Draconian Tactics


You thought I was salty in “Derro Tactics”? This is where I get really salty. This is where I share one of my most unpopular of unpopular Dungeons & Dragons opinions:

I am not nostalgic for Dragonlance. At. All.

Even as a high schooler, reading the first two Dragonlance trilogies, I recognized that those books were not good books. They were all right. They were beach reading for nerds. That was OK for me then, because I was a nerd who wanted some beach reading. From the very beginning, though, I hated the concept of the kender, which were clearly ersatz halflings free of any even marginally actionable link back to the J.R.R. Tolkien estate, distinguished by the most annoying traits the authors could come up with to assign them. Also, looking back, the depiction of gully dwarves is beyond cringeworthy.

For me, two trilogies were plenty; the story, such as it was, felt complete. I didn’t doubt that more Dragonlance novels had been published, but my jaw dropped recently when Teos “Alphastream” Abadía posted on Twitter that there had been more than 190. (I’ve since counted the titles on the list on Wikipedia and come up with only 189 published novels, plus two more unreleased, but also another 20 short story anthologies, for a total of 209 published works.) No way does the world need that much Dragonlance.

So, naturally, it’s going to be re-released later this year. I guess the fact that readers bought 209 Dragonlance books makes it a hot property.

My general attitude toward the revival of old official campaign settings, with the exception of Eberron, is that I’d much rather see something entirely new. We get a little of that with Ravnica and Theros, although those are technically borrowed from another Wizards of the Coast property, Magic: The Gathering. But all the excited anticipation surrounding Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer? I don’t feel it. And I especially don’t feel it about Dragonlance, which in my opinion has aged like fine milk.

That’s all preface to the fact that this post is about draconians, a monstrous folk native to the Dragonlance setting. In that setting, as you might expect, they’re evil, but in Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons, they can be of any alignment, despite also being described as “bipedal monsters born from dragon eggs that have been corrupted or warped by powerful magic.” Five varieties are statted out: the foot soldier, the mage, the infiltrator, the dreadnought and the mastermind. None has an especially high challenge rating, but that’s a good thing, since they’re meant to be encountered in hordes.

The draconian foot soldier is a basic brute, with above-average Strength and Constitution and below-average Intelligence and Wisdom. Along with all its draconian kindred, it has the standard 60 feet of darkvision, making it a nighttime raider. Although it has wings, it’s flightless, but it can use its wings to slow itself to a safe velocity if it falls, as described in the Controlled Fall trait. It can’t also easily get back up to where it fell from, though, so maybe staging a draconian battle right next to the Cliffs of Insanity isn’t the brilliant idea it seems like at first.

Draconian foot soldiers have a simple combat cycle: charge, stab, repeat. Importantly, however, when draconian foot soldiers charge, they spread out. Doing so is necessary because of their Death Throes trait, which can turn adjacent creatures to stone—including other draconian foot soldiers. That’s right: As written, the stat block doesn’t specify that draconian foot soldiers are immune or even resistant to one another’s death throes, and if they charge in a mass, they risk a chain reaction that takes out much of their own side along with the enemy. Personally, I think this interaction must be the result of an oversight, but until I hear otherwise, I’m going to recommend that you space your draconian foot soldiers at least 5 to 10 feet apart. If you’re looking for that flanking conga line, congratulations: Here it is, encouraged by the Death Throes mechanic.

Draconian foot soldiers are indiscriminate in their target selection. Although creatures with Wisdom 8 generally have normal self-preservation instincts, that Death Throes trait, along with the manner of draconians’ creation, makes me think that draconians never retreat unless ordered to for strategic reasons.

The draconian mage is a Charisma-based spellcaster, but with both high Strength and high Charisma, it can flex between spellcasting and melee fighting with ease. Interestingly, both its Dexterity and its Constitution are merely average (technically, its Con is higher than its Dex, but not significantly so). I think this creature would prefer not to get hit at all if possible, and it spends most of its time cowering behind an offensive line of draconian foot soldiers, letting them take the hits. Its wings are also underdeveloped, but unlike the draconian foot soldier, which can only fall straight down—albeit slowly—the draconian mage can control the direction of its descent using the Glide trait, leaving open some interesting possibilities for dramatic entrances. In fact, now I’m thinking that the Cliffs of Insanity may not be such a bad place for a fight after all, except that the battle should take place at the bottom, with the draconians waiting up above to ambush those below with a well-timed jump.

The draconian mage’s preferred distance from its foes is between 40 and 60 feet, whence it can aim Necrotic Ray attacks (read: mage lasers) at its foes with little to no risk of getting blitzed. Aside from Necrotic Ray and its Trident melee attack, which it makes two-handed and generally saves for self-defense against a charging enemy, the draconian mage has three once-per-day spells it can cast: enlarge/reduce, invisibility and stinking cloud. Each of these spells strikes me as strongest when used to cover an escape. The draconian mage doesn’t want to drop a stinking cloud where its own allies will be affected, but if it’s fleeing an encounter in which all its allies have fallen, that’s another story. Enlarge/reduce either adds 1d4 damage to each Trident hit, for another 5-ish damage per Multiattack, or ruins a monk’s day (not many other player character opponents will come into melee reach, stay in melee reach and have a low enough Con to fail the save vs. shrinkage). Invisibility’s benefits are obvious.

Still, I have to come to the same conclusion about the draconian mage as I do about the draconian foot soldier: Fleeing isn’t its style. Instead, when the draconian mage is seriously wounded (reduced to 16 hp or fewer), that’s when it stops taking potshots from a distance and charges into its enemies’ midst, jabbing with its trident and trying to bait its foes into finishing it off.

Invisibility is useful for executing this positional switch, particularly since the draconian mage’s preferred position when it’s pew-pewing its mage lasers is more than a single turn’s movement away. When the draconian mage is sufficiently injured, it casts invisibility, then uses its movement to approach its foes’ formation; on its next turn, it reaches its destination, then Multiattacks with Trident.

The draconian mage’s other two spells, unfortunately, don’t seem to have a good place in its kit. Enlarging a foot soldier ally is a waste of both time and the spell: Why spend an action to add 5-ish damage to an ally’s attacks when you can use that same action to deal 20 damage yourself with two Necrotic Rays? The battle would have to last four more rounds just to make it a wash. And stinking cloud creates a heavily obscured area, so while the draconian mage could stand just outside and stab at enemies inside with its trident, it couldn’t be certain it was stabbing in the right place. Also, the only thing it accomplishes is to take some enemies out of the fight while it lasts—ideally, at least four, based on the area of effect (see Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8, Targets in Areas of Effect table), and that action, too, has to accomplish more than a well-aimed pair of Necrotic Rays. I think we have to conclude that stinking cloud is extremely situational, while enlarge/reduce has hardly any application for the draconian mage at all.

The draconian infiltrator, with its very high Dexterity, high Constitution and above-average Wisdom, is a skirmisher whose main job is to take out long-range spellcasters. Why spellcasters? Because the infiltrator’s Multiattack includes a unique rider: It can paralyze a target if the infiltrator hits with both attacks, and paralysis occurs on a failed Con save with a middling DC. Most martial PCs’ Con saves are too good for this stunt to work on them.

In fact, if you assume that most non-martial PCs have a Con modifier of +1 and no proficiency on Con saves (the latter is true of bards, clerics, druids, warlocks and wizards, though not sorcerers), they’ll still have a 50 percent chance of succeeding on the save. If it happens on the infiltrator’s first try, it’s merely dumb luck. The infiltrator needs to hit four times in two rounds to have a meaningful chance of success. Against anyone with a better Con save than +1, the odds are even worse; if it’s +3 or higher, it’s not even worth trying.

So not only is it important that the infiltrator zero in on a backline spellcaster, they’ve got to be a backline spellcaster who’s isolated from the rest of their team, so that no one can bail them out. And that means that the rest of the side’s attention has to be fully occupied by allies of the infiltrator, such as the aforementioned foot soldier and mage.

“Death from above” is a good tactic for the infiltrator, which can Glide just as the draconian mage can. Its +7 Stealth modifier gives it a chance of not being heard as it descends, which it needs, because it can’t turn invisible—not unless an allied draconian mage uses its once-daily casting of invisibility for that purpose. (Not a bad idea, in fact.)

Once the draconian infiltrator has paralyzed a target, it doesn’t stop stabbing them. Why should it? It has advantage on its attack rolls now, and its Dagger hits are all critical. It came to murder a spellcaster, and that’s what it’s going to do. With its below-average Intelligence, the infiltrator is unsophisticated in its tactics. It could let an allied draconian foot soldier or mage finish off the target while it runs off to try to paralyze someone else, but that idea simply doesn’t occur to it. And if it’s killed in action, either by its target or by an ally who runs to the target’s rescue, its Death Throes drench them in acid, which can do the job even after the infiltrator is gone.

The draconian foot soldier is a brute; the draconian dreadnought is a super-brute, a champion among draconians. It can fly, fast: 60 feet per turn. It has exceptional Strength and Constitution, and it’s not stupid or foolish. It gets three attacks, two with its sword and one with its tail, the last of which can knock the target prone; it’s very much in the dreadnought’s interest to make this attack first, so that it has a chance of making its follow-up attack rolls with advantage.

Since it flies, it’s only natural that the dreadnought should make its attacks from the air, but it doesn’t fly out of its target’s reach between turns, for three reasons. First, it lacks any way to avoid opportunity attacks, and its Armor Class isn’t high enough that it needn’t worry about them. Second, it’s also tactically unsophisticated, with merely average Intelligence and Wisdom. Third, if it’s killed, it wants to explode over as many opponents as possible. If it’s too high up in the air when it’s slain, its fiery Death Throes won’t reach them.

The draconian dreadnought’s Shape Theft reaction is an oddity. It allows the dreadnought to shapechange into the image of a creature that it’s just slain. That could have certain espionage-related applications, but none of those are consistent with the dreadnought’s combat style. Instead, the only clear purpose it serves is the one described in the flavor text: “to sow confusion and despair among their enemies.”

Finally, the draconian mastermind is yet another spellcaster—this time of a more short-range variety, since its very high Charisma is complemented by very high Constitution, vs. merely high Intelligence and Dexterity. It has no wings at all and doesn’t fly, glide or even fall at any speed less than a plummet.

This draconian is the only one with a breath weapon, Noxious Breath, which it uses whenever it has the ability available along with at least two enemies positioned together within a 15-foot cone. (A draconic infiltrator doesn’t want to be in that cone: Although it’s immune to poison damage, not to mention the poisoned condition, it’s not immune to the exhaustion that the Noxious Breath can also cause.) When it can’t use its Noxious Breath at all or can’t use it optimally, it falls back on its Energy Ray ranged attack—which it uses against low-AC targets wherever they happen to be, as long as it’s within 60 feet—or one of its spells, although its spell repertoire is somewhat subpar. Its Multiattack lets it use Energy Ray three times per turn. (Or Rend, but that’s strictly for self-defense.)

Because it’s usable twice per day, dimension door is a cool spell for the draconian mastermind: It can use it to teleport into battle as well as to teleport out. Since it’s too much of a fanatic to run away, it also has the option of using this spell for on-demand repositioning. The problem, though, is the timing: If it uses its action to dimension door onto the battlefield, or from one place on the battlefield to another, that’s it for now; it has to simply stand there taking hits until its next turn comes around. At least it has the Magic Shield reaction, which it can use to make those attacks less likely to deal damage—and it pretty much has to.

The draconian mastermind can cast invisibility at will, which is also cool, but again, there’s the time problem: Since it takes an action to cast, any turn it spends turning invisible is a turn it can’t attack, and if it doesn’t attack, it’s giving up an average of 24 damage it could be dealing to its opponents. Outside a big set piece battle that’s obviously going to last more than three rounds, it simply isn’t practical (except maybe to give it to a draconian infiltrator). The mastermind’s other spells—disguise self, sending and mage hand—apply more to noncombat situations.

When the draconian mastermind is seriously wounded (reduced to 26 hp or fewer), it rushes its nearest opponent—maybe using that dimension door spell, or maybe not—making sure that there are at least two other opponents within 15 feet of them. Then it uses its Noxious Breath if it’s available or Rends three times if it isn’t. The idea is to bait out enough attacks that when it goes into its Death Throes, they’ll connect with the maximum of three targets.

Next: egg hunters.

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9 responses to “Draconian Tactics”

  1. Vienneau Avatar

    189 Dragonlance books! Wow! I’m glad I stopped after 15-20.

    I’m in total agreement with you. The world doesn’t need more of it, and neither does D&D.

  2. Jon Bupp Avatar

    I was never a fan of Dragonlance either.
    Added to the Blog Database.

  3. Jelly Avatar

    very happy to know you too enjoy Eberron! easily my favourite setting since starting D&D two years ago (Ravnica still has a special place in my heart for being a city tho. Nonetheless, i do quite like the monsters present in Dragonlance, so draconians are a welcome addition (just in time too lol)

  4. Kevin Avatar

    As a longtime fan of Dragonlance I can’t say I share your opinion of its return, but that’s the benefit of having a variety of settings to choose from.

    One thought I had with the Draconian Mage – do you think part of the reason for Enlarge is so it can increase the size, either of itself or one of its fellows in order to broaden the range the Death Throes?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      It wouldn’t broaden the range by much—certainly not enough to spend an action on, not to mention concentration, just for that. Anything the draconian mage wants to do with enlarge/reduce has to equal or exceed the opportunity cost of using its Multiattack to shoot two Necrotic Rays.

      Now, enlarge/reduce can be sustained with concentration, so the total additional damage can equal or exceed 20 over the duration of the spell. But still, if it’s kept active for two rounds, that still requires the target to make four attacks per turn, with a better to-hit bonus than the mage’s +4. If it can be kept active for three, the target needs to make three attacks per turn.

      A young, adult or ancient dragon can make three attacks per turn—and presents enough of a threat that combat might well last more than three rounds. So maybe that’s what the draconian mage uses enlarge/reduce on.

      1. shikomekidomi Avatar

        I suspect Enlarge/Reduce might be more useful as pre-combat prep than in combat, allowing it or an ally to do more damage once a fight starts and being cast when enemies aren’t yet in a position to be blasted with rays. Obviously, that makes it fairly situational, since there won’t always be advance warning a fight is going to break out, but not entirely useless.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The draconian foot soldier’s death throes would not cause a chain reaction if it dies. In fact, it’s the only one that couldn’t. It petrifies, which doesn’t trigger draconians’ Death Throes. The risk of taking out immediately adjacent draconians probably still means they’ll be spread out, though.

  6. James Avatar

    I still have some fondness in my heart for Dragonlance. Although I never played it in an actual D&D game, I did play the original computer RPG’s from the late 80’s or early 90’s, and the Draconian were just awesome.
    Not that was pre-teen me, so maybe it wouldn’t be so fun nowadays.

  7. Damien Avatar

    So, the death burst thing depends on setting and motivation. Draconians are free willed and at one point created their own cities after “definitely not tiamat” lost the war. A sufficiently motivated draconian would totally death burst in the optimal way, but most would want to live, especially seeing as they’re so hard to bring back.

    Also fun trivia, dragonlance was so popular that some of its readers didn’t even know it was a DND series.

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