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Playtesting Dragons
Mike Mearls

F or this week's Legends & Lore, I thought I'd do something a little different. As part of our internal playtesting, we often cobble together ideas and test them out before formalizing their design. If something flat-out doesn't work at the table, we can either modify it or toss it aside without putting a lot of work into it up front.

Over the past few years, we've learned a lot about how single monster battles work and what it takes to make a truly legendary monster. To try out some things, I ran a playtest a few weeks ago using the black dragon given below. Here are the design principles I used.

Legendary Means Something: I was never quite happy with how the solo tag from previous editions transformed into a mechanical contrivance. The original concept in 4th Edition was that solos and elites were meant to be size Large and bigger creatures—massive foes that by their nature posed a constant threat. Imagine a group of goblins with spears and short swords attacking an elephant. Even as the beast shifts in place and moves, it can inadvertently trample and crush the goblins. You can see how a solo is dangerous even when it's not the creature's turn.

That definition didn't stick over time. In part, I think the definition didn't maintain consistency because I believe that elite and solo didn't clearly represent something within the world of the game. So, we've recast solo and elite as legendary, a description that applies to truly powerful, notable, and important creatures in the world of D&D. These are monsters whose very nature is tied to the fabric of the cosmos. Magic runs through their veins, and their mere appearance is a noteworthy event. Dragons, titans, most fiends, and elder elementals are a few examples of legendary creatures. Artifacts can also make creatures into legends. The orc king carrying the spear of Gruumsh is a legendary figure.

Big creatures that still pose a physical threat can simply have mechanics to reflect their abilities. They don't need to dip into the legendary mechanics to pose a threat.

Legendary Creatures Ignore Your Silly Action Economy: Legendary creatures are infused with such powerful magic and innate might that they move and think on a different level than other creatures. A dragon's mind is simply different, allowing it to move and react with supernatural speed. The necromancer armed with the wand of Orcus sees time and the cosmic order with a different eye. She peers into the source code that runs the universe and enters a higher state of being.

Legendary creatures have a set of bonus actions they can use between their turns. This is a bigger point of emphasis than in 4th Edition. We learned that creating a dynamic interaction between a solo monster and the characters goes a long way toward making such battles dramatic and tense.

Legendary Creatures Are Creatures of Destiny: The vagaries of the d20 can spell doom for a character, but powerful, notable creatures are made of sterner stuff. Due to their magical nature, dumb luck, or an innate resistance to magic, legendary creatures can mess with the dice and sometimes dictate outcomes. You can think of this as fate or the gods, in the form of the DM, intervening on the creature's behalf.

The specific mechanics can range from a free pass on saving throws to dictating outcomes of attack rolls or checks, but it does so in a limited manner. The deck is stacked in a legendary creature's favor, but the game is not completely rigged. You can eventually stun one, but only with a persistent effort.

Legendary Creatures Change Their Environment: A legendary creature, due to the intensity of its magical nature, alters and changes the land around it. A dragon's lair is a daunting place of magic. The land around it shifts and changes. The power of a legendary creature is like a gravity well, pushing and altering the space around it.

A legendary creature's lair or abode is a key part of its existence. Orcus is a ferocious enemy if he manifests in the world, but he is nigh unstoppable within his Abyssal lair. Fight a legendary creature on its home turf only if you must. The land strives against you and the world itself becomes the legendary creature's weapon.

From a game mechanics perspective, this design concept is tied to the idea of making a solo monster's environment a key part of the battle. Creating a dynamic fight is more than putting a dragon at one end of the room and the characters at the other. The scenery and set pieces play a key role in how the battle plays out.

So what does a legendary creature look like? Here's the black dragon that we playtested. Note that I also included its interaction "stat block" in case the characters decided to talk to it. In our playtest, the characters defeated the dragon, though at one point the characters were within a die roll or two of a TPK (total party kill).

Please note that the black dragon is a work in progress. I added this material for a game I ran at the office. It isn't the final version.

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Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.
When I consider mechanical elements of the game, I also consider the implications for story-telling, which is my main interest in role-playing games. I like the ideas presented here for the most part. Legendary creatures having special actions tied to their innate magic, and having that magic infuse their lair/home are both ways to add depth and flavor to these creatures. An encounter with a legendary creature should be a challenging milestone in an adventuring party's narrative journey. What I don't like here is the suggestions of a built-in mechanic to allow legendary creatures to ignore the whims of the dice. Any DM should feel that he/she can manipulate the dice at times for sake of the story. However, this should be done with great discretion and for the sake of plot development, not simply to make a creature harder to defeat. The reason for this is that the player characters are also legendary beings in a sense; the story is revolving around them for a reason. Some of the... (see all)
Posted By: BeardBard (9/11/2013 1:20:52 PM)


I like this a lot. I feel like a dragon should not be the boss at the end of a day's worth of an encounters; a dragon SHOULD be a day's+ worth of encounters! At least at "epic" tiers.
Posted By: skywise32 (9/11/2013 12:56:18 PM)


I think the only thing missing from these current dragons are age... Dragons getting more powerful with age just isn't reflected and was sometimes the most anticipated aspect of a dragon fight. Had much had we really accomplished... depending on the dragons age and power. Bringing them all down into a single scope of power lacks the true legendary from a dragon.

A Dragons lair is something that it crafts and fills over time... investing magic and power into it only to draw from it to defend its home. To me a Dragons Lair should reflect the time and power spent in it not just something that that happens over night. It should grow in power with the dragon and represent a true legendary accomplishment and set of rewards based on that dragon.

Obviously, DM's are going to adjust some aspect of every dragon to try and make them more than just the next level 10 creature being fought but there should certainly be some suggested values to associate with the gained powe... (see all)
Posted By: Dwyvyrn (9/10/2013 10:48:04 PM)