In many different books including Dragonlance, Tales from the Sword Coast, Magic: The Gathering and other similar fantasy series, I've seen references to dragons, drakes, wyrms and wyvern (which may be plural version of wyrm?). Is there a standard definition of each; and if so, what are the differences between them?

From my readings, I understand dragons have different colors which designate their power, attitude, magical ability, alignment and so forth and that wyrms also have color but it is less significant.

Drakes are smaller than dragons, but still fly and breath fire but have no magical abilities. Basically, Drakes are evil.

Wyrm/wyverns are more snake-like and will live in caves and mountains protecting their loot. I've also heard references to dragons doing this as well, but only in movies where the naming is simply used for convenience.

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    The answer to your question as given is that there is no standard definition for the fantasy genre. Various mythologies have their own definitions, and different fantasy worlds have their own definitions and distinctions. If there's a particular canon you are interested in, that might make for a question with a more satisfying answer. – PeterL Apr 9 '13 at 16:59
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    Magic: The Gathering famously has wurms, worms and wyrms. – b_jonas Apr 16 '13 at 19:12
  • I do not believe this is too broad a question or deserves to be closed. An well-written answer that explains there is no difference (in the genre) and why this is so would be a good addition to this site. – John O Jan 11 '14 at 6:45

11 Answers 11

up vote 32 down vote accepted

A lot of the material and references you mention are part of the Dungeons and Dragons game source material.

In particular, Tales of the Sword Coast takes place in the Forgotten Realms setting, which is a campaign world designed by Ed Greenwood for his Dungeons and Dragons game, and which eventually became a licensed product that included source books, novels, video games, and more.

Dragon Lance is another licensed Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, that was somewhat modified from the main rule sets available at the time.

Magic the Gathering, however, takes its cues from its own source material, although it does borrow rather heavily from other genres and sources, including Dungeons and Dragons.

In the basic Dungeons and Dragons original rules, Dragons were at the top of the chain of the various "draconic monsters". Each species of "true" dragon was identified by a basic color (red, blue, green, white, bronze, silver, gold), and had varying levels of intelligence, personality, and abilities (including the "breath weapon", which depended upon the color, and could be anything from fire to magical gas). Later on, the types of dragons were expanded consisiderably, including things like "gem dragons", planar dragons, and undead dragons (dragon liches). The size of dragons generally scales with age, with adults being quite large (dozens of feet from tail to snout on even moderate sized adults).

Some dragons are quite intelligent, surpassing that of most humans, while others are on the low end of the intelligence scale.

Dragons traditionally had a notable fondness for treasure.

Smaug, the dragon from Tolkien's The Hobbit, was undoubtedly one of the primary inspirations for the early Dungeons and Dragons dragon types. However, later on there were other dragon types introduced more closely based upon eastern mythologies, or purely from the authors' imaginations.

Drakes are sometimes used to refer to immature dragons, but are more frequently associated with much smaller reptilian animals that are mostly just 'scaled down' versions of regular dragons. Depending on the source, they may or may not be intelligent, and may or may not have the ability to breath fire. Typically, they are large reptiles (from 2-3 feet in length up to much larger sizes, depending on the source) that can fly and have a generally "dragonlike" appearance.

Wyrm sometimes refers to the oldest and largest types of traditional dragons. However, it can also refer to dragons that are specifically wingless.

Wyverns are quite separate. They are normally depicted as smaller than a full-sized dragon, but still quite large. They are winged and frequently have a barbed tail (sometimes poisonous).

However, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the terminology varies widely from source to source, and many of terms can easily be interpreted as interchangeable in many works.

** In traditional European heraldry, wyverns were typically depicted as dragon-like critters with only one pair of legs instead of two (or sometimes without legs at all).

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    +1 For the detailed answer! Btw, isn't Smaug also referred to as "a fire-drake from the North"? At least in the movie? I don't think The Hobbit made a difference between dragons and drakes. – Andres F. Apr 9 '13 at 17:19
  • @AndresF. at first it is, but later on they refer to it as a dragon. That's what prompted my question actually. – DustinDavis Apr 9 '13 at 17:33
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    Note that Smaug is also referred to as a "worm" in the Hobbit. Glaurung is called the Gold-worm of Angband, and there was also another wingless cold-dragon named Scatha the Worm. It appears that for Tolkien drake, wyrm, worm, serpent, and dragon were synonyms. – horatio Apr 9 '13 at 18:33
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    Also, many types of wyverns tend to not have a set of front legs, just having the wings instead (like most birds). – Clockwork-Muse Apr 9 '13 at 21:50
  • The only glaring thing I see missing from this answer is the acknowledgement that sometimes they are all just words for the same thing. As Andres and horatio pointed out, in Middle Earth there is no difference. +1 if you add that acknowledgement. – Mr.Mindor Apr 9 '13 at 22:07

There is lore about Dragon-ish creatures across Eurpoe and Asia from which the inspiration for dragons in our favorite novels and games comes. The words Dragon, Drake and Wyrm are all synonymous in terms of their etimology and historical definitions. If you look at the etimology of words meaning dragon and the variety of lore about them, it is interesting to note in some cultures, sea serpents would be one in the same with dragons (particularly in Norse legend) and Biblical references may be referring to crocodiles or to the devil - depending on context, so historically speaking, a dragon is any kind of giant reptile with or without legs, wings, or fire-breathing ability (or the devil).

Wyrm is derived from an ancient germanic term. Dragon from the roman draconem and/or Greek drakon (which both mean serpent) and Drake originates from the same drakon through the dutch word draak. Wyvern is the same in essence that it comes from a Middle English word for snake, wyver and probably derives from the same latin root as the word viper.

Over time, traditions have changed things somewhat - in particular, how these creatures play out in heraldry. Wyverns are a part of some family crests and hold up shields within those crests and are the only one of these four words with a distinct definition in a standard dictionary. Because of heraldic rules, wyverns have been given a specific and distinct definition legally in England as of the 10th century. Their specific and uniqe identity has become accepted and they are now considered to be a separate creature by most people that know the word, where as the other three are generally synonymous (unless otherwise defined within the particular story or game in which they appear). Wyverns have two smallish wings and only have two short legs (that are more like a bird of prey's than lizard-like, where-as in Western European Tradition Dragons have larger bodies and wings and four legs (and that is how you tell them apart). There is a sea-dwelling wyvern that has a thicker tail that is also barbed as well as a land-dwelling wyvern that does not usually have a barbed tail. I think today the barbed tail is showing up more often (though the one on my family crest is not barbed).

Norse dragons tend to be more like great sea snakes and are much more serpenty those in the British Isles and France might think about. In most fantasy novels dragons such as these would be described as being sea serpents (notibly Cressida Cowell's How to Train your dragon included "Sea-serpent" dragons as well as those more like Welsh and English dragons).

Chinese dragons also very rarely have wings (Yinglong is the most notable exception), but although their bodies are serpent like, they have talons like a bird of prey, whiskers adn sometimes deer like horns or antlers. Even though they don't have wings they are able to ride clouds and water spouts into the heavens, so they still "fly." They are a symbol of power and are often associated with the emporer.

It is the Chinese dragon that is traditionally classified by color and may be the inspiration for this element within D and D and any other "world" in which you have encountered color classifications.

In China, Black dragons are a symbol of the north and are portents of storms while red Dragons symbolize the west, pleasures and summer (in England, Red Dragons are a symbol of royalty) Back in China, white dragons symbolize the south and are associated with death and famine while blue dragons are associated with the spring and are a symbol of the east. Finally, yellow dragons are supposed to bring the prayers of the people to the gods so they are the most secluded and not associated with a compass direction. Yellow dragons can also symbolize scholarliness and supposedly brought the skill of writing to earth and taught it to the people. Chinese also traditionally can classify their dragons by "jobs" or "responsibilities" of the dragons. These classifications are ones I am less familiar with and their are significantly more of them.

When reading fantasy, usually the dragons described hearken to either a British/French/Ancient Roman Model of some sort, or, less often, in western literature, a more chinese form of the dragon depending on the story and the author's design. Once in awhile you might get some unique variations based on the ancient greek versions such as Python (a monstrous serpent with the head and breasts of a woman) or the wingless Persian version of a dragon, but they are still defined by the author creating the particular world about which you are reading. Many good authors will find a piece of something they find in the ancient lore about dragons and make it work within their story for them. One author might be inspired by the color classifications in Chinese, but like the look of a Welsh dragon better for their puposes, so they'll mix the two ideas to create dragons and a set of dragon rules that work well for the world he/she has created.

Happy reading!

There's not a standard definition across the fantasy genre.

Sometimes they are different things, sometimes they are subsets of each other (e.g. a drake is a young dragon or a wyrm is a dragon with no legs). Sometimes they are even more diverse -- in the Warcraft canon, for example, wyverns appear as some sort of wolfy lion thing with bat wings and a scorpion tail.

There are some general definitions from mythology which probably fall under general reference -- you can find them in wikipedia or a dictionary. In fantasy fiction they vary wildly from canon to canon.

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    The World of Warcraft wyvern is what is more commonly referred to as a manticore outside of that particular setting. – Beofett Apr 9 '13 at 17:03

I believe that wyrm is just an interchangeable name for a dragon, used most notably in the Dungeons and Dragons setting as a stage of a dragon's life.

Wyverns are similar to but separate creatures from dragons, having only four limbs (two legs, two wings) and being unable to breathe fire.

I'm not sure about drakes. In the Hobbit, Smaug was mentioned as being "a fire-drake from the North", but also a dragon, which implies that the two have basically the same meaning.

Typically, and this is not a hard and fast rule as different societies and storytellers will define things differently...

  • Dragons are your prototypical beasts with four legs and wings. Whether they can use magic or depends on the story being told.
  • Drakes are a little tough. Often, they are similar to the standard "dragon" with the difference that they typically do not have wings. These are often also referred to as Eastern Dragons or Chinese Dragon. In other instances, Drake is synonymous with Wyrm.
  • Wyrms (also known as European Dragons) and Wyverns (also knwn are typically identified by the fact that they only have two legs at maximum. Wyrms are often depicted as being more serpent-like than Wyverns. Wyverns will sometimes have no legs at all.
  • Like I said in Beofett's answer, in The Hobbit, Smaug is mentioned as being a "fire-drake" as well as a dragon. And he is definitely a Western-style dragon, with wings and four legs :) – Andres F. Apr 9 '13 at 17:22
  • Yes, and that's the problem with things like rules and definitions for dragons or zombies or whatever: there are no hard and fast rules. What one author or even culture decides has little to no bearing on what the next does. – phantom42 Apr 9 '13 at 18:05

I have seen usage in Norse Mythos (Note I am talking not of Norse Pagan belief but of the tales told by Norsemen, which would be garnered from all manners of cultures through stories told by travellers.)

Wyrm was used to describe huge serpents, all legless, but possibly winged, tjat were essentially plague incarnate. Their mouths drooled saliva that made living forests rot, and would turn a mans innards to soup.

Worm described any non-elementally attributed large serpent. The Midgard Serpent is a giant fish serpent and could be classified as a worm in most cases due to lack of any sort of magical abilities, besides it being large enough to wrap around the world.

Wyverns are highly varied, and were named as lindworms by the norse. Some tales speak of bird sized lizards with wings and poisonous barbed tails, whilst others describe what most consider to be drakes. The common features of all wyverns are:

Feathers, Cunning, Forked Toungues, and Large, raptor-like (as described a raptors claw comes to mind; they obviously did not mention raptors by name) claws.

Drakes are usually between the size of a small pony to the size of four oxen or yak. They are two legged dragons that are much less intelligent, but flock around their larger cousins as scavengers.

Dragons are usually four legged, around the size of a small home to that of a chapel. They can breath fire, or boiling mists, and some rare cases had breath of ice. They were malevolent beasts, almost as smart as man, who had specific greeds. Some were gluttonous, some were hoarders of treasures, and others were perverts (this last category seems to stem from bawdy tavern tales ;). They were nigh on impossible to kill, and had varying ranges of magical powers, from shapeshifting, to telepathy, to the ability to make nature do their bidding. most tales end either with a dragon sleeping off its last meal, or getting beheaded by a strong, male hero.

Evern more classifications exist but almost all have overlapping terms, and thereofre I shall not go into further detail.

OK, I got this one. First things first, in mythology, dragon refers to the species as a whole, with most names just referring to the breed.

A drake is your typical European dragon, with four legs and two wings, and are known for storing and guarding items they deem as valuable. Drakes are usually hostile, though there are exceptions. Certain variants of drakes breath different substances, though color does not determine this in most circumstances. What you thought was a drake, is actually a dragonette, which is a much smaller variant of drake with varying demeanor and elements, though most dragonettes use venom as their main method of protection.

A wyrm is a separate being altogether, that are similar to dragons but are not the same. There are two variants of wyrm, the airborne and the landborne. The airborne's are wyrms that lack wings, similar to a loong (Chinese Dragon), and also lack legs. They spend most of their time flying around, rarely ever landing, though they can land. Upon landing, they pretty much are just a giant snake with horns. The landbornes are an anthropomorphic variant, that are bipedal with shorter arms. They do have wings, but they don't fly often, with running being their most effective method of transportation.

Wyverns are dragons that have large wings, longer bodies, and commonly only two legs, however, elder wyverns have four legs. Wyverns tend to have crocodile-like heads, and are only hostile if threatened. A wyvern spends it's time mainly in the air, but lands to eat, rest, or have... Questionable wrestling sessions with their mates.

Just to clarify in terms of the Wyvern,

A Wyvern is very similar to a dragon but usually smaller and they only have two legs and two wings, whereas a Dragon usually has four legs and two wings

  • Hi Patrick. Your clarification should probably be a comment in the main question, since it doesn't actually attempt to answer it :) – Andres F. Jan 11 '14 at 5:37

What I've concluded from reading several books and more importantly, asking for detailed information from a couple of RPing and Dragonic lore forums;

Dragons, Dragons are great variations of reptilian species with SIX appendages; four legs and two wings. They have a great variation of colour and shape(Read: Horns, claws, and skin) depending on habitat they live in. Depending on lore they may or may not be capable of breathing fire and/or other substances by means of magic or plain scientific reactions. Also notable is that dragons are often portrayed as either intelligent to the point of being sapient, or to the point of far outmatching other animals.

Drakes, Drakes as far as I've concluded are WINGLESS dragons(Which others above me have denied), smaller in size and less intelligent, albeit far from dumb. They also have a notably smoother skin and less colour variation. Crudely explained they're big, reptilian dogs.

Wyverns, Wyverns are older variations of dragons, to the point of having less appendages(That is, the front pair of legs doubles as wings, sometimes with claws on the elbow), less intelligence, and inferior instincts. Most likely so because they're less evolved versions of dragons.

Wyrms, Wyrms are the most ancient version of dragons, most likely the whole race of dragons decended from this particular species. They cover a considerably bigger span of time than the previous three apparitions combined, explaining why their appearance ranges from giant worms to wormish-dragons. Wyrms are, as stated priorly, giant worms, with reptilian skin, and bigger, cruder faces, the eldest versions of wyrms don't even have horns. Wyrms are known for living underground. Later on they evolved wings and became sleeker in form; Chinese dragons are wyrms halfway trough evolving to Wyverns.

The evolutionary tree of these species goes like this: Wyrms -> Wyverns -> Dragons + Drakes

As you can see, drakes and dragons are familiars trough the wyvern, they have both evolved differently, explained by the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin(Due to living in a different ecosystem, Drakes didn't have the need to either fly or breath fire).

So, there you have it, the history of draconic beings as far as I can conclude from different sources

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    Can you site sources? I've yet to see a drake without wings. – DustinDavis Mar 7 '14 at 18:30
               **The Difference Between Dragons, Drakes, Wyrms and Wyverns**

Size and Shape

Dragons are larger than drakes, but smaller than wyverns. Dragons have a longer body and throat than drakes. Wyverns are four-limb creatures (one pair of legs and one pair of wings), drakes are six-limb creatures just like the dragon (one pair of wings and two pair of legs). Wyrms are very snake-like creatures that has six limbs (a very flexible body and occasionally a pair of wings or legs). Wyrms are very slim when conferring to dragons, drakes and wyverns, but they are also very long.


Dragons are renowned for breathing fire and various magical abilities, but drakes can breath fire to, also wyverns and wyrms can spit fire. Drakes doesn't have any magical abilities (except breathing fire).

  • Can you cite any references? – Andres F. Jan 11 '14 at 5:34

As I've always understood it. The drake, dragon and wyrm were ages of dragons. Wyvern is a different creature altogether, albiet similar, it lacks 2 legs. A Drake is a young dragon...a juvenile, Dragon is used when speaking about an adult and Wyrm is an elder, one that has acquired great age and power... the eldest often referred to as "great wyrm"

  • I doubt this is correct. Keep in mind the answer must be universal for Dragonlance, Magic: The Gatheric, and "similar fantasy series". I don't think in general fantasy fiction Wyrms are "elder dragons", for example. – Andres F. Jan 11 '14 at 5:33

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