D&D 5E [How to slay a dragon] Final battle against Cirothe

As per here, my group is getting close to fighting Cirothe. They WILL be equipped with all 4 artefacts (in slightly altered ways, appropriate to the way the story spun out for us) and be 7th level when we open book 3.

Now, looking over the stats of an adult red dragon, I don't see how they will even have a small chance to survive.
-- The map will be completely useless in Act 3 (at least RAW - I will likely allow for some encounter-skipping-shenannigans)
-- The quiver will allow for 2 criticals per round, averaging at 2d8+6 * 2 = 30 damage per round, assuming the archer hits both times.
-- Cirothe's true name, while awesome, is a one-shot.
-- The hammer (which is a greatsword for us) forces the dragon to lose 1d8 spell levels. What spell levels? As far as I can see, the dragon doesn't cast spells (which would be a major difference to older editions). What am I missing?

Leaves us with the barbarian wielding Dragonbane from act 1. That's 5d6+6 for frenzied 3 attacks = 70 points

While that might sound nice, and one might surmise that the party could take Cirothe down in 3 or so rounds, that's all based on the assumption, that they are able to actually get to her, that they would NOT die within a round or two (see the other thread for my details on the amount of hurt an adult red can inflict) and that the dice favor the group.

I mean, this IS the big end fight. That's what the whole thing was about. If we get a TPK, then we get a TPK. The barbarian would love that every bit as much as killing the dragon, I'm sure.
I'm just kind of worried, that I am missing something important, that there's some key aspect to all this that I'm not aware of and I'm getting something wrong.

Any input?

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Let me start by saying I don't know anything about the adventure. Is level 7 really the module's recommended character level for fighting an adult red dragon? I'd like to point out that the CR of the adult red dragon is for the "base" model. The MM doesn't tell you the CR of an adult red dragon with innate spellcasting, nor for one in its lair - you would have to calculate that on your own. Obviously, both of these factors affect the CR (the monster building rules certainly tell you to account for spells and lair actions in calculating CR).

Now, CR is a tricky thing. A "this vs that" scenario depends very heavily on so many factors that you can't really rely on it. Take rot grubs for example, CR 1/2. Out in the open, vs characters who know what they are, that is a trivial encounter (CR 0). Vs surprised characters who don't know what they are or what to do about them? Could still be a deadly encounter at level 20 (CR 24). Some monsters seem to have been given unusually low CRs for their level of danger (I'm mostly thinking of monsters like rot grubs or succubi that can outright kill characters with no death saving throws).

People love to complain about the encounter building rules, but I have yet to see a viable alternative given the above swinginess. Some people tweak the encounter calculations, but it's never going to be reliable because so much depends on the scenario, terrain, tactics, dice, player knowledge... some of those can be averaged out, many can't.

With that out of the way, let's just use the existing system because it's what we have. An adult red dragon is considered a deadly encounter even at level 12. That's the base model, CR 17, with no spells or lair. Against level 7 character with average HP, a single use of its breath weapon could potentially take down most of the party. And since it can fly, it can pretty much engage on its own terms and just wait for the breath weapon to recharge.

If I were running the game, I would replace it with a young red dragon, which is between hard and deadly on the encounter scale, but max out the hit points, which would push it back over the edge into deadly. This is my general rule on big boss fights: lower the damage, increase the HP, and don't be afraid to fudge the HP if they're taking it down too fast or too slow. Have the enemy be arrogant and start with poor tactics to remove some of that bonus health. I think trading hits back and forth makes for a satisfying battle that's much less swingy than two glass cannons firing at each other until one of them gets hit and shatters. That's fine for regular encounters, but not for the boss fight.

Caveat: when I run a game, I'm playing with friends and I want to tell a story with their help. I don't want the characters to die. I'm not even neutral about it; I'm not some detached rules arbiter pretending to be the game's computer. I want them to win. I know this point of view is not popular amongst the vocal minority of forum members, so take that as you will.


At 7th level, the party should have access to a few gonzo save-or-suck spells. Banishment is surprisingly helpful in allowing the party to pause, heal, and prepare for some super smack-down. Polymorph could also be used quite effectively. Of course, Legendary Resistance may impede these spells, but there are ways around that (make her blow her LR uses on lightning bolt and stunning strike). (Actually if the monk can get in close enough to stunning strike for a round or two that would really change the tide of battle.)

The big threat is the dragon's breath weapon. A smart dragon (and they're all smart) will breathe fire and then retreat, using hit-and-run tactics. The breath weapon does an average of 63 damage, which is ridiculous against a 7th-level party. It's basically an area effect save-or-die.

So the problem with this encounter isn't that it's too lethal, it's that it's too swingy. Too much relies on the dragon failing saves and on the PCs making saves. You could reduce this swingyness by extending the battle.

One easy way to extend the PCs lives a bit longer is to give them each a potion of fire resistance before the battle. I don't remember Act III well enough to suggest how to do this; maybe place them on the corpse of a dead adventurer in one of the upper rooms of the volcano. This means that the breath weapon is no longer an instant TPK, but still remains an effective weapon. It also makes the melee attack routine competitive with the breath weapon, which means the dragon might resort to more up-close tactics, which are much better for the party.

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