Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sometimes they win... (or, On Dragon Tactics)

Source: https://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/ag/20031108a


In Tim's campaign this last weekend, we spent most of the session fighting the green dragon guarding the green chromata (one of five elder draconic artifacts).  Tim was rather disappointed with the fight, and in some respects I was too.  But first, the good:
  • Snatch + Throw was very cool.  My dwarf was thrown forty feet into a hut.  Nothing says high-level / badass like being thrown into a solid object, demolishing it in the impact, and then getting back up and daring them to do it again.  Also sweet was being able to do the "Tordek hits the dragon in the nose while in its mouth" art from the PHB; rolled a crit for it, too (guess I got the eye).
  • The dragon enfeebled Drew's monk.  That was a smart / rat-bastardy move, and I approve as a result (sorry Drew).
  • Decent use of fly-by attack to disrupt our ability to full attack, and a very interesting interpretation of its interaction with breath weapon.
  • Good terrain / scenery; cliffs to fall off of, rivers to jump over, huts to demolish, and so forth.
  • We managed to execute our planned tactics more-or-less flawlessly; Drew removed fear while I disrupted its spellcasting with arrows, Matt punched an enfeeble through its SR, Jared hobbled its wing with Sunder, and then we beat the living tar out of it.  With buffs up, we were all doing terrifying amounts of damage (70-120 points per full attack each for Drew, Jared, and I).  If Tim hadn't made it a Trailblazer Solo Monster for x4 HP, we'd've downed it within a round or two of engaging.
Which brings us to the not-so-good...
  • I had planned and prepped for a mature adult green (CR16).  We're level 10-11ish, so that would've been about CR+6.  This meant that all the buffs were go for this fight, because at CR+6, you need every last bonus.  I was justified in the belief that this would be such a fight because the black guardian had been a mature adult as well; CR14 when we were at 8th level, so +6.  And that was a hell of a fight.  (Yes Tim, it actually was a mature adult - black dragons aren't huge until mature, it had AC29, and it took about 250 points of damage to bring down.  An adult would've been large / AC27 / 200 points).  So I was a bit let down when it was actually just an adult green at CR13, for CR+2-3, which would've been a challenging fight...  if we hadn't buffed.  As it was, we were hitting with most attacks, and it missed me with about half of its full attack routine, which was highly unexpected.  This dragon was significantly weaker in terms of core numbers and raw melee power than the one we killed three levels ago.
  • Many poor tactics on the dragon's part.  
    • It knew we were coming for it, and it had 5th caster level.  It could reasonably have had some hour per level buffs up before the fight (Mage Armor), and during combat it should've been casting stuff like Haste and Displacement rather than Mirror Image and Fog Cloud (fog was great for the black dragon in a confined space, but I am dubious of its potential utility in the high-mobility fight we were in).  Slow would've negated our Haste edge, too.  The mature adult I was expecting would've had CL7, so I was prepared for stoneskin, improved invisibility, and potentially a mean dimension door + crush combination on Barradin (our sorcerer).
    • Failed to exploit its mobility edge to the maximum extent possible.  Better tactics would've been to continuously use fly-by attack with breath weapon, staying out of reach of our enlarged spearmen.  Once we were out of acid protection, we'd've had to head for cover or the woods.  Alternatively, if we split to avoid breath weapons, a good move would've been to snatch someone isolated (Barradin would've been a prime candidate, as would I) and fly off...  and then drop them from 200 feet of altitude for 20d6 falling damage.  For bonus points, drop into the nearby lake full of sea monsters.  Either of us would probably have survived, either by feather fall (Barridan) or being made of solid hitpointium (me), but it would've split the party and rendered a quarter of our force ineffective.  For a creature with three feats invested in flight (Flyby Attack, Hover, and Wingover), it spent entirely too much time on the ground.  Hover in particular would actually have been a fantastic plan; the 60 foot radius cloud of concealment that it generates would've forced the reach fighters into the dragon's own reach, and would've protected it from most of Barradin's offense (and hindered his casting).  Note that this differs from fog cloud primarily in that 1) it moves with the dragon, 2) it isn't burned off by fireballs or gust of wind.  Hence, useful.
    • Exceptionally smart play would've combined both of these elements.  Engage briefly to determine if we're a serious threat, determine that we are, use fly-by breath weapon to escape melee without provoking AoOs (and deplete acid protection), maybe snatch and drop to split the party or neutralize a particularly annoying foe, and fly off.  Wait 9 minutes so the party's minute per level buffs start expiring and maybe provoke the party into starting a short rest.  If significantly damaged, instead short rest off the damage dealt by the party; what's good for the PCs is good for the monsters (this also relates strongly to Al's advice on Monster Hunts; large solo monsters that are going to disengage need some way to heal, and TB's short rest is a beautiful way to do it).  Then, cast buffs of your own including the Cats / Bulls / Bears suite, Invisibility, Mage Armor, Protection from Good, Shield, Haste, Displacement, and so forth.  Meanwhile the party is either trying to track you (good luck) or sitting around your lair sweating bullets as their buff clocks tick down.  Return and engage with the buff advantage now back in your hands, and crush them beneath your scaly talons.  
    • Also entertaining is the possibility of combining the flight mobility advantage with fireballs from long range for the AC-130 effect, since we weren't warded against fire.  Probably a losing proposition against a party with an artillery sorcerer, though (but he had used most of his 3rd-level slots for elemental protection and haste...). 
    • If, after disengaging, buffing, and re-engaging, it was still losing, retreating back out was certainly a viable option.  A good plan after that would've been to shapeshift into a bird (the dragon's shapeshifting capability, while technically not rules-legal, was established previously so that's a fair move), follow the party back to the ship, and then do one or more of the following:
      • Sink the ship while the party sleeps; huge dragon with water breathing should have no problem punching a few holes in the bottom.
      • Kill the henchmen, crew, and mule if / when the party goes back out into the jungle to find you, then lie in wait aboard the ship.
      • Enslave via green chromata (mind control artifact against which we were warded) the henchmen, crew, and mule.  Attack the positions your opponent cannot defend...  like the minds of his allies.
      Then you end up with an unbuffed fight against the fully-buffed dragon and your former crew at the same time aboard a sinking ship in a lake full of sea monsters in the middle of the night. A third-engagement final climactic showdown.  Exciting!
    • Finally, a relatively minor mechanical error: forgot to utilize combat reactions.  For a creature with 20+ HD and full BaB, these generate giant defensive bonuses that can help keep you from catching rays of enfeeblement or from being hit with dragonbane weapons.
  • No minions!  Every quality villain has a few mooks to get in the way and Aid Defense at the very least.  If you're extra-lucky, they might even grapple the wizard.  Minions the party trusts (like mind-controlled henchmen) are a good choice, as are your own children.  Cultists are slightly less good, and undead are worst as a rule.
So...  short version is that the dragon played like a videogame boss rather than a giant evil intelligent lizard who has dealt with adventurers before (Int 16 is certainly enough to come up with any of the above strategies, especially given what was at stake).  Tactically, it played to our strengths (melee damage output and short-term buffs) rather than its (mobility), and we absolutely ripped it apart while sustaining minimal damage (yeah, Jared took half his HP in damage, but he takes half his HP every fight, so that's nothing special).  Strategically, it didn't play at all, refusing to turn the fight into a running guerrilla engagement or to escalate to total war against the PCs' allies.  Tim ran it in combat-as-sport mode; limited to the immediate battlefield, with no apparent long-term contingency plans in place despite this being its place of residence.  No explosive runes on the treasure, no caged tigers waiting to be released, no hidey-holes out in the woods to run to and lick its wounds...  Nothing.  The dragon existed only in the immediate place and moment; it had no past and no future.

You might ask, though, "Is a fight against a high-mobility flying combat-as-war dragon that neutralizes the party's strengths fun?  After all, isn't that what we're here for?"  And my response to this is that if the party simply tries to engage such a dragon with standard tactics, they will die like chumps.  While this can be entertaining in and of itself, hopefully they will realize this is the case before dying like chumps (this seems fairly likely, given dragon flying maneuverability and our acid protection).  Once this realization is had, the Crazy Plans begin.  Plans like "Let's polymorph the monk into a giant eagle and try to Stunning Fist the dragon out of the sky" and "Let's try to toss the dwarf onto the dragon's back" and "Maybe we can use the [mule | henchman | bard | halfling] as bait get him to fly low enough for the half-orc to break his wing, and then we can gang up on him on the ground."  I, for one, enjoy Crazy Plans much more than standard move-around-the-grid-and-roll-dice-until-it-dies combats.  Then, if and when the Plan goes right and the dragon is slain, the players can claim that it was by their cunning and skill, rather than purely by their numerical and mechanical superiority.  That they truly earned their victory, rather than having it handed to them.  That !!FUN!! was had.

Further, dealing with high-mobility flyers is one of the standard dragon-hunting tropes; comes with the territory, and shouldn't be ignored for the sake of a nice set-piece battle.  Used every dragon fight?  Maybe not; stuff does get old and annoying, and PCs will fall back on old crazy plans again, which then become not-crazy.  But this one in open wilderness?  Hell yes.  We failed to corner or ground the dragon; flight was a natural and suitable strategic consequence of our tactical error (which stemmed from the planning error of not bringing harpoons or giant nets of iron chain, which stemmed from the systemic error of the exotic weapon proficiency subsystem...  but that's another post).

In conclusion: Tim complained of the lack of cinematism in this fight.  I will agree that little was to be had (except throwing through buildings).  Retreating and re-engaging later builds tension; it's almost like having a legitimate recurring villain.  Crazy Plans beget cinematic moments; ergo, if you want cinematism, fight dirty and watch the players scramble.  Eat the henchmen, sink the boat, burn down their hometowns, and so forth.  This is a dragon, goddamnit, the biggest, baddest scariest monster in the book; anything goes.  It has a name and 16 Int, and it's on its home turf; this whole thing should've played out a lot more like Predator, complete with piles of dead henchmen (and potentially PCs), explosions, and traps (starring Shin-Yao the half-orc as Ah-nold).  Good stories do not come from standard "run up and hit him" combats - in the words of a sig on EnWorld, "When Perseus fought Medusa, the math didn't work and combat was really swingy.  Perseus was a hero.  The good stories are never about balanced encounters."

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