Dragons in core 5e

I’ve looked over the information in the core 5e Monster Manual about dragons and analysed it to bring out some universals, some patterns of variation, and some less-patterned specifics. These might be of interest if you’re a GM running 5e dragons (or especially if you’re considering homebrewing dragon stat blocks), or a crunch-oriented player in an open-book game. Note that if you’re a player whose GM doesn’t like you reading the Monster Manual, it would be unsporting to read on. Spoiler warning.

Dragon universals

Dragons are proficient in Stealth and double proficient in Perception.

Dragons are proficient in Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom and Charisma saves.

Dragons in their lairs gain lair actions according to colour.

All dragons can speak Draconic; knowledge of Common depends on age as noted below.

All dragons can fly as well as walk, all have blindsight and darkvision, and all have bite attacks and all have damaging breath weapons—details vary by type and age as described below.

Dragons generally follow the normal monster creation rules, including having the appropriate proficiency modifier for their challenge rating and rolling the appropriate hit point die for their size.

Colour and alignment

Dragons are listed in the Monster Manual as either ‘chromatic’ or ‘metallic’. Chromatic dragons are evil and metallic dragons good. They are also either lawful or chaotic according to colour; no dragons in the Monster Manual have any neutral component in their alignment listing.

 LawfulNeutralChaotic
GoodBronze, Gold, SilverBrass, Copper
Neutral
EvilBlue, GreenBlack, Red, White
Dragon alignment chart by colour

There are some significant stat block differences between chromatic and metallic dragons in general:

  • Chromatic dragons do additional damage with their bites, of the damage type for their colour.
  • Metallic dragons have an additional, non-damaging, breath weapon; the effect depends on colour.
  • More powerful (at and above CR 15, Adult Bronze) metallic dragons have the Change Shape ability

The details of these and other stat block differences are discussed below in the Power section.

It may also be noted in passing that the Lawful majority of the Good metallic dragons also includes all the most powerful types, whereas the Chaotic majority of the Evil chromatic dragons includes both the most powerful (Red) and the weakest (Black and White).

Age and size

Dragons in 5e come in four age categories, which determine size and a number of statistics and abilities as shown in this table.  

AgeWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
SizeMediumLargeHugeGargantuan
Hit point diced8sd10sd12sd20s
Speed30ft40ft40ft40ft
Fly speed60ft80ft80ft80ft
Blindsight10ft30ft60ft60ft
Darkvision60ft120ft120ft120ft
LanguagesDraconicDraconic, CommonDraconic, CommonDraconic, Common
MultiattackBite,
2 claws
Frightful Presence, bite,
2 claws
Frightful Presence, bite,
2 claws
Bite reach5ft10ft10ft15ft
Bite base Piercing damage1d102d102d102d10
Claw reach5ft5ft10ft
Claw base Slashing damage2d62d62d6
Tail reach15ft20ft
Tail base Bludgeoning damage2d82d8
Frightful Presence120ft120ft
Legendary Resistance3/Day3/Day
Legendary Actions33
Wing attack radius10ft15ft
Wing base Bludgeoning damage2d62d6
Dragon stat block elements by age category

A dragon’s bite, claw and tail attacks use Strength to modify the attack roll and damage.

The save DC for Frightful Presence is 8 + proficiency modifier + Charisma modifier.

The save DC for the Wing Attack is 8 + proficiency modifier + Strength modifier, and the Strength modifier is also added to the damage.

Proficiency modifier is as normal for the Challenge rating of the dragon.

Note that the tail attack is not included in the Multiattack action. The dragon can use it as a Legendary Action, or with the Attack action if it needs additional reach or bludgeoning damage.

In my Monster Manual the base claw damage for an Ancient Green dragon is given as 4d6—I haven’t found errata on this, so I guess it is an intentional exception.

Dragons of Adult and Ancient ages are Legendary, and gain regional effects according to colour and DM choice.

It will therefore come as no surprise that age category is the primary determinant of dragon power and Challenge rating—see the Power section below.

Damage type

All dragons have a damage type, according to colour:  

Damage typeColour/s
AcidBlack, Copper
ColdSilver, White
FireBrass, Gold, Red
LightningBlue, Bronze
PoisonGreen
Dragon damage type by colour

There’s nearly a pattern that there’s one metallic and one chromatic dragon of each damage type, but the metallic dragons include no poison type and two fire types.

Dragons are immune to their damage type (and Poison dragons are immune to the poisoned condition).

A dragon’s damaging breath weapon deals damage of the corresponding type.

Also, chromatic dragons deal additional damage with their bite of the corresponding type as well (see Power below).

Terrain

Most dragon colours can be classified by terrain type. Note that these terrain classifications are not explicit in the Monster Manual—this is just my attempt to make sense of their features and lore.

TerrainColour/sSpecial movementFeature
WaterBlack, Bronze, Green, GoldSwimAmphibious
RockCopper, RedClimb 
SandBlue, BrassBurrow 
IceWhiteSwim, BurrowIce Walking
Dragon features by terrain type

Swim and climb speeds are equal to walking speed (see age and size, above). Burrowing speed varies more by age category:

AgeWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Burrowing speed15ft20ft30ft40ft
Dragon burrowing speed by age

The ‘Amphibious’ feature of water dragons (they can breathe both air and water) applies to all ages.

The Ice Walking feature of ice dragons applies only to Young, Adult and Ancient dragons; Wyrmlings do not have it.

Note that officially Silver dragons have no special movement rate or terrain feature. My systematising brain wants to put them in the ice category with White dragons, since the ice category officially lacks a metallic member, when the other terrains have equal numbers of chromatic and metallic. This would make sense as they live in icy, snowy habitats. But the designers appear to be avoiding consistent correspondences between damage type and terrain, which might be why they didn’t give silvers the obvious terrain type.

If you’re looking for other homebrew options, Silver dragons could have the rock terrain as mountain dwellers, or it might be interesting to give them some unique feature relating to spending time in humanoid society.

Power

Dragon colours can be ranked according to overall power (Challenge rating for a given age), which shows that there are five ‘ranks’, each with one chromatic and one metallic dragon of equal power. Note again that the ranks are not explicit in the Monster Manual—only the CRs are given there.

RankChromaticMetallicAncient CRAdult CRYoung CRWyrmling CR Wyrmling CR
1RedGold241710Red 4Gold 3
2BlueSilver23169Blue 3Silver 2
3GreenBronze22158Green 2Bronze 2
4BlackCopper21147Black 2Copper 1
5WhiteBrass20136White 2Brass 1
Dragon ranks and Challenge ratings (scroll right for metallic Wyrmlings)

Some patterns can be noted. Within each age category, each rank has a higher CR (by 1 per rank). The power difference across age categories (7 CR steps) is great enough that there is no overlap—even a rank 5 dragon of a higher age category is stronger than a rank 1 dragon of the next younger category.

Note that Wyrmling CR does not fit these overall patterns. It is not always 7 less than Young CR. It does not always increase by 1 between ranks. And it generally differs between chromatic and metallic at the same rank. I suppose the evil chromatic Wyrmlings are more dangerous to make them worthy enemies for low-level parties, and the good metallic Wyrmlings are less capable so that they are better suited to roles as pets, companions, helpers or NPCs in distress.

As well as the strict age category features already set out, the stat blocks of dragons generally scale according to these power ranks as well as age. But there are some interesting relative strengths and weaknesses to look at.

Armor

Dragons have impressive natural armor, and benefit from their Dexterity bonus if they have one. Natural armor improves with age, one step per category, but two or three at Ancient. There are three natural armor progressions:

ColoursWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Blue, Bronze, Red, Silver17181922
Brass, Green, White16171820
Black, Copper, Gold15161720
Dragon natural armour by colour and age

Those with the best natural armor progression are all rank 1 to 3 types, and none have a Dexterity bonus. The middle progression includes two lower-ranked types also without a Dexterity bonus, and one (Green) with +1 Dex, giving them equal AC to the best armored (except one worse at Ancient). The least armored group all have Dex bonuses: Copper have +1, giving them equal AC to Brass and White (except one better at Ancient); Black and Gold have +2, giving them the same AC progression as the best-armored (which is in line with the power level of rank 1 Golds, but is exceptional for rank 4 Blacks). It may be noted that since Dexterity bonus and natural armour correlate inversely the overall AC varies only slightly between colour types; the main determinant is age.

Hit point dice

Each dragon type and age rolls a different number of dice for hit points. (Note that the size of the die, from d8 for Medium Wyrmlings to d20 for Gargantuan Ancient dragons, along with the increasing Constitution modifiers, ensure that hit points increase consistently and dramatically with age.)

ChromChromChrmChrmMetMetMetMet
RankWmlgYoungAdultAnctWmlgYngAdAnc
1101719288171928
281618266161825
371618225151724
461517214141620
551416183131517
Dragon number of dice for hit points by rank

There are patterns here with several irregularities, which I assume must be a result of tweaking to achieve the right power for the Challenge ratings. For metallic dragons at young and adult ages, each rank rolls one die more than the one below, and Adult rolls two dice more than Young. For chromatic dragons the same is true except that ranks 2 and 3 roll the same number of dice. Ancient dragons increase their margin over Adult from rank 4 upwards, though not in a mathematically regular way.  Wyrmlings roll a lot fewer dice than Young dragons, especially metallics, but also roll one more die per rank increase except for rank 1.

Physical abilities

Strength modifiers increase with age, by 2 steps per age category. Also, higher ranks are largely stronger than lower:

ColoursWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Gold, Red, Silver+4+6+8+10
Blue, Bronze+3+5+7+9
Black, Brass, Copper, Green, White+2+4+6+8
Dragon strength modifiers by age and colour

Note that at ranks 2 and 3 the metallics are one point stronger than their chromatic counterparts.

Constitution modifiers are one point lower than Strength, except for Whites where they are equal.

Dexterity modifiers do not change with age. There are three categories by Dexterity:

ColoursDexterity modifier
Black, Gold+2
Copper, Green+1
Brass, Bronze, Blue, Red, Silver, White0
Dragon dexterity modifiers by colour

Note that the higher Dexterity modifiers tend to go with worse natural armour and the 0 Dexterity modifiers include all those (Silver, Bronze, White) with higher-than-expected Strength or Constitution scores for their tier. You could perhaps describe Black and Gold dragons as relatively light and lithe, and Brass, Bronze, Blue, Red, Silver and White as more ponderous.

Extra bite damage

Chromatic dragons do extra type damage with their bites, as well as the obvious Piercing damage. The pattern is that Young and Adult dragons have the same extra damage, Ancient dragons do twice as much and Wyrmlings do half as much. The Young/Adult baseline generally increases with rank.

ColourTypeWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
RedFire1d61d62d64d6
BlueLightning1d61d101d102d10
GreenPoison1d62d62d63d6
BlackAcid1d41d81d82d8
WhiteCold1d41d81d82d8
Metallic dragon extra bite damage by colour and age

The irregularities:

  • Young Red dragons do no more than Wyrmlings. This seems odd but I haven’t found errata.
  • Wyrmling Blue dragons do slightly more than half the Blue baseline, I think because 5e prefers to use standard physical dice like d6 rather than nonstandard ‘dice’ like d5.
  • Greens have a higher baseline damage than Blue despite being lower ranked. I suppose this must be for balance—perhaps because the spell Protection from Poison is both more effective and lower level than Protection from Energy. But Ancient Greens do not get the full double baseline.
Breath weapons

All dragons have damaging breath weapons corresponding to their damage type. All of these deal a hefty set of dice in damage, with a Dexterity save for half damage. The DC of the save is based on the dragon’s Constitution modifier and proficiency bonus. The damaging breath weapons vary in a number of parameters as well as the damage type.

The area covered may be a cone or a 5ft-wide line, and may be of different sizes from 15ft to 120ft. The size of the area increases by the age of the dragon, but in three different progressions. In this table the cone is placed at the top as the largest area, most likely to catch several victims in one breath. The longer line is obviously placed above the shorter line.

ColoursShapeWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Gold, Green, Red, Silver, WhiteCone15ft30ft60ft90ft
Blue, BronzeLine30ft60ft90ft120ft
Black, Brass, CopperLine15ft30ft60ft90ft
Dragon breath area by colour and age

Generally speaking, rank 1 has cone breath, ranks 2 and 3 have a cone or a long line, while ranks 4 and 5 have a short line. The exception is White dragons, which have a cone at rank 5.

The damage dice of the breath weapons show irregular patterns, again presumably to achieve the desired Challenge ratings. The broadest pattern is obviously that damage increases with age, though there is overlap in the ranges above Wyrmling and there tends not to be a dramatic increase from Young to Adult. Looking for categories, one might group the colours into three grades by breath damage.

ColoursWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Blue, Bronze, Gold, Red16-2455-5663-6671-91
Black, Green, Silver, White18-2242-5454-5867-77
Brass, Copper14-1840-4245-5456-63
Dragon breath damage (average, approximate) by colour and age

The table numbers are averages, showing the lowest and highest average values among the colours in each grade at each age.

Metallic dragons also have non-damaging breath weapons, with which they can dominate lesser creatures while showing mercy where they judge fit, or if necessary gain an advantage over serious foes who are protected against the dragon’s damage type. The effects are unique to each colour, and I will not analyse them further here.

Mental abilities

The mental abilities of Blue and Bronze dragons show a neat progression, most typical of dragons and which can be seen as a model on which the others are variants. Wisdom is the lowest score with Intelligence and Charisma one and two steps higher. Each modifier increases by one per age category.

Blue, BronzeWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence+1+2+3+4
Wisdom0+1+2+3
Charisma+2+3+4+5
Dragon mental ability modifiers, typical (Blue, Bronze)

Gold dragons have higher Intelligence at Wyrmling and Young ages, and a supercharged Charisma progression.

GoldWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence+2+3+3+4
Wisdom0+1+2+3
Charisma+3+5+7+9
Dragon mental ability modifiers, magnificent (Gold)

Silver and Red dragons (except Wyrmlings) have higher Charisma but lower Wisdom than Blue/Bronze.

Red, SilverWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence+1+2+3+4
Wisdom00+1+2
Charisma+2+4+5+6
Dragon mental ability modifiers, charismatic (Red, Silver)

Copper and Green dragons have the Blue/Bronze model but with Intelligence and Charisma swapped, making them (at Ancient age) the most intelligent of all dragons. Green dragons also show precocious Intelligence as Wyrmlings.

Copper, GreenWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence+2 (+3 Green)+3+4+5
Wisdom0+1+2+3
Charisma+1+2+3+4
Dragon mental ability modifiers, clever (Copper, Green)

Black and Brass dragons have the same pattern as Blue and Bronze but with all modifiers one lower at every age and ability (except Wisdom for Wyrmlings, which hits a floor of 0).

Black, BrassWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence0+1+2+3
Wisdom00+1+2
Charisma+1+2+3+4
Dragon mental ability modifiers, lesser (Black, Brass)

Finally, White dragons have a unique set with less age-related progress, except in Intelligence which starts from a very low base.

WhiteWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
Intelligence-3-2-10
Wisdom00+1+1
Charisma0+1+1+2
Dragon mental ability modifiers, brutal (White)
Skills

As mentioned above, all dragons have proficiency in Stealth and double proficiency in Perception. For Wyrmlings and most chromatic dragons these are their only skill proficiencies. However, metallic and Green dragons have additional skills at older ages.

ColourWyrmlingYoungAdultAncient
BrassPersuasionHistory PersuasionHistory Persuasion
BronzeInsightInsightInsight
CopperDeceptionDeceptionDeception
GoldInsight PersuasionInsight PersuasionInsight Persuasion
GreenDeceptionDeception Insight PersuasionDeception Insight Persuasion
SilverArcana HistoryArcana HistoryArcana History
Dragon additional skill proficiencies, by colour and age
Change shape

The more powerful metallic dragons (at least CR 15, which is all Ancient plus Adult Bronze, Silver and Gold) have a Change Shape ability. The available shapes are any humanoid or beast with a challenge rating no higher than the dragon’s own (which includes all the humanoids and beasts in the Monster Manual). Note that class features and Legendary Actions of the new form are not gained so, although a dragon can change shape into an Archmage (CR 12 humanoid, MM p342), it does not gain the spellcasting ability of an 18th-level caster.

I have seen some debate about this but I do not think that this ability makes dragons count as shapechangers for the purpose of immunity to polymorph and suchlike. Some GMs may play it this way though.

Innate spells

As an optional rule, Young and older dragons can cast a number of spells equal to their charisma modifier, each once per day. The spells can be of level up to 1/3 the dragon’s CR, rounded down. For spell attack bonus and save DC, use the dragon’s Charisma and proficiency bonus.

Tier 1YoungAdultAncient
Max spell level358
Gold Spells per day579
Gold Spell Attack+9+13+16
Gold Save DC172124
Red Spells per day456
Red Spell Attack+8+11+13
Red Save DC161921
Dragon spell stats by age, tier 1
 YoungAdultAncient
Tier 2 Max spell level357
Blue Spells per day345
Blue Spell Attack+7+9+12
Blue Save DC151720
Silver Spells per day456
Silver Spell Attack+8+10+13
Silver Save DC161821
Dragon spell stats by age, tier 2
 YoungAdultAncient
Tier 3 Max spell level257
Bronze Spells per day345
Bronze Spell Attack+6+9+12
Bronze Save DC141720
Green Spells per day234
Green Spell Attack+5+8+11
Green Save DC131619
Dragon spell stats by age, tier 3
 YoungAdultAncient
Tier 4 Max spell level247
Black Spells per day234
Black Spell Attack+5+8+11
Black Save DC131619
Copper Spells per day234
Copper Spell Attack+5+8+11
Copper Save DC131619
Dragon spell stats by age, tier 4
 YoungAdultAncient
Tier 5 Max spell level246
Brass Spells per day234
Brass Spell Attack+5+8+11
Brass Save DC131619
White Spells per day112
White Spell Attack+4+6+8
White Save DC121416
Dragon spell stats by age, tier 1

Tactics

Dragons can be stealthy, though with their modest Dexterity scores and single proficiency they will not rival specialist PCs, and if they attempt stealth they are likely to make contingency plans in case of detection.

Dragons have good to excellent Perception modifiers, with double proficiency and often good Wisdom bonuses. They are hard to sneak up on or hide from. However, being long-lived treasure hoarders with a strong suspicion of enemies, they are also likely to take additional precautions against sneak thieves and intruders.

With proficiency in four saves (including all the big three) and generally good to excellent ability scores, dragons have very strong saving throws. Intelligence is generally their weakest save, and any characters with abilities or spells that require Intelligence saves may be able to take advantage. Of the principal saves (Con, Dex and Wis), Dexterity is often somewhat less strong and Constitution the strongest, especially for older dragons. Legendary dragons also have legendary resistance, which provides a significant extra layer of protection against serious effects with saving throws.

Dragons, especially chromatics, use their damage types a lot. They are immune to them, and deal damage of this type with their breath weapons and (in the case of chromatics) their bites. Adventurers should always seek to identify the dragon type they face and prepare accordingly. They should seek to protect themselves against the damage type (Protection from Poison, Protection from Energy, Potions of Resistance and so forth). They should make sure not to rely on the damage type themselves. Any dragon, on the other hand, that is able to gain resistance or immunity to an additional damage type, or deal significant damage of a different type (perhaps through a spell or magic item) can give attackers who think they are prepared a nasty surprise. Even more so if they can somehow pass themselves off as a different colour of dragon and fool their enemies into mis-preparing.

Dragons’ breaths are among their most potent weapons. Unless they see that they face a foe immune to their damage type, they are likely to breathe at the first opportunity and then again about as fast as the breath recharges. They may delay for a round or so if they foresee an opportunity to ensure that they catch a greater number of enemies in their breath area, but the mathematics of the recharge mechanic make it smarter to breathe often on somewhat smaller numbers than rarely on somewhat larger numbers.

Note that White dragons have a higher Constitution modifier (and thus breath save DC), wider breath area and higher breath damage than you might expect for a rank 5 dragon type. Protection against cold damage is a particularly significant factor if fighting a White dragon.

Reliance on the breath weapon is particularly important for Wyrmlings and Young dragons. Wyrmlings have only one melee attack and it does only d10 damage (plus a Strength bonus of 2 to 4) and only against one target. Their breath does at least 4d6 damage, does half that even if the target saves, and may be able to hit more than one target at once. And it does so from a distance, which against any capable melee opponent, for a dragon with just 16 or 17 AC, is only prudent. (Indeed Wyrmlings that wish to live to see Young age would do well to learn to recognise dangerous opponents and to use their flight, burrow or swim speeds to evade the encounter altogether.)

Young dragons have better damage and multiattack, but their breath weapon is at least twice as large and at least twice as damaging as it was, so it is still a good tactic to reduce the numbers of a hostile group with the breath before closing in to finish the survivors with claws and teeth (or, if at all possible, sending in minions to do the dirty work). Spellcasters are a good primary breath target, as they are typically less able to survive damaging area attacks, and their abilities to damage at range and to heal their comrades need to be neutralised early on. It is nice to include archers in the breath weapon too, though if they are nimble enough to avoid some of the damage and survive longer than the casters then closing in temporarily to target them in melee is another alternative. If a party’s effective ranged attacks have been neutralised, then it may be possible to finish them safely from the air. Dragons destined for long life typically learn to deny themselves the pleasure of clawing and biting their prey at least until they have confirmed their superiority beyond doubt.

Adult dragons with at least a century of experience behind them and with Frightful Presence and Legendary Actions in their melee arsenal have more scope to deal with a ranged threat by closing it down. Even a White adult will hit AC 20 60% of the time and so average about 25 damage per multiattack, more against lower-AC opponents. If necessary it can at the end of the next creature’s turn use its Wing Attack to damage those within reach again and move away. If it is happy to stay in melee it can instead make up to three legendary tail attacks for significant additional damage.

Dragon spellcasting, if you use that, does not reach the firepower of full-caster PC classes of levels equal to or even approaching the dragon’s Challenge rating. They have relatively few spell slots, their maximum spell level is mediocre, and their casting stat (and therefore save DC and attack bonus) is likely to be below that of PC casters. Their breath and melee attacks provide better combat options and, rather than attacking powerful adventurers directly with spells, dragons are advised to use their spells for reconnaissance, misdirection, recruiting minions, utility, self-enhancement, environmental interaction and prepared tactics. If they can surprise, hamper or wrong-foot their enemies they can become a much more challenging (and perhaps entertaining and memorable) encounter.

Gold and to a lesser extent Red and Silver dragons are partial exceptions to the above spellcasting notes. They can ultimately access high-level spells, and their high Charisma modifiers at older ages mean that they have a decent number of different spells, each usable once per day. This might enable them to deploy several powerful spells in rapid succession against an enemy, especially if they can somehow arrange matters that they can do so from a concealed or protected position so that the enemy cannot retaliate in the meantime.

Thoughts?

How do you play dragons? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *