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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