A recent question was asked on Facebook about why AD&D dragons had so few hit points. In fact, the original D&D dragons had even fewer hit points but, compared to PCs, they were god-like creatures. The history of dragon statistics in D&D displays the changing balance between players and monsters.
The game began in 1974 with all characters rolling d6 for hit dice. Although we think that the game uses polyhedral dice (that is, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20), the original form of the game used little more than d6s and d20s – and the d20s were mainly for using the optional attack tables in the game rather than the Chainmail combat system.
That said, I believe most players used the “optional” tables. Despite all characters only having d6 hit dice, it wasn’t as predictable as an additional 1d6 every level. Instead, 1st-level fighters began the game with 1d6+1 hit points, and at 6th level had hit points.
Meanwhile, the magic-user began with 1d6 hit points, and at 6th level had only 3d6+1 hit points. A high Constitution score (15+) would grant +1 hit point per die.
Against that, all creatures, monsters and characters, did 1d6 damage when they hit, with only a few exceptions.
For a 6th level fighter to strike a dragon (AC 2), he needed a 15+ on d20, with the only bonuses coming from magical weapons; high strength allowed him to gain levels faster, it didn’t increase his chances of hitting or damage dealt.
Meanwhile, an adult red dragon had 10d6 hit dice, with 4 hit points per die – so 40 hit points. In those days, dragon ages were distinguished by assuming each hit die rolled the same number: 1/die for very young, 4/die for adult, and 6/die for very old (100+ years!). When attacking, the dragon would bite a fighter wearing platemail and shield (AC 2) on the roll of a 9 or better, and – as with almost all monsters – deal 1d6 damage. More fearsome by far was the breath weapon, which dealt damage equal to the dragon’s starting hit points. Yes, it could only be used three times per day – but, even at half damage, 20 hit points was enough to take out most characters. Charmingly, it is suggested that the DM roll 2d6 at the beginning of each round for the dragon. On a 6 or less it bites. On a 7 or more, it breathes fire.
Original D&D gained a major overhaul of its mathematics in Supplement I: Greyhawk, one of the major effects of which was to move the game more towards the polyhedral dice we know and love today. Dragons gained a claw/claw/bite routine that did 1d4/1d4/3d12 damage, while fighters now had d8 hit dice, could could gain a +3 hit point bonus/die with an 18 Con (still rare), and could also gain a lot of bonus damage through Exceptional Strength. The most significant change was probably to the damage codes of weapons: a longsword now dealt 1d8 damage, or 1d12 damage against large creatures. The two-handed sword dealt a fearsome 1d10 or 3d6 damage. All of a sudden, the hit points of a dragon were now much more under threat – although the offense of a dragon was still mighty, fighters were much better at taking it down.
These developments in the game continued into AD&D. At this point, dragons gained two more age categories, allowing the 7 hit points/die and 8 hit points/die categories (up to Ancient) as all monsters moved to d8 hit dice instead of d6. However, as AD&D was approached quite piecemeal – with the Monster Manual coming out two years before the Dungeon Masters Guide was released – there are a lot of rough spots in the rebalancing. Exceptional Strength, which was a bonus that only fighters gained if their initial strength score was 18, is a case in point. A fighter with a 17 strength gained +1 to hit and +1 to damage; the fighter with an 18 strength who was fortunate enough to roll 100 on d% giving him an 18(00) strength score had +3 to hit and +6 to damage. When the standard damage code was the 1d8 longsword, this was a massive increase in power. Dragons retained their upgrades from Greyhawk, including the occasional ability to cast minor spells, but that was about it.
The Forgotten Realms campaign setting (1987) added two more categories for dragons (up to 10 hit points per die, IIRC), but in 1989 with 2nd edition the designers finally got a chance to revise dragons properly, making them tremendously dangerous once again – and with 12 age categories! The biggest change was that dragons no longer had a set number of hit points per die depending on their age; instead, each version of the dragon had a different number of hit points, and breath weapon damage was expressed with damage dice as with regular spells and attacks.
This method has stayed with every version of dragons since.
Looking back at the original dragons, you see some real oddities. Due to attack bonuses being calculated purely on Hit Dice, a very young dragon has the same attack bonus as a very old dragon. In Greyhawk and AD&D, the damage they dealt was also the same – so a wyrmling Red Dragon was a real glass cannon. It’s likely many DMs adjusted their damage codes, but I’ve never done so when running AD&D.
Dungeons & Dragons is a fascinating game, and not least so for the history of its mechanics. Each edition of the game builds on what has come before, and the reasoning for each feature can be seen from what has come before. The treatment of dragons is one such mechanic. Why are they stronger in AD&D 2nd Edition? Because during the transition from D&D to AD&D, character damage got stronger while their hit points did not.
P.S. Dragons originally made their appearance in the Fantasy Supplement to the Chainmail game. The Red Dragon’s breath weapon would kill any creature it touched, with only Superheroes, Wizards or Dragons having a chance to survive. The dragon could only be killed by Heroes or Superheroes in melee, and fought as if it were four Heavy Horse units.
Chainmail (1971) – included the Red Dragon, and suggestions for Blue and White.
Dungeons & Dragons (1974) – White, Black, Green, Blue, Red and Golden dragons.
Supplement 1: Greyhawk (1975) – Brass, Copper, Bronze, Silver, Platinum, Chromatic
AD&D Monster Manual (1977) – All 12 dragons. First time using “Tiamat” as the name of the Chromatic Dragon and “Bahamut” as the name of the Platinum dragon.