If a dragon wyrmling were repeatedly subjected to ghosts using horrifying visage over a week, would it grow into a young or even adult dragon?
My big bad has a plan to kidnap a bunch of kids, true polymorph them into baby dragons, then bombard them with ghosts until they are confused, traumatized and, by now, starving adult dragons, then unleash them on a kingdom. Then laugh at the heroes when the dead dragons return to their original forms. Does this plan work?
Assumptions: The polymorphing isn't the focus of the question. Hatchling dragons have a CR of 0. The use of the word wyrmling was because there was no classification for an even younger dragon.
Growth and maturation, and aging, are not direct synonyms. (Example: I have never stopped increasing in age, but I stopped growing taller in my mid to late teens, and I was full grown/developed somewhere in my early twenties).
The connotation of "growth" is positive - there's more to it than a numerical ticker. In the description of ghost's ability, "aging" is negative effect. It is a debilitating effect. (see below)
(MM. Ghosts) If the save fails by 5 or more, the target also ages 1d4 × 10 years. (snip) The aging effect can be reversed with a greater restoration spell. (SRD, V 5.1, p. 311)
It takes positive energy, greater restoration, to reverse the negative magical effect of aging.
If the BBEG tries to age baby dragons with a ghost, you could expect them to die prematurely (life expectancy for progeria is somewhere in one's teens) rather than to grow into their next phase of maturity. Growing into maturity is a gradual process that over time (and by eating a lot of Pyrena's Red Dragon Chow, or someone's livestock) sees the dragon develop into it's next size and power level.
Firstly, because it is overcome by the greater restoration spell.
(SRD, V 5.1, p. 150)
You imbue a creature you touch with positive energy to undo a debilitating effect. You can reduce the target’s exhaustion level by one, or end one of the following effects on the target:
• One effect that charmed or petrified the target
• One curse, including the target’s attunement to a cursed magic item
• Any reduction to one of the target’s ability scores
• One effect reducing the target’s hit point maximum
And, per the ghost ability's description, ghost-inflicted aging if cast within 24 hours.
Secondly, consider the basic premise of who is adventuring in D&D 5e (and thus who will be aged by monsters such as a ghost): it isn't children, it is player characters. Player characters are presumed to be mature members of their race/species, anywhere from young adults to full fledged adults, and possibly old adults who finally got the urge to adventure. (Sage background, for example). (Citation from PHB/DMG when I get back to my books).
A tree grows for centuries, a human for a few decades, and a dragon somewhere in between (though more toward the tree). A dog born on almost the same day as my son matured and died before my son got out of puberty.
The PCs have stopped growing and maturing, thus a ghost aging them (in the negative sense) accelerates their approach to death and / or disability (aside from a few class/sub class features like the Druid's timeless body).
Since you are the DM, you can do as you like and are not bound by any RAW in the first place. (Such that I wonder why you asked the question, but thanks for asking since it got me thinking! 8^D ) What you have proposed is an overly-complicated means to an end, which is to throw a "gotcha" at your players when they are out saving the kingdom / region / villages from a bunch of marauding young dragons. (A common enough malady in a D&D campaign).
Review your purpose in doing that:
Secondly, how do I provide clues?
What plans do you have to provide a form of subtle cuing that "something is not right" before the on / off switch of "dead dragon reverts to the form of child" hits them in the face? See the Alexandrian's "three clue rule" for some guidance on that.
@CaptainMan made this suggestion, for a clue on weird magical things going on: at some point the party ... finds "old baby dragon" skeletons in an evil wizard's lair that were the result of an attempt at this scheme
Lastly, consider the Villain's effort versus capability
If the BBEG can cast 9th level spells, is this solution the best use of his / her resources? Granted, this scheme you propose fully fits into the cackling evil villain trope; BBEG's being purely evil is very much expected. @Rubiksmoose offers a more efficient alternative, though it may not give you the horror element that you are looking for.
While you can do as you wish, this answer is intended to provide an alternate view of both growth and aging than as game mechanics to exploit, and recommends going into a little more depth in providing your players a challenge, however horrific you choose to make it. The other contributor to this answer is the points made by the devs for this edition regarding the default to plain English interpretations of the rules text. (Link when I can find it).
One fatal flaw to this plan is the BBEG is unable to create dragons like this.
True polymorph says:
Creature into Creature. If you turn a creature into another kind of creature, the new form can be any kind you choose whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target's (or its level, if the target doesn't have a challenge rating).
The rules say that wyrmlings are dragons that are of the age:
5 years or less
That means a newborn dragon is still considered a wyrmling and would use the wyrmling statblock. The lowest CR of a dragon wyrmling is CR 1 for copper and brass dragon wyrmlings.
There is no stat block for children that I can find but they certainly are not CR 1 or higher. As an example, an adult bandit with weapons is only a CR 1/8. There's no way an unarmed child is above that.
Thus, unless you modify the rules here (and you are the DM so you can), the plan will not work.
A better option mechanically would be to use the object to creature option which allows you to create creatures up to CR 9. This means that you could turn rocks into CR 9 young dragons and skip the whole wyrmling thing completely! No need for kidnapping and no need for convoluted ageing plans.
Though this plan obviously is not nearly as evil, it would still be a great way to cause havoc and destruction to the PCs and city but without the horror aspect of having the PCs murder children.
If you were absolutely dead set on having a dead child shock moment here @cpccodes came up with a good suggestion along these same lines:
[Y]ou could have the BBEG kill the children, then use their corpses (which are now objects) to create the dragons at whatever CR is desired (up to 9), and when the dragons are killed and revert to their pre-polymorph form, they are dead children. The PCs may very well believe at this point that they are responsible for killing them (difficult arcana check?), and the BBEG might even have agents present to encourage this line of thinking.
That is really grimdark and I personally wouldn't be comfortable putting that in my game or playing a game with it, but if you (and your players) are it might be a good compromise between your original plan and what the rules say1. Note that this plan still has several of the issues I elaborate on below (mainly being able to be completely defeated with a dispel magic and not being able to control them).
Assuming you have ruled that this all works and you transform children into dragons and age them according to your plan above there are still issues that may prevent your plan from working like you want it to.These may or may not be fatal flaws, but they are still issues you should be aware of and work to resolve should you proceed with the original plan.
When transformed into dragons, the children retain their personality and alignment. They are not under your control in any way. Why are they going to go destroy the city instead of the one who transformed/tortured them? Especially now that they are immensely powerful and even more intelligent.
Dragons are very intelligent and can speak. There's nothing preventing the dragon-children from saying "We are children in dragon bodies, can you help us turn back?".
If the PCs use dispel magic on any of the dragons they will instantly defeat them without a single blow. Greater restoration would then restore the children to their proper age (if done within 24 hours of the aging).
When the PCs slay a dragon-child (or dispel it), and they transform back into their original form it will not be a child that they see: it will be a 100+ year old person depending on the amount of aging done to the dragon-child.
1 - Note also that the rules for true polymorph are unclear about what happens when a creature made from an object gets reduced to 0HP. Only the creature to creature rules say that it changes back to its original form. So you would have to rule as DM that objects do revert back when they reach 0HP. This seems like a pretty easy ruling though with not that much consequence overall.
Do note that, as a DM you are capable of simply giving the BBEG some random artifact or blood ritual that allows for this plan to happen. The following suggestion simply tries to make it fit more tightly to game mechanics and official spells / fluff.
First off, about the assumption of dragons hatching with a CR of 0. That simply is not the case. Although there is no current book on dragon Physiology and aging cycles, this information hasn't changed much since first it was released in previous editions. I'll quote a bit from the most current [4e's] Draconomicon on Chromatic Dragons, Page 13:
When a wyrmling is ready to hatch [...] [it] breaks free by clawing at the sides, pressing against and cracking the shell with brute strength, and blasting the shell occasonally with its own already developed breath weapon.
A newly hatched dragon has a full array of ablities. Although inferior to those of a young dragon these ablilties are sufficient for the wyrmling to take care of itself, at least against relatively weak threats and predators. Although an emerging wyrmling's sodden and somewhat awkward, it can run within hours of haching and can fly within a day or two. A wyrmling's senses are acute and [...] it is born with a substantial amount of its parent's knowledge imprinted in its mind [...] [and] the generalities of the world and its own identity.
The second they are out of their shell (or in that very state from polymorphery) the wyrmling is a threat to any ordinary peasant. It may suffer from a lack of coordination, but a breath attack is still a breath attack. As @Rubiksmoose and others said in their answers, the children in their "pure, natural" forms will not do you much good as polymorph fodder-unless you prepare your ingredients a bit, of course.
One approach to turning children into creatures powerful enough to be turned into dragon wyrmlings would be bonding them with demons, preferably Succubi / Incubi. That way you can create an army of tiny charmed (long-term charmed as per 5e fluff, not just the spell) Warlocks doing your bidding and growing more corrupted / powerful up to a level where they can become more worthy of your BBEG by willingly turning into a baby dragon and even more willingly embracing the horrifying gaze of your ghosts to grow big and strong (assuming maturing goes hand in hand with aging). A brainwashed, obedient Dragon seems a lot more useful than a frenzied murder machine that will literally just destroy everything around it.
A few pros to this approach:
- Little to no losses in the ghost and minion department (Each ghost of yours can be "killed" within at least 3-ish attacks at the wyrmling stage, even faster at later ages)
- Them dragons can be used much more precisely (if your BBEG rolls that way. If not they can still go haywire wherever he pleases of course)
- The succubi/incubi needed for indoctrination and pact shenaniganerry can visit villages at night and coax children into running into the forests for easy pick ups
- While you wait for their pact with the demons to grow strong enough you have a tiny army of hellmages at your disposal
A few cons:
- You need obedient succubi/incubi
- Indoctrination takes a while (may require a certain personality type)
- Empowering takes another while
- The dragons may be coaxed into betrayal if they retain (most) of their sanity
In my overall roleplaying experience (14 years of free form rp, 6-ish years of tabletop experience), most people have a special intolerance towards watching children being harmed, let alone actively harming them. Having your player fight some vicious creature only to find out it was, in actuality, a helpless, tortured little child could potentially scar sensitive players. Before embarking on such a disturbing plot you better be damned sure they are fine with it or can at least take it (either through a survey of Do's and Dont's to be done pre-game or anywhere before a big plot thing may happen, indirectly asking them what may be "too much" for them in their campaign or flat out asking them). Having a happy-go-lucky jokes galore campaign suddenly turn down such a grim alley may upset players in one way or another. Such things can end up breaking games and some people's love for the game.
Depending on how you interpret it, a permanently true polymorphed creature will not change back into what it used to be originally, its remains staying that of what it had been just seconds before it was killed. It's a tiny point you can easily rule to function as you wish it to, but some rules-lawyery players may try and fight you on that.
With some adjusted steps it's readily achievable. Your players may not be all too happy with what you made them do though.
By RAW, I can't see anything against it as long as you used actual dragons.
Using a creature polymorphed into a dragon could prove technically difficult due to the CR restriction (see Rubiksmoose's answer).
Other than that technical difficulty, the Horrifying Visage ability ages its victim, and a dragon does indeed get more powerful as it ages.
My caveats to this are:
Of course, as a DM you are free to ignore or adjust any of my caveats.
As written it should work...There's nothing in the description of Horrifying Visage or True Polymorph that should stop the plan from working.
but...If you're going to really follow the rules, you'll need to get past a couple of hurdles. Consider this passage from the description of True Polymorph:
If you turn a creature into another kind of creature, the new form can be any kind you choose whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or its level, if the target doesn’t have a challenge rating).
That means your big bad needs to kidnap kids of at least CR2, which would take some explaining. The villain's plan would be more plausible if he simply polymorphed low-level adventurers into wyrmlings instead.
Also, I'd assume your wyrmlings (which generally have about a +2 Cha save bonus) are going to go through a stage where they become young dragons- they generally have a +3 to +5 bonus on Cha, which makes the Horrifying Visage spell save (DC13) pretty beatable.
Also, this plan might not work so well anywayKeep in mind this whole plan results in a dragon which can be defeated by a single lucky roll with a lvl3 Dispel Magic spell.
...and that brings up another questionso if a hypothetical level 3 child was turned into a wrymling, failed the CHA saves from the ghosts' Horryfing Visage and became adult dragons, and then were hit with a Dispel Magic- do they turn back into kids again, or would they now be senior citizens?
The rules don't say what happens if a dragon is subjected to a ghost's attack.
In 5e (as in most game systems), when the rules don't describe a situation, that means it's the DM's responsibility to tell us what happens.
It would be irresponsible for us to post an answer that says: "Yes, X is definitely what happens when a dragon gets exposed to a ghost", because this really should be up to the individual DM. (And, in particular, we don't want to get into a situation where someone shows this page to the DM and says: "yes this plan totally works! Stackexchange says so!")
But we can talk about what the DM should consider when making this ruling.
Suppose that exposing dragons to ghosts is a reliable way to make them gain age categories. What consequence does this have for your world? The obvious consequence is that dragons are immensely powerful. A dragon has some babies, waits a few years so they know the basics of dragoning, and then it goes and exposes them all to a ghost until they're CR20. Repeat until dragons cover the whole planet.
Does your planet have dragons covering its whole surface? If not, why not? Are dragons just not able to find ghosts? Is this process so hideously evil that no dragon, even an evil one, would inflict it on its offspring? Does it lead irreversibly to madness?
Are there dragons that know about this technique, and will ally with the PCs to thwart this plan?
I'd probably rule that this does not work, because it presents such a quick route to power that it would warp the power dynamics of the whole world. But you're the DM here, so if you want this to work, it's 100% within your rights to rule that it works.
Also, I like @Rubiksmoose's solution, which involves polymorphing rocks into CR9 dragons, sidestepping the whole question.
Good luck with it.
This might almost work, but there are some major problems. In order to circumvent the CR restriction, the BBEG will have to wait for the spell to expire (and with it, its limitations). But that will return the dragons to their original form, unless he makes the effect permanent. This works because making the spell's effect permanent does not change the spell's duration. However, there are drawbacks.
Still, if you can find ways to cope with these, knock yourself out.