dragons are pirates

In D&D, when you want to evoke a mythic treasure hoard, you speak of dragon treasure. Apart from royal treasuries, those are probably the world’s biggest accumulations of wealth.

In the real world, for the same effect, you speak of pirate treasure.

Awesome D&D pirates should probably have as much treasure as dragons, right? Considering that most D&D campaigns are basically Beowulf on land and the Spanish Main at sea? In fact, OD&D and AD&D did have special, rich treasure types for pirates, along with treasure map rules. Awesome! (Was 3e the first edition to drop the ball? Were pirates even mentioned in the core 3e books?)

How do pirates get so rich? They attack rich merchant ships and steal their stuff all day. That’ll do the trick.

dpA harder question: how do dragons get so rich? Smaug moved into a dwarven royal treasury. But surely some dragons accumulate treasure and add it to their hoard the hard way.

I think we have to think of dragons as land pirates. They spend a lot of time looking for humanoid merchants, and then they steal their stuff. This sort of changes default dragon behavior. Dragons aren’t untamed isolationists in the wilds: they’re robber barons in the borderlands. They’re deeply concerned with the human economy: they track trade routes and estimate the riches of towns. They probably all employ spies. They don’t relish a hard fight anymore than pirates do. They probably avoid bands of adventurers in the wilderness, just as pirates avoid military vessels, unless the adventurers are guarding a caravan.

With their long lifespans, the older evil dragons might think of themselves as stewards or gardeners of civilization. They don’t want civilization wiped out. They want it to prosper and circulate wealth, just shy of the point where it’s strong enough to fight off dragons. In fact, dragons are probably a force that keeps D&D stagnant at its late medieval tech level. Are you developing anti-aircraft, or a tenth-level spell? Expect a dragon attack. Are you planning to ride with your hordes through the civilized lands, making mountains of skulls and ushering in a dark age? Expect a dragon attack, this time in defense of civilization.

One more question: How the heck do dragons accumulate piles of coins? For a dragon with huge claws, a coin on the ground is just as inaccessible as if it had been dropped from a pirate ship into the ocean. Dragons do have opposable claws, though, so they can presumably pick up sacks, treasure chests, and even wagons, and carry them off to their lairs.

Hey, I have an idea for surviving a dragon raid with your life: Hold up a bag of gold and say this: “Our caravan has 10 bags of coins. Let us live and you can have all ten. Or attack us, in which case I’ll dump these coins on the ground. You can slaughter us all and still get 9 bags of treasure, but good luck picking up these 500 loose gold coins from the underbrush.”

6 Responses to “dragons are pirates”

  1. Black Vulmea says:

    Dragons receive wealth as tribute, extorting it under threat of death and destruction from human and other humanoid communities.

    In other words, they aren’t priates – they’re Mafia dons. “Nice village youse got der – shame if anyt’ing wuz t’ happen to it . . . “

  2. The image of the invading barbarian horde being stopped by an ancient Red dragon:

    “We have come to rape & pillage, I thought you were into that?”

    “Not if it affects my business, now for a decent price I might let you go on…”

  3. 1d30 says:

    I think the pirate thing works well for CE dragons, and the mafia thing for LE dragons. I’m sure each alignment would have its own approach (with Neutrality generally making things greyer and blander, or amplifying the other alignment piece because you’re ignoring the Neutral part, as usual). Maybe a younger dragon without a significant hoard is more mobile, and has to go out collecting loot, while an older dragon has more minions to command and prefers to remain sedentary.

    (What is a dragon’s vacation like?)

    Dragons might have minions whose job it is to scoop up minor treasure. They bring the loot back to the base of the mountain and pack it up so the dragon can haul it up in big batches. In exchange their village gets the protection of a dragon, some minor loot, prestige among other monsters. The dragon also gets an early-warning system: heroes will probably slay the minions before moving up the mountain.

    Dragons might care more about the bigger loot pieces, take what they can, and the rest gets scavenged up by lesser monsters. Side note: you know how PCs never want to take SP and CP? Unguarded treasures in (I believe) 1E D&D are always SP and CP. I like the naturalism of assuming that unguarded treasures had a guardian at one point and it got killed by PCs who took the good loot, or that treasures lacking good loot are unable to attract an interested guardian.

    They might breathe on the remaining treasure to destroy it out of spite. In answer to the caravan ultimatum, a haughty dragon might well roast the whole caravan except a couple hirelings who can carry the tale back to town: if you speak up to THIS dragon, it had better be the words “yes master”. A reputation is valuable too. I think the ultimatum works better for the dragon. Take this gold ewer and leave, or I breathe on the hoard and melt it into an alloy lump studded with cracked gems. I have dozens more of your lifetimes to accumulate another hoard. The PCs have to gamble on the psychological value of the hoard to the dragon and hope he’s bluffing.

    The dragon might grab a chest and sit there compulsively plinking coins into it until they have every single coin. This might be where all a dragon’s free time goes.

  4. The answer to the coin thing could be as simple as an Unseen Servant spell. =)

  5. paul paul says:

    “Mage Claw”

    I think Black Vulmea is probably right about mafia dons; the don/pirate lines might be drawn along alignment lines as 1d30 suggests or it might be an age thing. You settle down and become a don once you have property and minions.

  6. Genius. So what about good dragons?

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