Recently, I overheard a discussion talking about how dragons are the most boring boss monsters the game has available. They are just big dumb idiot lizards who can fly and have a breath weapon. I disagreed, on the virtue of Dragons being the face of the game but they had a point. When dragons aren’t played to the absolute max of their abilities they can be just big dumb idiot lizards. I want to present how dragons can provide engaging and unique boss fights by analyzing their lair actions and regional abilities, two aspects of the dragon that I feel are largely ignored.
Before I can begin on the lair of the dragon, I’d like to briefly touch on the psychology of a dragon and how they became the apex predators of the land.
The Minds of the Vicious
Dragons are not claw/claw/bite creatures and should never rush blindly into a battle. They are dangerous enemies and your players should be afraid of them the same way they are afraid of Beholders, Mind Flayers, and Medusas. The common attribute of the 3 previous enemies is that their intellect is a key component of their danger. Dragons, due to their massive pool of hitpoints and powerful physical attacks may be treated as a bag of hitpoints that can quickly keel over given enough firepower. With the action economy of 5th edition, it is very easy for a dragon to get overwhelmed. When your players see a dragon, they will not hold back and neither should you as the Dungeon Master.
A dragon’s main goal in any battle should be to isolate the individual members of the party. This means the battle may begin far before you ever pull out the battle map. Dragons have many special abilities associated with them that they can use to separate the party, but one thing that is common amongst all of them is their grapple attack. It’s not on their stat block but with their massive strength modifiers they can easily grasp a Wizard in their claws and drag them through any hazards far away from the help of the party. Drop them from a few thousand feet and see how they fare.
Now I would like to talk about the psychology of the DM who decides to use a dragon. When you pull out that miniature your intent should be to kill. I myself am very bad at actually killing my players, but if I want the group to fear and respect my encounter then I need to do everything in my power (and within the rules) to kill them and I should feel no remorse for acting out the intentions of these creatures.
Black dragons are the cruelest and most sadistic of all the dragons. Their lairs are filled with despair and suffering and the players should feel no different lest they decide to enter. Black dragons are amphibious, which allows them to have a lair that is partially submerged and much more difficult to traverse. Similar to the Beholder having a lair that is as vertical as it is horizontal, these dragons are no stranger to the 3D space either.
These pools are not limited to just swamp water either. With an acid breath attack, there is no reason a dragon shouldn’t have a pool of acid waiting for any unsuspecting adventurer that could get grappled and thrown into the pit. These pools should be deep enough that if the dragon so chooses, they can take a moment to escape and allow their lair to fight for them while they are recharging their breath weapon.
Black dragons are especially known for targeting the weakest member of the party. Ask the players how many hit points each character has and ruthlessly target the unlucky character who said they are the weakest. Going through the following lair actions, keep in mind how a Black dragon could use these to isolate a single target and kill them the fastest.
- Pools of water that the dragon can see within 120 feet of it surge outward in a grasping tide.
This move provides a way for the dragon to neutralize a creature for a turn. If a wizard is concentrating on a spell this can disrupt them and force them to make a concentration save. If the fighter is charging up to the dragon this can pull them off their intended course, and buy the dragon a turn to do something dangerous. If a player has been successfully pulled underwater, the dragon should react immediately and either attack the prone character or attack another member of the party that they were supposed to protect.
- A cloud of swarming insects fills a 20-foot radius sphere centered on a point the dragon chooses within 120 feet of it.
This move does not do a lot of damage (3d6) but serves as an excellent way to deter players from standing where they want to. If the players are all bunched up using this move can force them to separate which can give the dragon an opening to further split the party. This move isn’t as effective at preventing players from walking through it, as it has a small area of effect and only damages the player if they stand in one of its squares.
- Magical darkness spreads from a point the dragon chooses within 60 feet of it, filling a 15-foot radius sphere.
Magical darkness is a very powerful once a turn ability because it can completely neuter characters who depend on sight. Forcing them to move from their advantageous position, and waste a turn can be hugely beneficial to a dragon and can prevent said player from taking advantage of the terrain again. If they start to get too comfortable again, blanket them with another cloud of darkness. This darkness can also be used to keep the players from progressing forwards towards the dragon. If there are multiple pools of acid in front of the players and darkness is placed over it, they may very well stumble into a pool and take a lot of damage. Another use is to cover the dragon entirely, giving any ranged attacks disadvantage and allowing it to use it’s legendary action detect to lash out at any unsuspecting creature.
All 3 of these lair actions share a common theme: crowd control. If your players are trying to get up close and personal with the dragon it should be a difficult task. Combine that with a lair that is filled with dangerous holes and puddles, and the move action should become one of the most difficult parts of a player’s turn. In the lair of a black dragon, no one should be standing still.
Another thing to keep in mind is how these lair actions can all be used on the same target. Each turn, target the weakest character with one of the above abilities and have the black dragon dive in and attack them. If they aren’t unconscious within the first 2 rounds of combat, your dragon is not doing it right. This aggressiveness can actually be used to control the other members of the party, because they may see their friend in danger and dive in to help, only to find out that the dragon was expecting this and had plans for the rest of the party.
- The land within 6 miles of the lair takes twice as long as normal to traverse, since the plants grow thick and twisted, and the swamps are thick with reeking mud.
When a black dragon finds out that there are intruders on its land it should start hunting them down immediately. Of course, a black dragon can find sport in this and will swoop in and haggle them as they progress closer to the lair. The decreased speed of traversal makes it so that the dragon can get in twice as many swoops.
- Water sources within 1 mile of the lair are supernaturally fouled. Enemies of the dragon that drink such water regurgitate it within minutes.
Traveling 6 miles deep into black dragon territory should be difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming. By the time the party reaches within 1 mile of the dragon they should be parched and empty-handed. If they have to drink the water and have no way to purify it they should suffer levels of exhaustion and either attack the dragon unprepared or retreat and return with a better plan.
- Fog lightly obscures the land within 6 miles of the lair.
This can serve as a dressing for the environment but has the added advantage of the players not knowing when the dragon will strike them. Without clear skies for them to look up towards, there should be constant stress that the dragon could swoop in for an attack at the worst times. With the heightened sense of the black dragon, it should easily be able to spot the party even with disadvantage.
Lair of Despair
Now it’s time to take all the above elements and tie it together into one 6-mile wide hex that will antagonize your players for sessions to come. The land should be swampy with lots of trees and undergrowth making it difficult to traverse, similar to the climax of Sleeping Beauty where the black forest obscures the land. Murky water and acidic pools make a straight line through impossible. The fog lays over the land and gives a sense of quiet unease and uncertainty.
The lair itself should be nestled away within a cave or grotto and should be hard to access without wings. Puddles and undergrowth make for difficult terrain across the ground, while acid pools provide hazards for those with poor dexterity. A wide-open space provides the dragon with plenty of room to avoid the difficult terrain with flight. Ancient statues from a civilization long dead can fill the room, breaking line of sight and providing verticality. A massive lake should lie in the center which the dragon can dive into, in order to recharge it’s breath weapon.
Dragons should never be an enemy that is considered boring. They are the face of the game for a reason and have so many abilities available to them that allow them to truly terrify the players. Playing a dragon intelligently is a difficult task with 4-6 brilliant minds facing you alone. Utilizing the lair effectively can help give a dragon much-needed oomph for when you need to show your players that dragons are not just big, dumb, idiot lizards. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!
The cavern floor sizzled from the acid dripping from the ceiling. Ancient treasures of a forgotten kingdom lay in ruin. Pools filled with fermenting bodies gave an overpowering stench that only the strongest of stomachs could handle. The twisted plants crept through the walls and the moans of the barely living echoed around the chamber. The black dragon rose from the lake, it’s sheer black scales reflecting the acid bubbling in the back of it’s throat.