It’s the spooooopy season, and so it’s appropriate that my first post–Gamehole Con analysis should be of the ghost dragon, a wyrm with unfinished business—which is to say, one that’s not done having stuff yet. At first blush, it seems odd that the fact of the ghost dragon’s refusal to pass beyond the veil makes it less legendary than it was before, rather than more, but the absence of legendary and lair actions is deceiving. A ghost dragon is as challenging a foe as any other adult dragon, if not even more so.
Ghost dragons can no longer burrow, climb or swim, but they don’t need to: they’re incorporeal now, and they can fly just as swiftly as they ever did. As in life, they’re brutes, with extraordinary Strength, Constitution and Charisma, not to mention high Intelligence and Wisdom as well. They’re resistant to physical damage—even from magic weapons!—and outright immune to acid, cold, necrotic and poison damage, plus a host of debilitating conditions. They gain expertise in Stealth, good for popping out of apparently unattended treasure piles and going, “Boo!” (They shouldn’t actually hide in the treasure pile, though, because that would cause them to take force damage each turn they were in there.)
But here are the really brutal features: Bite and Terrifying Breath. What’s so brutal about a Bite attack? Seems pretty quotidian, right? Ah, but this Bite attack deals 23 percent more damage on average than the Bite of an adult red dragon and 52 percent more than that of an adult white … and it also slows the target down to half speed on a hit.
Terrifying Breath, meanwhile, deals cold damage in a 90-foot cone—the standard breath weapon area of effect for an ancient dragon, not an adult dragon, as the ghost dragon evidently used to be, based on its size—and causes the frightened condition in targets that failed their saves, à la Frightful Presence. But there’s one more thing: Creatures frightened by Terrifying Breath are also paralyzed. That’s the real killer, right there. In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, paralyzed is about the worst thing you can be, next to unconscious or dead.
As a brute combatant, built for melee, and as an ambush attacker, as evidenced by its expertise in both Perception and Stealth, the ghost dragon is clearly built for one strategy: zeroing in on targets that would rather not be anywhere near it and mauling the bejesus out of them. Funnily enough, the ghost dragon’s flying speed is so swift, it can outpace nearly any prospective victim even without cutting that victim’s speed in half. But the fact that you can try to run, but can move only at half speed when you do—like in a dream—is where the terror comes from.
Unlike most dragons’ breath weapons, Terrifying Breath recharges only on a roll of 6, not 5–6. It’s not an automatic go-to. In fact, a ghost dragon that used Terrifying Breath on its first turn in combat would waste the element of stealth. If it can hide and attack from hiding, gaining unseen attacker advantage on its first attack, it absolutely should. Then it uses Terrifying Breath, after first repositioning to strike all potential targets in the cone. And then it focuses its attacks on those paralyzed targets that seem most likely to shake off their paralysis first, because the window of opportunity is narrow and will close quickly. That means the least frail-looking; the ghost dragon is smart, but not so smart that it can read ability score or saving throw modifiers off its targets’ character sheets.
Lacking natural armor because of its incorporeality, the ghost dragon has an oddly low Armor Class, but it makes up for that with a ridiculous number of hit points and the aforementioned damage resistances. Which types of damage does the ghost dragon have to watch out for? Among the elemental types, fire, lightning and thunder; among the arcane types, radiant and force. Squishy spellcasters are likely to be undone by Terrifying Breath, but clerics and paladins are often tougher, and they’re known for dishing out radiant damage; there’s also the remote but nonzero chance of failing a saving throw against being turned. A ghost dragon must therefore take care of these threats quickly. Druids, with their command of elemental energies, and sorcerers, who tend to have higher Constitution than other arcane spellslingers and may revive unexpectedly, are also dangers to keep an eye on. If the ghost dragon is lucky enough to regain Terrifying Breath mid-combat, it holds onto it unless and until its most dangerous foes shrug off their fear and paralysis, to try to keep them in check.
Aside from this consideration, generally speaking, a ghost dragon likes melee combat a lot, but it likes melee combat against a foe that doesn’t like melee combat even more, and if there’s no particular clear and present danger it has to deal with, it prefers to pick on those who are least equipped to fight back. If a target has Extra Attack or a Multiattack, the ghost dragon withdraws out of reach between turns, happy to chance one opportunity attack to avoid being hit by two, three or four.
Ghost dragons are undead and therefore driven by compulsion, in this case the compulsion to remain with their hoards. Besides which, a ghost dragon has died once already, so it can’t realistically be afraid of dying again. It therefore doesn’t flee no matter how much damage it takes. However, there is one conceivable way in which a ghost dragon might be mollified: by sincerely and solemnly promising to place the item of treasure to which it’s most strongly attached in a specially protected location and to allow the ghost dragon to continue to claim ownership of it. Make your case slickly enough, and you get the best of both worlds: the use of the item (as long as it’s not one you have to carry around with you) and a draconic spectral guardian to help keep it safe from anyone who might attempt to gank it from you.
Next: hollow dragons.