The colour-coded dragon is a popular trope, where dragons have distinct colourings that affect their strength level and the nature of their abilities: red dragons breathe fire and thrive in hot environments, blue dragons fly fast and breathe lightning bolts and so on. While today the trope is very common in RPGs, video games, books and other works, the earliest mention of colour-coded dragons that I know of is from the original Dungeons and Dragons back from the 1970's.

Was this influential idea of colour-coded elemental dragons first introduced in Dungeons and Dragons, or is the idea older still?


1 Answer 1


The idea is older still: it looks like it came to D&D via Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

The dragon, a large mythological beast, is found in a variety of story telling traditions from multiple cultures. Some breath fire ("Smaug the Golden" being an example), some are just big and nasty (St George and the Dragon), some breath poison, and some are mystical beings who can shape change into human form. (Chinese myths and legends). Tolkien referred to a cold drake being killed by one of the ancestors of the Rohirrim (LoTR), and Ancalagon the Black being the greatest of flying dragons(Silmarillion, First age). In most stories, one dragon is villain enough.

As I touched on in this answer, dragons ended up in D&D as an eclectic mix of creatures inspired by a multiple story telling traditions. Putting multiple kinds and colors of dragon into one setting wasn't original to D&D, insofar as a story idea. The novel Dragonflight, published in 1968, was the first of the Pern dragon novels by Anne McCaffrey. She had multiple hues of dragons flying about, interacting with dragon riders and other characters while battling the Thread that threatened Pern. The various colored dragons had differing status and personality types based on color1. (I read the book in 1975).

Game-wise, whether or not this setting inspired Gygax, Arneson, and TSR is unknown, but it's likely given the wide variety of adventure stories, sci-fi, fantasy, swords and sorcery tales, legends, and speculative fiction that inspired and provided ideas for the fantasy game in the first place. Multiple kinds and colors of dragons in the game's lore may be a first for a game, (Blackmoor/D&D) but Pern certainly predated it in literature. That dragons in general were described differently in different story telling traditions for millennia makes the general idea very, very old in the treatment of this iconic creature.

Blame it on Blackmoor

Was it a "first" in D&D as published or from something earlier?

From a post at Dragonsfoot: (Poster Harvard, Fri April 27, 2012, 10:48 am)

It appears that Dave Arneson and Richard Snider were the first to use dragons of different sizes, colors and breath weapons in an RPG. These were in the Blackmoor campaign (1970/1971) time frame (-Harvard- calls it the "proto" D&D era for Blackmoor) which is three years before Dungeons and Dragons was first published.

1From the summary at Wikipedia, which squares with what I remember from the story. Dragons with different colors had differing personality templates.

The dragons come in several colors which generally correlate with their sizes; blue males, green females, brown males, bronze males, and golden females – queens. Bronzes, the largest males, are by tradition the only ones who compete to win the queens in their mating flights. The green females are banned from breeding as they produce only small, less talented dragons. The golden queens are not only the largest dragons, they also hold a subtle control over their dragon communities Weyrs. {Gold dragons did not breath fire as that interferes with breeding -- credit to @MichaelRichardson}

That idea wasn't cut and pasted into D&D. There were no "red dragons" in Pern: they breathed fire /phosgene gas after chewing on certain rocks. Anne McCaffery wasn't writing a game, she was telling a story that took that which was familiar from older story telling traditions -- flying dragons that breath fire -- and folded it into a sci-fi setting in a novel way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Dragons in Peru may have been multi coloured, but did that dictate their personality, alignment, and abilities? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o Please don't confuse inspiration for a cut and paste from a book. It Didn't Work That Way in the creation of the game. Also, Pern, not Peru. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 16:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o All the Peruvian dragons I've met were quite offended by all these racist prejudices. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 17:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ The color of Pern dragons is directly related to gender and size. All Gold and Green dragons, for example, were female and the Gold dragons all grew to a much larger size than the Green. Abilities were similar across genders and colors though the larger dragons had more stamina and the smaller ones were more agile. Gold dragons did not chew firestone to generate flame, as it would affect fertility, and eggs from Golds were the only source of the larger dragons (Gold, Bronze, Brown). Lessening the fertility of the Greens was not a great loss. I don't recall an outright breeding ban. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 19:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o - The color of the Pern dragons affected them a little, but they were all related, not separate lineages. Greens were called "silly." Bronze were proud and competitive, as they (originally) were the only ones eligible to vie to mate with the fertile gold dragons. And no-one has yet mentioned the "runt" White Dragon from Pern, smaller than all other dragons. Maybe some inspiration there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 22:41

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