I’ve been keeping busy. In addition to working on my Threshold Campaign, I’m also about to release The Adventure Zone: Bureau of Balance and I DID just release Eberron Confidential. And that’s just the projects I can talk about! However, when time permits I like to answer interesting questions from my Patreon supporters. So…
In the canon lore of Eberron, the dragons of Argonnessen completely obliterated the civilizations of the giants of Xen’drik, and in the process all of the lesser civilizations on Xen’drik as well. This involved not simply devastating physical force, but also epic magic such as the Du’rashka Tul (a curse that causes any culture that grows too large to be gripped by homicidal rage) and the Traveler’s Curse (which warps time and space). Why would they do all of this instead of just conquering Xen’drik conventionally?
This relates to the role of dragons in the world, a topic I discussed in this Dragonmark on The First War, but let’s take another look at it. The primary sourcebook on the dragons of Eberron is, surprise, Dragons of Eberron. and what I’m about to say is largely drawn from that. First, let’s take a moment to consider dragons—as defined by the 3.5 rules on which the original lore of Eberron was based.
Dragons are suffused with magical power. This grows stronger as they age, until it suddenly gutters out. Thus, a dragon can live for up to 4,400 years, and as they age they simply become stronger, smarter, and gain more magical power. Under the 3.5 SRD, a typical gold great wyrm has the powers of a 19th level sorcerer, and as seen in Dragons of Eberron, exceptional dragons can add additional class levels on top of that. The dragons of Argonnessen believe that they are the children of Eberron and Siberys, and that they can ascend to become the Sovereigns after death—that they are the gods that lesser creatures worship. With this in mind, dragons don’t consider humanoids to be their equals. At best, they’re essentially dogs—potentially useful if domesticated, possibly dangerous when feral, and so cute when they think they’re dragons. At worst, humanoids are like cockroaches—swarming, insignificant creatures who live and die in the blink of an eye and should be wiped out if they cause trouble. Oh, don’t worry about it. The way they reproduce, in just a century there’ll be swarms of them again.
Dragons of Eberron outlines how, around sixty thousand years ago, dragons spread out from Argonnessen and interacted with the other creatures of Eberron. According to DoE…
Some merely wished to study the lesser creatures. A few came as mentors, foremost among them the descendants of Ourelonastrix. These dragons shared the secrets of magic with giants, curious to see what innovations these promising creatures might develop. But the bulk of the dragons chose the path of conquest. Flights of dragons carved out dominions across the world. For most of the dragons, it began as a game—one with a high cost in life among nondragons.
For a dragon, running a humanoid kingdom was kind of like having an ant farm. It was a source of entertainment and amusement, and if if a few thousand humanoids died when you forced them to fight with a rival dragon, what of it? However, as DoE calls out, things went downhill from there.
In time, however, the struggle turned dragon against dragon. Friendly rivalries became bitter. The blood of dragons flowed. And as the troubles spread, the Daughter of Khyber stirred in the Pit of Five Sorrows.
This is the first crucial factor in understanding the actions of the modern dragons: The Daughter of Khyber. One of the most powerful overlords of the first age, she has the ability to corrupt and control dragons. She begins by amplifying their cruelty and instinct for tyranny, the desire to rule lesser beings; and from that root she eventually consumes them completely, until they become extensions of her own immortal evil. Argonnessen itself was nearly destroyed in the escalating conflict that followed. When the battles were finally won and the Daughter of Khyber fully restored to her prison, the Conclave of Argonnessen ordered all dragons to return and forbade any further draconic imperialism. The dragons remain hidden in Argonnessen not simply because they have no interest in other civilizations, but because it is dangerous for them to meddle with lesser creatures.
But there’s a second element to this. Tens of thousands of years later, the giants of Xen’drik—using power based on the knowledge shared by dragons—destroyed the moon Crya and threatened the balance of the planes of Eberron. The dragons resisted taking action, but centuries later they threatened to unleash these powers again. According to Dragons of Eberron, “Perhaps they thought victory was possible, but many historians believe it was pure nihilism—if the titans couldn’t rule the world, they would destroy it.” As this threat became known…
Shocked and alarmed at the effect of the forces already unleashed by the giants, this time (the dragons) chose to act. A scaled army poured forth from Argonnessen, with flights of all colors led by the militant wyrms of the Light of Siberys. The conflict was brutal, and its outcome never in doubt. The dragons had no interest in holding territory. They made no effort to avoid civilian casualties; they brought fire, fang, and epic magic to bear in the most destructive ways imaginable. In the end, nothing was left of the proud nations of Xen’drik. Giant, elf, and all other cultures of the land were laid low by the dragons, and powerful curses ensured that the giants would never again threaten the world. Their mission accomplished, the dragons returned to Argonnessen to brood. All agreed that the people of Xen’drik would never have posed such a threat if the dragons had not shared the secrets of magic. The Conclave called the event kurash Ourelonastrix—Aureon’s Folly—and forbade any flight from sharing the secrets of Argonnessen with lesser beings.
So: Why didn’t the dragons wage a conventional war? They couldn’t, for multiple reasons. First of all, the giants were already preparing a doomsday ritual BECAUSE they were losing a war. A slow campaign wouldn’t solve that problem, it would simply push the giants even further up against the wall. Second, a conventional campaign of conquest is EXACTLY the sort of action that feeds the Daughter of Khyber. For both of these reasons, the draconic action had to be swift and decisive, not about ruling lesser creatures but simply about eliminating the threat. And this is where we come back to that point of humanoids are like cockroaches to dragons. The Conclave concluded that it had made a terrible mistake in sharing magic with the giants. Their response to this wasn’t Let’s teach them to use our power with greater wisdom, it was let’s completely wipe our mistake from the world and make sure we never do that again.
This is what drives Argonnessen today. Dragons must not repeat Aureon’s Folly, which is why Vvaraak is an apostate for sharing her secrets with the Gatekeeper druids. Dragons must not try to rule lesser creatures beyond the borders of Argonnessen. They can WATCH them. They can manipulate them, for purposes of the grand conflict over the Draconic Prophecy. But they cannot rule them. And should they become a serious threat to Argonnessen, destroying them all is a viable solution. One can even make the argument that both the Du’rashka Tul and the Traveler’s Curse were examples of draconic MERCY. The Dragons were determined that the giants would never again threaten the world as they once did. They COULD have utterly eradicated them from existence. Instead, they destroyed their civilizations, and put in place safeguards to ensure that they’d never rebuild a civilization that could pose a threat—but they DIDN’T just reduce Xen’drik to a plane of glass.
This goes all the way back to one of the basic principles of Eberron: The world needs heroes. If the Tarrasque appears and is going to destroy Sharn, the dragons won’t show up to help you, because they do not care what happens to Sharn. If they do, it’s only because it’s tied to the Prophecy and there’s a very specific outcome that they want — in which case, it’s likely they still can’t defeat the Tarrasque THEMSELVES, they need to help you do it, because that’s what is required for the Prophecy. At the end of the day, the main point is while the dragons of Argonnessen may not be EVIL, they are not your friends. They are not here to help you. They don’t CARE if the Dreaming Dark takes over Sarlona or Khorvaire unless there’s a clear threat to Argonnessen. They don’t care about the Mourning unless it, too, can be proven to be a threat to the entire world (as the actions of the Cul’sir were). And if they DO decide something is a problem, there is the risk that they will solve it in the same way they solved their problems with Xen’drik. We don’t think much about exterminating cockroaches when they get in our way, and to Argonnessen as a whole, your character is a cockroach.
The key point is that generally, the people of Khorvaire have no contact with dragons. They know they exist, but no one ever goes to Argonnessen (in part because those who do don’t return). Dragons aren’t just another nation like Riedra or the Aereni. To the people of Khorvaire, Argonnessen is a legend—and it’s likely for the best that it stays that way.
Dragons as Individuals
So what’s the point of HAVING dragons in the world if you can’t use them? Well, everything I wrote is about Argonnessen. It’s based on the idea that IF dragons lived for thousands of years, IF every dragon possessed significant magical power, why WOULDN’T they have a civilization far greater than anything we know? But the follow-up is that that civilization largely ignores the lesser civilizations, following its own version of the Prime Directive (because of Aureon’s Folly and the Daughter of Khyber). However, INDIVIDUAL DRAGONS can have their own goals and interests and play many different roles in a campaign. Just to name a few…
- The Observer. The Chamber is watching the world to make sure that things are moving according to their plans. In general, Chamber observers manipulate rather than acting directly, and you’d never know they were dragons… unless something goes wrong. My novella “Principles of Fire” involves two Chamber observers, and something going wrong.
- The Rogue Dragon. Not all dragons obey the Conclave of Argonnessen. And while many dragons establishing empires is a problem for the Daughter of Khyber, a SINGLE dragon being a jerk isn’t a big deal. Rogue dragons might be rogues because they want to HELP humanoids—like Vvaraak, who taught the Gatekeepers—or because they want to hurt them, as with Sarmondelaryx terrorizing Thrane. Some rogue dragons just want to pursue arcane studies, though again, because dragons often see themselves as far above humanoids, a dragon scientist may well use humans as lab rats. So you can HAVE a dragon as an ally or a villain in a campaign; the point is that they don’t have the full support of Argonnessen behind them, and thus shouldn’t overshadow the player characters.
- The Wild Dragon. Dragons are intelligent and have (at least in the 3.5 model) innate magical powers. But you can still have a dragon orphaned in the wild, who knows nothing of Argonnessen and has essentially grown up feral. Or you could have a dragon who’s been corrupted by the Daughter of Khyber and is an agent of evil, but who likewise knows nothing of Argonnessen.
So, you can HAVE a random evil dragon or a benevolent dragon ally if you choose. But Argonnessen itself was always intended to be that spot on the map that says Here There Be Dragon, the place that we DON’T know about… The place that will pose a challenge for even the mightiest characters. It’s supposed to be a mystery, something beyond our understanding or our reach. Because remember that Eberron was grounded in principles of pulp adventure, and that concept of ancient powers in an unknown realm, advanced far beyond human civilization is certainly in keeping with that. You can find a further discussion of why we chose to follow this path in the First War article.
How do you handle the changes made to dragons in the different editions?
It’s a tricky point. The whole idea of Argonnessen IS based on the vast power possessed by the 3.5 dragons. A gold great wyrm has mental abilities scores in the 30s and the spellcasting abilities of a 19th level sorcerer, and that’s an average great gold wyrm. The point of Argonnessen was if creatures with such power and intellect existed and had existed for tens of thousands of years, WOULDN’T they have a civilization far beyond what we’re depicting for the Five Nations?
The dragons of 5E are generally weaker, and that’s probably for the best. Do you really NEED an enemy dragon to be able to drop a wish on you in addition to breathing fire? So for purposes of running adventures, I’m fine with using a default 5E dragon as that wild dragon who never mastered its innate magical powers and using the Innate Spellcasting rules for a Chamber observer. But personally, I’m not changing my default vision of Argonnessen because the rules have changed, and there’s a simple way to have this cake and eat it, too. The 5E age chart for dragons only goes to Ancient. 3.5 has two further categories, Wyrm and Great Wyrm — and it’s the Great Wyrms that would be throwing wishes around. So it’s reasonable to say that great wyrms still exist and still have all the powers they wielded in 3.5… you just don’t see them outside of Argonnesen.
Ultimately, as with anything, the question is what is the story you want to tell? The idea of Argonnessen was to be the mysterious space blank on the map, to be the civilization that’s tens of thousands of years beyond humanity, to be the illuminati secretly fighting a war with fiends in the shadows. If that’s not a story you want to tell, don’t tell it. Part of the point of the dragons BEING so secretive is that if you remove the Chamber and the Lords of Dust from the game, no one would know. All canon is only a place to start; if there’s anything you don’t like about it, don’t use it.
Now: Previously I have done my best to answer every question posted on an article. However, the whole idea of IFAQs is that they are short, meaning I can write more of them. In the past, I’ve ended up answering so many questions that the article ends up being longer than a Dragonmark… and this article is ALREADY longer than I planned. So: feel free to ASK questions about this topic, but there’s a good chance I’m not going to answer them. And again: if you want to know the CANON answers about dragons, check out Dragons of Eberron, and if you want more kanon answers, check out The First War.
Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters!