(Illustration by Christina Yen comes from GeekDad and is © Paizo Publishing.)
It doesn’t take a lot to sell the nightmare dragon. It’s a shapechanging, acid-spitting dragon that lives in the nightmare section of the Dimension of Dreams—that’s scary enough. You know who else lives in that neighborhood? Soul-stealing night hags. And Leng. Like, all of Leng. You get the picture. (And if you don’t, a quick look at the nightmare dragon’s stat block, especially at higher age categories—with abilities like terrifying presence, rising nightmare, and dream terror, not to mention the magic of a full-fledged psychic—should convince you. These dragons are bad news.)
Interestingly, the nightmare dragon isn’t the strongest of the esoteric dragons—not by a long shot. This may be a statement about the redemptive power of dreams and hope, or the triumph of the conscious mind and willpower (and thus the Astral) over the depths of the subconscious. It may also explain why nightmare dragons, particularly the younger sort, are so eager to team up with night hags—for power in numbers and access to sleeping minds and souls—but in doing so, they humble and debase themselves further.
Also, like certain other dragon species we’ve covered, nightmare dragons are worth including in your campaign even if you never touch the rest of the esoteric dragon species. If dragons are rare in your campaign, PCs might never know they face a Nightmare Dragon™—they’re facing Rannix, the Crawler in Dreams, who then surprises them with horrifying psychic powers. Or, if you’ve drilled into your players that your world’s dragons operate on very Krynn-ian lines—metallic dragons = good, chromatics = bad—imagine their shock when they encounter nightmare dragons completely outside their understanding of draco-cladistics.
Against their better judgment, adventurers take part in a drug handoff down by the docks. This is a bad idea in most cities, but it’s particularly foolhardy right now—because they are in a city on the shores of Leng. The adventurers’ exchange with their denizen contact is almost complete when two nightmare dragons burst from the water, breathing acid everywhere. Someone narced on the deal.
A nightmare dragon resents the rule of the Nightmare Lords. She wants to carve out her own domain—and she thinks she’s found a way to do it. By harvesting the silk of bloated spiders known as fever weavers, she can stitch together the dreamscapes of sleeping mortals, forcing them to share each other’s nightmares. The sewn-up dreams of a small city would be an excellent start to her empire.
A magus of the Black Blood is determined to unlock the secrets of kundalini, the serpent fire—specifically, its dark opposite, the ashen shadow. He abducts an adept of the Hidden Flame and tortures him, forcing negative energy-laced needles into the monk’s chakras. Attempting to rescue the monk, adventurers arrive just as the last needle pierces the poor man’s crown chakra. As the monk writhes in agony, the ashen shadow erupts from his brow as a nightmare dragon determined to torment the bodies and dreams of all it encounters.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 5 94–95
Anyone else notice the nightmare dragon illustration seems to have too many eyes? (Or the right number of eyes, in very wrong places?) A nice touch.
I’ve mentioned her before in these pages, but if you’re looking for a role-playing model for an older nightmare dragon, a great option is the night dragon Synn from the “Voyage of the Princess Ark” series—a creature far more interested in sowing emotional pain, fear, and loss than any amount of crude physical destruction…and willing to spend a once-in-a-century wish to see her plans to fruition. She pops up in various places in early “VotPA” installments, but Dragon Magazine #163 was her crowning achievement.