Welcome back to Tabletop Thoughts, where we discuss the 5e playable races in depth in our quest to build awesome PCs with unique backstories. Our hope is that these posts will inspire a few “I never thought of that!” moments and maybe seed some new ideas for cool race-class combos. Or at least raise a few chuckles 🙂
If you enjoy the post, consider checking out my Thymari warlord guild and subclass over on DM’s Guild! They’re inspired by the old warlord class from 4E and designed to make optimum use of dragonborn characters’ racial abilities.
Now, on with the post!
We’re continuing our theme of big, strong PC races this week, but we’re going from the grumpy, taciturn and isolated goliaths, to the charismatic and unusual dragonborn.
Not to be confused with half-dragons, dragonborn are a race unto themselves, rather than the end result of human-dragon slash-fiction (you do you, internet). The details of their origin are blurry, but they were probably created by another race, possibly dragons. Interestingly, as written, they are actually from another universe entirely, transplanted to the Forgotten Realms during the spellplague. Yes, they are literally aliens.
Dragonborn still look very draconic, though. They lack a tail and wings, but their colouration betrays an ancestry that owes something to the chromatic and metallic dragons; they also have access to a breath attack that hints at their draconic heritage.
They were enslaved to dragons for many millenia on their home world, a history that has instilled in them a strong dislike of the larger, more famous creatures with whom they share so many characteristics.
Dragonborn lay eggs, so in spite of what we see in the Player’s Handbook, they probably shouldn’t have breasts. I imagine them as androgenous in appearance. In fact, if they were anything like the only other egg laying mammal we know of, they would sweat milk directly from their pores when feeding their young. Nice. Having said that, their taxonomic class is… dragon, I guess, which has no real-world analogue, so you can really imagine them and their mammary glands (or lack thereof) however you please.
Digging a bit deeper:
I think these traits make dragonborn really fun to roleplay, especially if you’re going for an arthurian knight-style hero. Or a bad guy with a strong sense of honour. Having a stubborn honourable streak and a powerful desire to keep pushing until you succeed are both traits that can span the spectrum from admirable virtues to major personality flaws.
Dragonborn are imposing, powerful figures who stand out in a crowd. People tend to give them a wide berth when they meet them on the street – they aren’t known for their patience, and no one wants to be caught in a sudden gout of flame! Essentially, dragonborn inspire respect, but also fear, something that might help or hinder someone playing a dragonborn in different ways.
So, how might you play a traditional dragonborn? Here are some traits, bonds and flaws to consider:
A lot of these traits fit in with a classically heroic character, perhaps one who verges on the stupidly brave, or who is honourable to a fault. This character is loyal to their friends and respectful to their enemies. They sound like a good guy, at first glance, but this description could fit an evil character just as well – think Cyanwrath in Hoard of the Dragon Queen (he’s actually a half-dragon, but his sense of honour and love for single combat are very dragonborn-y). Such a character might even view themselves as chaotic good: society is oppressive and unfair, so there is no dishonour in tearing bits of it down here and there, even at the expense of innocents.
One thing to flag up if you’re planning to play a dragonborn who’s honourable to a fault is that it’s important not to let that get in the way of being a good and considerate player at the table. So don’t ruin EVERY sneaky plan your party makes by kicking in the front door and challenging whoever’s in charge to a duel. Instead, perhaps you could announce your presence after your team gets into position, a compromise that allows you to take a straightforward approach while letting your party maintain a tactical advantage.
Another option is to play a character who completely subverts the typical values of dragonborn society. This can be just as much fun:
In summary, dragonborn have some really cool traits that I think make them an interesting class to roleplay. Unfortunately, some of their powers are more fun in terms of flavour than real mechanical benefit…
Let’s have a look at dragonborn ability modifiers:
So, dragonborn make good melee fighters, but possibly also charisma-based spellcasters. They have no constitution or dexterity bonuses, so poor AC – we’ll probably want heavy armour, then! Paladin would be the obvious choice – dragonborn bards and warlocks are not going to have a high enough AC to be melee fighters without the extra dexterity boost. Maybe our character could use thrown weapons? We’ll see!
Now, what racial abilities do dragonborn have?
Dragonborn racial abilities feel a bit mechanically sub-par to me. They have a constitution-based breath attack once per short rest, but no bonus to constitution, plus damage resistance to the same damage type as their breath attack, which means you can choose to resist a common damage type and have more enemies resist your breath attack, or to breathe a damage type that is less commonly resisted, but also resist fewer spells yourself. And that’s it. It feels like dragonborn were designed to be… dragony, and that was about the extent of the thought that went into their abilities.
Resistance is powerful, but not that interesting, and a 2d6 breath attack is really no more than a backup most of the time, to my mind. At level 1, any character could make a weapon attack at +5 to hit that does 1d8+3 damage, if desired, and that’s before class features or bonus actions are taken into account. That’s an average of 7.5 damage to the breath attack’s 7, and it’s more likely to hit.
Which colour of dragonborn to pick? Well, the Pheonix Sorceror subclass in the Unearthed Arcana series and the Pyromancer from the Kaladesh Plane Shift pdf both work well with a red (fire) dragonborn, but I’ve tried to avoid unofficial or playtesting content so far in this blog series. Personally, I’d opt for a gold dragonborn, which also breathes fire, but is shinier. You’ll look cool, resist a common damage type, and have a cone breath attack.
Let’s start building our character and see how we can make optimum use of these abilities! We’ll start with stats:
Dragonborn are nearly 7ft tall, so it feels right that our girl is hardy and strong. I want to make her breath weapon as effective as possible, so I’m giving her a boost to constitution, too. She’s got a bit of natural charm and presence (probably because, well, see above about her being almost 7 freaking feet tall). She’s resistant to fire because of her draconic ancestry, so some of the more common AoE spells don’t bother her too much. She’s basically a huge tank.
And she’ll make an amazing barbarian! Particularly on the storm herald path from Xanathar’s Guide. The path of the storm herald makes great use of saving throws that rely on your Constitution, synergising neatly with the dragonborn breath attack. As a storm herald:
A few lookouts if you’re diving into this build:
So we have our shiny gold dragonborn barbarian, charging in, breathing fire and shooting lightning from her hands. What’s her story?
I think she was found, abandoned, as an egg by gold dragons and grew up with them, learning their ways. This has allowed her to channel her fury in the heat of battle, manifesting both sea and flame. Her adoptive parents were firm, but fair, and instilled a strong sense of justice and honour in her as soon as she hatched. She grew up alongside another gold dragon, but matured much faster, considering herself an adult before her sibling was even out of childhood. She’s pretty headstrong and she doesn’t back down from a fight if she thinks someone has done something wrong. Despite it being her forte, she prefers to avoid a fight where possible, but when she draws her weapon or rages, she doesn’t hesitate to finish a battle.
She could leave her dragon parents and sibling for a number of reasons:
Thank you for reading, as always! I know I said I’d be doing red dragonborn today, but in the end, gold is just shinier.
If you liked my thoughts on building dragonborn characters, please consider downloading my dragonborn-optimised guild and subclass on DM’s Guild! They’re inspired by the warlord class from 4E: for those who remember 4th edition, dragonborn made ideal warlords, who were martial characters who relied on Charisma as a secondary stat to inspire their allies to fight harder, or make attacks on their behalf. I really miss this class, and the Thymari warlord subclass is my homage to it.
Anyways, next time I’ll be writing about stout halflings (I looked into a magic crystal ball, or maybe I just opened the PHB at random), so stay tuned!