Let's face it: you can't get much more Badass than a Dragon. They're huge. They fly. They breathe fire. They have weapons sticking out of nearly every part of their body. They're really, really smart. They're brutal and merciless in battle. They live for thousands of years, during which they only get stronger. They wield magic. Their tough scales make them both pretty and pretty Immune to Bullets. (Well, it really depends.) As the most well-known mythological beast, dragons have always served as the quintessential boss monster in games, books, and myths, representing the ultimate incarnation of power and evil which endangers all life on earth.
Somewhere along the line (1967, to be exact), somebody got the idea that maybe these vicious, bloodthirsty beasts don't have to be so evil after all. Maybe underneath all those fangs and claws, they're just gentle, misunderstood creatures who might just be willing to fight on the side of the good guys if you're lucky. In fact, maybe they're just looking for a friend.
Thenceforth, there came the idea of a Dragon Rider, a human (or humanoid) who is so mightily goddamn badass he can ride on the back of these beasts, often as a steed into battle. The concept exploded and gained popularity among fantasy authors, and now can be seen just about everywhere in modern fantasy literature.
Dragon riders are usually characterized by a bond with the beast they ride which results in a synchronous relationship between the two, a telepathic link, and no possibility that the two could ever be separated from each other without drastic consequences. They'd better get used to each other's company- they're stuck.
The plausibility of this trope depends on how intelligent the dragons are in this setting as well as what exactly the rider brings to the table. In some cases, the human might fill some gap in the dragon's own abilities - an old-fashioned, unintelligent dragon might need a rider for direction, and a non-firebreather might benefit from having a wizard on its back - but most dragons are so all-around awesome that the human is redundant. That legendary magic sword of yours isn't going to do much good up there either unless it's really really big, and in which case, the dragon himself might use it. If the dragon is just a particularly awesome, non-sapient animal, then the relationship is more comparable to that of a horse.
This trope will keep coming back because Dragons are cool and A dragon you can fly on is cooler.
May sometimes be called wyverns, a different dragon-like mythical creature.
Compare Dragon Knight, Giant Flyer, Beast of Battle, and Horse of a Different Color. Contrast Shoulder-Sized Dragon, a dragon that rides you!
The kingdom of Moss in Record of Lodoss War has Dragon Riders as its chief defining characteristic. After she leaves the party, one of the heroes, Shiris, marries their prince and becomes their leader.
Saiyuki has a variation; Cho Hakkai does have a pet dragon, but he's too small to ride—instead he shapeshifts into a jeep, and they travel on him that way.
The Humongous MechaVision of Escaflowne (from the series of the same name) could transform into a dragon, which was controlled in Dragon Rider fashion as opposed to the standard internal cockpit.
Mashin Hero Wataru: Deformed mecha (not so humongous, 4~5 metres at most) is a standard weapon of choice in that world, the hero's mecha is a clay model he made for an art lesson which one of the 7 dragons of the second world took to fight other mecha. The cockpit is in hyperspace where the hero stands on a metal dragon statue and held on the two horns, where other mecha got more common cockpit controls with their own style(like bamboo sticks).
There're some (albeit few) dragon riders riders in the aptly named hentai anime Dragon Rider. Also, their dragons can turn into beautiful girls. And now, you know the rest of the story...
In a similar vein the ISDA Dragonauts in Dragonaut: The Resonance ride shapechanging dragons. Though theirs have conformal cockpit modules to cope with things like breathing in deep space.
Tai is often seen riding MetalGreymon and WarGreymon (the latter is specifically a dragon). This could also apply to Davis and Ken, Takato, and Marcus Damon. (Takuya doesn't ride a dragon, he becomes one!)
In the Pokémon anime, trainers with dragon-types can sometimes be seen riding them. Pokemon Hunter J had a Salamence. Carlita had a Hydreigon in the 'Victini and Reshiram/Zekrom' movies. Lance has his Dragonite, which he rides in a couple of the games as well.
Nearly every single character in Seikoku No Dragonar is a Dragon Rider, since it's a school for raising and riding Dragons.
In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, Action Duels allow the duelist to ride the monsters that they summon. Considering the franchise's fascination with dragons, this trope is to be expected. In fact, Yuya ace monster is a dragon (Odd-Eyes Pendulum dragon, to be precise), and is seen riding it during the opening.
A rather... interesting example in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, whenever Jack and Yusei summon their respective Majestic Red/Star Dragon they go inside of its body. So we have Yusei, riding his Duel Runner inside of a dragon.
Hawkman has a Nazi villain called "White Dragon" who has this as his only superpower.
Colossus of the X-Men once pulled this off, in order to provide Cyclops and Wolverine with a flying rescue. How did he obtain a dragon? Well, he waited until it attacked him... but he's literally Made of Iron, so it's okay.
Kitty Pryde also has a pet alien dragon named Lockheed that occasionally has the ability to grow large enough to carry her and the other X-men.
In With Strings Attached, George twice turns into a red dragon so he can fly several people to some inconvenient place. The problem is that he's too big to straddle, so whomever's riding him has to hang on as best he can—not a problem for the extremely strong Paul or even the Hunter, but a total impossibility for Ringo unless someone hangs onto him as well.
Harry Potter in a few different works, but most obviously The Queen That Fell To Earth and its sequel.
Films — Animated
How to Train Your Dragon is about a young boy who finds a injured dragon and befriends it. There's quite a bit of dragon-riding in the process.
Toothless needs a rider to operate the stabilizer prosthetic which lets him fly. He's something like a draconic version of a proto-human: he demonstrates extremely high levels of 'people smarts', eventually comes to understand Hiccup's speech to a great extent, and is capable of abstract reasoning and problem-solving - when the other dragons were battling the Vikings, Toothless was attacking the catapaults. However, in other ways, he is very animal-like: he seems incapable of language or symbolic thinking, even to the point of being unable to recognize an artistic depiction of himself. For a comparison, see the 'stick drawing' scene, where Toothless doesn't understand that Hiccup is drawing a picture of him... but does understand that drawing in the dirt can be a bonding exercise, and that it would be disrespectful for one of them to step on the other's drawing.
Stormfly, Meatlug, Hookhfang and Barf and Blech are ridden by Hiccup's first students.
In Shrek Donkey accidentally romances a female dragon, then she escapes from the castle and provides him and Shrek speedy transportation to Duloc.
The common flying mounts in Avatar are the banshees. Bonding with one is seen as a rite of passage, and we see many Na'vi ride them (there are implications that most, if not all Na'vi have a banshee partner). The grand-daddy of all of Avatar's winged beasts in the aptly named Great Leonopteryx to humans, and Toruk Makto to the Na'vi, which translates to "Last Shadow". Riding this creature (who looks even more dragon-like than the banshees) requires such badassery that Na'vi history records only six examples of someone doing it. This becomes a main plot point towards the end of the movie.
In the 1989 film The Railway Dragon, Emily occasionally sits on the dragon's tail when he is standing or walking. It is not until leaving the Dragon's celebrations that she convinces him to let her ride on his back, which she loves and indeed the dragon (who hasn't flown in 100 years) enjoys it as well. In the 1992 sequel The Birthday Dragon, Emily rides on the dragon's back twice; first to the zoo to return all the animals the dragon brought her as a birthday present, and the second time for fun on the way back to the Dragon's home in the railway tunnel, as she and the dragon are now good friends (which is proved when the dragon catches her after she falls off his back during the flight).
Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith counts as this when he rides a large wingless dragon like lizard during most of the scenes on Utapau. Unfortunately, she falls with Obi-Wan when Order 66 occurs, but she survives the fall, according to the expanded material.
Dragons in Dragonriders of Pern form a personal, psychic bond with their riders (whom they choose) when they hatch and commit suicide without exception when their riders die. This goes the other way to a slightly lesser extent- it's considered a rare exception when a rider survives losing his dragon. The most of the ones that do end up committing suicide anyway.
Justified better than most other examples in that the dragons were genetically engineered specifically for that purpose. The colonists needed something to incinerate the Thread before it reached the ground and ate everything organic. It went something like this:
"oh shit, this stuff will eat everything if we let it land on our homesteads, we don't know when it will stop falling, and the technology we have been using to fight it is falling apart because we thought we would have a lot more time to build up the technology base necessary to replenish it; time to engineer ourselves a self-replenishing fighting force from the indigenous fire-breathing lifeforms that have already shown that they can and will defend our homes."
The Nazgűls and their flying beasts in Lord of the Rings count as a precursory example.
Although it's made fairly clear the mounts aren't dragons (which did exist in Middle-earth), but rather pterosaur-like creatures.
In The Silmarillion, Morgoth uses Balrogs mounted on dragons in several battles. However, prior to the War of Wrath, these were non-flying dragons.
Inheritance Cycle copies Dragonriders of Pern pretty closely in this regard. There are a few interesting variances—for instance, humans who become riders tend to look slightly elvish after a while, and gain stronger-than-average magic power, making them decidedly less useless (especially since dragons in Inheritance Cycle can't use magic themselves, other than their innately magic abilities like breathing fire). Additionally, there is a lot of subtext that implies that while dragons in the wild are incredibly intelligent, it is only the ones that bond with elves/humans who have mastery over language and all the "civilized" attributes that entails, while the bonded elves/humans gain a ferocity and battle prowess of the dragon's natural killer instincts.
Of course, the fact that the dragons are treated as living weapons rather than actual people becomes a major issue from the second book onward. For instance, the dragons start demanding civil rights.
Averted in Cerberon, unless you want to count Robert and Agnes riding on the back of Prince Aeronweyir, who's a dragon. They're only playing, since the Prince is fond of children. It's still awesome. The dragons are only about the size of a human, and are the ultimate masters of the world. They can magically enlarge themselves to carry others (one is large enough to carry two people and the carriage they're riding in). There is no such thing as Dragon Riders in this world.
Rhodry in the second Deverry series. As this dragon is not exactly a willing ally, he's needed to keep her under control.
Also played with a bit as Rhodry tries unsuccessfully to find a way to fight from dragonback. He ends up simply using the dragon to frighten the horses of the enemy, something that is valuable in itself as the enemy are horse nomads. (And a powerful magician makes the horses on Rhodry's side immune to the fear effect.)
Jane Yolen purposely avoids this in her Pit Dragon Chronicles. The protagonist bonds with a baby dragon and excitedly wonders if he can ride it when it gets big enough, but another character informs him that a dragon might be able to bear him, but the scales would tear his skin. She also makes a cringe-inducing comment about treating men who'd tried riding even walking dragons. In a later book it's said that a dragon would probably cramp.
Instead, she has cockfighting - with dragons!
At one point in the second book the dragon carries the boy... by flying while clutching a cloth under herself that the boy precariously hangs from. One of her claws is wrenched out of her toe by this exertion, though.
Inverted in Bazil Broketail, the first of a series of novels by Christopher Rowley. The named character is a dragon, with no wings but bipedal (and can't breathe fire either), but he has (like all war-dragons of his culture) a squire (called a "dragonboy"), which is depicted on the cover as riding him. The dragonboy in the book (whose name escapes me) does camp chores and cooking, as well as the occasional fighting when things get hairy.
Parodied in The Halfblood Chronicles. One of the heroic Dragons gives a ride to a character who has just joined with the heroes. They both come away from the experience saying that it had to be the most uncomfortable way to travel imaginable.
Mercedes Lackey's Dragon Jousters series features two warring countries each fielding jousters mounted on, you guessed it, dragons. The dragons in this series are small(ish), do not breathe fire, and are about as intelligent as the average apex predator, so they're arguably better off in captivity.
Well, the ones raised from the egg so that they imprint on their riders are, anyway. The wild-caught dragons are kept passive by being continuously drugged, and live a rather miserable existence. Thus, the protagonists are the ones who go through the effort of raising their own dragons.
The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory features dragon riders, most notably the elf Jermayan in the later books. Bonus points because apparently if a dragon lacks a rider they can't mate, and they can only properly bond with one person in their lifetime, but they're nigh-ageless, so that's all right.
A rather funny note is that that the dragon Ancaladar has no problem with his link Jermayan riding him, but repeatedly states; "I am not a horse," if others try. He still agrees to ferry children though after being guilt-tripped into it.
Untwisted in Harry Potter of all places, when, in book 7, it turns out that trying to ride a dragon is a bad idea, and potentially hazardous to your health. Though they ride one anyway. The dragon was also very old and blind. So it was dangerous in the "Oh my god we're going to crash this dragon is flying entirely too fast aaauughh!" rather than "Oh my god this dragon is about to eat me because I won't get off its back aaauughh!"
To clarify, the dragon-riding was done out of desperation and the characters spend most of the ride considering the many, many ways it might get them killed.
In Dragon Slippers, the dragons are more than happy to allow their human friends to ride...if they ask first, and ONLY friends. In later books, some of the dragons object, thinking it below them to carry humans.
The world of Krynn, home setting of the Dragonlance saga, teems with intelligent flying dragons. Because the setting was developed during the 1980s to be a campaign world for Dungeons & Dragonstabletop roleplaying game, the dragons were Color-Coded for Your Convenience into metallic dragons (good) and chromatic dragons (evil). Both sides, the Knights of Solamnia (followers of the good god Paladine, called the Platinum Dragon) and the Knights of Takhisis (followers of the evil Dragon Queen Takhisis) rode dragons into battle. Initially outnumbered, the side of good gained the upper hand once a famous smith, blessed by the gods, forged magical weapons called dragonlances for them. Dragonlances and dragon riders featured most notable in The Dragonlance Chronicles and the novel The Legend of Huma. (See also below the entry under "Tabletop Games").
There's also a series of "Practical Guide" books set in the Dragonlance universe, starting with A Practical Guide To Dragons and later including A Practical Guide to Dragon Riding. The number one lesson about dragon riding? Treat your dragon with respect because it knows it doesn't need you.
Ged of the Earthsea Trilogy earns the title of Dragon Lord simply because he's one of the few humans the dragons will deign to speak with. So when the most ancient dragon gives him a lift home, that's pretty much a Crowning Moment Of Awesome right there.
Subverted rather cruelly in Harry Turtledove's Darkness sequence, where, while dragons are commonly used for aerial combat, they are nasty, foul-tempered, violent, and stupid creatures who have to be cruelly treated from birth in order to discourage them from killing their riders.
The Cornelia Funke novel Dragon Rider is not as focused on this trope as one would expect. Though the main human character does in fact ride on the dragon's back, it's simply because this is the only way to transport him. Said dragon (Firedrake) is Walking the Earth, looking for a valley for the dragons to move to, and accquires the main human character as a Tagalong Kid, as he's a Heartwarming Orphan who Firedrake decides to help. However, it is stated that humans who bond with dragons and ride them do get some special powers, such as extended life and healing abilities, as they find out in a Pakistani village. Overall, though, this isn't too important to the plot.
In The Iron Dragon's Daughter, the dragons are mechanical beasts that are used as that 'verse's equivalent of fighter jets, complete with missiles. They are sapient, but their subservience is justified in that they cannot move, let alone fly or fight, without a pilot.
In Journey to the West, Xuanzang's horse gets eaten by a hungry dragon early in the pilgrimage to India. As penance, the dragon gets turned into a horse and is obliged to fill in for the horse it ate. Xuanzang never gets to ride the dragon in its natural dragon form, though.
The dragons of Melnibone and their riders are pretty much the island's military trump card...though limited by the fact that, by the time the stories are set at least, the dragons need a lot of sleep for every brief period of activity.
Dragonsdale is basically one of those stories for horse-crazy preteen girls, with a twist.
Nightpool, The Ivory Lyre, and The Dragonbards are about bards who form permanent emotional bonds with dragons. And ride them.
Thomas Whitehead of Dragon Companion is just a humble librarian, until he stumbles into a fantasy world, befriends a dragon, and learns that librarians and Dragon Companions are among the highest-ranked individuals in his new world.
Used as an aerial assault force by both the heroic and villainous wizards of Rick Cook's Wiz Biz series. Dragons in question are non-intelligent...but because of youth; when they get too old (and too smart) they're released. And, as one minor character found out the hard way, while a flight of them may look beautiful in the sky, you do not want to be in the stables if you're not one of the riders.
In Azure Bonds, a red dragon + enlarge spell + haste = dead god.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Targaryens from Valyria rode dragons. The combination was potent enough that Aegon the Conqueror took over most of the continent of Westeros simply because he had three of them at his disposal while his opponents had never even seen a dragon before. However in the present-day time frame of the books (some 300 years after Aegon's landing) the dragons are now extinct. At least until Danaerys Targaryen resurrects three seemingly-fossilized dragon eggs and begins planning an invasion of similar scope to her ancestors. However because the art of training a dragon has been lost, she has no idea how to do so. At the end of A Dance With Dragons she's finally managed to ride a dragon, though she hasn't yet mastered it. Nevertheless this act alone appears to have turned events in her favour.
Subverted in Elizabeth Kerner's Song in the Silence. The humans are initially forbidden to cross into the dragon's territory, and killed on sight if they disobey. When a handful of humans eventually befriend the dragons, the dragons agree to be ridden for the sake of covering distance faster when emergencies come up. However, while it seems to work okay when the dragon is walking or running with a human just behind his or her head, flying like this makes for a very sore neck. The dragons have an easier time carrying humans in their hands while flying, but they have to keep the humans close to their scales to keep them from freezing, and landing while their forelegs are full is extremely difficult.
Several people end up riding dragons in the Sword of Truth series. It's established early on that red dragons, the most intelligent, devious ones, would never stoop to letting a human ride them, so the eventual riders have to pull some tricks to do it. In the first book, Darken Rahl blackmails a red dragon named Scarlet into serving as his mount by stealing its egg. Later on, Richard, in exchange for saving that egg, is allowed to ride Scarlet for the rest of the book, and once more as a favor in the next book. Much later on, the villainous Six uses Scarlet's hatchling as a mount, by taking Scarlet hostage.
In The Elric Saga Melniboné has dragons and dragon riders. By the time the stories take place, though, the dragons sleep most of the time and can only rarely be roused. Elric manages to get some to attack the forces of chaos in his final battle.
Possibly inverted in one of the Nightside novels, when a pair of Chinese wizards are seen in a bar, having the tiny dragon familiars that ride around in their pockets fight one another. Possibly also a subversion, as it's rumored that the wizards are illusions created by the little dragons, who use the apparent presence of big badass humans to keep anyone from bothering them.
Chronicles of the Emerged World features Dragon Knights, elite troops able to ride dragons in battle. When a dragon and a rider form a bond is forever, and Nihal is the only person who managed to tame a dragon who lost his rider. There are also the Azure Dragon Rider (riding the serpentine-looking Sea Dragons) and the Dark Dragon Riders like Dola, Deinoforo and the Creepy Twins Dameion and Sameion.
Attempted but subverted in the backstory of the FitzChivalry novels by Robin Hobb. In this universe it is possible to make a dragon by carving it out of a special stone and then placing your essence into it, basically becoming the dragon. One dragon-maker tried to dodge this by making her carving that of a girl on a dragon and putting herself only into the girl. It didn't work, and the result is a chimera with the girl as just another part of the whole dragon.
Later played straight in the follow-up series "The Rain Wilds Chronicles" when a bunch of misfit teenagers have to figure out how to care for and bond with live, carnivorous, crippled dragons.
The Skybax riders of Dinotopia combine this trope with Ptero Soarer, with the riders flying on giant pterosaurs of the Quetzalcoatlus species. Riders have no way to control their mounts, though they can lean in the saddle - which is shaped so they must lie on their stomachs - or speak to ask the skybax to move in one way or another.
Two separate examples in the Age of Fire Series. In the first novel, dragons are being subjugated to be used as mounts, treated more like giant, firebreathing, horses, complete with castrating the undersireables. The later half of the book is around defeating them.
The second type is used by an actual dragon civilization. Humans bond with their dragons and get to ride on a saddle, but it's obvious that the dragon is in charge of that relationship.
Turned on its head in the Dragonback novels, in which the alien K'da, who look very like wingless dragons, go from three-dimensional to two-dimensional and ride on humanoid hosts like Animated Tattoos. They have a lot of abilities superior to human ones, which one host, Jack, notes with some discomfort - they're very strong and fast, can leap far, see differently, and have strong retractile claws that let them cut through metal - but they need to rest against a host's skin every six hours or they die. One of them notes that his kind make for good companions, servants, and friends to humanoids, they cannot be the masters. Also, if they've been with a human long enough, then they have telepathy with said human while riding him or her. K'da are also on the small side, explicitly unable to carry their human partners on their backs, though Draycos is able to climb trees and cliffs while Jack clings to his tail and is dragged up.
Averted mostly in Fablehaven. Dragons are proud creatures who view humans as mice and would die of shame if they were ridden by one. Subverted with Raxtus, who would let them ride him if he could, but his back is far too spiky to carry a rider. He carries humans in his claws. He also lampshades the trope, saying that if dragons relied solely on physics rather than using magic as support, they wouldn't get off the ground with or without a rider.
Finally played straight in the final book, when Agad rides Camarat. Raxtus says the two are brothers, and it's just this once.
The protagonist in the A Wizard in Rhyme novels by Christopher Stasheff befriends a crippled dragon early on in the first novel (he accidentally summoned it while practicing magic looking for a light) and ends up riding it around and eventually magically repairs its wings and ends up riding it often throughout the rest of the novels due to their friendship.
In The Emerald Sea, there's one sapient dragon that reluctantly allows herself to be ridden by the main protagonist, who leads a squadron of nonsapient wyverns carrying human riders that are used along the lines of real life horses, with the obvious addition of being able to fly. The beasts fly from a specially designed sailing ship, in an obvious fantasy analog to modern aircraft carriers.
A Memory Of Flames is basically a huge deconstruction of this trope. People do ride dragons, in much the same way that knights rode horses, and the dragons themselves are similar to modern fantasy—they speak telepathically, can form bonds with humans, immortal, etc. The downside? The dragons hate their slavery, and are regularly drugged to keep them docile. The series kicks off just before a dragon manages to break free of its bonds...and the total carnage that follows this.
Both played straight and inverted in The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance. The humans of Aerlith are at war with the basics, a reptilian race from Coralyne, and both sides have subjected their prisoners of war to genetic engineering and use them as beasts of battle. The human armies ride into battle atop monstrous lizards, while the lizard armies use mutant apes.
Kindling Ashes: There were a lot of them about twenty years pre-story. They were the best defense Auland had against the Ikjorians and the Firesouls want to become the next generation of them.
Kamen Rider Wizard has his own Western-style dragon that he can summon. The catch is that he needs to combine his motorcycle with it as a Restraining Bolt and ride it that way; otherwise it'll be at least as destructive as whatever he's trying to fight.
Merlin in the show of the same name learns that he's a Dragon Lord at the end of season two and thus can command the Great Dragon. Morgana can also command the dragons, though Aithusa's condition by the time she's large enough to ride means there's no riding her.
Dragonlance, which partially justifies it by making most dragonriders warlords - the dragon is there precisely to show how awesome the general is to the troops (and the enemy). From a tactical perspective it is useful too - what general would not give his eyeteeth for an aerial view of the battle and the ability to get to trouble spots quickly?
Plus, the Greater Dragonlances can be used only on dragonback, and are the only weapons that can instantly kill a dragon. They won the Dragon Wars all by themselves.
Plus, what general wouldn't want to ride a giant dragon that scares the crap out of any enemy troops? There's a constant threat of a giant flying reptile of mass destruction pouncing on you and ending your life!
Partially subverted in Dungeons & Dragons, where flavor text details how attempts to raise Wyverns as mounts always end painfully for the would be rider (this doesn't stop supplements from doing it in any number of ways however).
The cover of Basic D&D's Master Player's Book shows a majestic king riding a gold dragon. He holds on by the hair on the back, and has a sword drawn, ready to fly into battle.
Wyverns in D&D aren't actually dragons, but a distant relative. They also look like this◊ ; note the scorpion-like stinger on the tail. The tail that folds up over the body, perfectly placed to skewer any would-be rider.
Played straight with the fact that silver dragons and paladins are noted to get along fairly well together. Also partly avoids the redundancy part, as a dragon with an angry high-level paladin on its back is going to out-damage pretty much anything else that can take to the sky. Dragons, you see, are intelligent, strong, fast, tough warriors...that can cast spells. Paladins have touch-range healing spells... and as dragon riders, would by default be within touch-range of the dragon for the duration of the battle.
(2nd edition) or a cleric (3rd edition) on it's back. Double the spell-casting mayhem, quadruple the massacre. A Paladin's mount is more powerful and wiser than regular for it's race. Think about that for a second, not only are you riding a Dragon, but your dragon will, without a doubt, be better than a regular dragon anyway.
The githyanki are noted to have an old pact with red dragons, who will occasionally deign to take them on as riders. How could one possibly augment the red dragon's general badassitude already? By adding Psychic Powers, that's how.
There's a Dragonrider prestige class in the all-dragons-all-the-time sourcebook Draconomicon, and though it doesn't treat dragons as particularly different from other mounts, it does grant immunity to a dragon's frightful presence. Most of its abilities revolve around various tricks in aerial combat. Unfortunately, there's nothing about the class that helps a character actually get a dragon to ride and the suggestions earlier in the book are either the time-intensive sort that would have to be worked into the character's background or ridiculously expensive.
The Dragon Samurai prestige class also gets a special ability that makes them better at riding dragons, and another that makes them better at convincing a dragon to let them ride him.
One particularly tongue-in-cheek build involves a Halfling Paladin riding a Medium sized Baby dragon paladin Riding a older dragon paladin riding a Even older dragons paladin all the way till you hit collosal (The largest size class) resulting in a charge attack that involves insane amounts of damage.
Dragons, one of the old Role Aides Writing Around Trademarks D&D supplements from the 80s, used this trope while subverting many of its assumptions: in it, it was the dragons who hit upon the idea of carrying an (unwilling and terrified) human rider around, in mocking imitation of human knights. What started out as a joke among dragons who kept human servants (those opposable thumbs can be useful) eventually grew into something closer to a partnership, but with the human still very much the junior partner in the relationship. The humans got to pretend to other humans that they were badass dragon-tamers, a charade the dragons tolerate because it keeps their human serfs content to think the rider is the boss; the dragons found it handy, because having a human there to position a big pointy stick upright on their backs in aerial combat discourages other dragons from dive-bombing their rider-bearing opponents.
One of the Steve Jackson Games Munchkin expansion packs adds a bunch of mounts (Horse, Tiger, Wolf, Chicken). The Dragon is the most powerful mount, but cannot be upgraded, because "It already flies, breathes fire, etc...", making it more powerful than most mounts but less powerful than a fire-breathing flying tiger.
Some generals in Warhammer occasionally ride into battle on dragon mounts, mostly from the High, Wood, or Dark Elf armies. There is only one Dragon available to the Empire, so only the Emperor gets to ride it. Undead generals can ride zombified dragons, while Chaos lords sometimes take to the skies on horribly mutated two-headed dragons. Orcs have access to Wyverns, which are more vicious but stupider and ignoble dragon offshoots, and Lizardmen generals instead get to ride the universe's equivalent to a Tyrannosaurus rex. The game's background material mentions that dragons are rarely used as mounts anymore, since the few that remain spend much of their time sleeping, and it takes exceptional effort to rouse them for battle.
Dragons in Exalted are typically treated with caution. They range from magical beasts to high-level gods. However, the Sidereal Exalted's final Ride charm allows them to turn an Ally, Acquaintance, or Familiar into a Lesser Elemental Dragon and ride them like a mount. Afterward, the target either turns back and goes into a persistent vegetative state, or continues as a dragon from then on, per the Sidereal's decision.
Magic: The Gathering has the Kargan Dragonlord, which uses the level up mechanic to start out as some random guy, who then gets a small dragon, then either upgrades or raises it to be a giant firebreathing one.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG has a few of these, although some of them are fusions of two separate monsters (Gaia the Dragon Champion, Alligator's Sword Dragon). Michael, Lightsworn Lord is riding Judgment Dragon in his card art, indicating that he is the true leader of the Lightsworn, as he has tamed their mightiest beast.
Lance of the Elite Four in Pokémon Red and Blue. (and the champion of Pokémon Gold and Silver and their remakes) Also, any player character who teaches a Dragon-type (or Charizard or Aerodactyl) the move Fly is doing this too.
Also true for those that teach their Dragon-type the move Surf.
The videogame Lair, although the less said about it, the better. One review of the game stated that while the gameplay was a little choppy, the sheer awesomeness of being able to ride around on a dragon kept its points up. Also, the dragons in Lair were not that intelligent, so they probably could be safely used by humans.
The game Drakken.
Also, the game Drakan: Order of the Flame and its sequel, The Ancients' Gates. Notable for their gameplay which balances the aerial dogfights and on-foot exploration very well.
An interesting interpretation of the "empathic link" shows up here as well. In order for the dragons to exist, someone must use the Dragon True Rune. This rune does not grant absolute control over dragons, but does allow the wielder to favorably command some of them, hence the dragon riders. If the wielder of the True Rune dies, then so do all the dragons, unless someone else takes the rune.
There is one portion of A Dance with Rogues that concludes with a very long-range flight on a white dragon. Unfortunately, the developers couldn't mess with the base Neverwinter Nights graphics enough to allow the character to ride a dragon onscreen.
Though the Dreamcatcher campaign lets you do so, but that one was a far more scripting-intensive and not quite as well written story
Dragon Riders are a recurring class in the Fire Emblem series. They're soldiers who ride non-fire-breathing dragons, usually only coming from a single country on the continent in question, and unlike most examples of this trope, they're generally very common in the enemy ranks. In most canons it's not specified where these dragons come from; the Akaneia canon is the exception, stating that they're degenerated descendants of the Manakete tribes. Their appearance and build is inconsistent throughout the series: they had only two legs in the first three games, became quadrupeds through the SNES and GBA eras, became vaguely bipedial in Path of Radiance before returning to quadruped status for Radiant Dawn onward. As if that's not fun enough, the naming for the class and creatures is quite the convoluted headache outside of Japan. For Blazing Sword, the first English release, they were renamed "Wyvern Riders" to distinguish them from the proper dragons which figured heavily into the plot of the game; Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance stuck to this. The Japanese version of The Sacred Stones introduced the "Wyvern Knight" class, ostensibly separate from the dragons of the Dragon Rider class and looking more like traditional wyverns; they were still called "Wyvern Knights" in the English version and the matter of their physical difference wasn't addressed. Radiant Dawn's translation discarded the "wyvern" name for the classes themselves, going with variations of "Dracoknight"; however, in dialogue the species are still called wyverns, again to differentiate from the game's fairly important actual dragons. This remained the case for Shadow Dragon, the next release translated on the DS for the series; Fire Emblem Awakening reverted to the "wyvern" terminology entirely (as, once again, "actual" dragons feature prominently and are a very different sort of creature than the mounts). Throughout the series, dragon riders have had a consistent presence, but aren't the most common playable class; indeed, most of them can only be obtained through recruiting them from the enemy. These are the playable or otherwise notable dragon rider characters from across the franchise:
Fire Emblem Elibe: Zeiss, Miledy, Gale and Nacien in Sword of Seals; Heath (pictured above) and Vaida in Blazing Sword (Bern).
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones: Valter, Glenn and Cormag (Grado) are this by default. Tana and Vanessa can become this if promoted to the Wyvern Knight class (because again, somehow pegasi become dragons).
Fire Emblem Tellius: Jill and Haar are playable in both games. In Path of Radiance, Shiharam and Ashnard can be unlocked to use on the bonus Trial Maps.
Fire Emblem Awakening: Cherche and her son Gerome primarily (who thanks to Time Travel actually ride the same dragon), but thanks to the class change and marriage systems, there can potentially be well over a dozen characters capable of using this class. Also notable for the fact that Manaketes Nowi and Tiki are capable of using it, which would make them dragons (in human form) riding dragons.
Tear Ring Saga: Similar to the Akaneia games before, Pegasi become Wyverns with Sasha, Mahter, Frau and Verna promotting to them and Raffin, a horseback character, being able to do do as well. The nation of Canaan also uses Dragon Riders, an alternate 1st-tier class with Prince Julius being a commander of them. It's also worth noting that despite appearing to be fearsome and dangerous creatures, sporting sharp claws, spiked tails, and rows of teeth, the dragons themselves never actually attack! The rider always does ALL of the attacking. Compared to their 'sister' flying mount class, the Pegasus Knights, dragon riders have different stat distribution, providing greater HP, Attack and Defense compared to the Speed, Skill and Resistance afforded by pegasus knights, probably because they're bulkier creatures with more weight to throw around. Having mounts able to attack on their own would probably screw up the game balance.
Dragon Breed has an interesting play on the trope. You play as Kayus, riding the dragon Bahamoot. Bahamoot is invincible, but Kayus is a One-Hit-Point Wonder. Thus you must fly the dragon in a specific way so that its body can protect the rider against enemy shots.
And yes, you do have dogfights against similar dragons, as well as some Flying Saucers in a side quest you get from a paranormal investigator named Roswell. In Wild ARMs 3 at least.
Done well in Drakengard, where dragons hate humans as foolish weaklings. However, the dragon is dying and you need its help, so she makes a deal where she binds herself to you (with unfortunate side effects) to heal her. When on her back you serve no purpose as she's bad enough to take everything on. Your role is to hop off of her to take out ranged units (if they hit her while you're in the air, she throws you off after a couple hits).
In Drakengard 2, Legna is on much better terms with his rider, Nowe (having partially raised him); he accepts Nowe riding on his back because they get around faster that way.
In Drakengard 3, Zero's original dragon Michael is killed in the prologue and is reincarnated into the adolescent dragon Mikhail, who she's something of an abusive (but ultimately loving) mother figure towards.
In the Panzer Dragoon series, the dragon needing a rider to activate its weapon systems is justified as the Ancients' attempt to keep the dragon units from going nuts and killing everyone. Most of the games are rail shooters, with you on your dragon flying into a storm of enemy creatures and aircraft. The one non-SHMUP, an RPG, still had dragonriding as a central concept, with the dragon serving as your Global Airship, and all random battles taking place in mid-air with you strafing around your enemy to dodge attacks.
In Bahamut Lagoon, you can only field as many squads as you have dragons to ride. Those squads ride in on the dragons, but after that the dragon is an independent unit in combat.
In Hype The Time Quest there are a number of sequences involving dragon riding. You have to persuade the dragon to let you, though.
The Acacia Dragoons from Chrono Cross ride dragons, but said dragons are rather small and silly-looking.
Well, if we're going that far, the Dragon Quest series has a lot of enemies that ride dragons, mostly as mid to late game enemies. They are extremely susceptible to anti-dragon techniques, implying that if the dragon dies, so does the rider.
World of Warcraft features several types of dragon that can be acquired as mounts. Normally they can't do anything that would make a dragon preferable to any other flying creature (although it does look cool to fly around on a dragon). The latest expansion offers short quests in which players can commandeer a more badass dragon - raining down fireballs and swallowing enemies whole.
There's also Rend Blackhand, a dragon-riding boss. And in Wrath of the Lich King, a few quests/fights with dragon-riding.
In all their incarnations and regardless of whom they work for, training and riding dragons is the Dragonmaw Clan's orcish hat. They use a different category of dragon in each incarnation.
During the Second War, as part of the Old Horde they bent red dragons to their service by imprisoning their matriarch Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen. She eventually broke free (as sealed objectsin cans are wont to and crippled the clan during a vengeful rampage.
As fel orcs of Kargath Bladefist's Fel Horde, they try the same trick with the Netherwing dragons of Outland, and their activities have encouraged a deep distrust of mortals among the Netherwing as a result. The Netherwing faction storyline involves ingratiating yourself with the Dragonmaw while releasing the Netherwing broodmother and sabotating their other operations. By the end you've all but disgraced the Dragonmaw in Illidan's eyes, but that's not the end of the Dragonmaw...
In Cataclysm, the Dragonmaw are shown to be under the unwanted rule of Mor'ghor, a fel orc who ran the nether dragon-breeding operation back on Outland and now lords over the untainted Azerothian clan with an iron fist. Before and after his insurrection the Dragonmaw used and still use the same Artifact of Doom, the Demon Soul, that they enslaved the red dragons with. This time, however, they enslave black dragons, who are considered more Acceptable Targets, and catch their drakes in the wild, being Genre Savvy enough not to repeat the mistake of the groups who came before them.
By the end of Mists of Pandaria, the Dragonmaw have turned to the use of black proto-dragons, the dragon equivalent of cavemen, as the black dragons have been all but eliminated from the face of Azeroth. With Garrosh's defeat, they appear to have stopped this policy.
In the Warcraft novel War Crimes, the Dragonmaw form an alliance with the Infinite dragons, and use them as voluntary mounts rather than enslaving them. Whether this will carry over into Warlords of Draenor remains to be seen.
The Order of the Cloud Serpent is an entire organization of Pandaren who ride on Cloud Serpents, Pandaria's equivalent of dragons. Reaching Exalted reputation with them is necessary for you to be able to do the same, even if you have maximum flying skill.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords allows you to recruit the high elf dragon rider Elistara as a party member. Not to mention the young gold dragon Flicker. After a few optional quests, the two can agree to be rider and steed, and a conversation with another dragon implies that such an arrangement, usually lifelong for the rider, can be seen by the dragons as the equivalent of going outside to play.
Players can also capture a wyvern to use as a mount, though they tend to make weak mounts (Despite being a pain to fight against)
Master of Magic features draconian Doom Drake riders. Yes, that means dragons riding dragons. There's also a hero, Fang the Draconian, who rides on one.
Orcs have wyvern riders.
Some Final Fantasy games make the Dragoon class fully-fledged Dragon Riders, although you rarely play as one. The most notable examples are...
Final Fantasy II where dragoons got their names from riding specially raised dragons called Wyverns, which The Emperor saw as a threat to his flagship and poisoned them leaving the party to find the Last of His Kind. The dragon can even be called to use its Breath Weapon in battle by using it as an item.
Final Fantasy V, had the Wind Drakes, one owned by Lenna called Hiryu that serves as aerial transport and a large part of her backstory and Character Development as well as and another one owned by Krile.
Final Fantasy IX has Kuja who rides a pretty Badass silver dragon. Ironic, considering that he himself is The Dragon to Garland and appropriately that particular dragon belongs to Garland and his dragon riding privileges do get revoked.
In Final Fantasy XIII, Bahamut transforms into a flying dragon when in Gestalt Mode, which Fang (a dragoon) can ride.
Final Fantasy XIV, has a dragon as an obtainable mount but unusual to this trope is that it is a wingless dragon.
After you finish Draconia Bomb Factory in Alundra 2, riding a dragon becomes your main method of transportation.
The web RPG Dragon Fable, from the makers of AdventureQuest, features as part of the main plot the player acquiring the egg of one of two dragons of prophecy, hatching it, and under certain conditions making it grow to its full adult size to do battle with giant monsters. The main villain has the other one. Adventure Quest itself has the Guardian Blade, Dragon Slayer, and Dracomancer class, all of which can be used to summon dragons as an attack.
Subverted by Fate/stay night. You'd think that the Servant Rider would be able to ride dragons, but even at an A Rank of the riding ability, she is unable to ride dragons.
Mario might be one, if one were to believe Yoshi is a dragon. Yoshi is a prime case of confusion via Dinosaurs Are Dragons, however.
Either subverted or invoked in Runescape. One of the ghosts during an optional miniquest is listing off the badass monsters in Zamorak's army, and mentions Dragon Riders. This has never been mentioned anywhere else, except a player letter where a Mahjarrat who has lived for thousands of years states that there will never be such a thing due to dragons having such a wild nature. "You would break before the dragon, mortal." A WMG might be the best place to discuss this.
In Golden Axe the Beat 'em Up formula is improved upon with ridable beasts. Blue and Red Dragons breathe fire, while that purple bird thing has that awkward tail swing.
In The Fairyland Story, Ptolemy can be seen riding atop the neck of the dragon Rodmeynote the name has no official transliteration after every seventh round.
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the player character briefly gets to ride of the back of Odahviing toward the end of the game's main questline after defeating and trapping him (the game fades out just before you set off, so you as a player don't get to see the actual riding). In the Dragonborn DLC, both the player and Miraak ride dragons into battle.
The Bend Will shout at full power gives you the ability to do this to any normal dragon encountered in the game. The fact that you can't actually control the dragon that much means it's nowhere near as useful as it sounds. In fact, all it really does is let you sit on the dragon while it attacks your enemies, so it's really no different than just having it as an ally. Whoever thought riding a dragon could be boring?
Dragon's Prophet has this as the central mechanic, dragons can be ridden and fought aside.
In Shantae, one of these serve as the boss of the Twilight Palace. You can't damage him while he's in the air, so you'll need to ground him first by stomping on his head in Harpy form.
In Dawn Of The Dragons, the player character hatches, befriends, and eventually rides a newborn dragon into battle. The player character eventually gains a reputation as "the dragon rider".
In the turn-based-strategy universe of Erfworld, Dwagons [sic] are Stanley's most powerful units. They can operate solo, or warlords can ride them (granting leadership bonuses and the ability to selectively engage targets instead of simply attacking every enemy they encounter).
Dwagon-mounted warlords could also contribute quite a bit of power directly. Some of them can take out one or more dwagons single-handedly.
In The Order of the Stick, Xykon rode a zombie dragon into the Battle of Azure City. It was also mentioned as being basically for show (and its bite attack) - after it was destroyed he just kept flying on his own anyway.
Inverted and played straight in Looking for Group. According to legend, the earliest humans were raised by dragons who used them as steeds and hoped evolution would force them to grow wings. Legara utilizes dragon cavalry in it's war on the North.
In an El Goonish Shive filler, Dan rented a dragon on his 24th birthday so he could ride it.
Homestuck: Redglare travelled around by riding on her enormous dragon lusus, Pyralspite. Pyralspite also was actively used for offence when pursuing criminals, best seen when it tore apart Mindfang's fleet with considerable ease. Redglare's descendant Terezi never got to do this with her own dragon lusus, which was killed by a meteor shortly after hatching.
Pern's normal form is the size of a housecat, but he can grow really big when he needs to. Like if someone is being mean to Lindsay.
Subverted to some degree in a short story called "My life as a Dragon Rider". Basically it involves a farm boy who becomes a dragon rider after he passes the challenge of worth whitch is basically just staying on for a couple of minutes .How did it happen was a he a chosen one nope he entered a pub and got into a fistfight with a guard .The fight somehow ends on a cliff where the farmboy is kicked over the edge lands on a dragon lands badly and gets stuck between two of its back spikes.
This story, which notably averts the Medieval Stasis trope. Turns out dragon riding knights are a little past their prime in a WWI-style setting.
The Dragon Booster animated series is basically about the dragon horseracing circuit. Though these are all various types of wingless dragons with magnetic powers that allow them to equip racing gear. The protagonist's is considered special in that it can grow flaps of skin and glide when powered up.
Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin rode dragons before the latter started the custom of systematic dragon-slaying.
In The Legend of Korra, Korra herself becomes this briefly when the Dragonbird she helped reunite saves her from Unalaq.
Still in The Legend of Korra, Zuko gained a dragon companion in his later years, named Druk. He serves as both a loyal pet and his main mode of transportation, much like Aang and Korra's Non Human Sidekicks.
Dragon Flyz, the basic premise of the the entire cartoon. The intelligent of the protagonists' dragons varied as the plot demanded, with the enemy dragons always being stupid.
Xiaolin Showdown has Dojo, a Chinese dragon with the ability to sense the MacGuffins of the series and change size to anything from lizard-size to aircraft-size, and this usually serves as an international transportation method for the main characters. He's not much of a fighter though.
Emmy and Max, usually with Cassie and Ord respectvely, on Dragon Tales, during their visit to Dragon Land, a society of generally very friendly dragons. Enrique in the third season as well, finally giving the Siamese twin dragons Zak and Wheezie a regular rider. Played for laughs in that when Enrique first mounts Zak and Wheezie, he thinks he's going to ride them like a horse, not realizing that they can fly. This is not entirely unreasonable on Enrique's part, however, as the wings of dragons in Dragon Land are quite small, and they clearly rely on magic to power their flight as well.
Inverted in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Juvenile dragon Spike is often seen riding his surrogate older sister Twilight (she is a pony after all). Twilight doesn't mind carrying him around, barring one instance when he actually uses a bridle and treats her like a non-sapient steed in order to live out a heroic fantasy.