“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
No monster is more iconic to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS than the dragon. They’re even in the name! Of all the creature groups, dragons are the most heavily represented in the core rulebooks, with thirty-three (33) pages in the Monster Manual dedicated solely to just true dragons (not counting other creatures with the dragon type, like wyverns and dragon turtles). It wasn’t until the release of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes that other creature types were similarly expanded.
Today, we turn our attention to the most sinister of all dragonkind: black dragons.
Black dragons are remarkable among their evil chromatic kindred for a particular streak of sadism. Like red dragons, they are loners among their kind, but that doesn’t stop them from extorting inferior creatures into service. The very presence of a black dragon is enough to twist the surrounding land, fouling water and making hoary tangles of wild brush. Tribes of lizardfolk and kobolds defend their master’s lair, compelled by the dragon’s pervasive sinister influence to slay good creatures. Even a young black dragon will command at least one tribe of followers, sending them forth to gather treasure and ever more servants to suffer under their cruel yoke.
You might be tempted to think that a dragon is a challenge that must always be faced alone. Certainly, most black dragons are dangerous foes, more than a match for any adventurer on their own. However, against an entire party of adventurers, a dragon will certainly fall quickly without proper support. A party of four 7th-level characters would find a young black dragon (challenge rating 7) to be an easy encounter. However, add three ‘elite guard’ lizardfolk (use the bandit captain stats but add the Hold Breath feature, call the Scimitar attack a Claw attack, and call the Dagger attack a Bite attack) and you have an encounter that just qualifies as deadly for a party of four 8th-level characters—right on for what you need after the party has already been through several encounters with two shambling mounds, some kobolds, and several clever traps. Take advantage of the dragon’s tyrannical bend to ensure the party gets an appropriate challenge—not all creatures are so easy to pair with subordinates!
Black dragons are equipped with a suite of natural weapons and abilities which make them deadly foes. As a dragon gets older, they become more cunning at using these abilities to their advantage.
Like all dragons, the breath weapon of a black dragon is frightening well into tier 3. Even by 15th level, a low-Hit Die character like a wizard or a sorcerer with average hp could still be downed in a single above-average acid breath, which for an adult black dragon can deal almost 100 damage with good rolls. The breath weapon is a line, which means that black dragons will, by necessity, develop an excellent sense of battlefield positioning and will favour ground that grants them unobstructed firing lines. This isn’t a red dragon’s unstoppable wave of fire or a white dragon’s bitter arctic blast; it’s a weapon of precision that a black dragon will seek the best opportunity to unleash.
One strategy that many black dragons would also develop is a ‘fly-by acid breath’. While in the air, they might swoop down and scour a section of the battlefield with their breath. At the DM’s discretion, such an attack could result in a curving line that follows the dragon’s flight path, rather than a straight one, so long as all the squares affected by the breath weapon were adjacent to another affected square.
Most black dragons make their lairs in swamps or crumbling ruins with ready access to water, knowing their ability to breathe underwater grants them a significant advantage over many enemies. A particularly devious strategy is to grapple a spellcaster and drag them under a nearby body of water, making spellcasting with verbal components all but impossible (tip: there are only nine spells in the entire Player’s Handbook that don’t have a verbal component). The dragon probably has an aquatic escape route from its lair just to be especially safe.
Adult and older black dragons, being legendary creatures, possess lair effects. These include more opportunities for shenanigans with spellcasters being plunged underwater (or just knocking any target prone so the dragon can attack them with disadvantage), swarms of biting insects to whittle away at hit points, and spheres of vision-blocking darkness. Remember that dragons have blightsight, so the black dragon would have advantage on attack rolls against creatures in such areas of darkness.
Even in a low-magic campaign, it’s difficult to justify not giving dragons—black dragons in particular—the innate spellcasting variant on page 86 of the Monster Manual. Always looking for an edge over their draconic kin or a way to more effectively terrorize their subjects, black dragons would develop their arcane talents just as they would their aim with their breath weapon or their aerial manoeuvrability. The following are the spells we recommend to give your next black dragon.
1/day: blindness/deafness, detect magic
1/day: bestow curse, blight, counterspell
1/day: circle of death, counterspell, phantasmal killer, slow
Putting It All Together
Black dragons may not be the toughest of the chromatics, but they are the most sinister. A black dragon is the kind of enemy who deserves a good story and ten good secrets. A black dragon will work hard to gain the upper hand so that it can lord this over its enemies and relish the inevitable death of their hope. Cunning and cruel, their schemes are of the insidious variety and likely to be revealed late in their development, forcing the characters to fight on the dragon’s terms—just as it should be.
Follow these guidelines and your dragon is sure to cause a sensation for your players.