Jake’s Take: Running a Dragon in D&D 5E (Part 2)

Hi folks, welcome to Jake’s Take. This is a series that lives partially on this website and partially on YouTube (though predominantly this website of late), the last installment of which was about running a dragon. Ok, well, technically the video came out a year ago but I republished it here and that was the last installment.

I initially put that video out having run my first dragon in D&D 5E, and I republished it as “Part 1”, as I was just about to run my second dragon in D&D 5E, armed with the knowledge from round 1. This, then, is the sequel, where I talk about the changes I made (most of which I talked about in part 1), and how much of an effect they had.

I was running an adult green dragon this time, Morganth the Green, compared to the adult black dragon I ran the first time. Let’s first list the changes I made, and then we’ll dig in.

  • Failing your save against Morganth’s breath weapon stripped your immunity to her Frightful Presence.
  • Morganth had proficiency in Athletics.
  • Creatures grappled by Morganth were also restrained.
  • Morganth’s breath weapon automatically recharged at two predetermined points during the fight.
  • Morganth could use a lair action to summon some extra minions.
  • Morganth had legendary resistances and legendary actions* equal to the heroes she faced minus 2.

* — I futz about with legendary actions as I have my own rules that I’ve been using for legendary/boss monsters. I’ll save them for another article.

Those changes are by and large the changes I advised in part 1, so let’s talk about the impact they had!

Athletics & Grappling

This was the simplest change I advised to make dragons feel more dragon-y, as the fact that dragons as written in D&D 5E lack proficiency in Athletics seemed like an oversight to me. Why? Well if you’re like me and enjoy the fantasy of dragons snatching up helpless enemies in their claws and flinging them from the castle walls, you’re gonna want them to be good at grappling. Grapple rules place an Athletics (Strength) check against an Athletics (Strength) or Acrobatics (Dexterity) check, so giving a dragon proficiency in Athletics makes them a lot better at grappling people, as I feel they ought to be.

I also gave Morganth something analogous to the Grappler feat, where creatures grappled by her were also restrained. The grappled condition just sets a creature’s speed to 0, restraining them does that but also gave Morganth advantage on attacks against them. This represents how much stronger a dragon would obviously be than the average humanoid, and how they would easily be able to dig their claws into a creature in their grasp or more easily bite them, etc etc.

This was a good change. Morganth grappled someone a few times, and if not for a well timed dimension door, would have dashed one of the PCs on the ground. It was a simple change, didn’t grossly overpower her, and let her do a mechanically useful thing that was also narratively dramatic, which is basically what you want.

Frightful Presence

The other change I advised in part 1 and implemented in this fight was to mess with frightful presence a little. I had two suggested options, the first being to extend the disadvantage the frightened condition applies to saving throws as well, and the second being to make failing your saving throw against the dragon’s breath weapon strip your immunity to Frightful Presence.

The issue I found with Frightful Presence when I first deployed a dragon was that because of its relatively low DC, and the fact that saving against it grants immunity to it for the next 24 hours, Frightful Presence came out once at the beginning of the battle, and then never again. The frightened condition is quite nasty, so I don’t think this is in and of itself a bad thing, but it didn’t quite fulfil my fantasy of a battle with a dragon.

For this fight I chose the second option, buffing Morganth’s breath weapon so that failing your save against it stripped your immunity to Frightful Presence. I feel like this came up, but I think in the heat of things I forgot to trigger Frightful Presence consistently so I don’t remember this having a huge impact on the fight.

I think one of these two options is good, but it comes down to the type of GM you are. If you’re a forgetful GM (like me), option A where you don’t mess with the immunity but make Frightful Presence nastier is probably the way to go — it still frontloads Frightful Presence but gives it more impact. If you’re a tactically minded GM and can keep lots of plates spinning, I think option B that I chose here is the way to go, because I think this is the most satisfying of the two.

Breath Weapon

Another suggestion I made in part 1 and implemented in this fight was giving the dragon’s breath weapon more opportunities to recharge. It’s the most iconic component to a dragon, but given the length of combats in 5E, often only comes out once or twice.

The suggestion I first made was to allow the dragon to burn all its legendary actions to recharge its breath weapon. Having thought about it I decided not to implement that as it allows the dragon to breathe every round which A) cheapens the breath when it happens and B) nukes the heroes down in short order. Now this is a recharge ability, you could roll a 5 or 6 every round and do that anyways, but that’s the sort of thing that should be an anomaly, I feel.

Instead, I just chose two hit point thresholds, 2/3 of max and 1/3 of max, and decided that when Morganth was reduced to those HP values, her breath weapon recharged and she could use it immediately.

This was a good change.

This meant Morganth breathed her poison somewhere around 4 times during a battle that spanned I think 3 sessions. That feels about right to me, however, I have a large group of powerful PCs (7 of them), so that’s why I chose two points. If you have a group closer to the suggested size of 4 to 5, I would think very carefully about how often you do this, my suggestion would be to recharge it once at half HP.

Having effects like this that trigger at specific points also lends some extra dramatic structure to encounters like this, I’d recommend doing it with other legendary monsters.

Legendary Actions & Resistances

I’m not going to chat too much about this as I made larger changes beyond this that we’ll talk about in a different article, but I’d still recommend this formula. It won’t change anything if you’re running a standard sized group, it’ll just balance things out more for larger and smaller groups. I’d stick with 3 actions and resistances for 4 players though.

Tactics For Running a Dragon

In part 1 those were the only real statblock changes I advised, the rest of the advice was largely around dragon tactics which I did my best to employ here. These boiled down to:

  • Keep your dragon airborne. “Melee range” for a dragon is hovering 10 feet above the heroes.
  • Your dragon will focus on spellcasters first, followed by ranged weapons and then melee combatants.
  • A dragon should have minions.

Now, I did my best to employ this guidance in this fight but given how bizarre it was (the party was split, arrived at the dragon’s lair on the dragon’s back having mounted it during a flyby attack, and by the end used a ring of wish to avoid a TPK) I don’t know how closely I followed it, it’s all a bit of a haze, frankly.

The dragon did stay airborne largely and this helped, but given its lair was a cave didn’t have that much of an impact on things. I’d still advise it where possible, though. I previously advised that melee range for a dragon should be 10 feet above the PCs, without realizing that a dragon’s claw attacks have a range of 5 ft. I don’t really stand by this advice anymore, as the claw attacks are two-thirds of its multiattack actions, and half the multiattack’s damage (on average). I’d still suggest it stays airborne, but mostly so that it can fly up and out of harm’s way if it gets into danger.

I also gave Morganth the option to use a lair action to summon two CR 7 snake-men minions (minions here being a narrative term not the 4E one. That’s cool too though.). This sounds pretty ridiculous on paper but again, this was a fight pitting seven 12th-level characters with plenty of magic items against Morganth, so two CR 7s wasn’t actually that bad in practice. It gave the melee heroes something to do while they couldn’t hit the dragon.

As I recall the target priority largely went out the window, I certainly don’t remember making any decisions around it, but I stand by that suggestion as what an intelligent dragon would prioritize. I also suggested using minions to break concentration spells and the like, but forgot to qualify that advice by adding only when the minions would obviously know a concentration spell to be active, and who is casting it. I think this might be a bit beyond kobolds as they are usually portrayed, but minions like lizardfolk or the snake-men I used this time might be more fair game. It certainly runs the risk of being meta-gamey though unless everyone at the table feels there would be an obvious visual component to the spell, so tread carefully. I didn’t follow that advice here.

Summary

So, overall, here’s my takeaways from this second dragon encounter.

  • I still suggest giving dragons Athletics proficiency.
  • I suggest making a dragon’s grapple also restrain the grappled creature.
  • If you want Frightful Presence to have more of an impact, but don’t want to continually remember it during the encounter, have it impose disadvantage on saving throws also. Then have the dragon use their breath weapon on the frightened heroes.
  • If you’re happy to manage more things during the encounter and want a more fearsome dragon, have a creature that fails their save against the dragon’s breath weapon lose their immunity to Frightful Presence, if they have it.
  • I no longer suggest letting a dragon burn all its legendary actions to recharge its breath weapon.
  • Depending on your size of group, I suggest some predetermined hit point thresholds that cause the dragon’s breath weapon to recharge and be usable. If you’ve got four or five players, I suggest doing this at half HP. If you have a larger group, consider 2/3 and 1/3 HP. This ensures you get at least two uses of it, and it lends additional dramatic structure to the fight.
  • I still suggest following a formula of “number of players – 2” for legendary actions and resistances if you have less than four players or more than five.
  • I still suggest keeping your dragon airborne, although I don’t stand by the “10 foot melee range” advice anymore, as I misread the statblock. Half of a dragon’s multiattack damage comes from its claws which have a range of 5 ft.
  • I still suggest giving your dragon minions. I’d like to qualify the advice I gave previously about having minions focus on breaking concentration spells by adding that this should only be done when the spell and caster has an obvious visual component that would clearly draw a minion’s attention.
  • I still stand by the spellcaster > ranged hero > melee hero priority I suggested before.

Now of course, I’d also like to add that the most important thing in any encounter is running the creatures and NPCs true to themselves. An arrogant dragon should act differently from one that’s a schemer or a trickster. A loyal minion should behave differently from one that is plotting to overthrow their master. You shouldn’t need me to tell you that, but I want to be explicit as tactical advice like this can often contribute to D&D being more of a wargame than an RPG. That said, I do think that thinking tactically and changing statblocks to fulfil a narrative fantasy helps you run these monsters true to themselves, hence why we’re engaging in this whole endeavor.

So, just to wrap things up, we’ll show off the regular stats for an adult green dragon, and that statblock modified following this advice.

Adult Green Dragon

Huge dragon, lawful evil

Armor Class 19 (natural armor)

Hit Points 207 (18d12 + 90)

Speed 40 ft., fly 80 ft., swim 40 ft.

STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
23 (+6)12 (+1)21 (+5)18 (+4)15 (+2)17 (+3)

Saving Throws Dex +6, Con +10, Wis +7, Cha +8

Skills Deception +8, Insight +7, Perception +12, Persuasion +8, Stealth +6

Damage Immunities poison

Condition Immunities poisoned

Senses blindsight 60 ft., darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 22

Languages Common, Draconic

Challenge 15 (13,000 XP)


Amphibious. The dragon can breathe air and water.

Legendary Resistance (3/Day). If the dragon fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.


Actions

Multiattack. The dragon can use its Frightful Presence. it then makes three attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws.

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 17 (2d10 + 6) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) poison damage.

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 13 (2d6 +6) slashing damage.

Tail. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 15 (2d8 + 6) bludgeoning damage.

Frightful Presence. Each creature of the dragon’s choice that is within 120 feet of the dragon and aware of it must succeed on a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a creature’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to the dragon’s Frightful Presence for the next 24 hours.

Poison Breath (Recharge 5–6). The dragon exhales poisonosu gas in a 60-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw, taking 56 (16d6) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

Legendary Actions

The dragon can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The dragon regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Detect. The dragon makes a Wisdom (Perception) check.

Tail Attack. The dragon makes a tail attack.

Wing Attack (Costs 2 Actions). The dragon beats its wings. Each creature within 10 feet of the dragon must succeed on a DC 19 Dexterity saving throw or take 13 (2d6 + 6) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone. The dragon can then fly up to half of its flying speed.

Adult green dragon stats reprinted here from the Systems Reference Document v5.1 under the terms of the Open Gaming License v1.0a. No other content on this page is Open Content.

Morganth the Green

Huge dragon, lawful evil

Armor Class 19 (natural armor)

Hit Points 207 (18d12 + 90)

Speed 40 ft., fly 80 ft., swim 40 ft.

STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
23 (+6)12 (+1)21 (+5)18 (+4)15 (+2)17 (+3)

Saving Throws Dex +6, Con +10, Wis +7, Cha +8

Skills Athletics + 11, Deception +8, Insight +7, Perception +12, Persuasion +8, Stealth +6

Damage Immunities poison

Condition Immunities poisoned

Senses blindsight 60 ft., darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 22

Languages Common, Draconic

Challenge 15 (13,000 XP)


Amphibious. The dragon can breathe air and water.

Iron Grip. Creatures grappled by the dragon are also restrained.

Legendary Resistance (X/Day). If the dragon fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead. The dragon can do this a number of times per day equal to the heroes it faces – 2.


Actions

Multiattack. The dragon can use its Frightful Presence. it then makes three attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws.

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 17 (2d10 + 6) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) poison damage.

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 13 (2d6 +6) slashing damage.

Tail. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 15 (2d8 + 6) bludgeoning damage.

Frightful Presence. Each creature of the dragon’s choice that is within 120 feet of the dragon and aware of it must succeed on a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a creature’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to the dragon’s Frightful Presence for the next 24 hours.

Poison Breath (Recharge 5–6). The dragon exhales poisonous gas in a 60-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw, taking 56 (16d6) poison damage and losing immunity to the dragon’s Frightful Presence on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

Legendary Actions

The dragon can take a number legendary actions equal to the heroes it faces – 2, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The dragon regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Detect. The dragon makes a Wisdom (Perception) check.

Tail Attack. The dragon makes a tail attack.

Wing Attack (Costs 2 Actions). The dragon beats its wings. Each creature within 10 feet of the dragon must succeed on a DC 19 Dexterity saving throw or take 13 (2d6 + 6) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone. The dragon can then fly up to half of its flying speed.

Lair Actions

“Sunwatchers!” The dragon summons two CR 7 allies.

Death Throes

100 — Breath Recharge. The first time the dragon’s current hit points are reduced to 100, the dragon’s breath weapon recharges. It may choose to use it immediately. It cannot benefit from this Death Throe until it has taken a long rest.

And that about does it. There’s unlikely to be a Part 3 to this series, but I am intending to talk about my rules for Legendary Monsters as I do feel they’ve improved the mechanical and narrative tensions in the encounters I’ve run recently. I’m intending to deploy them in supplements we release down the line.

Speaking of supplements, our first adventure, The Corwyn Catacombs, is available in our shop and on DriveThruRPG. It’s a fourth level one-shot for 5E set in my own world, and it’s well reviewed so I would encourage you to check it out.

Until next time!

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