Spelling is Everything
By Andy Collins
When your gaming career and those of your players are going on 20 years, sometimes it takes special inspiration to create the kind of jaw-dropping surprise that makes a DM's day. That's exactly the kind of shock I was hoping for (and got) with the appearance of Balicazar, a nasty dragon that recently showed up in my game.
My current D&D campaign is about 18 months old, having started with a playtest version of the latest edition of the rules back in early 2000. The players have participated in my D&D games for anywhere from 2 to 20 years. Current active or semi-active players include Greg Collins (my brother), Jesse Decker (new editor-in-chief of Dragon Magazine), Chris Galvin (director of Wizards of the Coast Organized Play), Joe Hauck (vice president of Wizards Brands Group), Kevin Kukas, Viet Nguyen (coauthor of the devious Operation: Deepfreeze described in a previous Celebrity Game Table), Brent Pearson, Marc Russell, Scott Smith, and Dennis Worrell.
In my game, I've used a mix of the new D&D adventures The Sunless Citadel, The Forge of Fury, and The Standing Stone (all adapted, lightly or heavily, for my personal home-brewed campaign world), along with a variety of self-written episodes linking these together into larger plotlines. Next on my list was Bruce Cordell's dastardly dungeon delve, Heart of Nightfang Spire. (Rest assured that because of the substantial adaptations I made to the adventure, there's nothing in this article resembling a spoiler for that adventure.) At the time of the events described below, the characters' levels ranged from 6th to 9th.
Recently, the characters followed rumors of dragon cult activity to a mysterious tower, named Nightfang Spire, deep in the wilderness. Upon questioning a weak-willed cultist they determined that the Spire was guarded by a dragon: "A white, I heard."
Stocking up on fiery magic and cold protections, the heroes marched through the barren wasteland to the dry, dusty ravine in which the great spire stood. Since all players in my campaign always fear the worst (a wise survival technique), the PCs chose to scry into the tower before entering. From a safe distance, the wizard/loremaster Stannis (played by Jesse Decker) cast arcane eye, moving the sensor down into the open shaft that makes up the upper half of the spire. Thanks to a darkvision spell, he could see in the blackness within.
Sure enough, an enormous draconic form lay dormant at the bottom of the shaft. The black-and-white view granted by Stannis's darkvision spell allowed the DM (that's me, in case you're joining us late) to confirm the dragon's pale hue to Stannis/Jesse -- all the assurance the PCs needed.
After taking all reasonable (and some unreasonable) precautions approaching the tower, the PCs stood around trying to figure out what to do. Though an apparent entrance loomed before them, the characters couldn't agree on a plan. Enter via the ground-level? What if the dragon ambushes us on the way back out? Go in through the dragon's shaft? Foolishness without enough fly spells for all. Try to lure the dragon out? Quickly shouted down by the less hardy members of the group.
Finally, Stannis volunteered to fly invisibly up the tower, looking for alternative entrances via a detect secret doors spell. But even Stannis didn't have the bravery to ascend the full height of the tower, giving its open-roofed maw a wide berth.
Happily for the Dungeon Master, he flew high enough to come within the blindsight range of the dragon lurking at the top of the tower. Emerging invisibly, the dragon swooped down on the hapless Stannis as he descended back to his comrades. The last things Stannis saw before the teeth closed were the widening eyes of his fellow PCs on the ground, for they could see what he could not: the great greyish dragon appearing out of thin air behind him, mouth extended for a bite.
The fight was on. Stannis, having barely survived the attack, sought cover while his allies scattered. The melee specialists, confident in their protections against the dragon's frost breath, stood their ground and readied attacks.
Then the dragon opened its mouth, spewing a cone of fire -- not icy cold, but crimson heat -- across the characters. Confusion reigned -- What did they face? -- but they pushed these concerns aside as the huge drake landed and attacked.
That event led to the second surprise, when the dragon's slamming claws not only inflicted grievous injury, but also negative levels upon its target. Slowly, the realization dawned on the players' (and one can only suspect, the characters') faces.
This was no white dragon, but rather a dragon wight.
Though the characters survived this deceptive battle to fight again, they learned a valuable lesson: When questioning a prisoner, make sure to get a correct spelling and definition regarding any uncertain terms. After all, who's to say that a room full of djinn isn't just a big liquor cabinet? (DMs should be careful about abusing this concept -- even the most patient players aren't likely to accept that the bag of tricks they just bought is full of kid's cereal.)
Before its death at the hands of a pack of wights, Balicazar was a young adult red dragon. Arrogant in his power, he sought to claim Nightfang Spire for his own, even when the previous owner returned to claim the tower.
Balicazar: Huge wight red dragon; CR 12; HD 19d12+3, hp 126; Init +5; Spd 40 ft., fly 150 ft. (poor); AC 31 (touch 9, flat-footed 30); Atk +28 melee (1d8+11 + energy drain, slam), or +28 melee (2d8+11, bite) and +23/+23 melee (2d6+5, 2 claws) and +23/+23 melee (1d8+5, 2 wings) and +23 melee (2d6+16, tail slap); Face/Reach 10 ft. by 20 ft./10 ft.; SA Breath weapon, fear, crush, spells, energy drain, create spawn; SQ Fire subtype, keen senses, undead, DR 5/+1; SR 21; SV Fort +11, Ref +12, Will +14; Str 33, Dex 12, Con --, Int 14, Wis 17, Cha 18.
Skills & Feats: Concentration +19, Diplomacy +23, Jump +30, Knowledge (arcana) +21, Listen +22, Move Silently +18, Search +21, Spellcraft +21, Spot +22; Alertness, Blind-Fight, Cleave (claw or tail slap only), Flyby Attack, Hover, Improved Initiative, Power Attack.
Breath Weapon (Su): 50 ft. cone of fire (10d10; DC 23 Reflex halves).
Fear (Su): 150 ft. radius, DC 23 to avoid being shaken for 4d6 rounds.
Spell-Like Abilities (Sp): Locate object 5/day.
Crush (Ex): Can crush creatures up to Small size (+28 melee, 4d6+16 damage).
Energy Drain (Su): Living creatures hit by a wight's slam attack receive one negative level. Fortitude save (DC 23) 24 hours later prevents it from becoming permanent.
Create Spawn (Su): Any creature slain by a wight becomes a wight in 1d4 rounds.
Fire subtype (Ex): Fire immunity, double damage from cold except on a successful save.
Keen Senses (Ex): Blindsight 150 ft., 4x lowlight vision, darkvision 500 ft.
Undead (Ex): Immune to mind-influencing effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, and disease. Not subject to critical hits, subdual damage, ability damage, energy drain, or death from massive damage.
Spells Known (Sor 7; 6/7/7/5; DC = 14 + spell level): 0 -- daze, dancing lights, flare, ghost sound, mage hand, open/close, read magic; 1st -- alarm, inflict light wounds, magic missile, ray of enfeeblement, shield; 2nd -- blur, protection from arrows, web; 3rd -- haste, protection from elements.
Designer's Notes: Since "wight" isn't an official template, I used a combination of the wight in the Monster Manual and the grave-wight template in The Standing Stone to create Balicazar. Instead of claw attacks, it uses slam attacks (to gain the energy drain power).
Because undead don't have a Constitution score, an undead dragon has many fewer hit points than normal (almost 100, in this case). That's why I didn't increase Balicazar's Challenge Rating from the normal 12 for a young adult red dragon, and it's a good reason to give any adjusted Challenge Rating (whether it's from a template, class levels, or advancement) a simple logic check. Is the creature strictly tougher than it was before, or did you unintentionally give it a new weakness that reduces its newfound power? I suppose I could have increased the CR by +1 (less than the +2 granted by the lich or vampire templates, which are clearly more powerful than the wight "template" I used here), but I wasn't really concerned with that level of precision for my game.
About the Author
Andy Collins is a designer and editor for Wizards of the Coast's Roleplaying Games R&D department. Recent credits include codesign of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and editing Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.
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