Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 1)

From the Monster Manual (Gygax, 1977):
Example of Subduing a Dragon: Two 8th level fighters, a 7th level dwarves fighter, an elven 4th level fighter/6th level magic-user, and a halfling thief of 9th level stumble upon a huge red dragon peacefully asleep upon a veritable mountain of treasure. After a hurried, whispered debate the party opts to strike to subdue as that will a) give them a dragon to use or sell, b) save treasure from destruction by avoiding the fireworks of a general melee, and c) the subdued dragon will have to point out and help carry out the choicest treasure items. The smaller, quiet party members circle the dragon. None stand at the beast's head. With a shout the party strikes with a general bonus of +3 to hit. They all succeed, and the halfling thief gains quadruple damage... The first melee round is over.
...Combat goes to round two. As the dragon has just awakened, the party again strikes first. Four of them hit... The dragon chooses to breath (dice score 99%), so he turns his head and fires right where the elf, dwarf and halfling are attacking. Saving throws indicate that each takes 44, 88, and 44 hit points of damage respectively. All three char and die.
The full entry is worth a read. It takes four rounds, but the remaining fighters manage to finish the subdual process (thanks to a random roll in round three that causes the dragon to bite instead of breathe and win on initiative in the the fourth round). However, I'm not sure anyone can see it as more than a pyrrhic victory: how long did it take the demihuman characters to accumulate their levels? How much of the treasure will be spent to raise them from the dead? Likewise, how long will the dragon remain subdued before slaying the two fighters? Based on the section for Length of Subdual, I'd guess the answer is "not long."

Subduing dragons for fun and profit seems to have disappeared from the D&D game circa 2000 (i.e. with the advent of 3rd edition). At least, I don't remember it being part of the core 3E books (I don't have them for reference at the moment). However, the idea is a strange one regardless...look at the reasons cited in the above entry as "practical" reasons for subduing a sleeping dragon:

1) It will "give them a dragon to use or sell." Who would buy such a dangerous, uncontrollable creature (and what's the going rate for such a sale?)? This isn't like poaching a giraffe to use in the Emperor's arena of blood sports...you're talking about a critter who can barbecue anything in its path, and who can turn a medieval town into so much kindling in a matter of seconds (it's not like the bucket brigade is going to stand a chance at putting out the number of wooden structures a dragon can fire with a single breath). Perhaps a wizard would be interested in buying a dragon for spell components or magic item manufacture...but then it doesn't need to be alive for that, right?

2) It will save treasure from destruction by "the fireworks of a general melee." Clearly this was a shortsighted idea. There was no avoidance of melee and the fire was let loose in round two. Just a terrible idea from the get go. If you want to avoid the destruction of hoard items, your best bet is to first lure the dragon outside of its lair (see Burglar Baggins as one possible method. Cows and virgin sacrifices appear to do the trick, too). Just a bad, bad idea.

3) The dragon will pick out (and help carry out) "the choicest treasure items." Wow, how naive are these adventurers? A red dragon in AD&D has exceptional intelligence (15-16) regardless of whether or not it can speak "human language." That means it's probably smarter than everyone in the adventuring party, with the exception of a magic-user. Why wouldn't it simply pretend it can't speak the PCs' language (all the while listening to their plans and schemes)? Assuming someone speaks dragon. what motivation does it have to point out "the choicest treasure items?" Wouldn't it be more likely to point the fighters towards those magically cursed weapons and armor its been saving for just such an occasion? Wouldn't it have a little enmity for these weak fleshlings that dared invade its home? Wouldn't it be scheming to kill them and return to its hoard (and its choicest treasure items) at the soonest opportunity? And how exactly is it going to help carry treasure out? In it's craw?

Anyway, how'd it all work out for the party in the example? Not very good, right? The dragon woke up, and blasted the adventurers with its fiery breath. Three members were affected, two made their saving throw versus Dragon Breath, and all died. Barbecue. AND, I would like to note, that this was under the AD&D rule of dice randomly for whether or not the creature breathes: in B/X the  dragon's first attack is ALWAYS with its breath weapon (duh), and then the chance of melee is 50% (3 in 6) thereafter.

Here's my thought: is it really a saving throw if a successful save results in your character's death?

As mentioned in my original post, the idea of a "save versus dragon breath" comes from Chainmail where certain fantasy pieces (specifically the Super Hero and the Wizard) have a chance to resist being "removed from the board" when the dragon belches death at them. The saving throws for an 7th level fighter ("Super Hero") and 11th level magic-user ("Wizard") is modeled on the same percentile chance save, though OD&D uses the D20 rather than the 2D6 roll. Lesser character's chance of save is extrapolated from this.

But back to the question: is it really a "save" if you still die? How many hit points would an 11th level wizard have? A maximum of 57 in OD&D (with Constitution 15+) or an average of 29 (with lesser CON)...and this is diminished considerably in later editions, even with the advent of Supplement I (which dropped the magic-user's HD type to D4). An 11th level magic-user in B/X has a maximum of 38 hit points without CON bonus and an average of 22 (and resist fire isn't a magic-user spell). Against, O say, an adult green dragon (8 HD, 40 HPs), you're talking about probably getting gacked, even if you save against the cloud of chlorine gas...especially if the mage has already taken 2-3 points of damage in prior encounters (since magic-users aren't frontline fighters, minor damage often goes unhealed...'Oh, he's okay.'). An adult red dragon (10 HD, 50 HPs) will certainly kill the average 11th level magic-user, save or not.

So let's talk about dragons for a moment...my own conception of them are largely drawn from two sources: The Hobbit's Smaug (mainly the 1977 Rankin/Bass film, whose character...and dialogue...is nearly word-for-word perfect with the novel) and Vermithrax Pejorative of the 1983 film Dragonslayer. The two portray very different depictions of the classic monster, but they share a couple traits (aside from being badass):

  1. Incredible destructive power...enough to dramatically change the way of life of entire communities.
  2. An almost total un-killability...they're pretty much immune to the kind of attack portrayed in the Monster Manual.

In fact, the closest representation to either of these beasts is found in Chainmail, which was almost certainly modeled after Tolkien's dragon, Smaug.

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a pl -- oh SHIT!!!"
Chainmail's "Great Red" dragon creates the same cone of fire found in all the early editions: half an inch wide at the mouth, extending to 3" wide at the terminus of the cone with an overall length of 9". B/X and Holmes Basic doesn't bother with inches, simply converting to the "dungeon equivalent" (where 1" = 10 feet). But Chainmail (an outdoor wargame) has a much larger scale where 1" = 10 yards...and I believe this is the proper outdoor scale given in those early editions of D&D as well.

That's a huge amount of area on which one can burn. 90 yards...nearly the length of a(n American) football field. As the field is 53 yards wide, a dragon could sit at one end of the field and cook most of both teams in the opposite "Red Zone" (with the exception of the wideouts and defensive backs). That's just a lot of flaming destruction. That's not something you can dodge or duck or escape from.

And what exactly is that flaming breath? Is it the flaming, super-acidic venom spit in Moorcock's Elric books? Is it a jet of napalm snot? Is it a blowtorch jet of flame, like what is released to raise a hot air balloon (except on a grander scale)? Is it hot enough to touch off a firestorm, igniting the very air? The sheer amount of flame produced in one breath would seem to indicate that (in spectacular fashion)!

In Chainmail, nothing can stand against dragon fire, with five exceptions: fire and earth elementals (for whom dragon fire has no effect), super heroes, wizards, and other dragons. And these latter three are still destroyed unless they roll a 7+ on 2D6 (a 58% chance of survival). Giants, wraiths, rocs, trolls, heroes...they're all toast, save or not.

So what did the save originally represent "in game?"

One can presume that dragons themselves are somewhat immune to their own flame (certainly around the mouth/face region of the body). Perhaps, on a failed save, the creature has its wings damaged somewhat and plummets to its death (dragons are flying creatures). Perhaps their scaly hides are immune to flame, but a failed save indicates the fire finding that "chink" in their armor and burning out their heart...the same chink a super hero can exploit in Chainmail with a well-placed arrow (8+ roll to auto-kill...the same 42% chance that a dragon has of failing its save). Humans, after all, have hydrochloric acid in our stomachs...but you wouldn't want to dump it in our bloodstream.

[and note again: other than such an arrow, dragons are impervious to normal melee and missile fire or the spell bolts (fireball and lightning) of wizards. They are invulnerable juggernauts...it says something about the power of dragon fire that it has the ability to bring down its own kind]

But super heroes and wizards aren't huge, flying dreadnoughts with super-heated innards. What's their story? How do they escape? Since, yes, a successful save does not result in any sort of "half damage." You are either destroyed or you ain't. You are either burned to a crisp or you somehow avoid the flames.

Avoid the flames. Get that? There's no other way I can look at it. Somehow, your charmed character has managed to escape being set alight by fantasy napalm. It doesn't touch you...this isn't a matter of being partially barbecued, or licked with flames, or getting some "splash" damage or something...because the deadliness of dragon breath is near absolute.

So what happened? Lucky fortune. Somehow you managed to fall into a ditch, or find an appropriate type of non-flammable cover just in the nick of time. And it's not the type of fortune that applies to just anyone, because even standard Heroes don't get a break here (only Super Heroes...they're two different figures on the table). The guys that are destined for TRUE greatness...sometimes Fate herself steps in and intervenes in what should be a routine cremation. It has nothing to do with armor or equipment...Super Heroes and Heroes can be equally equipped (or not equipped), enchanted or not. Nope...it's just that one guy is a footnote in history, and the other's a legend. The wizard might have some "remembered spell" to save themselves (the 7+ save is the same as their counter-spell roll to negate a hostile wizard's spell, or fireball/lightning). But the Super Hero? He's just the Chosen One.

[jeez Louise...this is one super looooooong preamble. Sorry, I'm going to have to cut this into two parts. To be continued...]


  1. Dragon breath's been kinda bugging me lately. My own heartbreaker's probably going to have very low hit point totals, so you're definitely getting fried even if you save. I'd rather have players actively trying to avoid the flames anyway, but as you noted, it makes the saving throw pointless. I've only been considering larger, older dragons though. That save could mean the difference between life-and-death when it comes to the smaller ones, and surviving their flames seems much more plausible

    I'm kinda sick of Godzilla-sized dragons, honestly. I prefer the smaller ones like what St. George fought, the sort that could move through dungeon corridors. That, plus the low hit points, make a saving throw really important

    Not really what you were going for, but your post just helped me think through that problem, so thanks!

    1. @ Prof Oats:

      I have more to say in the follow-up post, so maybe there will be more to chew on.

      I understand your issue with giant dragons but consider that small "George-sized" dragons are less likely to have the hoards adventurers are looking for and more likely to be country-side scourges (the fire-breathing equivalent of a man-killer tiger in India).

    2. True. I didn't mean to suggest that they'd all be quite that small, though I like the idea of giving those ones more attention. It's more the ancient wyrms and such that bug me. I don't think I'd want them growing past the Large or Huge size categories. The oldest dragons might barely be a century old. I suppose I'd be fine with something bigger and older if it were unique, rather than "just another great wyrm"

    3. I agree with you, as lately I have come to the conclusion that dragons were (at least in western history) not considered god-like beings, but more like vicious beasts. Most of the dragon slaying stories are not that much different from other hunting stories. Such, I tend to interprete dragons nowadays as equivalents to lords, that is 9 HD creatures.

  2. I think cash for dragon goes back to the 1974 edition, not sure if fun is involved but Monsters and Treasure notes that "Subdued Dragons can be sold on the open market" for some pretty good cash (500 - 1,000 GP per max HP). It sounds positively profitable to hunt dragons with a good sized army, given that a heavy footman is 3 GP a month to hire (though how your army can sneak up on the slumbering monster is a good question).

    Point being the the idea of cashing out dragons has been around a long time - not sure why, perhaps it's bonus XP ('cause in a strict GP for XP system money has to exchange hands), and perhaps it's just Gygxian actuarial obsessiveness, but it's a strange old rule.

    1. I thought the "actuarial obsessiveness" was more Arneson's thing. His Napoleonics game and the FFC were absolutely littered with talk of money. I believe subduing dragons came from the Blackmoor campaign as well. Everybody wanted a dragon mount

  3. I actually agree with this post. I've always hated 'Save vs. Dragon Death'.

  4. I agree about dragon subdual. I never understood why this one creature type had a special set of rules for capturing it.

    Dragons willing to be captured would seem to be an individual thing, not a species thing. But either way I'd use the morale rules and say that a dragon under 1/4 of its hit points that fails a morale roll will offer surrender. This assuming you want to allow subdual at all.

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  6. If you prefer dragon breath to be an auto-kill, that's fine. That's a stylistic choice.

    But if you are using saving throws they do still matter. Fire from a full strength adult dragon is likely to kill you even if you make your save, but a dragon that's been in combat for a while is a different story. Drop that 50 HP dragon to half its hit points, then save vs its breath weapon, and the PCs might survive. A well planned ambush might be enough to injure the dragon enough at the beginning of the fight for saves to make a difference.

    1. If you're running with the interpretation that damage is equal to current hit points (think that was a Moldvay ruling), then sure, but I'm pretty sure the original intention was to use the dragon's total hit points

    2. That may be. I stared with Mentzer and currently have the Rules Cyclopedia. An edition using the dragon's full hit points would make a BIG difference.

  7. @ Fractal & Prof. Oats:

    Moldvay is the first place where we find a reduction in the dragon's HPs resulting in a reduction in the breath weapon's effectiveness. Both the AD&D monster manual and Holmes Basic are clear that damage is equal to the creature's HPs (in the MM's example, the PCs do scores of damage to the dragon before its first breath and still taste its full might).