More so those that of other creatures, a dragon’s life cycle and life span shape its capabilities and even its personality. Barring violence or disease, even the shortest-lived dragon can expect to see a score of centuries. Members of different dragon families, such as the metallics, might live longer than others, like chromatic dragons.
Everyone who makes even a cursory study of dragons knows of their four main stages of life, which sages have dubbed young, adult, elder, and ancient. In truth, dragons must first pass through an earlier stage that few adventurers see: wyrmling. They also pass through a final stage called twilight.
Although the specifics of mating rites and relationships vary from one kind of dragon to another, several commonalities exist. Young dragons can mate, and might do so out of sheer biological urge—or even, at times, for love—but they are rarely prepared to rear young. They might abandon clutches of eggs wherever the eggs will have a decent chance of survival. Few eggs left in this way survive—and dragons that hatch from them might not learn to fend for themselves well enough before becoming prey.
By the time they reach adulthood, even evil or selfish dragons have developed a measure of parenting instinct. They keep their eggs in their lairs, watching over them to ensure safe incubation. Most mated pairs remain together until the eggs hatch, though at other times a single parent—often the female, but sometimes the male—cares for the eggs alone. Sometimes the adults stay together even after eggs hatch. A black dragon is most likely to leave a mate to care for the eggs alone, with white and gray dragons the next most likely. Other chromatics stay together until the hatchlings can fend for themselves, at which point the pair splits up.
Elder dragons lay eggs less often than adults do but treat them with the same care. Ancient dragons almost never produce offspring, but those that do are highly protective—more so even than adults.
A few dragon varieties are monogamous, mating with the same partner every cycle. Greens, blues, silvers, golds, and browns often display this behavior. Others have multiple partners throughout their lives and retain little emotional attachment to former mates.
Both male and female dragons become fertile roughly halfway through the young stage of life and remain so until well into their ancient years. The urge to mate emerges at roughly the same time that fertility takes hold, grows to its height during the early adult stage, and fades—sometimes slightly, sometimes to nothing—at the late elder or early ancient stage.
Dragons lay eggs in small clutches, the exact number varying according to the kind of dragon. Females can lay eggs as often as once per year but rarely do so that frequently. Dragons have a greater degree of influence over their own reproductive systems than humanoids do. Although a female dragon cannot completely control whether or not mating produces fertile eggs, the chance of fertilization falls dramatically if the dragon does not wish to reproduce.
One of the parents—usually the female—typically locates the nest deep in the lair. The nest consists of a mound or pit where the parent gathers the eggs and buries them in sand, dirt, snow, leaves, or whatever medium is best suited to the dragon and to the environment.
The average dragon egg is about the size of a small rain barrel. Eggs normally have the same color as the dragon variety, though somewhat duller in hue. They are roughly ovoid and have a texture somewhere between dragon scale and stone.
When first laid, a dragon egg has resistance to the damage type produced by the parents’ breath weapon (acid for black dragons, fire for red, and so on). (Mixed breed dragon eggs have resistance to one parent’s damage type, and don’t survive if the other parent is incautious with his or her breath.) As the egg nears hatching, the shell grows harder but more brittle, and that resistance diminishes. By the time the wyrmling is ready to hatch, the egg has no resistance at all.
Incubation time varies according to the variety of dragon. In all cases, the eggs are fertilized inside the female and are ready for laying roughly one-quarter of the way through the incubation period.
When a wyrmling is ready to hatch, it begins feeding on the inside of the egg’s shell, absorbing the remaining nutrients. This activity strengthens the young dragon and weakens the shell. The wyrmling then breaks free by clawing at the sides, pressing against and cracking the shell with brute strength, and blasting the shell occasionally with its own already developed breath weapon.
A newly hatched dragon has a full array of abilities. Although inferior to those of a young dragon, these abilities are sufficient for the wyrmling to take care of itself, at least against relatively weak threats and predators. Although an emerging wyrmling is sodden and somewhat awkward, it can run within hours of hatching and can fly within a day or two. A wyrmling’s senses are fully acute, and—due to the interweaving of a dragon’s centers of memory and instinct—it is born with a substantial amount of its parents’ knowledge imprinted in its mind.
Even so, a dragon is not born with the full memories of prior generations. Rather, a wyrmling has a grasp of the generalities of the world and of its own identity. It knows how to move, how to use its innate abilities, who and what its parents are, and—perhaps most important—how to view the world around it. This awareness is one reason that even the youngest dragons are capable of surviving to adulthood. It is also why a sense of superiority and arrogance is ubiquitous among chromatic dragons: They are born already knowing that they’re among the most powerful creatures in the world (or at least will be, after they mature).
Parents might accompany a wyrmling on its earliest hunts, to protect it and to make certain it knows how to hunt efficiently. Wyrmlings left to fend for themselves and wyrmlings that don’t have protective parents still must leave the nest within a few days of hatching to find food. By the third or fourth foray, even solicitous dragon parents let wyrmlings hunt on their own, lest the wyrmlings grow too dependent on parental assistance.
Wyrmlings spend a few years dwelling with one or both of their parents. Some parents welcome this time as an opportunity to teach their offspring lessons beyond its inherited knowledge: the best areas to hunt, what to look for in a lair, how to begin building a hoard, and other knowledge a growing dragon needs to gain. Other parents look on wyrmlings as necessary evils: competitors for resources and for space in the lair that must nevertheless be tolerated for a brief time. Only evil dragons that lack any parenting instinct—in dragonkind, a mild form of insanity—consider forcing a wyrmling to leave the nest early. This condition is most common in black and gray dragons but rare even among them.
A wyrmling whose parents abandoned it before it hatched or could not care for it after it hatched takes longer to hone its abilities. It still has the advantage of its inherited instincts, but the lack of a teacher makes perfecting its abilities an arduous task. Some wyrmlings manage to do so on their own, through trial and error. Others seek out mentors of their own kind. Even an evil dragon might willingly take on a short-term apprentice if the younger dragon shows adequate respect, such as gifts of treasure scavenged or stolen from any source the young dragon can manage. These relationships rarely last more than a few months, because the older dragon inevitably begins to view the younger one as a rival. The younger dragon either departs or ends up on the menu.
Although wyrmlings are small and weak by dragon standards, a wyrmling is roughly the size of a large wolf or a full-grown human. Even at their youngest, dragons have few natural predators.
By the time a wyrmling becomes a young dragon, it has grown to roughly the size of a horse, and its hoarding, lairing, and territorial instincts are stoked into a raging fire. A young dragon must leave the nest (if it has not already done so) before territoriality and greed transform the parent–child relationship into a bitter rivalry.
The relationship between a dragon and its fullgrown offspring depends on the individuals in question. For the most part, dragon parents and children retain a loving relationship; though they do not share territories, they harbor affection for each other and render assistance if the other is in danger. A rare few go the opposite route, treating their parents or offspring as competitors for resources—highly dangerous competitors, since each knows the other so well—and end up violently at odds. The majority of chromatic dragons fall between the two extremes: A vague fondness exists between parents and offspring, but neither is likely to jump into action if the other needs help. They react to any intrusion with as much violence as they would if the invader were a stranger.
The first task of a young dragon is to find a lair of its own. This task can prove challenging, because the territory the dragon knows belongs to either a parent or a mentor. Thus, a young dragon must depart the region it knows best to find a spot isolated enough to serve as a lair, yet still near enough to viable hunting grounds to make foraging possible.
Young dragons use existing structures (such as abandoned castles or mines) or natural hollows (such as caves) for their lairs. Later in life, when a dragon has more power, knowledge, and confidence, it might build, or find others to build, a better home. At the young stage, though, it just needs to find something viable.
A young dragon also starts to build its hoard. Dragons of this age are likely to attack random travelers or caravans, scrounging whatever wealth they can acquire by using such an unsophisticated approach. As dragons grow older, they grow wiser and more selective, but a young dragon just wants to start accumulating treasure.
Adult dragons revel in the fact that they are among the mightiest predators in existence, particularly if they have had a successful youth. When seeking to add to their hoards, they are more selective in their targets than younger wyrms, preferring not to waste their time with travelers or caravans that look unlikely to provide a decent amount of wealth— though they might still attack such groups for food or sport.
Also at this age, dragons begin to contemplate long-term schemes. Although they devote less time to scheming than elder dragons do, they might establish contacts within nearby communities or merchant organizations, the better to learn when and where great treasures will become available. Their negotiating strategies boil down to bribery or threats, rather than the elaborate manipulations and deceptions employed by more powerful wyrms.
Adult dragons seek to expand their territories dramatically or even to move their lairs, abandoning whatever haphazard sanctuary they might have found as youths in favor of larger, more comfortable, or even custom-built homes. These efforts sometimes pit them against other dragons or territorial monsters. Thus, adult dragons are the most likely to initiate combat with other wyrms.
By the time it becomes an elder, a dragon has likely found or created its permanent lair. It has gathered a sizable hoard—one that might already have attracted a number of adventurers—and it has well and truly established its territory. Although a few elder dragons continue to expand their domains, most are content with their holdings (barring environmental changes or famine) and are more likely to be the defender against encroaching younger dragons than they are to initiate such conflicts.
Elder dragons have lived long enough that they have fully adopted the long view in terms of their goals and efforts. They have gathered minions— sometimes veritable armies of them—and know well the sizes and capabilities of all the humanoid communities within, and bordering on, their territories. They might make efforts to influence the development of said communities, either overtly—through threats and demands—or in secret, manipulating agents within the local power structure. When adventurers discover that the king’s vizier, the high priest, and the local guild-masters are all puppets of a dragon pulling strings behind the scenes, odds are good that the dragon is an elder. Some dragons engage in such manipulative practices to siphon off the wealth of a city or small kingdom; some do it out of desire for power and authority; some are just bored.
By the time it becomes ancient, a dragon ranks among the most powerful creatures to walk the earth. Its lair is nigh impregnable. Its hoard contains more wealth than any kingdom since the fall of the great empires. Its name (or at least one of them) is known far and wide among dragons and humanoids both. The dragon has survived longer than most nations.
The truth is, the dragon doesn’t have much left to do. The dragon’s territory is as large as the dragon wants it to be. If the dragon wants to manipulate and control the nearby communities, it does so. Few rivals exist with sufficient power to offer the dragon anything resembling sport. For an ancient dragon, perhaps the greatest challenge is staving off ennui.
Some ancients spend years hibernating or counting and recounting their hoards, for lack of anything better to do. Others ignite conflict, invading other dragons’ territories or inspiring mortal allies to go to war, in hopes of finding a challenge to pass the time. A few revert to behaviors of younger dragons, hunting and raiding at whim. Some devote themselves fanatically to whatever religious beliefs they hold, or seek out new ones.
Others take on strange or surprising hobbies, passing the years by studying select periods in history, mastering rituals, or researching other planes. When adventurers hear about a dragon seeking an ancient ritual or kidnapping a sage and stealing his library, the dragon might be an ancient seeking a new area of interest.
Even dragons eventually succumb to the ravages of age. As death approaches, the wyrm enters a state known to sages as “the twilight.” (What the dragons call this period, if anything, is unknown.) Although the average age of a twilight dragon is within a couple of decades of maximum age, some dragons enter the twilight more than a century earlier. Others enter twilight only in the last few years of life. Some never enter twilight, going overnight from full, ancient health to death of old age.
Twilight is the only time during a dragon’s life span when the creature grows weaker rather than stronger. Precisely how this weakening develops differs from dragon to dragon and appears to have no correlation with the dragon’s variety.
The mighty dragons, despite all their power, are still mortal. With the exception of those who extend their existence by unnatural means, such as the vile dracoliches, death eventually comes to them all. Most chromatic dragons die in battle—defending their territory from rivals, invading other wyrms’ territories, or falling victim to the business ends of adventuring parties’ swords and spells.
Chromatics who reach the end of old age find themselves in a quandary. Although some dragon varieties, such as certain metallics, can will themselves to die, chromatic dragons cannot. Thus, those powerful or lucky enough to reach old age face the slow decline into twilight, further weakening, and, eventually, death.
Most chromatic dragons do not desire a gradual decline, instead choosing to go out in the proverbial blaze of glory. They invade other dragons’ territories, particularly those of lifelong rivals, prepared to end it all in a final, calamitous clash of fire and claw. Others raze entire communities, challenging the greatest humanoid heroes to face them. Invariably, a dragon with a death wish finds someone or something capable of killing it—but the amount of destruction it can wreak in the process is on par with the worst of natural disasters. A single ancient dragon with nothing to lose and no concern for consequences or self-preservation can decimate kingdoms or render entire regions uninhabitable.
Dragons setting out on these crusades for glory might consume their entire hoard before doing so. They find the notion of leaving all their hard-earned wealth for thieves utterly anathema.
A few particularly religious dragons choose more devotional routes. Some draconic sects set areas aside where ancient dragons can lie down and die peacefully, perhaps euthanized by their fellow believers. These areas lead to tales of dragons’ graveyards.
Other dragons seek out plane-traveling rituals, attempt to find the astral domain of their patron deity (usually Tiamat, among chromatic dragons, or Bahamut among metallics), and disappear from the mortal world. What happens to them when they arrive there is unknown even to other dragons.