Jake's Take: Running a Dragon in D&D 5E (Part 1)

Hey folks, Jake here, welcome to Jake’s Take. On the YouTube channel I do these talking head videos about Dungeon Mastery (very intermittently), but I like to put them up in text format for those that need or prefer that. This is one I did a year or so ago on running dragons, which I wrote after running my first one, and I wanted to share it again here. If you haven't noticed, this is marked as a Part 1, because I'm about to run my second dragon, so I'm going to revisit this afterwards and go over what changes of these I made and how they went.


Anyways here's the article from last year:

I thought we’d talk about Dragons today because I recently ran my first dragon, the first dragon I’ve ever run, the first dragon my players have ever fought, and he basically got annihilated, and there’s some things I’d do differently next time.

I think we can all agree that dragons are iconic monsters — its called Dungeons & Dragons, not Dungeons & Ogres — and as a result, when deploying an iconic monster like a dragon, or a beholder, or a demon lord, we want to make sure that its an exciting encounter, a dangerous encounter, one that the players will remember.

That’s what I had hoped for my dragon encounter and I’m not sure I hit the mark I was hoping for, although I think at the time my players still liked it so that’s largely all that’s important, but nevertheless, lets talk a little about what changes I’d make next time.


Athletics


So, one really obvious thing I noticed as a gap in the standard dragon statblock, is that dragons don’t have proficiency in Athletics checks.

So what? Well, if you want to fulfill the standard dragon fantasy of picking up helpless humans and flinging them from the parapets, your dragon needs proficiency in that skill. Standard grappling rules contest a Strength (Athletics) check against the victim's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics), so if your dragon doesn’t have proficiency in Athletics and tries to grapple one of the PCs, odds are good that they’ll have a much higher chance to save against it.

Suddenly, a dragon that can grapple characters more reliably opens up a lot of interesting opportunities. Why not give your dragon the Grappler feat so they have advantage on attacks against a grappled hero? That would definitely be pretty thematic as the dragon squeezes the life out of them.

It also opens up other opportunities based on the terrain — if you deploy a dragon in the open they can suddenly swoop down, grab a PC and then fly away to drop them to their death from a height. My players fought my dragon above a chasm, so I was trying really hard to grapple a PC and throw them into the chasm to their doom, and I never managed to because they all had a much higher bonus than my dragon did.

When your dragon has a grappled PC it can also use other bits of the environment to aid them, crushing them against the ground, or throwing them into a pit trap or a pool of acid or something. Lots of interesting opportunities and it makes your dragon a good deal more deadly for the price of one skill proficiency, if that is to your taste.

A Dragon’s Breath Weapon & Legendary Actions


The other thing I learned from my dragon encounter is that — rather unsurprisingly — if your players can get a hold of resistance to the dragon’s breath weapon, that is going to severely hamper your dragon’s damage potential.

Now, I’m not saying "don’t let your players get resistance", if they’re prepared and make arrangements, they should be able to make it an easier encounter, but it's something to consider.

I mean, if you were really mean (I’m not sure I am this mean), and knew ahead of time your players were going to have resistance but didn't want them to steamroll the encounter, you could just double the damage for the dragon’s breath weapon — then you’re not really any worse off and the players feel super glad they got their potions of resistance or cast their spells or what have you.

A dragon’s breath weapon is obviously their iconic ability, so I’d maybe also consider a couple other changes, one of which is, I’d just let a dragon burn all 3 of its legendary actions to use its breath weapon outside of its turn. By the book, dragons have 3 legendary actions that they can use to either attack with their tail, detect someone, or do a wing attack which costs 2 of those legendary actions.

They can only use legendary actions at the end of another person’s turn, so I’d maybe consider letting them sacrifice all of their legendary actions to use their breath weapon, maybe a reduced damage version if it hasn’t recharged, I think being able to breathe every single round would be very intense, so maybe that has a separate recharge or some sort of limit on it, or the dragon can only burn its legendary actions to recharge its breath weapon, but I think it might make for a dramatic moment where the players are like “Oh we need to make sure we move away from each other before the dragon’s turn or it’ll wreck us with its breath weapon” and then the dragon wrecks them with its breath weapon outside of its turn.

The other thing I would do is adjust how many legendary actions the dragon has based on the size of your group. I wouldn’t give them any less legendary actions, but if you have a large group, I think I would go by a formula of 'number of players minus 2'. That tallies up with Wizards of the Coast expecting groups of 4 to 5 players, and basically everything having 3 legendary actions if they have any. So, if you have a group of 7 players, try giving your dragon 5 legendary actions, if you have 6 players, give them 4 legendary actions. This means that it isn’t using them every turn (that’s predictable for the players and boring), but most of them. I’d probably also give them the same number of uses of their Legendary Resistance so they can save on important rolls — more players means more saves.


Frightful Presence

So we’ve talked about skill proficiencies, we’ve talked about breath weapons and legendary actions, the other cool thing a dragon has is its Frightful Presence, where it can supernaturally terrify the players, applying the Frightened condition to them.

The Frightened condition means they have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks against the dragon, and they can’t move any closer to it. Now, on paper this sounds cool, but the initial DC isn’t very high, so many of the players will save straight off the bat, and if they are supernaturally terrified, they can save every turn. If you make your save, the dragon can no longer frighten you, so really this comes out on the first round of combat, and doesn’t come out again.

How could we change this? We’ve got a few options, we can just increase the DC, which means less players will save first and the whole effect ought to last a little longer — that’s fine but a bit boring. We could also say that if you fail your initial save, you’re frightened for the full duration — potent, but not very exciting for the player, it basically makes them useless for the whole battle.

We need something a little more exciting, something a little more dragon-y — one thing we could do is extend the disadvantage to saving throws, which means that if you are frightened of the dragon, it’s easier for it to hit you with the full brunt of its breath weapon. Extending the disadvantage means that the dragon will have more of a burst of damage at the beginning of the fight and the players have a cool narrative moment where they get over their fear and rally to slay the beast.

We could also say, that if you are hit by the full brunt of the dragon’s breath weapon, you lose the immunity to its Frightful Presence. Having the breath weapon strip your immunity to Frightful Presence means that it's another variable in the fight that the players need to worry about throughout.

Now, I wouldn’t do both of those things, let’s not double dip, but I think one or other of them would make the Frightful Presence more impactful and a more interesting effect running through the battle.


You can also go looking at previous editions of the game to get inspiration for additional attacks and abilities your dragon could have, and there’s also the option to have your dragon cast spells that’s quite well documented, but unless the dragon in question is an ancient one, the spells it’ll be able to choose using the book’s rules aren’t exceptional, they don’t get very many, and they aren’t that powerful — I did give my dragon spells and there was always a better option than using them, maybe I just picked bad spells, your mileage may vary. So hopefully now we have an idea of how to better improve some of the dragon’s abilities and give it some additional options outwith rolling to hit and dealing damage.

With regards to dragon tactics, there’s a lot of resources out there on the internet so I’ll go over some things I picked out and ideas I had and I’ll try and remember to put some links in the description to other resources that might give you additional ideas.

Dragon Tactics

First and foremost, your dragon’s greatest asset, is its flight. If it isn’t flying it's at a significant disadvantage, so if your dragon has space to be flying, it should be, I think.

About half of the dragon’s attacks have a 10 foot plus range, so if you’re able, I’d consider “melee range” for the dragon to be hovering 10 feet above the players, that means it can hit them but unless they have extra reach they can’t hit him. It can’t use its claws at this range, but it can still bite and it can still use its tail attack.

Your dragon is intelligent, probably very intelligent, and its probably very easy for the dragon to determine what sort of adventurer each of your players are, so it's likely to focus on the spellcasters first, then people with martial ranged weapons (bows, crossbows etc), and then finally the heavily armoured or melee fighters. Of the spellcasters it’ll most likely focus on anyone doing healing, and then those using ranged spells, but it depends how much damage those ranged spells are doing. Anyone that is flying, it’ll focus on before those on the ground, using the same sort of priority of spellcaster, ranged, melee.

As with any important boss encounter, if you can, you want the players to be worn down before they fight a dragon — spring some traps on them or have a few trivial encounters that knock some health points off and deplete their spell slots and other resources.

Also, if it makes sense, give your dragon some other minions or allies — kobolds are good for this, lizardmen also, but it could be basically anyone as long as it makes sense. If there’s a lot of allies and minions I would probably tone down the other changes we talked about earlier, but you don’t have to.

This can also give the dragon some extra options — if you have big enemies, like a troll or an ogre or something, the dragon can pick them up and drop them on the players, living or dead. If it’s dead it just does damage — I would just make a ruling on the fly about that, maybe a d4 or d6 per hit die of the monster or something — but if its alive that’s very different because it can harass the players.

You’ll want to use your dragon’s allies to harass the people being most problematic for your dragon — probably the spellcasters if they have a nasty concentration spell or something. Also the dragon is probably unlikely to be above collateral damage to it's minions if it's life is in danger so if it's low on hit points its not gonna care overly much if a minion will get hit by it's breath.


So, I think that about does it, we talked about a simple proficiency to make your dragon more dangerous, we talked about breath weapons and some tweaks you can make to that, we talked about legendary actions and resistances and other uses and formulations for them, we spoke about Frightful Presence and some tweaks we can make to that to be a little more Frightful, and we spoke a little bit about basic dragon tactics.

There might be a sequel to this article at some point if I run another dragon in the future but hopefully we now have a couple of tricks up our sleeve to improve our dragons and I don’t think they’d be any more complicated to run, because we’ve really just tweaked some of the numbers and rules around a dragon’s abilities.

Thanks for reading. Look out for part two coming soon, and you can come by our Twitch channel if you'd like to see some of this in action.

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