Dragons in D&D are surprisingly sparse for a title with their name in it. When Dragons are used in D&D they often times are used fairly poorly.
In order to use dragons in D&D to it’s fullest potential, you have to unlearn what you know. Video games and many D&D games are making dragons weak.
Dragons in D&D should be a nearly impossible challenge if done right. In order to find out how to make a dragon into a proper challenge befitting of such a majestic creature read at the true power that they can unleash.
Dragons in D&D are like any other monster, just a bit tougher.
This is terribly wrong!
This whole idea started when games like Baulder’s Gate and other video games put a dragon into their games.
Think of it from their perspective. How would you code a dragon to fight in a game? The easiest and most logical way is to script them into fighting in a small area. Decent stats, spells, a powerful foe.
This worked quite well for early games that didn’t have the capability to do more and even now in games dragons come down and fight the main character one on one because how else are you going to kill it?
Any sane dragon would never do this.
A dragon is an extremely intelligent creature that has more than just its claws, teeth, and tail to work with.
A dragon has its breath weapon which is a powerful tool, but it can also be used when the dragon is doing a fly-by attack. I just said something important in that last sentence. Dragons have the ability to fly.
Why in the world would a dragon ever fight on the ground where it can be damaged the most? Many smaller races still use melee weapons and cannot hit a dragon if the dragon is flying. Better yet, why not just dive in, grab a ranged person, and then fly high up as they devour that poor soul?
It is only fair for a dragon to take on people on at a time since it is only one creature so why not target those in robes or with ranged weapons. Kill the healers/ranged damage dealers and then pick off the melee fighters.
Dragons also have spells. In every previous version dragons have had spells in their repetiteur and dragons are allowed with a variant to have spells in 5e. I would recommend that you treat this variant as a permanent stat inclusion since it has always existed and dragons are meant to be ridiculous fights.
This means that a dragon can fly high above the party and cast spells at them while they are in the air or prepare for a dive by buffing themselves up.
Dragons should not be an easy fight, but they are also more than just a memorable combat experience.
Dragons are also great quest givers and should be treated with reverence. The last thing you want to do is anger or fight a dragon, but let’s first delve into combat tactics a bit more.
How difficult should a dragon be in combat?
Personally, I have only ever had a party fight and win against a dragon when I took the video game approach. The dragon would land, fight, and die with a bit of a fight but still die.
As you can tell my understanding of dragons in D&D has evolved since then.
Now if I throw a dragon at the party I do not expect them to kill it. Dragons have more uses than just fighting, but there is only one type of group that would even stand a small chance against a dragon.
This group is a set of individuals who have pre-planned how to kill the dragon, researched it, and are at least somewhat powergamers. If you want to learn more about good powergamers read this article, but you need to be a bit of a powergamer in order to kill a real dragon.
As the article showed there are good powergamers. If you are a powergamer then you might, MIGHT be able to take on a real dragon. For other groups, the chances are closer to zero.
This is not a bad thing for those groups. My current group that I am a dungeon master for is not the best in combat and therefore would die against a dragon. That is why I would suggest you realistically look at your group before making them face a dragon who uses its abilities to it’s fullest.
If you still want a group of crazy noncombat proficient individuals to fight and defeat a dragon you can have them face it like they would in a video game. I, however, would not suggest this. Dragons in my personal opinion should not be delegated to be lesser.
Instead, there are many different ways to utilize dragons.
Dragons in roleplay
I have mentioned that dragons in D&D are more than just a combat encounter. This is where dragons in my opinion really come in to play.
Their intimidating presence and combat prowess should deter any sane person from trying to kill one and make killing one quite a feat.
Players should know and understand this. Dragons are not meant to be taken lightly, but dragons do still want things. Every dragon has its own personality. Some are less intelligent, more vain, greedy, etc.
This is not just based on the color of the dragon. Color plays into it a little bit but you can still have a cunning white dragon even if they are meant to be dumber than most dragons. Again, dumber than most dragons, not humans.
A dragon’s personality will also dictate how it talks to the party. Does a white dragon view the party as food? If so then it won’t talk to the party and start hunting them. You now have a horror survival campaign since the players probably can’t kill it.
What about a green dragon? A green dragon might end up trying to get the party into trouble. They will lie and deceive the party while playing with them before killing them. If the party is useful they might end up using the party.
A red dragon, on the other hand, might desire to use them for some nefarious purpose. In this instance, a red dragon can send the party on a quest. This quest might be a suicide quest to test out defenses or something else, but nevertheless, why fight a group when your awe-inspiring presence can make them benefit you while you get them killed?
As you can see dragons have very different personalities, but I have only gone over some of the evil dragons.
A dragon’s color
Dragons in D&D all have a color. Metalic is good chromatic colors are bad. That is the gist of it, but dragons can be more complicated.
I addressed how different colored dragons can have different personalities. Green is mischevious, white is aggressive and not very intelligent, while red is conniving and intelligent in a malicious way.
Metalic or good dragons also have different personalities. Copper dragons are jokesters who love good stories, gold dragons are regal, and silver dragons are zealous. But further, than this, good colors work like good alignment.
a lawful good ruler can be a tyrant who squashes any form of dissent. Gold dragons can do this exact same thing. Copper dragons could take a joke too far and cause actual harm to people after playing jokes for centuries. Why not have them try to get the biggest best joke out there? Why not try to one-up themselves and others? This can cause it to go too far.
My point is that a dragon’s color is able to help people identify the nature of what dragons are, but circumstances can cause any dragon to be a threat. Dragons in D&D think they are superior to many other races because they are. This causes them to not listen and potentially make mistakes that they even with centuries of wisdom do not see.
A dragon’s color is meant to tell you a little bit about a dragon, but to make dragons more interesting you need to add multiple dimensions to their personality. Make two silver dragons that have conflicting personalities. One wants to vanquish evil at all costs and the other wants to vanquish evil without casualties.
Once you have an interesting dragon you can work on making dragons a part of your game. This also allows for dragons to become great quest givers.
Dragons and quests
Do you know what is great? Getting a quest from a king to personally save the kingdom. Do you know what is better? Being recognized by a freaking dragon to do something important.
When dragons give out quests in most games they just tell the players to do something. Instead of this, I suggest making the players earn that quest. Earn the respect of the dragon before they gain the quest.
A few ways to do this might involve shapechanging.
Now I understand that for some reason only ‘good’ dragons have the shapechange ability, but I suggest that all equal standing dragons have the shapechange ability for equalities sake! Therefore since a gold dragon has shapechange a red dragon should as well.
Shapechange allows the dragon to find people who are worthy of a quest and then task them with it. The dragon finds adventurers who are not vicious murder hobos (for more info on them read here). After that first issue is solved, you then test them.
Can they tell a good story? What have they done? Start asking questions and when they have proven worthy you can reveal your form and task them with a quest. Or don’t reveal your form, up to you.
Dragon’s quests should reflect their personality.
If a dragon is a silver dragon they might task the party with destroying an orc encampment. A red dragon might task them with killing a paladin. Either way, if the group doesn’t seem up to the task the dragon can just walk away and not give them a task. That is unless they are murder hobos. If they are, then deal with them by roasting the would be murderers.
But how should you make a dragon intimidating?
Dragons are big and dragons are scary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that dragons in D&D are the scariest monster in D&D if done correctly. Yes, a Tarrasque is terrifying but unlikely to ever come up. Most of the time it is just a creature of legend whilst a dragon is something far more realistic to encounter in your travels.
Use the dragon’s size to intimidate the players first off. Next, make the dragon show clear signs of warranted superiority. I don’t understand why dragons don’t have advantage on intimidate, but they should. If a dragon is portrayed properly then they shouldn’t even need to roll intimidate.
Everything about a dragon should scream at the party to not fight it. These creatures are intimidating for a reason and should be viewed as one of the deadliest creatures on the planet. Because they are.
Dragons in D&D have in some games been downgraded to just a threat or a normal monster. This I believe is foolish and their intimidating presence/lore should make a party not fight a dragon. This makes your party have a chance to roleplay with them, quest, or make deals.
But where would you even find dragons?
Dragons in D&D have their own specific environments. White dragons prefer cold tundras where everything is ice. Green dragons prefer a more swampy or foresty area while a red dragon prefers to be in a hotter location.
Each dragon prefers these locations because they are linked to that dragon’s biology. A frost dragon is able to traverse icy plains as if they were normal. A brass/black dragon can breathe in the air AND in water. Just think of what these dragons could do and make the environment into something epic.
A brass dragon could put their lair in water and force people to go underwater in order to reach the dragon while a white dragon might demand that its followers can brave the tundra in order to seek an audience in the most dangerous blizzard.
You can make the environment also a part of encountering a dragon. Everything should be added when your party encounters a dragon. Do everything that you can in order to make them seem epic. Even the land around them is their tool. What other creature can say the same?
You also have one last aspect to consider for dragons in D&D.
Sometimes a dragon gets defeated. It happens from time to time. The problem is that most dungeon masters treat dragons like any other creature and have them fight to the death.
If a dragon feels like it is going to lose at any point (especially chromatic ones) they will fly away to preserve themselves and recover. Most dragons will not just fight till the death. Dragons in D&D are smarter than that and will try to run away, bargain, or do anything else.
Dragons will learn from their previous experiences and come back more prepared. If they cannot take out the threats by themselves they will use pawns to do so or enact bargains/favors that they have gained over the years.
It is almost impossible to trap a dragon, but there is one place where you can gain an advantage over them.
A dragon’s lair is a place that no sane individual should go. Can a dragon be potentially trapped here? Yes, but more often than not you are trapped with them and that is far worse.
Dragons in D&D have their own special lair actions that they can enact. Some can make the very environment come forth to fight the dragon’s enemies. This is why the environment is important for a dragon.
A red dragon doesn’t just like a volcano because they like heat. A red dragon can make magma erupt from the ground and more.
Yes, it is true that a dragon is unlikely to run if people are in the dragon’s lair, but that is because a dragon’s lair is the seat of its power. If a dragon cannot kill people before they get here and when they are here a dragon should lose.
With all of these things, dragons should not be defeated. But should you make your dragons in D&D a little bit easier?
Making dragons easier
I stated at the beginning of the article that I am against making dragons easier for players. I stand by this, but you might want to give your party a chance at killing a dragon. If you do this you can do it 1 of 2 ways.
The first way is to make the dragon dumb and weak. The dragon fights like a video game and your party can succeed. I hate this version, but some dungeon masters will do this in order to show a new party how strong a dragon is. Or the dungeon master in question doesn’t know how bad of a strategy this is for a dragon.
The second way is to make the dragon weakened. The dragon in question might have a disease, be preoccupied, still healing, etc. This way your party can kill a dragon and understand that they didn’t truly kill a dragon, but they did kill one.
This weird sense of victory lets the players say they killed a dragon and boast about it. If the party finds another dragon though they will not want to even think about fighting it. They barely won against a weakened one so how will they kill a strong one?
This is a great way to make dragons still be menacing and give your players that thrill of a win over a dragon. A win-win in my book.
Should you treat dragons in D&D like any other monster? No. They should be an absolute nightmare to fight and be almost impossible to kill.
Dragons have an immense amount of resources in their lair, environment, and can even leverage centries worth of favors to get more resources.
Dragons can be more than just a combat encounter. They can help build the world up by giving quests, showing their personalities, and so much more.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!