that I received my review copy, I was implementing ideas from the bronze dragon section. They sparked lots of ideas on how to handle that probably-recurring character.
Chapter 6: Bestiary
This chapter has a ton of new creatures and stat blocks, ranging from CR 1/8 for the hoard scarab to CR 30 for the Aspect of Bahamut and Aspect of Tiamat. It’s robust and varied; it’s also the first broad look at the change to NPC spellcasters. That change is way outside the scope of this article, but I wrote about it in detail over on my own blog.
I would love to delve into so many of these, because there’s so much we could talk about:
- CR 30s with 5 Legendary Resistances that reset when you trigger its Mythic state. You might be talking about 10 Legendary Resistances per battle, so… alter your tactics accordingly. The greatwyrms, at only slightly lower CR, have 4 Legendary Resistances that likewise reset when they hit their Mythic trigger.
- Spot-checking CR 21 ancient emerald dragons against ancient black dragons, the emerald is a little more complicated to play well (because using mobility well takes thought), and it has fewer hit points, lower AC, and a lower-damage breath weapon… that slaps targets who fail their save with a -d8 penalty to attacks and ability checks, so that sort of turns into a +4.5 AC bonus for some targets after its breath weapon round(s).
- The CR 5 gem stalker would fit seamlessly into Steven Universe as a corrupted gem. Love it, no notes.
- Dragonflesh grafters (CR 3) and dragonflesh abominations (CR 6), on the other hand, could just about be copied and pasted from Dust to Dust LARP, the game that Colin and I directed several years ago.
- Dragonlance draconians! Their Krynn-specific names (baaz, bozak, kapak, sivak, and aurak) are part of their lore text, while their stat blocks are more descriptive and applicable to worlds where they don’t come from metallic dragon eggs.
Overall, there’s a ton of interesting creature design going on here, and everything you could need for a deeply dragon-focused adventure or campaign. Stepping back to consider the whole of Chapters 3-6, DMs have a lot of options for encounter design, ranging from low/no-prep and just running material directly from the book, to applying changes and quirks to dragons, their minions, and the local wildlife, with replaced lair actions, political connections to other NPCs, and a hand-designed hoard with detailed origins for the coinage. The important thing is that you can use as much or little as you want, and it still stands up well.
Setting aside my many concerns around the changes to NPC spellcasting, this is one of the best hardbacks I’ve seen. The density of inspiring bits and pieces in the book is just astonishing. I’ve got so many campaigns I want to run with this… really hoping the 2024 rules will add an eighth day to the week and make sure I have no other work obligations on that day. C’mon, WotC, get it together, will you?
PS. I know that Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos is what’s hot right now, but I really wanted to finish this series before I moved on. I did record a first-look review with the Tome Show crew, though! I also still owe you, beloved readers, articles on Witchlight and Ravenloft, and Multiverse of Monsters will be out long before I finish all of that. Bear with me, it’s been a busy year.