Solomon VK at World Building & Woolgathering recently made a post on that old staple, the dragon in fantasy world building. He discusses various dragon myths, and the (apparently refuted but great) phylogenetic fancy that dragons are found in nearly all cultures because of some hard (or semi-hard) coded primordial fear of snakes. At the end of the post, the author suggests how one can avoid the worn out name 'dragon' by turning to the kenning of the skalds of old: more or less complicated ways of speaking about a person or phenomena without mentioning their names. One part code, one part poetic image. The sea becomes 'way of the whale', the raven a 'corpse cuckoo' and treasure 'Fafnir's bed' after the dragon in the Völsunga saga.
Using the Völsunga saga as point of departure there's also the possibility of using 'dragon' not as species, but as the end result of greed (or accumulation of wealth not spread around?). For Fafnir was once a mortal man (Or possibly a dwarf. With a brother who could turn into an otter.), but driven by greed he murders his father to lay claim to a great treasure. He then retires with this treasure into the wilderness where he, ever watchful of those who would steal the gold, transforms into a great, venomous wyrm. The characteristics of the monstrous seeps into both the treasure (being cursed, and accompanied by misfortune for anyone laying claim to it) and his very blood (giving those who drink it the ability to understand the language of birds).
There's a lot of transgressions going on in the Fafnir myth. Apart from the kind of obvious father murdering (frowned upon in many cultures, apparently), two important points are (1) Fafnir's refusal to give his brother his rightful part of the inheritance, and (2) that the act of accumulation of wealth is separated from the distribution of it among friends, kin, loyal followers, rivals etc. that is expected from the rich and mighty (At least one kenning for 'lord' referring to the golden rings he is supposed to gift to his loyal hirdsmen).
From this we could take the following idea to the gaming table: There is not first a monster, and then a treasure, but rather a pile of unimaginable riches that produces the monster that sleeps on it. In other words:, 'dragon' envisioned as a taint or curse, a sibling affliction to lycanthropy. The dragon slayer who is more afraid of the dragon than its treasure is a dilettante dragon slayer.*
|The killing of Fafner as retold on the Rimsund carving, one of several Sigurd stones.|
In game terms, such a conception of dragons could look something like this:
|The same scene as imagined by Arthur Rackham, via Wagner.|
The Dragon CurseFirst off: Dragons don't belong to a species. They are monsters, a break with nature and proper customs. They are not the end result of an amorous encounter between two dragon lovers, but of the unproductive accumulation of wealth. The dragon hoard predates and spawns the dragon, and works as a curse on whoever has it in his possession. The hoard is conveniently statted out in B/X as Treasure type H. It varies in size and content, but is worth an average of 60,000 gp in coins gems, jewellery and the occasional magic item. Fafnir's treasure, for example, had some really impressive armour, if the saga is anything to go by.
Anyone who has received a share of the dragon hoard (PCs, retainers, sponsors) must save against spells once every week for as long as they possess any part of the original treasure. If they fail, they have to roll on the draconic traits table below. Re-roll any non-cumulative repeating results. If you feel that the table is too beneficial, either add +1 for each previously failed save if you want to make the becoming-a-dragon a more acute danger. Or demand a save every morning.
1D20 Draconic Traits
1. Speak with birds (not that they necessarily want to speak with you)
2. Speak with reptiles. As 1.
3. Sniff for gold (10 ft).Can sense any source of gold within the range. Can be rolled multiple times, increasing the range each time.
4. Frightening: -1 on all reaction rolls, -1 on all morale rolls for enemies. Can be rolled multiple times.
5. Mine, all mine! Must pass a ST when parting with any of her belongings. If failed, she loses a permanent HP until it has been returned
6. Fire resistance. She (but not her belongings) take half damage from mundane flames. If rolled again, she becomes immune to fire.
7. Poison resistance. As 6.
8. Dragon sleep. The sleeping pattern changes. Roll 1d6 every week: 1-5: Has no need for sleep except for HP and spell memorizing purposes. 6: Sleeps for a week, but can force herself to stay awake with a cumulative -1 on all rolls per day without sleep.
9. Ancient sejd. Gains a random lvl 1d6 spell, usable 1/day
10. Proper bed. Must sleep on lvl x 1000 gp worth of treasure to regain HP and spell slots from resting
11. Alarm. Can sense thieves. Immediately knows if anyone has stolen one of her possessions. When that happens, ST or fly into a berserker rage (-2 ac, +2 tohit). First priority is the thief, but if he is out of reach, the closest ally will do just fine.
12. Rip & shred. Nails grow into sharp claws (2x1d6)
13. Dragon size. Grows 1 HD in size. Can be rolled multiple times.
14. Poison breath. Usable 1/day. Poisonous cloud. Lvl x d6 in damage, victims must save or suffer -4 on all rolls while in the cloud. Can be rolled multiple times.
15. Scales/Fur. +1 in natural AC, but looks distinctly inhuman. Note: Opponents versed in dragon lore (knights, magic-users, bards, etc) can spend a turn looking for your weak spot, nullifying the natural AC bonus for future attacks. Can be rolled multiple times.
16. Fire breath. Usable 1/day. Damage as current HP, AOE. Can be rolled multiple times.
17. Wings. Half walking speed if unencumbered. Each additional result doubles the flying speed. She can no longer use a normal packback.
18. Slithering. Legs turn into snakelike tail. Unable to do those things that demand that you be bipedal.
19.Devour Yggdrasil! Head turns reptilian, complete with terrible fangs (1d8)
20. Full transformation. Roll a new pc if a player. HD etc like current lvl, but no smaller than a young dragon.
A dragon has no friends
The gradual change into a dragon is only part of the curse. It also affects all those around you. Make a loyalty roll for each retainer and hireling every night. If failed, they attempt to steal the most valuable piece of the dragon hoard. Or, if in a position of strength, murder the PCs and take the whole treasure for their own.
Getting rid of the curse
Carousing and charity is the only known cures to stop the transformation. The owner of a dragon's hoard is allowed an ST every time she goes carousing or rolls on a similar table: If successful, the waster of wealth may rid herself of one dragon trait. If she finds herself without dragon traits and broke as Conan at the beginning of a short story, she is free of the curse. (Or, if you want to go a more classic route: The curse ends when you drop the hoard into the Rhine river.)
* Solomon VK points out another great example of the trope: Eustace Scrubb, the spoiled boy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that turns into a dragon in similar (if more sanitized and, perhaps, christian) circumstances.