Tyranny of Dragons (Hoard of the Dragon Queen plus The Rise of Tiamat) was the first full-length campaign I ran for my fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons group, after putting them through The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was the right campaign for the moment, and its linear nature and geographic jumping around made it easy to insert character-specific side quests, which I appreciated. It also had many flaws, though, and a big one is that the dragon cultists just weren’t that interesting or memorable as opponents. (There’s also all of “Mission to Thay,” chapter 8 of Rise of Tiamat, which … whoo, boy, don’t get me started on that.)
Might the insertion of some dragon followers or dragonborn champions from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons have livened up Tyranny? Maybe, but not without some fiddling.
I’ll start with the dragon speaker, which oddly is categorized as a “Small humanoid”—not “Medium or Small,” just “Small.” I’m very curious about the intent behind that. Did the designers originally envision them as kobolds, maybe? The illustration depicts a gnome with what I’m pretty sure is a hurdy-gurdy, which isn’t the first image that comes to mind when I think of “ambassadors … with loud and authoritative voices” who “instill awe and fear.” (I’ve seen one or two examples of hurdy-gurdy playing capable of instilling awe, but it had nothing to do with dragons.) In any event, especially since the dragon speaker’s movement speed is 30 feet, I don’t see why you couldn’t arbitrarily call it Medium and change its hit points from 8d6 + 8 to 6d8 + 6. You could even let it keep its 36 hit points rather than knock it down to 34; it’s within the allowable range.
The dragon speaker’s primary offensive ability is Charisma, and its primary defensive ability is Dexterity, so its role on the battlefield is to hang back and send out minions—most likely off-the-rack cultists—to run interference for it while it hurls magical thunderbolts. And command spells, right? Not necessarily: It gets only one of those per day, and I think its chief application for that is to buy a moment of time if it gets blitzed by a melee attacker. Ordering the assailant to “Halt!” or “Flee!” lets the dragon speaker withdraw to a safe distance without provoking a melee attack. If that doesn’t work, at least it can use Thunder Bolt in melee as well as at range, without penalty.
Its other spells are of doubtful combat value. Calm emotions is situationally useful if the dragon speaker’s foes cast fear, for instance, but it’s kind of a waste to use it to negate a single charm person spell. Anyway, cultists—the dragon speaker’s most likely entourage—have advantage on saving throws to resist being charmed or frightened to begin with. And while calm emotions can turn hostile creatures indifferent, let’s be honest: You can’t use that against player characters and expect them to stand down. (Now, if the dragon speaker had a spell that did the opposite—rile emotions—and could use it to whip up a mob, that would be interesting.) Comprehend languages is one-way, allowing the dragon speaker to understand anyone but not necessarily to speak to them. And charm person is both hard to use effectively in combat (doing so grants the target advantage on their Wisdom saving throw to resist it) and of questionable long-term benefit even in a social interaction situation, since when the spell wears off, the target knows they were charmed.
The Disarming Words reaction is useful for defense, and its three uses per day are consistent with the expectation that most combat encounters will last three rounds. But how does the dragon speaker decide which incoming attack to use it on? Is it altruistic or selfish? With its merely average Wisdom, I think the dragon speaker reserves Disarming Words for its own benefit if it’s being attacked directly, but otherwise it doesn’t distinguish between attacks against its minions; whichever attack hits first, the dragon speaker softens.
Having a normal self-preservation instinct, the dragon speaker exits when seriously injured (reduced to 14 hp or fewer), using the Dash action to hurry away.
I get how thunder damage is conceptually linked to vocal presence, but I also wish the dragon speaker had some kind of attack with a dragonish damage type—either that, or an ability connected to other things that dragons can do, such as Frightful Presence. Now that would be useful for an ambassador whose job included instilling awe and fear. (The dragon speaker itself is immune to being charmed or frightened, but can we all agree that’s not the same thing?)
Unfortunately, this draconic flavor deficit isn’t limited to the dragon speaker. Like, you’d think the dragon chosen, a shock attacker with exceptional Strength and Dexterity, would definitely be granted some kind of breath-weapony damage type on its attacks. Nah. All it gets is three points of natural armor—scaly skin, I guess; immunity to the frightened condition; a triple Multiattack, letting it deal some fairly alarming damage for low-tier play; and the Biting Rebuke reaction, sort of a petite legendary reactionette. The dragon chosen is certainly formidable, but is it draconic? I’m not really feeling it. Incidentally, I think we can construe any creature with a name like “dragon chosen” as a fanatic and conclude that it fights to the death, a conclusion that the flavor text implicitly confirms.
Similarly, the dragon blessed is a potent support caster, but not one with any distinctly draconically flavored trait other than its immunity to being frightened, and that’s a stretch. Here, though, we have an opportunity to tinker in the spell flame strike, which deals half fire and half radiant damage to two or more enemies. Is a particular dragon blessed the acolyte of a white dragon? Cool, then make it half cold and half radiant. Does it serve a black or green dragon? How about an acid strike or poison strike dealing half acid or poison and half necrotic? Save the standard flame strike for disciples of the reds, brasses and golds.
The dragon blessed has a fairly strong preference for its Radiant Bolt attack over its dreary cudgel. First, it’s Wisdom-driven, giving it a better chance to hit. Second, although its Mace attack deals an extra tranche of radiant damage, Radiant Bolt equals it in average damage output; plus, it restores hit points to the dragon blessed. This healing is wasted when the dragon blessed is at full health, however, so it doesn’t lead with Radiant Bolt; casting a spell, such as enhance ability or fill-in-the-blank strike, is the better opening play. Since ability checks don’t come into play much in combat except in grappling or Perception-vs.-Stealth contests, the best default option for enhance ability is Bear’s Endurance, which also confers temporary hit points; the other options are situation-specific.
Anytime the dragon blessed is at least lightly wounded (reduced to 67 hp or fewer), its go-to attack is Radiant Bolt; it switches to Mace only if it’s engaged in melee combat and can’t easily get out of it. The time to drop mass cure wounds is when at least six members of the dragon blessed’s side—or all of them, if there are fewer than six—are at least 19 damage shy of their respective hit point maximums, and revivify, of course, is for when someone of consequence is dying. Like the dragon chosen, the dragon blessed is clearly a fighting-to-the-death type.
Dragonborn champions have more of the vibe I’m looking for: they have breath weapons (on a 6-only recharge, so they’re not throwing away their shot), they can’t be frightened, and two of them can fly (why not all three, though?).
The weakest of the three, the dragonborn of Sardior, oddly has the longest stat block, although that’s largely by virtue of the length of its description of Heat Breath. This champion is a psionic spellcaster with exceptional Intelligence and very high Dexterity and Constitution; it may slightly prefer medium over long range, but it’s fine with either. Bigby’s hand and hypnotic pattern are both good out to 120 feet, while telekinesis has a range of 60. Mind Blade is a strong attack—tripled by the champion’s Multiattack—that works at melee range but is just as good from 20 feet away. Between 20 and 60 feet, the champion has disadvantage to hit with Mind Blade, so at that distance, it sticks to spells and Heat Breath.
The time to use Heat Breath is when the champion can strike at least three opponents in a 30-foot cone; it waits for this moment to arrive before letting loose, even after this ability recharges. Bigby’s hand, interestingly, duplicates a lot of draconic lair actions in its functions: direct damage (Clenched Fist and Grasping Hand), push effects (Forceful Hand), movement restriction (Grasping Hand and Interposing Hand). Because of its range, its versatility and the fact that all three of the dragonborn of Sardior’s spells compete for its concentration, I’m inclined to favor Bigby’s hand over either of the other two. (Also, If I’m running this monster, I’m totally reskinning the hand to look like a dragon claw.) The exception is if this champion’s foes are clearly a strong and tough bunch, in which case hypnotic pattern (another debilitator), which targets Wisdom, is likely to be more effective, and the exceptionally intelligent champion surely knows it. Telekinesis runs a distant third; cast it only if somehow the champion’s concentration on its other spells is disrupted in both round 1 and round 2.
Because the dragonborn of Sardior can both fly and hover, and because of its variety of ranged abilities, it has no reason to descend into anyone’s melee weapon reach. Instead, it hangs in the air about 10 feet up and 15 feet away, using its aggressive abilities first to neutralize opponents that can hurt it from a distance, then to mop up the remainder of its foes. The name “champion” again implies fanaticism, so the dragonborn of Sardior doesn’t retreat, however badly wounded it is.
The dragonborn of Tiamat, which cannot fly, is a straightforward brute with exceptional Constitution, extraordinary Strength, and little reason or ability to do anything except charge into melee and start hacking away, without much thought given to target selection. The one exception, its Necrotic Breath, has the same trigger condition as the dragonborn of Sardior’s Heat Breath, with the side effect of frightening targets who fail their Wisdom saves—a little taste of Frightful Presence, but one that can affect targets again even after they succeed. It’s a foregone conclusion that the dragonborn of Tiamat doesn’t flee, ever.
The dragonborn of Bahamut is also a brute, but it can fly. What it can’t do, unfortunately, is attack an opponent with its longsword and then fly away again without provoking an opportunity attack, and AC 18 isn’t quite high enough for me to comfortably say it would shrug off the risk. Then again, it’s borderline enough for me to wonder, would a dragonborn of Bahamut willingly risk one opportunity attack in order to avoid being hit two, three or four times by a foe with Extra Attack or Multiattack?
I think its Intelligence is just high enough that it would be able to make that calculation—but not high enough to know in advance whether its opponent can take that many swings at once. So let’s say the dragonborn of Bahamut charges boldly into combat and stays there, but when an opponent gets more than one attack on its turn, it says, “Oh, snap!” and goes airborne at the end of its next turn, after making its own attacks. After that, it knows to get out of that one particular opponent’s reach between turns.
The calculus on Radiant Breath is different from that of Heat Breath and Necrotic Breath, because Radiant Breath has an alternative effect: It can heal friendly creatures in the cone. Therefore, it’s not as simple as merely being able to strike three foes in the area of effect. Instead, the dragonborn of Bahamut uses this ability when it can strike at least three creatures who are either foes or wounded allies.
To avoid overhealing—that is, healing more hit points than a target has lost to damage, therefore wasting part of the effect—the champion ought to count only allies who are down 25 hp or more from their maximum. However, it doesn’t have the Intelligence to be able to make that kind of calculation precisely. Instead, it uses Radiant Breath’s healing power on allies who are at least moderately wounded, i.e., reduced to 70 percent of their hit point maximum or less. “Looks like you’re hurting” is about the best assessment the dragonborn of Bahamut is capable of making in the moment. As for Healing Touch, that’s reserved for an ally who’s seriously wounded (reduced to 40 percent of their hit point max or less), and if there are more than one, the champion decides on the basis of who’s worst off as a percentage of max hp. That’s more calculation for the Dungeon Master, but for the dragonborn of Bahamut, it’s less: the champion is simply eyeballing it.
A lawful good zealot is still a zealot, so the dragonborn of Bahamut doesn’t retreat from combat, no matter how much damage it takes.
Next: hoard scarabs and hoard mimics.