Tabletop Thoughts: Playing Dragonborn
Posted on November 24, 2019
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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!
Being a Dragonborn
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:
- Dragonborn mature faster than humans – they are considered fully grown at 12 – but they live about the same amount of time. Dragonborn infants can stand upright and walk mere hours after they are born. To go back to the issue of breasts once more, this might suggest that dragonborn can eat solid foods from birth, or very soon afterwards.
- Dragonborn tend to have a strong sense of independence and self-worth…
- … but they also place huge value on their clans and bloodlines, which are often led by wise, aged clan-masters.
- Dragonborn do not forget the past easily, and they’re not quick to forgive it, either. Entire clans can be sunk into obscurity by the disgrace of one long-dead clan-master, and most dragonborn still bear a bitter grudge against dragons, who enslaved their entire race two centuries ago. A dragonborn might dedicate their entire life to regaining the honour of their fallen clan, or inflicting vengeance on an ancient dragon.
- Honour is more important to a dragonborn than their own life. Oath-breakers are considered the lowest of the low.
- Dragonborn wear their hearts on their sleeves, and feel everything very deeply. They do not try to hide their emotions behind facades, and find the idea of stoicism or false cheerfulness bemusing.
- Despite having a rigidly honour-bound and rule-heavy society, dragonborn are incredibly enthusiastic about life. They thrive on success, but do not brood for long upon failure, seeing their mistakes only as fuel to drive them on to bigger and better things in the future.
- Dragonborn art and culture has a dwarven practicality to it: they prize functionality and simple, elegant designs that get the job done.
- Dragonborn are not generally religious – most find the idea of being bound to a higher power restrictive or disconcerting. After having been enslaved for millennia, they are uncomfortable with the thought of surrendering control over their own lives, preferring to forge their own paths, unhindered by the rules of any deity.
- Did you think goliaths had a thing about proving themselves? Well, dragonborn take that to the next level, constantly seeking to master new skills and reach ever greater heights of achievement. The taste of success or the fear of failure can easily drive a dragonborn to push themselves too far, if they aren’t careful.
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.
Roleplaying a Dragonborn
So, how might you play a traditional dragonborn? Here are some traits, bonds and flaws to consider:
- You never break your word. This means that you won’t make a promise – in the course of an interrogation, for example, or when negotiating with a villain – unless you intend to follow through. You might even insist that other party members clearly exclude you from any promises they make in your hearing.
- You can never forgive the dragons for enslaving your people and you have made it your life’s work to hunt them down.
- You consider the rest of your party to be honourary clan members. You would die for any member of your clan without hesitation.
- You insist on celebrating the day’s victories whenever there is an opportunity, making sure to carry a hip-flask of exotic liqueur or a handful of exciting confectionary items so that you are ready to throw a party at a moment’s notice.
- You have a strong belief that friends and foes alike are worthy of respect. You are uncomfortable with subterfuge, even when employed against your enemies.
- You are powerfully competitive when it comes to strategic games. You consider yourself to be quite the master, and often seek to prove yourself against new challengers. You would find it hard to refuse a challenge, even from someone who you knew to be working against you.
- You’re hard to pin down on the chaotic-lawful spectrum. You have a strong sense of personal honour, but also of individual freedoms.
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:
- Having seen many stupid dragonborn die to keep their word, you actively enjoy making promises you have every intention of breaking. People should do their own favours!
- You’re much more interested in the journey than the destination. You don’t want the responsibility of big decisions – the fates decide where you go. Maybe you’ve taken to drawing Tarot cards or rolling dice for some decisions. However, if you do so, you are strongly inclined to follow the path they suggest.
- Coming from a disgraced clan, you consider bloodlines and family honour to be no more than millstones around your neck. Far from wanting to redeem your clan, you want only to live for yourself and be judged on your own merits.
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…
Mechanics of Dragonborn
Let’s have a look at dragonborn ability modifiers:
- +2 Strength – How did we end up reviewing all the strength characters first? Dragonborn make top notch melee fighters, at least!
- +1 Charisma – A bit more interesting: this is one of the most useful skill stats, covering most social situations. Also necessary for several spellcasting classes.
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?
- Breath Weapon – You can breathe fire, acid, lightning, poison or cold in a cone or a line (depending on your colour) once per short rest. Enemies must make a saving throw with a DC based on your constitution. Flavour-wise, this is absolutely awesome. But why is it constitution based? It’s like they wanted dragonborn to be MAD (multiple ability dependent – where you have a class that benefits strongly from a high score in lots of different abilities). I mean, it makes literal sense, in that those with a high constitution probably have more lung capacity, but it would be so much neater if it was Charisma, so you were less shoehorned into choosing a melee class to make best use of this power. It’s worth noting, though, this the breath weapon is officially NOT a magical effect. It’s physiological, so it works inside anti-magic fields. A cone is probably a better shape than a line, as it’s easier to get more people in range.
- Damage Resistance – Resistance to the damage type of your breath. Makes sense, and resistances can be really, really helpful. If you make your save on a Fireball and have resistance to fire, the most damage it can do to you is 12, if the caster rolls all 6s on 8 dice. Fire is probably the most commonly used damage type of the ones on offer, but it’s also the most commonly resisted. The question is, do you want to make more use of your breath weapon, or more use of your resistance, since they’re sort of opposing each other.
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.
Building our Dragonborn Character
Let’s start building our character and see how we can make optimum use of these abilities! We’ll start with stats:
- 16 (+3) Strength (14+2 Dragonborn Bonus)
- 14 (+2) Dexterity
- 14 (+2) Constitution
- 10 (+0) Intelligence
- 10 (+0) Wisdom
- 11 (+0) Charisma (10+1 Dragonborn Bonus)
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:
- If you decide to wield a weapon and shield, you can get an AC of 16 without armour, or bump it up to 19 with half-plate.
- At 3rd level, the sea storm aura gives you the ability to zap someone with lightning as a bonus action every turn while you’re raging, and uses the same saving throw DC calculation as your breath attack. This means it’s safe to pump your ability score increases into Constitution early, as you can still deal some reliable damage and it will make you an absolute beast of a tank. You’ll have 45 hp at 4th level and 93 hp at 8th.
- ALSO, from 11th level onwards, relentless rage lets you make a Con save any time you would be reduced to 0 hp to stay on 1 hp instead. The DC is 10, +5 for each time you use the ability. From 8th level, you’ll have a +7 to Constitution saves, so rolling a 3 or higher will prevent you from dropping to 0 hp the first time, while rolling an 8 or higher will stop it from happening the second time.
- If you’re using the feats optional rule, you can take a feat at 1st level that will give you a +1 to Con, bumping it up to 15. The Durable feat (for better healing while resting), or the Tavern Brawler feat (for all round good times) are both fun options. Alternatively, you can give yourself 15 in both Dex and Con, then bump both stats up to 16 at level 4 with your first ASI (ability score increase).
- It’s a bit meta-gamey, but pumping all of your stat increases into Constitution has the added benefit that if a belt of giant strength ever turns up in your game, it’s incredibly powerful and efficient for you. With maxed-out Con and magically enhanced Strength, you’d be virtually unbeatable. So do it for the role-play potential, but don’t forget to keep an eye out…
- You can gain resistance to lightning at 6th level through the storm soul sea power. At this point, you’ll have two of the most common damage types covered. Coupled with your danger sense from level 2, this means that you’re very likely to make your dexterity saves and take quarter damage from most AoE attacks!
- You can still use your breath weapon whilst raging, since it’s not a spell. This is pretty handy as a barbarian, as they don’t have access to many AoE abilities.
- At level 20 (a bit far away, but a fun aside), your Con can be as high as 24, giving your breath attack a saving throw DC of 21 (8 + 6 Proficiency + 7 Constitution Modifier). I think that’s the highest non-magic item save DC you can get in the game as a PC.
- The sea abilities from the path of the storm herald fit in perfectly with the gold dragonborn background, by the by, as gold dragons are actually amphibious.
Building our Dragonborn Barbarian
- Are there any specific abilities, feats or skills we should grab for this character?
- Take the path of the storm herald at level 3. As a barbarian, you gain resistance to physical damage (the most common type) while raging as standard. With your gold dragonborn fire resistance, you’ve got the most common non-physical damage type covered as well, and if you take the sea storm aura at level 6, you’ve also ticked off lightning, another reasonably common one.
- If you want to be a really effective tanking character, you could take the tundra storm aura instead, which is amazing for keeping party members topped up with temporary hit points and freezing the odd enemy in place. Cold resistance is handy, too.
- Grab a battleaxe and a greataxe. You then have the choice between a higher AC with the battleaxe and a shield, or a higher damage output with the greataxe.
- Many powerful barbarian features are an innate part of the class, so you don’t need to worry too much about taking specific feats or spells or anything. It’s a nice, straightforward class this time!
Things to Watch Out for!
A few lookouts if you’re diving into this build:
- Your melee attacks will lag behind a bit if you want to focus on tanking (Constitution) and your breath attack or aura damage will lag behind a bit if you want to focus on melee attacks (Strength).
- You might find yourself using the same fighting style a lot of the time: charge in raging, dish out melee attacks and bonus lightning damage each turn, and throw in a breath attack if your enemies cluster together. It’ll be fun, loud, and effective, but this character isn’t a jack of all trades. Her skill set is limited, but powerful: she gets in the way and can’t be knocked down! She’s hard to hit and hard to knock out.
- Barbarians don’t have a lot of non-combat skills. You could take a feat to give yourself some cantrips or additional skills if you want more variety, but it’s worth being aware of this limitation.
- If you do play around with feats, there isn’t a lot of space for them, as you probably want all the ASIs with this build. You get 5 ASIs (at levels 4, 8, 12. 16 and 19), and that’s exactly enough to boost your Constitution and Strength to 20, in preparation for them jumping to 24 at level 20. You could start with 17 Strength and 15 Constitution if you’re happy to have 8/8/9 for Int/Wis/Cha. That would free up an ASI, but it would come at the cost of skill rolls (and saving throws!).
Some Backstory, For Flavour
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:
- Gold dragons live for millennia. Perhaps she decides she wants to get out and see the world in the relatively short lifespan that she has, righting wrongs and bringing evildoers to justice.
- Perhaps her adoptive parents have been training her to hunt chromatic dragons who are interfering with mortal affairs, and they have decided it is time for her first mission. She isn’t sure she’s up to the task, but she will die trying if necessary.
- Fed up with a life of constant training and lectures on justice and fairness, maybe she sneaks out in the middle of the night, determined to find her own path.
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!