Parallel design fascinates me. The old saying (is it a Bible reference?), “There’s nothing new under the sun,” apparently also applies to the Underdark, and crosses editions of Dungeons and Dragons.
In my previous post about the Iron Dwarves, I laid out fairly step-by-step the design process I went throught in crafting the Psionic Nazi Slaver Dwarves of my campaign setting. I published the post, and almost immediately some of you awesome internet folks started chatting about it, and the consensus was that I came up with a remarkably similar concept to the duergar of late 3.5, especially as part of the Forgotten Realms Setting material. I don’t own any of those books, not being a Realms-fan myself, and when I went back and got the books from a friend and checked it out, I was really stunned. The design path I chose for the Iron Dwarves went to a lot of the same places that the WotC developers apparently went to.That fascinates me… but it also invokes my sense of chagrin.
I kinda thought I was on to something new, conceptually, when I went through the process of creating the Iron Dwarves. Apparently I was wrong and any experienced player, especially one experienced with the Forgotten Realms or the 3.5 Expanded Psionics system, is not going to see the differences, only the similarities. And that is definitely not what I wanted.
So I’m back to the drawing board… kind of. I’m going back to Hard Boiled: Cultures and I’m going to re-work some of the design decisions I made from the original post. I realize as I’m starting this walk-through that what has happened here is very similar to the editorial process I went through when I was actively freelancing for Privateer Press. We were in the process of writing the World Guide and Player Guide (available in .pdf now, and I highly suggest them as awesome reads) and I would routinely send in my assignments and get back a Word document filled to bursting with editorial commentary. I’d then take that, alter the document as suggested and re-submit. Many times this amounted to me saying, “Hey, wouldn’t THIS be a cool idea?” and Joe Martin, Editor-in-Chief at the time, saying what amounted to this (starting about 2:09). I then had to go back to the drawing board and re-work my idea till it fit Joe’s vision of what was to be. That, in a nutshell, was the editorial process I worked in.
And here I am again. I remember really enjoying this process, re-tweaking things to what my editor wants– except this time, my editor is me. So what I need to do is play both sides of the screen, so to speak. I need to figure out what I want to keep and what I want to get rid of, and then re-work my psionic nazi slaver dwarves from there.
As I sit here typing this in a rather stream-of-consciousness way, it occurs to me that the previous sentence says “my psionic nazi slaver dwarves“– it appears that I am attached to that concept, so I decide to keep it. Since I know now that I am, in essence, creating a variant of the duergar, I also need to figure out how I want to deal with that as well. 4E has a pretty solid design paradigm for duergar, and I know that one of the reasons I created the Iron Dwarves was because I didn’t like that… even if my design choices took me unknowingly in a similar direction as their 3.X ancestors. I also decide that I like the “created by another race as catspaws” theme, so that stays.
So… if the Iron Dwarves are still psionic, who made them that way and how did they stay unnoticed as the Iron Dwarves were growing in number? Fortunately, an answer pops up immediately. There is a race of super-intelligent mastermind monsters who historically have been psionic. They also have a penchant for eugenics. They are the yuan-ti. I like this concept as soon as it pops into my head– I borrow the Forgotten Realms book Serpent Kingdoms from the same buddy I borrows the XPH and Races of Faerun book from, and read up on the scaled horrors. I’m collecting some seemingly pertinent information here. I need to have a solid idea of what I want yuan-ti to be before I can decide how they have influenced the Iron Dwarves. I’ve never used yuan-ti before in all my DMing history, so this is totally uncharted territory for me. I’m loving it already.
“…this vile race of serpent folk is descended from humans who interbred with an ancient sauroid race.”–Monsters of Faerun
I immediately know this is not the case for my yuan-ti. Something tickles my memory, so I look back through my campaign notes regarding Brittanis. It turns out that some time in the very beginning of my process of designing the world, I mentioned a serpent race as being the ancient nemesis of the elves. I had named this race Ophidians, and I make the choice to keep it. “Yuan-ti” is a little too iconically Realms in my mind, and renaming them can be a good way to clue the players in that while these serpentfolk might be similar, it would not be wise to assume they are identical.
So– my Ophidians are not from mixed human and serpent blood. I think, instead, that they are the ancient serpent race, slithering up from the bowels of the earth in hordes and droves to try and conquer the surface world for their dark reptile god. Interestingly, one of the new gods created for the 4E pantheon hasn’t gotten a lot of love in DDI, and making Zehir a minor Demon Prince in Brittanis is not a stretch at all. In fact, Zehir might still be a minor Prince because he is tied to the Ophidians and they to him– as they prosper, so does the snake god, and vice versa. So I’ve got an ancient serpent people driven by the will of a dark, slithering god of poison and murder. This is a good start. Let’s see what else jumps out at me from the source material.
“the [Ophidians] continue this mingling of human and serpentine blood…if the process is a success, the result is a tainted one. These creatures appear just as they did prior to their infection–generally able-bodied humans…though their bodies do not show signs of their tainted blood, their personalities and mannerisms do…tainted ones serve the [Ophidians] as agents who can infiltrate the other races…” —Monsters of Faerun
Oh, this is too perfect. This little tidbit starts putting the pieces together for me. Instead of the dwarves stumbling upon the creatures that warped them into the Iron Dwarves, their enemy came looking for them instead. The Ophidian overlords created at first a few tainted ones and then sent them back to their clanhold to convert more. Perhaps a water source was corrupted– a mass poisoning seems particularly like Zehir– and then the takeover began in earnest. Once the Ophidian’s hold over that one clan was secure, they began playing the dwarven politicians against one another, fracturing the clans so that when they used Clan X to strike there was nobody to unite against them. They picked off and converted the other clans one by one (thus leaving a lot of time for some clans to flee and become the Free Dwarves) and like the shadowy snake demon they now pray to they poisoned the dwarven nation and remade it in the image of their scaled masters. Once their strangling coils were securely wrapped ’round Ironhall… that’s when the experiments began in earnest, changing and altering the Iron Dwarves into psionically-gifted servants.
Moving on to Serpent Kingdoms, I see this:
“Though they view humanoids as weak, stinking, ugly, edible cattle, they also recognize that the Scaleless Ones are swift and intelligent, breed rapidly, and can rise to nearly any challenge…they realize that these creatures also constitute their most dangerous foes…too numerous to be confronted openly, but too powerful to be allowed to flourish freely…”
And there we have it. Perfect motivation for the Ophidians to corrupt the dwarves and turn them into a nation of slaves. If the Ophidian Empire was crushed by the elves in ancient times, they surely are not going to make the same mistake twice, superintelligent masterminds that they are. So let’s say that last time they attempted world domination they did it the old fashioned way– armies and conquest. They didn’t figure on the humanoid races banding together, though, and their Empire was crushed and they were sent slithering back into the Underdark presumably never to be seen again. But reptiles can live for a long time even without the aid of magic. The Ophidians did retreat, and their armies were broken and in disarray– but they were not as obliterated as the soft-skins believed. Instead, the eldest among them left instructions for the Fanged Ones to breed and multiply carefully– and then they slept in torpor while their enemies forgot about them. When the Ancients awoke, the Ophidian population was large enough to begin their machinations anew– but this time the plan is different. This time they turned the adaptability of one of the softskin races to their own advantage and now they seek to sink their poisoned fangs into the rest of the surface world.
Okay. I think I’m on to something here. This is definitely not the same feel as the duergar or the original Iron Dwarves. At this point, I decide to keep the name Iron Dwarves, but I suddenly envision their symbol as an iron ring shaped int he likeness of an Ourboros–a snake eating its own tail–and I can give them all the visual cues of a blatantly serpent-worshipping culture. Still made of black, tarnished metal but armor and architecture in serpent themes. Ramps instead of stairways to facilitate their Ophidian masters. Poison on everything. Piercing weapons representing the needle-fangs of their overlords. I suddenly picture a dwarven Thulsa Doom (from the Conan The Barbarian movie, not the Kull series) as the patriarch who led the coup. That certainly reinforces the psionic theme, too. Which brings me to the mind-magic of my Iron Dwarves.
3.X Duergar have invisibility and an enlarge power. I remember now why I never used the gray dwarves– I really dislike these abilities. They always seemed so random to me, especially for an underground culture, that it soured me on the whole concept. Since I’m doing my best to differentiate the Iron Dwarves from the duergar (any edition) this works out well for me. Those powers get trashed up front. Yuan-ti (and thus my Ophidians as well) are the quintessential controllers, so their warped creations should have some of those traits as well. Likewise, poison use should be assumed as well. I still want them to be dwarves, though, so I intend to keep Stand Your Ground ability. Instead of Cast Iron Stomach, I think I’ll give them a flat resist poison 5.
These design decisions made, I move on to the crunchy bits of monster creation. I know that I want dealing with Ironhall to be at the top of the Heroic Tier stretching into Paragon levels, so I put their levels in the 8-13 band. This coincides well with the levels for yuan-ti in the Monster Manual, starting with the Malison Sharp-Eye at 13 all the way up the Anathema at 21. This lets me keep the yuan-ti masters a secret till the end of the Heroic Tier and then reveal them as the power behind the throne. Coiled behind them is Zehir, Serpent Demon Prince of Poison and Shadow, whose power is tied to that of his creations the Ophidians. Once they deal with the Ophidians in the Paragon Tier they can then deal thwart the Demon Prince’s attempts at full godhood in Epic Tier.
The first thing I want to do is create an Iron Dwarf Soldier. These guys need to embody the “feel” that I want these monsters to have, and because dwarves tend to be so infantry-minded I know they will likely form the core many encounters. I break open Adventure Tools and go to town. I take the Dwarf Hammerer and corrupt him into an Iron Dwarf Fangshield. These guys represent the rank-and-file Iron Dwarves who are still corrupted by the Ophidians but not actually augmented with psionic talent yet. Here’s the result:
Next is the Iron Dwarf Mindspike. These guys are artillery with a heavy dose of controller, and I want them to be a common theme for Iron Dwarf encounters, too. I see them as the sergeants and squad-level leaders of the Iron Dwarves– not massively powerful, but still enough psychic ability to keep the lesser slaves and thralls in line.
Next in line is the Iron Dwarf Thoughtwarden. I see these guys as the Gestapo/SS for Ironhall. These creepy bastards are going to get into your head and poke around, all in the name of “preserving peace.” They’re sneaky, and nasty, and once they’re in your head it’s hard to raise a blade against them.
Last and worst is the Eye of Zehir. These are the leaders of the Iron Dwarves, privy to the true goals of their Ophidian masters and just as cruel and scheming as those scaled abominations. They are consummate controllers, using allies against each other and shredding the minds of those who oppose the destiny of Ironhall.
I’m sure there is more to come for these guys– they just won’t seem to leave my brain alone. I think the next step is to build them into an encounter or maybe a delve and see how that goes. I want to use the Iron Dwarves: it’s only a matter of when and how.