Dragons! Terror of the skies! The greatest, grandest, most important tool in a DMs repertoire! They are in the very title of the game: Dungeons & DRAGONS. Nothing is more important to get absolutely right in a game than the dragon, and I'll tell you why and how to give them the respect they deserve.
It is my fervent belief that the first time a new player meets a dragon, it should make them fear for their life. It should reveal their raw awesome power and truly make the player consider either running or hiding. In my opinion, a DM should never ever let a party kill a dragon for at least a while after meeting one.
Not only is the first treatment of a dragon extremely important, every instance of a dragon is important. No dragon should be an easy battle. Dragons should equal epic fight. Always. For this reason too, I prefer to avoid using their magic spells as much as possible. No one wants to fight a flying, biting wizard. The way I see it, a dragon should only resort to using its spells to prevent or escape from situations that would put it at a disadvantage. A dragon in a wall of force is pathetic. Luckily he's got mage's disjunction! Or some such example. Instead, a dragon should claw, bite, tail swipe, and wing attack. They should pick up their foes and fly two hundred feet in the air and drop them onto rocks. They should roar ferociously before they attack, and use their breath weapon often. They should taunt their foes as they make futile attempts to defeat it, and they should shove the rogue in their mouth to prevent him from making a save against its breath weapon. If the party doesn't have a means to attack it in the air, it stays up there, laughing at them. Dragons are terror, dragons are fear, dragons are death.
There is a fantastic series of video games called the Monster Hunter series that actually captures what dragon hunting should be: an ordeal. One doesn't simply grab their sword and go off to kill a dragon. One studies the dragon's hunting pattern, it's movements, it's fighting style, it's personality, it's weaknesses, it's strengths, and it's goals. One learns everything they possibly can, then they stock up on potions, magic items, rope, gear resistant to its breath attack, and prepare to go to war with a singular beast. When they finally face the dragon, the players go prepared, but still danger abounds. Death still is a real possibility.
If my players do not hesitate when they see or even hear about a dragon, I have failed in my duty to provide a real danger in the game. I have lost their respect for dragons, or for death (same difference).
Besides combat, when it comes to roleplaying a dragon, I feel there are a few important aspects to consider.
Dragons are ancient. Older than man, older than the elves and the dwarves. Every setting has a different origin but they are always old, and known to have forgotten more than we know. This is an important fact when roleplaying a dragon. Often they are older than the PCs, and as a race they are far older. Because of this, all dragons tend to carry a superior attitude with them. Good dragons tend to be mentors and teach the 'lesser' races, while evil dragons tend to look down on them as food or obstacles. Either way, make no mistake, dragons consider themselves better than everyone else, and this can be a weakness to exploit. One of their few. If a dragon flies in the air mocking the players, a biting retort or accusation of cowardice might bring him down long enough to tear that person in half, but also leave himself open to attack.
Good dragons, despite being good, should not be assumed to be allied with a good-aligned party. They have their own goals, desires, and views on what good constitutes. They may be willing to help a party, but why should they? How do they know the party is up to its particular standards of good? A quest, no doubt, is in order to prove themselves before a boon can be granted. They may have much to teach them, but before it is good it is a dragon. They may see the other races as mere tools to further their own goals. In fact, in the case of paladins, they may even consider them their vassals, despite the paladin's protests.
Evil dragons are the true terrors. Rarely open to negotiation, especially if they have the upper hand, they see the world as theirs for the plucking. They will gladly ransack the kingdom, steal from other dragons, and lure adventurers in to take their loot. This may be a weakness to exploit as well. The dragon's fondness for treasure can be used as either a bartering tool, or a bribe, should combat be avoided. Some dragons have even been known to take care not to damage an adventurer's loot before they kill them so they can take it.
Neutral dragons can go either way as their mood strikes them, and are some of the more interesting and unpredictable dragon types.
Finally, I'd like to say that I hope to write more about dragons in later posts, so if you have something particular you'd like me to address, send me a comment. I'm also open to suggestions for later A to Z entries. I may not use them, but I'd love to get some ideas. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned tomorrow for "E is for Environment".
D&D 3.5 Dragon
d20 Sample Dragons