Friday, January 27, 2023


 Although their abilities defy classification, their forms do not.

Dragons of the Upper Air

Of unknown provenance, perhaps even more powerful than the elder wyrms.  Forganthus Valore is the only own that is known.  In exchange for the 100 Year Stew, he trades in history and prediction.  The Thylakalykon may also be one.

Elder Wyrms

Ancient beasts, that pre-date history and Law.  More real than the world they inhabit--a reptilian nail hammered through a paper reality.  Their lands are the Desolations.

True Dragons

The offspring of the elder wyrms, created by fertilized eggs.  Since Elder Wyrms despise each other, True Dragons are vanishingly rare.  Here are some.

  • Panthrax, Twice-Dead - enslaved by Asria.
  • Trilotectus - killed by the Light Collector.
  • Feragon - entombed with Yalys the Enchantress, possibly carrying her child.
  • Xanthimander - accessible!  A "martial artist" who collects drugs
Drakes and Dragonoid Phenomena

The parthenogenic offspring of elder wyrms and/or true dragons.  Unlike the previous varieties, they are generally of animal intelligence, and many are sterile.  They range from noble drakes (miniature dragons) to degenerate drakes all the way down to dragonoid phenomena.  


Pseudo-draconic creatures that arise spontaneously from draconic tissues and spoor.  Explosive.


Typically, a colony of savage humans that serves an elder wyrm or dragon, usually preoccupied with ranching and treasure-seeking.  Typically opposed to kobolds.

Revenant Wyrm

Elder wyrms cannot be annihilated.  When their bodies are destroyed, they will be reborn, either through their direct progeny (a form of generational intrascension).  Or, through generations of humans who each hold a fragment of the wyrm, and will be drawn to each other across the continent, adding their pieces to their firstborn, who continue this process of soul-concentration, creating first the abominations known as dragonborn and finally the dragon itself, raw-spun from the blood of its agents.

Dragons of the Upper Air

Forganthus Valore (Dragon of the Upper Air)

Forganthus Valore arrives every century or so, arriving from the upper air at exactly the date that he specified.

He eats the 100 Year Stew, which has been prepared by the Stewer's Guild of Bospero over the last 100-150 years.  One of his heads eats, while the other head speaks.  In return for the stew, he answers most of the questions put to him, although he does not speak of the workings of the upper air.

When he is done, two women each drink one of his tears.  They will give birth to the Gannets, who will direct the next century of stew-making, and eventually become part of it themselves.  

When he departs, it is atop a pillar of flame that hangs in the sky for hours, curving like a grass stalk as it traces the path.

Many of Forganthus's stews require multi-generational eugenics programs of culinary species, always at the limits of what is possible, and frequently beyond what is ethical.

The Thylakalykon (Dragon of the Upper Air)

The Thylakalykon is another dragon of the upper air, although Boshmuir the Unshaven believes that 5 dragons have been conflated into one, and the thylakalykon is best described as a species.

It has only been summoned twice.  The second time was by King Rondiveo, who sought to capture the dragon.  

The Thylakalykon does not breath fire.  It's exhalations are instead composed of the Edgeless Sharp, which bisects objects and men down the middle.  King Rondiveo and his men had rendered themselves impervious to this great weapon, having altered themselves so as to be without symmetry.  

But they were eluded by the dragon of the upper air, who departed not atop the expected pillar of flame, but atop a great explosion of light and fire, leaving behind a crackling flammigenitus cloud that poisoned the land forever.  Far removed from the scene, observers witnessed the Thylakalykon emerge from this cloud and continue its ascent.

Before morning, six objects (referred to as meteoric lances by Boshmuir the Unshaven) fell from the upper air, and destroyed Rondo, Shopshire, and Voon.

Elder Wyrms

Elder wyrms are widely considered hermaphroditic, although Makamendo Balette believes that they instead change their gender at will.  Boshmuir describes them as sexless.

All elder wyrms have a multitude of names.  It is believed that saying the name of an elder wyrm invites disaster, and so pseudonyms are common.

Orcs have an especially large oral culture surrounding the elder wyrms, and possess several names for each one.  For reasons not fully understood, orcs interact often with dragons and their drakkencults, typically without violence.  (In contrast to human interactions.)

Lagazotz (Elder Wyrm)

Lagazizi, Lantu Lien, the Contempuous Worm, the Infinitely Contemptuous

Legends say that Lagazotz lived atop a mountain once, but after interacting with the denizens of the earth, they grew so contemptuous of them, that they vowed to never touch the earth again.  They vowed to fly until the sky fell down, and burned off their own legs as evidence of his own oath.  The ashes of Lagazotz's self-mutilation are now known as the Contemptuous Cloud.

Lagazotz travels widely.  Sailors in all quarters of the world have sighted their serpentine form with its many pairs of wings.  It is said that they feed on the beasts of the upper air, and in this they is most similar to the dragons of the first clade.  Their children fly alongside when possible, but they lack their parent's strength.

They visit their desolation only rarely, and shed their eggs into a certain lagoon, to be raised by their drakkencult.

Their breath is the sky itself.  They roar, and the whole sky roars.  Their fire is a white fire, infused by upper spirits of dislocation.  Anything struck by it is transported miles into the sky.  

Spirits of lightning are bound to Lagazotz, and obey given commands.  It is Lagazotz's alliances with the lightnings that is feared, more than their white flames of translocation.

When the draconauts of Bospero warred against them, Lagazotz cracked the Purple Dome and left their dragons impaled on lightning bolts, which hung in the sky for the days.  The pierced dragons writhed upon them and slowly died, and all those who gazed upon the standing lightning went blind or mad or both.  The draconauts ended that day.

Dragons only have one weakness, and it is lightning.  The fact that Lagazotz has mastered it makes them an incredibly efficient kin-killer, which is perhaps fitting, since they are the oldest and greatest of dragons.

Lake Drakes (Drakes)

The spawn of Lagazotz, they can swim through water as easily as air.  They prize fish, but fear storms.  Also called silver drakes, their bones can be made into magic flutes.

Beyoc (Elder Wyrm)

The Girded Wyrm, The Blunted Wyrm, Old Slug, Red Wroyth

In their Desolation, it is always summer, and their salamandrakes thump through the steep ravines and war over mud wallows.  Plants and insects thrive in their swelter.

Of all the dragons, they are the largest, being 600’ long and with a similar circumference.  They crawl and thrash, but mostly they wallow.  They are attended by the drakkencult, and by thousands of birds that clean the great wyrm of parasites.  When pressed, they are capable of swimming through the earth, and at great speed.

Their treasure is stonework, and so their Desolation is filled with the spires and balconies that have been built by the drakkencult to please them.  In their joys, Old Slug will stare up unblinking at the faux architectures.  In their melancholies, Old Slug will destroy them.

Their breath is lava.  In fact, Beyoc seems to be the only dragon who is actually fire-proof, with all other dragons suffering from their own fires, to some degree.  In combat, Beyoc is prone to falling asleep, although that is hardly an disadvantage--they are as durable as stone.  Although they can burrow as well as any worm, they are loathed by the earth, and their intrusions are often met by earthquakes and landslides.

Beyoc is the elder wyrm who is most known to suffer entreaties from humans (although it would be a stretch to call them conversant).  Beyoc is best appeased with a gift of spice-drenched elephants, lightly oiled.

The Blunted Wyrm has a unique power: anything they swallows is undone.  If they swallow an architect, that architect's buildings will fall over.  An author's books will become unreadable.  And a human's children will die, swallowed by the earth they stand on.

(Reinaday of Armenjero avoided this fate for years by living in trees, until a passing smirch caused her to slip.)

Beyoc once devoured an cemetery, and in doing so, murdered an entire town.  The only survivors were immigrants, who did not have any ancestors buried there.

It is a dreadful power, to be sure.  But what less could be expected from Red Wroyth, the oldest and most powerful of dragons?

Salamandrakes (Drake)

The spawn of Beyoc.  Fat and belligerent.  Trees grow on their backs, from which salamizar can be extracted.  Their shouts shatter metal.

Salamizar has several potent alchemical purposes, including prophesy, madness, anti-poisons, and several poisons.  However, its most famous property is the ability to allow procreation when it would normally be impossible.


Drakes are Lvl 8.  Dragons are Lvl 10.  Elder wyrms aren't really something you fight in regular combat, but if the players insist, they are Lvl 10, have double HP, damage reduction 5, and will probably require siege weapons.

Dragonoid Phenomenon

This is the template for a dragonoid phenomenon.  They will of course vary by brood.

They are squat, malformed things.  Most are bipedal, and drag their asses on the ground as they walk.

Dragonoid Phenomenon
Lvl Def plate  Bite 1d12+1d6 (fire)
Move slow  Int stupid dog  Dis rabid dog

Boss Saves - If a boss would fail a save, they can choose instead to suffer a partial effect (e.g. semi-petrified for 1 round instead of permanent petrification) and take 7 damage.  If that's not possible, they instead suffer no effect and take 14 damage.

Grab Tongue - 30’ range, can pull people into mouth for a bite attack.

Wind-Up Attacks:

At the end of each of its turns, the next wind-up attack is randomly chosen, and the boss monster will cue it's next attack (e.g. lowering its head and windmilling its arms in preparation for a charge).  At the beginning of its next turn, it executes the queued attack as a free action (and then takes a normal turn).
  • Barf - 60’ line, poison(1d6/rnd) + coated in flammable oil
  • Charge - trample attack, 3d6 damage, knock prone, Dex avoids (if you didn't already take cover), destroys objects.
  • I Am Error - wastes next turn, attacking a random object, falling prone, or seizing up and drooling blood.  It gets -4 to all rolls next turn and can only make a single Bite attack (no tongue).

A dragonoid phenomenon is a boss monster, which is why it has Wind-Up Attacks and Boss Saves.

Wind-Up Attacks create dynamism.  They force the players to change tactics each turn.  (A big risk with multi-round boss fights is that the players will just use standard tactics each round.)  It's similar to watching a boss wind-up in Elden Ring and then calculating your next 6 seconds.

Similarly, Boss Saves exist to prevent a fight from ending prematurely due to a save-or-die effect.  Legendary Resistance (boss monsters can automatically succeed on saves 3/day) are worse because they essentially create a second healthbar (the 3/day auto-success saves) that competes with the first healthbar (HP), since that forces parties to attack 1 health bar at a time to be effective.  (This means that parties that want to be effective will have to focus on either attacking HP or attacking saves, reducing the potential schemes they can hatch, and locking them out of part of their toolset.)

Anyway, I think I need to do at least 2 more dragon posts to cover all the dragon lore.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Dwarven Puzzle Tomb - Part 1

This is my Week 3 contribution to Dungeon23.  I'm writing a dwarven puzzle tomb.


I'm trying to take my own advice on puzzle dungeons to see if my advice is worth a damn.  Turning theory into practice, that sort of thing.


The dungeon is built around the idea that this is a puzzle tomb that is easy for dwarves to navigate, but deadly to humans.

Because of this, the players need to enter the dungeon with a basic knowledge of what dwarves are like.  This takes the form of a hand-out (which should all be familiar information for anyone who's played DnD before).

This is sort of the over-clue that informs a lot of the puzzles.

The first puzzle at the entrance relies on this knowledge (dwarven infravision allows them to see the temperatures of objects) and is probably trickier than the next few puzzles but I wanted to make sure that players were thinking along the axis of "easy for dwarves, deadly for humans".

This is only the first few rooms, so the puzzles are pretty simple--mostly meant to familiarize the players with how a puzzle dungeon operates.

The diorama puzzle is the weakest of the bunch and I am almost certainly going to overhaul it when I rewrite these rooms (for like the 4th time, lol).

If anyone has any ideas for improving the diorama puzzle, let me know in the comments.

Soft Locks

There's a shitty little draft map in the PDF, but you can see that the dungeon has a tree-like shape.

I'm doing this because I want to utilize soft-locks, so that the players will only have ~3 puzzles to work on at a time.

You don't want to put all of the puzzles in front of your players at once--it's overwhelming.

Inversely, you don't want to have your puzzle dungeon simply be a linear chain of dungeon rooms presented one after the other--it's boring, and if you get stuck on one puzzle, you can't take a break and go work on some other puzzle.  You're stuck with the one puzzle that's frustrating you.

Hence, soft locks.

Here's a sketch of the dungeon layout from last week.  In this sketch, room 3 (the one with the three statues) has to be encountered before room 6 (measuring across the floor) can be solved.  Likewise, room 5 (the diorama) is required before room 10 can be solved.

If you work your way through the drawing above, and imagine how players might hypothetically progress through the dungeon, you'll see that they have ~3 puzzles available to them at any given time (except at the beginning, when they have less).

This is what I mean by flow control.

  • Sort puzzles from easy to hard
  • Make sure that players have learned the principles on an easy puzzle before I ask them to use it on a more complicated puzzle
  • Helps tell a linear story
Because there are 8 tombs in this dungeon, and they are all arranged in the order that members of the dwarven work crews died, it allows me to tell a story of how the mountain was excavated.  Players will learn which dungeon areas are near the surface (excavated early) and which ones are at the bottom (excavated later) and how the whole dig got much more perilous as the project grew.

Puzzle dungeons benefit more from flow control than other dungeon types.  


Here are previous entries in the Dungeon23 thing.

Week 1

Week 2

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Some Words on Dwarven Gender


The two dwarven genders are miner and blacksmith.

Gender is among the first ways we describe someone, along with age, name, and where they're from.  "My new boss is this woman from Texas."  Most of the time you don't even have to say whether someone is a man or a women, since the pronouns do it for you.

Dwarves do the same thing.  "What's their name?  What's their craft?"

So it will come as no surprise that dwarven have pronouns indicate profession.

Gender and Profession

Of course, miner is used in both the literal sense (they literally mine ores) and the general sense, as in anyone who collects raw goods might also be referred to as a miner.  (The word is unfortunately ambiguous when translated.)

And literally translating blacksmith is also misleading, too, since it can also refer to anyone who transforms raw materials into a more unfinished state.

Human: "So your mason is also a blacksmith?"

Dwarf: (Rolls eyes.) "They don't work with metal.  I told you they work with stone.  But of course, yes, they're a blacksmith."

Human: "Huh?"

That's what they put on their tombstones.  Instead of "devoted mother and wife" you'll encounter "diligent mason and bondholder".

Some parts are non-intuitive.  Warriors are usually considered to be miners, except for cavalry, who are considered blacksmiths.  Of course, in a war, everyone fights.  It's just that miners are expected to fight, while blacksmiths are not.

Which seems a little bit silly to humans.  "Surely you still need miners during a war, and surely a blacksmith can fight as well as a miner?"  It's a cultural norm, not a rational decision.

Gender and Names

Human names are gendered.  You can usually tell someone's gender just by their name.  Tabitha is a girl.  Scott is a boy.

Dwarven names are the same.  Oskerval is a miner.  Gathron is a blacksmith.

Dwarves give themselves their own names when they are young.  It is considered important for dwarven children to have good role models of both genders.

Gender and Language

Dwarven pronouns are also built around the same divide.  They don't have he/she.  Instead they have a different set of pronouns based on whether you are talking about a miner (raw material collector) or a blacksmith (manufacturer of finished goods).

Even dwarven nouns are gendered in this way.  (It's a bit like German in that way.)  It doesn't always make sense.

A pickaxe is a miner, but a shovel is a blacksmith.  Rubies are miners, diamonds are blacksmiths.

Birds are neuter.

Is Gender Even the Right Word?

Not really.  It's not quite like how we use gender, but "gender" is the closest thing that we have for the dwarven concept.  It's probable that the roles for blacksmith and miner evolved out of the types of gender roles that humans are familiar with, so it's possible that dwarves were like us, once.

Dwarves see the world in a certain way that makes them want to put everything and everyone into these two fundamental categories.  A person is either a miner or a blacksmith.  Even animals and objects have associations as one or the other.  

Humans do the same thing with gender.  Cats are kinda feminine, dogs are kinda masculine.  "Don't be catty." "You dog!"

Among dwarves, snakes are kinda minery and goats are kinda blacksmithy.  If a dwarf calls you a snake, he's not accusing you of lying--he's saying that you have a lot of the negative traits associated with miners.

There is a little bit of prejudice against miners.  Most fathers desire blacksmiths.

by Sergio Artigas

How Dwarves See Humans

Imagine a man who goes to a faraway place to visit a new people.

The foreign men there are a little odd, having characteristics of both men and women.  That's fine, though.  The man can handle people that are a little genderfluid.


That's how dwarves see women, with their high-pitched voices and smooth chins.

A dwarf goes to visit a human city.  The men are easy enough to interact with.  A lot of them shave their faces (which makes them look like children--like someone wearing a diaper in public) and most of them of genderfluid (they transition between miner and blacksmith all the time--not even like transitioning once in their life, but they switch back and forth daily.)   That's okay, though, the dwarf can handle people that are a little genderfluid.

So even human men tend to make dwarves uneasy.  Younger dwarves tend to be cool with it.  They'll just smile and say "That's fine!  That sort of thing doesn't bother me at all!  If a human wants to shear a sheep and then weave it into cloth himself, that's fine!  I don't judge him.  I'm not a bigot!"

Dwarven elders tend to be more conservative.  (This is an understatement.)

Women are a much stranger concept for dwarves, and if a dwarf hasn't been around humans for very long, expect lots of staring.  Dwarves are also more comfortable talking to men, especially men with beards, and especially men with beards who fall neatly into either the miner or blacksmith category.

This is why dwarves who emigrate to human cities tend to seek out blacksmiths or other crafters early on.  (Cities are full of crafters.)  And since most dwarves who emigrate are miners, in the few cases where a dwarf falls in love with a human, it's inevitably some sort of crafter.

Dwarven Women

Human: "So how come I never see any dwarf women?"

Dwarf: "Eh?  What's a wimmin?"

Human: (laughs and points at a woman) "That's a woman.  What are dwarf women like?"

Dwarf: (getting red in the face) "NO SIR!  There are no dwarven women!"

So you can see how the confusion originally arose.  

But the dwarf is right--there are no dwarven "women".  Dwarves don't have a high degree of sexual dimorphism, and their society lacks any comparable role.

Do Dwarves Identify as Male or Female?

Once dwarves are introduced to the human concept of gender, nearly all of them identify as men.  (They didn't realize that we sorted ourselves by gender, like farm animals or something.)

Most of them have a harder time relating to women in the beginning, mostly because they lack beards and have high pitched voices.  To dwarves, they seem like mutant children.

And to humans, all dwarves look like men, so humans assume them to be male, and address them as such.  To dwarves, the whole distinction is rather pointless ("why does it matter so much?") so they don't really care what gender humans assign them.  They have more important things to do.  Fool humans.

Gender Coding Among Dwarves

There's a lot of little behaviors that can make someone seem more masculine or feminine.  Sitting with your legs crossed.  Watching sporting events.  Wearing tight pants.

Dwarves have even more of these than humans do.  Once you've lived among dwarves for a while, you'll notice that there are hundreds of little things that miners do differently from blacksmiths.  Miners tend to stack their fists when they sit at a table--blacksmiths almost always lay their hands flat.  Blacksmiths wear pockets on their chests, but miners never do.  This extends to how they hold mushrooms during meals, how they stack coins, how they hold shovels, how they braid their beards, how they laugh, and how they sneeze.

And when humans go to dwarven citadels, they fuck this up constantly.

Dwarves like to be clean, like anyone else, but miners are expected to be a little bit dirty.  After a bath, a miner will sometimes apply a little black paint under the tips of their fingernails, so they look a bit dirty.  Or a quick smudge of kohl on the cheek, enough to look casual.

Dwarven Sexuality and Romance

The primary engine for dwarven sexuality is labor.

Dwarves become attracted to other dwarves for a few reasons, but the largest one is their work.  A blacksmith might be impressed by the quantity of a miner's ores, or by their skill in prospecting them.  A miner might be impressed by a blacksmith's steady hand.

There are plenty of stories of a dwarf encountering a hammer, falling in love with the craft of it, and then seeking out the dwarf that made the hammer, already enraptured.

Dwarven gender and dwarven sexuality are closely linked.  When two dwarves fall in love, it's always a miner and a blacksmith.  When two dwarves move in together, it's always a miner and a blacksmith who are in love with each other.  Dwarves have a hundred reasons why that's natural and correct.

Sometimes miners fall in love with miners, though.  Or a blacksmith falls in love with a blacksmith.  These unions are (kindly) regarded as misguided, or (harshly) seen as disgusting and bad for society.  The two dwarves in question are usually shunned or exiled.  In some cases they are killed.

Dwarven society is very repressive in its own way.

Dwarven romance is actually highly analogous to human romance.  There is a large emphasis on gift-giving, though, and a weirdly high value placed on punctuality.  When a couple exchanges money, they use envelopes, and the money is not counted by the recipient.

"Sexuality" isn't quite the right word, either, but they do have sex.  Why did you think they were so eager to move in with each other?

I won't go into the details, but I will say that dwarves are not as obsessed with their genitals as we are.

The reason you don't see dwarves making out all the time is because most of the dwarves you'll meet outside of the citadels are all minersTheir blacksmiths are all at home (and their miners miss them dearly).

Additionally: dwarves are all pretty faithful in their relationships, but even if they weren't, why would a miner want to kiss a miner?

Dwarves also use possessives to refer to their partner.  "my wife" "my husband" "my blacksmith" "my miner".  This also causes misunderstandings.

Dwarven Reproduction

Reproduction is something completely different from sexuality.

In fact, dwarves think it's kinda gross that humans think the two things are the same.

Of course, dwarves understand that among animals, the boys hump on the girls and that's where babies come from.  They raise plenty of domesticated animals; they are not stupid.

But the separation of sex from reproduction is one of the primary things that separates us from animals.  And in fact, it's boggling that humans have so little self-control over it.  It's as fundamental to society as using a toilet instead of shitting in your front yard.  That's what makes us civilized.  Why can't humans separate the two?

The reasons that a dwarf might want to have a child should sound familiar: it's to have (a) an heir, (b) an apprentice, (c) a family, (d) to give/receive love, (e) to give meaning to their life, (f) to fix the mistakes of their parents, (g) to give someone else a good start in the world, (h) someone to pass their debt on to, so their tomb isn't resold after they die, (i) their father expects them to.

All the same reasons that humans have kids for (except for maybe the debt thing).

When a dwarf wants a child, they prefer to adopt.  Dwarves love adoption.  You get to skip a lot of the unproductive years that way, and the kid will still be loyal to you when they grow up.  (Maybe "loyal" is the wrong word.  Adult dwarven children have a shocking amount of legal and financial obligations to their parents.  Marriages can be annulled, but the obligation that a dwarf owes his father can never be discharged.)

When there are no young dwarves to adopt, a baby will be made the old fashioned way.

The father is the one who pays for the baby.

The father might supply seed, field, or neither.  

Paying for seed is cheap.  Paying for field is expensive.  But when you're done, the new father gets a lovely baby to raise, and everyone is happy.  So many tiny clothes to make!

Dwarves don't care much if their sons are related to them.  It's seen as a little bit prideful if all of your sons are related to you.  A dwarf will probably hire one or two genetic parents based on their rates and the quality of the expected offspring.  The spouse may or may not be one of these dwarves.  The prospective father may or may not be one of these dwarves.

If there is a dwarf you greatly admire, you may want to hire them to be a genetic parent to one of your sons.  It's not rare for dwarves to hire their debtholders to be genetic parents for one of their children, but if their debtholder has a uterus, they probably can't afford it.  Paying for field is so expensive because the dwarf usually has to take time off of work.

The dwarf's spouse is not especially involved in this process, although they are on the short list of dwarves that are considered when choosing a genetic parent.  Most dwarves admire their spouses, after all.  But it's also common for spouses to never father* each other's children, even when they have compatible genitals.  Reproduction has nothing to do with gender.

Honestly, it's far more civilized than whatever humans do.

*In this sentence, it's still "fathering" even if you're the one supplying the uterus.  Sorry if this blogpost is so confusing--English doesn't have a good vocabulary for dwarven gender and reproductive roles.

Mothers and Fathers

Dwarves don't have mothers.  They only have fathers.  

I would describe dwarven society as hyper-patriarchal, but without any women in society, the term is kinda hollow.

Dwarves don't deal well with the concept of shared ownership.  "This baby belongs to both the mother and the father."  Huh?  That's all just dumb shit that humans say.

Dwarf: "So who owns this house, then?"

Man: "Well, I share it with my wife."

Dwarf: (rolling his eyes) "But who owns it rightfully?  If you got a divorce, who would get it?"

Man: "That depends.  We'd probably have to go talk to a judge."

Dwarf: (under his breath) "So the bloody judge knows who the house belongs to, but the man paying taxes on it has no clue.  Fucking incredible, I swear to Gox."

Fathership is a type of ownership.  The young dwarf has rights, of course, but they also have a great many obligations to their father.

Young dwarves dread their birthdays, because that's when their father usually presents them with the itemized list of parenting fees for the last year, and reviews their debt repayment plan.

However, dwarves do have uncles, which is a formal legal status reserved for the brothers of the father.  It is also frequently extended to their spouse, close friend, or debtholder.

In rare cases, it is sometimes even extended to the other genetic parent.

Previous Dwarven Culture Posts

A Few Words on Dwarven Culture

A Few More Words on Dwarven Culture

Dwarven Architecture

The Dwarves of Mt. Doldrum

A Disclaimer

Dwarven culture is not monolithic (even though dwarves will insist that it is.)

This blog post mostly refers to the dwarves of:

  • the Seventh Citadel and all its sons and grandsons.
  • the Third Citadel of the Fifth Citadel, and all its sons.
  • a couple of orphaned citadels in Tramaldea, part of the Cordyceps Diaspora
So if anything in my posts seems to contradict itself, don't worry!  I was just talking about slightly different dwarves.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Puzzle Do's and Dont's + Some Examples

You probably use puzzles in your dungeons.  I have advice for that.

DON'T Use Video Game Puzzles

Video game puzzles are highly visual, quickly communicate geometry and orientation, and often let you pack a lot of information onto the screen at one time.

DMs mostly communicate things verbally.  The bandwidth is a lot less.

I love the puzzles in Zelda, The Witness, and Portal, but none of them translate well to tabletop.  The puzzles in the Witness would require you to give your players a lot of handouts (which is fine, in moderation), and Zelda-style block pushing puzzles often require you to have a grid where you track stone placement, open doors, etc.  

A good example of a good Zelda puzzle is one where you maneuver a bunch of mirrors to bounce a ray of light through three crystals.  

It's almost as bad as when the DM hands you a sudoku when you walk in the room.  Or math problems.  Ew.

DO Use Escape Room Puzzles

Escape room puzzles are usually about pattern recognition, and/or searching an environment until you find a pattern.  (The pattern recognition puzzles in Breath of the Wild, such as the three tree puzzles, are an example of this.)

Another concept: encoding patterns in sounds.  (In Lair of the Lamb, there water that drips off a fish statue with a drip-dripdrip-drip-dripdrip pattern.  Another fish statue holds a tumbler where the players can open a door by inputting 1-2-1-2.)

Escape rooms also go wild with shadow casting, or spotlights illuminating significant objects, etc.

Some examples here.

MAYBE Use Riddles

I enjoy them, but most of the time the players either figure it out in 3 seconds or they never figure it out.  Neither is satisfying.

DO Puzzle Dungeons Rather Than Puzzle Rooms

I realize that some people will chime in with "but puzzle rooms break up the monotony of the combat rooms and social challenge rooms".  

To them I reply "combat, conversation, and exploration are already puzzles in a well-designed OSR game.  You don't need puzzle rooms to break up the monotony, because the puzzles never really stop.  How do we get past this chained-up basilisk?  Are these goblins lying to us?  How do we open this sealed door?"

A dedicated puzzle dungeon (or at least, a few puzzle rooms linked together) has these advantages.

1. You can build upon an existing knowledge base.  I you look closely at a game like Portal, you'll realize that most of the game is just a tutorial.  Each level teaches you one more thing about how to use your portal gun.  You build upon the previous knowledge and expand your knowledge base gradually.

2. It allows you to create linked puzzles, such as requiring you to use knowledge or tools from an earlier room.

3. Puzzles can be arranged by difficulty, with the harder ones in the back.

4. It allows you to set it aside from the rest of the dungeon, so the players don't feel like the puzzle is something that they need to get through.  Instead, they can choose to go to the puzzle section where they already know to pay extra attention to tiny details and slake their thirst of puzzles.  If they don't want puzzles, they can leave.

DON'T Use Puzzles if You Need Players to Solve Them

Puzzles are unreliable.  Sometimes players get frustrated and walk away.  Sometimes people don't want to do puzzles.  Sometimes the answer is simply outside of their reach.

If you need the players to get to the final boss room, don't put the boss room behind a puzzle.

DO Follow Principles of Good OSR Challenge Design

I wrote about this here.  For example, don't have solutions that require a specific class ability or specific spell.  

DO Encode Lore/Flavor/Story in Your Puzzles 

When possible, anyway.  It's nice when puzzles match the theme, tell a story, or reveal bits of setting lore.

It's also possible to have lore actual be the solution to the puzzle.  Like knowing that dwarves consider birds to be evil allows you to solve a puzzle but this only works if it's something that the players definitely remember--and never trust your players to remember anything.   They'll forget their names if you let them.  If you want to go ahead with lore-based solutions, best practice is to have the "birds are evil" thing 1 or 2 rooms earlier.

DO Use Multi-step Puzzles

Even if the first step is just looking around the room for clues.

It pads out the puzzle to make it feel more substantial (especially if it is an easy puzzle).  

Additionally, it allows you to feed the players clues one by one, instead of info-dumping everything on them as they enter the room.

DO Have an Alternative if Players Get Stuck

My favorite is to just let them smash it open.  They get the key, I get to dose them with the acidic gas that was inside the puzzle box.

Having a place to get hints also works.

The important part is to make sure that there's a cost.

MAYBE Have Extraneous Details

Players tend to get distracted by stuff.  They'll spend a lot of time discussing false paths and red herrings, even when you thought you did a good job creating a puzzle without any red herrings.

Like if you need to match the keys with the keyholes to solve the puzzle, an extraneous detail would be a cube covered in numbers.  Good chance that the players will spend too much time fucking with the cube and forget about matching keys entirely.

Having said that, puzzle rooms tend to feel pretty inorganic if every item in there is related to the puzzle.  And a lot of escape-room puzzles rely on the players finding the signal among the noise, so those puzzles definitely require extraneous details.

DO Consider an Overclue

Not just a theme, an overclue is a clue that applies to the whole dungeon.

A good example would be telling the players that each room is solved by one of the elements.  So if they had solved an air puzzle, a water puzzle, and a fire puzzle, they would then start searching the next puzzle for earth clues.  Maybe they would start digging in the dirt.  

Another good example is the riddle at the start of Tomb of Horrors.  The riddle contains about half a dozen clues about the upcoming rooms--the challenge then is just figuring out which room(s) the riddle is talking about.

DON'T Follow All the Rules Above

They're just guidelines.  Sometimes a puzzle is improved when you break one of the rules above.

Spiked Ball Trap
Skyrim Concept Art by Adam Adamawicz

Putting This Into Practice

I think my next Dungeon23 effort might be a dwarven puzzle-tomb.

The Overclue is the fact that the tomb tells you "this place is designed to be safe for dwarves, but to totally fuck up humans".  Players pay attention to that sort of thing.

(Sidenote: I don't usually allow players to start as dwarves.  I'm super not-fun like that.  This means that it will probably be a group of mostly-humans who has to navigate a bunch of puzzles that are "easy for dwarves")

Basic dwarf knowledge that will be explicitly told to the players when they enter this dungeon:

  1. Dwarves are short, stout, and not very creative.
  2. Dwarves value labor above all else.
  3. Dwarves think that humans spend too much time thinking and not enough time working.
Using this overclue, I can then make rooms that are easy for dwarves, but horrible for humans.

"Easy for Dwarves" Puzzle 1

A hallway that reads "stand tall and be proud" but when you walk down it, horizontal blades swing high enough to avoid a dwarf, but low enough to decapitate a human.

I guess this is more of a trap than a puzzle, huh?

"Easy for Dwarves" Puzzle 2

A room that reads "humans will overthink this one, but it will be obvious to any dwarf".  The room is a long rectangle.  On one end of it is a stack of about 400 stone cubes, each one weighing about 100 lbs.  Each cube is covered with a different carving, showing a dwarf of a different profession.

Solution: just carry all of the stone cubes to the other side of the room.  The room is on a pivot, and once the weight has been shifted, the door opens.

Stop thinking; just do work.

Dwarven Racial Abilities as Part of the Overclue

I'll also remind the players of dwarven racial abilities.  This is also part of the overclue.

Racial Ability Puzzle 1

Dwarves have mild infravision, and can "see" the temperature of objects.

Puzzle: Different metals might look the same to a human, but look very different to a dwarf who passes a flame over them.

Human Solution: a human can just pass a flame over the metals and then touch them.  Even I can tell the difference between iron and aluminum if they've been plucked out of a fire.

Racial Ability Puzzle 2

Dwarves can tell if the ground is sloping, even slightly.

Puzzle: Find the low spot in this room.  Easy for a dwarf.

Human solution: pour water on the ground.  Spill marbles.

Racial Ability Puzzle 3

Dwarves can sense magnetism, including which direction is north.

Puzzle: Figure out which object is magnetic.

Human solution: It's still pretty easy to figure out which object is magnetic, unless it's too far away to touch iron to.  Hmm, maybe they don't know that they're looking for a magnet?

Some General Puzzles

Not every puzzle will be about dwarf lore, or dwarven racial abilities.  There will be some regular puzzles in there, too.

Example 1 - Find Numbers

A locked door requires the players to input a three digit number, then pull a lever.

The only clue is a painting:

A picture depicts dwarves bringing animals into the Underworld to save them before the Great Tornado destroyed everything on the surface.  A dwarf is leading a goat, a pig, and an elephant down the ramp, in that order.  A dozen birds of different types fly through the air, being stripped of their feathers by the righteous winds.  Further back, armed dwarves are turning away a band of disheveled, primitive humans.  Scattered on the field are a couple of cows, half a dozen pigs, a wolf, a goat, and a snail.

Solution: the animals on the ramp tell you what you are looking for.  Goat - Pig - Elephant.

Number of Goats: 2
Number of Pigs: 7
Number of Elephants: 1

The combination is 2-7-1

(I saw something very similar in an escape room once, except they had four paintings that each had a different number of seagulls in them.)

Example 2 - Audible Clue

A diorama, as tall as a man, revealing a cutaway view of Mt. Smaggaroth.  Inside are about a dozen mechanical toy dwarves.  When a wheel is turned, some of the dwarves move.  The miners will swing their pickaxes “tink! tink!”, the carpenters will swing their hammers “chop! chop!”, and the blacksmiths will swing their hammers “bam! bam!”  There are 10 of each.

After a little chorus of tink-chop-tink-chop-bam-bam-bam, a key falls out.

The key opens a panel that reveals a three digit tumbler input (like the previous example).

Above the first tumbler is the symbol of a hammer.
Above the second tumbler is the symbol of an axe.
Above the third tumbler is the symbol of a mining pick.

The solution is to remember the sound that the machine made. (You can turn the knob again if you need to hear it again.)

Hammers = bams = 3
Axes = chops = 2
Picks = tink = 2

The combination is 3-2-2.

The Smurgh

 A big hump-backed bird, nine feet tall.  It is a filthy yellow-brown, and it has the physique of a camel’s hump (not a camel, just the hump).

The Smurgh eats money, and only money.  It will also choke down gemstones, although contemptously.

It usually just stands around and blocks doorways.  You have to pay it to move.  It will swallow your coins and diamonds, and then it will grow slightly bigger.  It will then shuffle off to block some other doorway.

If you roll it on a random encounter table, the Smurgh will appear blocking the path that the party wants to take the most.  It takes 1d10 * 1d10 * 1d10 silver to appease the Smurgh.  It will only ever say one word: “more” which it utters when it has not yet eaten enough money.  The Smurgh will stand there for the rest of the game session, however long that takes.

The Smurgh is protected by all possible legal protections.  It cannot be harmed except legally.

You can argue with the Smurgh.  You need to make three Law checks to make the Smurgh move.  You can make one Law check every 30 minutes that you argue with the Smurgh, and every failed check reduces the number of successes by 1.  If you are noble, you get +4 to these checks.  

(You aren't actually winning a legal case against the Smurgh--you're just annoying it in a language that it can understand.)

Alternatively, you can get a local judge/king to issue a legal action ordering the Smurgh to move, since it impedes a significant traffic path (or whatever–you need to have some justification).

Either way the Smurgh will move over to another nearby doorway, and take up residence there.






Bonus #1 - Another Bird

Looks like an Andalgalornis ferox head the size of a bear.  It runs on four stocky bird legs, with limb proportions somewhere between bear and wolf.  It is primarily black, but has many rainbow-feathered crests.

Andalgalornis skull by Degrange et. al.

The eggs of of the Curse Belly Kaduru Bird are considered rare delicacies when fermented.  Each nest contains 1d3 such eggs, and has a 50% chance of containing a nurse viper.

The Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird also bears the distinction of being the only known animal that seems to be native to both Centerra and Hell.

Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird

Lvl Def chain Bite 1d10

Move human  Int animal  Dis owlbear

Smoke - When agitated, a Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird emits a toxic black smoke from its mouth and eyes (and they are usually agitated).  This smoke extends to fill the room they are currently in (or 30’) and lasts for 10 minutes.  The smoke grants them concealment beyond 5’, although they can see perfectly through it.

You can have a clear shot against a Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird if you prepare an action to hit it before it charges towards you.

When a Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird smokes inside a room, the room becomes poisonous to anyone who who isn’t inside an airtight container.  Whenever anyone ends their turn in a smoke-filled room, they take damage equal to the number of turns that a Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird has been in the room, up to a maximum of 6 damage.  If there are multiple Kaduru birds, the damage increases proportionately faster.  No save.


Example: a smoking Kaduru Bird enters a room.  If you end your turn in this room, you take 1 damage.  If you are still here at the end of your next turn, you take 2 damage.


The Curse-Belly Kaduru Bird is the spiritual successor to a previous monster of mine.

Design-wise, it has one singular goal: to force the party into a moving battle where they kite it through multiple dungeon rooms.  (A fight that moves through multiple rooms is always dynamic.)

Bonus #2 - Learn About Alternatives to Copyrights

Creative Commons


Comparison of Open Licenses