he 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 issue #1 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, 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 2nd 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. (It even brings in the ultimate high-level AD&D artifacts, the Eye of Vecna 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 failure yet again. But you can't keep a good (or, in this case a 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 to his red dragon form (thanks to the help of a githyanki's cloning magic), the skeletal remains of the original dragon have been animated and are being worshiped by ancestors of his kobold followers. 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 had done with that magnificent cover art?
The original plan called for the updating of the three previous adventures into a form playable using the 4th Edition D&D rules, and then the addition of a fourth adventure to Flame's story. After rereading all the fine work of the previous designers, I began to plan how I would maintain the tone and content of the originals with the new rules set. My outlines began to take shape, including 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 my final outline was completed, though, the decision was made to focus my design on just the new adventure. While I was disappointed, I have no doubt that this decision saved my sanity. With all that research and planning still in mind, I decided to have my new adventure include homages to the previous ones, making Flame's past central to the plot of the new adventure.
For someone like me, who has been gaming since the 1970s, 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, regardless of how fun similar games were thirty years, or ten years, or even one year ago. Wary of the nostalgia trap, but firmly dedicated to making the narrative of the adventure link to the past, I began designing "Flame's Last Flicker."
Rules and Story
The first and most obvious challenge with using material from past editions of D&D is dealing with the ways in which the rules have changed. In this case, it meant dealing with the ways dragons had changed 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 3rd Edition gave the DM the ability to add PC or NPC classes to a dragon, so the monsters could gain spellcasting or other abilities. After all, with the power gamers freely multiclassing to gain every bit of an advantage, what self-respecting DM could resist giving dragons a level or two of barbarian?
With 4th Edition's careful balance between monsters and characters in combat, fiddling with extra powers or giving a monster a particularly large amount of treasure to use can cause battles to get ugly in a hurry. Worse yet, creating an adventure for publication is a world away from creating one for a particular adventuring party. Wiping out your friends' six characters with an overpowered monster or encounter gets you one kind of grief; wipe out an entire generation of gamers worth of PCs with the same design, and you're entering torch-and-pitchfork territory.
Yet, the Flame of old could do so many interesting things because 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 this would have to be an epic tier adventure.
My initial pondering and brainstorming quickly confirmed 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. Since I am one to take people to task for creating stat blocks that are unnecessarily long, I set out to bring the beast's stat block under control, if only to save myself from the taunting of those I've worked with as an editor on various Organized Play campaigns.
Designing a monster for me has always been a process of self-imposed dual-personality syndrome. First, the storyteller in me thinks about what abilities such a creature ought to have and, more importantly, what would be a visually cool when described in a story. Then the DM in me gives that storyteller a virtual wedgie, reminding him that this stuff needs to be used in a game that involves precise numbers and rules. After that, the game designer in me takes a pass at designing a creature that works within the game (in this case, one that must face the proverbial lumber that an epic level party can swing). Meanwhile, the storyteller tries to tempt the other guys away with the promise of beer and pretzels, so he can revise everything to make sure story remains central to the design. The process goes round and round until I can't take it anymore. Then I turn it over to the developer in me, who rewrites it completely, making it look like all the various versions of me knew what they were doing all along.
The original demilich, Acererak from S1 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 it using luck, experimentation, and most likely several trips to the library as it repeatedly defeats your best-laid plans. This sort of monster-as-puzzle approach is not easy to do right in 4th Edition—and, even if it is done right, it might not the kind of experience that all players crave.
As a compromise, I moved forward with the idea that Flame, as a draconic demilich, would not be content to simply sit in a dusty tomb and wait for events to unfold around him. If Flame was anything, he was a go-getter. In life his reach definitely exceeded his clawed grasp, and it definitely should do the same 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 one group of players who create new 21st-level characters, and another group that has played that built their 21st-level characters through constant play, and compare the two. The latter group has probably created synergy in their power and feat choices and is loaded with magical items that complement their characters' abilities. The former group may have some level of such coordination, but probably not nearly as much. It is more than likely that the two groups are of vastly different power levels, despite being of identical character levels. An adventure that challenges the latter group would most likely obliterate the former one.
Using published adventures places a burden on the DM to make the adventure work for his or her players. That does not remove responsibility from the designer for building an appropriately powered adventure, for the onus lies is with the designer to create a work that is easy and fun for DMs to adapt for and present to their particular group of players. If Flame's continuing story does not engage players and DMs alike, there is nowhere else to point the finger of blame than at the designer.
That said, over the past twenty-five years, DMs have countless times challenged players in a variety of ways with Flame's plots and terrible ambition. Whether in a volcanic cave lair or in a floating diamond fortress, whether as a red dragon or as an animated skeleton, whether he strives 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 to be told on a stage larger than the mortal world can contain. Enjoy the stories about to unfold!
About the Author
Shawn Merwin is a technical writer and freelance game designer who other work includes Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, and Halls of Undermountain. He has been an administrator in many Wizards of the Coast's organized-play campaigns, including Living Greyhawk, Xen'drik Expeditions, and Living Forgotten Realms. Shawn's thoughts on RPGs and game design are featured in his "Know Your Roll" column at Critical-Hits.com.