Monday, February 20, 2012

Can a Green Dragon Be A Hazard?

**This post contains spoilers to the Scales of War Adventure Path. You have been warned.**

Last week, I talked about some of the preliminary modifications I am making to the last adventure of the Scales of War, The Last Breath of Tiamat. One of my major complaints with the adventure is that it essentially comes down to a grind of fighting a guardian room (which is actually kind of interesting) followed by a combat encounter with a solo dragon of each of the chromatic domains of Tiamat. Each of these solo dragons is essentially the same with only terrain effects and damage keywords to differentiate them. That just isn't very interesting to me. So my thought was to change the dragons, who were originally solo monsters, into hazards. So they have no hit point totals and cannot be affected by status effects, but are still a dramatic and dynamic threat to the party. Then the question becomes, how do the party uncover the means to defeat the dragons and disrupt the draconic ward keeping them from confronting Tiamat? I decided that instead of the ward being powered by the chromatic brood mother dragons themselves it would be powered by an enormous gem carved in the shape of an eye that was conspicuously missing from the statues that marked the entry to the five separate side chambers.

There are five different directions that the party could choose from in their attempt to bring the ward down and open the path to Tiamat and the party decided to go after the green dragon first, since they were reflecting back on which dragon exarch they faced over the course of the Adventure Path (they got it wrong too, Chillreaver the White came first). So in the first chamber, they faced a group of dragonborn defenders in a room full of coins and a piston-like hazard in the center of the room. They tore the defenders apart, which was quite satisfying since I decided that one of the defenders should be the former black exarch of Tiamat who they already defeated once. Having been raised by Tiamat, he was really annoying to the party and defeating him was very sweet. The hazard in the center of the room didn't make any difference in the combat (I should have made it cover the entire room so it would have a greater effect on the combat and created a lot more dynamic movement) and the party was really just grinding down some hit points from the creatures.

After that came the first of the draconic brood mothers, a great green dragon of poison. As they entered the room, they saw the chamber open up from a well chiseled section of structured tunnels to a more cave-like interior filled with mist. The haze clung to a pool of water that extended out in front of them with all kinds of fetid swamp life floating including a large quantity of torn up trees that all collected towards the central section of the pool. On this haphazardly created nest of torn-up wood was seated an enormous and grotesquely swollen green dragon. The thing I gave the most detail was the oozing pustules that covered the underside of the dragon. There are twenty evenly distributed all about the belly scales of the dragon and some kind of foul greenish fluid oozes out all across the mid section of the dragon. There are also two pale dragonborn warriors (vampire lords) seated on the wings of the dragon conversing with her. So as the party walks in, they can see this monstrous creature resting in the center of the pool and prepare to assault the dragon like we do every time it comes up. What they don't know is that instead of the usual solo fight with a dragon, this dragon is different. This dragon is a hazard.

This dragon (who I named Uxin'lothtor) is protected by the same wards that energize the defenses of Tiamat and that the only way to defeat the dragon is to remove the gem eye which is seated in one of the egg sacs drooping from the dragon's stomach. Since the creature has no hit points, every attack they make against the dragon has no effect against its defeat. What I set up instead, was that every time the party made a successful attack against the dragon, I rolled a d4 and that numbered attack was removed as an option until the end of the dragon's next turn. When multiple attacks were made against Uxin'Lothtor and the number is rolled more than once, then nothing happens the second time. So the dragon could feasibly lose all of it's options for it's turn or potentially just one. There is a little bit of swing there and it worked really well in terms of their being a realistic impact on the way the battle played. This hazard also took advantage of the fetid swamp water that the dragon nests upon. A creature knocked prone in the swampy water had to succeed at a difficult endurance check or accidentally swallowed some of the poisonous swill. This means they take ongoing 30 poison damage (save ends and they cannot make a save against until they are no longer in the water).

So the party can't actually kill the dragon the usual way. I figured something much more difficult and really special than a regular combat encounter was worthwhile at this point in the game. In order to defeat the dragon, they needed to locate the gem carved like an egg midst the actual eggs in the disgusting sacs all over the green dragon. Mechanically, the way I wanted to represent this was that the party could try and attack the eggs. Each one when destroyed caused the dragon pain, thus suggesting that they should pursue this route of attack as the means to weaken and eventually destroy the dragon.

There were 20 egg sacs attached to Uxin'lothtor. If a party members wanted to attack (or search) one of the egg sacs I rolled a d20+x (x=number of times the eggs have been attacked thus far). If the result was 25 or higher, the egg targeted was actually the gem eye. (Attacking an egg uses same defenses as Uxin'lothtor with a +2 bonus). Burst attacks gained a +1 to this roll for each square of the burst that covers the dragon. This was something I didn't think of ahead of time and had to improvise quickly to deal with once the wizard figured out about the eggs. Once the last of the eggs was destroyed, Uxin'lothtor began to thrash about (save ends). Each turn she thrashes about, any creature in the watery bog took 50 damage from the thrashing logs and was knocked prone. I allowed characters who wanted to ready an action to make an acrobatics check to attempt to dodge the logs as they began to jump about. The party rogue brought that one up and it turned out pretty cool.Once Uxin'lothtor saved, she fell dead. Since the green dragon was unable to move it wasn't necessary for the party to actually defeat the dragon, but they chose to do so because they really are quite thorough.

This was my first combat designed using a hazard with a specific countermeasure in order to disrupt it instead of a major monster. It was more than a little weird and was honestly more confusing than I had hoped it would be. I explained the mechanic to the party at the very end (after they had officially finished up the dragon by destroying the eggs. They commented on how the idea was pretty cool, but that it was something that they just never thought about. They were using daily attacks and seeing it have no effect and started to feel stupid because they just didn't understand what they had to do. When they did figure out that there was something else going on and successfully destroyed the last of the eggs as the dragon was dying they, more than a little perplexed, commented, "Wait, it's not even bloodied, how is it dead?"

This method may have broken the paradigm a little bit more than I original anticipated. The idea that a monster can't be defeated in the usual means is so against what they have come to expect and to make a change at the eleventh hour like this was a little jarring I think. One encounter down, I have hope that with the expectation that the brood mothers themselves will be a different challenge and require some lateral thinking.

After defeating the green dragon and catching their breath, the party decided to pass through the mouth in to the black dragon, but the chamber for the black dragon, Auth'lothtor, and the guardians keeping her safe will have to wait for next time.

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