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In 5e, the Monster Manual states that each kind of Metallic Dragon gains the Change Shape ability by the time it is Ancient or Adult. However, no such ability is ever mentioned for Chromatic Dragons. This has been the case in every edition of D&D, as well. Have the designers given a reason for the difference?

I do realize that Chromatic and Metallic Dragons have different styles of interacting with humanoids. Metallics are much more likely to take a jaunt amongst humans or elves for a decade or three, so perhaps the absence of the ability reflects the fact that Chromatic Dragons simply don't do such things, not that they cannot.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ After trying to provide an answer, and looking at the design templates originally used, the "why" might be better asked of any living devs "why could the metallic dragons shapechange into human form" not "why can't the chromatic dragons do so" but it took me a while to arrive at that while I researched some details from earlier editions. As is, I think the question needs no change, and IMO is within scope for "lore" and "history of the game" etc. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 21 '15 at 18:11
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It All Started With Gold Dragons

The first dragons able to change shape into human form were Gold Dragons. None of the others could. On pages 11-13 of Monsters and Treasures (OD&D, 1974, TSR) there were a total of six kinds of dragons: red, blue, white, black, green, and gold. The only metallic dragons in the game were described as "being a class unto themselves." They were the only Lawful dragons1 (the others all being Chaotic in the old law/chaos alignment dichotomy), could take on human form and could employ spells up to sixth level which was the highest spell level in the game at the time.

Spell ability for other dragons were limited: White, none; Black, 1st lvl; Green, 1&2 lvl; Blue, 1&2 lvl, and Red 1 - 3 lvl. However, spell usage was only available if the dragons rolled on the "able to talk" chance. Even an ancient red dragon could not cast the 4th level polymorph spell.

In Greyhawk (OD&D Supp 1), more metallic dragons were added.

The Platinum and Silver dragons could assume human form. Copper, Bronze, and Brass dragons could not. The basic dragons remained bound to wyrm form. (Which is fine, if you are a dragon).

  • Gary Gygax stated that there was but one King of the Lawful Dragons and but one Queen of Chaotic dragons and that "Women's Lib may make whatever they wish from the foregoing." (p. 35, Greyhawk). The Dragons had yet to be categorized as "Chromatic" versus "Metallic." The Queen's "color" (the king was Platinum) was "chromatic" since she had multiple heads: one each of the basic dragons (non-metallic).

    The design intent is blatant in terms of who was superior among dragonkind: the metallic dragons.

1e AD&D carried this design theme over. Only Platinum, the Silver and Gold Dragons could appear in human form ... unless they were a spell using dragon. Depending upon the dragon kind this capability was variable, and only dragons who could talk had a chance to use spells. The metallic dragons had higher chances to talk, and to use magic, based on a percentile roll than the basic/chromatic dragons in general. To determine if a dragon could use spells ...

  • If you are a dragon, can you talk? (Consult MM, see percentile roll)
  • Second, can you use spells? (Consult MM, percentile Roll)
  • Depending on point 2, could you use a powerful enough spell to assume human form? (Lvl 4 / polymorph spell is the entry condition)
    • On the other hand: how often would you want to do that? You're a Dragon, for goodness sakes!

At that point (1e) older Red dragons could use 4th level spells and thus via the polymorph spell could take on human form, as could Tiamat who could use 5th level spells. Bahamut (Platinum/King) could use 7th level spells at that point in the game's development and also had the ability to change into human shape, like silver and gold dragons. (MM, 1e, p. 33).

BECM books retained this convention, and AD&D 2e likewise.

In later editions and supplements dragons, like cloud dragons and shadow dragons, didn't have human form either, but steel dragons did. The number of articles on dragons in Dragon Magazine is non-trivial, so I won't try to summarize all of them. While I don't recall ever reading a "why" on the difference in innate ability, it may have been in one of the articles(it's been a lot of years).

Why? Part 1 = Tradition

The most plausible explanation as to why this theme carried over into 3, 3.5, 4, and 5 is "inertia" or "tradition" in keeping the game design faithful to its origin. At least the later edition dev teams were consistent, when you go back to the origins of the game, in confining the shape changing "class ability" to metallic dragons because that is how they were originally folded into the game.

Why would the devs change that? The distinction is as old as the game itself for the namesake monster of the entire franchise.

I offer a small frame challenge here, and suggest that the question may be backwards, and that the dev question is why did they make it so that Golden dragons could shape change, not why the other dragons couldn't. The follow on is "why could lesser metallic dragons change into human form?"

(That still leaves open "why would later devs change that feature?")

Why? Part 2 = Borrowing from an eclectic mix of myths and legends

Dragon varieties are rooted in diverse Mythologies and Legends from different cultures

Part of the answer is that the golden dragon came from a different cultural / mythological base, China, just as Bahamut and Tiamat have a relationship with the mythology of Sumer/Babylon, and the Eurocentric dragons like the ones Saint George slew, the one Beowulf slew, Smaug, etc. (The illustration in the 1e and 2e MM's are both evocative of an Oriental/Chinese dragon).

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In the mythological tradition that they were borrowed from by D&D, the gold dragons took on human shape, whereas in the mythological traditions that the basic dragons were borrowed from by D&D, they did not.


1 From the ENworld archived thread of Q&A with G.G.

Draco Argentum: Gary where did the idea for having the cromatic and metallic dragons come from?

Col_Pladoh: ... If you read the intro to the SLAYER'S GUIDE TO DRAGONS from Mongoose, you'll see therein how I came up with the chromatic dragons. Some colors other than red were needed, hues that would be harmonious with their breath weapons. When I'd done the four new additions to the CHAINMAIL red dragon, it seemed a good plan to have a LG dragon, one of gold color that was based on the Oriental model. From that I worked on the rest of the metallic species. Of course, such potent creatures needed great leaders or masters, so I delved into mythology for the names--Tiamat and Bahamut--and thus came up with the Evil Queen and good King of the chromatic and the metallic dragons. Cheerio, Gary

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Worth noting that in the dragonlance novels, chromatic dragons can infact change their shape (although this is mostly done by the blue dragonflight). \$\endgroup\$ – Bas Jansen Mar 1 '16 at 10:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BasJansen Good point. I was working from a game centric perspective, not from the larger lore perspective. Dragonlance came after the conventions were already established, as well as the Weiss / Hickman's take on dragons and (and more). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '16 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Do you mean metallic? I need to check on the pub dates of Earthsea's first trilogy (which I read after I started playing D&D, and which I love). (One of my friends took his character's name "Sparrowhawk" from that series ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 10 '17 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the Metalic dragons are very likely influenced not just by Chinese mythology directly but by Le Guin's dragons. (And probably influenced Dragonlance in particular.) I don't have any references for that, though (although Mike Mearls does cite Earthsea as a big factor in 5E design). I'd love to see some primary-source information making this link for the earlier editions. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 10 '17 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, I'm not demanding that of you. I'd just love to know. :) \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 10 '17 at 15:00
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The AD&D Monster Manual hints that good dragons can be encountered in more innocent guises that will come to the aid of the needy and punish evildoers (perhaps even the party).

A sage tells of encountering Bahamut in the guide of an old hermit, with seven canaries singing sweetly as they flitted nearby. The sage relates that he would never have known that he was anything other than what he appeared to be except that a group of ogres and trolls happened by much to their sorrow...

And...

It is in other some other form that [gold dragons] are typically encountered.

Gary Gygax didn't like the idea of evil player characters. Discussing the Book of Vile Darkness, sometimes seen as a guidebook for evil player characters, Gygax said:

That sort of material should not be included in a game that purports to be "heroic" in nature and promoting the triumph of good over evil.

http://www.minmaxboards.com/index.php?topic=6727.0

The possibility of any NPC secretly being a gold dragon was a sort of heavy-handed way of keeping unruly parties from abusing the local peasantry.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To attract more upvotes, support for E.G.G.'s dislike of evil player characters should cite something like the DMG 1e, a Dragon article or editorial, a later web post, something from an interview, a Strategic Review article, or other documented utterance like something said at a con. I agree that those were his sentiments (from my recollection of reading a lot of what he wrote) -- any of the supporting sourcing would help this answer. And yes, heavy handed was a common approach -- see the 1e Paladin and the UA Cavalier! :-) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '16 at 4:26

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