Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dragons...Yeah...Let's Talk About Some Dogdamn Dragons

So there is this dude on YouTube named Matt Colville, he's got a lot of interesting and good ideas. I've recently completed watching his Running The Game series on his YouTube channel. He's got a lot of smart ideas overall, but one thing about his Running the Game #32 video is that he says, "I mean ultimately I think dragons in D&D are first and foremost large bags of hit points with  breath weapons." as well as "But I'm not the only person that thinks that dragons in 5th Edition are somewhat boring."

This section of the video (the first 5 minutes or so) explains how an ancient red dragon would be much more interesting and dangerous if it had an aura of fire damage with no save or attack roll associated with it, or if it had a focused breath weapon that did fire damage against one target that did more damage than normal (because 91 fire on a failed save isn't enough?) and lit it on fire, as well as removing fire resistance from targets that fail saving throws against its breath weapon attacks for the rest of the battle. He also says that it would be more interesting if the dragon's frightful presence had a lingering effect. He briefly discusses the idea of using the 5th Edition dragons as spellcasters variant, but kind of says that adds another mechanic to the encounter that forces more book keeping upon the DM.

The overall point of this video is the idea that 5th Edition DMs can draw a lot of inspiration and steal a lot of cool mechanics from 4th Edition. Which is true, to a certain extent. As I've said before, 4th Edition is hands down the worst edition of D&D, but it is a very solid and enjoyable tabletop tactics RPG. Its rules would be great for implementing something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre or something of that nature. But they're flat out awful for representing D&D. That said, there are definitely mechanics and concepts to be found in 4th Edition that can augment 5th Edition combat if you're finding it to be a bit stale and boring at higher levels. 

Before we go on, I want to mention that this guy has a really great understanding of aspects of 5th Edition. Part of the video talks about the math behind the mechanics of magic items, proficiency bonuses, and AC. This guy seems to have a pretty solid understanding of the underpinnings of the math of the game. Not enough DMs spend enough time understanding the why behind the action economy and math of the game. A lot of DMs make judgement calls and change rules on the fly with a very minimal understanding of the how and why of the game's underpinnings. I typically run things with a fair amount of house rules, and while I understand the underpinnings of the game, I typically don't give a fuck. I change things because I want them to fit with how my campaign world works or because I want to make the game fit my tastes. Is that any better than making random judgment calls and house rules at random times? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I won't call this guy stupid, because he's definitely not. He's an experienced DM with a lot of great ideas and as the previous paragraph states, he has a strong understanding of the way 5th Edition works. But calling dragons nothing more than large sacks of hit points and implying they are at all boring is incredibly, adorably, preposterous. I am of the mindset that if you are running a dragon of any significant age and your players are bored by the fight and you're bored running the fight, you're doing it wrong.

Let's discuss a few things about ancient red dragons in 5th Edition.

First and foremost, they're a CR 24 creature with an AC of 22 and 546 hit points with an Intelligence of 18. So yeah, they could be referred to as a sack of hit points with a breath weapon. But using that as their main descriptor does them a disservice. If we go by challenge rating alone, an ancient red dragon is a hard or deadly encounter for any party of 4 - 6 players of like 16th level or lower. Obviously the lethality of the dragon increases the lower level the party is. The breath weapon deals 91 fire damage on a failed save. That's enough to chew through almost half the average hit points of a 16th level Barbarian with a 20 in Constitution (12 at 1st level, 15 levels x 7 HP a level, Con bonus of 5 HP x 16 levels = 197 hit points), assuming he fails the DC 24 Dexterity save. Barbarians of this level do have advantage on Dexterity saving throws, assuming they can see it coming, so there's that.

I'm going to get one thing out of the way at the start here. If you are running a dragon battle as a DM and your dragon has an Intelligence score greater than 2 (the Intelligence score of most animals) and it is not flying around, you've fucked up. If the dragon is sitting in its cave fighting the players in an enclosed space where it cannot dive bomb them and unleash its breath weapon and such from range, you've fucked up. Put away your DM screen and your dice, apologize to your players and Gygax's legacy and try again later. You're better than this. You know it, I know it, and the Gygax within us all knows it.

Moving on.

Now if you're doing this right, you've got this dragon making its lair in something like a an active or dormant volcano. For me, I'd make it somewhat active. Maybe not actively gushing lava, but it's a hot place and the dragon has made his home somewhere where the players have to navigate through hazardous terrain to get to it, but the dragon also has a way to exit the volcano rapidly. If it's a really active volcano, maybe he just swims through a lava tube to the exterior or claws his way up the interior walls (ancient reds have a climb speed) of the volcano and exits out of the spout (do volcanoes have spouts? is it called a spout? an orifice?). Or he just flies the fuck out. I'm not a volcano expert. Maybe he just bashes his way out. He's gargantuan size and has a Strength of 30. That's big enough to knock a hole in a rock formation, right?

Two great things 5th Edition added to powerful and iconic monsters are legendary actions and lair actions. On initiative 20, the dragon can make his lair do one of the following things: tremor (knocking creatures prone), cause a geyser of lava (doing some decent fire damage), or create a cloud of volcanic vapor (obscuring line of sight for most people that are not the dragon, it has blindsight). So when our YouTuber talks about focused breath weapon attacks and auras of fire, I feel like the lair actions of this creature already kind of cover those. Maybe not precisely, but enough that I feel like adding an additional damage effect to the dragon is a little bit much.

So what sorts of interesting things can this dragon do that don't involve adding unique abilities into its stats? Yeah, breathing fire, greatsword damage claws, and a couple legendary actions are cool, but let's do something interesting that is not specifically described in the creature's statblock.

Ok, so the dragon has a Strength of 30 and can fly at a rate of 80 feet per turn. Medium creatures with a Strength of 30 can carry 450 pounds and this doubles for every size category bigger than medium, so our gargantuan red dragon has a pretty significant carrying capacity, which means he has a pretty significant lift, carry, drag capacity. What's your average medium size player weigh? Two or three hundred pounds? Cool.

So the dragon starts out going toe to toe with the party's plate wearing Fighter. As its action, the dragon uses frightful presence. Because of multiattack, it then gets to make two claw attacks and a bite. The dragon makes a grapple checks with all three attacks. Grapple checks pit its +10 Strength roll vs the Fighter's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. Given the fact that the dragon is three size categories larger than the medium size Fighter, I would be inclined to give it advantage on such a roll. But that's just me. So the dragon grabs our Fighter. Since the Fighter is three sizes smaller, the dragon's movement is not impeded by grappling and the dragon flies up at 80 feet per round. Let's say the dragon flies straight up for two rounds. We're now sitting at 160 feet up in the air and the dragon releases the Fighter. This fall, assuming it is not stopped in some way by something like feather falling, deals 16d6 bludgeoning damage (average of 56 damage, twice as much as 3rd level fireball or lightning bolt). Now, obviously your dragon is dropping the Fighter into a lava lake, so maybe 16d6 falling damage is excessive. I know hitting water from great heights can do some serious damage to the human body, but I'm not sure how lava compares in terms of density and whatnot to water. Anyway. Lava. 5th Edition doesn't appear to have rules for lava that I can find, but in Pathfinder (which has rules for falling into liquids as well as onto the ground), complete submersion deals 20d6 fire damage (average of 70 damage) each round. Assuming your Fighter is wearing a decent amount of metal armor, yeah, he's submerged. Alternatively, if you are kind to your players and they're foolishly not all packing resistance to fire, you can say that the countryside around the dragon's lair is just covered in spiky rock formations and treat the impact on the ground like activating a spiked pit trap.

So that's pretty cool and very in keeping with what an intelligent foe, like a dragon with an Intelligence of 18, might do to neutralize a foe. It keeps him at a distance from foes and is guaranteed to inconvenience someone. Even if the Fighter is immune or resistant to the fire damage from lava, he still has to escape from the lava, which is going to take some time, or require the intervention of other players. He also has to worry about drowning if he can't get out quickly. This is a cool deadly thing that causes tension that requires no additional mechanics to be added to the game. It also gives the players a chance to think quickly and potentially do something really cool and surprising to extricate the Fighter from his fall or get him out of the lava. So it gives your dragon a chance to fuck the players up and it gives them the chance to be awesome and creative as well.

This next idea isn't super cool, but I kind of like it. So let's say this dragon lives in a remote region within a fairly dormant volcano. There's still lava and the like, but this thing isn't going to vomit up rivers of burny death any time in the near future. Let's say two or three hundred years ago, the dragon (who is richer than Dog) hired a bunch of Druids (or we use the dragons as spellcasters variant) to create massive forests around its lair (maybe with the plant growth spell). Once it was all growing nicely, the dragon obviously killed all the Druids, because he's chaotic evil and there's no way he's parting with any part of his hoard willingly. So the players wander into this massive centuries old growth of forest and finally reach the dragon's dormant volcano lair. The dragon immediately flies out of the lair and ignites the forest with its breath weapon. Now the players have to deal with a dragon and a fairly hostile environment. This isn't merely a little plot of woods burning from an out of control campfire. This is a forest that has been magically augmented to be fairly large and extremely overgrown. It is now all on fire (or at least spreading rapidly), getting super hot, and is full of smoke. Pathfinder has rules for forest fires and players having to deal with them, but 5th Edition does not. I'd probably combine the effects of some low level spells that obscure visibility (like fog cloud) and heat (like bonfire) as well as making everything difficult terrain. Additionally, if the players are near the dragon but not actively in the fire in the forest, you can have the dragon use its wing buffet ability to knock the players down and blow sheets of fire at them.

Even if this all doesn't offer a shit ton of tactical advantage to the dragon, it certainly sets the scene for a fucking amazing set piece battle. Everyone is coughing, everything is obscured by thick smoke, trees are cracking and exploding from the intense heat. Somewhere there is a massive fucking dragon roaring like an angry fucking god. Alternatively, perhaps the dragon set up a dam of some kind and instead of using its breath weapon to ignite the surrounding forest, maybe it just knocks down the dam and now there is smoke and heat and difficult terrain and rivers of lava constricting where the players can go. 

Let's go another, less cinematic and burny route. So maybe this arrogant rich as fuck ancient red dragon has been in this region for a long ass time. Maybe this dragon seeks adulation and recognition for how awesome he is. Maybe this dragon is also a lazy shit and wants servants, but can't really stand the stench and incompetence of kobolds. So this dragon sets himself up as the lord of a region. He allows towns and such to flourish, as long as everyone pays him taxes for his horde. Maybe the townspeople see this dragon as their lord, or he masquerades as a mortal line of kings, and this dragon has armies or an order of knighthood serving him. These don't have to be evil soldiers either. They could be Lawful Neutral samurai types that serve their lord and only their lord and good and evil don't really matter to their terms of service.

So now instead of kobold mooks as hoard guards and servants, we have actual soldiers and knights that serve this dragon. Dudes with actual weapons and armor of quality and a competent understanding of tactics that goes beyond the "we outnumber them, attack!" or "they outnumber us, flee!" that you typically see from kobolds. We see kobolds serving dragons a lot, and kobolds are kind of joke to players (unless the kobolds have a belt of dragon might). If you change all those squealing kobolds to a group of mounted and experienced knights dedicated to the service of their liege, you now have a bit of a change to how the PCs may approach their foes and how their foes will respond to the PCs. Additionally, you can add issues like do the knights know they serve an evil dragon to the scenario. Do the knights care? Is the dragon in the castle, or is his lair far away in a nearby mountain? If the players significantly piss off the dragon, will it raze the countryside? Does it have hostages somewhere? Do the players care about these types of things?

Another way you can augment dealings with older dragons to make them more exciting is to apply the "I'm old, entertain me" descriptor to the dragon. Maybe this dragon is older than ancient and is bored out of his mind, kind of just going through his days napping atop a truly massive hoard. Maybe this dragon is easy to find and his lair is easy to enter. Maybe the dragon even encourages challengers to spice up his days of lounging. However, once the PCs enter the lair, instead of kobolds or lava rivers, they discover that this lair is actually a funhouse deathtrap dungeon.

So imagine for a moment, you've wandered through the Tomb of Horrors and all that entails. Instead of finding Acererak at the end, you find a tunnel that opens up into the interior of a volcano. You look up and you can see the mouth of the volcano above you and the sky through it, obscured by smoke and shimmering waves of heat. Before you sits a truly massive dragon flanked by suitably epic rivers of molten lava. It greets you. It tells you that it has been amused by your endeavors in its dungeon. You have earned the right to leave with your lives or face it directly (now that you have been run ragged by the deathtrap you just wandered through). Make your choice quickly, or it will be decided for you. Then the volcano dramatically rumbles and the earth tremors because ancient reds can do that too. It's a regional ability within 6 miles of their lairs. Another regional ability around their lairs are portals to The Elemental Plane of Fire popping open (which dragons should totally drop players into). But yeah bro, dragons in 5th Edition are totally boring. 


So you've got this bored dragon amused by the suffering of the players and the players need to quickly make a choice. Do they dare face off against the dragon now or do they return when they're stronger? Has the dragon been observing their efforts in the dungeon and familiarizing itself with their capabilities? How many gewgaws does it have in its horde that can negate what they can do? Will the dungeon remain the same for their next visit if they leave now? This concept doesn't necessarily make the dragon itself more difficult or interesting, but it does make dealings with the dragon more interesting than attacking it directly in its lair. The players have to think and make choices about how they proceed and weigh pros and cons. 

So there are a few ideas about dragons and playing them as the centerpiece to an adventure. It's not hard to see that you can do interesting things with dragons (if you decide to devote more effort to it than reading their statblock). You just have to think of them the right way and understand what you can do with the rules presented already. There's no need for new mechanics to be added to spice them up (unless you are doing this with the intent to create a legendary and unique dragon). They're dragons. They're fucking spicy enough. 

These are three ideas I came up with on a whim and we haven't even discussed innate spellcasting. Spellcasting with dragons in 5th Edition allows them to cast a number of spells 1/day. They get one spell per point of Charisma modifier and the level of the spells can be no more than 1/3 of the dragon's challenge rating. Which means the ancient red dragon gets six spells total.  You'd have to give them spells based on their age category because each age category has different ability scores.. Young reds have access to 3rd level or lower spells, adults have access to 5th level or lower spells, and ancient red dragons have access to 8th level or lower spells.

Dragons are boring? Folks, go and fuck yourselves. You give me an ancient red dragon in its own lair that gets to pick six spells to use once a day and I'll hand you a TPK. 

So as a final thought, let's go back to the fiery aura, laser beam breath weapon, removing fire resistance, lingering fear effect, and lighting on fire spoken of in the video. Yeah, let's talk about those. If we use the variant of dragons as spellcasters, guess what we can do? As one of the the 8th level or lower spells, we can take investiture of flame that the dragon can cast. Would you like to know what it does? Any creature that moves within 5 feet of you for the first time or starts its turn there takes 1d10 fire damage. No save, no attack roll. It also allows you to use your action to create a beam of fire. Which is not as impressive as a focused breath weapon because it only deals 4d8 fire damage. But you could also take spells like lightning bolt to simulate that. Yeah, it deals lightning damage. So the fuck what? That covers the ignore fire resistance thing and lightning is fucking hot. Just describe it as a white hot beam of fire. Or you could take spells that deal radiant damage. So it's already fiery as written, but the fire resistance of the players is useless. Which is what we're trying to achieve here. As far as a lingering fear effect, I'm not sure how to achieve that. The frightful presence ability already lasts for one minute on a failed save. But I think what he was getting at was a weaker version lingering for a bit on a successful save. My thought is that if your player saved against the frightful presence (which has a pretty high DC of 21) or outlasted its duration (which is 10 rounds of combat), it seems a bit dickish to subject them to it anyway. 

Oh. Starting things on fire. You know what? Fire ignites things. If you feel your players have taken enough fire damage to be lit on fire, light them the fuck on fire. If 91 fucking points of dragon related fire damage isn't enough to start a fucking player on fire, I don't know what is. As far as I'm concerned, every fire effect that actually deals damage should have a chance to ignite players, and even if they're not on fire, their gear should be because it takes way less heat for things like clothing and hair to begin burning than it does human flesh. Plus, metal gets hot, so after being subjected to 91 fire damage from a red dragon or being dumped in lava, your Fighter's plate mail is going to be glowing cherry red and melting their skin off or at least scorching and igniting all the padding beneath the plates of metal. So, in closing, fire is hot. So is lightning, but that's another issue. If you feel that a particular heat source is hot enough to start something on fire, start that thing on fire. Don't add a special unique ability tied to a CR 24 monster. You're an adult, make a judgment call.

Dragons are fucking awesome. They don't need special mechanics to make them awesome. The rules of the game and competent DMs already make them awesome. If you're bored running a dragon and your players are bored with a fight with a dragon, you should get better at DMing, because you're kind of fucking it up.

That got a bit ranty. It was fun. Hehe.

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