“Sophistication” is not the word that leaps to mind when discussing the battle tactics of dinosaurs. Most of these ancient beasts are dumb brutes, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and rock-bottom Intelligence. They also fall into two main categories, plus one variation:
- Plant-eaters: These tend to be peaceful unless spooked. They may lash out if you invade their space, and they’ll defend themselves if cornered, but most of the time, they’ll mind their own business. If attacked, they’ll usually run.
- Meat-eaters: These are predators that will hunt, kill and eat any creature smaller than themselves. If they’re hungry—and they usually are—you can count on them to chase and attack anyone and anything they might construe as food.
- Flying meat-eaters: These behave like their landbound kin, but the fact that they can fly adds an aerial wrinkle to their attack pattern.
The fifth-edition Monster Manual contains stat blocks for six dinosaurs: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, plesiosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains seven more: brontosaurus, deinonychus, dimetrodon, hadrosaurus, quetzalcoatlus, stegosaurus and velociraptor. (All the dinosaurs in Tomb of Annihilation can be found in these two books.)
I’ll look at these by dietary group, from lowest challenge rating to highest within each. Think of this as the dinosaurs’ pecking order, as any meat-eating dinosaur will attack and eat another dinosaur of a smaller size and lower CR, while a higher CR plant-eater, although it won’t actually attack other plant-eaters with lower CRs, may yet decide to muscle in and chase them off if the grazing in an area is especially good. I’ll also link to images, since they’re not all illustrated in the 5E books.
The plant-eaters comprise the CR 1/4 hadrosaurus, the CR 3 ankylosaurus, the CR 4 stegosaurus, and the CR 5 brontosaurus and triceratops. The meat-eaters comprise the CR 1/4 dimetrodon, pteranodon (a flier) and velociraptor; the CR 1 deinonychus; the CR 2 allosaurus, plesiosaurus and quetzalcoatlus (also a flier); and the CR 8 tyrannosaurus.
The hadrosaurus (image) is a Large (cattle-size) dinosaur with a bony crest on its head which walks on four legs but can rear up on two, balanced by its tail. That tail is its only defense against predators, aside from its 40-foot movement speed. It flees from predators and other threats, using the Dash action exclusively; it Attacks only when cornered or being handled by a trained rider.
The ankylosaurus (image) is a Huge (elephant-size) dinosaur covered with knobby, bony horns and sporting a clublike tail. Its speed is only 30 feet, and it will run only from single predators its own size or larger. Smaller predators get whacked with the tail. It never occurs to the ankylosaurus that running away might give it a better chance of surviving against one or more smaller predators than bludgeoning them with its tail will, even if it’s seriously wounded.
The stegosaurus (image) is a Huge dinosaur whose neck and highly arched back are protected by huge, flat plates, and whose tail is covered with spikes. This armored beast can move quickly (40 feet per turn), but like the ankylosaurus, it’s disinclined to step aside for creatures smaller than itself. They get the spiky tail. But a seriously wounded stego (reduced to 30 hp or fewer) gives up the fight and Dashes for safety.
The brontosaurus (image) is a Gargantuan (whale-size) dinosaur that yields to none but the terrible tyrannosaurus. Having its choice of two attack actions—its tail and its Stomp, which can knock a target prone—it uses Stomp first, then bludgeons prone targets with its tail. A seriously wounded bronto (reduced to 48 hp or fewer) lumbers away using the Dash action.
The triceratops (image), a Huge dinosaur, is deceptively fast, having a movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Its hide is thick but not armored; its neck is guarded by a large, bony shield plate. The distinctive features that give this beast its name are the three horns on its snout and forehead, with which it can charge an enemy like a rhinoceros. It uses its Trampling Charge feature to gore and flatten any enemy smaller than a tyrannosaurus, then Stomps on its prone foe for good measure. Unlike the bronto, the triceratops can use its Stomp only against prone creatures. In other situations, it uses its Gore attack.
The advantage provided by Trampling Charge is so good for the triceratops that it will run from enemy to enemy in order to keep using it, switching opponents whenever a prone enemy gets up from the ground, indifferent to opportunity attacks. Of course, this is effective only if its enemies are more than 20 feet apart from one another. If they all cluster up, this tactic doesn’t work anymore, and the triceratops just gores everything in sight.
A seriously wounded triceratops (reduced to 38 hp or fewer) flees the scene using the Dash action. It will also Dash away from a tyrannosaurus as soon as it sees one.
The dimetrodon (image) is a Medium (human-size) carnivorous dinosaur that hunts along rivers and coastlines. It can swim, but it’s faster on land, so it uses this movement only to chase prey through and into water. It’s neither stealthy nor subtle: it simply runs up to its intended prey and delivers a vicious bite, again and again. Like other predators, it goes after the easiest target in sight: the young, the old, the weak the sick, the isolated and the oblivious. Its prey isn’t supposed to fight back, so when it’s just moderately wounded (reduced to 13 hp or fewer), it reconsiders its choices and backs off, using the Dash action.
The pteranodon (image), not to be confused with the pterodactyl (for which 5E provides no stats), is a Medium-size flying carnivore. However, its preferred diet is fish and seafood, so it won’t mess with creatures on land, including other dinosaurs and your player characters.
Suppose, though, that your characters are shipwrecked and flailing around in the water, or just out for a swim, in an area populated by pteranodons. In that scenario, the Small members of your party might get dive-bombed by a pteranodon hungry for lunch—or a flock of them. The pteranodon has the Flyby feature, meaning that you don’t get an opportunity attack when it flies out of your reach, and its flying speed is a zippy 60 feet per turn, so the standard flying-predator tactic of hovering 30 feet in the air, diving to attack, then flying back up suits it perfectly. Like dimetrodons, pteranodons don’t expect to be attacked back, so they fly away when only moderately wounded (reduced to 9 hp or fewer).
The velociraptor (image) is a Tiny (cat-size) but vicious hunter with a distinctly birdlike appearance. Low in Strength but high in Dexterity and Constitution, with Pack Tactics a claw/bite Multiattack, it hunts in flocks and is one of the few beasts that will engage in coordinated attacks with others of its kind. One velociraptor will not attack a target unless another velociraptor can attack the same target at the same time, preferably from a different direction. If they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer), or if enough of their allies are killed that they can no longer enjoy a numerical advantage of at least 2 to 1, they’ll skedaddle, using the Dash action. The velociraptor has a pronounced preference for isolated targets, but even going up against a group, it can pick out the most promising prey with reasonable accuracy.
The deinonychus (image) is a Medium-size cousin of the velociraptor. It’s much stronger and lacks Pack Tactics, so it’s more of a soloist than an ensemble player. Its primary method of attack is to charge toward its targets, flap its rudimentary wings a bit to launch itself airborne and land claws-first on the back of its prey (the Pounce feature). If it succeeds in knocking its target prone, it then gets a bonus bite attack. Since its Multiattack action is compatible with Pounce and comprises two claw attacks and one bite attack, this means the deino can get up to two claw attacks and two bite attacks in a single turn.
With this combo, and with its high Strength and Dexterity, the deino is the assassin of the dinosaur kingdom, aiming to take a target out quickly with a single shock attack. If it knocks its prey down to 0 hp in a single attack, it will devour it on the spot (bite attacks until dead). If not, it will follow up with another Multiattack—with advantage, if the target remains prone—and that will probably be enough to tear its prey to shreds. Again, however, deinos are used to other creatures’ running away, not fighting back. If its prey, or one of its prey’s allies, can turn around and deal it a moderate wound (8 hp or greater from a single hit), it Dashes back in the direction it came from.
The allosaurus (image) is a Large, very fast hunter that runs down its prey like a big cat. Its features and tactics are essentially the same as those of the deinonychus, but once it’s pinned its prey, it’s not going to be driven off so easily. Unlike the deino, a shock attacker, the allosaurus is a brute, with extraordinary Strength and exceptional Constitution. (It’s also not as smart as the deino.) It will have to be seriously wounded (reduced to 20 hp or fewer) even to consider backing off. No matter what, after knocking a target prone with Pounce on a prior turn, it’s going to try to take at least one more bite. When it does abandon its meal, unlike other dinosaurs, it Disengages (a function of instinct, not discipline, plus its overall intimidating presence) before retreating.
The plesiosaurus (image) is the inverse of the dimetrodon: it hunts close to shore, but it’s most at home in the water, where it has a 40-foot swimming speed, rather than on land, where its speed is a more plodding 20 feet per turn. In addition to its swimming speed and its Hold Breath ability, the plesiosaurus is the only dinosaur with proficiency in Stealth, so its strategy can be summed up in two words: water ambush. The plesio hides beneath the surface of the water, watching for the movement of other creatures. When one comes within range, om nom nom. The plesio’s bite is its only attack, but it does three dice of damage, which ain’t paltry. A brute like the allosaurus, the plesio is not going to be deterred from its dinner by merely moderate wounds; rather, when reduced to 47 hp or fewer, it will substitute a grapple attack for its bite attack and try to drag its prey underwater. Then, even if its prey wriggles loose from its jaws, it will continue to make bite attacks while its prey tries to swim back to shore—and the plesiosaur is almost certainly the faster swimmer. Only when seriously wounded (reduced to 27 hp or fewer) does the plesiosaur finally give up, drop its prey and withdraw to deeper waters.
The Huge, flying quetzalcoatlus (image), believe it or not, is a creature that really existed: a larger cousin of the pteranodon, with a wingspan as broad as that of a Cessna 172. Demonstrating yet again that science is wacky, not only were quetzalcoatli and pteranodons not actual dinosaurs—flying pterosaurs were a distinct taxonomic order from landbound dinosaurs—they were the ancestors of modern reptiles, while the non-flying dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds!
Anyway, unlike the sea-feeding pteranodon, the quetzalcoatlus lived far inland, and they’re believed to have fed on small land vertebrates in a manner similar to storks. Chances are, then, that the Medium-size PCs in your group are reasonably safe from quetzalcoatlus attacks, but the Small ones had better watch out. The quetzalcoatlus’s stat block includes a Dive Attack that’s like an aerial Pounce, dealing extra damage rather than knocking the target prone; this isn’t consistent with how it’s believed to have fed in real prehistory, but then, no one’s found any elf fossils, either. Anyway, standard dive-bomb tactics apply: begin turn 40 feet up, fly down to bite, fly back up to end the turn. No opportunity attacks, because of Flyby. A quetzalcoatlus withdraws when only moderately wounded (reduced to 21 hp or fewer).
And finally, the thunderlizard you’ve all been waiting for: the Huge tyrannosaurus rex (do you really need an image link for this one?). Exceeded in size only by the brontosaurus, exceeded in ferocity by none, the tyrannosaurus is shockingly fast (50 feet per round) and has extraordinary Strength and Constitution. Its speed allows it to chase down pretty much anything (or anyone) it feels like snacking on, and it can grapple and restrain a target on a successful bite attack. The sole drawback to its kit is that it must use its Multiattack on two different targets: a bite attack against an opponent in front of it, and a tail attack against an opponent beside or behind. If you have to choose, you definitely would rather get hit by the tail.
The tyrannosaurus chooses its prey before charging and striking, according to the usual criteria, and it sticks with its choice. There are so few things in nature that can hurt it significantly, it doesn’t even realize when it’s moderately wounded. When it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 54 hp or fewer), it Dashes off with any restrained victim still in its jaws, inflicting additional bite attacks as it runs.
Next: flying snakes.