How Your D&D Party Should Handle Combat With a Dragon
Most of the time, when you ask a seasoned D&D player for advice on fighting a dragon, they answer with one word: don’t.
It may seem like unhelpful advice, but it may also be the most reasonable; dragons are powerful enemies, not just because of their hit points and attacks, but also because many of them are cunning and vindictive. This makes them especially difficult to defeat, but not impossible. If avoiding the fight isn’t a possibility, here are some tips to help make the battle easier… or at least hopefully prevent a TPK.
The Lure of the Lair
The dragon’s lair sounds exciting, right? That’s where all the treasure is, after all, and it’s where you’re just about guaranteed to find the dragon.
However, it’s also where the dragon is most potent. They’ve had time to learn every nook and cranny of their lair and to set traps that can do massive amounts of damage. Because of this, if at all possible, it is advisable to lure the dragon out of its lair to fight in a more neutral arena. You can always find and loot the lair later -- assuming you survive the encounter.
Knowledge is Power
Not all dragons are the same; in fact, there is quite a bit of lore in D&D about dragon types and how they differ from each other. The critical thing to remember, though, is that even if you know all of this, your character may not. To avoid metagaming, you need to figure out how your character can learn more about the foe they’ll be facing.
Whether it’s from a dusty tome or a retired adventurer, once your party learns more about the type of dragon, they can better plan for how to handle it. For example, if you’re going up against a white dragon, it might be wise to invest in some armor or spells that help with resistance to cold damage.
Alright, so you’ve learned as much as possible about the dragon you’ll be facing and lured it away from its lair. Now what?
Once the battle begins, there are two significant things to keep in mind. One, dragons fly. Two, dragons have devastating breath weapons that your party should avoid at all costs.
If you’re fighting somewhere out in the open, the dragon’s flight capabilities can give it a distinct advantage over your party. The logical solution to that is to find a way to ground the creature, if at all possible. If you have the time to devise a trap like the one used in Vox Machina’s fight with Umbrasyl, that’s one way to go. You can also use spells with grounding effects or aim attacks specifically at the beast’s wings. Either way, keeping it on the ground where all of your melee fighters can do some damage is an integral part of the battle.
The other consideration to keep in mind is that lethal breath weapon. Depending on which dragon you’re fighting, the breath weapon may be a cone or a line, but either way, the tactic is the same: spread out! If you bunch up, you make it easy for the dragon to maximize its breath weapon, potentially sapping hundreds of hit points from the party in one go.
When All Else Fails…
Don’t forget that dragons are, in general, brilliant creatures. They have desires and motives and, often, plots of their own. That means that in some cases, they can be reasoned or bargained with. If an encounter with a dragon is unavoidable, but you know you have no way of winning, consider trying to find out what the dragon is after, and how you can use that to your advantage.
In some cases, you may even be able to offer yourselves as prisoners for the dragon. Some, like green dragons, include notable people, such as adventurers, as part of their hoard. Sure, you’ll probably end up chained up somewhere unpleasant, but you may stand a better chance of escaping the lair than you would in an all-out fight against the dragon themselves.
The Monty Python Tactic
No one likes to think about being defeated, but it’s bound to happen to every party sooner or later. While there may be the occasional character who despises dragons to such a degree that they’re willing to die fighting one, in most cases we want our characters to live. Sometimes, that means we have to know when to give up to fight another day -- when to run away.
It helps to know, going in, what your limits are. Try to have a plan to escape, should the worst happen and you find yourself short on healing spells with no foreseeable end to the fight. That may mean a plane shift spell or a carefully placed tree stride. Whatever it is, it needs to be a fast and effective means of getting the party out of the dragon’s reach, even if only for long enough to regroup, make another plan, and come at it again from a different angle.