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When a theme is dragon* on.

Dragons are apex predators and widely regarded by most players and systems as about one of the worst things you can ever deal with.

I have a campaign that's been running for many a year and I'm looking to add a new faction in a world that's rebuilding itself. A dragon came instantly to mind — but a lot of dragons have already been seen (and died) in this storyline and adding another one may not create the impact I'm looking for, especially since the players' faction was once under the command of a dragon. So not a dragon then, but what?

The system is Rolemaster, but that's not that important. It's a pretty generic high fantasy story with ideas pulled from Earth, Middle Earth, AD&D and the Magician.

So what I need is another apex lifeform, a solitary creature/figure that could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power.

  • Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.
  • They can't be a standard biped race, humans and elves are so last millennium.
  • Not a dragon or a dragon clone.
  • Living. Breathing. The important point of this is to find a living breathing being that can shake the players from thinking that their race (elves in this case) are the peak lifeform on this world.
  • Lone being. It needs no mate, consort or even any others of its race, certainly not for decades or centuries at a time.
  • An intelligent being that can be reasoned with. Diplomacy with this being should definitely be possible.
  • Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power

* "dragging". Sorry.

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Isn't this a bit too subjective and list-inviting? Just asking. :) –  OpaCitiZen Jul 21 at 15:38
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I agree with Thales and Saffron, and note that even some of those closing this question don't want to. Remember: we are not supposed to hate fun. Is this a great question for this format? No. But we as a community have the authority to decide that, just this once, a not-perfectly-fitting question can stay open because it is fun, interesting, and eminently on-topic. –  KRyan Jul 22 at 13:49
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We don't hate fun, we're just very suspicious of it. ;) In line with the post @KRyan linked to, "absurdly useful" does tip this into leave-open territory. But to balance that and discourage it from becoming a never-ending list: use your downvotes! Lots of answers so far are borderline or outright bad. Bury them if you want to see questions like this in the future, or its answers will be used to justify closing this question and others like it. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 22 at 17:08
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Meta question about this question: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/4822/… –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 23:12

12 Answers 12

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Sphinxes.

You've got an imposing physical form combined with a mind suited to riddles and stratagems. Everyone knows that if you can't outsmart a sphinx, you're as good as meat. They are prone to discussion and monologue, so they can be negotiated with. They're even good spellcasters, some of them. Originates in Western culture, and though they may have genders, they don't come in couples or have broods.

(Full disclosure: Part of the inspiration here comes from Magic: the Gathering, where sphinxes are pitched as the iconic blue creature and a counterpart to dragons.)

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This is not a discussion forum. Please use comments to improve an answer, not discuss MTG trivia. –  mxyzplk Jul 21 at 22:20

How about an Aboleth?

These aberrations are distinctly inhuman (to the point that they can be terrible to behold for the unprepared), vastly powerful - both physically and mystically; and they are aquatic, usually residing in deep oceans - which allows you to introduce either a single creature or a whole city of these horrors into your campaign without too much hand-waving in the "how come we are only hearing of this now?" department.

Moreover, Abolethes have a bizarre alien mentality - not only does an Aboleth offspring retain its parent's entire knowledge and memories, it also absorbs those of any intelligent creature it consumes - if mortal minds are like a river, an aboleth's is like the ocean. Two Abolethes can easily tell how they are related by comparing memories.

Finally, they are the ancient ones - created before the current gods. They have a secret, hidden culture - with unusual sciences, arts and architecture - which relays on the steady supply of mind-controlled humanoid slaves. In some sources, these are merely humanoid captives, but in others the Abolethes use horrifyingly distorted human/humanoid spawns which they've "improved" using magic and flesh-grafting to better suit their needs and aesthetics.

Final Note: Although the name Aboleth comes from the D&D system, the monster is highly based on the creatures described in some of H. P. Lovecraft's stories (which isn't classic fantasy, but can mesh well with such a campaign). You can have a solitary one scheming in it's submerged cave, but if you are aiming to overwhelm the elves with a different race's culture, you may be better off staging him as the last living specimen in a once populous under-sea city, where evidence of the lost culture's greatness can be seen both directly as relics and indirectly by surviving artistic depictions and half ruined buildings.

Recommended reading: "At the Mountain of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft - a short story about an antarctic expedition discovering bizarre, abandoned(?) ruins.

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Behold the Beholder

  • Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.

    The Beholder is a staple of Western fantasy gaming, one of the few creatures Wizards of the Coast and its predecessors have almost always considered to be Product Identity.

  • They can't be a standard biped race, humans and elves are so last millennium.

    Oh, the beholder is not any -ped. It's a floating orb, with quite a number of magical eyes and an ugly mouth. Being a true classic, an aging rock star of fantasy gaming, it's also last millennium, mind you.

  • Not a dragon or a dragon clone.

    Check.

  • Living. Breathing. The important point of this is to find a living breathing being that can shake the players from thinking that their race (elves in this case) are the peak lifeform on this world.

    A beholder lives and breathes, though it's a magical creature, obviously -- just like dragons and sphinxes and so on. It can definitely shake anyone (even a dragon, I think) who thinks they're the apex predator. Its eyes radiate anti-magic, can turn you into stone, disintegrate you with a blink, and so on -- few other creatures can do that.

  • Lone being. It needs no mate, consort or even any others of its race, certainly not for decades or centuries at a time.

    Check.

  • An intelligent being that can be reasoned with. Diplomacy with this being should definitely be possible.

    Beholders possess high intelligence, and can be reasoned with... if you can convince them that you pose some kind of threat to them, directly or indirectly, and that you can't be dealt with summarily. A Beholder is highly ambitious and evil, but not stupidly evil, and would love to dominate your kingdoms. And your elves. :)

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Phoenix

Though considered primarily in modern context as large birds of prey and not denoted to a particular level of intelligence, in ancient societies they were a symbol of prosperity and good rule, only appearing for good and virtuous leaders. Its immortality makes it a special point, as reasoning may be the only way to deal with it.

In the Eastern Asian belief systems it was typically considered the equal and opposite pair to the dragon. It's appearance was considered fortuitous and associated with great rulers.

They certainly qualify as an Apex-Creature, and although modern western thought doesn't tend to give it as much credence for intellect, the myths about them exist throughout Europe and Asia, and many regard them as intelligent, even if they don't have automatic communication methods the way Dragons do in every myth. This can be simulated with either giving it normal speech capabilities, or a telepathic communication method.

If you make it magical enough (which is easy with their lore), it could easily shape-shift in to a human, most likely a female (as they represent the "Empress"), and allow it to communicate and manipulate through that the same way many Dragons are portrayed.

In the same vein:

Roc

In some versions of Sinbad's 1001 Nights, the Roc is considered to be the master of Aladdin's Djinn. It isn't considered to be intelligent, generally speaking, but it is an aspect of the element of Air, and thus associated as a supreme representation of what the Djinn were.

The Native American Thunderbird is considered a corollary and are considered to be intelligent, strong, and wrathful.

They weren't always considered as magical as the Phoenix, but could simply be seen as the Air equivalent to the Phoenix's fire, thus making them two sides of the same coin.

Naga

The enemy of the Garuda (Bhuddism's version of the Roc) was the Naga, an intelligent race of snake like creatures. They were supposed to be extremely intelligent.

I was going to add the Sphinx to the list as well, but it has been stated already.

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A treant or awakened tree

In Eberron, there is a leader of a nature-based faction who is either a treant or an awakened great pine, named Oalian. Taking him (it?) as a working example of how such a creature could lead a faction, it seems a good fit for your criteria: it's not a standard biped, it lives and breathes, highly intelligent and open for social interactions, not a dragon, a singular being that doesn't need others of its kind to run the faction, classic Western fantasy (Tolkien), and—as Oalian demonstrates—is suited to leading a faction.

A treant or sentient tree is alien enough in biology, while still being relatable.

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@SevenSidedDie - the edited version of this answer seems to have lost the general idea presented by this sentence: "He's the kind of leader that can be confrontational with other non-evil faction without being unreasonable or evil himself, because of the whole nature thing." - Inspiration-wise, that was one of the better points of this answers IMO. Care to edit it back in? –  G0BLiN Aug 13 at 7:18
    
@G0BLiN Oh, I didn't see it as being relevant to such a creature's suitability as a faction leader, and alignment isn't the only reason for factions to clash (otherwise, they're not really factions in any meaningful sense). Do you think it's really integral to the creature concept? I saw it more as "let me tell you about this specific NPC I like" than as a core feature of the type of creatures it's an example of. (Evil treants are a thing.) –  SevenSidedDie Aug 13 at 7:21
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@SevenSidedDie - ultimately that's a matter of opinion, but it does help flesh-out an interesting way to use this creature as a leader. Granted, the connection "living-tree = nature themed faction" is pretty obvious, but the aforementioned sentence spells out a quality not present in many of the other answers (mine included) - this apex creature (typically) comes with a set of interests and agendas greater than just "I'm great - I shall rule over you". That's the added value I'm missing in the current phrasing. –  G0BLiN Aug 13 at 8:40
    
Yeah, I kinda agree with GoBLiN. I didn't mean "evil" as an alignment thing, not "Good Faction" Vs "Evil Faction". I meant there are many factions that are outright evil, not just one evil faction, but also many factions that aren't inherently evil (like various normal countries), but they would still be opposed to each other for various reasons. And a Tree leader could be confrontational even with overall good factions if they do something wrong, or he knows better (ancient wisdom) of secret threats. Without him just being totally unreasonable (as some fiction writers do). –  Simanos Aug 26 at 10:21

Angel

Angels are badass. They are always appearing to cause trouble and no one knows why. Angels don't have to be emissaries of God. They are alternatively represented as Half-bird/half-human things or occasionally as thinly-disguised demons.

http://media.animevice.com/uploads/3/37524/677068-safer_sephiroth.jpg

Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.

Definately, originates from one of my favorite fantasy books of all. Angels originate from Western culture but they have been used as villains to great effect mostly in Japanese games.

They can't be a standard biped race, humans and elves are so last millennium.

Comes literally from the last millennium.

Not a dragon or a dragon clone.

Check

Living. Breathing

About as mortal as an elf.

http://bayonetta.wikia.com/wiki/Jubileus,_The_Creator

Lone being

Perfect for the lone being, Angels are lonely in nature, being all up on their high horse.

Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power

Angels can be super-powerful and have been known to mess stuff up.

Overall, an Angel makes an interesting enemy for your campaign as diplomacy with them is very different. He would probably come from an angle of "purifying" the land of "evil" and so your characters would need to employ unique tactics to reason with him/her.

Additionally, this allows you to explore themes like religion, ethics and the afterlife.

http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/7/72615/2418856-kefka___final_form_by_sarifus.png

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A World/Leviathan Turtle

Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.

Oh heck, yes. The concept exists in multiple mythologies although none of them are what we think as "Western".

They can't be a standard biped race.

It's technically a tetrapod, due to its limbs not actually being feet.

Not a dragon or a dragon clone.

Nope.

Living. Breathing.

Consuming... just imagine how much it would take to feed such a thing.

Lone being.

I can't think of any example of a being that large in classic fantasy RPGs or in mythology that isn't solitary by nature.

An intelligent being that can be reasoned with.

That's kind of up to you. Mythology doesn't have a whole lot to say on the matter but both Avatar series have done a lovely job with their Lion-Turtles.

Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power.

When your realm resides on your back and you can dunk it in the ocean on a whim, I'm pretty sure you can get them to do whatever you want.

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Any sort of Chimaera, really, which I mean as an adaptation of the genetic sense (beings made from the parts of many creatures). In fact, this is essentially what the "dragons" in many cultures are.

Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.

There are a ton of examples from greek mythology.

There are also several examples in Asian mythology of creatures that, like the Asian dragon, are essentially chimaera but are very dragon-like in appearance and demeanor. Dragon Turtles would be a classic example from D&D.

They can't be a standard biped race

Even if they're biped (minotaur) they're definitely not standard.

Not a dragon or a dragon clone.

That's... a little less clear. None of them are dragons per-se and none of them are "dragon clones" in the sense of being a drake or other creature that is essentially a dragon with a different name.

Living. Breathing.

No, none of them are inanimate.

Lone being.

Most of the examples I provided are actually unique creatures in mythology, so they pretty much have to be.

An intelligent being that can be reasoned with.

In mythology, typically not, unless they have human qualities. However, they are entirely creatures of Fantasy so remembering that our goblins are different just take advantage of the fact that you're kind of making things up anyway. There are lots of examples in modern culture of each of these creatures being presented as intelligent.

Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power.

Well, they certainly have the power aspect down. Each example of these creatures was the terror of some realm until an enterprising young demigod or holy warrior decided to take them down. Obviously, how true this is in a general sense depends on how you interpret the specific result.

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Jörmungandr

Sea serpent from Norse mythology, son of Loki

Why?

By definition, there could be only one Apex predator in one given environment.
Jörmungandr is a marine creature. Problem solved.

Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.
That's Norse mythology. Unlike Leviatan that is Hebraic.

They can't be a standard biped race, humans and elves are so last millennium
It have no foot.
And just like @itcouldevenbeaboat 's Angel, he is literally from the last millenium as he'll come to poison the sky in the Ragnarök time.

Not a dragon or a dragon clone
A sea Serpent. You judge

Living. Breathing.
Living. Probably breathing

Lone being
Check

An intelligent being that can be reasoned with. Diplomacy should definitely be possible.
Well... That is the week point. Maybe he speaks at some point of some Saga, but he is not a diplomacy lover

Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power
He is expected to kill Thor during the Ragnarök. After which the few surving creature will reign on a new world!!!
Well... He is also expected to die during that fight but, hey.... It ain't over till the fat lady sings. Especially in Norse legends.

And... what about a twist that reveal your player are in a post-ragnarok world?

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Actually, there can be more than one apex predator in an environment. Being an apex predator means that you have no natural predators. This doesn't mean there's nothing that can kill the apex predator, only that there's nothing that seeks it out as a food source. For example, bears and wolfs will fight, kill, and (naturally) eat each other; but they are both apex predators as such fights only happen as parts of a territory dispute. Neither creature "hunts" the other. –  Wesley Obenshain Aug 5 at 1:36

Alhoons

A mind flayer.. but with tons of Sorcerer or Wizard levels and a ton of extra lich included. An Alhoon has the capability of mind flaying hundreds of people in any given location into drooling dominance, has potent spellcasting ability, and has the potent visage of an undead mind flayer.

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I've got the same issue with this that I've had with a lot of suggestions. It's easy to turn a specific character into a badass (see the PCs) but what is it about the species that makes it superior? –  Wesley Obenshain Aug 5 at 4:57
    
Well you have the powers of an Arcane Spellcaster, A psion, and a Lich all in one package. Essentially you have to deal with high will save domination, high fort save-or-dies, high reflex save direct damage, and if you manage to kill the thing it could've hidden its phylactery in a psionically or magically shielded container that is next to impossible to break or destroy. –  Sandwich Aug 5 at 6:01
    
You're missing the point. An Alhoon is an (or used to be) illithid. It's like saying "Let me give the kobold 20 levels of bad-ass and a name" as a suggestion. It misses the point. What is it about the illithid that makes it superior. –  Wesley Obenshain Aug 5 at 6:07
    
Put another way, the only natural advantage of the illithid is their psionic ability. So is that enough to make them "top dog"? Because the rest is something that could be given to any other intelligent species at the same "cost". –  Wesley Obenshain Aug 5 at 6:09
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Neither living nor breathing. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 5 at 7:07

How about some kind of parasite creature similar to Star Gate's Goa'uld, Star Trek's Trill or Heinlein's Slugs from the Puppet Masters.

One of these parasite creatures could take over any host body and confront the players. They would likely be quite confused to keep running into the same personality in different bodies.

I am not sure if that meets your criteria since the host would likely be humanoid.

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I'm more concerned about the "lone being" criteria. The Goa'uld have power in numbers: they have an empire! An individual Goa'uld is not that frightening. (Perhaps they can inhabit various less-than-apex forms?) –  doppelgreener Jul 22 at 23:01
    
@JonathanHobbs It would seem to violate the "solo" clause but more in letter than spirit, I think. Taking a normally unintelligent (or less intelligent) creature and giving it sentience is one of the best ways to make an incredibly scary adversary. –  Wesley Obenshain Jul 23 at 21:25

The true apex predator is man.

Use something very dissimilar from a dragon. Dragons are huge, strong, and mystically powerful, and if the players are used to encountering them as a threat they will be tremendously unsettled by encountering a small, physically unimposing leader that is nigh-untouchable.

My suggestion: a member of a normal "uncivilized" race (goblins, orcs, et cetera) with access to some powerful magic through skill, experience, or an item. If that's too dull, go with a shapeshifter, a fae noble, or an ancient immortal being (Gandalf, Silmarillion Sauron) that is not much to look at.

Classic fantasy based, preferably Western culture originating.

The idea of a manipulative villain/rival with access to more power than she seems to deserve is a powerful motif.

They can't be a standard biped race, humans and elves are so last millennium.

Bending this one a bit, but pick a race that gets no respect. The underdog, the mook. If possible, you can even pick a memorable character that the PCs defeated or encountered when everyone was less powerful. The villain has leveled up since then.

Not a dragon or a dragon clone.

Check.

...a living breathing being that can shake the players from thinking that their race (elves in this case) are the peak lifeform on this world.

There's little more unsettling than encountering a member of a race you normally dismiss being treated with the respect normally afforded dragons.

Lone being. It needs no mate, consort or even any others of its race, certainly not for decades or centuries at a time.

Pick someone who seems like they would need companionship but doesn't. "Surely there must be someone close to her," the party will think. But there isn't, through the leader's sheer determination or stubbornness or hatred of other sapient beings.

An intelligent being that can be reasoned with.

Check. It's always nice when a villain/rival sees the PCs as an amusing distraction. Make it seem like this leader has more important things to do but appreciates the chance to take a break.

Could control an entire realm/kingdom on their own by sheer force of will and personal power

Give them spells or abilities that "break the rules" somehow. Maybe any damage they take is suffered by their citizens instead, so that to kill them you're methodically slaughtering bystanders. Maybe they have earned the favor of a god, so that they can wave their hands and cause miracles. Maybe they're just so impossibly charismatic that everyone leaps to their defense instead of the PCs.

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In a fantasy world the "true apex predator is man" is exactly the trope I wish to destroy ;) –  Rob Jul 29 at 16:06

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