Draconomicon: Dragonbound Breakdown
Back in March, I received a request from Ross Wilkin to consider a breakdown article on his Draconomicon: Dragonbound PDF, available through the DM’s Guild. As you already know, though, we’ve had basically no weeks since mid-March that I wasn’t writing a UA breakdown, so I’m only now getting around to it. Ross also asked that I link his blog, which I am happy to do here.
This product sets out to present a 20-level class for humanoids that are mystically bound to dragons. As there aren’t any official classes that are pet-classes from first principles, and the Beast Master subclass received what I will generously call mixed reviews, I salute the designer’s decision to even attempt this thing. Also, an attempt to support Pern fandom in tabletop gaming is a good unto itself, and hony soit qui mal y pense. It’s a tall order. Well, it starts off as a Medium order and grows into a Huge order, to be specific.
The flavor text before we get into the actual mechanics details a class feature that isn’t called out again later: that the humanoid member of the duo ages slower, while the draconic member ages faster. Overall, though, the flavor text is good, and suggests a solid range of campaigns suited to Dragonbound characters.
There’s also one really regrettable formatting decision in the text: many (most?) appearances of a die size are listed not as the normal XdY that we’ve seen for years, but a presumably-intended-to-be-helpful Xd(image of the die turned to its highest-numbered face). So a d6 is a 6 inside a square, the least-worst of them; the larger die sizes are illegible as such, and you just have to figure out which die we’re talking about based on appearance. Never do this – it breaks the flow of reading, and I have a hard time believing it improves accessibility for users. (For partially-sighted users, I would expect it to diminish usability, but I don’t mean to speak for the vision-impaired here.) I’m sure there’s some compelling reason for this that I don’t get, but… I don’t.
Anyway, let’s get into the meat of this class. I’m breaking the humanoid-side features and the dragon-side features into two separate bullet-point lists, because that’s more or less how the document does it.
- It’s a d6 Hit Die class, which is a surprising move and raises all kinds of questions for me about the expected combat role of the humanoid. I anticipate recommending a bump up to d8, but we’ll see.
- That HD looks more dubious in light of medium armor, shields, and martial weapons proficiencies. Those proficiencies telegraph an expectation that they’ll be used (as opposed to simple weapon proficiency, which telegraphs “uh, you mostly want to do something better with your time”), but mixing it up in melee is very risky.
- Constitution and Charisma saving throws. Sure, that’s fine.
- Two skills from a list that looks thematically appropriate to me.
- Your Dragon Companion starts at 1st Pick a color, but its alignment has to be within one step of yours. It uses a custom stat block to put all wyrmling dragon companions on the same footing – powered down significantly from the Monster Manual wyrmlings. Your companion is either Small or Medium, based on your own size, and cannot carry you on its back at this level. Its breath weapon shape, damage type, and saving throw type all come from its color, as you’d expect. The damage starts at 2d6 + its Charisma modifier, which is itself set to equal the humanoid’s Charisma modifier in this feature. Your companion also gains an alternate movement mode (other than walking and flying) – swimming, burrowing, or climbing. It also uses your proficiency bonus.
- I have a knee-jerk reaction against any alignment-based mechanic in 5e. I want it to be completely, 100% possible for all characters to not have alignment with no change in the mechanics. There’s probably a really interesting story in a heroic character bonded to the Very Hungry Caterpillar Red Dragon. (It starts, “In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a hoard of treasure.”)
- Dragon Link is not actually a new Legend of Zelda-franchise boss. You learn Draconic, and gain 60-ft-range telepathy and 1-mile empathy with your companion. This section explains a lot about your dragon’s handling and advancement: it applies your proficiency bonus to its AC, skills, attack bonus, and saving throws, it rolls its own initiative, it can (but usually won’t) follow its own lead and ignore whatever you want to do (that is, the DM can intervene if they feel like roleplaying your dragon for a bit), and it gains Ability Score Improvements when you do. It has a set Bond, and shares the humanoid’s ideal.
- The Bond is one of those places where alignment seems at odds with the story the class is telling – would a red dragon of any age actually sacrifice its own life for its humanoid companion? I feel like that’s… a real stretch on the mutual parasitism that Chaotic Evil represents in an “equal” partnership.
- There’s also suggested, lightly-mechanical handling for when one member of the duo dies. It’s a reasonable set of suggestions, if for some reason you can’t get the dead character resurrected.
- The Dragonbound subclasses are called Paragon Paths, which can’t help but be a bit jarring if you played 4e at all. This document presents four, which I’ll cover when I get to them.
- Breaths are uses of the breath weapon, of course. Breath uses come back per short rest, scaling from 1 up to 4 in a manner easily recognizable as Pact Magic slots. You also gain Breath Abilities, which are more or less Spells Known to use instead of your breath weapon. You gain the first breath ability at 1st level, and this gradually scales up to 6 at 18th
- The choice to dabble in warlock class structure here is interesting; I’m hardly the only one who has looked for ways to reskin the warlock’s unique form into other class concepts. At the same time, I am on the record for a wide variety of criticisms of the warlock class’s actual function at the table, so I’m more interested than ever to see what the designer does here.
- Bond Boons are basically Invocations, mostly improving the humanoid member of the pair. Some of the Bond Boons are straight lifts from existing or UA Invocations. You gain your first of these at 2nd level, scaling up to 6 at 18th
- On the plus side, you get to do some reasonably neat stuff. On the downside, there are several Boon chains, much like feat chains in other editions of D&D. There are also a mix of strictly combat-focused Boons and Boons for other situations… and given the fragility of the humanoid, you really need to spend most of your Boons on combat stuff. It’s a shame, because interesting and useful are at odds. (This is also a common criticism of warlock Invocations.)
- Your breath weapon damage starts to scale at 3rd level, improving to 3d6 + Cha modifier. This improvement continues on the same schedule that a warlock gains access to higher spell levels, landing on an impressive 12d6 at 9th To skip ahead a bit, at 11th level you gain a new currency, called Potency, that lets you further inflate your (Shivan) dragon’s breath weapon, in a manner nominally paralleling Mystic Arcana.
- Ability Score Improvements at the typical 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19.
- Breath-Imbued Blows (at 6th level) makes your melee attacks and your dragon’s melee attacks strike as magic weapons. (You can further improve this with Bond Boons.)
- I get why this is needed for the creature that can’t wield magic items, but in general I am opposed to PCs receiving this feature, because blanket nullification of monster defensive features just annoys me. Why did they even give creatures those abilities, if so many PCs get to ignore them outright?
- Young Dragon at 9th level is a big turning point for the class. The dragon becomes Large, its breath weapon area increases, its speed increases, its bite damage increases, it gains a claw attack, and it gains Multiattack (one bite and one claw). I’m not sure if you’re allowed to ride it at this level, but I assume so. You can also use breath abilities while within 5 miles, rather than within 1 mile, and your telepathic range increases to 120 feet.
- Polymorph Dragon Companion is the other big 9th-level feature, to make sure you can still go adventuring in tight spaces and engage in social encounters where a Large dragon is a problem (but a Small or Medium one was… fine?). Once per long rest (this limit is crucial), the dragon can polymorph itself into a humanoid or giant of its current size or smaller. The effects of this transformation are what you’d expect, but its new form has its full hit point total… and when that runs out it reverts to dragon form, which also has its full hit point total. There’s no explicit handling of what happens to items the transformed dragon is wearing when it reverts, but I would assume they are dropped in an adjacent space.
- I really appreciate the designer remembering that a lot of adventuring spaces and situations are designed for Small or Medium creatures, and no larger. This may have come up extensively in previous campaigns I’ve played.
- Adult Dragon at 18th The scaling is again what you’d expect: a size increase to Huge, an area increase to the breath weapon, damage boosts to bite and claw attacks, and a much greater range for use of breath abilities and telepathy.
- Tireless Breath at 20th level gives you Recharge 6 for breath uses, up to four times per short rest.
Looking at the core of the Dragonbound class, in the features shown here, tells you very little about their real effectiveness – most of that information is in the dragon’s improvement, and in the Paragon Path, Breath Abilities, and Bond Boons. That’s sort of a lot of moving parts.
So about the dragon’s improvement:
- The dragon’s AC starts at 16 (14 + your proficiency bonus), and that improves only as your proficiency bonus does.
- Its baseline ability scores are Str 15, Dex 12, Con 13, Int 14, Wis 11. (Cha as explained above.)
- Its bite damage starts at d6 + Str and grows to d12 + Str.
- Its claw damage starts at d6 + Str (at 9th level) and grows to d8 + Str.
- Its breath weapon… I explained in detail, above.
- In addition to five Ability Score Improvements at the same time the humanoid gets them (and I’m not sure if the dragon has the option to pick up a feat), it also gains +2 Str and +2 Con at 9th level, and again at 18th The 19th-level Ability Score Increase for the dragon has a cap of 22 for Strength and Con.
- All movement speeds increase a little.
Taken together, this is a very depowered dragon when it comes to melee damage and hit points; we’ll see if more of that gets made up again in later features.
The Paragon Paths presented here are Greedbound, Horizonbound, Lorebound, Saddlebound, and Warbound.
Greedbound is generally for evil partnerships.
- Claim Soul generates 1 Potency when you or your dragon reduce a creature to 0 hit points, up to once per turn.
- Effects triggered by last-hitting are tricky in games, especially with larger parties, because you get into a situation where your allies are accidentally kill-stealing and denying you use of a class or subclass feature. I’ve been struggling with this in my own work lately, since one of my players, who is playtesting a subclass I wrote, had it happen to him.
- Enervating Bite lets you potentially (there’s a save involved) remove all of a target’s temporary hit points, and then deal your damage to them. Since NPCs seldom have temporary hit points, this almost never does anything (false life can be a thing, but it’s super rare); if it were used against PCs, it might be too much.
- Extra Attack at 6th. Sure, sounds good.
- Cling to Life grants advantage on death saves and saves against exhaustion effects. It also mentions that you get to hold onto Potency from Claim Soul longer, but it’s not clear in the text when you lose Claimed Potency without this feature.
- Death Incarnate lets you cast finger of death once per long rest, without the zombie-creating part (but naturally it triggers Claim Soul).
Horizonbound is all about increasing movement and maneuverability.
- Breath of the Wind lets you spend one breath use to gain:
- Dash or Disengage as bonus actions
- Reduce any incoming damage by 1d6 + your proficiency bonus as a reaction
- Gain advantage when you move 30+ feet in a straight line before making an attack.
- Breath of the Gale lets you cast longstrider as a ritual targeting yourself and your dragon.
- This should probably just increase your speed and your dragon’s speed by 10 feet, rather than getting packaged as a ritual version of something that isn’t usually a ritual. Taking 10 minutes out of every hour to recast this is annoying.
- Aerial Escape gives your dragon a reaction to rescue you from tight spots, picking you up and moving you somewhere else. This movement ignores opportunity attacks and imposes disadvantage on attacks made against you until the start of your next turn.
- Flow with the Wind gives you advantage on saving throws and ability checks to resist or escape being grappled or restrained. Sure, no problem – though we’re a little too long on defensive features at this point.
- Death Drop at 14th level is the attack feature I’ve been looking for. (Minor formatting quibble: in 5e we don’t say “hits a creature with an Attack”; that phrase doesn’t actually parse. We say “hits a creature with an attack” or “hits a creature as part of an Attack action.” We can all wish they had rented a thesaurus.) The rules parsing gets dodgy here, and I’m not really sure what the design is going for by having the dragon’s turn end, the victim get denied their turn, the dragon taking its next turn apparently normally, and the victim falling back to the space it came from. The victim suffers falling damage, but the amount of damage is unrelated to 5e standards. This theoretically works in a room with a 10-foot ceiling, too. Thematically, I get that it’s about Isaac Newton being the baddest motherfucker in draconic combat, but the rules structures here don’t communicate the story of the action. The once-per-long-rest limitation also feels arbitrary, or like it’s trying to express that this is overtly magical without saying so anywhere else.
Lorebound is about perception, the mind, and knowledge.
- Dragon Senses lets you see through your dragon’s eyes and hear through its ears, and vice versa. You can also borrow your dragon’s darkvision and blindsense, out to half their normal range, if your companion is elsewhere (but within breath-ability range) and not in danger. There’s a reference to the Share Senses bond boon, which I haven’t gotten to yet.
- This feature is the most classic of all scouting features, so sure.
- Breath Blessed Senses at 3rd level teaches you comprehend languages as a ritual (only), which targets you and your dragon when you cast it. The dragon also learns identify as a ritual, and there’s a 30% chance that you screw over party members who ask your dragon to identify items for them.
- The 30% chance of your dragon getting greedy is not something I would expect party members to be real happy about, so… don’t use this on their items unless you like intra-party fights and so do they.
- Explorer’s Boon at 6th level lets you add a d10 to an ability check or saving throw once per short rest, after seeing the die result.
- This is fine, probably. Getting to fix a failed saving throw once per short rest is solid and I can’t hate it.
- Guarded Mind at 10th level grants you advantage on saves against the charmed or frightened conditions.
- This feature and/or at least one feature before it should probably be meatier. As with Horizonbound, we’re pretty long on defensive features.
- Create and Exploit Weakness at 14th level lets you and your dragon deal extra damage when you team up on a target, but its language is unclear in 5e parlance – it’s not clear what it takes to get the 2d6 damage bonus a second time, against the same target or any other target. (After all, it’s quite common for two allies to be adjacent to two different enemy creatures at the same time.)
- If the wording of this feature got cleaned up, it would be great. It really wants to be a Sneak Attack that only your dragon can trigger for you, and vice versa.
Saddlebound is for dedicated dragon riders, about like you’d expect.
- Two Become One lets you and your mount roll backup Wisdom saving throws for each other, when necessary – if either succeeds, the original target succeeds.
- Sure, fine.
- Dragon Cavalry at 3rd level lets you ride your dragon on land (walking, swimming, climbing only), despite being the same size. There’s a collection of improvements to typical mounted combat rules, from getting dismounted to lance combat.
- Height Advantage at 6th level doesn’t do a whole lot when you get it, since your dragon is Small or Medium – the same size or smaller than most of your opponents, and I assume most dragon cavalry don’t have grand ambitions of slaughtering huge numbers of goblins and kobolds at 6th level – but it might be really cookin’ at 9th. It lets you deal an additional d8 of damage once per turn, if you’re mounted and your target is smaller than your dragon.
- Fly By at 10th level is a free leave-without-provoking (which is, as I’ve discussed before, better than a free Disengage), for you and your mount, if you are in fact hitting and running. It works in the air, and in the water if your dragon has a swim speed.
- This feature had to wait as long as it did because 9th level was the first time your mount could fly while carrying your tubby ass. This highlights the point that this subclass, and in a lot of ways the whole Dragonbound class, takes 9 levels to feel like it’s really delivering on its fundamental story and promise.
- Aerobatic Maneuvers at 14th level gives you permission to do all kinds of midair maneuvers, particularly things that solve the problem of falling damage. You still have a mighty bad time if anything can paralyze, immobilize, restrain, stun, &c., your mount. There’s also a combo attack, comparable to the combo attacks that we’ve seen in other Paragon Paths – and as with the others, it has some issues in its implementation. It needs a different limiting factor than “once per long rest,” as well. It’s a little over-engineered, though I will say that the visual it’s going for is boss.
Warbound is the one that’s about fighting. Well, conquest. It’s less creepy and evil than Greedbound, anyway.
- Invigorating Glory is another last-hit effect, but basically gives you a single Recharge 5-6 trigger for breath uses each time you or your dragon last-hit something in melee.
- This has all the problems of last-hitting mechanics and only a 33% chance of working when triggered. Its payoff is huge, but that’s a lot of fail states.
- Endure Together at 3rd level lets you spend your reaction to share damage from one source equally between you and your mount. This works once per short rest. Really, you want to save this for a damaging effect targeting you that your dragon is immune to.
- This is a useful panic-button only if one of you is getting focus-fired and the other is more or less fine, or if taking all of the damage would instantly kill one of you.
- Extra Attack at 6th Sure.
- Breath’s Protection at 10th level grants advantage on death saves, immunity to the frightened condition, and resistance to your companion’s breath damage type (or immunity if you already have resistance).
- War Dragon at 14th level grants your dragon Uncanny Dodge.
- I am genuinely surprised that this is not a big flashy attack that you and/or your dragon make, just based on the established pattern.
Of all of these Paragon Paths, Warbound looks like the way to go to me, because it does the most to boost the humanoid side of the duo. I have substantial concerns about the others having enough reliable throughput to be satisfying before 14th level. (There are certainly other subclasses in 5e with this problem; ask the Valor bard.) Thematically, if I’ve decided to play a Dragonbound, I’m probably here for Saddlebound, but I can’t pretend that mounted combat is viable often enough in campaigns to make the whole subclass worth it (unless I had explicit guarantees from the DM that nearly all combats would be mount-friendly). Greedbound and Warbound could use more obvious daylight between them.
Next we move into Breath Abilities. It’s not super critical, but the text mentions the phrase “spell-like abilities” in making Breath Abilities satisfy spellcasting-related feat prereqs. That’s about as much of a 3.x/PF rules language throwback as could be written. Obviously I know what he means, but to the discerning 5e reader this looks a bit bad.
There are enough Breath Abiliites and Bond Boons that I’m not itemizing my breakdown, just hitting some high points. The general effect here is to turn Breath Ability uses into Pact Magic spells. Since you get just 4 of them per short rest (and 2 for, honestly, most of your career), you have far more tricks up your sleeve than ability to use them. It’s like if Pact Magic had a default effect that was your main thematic thing (hex, maybe), and then you gained a huge number of situational alternatives that were, one way or another, mostly less effective but have some situational benefits. Most of the effects are identifiable reprints of particular spells, such as counterspell or heroism.
Borrowed Breath lets you spend your dragon’s breath use and make yourself the source of the effect… also taking a -2d6 damage hit. In this way it has three different costs, which is unnecessary.
Like I said, some of these are recognizable as extant Invocations… also they’re not all created equal, so it has that in common with warlock Invocations as well. (Invocations that cost a Pact Magic slot and can only be used once per long rest are a traaaaap.) In general, some retuning needs to happen here. You can at least spend two Bond Boons to correct for your d6 Hit Die, gaining +2 hit points per level (sorry, your short-rest healing with Hit Dice still uses d6s). Those are important enough that they’re more like a tax.
So look, I don’t want to make Ross be my punching bag here. His work doesn’t deserve that; this class concept is really exciting but insanely hard to do well, for a lot of reasons that I’ve touched on. The humanoid side of the duo isn’t mechanically interesting and doesn’t have enough to do; the interesting part of each of your turns is the dragon’s action. This class does flip the essential warlock multiclassing problem on its head – once you’ve started in on Dragonbound, never leave, because the content that you came to play kicks in late. Honestly, though, you can’t give out a flying mount as a core class feature much earlier than that. Well, maybe like two levels earlier, at the outside.
There are places where the class’s options played it too safe and piled on too many restrictions, some of which I’ve mentioned. What I think is important here is that the Dragonbound is a strong showing at an interesting concept that I haven’t seen anyone else try, and even its flawed parts still have great ideas that just need some mechanical rework. (If you’ve read a lot of my breakdowns, I have said the same about Unearthed Arcana… damn near every time, for what’s closer to three years than two.)
The class has a fundamental problem with multiple-attribute-dependency (MAD, as the kids call it), which is also painfully true of the Blade Pact warlock. If the class had some kind of Cha-based at-will attack, we’d be getting somewhere, but the class really wants you to have Cha, Con, and either Str or Dex (medium armor proficiency is always a complicated question there).
Because this is a design breakdown and not a review, I’m not here to tell you whether to run out and buy a copy. As a matter of principle, I think that ambitious design deserves community support; that’s what I’d hope someone would say as part of any hard look at my work. If this is a character concept that you want to play, or to support at your table, go in with your eyes open. It’s not a clusterfuck, not by a long shot – this thing will work at the table and make interesting things happen, even with its less-polished parts.