Magical Mondays: The Flavor Of Dragons   Leave a comment

How To Train Your Dragon

Just a quick post this week concerning a few thoughts I’ve had about dragons, and the nature of Stat Vs. Story elements.  If you’ve read many Magical Mondays before, you probably know that I usually come down… pretty hard, even… on the side of story.  While I think that the lessons of Brandon Sanderson are well worth remembering… it’s important to know how a particular magic works and to be consistent with it when the magic is introduced, after all… I also think that part of the joy of a game like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons is (or at least used to be) the fact that you can encounter ancient, mysterious, and thoroughly unknown magical effects.  We tend to forget that in our quest for modular victories amid the perpetual arms race between power gamers and vengeful GMs, but the presence of unfamiliar magic is encouraged by any number of books… the Spellcraft check’s ability to identify a “unique” magical effect in the Player’s Handbook, a randomized plot hook that features fish falling from the sky, and Eberron’s Eldritch Machines are just a few of them.  The trouble, though, is that we often lack imagination or drive, and it’s so easy to fall back onto the rules we understand.  So, allow me to guide you through a session I ran over the last two weeks with some new players.

Inconceivable

One of my goals when introducing these new players to D&D was that I wanted it to feel like a fairy tale.  Yes, I still wanted it to be a swashbuckling, dangerous world of action and excitement, but I wanted it to feel like the kind of world where magic was known, but far away.  Exotic might be a good word for it.  I wanted to evoke the sense of wonder that I got from a lot of my favorite fantasy adventures.  The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also things like the video game Trine, the book and movie versions of The Princess Bride, and even the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons episode of Community were all among the things that I picked when trying to tie down the feeling that I wanted the game sessions to evoke.  So I came up with a basic quest and a sequence of challenges: The Falcon Queen, more officially known as Queen Telara the Second, requests assistance in recovering an artifact called The Euphratian Heart.  The final resting place of a lovecraftian horror, The Void With A Mind, holds the weapon that sealed it away, but only at risk of losing oneself to the terror.  A mysterious creature has been haunting this logging community near the former dragon’s cave, making people disappear whenever they went looking for forgotten treasure.  The skeletons of the slain dragon’s victims lie in a stream, and bony hands reach up when you try to cross.  And while the ancient dragon herself may be dead, her newly hatched wyrmling is ready to take on its first batch of humans on the very ice-covered bridge where its mother’s skeleton lies.  Oh, and of course, the Euphratian Heart wasn’t found by the adventurers who originally slew the dragon, so you’ll need to find whatever is guarding it and a weapon suitable for fighting this mysterious adversary…

I liked the feel of it all, it suggested a certain history, but there were some glitches in the system.  “Skeletal hands” don’t exist in many stat blocks (though they’re about if you know where to look), but generally not at such low levels and giving a super-weapon to the players at level 1 seemed like a bad idea, but it also seems unusual that any level-appropriate weapon they might find would be inappropriate for taking down an ancient dragon as the previous party of adventurers allegedly did.  I needed something, some sort of bonus magic, that would solve all my problems as a writer.

The dragon was the key.

Dragons are notoriously magical.  Even in death, their bones are mysterious and wondrous to see.  So the previous adventurers killed a mighty white dragon before these level 1 newbies arrived?  Well, then what can the dragon do for me?  Instantly, I had some answers when I decided to touch up the dragon a bit.

Lewis Jacobs Still Photographer 2010

  1. The dragon stopped being a white dragon.  Instead, it was a frost dragon.  Celsniar the Frost Wyrm, to be specific.  What’s the difference between a white dragon and a frost dragon?  Effectively there’s none.  However, recategorizing it gave me permission, in my mind at least, to tinker with it in other ways.  This was no longer the corpse of the ancient white dragon stat block in the Monster Manual or Beastiary.  No, this was now something new.  Mechanically the same? Sure.  Identical? Never…  This might not seem like a big problem to everyone else, but making the dragon have a title that sounded more appropriate for the fairy tale mood I was trying to evoke helped a lot.  Also, I later had a realization: if a white dragon is a Frost Dragon, then what’s a silver dragon?  Are they frost dragons as well?  Perhaps frost dragons are all frost dragons, but their demeanor as they age determines whether they become chromatic or metallic?  Ooh, there’s something to that… I like the feeling of it, but I’m not quite ready to say it’s canon yet.  Moving on…
  2. The skeletal hands.  What animates them? The answer is: the dragon.  (That’s the answer to all three of these, naturally, though the first one’s more like “frost dragon” instead of “the dragon”, but I digress.)  Celsniar died on top of an ice bridge in the upper layer of her cavern (by which I mean an ice-covered stone bridge).  I decided that her remains were somehow remaining very, very cold, as if something of her terrible presence yet lingered.  The condensation (and possibly remains from her blood) cause occasional drips to pollute the stream below.  The skeletal remains of warriors who had tried and failed to kill Celsniar would sense the nearness of the adversary who killed them, and being more reflexive than anything, would begin trying to attack anything that came near.  I decided that this was also a Transmutation effect in addition to a minor Necromancy effect since once I knew what was causing it it seemed a bit more like the creation of a golem than anything else… but it was hard to deny some necromancy to it.  Ultimately, this section wound up being a weird little puzzle rather than a combat as the players tried to cross the cave’s ankle-deep stream without dealing with any of the 1d3 hands that would attack them in each square.  I had in my notes that a single Turn Undead check would pacify the stream, but no one was playing a cleric.
  3. The weapon to defeat the guardian.  Why can the players find such a thing? The dragon.  (Told ya.)  The still-cold chill of Celsniar’s skeleton kept the ice on the bridge from melting, and in fact caused more of it.  It even allowed for the growth of icicles on the bridge, icicles that I decided were magic.  When snapped off, they could become a poor caster’s wand, casting beams of ice damage.  Unfortunately, the more you use it, the faster it melts, and the more it melts the harder it is to hold.  Either you’ll drop it and it’ll shatter, or you’ll expend its limited charges.  I won’t go into just what the guardian is (there’s at least one more session with these players) and I won’t say why the wandcicles will be extra helpful in passing the guardian, but I WILL say that once I realized how the weapon would help the players defeat the guardian I had in mind, I also realized why the previous team of expert adventurers couldn’t find the treasure.  Basically, the wands do the same kind of damage that Celsniar did, and coldness is good for keeping this thing from showing itself.  (I doubt that any of these new players will read this, but probably still better if I don’t say exactly what’s going on there.)

It was amazing how much of the fairy tale fell into place once I looked for a unifying key to solve the problems.  The other situations largely solved themselves; the mysterious monster was dealt with, the Falcon Queen is convinced that these adventurers will do their job, and the weapon that sealed away the Lovecraftian monster wasn’t found because no one rolled high enough on their Decipher Script check.  I have a few more twists for these players to encounter… a few more tricks and traps and lands, as Gruntilda might say… but I like to think that at the end of everything, using Celsniar the Frost Dragon as a way to add some extra flavor text to my game, the players will all wind up living happily ever after.

Princess Bride

At least until the next adventure.  For that one I’m thinking… satyrs.  Haven’t used satyrs in a while.  Ooh, and maybe a maze or something… see you next time on Magical Mondays!

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