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.
The bestial White dragon is viewed by many to be the least interesting of the chromatic dragons due to its lower intelligence and more animalistic tendencies. However, these qualities are exactly what makes the White dragon so fascinating as it will approach their encounters in a way that is wholly unique to other dragons. Whites have no agenda to fulfill, no grand scheme to enact, they are hunters and the party is their prey.
Whites live deep in the arctic regions, and lair far away from the sun. Their icy caverns can fill entire glaciers, the subterranean tunnels sprawling across the frozen wasteland outside. White dragon lairs are designed for a creature with access to flight and have steep verticality that will be difficult to traverse. The dragon will often rest on massive icy perches out of reach of the adventurers, or on the stalactites of the ceiling. The floor of the cavern will be covered in broken ice, drifting floes, and slippery slopes that the party will have to contend with as cold breath rains down on them from above.
Whites are the strongest solo hunter the world has ever seen. While they may not be as sharp as their Green cousins, Whites are extremely effective at hunting and neutralizing prey. Their extreme familiarity with their lair lets them know when intruders have entered, due to the way the wind changes. White dragons are patient and will only strike when the time is right. They can understand and speak common just fine and can listen in on the conversation of the party while they hide in the shadows of their lair.
An encounter with a White dragon should play out like a horror movie. The players will enter the lair with hubris and confidence and should regret that decision after the dragon begins its attacks. It will stalk them, learn all of their weaknesses, and attack them when they least expect it. With the knowledge of its lair, the dragon can show up to deliver a massive frost breath only for it to retreat in ways that the players can’t chase. If the party ever splits up, the dragon should be able to easily solo any misfit foolish enough to leave its friends. It can tempt the party and lure them into traps by showing its tail and making them leave their fortified position and enter a cavern that will be difficult for them to maneuver in. White dragons are not stupid, they are apex predators and will know how to exploit the common tactics of your average adventuring party.
- Freezing fog fills a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point the dragon can see within 120 feet of it. The fog spreads around corners, and its area is heavily obscured. Each creature in the fog when it appears must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw, taking 10 (3D6) cold damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. A creature that ends its turn in the fog takes 10 (3D6) cold damage. A wind of at least 20 miles per hour disperses the fog. The fog otherwise lasts until the dragon uses this lair action again or until the dragon dies.
The damage and saving throw for this cloud aren’t really impressive. Your players are likely going to be able to succeed a DC 10 Con save (even the wizard) and taking 10 damage for failing is unlikely to knock somebody unconscious. The thing that makes this lair action interesting is the heavily obscured trait of the fog. Any creature caught inside of this fog suffers from the blinded condition which completely nullifies any ranged characters, and even more importantly, gives the attacker advantage on any creature suffering from the condition. Dropping this on the party and laying into one creature and then retreating when the fog disperses could really throw the party for a loop.
- Jagged ice shards fall from the ceiling, striking up to three creatures underneath that the dragon can see within 120 feet of it. The dragon makes one ranged attack roll (+7 to hit) against each target. On a hit, the target takes 10 (3D6) piercing damage.
This ability provides for a great cinematic moment as the ceiling starts to crumble on the players and they have to dive out of the way, which is a valuable part of Dnd that shouldn’t be underestimated. You can use this to follow up on the dragon retreating from the party as the party now has to contend with icicles. Another interesting use of this ability is having it destroy the terrain that it lands on. If a player is standing on an ice floe and this smashes into it, they’ll have to make a save to not get thrown in the water. Having it destroy terrain will make for a more dynamic fight as the battlefield changes during the battle.
- The dragon creates an opaque wall of ice on a a solid surface it can see within 120 feet of it. The wall can be up to 30 feet long, 30 feet high, and 1 foot thick. When the wall appears each creature within its area is pushed 5 feet out of the wall’s space, appearing on whichever side of the wall it wants. Each 10-foot-section of the wall has AC 5, 30 hit points, vulnerability to fire damage, and immunity to acid, cold, necrotic, poison, and psychic damage. The wall disappears when the dragon uses this lair action again or when the dragon dies.
I love me some walls when it comes to lair actions because of the interesting possibilities they provide. This wall is fairly easy to smash through, but can take up an entire turn of resources that could have been spent on hitting the dragon. During the encounter, this can be used to split the party up into different sides of the room which can allow the dragon to land and solo the wizard while the party tries to hack through the wall. If the dragon is retreating, throwing this up can buy the dragon enough time to fly away. There isn’t anything saying that the wall has to be going straight up or down either, and can create a temporary shelter for the dragon as it recharges it’s frost breath far away from the party.
I really like these lair actions given the context of the lair. In a vacuum, these are basic but useful abilities. Given a hard to navigate lair, complete with a hyper-intelligent hunter, they can offer many unique and difficult to deal with abilities as the dragon nickles and dimes the party. The first and third abilities focus pretty heavily on crowd control and can give the dragon the opportunity to separate the party, and take out the individual mortals. The second ability gains a lot of utility when combined with a dynamic lair, and can make an already difficult to traverse location even worse. Add on slippery ice that your players will have to save against every round and this seemingly simple dragon becomes far more terrifying.
- Chilly fog lightly obscures the land within 6 miles of the dragon’s lair.
This is mostly a ribbon ability for regional effects, but the dragon can still use this to its advantage. If it wants to stalk the adventurers outside of its lair, it’ll have an advantage on its stealth checks as it can blend in with the fog and snow. Having a dragon burst out of the fog and tear the bard in half is sure enough to deter the rest of the party from looting the lair.
- Freezing precipitation falls within 6 miles of the dragon’s lair, sometimes forming blizzard conditions when the dragon is at rest.
Even when the dragon is at its most vulnerable, the regional effects protect it and make it difficult to approach the dragon. If your players are able to catch onto the fact that the blizzards start when the dragon begins to rest they should be rewarded for that if they are able to navigate through an intense snowstorm and find the entrance to the lair.
- Icy walls block off areas in the dragon’s lair. Each wall is 6 inches thick, and a 10-foot-section has AC 5, 15 hit points, vulnerability to fire damage, and immunity to acid, cold, necrotic, poison, and psychic damage. If the dragon wishes to move through a wall, it can do so without slowing down. The portion of the wall the dragon moves through is destroyed, however.
This is hands down one of the most exciting abilities of the White dragon and simultaneously one of the coolest. My favorite application is for the dragon to stalk the party through the walls. The clear walls will allow the dragon to view the party, while it will be difficult to differentiate between the dragon and some stones in the background. Then when the party begins to rest and relax the dragon can literally burst through the wall and initiate its first of several surprise attacks. When the literal walls of the lair are always at risk of having a dragon behind them, the players will become paranoid and will start attacking anything, making them more vulnerable for the dragon to manipulate into traps.
Lair of the Hunter
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. White dragons are underestimated because they have the lowest challenge rating in the Monster Manual and the lowest intelligence. But these shortcomings do not dictate how the fight will play out, and I believe that a White dragon can be more dangerous than an equivalently aged Red dragon if played properly.
The land leading up to the lair is a combination of tundra and frigid waters. Blizzards systemically come in and if the players aren’t prepared for the weather, they are nowhere near prepared enough to take down a dragon. When playing a White dragon you want to wait as long as possible to attack. Players are conditioned to expecting battles to happen at certain times, and as long as their characters are prepared for battle, the hunter will not strike. As they get anxious waiting for an attack, they may make stupid mistakes such as sheathing their swords and lugging a chest away thinking that the dragon is gone. The White dragon is always watching them and knows that they are intending to steal its hard-earned treasure. It won’t attack them when they grab the treasure. It’ll wait for them to try hauling it up a passage before it’ll smash through the ceiling, grapple the squishy, and fly away before anyone knows what even happened.
Whites will mercilessly hunt the players picking them off one by one until no one is standing. When it does attack them, it’ll ambush them at the most inopportune times and force the party into a battle of attrition. The dragon will be in control of all the encounters from start to finish and the party will always be reacting, without enough time to react. It doesn’t matter that your fighter can hit 8 times with an action surge if the only attack they ever get to use is a reaction attack. Once the paranoia seeps into the party, the dragon can begin to lure them into traps, such as smashing the ground underneath them, or by preparing a frigid breath attack for the group turning the corner. White dragons are much more intelligent than they appear, and if your party believes this misconception, they deserve to be hounded until the last one is a frosty trophy.
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 walls glistened with a spectacular sheen and the coins scattered over the ice glittered like stars. The lair was dead silent except for the scraping of pickaxes on ice, attempting to extricate a chest from its frozen demise. The adventurers cheered as pick struck wood and began to dig with a newfound frenzy. One stood up to wipe sweat from his brow, and saw the intelligent eye of the hunter watching from behind the wall of ice. Before he could warn his friends, the wall shattered into a cloud of crystals as the ivory dragon burst forth from within.