How to Play Shadow Dragons in D&D 5e – For Players & DMs

“Shadow dragons appear as wormlike dragons of lighter and darker shadows. The bat-like wings are semitransparent, as is most of the body. If someone is trying to spot a shadow dragon, the eyes, pools of feral gray opalescence, are the easiest to detect. Then, however, it is usually too late.”

 – Monster Manual II, AD&D (1983)

Slinking through the darkest corners of the world, cloaked in all-consuming blackness of its own making, the beast approaches.

Look, regular dragons are stomach-clenchingly scary. A highly intelligent, essentially immortal spellcaster with a body (covered in near-impenetrable scales) the size of an apartment block… that can breathe fire… and fly… and has no frame of moral reference that’s remotely human – dear gods why does anyone in Faerun ever go outside?

Oh right. Because a dragon is probably eating their freaking house. No thank you. 

And then, because the world isn’t already a deeply troubling place, the Shadow Dragon takes everything that’s scary about regular dragons and tops it off with a heaped spoonful of nightmare fuel.

Like those bad burger videos that always end with a perfectly acceptable quarter pounder getting drowned in Kraft cheese sauce. Well, picture that, but the sauce is pure, distilled nightmares.

That’s a shadow dragon.

Shadow Dragon Image

Shadow dragons have been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since the game’s 1st edition. They were introduced to the 1983 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook, the Monster Manual II, written by Gary Gygax. 

While they’ve changed in several ways over the years, their appearance remains the same: a massive dragon with dark translucent scales tinged by purple and sickly green, invisible despite its size as it prowls through sunless caverns far beneath the surface of the earth. 

YOUNG RED SHADOW DRAGON

Shadow Dragon Image
© Wizards of the Coast, Monster Manual

Large dragon, chaotic evil

AC 18 

Hit Points 178 (17d10 + 85)

Speed 40 ft., climb 40 ft., fly 80 ft.

STR: 23(+6)

DEX: 10(+0)

CON: 21(+5)

INT: 14(+2)

WIS: 11(+0)

CHA: 19(+4)

Saving Throws: Dex +4, Con +9, Wis +4, Cha +8

Skills: Perception +8, Stealth +8

Damage Resistances: necrotic

Damage Immunities: fire

Senses blindsight 30 ft., darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 18

Languages Common, Draconic

Challenge 13 (10,000 XP)

Living Shadow. In dim light or darkness, the shadow dragon has resistance to all damage that isn’t force, psychic, or radiant.

Shadow Stealth. In dim light or darkness, shadow dragons can Hide as a bonus action.

Sunlight Sensitivity. The dragon has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight while in direct sunlight.

Actions

Multiattack. The dragon makes three attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws.

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +10 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 17 (2d10 + 6) piercing damage plus 3 (1d6) necrotic damage.

Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +10 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 13 (2d6 + 6) slashing damage.

Shadow Breath (Recharge 5–6). The dragon can exhale a 30-ft cone of roiling shadowy fire. Every creature in its path must make a DC18 Dexterity saving throw to avoid taking 56 (16d6) fire damage on a failed save or half damage on a successful one. If a humanoid dies from this damage, an undead Shadow rises from its corpse and acts under the command of the Shadow Dragon. 

What Are Shadow Dragons? 

Shadow Dragons aren’t always born; sometimes they’re made. When a true dragon (as possessed to a Wyvern or a Drake) is born or remains in the Shadowfell for a number of years, the energy of the plane of shadows corrupts its form, warping it into a nightmarish beast made from pure darkness. 

As you might have noticed from the stat block above, when a dragon becomes a Shadow Dragon, it retains the majority of its characteristics from its previous life, but is also augmented by the foul magic of the Shadowfell.

The metamorphosis takes years, during which their colorful scales lose their lustre and take on a charcoal hue, sometimes tinged with purples and greens.

Their wings become translucent and their eyes turn a pale gray. Their appearance is also affected by light and darkness; a shadow dragon in near-total darkness becomes even harder to see as the darkness in its scales melds with the surrounding blackness.

Shadow Dragons hate sunlight, and any bright at all weakens them; it’s as though the stuff of shadows themselves gives these beasts strength. 

Some Shadow Dragons embrace the Shadowfell, choosing to remain there amid the bleakness and desolation, amassing hoards of black gems in lairs made of obsidian.

These dragons can easily become bored, and some try to lure creatures from the material plane into the Shadowfell for company – or sport. 

Other Shadow Dragons – whether through desire for treasure, conquest, or simply amusement – attempt to leave the Shadowfell, hungry to spread its shadows across the mortal world. 

History of Shadow Dragons 

Although they’ve been a part of D&D since 1st edition, Shadow Dragons have undergone some changes in just about every edition since the 1980s.

In AD&D, they were powerful illusionists with wormlike bodies and a burning hatred for magical weapons associated with light and fire.

Most terrifying of all, however, was their breath weapon, which could instantly surround you and reduce your “life force” (which the entry says can mean either hit points or levels to 25% (or just 50% on a successful saving throw). 

Shadow dragons in 5e are only as smart as the dragon type on which they’re based. In 3.5e, however, they were considered to be among the most mentally capable of all dragons – although their physical forms were weakened considerably. 

In 4e, Shadow Dragons infested crumbling ruins of cities where the residue of death is strong. They could also summon globes of impenetrable darkness throughout their surroundings and teleport between them at will. 

No matter how the Shadow Dragon has evolved throughout the editions, they’ve always remained evil ambush predators who hunt from the darkness and should send all but the most foolhardy adventurers running for the sunlight. 

How to Fight a Shadow Dragon 

The first thing you should do if you find yourself facing a Shadow Dragon is probably to run. Any sort of unexpected fight or encounter with a Shadow Dragon for which you aren’t prepared is likely to end in disaster. 

Shadow Dragons are virtually undetectable in darkness or dim light, not to mention invulnerable to all damage other than force, psychic, or radiant when cloaked in shadows. As such, taking one down is going to require some careful preparation. 

Sunlight would obviously be the best option, as it imposes disadvantage on the dragon’s attacks and perception checks.

However, Shadow Dragons tend to live in places where sunlight is a hard thing to come by – either deep underground or in the Shadowfell itself. The next best thing, then, is bright light.

If you can illuminate an area and prevent the dragon from fleeing – which it will almost certainly do when it realizes what you’re doing – then you might stand a chance. 

Also, any humanoid that dies to the Shadow Dragon’s breath attack is going to rise as a Shadow. These undead aren’t especially hard to kill (they’re only CR1/2) but their attacks can drain your Strength, which is only going to make killing the dragon that created them all the harder. 

Dungeon Master’s Guide to Shadow Dragons 

Running a Shadow Dragon is a fantastic opportunity to terrify your players. Stalk them from the shadows, toy with them, and watch the mounting horror on their faces as they realize exactly what it is they’re up against. 

The Monster Manual contains an example entry for a Young Red Dragon that has become a Shadow Dragon, but the rules make it clear that you can convert any true dragon into a beast corrupted by the plane of shadows.

Using the template below, you can pick a base dragon that’s appropriate for your players’ character levels.

As a rule of thumb, converting a dragon to a Shadow Dragon increases a Wyrmling’s or a Young Dragon’s CR by 3, an Adult Dragon’s CR by 2, and an Ancient Dragon’s CR by 1. 

Using the Template

When creating a Shadow Dragon, the creature retains all the statistics of the base dragon, except for those covered below. 

Damage Resistances. The dragon gains resistance to necrotic damage.

Skill Proficiency: Stealth. Double the dragon’s proficiency bonus for Stealth checks. 

Living Shadow. While in dim light or darkness, the Shadow Dragon gains resistance to all damage that isn’t force, psychic, or radiant. This is probably one of the most dangerous things about the creature, and why the PCs deciding to fight it on its home turf is likely a very bad idea. 

Shadow Stealth. While in dim light or darkness, the dragon can Hide a bonus action. This harkens back to AD&D, when a Shadow Dragon made stealth checks as though it was a 10th level Thief. 

Sunlight Sensitivity. While in sunlight, the dragon has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Perception checks that rely on sight.

New Action: Bite. Whichever damage type the base dragon inflicts, replace it with necrotic damage. 

New Action: Shadow Breath. The base dragon’s breath weapon now deals necrotic damage instead of the original style. Also, any humanoid reduced to 0 hit points by this attack dies (no death saving throws allowed), and a Shadow rises from its corpse under the dragon’s control.

Lair and Tactics 

When confronted either in or outside its lair, the Shadow Dragon will always attempt to stay in darkness when possible. Any player character that inflicts radiant damage or is a source of light should be targeted first, and the dragon should favor hit and run tactics over a full-frontal assault. 

Older dragons are potent spellcasters, and you should cherry pick a selection of spells from the Illusion and Necromancy schools of magic, reflavoring them as you see fit as tendrils of living darkness and swirling black smoke. 

Lastly, the Monster Manual is a little vague when it comes to Shadow Dragon lair actions, saying that “The shadow dragon might retain or lose any or all of its lair actions or inherit new ones, as the DM sees fit.” 

Let’s look at how to make a lair for a Shadow Dragon and see if we can come up with a few lair actions that you can use that are inspired by previous editions. 

The Lair

A Shadow Dragon’s lair is a place of darkness, desolation, and decay. A Shadow Dragon might make its home in the ruins of an abandoned city, in a cave or tunnel complex far beneath the earth, in a demiplane adjacent to the Shadowfell – or in the nefarious plane of shadows itself. 

Regional Effects

The region containing a legendary Shadow Dragon’s lair is warped by its magic and connection to the Shadowfell, which can create one or more of the following effects:

  • Within a mile of the lair, portals to the Shadowfell open and close at random. Roll a d6 every hour, with a portal to the Shadowfell opening on a 4-6. On a 6, creatures native to the Shadowfell emerge from the portal to attack anything nearby. The portal lasts for 1d4 hours before closing. 
  • The sun never rises. The sky remains inky black and the air is cold and lifeless within 1d4 miles of the lair. Colors seem muted and gray. 
  • Cults who worship deities of the Shadowfell (like the Raven Queen) or the dragon itself emerge in the neighboring towns. They desire the dragon’s favor, and try to supply it with food and treasure, even offering themselves up to the dragon as food in an act of supreme devotion. 

Lair Actions

Cloaked in Shadows

The Shadow Dragon surrounds its lair in a cloak of shadows. All light from non-magical sources can shed bright light no further than 10ft, and dim light no further than 15ft beyond that. 

Shadow Step

On its turn, the Shadow Dragon may spend half its movement speed to step from one area of darkness and reappear in another within 500ft. If it reappears within 5ft of a hostile creature, it may use its reaction to make a Bite attack against that creature. 

Shackles of Darkness 

The Shadow Dragon summons a swarm of shadowy hands to rise up and attempt to restrain a creature it can see or hear that is standing in dim light or darkness.

The creature must succeed on a DC16 Strength saving throw or be Restrained, taking 3d6 necrotic damage at the start of each turn. A creature restrained by these hands can use its action to repeat the Strength saving throw, freeing itself on a success. 

Snuff

The Shadow Dragon extinguishes all non-magical and magical sources of light within 60ft range. Magical sources of light that are being maintained using concentration magic prompt the caster to make a DC18 concentration saving throw.

Non-magical light sources are extinguished until they can be lit again, and magical light sources begin functioning again at the start of the next round. 

Shadow of Death

[This is directly inspired by the rules from AD&D, but updates them to work with 5e. It should be noted that, much like in 1e, this effect is nasty. Like, really nasty. And should only be used if you really really want to challenge and possibly TPK your 20th level party]

The Shadow Dragon’s aura of death and desolation dampens the effects of all healing magics in its lair. Any creature within 30ft of the Shadow Dragon cannot benefit from the effects of healing magic.

Any creature within the Shadow Dragon’s lair only receives half the benefits of healing magic. Any necrotic damage suffered by a creature within the lair reduces the creature’s maximum hit points for 3d6 weeks.