Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Monsters & Treasure Examination Dragons

So iconic as to be part of the title of the game, dragons have undergone quite a transformation over the years. They started off as being a threat, one might even say a grave threat, but a threat that could be pursued without shitting yourself in the planning. Sure, they were dangerous and deadly, but they could be beaten.

For purposes of comparison I'll be looking at 100 year old red dragons from Monsters & Treasure and the SRD3.5. That age is Old for an OD&D dragon, Young Adult for the 3.5 variety.

OD&D dragons all had AC2. Since there is no mention of multiple attacks or damage bonuses, it may be inferred that all dragons had one attack for d6 damage, apart from their breath attack. Other than that, they were each different. Reds had 9-11 HD, with Old Reds getting 5 points per hit die. That was also the amount of damage done by their breath weapon. They were able to breath 3 times per day. They hit AC2 on a 7 or better.

Their OD&D adversary, a Fighting-Man of similar 10th level, would likely have fewer hit points. With the average roll of a d6 being 3.5, he would have 36 points, compared to the dragon's 45-55. Of course, if the F-M had a +1 CON bonus his average HP jump up to 46, with a max of 71. His Saving Throw vs the dragon's breath is 8, which means he will save 65% of the time, for half damage. The bitch of it is, even if he saves, the dragon's 3 breath attacks per day are more than enough to roast our F-M without some sort of magical aid. That's ok, though, because he only needs a 10 to hit the dragon. Hopefully by the time a 10th level fighter tangles with a dragon he will have a pretty potent magic sword, some armor, maybe a Potion of Heroism. In other words, he should have a chance, even if he wandered up on the beast accidentally.

In comparison, the 3.5 dragon is almost a demigod. I'm not going to completely break down a Fighter's chances against this beast because I'm not really versed in 3.5-speak. I'll compare things that are obvious, but nothing that gets "rulesy". A 3.5 red will sport 218 HP. The Fighter (we'll say he's 19th level, to put him on par with the dragon) would have, on average, 105 HP. Of course, this is 3.x, so it is safe to assume a CON bonus, but even if it is a massive +5, his hit point will only (only?) be 200, on average. He could possibly have a max of 285, but that's not very likely.

Our 3.5 red is a Young Adult at 100 years. That translates into 10d10 damage for the breath weapon, which recycles (1 in 4 chance per turn of being available). That's a potential of an average of 55 points every fourth turn. Of course, you could go the whole fight with the poor red not hitting that one in four, or he could nail it every turn, in which case the Fighter is screwed. But, maybe he's screwed anyway. See, that Young Adult is like a B-17 bomber; it has weapons hanging all over it. It gets the following attacks: 1@2d6, 3@d8, and 2@d6. They all have a +19 attack bonus. A Fighter in half plate (which seems closest to D&D plate mail) is AC 18 without DEX or magic. He better have plenty of both or that dragon is going to rape him for an average of 28 points per round, not including breath.

I want to be clear about something. I'm not trying to compare OD&D to 3.x. I'm using 3.x in this comparison because it is the final culmination of a game with the D&D monicker that actually resembled D&D. It is the ultimate end of the dragon's development cycle in a recognizable form. I'm not even trying to say one is superior to the other. As an aside, I believe that what happened with the dragon is a direct reflection of the design paradigm of later editions. That being character power inflation and monsters becoming more and more challenging occurring an endless and self-serving cycle.

So, you can see that at some point the dragon went from being a worthy adversary to being a virtual deity. I think it also illustrates later editions' reliance on character buffs, special abilities, and magic items in order to overcome foes. A smart player running his character with a smart referee can handle an OD&D dragon without needing to use a database to cross-reference all the necessary bonuses. I don't believe any amount of player skill will help a later edition character who is short of his bonuses when he runs up on a dragon.


  1. It's great that you bring about this comparison of how things have changed with the times, as it were. And because of the shift in character for dragons, we would on average see fewer and fewer dragons in 3.5 campaigns, given what they've become.

    In all the campaigns our group has ever had in 3.5, only two dragons have ever even been shown, or alluded to. In fact one was a quest giver, and the other was only ever seen flying from afar.

    I've been criticized for my lack of dragons simply because of how powerful they've become and my hesitation to include them, and in a game named as such, that's very wrong. We just about don't ever play campaigns where the characters become powerful enough to even stand a chance, simply because the scale inflation of the system quickly loses its flare. And because I hate having to always find/make increasingly more powerful encounters for PCs to engage.

    Furthermore, on magic items and buffs in 3.5, that eventually characters will plateau in their gains until they hit epic status, which for things like saves, will screw the PCs over. As the monsters become higher and higher tiers to remain challenging to the characters, the saves for their abilities also soar high. So even that reflex save to avoid the fire becomes less and less likely to exceed, as does the chances of not being killed by poison. So for the fighter in 3.5, things look exceedingly grim with level gain.

  2. You know, the more I really study OD&D, the more I come to understand the balance of it. It is often said that the older editions are robust and easily houseruled without becoming broken, but I am beginning to disagree. I think the base D&D system is at its best in the LBBs simply because it has such internal consistency and balance. Every system in it depends on other systems to some degree. Doing something as seemingly simple as going to variable hit dice changes things. Those changes will demand other changes and so forth.

    I am in complete agreement that it is sad that dragons have very little place in the game that bears their name. The very first time I encountered D&D I was a high school freshman. I was at a table in the cafeteria and two guys were next to me. One had some sort of drawing on graph paper (I would later learn it was a dungeon). The other guy was talking to a dragon. That scene would never happen today, for a variety of reasons.

    1. At best too, it'd be a conversation with one of the "good" ones. Which in itself is a shame, as there's no conflict there. To attack such a thing is to attack mother bear, not a blight upon the realm.

      Returning to the balance of the system. This is most likely why I keep returning to the original system, and its supposed "lack" of features. Nothing needs to be changed, nor truly added to. I might argue a new monster or very specific object for setting-specific purposes, but even just adding more magical weapons dilutes the point of structuring the three archetypes for certain ways of approaching combat. What does the cleric care for a magic sword if he can get a +2 lucerne hammer?

      3.5 is at its best, played at lower levels where things do not become too absurd. The whole edition runs more on an established pattern than a tried-and-tested system. Things like variable HD in relation to creature type, along with various modifiers and abilities, and damage as determined by this same process. The 3.5 equivalent of Monster Manual II goes into how that works. But over all, it is too open-ended and undecided, which leads to a number of ludicrous outcomes, inconsistencies, corrections and rounding to try and pull it all together. It's like cramming a closet whole of all of your toys and games, and then slamming the door shut to keep it together.

      Funny fact about the basic skeleton in 3.5? It has a d12 Hit Die, and some lovely damage reduction. And as much as I appreciate having the right tools for the right job, fighting this classic enemy can quickly become a TPK just from its monster type. Not because it's truly dangerous, but because of a predetermined pattern.