Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday Survey: Dragon Breath

I've taken the opportunity to ask a few polls on the AD&D 1st Edition Facebook group. Today: Does the damage from dragon breath get reduced after the dragon takes damage?

The AD&D Monster Manual is certainly ambiguous in its statement that "The breath weapon causes damage equal to the dragon's hit points (half that amount if a saving throw is made) on each and every creature hit by the breath weapon." (p. 30, 1977). This is somewhat frustrating, because the ambiguity could be cleared up with the addition of a single word, either "current" or "maximum". Of course, the D&D Basic line (Moldvay/Mentzer/Allston) does specify "remaining number of hit points" (in boldface in Moldvay p. B34). Somewhat less well-known is the fact that the AD&D Fiend Folio dragons also specify damage by "current hit points" (entries on p. 28-29, 1981). On the other hand, the OD&D language gives a damage amount "per [hit] die", which in the most literal reading leans in the direction of being disconnected from the dragon's actual hit points.

One interesting thing is that a close reading of the texts up to 1978 seems to indicate that Gygax (et. al.) simply had no language available to distinguish between current hit points and maximal hit points for a given character. For example, here is an excerpt from the AD&D PHB section on Character Hit Points (p. 34, 1978):
Hit points can be magically restored by healing potions, cure wounds spells, rings of regeneration, or even by wish spells. However, a character's hit points can never exceed the total initially scored by hit dice, constitution bonus (or penalty) and magical devices. For example, if a character has 26 hit points at the beginning of an adventure, he or she cannot drink  a potion or be enchanted to above that number, 26 in this case.
Note the convoluted formulation "total initially scored by hit dice, constitution bonus (or penalty) and magical devices" in lieu of the shorter, modern, phrase "maximum hit points". You can search all through the MM and PHB and never find either the phrase "current hit points" or "maximum hit points". In the DMG, the phrase "maximum hit points" does appear twice, but in this context it means something totally different than the modern usage -- namely, the maximum possibly rolled, i.e., getting all of 8 pips per die (e.g., paladin's warhorse p. 18; reincarnated badger p. 44). Another example of the ambiguity of not having this linguistic distinction can be found in the discussion of Energy Draining (DMG p. 119).

Back to the topic of Dragon breath. I find that what makes this topic unusually contentious is that whatever convention one is accustomed to playing with, most players will argue that it is "obvious", perhaps mis-remembering some explicit statement in the Monster Manual making it so, and in many cases taking offense at any suggestion otherwise. (Hey, Internet, y'all.) At any rate, asking this question on the Facebook AD&D form prompted an unusually large, boisterous, and lopsided response.


So with N = 142, 84% of the respondents said "No", with only 16% saying "Yes", on the issue of whether dragon breath effect is reduced by damage on the dragon.


8 comments:

  1. This is very weird. I too thought it was obvious that the answer is "yes" and finding so many seeing it the other way is bewildering. But I started out with BX, and I'm pretty sure I had the Fiend Folio before the Monster Manual as I converted to AD&D

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  2. One interesting question to ask is whether the interpretation used in the Basic line helps regulate the USE of the dragon's breath in a way that gives "better" (more narratively interesting? more tactically interesting? etc.) results. If the damage from a dragon's breath declines as it gets progressively more injured, then the breath weapon makes a good opening gambit, but - especially taking into account the likely save numbers of its foes - there would certainly come a point in the fight when the dragon is mathematically better off (i.e., gets a higher average damage yield) using it's claw/claw/bite (tail lash/wing bash/whatever) routine. Such an interpretation may suit the interests of some DMs better, thus giving a reason to choose it.

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    1. I totally agree that this is a legitimate discussion. On the other side, it's not a bad point that the overall D&D idiom (e.g., PCs taking hit point damage) is for attack forms to not get less dangerous when taking damage.

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  3. I always ran it as equal to their maximum HP, regardless of current HP. No other monster I can think of has their damage reduced based on their current HP - no reason to make dragons even easier to kill by making them the only one (or one of the few, if I'm mis-remembering.)

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    1. It's not a bad point (I guess I paraphrased you up above here).

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  4. In the Monster Manual's example combat against a huge, ancient red dragon (88 hp), the dragon is asleep and takes damage from an attacking party. The dragon awakens, breathes, and does 88 or 44 (depending on the success of the saving throws) points of damage to its attackers.

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    1. But that's only subdual damage, so anyone married to the current-hit-points side of the argument can easily ignore it on those grounds.

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