Friday, December 16, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Hilariously Overpowered Dragons

Disclaimer: As always, first draft, etc. This one, though, is my inner egregious munchkin coming out. Have fun with it, as I did.

Borys of Ebe, a.k.a. the Dragon of Tyr

The current edition has no official rules for character advancement beyond 20th level (though at least one person has created something for the DM's Guild; I don't own it and can't speak to its quality, but figured it's worth pointing out). Even carefully-curated 5E core starts to have some balance breakdown issues past 14th level or so, and by the time some classes are reaching 17th level they push the boundaries of what DMs can challenge them with in a reasonably-crafted encounter.

(Hell, even now in my Sunday game, the 13th level party has some gross alpha-strike capabilities. I have to make sure they burn many of their resources throughout a given dungeon so they don't one-round the villain. Also, plenty of mooks.)

When a campaign reaches that point -- which frankly, most just don't these days -- it's time to put the characters into retirement one way or another. In old Dark Sun though, it was the start of a crazy leap to ludicrous levels of power. There is a sourcebook called Dragon Kings that is all about this part of the player experience.

There was very little that is balanced about this book, but it really wasn't meant to be balanced. Not even against other components of the sourcebook -- there is no way an advanced fighter or gladiator is going to stand his ground against an ascendant dragon.

But that was kind of the point in Dark Sun. The dragons were the peak of mortal potential, only challenged by their good-aligned opposites, the avangions.

In second edition, the dragon ascension was pretty convoluted. You had to be a dual-classed wizard/psionicist with 20 levels in each class (a 40th level character!), accrue a ludicrous level of power and wealth, and only then could you scratch the surface of this ascension. You had to start learning 10th level spells. You had to research psionic enchantments. You had to make an obsidian sphere to power your rituals. Some stages of the ascension could force you to lose control of your character entirely as you give in to bestial rage.

There was a lot that went into this. Fourth edition's update of Dark Sun turned dragon kings into an epic destiny, but in the process of making it uniform to the system conceits, they substantially de-powered it and took out a lot of the flavor. It wasn't so much a badass character advancement path so much as it was an option you selected once you hit 20th level, like hitting a specialization button in a video game.

(For the record, I generally liked 4E, but I absolutely recognize its not-insignificant flaws. It was onerous to actually play.)

All of the rulers of the city-states in base Dark Sun are dragon kings somewhere along the advancement track. To the people of their realms, they were akin to gods; already possessing mammoth levels of magical and psychic power, who could think to stand against them? Well, as was evident in a few books and later material, high-level adventuring parties and a bit of deus ex machina could, but that's not the point.

Apparently the way to kill King Kalak of Tyr was to chuck a magic stick into his old man spleen.

Dragon kings were obscenely powerful. And you wouldn't be a very good murderhobo if you didn't see that such power existed and asked yourself, "What does it take to topple it?" or the even darker, "How can I be that mighty?"

I wanted to have something in my back pocket in case a Dark Sun game I run gets to that point, but I don't seriously expect them to. That's a whole helluva lot of game time; even now my Sunday game group is only nearing 14th level, and I've been running that campaign for about four years now.

But it was a fun design exercise. It's not balanced, it's gratuitous, and I like to think it's in keeping with 2E's original themes without bathing in complexity or vague wording.

Advanced paths, as I see them, start at 20th level and involve the accrual of boons through adventuring and roleplay. The proposed Path of the Dragon here, and the boons listed beneath, provide a discreet avenue that a player can work toward, but just how they get those boons is up to the DM.

Path of the Dragon

Prerequisites: Must be a sorcerer, warlock, or wizard of 20th level with no multiclassing. Minimum Intelligence score of 20 and Wisdom score of 18.

The dragon is the most terrifying incarnation of terrestrial power on Athas. Living engines of destruction, they are born of the ambition of powerful arcanists who also set about mastering the secrets of psionic power. All recorded attempts at achieving the status of dragon were accomplished by defilers; however, there is nothing that specifically prevents a preserving arcanist from attempting to become a dragon.

To begin, the nascent dragon must achieve 20th level and find a powerful psionic instructor. This can be another character of 20th level that belongs to the mystic class, or a similarly potent creature or monster that is bargained with (or enslaved) to provide the necessary instruction. The arcanist then begins their ascent.

First, the aspiring dragon must craft a sphere of perfectly smooth obsidian no less than a foot in diameter to act as the focus for their dark energy. This sphere is impervious to non-magical harm and possesses 100 hit points. The sphere also stores a portion of the dragon’s own life force, and if it is destroyed, the dragon immediately suffers three levels of exhaustion until a new sphere can be crafted; they cannot continue their ascension until a new sphere is made.

To achieve new ranks of the Path of the Dragon, the character must continue to complete challenges worthy of their existing mastery, vanquish powerful foes, accrue power and status, and research forgotten secrets. The accrual of a boon satisfies the criteria of a new rank, and the dragon must earn the following ten boons to complete their ascent along the path.

  1. Tree of Life
  2. Reflexive Concentration
  3. Iron Skin
  4. Obsidian Constitution
  5. Heightened Intellect
  6. Matter Manipulation
  7. Guarded Thoughts
  8. Alchemical Alteration (Dragon)
  9. Elemental Adaptation (Fire)
  10. Gift of Doom

At each rank of the Path of the Dragon, the spellcaster gains the powers and class abilities of a mystic as though they were continuing to advance in level. Thus, a 6th rank dragon is a 20th level member of their original class, plus a 6th level mystic. They do not gain additional proficiency bonus or hit dice as they advance in rank.. They select an Order as though they were trained by a given psionic tradition, usually in keeping with the one with which their instructor is most proficient.

The accrual of boons involves a process known as psionic enchantment, or the blending of arcane spells with psionic power to catalyze a process within the ascending dragon. Discovering how to even earn a boon is akin to unlocking the secrets of ancient magic, requiring extensive research, the harvesting of rare reagents, and hours of quiet study.

The point at which an ascending dragon achieves a new rank is marked by a period of intense agony and burgeoning madness. When the transformation occurs, the character must succeed on a DC 20 Wisdom saving throw every day for a period of one week or fall into a temporary state of madness and pain. This period lasts for one month during which the dragon has lost control and cannot be contained unless forcefully subdued or placed in some manner of imprisonment. A dragon in this state will use all of the powers and cunning at their disposal to wreak havoc and destruction everywhere they go.

As each rank is attained, the ascendant dragon appears more and more like a twisted draconic humanoid. At early levels of the ascension, they may seem taller or have fierce, elongated features. Between the fourth and seventh ranks, they might be mistaken for a dray (dragonborn) at a distance, but any dray will know that the ascendant dragon is certainly not one of them. At eighth rank and higher, the twisted humanoid form makes them a horror to behold, and most dragons use simple magic such as alter self to mask their appearance.

A character who achieves the tenth rank of the Path of the Dragon violently polymorphs over the period of an hour into a full-blooded dragon, equivalent statistically to an ancient red dragon. Once the transformation is complete, it is permanent. The dragon may use all of their learned class abilities, spells, and powers in this new form.


Alchemical Alteration

By creating an alchemical draught of expensive and deadly ingredients, a character can change their creature type. The process involves completing a dangerous research project and the collection of rare and lethal components worth at least 10,000 gold pieces. Proficiency in alchemical equipment is a requirement; this is not the sort of project you assign to a lesser minion.

At the completion of this research project, which takes no less than one month of constant, uninterrupted attention, you may quaff the draught and permanently change your type to that of the creature involved in the research project. This may render you immune to certain spell effects (as you are no longer humanoid) while rendering you vulnerable to others.

Elemental Adaptation

A boon gifted by (or stolen from) a powerful elemental prince, this trait adapts a character to a given element and bestows a small number of traits accordingly.

Air: You become immune to lightning damage. You gain a fly speed of 60 feet and cannot be moved by strong winds or unnatural air currents. You can speak the Auran dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Earth: You become immune to acid damage. You gain a burrow speed of 30 feet and are immune to the prone and restrained conditions. You can speak the Terran dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Fire: You become immune to fire damage. You can walk on the surface of lava without falling through or suffering ill effects, and you learn to speak the Ignan dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Water: You become immune to cold damage. You gain a swim speed of 60 feet and can breathe underwater, as well as becoming immune to crushing pressures. You learn to speak the Aquan dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Gift of Doom

As the tormenting agony of ascension wracks your body, you gain insight through pain. All life turns to death, and that entropy can take many forms. Those forms are now mutable to you. You may convert any damage you deal, through spell or weapon or natural attack, into necrotic damage.

Guarded Thoughts

Your mind becomes inscrutable and labyrinthine in its musings. Spells that attempt to read your thoughts automatically fail and individuals that attempt unwarranted telepathic contact of any kind must succeed at a Wisdom save (use your spellcasting DC) or suffer 4d6 psychic damage.

Heightened Intellect

Through intense study and no small amount of magical assistance, you surpass the boundaries of mortal cognition. Your Intelligence score increases by 4 points, and your ability score maximum for Intelligence increases to 24.

Iron Skin

Your flesh becomes tough, scaly, or rock-like depending on the source of this boon. When not wearing armor or polymorphed into a form with a greater AC, your AC is 16 plus your Dexterity modifier. You cannot benefit from the use of armor that grants an AC of 16 or lower.

Matter Manipulation

Using subtle psionic influence, you can rapidly coax the shape or makeup of objects into more desirable forms. You may use your action to cast the fabricate or stone shape spells, reducing the casting time or the former accordingly.

Obsidian Constitution

Weapons of mere wood, bone, and metal are only a meager danger to you. You gain resistance to non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

Reflexive Concentration

You gain advantage on all Constitution checks made to preserve concentration on a spell. If you fail a concentration check, you may reroll it a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier. All of these uses are regained upon completing a short or long rest.

Tree of Life

Upon gaining this boon, the character learns how to cultivate a powerful artifact known as a tree of life. The tree takes no less than one year to reach full size, during which time it must not be subjected to any defiling magic or the tree is destroyed. It is supremely vulnerable in its sapling stages.

During the sapling stage, the tree of life can be used to store the life force of its master. After completing a long rest within 30 feet of the tree, the character may elect to store up to 5 of their hit dice within the tree. Any time the character casts a spell from the cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard spell list, they may immediately expend any number of those hit dice to recover lost hit points.

Once the tree reaches full size, the amount of hit dice it can store is increased to 20.

Avangions and world spirits use the tree as a locus for their rituals and gathering places for their most devout students. Dragons hoard the tree as though it were valuable treasure, leeching off of its life force to sustain themselves in brutal combat.

I came here for the homebrew setting, not your infantile dragon power fantasies, Marsupialmancer! How does this relate to your version if Borys of Ebe is dead?

Gosh, inner voice, I know! I'm getting to it. 

Well, a lot happens on a world in a few thousand years. And we've only seen a tiny aspect of Athas, in a section no larger than New York state.

I ask this question in my setting document draft:

What survived out in the wastelands for millennia while the Dragon and the sorcerer-kings dominated the known world?

What indeed. Perhaps Borys was not the only dragon. As seas dried up and cultures became marooned, could other pockets of life have survived? In my homebrew, that answer is yes. And its ruler is the isolationist dragon king, Crimson Empress Guo Kang Ma of the Radiant Desert.

But more on her next time.

1 comment:

  1. I dig what you're doing here. This looks like a strong contender as an approach to post-20th-level play - possibly adding in ASI/Feats at a few points along the way. (Off the cuff, I would say 23/27/30.)

    Also, I am really interested in your homebrew expansion of Athas!