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Metallic Dragons
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll and Steve Winter

It's true that D&D is metal, but in this case we're referring to the latest Draconomicon hitting shelves this month. Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons follows last year's Chromatic Dragons. Considering the name of the game, all things draconic are dear to our hearts, but this month we're limiting our focus to metallic dragons—and where they differ from chromatics.

The distinction between dragons based on the color or metallic composition of their scales seems fairly unique to the game. Certainly many dragons of fantasy and literature are noted for their color; predominantly red, as popularly depicted everywhere from The Hobbit's Smaug (albeit gem-encrusted) to the Book of Revelations. Still, other dragons are equally noted for their iron scales, such as Tharagavverug, the dragon-crocodile of Lord Dunsany's story, The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth: "And the hide of his back is of steel, and his under parts are of iron; but along the midst of his back, over his spine, there lies a narrow strip of unearthly steel."

Outside the game, dragons are not so much defined by their scales as they are described by them; within the game, however, the two sides have long been opposed.


In the Beginning…

It would seem that from the earliest editions, a dichotomy was put into place, forever separating dragons into two camps. In one, we find the chromatics—starting in 1st Edition with the white, black, blue, green, and red. In the other, we have the metallics—brass, bronze, copper, silver, and gold.

Before the game's current edition, the major difference between these two camps (aside from the composition of their scales, of course) concerned their alignment. Chromatic dragons were evil, metallics were good. That split played an enormous role in the Dragonlance Saga, in which the metallic and chromatic dragons squared off against one another in a war that shook the world of Krynn to its foundation and demonstrated the profitability of game-related fiction.

In 4th Edition, this split between the two dragon camps somewhat remains. In their reworked origins, the god Io was defeated in battle and then separated into Tiamat (goddess of chromatic dragons; her original title in the 1E Monster Manual was, in fact, "chromatic dragon") and Bahamut (god of the metallic dragons, originally called simply "platinum dragon"). Yet, further differences now exist. For one, other draconic categories are listed in the 4E Monster Manual: catastrophic, planar, and scourge (dragons also said to have arisen from Io's body). Another, greater difference, is that while Bahamut remains a lawful good deity, metallic dragons are themselves no longer intrinsically good—they're now listed as "unaligned" -- and for valid gameplay reasons.

James Wyatt couldn't have argued for this change any better than he did in Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters: "The place of metallic dragons in the world has been refined. They aren't necessarily good, but they're less destructive and cruel than the chromatic dragons…. Monsters the player characters never fight don't need combat statistics. But we rebelled at the idea of putting such monsters in the Monster Manual. The alternative was to ensure that every monster was at least potentially an enemy for even the most good and noble player characters. That book is, after all, a catalog of monsters."

Which explains why metallic dragons have long been part of the game, but vastly underappreciated compared to their chromatic counterparts. Almost everyone could run down the climate and breath weapon of chromatic dragons as if actual laws of nature—and yet, who still remembers this information for 1st Edition metallics? We'll give you a hint: they each had two breath weapons, at least one of which was a specialized gas:

Metallic Dragon Breath Weapons Climate
Brass Dragon sleep gas, fear gas sandy desert regions
Bronze Dragon lightning, repulsion gas near lakes or seas
Copper Dragon acid, slow gas arid rocky regions
Gold Dragon fire, chlorine gas any, but lairs of solid stone
Silver Dragon frost, paralyzing gas mountain peaks and clouds
Platinum Dragon (Bahamut) cold, sonic vibration, gaseous form gas a great fortified palace behind the east wind

Through the Ages

2nd Edition continued this split, but also saw an obvious design gap to fill—if chromatics were evil and metallics good, then what about neutral dragons? Enter a new category: gem dragons (amethyst, crystal, emerald, sapphire, and topaz—and their own patron god, Sardior). Whereas chromatic dragons breathed deadly substances and metallics possessed a second, gaseous breath, crystal dragons breathed an odd manner of sonic waves, cones of dehydration, or in the case of the amethyst dragon "a faceted, violet lozenge, which it can spit into the midst of its enemies… (and) explodes with concussive force." Not exactly the same iconic terror as fiery or acidic breath….

By 3rd Edition, dragons (or "true dragons") initially fell into their two categories, chromatic ("all evil and extremely fierce") and metallic ("all good, usually noble, and highly respected by the wise"). While still good-aligned in the 3E Monster Manual, metallic dragons were now "every bit as aggressive as their evil cousins when threatened or challenged. They also tend to be covetous and proud." Their goodly veneer, it seemed, was beginning to crumble.

Still, while players were no more likely to encounter metallic dragons outside of powerful NPCs, patrons, or occasional allies, 3rd Edition did increase the presence of good-aligned creatures through the D&D Minis skirmish game. Before the skirmish game's revision, factions were organized according to alignment: Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, and Chaotic Evil. Going back to what James stated, good-aligned monsters are generally not relevant to players… except when it came to DDM skirmish. Designers needed to fill out the four alignments evenly in order to balance the game and foster a sense of parity between the warbands—and what better good-aligned monsters were there than metallic dragons?

Yet while DDM skirmish promoted metallics as champions of their alignment, this did little to encourage their appearance in the RPG (except for the fact that once a DM has a particular mini, he's apt to find ways to include that monster in his or her game). And even when it came to DDM, it eventually made better design sense to organize factions by creature origin (e.g., Civilization, Borderlands, Underdark creatures, etc.) than by alignment.

New Additions, and Returning Foes

Here in 4th Edition, we've come to a terrifying new world wherein metallic dragons are no longer passed fearlessly by or trusted to keep our best interests at heart. They are still dragons—arguably the most iconic, and therefore deservedly powerful entities within the game; creatures to be respected, feared, and very, very rarely engaged.

4th Edition has sought to make this category of dragons more relevant than ever around the table by casting them as unaligned. Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons further adds to their category, introducing the orium dragon, as well as formally bringing the cobalt, mercury, mithral, and steel dragons—the cobalt and MM2's iron dragons originally appearing back in Dragon Magazine #170. There, the cobalt breathed a pulse of magnetic energy, slamming away its armor-wearing foes; the iron dragon breathed a cone of superheated sparks. (Sadly, the other ferrous dragons in that article—nickel, tungsten, and chrome—appear not to have made the cut.)

That said, we can well imagine an article around, say, the first of April that takes a look at dragons of other, previously untested elements. The heavy metals are covered; what of the noble gases? Radioactive iotopes? Or even fictional elements?

Until then, we hope the metallic dragons serve your game well. And by that, we mean threaten and occasionally consume your players' adventurers!

About the Authors

It is possible that Bart Carroll is a relative of the beholder, for there are remarkable similarities between the two species. Bart dwells only at great depths of the ocean, floating slowly about, stalking prey. He has two huge crab-like pincers to seize its victims and a mouth full of small sharp teeth. His primary weapons, however, are his eyes. The author has a large central eye which emits a blinding flash of light to dazzle and stun those in its unless a saving throw versus death ray/poison is made. The author also has two smaller eyes on long stalks with which he is able to create an illusion; or, acting independently, the small eyes are able to cast hold person and hold monster spells respectively.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.