Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Clan of Cain: Ogres, Elves, Evil Phantoms and Giants

I recently had the opportunity on a long drive to listen to Seamus Heaney reading his own translation of Beowulf from start to finish. It was a real treat, and I highly recommend it. I had read Beowulf before in other translations, but long ago, and the words are of course meant to be spoken rather than read; it is a much more powerful experience that way, especially (and strangely) when delivered in Heaney's decidedly un-Germanic Irish brogue. 

I was very struck by the poem's syncretism (more on this in future posts) and the way in particular Germanic myth and Old Testament legend are able to fit alongside one another almost seamlessly. Hence:

Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.

The idea that the creatures of Northern European myth were born from the murder of Abel by Cain is just too wonderful not to spur the imagination (as is the idea of giants literally fighting against God himself), and it would be incredible to me if no other RPG bloggers or writers have noticed it or done something with it. Nonetheless, it very much makes me want to do something with it - perhaps along the lines of the single class paladin campaign, with paladins conceptualised as warriors who specifically battle the 'clan of Cain' and protect humanity against them.

The interesting thing about the 'clan of Cain' - aside from the fact that it groups elves with the bad guys, which is always how I have thought elves work best - is the distinct division into four categories: ogres, elves, evil phantoms ('orcneas' in the original Old English, the only instance of the word appearing to our knowledge, and apparently thought by Old English scholars to be a compound of 'hell corpse') and giants. This is suggestive of four clear archetypes into which monstrous threats can be divided.

The easiest is the last: giants here are clearly meant to be genuinely huge giants capable of actually struggling with the almighty. (The Old English has 'gigantas', which speaks to me of something truly gigantic and also demigod-like, stemming as it does from an ultimately Greek source.) The vision I have is of titanic cthonic or celestial beings of immortal character and scale, rather than just a big person in the traditional D&D mode.

Another easy one is elves - understood as capricious and malevolent, or perhaps simply incapable of empathising with humanity. Not the elves of Tolkien but something more like the Aelf of The Wizard Knight who come in the night to steal babies or mislead travellers, and are of many different varieties. 

Then there are the 'evil phantoms', clearly simplest to understand as the undead, but perhaps also encompassing demonic and devilish spirits born from Hell or the Abyss (or, indeed, the dead brought back to life as demonic spirits). Here, I imagine everything from D&D-style zombies and skeletons all the way up to Lord Soth, and on the other hand the lemures, manes, pit fiends, succubi and so on that we tend to think of as 'demons' in the classical sense. It's all grouped under the orcneas category.

And finally we come to the most difficult category to define, the ogres. The original has 'eotonas', which obviously has a similar root to 'jotunn', but this conjures in the mind precisely the same kind of image as 'gigantas' - a demigodlike, supernatural figure of immense size and power. This is clearly the meaning of the word in the Eddas. Wikipedia provides us with the interesting information, however, that the word's root is the proto-Germanic word 'etunaz', which is connected with 'etanan' ('to eat'), and that from this were derived various Old Norse and Old English words connected with consumption, gluttony and greed. Could this make 'ogre' a catchall then for the type of creatures that we might traditionally think of as goblinish or orcish, and which make their living from catching and eating people? Or maybe even evil dwarves, acquisitive, avaricious and grasping - like perhaps the duergar or derro?

I like this basic idea of dividing threats into four categories, and one could even thereby subdivide paladins into four types, each specially equipped for taking on one of the monster types in particular: the giant-killer being especially difficult to kill and physically strong; the elf-killer being especially knowledgeable in/resistant to magic and charms; the phantom-killer being very good at smiting evil spirits; and the ogre-killer being very skilled in melee. This would allow some differentiation by archetype, even while maintaining the basic framework of the 'everything is paladins' motif. 

You could even call it The Clan of Cain

Monday 27 November 2023

The Sunday Seven: November 26th, 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Patrick Stuart's Gackling Moon kickstarter is live
  • I did not see the new(ish) Dungeons and Dragons film, but it seems a sequel is in the works: D&D is genuinely having a cultural moment
  • Settlers of a Dead God - an animal fantasy setting in which the PCs are anthropomorphic insects exploring the corpse of a gigantic dead god - intrigues me
  • Rapier versus Katana. Yes, they did it. (Years ago.) These comparison videos are always stupid - you would have to run the experiment 10,000 times with 10,000 different sets of competitors to get anything like convincing results - but still fun.
  • I find myself often linking to this blog, but Mythlands of Erce has some excellent stuff to say about the most underrated (least overrated?) edition of D&D
  • You will have seen Grognardia's post about the 10 Commandments of D&D, but I think it is worth flagging regardless
  • Napoleon is in the news a bit because of the new Ridley Scott film (which I will not watch); I very strongly recommend Andrew Roberts' Napoleon the Great, if you have not read it

Friday 24 November 2023

Ground Up Campaign Setting Building, Or: These Goblins Ride...

We tend to think of campaign settings in terms of grand design: the creation of a world, starting with a high concept and working from top, down. 

This is not, though, always or even usually how human creativity works; we just as often begin with the tiny seed of an idea and then gradually nurture it to prolific growth. George RR Martin, for example, started with a very simple image - a family with five children discovering five direwolves - and extrapolated A Song of Ice and Fire from there. Tolkien began The Hobbit simply by jotting down the opening line - 'In the hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' - in a flash of inspiration, and the rest followed (and, of course, his 'Leaf by Niggle' is a beautiful allegory for this mode of creation). I'm sure one could cite many more examples. 

It occurred to me today that if one were seeking inspiration one could do worse than creating a method for generating such small ideas. One such method would be the These Goblins Ride.... Table. The idea here is to begin the creation of a campaign region simply by imagining what mounts a group of goblins would be riding in a wilderness encounter. Viz:

These Goblins Ride... Table

Roll 1d10:

1- Ostriches

2 - Giant snakes

3 - Giant newts

4 - Reindeer

5 - Elephants

6 - Llamas

7 - Giant seagulls

8 - Buffalo

9 - Giant tortoises

10 - Giant anteaters

The idea here is that the mere act of imagining a set of goblins riding ostriches, or giant seagulls, or reindeer, immediately results in a mental picture giving rise to a chain of further images. Goblins riding reindeer to my mind's eye implies rolling tundra, dotted with patches of not-yet-melted snow and exposed hunks of black moraine; it implies nomadic tribes of humans on whom the goblins prey, and perhaps a great tent city where these tribes congregate to trade, marry, and make merry; it implies desolate hillsides of sheer scree in which can be seen from a distance dark caves; it implies glaciers riddled with tunnels; it implies roaming bands of quaggoths, yetis, and frost giants - and white or silver dragons lying in slumber beneath unnamed ranges of craggy mountains. 

Goblins riding anteaters, on the other hand, suggests to me something like the pampas - fertile grassland pulsating with life under a warm blue sky. It implies abandoned giant ant hills like towers or fortresses dotting the landscape, harbouring ghosts and demons; it implies anacondas and crocodiles lurking in myriad waterways; it implies armadillo-skinned orcs and elves with domesticated pumas; it implies human societies thriving on symbiotic coordination with tame giant ants; it implies thunderstorms that bring with them swarms of elemental spirits or demons of the air. 

I could go on. Clearly, one could easily extend this table both to include more rows but also to produce something more complicated and broad, so that instead of goblins one could generate a wide range of initial races and a wide range of mounts. But you get the idea in principle: when in doubt, just think, 'These goblins ride....what?'

Monday 20 November 2023

A Trap Has Been Placed Here to Kill Hornet-Women

I am currently finishing off my next big project - the Three Mile Tree megadungeon.

One of the entries in the key begins with the phrase contained in the title to this entry: 'A trap has been placed here to kill hornet-women.'

I know what the trap is. I want you to give me your ideas in the comments!

The Sunday Seven, 19th November 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • He has been coy about it, but Patrick Stuart's kickstarter for his next project, Gackling Moon, is in the works
  • The BBC World Service did a radio play of William Gibson's Neuromancer in 2002; it is available on YouTube here and it is truly surreal
  • My love for The Wizard Knight is known throughout the land; here is Gene Wolfe being interviewed about it
  • You probably know about this (I am behind the curve these days, in my fortress of solitude) but Palladium is running a Kickstarter for a 'redux version' of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness 
  • Simon Roper, an archaeologist, makes some fascinating videos about historical speech - here he is demonstrating what a South East English accent sounded like down the centuries
  • Here is Ingmar Bergman talking about his demons; I find the insecurities of people like this, who by anyone's measure can be said to have achieved greatness in their field, immensely reassuring
  • I don't know if you have come across this guy's extreme camping videos, but they are great inspiration for imagining what wilderness travel looks like and the kind of challenges PCs would experience crossing a hexmap 

Friday 17 November 2023

Worst Five Monsters

What defines a 'bad' monster? For me, it generally has at least one of these three qualities. First, it shatters verisimilitude by being either 'jokey' or just really hard to visualise or imagine. Second, it has some nuclear-grade special ability that can only really be avoided or circumvented by a successful saving throw rather than player intelligence. Third, it is just boring, usually because it is too much like a lot of other monsters, or because it has no obvious role beyond being a benevolent quest-dispenser or GMPC.

These qualities we can call, for shorthand, silliness, unfairness, and boringness. 

On this basis, I would say that the Worst Five MonstersTM in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual are:

5. Banshee. I am not averse to the concept of this monster in principle, as the concept of a banshee as it exists in folklore is deeply eerie and evocative. And actually the Monstrous Manual entry is nicely written and provides some good ideas for use of a banshee in a campaign region. But the monster itself is high in boringness (its role overlaps too much with that of the ghost or spectre) and unfairness (it gets to just show up, scream, and then everybody might die). 

4. Cloaker. The picture in the Monstrous Manual does this monster no favours, but it is intrinsically very high in silliness, both through shattering verisimilitude (try picturing a flying cloak with glowing red eyes attacking somebody in your mind's eye and tell me it doesn't immediately transform into a scene from a cartoon) and for having no obvious justification for its existence other than surprising adventurers. And then you have the fact that for some reason it can emit magical 'moans' of different intensities. Now try imagining that: a moaning, flying cloak with a face in the middle.

3. Faerie Dragon. I just think that the last thing that any D&D campaign needs is a creature which 'thrives on pranks, mischief and practical jokes'. Practical jokes are visual, for one thing, and are not funny when being verbally described, but the more important issue is that joke monsters are like campaign cul-de-sacs.  A random encounter with something which simply intends to 'wreak mischief on passers-by' provides no adventure hooks, nor danger, but simply acts as a distraction or speed-bump. The faerie dragon is therefore both silly AND boring.

2. Ki-rin. There are too many of this kind of monster in the Monstrous Manual, and they all bleed into one: couatls, lammasu, shedu, sphinxes...all of the same: flying benevolent sky dwellers who descend to the the world below to smite evil and help out the PCs (presumably on the basis of their taking part in some pre-ordained quest or mission). I am fully on board with the idea that there should be powerful good entities in the world if there are to be powerful evil ones, and that enterprising players should on discovery of their existence seek them out for aid, but there is too much of a duplication of roles her and too much of a stink of 'plot' about the ki-rin in particular. The boringness is off the charts. 

1. Sea Lion. Just stop it. 

Tuesday 14 November 2023

On Sympathy for the Young

In my last post, I linked to a Wired article which purports to be about a Ghibli-inspired D&D 5th edition setting, but which is really about the bigger issue of 'wholesomeness' and the need which young people nowadays seem to feel for media that is, for want of a better word, 'nicer' than what they are used to.

There was a time when I would have dismissed this is the whining of softies, and accused youngsters of wanting to be special snowflakes. But in recent years I have increasingly come around to the position that life simply is psychologically harder for young people nowadays than for previous generations (those born after, say, the 1950s), for all that it is materially more secure. I therefore have a lot of sympathy for the idea that we could probably do with a more wholesome media landscape in general than the one to which we have become accustomed. 

What, though, do I mean by life being psychologically harder? Really, there are three linked phenomena at work.

The first is I think obvious: smartphones. I am glad that there appears to be a head of steam now building towards more robust regulation of these devices, and that there is increasingly more recognition of what should have been evident all along - namely that the effect of smartphone use on the developing brain is nothing short of disastrous. But I still think we are at the very foothills of our understanding of the deleterious consequences of widespread smartphone use. My day job brings me into contact with hundreds of young people every year, and I increasingly see what I have witnessed over the past decade as something like a slow-motion apocalypse. People who are eighteen years old in 2023 are almost a different species to people who were eighteen years old in 2012, and they bear the countenance of people who have been mentally scarred by the mere process of growing up. It's not their fault: they have been subjected to what can only really be thought of as relentless psychological assault, driven by a technology which is designed to be addictive in a way that puts crack cocaine to shame (all the while going through what everyone knows to already be the toughest period of life - the teenage years). It is desperately sad, and I think in ten or twenty years' time parents will have a lot of apologising to do to their children for allowing all of this sorrow to be caused under their watch. (I direct your attention in particular to this recent article for a very interesting and lucid analysis of a central aspect of the phenomenon, which is the problem of loneliness and involuntary celibacy.)

The second is also evident to most thoughtful people, and it is the fact that the world has simply become a lot less social, and a lot 'colder', over the past thirty or so years. Technology has obviously facilitated this. But whatever the cause, the texture of life has fundamentally and drastically altered. One should not look back on the past with those famous rose-tinted glasses, but there were many ways in which life was simply more communal, more supportive, and more forgiving than it is now. I grew up in humble circumstances in one of the poorest regions of the UK, but there were lots of compensatory factors that made life cheerful - kids playing in the street, neighbours looking out for each other and lending each other money where needed, community groups and clubs, religious meetings, pubs and newsagents on almost every street corner, big family gatherings. The importance of this dense web of sociality has radically diminished in my lifetime, and for young people in particular things have become as a consequence just a little bit, well, shit. They have fewer opportunities to develop, fewer opportunities to make friends, fewer opportunities to meet romantic partners in a natural way, and fewer opportunities to mix with people from different generations. All of this adds up to a feeling of being largely alone against a cold and unfriendly world (with only fake online sociality to compensate).

The third is more diffuse, but I think perhaps the most important of all, and it is the spiritual consequence of feeling as thought there is not a great deal of purpose to being alive. Most young people nowadays leads lives of comfort that previous generations could not have imagined. And vast swathes of them are able to postpone the transition to adulthood almost indefinitely with university, postgraduate study, extended periods of living at home. This is in one sense an astonishing privilege, but it is also a curse. Part of what makes life feel as though it is worth living is the sense that what one does matters. One gets this sense, very keenly, when one has to lead an independent life as a productive contributor to society - paying the bills, raising a family, doing a good job at work. One does not get it from studying something vaguely interesting for year after year (unless one is very academically gifted) or from living at home with Mum and Dad and temping. In short, young people now grow up in an atmosphere almost of enforced listlessness. And this saps the soul in a way that people of my generation (who were generally expected to stand on their own two feet from the age of eighteen) cannot quite imagine.

I do not wish to misinterpreted: life was materially very hard for my family when I was a kid, and is still materially very hard for very many people even in purportedly wealthy societies like Britain's. Life is materially much harder still in the developing world. And life was also undoubtedly psychologically harder in many ways for certain categories of people in previous generations - soldiers who had fought in war, gay people who were relentlessly bullied, and so on. But I'm not sure that previous generations ever had to deal with this strange malaise that has set itself like a pall over the lives of our current youth, and which seems almost purposively designed to direct their energies only to the most soul-crushing aspects of life: consumerism, light entertainment, pornography, the self. 

What is to be done about this is beyond my pay grade. But facilitating people getting together with their mates and enjoying a wholesome pastime together to my eye seems like one of the most important contributions that anybody can make by way of a remedy or palliative. It at least might be a bit of an antidote to the unrelenting sordidness that the internet has become. And in that sense, I wish Obojima the very best of luck.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Sunday Seven, 12th November 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • On Mythlands of Erce, we hear about 'Why "Roll under" Ability checks really are the best of checks', and we agree
  • Dungeon stocking is one of the most important and enjoyable of DMing activities, and I am always curious to learn how other people do it; In Places Deep posted one of the better examples I've read
  • I will probably write a post about this subject myself, since I used to be a translator, but World Building & Woolgathering has a great little piece on translation errors/issues in maps
  • I can't remember if I have posted about this before, but the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has an online map application which allows you to zoom in on the UK to beautifully crisp and granular OS-level detail - it is extremely useful in, for example, coming up with maps on the fly for random wilderness encounters; stealing names; or even just drawing inspiration from to create more realistic-looking maps
  • There is a new thing called Obojima - a setting for 5th edition 'that aims to bring the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli' to D&D
  • In case there is the slightest chance you are living under a rock, Mythic Bastionland has now launched and is likely relevant to your interests
  • This may be old news; I have no idea, as I am out of the loop, but His Majesty the Worm sounds great and intrigues me in that 'summer of 08' way

Friday 10 November 2023

The Obliqueness of Real World Place Names

RPG setting designers tend to adopt one of three approaches to place names. The first is just to come up with made-up assortments of syllables arranged to make a pleasing and evocative sound: Allansia; Al Qadim; New Crobuzon.

The second, I think generally more effective, approach is to use place names that actually mean something: The Misty Mountains, Cloud City, King's Landing. 

The third, I think least effective, one is to deploy names that break the fourth wall by imagining the inhabitants of a place to have deliberately given it a 'cool' name: Bloodhand Gap, Moon's Spawn, Fang.

When you think about real world place names, though, what is most noticeable about them (certainly in Britain) is their strange obliqueness. It is not as though they are a bundle of made-up sounds; but nor very often do they quite make sense when imagined as standalone English phrases. They are like something Tolkien would have made up, but squinted at through a pane of translucent glass, so that they become misshapen and strange. Here, for example, are some names of places from the countryside not far from where I live:

Howly Winter

The Dimples

Kitten Tom

Benty Band


Candlesleve Sikes

Cockshot Wood

Featherstone Rowfoot

Pyke Dyke

Far Town

Wool House


Spout Bog

Plunder Heath

Humble Dodd

Pudgment Hill

Piper's Drone

Tudhump Holm

Drowning Holes

Pedler's Grave

Limestone Gears

Howlerhirst Crags

Deer Play


Yes, you can imagine why 'Wool House' would end up being a place name, and perhaps also 'Pyke Dyke' and 'Drowning Holes' (something dark is hinted at there). But most of the rest of the list inhabits a kind of limbo - almost making sense but not quite.

This is I think partly likely a result of an Anglicization of pre-existing Celtic names; hearing the locals refer to such-and-such a place with a Celtic word, the Anglo-Saxons would have heard something which to their ear sounded different, and over time would have developed a pronunciation which sounded familar to them. Hence we get the almost-English quality of 'Kitten Tom' or 'Sillywrea'.

But it is also simply the case that the real world has an impossibly rich history, and place names are produced by a continual layering of events, dialectal changes, population shifts and deliberate choices, one of top of the other, over the ages. A human author or game designer doesn't have a hope in hell of emulating this - there is not a DM in the world who would think to call a village 'Howly Winter' - and as a result there is generally something deeply dissatisfying about the names we tend to come up with. The best way to get around this is obviously just to grab a map (DEFRA's magic map is a good place to start) and start plundering.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Dragons Reviewed and Ranked

The AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual lists 23 types of dragon. I here intend to review and rank them as they are presented in the text (i.e. not as reimagined by a creative OSR-influenced DM). Each dragon type is assigned a score out of 5 across three metrics: evocativeness, usability, and coherence (the latter being a shorthand for a pleasing congruence between abilities - breath weapon, magical abilities, and so on). The scores are then averaged and the dragons ranked. 

Without further ado, let's begin:

Black Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. 'Black dragon' conjures in my mind a reference to Ancalagon the Black, the original dragon in Tolkien's Middle Earth, but the D&D version is a lot more humdrum. There is also a major redundancy problem given the existence of the green dragon - which can already be said to have the marsh/forest/jungle/noxious miasma angle covered. With that said, a swamp or marsh is a kind of overground equivalent to a mythic underworld, and I like the idea of there being a dragon lurking at the heart of each. 

Usability: 3. It is hinted that black dragons' lairs are supposed to be at least partially flooded, or accesible through waterways. This adds an interesting dimension - but, sadly, is not really followed through in the text.

Coherence: 2. There is a conceptional confusion at work here. Black dragons' abilities suggest a dweller in dank, dark, damp places - darkness, corrupt water, summon insects, charm reptiles. But why is the breath weapon acid? This has never made a great deal of sense to me.

Overall: 2.666

Blue Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. It's possible that the creators of D&D were the first to dream up the existence of blue dragons, at least in published material. (Somebody will inevitably pop up in the comments to inform me that actually they first appeared in a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from 1907, but whatever.) Why would a desert-dwelling dragon be blue, and breathe lightning? I don't know, but it feels very redolent of D&D during the TSR era.

Usability: 3. I am in favour of deserts as settings for campaigns, and it is important therefore that there should be lots of desert-based monsters. A desert-based race of dragons therefore comes in handy.

Coherence: 2. To repeat: why would a desert-dwelling dragon be blue, and breathe lightning? And how is that consonant with its magical abilities, which are mostly to do with creating hallucinations? There is too much going on here: blues are a 'busy' type of dragon, and it dilutes their impact.

Overall: 3

Green Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Dragons are classically green, and I like the fact that green dragons exude poison, and indeed poison the landscape around them. This is Saint George! This is Glaurung! This is the Lambton Wyrm! This is more like it.

Usability: 3. Here, however, the overlap of functions and purview between green and black dragons again becomes problematic. Green dragons are 'about' poison, and this suggests swamps, bogs, and the like. But that's a black dragon's territory. If on the other hand one conceives of them as a kind of 'forest' dragon, this would not be suggestive of having abilities associated with poison. This in practice makes it difficult to imagine where exactly green dragons 'fit', if they are not to step on the toes of the blacks.

Coherence: 3. See above. Yes, it makes sense for green dragons to be associated with poison. Yes, it makes sense for them to have the magical abilities they have - warping wood, entangling, growing plants, and so on, if they are supposed to be a 'forest' dragon. But one of these things is not like the other.

Overall: 3

Red Dragon

Evocativeness: 5. Nothing says D&D more, really, than a red dragon - and to somebody of my age, the image of a red dragon and its treasure is almost synonymous with the experience of playing D&D (the very first session of D&D I ever played in even featured one, I suspect because one appeared on the cover of the Red Box and was therefore present in our minds from the very outset). It therefore communicates a mood, and a sense of nostalgia, that is almost quintessentially of the TSR era which we remember so affectionately.

Usability: 4. Covetous and greedy, sits on a big treasure hoard. We get this. Everybody gets it. And it is beautifully uncomplicated and pure. The game is Dungeons & Dragons. At the bottom of the dungeon is a dragon. It is red. It breathes fire. This works, and we all instantly recognise that it does so. The text also includes a nice little titbit: red dragons like to eat young maidens and sometimes charm local villagers into sending them as sacrifices. It writes itself.

Coherence: 5. It is hard to really imagine what image the word 'dragon' would conjure in people's minds were it not for the cultural impact of Tolkien and, in turn, D&D. The red dragon, which can breathe and manipulate fire, find treasure, and use powers of suggestion and hypnosis on its prey, is so redolent of Smaug and Glaurung that it taps more or less directly into that shared imaginary history, and is thus really the most coherent dragon type of them all.

Overall: 4.666

White Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. The idea of white dragons is sound. But it is by-the-numbers. While the blue dragon has a pleasing oddness to it (it lives in the desert and therefore it is blue and breathes lightning), the white dragon is lazily obvious. It lives in cold places and it is white and does cold things. OK.

Usability: 4. The virtue of white dragons, however, can be said to lie precisely in their banality. As is the case with desert campaigns, I am fully behind the 'ice world' motif - and monsters suitable for use in icy places are thin on the ground in D&D. White dragons, in this respect, need our support.

Coherence: 4. White dragons breathe cones of frost, and have spell-like abilities that chiefly revolve around manipulating cold weather, wind and fog. This all makes perfect sense, although it does raise the question as to whether it is really plausible that a monster that makes its living in very cold places would mostly seek to kill or subdue its enemies by deploying the cold itself, to which they are presumably immune. 

Overall: 3.333

Amethyst Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. Amethysts themselves suggest regality, and it is therefore appropriate for amethyst dragons to be described as wise and aloof, and vaguely snooty. But does this not describe the stereotypical image of all dragons? Delusions of grandeur, arrogance, and a strong sense of entitlement? It is hard to discern within this a USP (a problem that also bleeds into amethyst dragons' coherence, too). I think what the designers were going for was a neutral equivalent of the (evil) red and (good) gold dragons, the correspondingly most powerful representatives of their alignment groupings. Fine: but this in itself does not add up to a distinctive character. 

Usability: 2. Partly for the above reasons, amethyst dragons greatly overlap conceptually with red dragons and, as we shall see, gold dragons and others, too. It is a powerful, wise and conceited being that dwells deep in subterranean caves and likes treasure. Yes, but we have those already. What, aside from psionics, do amethyst dragons bring - metaphorically and literally - to the table?

Coherence: 2. Amethyst dragons' abilities and breath weapon also reflect a lack of a strong sense among the designers about what they were designing. An explosive concussion-lozenge breath weapon conjures an image of a dragon spitting out cough sweets, but alongside this they are able to walk on water, neutralise poison, shape change, control weather and cast resilient spheres - a smorgasbord of abilities that suggest not so much 'paragon of True Neutral' as 'mishmash'.

Overall: 2

Crystal Dragon

Evocativeness: 1. I have never been a fan of 'friendly' monsters, having I think been scarred by too many experiences with 'friendly' GMPCs in the days of my youth; the word makes me immediately smell a rat. And I think 'friendliness' is especially to be avoided when it comes to dragons. It is undignified. 

Usability: 2. A dragon type which is friendly and curious, prefers conversation to fighting, and is 'fun loving and mischievous' suggests to me one thing only - a self-conscious 'good guy' with some sort of role in an overarching plot. D&D should not be about unrelenting hostility, but there is a problem when the only possible encounter that can be envisaged between the PCs and a particular monster is benign; in such circumstances we immediately begin to descend the slippery slope into railroading. 

Coherence: 3. The crystal dragon has a nice breath weapon - a cloud of glittering shards that dazzle as well as wound. And its abilities are consonant with the role that the monster is evidently supposed to play in the minds of the designers, having a mixture of mood-altering and gift-giving spells at its disposal. I'm not a fan of that role, but the suite of abilities makes sense in its own terms.

Overall: 2

Emerald Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A dragon which lairs only in 'tropical and subtropical extinct volcanoes' is working a narrow niche indeed, but I rather like that niche: it conjures images in the mind of 'lost worlds' in far flung places, like Venezuela, Belize, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Fiji.... 

Usability: 3. With the above said, emerald dragons suffer from the same kind of identity crisis as does the amethyst. What is really all that different in the end about a dragon which is described as paranoid, possessive, and vengeful? However, the idea of a dragon which prefers to hide, set up traps, and attack with burrowing ambushes than direct confrontation is I suppose at least somewhat more distinctive than many of the other types. 

Coherence: 2. Emerald dragons breathe sonic vibrations. Why? Not sure, except that it probably felt to the designers like one sort of dragon ought to have that type of attack, and the emerald might as well be it. Its spell-like abilities are a grab-bag: some stuff to do with confusion, a bit of hypnosis, a bit of hold person, some rock manipulation, and geas. 

Overall: 3

Sapphire Dragon

Evocativeness: 1. What is there to say? Sapphire dragons, we are told, are 'militantly territorial' but not actively hostile, and their reaction to intruders basically depends on how those intruders comport themselves. Inspiration was clearly running dry here; this is the dragon equivalent of a bowl of cornflakes without sugar. 

Usability: 1. Lacking distinctiveness, sapphire dragons have little to recommend them to a DM stocking a hex map or dungeon, when so many other dragon types will do. Indeed, the text even says, more or less openly, that there is a big overlap between sapphires and emeralds, with the implication that one might as well just use the latter.

Coherence: 3. The sapphire dragon has a boring sonic breath attack which causes fear, but its spell-like abilities do, in its defence, all make sense for a purely subterranean being - almost all being to do with the manipulation of stone and the generation of light.

Overall: 1.666

Topaz Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A seacoast dragon is a nice idea and there are touches of genuine creativity on display, here: the image of a topaz dragon diving down into the sea, gannet like, to catch giant squid approaches genius. 

Usability: 4. A powerful 'boss-type' coastal monster is in itself useful, but the topaz dragon entry also adds an extra dimension to a hex map or dungeon by suggesting the entrances to their lairs are normally below the waterline, implying all manner of interesting logistical challenges.

Coherence: 4. Topaz dragons have various suitable water manipulation abilities and, impressively, the designers resisted the temptation to give them a fire-hose style breath weapon. Instead, unlike whites (which are from cold places and therefore breathe cold), topaz dragons have a breath attack which it actually makes sense for them to have - a dehydration cone. Yes, I buy it.

Overall: 4

Brass Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. I like the brass dragon illustration in the 2nd edition MM very much; it is redolent of a dimetrodon and to my eye is unusually distinctive amongst the other phoned-in dragon illos. That's where the evocativeness stops though, really; as with crystal dragons, we're left with the conclusion that a talkative possessor of useful information is really something for a game with a 'plot'. Also, as petty as it is, I find myself objecting to metallic dragons being identified with alloys rather than elements. Gold, silver and copper I am fine with. Brass and bronze, no thank you.

Usability: 2. I smell another rat here, in that much of the text of the entry for brass dragons is dedicated to explaining how, as inveterate bores, they use their abilities to capture victims so that they can keep them as conversation partners. This is vaguely suggestive to me of comic-relief style shenanigans; I'm not a fan.

Coherence: 3. Having a sleep cone breath weapon and a heat cone breath weapon make a sort of sense given what else we are told about brass dragons, and the abilities are a nice package for an 'arid plain' dweller. Being able to summon djinnis is also a solid idea.

Overall: 2.333

Bronze Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. We here find ourselves back in the 'friendly and talkative' arena, and the comments I made with respect to crystal dragons also apply here. With that said, however, the bronze dragon entry is much more interesting than the crystal one, with its hints about sunken treasure, shipwrecks, and aquatic lairs. There is much to like about this.

Usability: 4. There is a good deal of explanation in the entry about how to deploy bronze dragons in an encounter, and many reasons provided to include them in a hex map and ways to integrate them with the wider locality (they like shipwrecks; they ally with dolphins; they like pearls; etc.). This is a dragon type one could see oneself straightforwardly placing within a campaign region.

Coherence: 4. The combination of lightning and repulsion gas as breath weapons is an odd one (what even is 'repulsion gas'?) but the spell-like abilities all work well with what we are told about the dragon in the text. We're left with the impression of a coast-dwelling hunter, identifying prey with ESP, confusing them with fog, summoning storms to subdue them, and so on. This works.

Overall: 3.666

Copper Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. One's eyes begin to roll the instant one reads the words 'pranksters, joke tellers and riddlers' in any monster entry, least of all that of a dragon. But I will stick up for the position that at least in principle there is a fairy tale-ish, folklorish aspect to TSR-era D&D which it would be a shame to denigrate too much, and a riddling dragon is perfectly in keeping with the traditions of the genre. In that sense, copper dragons are ok by me.

Usability: 3. We have the intrinsic problem with all good dragons, which is that their existence seems to pre-empt conflict of any kind emerging with the PCs. But the copper dragon entry is well written and highly suggestive in the way it describes the tricky way that the monster operates, particularly in a fight.

Coherence: 4. The breath weapons and spell-like abilities nicely build the picture of a monster with a taste for the construction of mazes and the desire to slow and confuse intruders rather than killing them outright.

Overall: 3.333

Gold Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. As I said somewhere earlier on, I'm not of the opinion that D&D should be about unrelenting hostility, and there is definitely a space for openly and declaredly 'good' monsters, especially if - as with the gold dragon - they communicate an atmosphere of standoffish 'awesomeness' in the real sense of the word. I also like the vaguely 'Asian dragon' feel of the way the creatures are presented, from the art to the personality and abilities; the designers were clearly tapping into a distinct and distinctly non-Tolkienesque folk idea about dragons, here.

Usability: 3. Gold dragons are tailor-made to take on the role a 'quest dispenser' or possibly a wise adviser or font of helpful knowledge. Fine; there is a significant place for the latter, at least, in any sandbox campaign.

Coherence: 3. Again, there is a sense here that the designers were going for an 'Asian' feel here, as many of the gold dragon abilities are to do with luck and fortune. Makes sense, but it goes alongside a commitment for a Tolkienesque 'greedy dragon on a pile of treasure' motif that muddies the waters - gold dragons also breathe fire, and love gems.

Overall: 3.333

Silver Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. Silver is a poor man's version of gold, and so it is fitting that silver dragons come across as a poor man's version of gold dragons. They are yet another kind, helpful, and wise yet potent being. I apologise, but it gets a bit boring.

Usability: 3. Much the same applies for gold dragons as for silvers. Silver dragons seem created to play the role of quest dispense or, worse, GMPC. But the 'font of helpful knowledge' role is an important one.

Coherence: 3. Silver seems to be conflated here with cold, winds and weather - presumably because silver is like white and 'feels' like it has some connection or affinity to ice and snow. Why would a flying creature need to feather fall, though? 

Overall: 2.666

Brown Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Something different is going on here - a wingless monitor-lizard affair, which digs deep in desert sands to wait for prey. Is this taking liberties with the very concept of dragonhood? Possibly, but coming after the good dragons in the list, it nonetheless feels refreshing.

Usability: 2. Brown dragons are another desert monster, which works in their favour, but the text only really suggests they exist to be killed and/or burgled. This is too easy, and we already have plenty of alternatives for that job.

Coherence: 4. It lives in the desert. It breathes a sand spray. Its spells allow it to create sandstorms, summon earth elementals, create water, etc. The only criticism is that this is perhaps too 'on the nose'.

Overall: 3.333

Cloud Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Another 'Asian' dragon, which I like, and one which feels pleasingly 1980s for some reason, perhaps because whenever I think of creatures living in clouds my mind is drawn inexorably to Cloud City on Bespin. 

Usability: 2. Of course, the mileage here very much varies depending on how likely it is that the PCs will for some reason be visiting magical cloud islands. Cloud dragons, we are told, are reclusive and have contempt for beings that can't fly. Is it, then, likely that one will be able to find a use for one?

Coherence: 5. It lives in clouds; it can control weather, call lightning, produce fog, create water...the cloud dragon is in this respect the complete package.

Overall: 3.666

Deep Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. In some respects, the deep dragon is bland - simply an Underdark version of any of the standard 'evil' chromatic types. But a distinctive niche is suggested (roaming hunter) and the shapechanging abilities - into a human or giant snake - are a nice touch.

Usability: 4. Lots to play with here - deep dragons can appear as powerful laired monsters guarding treasure hoards, but also as roving dangers across a hex map or within a dungeon, or even perhaps as significant NPCs-in-disguise in an urban campaign. 

Coherence: 2. Deep dragons' abilities are a bit of a random assortment - levitate, free action, telekinesis, disintegrate, etc., but I suppose the idea is to imagine the magical toolkit an Underdark explorer would need and work from there. The tail wags the dog a bit, in other words. And I'm unconvinced as to where a corrosive gas breath weapon really fits in.

Overall: 3.333

Mercury Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Mercury dragons are, well, mercurial. This is a bit painful. But it also makes for something a bit different - unpredictable, capricious, chaotic, and irrational rather than wise, cunning, aloof, etc.

Usability: 2. I have a hard time thinking about where a mercury dragon could fit into a campaign except as something with a lair on the hexmap or within a large dungeon - simply as an alternative to one of the many other kinds of dragon that could fulfil the same essential purpose. 

Coherence: 3. A beam of light 'breath' weapon is an interesting idea, but I'm not sure what it really has to do with mercury. The spell-like abilities, though, seem to derive from mercury's reflectivity and changeability, and work well as a coherent whole on those terms.

Overall: 3

Mist Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. Taken in isolation, the mist dragon is a nice idea - a moody, mysterious, brooding philosopher with a vaguely 'Asian' vibe. But taken alongside the other dragon types, it must be said that it simply feels too close conceptually to the cloud dragon. 

Usability: 4. The mist dragon's primary use case is obvious: a source of wisdom that must itself be sought in a difficult, dangerous, hidden location. It sees and knows all, but is only willing to share its knowledge for a price, and is hard to find. This works: the mist dragon is to all intents and purposes Dagobah-era Yoda.

Coherence: 3. A scalding vapour breath attack fits very well. The other abilities, though, are too easy - water breathing, wall of fog, solid fog, etc. 

Overall: 3.333

Shadow Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. The shadow dragon is a cheesy concept, but a sound one. It is also one of those cases in which the name of a monster more or less communicates everything you need to know about it. Shadow dragon. Instantly, on reading those two words, one knows exactly what the creature is and what it does.

Usability: 3. The shadow dragon clearly is meant to occupy the 'dragon at the bottom of the dungeon' role, and in that regard, although it is one dimensional, it obviously fits in nicely. I especially like the idea of one lurking at the base of a megadungeon as a kind of final 'boss'.

Coherence: 5. One has to say that the shadow dragon is almost the pinnacle of a high concept monster. The name sets out the stall. And everything flows from there - the behaviour, the abilities, the breath weapon, and so on). It's a dragon which embodies shadow, lives in the dark, and uses it to its advantage. Great.

Overall: 4

Steel Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A dragon which likes to pose as a human being (presumably in secret) and lives typically in an urban setting; this is different, and I like the concept. I must however be scrupulously fair and consistent - there is, as I earlier said, something deeply illegitimate about metallic dragon types deriving from alloys. 

Usability: 3. Steel dragons make sense really in only one role - as interesting NPCs in a city-based campaign, or as a prominent figure in a major urban settlement on a hex map. I like that role, but it is very one-dimensional. 

Coherence: 5. The steel dragon's abilities and breath weapon map perfectly onto the role envisioned for the monster. It can create toxic gas in pre-determined volumes, big or small, so as to be the perfect poisoner or assassin; it can polymorph itself almost at will; it can use magic to dominate, persuade, befriend or command. It all fits together like a jigsaw.

Overall: 4

Yellow Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. The raison d'etre of the yellow dragon is that there ought to be yellow dragons because yellow is a colour. (On this basis, should there not also be a purple one?) This is weak. Yellow dragons, we are told, are 'solitary and secretive'. This is weak, too.

Usability: 2. Yellow dragons are essentially a mixture of browns and blues in terms of their abilities and MO. I can't help but feel that three types of dragon which live in the same environment and do more or less the same thing is overkill.

Coherence: 3. The only thing to say here is that yellow abilities are like those of browns or blues, and that the tone is once again 'more of the same'. It all makes sense; but it is uninspired.

Overall: 2.333

The Official Ranking, Best to Worst

1 - Red

2 = - Topaz

2 =  - Steel

2 = - Shadow

5 = - Cloud

5 = - Bronze

7 = - White

7 = - Copper

7 = - Gold

7 = - Brown

7 = - Deep

7 = - Mist

13 = - Blue

13 = - Green

13 = - Emerald

13 = - Mercury

17 = - Silver

17 = - Black

19 = - Yellow

19 = - Brass

21 = - Amethyst

21 = - Crystal

23 - Sapphire

Monday 6 November 2023

The Sunday Seven, 5th November 2023

In this new feature, I'll be posting seven links to items of interest each Sunday - and I'll be calling it, unimaginatively-but-appealingly-alliteratively, the Sunday Seven. Here are this week's:

1. 'How Difficulty Class and the d20 Engine Ruined Roleplaying', at Mythlands of Erce. This is a blast from the past - an echo of those great blogposts from long ago whose calls still reverberate in the sunset-lit mountains of our memory. It's also funny. Worth reading.

2. Mythic Bastionland will soon be released on Kickstarter. I don't normally go in for hype, but this one seems like it may be worth it.

3. A commenter, Nick, recommended an old Ravenloft adventure to me, called Castle Forlorn - which among other things apparently included time travel as a significant feature. I am persuaded this one is worth buying and reviewing. 

4. At Methods & Madness, the author is carefully and dutifully re-reading the AD&D 1st edition DMG (the latest post being this one). People used to do this sort of thing more, and there is value in it; I learned today that AD&D assumes a 1% backfire rate on the use of wands - something which I had never noticed before, and will I think implement. 

5. I have just finished reading William Goulding's The Inheritors after it was recommended by a commenter on the blog. It is a phenomenal read, and perhaps the best example I can think of of an author grappling convincingly with the task of plausibly representing non-human consciousness.

6. I tend to put Freddie de Boer into the 'fevered egos tainting our collective subconscious' category, but a recent(ish) post by him makes some interesting points about AI art

7. On the other hand, this piece from The Spectator, on broadly the same subject, makes terrifying ones

Friday 3 November 2023

RPGs and Storytelling Against the Nihilism of the Digital

The eccentric poet and folklorist Robert Bly once wrote that a central feature of adulthood was '[being] able to organise the random emotions and events of [one's] life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story'.

I know what he meant. Little children experience events in a disconnected jumble. As we grow bigger, we learn to connect the things that happen to us from moment to moment. In adulthood, we can then piece them into something resembling a personal narrative. And if we attend carefully to what happens to us, we can envision our lives as an ongoing story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This allows us, in turn, to think about what we wish to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and in old age - and also to think about the legacy that we will leave behind. The result is a vision of one's life as having an overarching meaning, which, when reflected upon, can guide one's conduct. 

Reading novels I think helps to facilitate the development of this ability in a way that other storytelling media (so as films or TV series) do not, partly because it takes a comparatively long time to read one, and partly because of that strange alchemy that takes place in the brain when one is reading words and internalising them through imagined imagery. It is surprising to me that I have never heard or read anybody remark on the fact that reading a novel requires one to be able to maintain a connected narrative and a set of accompanying imagery in one's head despite the big gaps in time between reading one section and the next, and despite the fact that each section of the book may be being read in different surroundings and different circumstances. Currently reading A Soldier of the Great War, for example, I find myself reading 10 pages or so at night in bed, then another 20 pages or so on public transport on my way to work the next morning, then a few more pages in my office at lunch time, and so on. But what I am envisioning in my head when I picture what is happening retains its consistency, as does my knowledge of what is happening and the position the narrative is 'paused' at. This surely has some very significant effect, when repeated again and again down the years, on one's ability to think about life in terms of having a narrative rather than a meaningless series of (fortunate or unfortunate) events.

If this is true of novels, though, it is surely also true of RPGs. What happens in an RPG campaign in some ways can be thought of as what I earlier called a 'disconnected jumble' of events, which we then assemble into something resembling a collective story (the campaign) and individualised stories (for each PC). And, much as with a novel, what is interesting about this exercise is that it happens partly within our brains (as we picture in our minds what is happening from moment to moment) and is also characterised by gaps - in this case, between sessions - during which we have to hold what is going on in stasis in our minds so that we can reconnect it to the past and connect it to the future next time. It seems likely, in other words, that playing in a long-term campaign has the same effect on one's ability to make sense of the world in terms of narrative as does reading lots of novels. 

Thinking about RPGs in terms of self-help can be a bit sick-making, but I think it is important to emphasise (as I have tried to do from time to time on the blog) that there is something deeply counter-cultural about physical, pen and paper gaming. One of the problems that we face, living in a heavily digitised environment, is that the conditions confronting us are highly fragmenting of our consciousness - indeed in such a way as to hinder or even reverse the process by which we move from living in a 'disconnected jumble' of events to understanding our lives as having overarching narratives. Since an awareness that one's life is a story is one of the ways we derive meaning from it, and hence develop a properly adult orientation to the world, the result of this fragmentation of consciousness is ultimately a bleak and nihilistic, not to mention stunted and immature, way of approaching things. If playing RPG campaigns - meaning proper long-term ones, in which one regularly sits down with the same group of friends - can work to undermine the conditions which confront us, then that gives the hobby a pertinence beyond being simply a fun thing to do. And I think we can all agree that we should therefore do more of it - indeed as much as possible.

[Something odd happened to the previous version of this post, I think in connection to an internet outage. I have therefore reposted it.]

Wednesday 1 November 2023

The Time Travel Dungeon (and Competition Results)

One of the last frontiers of the OSR is a proper treatment of time travel. By this I partly mean that I am not aware of a set of rules for time traveling adventures founded on OSR assumptions (sandbox, emergent narrative, etc.). And I partly mean that I am not aware of an OSR or OSR-adjacent campaign setting in which time travel is a major element. Am I simply pig ignorant and wrong? (Yes, okay, but am I pig ignorant and wrong about this?) Or am I right to have noticed this gap, and can it be filled? 

Fiction has different ways of treating time travel (Google 'species of time travel' and the first hit suggests there are eight), but it seems to me that when it comes to making gameable material - which is, I repeat, founded on OSR assumptions - there are really four roads down which one can go.

The first is Cheat Mode. Here, there is no time travel, strictly speaking, but rather a way to access perfect or near-prefect presentations of the past while remaining in the present. My model for this is the otherwise obscure (and pretty bog average) Alastair Reynolds novel Century Rain, in which in the far future archaeologists who live on Mars travel down to an Earth which is, if I recall, pretty well preserved as it was when a plague of nanobots long ago got loose and basically wiped out all multicellular life. So the archaeologists in question go there to collect artefacts and conduct research while trying to avoid the bot swarms. I may be misremembering the novel or confusing it with another - it's decades since I read it - but the basic idea is I have here described it is I think solid, and can be made more interesting by replacing bot swarms with e.g. demons.

The second is the Time Travel Dungeon. The PCs are specialist time travellers who go back in time to particular periods/locations (the dinosaurs, the belle epoque, the vikings, etc.), try to find treasures, and bring them back to their own time to sell them to collectors. Perhaps each time they do this they create branch timelines; perhaps that is hand-waved; the important point is that it replicates the way in which an OSR campaign classically operates - the only difference being that the PCs are not delving into a tentpole megadungeon or mythic underworld, but the past itself imagined as a dungeon. (You could of course flip this and have the PCs act as specialist time travellers who raid the future to bring useful things back to the past to sell/deploy for nefarious ends - as in the the Star Trek: TNG episode, 'A Matter of Time'.)

The third is Strangers in a Strange Time. Here, the PCs begin in media res, as people from one era who have for some reason found themselves in a different era with no way to get home, and have to make the best of it. This could be because they have gone into exile in a different time, a la Saga of the Exiles (this makes more sense logistically, as it allows dead PCs to be replaced through a vaguely plausible method), or it could be by genuine accident (a group of vikings falls through a time warp and they end up in...the time of the dinosaurs!). Either way, what we are really interested in here is the juxtaposition of PCs and setting. 

And the fourth is Time Grenade. Long, long ago ago I played a PC text adventure whose conceit was that time itself had fragmented into shards due to a fight between time-travelling soldiers who had accidentally created irreparable rifts in the timeline. Everything had become jumbled, with the result that it was impossible for the main character in the adventure to develop a coherent narrative. One wouldn't have to go that far; one could instead create a setting that was something akin to that of Rifts - a jumble of different periods of time all bundled together in one geographic location. Romans, Neanderthals, Napoleonic armies and medieval knights all neighbouring one another in different parts of a single hexmap.

The most interesting of these in terms of mechanics is clearly the second, as it would require some inquiry into how time travel itself would work in terms of rules and dice rolls, and this I think makes it the most intrinsically appealing - but YMMV as they used to say on rpg.net.


I would also like to take the opportunity of this blog post to announce the winner of the Elves = Verbs, Dwarfs = Nouns, Orcs = Adjectives Competition that has been running for the past two weeks or so, in which entrants were asked to transliterate the first verse of the King James Bible ('In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth') into languages comprising first only verbs, second only nouns, and third only adjectives. The winner, I am pleased to announce, was Andrew Wright, for these efforts:

Elvish: awaiting-first-breathing-created-arises-from-all-impelled-and-all-impelling-and-flung-above-was-unfurled-and-throughout-carpeted-below-rolled-out. 

Dwarf: Stillness and nothing before the all-maker's forge fires, a newborn air seed, his hammer, herald of our world, womb of stone. 

Orc: once-dark-empty-wakened-light-full-old-powerful-busy-thoughtful-the-thundrous-high-stormy-after-busy-thoughtful-the-green-bosomed-stony

I was pleased with the rhythmical and poetic quality of the results here, although I think he cheated a tiny bit on the Dwarf one by using a coordinating conjunction. In any case, well done Andrew! Please email me at noismsgames AT protonmail dot com and I will hook you up with your PDF reward.