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I have a question about monster abilities that recharge, like a dragon’s breath weapon. Is the ability considered “charged” on the first round of combat, no roll required?

If the answer to that is “yes,” what’s to prevent a dragon from swooping down from a great height, breathing fire on a party, then ascending into the sky again (beyond the reach of most ranged weapons) waiting 2-3 rounds to recharge, then swooping down on the party again?

In another scenario, what if the combat is interrupted — let’s say the party manages to run deep into a cavern to evade a dragon. But they eventually have to pass back by him again to fully escape his wrath. If the combat has been interrupted for even a minute, does the dragon’s breath recharge automatically on that first, new round of combat?

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4 Answers 4

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A dragon's breath weapon takes an average of 18 seconds to recharge.

Most dragon breath weapons contain the "Recharge 5-6" notation, which means:

For example, “Recharge 5–6” means a monster can use the special ability once. Then, at the start of the monster’s turn, it regains the use of that ability if it rolls a 5 or 6 on a d6.

-Monster Manual, pg. 11

So each round, there is a 1 in 3 chance the weapon recharges, and so with six second rounds, you can expect an average recharge time of 18 seconds. Thus, it would be highly unusual for a dragon to not recharge its breath in 60 seconds (about a 1.7% chance of not recharging 10 rounds in a row).

The DM decides how the dragon behaves.

You ask:

what’s to prevent a dragon from swooping down from a great height, breathing fire on a party, then ascending into the sky again (beyond the reach of most ranged weapons) waiting 2-3 rounds to recharge, then swooping down on the party again?

And the answer to this is, well, nothing, except that the DM doesn't want the dragon to do this. You have identified a tactical advantage that dragons have when battling in the open air. The range of an adult dragon's breath weapon keeps them out of range of melee opportunity attacks, so readied ranged attacks and spells are the only option.

But the DM needs to consider "how can I make this encounter fun" before considering "how can I beat the players". Unless "DM vs. Players" is agreed to prior to starting play, D&D is by default a cooperative game, not "DM vs. Players":

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded.

-Dungeon Master's Guide, pg. 4

The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. Whereas their role is to create characters (the protagonists of the campaign), breathe life into them, and help steer the campaign through their characters’ actions, your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you’ve created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

Knowing what your players enjoy most about the D&D game helps you create and run adventures that they will enjoy and remember. Once you know which of the following activities each player in your group enjoys the most, you can tailor adventures that satisfy your players’ preferences as much as possible, thus keeping them engaged.

-Dungeon Master's Guide, pg. 6

Surprising the players with an unwinnable encounter is usually a bad idea unless you've got some other tricks up your sleeve to keep the players engaged and interested. Getting hit-and-run over and over by a dragon isn't going to be particularly fun, but a head-to-head struggle in the dirt might be, and will still be a difficult encounter.

I use "open air dragons" for show and tell, not the actual encounter.

What I gave above is the "metagame" reason for dragons not to engage in "open air" combat with the players. But I have been able to rationalize it within the narrative of my own campaigns just fine. Unless the party has done something to severely upset a particular dragon, the dragon probably doesn't have any reason to just engage the party outside of their lair. Depending on the lair features and your use of lair actions, a fight with a dragon can be just as difficult, if not more difficult than the situation you present. But there is one key difference: the difficulty provided by the lair and lair actions is typically going to be far more interesting than hit-and-run open air tactics. There is just a lot more going on in the lair that won't be quite as frustrating as getting kited in a field.

And since you're going for something true to a dragon's preferred tactics, they're going to prefer fighting in their lair anyway:

Dangerous Lairs. A dragon’s lair serves as the seat of its power and a vault for its treasure. With its innate toughness and tolerance for severe environmental effects, a dragon selects or builds a lair not for shelter but for defense, favoring multiple entrances and exits, and security for its hoard.

Most chromatic dragon lairs are hidden in dangerous and remote locations to prevent all but the most audacious mortals from reaching them. A black dragon might lair in the heart of a vast swamp, while a red dragon might claim the caldera of an active volcano. In addition to the natural defenses of their lairs, powerful chromatic dragons use magical guardians, traps, and subservient creatures to protect their treasures.

-Monster Manual, pg. 86

Which brings to what I mean by "show and tell". When I use a dragon in my stories, if there is going to be a fight, it's going to occur in the lair. When the dragon is seen flying around in the sky, it's sending a message to the party. "Hey guys, there's a dragon here, so watch out for dragon related plot devices". And then when it comes time to personally introduce our dragon, I will use an open air encounter to give the party an idea of what they are up against, without intending to carry on the fight. So dragon campaign arcs, for me, usually have three actual appearances of the dragon:

1. Observe that a dragon exists

The party sees a notice on the bulletin board at the local tavern, "Adventurers Wanted Up North", asking them to meet with the governor of Up-North-Land. While travelling, once the party is near their destination, they will observe the dragon. "As you break the crest of the last low mountain, you peer down into a snowy valley. Across the valley, you catch a glimpse of something catching the late afternoon sun — something you have heard stories about, but have never seen with your own eyes. The glistening outline of a silver or white dragon circles in the sky above the far mountains across the valley."

2. Taste the power of the dragon

You never want your party to try to take on the dragon too early. You don't want them to force you into a situation where you have to kill them or make the dragon do dumb stuff. This is where this second appearance of the dragon comes in handy. Find an opportunity in your story to put the dragon's true power on display, before the party is committed to a fight with them. In this campaign with the white dragon, my players were tasked with stealing a powerful relic from an ancient temple that was guarded by the white dragon. But they didn't know it was guarded by the white dragon. They had the bright idea to walk up to the front door and knock, so on the way, I had them meet the white dragon. I had the dragon swoop down while they were navigating across the tundra to the temple and blast them with Cold Breath, then fly off in the direction of the temple. They got the memo. After regrouping and doing some more research, they learned of a secret underground entrance to the temple and were able to get in and out with alerting the dragon.

3. Actually fight the dragon.

Eventually, this campaign came down to a showdown with the dragon in the dragon's lair. At this point, they had seen the dragon a few other times, but the one brief encounter where they got blasted with cold breath was enough to be sure they were prepared.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. Yeah, I'm not interested in beating the players, but I'd like to think the dragon would play to its strengths and minimize its weaknesses, especially when it's outnumbered, say, 7:1. So I want to play the dragon "smart" and the PC's victory to feel earned. The alternative is to play him "stupid" or to have him just fly away if he feels threatened, either of which don't seem particularly "dragony." \$\endgroup\$
    – Taliesin
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Taliesin I added a lengthy section that goes in depth about how I handle dragons. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ For perhaps a more apropos analogy, a lot of bees can kill a human (about a 1000 stings to kill an adult human, assuming no allergy to bee strings). Humans generally give bees a wide berth rather than going out of their way to attack them though; why antagonize bees that will more than likely just pass you by? Similarly, to a dragon, one group of wanderers in the wilderness is much like any other (who really looks carefully at the equipment of every little insect that passes by?); until they show themselves to be hostile, meh, just give 'em a wide berth and avoid riling the bees/adventurers. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 4:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanfaeScotland Yeah, I’ll add those when I get to my desk this morning. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 10:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally, I've run a game where I didn't have the dragon stop fighting for maximum advantage (my players knew I was going to play enemies intelligently). My players had an early encounter with the thing where it harassed them from the air just as you suggest. It left after a few passes because it was looking for easy prey, not a serious fight. So what happened? The party went "Well THAT sucked, we can't take it down as long as it's in the air. So how do we keep it on the ground?" And they started planning and preparing, and built up plans for how to ground flying enemies. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 19:05
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Every round means every round.

A dragon's breath rolls to recharge every round, whether the dragon is in combat or not. You can roll if you want, or just assume that after a minute, the dragon's breath is ready to fire again.

So what stops the dragon from dive-bombing the PCs into submission?

Well, nothing in particular, other than that it would be a terrible story. When people asked Alfred Hitchcock questions like "Why don’t they just go to the police?", he always replied, "They don’t go to the police because that would be dull." The narrative does at some point have precedence over what you might call "rational behavior".

But on the other hand, extreme circumstances notwithstanding, a dragon has no reason to specifically target the PCs group out in the wild. Unless the dragon A) knows the PCs are coming for him, B) believes the PCs represent a serious threat, and C) knows pretty much where the PCs are, he isn't going to go wander around looking for adventurers to blast.

To call back to the famous example, Smaug has no idea he's even being targeted until Bilbo shows up in his living room, and even if he knew there were adventurers gunning for him, the dwarf squad doesn't really stand out as more dangerous than any squad of more-courage-than-sense schlubs. In fact, he doesn't even know for sure who he should be mad at -- based on one random phrase, he draws a completely wrong conclusion about who his enemy is and goes off to torch entirely the wrong town (using exactly those devastating death-from-above tactics that you've described).

If your PCs show up in a dragon's lair ready to kick some tail, the dragon probably isn't going to wander outside and take to the sky in hopes that the PCs will come outside to be dive-bombed into submission -- not when that gives them the chance to steal stuff or fortify his own house against him.

Now could it happen? Sure. The PCs might run into the dragon outside his lair, or he might have a lair that's partially accessible from above, or he might figure out they're a threat and see them coming. And in that case, yes, I would expect the fight to be very lopsided. Run away! That's not a fight you can win, at least not without preparations. Part of fighting a dragon is having a ready answer for things like "how do we make it land?" It might be facing the dragon in its lair (which swaps death-from-above for lair actions), a net-launcher, spellcasting (the earthbind spell from XGE comes to mind), or really any effect that can restrain or trip the dragon in flight, but you do have to have an answer for it.

On the flip-side of that, as far as drama goes, if you have the dragon swoop by to attack, then fly high for a few rounds to a minute, that gives the PCs lots of time to make plans or realize they need to run and give them a good chance at getting away (assuming you plant some cover nearby, which you should, like a river in a ravine or a cave entry).

If it bothers you to have the dragon sitting in his lair, patiently waiting for the PCs to show up -- what some have described as "Orcus On His Throne" -- then it's certainly reasonable to come up with a sketched outline of the dragon's routine, or plan ahead for a few dramatic dragon-sightings that show what he's up to before the PCs become a threat on the dragon's radar. But ultimately it's a DM decision as to what the dragon is doing when the PCs come knocking. Or possibly the dragon is the One Who Knocks, but either way, it's your call.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, now imagining Walter White as a dragon, need to make some adventure notes. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 22:06
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Yes, time passes even outside combat, so the breath weapon recharges, as explained in the other answers. But then you ask

what’s to prevent a dragon from swooping down from a great height, breathing fire on a party, then ascending into the sky again (beyond the reach of most ranged weapons) waiting 2-3 rounds to recharge, then swooping down on the party again?

Nothing. Indeed, I'd expect a dragon who wants to just kill the party to do exactly this in open terrain, and I'd be disappointed in a DM who made the dragon intentionally dumb. Arrogant and proud is not same as dumb (at least not always).

Dragon is supposed to be a big, scary, intelligent monster. If players want to go against a dragon without proper preparation and caution... They're supposed to lose. As for DM throwing an OP monster against players, that's a DM problem, not a dragon problem.

But players are not helpless.

  • Ready action. Archers can ready a ranged attack for when the dragon comes into normal range. Spell casters can ready a cantrip (mechanically, re-casting the same cantrip every round to refresh their Ready action).
  • Cover. Go into a stone building, or into a cave.
  • Disperse. Move so that the dragon can only hit one PC at a time with their breath weapon.
  • Prepare, heal, dig in, talk: When dragon is not in range, characters can do other things. (Re-)cast buffs (Invisiblity, Protection from Energy, Fly, Bardic Inspiration...), create allies (animate, summon, conjure). Cast healing. Use Mold Earth or just a shovel to dig in. Use Message or Sending to talk to the dragon (or just yell if DM allows the dragon to hear it).'

And finally, a better tool for DM, than having a stupid, suicidal dragon, if they find their PCs about to be TPK'd by a flying dragon they can't hope to defeat:

  • Help players to avoid the TPK situation. Have the locals tell them how the dragon attacks this way, and the town has too few archers to even slow it down before it kills them. Or have the players see the dragon in action, killing some scary beast or a knight or something with aerial attacks, without taking a scratch.
  • Have the dragon ask them to surrender after blasting them a few times. It's probably fair to say out-of-character that it looks like refusing will result in TPK, depending on table. Also you'd want to have some reason for the dragon to do this first (maybe just gold, maybe a service or a promise, maybe something else).
  • Have the dragon arrogantly come close to gloat after one or two PCs are down, giving the melee characters a chance to attack, and spell caster a chance to cast that big spell they didn't want to waste on Ready action.
  • Have the dragon arrogantly start the fight on ground, and only go to aerial attacks after it is seriously wounded and realizes these humanoids are no push-overs (so the players also have a better chance to kill it with their readied ranged attacks).
  • Have the dragon stop, roar in frustration, shout "I'll get you later, you worms!" or laugh enigmatically and say "Until we'll meet again..." and fly off. You don't even need to come up with a reason for this, ever or until you can tie it to the plot somehow. I mean, it's a dragon, probably more intelligent than most of the party, and more schemes going on than the party combined.
  • As a house rule, you could allow the players to ready their big spells without a risk of wasting them. The dragon is big, and it could be justified to allow casting the big spell entirely as the Ready action for this kind of an aerial attack. But then you'd better tell this to the players, and probably explain that this house rule will be reserved for special situations, and will not apply by default.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ The dragon asking the players to surrender likely means telling them to turn over valuable treasure and magic items in exchange for their lives. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Well, the dragon would need some reason to ask them to surrender, sure. A DM should come up with the reason before making the dragon ask that, and I suppose that it should be a reason the players can agree to (unless the DM wants the fight to continue after the negotiation fails). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 21:09
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Rounds continue to pass outside initiative situations

Each round is 6 seconds irrespective of if the group happens to be taking account of time on this scale or not.

If the party encounters a dragon and it uses its breath weapon then either:

  1. the combat is ongoing so keeping track of rounds matters, or
  2. the combat is over and a sufficient amount of time has passed that if the party encounters the dragon again, we can assume its breath weapon will be recharged. The chance that the breath weapon would not recharge given enough time is insignificant.

The situation you describe with the dragon retreating and waiting for a recharge falls into situation 1.

If you really care, the recharge mechanic is a Geometric Distribution and for a recharge chance of \$p\$, the mean time to recharge is \$1\over p\$ and the median is \$\lceil{-1\over\log_2(1-p)}\rceil\$. So for a dragon with \$ p={1\over3} \$, the mean is 3 and the median is 2.

The chance that the weapon is recharged after \$k\$ rounds is given by the cumulative distribution function which is \${1-(1-p)}^k\$. So, for a minute, or 10 rounds, this is \$0.983\$ - almost 99%. 12 rounds is over 99%, 17 is over 99.9% and 18 is over 99.9%. After 5 minutes the chance the dragon doesn't have its breath weapon is about 1 in a billion.

If the answer to that is “yes,” what’s to prevent a dragon from swooping down from a great height, breathing fire on a party, then ascending into the sky again (beyond the reach of most ranged weapons) waiting 2-3 rounds to recharge, then swooping down on the party again?

Intelligent play by the party.

A party that goes up against a dragon where it can employ its most obvious tactic without bringing along some countermeasures deserves to die. Those are the moments this DM lives for.

A very effective tactic is for the Bard to Polymorph the Barbarian into a Great Ape who Rages, Readies an Action to Grapple the Dragon and then hold it in some long-lasting area of effect spells cast by the Wizard and the Cleric - Wall of Fire is good for non-fire-breathing dragons. So many dragons in our Tyranny of Dragons playthrough died this way. RIP.

Or, perhaps you are one of those player-friendly DMs who thinks it's unfair to kill players who don't plan? Oh well, each to their own.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "A very effective tactic is for the Bard to Polymorph the Barbarian into a Great Ape who Rages, Readies an Action to Grapple the Dragon" - how will this strategy work in the proposed scenario where the dragon just flies into range for the breath attack (which has a 60ft range for an Adult Dragon) and then out of range again? Even a Great Ape only covers a 15ft radius with the readied grapple. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 9:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ 26 foot jump, 15 foot size, 10 foot reach. If the dragon is content to hit the ape only sure. But the dragon usually doesn’t know this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 10:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can't Ready a jump and a grapple though \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 11:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Aside from the fact that you can't do both a jump and a grapple in a single reaction, a Giant Ape can high jump only 9 feet with a running start and 4 feet from standing. 26ft is the long jump distance if it had a running start. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 12:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM I think your @ may be for RHS or Medix2, since their comment was "you can't do both a jump and a grapple in a single reaction". Personally as a DM I would have no problem with that as a Readied action. A strict RAW would likely say that jumping counts as movement, and you can't ready both movement and action. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 22:58

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