How to Keep Your Dragon From Roasting Your D&D Party
It’s hard to think of a more iconic monster in the world of Dungeons & Dragons than the fearsome dragon itself. Dragons are a staple of ancient legend and high fantasy alike. But unfortunately for many Dungeon Masters (we call them Quest Masters), they are just as dangerous as they are mythical. It almost doesn’t matter how well-equipped your party is; dragons have a remarkable tendency to kill multiple players in a single blow.
As a Quest Master (QM), how do you balance that level of danger and give your players a chance for glory? In this article, we’re going to look at a few strategies for dealing with these unwieldy arch-enemies. Some of these tips will be fundamentals of campaign design, while others are a bit more finesse.
Creating a balanced dragon villain takes lots of experimentation—but these tips will take you a long way.
This may seem like obvious advice, but it’s critical if you plan on understanding how dragons operate. The best way to build your draconian villain is to get into its head. Each color and caste of dragon has its own characteristics and tactics they employ. For Instance:
Red Dragons are covetous and temperamental. If challenged, they may burn down entire townships in retribution.
Green Dragons are sly and manipulative. They concoct elaborate plans for domination, sometimes over a span of centuries.
Black Dragons are particularly cruel, taking great pleasure in tormenting their foes. The swamps they inhabit are filled with vile and dangerous monsters.
The Monster Manual has excellent entries on dragons, but you can use many resources to learn how they think. Pull from your favorite movies or stories to make a genuinely well-rounded draconic villain.
One mistake you’ll see QMs make is introducing their villain too early. A low-level party getting anywhere near a dragon can quickly devolve into a party wipe. In this respect, a proper pace can be a life-saver.
It’s important to keep in mind that even a “young” dragon is still several hundred years old, and much smarter than an average humanoid. Think of them less as a powerful monster and more as the head of a criminal organization. Your party should hear and see the effects of an evil dragon’s presence way before they ever see it personally.
Perhaps the local townsfolk are impoverished from paying constant tribute. Or maybe a sacred forest has been hunted clean of animal life and covered in an ominous fog. There may even be powerful politicians lobbying for a dragon’s interests. This kind of thing can be an excellent starting point for an adventure, and give your party plenty of opportunities to gain experience and resources.
A helpful rule of thumb is: your party’s average level should be more than half of the dragon’s challenge rating before they attempt to engage it personally (bare minimum).
Many dragons are in command of a formidable support structure. They’ll have evil monsters, humanoid servants, and corrupt diplomats under their direct control. Some dragons have specific races that they tend to ally with—like kobolds and lizardfolk. Others will seek out anyone that might be of service to them.
Especially useful in this type of adventure is a mid-boss, somebody who handles the day-to-day operations. A mid-boss serves as an excellent proxy while still being less dangerous than the actual dragon. And the death of a mid-boss will undoubtedly draw the attention of the dragon itself.
Consider who your dragon might employ as its second in command. It may just be a particularly evil adventurer, like a wizard or cleric. However, dragons would also have access to something more exotic: a githyanki warlord, or a doppelgänger spy, for example. Whoever you choose, it should be a memorable and capable antagonist.
Dragons Aren’t Stupid
This is another mistake I see (and have made myself several times). It’s easy to play a dragon like a wild animal, who just attacks until everyone is dead. But that’s generally not the case. Consider a few hints as to how they’ll act:
A dragon sees humanoids as inferior creatures. They have much bigger things to deal with than a low-level adventuring party.
In most cases, a dragon will only seriously engage in combat when they have a significant advantage—in their lair, for instance.
Dragons know when to retreat. If there’s a severe threat to its life, a dragon will escape and come back later with a better plan.
Keep in mind that dragons are capable of social interaction. In fact, they’re almost universally charismatic. A great encounter with your dragon villain might not involve combat at all.
Maybe it shows up just to talk. This kind of encounter is a great way to characterize your dragon, to give it personality. You could have it gloat or taunt your party. Or, the dragon could attempt to persuade your party to leave it alone without resorting to violence. Perhaps it ransoms a local princess or threatens to destroy the nearest hamlet.
Throw Another Dragon in There:
This might seem like a crazy idea or one that doesn’t fit into your plans. But one of the common traits of a dragon is that they’re territorial. They’re always fighting for supremacy among their own kind.
If your dragon villain is in the middle of a complicated territorial dispute, it’s not going to be too concerned about adventurers. And, if your party can locate the “other” dragon, they may even be able to join forces. This can add an element of politics and faction warfare to your campaign.
The dragon is a particularly complex enemy, one that can take years to truly master. But they are also unforgettable when executed correctly. Using one as a campaign villain is a great way to expand and test your QM skills. Not to mention, they’re amusing to role-play.
Have you written a dragon campaign? Do you have any problems, questions, or (even better) suggestions? Let us know what you think!