Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 4)

[continued from here; last one, I promise!]

So, then, we come to the big question: how does one do battle with such a monster?

I spent a couple-few days reviewing various dragon slayings in (non-D&D) film and fiction, and compiled a short list for review:
  1. Unnamed dragon (from Beowulf). Slayer: Beowulf (with Wiglaf). Method: multiple (four) sword strikes. Result: Beowulf mortally wounded by dragon fire.
  2. Vermithrax Pejorative (from Dragonslayer). Slayer: Ulrich (with Galen). Method: suicide bombing (via magic). Result: Ulrich sacrifices himself.
  3. Bryagh (from Flight of Dragons film). Slayer: Sir Orrin. Method: (thrown) sword to creature's chest. Result: Orrin mortally wounded by dragon fire.
  4. Maur (from The Hero and the Crown). Slayer: Aerin Red-Hair. Method: dagger plunged through eye (up to shoulder) into brain. Result: badly maimed by dragon fire with lingering mortal wound.
  5. Smaug (from The Hobbit): Slayer: Bard of Esgaroth. Method: dwarf-forged arrow to creature's chest. Result: Esgaroth ("Lake-Town") is destroyed in fiery conflagration.
  6. Lambton Worm (from folklore). Slayer: John Lambton. Method: multiple sword wounds in river preventing regeneration (river washed away pieces). Result: Lambton family cursed to untimely deaths for nine generations.
  7. Glaurung (from The Silmarillion). Slayer: Turin Turambar. Method: sword wound to underbelly from hideyhole. Result: Turin was fine but dragon's final curse loses him his sister/wife and unborn child (and leads Turin to commit suicide).
  8. Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty). Slayer: Prince Phillip. Method: (thrown) sword to creature's chest. Result: no damage (thanks to magic Shield of Virtue).
  9. Unnamed crocodile (from legend of St. George). Slayer: George of Lydda. Method: lance charge from horseback. Result: nothing thanks to Christian devotion.
  10. Fafnir (from Volsunga). Slayer: Sigurd. Method: sword stab to left shoulder from below, while hiding in ditch. Result: Sigurd gains magical powers, but is cursed for taking dragon's treasure (and things go downhill from there, eventually leading to untimely death).
There are some commonalities in the majority of these stories. Firstly, the battle with a dragon is most often a solitary one. Even when a hero brings an army or entourage, they're chickening out long before the showdown with the beast. You can chock this up to magical "dragon fear" (a la Dragonlance by way of the 1st edition Monster Manual), but big monsters are just too much for non-heroic types to handle. And they're ineffective to boot: the arrows of Bard's guardsmen simply bounce off of Smaug's scaly hide. In Dragonslayer we are told that when King Gaiseric went against Vermithrax with "his best company of fighters," none came back alive. This doesn't mean that a hero can't have aid in slaying the dragon...and D&D is a game of multiple protagonists...but it's something to be considered.

Secondly, in almost every case, the slaying of the dragon is only accomplished with sacrifice and/or at great cost. Four of the heroes listed are left dying as a direct result of the wounds they suffer while fighting the dragon. Three are subject to curses received as a result of killing the monster. Only Bard, Phillip, and St. George escape personally unscathed, but Bard's entire town is destroyed and its people left as refugees. As for Phillip's fight...well, it's a 1959 Disney film for children and not actually based on real folklore (there's no dragon in Little Briar Rose). Meanwhile, St. George doesn't even face dragon fire...I should probably have left it off the list.

[perhaps I should have listed Niner and King Roland from Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, but while Niner is majestic and fire-breathing, he is still treated as a beast to be hunted not a monster of epic proportion]

In every case (except with poor ol' Vermithrax), it takes a piercing weapon to do the job. A good axe can take a chunk out of a thick tree, but not one wrapped in steel-strong hide. Often, magical aid is helpful in getting the job done. Phillip gets a lot of fairy help, not the least of which are his magic sword and shield.

In nearly every case (except The Hobbit) the slaying of the dragon is accomplished from close range. This has the unfortunate propensity of exposing the hero to the monster's breath weapon which...unless protected by magic (Galen, Phillip) absolutely deadly. The heroes doing the slaying are usually already cooked, and it is only their inherent grit (Orrin, Aerin, Beowulf) that allows them to deliver the death blow. Otherwise, some form of stealth may allow the hero (Turin, Sigurd) to strike while delivering the hero from physical damage...but really what's the bottom line, here? 'Cause this series has already lasted too long for a single saving throw...

With these things in mind, let's consider how to restructure combat for dragons.

[oh, don't like special "dragon combat rules?" Why not? Every D&D editions always included special combat mechanics when fighting dragons. They're a different beast]

"My armor is like tenfold shields..." --Smaug

A dragon has a defensive class ("ascending armor class") equal to ten plus its hit dice, at least in B/X (a red dragon has 10 HD, for a DC of 20; this is the equivalent of the dragon's listed AC of -1. The white dragon has 6 HD, and a DC of 16...four less than the red and again equivalent to a B/X AC of 3). But while the DC is what must be "rolled over" for a successful attack, it doesn't tell the whole story. You can't kill a dragon with a mace or an axe or even a war hammer...its hide is too thick and much too hard. You must use a long, piercing blade: a spear, long sword, lance, pike, etc. that can be stabbed between scales or into vulnerable areas, like the eyes.

From The Hero and The Crown (McKinley, 1984):

"It is customary today to hunt the dragon with arrow and thrown spear; but if one of the Great Ones comes again, this will avail his attacker little. As their size has diminished, so has their armament; a well-thrown spear may pierce a small dragon anywhere it strikes. The Great Ones had only two vulnerable spots that might be depended upon: at the base of the jaw where the narrow head joins the long neck; and behind the elbow, from whence the wings sprout. Dragons are, as I have said, nimble; it is most unlikely that a Great One would be so foolish as to lower its head or its wings to make an easy mark. A great hero only may slay a Great One; one who by skill and courage may draw close enough to force the fatal blow."

If you want to allow PCs to nickel-and-dime dragons, then allow magical weapons (only) to inflict a maximum amount of damage equal to their magical bonus (only) with a successful attack. They are otherwise only inflicting pinpricks on a dragon with their feeble attacks: they are mosquitos to its hide...simply irritants (and that's with a successful attack). For actual methods of slaying a dragon, we must turn back to Chainmail.

Chainmail provides two means by which a heroic fighter (a Hero or Super Hero) may defeat a dragon: fantasy melee or the (much easier) "shoot-it-down-with-an-arrow-when-it-flies-overhead" method. We'll forget the latter (for the moment...we'll come back to it), because we're not trying to model the singular Bard the Bowman (and making such a method easier is the surest way to turn a unique situation commonplace). So instead, we'll look at melee:

A Super Hero (8th level fighter equivalent) slays a (Great Red) dragon on a 2D6 roll of 11+, and drives it back on a 10. A Hero (4th level fighter equivalent) slays a dragon on a 2D6 roll of 13+, and drives it back on a 12. Note that it is impossible for a Hero to kill a dragon unless armed with a magic sword (which gives a bonus to the roll). A Super Hero escapes death by dragon fire on a 2D6 roll of 7+.

Okay, now lets convert those percentages to D20 rolls (since neither B/X, nor my new heartbreaker, use 2D6 as their standard mechanic).

A Super Hero can slay a dragon on a D20 roll of 19+. That 11+ on 2D6 is about an 8.5% chance of success. Rolling a 19+ on a D20 is a 10% chance, but I'm willing to give a little extra. A Super Hero is the equivalent of an 8th level fighter (+8 to melee attack rolls in my game), meaning the PC has hit a target of 27 (19+8) to slay the dragon. What is a 27 when compared to a red dragon's aforementioned DC of 20?

A perfect strike from a strong (13+ STR) person.

Remember that in my "revised combat system" every rollover point equals 1 point of damage inflicted by a PC. Swords and spears only inflict a maximum of six points (though that maximum can be increased by strong characters, or enchantment). To inflict 7 points (a perfect thrust of greater than average strength) requires an attack roll seven over the DC of the opponent.

A 4th level fighter (the equivalent of Chainmail's Hero) cannot achieve this result against a red dragon. She needs something a sword +1, +3 versus dragons.

Sorry, ain't happening.
The D20 roll for a Super Hero to escape a blast of dragon fire is 9 or better (a 60% chance...a skosh more than the 58.3% of 7+ on 2D6). Of course, we want ALL player characters to have a chance to escape dragon fire, not just the 8th level ones, so we work backwards from here: PC must rollover 16 to avoid dragon fire; add level to roll. There that was easy enough. The arc of a dragon's breath weapon isn't enough to catch more than one or two PCs at a time if they stay spread out and harry the monster from multiple sides. Tactics become important here, since the breath weapon equals death. A magic shield might add its bonus to this roll...if it's a big enough shield.

Ah, but what if you've got to kill a dragon and there're no 8th level warriors in the party and you're totally willing to sacrifice yourself heroically? Good question! I'm doing away with the rules for subduing a dragon (duh) and instead instituting something I like to call "Going for the Kill!" One PC of the party can draw the dragon's attention and ire and get all opposed to dancing around hoping to hit the jackpot roll while avoiding dragon breath. When you "Go for the Kill!" you receive a +5 bonus to your attack roll, meaning even a 4th level character can slay a Great Red with an 18+ roll (18+4+5=27). Interestingly enough, this improves your chances to the same as if you used the "shoot dragon's underbelly with bow" rule from Chainmail: 15% for Heroes, and 35% for Super Heroes (40% with a high Agility score). See? Told you we'd come back to that!

Going for the kill is not all wine and roses, however. By (pretty much) challenging the dragon to single-combat and getting in close, you will be subjected to dragon fire. That means no "rollover save" to avoid the flames...the PC isn't trying to avoid the flames, she's trying to deliver a death blow. The mechanic works like this: you must announce you're "going for the kill" before rolling initiative. If you lose initiative, or if you miss your attack roll, then your character is bacon...or, at least, mortally wounded (I believe I mentioned before a little resource called "grit?" It allows characters to fight on after being mortally wounded, which means you can see a Beowulf or Sir Orrin type combat, where the hero still slays the dragon despite being slain himself). It's tough...but that's the price you pay to be a hero.

[regarding the possibility of magical curses and whatnot, I leave it up to individual DM's to decide how magical and fairy tale nasty they want their campaign setting to be]

All right, this was a lot longer than I intended it to be. Thanks for sticking with it. I'll get to chopping the last saving throw a lot sooner...probably tomorrow (and that post should be a lot shorter). Oh, on the subject of magic...specifically, how PC magic-users can use their powers to slay inclination is to again refer back to Chainmail, where magic just doesn't affect the monsters (fireballs and lightning bolts just drive 'em back "one space"). You might arrange to have some sort of suicide explosion spell like Ulrich uses in Dragonslayer, but magic in my own heartbreaker is going to be a bit more on the "understated" side, anyway. If you want to kill a dragon, get a lance...or a very long sword.
: )


  1. The St. George story still fits in your list in the sense that he didn't go unscathed either — he was outed as a Christian and martyred.

    1. @ Fr. Dave:

      Thank you for that. I think I was confused (I thought is martyrdom was for other reasons). But as an Eastern Orthodox tradition (I think?!), I'll definitely defer to your knowledge!
      : )

  2. Your "going for the kill" action reminds of the "charge" move in several editions +4 to hit, -2 AC (and sometimes double damage if using a lance or equivalent)

    1. @ porph:

      Not sure which "several" you're talking about. 3rd (&3.5) had a +2/-2 charge. There's no such rule in OD&D, BX, BECMI, Holmes, 1E, or 5E (basic) so I'm not sure what you're referencing.

    2. Well, my bad. Actually I can't find any reference either. But I do actually remembre such a rule, so I figure it must be some "home rule" that I assumed to be official.

    3. @ porph:

      Could be...but across "several editions?" Unless it was the same DM using the house rule in multiple editions...

      Let me know if you find it somewhere...that's a pretty big (and odd) bonus!

  3. Just wanted to point out that you forgot Dirk the Daring, slaying Singe the Dragon by throwing a magical sword at him.

    1. @ Lord G:

      I was trying to stay from fiction that referenced D&D, as I'm pretty sure Dragon's Lair did.
      ; )

  4. Don't forget that cinematic juggernaut - 'Reign of Fire'...

    This reviewer:
    claims that it was informed by the battle of Marduk and Tiamet, although I think that's giving the writers of this turd way too much credit. It's one of those movies that I was unable to suspend disbelief. Although watching McConaughey chew the scenery was a hoot.
    To match your format:
    Unnamed Alpha Male
    Slayer: Abercrombey (with Van Zan)
    Method: Explosive-tipped crossbow bolts
    Result: Van Zan consumed after wounding dragon


    1. @ Leicester:

      I'll admit it: Reign of Fire is one of my all-time favorite Guilty Pleasures. Sometimes a terrible film just strikes several chords in you...hell, I even dig on the title.
      : )

  5. The setting lore presented in Dragonslayer has always seemed reasonable to me, that sorcerers are responsible for "magical beasts". A wizard enchanting a "one-shot" amulet isn't a cheat, its the focus of his career (even beyond death). The fighter should need arcane boons from his caster to combat certain monsters.

  6. @ Lee:

    It's part of the oft quoted "Hero Cycle" that a protagonist is gifted with magical accoutrement by the wise mentor/magician. Obi-Wan serves this purpose in Star Wars when he gives Luke a light saber and knowledge of "the Force."

    But RPGs are not based on the "Hero Cycle;" certainly their game play is not. As such, I need to have a method of slaying dragons that does NOT involve magic (magic just makes it easier).