The gold dragon gazed down upon its prey—a fanatical glint in its kind and compassionate eye.
The party tried to stand fast against it within its massive shadow, but could barely contain their fear. The fighter battled the lump in her throat and strode forward despite her fear. She looked the dragon square in the eye and managed to say, “We are not evil, O great one! You have no reason to fight us, we simply…!”
“Silence!” roared the dragon. Its voice echoed throughout the halls of the dungeon it called its home. “I will brook no lies from evildoers such as yourself. Draw your blades and pray to whatever dark god you serve. I will make your end swift.”
There is no greater foe in D&D than its eponymous dragons. They are creatures of incredible might, power, and—at least as far as the metallic dragons are concerned—beauty. Metallic dragons, the good-aligned cousins of the evil chromatic dragons, make up some of the Monster Manual’s strongest creatures… but because of their noble hearts, very few adventurers will ever have the chance to actually fight these creatures.
The “How to Play” series usually focuses on monster tactics, but seeing how Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is launching in less than a month and a gold dragon features prominently in the promotional art for Gen Con (which just concluded last weekend), it seems only fitting to take a look at the noblest of all dragons.
Fighting Like a Gold Dragon
Gold dragons are the wisest and most powerful of all metallic dragons, and they are drawn to the tenets of law and justice just as strongly as their chromatic counterparts—red dragons—are drawn to chaos and cruelty. As such, these paragons of dragonkind are often brought into conflict with their crimson rivals and their minions.
As far as combat abilities are concerned, gold dragons have much in common with reds—with a few exceptions. Reading How to Play a Red Dragon like an Evil Genius, the first article in this series, could give you some ideas on how to play a gold dragon who has turned from the path of good and given in to paranoid evil. But even though red and gold dragons have many similar abilities, they actually behave almost completely differently in combat. This is on account of their different codes of ethics and their wildly varying worldviews.
A monster in D&D is more than just its attacks, hit points… and fire breath. Even though combat is a distinct and monolithic part of D&D’s rules, it is a prime opportunity for roleplaying. Good roleplay isn’t just talking with a character voice and saying specific catchphrases. It involves behaving like the being you’re playing as, and combat tactics are an immensely important part of a creature’s behavior. Adopting different tactics for your mighty monsters will not only deepen the verisimilitude of your campaign world, but it will also make your dragon fights feel unique and refreshing, even though many of their abilities are almost completely identical. In truth, many monster abilities are identical to the abilities of other creatures, just given a new coat of paint. This is especially true for dragons, as most dragons are only differentiated by a different type of damage immunity and a differently flavored breath weapon.
That said, these differences exist for a reason. There is some mechanical difference between a line of lightning and a cone of fire breath, but what is really important about these minute changes is that it tells a different story. A dragon that breathes lightning feels different than a dragon that breathes fire, and players will remember them differently—no matter how cynical or jaded they are. Your job, when running a gold dragon, is to make those identical abilities feel different through flavor and roleplaying—without the helping hand of unique mechanics.
Turning roleplaying traits into combat tactics isn’t easy. It takes a very close reading of the text and time spent studying to turn one into the other. One way to find traits to do this is to focus on each of the gold dragon’s personality traits, as referenced in the Monster Manual; here are some examples:
Nobility. A gold dragon’s just heart informs everything about it, from its diplomatic personality to its regal bearing in combat. It would rather force foes to surrender than to fight, but it would never back down from one if an evil being refused to capitulate. For this reason, a gold dragon often uses its unique Weakening Breath to start a combat, rather than blasting foes with fire. A truly patient dragon might even ask its foes to reconsider their desire to fight after being sapped of their strength.
“I have you at my mercy, and I have no wish to kill you. Surrender now, and I will show you some small compassion.”
Curiosity. Gold dragons may be the most sagacious members of dragonkind, but they share the same inquisitive nature that defines the personalities of their metallic cousins. A gold dragon longs to learn new things about the world. While this may be exploited as a weakness, their curiosity need not imply credulity. A gold dragon in combat does not resort to brute force when provoked, like a red dragon might, but instead furtively seeks out its foes weaknesses. You could represent their wisdom and curiosity by allowing it to use 1 Legendary Action to learn things about its enemies. This Legendary Action is identical to the Battle Master’s “Know Your Enemy” class feature.
“Yes… I see now what you are capable of. I have seen many who have used such tactics in my long years of life. Now I know precisely how to defeat you.”
Unusual Memory. Gold dragons live for eons, but they do not necessarily remember humanoids by the same traits we recognize them by. To quote the Monster Manual:
“[Gold dragons] form opinions of humanoids based on previous contact with related humanoids. Good dragons can recognize humanoid bloodlines by smell, sniffing out each person they meet and remembering any relatives they have come into contact with over the years. A gold dragon might never suspect duplicity from a cunning villain, assuming that the villain is of the same mind and heart as a good and virtuous grandmother. On the other hand, the dragon might resent a noble paladin whose ancestor stole a silver statue from the dragon’s hoard three centuries before.”
This is a prime opportunity for noble dragons to come into conflict with a heroic party. Deceived by its own cunning, it may believe that a party member is just like their unscrupulous ancestor—one who wronged the dragon centuries ago. Or, it may take umbrage with the actions of the party’s unprincipled rogue, who took an idol from its treasure hoard while it was away. The party may seek a quick resolution by surrendering. Let them! This is the perfect opportunity for the dragon to provide a quest and demand that they prove their worth… or face its wrath in earnest. Or, if the party is too prideful to stand down, then they are in for the fight of their lives.
“You are just like a being I met many centuries ago. You humans are so predictable; I can smell the evil radiating from your mortal form.
Unique Combat Traits
As said before, gold dragons share many traits with other dragons, especially reds. They are aligned to the element of fire, and possess both immunity to fire and a breath weapon that deals fire damage. However, there are some key differences that can make a gold dragon fight feel mechanically distinct from one with a red.
Swim Speed. Try incorporating water into your gold dragon’s lair… maybe an underwater volcano filled with geothermal vents blasting superheated water! Gold dragons of all ages possess an impressive swim speed, and can use it to outmaneuver characters in the water. They can even use it for defense, since most weapon attacks are weakened while the attacker is underwater—unless the attacker has a swim speed!
Weakening Breath. All metallic dragons possess an additional type of breath weapon, which shares a Recharge timer with its damaging breath. The gold variety possesses Weakening Breath, which imposes disadvantage on all Strength-based rolls, including attack rolls, made by creatures affected by the breath attack.
Shapeshifting. Ancient and adult gold dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into humanoids and beasts alike. Unlike druidic shapeshifting, however, the dragon does not gain an additional buffer of hit points, making this ability more useful for deception, diplomacy, and subterfuge than anything else. It is said that when Bahamut, god of good dragons, takes human form to walk among mortals, he walks with seven canaries at his side. Each one of these seemingly harmless birds is actually an ancient gold dragon who protects their god. A dragon with this trait might use it to exit combat early and hide among their minions if a fight goes sour—or use it before combat begins to fool its pursuers.
Lair Actions. While the gold dragon’s Legendary Actions are identical to all other dragons’, those residing in their lair do have several fascinating lair actions. A gold dragon in its lair can gain advantage on all rolls for a turn—essentially gaining the benefits of the 9th-level spell foresight for a single turn. It can also banish one of its foes into a dream-like plane of its own creation, similar to the spell banishment. This action, however, relies on a contested Charisma check as the character fights with the dragon’s powerful personality to escape this demiplane of dreams. The creature is, regrettably, kicked out of the dream plane at initiative count 20 on the next round.
Setting up a Fight with the Good Guys
I once had my party fight a gold dragon that had been overtaken by an aberrant psionic parasite from the Far Realm. Its noble personality struggled to emerge from its aberration-infested body throughout the entire fight, and it was even able to resist the parasite’s influence for a turn and give the party some useful information before being overshadowed by the evil creatures’ influence once more. Long story short, gold dragons are powerful opponents with incredible narrative potential that just don’t get enough play.
Finding ways to pit good dragons against heroic parties that aren’t, in my players’ words, “contrived BS,” is no easy feat. But it is possible. Study your players and their characters. If you know their motivations and what makes them tic, you can use their own actions against them and have them engage in a combat challenge that they’ll never forget.
What good-versus-good combat encounters have you experienced in D&D? Any against a gold dragon? What will you never forget about those encounters?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two kitties capable of taking dragon-worthy naps, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.