I need the help of a creative GM:
Background: At the end of an adventure, the players finally arrive inside a mountain containing a tiny demi-plane of lava and rocks with a suspected red dragon they must fight, and powerful magic item (mini artifact setting on a pedestal).
Problem: The party level of 5 players is only level 3.
Please help: I need the conclusion to be an epic fight. Can you help me imagine an ending that uses some kind of epic fire/dragon-themed challenge for the party? It looks like a Pathfinder red dragon of any age would destroy them.
I suggest not making them fight the dragon, especially as they are. It would be incredibly foolish of them and quite stupid. If the artifact grants them extraordinary protections when they start fighting the dragon, they might be okay, but not as they are... (especially fighting a dragon that is powerful enough to have a demiplane...)
Thanks for the idea Vrita.
However, I consider the monk in the party, who possesses a magical staff that will give him a "second life" as in full health but 1 time.
Question: If that were the case, could the monk tank the dragon (what would be the smallest red dragon possible... I need one at perhaps CR7 or CR8 maximum. Alternatively, if the monk makes a bee-line for the artifact and uses it against the dragon - that could work, just so long as he survives the run. Still, is there any book 3.5 or otherwise that has a red dragon of that range? (Rationale: the artifact is keyed to fire, and thematically its essential there be a 'dragon' of some kind.)
Have them fight some weakish salamanders on a shifting/exploding lava field or something, while the red dragon looks on in judgement, or does a couple weak fly-by breaths to mess with the players. Then if they beat his salamanders he grants them the item? It's still fire themed and could be pretty fun.
It's kind of hard to shoehorn a red dragon into a low level campaign, either you ruin the dragon by making him a joke, or the dragon instantly kills everyone.
Unless you want to pull a Demons Souls and have them run around avoiding the dragon until they can reach a magical ballista or something.
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The monk in the party is a huge WOW player - so it would be a treat if I could conjure some tactic to make this plausible, even if WOW isn't my cup of tea... a nod of giving the player a tactical experience i.e. what he enjoys best.
As of now, I've hinted that the dragon can be destroyed by "what the monk knows best" which is peace. The dragon will not attack first. But I want to plan for the contingency of battle. Any 3.5 stuff or 3PP stuff? I certainly don't want the dragon to be a joke.
I also imagined using PAIZOs mythic stuff. Perhaps giving the players mythic power as they enter this tiny plane. Still, I'm pressed for stats for the dragon. Help!
I would have the artifact drain the strength of the dragon so that it approaches something the party can handle. The artifact has been drained to the point of near uselessness until the dragon is brought near then it drains the 'magical essence' of the dragon to recharge itself.
Maybe anytime the dragon breathes at the party, the artifact pulls it into itself, the dragon casts spells and the artifact absorbs the energies (although it should do this to any spellcasters in the party as well) and finally, the dragon gets progressively weaker as long as it remains inside the artifact's area of effect.
Obviously, once the dragon is defeated, the artifact reverts to whatever you want it to be and it doesn't need to be recharged again for many millennia.
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A flame drake is only CR 5, and size large. It would probably work well, and you'd still have room in a high-CR encounter to include a few minion-y types to prevent the problem that happens when you have one big boss, he gets one or two actions, but the rest of the party has four times that many actions due to outnumbering him, and wipes him out with no problem. Maybe a couple small fire elementals. If you threw in fire mephits, they might end up being more annoying and/or harder to kill than the fire drake.
If you're stuck on a one-big-boss encounter, throw the 'giant'-sized template on the drake, or put the 'half-dragon'(red) template on any one of the following monsters:
Cloaker, Megaraptor, Hieracosphinx, Manticore, Emperor Cobra
You could say that (for whatever reasons make sense in context - maybe the artifact is causing it) the demi plane is becoming unstable. The space within it fluctuates randomly, shunting PC's and the dragon to random squares. This could give you a means to secretly help out the party without them feeling cheated. The dragon skirts around the party and takes a bite out of the caster, but then the dragon finds himself upside down and 30' back from where he started. Maybe when a creature is affected this way, they're staggered for 1 round. You can use this tool to keep the fight tense and unpredictable, while still yourself having full control of the difficulty curve.
EDIT: huh, ninja'd by lots of great ideas! :)
There's no reason you couldn't take a CR 8 Very Young Red Dragon or a CR 6 Wyrmling Red Dragon and say that he is gigantic without changing any of his stats.
Also, if it's possible, you could have them achieve mythic power temporarily; especially the very... well... "simple" simple invincible template.
Whey the simple invincible template?
5 energy resistance (all)
second save (for each failed save, roll a second time)
block attacks (1/round make an opposed attack roll against a melee attack to negate)
... if you "finesse" it a little, they instead gain DR 5/epic and energy resistance (all) 10, as well as the natural armor, second save, and block attacks special abilities.
How do they get this?
If the artifact is sentient and doesn't want to be held by the dragon (for "reasons") then it could be the source of that power.
It might have a weaker variant of the ascension spell as a spell-like ability (only able to grant the simple mythic (invincible) template instead of an actual path, for example; it would need to be a CL 15 to affect everyone, which isn't unreasonably powerful for an artifact; it may only be able to empower creatures this way once per week, once per month, or once per year; this drives down the relative cost, and also limits its potential abuse*).
As for tying it to dragon/fire, the flip side is that, perhaps, it has intermittent that require it to be within 10 ft. of a dragon at temperatures above freezing (or maybe hotter; that one's just on the list). Perhaps it doesn't want to be turned "on" (it's tired or something) and thus wants the players to rescue it.
If you want (though this way lies vast danger), perhaps the dragon has the agile mythic template (giving it two rounds of actions and greater speed), as well as young simple template, making it weaker (you could always ignore the size reduction) but a little harder to hit (increase to its Dexterity).
Regardless, I hope this helps!
* I recognize that this is the end of a campaign, but I'm offering as an idea for the sake of your campaign world.