Six Years Ago today…
Wow! Six years ago today I finished penning this article for the D&D website about my work on the lead adventure in the 200th issue of Dungeon Magazine. It is no longer available on the Wizards of the Coast website, but if you have any nostalgia for the history of the game, and for 4e adventures, give it a read. Enjoy!
The Enduring Flame
The first issue of Dungeon magazine was published when I was in high school. I didn’t have the funds to purchase a subscription, but one of the players in my gaming group did. I can still remember when he brought the first issue to our game and passed it around.
The cover art, superbly crafted by Keith Parkinson, conveyed everything D&D was about to my group: a big mother of a dragon standing atop of a pile of loot that could purchase a small barony. The dragon takes up 90% of the scene, each scale of the beast drawn in breathtaking detail. Of course, the joke at our table was, “What do you see in this picture? Treasure!”
I never got a chance to play or DM that original adventure, titled Into the Fire. However, I read it over and over again, mining it for all of its best ideas. The adventure focused on the best parts of D&D, particularly the exploration of an untamed and unknown part of the world to find the answer to a mystery. The main threat in the adventure was a red dragon called Flame, but a majority of the adventure dealt with scouring the icy mountains that surrounded Flame’s lair. Getting there, as they say, was (at least) half the fun.
Flame himself was also more than just a dragon: he was a dragon with a history. He had stumbled upon a wizard’s tower hidden in the crater lake of a dormant volcano. The dragon was able to kill the wizard and raid his store of magical knowledge and treasure. Suddenly a mere dragon had turned into a dragon with an edge in the magic department.
Adventurers who marched into Flame’s lair and killed him reaped the many benefits of dragon-slaying: lots of experience points, a nearly uncountable number of coins, and magic items worthy of the most covetous glances.
A couple years later, however, one of the co-designers of the original Flame adventure, Grant Boucher, brought Flame back for a little bit of revenge in an adventure called Out of the Ashes. Proving himself to be no ordinary dragon, Flame had used a ring of wishes to ensure that he would come back to life when he died. Tiamat granted him that wish, and the only thought on the newly returned dragon’s mind was killing those who had defeated him.
This adventure, published not long before AD&D’s Second Edition rules were released, is really a celebration of all the excesses of high-level D&D: a ring of wizardry and a mirror of mental prowess are the least powerful items that come into play as Flame plans his revenge. (What high-level AD&D adventure could be played without mention of the eye and hand of Vecna, or at least replicas of the pair?) Flame uses magic to disguise himself as the adventurers’ patron on a mission into a floating diamond fortress above an active volcano.
Alas, Flame’s plans to simultaneously exact revenge upon his slayers and gain extraordinary power were doomed to fail yet again. But you can’t keep a good (or particularly evil) dragon down. For Issue #100 of Dungeon, Flame was destined to make another appearance.
Andy Collins created the next incarnation of Flame, this time using the 3rd Edition rules of D&D in the adventure titled Old Embers Never Die. Not only has Flame returned in his red dragon form thanks to the help of a githyanki’s cloning magic, but the skeletal remains of the dragon have been animated and are being worshiped by ancestors of his kobold followers. But again, like all great villains, Flame was more than likely doomed to not just one, but two inglorious demises on this occasion.
When I was given the chance to resurrect Flame for another adventure to commemorate Issue #200 of Dungeon, that same feeling of wonder that I felt upon seeing the cover of Issue #1 washed over me. How could I capture the feeling of the game and present it to players and DMs, just as Keith Parkinson has done with that magnificent cover art?
The original plan called for the updating of the three previous adventures into a form playable using 4th Edition D&D rules, and then the addition a fourth adventure to Flame’s story. After re-reading all of the fine work of the previous designers, I began to plan how I was going to maintain the tone and content of the originals in the new rules set. My outlines began to take shape, involving one coherent epic-level plot involving time travel, interference from gods both noble and vile, artifacts, and the adventurers really being put through their paces not just in combat, but in exploration and roleplaying as well.
Before the final outline was completed, the decision was made to focus design just on the new adventure. While disappointed, I had no doubt that decision saved my sanity. With all that research and planning still in mind, I decided to do my best to include homages to the previous adventures, making Flame’s past central to the plot of the new adventure.
For someone like me who has been gaming since the 1970s as a very young kid, the pull of nostalgia is strong. However, nostalgia is as much a trap as it is a motivation. Games must to be fun to play now, regard-less of how fun similar games were 30 years or 10 years or even 1 year ago. Wary of the nostalgia trap but firmly dedicated to making the narrative of the adventure link to the past adventures, I began designing Flame’s Last Flicker.
RULES AND STORY
The first and most obvious challenge with using mate-rial from past editions of D&D is dealing with the ways in which the rules have changed. In this case, the first hurdle was dealing with the changes to dragons across the editions.
In addition to being killing machines, dragons in AD&D also had a fairly good chance (since this was AD&D, it was of course a percentile roll) of being able to speak and cast spells. Even if they couldn’t cast spells, they certainly could make use of the treasure in their hoards. Or they could just have their many servants assist them by casting spells upon them.
D&D’s Third Edition gave the DM who created the adventures the ability to add PC or NPC classes to a dragon, so the monsters could gain spells or other abilities. After all, with the power-gamers freely multi-classing to gain every bit of an advantage, what self-respecting DM could resist giving their dragons a level or two of barbarian!
With Fourth Edition’s careful balance between monsters and characters in combat, fidgeting with extra powers or giving a monster a large amount of treasure to use can make battles get ugly in a hurry. Worse yet, creating an adventure for publication is a world away from creating one for a single party. Wiping out 6 characters with an overpowered monster or encounter is one thing: if you wipe out a generation of characters with the same, you are entering pitchfork-and-torch territory.
Yet the Flame of old could do so much more be-cause of his abilities to cast spells and manipulate magic. Bringing those special qualities into the present would either involve changing the story or creating a whole new monster. My approach was to do a little bit of both. In that way, I hoped to keep Flame as close to his past as possible while making him a reasonable foe in the present.
A DRACONIC DEMILICH!?
To say that Chris Perkins was excited about the prospect of a draconic demilich is a bit of an understatement. I could hear his excitement even through the pixels of his communications. With such an enemy at the heart of an adventure, there could be no doubt that Epic-level would have to be the target.
My initial ponderings and brainstorming quickly proved that making an Epic-level monster that combined the best of dragon and demilich would not be easy–unless I wanted to be responsible for the first three-page stat block. I am one to take people to task for creating stat blocks that are too long, so if only to save myself from the taunting of those I have worked with as an editor in various Organized Play campaigns, I set out to bring the beast’s stat block under control.
Designing a monster for me has always been a process of self-imposed dual-personality syndrome. The storyteller first thinks what abilities such a creature would have, and more importantly what would be a cool visual if it was described in a story. Then the DM and game designer in me gives that storyteller a virtual wedgie, reminding him that this stuff needs to be used in a game that involves numbers and rules. After that part of me takes a pass at designing a creature that works within the game and must come face to face with the proverbial lumber that an Epic-level party can swing, the storyteller tempts the other guys away with the promise of beer and pretzels, then he revises everything to make sure story remains central to the design. The process goes back and forth until I cannot take it anymore, and then I turn it over to the developer, who makes it look like I knew what I was doing by rewriting it completely.
The original demilich, Acererak from Tomb of Horrors, was as close to the concept of a skill challenge as AD&D had. You didn’t beat a demilich with brute force; you had to figure out how to beat a demilich using luck, experimentation, and most likely several trips to the library after it defeated you the first time. This sort of monster-as-puzzle approach is not easy to do right in Fourth Edition–and even if it is done right, it might not be the greatest experience for a majority of players.
As a compromise, I moved forward with the idea that Flame, as a draconic demilich, would not be con-tent to simply sit in a dusty tomb and wait for event to unfold around him. If Flame was anything, he was a go-getter. His reach definitely exceeded his clawed grasp in life, and it definitely should do so in death.
While all of the preceding thoughts were at the front of my mind during the design of Flame’s Last Flicker, at the back of my mind was the nagging concern of Epic-level play. Take a party of adventurers who creates new 21st-level characters. Take another party that has played and built their 21st-level characters through constant play. Now compare the two.
The latter group has probably created synergy in their power and feat choices and is loaded with magi-cal items that complement their characters’ abilities. The former group may or may not have such coordination, but it is more likely that the two groups are vastly different in power levels. An adventure that challenges the latter would most likely obliterate the former.
Using published adventures places a burden on the DM to make the adventure work for his or her players. That is not to remove responsibility from the adventure designer, for it is with the designer that the onus lies to create a work that is easy and fun for the DM to present to the players. If Flame’s continuing story does not engage players and DMs alike, there is nowhere else to point the finger but at the adventure designer.
That said, DMs have challenged players in a variety of ways with Flame’s plots and terrible ambition countless times over the past 25 years. Whether in a volcanic cave lair or in a floating diamond fortress, whether as a reborn red dragon or as an animated skeleton, whether striving for gold, magic, revenge, or something far more sinister, Flame has proven himself a worthy foe. My greatest wish is that DMs can once more bring Flame to life, allowing his story to be told and his evil plans to be foiled (or maybe even succeed, if the story warrants it). Flame’s final destiny remains a mystery, on a stage larger than the mortal world can contain. Enjoy the stories that await!