In today's Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons
preview, we present new encounters -- specifically, subduing and dueling with dragons!
When you put a dragon in front of the characters, you’ll definitely get the players’ attention. More so than any other monster, a dragon makes any encounter something the players will be talking about in the weeks and months to come. Players know that they’ll be dealing with a solo monster that has potent attacks, high defenses, and at least some maneuverability. And they probably suspect that where there’s a dragon, there’s probably a dragon hoard.
But a dragon—especially a metallic dragon—is more than just a statistics block. You have a lot of tools at your disposal, including mixes of dragons and other monsters, subdual encounters, and social challenges.
D&D has a long tradition of dragons that can somehow be subdued—defeated instead of killed. Subduing a dragon makes particular sense in the case of metallic dragons, which are usually less antagonistic than their chromatic counterparts. A subdual encounter provides the players with a fight that’s out of the ordinary. And by preserving the dragon for future encounters, a subdual encounter can assist the ongoing narrative.
At its simplest, a subdual encounter is one in which the dragon stops fighting—and the characters win—when the dragon is bloodied. But the degree of the victory matters, so you will need to keep track of how many characters were bloodied during the course of the battle.
Why would a dragon fight this way? For two main reasons: honor and survival. Some dragons abhor needless bloodshed as inherently dishonorable, and those dragons are more likely to be metallic than chromatic. Other dragons will fight a subdual encounter for more pragmatic reasons. It’s likely that the second half of the battle would go the same way as the first half, and if the dragon is bloodied, it’s better to pay off or otherwise placate the intruders than to risk its life.
Building a Subdual Encounter
A dragon four levels higher than the characters is appropriate for a typical subdual encounter. If the battle ends when the dragon is bloodied, it effectively has fewer hit points than a typical solo of the party’s level, but its defenses will be higher and its attacks more potent. But it’s fundamentally a fair challenge, and the characters deserve the XP and treasure rewards for their victory. Award experience points for an encounter of the party’s level, and account for an appropriate treasure parcel either directly (by having the dragon give the characters a gift from its hoard) or indirectly (by increasing the treasure elsewhere in the adventure). You can make part of the treasure reward depend on how many characters avoided becoming bloodied.
A subdual encounter is also a good way for the characters to earn assistance from a dragon. If they beat the dragon in a subdual encounter, the dragon is often inclined to be helpful. After all, those characters might start a fight to the death the next time. A subdued dragon will grant passage through its territory, part with important lore or clues, or end alliances with foes of the characters. Again, you can provide a graduated award. The dragon might part with only cryptic clues if the characters were all bloodied, offer more detailed lore if just one or two were bloodied, and give them an accurate map of their next destination if none of the characters became bloodied.
Many good and some unaligned dragons perform subdual battles as a matter of course; it’s how they prefer to deal with hostile humanoids. They’ll fight the characters normally until they’re bloodied, at which point they’ll stop attacking for a round, praise the characters for an honorable defeat, and then make arrangements for a reward. You don’t have to tell the players ahead of time that it’s a subdual battle, and if the characters want to continue the fight and deal with the consequences, they certainly can. Subdual battles usually work better, though, when characters know the ground rules: They’re trying to remain unbloodied, and the battle will end when either the dragon is bloodied or all the characters are.
Duels of Honor
A duel of honor functions as a subdual encounter—everyone knows ahead of time what the ground rules are. There’s an additional complication for the characters: The dragon won’t attack bloodied characters, but it expects that bloodied characters will retreat and observe the rest of the battle as spectators.
A given dragon might or might not engage in duels of honor. There’s no mandate that it has to, and an untrustworthy dragon might claim a duel of honor until defeat seems likely, at which point it breaks the rules and fights a standard battle.
Assuming that everyone follows the rules, a duel of honor makes the battle easier for the dragon than a normal subdual encounter would be, because it’s easier for the dragon to knock characters out of the fight. A dragon three levels higher than the party’s level is an appropriate challenge for a duel of honor.
When you run a duel of honor, consider its effect on the players—not just their characters. If you focus the dragon’s attacks and spend action points early, the dragon might bloody one of the heroes in the first round or two. That player, assuming the characters adhere to the duel’s rules, doesn’t have anything to do except sit and listen until the fight is over. Spreading the dragon’s damage around isn’t optimal play, but it makes for better drama. Ideally, you want everyone to be just one attack away from being bloodied and to be sweating each roll of the dice.
Just as with a subdual encounter, if the characters break the rules in a duel of honor, there’s a natural consequence: They have to deal with an angry dragon that’s three or more levels higher than they are.