I’m a big fan of multilateral combat encounters, and the egg hunters in Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons are a sly way to throw in an extra dimension of conflict: parasites that feed on dragon embryos and lay their own eggs in the emptied shells.
To a dragon defending a clutch of eggs—like the black dragon Mundirostrix in Live to Tell the Tale—a party of bloodthirsty adventurers may pose a clear and present danger, but all that will be forgotten in an instant if the dragon spies an egg hunter skulking around. The horror and revulsion, fear and fury that these minuscule monstrosities evoke in dragons overwhelms all other considerations. First, the dragon will try to whisk its eggs out of the egg hunter’s reach; second, it will turn all its attention and efforts toward obliterating the parasite.
This distraction may allow a party of player characters to punch above their weight, taking on a dragon that would normally be too much for them to handle. Don’t assume, however, that just because the PCs are enemies of the dragon, an egg hunter—or its hatchlings—are friendly to them.
Egg hunter hatchlings, for example, devour any other unhatched eggs in a clutch when they emerge, but that alone won’t necessarily sate their ravenous appetite. They appear in groups of one to six, and per the encounter building guidelines in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, five hatchlings pose a challenge roughly equal to that of one adult egg hunter (possibly greater, since the Xanathar’s guidelines assume combat against multiple opponents).
Let’s make some Drake equation–style assumptions (ha ha, see what I did there, Drake equation, ha ha) about what will happen when a clutch of baby egg hunters hatch. First, it’s reasonable to posit that for every egg hunter hatchling, there will be one other dragon egg containing an actual wyrmling. Second, let’s imagine that these are green dragons—the middle-of-the-road chromatic type. A green dragon wyrmling has 7d8 + 7 hp, for an average of 38—but a not-yet-hatched wyrmling will be at the far low end of this scale, so let’s say 14 to 25 hp, the first percentile of green dragon wyrmling hit points. Third, a not yet fully developed dragon wyrmling in its egg is restrained. Fourth, it’s still soft and doesn’t yet gain the benefit of natural armor, so its Armor Class is only 11. Fifth, the eggshell is a Medium-size, fragile object (see Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8, “Objects”) made of a bonelike substance, giving it AC 15 and 4 hp.
What will happen, then, when the egg hunter hatchlings hatch? On their first turn, each one goes straight for a dragon egg and uses its Multiattack to break open the shell and feast on its contents. The first Egg Tooth attack deals 4d6 + 3 damage, more than enough to break into the egg—more than enough to smash it, probably, but this is a piercing attack, so let’s say it just makes a large hole. The second attack, with advantage, deals an average of 10 damage, maximum 15 to the wyrmling inside.
The poor beastie, restrained and weak, is limited in its ability to fight back: it can’t move to aim its breath weapon, and there’s maybe a 1 in 6 chance that it’s already pointing in the right direction. But even if so, it reaches only as far as the egg hunter hatchling itself, because the wyrmling isn’t even a wyrmling yet, just a proto-wyrmling. And that’s assuming that it’s developed enough to fight back at all; for all we know, egg hunters develop a lot faster than wyrmlings do. In any event, it’s unlikely that the proto-wyrmling’s one chance to defend itself would suffice to defeat or deter the egg hunter hatchling trying to feed on it.
On its second turn, the egg hunter hatchling, if not driven away, Multiattacks again. If its first attack didn’t reduce the wyrmling to 0 hp, one of these two attacks almost certainly will. On its third turn, the hatchling devours the wyrmling.
OK, so what if a third party—either the parent dragon or an altruistic PC—intervenes? Time to look at the egg hunter hatchling’s ability contour. It has very high Dexterity, above-average Constitution, below-average Strength and rock-bottom Intelligence. The egg hunter hatchling acts solely on instinct, strikes fast and hard, and has only two modes: “Get ’em!” and “Run!” It’s immune to the frightened condition, so Frightful Presence has no effect on it. With a normal survival urge, the hatchling flees when seriously wounded (reduced to 11 hp or fewer) or engaged in melee by any Large or bigger creature, utilizing its Rapid Movement bonus action.
It’s explicitly stated that this dim little creature can nevertheless use Rapid Movement to Disengage, which implies to me (a) that it’s an instinctive knack and (b) that the hatchling does so reflexively if there’s any hostile creature within 15 feet of it. Why 15 feet? Because adult dragons have a melee attack with a 15-foot reach, and egg hunters wouldn’t survive if they Disengaged only from foes within 5 feet. On the contrary, they’re more likely to waste their Disengage on enemies 10 or 15 feet away whose maximum reach is only 5 feet, because they have no way of knowing they’re out of reach already. For their action, however, they Dash.
Egg hunter hatchlings are amphibious, but they have no swimming speed, so they move through water at only 15 feet per turn. That’s still faster than their burrowing speed, though. So should a fleeing egg hunter hatchling run or climb first, swim second and burrow third?
Well, not necessarily. Any adult dragon can easily outfly or outrun an egg hunter hatchling, but only three out of the 10 most common dragons can burrow, and only four can swim. A flying dragon can pursue a climbing egg hunter hatchling, but a non-burrowing dragon can’t pursue a burrowing egg hunter, and a non-swimming dragon can’t pursue a swimming egg hunter.
So unless the ground is solid rock, a fleeing egg hunter hatchling goes underground, digging a squiggly path to evade breath weapons, which don’t spread around corners. If the ground is solid, the hatchling’s next recourse is to head for water. If there’s no water nearby, it tries to find a crack to scurry into, climbing a wall if it must (but not a smooth surface or a ceiling—no Spider Climb here). Darting across open terrain is a last resort.
OK, but what if an egg hunter is attacked by a Small or Medium humanoid who’s not big enough to frighten it off immediately and doesn’t deal enough damage to seriously wound it? It bites back, at least until it is seriously wounded. Again, it’s not smart enough to do anything else. It can’t process new information about its foes. It eats, it bites anything that gets in the way of its eating and doesn’t seem to be an angry dragon parent, and it runs away from what hurts it.
Egg hunter adults aren’t much smarter—Intelligence 3 is dog- or cat-grade—but these little monsters have better instincts and greater self-defense capabilities. They also have extraordinary Dexterity, very high Constitution, high Strength and above-average Wisdom. With proficiency in Perception in addition to expertise in Stealth, they’re well-suited to the ambush predator lifestyle, but they’re not looking to ambush prey. Rather, they sneak into dragons’ dens (ideally, when the dragons are out—even Stealth +11 is touch-and-go against adult dragons’ passive Perception scores), deposit as many eggs as they can and slink away again. (I don’t see any reason why they should stick around after laying their own eggs. Lots of egg-laying species don’t. Like, the whole point of laying your eggs in someone else’s nest is so that you don’t have to take care of them when they hatch.)
Egg hunter adults are conflict-averse; fighting gets in the way of their goal. They’re at their most vulnerable when arriving and departing, and they’re least vulnerable when sitting still: Dragons actually have disadvantage on ability checks to recognize stationary egg hunters for what they are. So once an egg hunter has crept into a clutch of dragon eggs, it assumes its disguise and doesn’t move a muscle until it’s laid its own eggs. Then, generally, it waits to leave until after the dragon does. So let’s evaluate the likelihood of three possible combat encounter scenarios:
- An egg hunter tries to slip into a dragon’s den unnoticed while the dragon is busy fighting other creatures. Risky, since adult and ancient dragons have the Detect legendary action, and generally contrary to egg hunter behavior.
- A lurking egg hunter that’s just laid its eggs, or is about to, is accidentally discovered by other creatures rummaging through the dragon’s nest while the dragon is absent—or after they’ve slain it. This scenario is the most probable.
- An egg hunter that finished laying its eggs a while ago but had to lie low because the dragon came back tries to sneak out when interlopers arrive and have the dragon’s attention. Less likely than the previous scenario, but more chaotic and possibly more entertaining.
Aside from its False Appearance, the egg hunter adult has three forms of defense. Barbed Proboscis is a nasty piercing attack that implicitly drains the target’s blood, restoring some hit points to the egg hunter. Torpor Spores is an area effect that compromises foes’ ability to harm the egg hunter. Rapid Adaptation confers resistance on—well, when you think about it, on every type of damage the egg hunter takes, with no expiration date. The first time it takes any one type of damage, it takes in full; after that, it’s always halved. Handy against dragons! It’s also immune to poison damage to begin with, so green dragon eggs are favorite targets.
Alas for the egg hunter, it’s not smart enough to be able to tell whether a nearby creature has seen it or not. It can keep its cool if a dragon sits on it, but otherwise, if any creature gets within 5 feet of it, it reacts defensively, releasing its Torpor Spores and stabbing twice with its Barbed Proboscis. Then it skedaddles, moving away at full speed and Dashing on subsequent turns. It can’t burrow or swim, but it can climb, so if it can make for a crack up the wall, it does so. With walking and climbing speeds of 40 feet, it’s decent at running away—and, importantly, if it does decide to turn around and fight a determined pursuer, it does so a good distance away from the eggs it’s just laid, only if it’s stronger than its foe(s) and only until it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 20 hp or fewer). It stands and fights against one PC of up to level 11, two of level 8, three of level 6, four of level 5 and any number of lower-level PCs. These cutoffs don’t represent calculation—the egg hunter isn’t capable of that—but rather an intuitive sense of how much danger it’s in.
Want to throw another wrench into the encounter? What if the dragon comes back while the PCs are fighting the escaping egg hunter? That will certainly color the relationship between the dragon and the PCs in a new and interesting way, especially if the PCs finish off the egg hunter before doing anything to the dragon.
Next: dragonflesh grafters and abominations.