Dogfight on Dragonback

09 Mar

This encounter is intended for five PCs of 9th level

Look up some 80’s-90’s fantasy art. Go ahead, I’ll wait. What did you see, other than big haired women in chainmail bikinis? Butch dudes riding dragons you say? Of course. It’s a staple of fantasy art but how many times have you been in a game where someone (other than the occasional conniving wizard) ACTUALLY rode a dragon?

The obvious argument against is that as cool as it is, dragons tend to be more powerful than the players (much more in fact, in 4th edition). Not to mention that the prospect of a flying mount with tiny claws and no breath weapon is already rather destabilizing to power balance.

In spite of this, Draconomicon 2 features a few variations of Drakkensteed that fill this role: but those are high level mounts and even then, don’t really work mechanically the way I always envisioned a riding dragon. Well that didn’t sit right with me at all, so this week’s encounter is all about getting the PC’s into a complicated saddle and letting them take wing.

If you want to blame anything for this recent “dragon boner” I’ve gotten, you can aim your sights at my overly extensive play through of Skyrim.

The premise of this encounter has the PC’s borrowing some dragon mounts and assaulting an isolated enemy fortress. Before they can secure a landing zone however, they’ll have to deal with entrenched archers (ye olde Surface-to-aire-missiles) and enemy riders on winged mounts. Other than that this is a straight up fight.

Each player is given a Riding Dragon. The beast is well trained and obedient, responding to their commands within reason.

Aerial Combat Rules
It’s definitely worth your time to refresh your memory on the rules for combat in 3D and with mounts in general. See page 45-48 in the DMG. If you’ve got a D&D Insider account, it might also behoove you to investigate Dungeon issue 180’s article regarding aerial combat as well.

Special Dogfight Rules
As cool as aerial fights are, the ins and outs of three dimensional movement can be a real pain. I’d advise leaning towards whatever decision makes the game more fun, and that often means being a little imprecise according to the rules. Dogfights are all about tricky maneuvering, but nobody wants to sit there and watch someone count out spaces on two axes in excruciating detail – and not every group longs for a complex list of maneuvers and rules that take inertia and acceleration factors into account. Thus I propose the following when attempting maneuvering stunts:

-Stunt: Move ActionTargets an enemy flier within 3 squares of the attacker – The attacking rider or mount attempts an Athletics, Acrobatics, or Nature check opposed by a DC of 10+ the opponents Athletics, Acrobatics, or Nature total skill bonus (choose the highest among both mount and rider). On a success, the player accomplishes the stunt and may shift to any unoccupied space within 2 squares of the target

With a little guidance from my old love, the Alternity Gamemaster’s Guide, I’ve compiled a list of some sample stunts and the benefits they confer:

  • Barrel Roll/ Evasive Maneuvers: Gain a +2 to all defenses until the start of your next turn
  • Immelmann Turn: Shift 4 squares
  • Crazy Ivan: Make a charge attack and negate Combat Advantage against you
  • Loop-the-loop: Gain combat advantage until the start of your next turn
  • Match Speed: Keeps pace with a flying opponent, letting the rider jump to the other mount with no Athletics penalty
  • Buzz the Target: Opponent takes a -2 to attack rolls until the end of its turn
  • Sun at Your Back: The target is blinded until the end of its turn

This is hardly an exhaustive list (and I’m a little fast and loose with my aerobatics terms) but you get the jist. Do your best to represent the spirit of the maneuver your players describe.

Quest Text
You soar past escarpments and mesas as you approach your target: a black stone tower jutting up from the red rocks below. You nudge your mount to an attack altitude. Even this much lower to the ground the height and your mount’s speed are dizzying. Unbidden you find your knuckles white on the dragons reins. The creature below you lets out a long, anxious roar. It smells foes ahead. Through gouts of the volcanic ash drifting by the hills and rises you see them: five gnolls, each atop a rangy looking griffin and armed with shield and spear. They let out a battle cry and out of a corner of your eye you see movement. Below, and then ahead on the tower, their allies – more of the wretched hyena-faced fiends – string longbows, eying you with hungry ferocity.

Features of the Area
-Altitude: The tower and clifftops are 14 squares (70 feet) from the ground. For ease of viewing, any blank squares are a straight drop down

-Debris Pile: The stones are treated as rough terrain and provide partial cover to any creature occupying such a square

-Stairs: Lead down into the tower

-Smoke: Clouds of smoke from a nearby erupting volcano have drifted into the area. These clouds grant total concealment, but also deal 5 Fire Damage to any creature that starts its turn in or passes through a square of smoke

The riders will work to their mount’s advantage, charging when possible. Three of the mounted gnolls will try to stay locked in combat with any willing melee combatants (Remember that they still must move at least 2 squares or else fall – the griffins, unlike the player’s dragon mounts cannot hover). While these three hold the PCs at bay, the remaining two riders will reposition for another (and subsequent) charges. Meanwhile, the Far Fangs stay in cover (when possible) and rain arrows onto their enemies from below. Even if the gnoll riders are killed or dismounted (likely to their deaths below), the griffins are too ferocious not to fight to the death.

Don’t forget that gnolls being knocked prone will tumble off their griffons.

Things will eventually get cluttered but don’t sweat it, you will inevitably want to give your players a chance to use their Riding Dragon’s breath attack to good measure.
*Note: For the purposes of using the Gnoll “Pack Attack” abilities, do not count the griffin mounts as an ally

Sh%# Gets Real
If this combat seems too straightforward, try using some terrain or environmental features to mix it up. The encounter presumes that the smoke wisps are moving so slowly as to remain static for the battle, but moving these along a set path could add an interesting dynamic (a threat to players and their enemies, though not the Riding Dragons themselves). I’d also recommend investigating the “lightning strikes” described in Dragon 180 (Alas I cannot reproduce them here) as a means of adding a disinterested and dangerous third party.

New Monster Stats

A few notes about the Riding Dragon: I specifically made it’s Flyby Attack equivalent very open ended to let the creature and player behave as narratively as possible. By permitting the player to make an at-will attack on the go they have the option to bull rush or grab, as well as using any of their normal attack powers (ranged and melee) or sub out inferior melee damage for their mount’s rather potent bite attack. I’d encourage flexibility here – this encounter is about being, looking,and feeling awesome. If a guy on a frigging dragon could attempt it, let the player roll for it. The inherent danger of mounted combat at great height is damage from a fall – so the Riding Dragon’s mounted combat trait seeks to alleviate that to an extent.


  • x5 Deathpledged Gnolls (D) – (Monster Vault pg. 144)
  • x5 Griffons (D) – (Monster Manual pg. 147)
  • x3 Gnoll Far Fang (F) (Monster Vault pg. 146)

My preferred way of representing height is to use those dice boxes you have at least two of, and use dry-erase marker to indicate altitude. Guys on the ground get to live inside your little clear box!


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