Puzzle Dragons

A puzzle dragon is a powerful monster, but it does not have a traditional stat block. It can only be killed in one specific way. The challenge for the players is to learn how to kill the puzzle dragon, and then to perform the actions needed to do so. If they can perform the correct actions, then the dragon is defeated.

(I’m sure other people have written about this idea, but it’s in my head right now, so I’m writing about it right now.)

In the animated film The Hobbit, the monstrous Smaug is a perfect example of a puzzle dragon. You do not kill Smaug by hitting him with swords or fireballs until he runs out of hit points. No. You sneak into his lair, and trick him into revealing his belly, which is missing a single scale. Then you send this information to the archer Bard, who possesses an uncanny Black Arrow. Then you enrage Smaug into leaving the safety of his lair to fly over Laketown, where Bard can shoot the Black Arrow into the exposed belly.

This is the perfect film adaptation of the book, by the way

In the film Dragonslayer, the monsterous Vermithrax Pejorative is another very different puzzle. The old wizard must allow himself to be captured and carried off by the dragon, and then the young apprentice must smash a powerful amulet, which causes the old wizard to explode in the dragon’s talons, killing the beast.

I think this is much better than a hit-point dragon. So let’s make more puzzle dragons!

There are three components to killing a puzzle dragon:

  • Target. Where is the dragon’s vulnerability?
  • Timing. When can the vulnerability be accessed?
  • Tool. What can pierce the vulnerability?

Puzzle Dragon Generator

Roll 1d6 three times to generate a puzzle dragon. The Target is the part of the dragon’s body that must be attacked. The Timing is what that body part must be doing to be vulnerable. The Tool is the only thing that can harm the Target (select one). If you do not like one of the results… change it! 

1EyeOpenSpecial Weapon: sword, spear, axe, arrow, bullet, knife…
2MouthRaisedPowerful Relic: saint bone, rare scroll, wizard skull…
3ThroatStillUnique Liquid: potion, acid, poison, holy water, salt water, alcohol…
4HeartSwollenHeat: fire, lightning, lava, steam…
5BellyNoisyForce: falling, crushing, burying, vibration, thunder…
6BackGlowingLight: sunlight, starlight, moonlight, bioluminescence…

Player Challenge

Defeating a puzzle dragon requires a quest of investigation, exploration, problem-solving, and action.

  1. The party must identify the Target, Timing, and Tool.
  2. The party must obtain the Tool (or create a way to deploy the Tool).
  3. The party must bring the Target and Tool together with correct Timing.

Referee Challenge

The Referee (or DM or GM) must combine the Target, Timing, and Tool results into a sensible narrative, or Explanation. They must create NPCs (witnesses and experts) to provide relevant information to the players. They may require a quest to obtain the Tool, including clues, locations, and foes. And then they must play out the dragon battle as a series of logical challenges.

Example 1

Puzzle Dragon: Infernix Imbroglio

  • Target: Throat
  • Timing: Glowing
  • Tool: Heat (lightning)

Explanation. Just before the dragon breathes fire, its throat glows with the build-up of combustible bile. At this moment, a lightning strike can make the dragon’s throat explode, killing the dragon.

In Play. The party learns of the existence of the dragon Aggravix Imbroglio and decides to slay the monster. They quickly learn that past attempts to kill the dragon have failed, so they investigate.

  • A witness or historian reveals that the dragon breathes fire.
  • An expert reveals that dragonfire is fueled by combustible bile.
  • Research reveals that combustible bile glows just before it ignites.
  • A witness reveals that the dragon’s throat glows just before it breathes fire.
  • An expert reveals that only a bolt of lightning can burn through the dragon’s hide.
  • The party resolves to strike the dragon’s throat with lightning when it glows.
  • The party obtains a lightning-based spell or weapon (quest?).
  • The party engages the dragon and manipulates it into breathing fire (taunt it?).
  • When the throat glows, the party shoots lightning and detonates the dragon’s throat, killing it.
  • Alternative: The party contrives to attach a lightning rod to the dragon’s throat, lures the dragon out into a lightning storm, and manipulates the dragon into breathing fire just as lightning strikes.

Example 2

Puzzle Dragon: Carcassax Orgoglio

  • Target: Heart
  • Timing: Raised
  • Tool: Liquid (holy water)

Explanation. The dragon is undead and slithers on the ground. Her black heart can be destroyed by holy water, but only when she rises off the ground to reveal the hole in her rotting chest.

In Play. The party learns of the existence of the dragon Irritrix Orgoglio and decides to slay the monster. They quickly learn that past attempts to kill the dragon have failed, so they investigate.

  • A witness or historian reveals that the dragon is undead.
  • A cleric reveals that undead are vulnerable to holy water.
  • A monster hunter reveals that the dragon’s heart must be destroyed.
  • A witness reveals that the dragon’s heart is exposed through her ruined chest.
  • The party resolves to throw holy water on the dragon’s heart when she rears up.
  • The party obtains a jug of holy water (quest?).
  • The party engages the dragon and manipulates it into rearing up (dangle a dead deer on a chain above her head as bait?).
  • When the heart is exposed, the party hurls and smashes the jug (using a catapult?), dissolving the dragon’s heart, and killing it.

That’s all I have for this idea right now. So go forth and create puzzle dragons!

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Tomb of the Tin Templar

Hey, I wrote another tiny tomb, and it’s Pay What You Want (PWYW)!

Here is the second of my Tiny Tomb series: Tomb of the Tin Templar. It’s just a few bizarre rooms full of mechanical traps, tinker gnomes, electric jellyfish, and windup toys. Because every campaign should have a bunch of random little tombs scattered all over the wilderness to discover!

I wrote it with Cairn in mind, but then I added in all the stats for 5E and for OSE, so you can run it in whatever system you like. Plus it was an excuse to practice drawing some new monsters!

It is Pay What You Want, so you can go grab it for free right now. Enjoy!

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Birthday Sale!

June 12 is my birthday, so let’s celebrate. I’m turning 45 (apparently), so on June 12 all Dungeon Age games and adventures will be $0.45.

Yes, forty-five cents.

Yes, all of them.

But only on June 12.

You know why.

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Merry Mushmen Kickstarter

Once again I am privileged to be working alongside the talented team of the Merry Mushmen to bring you not one but TWO remastered adventures. The first is The Horrendous Hounds of Hendenburgh by my new friend Liam Pádraig Ó Cuilleanáin, and the second is Raiding the Obsidian Keep by me!

Want to hear more about it, but don’t want to read? You’re in luck! Check out these podcasts:

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Tomb of the Blood Baron

Hey, I wrote a tiny tomb, and it’s Pay What You Want!

So a few weeks ago I was going to run a game for my friend’s kids and I didn’t feel like writing new content. So I asked my buddy for a recommendation and he suggested Barrow of the Elf King. It’s just a tiny tomb, and it was great! The kids (and adults) had a fun 2-hour game. And it was so short and simple, yet fun, that I wanted to write something like it.

And then I wrote a bunch of them…

Anyway, here is the first of my Tiny Tomb series: Tomb of the Blood Baron. It’s just a few creepy rooms full of critters and treasures and traps. Because every campaign should have a bunch of random little tombs scattered all over the wilderness to discover!

I wrote it with Cairn in mind, but then I added in all the stats for 5E and for OSE, so you can run it in whatever system you like. Plus it was an excuse to practice drawing bats and beetles and Red Caps.

It is Pay What You Want, so you can go grab it for free right now. Enjoy!

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Carcassay: Now in physical form!

It took too long because I was being an obsessive perfectionist, but now it is here:

Carcassay: Titan Rat City is a Lankhmar-esque (does that reference still work for most people?) city adventure full of bizarre factions and with built-in quest hooks in almost every location, plus three complete dungeons under the city. It’s 130 pages with classical paintings, original illustrations, and lots of maps. Creature stats are provided in the appendices for 5E, and Old School Essentials, and Into the Odd (Cairn).

The PDF is $10, and the softcover is $13, which also includes the PDF.

I think DriveThruRPG did a great job printing it. Every page is sharp, the art is beautiful in black-and-white, and it feels pretty good in hand. My pictures do not do it justice…but here are some pictures anyway.

It has contents!

And overview maps!

And nineteenth century paintings!

And maps of the regions outside the city!

And maps of the dungeons under the city!

And it has a back cover that looks suspiciously similar to the front cover!

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The Undying Sea: Playtest 01

Remember that project I mentioned earlier called “Dead in the Water” ? Well, it’s now called The Undying Sea and I ran the first playtest this afternoon and it went pretty great.

The Undying Sea is built on Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd engine for running a character and on Emmy Allen’s Depth-Crawl engine for creating a setting that becomes stranger the farther you go. And then I created a bunch of mythic island-hopping sailing pirate stuff for it, set in the Shrouded Sea where mists hide the shifting islands and the shallow waters are full of undead monsters.


So anyway, today we played. Our four intrepid heroes (Elle, Skeet, Buttons, and Peg Leg Meg) awoke on their nice little island home to discover their cemetery had been dug up and several of their dearly departeds had been taken from their graves! They followed a trail of muddy footprints down to the shore where they saw a ship vanishing into the mist, but they caught two pirate ghouls stranded and left behind.

With a bit of earth-bending magic and brute strength, they caught the pirate Yorgos and got the full story. The ghoul pirate Captain Laconia Silver of the siltcutter Grave Revenge had press-ganged the dead islanders (a strangled brother, a hated father, a beloved grandma, and a pet cat) into her service to help her search for a Fountain of Life, so she could live again!

Our heroes ran back to town and launched their own siltcutter Skeet’s Skeet to start the chase. [d100 roll for Sea Encounter] Late in the afternoon, they were attacked by a handful of rotting goblin sharks, which tried to leap over the ship and knock them into the sea. A wild fight broke out on the deck, and the crew killed two of the undead sharks.

[d100 roll for Sea Encounter] During the night, our heroes chanced upon a huge glowing portal that beckoned them with the question, “Where?” They told the portal to take them to a place just behind the Grave Revenge, and sailed through. They appeared directly behind their quarry, and followed the pirates until they dropped anchor.

Our heroes waited for the pirates to go ashore, and then raided the pirates’ ship, but their loved ones were not there. So they headed ashore as well. [depth-crawl generation of an island] They cleverly survived the crashing waves and reached the beach alive, and headed inland. While crossing a grassy field, they were attacked by a massive swarm of plague rats, and Peg Leg Meg went down! But her friends carried her to safety and she recovered.

They soon found the pirates huddled near a strange glowing pool full of crabs and algae. [depth-crawl generation of an island feature] Peg Leg Meg pretended to be a captive of the pirate Yorgos and went down to talk to the pirates, while secretly using her magic to dig some pits around them. Captain Silver immediately turned on Yorgos, while Meg dove for safety and the other undead pirates made a run for the Fountain of Life.

The rest of the heroes charged in! Skeet skewered the ghoulish captain with a single throw of his harpoon. Buttons and Elle hurled the pirates into the pits. In all the confusion, Meg’s undead grandmother drank from the Fountain and was restored to life! But this exhausted the Fountain, and it vanished.

With the battle over, the pirates Yorgos and Olga decided to join the crew of Skeet’s Skeet and continue the search for more Fountains of Life, along with Button’s undead brother Whiskers and Elle’s wretched cat Tiger. And last but not least, Elle looted the dead captain to find some precious jade. Huzzah!


The game ran 2.5 hours. It was non-stop action and laughs. We only used a tiny fraction of the content that I had prepared. Everyone loved the simplicity of the Mark-of-the-Odd system for characters and combat. And I loved the effectiveness of the Depth-Crawl to generate locations and encounters.

My original plan was to do eight encounters at sea and explore two new islands. We only did two encounters at sea and one new island. Lesson learned! This system could easily support a really long campaign and constantly generate entirely new locations and events, with essentially zero prep. I’m pretty happy.

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Wicked Little Delves: Update

This weekend I upgraded the covers and downgraded the prices (to $2.50) for the three volumes of Wicked Little Delves:

I’m still very pleased with how these collections of one-shots turned out, although maybe I should have made them into a single big collection, like 13 Weird One-Shots. I suppose I can always make that change…

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Dead in the Water: A new maritime TTRPG!

I’d like to take a little break from talking about Carcassay (currently 20% off!) to talk about the Mark-of-the-Odd game that I’m writing now where you play as the crew of a somewhat piratical ship, upon a cursed sea, exploring islands, fighting warships and krakens! No, it’s not Pirate Borg (which I recently picked up and found quite cool). It’s…


I’ve been writing Dead in the Water for quite a while now, so I’m going to starting talking about it now too. I’ve taken Chris McDowall’s delightfully stripped-down RPG engine from Into the Odd, changed very little about it, and then built on a nice little system for running a ship, exploring a sea, having sea battles, and basically doing pirate things.

Dead in the Water takes place on the Shrouded Sea, a cursed ocean that is always obscured by fog and silted up to be no more than 10 feet deep. That shallow sea means we have cozy little pirate ships with cozy little crews to battle cozy little sea monsters! The Shrouded Sea is pulsing with necromantic energy, so its full of undead fish and people, which are just mobile meals for the countless scavengers of the sea. Quite a hideous circle of life.

What do you do?

Player-characters choose from a variety of nautical backgrounds that bestow stat bonuses, equipment, skills, and challenges. And of course the world is full of “regular” treasure, as well as a wide array of ancient relics with magical powers.

The players form a little crew with a little ship, which they manage jointly. The ship has 3 stats, similar to the PCs, and can be upgraded in a variety of ways. To improve its stats, the crew can have a shipwright enhance the sails, rigging, and hull. They can also get more and bigger cannons, in addition to magical and mechanical devices (from pumps to cats!) to provide unique abilities and features.

As the crew sails around, they roll for a variety of encounters every day, including Wonders, Hazards, normal Creatures, huge Leviathans (living and undead), unknown Ships (including ghost pirates, merchants, alchemist vampires, warships, and crab colonists), and Uncharted Islands. These encounter-related tables and tools take up most of the current draft of the game manual.

What’s the point?

Dead in the Water takes the classic fantasy world notion of a “points of light setting” and just drowns it. Instead of wandering the forest, you sail the mist-choked sea. Instead of stumbling upon a village or ruin, you discover an island or (sunken) ruin. The players are re-cast not just as adventurers but shipmates, with the task / challenge / opportunity of managing their mobile base of operations, their ship.

No two versions of the Shrouded Sea will be the same. Players can run small missions or massive campaigns, engage in trade or piracy, play a role the political machinations of living and undead navies, or build an island paradise for themselves.

Why? Because I like boats.

Coming… eventually.

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Welcome to Carcassay

Welcome to the strange and dangerous city of Carcassay, huddled below the skeleton of a titan rat, sprawling above the ruins of countless dead civilizations. This is where folk come to find wealth, power, revenge, secrets, oblivion… and everything in between.

Carcassay is a sandbox city adventure. There are many locations to explore in, around, and under the city. Players can explore any place at any time, and may radically reshape the city’s politics, economy, religions, and physical existence. There are standard dungeons stacked under the city, and GMs are encouraged to keep adding more dungeons… all the way down.

Tone. It leans more toward low fantasy or sword-and-sorcery. Most shops look like real shops. Most people look like real people. But strange and horrible things lurk everywhere as soon as you start to scratch the surface. This is my Lankhmar.

What’s in it?

Carcassay is a vast, bizarre city. It has over 100 locations where you can meet Chaos cultists, Lawful knights, retired adventurers, shopkeepers, brewers, musicians, artists, scientists, hermits, royalty, beggars, doctors, space vampires, eldritch horrors, machine priests, crab colonists, mushroom farmers, mummies, assassins, and diplomats from distant lands… and the moon. And every one of them has goods or services to sell, and a quest (or three) to offer. 

What sort of quests? Fetch a relic, assassinate a rival, find a relative, steal a soul, implant an agent, cure a disease, stop a riot, solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet, hunt a thief, locate a shrine… the list goes on. And for every Quest, there is a specific Reward: money, weapons, relics, Chaos mutations, exclusive memberships, information, Angelic miracles… the list goes on.

This is a place where you can make a lot of money, but also where you can spend that money on interesting goods and services. 

Factions? We have a few. Seven Chaos cults, five knightly orders, two mercenary companies, four wealthy families, six (seven!) Corpse Lords, foreign diplomats, rival innkeepers, rival tavern owners, plus all the dungeon-delving gangs currently mucking about underground. When you grow weary of all the adventures at ground level, there are three classic dungeons buried under the city to explore.

This book contains months (if not years) of campaigning. Enjoy the Chaos.

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