A foe so bone-deep in the game's lore it is in the name. When we say 'dragon'; these are the dragons we mean. Imperious, furious: a crocodile's savagery carried with the regality of a tyrant. The literary bedrock we can mine is extensive: Smaug and Fáfnir exemplify this trope. Where there are heroes, there must also be The Dragon. I have some strong, unbendable principles (or prejudices) about dragons that may need to be born in mind whilst reading this review.*
It is almost challenging to review a monster which is so integral to our conceptions of monsterdom. Here be dragons....
An excellent piece; dynamic and furious. The red-gold colouring captures every sense of the vainglory and conceit which typify the beast. There's some excellent, loving attention to detail: the beady, vehement, cruel little eyes, the glowing inferno of the mouth, the grasping claws. Its stance manages to emphasise that peculiar junction of frenzy and poise.
Behind the stat-blocks, obscured is a hint of a reddened, sweltering lair. Another great piece which I wish gained more exposure.
Purpose and Tactics.
You gnobbled goblins, assaulted orcs, mangled Mind Flayers, battered a Behir - all to climb to this zenith, and there do battle with a monstrosity incarnate. This is it: Act Three. The final boss.
I'll review the Ancient Red Dragon, as I rather imagine the developers brewed that up first then doled out the dragon-juice into smaller and smaller containers like Russian dolls in order to give us our other necessary stat-blocks (Toddler Dragon, Prepubescent Dragon, Tween Dragon, Mid-Life Crisis Dragon etc).
As a final fight, this is largely about throwing the Action Economy rules out of the window. It is for lesser mortals to wait for their turn, and you have a pile of legendary and lair actions to keep you scrapping. An initial Frightful Presence will probably not disrupt the players too much (the save is difficult, but a high-level party have a a number of spells, magic items and buffs to make it trivial), but then follow up with your multi-attack. Other methods of disruption include the Volcanic Gasses Lair Action, which is potentially huge even though it is an easy save. A huge portion of this fight rests on grouping and ungrouping the players - isolating them to eat your multiattack and then targeting them with your Fire Breath to rack up damage.
You should be conscious that your attacks have pretty huge reach (20ft for the tail - and you can do that as a Legendary as well!) so there's no reason for you to land and scrabble in the dirt when you can fight from the air and preserve your draconic dignity. More importantly, it will stop you eating a barrage of readied actions and opportunity attacks when you make your majestic sweep.
The Red Dragons' saves and senses are brilliant, so the biggest threat posed by spellcasters will be non-save debuff spells such as Forcecage** or Ottiluke's Irresistible Dance. In terms of support, some kind of spell-caster to disrupt this: a crazed dragon-worshipping Cleric, for example. Without this, the Red Dragon will suffer from only really being able to deal direct hit-point damage with a lack of utility, and the fact that most of the damage is easily resisted.
Much of this fight will depend on the window-dressing. Noone with any self-respect fights a Dragon in a field. People fight Dragons whilst flying through a thunderstorm, deep in the caldera of a volcano, in a firestorm in the centre of the capital city or in an ocean of blood and magma on some plane of the Abyss. Make sure the terrain is a persistent hazard and adds to the drama of the conflict.
In terms of a campaign role, the Red Dragon is clearly a major villain. However, I don't feel it works as schemer or plotter. Your Red Dragon is a warlord, a conqueror; you have fought his armies since you were a level one Fighter with less hit-points than sense and you've built to this since the beginning.
Firstly, did they need to include any? This scene tells you everything you need to know, and the archetypical dragon is so huge in the collective imagination that anyone could write some fluff for it.
The fluff focuses on their vanity, vainglory and endless hunt for prestige: I personally love the idea that for a Dragon this toxic insecurity is almost biological, and it really cements their motivation without humanising too much.
The author makes a strong effort to describe the Desolation around a Red Dragon's lair, which I love: populated by rogue fire-creatures, sulphurous wastes, monuments to the dragons' hubris, and miserable minions and slaves. Somewhere between Mordor and Bosch's Hell sits our Red Dragon upon its mountain-throne.
There's some excellent detail in the physical description which really captures the imagination, and they're the kind of small detail you could definitely drop into your description of the scene to dazzle your players.
Aurumvorax rules all the territory west of the Titanheart Mountains; an endless expanse of magma and poisonous mists where his chattel skitter beneath his baleful eye. Unseat the tyrant of the west, take his treasure-hoard and all will know your name.
Fraguth plundered the territories of the North for a generation, and his hoard grew immeasurable. Then he returned to the Plane of Fire to slumber on his ill-gotten riches. We would forget The Burning Wyrm were it not that he took the eight Sealing Jewels that are needed to prevent the rise of the Lich-King...
Draguragoth grows fat and ancient in his stolen mountain, wrapped in a hoard of such tremendous enormity as to defy imagination. As he ages, he sends to the vassal kings and subjects of all lands: now, not demanding tribute, but something else. A conversation. Draguragoth believes himself to have produced in his long tyranny the perfect philosophy of rule and society, and he wishes the philosphers come hear the Dragon discourse.
Verdict: The concept is so strong I don't see how anyone could mess this up, but the execution is strong and overcomes the weaknesses of a solo monster in 5e. The fluff and artwork are still engaging even though we've all seen a panoply of Dragons. An excellent effort.
* Dragons are primal terror. You do not ride them and joke with them. Noone knows dragons intimately enough to differentiate between blue and green: dragons simply are.
Noone fights an Ancient White Dragon. They fight Kauldrvist; Shield-Taker; God-Breaker - the White Death, The Bleeding Ice, Sovereign of the White Sea, the Terror of the Aurora, The Cold Hunger, who has ruled the ice-floes since time immemorial. Your dragon needs a rep.
I am dead-against letting players feel like big boys because they offed a Dragon that was still in nappies. You don't get to fight Dragons with training wheels. For me, the stat-blocks start at Adult.
Dragons don't get comedy roles in my campaign. There is no relief. Their mythic status largely comes from the fact that dragons don't make jokes.
**Well actually no, you're too big to fit in. Back to the arcane drawing board.