Posts Tagged ‘Random Thought Encounter’

Random Thought Encounter: Draconic Lifespan and Virtual Age Categories

May 2, 2023

“A dragon can survive for centuries after reaching the great wyrm stage, but a dragon is mortal and cannot stave off death forever.”

Draconomicon v3.5, p. 15

In most campaign worlds, dragons who’ve reached the maximum age category, i.e. great wyrm, rank as some of the most powerful beings in the setting, a rank that they share with few other creatures. Only the most ancient of undead, elder titans, outsiders lords who sit at the top of their various planar hierarchies, and of course the gods themselves, can pose any real challenge to them, alongside the occasional mortal exemplar.

However, as the above quote makes clear, dragons are still beings with finite lifespans, and while they have alternative options available to them, such as guardianship (i.e. becoming a genius loci), undeath, or even trying for divine ascension, the default expectation is that they will eventually die. Insofar as the v3.5 iteration of D&D is concerned, this process is covered in detail in pages 14-17 of the 3.5 Draconomicon.

That same book puts forward an interesting discrepancy in this regard, though. On pages 99-100, it reprints (from the Epic Level Handbook) the rules for advanced dragons, central to which is the idea of “virtual age categories.”

Now, the operative word there is “virtual,” in that a dragon which has been advanced this way isn’t necessarily intended to connote that the dragon has advanced in age beyond the lifespan of its counterparts…but given that this is something which is only applied after it’s already reached great wyrm status, it certainly lends itself to that idea!

On a tangential note, I’ll confess myself to being partial to the idea put forward in The Immortals Handbook Epic Bestiary, Volume One, that each virtual age category a dragon has appends another “great” in front of its “great wyrm” designation. So a dragon that has two virtual age categories is a great great great wyrm.

But if we adopt the idea that these epic dragons (since the original presentation of virtual age categories in the ELH makes it clear that they’re a step beyond anything which could be called “normal” monsters) are indeed dragons who’ve simply kept on living, and growing, where their counterparts died of natural causes, we need to answer why that’s so. Why do some dragons continue to grow older and more powerful – presumably indefinitely – while others simply expire?

The v3.5 Draconomicon notes, in its section on the end of a dragon’s life, that a dragon who wishes to become a guardian must consume either 135,000 gp or 90% of its hoard, whichever is greater. In this regard, the book makes what I think is an insightful observation: that the hoard plays a key role in what happens as the dragon nears the end of its mortality. Rather than requiring it to consume its hoard, however, I’d posit that epic dragons need to have spent sufficient time sleeping atop a pile of sufficient treasure (nicely answering why dragons seem so intent on making beds out of coins, gems, and other valuables, and spending so much time napping on them).

Exactly how much time needs to be spent atop how much treasure is a variable I haven’t worked out, but in a very real way it doesn’t matter; the process requires a draconic lifetime to complete, so it’s not something the PCs or even the GM will ever need to work out over the course of a campaign. My personal benchmark is about three million hours’ worth of time sleeping (i.e. a little shy of four hundred years) atop one hundred fifty thousand gp worth of treasure, but that’s more of a placeholder than anything else (and probably needs to be adjusted upward, given the table for when great wyrms near the end of their lives on page 14 of the 3.5 Draconomicon).

A key aspect of this is that dragons don’t know that this is why they’re driven to sleep on treasure. That drive, which is propelling them toward immortality, is entirely subconscious. Even those few dragons who eventually figure it out have no desire to tell anyone; the good dragons don’t want evil dragons to find out, evil dragons don’t want more competitors, and neutral dragons are naturally self-absorbed even by draconic standards. So the greatest secret of dragons is one that remains secret even from dragons themselves. Even epic dragons may not know why they ascended where their fellows all died.

Or at least, that’s my take on squaring that particular circle. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

Random Thought Encounter: Accidental Undead Creation

April 2, 2022

There’s an interesting dichotomy I’ve noticed when it comes to creating the undead in most games. If you’re inflicting that condition on someone else, it’s virtually always a deliberate act, typically via spells such as animate dead or create undead (often with extra effort required on the part of the spellcaster to create more powerful undead). Likewise, most undead that have the ability to make more of their kind aren’t typically doing it unintentionally (unless they’re so far removed from rationality that they’re unaware of what they’re doing, making them a sort of social virus).

But when undeath is self-inflicted, it’s almost always unintentional; from ghosts coming about because someone couldn’t rest easily to revenants who come back from the grave to take revenge on their killers, these aren’t circumstances where someone deliberately decided “I think I’ll turn into an unliving monster” and made steps to that effect. It’s just that they were so distraught that they happened to come back from the grave.

Now, obviously, exceptions exist. Liches, for instance, are a form of self-inflicted undeath which require a great deal of preparation on the spellcaster’s part.

But insofar as the intent/target dichotomy goes, we’ve still covered only three of the four combinations. Spells used on corpses are deliberate/other, people who find themselves unable to rest easy are accidental/self, and even the lich (and similar undead) are deliberate/self. But notwithstanding the aforementioned undead who have the “create spawn” power and are completely insane, the fourth option – accidental/other – isn’t really present.

So what would it look like if it was?

My guess would be that spells which use negative energy as attack vectors, such as the various inflict wounds spells, chill touch, harm, etc. – as well as spells with the [death] descriptor, such as slay living, circle of death, and similar magicks – would have a chance of causing those slain by them to rise as undead creatures, regardless of the caster’s intent.

Exactly how the mechanics of this would work is something I haven’t worked out yet, mostly because the specifics will inform a lot about how these spells are used in a campaign setting. Do these spells have to deliver the killing blow, or is it enough that they inflicted hit point damage in the rounds before something else killed the victim? Since these spells only have a chance of reanimating someone, how is that chance measured (personally, I like a percentage equal to the caster’s level, but that’s just off the top of my head)? What type of undead does the victim come back as?

Similarly, in any setting that uses this idea, there should be relatively accessible options for defeating this chance also. This evokes the idea that clerics, paladins, and other servants of good deities would have funerary methods that negated these chances. But again, the issue is determining exactly how this is done. While there needs to be some sort of control mechanism (otherwise the entire issue with having accidental undead can be avoided so long as there’s a priest character on hand), what that mechanism is changes how the setting deals with this.

Is a single application of positive energy enough to negate the chance (making Pathfinder’s “burst channel” very useful in that regard) of someone rising as an unquiet dead? Or does a person slain by negative energy need to be buried in a hallowed area? Or can a good-aligned priest sanctify one corpse per day per rank in Knowledge (religion)? Each option (or a different one) will change the campaign’s presentation around this issue.

It’s an interesting premise however you slice it, and hopefully the “accidental undead” give you some ideas for your next campaign.

Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching

January 10, 2022

One of the stranger monster abilities you’ll see throughout various editions of Dungeons & Dragons is the ability for giants to catch rocks.

Now, giants being able to throw rocks makes perfect sense. Giants are big, rocks are plentiful, and it saves them from having to spend resources on ranged weapons, which are typically disposable and would require more materials to be spent scaling them to giant-size. If there’s only so much steel to go around, do you want to waste it on huge-sized arrowheads or on a sturdy suit of armor?

But catching rocks as a special ability for giants makes a lot less sense to me. At least from a game design standpoint. This simply isn’t something I see coming up at most game tables. PCs tend to be human-sized characters who, when making ranged attacks, resort either to more sophisticated weapons (typically projectiles of some sort, e.g. crossbows) or spells. The only ones likely to be throwing rocks at giants are other giants.

Now, that could still come up in the course of play. A PC magic-user might polymorph into a giant, or the fighter might drink a potion of giant control, or the bard might convince a clan of friendly giants to help them attack a rival clan who’s been attacking human lands. But overall, that’s not much of a case for introducing a specialized ability into giant stat blocks.

For that matter, this particular quirk isn’t universal to giants in D&D. The original Chainmail game (1971) has giants being able to attack as with rocks per catapults, but there’s nothing in there about them catching them. Nor is there in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Holmes Basic (1977), or B/X (1981); giants in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), which collects the first four sets of the BECMI iteration of D&D, lack this ability as well, as do giants in D&D 4th Edition.

Rock catching, as it turns out, only appears in AD&D 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, D&D 3.X, and 5E…and even 5E only keeps it for stone giants, whereas the earlier versions of the game assign it to most giants in some form or another. (Giants in Pathfinder 1st Edition, I’ll note, also carries this over from 3.X, and Pathfinder 2nd Edition has them retain it.)

So where does this ability come from in the first place? While it apparently started in AD&D 1E, what inspired Gary Gygax to write this particular ability into the monster entries for the giants in the 1977 Monster Manual? After some Googling, the best hypothesis I can find is that he wanted to mechanically represent what happens in this passage:

“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

The Hobbit, Chapter IV: Over Hill and Under Hill

Of course, it’s worth noting that AD&D 1st Edition also introduced a few instances where the players might very well be hurling rocks. For instance, the potion of giant strength on page 126 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) directly references doing so, as does the girdle of giant strength (p. 145). Not to mention the possibility that the PCs might, under certain circumstances, make use of catapults themselves (e.g. defending a settlement against a besieging army of humanoids, among whom giants might be found).

Interestingly, the mechanics behind rock catching also changed across the editions. While 1E and 2E gave giants percentage chances (which varied among giant types) of successfully catching rocks thrown at them, 3.X let them make a Reflex save once per round to do so, with the DC varying depending on the size of the rock. Given that Reflex is a bad save for creatures of the Giant type, and most giants had terrible Dexterity scores, this meant that even on the few occasions that giants in 3.X were called on to catch a rock, they likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

5th Edition, it should be noted, was a bit more generous in this regard. Although only stone giants can catch rocks now, as noted previously, they need only make a DC 10 Dexterity save to do so (and be able to use their reaction for the round). Since they have a +5 bonus to Dexterity saves to begin with, that makes them very likely to successfully catch any rock that comes their way, albeit not quite as certain as back in 1E and 2E (where stone giants had a 90% chance of catching a rock).

While I doubt that many players have anecdotes about this particular ability, I can’t help but wonder how this might have come up during play. If you have a tale about giants catching rocks in your game, please feel free to share it in the comments below!