Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 2)

[continued from here...again, sorry about that]

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.
Forty feet is a little small for a red dragon, at least according to the Monster Manual. Length for the red is given as 48 feet; the blue dragon at 42 feet is the closest in size. Since an average blue has 9 HD (which is within the hit die range of the red dragon) will go ahead and give VP the same.

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?"
That's a fairly hefty amount of damage least prior to AD&D's hit point inflation with its D10 hit dice for fighters and CON bonus that goes up to +4, per HD. No, it's not a huge inflation...but things have only gone up from there. Which meant that monsters, especially dragons, have had to get bigger, too...but I'm digressing. If you keep the scale small...limiting the amount of HPs characters acquire, limiting the levels they can obtain, limiting bonuses for ability scores...then a monster like Vermithrax is a HUGE monster, a formidable encounter for any group of heroes. Which is good since we really don't want dragons to be "ordinary monsters."

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's death.

Then how can PCs escape this death? Because they ARE 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 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]


  1. The original dragon tables (from the FFC) are pretty interesting. Firstly, dragon age categories when to 10 with some dragons not reaching that high. White and Black dragons are limited to age 8 (i.e. 8 hit points per die), Green to 9 and Blue, Red and Gold all the way to 10 hit points per hit die (at 10, 11, and 12 hit dice respectively). In this chart, dragons didn't deal hit points of damage but instead rolled a certain number of dice for damage. For example, a Red rolled 16d6 damage at age 8 and 22d6 at age 10. That sounds like alot but it's still an average of 77 versus the 100 hit points it would do under the OD&D/AD&D rules.

    Also, originally dragons didn't always do 100% damage equal to their hit points, but instead rolled d100 to determine the percentage adding +5% for each age above 2 with a bonus of +10% if age 8 or higher.

    Just FYI. I do prefer the random damage to damage equal to hit dice.

  2. @ Hedge:

    I'm not sure those are the "original" dragon tables. The copy of FFC I have states these are "Richard Snider's Additions" evolving from his own "entirely separate campaign and mythos."

    The percentage of HP damage is an alternative method of determining damage (from a dragon's max HP), different and separate from the random damage in Mr. Snider's table (just for clarification).

    Arneson's own Blackmoor seems to have drawn heavily on Chainmail (his "Differences in Creatures from Blackmoor Game" on page 58 all seems to be in direct reference to the Chainmail entries including paralyzing wraiths (*not* ghouls), basilisk saves, "true trolls," etc. Interesting that he only includes Gold, Brown, and Green dragons in his games and only the former two have breath weapons (fire only) my mind, this is Arneson adhering to real folklore (though perhaps with a little bit of "Pern" thrown into the mix).

    Thanks for hipping me to this...I haven't read or looked at FFC for a loooong while.
    : )

    1. Yeah, definitely not the original system. I'm quite fond of it, though. In a way, the percentage system kinda acts like a character-independent saving throw, though with more granularity. I'm kinda tempted to drop the saving throw and replace it with something based on that, honestly, though not quite as fiddly. I'll probably just roll damage like in 3e

      I was just flipping through the 2e MM yesterday and spotted a brown dragon. I'm gonna have to check on the history of that and see what other versions might've existed

      JB, there's a section at the end of Deities, Demi-Gods & Heroes that talks about eastern dragons. I've found it helps spark the imagination and think differently about dragons (I especially love the bit about blue dragons being made of the sky)

      Also, you need to check out the FFC again. Such great material! My own game's gonna steal so much from Arneson and Snider, I should credit them as co-authors :p