A Half-Dragon is the result of a dragon having a hybrid child with a non-dragon creature. Technically, this can result in a wide variety of different hybrid monsters - the dragonne, for example, is a hybrid of brass dragon and lion - but what this article is mostly concerned with is the inevitable result of dragons mating with humanoids.
The half-dragon first appeared in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, most prominently in the Council of Wyrms setting. Here, they were stated to always be the result of elven, dwarven or gnomish women getting knocked up by shapeshifted male Gold Dragon, Silver Dragon or Bronze Dragon. They were... rather different to what would come to be.
Quote their Monster Manual entry: Few physical features definitively mark a newborn babe as a half-dragon, though there are some telltale signs of the dragon parent; usually eyes or hair the color of gold, silver, or bronze. As they reach adulthood half-dragons grow tall and lean, no matter what demihuman blood mixes with their draconic heritage. During adolescence draconic abilities begin to manifest. These abilities become stronger and more pronounced over time and with use. Physical changes accompany the appearance of these abilities. A mature half-dragon appears as a very tall, very lithe humanoid with certain elflike features: a slender frame, lean muscles, long limbs, pointed ears. The skin has the look and texture of demihuman flesh, though with the pigmentation of the dragon parent. Hair is thick and luxurious, of a deeper and richer shade than the flesh color. A half-dragon’s fingers are long and thin, with nails like talons. The true mark of dragon heritage is seen in the face, which has a distinctive reptilian appearance: snakelike eyes, elongated features, and the barest hint of horns protruding above the temples. Half-dragons have no wings, tails, or scales. No matter their demihuman heritage, all half-dragons mature in this way.
Half-dragons can use any weapon types that match the class they belong to. All half-dragons also begin with all of the racial abilities of their demihuman parent. As their dragon abilities manifest, they supersede and replace the demihuman ones. Each half-dragon type has discretionary abilities to choose from (one at 2nd, 4th, and 6th level), and fixed abilities that manifest automatically (at 5th and 7th respectively).
- Fixed Abilities: Claw attacks (1d6/1d6), breath weapon, (spray of fire 10 feet long, damage 3d6, twice per day).
- Discretionary Abilities: Water breathing (at will), speak with animals (at will), bless (twice per day), detect lie (twice per day), sleep (twice per day), dragon fear (three times per day), immune to fire, immune to gas, infravision to 90 feet.
- Fixed Abilities: Claw attacks (1d4/1d4), breath weapon (spray of cold 8 feet long, damage 4d4, twice per day).
- Discretionary Abilities: Feather fall (once per day), wall of fog (once per day), cloud walk (one hour per level per day), dragon fear (twice per day), immune to cold, infravision to 90 feet.
- Fixed Abilities: Claw attacks (1d4/1d4), breath weapon (bolt of lightning 8 feet long, damage 3d4, twice per day).
- Discretionary Abilities. Water breathing (at will), speak with animals (at will), create food and water (twice per day), ESP (once per day), dragon fear (once per day), immune to electricity, infravision to 60 feet
Becoming a Racial Template in this edition, half-dragons exploded in popularity and numbers. No longer were they limited to just a handful of species who could innately shapeshift; now any "True" dragon species could produce hybrid offspring with anything else, with draconic heritage manifesting in things like Elemental Resistance and breath weapons.
Two major changes were made to half-dragon lore in this edition. Firstly, ANY species of dragon could produce a half-dragon offspring - only the Axial Dragons were exempt, and that's more because their hyper-lawful mindset made them consider race-mixing an ultimate abomination. Secondly, both male and female dragons could be involved in producing half-dragon offspring. The splatbook "Exemplars of Evil" even features a female Blue Dragon called Boraksaghegirak, aka "Borak the Thunder Tyrant", who developed a taste for sex with human guys after a long and profitable partnership with a wizard (it went sour after he tried to magically enslave her), resulting in her staking out a territory and building a harem of human men, using her half-dragon sons as her personal elite guard.
They don't exist here, with D&D instead promoting the Dragonborn race in their place as a way to have a playable dragon that neither is overpowered nor requires your backstory to be some variant of "at least one of my parents was a xenophile".
Back again as one of the few "half-x" racial templates in the monster manual.
What's the appeal?
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Half-dragons are a contentious thing in the fandom, but obviously aren't going anywhere any time soon. Still, you may wonder why people like them.
For some, it's simply the logic "dragons are awesome, so playing a dragon is even more awesome" - D&D has recognized this since basically forever and the earlier editions of the game included rules that allowed a player character to tame/convince a dragon to team up with them by besting them in combat. But since even a small dragon would royally fuck party balance, the idea of a humanoid-sized one that stood on two legs, spoke, used gear meant for humanoids and didn't had anyone in the vicinity running for their lives quickly emerged. That's the particular itch the original half-dragon and eventually the dragonborn were made for.
Sadly enough, Power Gamers were soon attracted to the class as well, because being a half-dragon in 3e was a massive power boost. And then there are those who just think it's hot to know their character was made from interspecies fucking. After all, dragons are considered pretty sexy by a wide swathe of deviants - I mean, you can't order an elf-dildo online. Doesn't hurt that, by the canon descriptions of half-dragons, you could take any monstergirlified dragon art and that's a totally legitimate depiction of a female half-dragon. 4e formalized Dragonborn as a PC race fior the sake of internal balance (which led to aforementioned skub) and 5e shrugged and went for a "best of both world" approach, offering both possibilities while keeping the power levels generally down.