From the D&D Basic Set (Moldvay, 1981):
PARTY ACTIONS: The first decision a party must mke in an encounters whether to fight, talk, run, or wait to see what the monster will do.
If the party chooses to fight, combat will begin...
If the party chooses to talk (and if the monster will listen), the DM plays the part of the monster. The players can ask questions, make bold statements, and otherwise react to the creature. The encounter may then become peaceful (agreement!), hurried (as the monster or party runs away), or violent (if the talks lead to combat).
If the party chooses to run away, the monster might not follow, in which case the encounter is over. If the monster decides to chase them, the players must try to outrun it or distract it so that they may escape...
If the party chooses to wait to see that the monster will do, the DM must decide the monster's reactions.This, then, is our blueprint with which to start.
Let's begin with the presumption that dragons are never "just another encounter." For a beast to have lived hundreds of years (enough to become a serious threat or to accumulate a hoard worth pillaging), the beast must have used both its might and intelligence. Unless you wish to have "dragon country" where the beasts are small and treated like vermin to be stamped out (see Robin McKinley's The Hero and The Crown as an example) we're not talking about St. George's crocodile. We're talking about giant, flying engines of destruction.
|Good model for "little" dragons.|
Encounters with dragons should be momentous occasions, not random battles. Oh, it's not a bad idea to have one on a wandering monster chart for a particular patch of wilderness...have one fly overhead, far out of arrow range, before returning to its lair, already sated on some farmer's cattle. The passing shadow is enough to put a little fear of God into adventurers while cluing them in that there is such a creature in the vicinity...should they wish to tackle it.
More often than not, any dragon with which the party is going to interact should be encountered in its lair (we're talking about chromatics here, not those goody-two-show gold dragons that wander around polymorphed in human form). There's a couple reasons for this: one is dragons sleep a lot. They do this to conserve energy, giving time (sometimes years) for the food supply to repopulate after devastating the countryside. If dragons are constantly active and hunting, your fantasy setting is going to look like the post-apocalyptic depiction in the film Reign of Fire. A world of ash with people living in caves, in other words.
|Over-hunting leads to a depopulated food source.|
So the monster is going to be in its home, more often than not. If a dragon is perched on the local church steeple than something terrible is probably about to happen.
When in its lair, a dragon is probably sleeping. What else would it be doing? Watching TV? Updating Facebook? Probably not counting its money...and probably not eating either (the eating and digesting of food is accomplished outside the lair, though nearby. You'll be able to smell dragon territory as you approach). Unless you just followed it back from a hunting excursion, it's snoozing more likely than not. I wouldn't bother worrying about a percentile roll for this: just use a regular surprise roll, with any roll of "surprise" indicating the creature is asleep. The chance of surprise is based on how the party approaches...all a-clinking in armor and weapons? Standard 1 to 2. Taking caution to be stealthy? 1 to 4. Unarmored halflings should, of course, surprise on a 1 to 5.
Failing to surprise the monster doesn't mean it wasn't asleep...it means you woke it up.
Now, unless the dragon has had previous dealings with the characters in question, most times it's going to be at least a little curious as to who dared enter its home uninvited; dragons are well aware of their own might, after all, and quite prideful/arrogant because of it. It is unlikely that someone has come hoping to slay it...the idea is folly (and anyway the dragon is confident in his own abilities regarding such an attack)! There are several likely reasons someone may have stumbled into their lair: perhaps they are lost and bumbling, perhaps they've come with a message, perhaps they wish to bargain for a favor or service, or perhaps they are there to offer some sort of tribute. Of course, the dragon reasons that the most likely reason for uninvited guests is theft: someone has dared to brave the dragon's lair because of tales of its great wealth and the hope of pilfering something of value.
In most cases, an awakened dragon will want to question these strangers: not out of any love of conversation (though who's to say a solitary dragon doesn't get a tad lonely?), but to ascertain both motivation and threat level. Even thieves are not destined for an immediate barbecue: the dragon is going to want information from would-be burglars, including accomplices, financiers, and earlier forays that may have been successful (it is always possible this isn't the thief's first attempt, just its first time being caught). Assuming such conversation is possible, play becomes a battle of wits with the dragon, as players try to keep themselves from the fire with riddles, flattery, obfuscation, and subterfuge. Reaction rolls become important (and good Charisma scores)...though keep in mind that adventurers outfitted like thieves and mercenaries will probably receive penalties to such rolls.
|"Greetings, mortal worm!"|
So, what if the PCs can't communicate with the creature? Vermithrax Pejorative wasn't much for talking...though she seemed to recognize and understand human speech well enough (several characters talk to her throughout the film, receiving reactions...and how else would the king have been able to make the bargain for twice yearly offerings?). Even if the dragons in your campaign lack the capacity for human speech, creatures that understand (and appreciate) the value of treasure should probably have some comprehension of speech...or be able to read their minds, or smell emotions, or whatever. These are reasoning creatures...not just animals to be butchered. And so, even one-way communication should still be possible (and the dragon's own body language can communicate to the PCs what it thinks of their discussion...see the dragon in Shrek as a comedic example).
Running away is a fine strategy when facing a dragon, of course, and for the reasons above DMs can let players escape unharmed...assuming, of course, that they haven't taken anything from its hoard. Stealing from a dragon is the surest way to draw the monster from its lair and it will pursue such filchers to the ends of the earth. Not only for vengeance, understand, but on principle...the dragon can't let adventurers go spreading stories of the creature being an easy mark, or it will only be a matter of time before thieves strike again. Now adventurers that taunt a wakened dragon with a piece of purloined treasure should of course be subject to immediate immolation, unless some drastic (magical) measures are taken (unlike the Rankin/Bass film's portrayal, Tolkien's novel states Bilbo only stole a cup when the dragon was asleep...it was upon returning to the lair that he conversed and taunted Smaug, and the only reason he escaped more than a singe was Smaug's inability to fit more than his nostrils into the escape tunnel; Bilbo never faced a full blast of dragon fire).
If PCs are willing to run, let them. If they're willing to sacrifice something (throwing down the weapons they're carrying, dropping a sack of treasure), let them escape UNscorched. If they're really deserving of a singing, let the dragon give 'em each a single die of damage (die type depending on the creature's size) as it sends them on their way.
[to be continued in one last installment]