Friday, September 24, 2010

Monster Workshop: The White Dragon

With the new monster design guidelines brought by Monster Manual 3, I’ve been looking for opportunities to adapt classic foes to the new, deadlier format. Unfortunately, my turn to DM our regular campaign is still a few months away, so I haven’t been able to put this into practice. That is, until our DM brought to my attention that we would be fighting a Dragon encounter (as he needed the minis from my home). That immediately put me into tinkering mode.

It is obvious that Dragons are an Essential very important part of the D&D game, and I love them as much as the next guy, but this specimen was from the first Monster Manual, and these are known to have... issues. Granted, it is still possible to have awesome encounters playing a MM1 Dragon by the book, but these become more and more difficult the higher level you are. At least we weren’t talking about a soul-crushing Black Dragon, but it was probably the next worst thing: a White. As a Solo Brute from MM1, this dragon has extremely high chances of providing underpowered, repetitive encounters, so something needed to be done.

White Dragons are among the weakest of the Chromatics, but the MM1 version is overkill.

Fixing It

What’s wrong with the White? To answer this, we can take a look at the statblock of a level 9 Adult White Dragon. The following issues come up:
- It’s an old-fashioned brute. This means that its accuracy is lacking, so it will be missing more often than not, and has almost no chance of bringing down any self-respecting defender.
- It’s an old-fashioned solo, so its defenses are higher, and its damage expressions lower than those of more modern monsters of its type - making encounters longer, and less threatening. Also, it has no special mechanic to resist stunning and similar effects, so it can be easily neutralized with the right powers.
- It lacks the MM3 damage boost, which has made higher level monsters far more deadlier, and much better adjusted to the PCs’ power level.
- It has a miserable power selection. Most dragons have, even at lower levels, some unique special power and/or a tail attack that triggers as a reaction to enemy movements. The White gets none of these. To add insult to injury, it’s only special ability of note is Dragon Fury, which grants an extra attack after hitting with two claws. The problem being, this is an inherently unreliable (and kinda weak) mechanic, which only gets worse when you put it on a Brute with lousy accuracy!

Reading this, you might get the impression that we’d be better off creating a new monster from scratch, and to be honest that isn’t too far off. But there are still some redeeming qualities, which we should make sure to preserve:
- It’s a DRAGON. Dragons are awesome by definition, and players will be willing to forgive a lot of things just because of it.
- Dragon Breath is always cool (no pun intended). This one deals no damage on a miss (which is unfortunate, given the aforementioned lack of precision), but slows and weakens enemies - something that goes well with the elemental cold theme, and is actually quite effective.
- The extra damage on an opportunity attack looks a bit too soldier-ish to me, but it is unique and kind of useful, so I guess we should do something with it.

Ok, that wasn’t too long. Anyway, from this analysis, I’m inclined to implement changes that go a bit deeper than merely adjusting defenses, hit bonuses, and damage to MM3 values. This guy could do with some new powers and traits, and a couple of tweaks on the existing ones. Also, I couldn’t wait to try something like the following in action:

The beautiful killing machine above is an official-ish new design that was handed out at the last GenCon, as reported at EnWorld. It is clearly built to present a serious challenge, and to be fair has a couple of things (Acidic Blood + Shroud of Gloom) that look a bit too overpowered to my taste. But I think it would make an amazing framework for any Dragon re-design, so I’m going to steal from it. Shamelessly.

The following ideas would fit well in our White Dragon:
- Action Recovery. A simple trait to prevent stun-locking, which covers most, but not all of the solo-crippling conditions (leaving a few weak points) and still lets players get some (but not too much) value from their stuns.
- Instinctive Devouring. Concentrated awesomeness. A limited extra action that goes a long way towards making dragon fights dynamic and competitive, and also helps fight stuns.
- The concept of Acidic Blood (though not its implementation). A lethal ability that only works when the dragon gets bloodied adds a lot of variety to the encounter.
- Miss damage on Bite attack. This is a small detail, but makes the main, hard-hitting attack a more serious threat to even the most armored warrior. Also, it adds some punch to the opportunity attacks.
- There is no Frightful Presence, which to me always looked like a waste of time as it made both parties skip a turn.

With that in mind, I came up with the following version:

So this looks way different from the original. Damage has got a significant boost (following the new formulas), which coupled with the increase in accuracy makes the new dragon pack quite a punch. You shouldn’t hear complaints of fights dragging with this one. Defenses also went down, so that AC is now very weak (as suits a brute), and fortitude is strong but no longer overwhelming. Frightful Presence got killed.

What about the new abilities? Instinctive Devouring and Action recovery were added without changes. I toned down the extra attack in Dragon’s Fury (which doesn’t come up too often, anyway) to compensate for the added bite from Instinctive Devouring. I tried to play into the improved opportunity attack idea, and added Bloodied Reflexes as the encounter-changing trait (since threatening reach had great synergy with strong OAs), and also a Tail Slam that triggered off enemies not moving. The idea would be that many of the dragon’s abilities work to hinder PC mobility, but the dragon punishes its enemies if they stay in the same place. I admit I borrowed some inspiration from that other game, but don’t tell anybody.

The new Dragon, in action

How did this play out? I brought the new version to my DM, with a few warnings about untested power and risk of TPK, which only got him more excited. So we went to play the encounter, which had an amazing poster map, with a mix of fear and curiosity, and...

...and we role-played our way out of the fight. Brilliantly, in fact. The dragoness was kind of receptive to dialogue, and our usually slash-happy party took to the (skill) challenge, in what was one of the greatest game sessions we ever had, from a narrative point of view. We convinced the monster to let us borrow a piece of its treasure, which was vital to the plot, in exchange for some services. It was fun, and memorable. And a bit of an anti-climax.

All right, it was a complete anti-climax! The DM was torn between pride (for an undeniably succesful session) and letdown (for the lost chance for mindless violence). He mildly suggested a couple of courses of action that would lead to the epic battle he craved, but the adventurers would have none of that. It was a happy ending, of sorts.

Eventually, we were convinced to play the battle, out of campaign continuity, for research purposes (ah, the sacrifices I make for my beloved readers!). And... it was a definite improvement over the original monster (which we would have annihilated), but it wasn’t quite the challenge I expected it to be.

Now, it is true that the dragon make some strategically questionable decisions (such as spending its Dragon Breath against a single Fighter - and missing- , or using action points at not-quite-optimal times), and that the DM was overly cautious with using terrain effects against us after my warnings of TPK-risk. And our PCs were fresh after an extended rest and, not fearing future encounters nor permanent death, they blew a zillion dailies at the poor creature. But it should have been more threatening.

What happened was that a well armored, melee heavy party surrounded it (with a fighter to lock it in place), making it almost impossible for it to move away or cover several of them with a breath attack. There was some mild debuffing involved (of the -2 to hit variety), which even with the increased hit bonuses made it pretty hard for the dragon to hit the marking fighter - and switching targets wasn’t much of an option because they were also well armored, and as hard to hit after counting the mark penalty. So the dragon took a beating, scratched the adventurers without ever threatening to knock one down, and died.

Tail Slam was usually spent on the fighter and failed to make much of an impact. A domination effect was shrugged off by Instinctive Devouring (to great sadness from our Bard), but not before preventing a whole turn’s worth of opportunity attacks just after Bloodied Reflexes had kicked in. In fact, it didn’t get to make an opportunity attack in the whole encounter. Overall, it wasn’t as dynamic as it should, and proved that the dragon could still gain some more power. Back to the drawing board.

The Dragon Strikes Back

After playing with it, I feel that my dragon still left a few things to be desired. First of all, it didn’t have many things to do during combat. I had expected that the opportunity attacks combined with tail slam would lead to a mini-game of PCs moving away with the dragon chasing them, but that didn’t work out well. And, although I don’t miss Frightful Presence, it is true that removing it left few attack options.

What I wanted was some way to move PCs around. I increased the number of slowing attacks, and added a trait called Deadly Cold, to push slowed enemies that the dragon hit. I also wanted to have some way to boost attacks, so the new ability also granted combat advantage against slowed enemies. Having Dragon Breath be able to fail completely was too much of a letdown, so I gave it half damage on a miss. Finally, I made Tail Slam trigger as an opportunity action (so it would work against ALL adjacent allies), and had its attack target fortitude. I got rid of the extra damage on opportunity attacks, because they were pretty brutal to begin with.

This is the version I’d play today.

1 comment:

  1. I have never liked the "ranking" of dragons. I don't need white to be weaker than red, because they are already differentiated by colour! Not to mention nowadays they can fill different roles, & play entirely different.

    Besides all that, I really like the new White Dragon mini, from the Driz'zt set. Icewing? Icedeath? Anyhow, it has these big gorilla arms & that is right up my alley; that is a neat visual marker.

    Of COURSE the challenge was defeated by roleplaying.

    I like the second dragon a lot. I almost feel like I'd want more slowing, but no, the more I look at it the better I like it.