Tactics and Tips03/28/2006

Tougher, and Meaner Than You (Part 1)

It's the Year of Dragons! As a part of this celebration, we're going to be taking a closer look at these iconic beasts, their abilities, and some of the best ways to fight them . . . and come back alive. Over the course of this series, we'll focus on the true dragons described in the Monster Manual, and although we'll touch on the tactics and abilities that all dragons possess, the purpose of these articles is to explore their unique powers and their temperament, plus show how they use their lairs to their advantage.

First let's look at the most likely dragons that adventurers are likely to face in combat -- the chromatics. Heading up the list is the vile, swamp-loving black dragon. Otherwise known as "skull dragons," these ill-tempered dragons are known for dirty tactics and cruel nature.


Looking for a suitable mini to represent a foe of such dire threat? In recent days, D&D Minis has announced the first of its D&D Icons: the black dragon

More so than most dragons, the black dragon uses the fetid waters of its swampy home to great advantage. You're more likely to get attacked from a black dragon from below the surface of the water than from an aerial attack. Though their lairs are dry, getting to them requires diving into the water and wiggling your way through a series of pitch-black tunnels. Because fighting a dragon in its lair is difficult under the best of circumstances, do your best to avoid having to go inside to fight a black dragon. Better yet, most of these dragons have a second entrance into their lairs, and it typically opens onto a dry spot of land. Older black dragons use plant growth to hide this secret entrance with a mass of vegetation. Use diminish plant to clear out this entanglement if you discover where this secret entrance is located. You could also set fire to this vegetation (if it's dry enough), although you're more likely to be hindered by the smoke than the dragon is.

Use control water from the outside to pull out as much of the fetid swamp water from inside the black dragon's lair. If you can locate an entrance to the lair, use move earth to make a larger hollow into it if you want to get in, or bury the hole completely if you want to block off its escape route.

The Dragon's Side

For a more formidable encounter, innumerable opportunities exist to play up a black dragon's abilities. Stormwrack hosts a selection of spells a black dragon may employ, making its watery lair all the more dangerous: sink, water to acid, siren's call, and blackwater tentacles, to name just a few.

Black dragons should also use their charm reptiles ability to ensure faithful guardians around their lair -- as mentioned below, why stop at crocodiles if dinosaurs are at your disposal? These dragons are also known for "pickling" meals in nearby ponds before eating them; as such, they might also charm lizardfolk or other reptilian necromancers to animate such ready-made corpses against intruders.

Special Abilities

The special abilities of black dragons belies their evil, foul nature -- darkness, corrupt water, plant growth, insect plague, and charm reptiles. In times of trouble, black dragons shroud themselves with darkness, so be ready to counter it with light spells of your own (at least three). Because of their corrupt water ability, try not to rely on potions, since they can become useless easily -- scrolls and other magic items are much better. If you have to carry cure potions, try to carry potions of cure serious wounds, which have a better chance of making the Will save to survive the dragon's ability.

As mentioned above, black dragons often use plant growth to hide their entrances. When stalking prey (or adventurers), they also entangle their opponents with this ability and then dive bomb from the sky or lurch up out of the water.

Ancient and older black dragons use insect plague to keep their opponents occupied, typically targeting spellcasters first, who must make Concentration checks to cast spells. If they are inside their lairs, and if they become aware of someone trying to enter (a likely situation), black dragons like to fill the tunnel with insect plague.

If you're unfortunate enough to face a Great Wyrm, be ready to fight off lots of reptile minions, thanks to its charm reptiles ability. Of course, at that point, you won't be fighting regular crocodiles, but dinosaurs! Do your best to avoid getting bogged down by the great wyrm's (or any age) minions and focus directly on the black dragon.

Other Tactics

Dealing with a Black Dragon's Breath Weapon

The black dragon's breath weapon is a line of acid -- avoid lining up to give the dragon a free shot! To lessen the impact of this acid breath, stock up with spells, potions, or scrolls of protection from energy or resist energy. If you're planning on becoming a dedicated black dragon slayer, and can afford it, pick up armor and shields of acid resistance.

Ironically, one of the best ways to fight a black dragon is to get it up in the air. Black dragons are clumsy flyers and their swampy homes are full of thick trees that hinder their movement. The best way to entice a black dragon to do this is to set up some bait -- cast fly on one or more of your group and lure it to take wing, with others in your group on the ground, pelting it with ranged attacks or spells. If you try this tactic, don't go any higher than the canopy, so as to hinder the dragon's maneuverability, but make sure you don't get trapped by it yourself if it decides to get in close for an attack.

Because black dragons can breathe underwater, they enjoy grappling an opponent, then dragging the foe beneath the surface, biting and clawing while it drowns. If you know you're going to face a black dragon, make sure everyone has water breathing cast on them, and, if possible, freedom of movement. Try to avoid getting in the water at all, if you can help it, and use reach weapons to stab at the dragon while it hides in the water. Note, too, that if the black dragon stays in the water, it gets a cover bonus and potentially concealment, depending on the murkiness of the brackish water.

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.

About the Author

Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Races of Destiny, and Monster Manual III. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Green Ronin Publishing, Dragon Magazine, and this lovely website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.

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