Within Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) there are a multitude of races that the players can choose from. It has the usual fantasy suspects such as human, elf, or dwarf. However, amongst some of the more unusual suspects we find ourselves the dragonborn (no, not dovahkin). The dragonborn is an anthropomorphic dragon race that typically trace their origins to the dragons that scatter the world.
The dragonborn have one very large, glaring issue that is often discussed. Mechanically, the race is absolutely hot garbage. They offer very little and are are quite noticeably worse than other races. The dragonborn race offers the following mechanical benefits when you choose it:
- 3 ability score increases (+2 Strength and +1 Charisma)
- One elemental damage resistance (of either: Acid, Cold, Fire, Lightning, Poison)
- A breath weapon that has the same element as your resistance
That’s everything a dragonborn character gains as a mechanical advantage over other races. Sure, there are other differences such as gaining specific languages or possible setting specific roleplay implications. However, none of that makes the character more consistently better. In order to illustrate why the dragonborn are such a bad race, we will need to explain why the breath weapon feature is not good enough and compare them to another race.
Breaking Down the Breath Weapon
The breath weapon that dragonborns get is determined by whichever color of dragon they choose as their ancestry. Other than variable damage types, there are two other differences: a Dexterity or Constitution saving throw, and either a 15 foot cone or a 30 foot line. Regardless, we can assume that any combination of these, along with any element, are generally equal to each other.
The last factor for the breath weapon is the damage done. At 1st level, the breath weapon will deal 2d6 damage, or half as much on a successful one. This is an average of 7 damage done, as a 1d6 will have an average outcome of 3.5. However, this damage increases by 1d6 every five levels after 1st: 6th (3d6 or 10.5), 11th (4d6 or 14), and 16th (5d6 or 17.5).
First of all, this damage output is pathetic for a feature that can only be used once per short or long rest. To understand exactly why, let’s compare this attack with a cantrip, a first level spell, and the attack action.
Cantrips evolve over the game, and if we look at an average cantrip, we can expect 1d10 in pure damage done, this is an average of 5.5. However, at 5th level, it will be dealing 2d10 (11 damage average). Then at 11th and 17th it increases again. Only from 1st to 4th level is the breath weapon ever better than using a cantrip.
1st level spells are a reasonable benchmark, as many races can cast a 1st level spell. The obvious comparison is Burning Hands which is identical to a red dragonborns breath weapon, however it deals 3d6 damage. While the breath weapon grows, it wont outpace this spell until 11th level.
The Attack action would be used by might fighters, and in this case we will use a greatsword wielded by a paladin (the class best suited to dragonborn). This is perhaps the best example of how flawed this feature is. At 1st level the paladin deal 2d6+3 (10 average) damage on attacking, it’s slightly more, but maybe not exceptionally so. However, at 5th level the paladin will deal 4d6+8 (22 average) damage, this is more than the breath would be dealing at 16th level. It only gets worse at 11th level, where the paladin deal 4d6+2d8+5 (33 average) damage.
Unless the breath weapon is striking two or more creatures, it’s worthless, and even then, the low unfocused damage is often negligible compared to any area of effect based spells, or just using focused damage to take down the enemies one by one.
Compared to the Tiefling
One of the best comparisons for judging the dragonborn within the Player’s Handbook might be the tiefling. This is because both gain 3 ability score increases and have an elemental resistance. What this means is we can look at every other mechanical advantage of the tiefling, and assume it must be equal to the breath weapon. So to begin, below are the mechanical advantages to the tiefling:
- 3 ability score increases (+2 Charisma and +1 Intelligence)
- Fire resistance
- 60 foot darkvision
- Thaumaturgy cantrip
- Hellish Rebuke spell once per day (level 3 required)
- Darkness spell once per day (level 5 required)
So right away, there is an obvious difference in the number of features, part of this is because the last three features are all collected as one feature for the race called Infernal Legacy. I simply broke the spells up to make them easier to analyze and view for our purposes..
Just from this list alone, it’s quite clear that the breath weapon is severely over costed by this comparison. The tiefling gets a cantrip, 1st level spell, 2nd level spell, and a passive sight bonus over a breath weapon. As discussed above, the breath weapon is only better than a 1st level spell at 11th level, and the tiefling already has a second level spell by then. AS well, when we consider that the breath weapon tends to fall behind unlimited use actions in damage, it’s hard to ever even use it. Therefore, it’s clear the dragonborn is weak, and needs some sort of boost in power.
Fixing What is Broke
There are as many ways to fix the dragonborn as there are grains of sand on a beach. I couldn’t possibly cover every possibility, but I can talk about the merits to a few different methods.
Stronger Breath Weapon. One of the most simple methods of improving the race would be to make the breath weapon more devastating by increasing its damage. As an example, if it dealt 4d6 damage at level 1, and increased by 3d6 over time, it would be useful far more often. Even something like 3d6 + your Character level would let it scale much better into the late game, while having a stronger and more reliable base.
Rapid Breathing. The breath weapon could be changed to twice per short or long rest, or even an amount of times equal to the characters Charisma modifier per long rest. The idea is to make up for the subpar damage with many uses. This can be combined with a slight damage increase to make a very potent and desirable feature.
Dragon Fear. All dragons have a frightful presence feature. The dragonborn could inherit such a feature in a similar way. The feature could act as a single target, or possibly 5 foot radius fear effect. Unlike their full dragon ancestors, such a feature should not be passive, or otherwise spammable. It should have restricted uses.
Eyes and Wings. Dragons have dark vision and flight. Dragonborn could gain darkvision like every other race within 5th edition. Another possibility is a fly speed, or something like a temporary flight ability, such as flight that must land by the end of the turn.
Natural Weapons. Many races have natural weapons. This is a minor effect that could be given in the form of claws or a bite attack. If wings were a given, it’s possible to create a wing attack, similar to the dragons within the Monster Manual.
The dragonborn can be a very thematically alluring race for many people. The idea of playing a dragon based humanoid invokes excitement for many, yet the mechanics are so terrible that many people have a difficult time taking it on as a race.
It seems quite clear that Wizards of the Coast have little interest in providing a boost or remake of the Dragonborn race in the same way they did with the Ranger. Us Dungeon Master’s out there need to take on that burden then, and make the dragonborn into something that the players of our games want to play.