I’ve been told that dragons are nothing better than big, dumb, idiot lizards who can fly and have a breath weapon. This series was started in an attempt to dissuade that notion, and show that when a dragon is used to the fullest of its abilities, it can be a terrifying force of nature. Let’s start by discussing the psychology behind playing a dragon. If you’ve read my previous posts, feel free to skip this next section.
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.
No other dragon is as powerful as the mighty Red, and they know this. Red dragons are vain creatures who value status and wealth above all else. If anyone slights a Red dragon they will fly into a destructive rampage that could easily destroy the surrounding towns. Reds aren’t subtle in their dealings and will approach a problem headfirst and take care of it immediately. If anyone dares to steal from the dragons hoard, they will hunt down the thief and slaughter them mercilessly, destroying entire kingdoms in the process.
Red dragons live high in the mountains, preferably where there is volcanic or geothermic activity. Elementals from the Plane of Fire come out of portals surrounding the dragon’s lair, and the heat is unbearable without magic. Any encounters with a Red dragon near their lair will have magma spraying out the ground, a narrow path for the party to stand on, and a sheer cliff that the dragon can throw the adventurers down.
The lair itself will be deep in the mountainside, hidden within a deep complex of tunnels. The location of the lair won’t necessarily be secret, however, as the Red trusts that the fire elementals, intense heat, and wrath of a dragon will deter any would-be intruders. If the players somehow manage to get to the lair, it will be overflowing with treasure. If one copper piece goes missing, the dragon will quickly find out and will do everything in its power to find the culprit.
As blunt as the dragon may be, they are still very smart creatures and will use tactics and strategies in their battles. Reds know that they are powerful creatures, but they aren’t infallible. A 5v1 is not favorable for them and they will try to split up the party. With their massive Strength scores, they can easily grapple any creature in their path and take them wherever they want, including 1,000 feet above the rest of the party. After a few dedicated fire breaths and claw attacks to a solo party member, they probably won’t be long for this world. Red dragons take no prisoners.
- Magma erupts from a point of ground the dragon can see within 120 feet of it, creating a 20-foot high, 5-foot radius geyser. Each creature in the geyser’s area must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, taking 21 (6D6) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
At first glance, these magma jets seem to be no more than a way to get simple damage in on the party. As I was thinking about it, however, I realized that the party is most likely going to have flying spells cast on them especially if they are going high up in the mountains to fight a dragon. This is one of the lair actions that can hit a character hovering off the ground and may force the wizard to make another concentration check they weren’t expecting to make. And if you ever have two characters “standing” on the same tile, this move ends up being pretty awesome.
- A tremor shakes the lair in a 60-foot radius around the dragon. Each creature other than the dragon on the ground in that area must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.
Starting off an encounter with this move would be a good way for the dragon to immediately launch into a frenzy on one unlucky character. Getting advantage on three different attacks could give the dragon a huge edge in the fight. If the party ever splits up to try to avoid the fireball they then become vulnerable to this lair action, and won’t be able to stand up and help their teammate in the round that the dragon unleashes on a character.
- Volcanic gases form a cloud in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point the dragon can see within 120 feet of it. The sphere spreads around corners, and its area is lightly obscured. It lasts until initiative count 20 on the next round. Each creature that starts its turn in the cloud must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned until the end of its turn. While poisoned in this way, a creature is incapacitated.
This poison cloud is pretty nasty if the players fail the saving throw. The incapacitated condition makes it so the creature is unable to take any actions or reactions, and the poisoned condition states that they won’t be able to attack and will have disadvantage on any saving throws. Failing this save takes a player out entirely for a turn, and makes them extremely vulnerable to a fire breath or grapple attack. The saving throw to succeed is very low, however, but if anyone does fail the dragon should immediately capitalize on it.
Out of all the lair actions I’ve looked at so far, the Red dragons actually seems to be the weakest. Only the earthquake serves as a way to halt the advance of the party, and it is pretty easy to ignore the cloud. The magma jet deals good damage for a lair action, but doesn’t actually control the movement of the party in any way. One common thing that the second and third lair action share is setting up powerful turns for the dragon. If the players fail at a saving throw for the lair actions, the dragon can immediately inflict huge damage on the schmuck. This means the dragon will always want to be within attacking distance in case it’s lair actions enable it.
- Small earthquakes are common within 6 miles of the dragon’s lair.
If the party engages in any battles with anything outside the lair, these small earthquakes could occur and force the party to make a saving throw very similar to the one that the lair action forces them to endure. This may also occur while they are climbing the mountain which can make for dangerous scaling.
- Water sources within 1 mile of the lair are supernaturally warm and tainted with sulfur.
If the party is trying to get close to the dragons lair, it should be a dangerous and time consuming process. If they ever run out of water, the “natural mineral water” won’t do a good job of satiating their thirst. This may make them incur levels of exhaustion, which is exactly what you don’t want to happen when you’re about to challenge a dragon.
- Rocky fissures within 1 mile of the dragon’s lair form portals to the Elemental Plane of Fire, allowing creatures of elemental fire into the world to dwell nearby.
This ability states that more than just Fire Elementals can come through the portals. Efreeti that are loyal to the dragon (or forced to become loyal) can harass the players, and during the battle with the dragon, these additional elementals may fight the players and split the party up further from focusing all of their attacks on the dragon.
Lair of Hubris
Now it’s time to take all of the above elements and combine them into a 6-mile wide hex that will antagonize your players for sessions to come. Red dragons use their immense power to control the surrounding creatures and people. Everyone is constantly in fear of the dragon because it can easily kill them and flies into destructive rages with little notice.
Fighting a Red is a matter of trying to keep the party from getting torn apart from one another. If the Red recognizes that the group it is fighting is capable, it’ll take every precaution to destroy them individually. A Red dragon will choose the weakest member in the party and attack them over and over again until they drop unconscious.
Fighting a red dragon will include lots of cliffsides and lava, and the players will have to constantly assess where they are stepping. The terrain won’t change much during the encounter (unless the dragon smashes a part of the mountain and causes a landslide, which it totally should do), but the terrain as a whole will be hard to traverse and should have a lot of hazards they will have to navigate.
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 rocks underneath you let out a sharp hiss as volcanic gasses escape from below. The air is thin and frigid, a sharp contrast with the heat of the mountainside. The earth begins to shake as you see the scarlet dragon emerge from its cavern. The dragon sees you scaling the cliff and lets out a mighty roar that shatters your eardrums as the whole mountain shudders. The dragon launches into the air and launches an inferno of flame towards you.