Dinosaur Tactics

“Sophistication” is not the word that leaps to mind when discussing the battle tactics of dinosaurs. Most of these ancient beasts are dumb brutes, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and rock-bottom Intelligence. They also fall into two main categories, plus one variation:

  • Plant-eaters: These tend to be peaceful unless spooked. They may lash out if you invade their space, and they’ll defend themselves if cornered, but most of the time, they’ll mind their own business. If attacked, they’ll usually run.
  • Meat-eaters: These are predators that will hunt, kill and eat any creature smaller than themselves. If they’re hungry—and they usually are—you can count on them to chase and attack anyone and anything they might construe as food.
  • Flying meat-eaters: These behave like their landbound kin, but the fact that they can fly adds an aerial wrinkle to their attack pattern.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual contains stat blocks for six dinosaurs: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, plesiosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains seven more: brontosaurus, deinonychus, dimetrodon, hadrosaurus, quetzalcoatlus, stegosaurus and velociraptor. (All the dinosaurs in Tomb of Annihilation can be found in these two books.)

I’ll look at these by dietary group, from lowest challenge rating to highest within each. Think of this as the dinosaurs’ pecking order, as any meat-eating dinosaur will attack and eat another dinosaur of a smaller size and lower CR, while a higher CR plant-eater, although it won’t actually attack other plant-eaters with lower CRs, may yet decide to muscle in and chase them off if the grazing in an area is especially good. I’ll also link to images, since they’re not all illustrated in the 5E books.

The plant-eaters comprise the CR 1/4 hadrosaurus, the CR 3 ankylosaurus, the CR 4 stegosaurus, and the CR 5 brontosaurus and triceratops. The meat-eaters comprise the CR 1/4 dimetrodon, pteranodon (a flier) and velociraptor; the CR 1 deinonychus; the CR 2 allosaurus, plesiosaurus and quetzalcoatlus (also a flier); and the CR 8 tyrannosaurus.

The hadrosaurus (image) is a Large (cattle-size) dinosaur with a bony crest on its head which walks on four legs but can rear up on two, balanced by its tail. That tail is its only defense against predators, aside from its 40-foot movement speed. It flees from predators and other threats, using the Dash action exclusively; it Attacks only when cornered or being handled by a trained rider.

The ankylosaurus (image) is a Huge (elephant-size) dinosaur covered with knobby, bony horns and sporting a clublike tail. Its speed is only 30 feet, and it will run only from single predators its own size or larger. Smaller predators get whacked with the tail. It never occurs to the ankylosaurus that running away might give it a better chance of surviving against one or more smaller predators than bludgeoning them with its tail will, even if it’s seriously wounded.

The stegosaurus (image) is a Huge dinosaur whose neck and highly arched back are protected by huge, flat plates, and whose tail is covered with spikes. This armored beast can move quickly (40 feet per turn), but like the ankylosaurus, it’s disinclined to step aside for creatures smaller than itself. They get the spiky tail. But a seriously wounded stego (reduced to 30 hp or fewer) gives up the fight and Dashes for safety.

The brontosaurus (image) is a Gargantuan (whale-size) dinosaur that yields to none but the terrible tyrannosaurus. Having its choice of two attack actions—its tail and its Stomp, which can knock a target prone—it uses Stomp first, then bludgeons prone targets with its tail. A seriously wounded bronto (reduced to 48 hp or fewer) lumbers away using the Dash action.

The triceratops (image), a Huge dinosaur, is deceptively fast, having a movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Its hide is thick but not armored; its neck is guarded by a large, bony shield plate. The distinctive features that give this beast its name are the three horns on its snout and forehead, with which it can charge an enemy like a rhinoceros. It uses its Trampling Charge feature to gore and flatten any enemy smaller than a tyrannosaurus, then Stomps on its prone foe for good measure. Unlike the bronto, the triceratops can use its Stomp only against prone creatures. In other situations, it uses its Gore attack.

The advantage provided by Trampling Charge is so good for the triceratops that it will run from enemy to enemy in order to keep using it, switching opponents whenever a prone enemy gets up from the ground, indifferent to opportunity attacks. Of course, this is effective only if its enemies are more than 20 feet apart from one another. If they all cluster up, this tactic doesn’t work anymore, and the triceratops just gores everything in sight.

A seriously wounded triceratops (reduced to 38 hp or fewer) flees the scene using the Dash action. It will also Dash away from a tyrannosaurus as soon as it sees one.

The dimetrodon (image) is a Medium (human-size) carnivorous dinosaur that hunts along rivers and coastlines. It can swim, but it’s faster on land, so it uses this movement only to chase prey through and into water. It’s neither stealthy nor subtle: it simply runs up to its intended prey and delivers a vicious bite, again and again. Like other predators, it goes after the easiest target in sight: the young, the old, the weak the sick, the isolated and the oblivious. Its prey isn’t supposed to fight back, so when it’s just moderately wounded (reduced to 13 hp or fewer), it reconsiders its choices and backs off, using the Dash action.

The pteranodon (image), not to be confused with the pterodactyl (for which 5E provides no stats), is a Medium-size flying carnivore. However, its preferred diet is fish and seafood, so it won’t mess with creatures on land, including other dinosaurs and your player characters.

Suppose, though, that your characters are shipwrecked and flailing around in the water, or just out for a swim, in an area populated by pteranodons. In that scenario, the Small members of your party might get dive-bombed by a pteranodon hungry for lunch—or a flock of them. The pteranodon has the Flyby feature, meaning that you don’t get an opportunity attack when it flies out of your reach, and its flying speed is a zippy 60 feet per turn, so the standard flying-predator tactic of hovering 30 feet in the air, diving to attack, then flying back up suits it perfectly. Like dimetrodons, pteranodons don’t expect to be attacked back, so they fly away when only moderately wounded (reduced to 9 hp or fewer).

The velociraptor (image) is a Tiny (cat-size) but vicious hunter with a distinctly birdlike appearance. Low in Strength but high in Dexterity and Constitution, with Pack Tactics a claw/bite Multiattack, it hunts in flocks and is one of the few beasts that will engage in coordinated attacks with others of its kind. One velociraptor will not attack a target unless another velociraptor can attack the same target at the same time, preferably from a different direction. If they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer), or if enough of their allies are killed that they can no longer enjoy a numerical advantage of at least 2 to 1, they’ll skedaddle, using the Dash action. The velociraptor has a pronounced preference for isolated targets, but even going up against a group, it can pick out the most promising prey with reasonable accuracy.

The deinonychus (image) is a Medium-size cousin of the velociraptor. It’s much stronger and lacks Pack Tactics, so it’s more of a soloist than an ensemble player. Its primary method of attack is to charge toward its targets, flap its rudimentary wings a bit to launch itself airborne and land claws-first on the back of its prey (the Pounce feature). If it succeeds in knocking its target prone, it then gets a bonus bite attack. Since its Multiattack action is compatible with Pounce and comprises two claw attacks and one bite attack, this means the deino can get up to two claw attacks and two bite attacks in a single turn.

With this combo, and with its high Strength and Dexterity, the deino is the assassin of the dinosaur kingdom, aiming to take a target out quickly with a single shock attack. If it knocks its prey down to 0 hp in a single attack, it will devour it on the spot (bite attacks until dead). If not, it will follow up with another Multiattack—with advantage, if the target remains prone—and that will probably be enough to tear its prey to shreds. Again, however, deinos are used to other creatures’ running away, not fighting back. If its prey, or one of its prey’s allies, can turn around and deal it a moderate wound (8 hp or greater from a single hit), it Dashes back in the direction it came from.

The allosaurus (image) is a Large, very fast hunter that runs down its prey like a big cat. Its features and tactics are essentially the same as those of the deinonychus, but once it’s pinned its prey, it’s not going to be driven off so easily. Unlike the deino, a shock attacker, the allosaurus is a brute, with extraordinary Strength and exceptional Constitution. (It’s also not as smart as the deino.) It will have to be seriously wounded (reduced to 20 hp or fewer) even to consider backing off. No matter what, after knocking a target prone with Pounce on a prior turn, it’s going to try to take at least one more bite. When it does abandon its meal, unlike other dinosaurs, it Disengages (a function of instinct, not discipline, plus its overall intimidating presence) before retreating.

The plesiosaurus (image) is the inverse of the dimetrodon: it hunts close to shore, but it’s most at home in the water, where it has a 40-foot swimming speed, rather than on land, where its speed is a more plodding 20 feet per turn. In addition to its swimming speed and its Hold Breath ability, the plesiosaurus is the only dinosaur with proficiency in Stealth, so its strategy can be summed up in two words: water ambush. The plesio hides beneath the surface of the water, watching for the movement of other creatures. When one comes within range, om nom nom. The plesio’s bite is its only attack, but it does three dice of damage, which ain’t paltry. A brute like the allosaurus, the plesio is not going to be deterred from its dinner by merely moderate wounds; rather, when reduced to 47 hp or fewer, it will substitute a grapple attack for its bite attack and try to drag its prey underwater. Then, even if its prey wriggles loose from its jaws, it will continue to make bite attacks while its prey tries to swim back to shore—and the plesiosaur is almost certainly the faster swimmer. Only when seriously wounded (reduced to 27 hp or fewer) does the plesiosaur finally give up, drop its prey and withdraw to deeper waters.

The Huge, flying quetzalcoatlus (image), believe it or not, is a creature that really existed: a larger cousin of the pteranodon, with a wingspan as broad as that of a Cessna 172. Demonstrating yet again that science is wacky, not only were quetzalcoatli and pteranodons not actual dinosaurs—flying pterosaurs were a distinct taxonomic order from landbound dinosaurs—they were the ancestors of modern reptiles, while the non­-flying dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds!

Anyway, unlike the sea-feeding pteranodon, the quetzalcoatlus lived far inland, and they’re believed to have fed on small land vertebrates in a manner similar to storks. Chances are, then, that the Medium-size PCs in your group are reasonably safe from quetzalcoatlus attacks, but the Small ones had better watch out. The quetzalcoatlus’s stat block includes a Dive Attack that’s like an aerial Pounce, dealing extra damage rather than knocking the target prone; this isn’t consistent with how it’s believed to have fed in real prehistory, but then, no one’s found any elf fossils, either. Anyway, standard dive-bomb tactics apply: begin turn 40 feet up, fly down to bite, fly back up to end the turn. No opportunity attacks, because of Flyby. A quetzalcoatlus withdraws when only moderately wounded (reduced to 21 hp or fewer).

And finally, the thunderlizard you’ve all been waiting for: the Huge tyrannosaurus rex (do you really need an image link for this one?). Exceeded in size only by the brontosaurus, exceeded in ferocity by none, the tyrannosaurus is shockingly fast (50 feet per round) and has extraordinary Strength and Constitution. Its speed allows it to chase down pretty much anything (or anyone) it feels like snacking on, and it can grapple and restrain a target on a successful bite attack. The sole drawback to its kit is that it must use its Multiattack on two different targets: a bite attack against an opponent in front of it, and a tail attack against an opponent beside or behind. If you have to choose, you definitely would rather get hit by the tail.

The tyrannosaurus chooses its prey before charging and striking, according to the usual criteria, and it sticks with its choice. There are so few things in nature that can hurt it significantly, it doesn’t even realize when it’s moderately wounded. When it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 54 hp or fewer), it Dashes off with any restrained victim still in its jaws, inflicting additional bite attacks as it runs.

Next: flying snakes.

6 thoughts on “Dinosaur Tactics

  1. Great analysis! I just want to add, however, that pterosaurs are more closely related to birds than to any living reptile (but not as close as dinosaurs), while Dimetrodon is surprisingly closer to mammals than reptiles.

    Also, in terms of encounters, if players encounter a dinosaur anywhere near its eggs or offspring (and it cares for its nest, which most dinosaurs probably did) I’d expect that the dinosaur would be far more violent and dangerous than normal, especially toward Small and Medium creatures, which they’re inclined to regard as nest-raiders. In this case they probably won’t aim to kill as much as to spread damage among all attackers, in hopes of making them reconsider their raid.

  2. Excellent work! I appreciate that you’ve set up that most dinosaurs will disengage and flee if injured – this is pretty consistent with predatory behavior in the real world. Will note that they’re not particularly ‘dumb brutes’ compared to modern animals – this is a pretty consistent RPG depiction of dinosaurs, albeit an outdated one, where they’re rampaging brainless prehistoric monsters for the party to kill. Real dinosaurs are just animals, with a similar level of intelligence to many modern animals, and would likely behave very much like other animals of similar size and lifestyle.
    I’m probably going to homebrew the dinosaur stats in my own games quite a bit, as there are some somewhat nonsensical choices in the canon statblocks (Allosaurus pounces but tyrannosaurus uses tail attacks? Velociraptor is a pack hunter but Deinonychus isn’t? Non-dinosaur animals like Dimetrodon, plesiosaurus and pteranodon are tagged as ‘dinosaurs’? What?)
    Pack behavior in dromaeosaurids like deinonychus is still a debated thing, with pro-and-con evidence, but the evidence is clear that they attacked in numbers, the debate is about whether that was coordinated (wolves on a caribou) or random (seagulls on a potato chip).
    I’d highly doubt Tyrannosaurus ever used its tail as an attack unless to swat something clawing at it from behind and 3d8+7 is a LOT of damage for a dinosaur whose tail really isn’t significantly different to any other large predatory dinosaur (like Allosaurus – which actually had a proportionately longer tail). I’d rather see it have a kick attack with its hind foot that can knock a single opponent prone or pin them underfoot (Str or Dex checks to avoid?) on a successful hit, to add some tactical options and make a fight with a Rex feel very cinematic.
    Really all of the large theropod dinosaurs should attack in a similar fashion, with only some variations – allosaurids and carcharodontosaurids like Allosaurus, Giganotosaurus etc have short, even, saw-edged knife teeth for slashing attacks and likely attacked by drive-by biting, ripping open larger prey and bleeding it out, whilst tyrannosaurids had a powerful grab-and-crush bite with larger, uneven, dagger like teeth. I think the 5e Tyrannosaur bite is a pretty good representation of the tyrannosaurid attack strategy.
    You’re completely right about Pteranodon not being likely to attack a humanoid party unless they blundered into the middle of a feeding frenzy and Quetzalcoatlus being very much like a gigantic stork. A lethal attack that either could do would be to simply pluck a humanoid off the ground, fly it up a certain distance (Pteranodon would struggle to lift an armoured humanoid at the very least) and then drop them. This is pretty consistent with some aerial tactics displayed by birds and considering the falling damage in D&D it’d be pretty terrifying. Imagine a quetzalcoatlus dropping an armoured paladin on rocks like an eagle with a tortoise. 🙂

    1. Good points. If we’re really going to critique the stat blocks, Hadrosaurus should be Huge and have elephant-like stats (a better generic Large dinosaur steed could be Gallimimus), Velociraptor should be Small and have scaled-down stats (a hyena would be a good basis), Deinonychus should stay Medium but get stats like the Velociraptor’s (its own stats could work for a Large Utahraptor), and Plesiosaurus probably shouldn’t have a land speed or attack land animals (that’s what crocodiles are for).

      Quetzalcoatlus should be fully reworked – instead of attacking from the air, it should have a Charge trait that rewards it for running down prey on foot, and maybe even a Swallow Whole for Small or smaller targets. I don’t think any pterosaur could have carried significantly big prey into the air; their feet can’t grasp and their beaks are too far in front of their center of balance. Flyby doesn’t make much sense for an animal the size of a small airplane.

      Tyrannosaurus, as you mentioned, is pretty good if you change the Tail attack to a Stomp that can knock smaller things prone. One thing that could be changed is purely descriptive – the Bite isn’t just the jaws, it’s also the surprisingly strong arms locking the prey in place, keeping it in easy bite range. Also, the beast is no stranger to worthy opponents; due to the frequency of intra-species combat it knows to be cautious of other tyrannosaurs. If it’s moderately wounded and one of its foes draws its attention (standing its ground, making itself seem big, etc.), it will have to quickly decide whether it’s worth staying in the fight. If there’s any helpless or restrained prey it will do its best to grab that and run; if not, it will counterattack and judge the enemy’s reaction. If the enemy still stands and fights, it might retreat rather than risk a serious wound, particularly if this isn’t the Tyrannosaurus’s territory. If the enemy cowers, it’s back to the Tyrannosaurus’s preferred behavior.

      1. Hmmm. Something I was toying with was, for Tyrannosaurus, adding a ‘claw’ attack that can only be triggered if it’s successfully grappled a Large or greater opponent in its jaws (if it’s dealing with Medium or smaller it can just grab them and pick them up off the ground and they’ll be too small to easily reach with the forelimbs).

        The claws only do 1d4 damage, but if they both hit the grappled target, they’re holding on and Rex’s prey suffers disadvantage on its attempts to escape said bite-grapple on the subsequent round. This lasts until Rex lets go or attacks something else.

        This could be useful for other large carnivores, but they’d probably do more damage with their bigger foreclaws, say 1d6.

        If it was up to me I’d have all the allosaurid types including carcharodontosaurids have a ‘slash and bleed’ special with their bite and tyrannosaurids have the uber grapple bite since their strategy seems more ‘grab and crush’.

        I’d also give them all the hind claw pin if they’re big enough to pin an M-sized creature underfoot or a Pounce if they’d need to use their body weight, a weak Tail attack that can only be used against flanking opponents and maybe even a Ram attack while charging to trip or knock opponents over (very weak damage though). This is a huge palette of attack options, but they’d only get Bite + single choice of other per round so the others would mostly be there to respond to tactical situations or throw some cinematic flavor in.

        Maniraptorans should have a weaker bite and focus on the Pounce / Rake / Kick with their hind claws. With most of them looking more like having proto-wings than JP-style ‘hands’ in reality, I don’t know if I’d go for any kind of foreclaw attack. Maybe a wing buffet to stun and distract? Pack Tactics would work if you’re going with that theory, definitely, but also for the flavor of a flock of hungry raptor seagulls snapping at you from all sides.

        That said, most theropod dinosaurs are basically mouths with legs, in terms of hunting strategy. The forelimbs of some seem to range from useful (spinosaurids and megaraptorans with their sickle-fingers) to nearly nonexistant (abelisaurids). I’d definitely scrap any kind of foreclaw attack from abelisaurids like Carnotaurus, lol, but they seem to be built for speed and run-by-bite-attacks and might even benefit from a ram or trip attack.

        I very much look forward to my partner’s running Tomb of Annihilation, because she has me on board as a dinosaur advisor and I’ve suggested subverting the Jurassic Park image of carnivorous dinosaurs as big monsters that stomp around roaring threateningly and instead running them as silent ambush predators that creep up and attack from cover without making a sound and are more likely to stalk and isolate targets before they strike and do hit-and-run tactics that don’t expose them to prolonged slugfest battle with heavily armed, spell-toting PCs.

        Granted this includes my own character on the buffet menu, but hey it’s all in the game XD

  3. I have to kinda disagree with Triceratops running from T-rex on sight. I would think it would stand it’s best chance by standing its ground, they’re clearly evolved for fight rather than flight. Honestly I doubt a T-Rex would even want to tangle with a such a large, powerful, and heavily equipped dino unless it could catch it by surprise. Anything else would likely turn into a brawl which could just as likely as not end with the T-Rex either being killed or limping away with nothing.

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