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I have a fairly clever player whose character recently died. He decided to make a new one, whose thing is being an Eldritch Disciple Halfling that throws a Returning Vorpal Dagger around. As a reminder, here's what Vorpal does:

This potent and feared ability allows the weapon to sever the heads of those it strikes. Upon a roll of natural 20 (followed by a successful roll to confirm the critical hit), the weapon severs the opponent’s head (if it has one) from its body. Some creatures, such as many aberrations and all oozes, have no heads. Others, such as golems and undead creatures other than vampires, are not affected by the loss of their heads. Most other creatures, however, die when their heads are cut off. A vorpal weapon must be a slashing weapon. (If you roll this property randomly for an inappropriate weapon, reroll.)

That in itself isn't a real big deal.

It becomes a big deal when he casts Surge of Fortune, which does this:

At any point before the spell expires, you can channel some of its remaining power into a single instant of perfect fortune as an immediate action. The result of the next attack roll, saving throw, skill check, ability check, or spell penetration check you attempt is treated as a natural 20, as long as it occurs within 1 round of the time you invoked this power. (If you use it for an attack roll, you must still roll to confirm the critical hit normally). Using this option instantly ends the spell.

The party knows the area they're in is occupied by an Ancient Red Dragon, and I don't see how he can't one shot it with that dagger (combined with Power Critical and True Strike to make confirmation easier, which he can do because he has Divine Magician). Daggers are "P or S". Given a throwing dagger/knife is thrown by spinning it, the slashing motion needed by vorpal seems to be satisfied fictionally and mechanically.

I would prefer to not have the "boss" taken out in one hit, but I also am not that keen on house ruling away what appears to be an entirely legitimate build. What I am looking for is suggestions on how an Ancient Red Dragon could defend itself against such an attack. At the moment the Dragon has no way of knowing about the attack, but it is possible it could learn before the party engages (if they fight something else and one of its spies sees it, for example).

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Generally, I do not allow surge of fortune to work with vorpal and similar, and in general do not allow any effect that replaces a roll with a fixed number to trigger effects that occur on certain rolls. But my players also know this before they build characters around it. Barring that...

A dragon is a high-level spellcaster. It should fight like a high-level spellcaster. Red dragons somewhat less so than others, but an ancient red dragon is smarter than any real-life human being has ever been, is centuries old, and has been a force of greed and malice, death and destruction, for ages; one does not get that old by charging in blindly to face unknown foes.

One, a dragon has to assume that being hit equals death. It usually does if a foe knows what he’s doing (shivering touch is traditional for one-shotting dragons, to the point that in-character basically all dragons in my campaigns know it and don’t go into combat without prismatic scales as protection against it). The fact that the one-shot kill available here is a vorpal weapon used with surge of fortune is not necessarily important here.

Thus, I expect that any dragon worth his salt knows wings of cover and reserves several spell slots with which to cast it. This spell from Races of the Dragon is an immediate-action “negate one attack” spell; as long as he’t got spell slots, one attack per round cannot hit him. It’s also dragon-themed and sorcerer-only, both very appropriate for a dragon.

A thrown dagger cannot be thrown more than 50 ft. (barring Far Shot or whatever). A dragon has no reason to let anyone get that close to him; his movespeed is gigantic, and spells allow him to attack at range. Fly-by Attack is an excellent feat that allows any standard action (like casting a spell) to occur anywhere in the middle of movement: that allows the dragon to move in and out of range while sniping with spells. If it happens that the rogue does get his 50-ft. throw, wings of cover.

Starting with greater dispel magic is a very-solid play for any spellcaster. If that eliminates the rogue’s surge of fortune or suppresses his vorpal weapon, the threat is nullified. Of course, the dragon won’t assume that it did; he’ll maintain range and again, reserve wings of cover.

From there, effects that immobilize, separate, and shut down the party members are very potent. Stick a fighter or a rogue in a solid fog, and he won’t be going anywhere for a while. Make it an incendiary cloud if you want to play up the red-ness. Using forcecage is pricey, and dragons, particularly red ones, are notoriously loathe to give up any treasure, but forcewall isn’t and is still very effective. Offensive uses of teleport effects, well timed, can be brutal. An ancient red dragon could make for a decent quasi-mailman, too, with orb of fire and Searing Spell.

Defensively, mind blank is a good idea to just have; an ancient dragon can probably afford it in item form, or an ancient red dragon could simply know it as his 8th-level spell (i.e. can’t have it and incendiary cloud). Death ward is also a gimme, considering the red dragon’s access to cleric spells. Stuff like mirror image, displacement, and blink serve to make attacks that get through wings of cover still have a high rate of failure, even assuming a natural-20. Since getting locked down is dangerous (his huge mobility is a major advantage, and necessary to offset their action-advantage), freedom of movement is great.

Finally, don’t forget the arcanist stand-byes: nerveskitter means the dragon probably goes first, celerity means he definitely goes first, and contingency means one thing he isn’t able to proactively protect against is nullified anyway (“If I have already used wings of cover and an effect targets me rather than one of the mirror images, greater teleport me [somewhere safe/out of the line of fire/whatever].”)

Frankly, with all these spells available to him, the ancient red dragon is going to be monstrous. He’ll be almost impossible to keep in range, almost impossible to hit even if you do, have several options for negating effects, and so on. He’s right around the threshold where a sufficiently-paranoid spellcaster cannot be realistically attacked, and one presumes an ancient dragon will be sufficiently paranoid.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Flyby Attack + Flyby Breath + Strafing Breath = Greater Teleport to far far away. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Sep 25 '14 at 7:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is somehow a Draconic form of Tucker's Kobolds. It's simply awesome. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Feb 24 '16 at 20:28
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Though the rule text specifies only that the enchanted weapon be of a 'slashing,' type, I would further specify that the weapon needs to be long enough to reasonably decapitate someone.

All but the largest of daggers (modest swords, really) would be capable of fully decapitating a person in one swing. Daggers are simply not long enough. Longswords and other weapons are designed for sweeping blows, exactly the kind of attack a vorpal enchantment would work well with.

However, I think the core question here is not about vorpal throwing daggers. I think it's about OP'd PCs in the first place. I had a similar incident, years ago, in which one of the party had a quickshoot bow with a fast-firing feat and some magical fireball arrows. It took about fifteen minutes to add up all the rolls from one attack round.

You've got to be careful. You want to reward your players, empower them, watch them progress and ensure that they have a feeling of progression. However, giving them thermonuclear weapons is generally a BAD idea. And taking away their uber-toys will piss them off to no end, so don't give them the uber-toys to begin with. Sorry I don't have better advice. If you don't want to take their uber-toys away, I suspect you'll have little choice but to spend an enormous amount of energy scaling up all the party's opponents...

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's magic. I don't think it's a good idea to put mundane characters through any more realism taxes than the game already does; they're already shafted left, right, and sideways. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 22 '14 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is reasonable advice, thanks. :) I'm not too concerned about the dagger size issue though, as a halfling sized longsword isn't really big enough to decapitate a house-sized dragon either. As this is a new character, I could simply not allow him to start with so much wealth tied up in that item. +7 equivalent daggers aren't exactly something you find lying around. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Sep 22 '14 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Beware that the concept of "reality tax" is not universal to every playstyle compatible with 3.5e. In some playstyles, hewing to the group's sense of reality is essential and the opposite of a tax. Be sure a relevant playstyle is in operation before applying such concepts. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 22 '14 at 17:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Vorpal arrow \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 23 '14 at 16:20
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As an alternative to figuring out a way to protect your boss monsters, I'd consider sitting down with the player and discussing a house-ruled version of his combo. One option would be to make it a unique enchantment or weapon that can OHK via decapitation but only applies to your average monsters, for instance by restricting it to X amount of HD. You could make it a Legacy weapon or similar so it levels up with his character to stay relevant throughout the campaign.

This way your player gets to have his awesome piece of equipment to dispatch regular mobs in style while he can't abuse it on more challenging encounters. Assuming that he chose this build with the Rule of Cool firmly in mind, he shouldn't have a problem with this change. He may even be grateful for the fluff, RP and backstory that a unique weapon can offer.

Of course, this assumes that you're not using 'fairly clever player' as a euphemism for powergamer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the approach taken by a lot of video games; there's even a trope for it. It's rarely satisfying, because it's overkill/unnecessary on minions, while everything that would actually make it impressive are immune. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 23 '14 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the idea. In regards to your last comment, I am not. At least, not by my definition of "powergamer". :) He cares about being effective and manages to do so, but he's never caused issues with abusing system issues or trying to grossly out power the rest of the party. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Sep 24 '14 at 1:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Very true, but I'd argue that this is less of a problem for table top games. For DND 3.5 in particular, Save-or-Die/Suck spells are both common and usually stronger options than direct damage. It's up to the DM and the player to determine the right power level to use in this scenario. This shouldn't be a problem as long as the player is aware that the DM may tweak his weapon's abilities in the first few sessions to strike the right balance. \$\endgroup\$ – Lilienthal Sep 24 '14 at 7:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tridus In that case I see no problem with granting him the right to play Xena, the Beheading Warrior Princess. He should realise you're just trying to prevent him from outshining everyone else or cheapening exciting encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – Lilienthal Sep 24 '14 at 7:37
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Not overly important, but I would certainly say that a house rule that thrown daggers deal piercing damage only is completely reasonable.

When a dagger is thrown properly and hits point first, a line drawn between the point of impact and the centre of mass points in the same direction as the velocity vector of the knife. This means that the knife comes to a complete stop and drives itself into whatever it hits. This leads to 100% of the force of the throw being distributed over the smallest possible area, not to mention increasing the likelihood of hitting something vital.

By contrast, if you throw a knife aiming to deal slashing damage, there is no way to have 100% of the force transfer into the person, you have to hit the side of the person with the side of the knife, this means that that vast majority of the force will stay as movement in the knife, as well as increasing the area over which the force is distributed and decreasing the chances of the knife cutting deep enough to hit anything vital.

You can try this at home (not with a knife). Find some object that can stand up on its narrow end and be reasonably stable. Not sure why, lets say you got a garden gnome. Grab a stick, about 30 cm long. Think of half of it as the sharp end and half as the handle. You need to throw it sideways, such that only the sharp half hits the gnome. You will see that when it impacts, the 'blunt' half will continue forward, and then the entire stick will keep going.

Now, try again, and throw the stick point first. The stick will stop, and the gnome will fall over, as all of the force is transferred into the gnome.

People are right that adding an amount of spin to an object will increase the velocity of the tip, but if that velocity is not transferred to the target, it does not help.

Then, once your player retcons and starts throwing an axe instead, you have to ask yourself if this is actually a very powerful build.

This involves a +7 bonus on a weapon, as well as casting a 5th level spell in order to POSSIBLY get a chance to 1 hit KO a boss.

KRyan has pointed out that an ancient red dragon will likely have a lot of things to prevent them from getting hit at all, but he didn't point out the big flaw of surge of fortune. You activate it, and then it gives you a 20 on your next roll.

dragon readies an action to cast a level 1 spell that allows a saving throw when the rogue throws a dagger

rogue activates surge of fortune

rogue starts to throw the dagger

dragon interrupts with a level 1 spell

rogue rolls 20 on their saving throw to avoid the level 1 spell due to surge of fortune

rogue rolls normally with a vorpal weapon and has a 5% chance to 1 hit KO

An ancient red dragon will do their research before fighting a group. He will have prepared dozens of ways to interrupt the rogue and force them to make a saving throw.

Or just dispel and counterspell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Try again without making statements about what those who disagree with you have or have not considered, and I’d remove my downvote. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 24 '14 at 0:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ According to the SRD, critical immunity doesn't stop weapon special effects that activate on a critical hit. Some weapon qualities and some specific weapons have an extra effect on a critical hit. This special effect functions against creatures not subject to critical hits \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Sep 24 '14 at 1:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ "People are right that adding an amount of spin to an object will increase the velocity of the tip, but if that velocity is not transferred to the target, it does not help." Unless it's Vorpal, in which case it doesn't matter how "hard" it slashes when activated, only that it does. The whole slashing vs. piercing thing is a red herring. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 24 '14 at 2:58
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There is a simple answer in my opinion. Dagger is a slashing OR PIERCING weapons. I'd rule it's doing piercing damage when being throw as its the same action as a spear, dart or arrow. The vorpal effect would be null and void in that sense.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The question asserts that the dagger is being spun (and is thus reasonably slashing). What's more, how would this approach handle a thrown axe? \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Feb 24 '16 at 20:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ignoring the fact that this is just not how the weapon damage type rules are intended to work, your suggestion has already been covered in existing, more comprehensive answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Michaellogg Feb 24 '16 at 20:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to get a feel for how this Question and Answer site works. Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 24 '16 at 20:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MikeKellogg I misunderstood, comment removed. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 24 '16 at 20:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast No problem, I have trouble with making myself understood sometimes. \$\endgroup\$ – Michaellogg Feb 24 '16 at 20:37

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