Dungeons & Dragons: Running an epic fight against a dragon

Black dragon

We are now five sessions into our “In Exile” (“Maanpaossa” in Finnish) campaign, in which the players portray nobles and their servants who have fled their homeland, now trapped in civil war. It is very much back to basics D&D, as per the Essentials flavor.

The game has been very successful so far and I’m only more pumped to run it as we’re getting further along. Last night we had an awesome fight with a black dragon. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for decades now and I’m happy to say it met my expectations.

Running an epic fight against a dragon

I wanted the players to be invested in their base of operations, the town of Winterhaven (“Talvensyli”) from  H1 – Keep On The Shadowfell. We had already established that Count Padhraig would be evacuating the town based on a warning from the heroes – the black dragon Saessan would be coming for the town at midnight. There were around 50 defenders at the Count’s command.

I wanted an epic dragon fight. My players deserved it.

Even though the 4E combat is fast, I was not about to draw a map with fifty defenders on it. That would basically just make the combat a very large slugfest. As the majority of the defenders were minions, they would just get wiped out very quickly and not really add to the fight at all. Giving them levels (more hit points) would just make the fight very easy for the players.

Skill Challenge: Defend Winterhaven from Saessan, the young black dragon (Complexity 3, 150 XP)

With my love for skill challenges, I set the defense of Winterhaven as a long, complexity 3 task. They would need six moderate (DC 13 for level two heroes) and two hard (DC 20) successes before failing three times. As an advantage, they could remove up to two prior failures by using one of their hard (DC 20) successes.

Every “turn”, the dragon would attack something in the town – either one of the groups of defenders (militia and dwarf warriors in groups of ten and five), one of the NPCs (the count, innkeep and smith), or the PCs. I just whipped up a random table and rolled for it.

On its turn, the dragon would do damage with its breath weapon (2D8+3, I bypassed the ongoing damage in this case) to its target. This means basically wiping out a group of defenders with minion status. To make it interesting for the players, one of them could opt to guard the threatened group and instead take the damage all on their own. Guarding players could not participate in that turn’s skill shallenge.

The players could not use their normal powers and attacks to damage the dragon. Rather, they would need to use their skills as part of the fight. You can only use a single skill once as the “rolling skill” per skill challenge, so they would need to come up with new ways to fight the beast. If someone needed healing, they could use healing surges freely.

Every round they failed, the dragon would destroy part of the town. The players would get to choose between the smithy, the inn, the wizard’s tower or the homes of Winterhaven.

Outcome

The way it played out, the players got to around halfway of the challenge and then failed three times in a row with natural ones. This was a great outcome, actually – demoralized, the defenders wouldn’t dare to face the dragon anymore, parts of the town were in ruins, but the heroes had soaked up all the damage, leaving all the defenders in (relatively) good health.

Failing the challenge meant fighting the dragon the old-fashioned way, and it couldn’t have been better, really. We had gotten a much more interesting, dramatic fight out of it, and would still get to use all the powers and play out the fight “properly”, as some of the players were itching to do. The fight had moved across the city streets and through several buildings, culminating in a trap in the smoking ruins of the smithy.

I counted all the successful attacks against the dragon over the course of the skill challenge, leaving out traps and the like, and let the players roll for damage as normal. This left the dragon down by around a third of hit points.

My crew won the fight fairly with a well-timed illusion winning them some time, almost overcome by the dying dragon’s acidic blood in the end. It was suitably touch and go.

Lessons learned

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have planned to rob the players of the joy of the actual dragon fight. The “best case” outcome should have been leaving the dragon bloodied, which still makes for a fearsome opponent.

Some of the players found the “epic fight” approach confusing to begin with, but by the end, I think my first time actually letting a dragon loose on my players was a major success.

The reason it played so well was that the players got to make the important, dare I say heroic calls about their actions – who to protect, at what cost, what part of the city to sacrifice to the dragon’s rampage. Meaningful choice and facing concequences are interesting and thus fun.

I believe I’ll use a similar approach in other big fights in the game. Perhaps I should find a way to allow the heroes to use their normal abilities and attacks, as well, though.

Someone might fret over experience point economy – the players got the XP for completing the skill challenge (150), as well as felling the dragon (175), as well as completing the quest of saving Winterhaven from the dragon (125). I think it was suitably challenging and a standout moment to be worth it. The game world is now a much livelier place, with a cool moment in history bonding the players to the city. Plus it ties neatly into the multiple quest lines I’ve got running in the background. I want to make the events meaningful to the players to make them care more about the future plot lines.

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