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I was just reading the MM, and reading about dracolichs. It says:

Only ancient or adult true dragon can become a dracolich.

But what is a true dragon?

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3 Answers 3

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The Introduction to the Monster Manual adds some clarification to this when it talks about creature types (emphasis mine)

Dragons are large reptilian creatures of ancient origin and tremendous power. True dragons, including the good metallic dragons and the evil chromatic dragons, are highly intelligent and have innate magic. Also in this category are creatures distantly related to true dragons, but less powerful, less intelligent, and less magical, such as wyverns and pseudodragons.

Fizban's Treasury of Dragons also introduces gem dragons to this category as elucidated by this sidebar on page 5:

Most of this book is concerned with the chromatic and metallic dragons described in the Monster Manual, as well as the gem dragons introduced in this book. These three families of dragons share a deeply magical nature tied to the mythic history of the Material Plane.

This distinction gives us a pretty clear hint at the "true dragons". The sidebar goes on to describe the other lesser dragons:

A few other Dragons [the creature type] share many similar characteristics, and several of them are presented alongside the chromatic, metallic, and gem dragons... These include dragon turtles and faerie dragons, as well as the deep dragon and moonstone dragon.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would also add that true dragons have the relatively-unique feature of getting stronger with age, not weaker. A true dragon is never affected by senescence and is at their strongest (physically, mentally, and magically) just before they die. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aos Sidhe
    Apr 4, 2023 at 13:21
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True Dragons in D&D 5e

The term “true dragon” has been around—and causing headaches—for decades. Here is what we definitely know:

Dragons

True dragons are winged reptiles of ancient lineage and fearsome power.

(Monster Manual, “Dragons,” pg. 86)

Chromatic Dragons

The black, blue, green, red, and white dragons represent the evil side of dragonkind.

(Monster Manual, “Dragons,” pg. 86)

Metallic Dragons

[…]

Brass Dragon

[…]

Bronze Dragon

[…]

Copper Dragon

[…]

Gold Dragon

[…]

Silver Dragon

[…]

(Monster Manual, “Dragons,” pg. 103-118)

Black, blue, brass, bronze, copper, gold, green, red, silver, and white dragons are definitely “true dragons.”

Dragon, Shadow

Shadow dragons are true dragons that […]

(Monster Manual, “Dragon, Shadow,” pg. 84)

Shadow dragons are definitely true dragons.

Beyond these dragons, however, things get murkier.

Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons has a sidebar about “Dragons and dragons,” but conspicuously avoids the term “true dragon.” It talks about “the three great dragon families,” which are

the chromatic and metallic dragons described in the Monster Manual, as well as the gem dragons introduced in this book.

(Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons, “Dragons and dragons,” pg. 5)

It also says

A few other Dragons share many similar characteristics, and several of them are presented alongside the chromatic, metallic, and gem dragons in chapter 5. These include dragon turtles and faerie dragons, as well as the deep dragon and moonstone dragon introduced in chapter 6.

(ibid.)

This is problematic because the Monster Manual description of the dragon turtle—while not explicit about them not being true dragons—says

Like true dragons, dragon turtles collect treasure,

(Monster Manual, “Dragon Turtle,” pg. 119)

Which strongly suggests that, although “like” true dragons in this (and other) ways, the dragon turtle is not. And they certainly aren’t “winged,” as the Monster Manual description of true dragons is. Then again, Fizban’s only said that dragon turtles (and faerie dragons, deep dragons, and moonstone dragons) “share many similar characteristics,” so perhaps these aren’t actually intended to be “true dragons.” Gem dragons probably are, being listed so often alongside the “known” true dragons, the chromatic and metallic, but Fizban’s doesn’t come out and say that, obnoxiously. It also leaves deep dragons and moonstone dragons—which are powerful winged reptiles matching the Monster Manual description, but included in the same list as dragon turtles and not in one of the “three great dragon families”—kind of in limbo.

And then we get into really tricky stuff, like the half-dragons from Monster Manual. These are specifically related to true dragons—the book talks about half-copper dragons, half-green dragons, etc.—but half-dragons certainly don’t match what most people think of when they think “true dragon.” Similar stories with the dragonborn from the Player’s Handbook and the draconians from Fizban’s. None of these are “winged,” though, so I guess they are out.

Anyway, this is not super-clear—gem dragons aren’t explicitly called out as true, dragon turtles aren’t explicitly called out as not, and I’m not rightly sure which way deep dragons and moonstone dragons are supposed to go. Therefore, it might be helpful to look at past editions... maybe.

True Dragons in past editions (3.5e)

D&D has had “true dragons” for decades, and they have been pretty unclear for about as long. In the “v.3.5 revised edition of D&D,” what does or doesn’t count as a true dragon is an argument that rages passionately on a lot of discussion forums (particularly over the question of whether or not dragonwrought kobolds qualify).

The early 3.5e supplement Draconomicon was supposed to settle this once and for all, except its definition of true dragons—something that “advances through age categories”—is awkward and unclear and just invites more arguments. On top of that, it was fairly early on in the edition, and later supplements—e.g. Races of the Dragon—seem to supersede it.

Out of this mess, however, we do get at least a few useful things:

  • Draconomicon is much more clear about “lesser dragons”—that is, dragons that are not “true dragons”—and it definitively rules out things like dragon turtles, faerie dragons, pseudodragons, and wyverns.

  • Races of the Dragon has one of the most thorough lists of “true dragons” in the history of Dungeons & Dragons (presented in the context of describing what the half-dragon “version” of each gets). This includes the chromatics and metallics, of course, as well as gem dragons and deep dragons. It doesn’t have the moonstone dragon, but 3.5e didn’t have those in the first place, so unfortunately that one is still an open question.

    For the record, that list is

    Amethyst, Battle, Black, Blue, Brass, Bronze, Brown, Chaos, Chiang lung, Copper, Crystal, Deep, Emerald, Ethereal, Fang, Force, Gold, Green, Howling, Li lung, Lung wang, Oceanus, Pan lung, Prismatic, Pyroclastic, Radiant, Red, Rust, Sand, Sapphire, Shadow, Shen lung, Silver, Song, Styx, Tarterian, T’ien lung, Topaz, Tun mi lung, White, Yu lung.

(Races of the Dragon, “Half-Dragons Beyond the Monster Manual,” pg. 71-73)

Beyond these, there are a few other (likely) true dragons from supplements published after Races of the Dragon or from Dragon magazine:

  • Magic of Incarnum has the incarnum dragon; not described explicitly as a true dragon but fits the apparent idea of one per Draconomicon. (Magic of Incarnum was actually published a few months before Races of the Dragon and was likely operating off of Draconomicon rules.)

  • Dragons of Faerûn has the mercury dragon, mist dragon, and steel dragon. The mercury and steel dragons are explicitly types of metallic dragon, and thus true dragons. The mist dragon seems to be one, though it is not explicitly so.

  • Dragon magazine vol. 338 has the arcane dragons, hex and tome, which are presented like true dragons but again not explicitly called such.

And that, I think—leaving aside controversial corner-cases like half-dragons, dragonwrought kobolds, and their ilk—is the best answer I think is possible for what it means to be a “true dragon.”

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"True dragon" means the sort of creatures listed under "dragons" in the Monster Manual as opposed to lesser creatures of the dragon type.

Pages 86-118 of the Monster Manual detail Dragons, a group of creatures incorporating the chromatic dragons (black, blue, green, red, white) and metallic (brass, bronze, copper, gold, silver). However, the word "dragon" also refers to the dragon category, a broader set of creatures including the pseudodragon, wyvern and dragon turtle.

To avoid confusion, D&D refers to Dragons (chromatic, metallic, etc) as "true dragons". The other creatures of the dragon category are sometimes called "lesser dragons".

Monster Manual p.86 explains the difference:

Many creatures, including wyverns and dragon turtles, have draconic blood. However, true dragons fall into the two broad categories of chromatic and metallic dragons.

It is more clearly stated in the D&D 3.5 Monster Manual, which lists the Dragon under the heading "Dragon, True". For example, on page 68 of that book:

The known varieties of true dragons (as opposed to other creatures that have the dragon type) fall into two broad categories: chromatic and metallic. The chromatic dragons are black, blue, green, red, and white; they are all evil and extremely fierce. The metallic dragons are brass, bronze, copper, gold, and silver; they are all good, usually noble, and highly respected by the wise.

All true dragons gain more abilities and greater power as they age. (Other creatures that have the dragon type do not.)

These definitions are not complete, because the shadow dragon is also defined in the 5e Monster Manual as a true dragon, and the dracolich is an undead form of true dragon. In other sourcebooks, especially in earlier editions of D&D, you have additional categories of true dragon, including the neutral gem dragons, ferrous dragons, planar dragons, and so on.

True dragons generally grow larger and more powerful with age, progressing through specific age categories.

Other creatures of the dragon type are not true dragons. In the 5th edition Monster Manual, these include the dragon turtle, faerie dragon, pseudodragon, and wyvern. They're dragons as a matter of category, but not true dragons.

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