Ahoy, landlubbers! Two weeks ago I had an interesting discussion about apex monsters in tabletop role-playing games, and especially about Dragons, which still seem to be the epitome of end-game adversaries in most fantasy settings. Actually, they are not even limited to higher levels or later acts in ttrpgs anymore, but are literally everywhere you look, as soon as you enter most classic fantasy worlds – and I am not only speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, where these beasts are a prominent part of the brand name since 1974, or of Game of Thrones, where the winged fire-breathers are a central part of the world’s history and the story-arc of Daenerys Targaryen and her family in particular. I am speaking of the fact that there is a List of dragons in popular culture on Wikipedia, that is just an overview/landing page for even more lists concerning the appearance of Dragons in literature, film, television, video games – and even sports! And while I can somehow understand the audience being fascinated by those close-to-all-powerful creatures (who’s not attracted to symbols of absolute power?) – those scaly dinosaurs bore me to Death, whenever I encounter them.
The main reason for this is most likely the uncanny combination of Dragons (a) being well-known by name and visuals to literally anyone traversing the realms of fantasy literature, while at the same time (b) the core of their branding itself has become so flexible that Dragons these days can actually be anything in a given setting: from mere pets (Harry Potter‘s Norberta, the Dragons from How to Train Your Dragon), to dangerous but hunted animals (see the Dragons in the above-mentioned Game of Thrones, and Draco in Dragonheart); from psychic manipulators (Tolkien’s Glaurung) to all powerful wizards (the unnamed Dragon from Beowulf); from simple natural fire-breathers (Reign of Fire) or poison sprayers (D&D’s Green Dragons) to nuclear powers of nature (Godzilla); from mere creations and assets (Ancalagon the Black) to powerful creators, and even gods (Bahamut, Tiamat). They can look like humans (Haku from Spirited Away), cute lovebirds (the Dragon in Shrek), tiny worms (Mushu), or furry flying dachshunds (Falkor from the Neverending Story), having one head or many, two or four limbs, wings or no wings, scales or fur, being able to speak verbally or telepathically, and so on and so on. I have not even started yet on Lesser, False and Pseudo Dragons, Wyverns, Tarasques, Lindworms, or the humanoid Dragonborn.
While this versatility and capability to reinvent themselves over and over again might seem like a boon for some, it very much looks like a bane to me. Dragons have invaded nearly every single environment or realm and sometimes they have even taken over for the creatures native to those habitats, pushing them aside or throwing them out entirely. Today, there are Dragons roaming the heavens above, the caves under the mountains, the seas and even the space between the stars! In my book, this is slowly becoming a problem for ecological diversity in fantasy worlds. Dragons are the easy go-to when searching for fantastic creatures. They are too easy to modify, place and use. Other fantastical entities, monsters and beasts of an originally equal power-level are already in danger of being forgotten or limited to certain smaller fanbases . Only otherwordly demons, which are an even more underdefined type of creatures than Dragons, seem to have as many books dedicated to them as the (mostly winged) lizard types. Which is a shame really, especially for adventures and campaigns that are placed in a maritime environment or setting, an area dear to me, as you will have already guessed.
Based on this ubiquity of Dragons, I have decided to leave them out of my stories and my own campaigns wherever possible, that is for as long as there are better alternatives available and the other players don’t explicitly ask for them (always remember that ttrpgs are a co-operative game, so it actually matters a lot what the rest of the people at the table wants; it’s not your game alone). Consider replacing Dragons in maritime environments completely, using Leviathans (best in a non-serpent form; they also come as whales and in other shapes), giant crustaceans (crabs or lobsters, like the Leviathans in the Mass Effect series), Krakens (there a so many variants in popular culture, that they have their own Wikipedia list, too), anything from this list of sea-monsters from human folklore, or any other sea-dwellers, that could be made more interesting in a fantasy setting: ichthyo- and mosasaurs, megalodons and other sharks, whales and dolphins, sealions and -dogs, jellyfish, corals, even majestic penguins, or sea-birds like gulls, albatrosses, or sea-hawks would be more suitable for a naval adventure than another Dragon, don’t you think? Of course there are also merfolk available that could be useful as soon as they get a bit of polish by your creativity. Use your imagination. I am sure it contains more than just Dragons.