Exploiting Racial and Class Powers: Dragon Breath

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on April 13, 2011

Be All You Can Be. This was the recruiting slogan for the U.S. Army for over twenty years. When you create your D&D character do you design them to be the best they can be?

Of course, the term ‘best’ is subjective. Everyone has their own idea of what the best really is. It is also situational, what is best for one situation may not be the best for another. However, there are undeniably certain power builds that exist within D&D. Some are certainly better than others, but all are worth examining.

The Dragonborn’s dragon breath is an interesting power. At first glance it’s a useful and intriguing encounter power that only requires a minor action to use. It gives these characters an extra option during combat and if we’re honest the idea of breathing fire or acid is pretty cool. It lets us get our geek on.

However, if we take a deeper look at the dragon breath racial ability we realize that it can be taken from an extra action that deals damage and transformed into one of the deadliest attacks available. The best part is it can turn a martial character into a strong secondary controller.

Right out of the gate the dragon breath racial power allows a dragonborn to select either Strength, Constitution or Dexterity as the primary stat used to modify attack rolls. Once this decision is made it is permanent, as is the elemental damage type selected. The attack is a close blast 3 and deals 1d6 + Con damage. The d6 scales up at each tier. Not a bad little power.

The trick is to take that power and exploit it into a game changer. One thing I dislike doing is selecting feats and items that are only going to have a one per encounter or less use. I don’t find that to be an efficient use of my resources. What we want to do with dragon breath is find a way to maximize its effects and gain the ability to use it multiple times each encounter.

The build and the various side options explained below are powerful at heroic, devastating at paragon and are simply… well, epic at epic. The key to gaining the greatest use out of your dragon breath racial power is to select lightning as the damage type and in some way gain access to the martial role. Whether this is through your initial class choice or multi-classing is up to you.

A Class Choice

As I’ve mentioned the key to maximizing your dragon breath ability is to gaining access to the martial power source. The simplest thing to do is select any of the Fighter, Ranger, Rogue or Warlord as your class. However, there is a definite advantage to creating a Warden or Barbarian and starting with the primal power source; I will explain more about this choice when I discuss feat selection. If you do select a Warden multi-class into whatever martial class fits best with your idea of the character as soon as possible.

The reason for gaining access to the martial role is the paragon path that you will select. The Honourable Blade paragon path is only available to dragonborn who have selected a martial class. The benefits of this paragon path are four-fold.

  • Draconic Blade – Your weapon gains the damage type of your dragon breath. This choice doesn’t override any other benefit your weapon may provide.
  • Draconic Resistance –You gain resistance to your dragon breath type equal to 5 + one half your level.
  • Dragon Breath Action – When you spend and action point to take an extra action you can use your dragon breath as a free action, even if you have already expended it during the encounter.
  • Draconic Sidestep – If you are flanked as an immediate reaction you can shift 1 and use your dragon breath as a free action, even if you have already used your dragon breath in the encounter.

With the election of this paragon path you have increased the frequency with which you can possibly use your dragon breath per encounter from one to three. Now, you won’t have an action point every encounter but being able to use this power twice per encounter plus the other benefits of the paragon path can’t be understated.

When you reach level 21 and select your epic destiny I would encourage the Avatar of Io. Your dragon breath now ignores all resistances and immunities. There are other benefits to this choice, but this is the most significant one.

Feats

In my mind, feat selection does as much or more to define a character as race and class choice. With the sheer multitude of feats available it is possible to take your character in any number of directions. The goal of maximizing your dragon breath requires a great deal of sacrifice regarding feats.

Over the course of a 30 level adventuring career a dragonborn will have 18 feat choices to make. There are 12 feats listed below, consuming over half of the feats your character will be able to take. There are additional feats that aren’t listed that you may also want to investigate and select.

Bolstering Breath (Heroic)

Normally the dragon breath power targets all creatures. If you’re trying to maximize your damage and use your dragon breath multiple times per combat you don’t want your allies to be getting blasted as well. It’s not a great way to make friends, instead give them a +1 to attack by selecting this feat.

Enlarged Dragon Breath (Heroic)

Increase your range from a close blast 3 to close blast 5 with this feat. It’s all about hitting as many enemies as possible. This feat dramatically increases your reach.

Raging Storm (Heroic)

You gain a +1 feat bonus to damage rolls for powers that use thunder or lightning as the key word. This damage scales upwards each tier.

Radiant Breath (Heroic)

For those who selected a martial class in the beginning, this feat provides an interesting option. You must multi-class to a divine class in order to have it open up. It allows your dragon breath to also deal radiant damage. Having this applied to the dragon breath is one thing, but through the paragon path all your weapon attacks will also deal radiant damage. If you are playing an undead heavy campaign this feat might become mandatory.

Empowered Dragon Breath (Paragon)

This feat is an easy choice. Do you want to damage with a d6 or a d10? If you were only using your dragon breath once per encounter we might pass on this feat, but the intention is multiple uses of dragon breath per encounter.

Thundering Breath (Paragon)

If you selected lightning as your primary damage type for your dragon breath, then thundering breath is a natural follow-up feat. It allows you to deal thunder and lightning damage when you breath. It also allows you to push any enemy you hit your con modifier. This feat increases that chance that enemies won’t have the appropriate resistances and allows you to act as a pseudo controller.

Resounding Thunder (Paragon)

This feat allows you to add 1 to the size of any blast or burst that has the thunder keyword. Congratulations you can now breath thunder and lightning damage in a close blast 6. I can feel Thor’s jealousy.

Spirit Breath (Paragon)

This feat is where selecting a warden or a barbarian as your class will shine. The key is to select warden daily powers that are keyed to either thunder or lightning. It’s not hard. Every time you use a daily power your dragon breath recharges. What does this mean for you? If you have four daily powers and it is the first encounter of the day you could use your dragon breath a total of seven times. The odds of you doing this are low, but it becomes possible to deal 2d10 + Con modifier damage in a close blast 6 seven times in one combat encounter.

Critical Breath (Paragon)

On its own this feat isn’t very powerful. If you don’t empower your breath you simply aren’t going to hit enough targets to make this feat worthwhile. However, as we’ve discovered with this build it is possible to use dragon breath seven times in an encounter with a close blast 6. The chances of obtaining a critical hit are dramatically increased and the ability to deal ongoing damage 10 (save ends) becomes very advantageous.

Dragon Warrior (Epic)

When you are first bloodied you regain the use of dragon breath if you have already used it during the encounter. This feat is one more opportunity to devastate your foes.

Draconic Triumph (Epic)

When you reduce a non-minion enemy to zero hit points you regain the use of your dragon breath. Odds are you can accomplish this feat once per encounter.

Concussive Breath (Epic)

Add the ability to daze targets you hit with your dragon breath onto the list of effects. With a close blast 6, that’s a lot of enemies that are going to have limited actions. This feat demonstrates once again that this build allows you to operate as a pseudo controller.

Items

Similar to feats there are a number of items that augment this build. None of these are mandatory but all add to the flavour of the character and increase the sheer amount of devastation you can unleash upon your opponents.

Arkhosian Scepter

You might be wondering why I’m recommending a martial character equip a rod for which they aren’t even proficient with. Simple, the ongoing property of this item speaks directly to the dragon breath power. You can apply the enhancement bonus of this item to the attack rolls and damage rolls of your dragon breath power, even if you can’t normally use rods as implements. The item isn’t available until level 12, which means the minimum bonus you are looking at is +3 to attack and damage.

Ring of the Dragonborn Emperor

This ring provides a +5 bonus to your dragon breath. The daily property allows you to regain the use of an encounter power if you’ve reached one milestone.

Ring of the Radiant Storm

When you hit with a lightning or radiant power you can roll damage twice and use either result.

Weapon of the Conqueror

You can add the enhancement bonus of this weapon do the damage rolls of your breath weapon. Additionally, the daily power allows you to change your dragon breath from a blast power, to a close burst 3. If you took the Resounding Thunder feat, this would be a close burst 4. The weapon isn’t available until level 15 which provides a minimum +3 bonus when you first acquire the item.

Strategy

The key using the dragon breath racial power effectively is to try to use it in the first round of combat. This is why increasing the size of the attack is advantageous to hit as many opponents as possible. Many of the subsequent opportunities to use the power will allow you to do so even if you have already used dragon breath in the encounter. However, by using dragon breath in the first round you gain additional multiple uses per encounter.

Certain classes, such as the Bard, allow players to regain the usage of an encounter power. Your dragon breath should be a top candidate for such a benefit. Likewise,a few items bestow the same benefit. If you can find one, certainly consider adding it to your inventory.

Dragon breath is a good racial power. If you decide to focus on the power it goes from good to outstanding. In fact what you end up with is a character that is defined by their racial power and not by their class or power source. It requires a lot of work, but the payoff is immense. The great part is that at almost every level you are adding something to you character that has an immediate benefit and that builds on previous decisions.

Have you ever played a dragonborn? Did you enjoy using dragon breath? Did you exploit this racial ability to the limit or did you use it as a fringe benefit?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lahrs April 13, 2011 at 10:54 am

Now I want to play a dragonborn…

2 The Id DM April 13, 2011 at 10:54 am

I’m currently playing a Dragonborn Rogue in a campaign, and we just hit Level 10. I have not focused on improving his breath weapon, although I did start off with lightning damage.

I was intrigued by improving the weapon but my role in the party is more of a front-line striker. I wanted to be able to use a light shield to increase my defenses, and wanted to be able to use a mace to increase damage each round.

I think the gods are taunting me because the last few times I’ve hit with my breath weapon, I role the d6 and get a 1. Hah! Perhaps I shouldn’t shun my draconic origins!

3 Kilsek April 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I love racial paragon paths and feats myself. In one of the campaigns I play in, I’m very happy with both the flavor and punch the Bloodfury Savage paragon path provides for my Half-Orc Ranger!

4 QuackTape April 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm

This makes me wish I wasn’t always the DM! I really enjoy creative builds like this and perhaps will have to create a pre-gen equivalent for a one-off game at some point.

A fantastic article, I’d really enjoy seeing more unique andthematic builds like this.

5 BrianLiberge April 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Very interesting article. Excellent example of using mechanics to build a theme.

6 GeorgeH April 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Nice article. I think you might have one rule wrong, though. Radiant Breath adds radiant to your breath weapon damage types; but the paragon path lets you add only one of the two to your weapon as a free action, and (if I understand right) you have to make the choice of which type you get to add at the inception of the path. Maybe you want to add radiant, and not the other type, but then you won’t get your thunder/lightning combos on your weapon damages. Still might be a really good choice in an undead-heavy campaign, but maybe not quite as good as you make it seem.

7 Wimwick April 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm

@ Lahrs
Dragonborn are fun and tough. Because of the CHA bonus, they are also fairly versatile.

@ The Id DM
You could still benefit from the shield. The trick would be to use dragon breath early, then spend a minor action to put away the rod and another minor action to draw/equip the shield. Or you just do without the bonus that the rod offers.

@ Kilsek
When I’m building a character racial feats are always the first place I look. Almost every race has a selection of feats that enhance their natural racial bonuses.

@ QuackTape
Don’t worry, we have more coming.

@ BrianLiberge
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I have actually played the Dragonborn Warden that I mention. Ameron has played a Dragonborn Warlord with a similar build. They are extremely tough!

@ GeorgeH
You are correct the paragon path allows you to select one of the damage types that you have available and apply it to your weapon. The great part is you can opt for no empowerment of your weapon, so you aren’t locked in if an opponent has resistances or immunities. Thanks for pointing out that correction.

8 Parody April 14, 2011 at 4:49 am

Inspiring Breath (allies get +5 to ALL damage rolls on targets hit by dragonbreath) is an awesome feat for Dragonborn warlords, especially with a party that can go nova with multiple attacks.

I play a level 6 Dragonborn Hybrid Warlord|Cleric with Hurl Breath, Inspiring Breath and Breath of Life (gives Str-mod THP to allies in breath). He’s more of a party enabler than a controller.

The main problem I have at my level is that the attack mod for the breath is kinda low, even though I have a +5 mod from having a 20 Strength score which comes to +10 at Level 6 (vs Reflex).

I’m wondering if there are more ways to increase the attack mod outside of items mentioned in this article.

9 Bobbydrake75 April 14, 2011 at 10:53 am

I have a 12th level dragonsoul sorceror that deal 2d10+12 damage and with one of my feats I recharge my dragon breath anytime that I take 11 fire damage, I have a warlock friend that when his cursed foes fall it leave a square of 5+1/2 his level fire damage. Breath +walk in = breath again + STD Action = Woot! All allies in the blast or burst get +1 if I hit them once, +2 if twice and it is a load of fun. I need to get me that ring of the dragonborn emperor!!!

10 Wimwick April 14, 2011 at 11:11 am

@ Parody
Inspiring Breath is a great power for a dragonborn warlord to select.

I’m not aware of any other items that will increase your to hit score. The best way to check is in the Compendium. What I would suggest is to increase the range of the power with the enlarged breath feat so you have the opportunity to attack more opponents.

11 Seb Wiers May 5, 2011 at 1:06 am

This article (fairly enough) doesn’t even raise the issue of racial traits, but Draconic Heritage is pretty amazing, and (like Dragon Breath) keys off of Con. Abilities that key on your surge value, or allow you to spend extra surges at full effect, are thus also good for a character who tries to max out dragon breath effect with a high Con.

12 Wimwick May 5, 2011 at 9:29 am

@ Seb Wiers
Thanks for pointing out other synergies. At 2000 words I didn’t want to start digging into other racial powers or exploits that a Dragonborn could take advantage of. Perhaps, we’ll fully dig into other ways to maximize your Dragonborn in a future article.

13 Voltax June 7, 2011 at 12:44 am

Great Article I currently just got back into D&D after a ten year break. After seeing what the Dragonborn had to offer there was no choice left.
I made my character a hybrid Warlord/Paladin build. I am currently up to lvl 3 and the build is working great so far. As I plan ahead with ideas for how I want my build to go I also want to focus on my breath weapon. My next LvL I am taking bolstering, then I want to follow that with enlarged. After that I am not sure I was thinking either Hurling or Empowering. What are your thoughts?

14 Lazy August 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I was lucky enough to once play in a paragon campaign which allowed Dragonmarks. I picked the Mark of storms.

With Lightning breath, Draconic arrogance, Thundering breath, Rushing cleats and hindering shield, I had enemies flying all over the place. (slide 2, push 4)

Add into this tide of iron, a staggering weapon and repel charge (Push 2, slide 5, +slow)- It was so much fun, GM wasn’t best please though. ;)

15 Dave February 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Question: Radiant Breath expressly states that it adds the Radiant keyword to your dragon breath power. But Thundering Breath does not mention adding the keyword, only adding the damage type. Wouldn’t this exempt it from Resounding Thunder’s ability, since that operates on powers with Thunder keywords?

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