Introduction: To finish out the run of “Out of the Box” for 2016, I thought it would be appropriate to use the one creature that is likely the most difficult to run. A dragon. The problem with dragons is they are immensely powerful and capable of destroying a party outright within a few rounds if played to their potential. It then falls to the Dungeon Master to try and create an encounter that is both reasonable to the players and yet fair to the beast in question. You want the moment to be memorable, and the only way to do that is to do the creature justice.
That can be tricky because older dragons will create regional effects and gain lair actions – on top of flying past the players and breathing fire, cold, poison gas or the like. Younger dragons are less refined and can be easier to corral for the more cunning player. So, where does one fit a challenging, yet rewarding, dragon encounter that is neither a TPK or murder-hobo-fest?
I think it’s in the young-adult range. But to make it more interesting, make it a metallic. The metallic dragons are not only known shape-shifters, but all come with personality quirks that make them more relatable as “persons” despite being vastly powerful. The problem is that the notation for shape-shifting is rather vague, indicating only that “at some point in their long lives” they learn to do it. Less powerful metallics seem to take longer to learn it, and that strikes me as arbitrary. I see no reason why a dragon, let’s say a Copper Dragon, could not learn this trick earlier in life if she has some sort of talent for it, a great mentor, a genetic tendency to learn it earlier, or some other trait that triggers this effect ahead of time.
To flesh this encounter out, you need a reason for her to be in disguise, and some reason for the characters to help her. Powerful creatures generally are more capable of helping themselves out of a problem, so you then need to create a scenario that requires player character input. If you have her show up in dragon form, you either have players who seek to avoid her or the murder-hobo gene is triggered and it becomes a bloodbath one way or another. To reinforce a dialogue, it’s also a good idea to make sure there’s some reason to keep the dragon out of the affair as much as possible. Cursed magic items, high level spells or enchantments, or interference by a being more powerful than the dragon are all possibilities. The following encounter will suggest some of these directions.
Suggested level: 7-9 (lower if you wish this to be a purely social event)
Description: The player characters will find themselves for one reason or another in an inn, tavern or similar establishment. There will be music, laughter and lots of conversation. On this occasion the place is filled with its normal array of patrons. The smells of ale, pork stew and pipe tobacco fill the air.
A human minstrel, dashing in appearance, sits upon a wooden stool on a low wooden stage on the far side of the common room. He sings of heroes and villains, tall ships and taller castles. He stops occasionally to add a joke or two to break the tension, much to the delight of the crowd.
The crowd itself, once you work your way through, is arranged in an odd circle around a young and attractive lady. She sits at a table at the edge of the stage with her head in her hands while looking up at the minstrel. She wears beautifully embroidered travelling garb in earthen tones under shining copper-plated scale mail armor. Her auburn hair is long and full with lush curls spilling over her armor and clothing. Emerald green eyes beam up to the minstrel with a content expression.
A successful Wisdom/Perception check (DC:10) will show that the rest of the crowd, although also enjoying the show, are remaining a good 3 to 5 feet away from the girl. Insight (DC:12) will determine that none seem outwardly afraid of her so far. A successful Insight on the girl (DC: 10) will determine that she truly appears to be enjoying the performance. A further successful Investigation (DC:15) when looking at the lady will pick up that she has what appears to be a thin steel collar around her throat. The collar is not part of her armor nor matches her garb in any way.
Should the players ask the patrons or the barkeep whom the girl is, they will tell the players in their own common way that they don’t know who she is. They will admit, depending on the patron and your individual tastes, that they are either intimidated by her presence for some reason, or that they regard her as “the prettiest flower in the place.” One might be jealous of her or suspicious of her of some strange witchcraft, but none believe she is of such a threat as to feel negative toward her in any way … and none really know why. The exception to this rule will be the barkeep, Angus, who will know her as “Aescypra” (Ay-SIGH-pra). Angus will tell the party that she comes in from time to time to enjoy the local entertainment, loves to laugh, and generally is well behaved when she’s not heckling a travelling jester. He will regard that she seems quite taken with tonight’s entertainment.
That entertainment is “Vallius of Annap.” Vallius came into town almost immediately after Aescypra arrived and volunteered to entertain for merely a night’s lodging. He’s been singing, joking and playing his lute for almost an hour now.
Should the characters inquire further with Angus, a successful Charisma/Persuasion roll (DC:12, or DC:5 if they tip well) will also reveal that the last three times Aescypra came to town, Vallius also showed up, an odd coincidence that he’ll pass off as “just the way things are sometimes.”
If the player characters wish to speak with Aescypra, she will be willing to discuss whatever they like (within reason) – but only AFTER Vallius finishes playing (which will be in another few minutes). If they are patient and polite, she will certainly address them in kind. If they are rude, she will ignore their questions. (Keep in mind that NPCs of any kind are people, too, and have their own motivations and desires. If players choose to be pains to them, the NPCs are well within their rights to act appropriately to their core dynamic).
When Vallius finishes his set, the girl will applaud the loudest of the crowd and smile at him broadly. She will watch him leave the stage, and even look around the players and the crowd to watch him go upstairs. She might even sigh before turning to the players to address their inquiries.
Keep in mind she is very smart (INT: 16), wise for her age (W: 13), and quite charming (CH:15). She will be well spoken, will be polite unless offended, smiles readily and may even flirt with an appropriate character. She will not reveal her true nature (see below), and may be evasive when questioned where she comes from (answers like “far away” or “not local”). Persuasion checks to get her to reveal more might involve a Charisma contest, with her Charisma score as the DC. Should the person asking her questions be a skilled Bard, allow them to make such checks with Advantage (but do not tell them why). When she answers a question, have the characters in front of her who can see the thin steel choker she wears make a Wisdom/Perception check (DC:17). Those who succeed will see tiny runes appear when she answers a revealing question, and she might be even more vague when that happens. Should the players catch on that this collar has something to do with it (perhaps by succeeding in an Intelligence/Arcana check, DC:15) after noticing these runes and pointing them out to her, she might nod or shake her head in a “yes/no” fashion to some direct questions. These responses do not activate the runes. If asked, she will say the choker is a gift and that she treasures it dearly. A successful Persuasion check (DC:15), or a really good roleplaying trick-question opportunity might get her to reveal that she received it as a gift in a small box the last time Vallius came to town and she assumed he left it for her as a reward for her patronage and appreciation of his talents. Unfortunately, she’ll say, she hasn’t been able to go home since, and fears her father will be angry with her if he sees it. So she’s stayed here in town and has been wondering what to do about it. She will convey she dreads having to give it up, but knows that she’ll have to deal with going home at some point.
Should a character cast Detect Magic, the caster will see Aescypra glows with an aura of Transmutation and the necklace flares with a brighter glow of the same enchantment. However, a successful Arcana (DC:17) check will also detect a Curse upon this necklace, should the caster choose to check while the spell is active. It’s important to note that all such “glows” and “auras” are only visible to the caster. An attempt to Remove Curse or Dispel Magic to try and remove the collar will not work without overcoming a very high DC (like, 19), and even then it only temporarily removes the effect on her speech – but does not break the collar. A successful such check will allow her to convey that the collar prevents her escape from it without a special key, and that she does not have it. It will also allow her to forward that she would rather remove it.
This freedom to speak openly will only last for the next few turns (how long is up to the DM, depending on dramatic flow and if you feel you’ve passed on what you desire for information). At no point will Aescypra confess that she is a dragon. A clever player who tries a Detect Thoughts might pull out this sort of information, but that’s up to the player to arrive at and achieve (note how under the description of the spell in the Player’s Handbook).
Players who follow Vallius upstairs will find him in his room. The door to his room will be locked, so a player will either have to unlock it (Thieve’s Tools, Knock spell), break it down (Strength check, DC: 17), or ask for permission to enter. Vallius will need some convincing to allow a guest, but he is not without his weaknesses either. Vallius is vain and a womanizer. Appealing to either might help to get the door unlocked. What would normally be a Persuasion DC: 17 check might drop to a DC:15 with the right flattery (DM’s discretion) or if the charms of a pretty lady are involved.
Vallius, in any regard, will be in his room tuning his instruments and enjoying some wine. He will be gracious and welcoming, polite and charming. His goals, too, are secret and he is not wanting to divulge them. He will discuss music, poetry, and have polite conversation. He will avoid direct answers and will only claim to be a “humble wandering entertainer.” He will not admit to any specific knowledge of Aescypra, nor claim to have any knowledge of her collar.
What the players will not know is this – Vallius is indeed up to no good. Vallius of Annap is actually an Incubus in the employ of a Greater Devil. This patron has tasked Vallius with tricking Aescypra into wearing the collar. The collar prevents her from changing shape back into Dragon form. In fact, the collar can only shrink, and never gets bigger, so if she tries to Shapeshift into a sparrow to get out of the collar, she’ll just be a sparrow in a metal collar. If she tries to grow to a shape or size larger than the collar will currently allow, the collar simply gets smaller and she will lose her head. The intent is to force Aescypra’s father, an Old Copper Dragon known as Rexuroptolus (say that 10 times fast) to yield his territory and hoard over to a diabolic cult in the Greater Devil’s name (Feel free to have other diabolic schemes instead). Vallius does indeed have the key to opening the collar – his own fiendish blood – which he is obviously not willing to hand over.
With all of that in play, the players have a mystery to solve, a maiden to rescue (who is ironically a dragon, too), and lots of RP to do – and perhaps some combat. Should they suspect, discover, or turn on Vallius, his first objective will be to escape. He may try to Charm one of his interrogators or attackers. If pressed, he might also reveal his true form and try to fly out the window. Once out of sight, he will try to assume a new form – but will always be too vain not to be a handsome, rakish type, which may lead to his undoing.
The intent is to start a story arc or adventure. It might lead to a real cat-and-mouse affair as the party seeks to track down Vallius and rescue Aescypra from her collar. The reward for doing so will not come in the form of gold and silver. The players will have a Young Copper Dragon as an ally and possibly friend (which is its own double-edged sword). Along the way, she might befriend a Bard within the party, as Copper Dragons seem drawn to this sort with their love of jokes, pranks, music and conversation. That’s up to the DM and the associated players to unfold and discover.
Aescypra will try to stay out of her father’s sight until the collar is off, and will be deeply thankful.
Monsters: “Aescypra” – Young Copper Dragon (p. 111 of the Monster Manual), but with the ability to Shapeshift like older dragons.
“Vallius of Annap” – Incubus (p. 285 of the Monster Manual)
Commoner (several) (as per page 345 of the Monster Manual)
Treasure: Possible alliance and friendship with a Copper Dragon.
Complications: Vallius has a few tricks up his sleeve. He can either Charm a member of the party, turning that person on his or her fellows, or if cornered, could use his Draining Kiss. The Charm only works on one person at a time, but can be done whenever the fiend wants to, outside of that constraint. That means he could Charm local law enforcement, a mayor, a character’s loved one – whomever – to elude capture. His job is to keep that collar on as long as possible, and certainly not to have his blood spilled.
Furthermore, please note that Aescypra will not reveal herself to be a Dragon in front of the fine folks in town. She did not nor does not wish to alarm anyone. It was always her intent to just enjoy a good time away from the boredom of sleeping her years away like many dragons do.