Magical Mondays: The Anti-Aleax Assassin Article   Leave a comment

Binwin Bronzebottom tries his hand at being a rogue.

I want to be clear about one thing in this week’s Magical Mondays, one important thing before we get to the fun stuff: this is not an article about punishing power gamers, theoretical optimizers, rules lawyers, or even Munchkins. Individuals within these groups may feel punished if you use what’s in here, but the goal is NOT to punish them; in fact, if the game stops being Fun for them, I recommend that you cease and desist your use of what I’m about to tell you (but do make sure that they’re familiar with the Dwarf Fortress definition of ‘Fun’ before it gets too far.) And, as a final notice, this article will contain many specific references to D&D 3.5, things that may not apply to other games (possibly not even Pathfinder or other d20 OGL games), but I do encourage GMs of all games to read on.

This week’s Magical Mondays is about keeping your players hungry. Games like Dungeons & Dragons have a core aesthetic, and part of that aesthetic (I won’t say it’s the biggest part, but I’m tempted to) is Struggle. Some players may fondly remember waltzing into a dragon’s cave, laughing at the dragon’s pitiful attempts to damage them by breathing fire, and then one-shotting it, but if that’s the normal flow of events then I’d argue that you’re not actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. The game Legend of the Green Dragon understands that even if the fight against the Green One is ultimately an easy one, the struggle to even get to that fight makes it worth it. And let’s be honest: there’s something *fun* about getting to a major boss fight and rolling so well that you make it look easy, wiping the floor with your enemy in a single blow, especially when you didn’t think it was going to be easy to begin with.

I have two GMs who are great at this. One gives me permission to do things in game and then interrupts my character after I’ve had enough time to work on it a little, but not enough time to finish (effectively giving me a little benefit, but not the huge benefit I’d been planning) and another GM who usually says no to most things I ask for but then gives me some alternative that’s more firmly rooted in the magic of his game world. Both of these GMs know what they’re doing and know how to deal with magic on the fly.

Unfortunately, part of character building (not character creation, but building character, like Calvin’s dad always talked about) is the tension. Most people design their characters without building character, often making the characters work in some kind of frictionless void. There are honestly people out there (and you may be one of them) who believe that achieving everything they want in a campaign is “only” as hard as generating an alternate plane of existence with variable time flow so that they can do seven years’ worth of crafting in an hour. (This is based on an interpretation of a certain spell that I’m personally fine with, but their belief that the crafting will go uninterrupted is foolish. Plane hopping invaders are always a story worth exploring, especially after a caster has used a daily allotment of spells for crafting but before the item is finished.)

As a GM, it’s your duty to make this hard on your players. It’s NOT your duty to shatter their belief (however unfounded they may be) about how all of their cheesy shenanigans work… it’s apparently important to their game to create alternate dimensions in their own image while helping the local baron to save his village from ogres (though I might suggest that at this point they’re taking quests that are below their pay-grade.) Having said that, if you ever, EVER get a player who believes that their wizard or sorcerer or psion or artificer is untouchable, then it’s time for them to learn how magic REALLY works in your game. And how does it work?

However you want it to. It’s your game.

(Quick side note: some players play games like D&D or Pathfinder or even Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine with a desire to *be* the best at lots of things and a wish to exercise their mastery over the rule set.  This isn’t a wrong way to play the game, it’s just a way of playing that many GMs can find problematic.  If playing in that way is important to your player, I want to repeat the note from the beginning paragraph of this article.  As those familiar with the Stormwind Fallacy will tell you, a person is capable of both optimizing and role playing.  So, again, don’t mess with players just to mess with them.  This is more about giving yourself the tools to not let power gamers run wild amid your carefully prepared games.  Moving on…)

Let’s take the classic example of a power-gamer’s magical trickery, the one this article is named for: the wizard who creates an Aleax of an Ice Assassin of themselves. For the unfamiliar, this is a trick that many players have copied from people who have an intuitive understanding of the game, much like how there are people out there who think that they’re ‘hackers’ because they’ve downloaded a hacking program that a real hacker wrote. It’s a clever trick, but it relies upon breaking certain rules (repeatedly). The end result of this trick is allegedly a being that looks exactly like you, is invulnerable to being harmed by anything but you, and follows your implicit instructions. Effectively, it’s great for players who want to have Doombots. Let’s look at the different components of this trick before we break down how you mess with it.

Sub Zero

An Ice Assassin is a creature created from ice or snow, generated through a spell of the same name from the Shadow sub-school of Illusion. (Incidentally, I love the mixing of magic here. Most Shadow spells are made from shadow-stuff from the plane of Shadow in D&D, but this is a clear example of alternate forms of magic. Sure, maybe the ice is powered by shadowstuff, but the spell never says it is, so from this we can extrapolate that Shadow magic is ACTUALLY an umbrella term for any form of magic that simulates real things by using shapable, mutable things. Arguably an Elemental could be generated with an Illusion (Shadow) spell.  But enough about that…) Ice Assassins have a furious, all-consuming desire to kill whoever they look like (Note: in this case they look like an Aleax of the caster, looking (through the transitive property) like the caster, but with glowing eyes.) The caster has complete control over them as long as they are within one mile of the Ice Assassin. Any spell cast upon the caster can, at the caster’s option, affect the Ice Assassin. It’s a ninth level spell found in the book Frostburn (one of my favorite books), and is basically a supercharged and ridiculously effective version of the more common Simulacrum spell.

Aleax

An Aleax is a bit more obscure. It’s a construct introduced in the Book of Exalted Deeds (in 3.5, at least, it’s actual introduction came earlier) and it doesn’t exist until a deity says it does. Basically, if a person does something that a deity really doesn’t like (usually by betraying the deity in some way, or doing something particularly heinous in the god’s eyes) then the god creates a sort of angel of vengeance that has all the abilities of the original and looks exactly like the original except for the fact that its eyes glow gold or silver. It also knows where its intended target is and tracks it relentlessly. The target’s friends and allies won’t be of much help here, because the creature is COMPLETELY INVULNERABLE TO HARM except from its target.Put the two concepts together and a caster has a creature that copies the abilities of a creature that is immune to damage except from the caster and follows the caster’s instructions while having the abilities of the caster. Some players like to make armies of these things, and apparently have DMs who allow the players to have 20k gp worth of diamond dust every time they want it (I’m guessing the alternate plane of weird time is nothing but a diamond mine? Sure, there are other ways to do it, but man that alternate plane is a handy resource. Your first ice assassin is probably going to be dedicated to mining, or at least picking up the loose diamonds off the ground if that’s how you made the place.) Now, a player wanting to do this is within their right to play in this direction, but if you’re not going to create story hooks having to do with arcane traditions surrounding this then you’re missing some great options. Here are some methods.

The Wet Blanket: Point out that the Ice Assassin spell only works on a creature that exists, and the magician in question hasn’t yet done anything that’s made a god mad enough to cause an Ice Assassin to come into being, and even if there was an Aleax chasing them they wouldn’t have the portion of its body needed to cast the spell. They can’t make an Ice Assassin of another Aleax, because casting the spell requires a piece of the body of the subject of the spell, and the other Aleax can’t be harmed by them (Note: some would argue that snipping off a piece of hair from another Aleax isn’t “harming” it. I’d argue that point, but feel free to ignore that issue if that’s not how the magic works in your campaign setting. Others might argue that the Eschew Materials feat gets around this problem, but let’s be honest: for the value that you’re getting, Aleax Hair is DEFINITELY worth more than 1 gp.) They can make an Ice Assassin of themselves, but then they’ll have something that’s 1) vulnerable to harm by anyone, and 2) eager to kill them as soon as they leave the one-mile boundary (and will have the spell-power to do it.) Be nice about it, and let them salvage their twenty-thousand gp worth of diamond dust after the ice statue they’ve carved melts when you tell them that casting the spell fails.

The Damp Blanket: Have the casting of the spell fail… but then a later divination reveals that they may have more success a second time. Sure enough it works! But… how? What’s different? Well, naturally, trying to cast the spell created a surge of arcane power that poked a deity somewhere (it almost doesn’t matter which one) and annoyed them. The deity said “Oh, so you want an Aleax, do you? Fine… I’ll give you an Aleax!” A reasonably intelligent caster will probably work out that the success of their spell means that there’s an actual Aleax out hunting them. (How did they cast this spell without the fragment of the Aleax though? If you’re a stickler for the rules the first time but not the second, this doesn’t make sense. The answer is obvious: the deity itself provided the material component as a warning, hiding it somewhere within the ice sculpture. Or, if you were allowing the Eschew Materials feat to work before (Why?! What are you doing?!) then it can also work now.)

The Frozen Blanket: Have the spell work! Have it work flawlessly! Just ignore the fact that they’re creating a copy of something that doesn’t exist despite what the spell says! Ignore the fact that they don’t have a physical piece of the body of the creature that remains! It obviously worked because A Wizard Did It! Or a sorcerer or, like, whatever. Let ’em have a dozen of the things. Then on one day, have the Ice Assassins all creepily gather around the caster, no longer responding to the mental commands. Have one of the Ice Assassins say “The gods originally had no issues with you, mortal. But Zarthros, god of vengeance, saw your dedication to aleaxes and assassinations. Zarthros will now reward you with exactly what you requested.” Then begin the epic fight scene between the caster and twelve identical copies of the caster. If the caster dies, then the same thing happens that would happen if they were killed by an actual Aleax: they get sent to the deity (Zarthros is the name I chose, but you can use whatever deities exist in your campaign) and the deity gives them the choice of either shaping up or facing their punishment, as per the Sudden Death ability of the Aleax. If the character manages to defeat the entire troupe of Ice Assassins? I’d suggest two rewards. First, the typical Aleax reward is a small set of boosts to wisdom, initiative, AC and gaining Spell Resistence. I’d increase the first three of these bonuses by one for defeating the whole group (it’s the same basic driving force of a real Aleax; it’s not more powerful, there’s just more of it) and a bit more Spell Resistence (depends on character level, decide this for yourself.) The second reward? Well, if the player was smart enough to defeat the last Ice Assassin with fire, there’ll be a pool of water remaining. They now have the one thing they’ve needed this entire time: a portion of a body of an Aleax of themselves that, due to the divine energy infusing the Ice Assassin they used to overwrite the magician’s spell, it can get around the rule that the creature must currently exist. The reward for enduring this story arc is exactly what the players need to make three or four Ice Assassins exactly as they wanted before, no ridiculous alternate dimensions required.

I’d employ a merging of all three blankets, personally: it creates a fun story, allows the final creation of Ice Assassins to be within RAW (or at least, closer to RAW than the typical ways of pulling it off), and most importantly it concludes by giving the players a bit of what they wanted. Sure, they don’t have an endless army of ice, but they’ve got more than enough to last for your campaign. Or, at least, enough to last until Zarthros decides to work his whimsical vengeance again. What’s that you say? Once you defeat an Alleax the god is appeased and won’t seek revenge again? Well, maybe… but the player didn’t defeat an Alleax. The player defeated an Ice Assassin.

Now, there are a lot of tricks that power gamers like to pull that gloss over the deliciously complex world of magic in your Campaign Setting, and the Ice-Assassin-Aleax-Of-Myself is just one way to do it. But whenever your players get up to business like that, know that the best solution isn’t to take away their toys; it’s to change their toys when they start using them, and to make a great story along the way.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays. Tune in next time, and happy gaming!

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