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“Here, run this CR 26 monster for those guys standing there, OK?”
Last time we talked about designing 20th-level PCs that an intermediate D&D player could play right off a single sheet of paper. Now let’s look at the other side of the DM screen: the two high-level dragons that were the big, bad monsters at Gen Con Indy 2006.
Here they are in .pdf form, just as our volunteer DMs saw them. Our challenge this time: Make a black dragon that’s a fair fight for four 20th-level PCs and that a DM can run off a clipboard without slowing play or referencing rulebooks more than once in a blue moon. Then do the same with a red dragon, but give it a clear advantage over the PCs.
Making easy-to-play dragons isn’t as hard as making easy-to-play 20th-level PCs. Even complicated monsters like dragons are less complex than full-on PCs, and the volunteer DMs would get both a little training from me ahead of time and four days of practice with the dragons. By the end of Gen Con, the volunteers were a cadre of PC-killers. Heck, they could probably recite the relevant stats from the dragons by memory.
That said, dragons are the most complicated monster in the D&D game. So complicated that we professional game designers can’t run them well, straight out of the Monster Manual (we can do it, but we can’t do it well). Even running a dragon from the standard stat block is no picnic. Here’s what I’m trying to keep in my head while running a dragon:
That’s a lot to keep in the front of one’s mind. Here inside the walls at Wizards, we often talk about the “processor load” on a DM’s mind. Dragons will take all the processing power you have, and then some. Plus you have all those other DM duties like keeping the table moving, answering rules questions, and making sure everyone’s having a good time. If you go into a dragon fight without doing your homework first, the result can be a real train wreck—or at least you’ll feel guilty because you didn’t run the dragon to the best of its ability.
So let’s see how we can make these overdesigned dragons easy on our processor-overloaded DMs.
Controlling the Environment
First, I wanted to control the physical environment. I decided on low ceilings throughout the Delve so that the dragons wouldn’t fly. That gives the PCs an advantage, sure, but it also avoids:
I controlled the physical environment in another way. I used the battle maps that come with the gargantuan black dragon and the colossal red dragon, connecting them with the dungeon tiles (which I was eager to show off). But I made sure to build with the dungeon tiles carefully so that the dragons could physically reach every square without needing to use our squeezing rules (they’re on pg. 148 of the Player’s Handbook, but I’m always forgetting them).
Controlling the physical environment helps a little. But controlling the rules environment helps a lot. The first rules situation I knew I wanted avoid was something I’d seen in dozens of high-level dragon fights: dispel magic battles. Because I was letting the PCs have spells cast beforehand (and I knew I wanted the dragons to do that, too), I gave neither the PCs nor the dragons any way to dispel the other side’s magic. Especially at the Delve, no one wants to recalculate a character’s or monster’s statistics on a round-by-round basis. Working along the same lines, I kept most ability score damage-dealers away from both PCs and dragons.
Dragons have lots of great options for grappling, but nobody—nobody in the world, anywhere—likes the grapple rules. So I got rid of most of those. I kept one grapple-related function for the dragons: snatch. I did so because the dragons’ grapple checks are comically high (+62 for the black and +73 for the red). It’s easier to adjudicate grappling when one side has no chance of losing. Snatch also sets up a breath weapon nicely, and with a sense of impending doom, no less! Finally, there’s another fun reason to use Snatch on a bite attack: You can actually cram the character mini into the dragon’s mouth, and it’ll stay there.
I’m on a mission to reduce complexity. So it’s counterintuitive that the best tool in my toolbox is Draconomicon, which purports to provide “a wealth of new feats, spells, magic items, and prestige classes” involving dragons. I thought the dragon feats in that book would be the best weapon in my arsenal. Make no mistake, they were great—especially for the red dragon, who has fourteen(!) feats.
But for my purpose, the best part of Draconomicon was the metabreath spells (described on pg. 75). These are spells that require use of breath weapons as part of their casting. For one standard action, you get a fully functional breath weapon with an interesting “rider” effect (the spell). The black dragon had greater stunning breath (rider effect: Fort save or be stunned for 2d4 rounds) and breath weapon substitution (rider effect: another energy type, which would confound PCs with energy protection up). The red dragon had both of those, plus the truly nasty enervating breath (rider effect: 2d4 negative levels).
These spells let me avoid a lot of the complexity inherent in high-level spells. For starters, they use the same save DC as the breath weapon, and the rider effects are game elements that most players are already familiar with. They’re effectively on the same timer as the breath weapon, so they won’t be employed every round. And best of all, they let the dragon act like a dragon, not a big scaly sorcerer. The DMs still got the fun of breathing on the PCs, and then the fun of saying, “Good job with the Reflex save… now make a Fort save to see if you’re stunned.”
Once I had a reasonable arsenal of easy-to-use metabreath spells, I loaded up on as many “cast before combat” spells as I could—simple things like haste that I could add to the monster’s stats ahead of time. That’s why so many of the boxes are crossed out already. The black dragon has eight spells going in round 1 of the fight, and the red dragon has nine spells going.
On to the monsters! I’ll include a few notes from the “here’s how to run the dragons” spiel I gave the Gen Con volunteers.
Gorundal (316k): This is the black dragon you’ll run most of the time. Here are the wrinkles you should know about:
Roathurr (260k): Use the red dragon if you get players who’ve already faced the black dragon, if you’re trying to cycle players through the delve quickly, or if you’re feeling particularly capricious. This encounter works better if you let another player immediately join whenever a PC dies. That way the dragon always faces four PCs.
Do the Delve Yourself
Well, now you’ve got the characters and the dragons. Try out the Dungeon Delve yourself in any sufficiently large space if you want a change of pace from your usual D&D game. Then zap us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how it went. And, let us know what we should name the official unit of measurement for game-design complexity!
About the Authors
Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.
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