Monday, 5 August 2013

Tiamat: A Broken Monster

Babe Calls the Shot
The Monster Manual was published some time before the other two books in the original core set and represents a three-quarter's way house from the original Dungeons and Dragons booklets and their four supplements and the AD&D of the Dungeon Masters Guide. Because of this, there are ideas which are either partly formed and never used in the later books, or which are hold overs from the original books but which were destined to be dropped.

One example of the latter is the hit location system and a related example of the former is the ability to "call shots" as the kids call it.

Supplement II, Blackmoor, introduced the hit location concept into D&D and did it in a way which can only be described as insane. I've never met anyone who tried to use it as written, and there's a reason for that.

Without going into the painful details, the basic idea was that hit points resided in various parts of the body and when that body part was reduced to zero then it was lost. If the lost part was vital, then the creature was thus killed outright regardless of their "overall" hit points. For humanoids, the head was assigned 15% of the creature's total hit points. Fifteen percent!

So, your 3rd level thief with 8hp had 1hp in their head and a storm giant with 45 hit points had just 7hp in their head. I'm not sure exactly why the problem was not immediately obvious to everyone at TSR but the words "area effect" spring immediately to mind. If a fireball does more than 7hp to our storm giant, he's dead. To call this unworkable amounts to flattery.

So, the system was a stinker and useless and I think played a major role in convincing Gygax that hit points could never be interpreted as literal physical damage without turning the game into a detailed tactical combat simulator. Nonetheless, this system is reflected in the MM in several monsters, the chief of which are the hydra and the Queen of Evil Dragons, Tiamat.

BtB Hydra is too easy
The hydra is a pretty simple case and can be solved simply: each head represents one full hit die of 8hp and the monster dies when all the hit points are gone, just like any other monster. What happens on the way is up to the DM but I like to have one head "die" for each 8hp damage done. For the hydra, this is just dandy.

For Tiamat, however, this doesn't work. Firstly, each head has, we are told, 16hp and the body 48hp. We could assign physical attacks to heads or body randomly, but that doesn't solve the issue of area effects like fireballs or cone of cold and so forth, which would seem to reduce her effective hit points to just 48, which is not a good number for the ruler of a plane of Hell.

In effect, all monsters exist to be killed by some party somewhere, but Tiamat as written is weaker than many normal dragons.

Here's my suggested fix for this broken monster, along with a couple of suggestions for dragons generally:

  1. Change hit points from 128 to 130.
  2. Make each head represent 26hp.
  3. Every 26hp done by any method results in the loss of one head at random.
  4. Notice that she has a poisoned sting in her tail which is not clearly mentioned in the MM text, although it is referred to on the special attack list (an allusion to the purple worm as a type of dragon/wyrm).
  5. Dragons save at a fighter or magic user level equal to hit points divided by 4 (use best for each category); either use this for Tiamat or rule that as a minor deity she has a save in all categories of 2 (I'd personally use the former on the Prime Material, and the latter in Hell).
  6. For dragons generally, the saving throw level should also be the effective magic user level (so an average adult silver dragon's spells are cast at level 13th level for purposes of duration etc.)
  7. For Tiamat, each head should cast at its own level based on its equivalent huge ancient dragon, so: 14th for the white head's 1st level spells, 16th for the black head, 18th for the green head, 20th for the blue head and 22nd for the red head.
  8. As an arch-dutchess of Hell, she is only affected by magical weapons while on her home plane (I'd personally make it +2 or better to hit).
As Tiamat is a more or less deity figure, I've no problem with allowing her to use any spell list even though I normally restrict dragons to magic user or illusionist lists (although not both), so here's a suggested list by level:
  1. Command (C), Protection from Good (C). If using the D&DG deity power list, replace command with resist cold (a real disappointment for users of ice storm with its "none" saving throw).
  2. Hold Person (C), Sleep (M).
  3. Protection from Normal Missiles (M), Slow (M).
  4. Minor Globe of Invulnerability (M), Improved Invisibility (I)
  5. Projected Image (I), Slay Living (C)
The combination of improved invisibility and projected image is a ferocious one.

Tiamat is still weak for her hit point total using these suggestions, normal 130hp monster suffer no loss of attack ability as they lose hit points, but I think she's much more viable and interesting. The only question is where a DM can place her.

Level XI Wandering Monster Roll
A typical adult red dragon is a tactical nuke to a normal country, BtB, and Tiamat comes with five of those in her lair. The only really sensible encounter with Tiamat is via a gateway to Hell itself, unless one is playing an apocalyptic campaign of some sort. If she's established on the PMP, there will certainly be a substantial clergy, evil knights, and probably even popular support. Such is the charisma of the dragon and its effect on humans.


  1. Two times I have run the original Dragonlance campaign the PCs didn't succeed in blocking Tiamat from entering the world...

  2. Tactical Nuke? Kidding right?