These are not the dragons of Beowulf. The Big B fought a fire-breathing dragon, and kept fighting even after taking a mortal wound from the beast's flame. Or maybe they are the same: it depends on how you read the poem and interpret the final blow (was it the loyal retainer Wiglaf's blow that mortally wounded the monster? Or was Beowulf's dying strike really needed to finish it off?). But Wiglaf was no superhero in the way Beowulf was, destined to slay terrible monsters. A hero, yes...but that is all.
SO...saving throws. The problem here is that unless you want to reduce your game to fantasy folklore, you have to deal with all the various dragons present in the D&D game. White dragons and blue dragons and gold dragons and whatnot. In Five Ancient Kingdoms (a game based in large part on Chainmail) I limited myself simply to the fire-breathing dragons of folklore. And for my new fantasy heartbreaker I will probably due the same (though I may have fire breathing versus venomous-type worms, I probably won't be doing "acid breath," etc. like D&D. Probably...). That's my style choice...but for purposes of this post I'll assume we're talking about modifying a "normal" D&D game with all its chromatic crazy.
Let's start with a model. For fun, I'll use Vermithrax Pejorative from the classic fantasy film, Dragonslayer. Per the movie's design team, "Vermithrax is 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 90 feet. But she had to look light enough to fly. So most of her weight is at the head, neck, and shoulders. The rest of her is pretty streamlined."
|This is what 9 Hit Dice looks like.|
Vermithrax is a 400-year-old dragon. In the film, Ulrich states: "When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit...crippled...pitiful. Spiteful!" Book 2 of OD&D cuts off at the century mark when HD were still only D6. Supplement I (Greyhawk) increased HPs by 2 "at the two oldest ages," but the age table was not extended. Holmes Basic did extend the age table, giving ancient status (8 HP per die) to dragons over the two century mark. In the Monster Manual, Gygax revised this: ancient dragons were those with more than 400 years. 3rd edition gave dragons 12 age categories, but kept the first eight the same as the MM, simply revising the names (Very Old becoming "Mature Adult;" Ancient becoming "Old"). Personally, I'm inclined to use the Holmes table just because I prefer a smaller scale chronology (thousand year old dragons? That's, like, Star Wars...aka galactic...scale). Plus, it fits with Ulrich's statement which implies the dragon is nearing the end of its life. So, we'll give ol' Verm ancient status and 8 HP per die.
9 HD x 8 HP = 72 hit points. Enough to kill an 18th level B/X magic-user with maximum hit points and an 18 constitution. A 20th level fighter with a +1 constitution bonus has, on average, 71.5 hit points...she dies, too. Assuming, they fail their saving throws.
And that's what we're talking about, right? Axing saving throws?
[other chromatic dragons are fairly close in scale. The white dragon equivalent of Vermithrax (small and ancient) will have 40 hit points...enough to freeze an average 8th level super hero (36 hit points) in his tracks. Again, assuming he (or she) receives no saving throw]
|"Interrupt my nap, will you?"|
If you keep dragons dangerous (by limiting PCs, allowing them to become legendary through their deeds, rather than their "stat lines"), then it doesn't matter how many HPs the thing has. If you get caught in a stream of acid, or a cloud of poison gas, or are struck by lightning, your character's not walking away. I mean think about that for a second...characters that fail saving throws but still have HPs left? What's THAT look like?
|"Five hit points left...have at thee!"|
No, it's obvious to me that if you get doused by dragon breath, whether fire or acid or whatever, you're done. Toast. So what's the mechanic for killing PCs (and allowing their possible survival...they are the protagonists of the game's story, after all)?
First off, I don't think there should be any attack roll for a dragon's breath weapon. Dragon breath is too big, too dangerous, too potent for armor to deflect or human reflexes to dodge. If you're in range when it breathes, you're getting hit.
On a related note, I would probably change the shape of all "fantasy" breath attacks to the same cone of effect. A blue breathing lighting or a black breathing acid can sweep an area with their breath attack. This isn't a spitting cobra we're talking about, and dragons aren't stupid animals. As far as "chorine gas" goes...I go with 3E on this one: corrosive, acid gas settling on stuff and destroying it. Chlorine gas (which was briefly used in WWI) just isn't as dangerous/deadly as the other destructive, elemental breath weapons.
Second off, dragon breath kills. This ain't damage...it's death.
Then how can PCs escape this death? Because they ARE heroes...at least in my new heartbreaker. At worst (in early editions of D&D) they are rogues with above average courage and ambition. Regardless, they're protagonists. This isn't Chainmail where only Super Heroes, Wizards, and other dragons are important enough to weather the fire...how do we get our brave little PCs to survive these un-savable, un-miss-able, auto-kill attacks?
Well, my initial thought on the matter is: it depends on the actions the PCs are taking. Player choice, not an arbitrary roll, is going to be the main determination of PC survivability.
But that, it appears, will have to be in a Part 3. Sorry, yes, I know we still have one more saving throw to go...and we will. But dragons (and their abilities) require strong consideration in a game that bears their name in the title.
[to be continued]