Written as a cooperative effort by Erin Palette and Mike Kochis
In that day the LORD will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea.
– Isaiah 27:1
So despite all this, you still want to be a dragonslayer? Then you are a madman or a fool. No one sane ever wants to kill a dragon, for the same reason that no one sane ever wants to fight a land war during a Siberian winter. Still, this is not to say such an undertaking is impossible... just very, very difficult, and even if you manage to win, you will have the scars to prove that you were in an epic battle.
Adventurers hate being manipulated and tricked. In a campaign featuring draconic manipulation, it is only a matter of time before they want to kill their hidden puppet masters for using them. So, how hard is it to kill a dragon?
First, it helps to find out which dragon you want to kill. As mentioned earlier, dragons are smart, extremely long-lived, and prone to holding grudges. From hatching they have been told that, if their existence is known, they will be used as pawns in the Great Game Between Dragons, and that only fools allow their true names and abilities to be known. As such, a dragon capable of amassing a hoard immediately begins to create a web of cut-outs and operatives around an information-based cellular network that would make any spy agency jealous. (See Society for more details on dragon paranoia.)
But assuming through arduous investigation that the Player Characters have determined that they do, indeed, seek vengeance upon the Great Red Wyrm Margontherog (as he is known to the orcs), they must penetrate multiple levels of obstacles and obfuscation to get anywhere close to his lair.
1) The first layer comprises those people, many of them adventurers, for whom the dragon is – formally or informally, known or unknown – their sponsor. These adventurers may not even realize they are being sent to kill or otherwise hinder the party; they could merely show up in the same dungeon at the same time as the PCs, looking for the same treasure. Competitiveness and greed usually ensure conflict over cooperation, especially if their dragon patron has warned them that “Evil men from another land also covet this treasure for wicked ends.”
2) The second layer is made of mercenaries, assassins, and other people from whom violence is easily bought with money. This is perhaps the weakest part of the dragon's web, in that if someone is paid to kill another, then clearly that someone has an employer who provided the funds. Truly careful dragons will arrange for payment to go through multiple locations and individuals, but with thorough enough investigation it should be possible to determine who paid whom, and eventually trace it back to either the tribe of kobolds to whom the money was given, or the particular hoard from which the payment came. Some assassins, after all, have discerning tastes, and kill for things other than mere coinage.
3) Next is the web of favors that are owed to the dragon, either by other dragons or those humanoids brave or foolish enough to ask a dragon for help. Kindly note that favors owed by one dragon to another will only serve to muddy the investigation, as those dragons will also utilize resources 1 through 3 in order to pay the debt. (It is a humorous possibility, however unlikely, for the chain of favors to wrap back around and have the original dragon being asked to kill those same bothersome adventurers as a favor to another.)
It should be noted at this time that steps 1 through 3 have no upper limit on their scope if the dragon is old and rich enough; it is entirely likely that cities, if not whole nations (through their rulers) could be considered assets of a single dragon.
4) At this point things are becoming rather personal for the dragon and perhaps some worry is setting in. He will call upon trusted servants, such as his tribe of fanatically loyal kobolds, or perhaps a half-dragon child, to deal with the party. Many of these will have character levels, and nearly all will possess some powerful magical item, either taken directly from the dragon's hoard or bought with its funds.
5) If the PCs survive this last onslaught, worry is definitely occurring. Dragons will begin activating contingency plans: abandoning lairs, adopting disguises, and retreating to a secure location. A favorite tactic at this point is to lure the adventurers to a throw-away lair – filled with enough treasure to be believable but not so much as to impoverish the dragon – and force a staged confrontation wherein the dragon fakes its own death. This is typically done with illusions, other beings polymorphed into identical dracoforms, cloned fail-safes or other types of simulacra. Should this tactic work, the dragon will lie low for a century or so (longer in the case of elven or dwarven opponents) until it has been forgotten and its foes are either dead or feeble with age. Then it will have its revenge, oh yes....
6) Assuming the player characters are undeterred by this deception, they now must face the greatest fight of their existence. Their quarry has retreated into its strongest, most secure lair, filled with traps and monsters and magics powerful enough to make the stoutest heart blanch. Through scrying, the dragon will know where they are at all times, and will constantly harass them such that they will be denied opportunities to rest, eat, and heal. They will face encounters not meant specifically to kill (although that's always a nice outcome) but rather to ablate, to eat away at the resources of the party until, when they finally stumble upon the dragon's great bedroom, they are bleeding and spent, with their potions drunk and their wands empty and their magics exhausted. And that is, ideally, when the party will discover that Margontherog the Great Red Wyrm has been dead for centuries, and who they face now is actually the black dragon Therazon Man-Eater. Surprise!
7) Assuming the player characters live through this – which is entirely likely, as this quest for vengeance has been a campaign years in the undertaking and in which time the party as a whole likely leveled up to beyond heroic stature – they need to ask themselves one question. One simple, small, nagging question: Which dragon manipulated them into doing it?
Sidebar: Dragon Lairs
Each dragon's lair will be optimized for maximum effective use of its special abilities. While an exhaustive discussion of the tactical construction of a lair is beyond the scope of this article, there are certain guidelines which are universal:
- Dragons whose breath weapons are lines will favor long, straight passageways leading to their lairs, perhaps with a 90-degree turn to provide a sudden blindside, or a sliding wall to prevent a quick escape. If the PCs are incapable of flight, a labyrinth is terribly effective in this regard. The words “Fatal Funnel” should be a design principle.
- Conical breath weapons, on the other hand, should encourage grouping in a cluster through use of terrain which seems helpful but isn't. Outcroppings and depressions can provide a sense of security which is proven false when the breath weapon expands to fill the area above or behind it. Obstacles which entangle or slow advancement are also effective. Think “Splash Damage.”
- Black dragons favor lairs with pits and depressions where residual acid will linger after breath weapon usage. What may at first appear to be defensive trenches for the dragon's allies soon become pits and troughs of lingering, dissolving death.
- Blue dragon make use of their ability to create water to flood the floors of their lairs, allowing electrical conductivity to turn a line of lightning breath into an area-effect weapon.
- Green dragons, due to their sonic abilities, have blindsight rather than blindsense, and as such their battle-lairs are nearly all pitch-black. Repeated sonic attacks will frequently leave adventurers deaf, and PCs which are both blind and deaf are essentially helpless. They are also fond of large, deep pools of water into which armored, blind, and deaf adventurers can stumble into and drown.
- Red dragons will use their immunity to heat to their advantage, and will occupy volcanoes or other locations which will fatigue, exhaust or kill those without magical immunity. These dragons will then cast greater dispel magic as an area effect in order to make the PCs vulnerable. Pits or piles of combustible materials are also favorites.
- White dragons have similar tactics as reds, but are far more ambush-based predators. Their ability to create snow and ice, either through breath or magic, combined with their ability to burrow and their immunity to white-out situations makes them highly mobile and elusive fighters.
This was originally going to be the end of the series but then I thought of more things to add as addenda. Therefore, To Be Continued.