Dragon Tactics, Part 1

The Monster Manual’s section on dragons is one of the longest in the book and, at first glance, one of the most complicated. But unlike, say, demons, which are all over the place in terms of what they can do, dragons are easy to work with, because they all follow the same pattern. I’ll begin today with the “chromatic” (evil) dragons, then continue with the “metallic” (good) dragons tomorrow.

First, there are certain things that all dragons have in common. They all fly, at twice their land movement speed, and all have one additional movement ability, depending on their color. They all have high Strength and Constitution. They all have bonuses on the “big three” saving throws (Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom), plus Charisma. They all have proficiency in Perception and Stealth. They all have blindsight and darkvision, suiting their subterranean dwelling preferences. They all begin as uncomplicated “wyrmlings,” then gain abilities and features as they age and grow. And they all have breath weapons.

This last feature is dragons’ defining characteristic. Every dragon, even a wyrmling, has a breath weapon, with effects depending on the dragon’s color. The breath weapon does powerful damage over a cone-shaped area of effect. Because of its power, it has to recharge: At the start of each of its turns, roll a d6 for the dragon. If you roll a 5 or a 6, it has access to its breath weapon again. On average, this means the dragon will get to use its breath weapon once every three turns. But dice are fickle. My players recently fought a dragon that got to use its breath weapon three rounds in a row because the dice happened to fall that way. (They beat it anyway, very cleverly, I’m happy to say.)

Taking high Strength and Constitution as indicative of a “brute” profile, a tough creature with a strong preference for toe-to-toe fighting, most dragons are brutes, even at the wyrmling stage. Of the chromatic dragons, only black and green wyrmlings lack the Constitution to take on any comer in melee. These, despite their Strength, may prefer simply to use their Stealth to avoid combat unless they’re attacked. Dragons of every other color and age won’t hesitate to get directly up in your grille.

Wyrmlings are the youngest and least complicated dragons. They prefer to rest during the day; aboveground, they move about in twilight or at night. Before combat begins, they will always use their Stealth ability, either to stalk prey (if outside their lairs) or to conceal themselves (if within them). Their alternative movement ability indicates their method of ambush: Black and green wyrmlings, which can swim, may come up out of the water to attack, like a crocodile. Blue and white wyrmlings, which can burrow, may come up out of the earth. Red wyrmlings, which can climb, may drop from a branch or rocky overhang. Any type may also choose simply to fly in, on owl-silent wings.

When prey is within striking distance, wyrmlings attack with their breath weapons first; on subsequent turns, if their breath weapons haven’t recharged, they bite. They don’t like engaging in melee with more than one opponent, though. If a wyrmling is ganged up on, and it has its breath weapon available, it will use that breath weapon, backing up (and potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks) far enough to catch all its melee attackers, then using the remainder of its movement to fly, burrow, swim, climb or crawl to a more favorable position, one where it can fight just a single melee opponent at once. If its breath weapon isn’t available, it will Dodge, then reposition. If reduced to 40 percent of its maximum hit points or fewer, a wyrmling will Dodge and fly away.

Young dragons add a Multiattack to their repertoire: their single Bite turns into a Claw/Claw/Bite. Aside from this, and the fact that young black and green dragons are more likely to stand and fight than black and green wyrmlings are, there isn’t really any significant difference between a young dragon and a wyrmling. All the same tactics and behaviors apply, with one difference: a young dragon is willing to engage two melee attackers at once. Not three, though. At three melee opponents, a young dragon will also back off. (They’ll also show adolescent variations on their adult personalities. Young black dragons are snarling bullies; young blue dragons, preening narcissists; young green dragons, cocky hustlers; young red dragons, arrogant punks; and young white dragons, barely articulate predators.)

Adult dragons are where things get most interesting, because they’re considered legendary creatures. This means they get both legendary actions and lair actions, which have game-changing effects on their action economy. Lair actions effectively provide a second turn on initiative count 20, with a special and limited set of options. Legendary actions allow a creature to do something on another creature’s turn. In other words, an adult dragon takes a (limited) turn on initiative count 20, a full turn on its own initiative account, its normal reaction whenever such a thing would come into play and up to three legendary actions, each one at the end of a player character’s turn. Dang!

Chromatic dragons’ lair actions fall into three rough categories:

  • Movement restrictors. These include the black dragon’s grasping tide, which can knock PCs prone; the blue dragon’s ceiling collapse, which can bury them under rubble; the green dragon’s grasping roots, which can restrain them; the red dragon’s tremor, which can also knock them prone; and the white dragon’s wall of ice, which can block their way.
  • Direct damage. These include the black dragon’s swarming insects, the blue dragon’s arc lightning, the green dragon’s thorny brush, the red dragon’s magma eruption and the white dragon’s ice shards.
  • Debilitators. These include the black dragon’s darkness sphere, the blue dragon’s cloud of sand, the green dragon’s enchanting fog, the red dragon’s volcanic gas and the white dragon’s freezing fog.

The general rule of lair actions is that you can never use the same one two turns in a row, and any lasting effect (as opposed to an instantaneous effect, like the damage from the white dragon’s ice shards) remains until the legendary creature uses that same lair action again someplace else, or dies.

Which lair action a dragon chooses to use depends on a few factors. One is area of effect. Many lair actions affect a sphere with a 20-foot radius, while others affect an area with some other shape, like the blue dragon’s arc lightning, which occurs across a straight line. Another factor is how closely clustered its opponents are, and whether it can catch enough of them—ideally, at least four—within a single area of damaging effect. Another is whether the dragon is trying to keep the PCs from coming closer—or trying to keep them from getting away. A healthy dragon likes to pin its targets down so that it can nail them with its breath weapon or a wing attack. A seriously wounded one might want to restrain them in order to keep them from pursuing it as it flees.

To get more specific:

  • A black dragon’s lair actions can knock its enemies prone or blind them. Knocking enemies prone is good against melee opponents; blindness is good against everybody, since dragons have blindsight, but is particularly good for shutting down spellcasters, especially if there are at least three within 30 feet of one another.
  • A blue dragon’s ceiling collapse affects only one creature and offers both a Dexterity saving throw and a Strength check to overcome it, so obviously, it’s best aimed at someone with not much of either. Its cloud of sand imposes blindness across a 20-foot radius, however, and that’s good against everybody, especially spellcasters.
  • A green dragon’s lair actions can charm one creature (ideally, a non-elf with low Wisdom) or restrain several, which is good against melee opponents.
  • A red dragon’s lair actions can knock enemies prone across a huge radius or poison and incapacitate them. Knocking enemies prone is good against melee opponents; poison is good against all opponents making melee or ranged attacks, and incapacitation shuts a PC down completely—but if you really want to get the best effect out of it, aim it at the PCs with the richest action economy, especially those with access to bonus actions and/or Extra Attack.
  • A white dragon’s freezing fog can heavily obscure an area, effectively blinding those within it as well as dealing cold damage. It’s useful for shutting down spellcasters and blocking the view of ranged attackers.
  • All mobility-restricting lair actions are good for cutting off the escape of PCs who may attempt to run away.
  • All damaging lair actions are good against, well, anybody within range. They’re good go-tos for softening the PCs up when no other lair action seems more useful.

All dragons—chromatic and metallic alike—have the same set of legendary actions available. Two of them are attacks: Tail Attack and Wing Attack. Tail Attack has sufficient reach to hit any one PC adjacent to the dragon on any side, as well as a PC up to 15 feet to the rear. Wing Attack affects all PCs within 10 feet; it also costs 2 actions.

Because of this cost, and the fact that a Wing Attack does slightly less damage than a Tail Attack (though it also has a very high probability of knocking targets prone), it’s generally not worth using against just one PC, and two are a borderline case. As soon as a third PC approaches within 10 feet of an adult dragon, though, it’s Wing Attack time! After attacking, it uses the bonus flying movement to resituate itself so that it’s no longer flanked. (I always use the optional Flanking rule on page 251 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and you should too.)

A dragon will also use a Wing Attack after a melee attack has seriously injured it (reduced it to 40 percent of its maximum hit points or fewer), in order to knock its attackers prone (so that they have disadvantage on attacks, including opportunity attacks) and use the bonus flying movement it receives to initiate its escape.

The Tail Attack is just a freebie the dragon can use against a PC impertinent enough to try to get up on it from behind. It won’t do this twice in a round, unless there’s no chance of its being surrounded by three melee attackers and needing to make a Wing Attack before its own turn.

There’s also a third legendary action the dragon can take: Detect, which is just a free Wisdom (Perception) check. This is good anytime there’s no PC within range of a Tail Attack or Wing Attack; any attempted stealthy movement of the PCs within the dragon’s line of sight should trigger a Detect action. Dragons are very hard to sneak up on!

As adults, dragons gain the Legendary Resistance feature, which they can use three times per day, each time turning a failed saving throw into a success. Dragons’ saving throw modifiers are so good to begin with that they’ll use this feature every time they fail a save, without worrying about running out.

On its own turn, as with younger dragons, an adult dragon’s preferred attack is its breath weapon, as long as it’s available. Before using its breath weapon, a dragon will always reposition to catch as many opponents as possible in the blast. This may incur one or more opportunity attacks; the dragon does not care about your puny opportunity attacks, not when it’s about to hit you with a breath weapon that a third of your party won’t get up from. If its breath weapon isn’t available, a dragon has a spectacular Multiattack: one use of Frightful Presence, which affects every PC aware of the dragon within 120 feet, followed by a Claw/Claw/Bite combo. (Note that only the first use of Frightful Presence really matters, unless it misses somebody. Either it gets you, and you’re frightened until you make your Wisdom save, or it doesn’t, and you’re immune for 24 hours. If it doesn’t work on you the first time, it won’t work on you the second time, and if it works on you once, it won’t work on you twice.)

When it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 40 percent of its maximum hit points or fewer), a dragon hightails it. Its life is too valuable to risk on foes capable of doing so much harm to it. However, between being moderately wounded (reduced to 70 percent of its maximum hit points) and being seriously wounded, different types of dragons will react differently to the situation. White dragons are dense and truculent; they’ll simply keep fighting. Red dragons are wrathful and arrogant; they’ll keep fighting, too.

But blue dragons are patient and pragmatic. When they see a battle isn’t going their way, they’ll Disengage (action), fly to a safe distance and take potshots with their lightning breath, making sure to catch at least two PCs, and preferably three or more, in each blast. If the party has ranged attackers or spellcasters who continue to do damage to the blue dragon, it will fly out of sight . . . for the time being. But it will be back, again and again and again, until either it or the PCs are dead. Its pride demands it.

Black dragons are cruel and brutal, and they target their weakest enemies first, so if a black dragon’s opponents have managed to inflict real damage on it, something’s gone horribly wrong, and it will skedaddle. It might accept a sufficiently attractive bargain offered by the PCs, but it will never surrender to them or agree to any limit on its independence.

Green dragons are the craftiest and most manipulative of the chromatic dragons; as soon as one is moderately wounded, it will stop fighting and parley, making full use of its proficiency in Deception, Insight and Persuasion (skills no other type of chromatic dragon is proficient in) to keep itself alive. It will even surrender, albeit on terms favorable to itself, and always with an eye toward any opportunity to turn against its new “masters.”

On its 801st birthday, an adult dragon becomes an ancient dragon. It doesn’t gain any new features; it simply grows larger and gets better at the features it already has. Its save DCs increase, the ranges of its attacks are extended, and that’s basically it. In all other respects, it fights the same way as an adult of the same type.

Next: Metallic dragons.

28 thoughts on “Dragon Tactics, Part 1”

  1. I’m getting ready to run a dragon fight and stumbled across this gem. Thank you for writing this series. My players are in for a fun surprise when they encounter their first dragon.

  2. Does a dragon have to choose who’s affected by their frightful presence or is everyone affected within 120 ft? The way I read it is that the Dragon has to have to be able to perceive them-if you were right outside their lair (say, half of the party is already inside) would the other half also be affected(all within 120 ft)?

    1. “Each creature of the dragon’s choice”—so, yes, both the creature and the dragon have to be aware of each other, and the dragon has to choose to include the creature in its Frightful Presence. (I use that particular wording, rather than “use Frightful Presence against it,” because the more important question is whom the dragon spares from its Frightful Presence—i.e., its own allies.)

      Think of it as a turbocharged Intimidation skill.

  3. First and foremost, i wanna say a HUGE thanks for this blog, it’s so impressive and insightful.

    Secondly, i want to ask something based on my own experience with my group – because i completely agree that the monsters should know what they are doing, what happens when the players don’t?

    I am currently a player in a group, but i am going to be DMing soon enough and i always felt our current DM really ‘pilots’ the enemies to be rather stupid and ineffective, which i don’t want to do on one hand, but on the other, my fellow players are not the most analytic and care more about the role play and such.
    Honestly, if i use your tactics, i really believe my group is going to TPK on a regular basis..
    Is there a way to ‘soften’ these up without too much compromise to the spirit of the monsters?

    1. Yeah, smarter monsters are also deadlier monsters. That’s why I wrote Live to Tell the Tale! There’s absolutely no reason why roleplay and smart tactics should be mutually exclusive. In fact, if you’re roleplaying a PC who knows what they’re doing, you need to know what they’re doing.

      If your players won’t read Live to Tell, the simplest way to “soften up” a monster without altering its essence is to reduce its hit points by, say, 30 percent.

      1. Thank you so much.

        I really think your work here can go a long way to improve combat encounters and make them a lot more suspenseful and challenging.

        Heroes should have a healthy respect to the monsters they come up against and the monsters themselves should never just be chumps who throw themselves on the PCs blades.

  4. Don’t forget that dragons have a variant class feature which gives them the ability to innately cast spells.
    They can have a number of spells equal to their charisma modifier of a level equal to 1/3 their CR, which they can cast once a day.
    This opens up a whole load of potential new tactics.
    For example, running a Young green dragon with the ability to cast fog cloud at 2nd level. It has blindsight so the fog isn’t a problem for it, but now it counts as heavily obscured to all other characters.
    Or what about a black dragon with invisibility? Half way through a battle it just disappears, only to pop back into existence right behind one of the party.
    This adds a lot of choice for both tactics and flavour for each dragon you run!

      1. Yep, variant rules for innate spellcasting for dragons. There’s a small sidebar in the MM that explains the rules.

    1. An ancient red dragon in a campaign I’m running is known as the Tyrannical Inferno. He can cast Incendiary Cloud with the variant trait; he’s completely immune to the damage, and the obscuring cloud means nothing to his blindsight. It’s a good combo.

  5. Great information as always! Maybe you should rename this article as “Chromatic Dragon Tactics” for easier searching.

  6. A green dragon can’t target someone with a low WIS because that would be metagaming. What’s bad for the goose (player) is bad for the gander (DM).

    1. I disagree, for reasons delineated here.

      Given the number of monsters I have make suboptimal decisions based on their especially low Intelligence and/or Wisdom, it’s only fair that creatures with especially high Intelligence and/or Wisdom get to make uncannily good decisions once in a while.

      1. With Blue Dragons, don’t forget Burrow speed. In the desert, the Blue can submerge…and resurface anywhere, attack (blindsight allows it to see all characters above ground), and then dive back into the sand. They can combine this with two regional effects: dust devils and sinkholes. First, they allow the party to be attacked by the dust devils near a sinkhole. Waiting underground, the dragon waits until a character falls in a sinkhole, ambushes that character, and savages said character until party help arrives, at which time the blue takes AOO’s and burrows again. In my mind, this makes the Blue the most deadly of all dragons.

        1. I like how you think! But I’m not sure how well it works tactically, since an adult blue dragon’s burrowing speed is only 30 ft, versus its 80 ft flying speed. Given its size, it has to use half of that just to get all the way underground, plus another 5 to 10 ft to get to a decent tunneling depth. The same is true for an ancient blue, although it can at least move somewhat faster once it’s underground.

          1. Also worth noting that anything a blue dragon can do by burrowing, a white dragon can also do by burrowing, or a black or green dragon can do by swimming.

  7. “Tail Attack has sufficient reach to hit any one PC adjacent to the dragon on any side, as well as a PC up to 15 feet to the rear. ”
    “The Tail Attack is just a freebie the dragon can use against a PC impertinent enough to try to get up on it from behind.”

    This sounds like facing is important. I thought facing was only an optional rule? Is it the intention it cannot tail attack the same target it bites/claws?

    1. Dude, love your Blog, you are a genius and a tactical master, thanks for everything you do for us DM’s and the DnD community as a whole.
      Now, i was just wondering how the different shapes of Breath Weapons would relate to their tactics (Black Dragons for example have 60ft lines instead of cones), which reduces SIGNIFICANTLY the amount of PC’s it could get in there. It could probably get 2 in there, even though they might not be the optimal targets, and 3 would be a no-brainer, but should it waste it’s whole action on a breath weapon instead of Claw-Claw-Bite and potentially Legendary attacks on only one target?
      Thanks in advance 🙂

      1. You can keep that restriction in mind when you’re setting up the encounter. I ran a fight with a blue dragon once, and it also had some dust devils, blue drakes, and blue dragonborn NPC’s as minions. It had the dragonborn sandwich the party into a single-file line (they got them single file with the shove attack) so the dragon could blast it. Another time, they broke into a black dragon’s lair. It used a wall of kobolds to force the party onto a stretch of ground surrounded by acid pools on both sides. I had the dragon smash the way the party came with its tail, then shoot the line of acid at the party, who even made the save with disadvantage due to the fact they were practically on a tightrope. (Its next legendary action, of course, was to smash the other end and send the whole group plummeting 80 feet into the acid below >:]). If a red dragon were there instead of a blue one in the first example, it would have cooked those minions.

  8. This is really helpful!! I plan on running a green dragon BBEG, and while of course i’m going to give his tactics some sort of personal flair, it does help to see what green dragons normally do

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