There are plenty of articles highlighting tactics for using dragons in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. In this article I’d like to explore how do dragons fit into your Dungeons & Dragons world? When I look at settings that seem like they’re infested with dragons, I have to wonder what keeps an apex predator among apex predators in check?
If you look at the setting of Dragonlance, for instance, some sources I’ve looked at estimate that there are thousands of dragons existing on both sides of conflict between the evil chromatic and good-aligned metallic dragons. With beings that have as much destructive capabilities coupled with incredible cunning of your average adult dragon, let alone the genius-level intellectual abilities of ancient variety, it’s hard to imagine that many dragons flying around the world at a given time. The only thing between the average populace and flocks of dragons would have to be numerous powerful entities like high-level characters or outright divine intervention.
I recently spent a little time thinking of how commonplace dragons are in my own campaign-setting in terms of world-building. Admittedly when I think of Dungeons & Dragons adventurers, I take the approach that if a player character is at the top-tiers of play, they are among some of the most powerful individuals in the world and a 20th level character is on a pathway to demigod-hood should they take it. This would be in sharp contrast to world’s where true dragons were ever present. When I think of dragons, I think but for the bravery and cunning of a few bands of extraordinary heroes (typically the adventuring party), dragons make short work of entire armies and most cities, if not civilizations. It’s hard to imagine more than a couple hundred dragons existing in a world at a time given their legendary greed and the fact that few beings on the planet could counter their might.
You not only have to consider the mighty fear-inducing roar of a dragon, but also the effect the rumble of it’s massive stomach would have on a given region! The nearest real-world comparison to the voracious appetite a dragon that came to mind was that of a tyrannosaurus rex, which in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons terms is a huge creature compared to the gargantuan size that the oldest and most fearsome of draconic creatures, an ancient dragon reaches. Ranges are given for the weight of the t.rex, but the average was around 10k lbs (4,536 kg) and could reasonably eat 800 lbs (363 kg) of food per day.
Even if the size increase from huge to gargantuan only increases these statistics by 50%, you’re looking at a creature that can eat 1.2k lbs (544 kg) of food every day! With the immensity of a dragon’s appetite, it wouldn’t be hard to see how they could devastate whole herds of cattle (if they’re merciful and that’s all they’re inclined to eat) or claim large swaths of crops as tribute. In a world dense with dragons, villagers would likely starve if they weren’t eaten or collateral damage to one of these great wyrm’s attention. And then there’s the trope of the long slumbering dragon, but such creatures typically gorge themselves prior to hibernation and our sleeping beauty of a dragon’s apt to be mad with hunger when they awaken!
You also have to account for the absurd mobility of a dragon. An ancient dragon moving at it’s 80 ft. per round fly speed, flying at a speed of about 18 mph, can fly across the width of the United States in a little over 6 days. Given that your D&D campaign-setting is roughly the size of earth, your typical dragon can get to most places in your game world in a matter of weeks! Outside of the use of high-level magic, this hardly would allow the building of any kind of significant fortifications against so powerful a foe.
In Monster Manual entries for just about every evil dragon, they are noted as being territorial. If they have the territorial instincts of large hunting cats, this would also influence the number of dragons that may inhabit an area. If we modeled our dragons territories from the Bengal tiger, this massive feline can claim a territory larger than 4k square miles, which I imagine we would have to be multiplied by a scale of the magnitude and superior mobility of a dragon, in this case I’ll guesstimate that a dragon’s territory would be 100 times greater at 400k square miles.
This is greater than a tenth of the landmass of the United States! From there we have to consider that dragons, particularly those with an evil-bent, will have a level of territoriality that wouldn’t permit a rival dragon dwelling nearby. With this in mind, we could imagine a maximum of only 3-4 ancient dragons and for my own world-building sensibilities, I’d probably only have 1-2 ancient dragons in a similar United States-sized landmass. Using the same “real world” logic, I’d have maybe a dozen ancient dragons in a world of a similar size and continents as the earth. It might be reasonable to say there are many more younger dragons in a world, but rival dragons, poachers, civilizations, and whatever manner of interventions you can imagine make it a point of keeping the ancient dragon population exceedingly low.
If there’s so few of a creature, their emergence or slaying is quite a significant world-event in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. By being scarce and obscure, dragons become the stuff of legend and prophecy that they’ve enjoyed throughout mythology. It’s far more meaningful for your players to encounter one, do something like slay or come into the good graces of an individual out of only a dozen of a great and powerful beings than to relegate dragons to being just another large bag of flying, breath weapon-using hit points.