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Dragonborn are arguably considered one of the weakest playable races, as supported by the answers to my other recent question: How would adding a darkvision racial trait to Dragonborn affect balance?

It seems to me as though part of their weakness, at least, is that their breath weapon is underpowered, so in another attempt of mine to bring them up to speed with the other playable races, I am considering how increasing the damage may help to balance them, and how much to increase it.

As before, my goal here is to make them a more attractive choice for players, but not to make them too strong as to overpower them. Ideally they should be no better than a Mountain Dwarf (one of the strongest-but-still-balanced playable races) at most.

So, with that in mind, here's their breath weapon's damage, RAW:

A creature takes 2d6 damage on a failed save, and half as much damage on a successful one. The damage increases to 3d6 at 6th level, 4d6 at 11th level, and 5d6 at 16th level.

I've considered the following:

  • Increasing damage by 1d6 overall: this would make it 3d6, which goes up to 4d6, 5d6 and 6d6 as they increase in level. My concern is that 3d6 would be very powerful for a level 1 character, but 4d6 isn't very impressive for a level 9 or 10 character...
  • Increasing damage by 1d6 at level 3 only: this means the damage stays at 2d6 at level 1, but it's increased to a more respectable 3d6 at level 3, and the progression after that is much like the above option, although still at higher levels, I wonder if it's still a bit meagre...
  • Increasing damage by 1d6 more often: specifically, adding increases at levels 3, 8-9, and 13-14 (haven't decided exactly yet), so that a level 1 character still has 2d6, but at level 3 it's 3d6, which is a bit more respectable for a level 3 character, and at level 6, it's 5d6, as per my previous option. However, this starts to increase more rapidly so we end up at 8d6 at level 16, which is on par with a fireball or lightning bolt spell, even if it's only once per short rest, that's still perhaps too strong for a racial ability.

I'm tempted by the last option, but my concern is how rapidly this makes this feature too powerful. Even races that have innate spellcasting (i.e. tiefling, triton, etc) don't have massive offensive 3rd level spells like that, so maybe the second option is best?

Given that this is difficult to assess using the tools that were mentioned in the answers given to my last question, I'm hoping there's a better way to gauge how powerful such increases would be to make the dragonborn race more powerful than it is, but no more powerful than a Mountain Dwarf at most in terms of balance. Which of my above options would achieve the sort of balance I'm after?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I, personally, do not think Dragonborn are among the weakest races. You can get a lot of mileage out of Breath Weapon at all levels of play. Unless your GM rarely has encounters with multiple enemies, the area of effect can put out quite a bit of damage when lined up effectively. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 30 '19 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related (Question and accepted Answer describes Dragonborn as underpowered, blames breath weapon scaling poorly at higher levels): Is this version of the dragonborn race unbalanced? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 11 '19 at 14:38
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Balancing around a once per day power is poor design

Having an infrequently used power as a balancing mechanism leads to encounters where it is used being easy for the dragonborn, and encounters where it isn't used being hard for the dragonborn. Its too all or nothing.

I don't think any amount of maths will prove that point, but if you want the breath weapon to be iconic, useful and a balancing mechanism it has to be more frequently available.

How I see it

I would like the breath weapon to be iconic, so would treat it like a cantrip. Keep the damage low (Something like D6 [Because AoE], increased every x levels like any other cantrip) but make it at will (Effectively getting a slightly nerfed burning hands cantrip).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this suggestion, and I agree that their defining feature should come into play more to add value to it; at first I thought making it like a cantrip even though it's an area effect ability might be too overpowered, but then, sword burst and thunderclap are both area effect cantrips (although over a smaller area, but then this is a racial feature, not just an "everyone-could-have-this" cantrip). Still, the area of effect might be something else to take into consideration as well as damage regarding balance... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS May 1 '19 at 11:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS honestly I couldn't remember the size and didn't have time to look it up, but I agree if it is too large then it becomes a concern too. Having just seen there is a link in the question however I feel a bit daft. Will look when I get chance and update the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri May 1 '19 at 11:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Having looked at the link finally I think 1d6 is probably balanced, but it would likely need playtesting. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 8 '19 at 23:10
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Counterpoint: Breath weapon is a poor place to buff the Dragonborn

The dragonborn's breath weapon is a once per fight ability which is not always possible to use to its fullest extent, such as:

  • Enemies resistant or immune to the dragonborn's element
  • Enemies placed in sub-optimal positions, such as spread out or with the dragonborn's allies in the way
  • Solo enemies who only take one hit from the area effect
  • Enemies who get one lucky saving throw

The breath weapon is thus a highly swingy and situational ability, unlike, say, an ability score bonus, which can be used every round, where individual instances of bad luck would statistically cancel out over the fight. It's flaky, the opposite of reliable, and therefore any buff is also going to be flaky. It will be extremely effective in some fights, but completely useless in others.

I also get the sense that empowering the dragonborn's most effective offensive ability is reminiscent of the charge builds of D&D 3e, fighter-type characters designed to deal as much damage in the first round of combat.

If I were to improve the dragonborn, it would rather be by adding more defensive or miscellaneous abilities, rather than increase their existing offensive power.

Is the Dragonborn underpowered?

The dragonborn have relatively few special abilities, but I do not believe they are especially weak.

They have a +2 bonus to Strength, which is the most important ability score in a game where dealing melee attack and damage every round is a core competency. Consider, in an earlier edition of the game, that the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide, p.173, counts that not all ability scores are equal, and asserts Strength is worth as much as Intelligence and Wisdom combined.

Benchmarked against the mountain dwarf, the +2 to Strength and +2 to Constitution is clearly superior. As you say, this is more powerful than every other race in terms of ability scores, with the norm being +2 to one ability score and +1 to another. This suggests to me that it's the dwarf who deserves a nerf, rather than any of the other races who deserve a buff.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you're essentially shooting for a frame challenge, but I'm not sure it's appropriate to compare bonuses to Strength against things like Int or Wis from the 3.5 DMG. Doubly so because the supposition that Strength is equal in value to Intelligence and Wisdom combined is a fallacious statement at best considering 3.5's balance issues. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Apr 30 '19 at 20:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would strongly contest that strength is the most important ability score in the game. See questions like is dexterity overpowered for evidence that that view isn't universally agreed. Apart from that this isn't a bad frame challenge though. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 1 '19 at 0:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think breath weapon is exactly the right place to buff a dragonborn, it is iconic and should be used regularly imho, but currently is absolutely useless. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri May 1 '19 at 10:58
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Option 2 is the most balanced out of the three proposed changes in the question

The reason I originally considered this many months back is because of a LMoP game I ran, which had a Dragonborn Paladin player. We started with no adjustments to RAW, so this is an account of how RAW seemed to work at Tier 1 levels.

During the first dungeon, at level 1, that breath weapon took out 2 or 3 goblins (they all failed their saves, and he rolled good damage). The breath weapon as-written looked great at that level! However, as we progressed towards level 5, the unimpressive damage scaled poorly with the rest of the encounters, and it become objectively better in all situation to just use standard paladin tactics (including a simple "I attack with my sword") than to "waste" his action with the breath weapon.

(I will point out that this is a well optimised paladin, with 20 STR and 18 CHA at level 1 (!) and the Dueling fighting style; that plus a +1 weapon means damage output is 8 minimum per hit in melee. His CON is average at about 14 or 16 or so–I forget exactly–which I will admit doesn't help as much with the DC the enemy need to make saves against to halve the breath weapon damage).

The anecdote above about the goblins is precisely why I think my "option 1" is too strong; 2d6 is plenty for a level 1 character, but by level 3, that's when we started to see it become less useful (low damage rolls and high saving throws didn't help, but still). This is why I suggested in the question (as my "option 2") increasing the damage at 3rd level by 1d6 and allowing that increase to propagate throughout the RAW damage increases.


More recently, I trialled my "option 2" rule with a different, higher level Dragonborn Paladin in a different game I'm running, to see how it compared with the Dragonborn Paladin in the game I described above. However, although the breath weapon didn't feel as weak now, it was still better most of the time to just make melee weapon attacks instead, which was more apparent with the addition of Extra Attack at 5th level. That's when I identified the real problem with the breath weapon...

The Breath Weapon directly competes with Extra Attack

Because the breath weapon takes up a whole action, but isn't the Attack action, it means that's all you can do. Given how heavily weighted towards Paladins the Dragonborn race is (due to +2 STR, +1 CHA), the fact that the breath weapon will quickly become useless for a martial class is the main problem, even more so than the relatively small amount of damage it can deal. During Tier 1, this isn't really a problem because they don't have Extra Attack yet, but as soon as they get Extra Attack, its always the superior option to attack with your standard weapons.

So, in addition to going with my "option 2" damage increase, I also added the following houserule (on the fly, after a disappointing use of the breath weapon): "Using the breath weapon now counts as an attack (same as how shove or grapple is a special kind of attack), meaning that it can be used alongside Extra Attack". Now the breath weapon feels more useful; a Dragonborn paladin can attack with their weapon (once) and use their breath weapon during the same turn.

The fact that the breath weapon can still only be used once per rest means that this didn't become a too-frequently used combo, but at the same time, it helped the player to still feel like they were a Dragonborn who can use the breath weapon, without essentially "wasting" their turn just to use it. It's now possible to do a small amount of damage to a spread of enemies whilst actively engaging with one of them like a Paladin should, allowing others to use toll the dead and such on the other now-injured enemies.

That said, it still felt like a niche combo and a lot of the time the Dragonborn Paladin still just used standard weapon attacks, so it simply provides another option for the Paladin to use in specific situations rather than becoming a strictly superior choice, and the fact that the breath weapon still wasn't used that frequently also convinced me that this houserule is balanced, even with the slightly increased damage as per my "option 2".


The slightly increased damage and synergy with Extra Attack helps to bring the Dragonborn race up to be on par with other races

My final conclusion, then, is that, although the slight damage increase is nice, and classes that don't get Extra Attack (likely Dragonborn Sorcerers and Warlocks if they want to make use of their racial ability score increases) will get some use out of that, Paladins and other martial classes (or specifically Pact of the Blade Warlocks with the Thirsting Blade invocation) need this ability to complement Extra Attack before it will really be that useful to them.

As I said above, I didn't notice these changes making the Dragonborn Paladin in my latter game any more powerful than how powerful I would expect any Paladin would be at that level, and it simply gave that particular Paladin an extra option to use in niche situations to remind herself she was playing as a Dragonborn. This is, to my mind, what racial abilities are all about; they're are extra tools to use in niche scenarios to make players say "oh wait, I'm a [insert race here], so I can just do this!".


Although some of this assessment would equally apply to my "option 3" at these levels, I think my option 3 scales too quickly. 6d6 at level 16 should be fine, like a "mini-fireball", whereas 8d6 at level 16 sees any Dragonborn character actually being able to effectively cast fireball (albeit with a slightly different range/shape, but in terms of damage, it's an 8d6 AOE). That seems too strong for a racial ability; no other race can produce that must damage via racial abilities alone. After all, the Dragonborn aren't that underpowered, they don't need a massive damage increase, just enough for it to remain useful at higher levels...

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