Dragons. Half of the name of the game. The only monster to get nearly two pages of text in the Basic Set (and the fact that most monsters have gotten a whole page or more in many editions since the 2E days says something about the direction RPGs have taken in the past 25 years, but that's a discussion for a different blog post). The one monster that you really want to be able to defeat, because it's so iconic to be a dragon-slayer.
So, what do dragons look like in the Basic Set? Well, we all know the six basic colors, white, black, green, blue, red and gold. They're all here, each with increasing hit dice (starts at 6), AC, claw/bite damage, and morale (white and black are both 8, green and blue are both 9, and red and gold are both 10). XP and saves, of course, also increase with their hit dice. Movement, attacks, number appearing (1-4, in dungeons or out) and treasure type are all the same. White and blue are neutral, gold is lawful, the remainder are chaotic.
One thing I'm reminded of here, is that the claw damage implies that these dragons aren't super huge. The white dragon's claws are only as effective as a dagger or a brown bear's claw (d4 damage), while a red (1d8) and gold (2d4) have damage equal to a sword or battle axe, or a tiger's claw. The bites, though, those can get nasty, ranging from 2d8 for a white to 6d6 for a gold. The white dragon's bite is slightly stronger than the giant ant or cave bear (both 2d6), while the gold's bite is equal to the T-Rex in the Expert Set. Using that as a guide, I'd estimate that these dragons should be between 15' to 30' long or so, or their hit die size times 2.5'. The Larry Elmore box cover art for the Basic, Expert and Master Sets would seem to be slightly larger than this estimation (the Companion Set shows one of the Large or Huge dragons in that set, so that Green is much larger).
Another thing is that number appearing. 1-4 per encounter. Usually, since dragons are fairly high on the D&D monster food chain, they get used, to borrow modern terminology, as "solo" opponents. One dragon is usually enough. Also, because an encounter with more than one can easily lead to a TPK. At Basic Set levels, one is enough for that TPK, really. But it's good to remember that dragons have families/friends that may be with them, or may be waiting back at the lair, keeping watch over all that phat loot!
Under the standard stat blocks, dragons get several more columns of specialized information that informs a lot of what dragons are, and what they aren't, in the game. These tell us where the dragon colors are usually found, and their breath weapon type, size, and shape. They give us a chance that the dragon can talk (goes from 10% of whites, increasing by 10% each color up to 50% for reds, but golds get 100%. There's a chance of the dragon being asleep, starting at 50% for whites, decreasing 10% down to 10% chance for reds, and then down to 5% for golds. Then we get their spells by level. Whites that can talk can cast three 1st level spells, and black dragons 4. Greens get 3 1st level and 3 2nd level, and blues get 4 each of 1st and 2nd level. Likewise, reds get 3 each of 1st, 2nd and 3rd level spells, while golds get 4 each of 1st through 3rd level.
One thing I had always assumed (even though, as we shall see below, is contradicted by the text) was that dragons that didn't talk were just animal intelligence, or maybe semi-intelligent at best. Like the dragon in Beowulf, it may be smart enough to notice that some of its treasure is missing and that humans probably took it, but if it can't have a conversation it's still pretty much just an animal. I've always had two kinds of dragons in my game, and yes, the non-talking kind are a lot easier to defeat because of that.
Frank tells us that all dragons are big flying lizards with breath weapons, have eggs, eat meat, love treasure, and "will do everything possible to save their own lives, including surrender" (p. 28). That says a lot right there, about how dragons should be played. Each dragon should be a character!
The next paragraph reinforces that impression, telling us about how they tend to behave. Because they live for very long times, they really don't give a rat's ass about others. "Chaotic dragons might capture men, but will usually kill and eat them immediately. Neutral dragons might either attack or ignore a party completely. Lawful dragons, however, may actually help a party if the characters are truly worthy of this great honor" (p. 29). Then Frank tells us that dragons are proud and love flattery, and may not attack anyone who butters it up, if it can understand language. Obviously, this is taking cues from Bilbo and Smaug in The Hobbit.
Then we get a warning that even though they're in the Basic Set, it's probably best to only use young/smaller dragons (explained in the Age section, below, although Frank doesn't reference this here) until the PCs are higher level (Frank suggests at least 4th).
After this, we get some specialized subheadings for specific topics related to dragons.
Breath Weapon Damage: Those who have only played newer editions (2E and up) might not know it, but in these rules, a dragon's breath weapon does damage equal to their current hit points, but the dragon is limited to breathing only 3 times per day. Also, the rules specify that a dragon always uses its breath in the first round of combat. While that might not seem like the most tactically sound method in some instances, it's something that my friends and I would try to exploit when we were young. I assume we weren't the only ones, because later editions added all sorts of extra powers to dragons to keep players from using these advantages. Personally, I think dragons are fairly tough enough without needing the ability to automatically detect illusions, tremor-sense, and the like. Dragons are tough, but they shouldn't be impossible to gain an advantage over. If every encounter with a dragon becomes a battle of attrition hit point slog, that's not very fun, and it makes it a lot riskier for the PCs (or they just wait until they're a lot higher level before tackling dragons).
Anyway, after the first round, the DM can decide how the dragon attacks (claw & bite, or another breath) or roll randomly (there's a chart, of course!).
Dragons' breath weapon, as mentioned, does damage equal to their current hit points, the rules are explicit on that. I remember reading a thread on Dragonsfoot.org's forums once where people debated this, and Frank actually chimed in saying that he always had the breath weapon do damage equal to the dragon's total hit points, which makes dragons very challenging. Personally, I'm a fan of the RAW. If players are smart, they attack while the dragon is sleeping, or they gain surprise (invisibility, illusions, etc.) and get a free round of attacks in. That way, they've got a chance to lessen the effects of the breath weapon before it hits them. The RAW rewards smart play. Keeping the damage as the total rewards cautious play. I find the game more fun, both as DM and player, when a smart plan allows caution to be put aside.
And that picture! I'm not sure why, but this picture is what convinced me that D&D was something I needed to have. I'd been watching the cartoon, and had some of the Endless Quest CYOA books, but when some of my mom's old Peace Corps friends came to visit in the summer of '84, and their neighbor showed me his BX books, the version of this picture in Moldvay made me want to buy the rules.
Saving Throws: No matter what, always save vs. breath weapon against a dragon's breath, even if it seems like another type of attack (chlorine gas/poison is the only one that seems like it might get argued the other way by some "reality lawyer" type player.
We have a bit of a curious sentence here, as it could be interpreted in two different ways. "Dragons are never affected by the normal or smaller versions of their Breath Weapons, and automatically make their Saving Throws against any attack form which is the same as their Breath Weapon" (p. 29, emphasis added). So normal versions of the breath weapon, I get. A red dragon is immune to normal fire, a green is immune to poison gas (or specifically chlorine gas?), etc. But what's a "smaller" version? That from a dragon with fewer hit points? Is it a reference put in there for reference when the Companion Set large and huge dragons get introduced? It's open to interpretation.
Talking: Frank explains that all dragons are intelligent (I mentioned this above), but not all can talk. If the dragon talks, it also can cast spells, which are chosen randomly (and it always amused me that a red or gold dragon might have a fireball spell, when their breath is usually better).
Now, I mentioned earlier that I like to have non-talking dragons be only semi-intelligent at best. That's just my personal thing. But recent editions make (most) dragons geniuses by the time they're adults (in addition to all these other powers they've tacked on), so that they're more of a challenge. Nothing in the rules here, though, state that dragons are exceptionally intelligent. It's possible to infer from the chances of talking/spell-casting that whites and blacks are not so bright, in comparison, and reds and golds are smarter. But the rules don't state that explicitly.
Again, I don't think every dragon needs to be super smart. Allowing the players a chance to outwit a dragon now and then can be fun for everyone...if the players think to try and outwit the dragon.
Sleeping Dragons: And actually, now that I've reread a few sections, I start to see why many DMs ignore the Number Appearing range of 1-4 dragons in an encounter. All of the examples, including here, say things like "when a dragon is encountered" which gives the impression that dragons are usually (or should usually be) encountered solo.
So every dragon (or group of dragons? Should the DM roll individually for each dragon? Good luck with that, players!) has a chance to be asleep when encountered. If your party is lucky enough to catch a sleeping dragon, you can get a free round of attacks and spells in (at +2 to hit) while the dragon wakes up. Unlike the sleep spell's description, you can't just auto-kill the dragon, but you can put a dent in its hit points before it wakes up and breathes on you.
Subduing Dragons: A few posts back, discussing Morale rules, someone (JB of BX Blackrazor, maybe) asked what's the difference between a dragon losing morale and surrendering, and a dragon being subdued? I think, personally, that a dragon that loses morale still is in a position to bargain, whereas subdued dragons surrender unconditionally. There's nothing explicit in the rules about this, but from a reading of the morale rules in general, and the rules for subduing dragons, that's how I'd play it.
Oh, and if you don't know, crazily confident (or magically overloaded) PCs can attack "with the flat of the sword" not doing any real damage to the dragon (meaning its breath is still at full strength) and if they manage to get it to "0" then the dragon is subdued, because it knows it could have been killed.
But the dragon will try to escape or cause trouble for the PCs, while grudgingly serving them until allowed a chance to escape, or ordered into an obviously suicidal situation, or sold. Yes, you can sell a dragon for up to 1000gp per hit point! Subduing the dragon is VERY risky, but if you can pull it off, you can get filthy stinking rich. You get the dragon's treasure and can sell the dragon for nearly as much more. I wouldn't advise it until Name Level or higher, when you need crazy amounts of treasure like that to level up, anyway.
My question regarding subduing dragons has always been, who's buying these subdued dragons? And what do they do with them once they're purchased? If that's not on Jeff Rients' list of 20 Questions About My Campaign, it probably should be.
Age: Here's a subsection I sometimes forget, because it's easy to just use the stat block as printed. But in BECMI, young dragons simply have fewer hit dice (up to 3 less), and older dragons have more (up to 3 more).
Again, maybe it's just because these are the rules I started with, but I find this simpler than the OD&D/AD&D way of having a set number of hit points per hit die by age, and the overly complex tables of a dozen different age categories in 2E/3E, each with increasing stats and powers. One reason I like it is that until that first breath weapon hits, players have no idea who many hit points, exactly, the dragon is going to have. The other is that it's a lot simpler just to add or subtract a few hit dice to a dragon to make it older or younger, than to consult all those tables.
Treasure: Their treasures are also proportional to their age, with younger dragons having 1/2 or 1/4 of Type H, and older dragons having up to double. Now, treasure type H is the most generous of treasure types, so even 1/4 of that is a pretty nice haul. So young, relatively inexperienced would-be dragon slayers would still come out alright if they can find a young, 3HD white dragon to battle.
But, as this section points out, dragons rarely leave their treasure out in the open, or unguarded. And now's a good time to once again point out that there should be 1d4 dragons per lair, meaning only 25% of the time should there be a single dragon only. Best scout out that lair before charging in!
Gold Dragons: The final section gives us a few special notes on the lawful Gold Dragon. They always talk, always cast spells, and can shapeshift into any human or animal form at will. They also get a choice of fire or chlorine gas, but still only three breaths per day, and the DM should always decide which type of breath they use.