Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #8 – Operation Chimney Sweep

The Company:

  • Ynes (T1)
  • Heinz (MU2)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Vito & Enzo (heavy foot)
  • Jana (crossbowwoman)
  • Elin (porter)

Loot:

  • Potion of heroism
  • Bundle of golden buttons
  • Golden box of candied fingers and toes

Casualties: Vito — left foot ripped off and eaten by a zombie

Report:

While preparing for the next expedition in Tours-en-Savoy, the company hears rumours about rough out-of-town folks who have been asking around about people who are particularly good at logging. They also hear the locals are grumbling about the frequent deaths of retainers in the company’s employ. Indeed, the availability of non-combatants and heavy footmen in particular appears to be on the decline. Jaquet orders the “special” at The Black Comedian and is told chimneys are something to seek out while in the castle. Finally, Ynes is visited in the dead of night by an angelic appearance who orders her to quest for the Sceptre of the Merovings, and shows her a vision of a haloed king in Carolingian garb, sat on a plain marble throne, holding a rod shaped like an upturned hand…

Two days later, the company arrives at the castle, and heads back to the grand entrance. There they find the decomposing bodies of the previous expedition’s casualties, the heavy footmen Milia and Lionel. Ignoring these, they proceed to push open the double doors. As expected the western statue laughs ominously. This time, however, the eastern statue also animates to snap its fingers, upon which the corpses of the men-at-arms rise to attack the company.

The company makes an ordered retreat, and fires a volley of crossbow bolts at the things from a safe distance. One is downed, but the other manages to make it to the front line. It is hacked to pieces, but not before it manages to pull the unfortunate Vito to the ground with it. The heavy footman expires as blood gushes from his left ankle where his foot has been ripped off.

The remaining retainers are shaken by the spectacle but agree to continue the expedition. The company, aiming to prevent the same thing from happening again, toss all three bodies into the stream running not far from the path. As the corpses wash into the lake, the company once again enters the castle. This time, only the western statue laughs.

Preparing to shoot some zombies? (Hans Holbein)

They return to the large room shrouded in shadows which they know holds a fireplace. Ynes begins a careful inspection. She establishes that she would be able to climb up the chimney without much issue. She also finds a secret door in the rear. Opening it, they find a small room filled with smoked meats hanging from the ceiling. While Ynes begins to investigate, the remaining company hears something approaching from a door to the north. A chorus of whispers grows louder, and mist begins to seep from under the door. Not interested in meeting whatever it is head-on, they quickly pile into the smoke room.

Remaining hidden, the company spies a pale lady shrouded in mists entering the room. She is accompanied by two shadowy outlines of male bodies. Lucky for them, Ynes finds another secret door leading out of the room. Quickly and quietly, they leave the smoked meats behind them.

The next room is large, and holds many shelves filled with esoteric paraphernalia. The smell of dried herbs fills the space. A large stuffed raven sits on a desk, and most notably, walls and floor are covered with eery occult diagrams in white chalk. They toss the room and find nothing of interest. But when Heinz studies the diagram, his head begins to spin and he is nearly driven insane by their geometric implications. Managing to keep it together however, he gains invaluable insights into the nature of reality and emerges from the ordeal an even more intelligent man than he already was.

Heading further east, they enter a hall with doors leading north and east. The eastern door is particularly notable for the large wrought-iron bat-shaped device in place of a lock. Ynes investigates and establishes the bat’s wings can be moved either up or down. She flips a coin and moves the wings up. A piercing wail sounds off by way of an alarm. The company is nailed to the ground and waits for a moment to see what may happen next. Then, they hear a large number of high-heeled footsteps nearing from the west, accompanied by fussy lady’s voices going “what in heavens could that be” and so on. The company makes a dash for door to the north and is relieved to find it unlocked and unstuck. They barely manage to remain out of sight while whatever was heading their way enters the hall.

Getting their bearings, the company see they are in a hallway leading west, with a fork north. Ynes proceeds to investigate, and finds, at the western end of the hallway, a large boulder sat on a pedestal. She gingerly investigates it, being careful not to touch, but can not find anything obviously suspicious.

Ignoring the thing for the moment, the company heads north and takes the first door on their left hand. Here, they emerge underneath a large stairway shrouded in spiderwebs. Beyond, they see floating candles illuminating several portraits. It’s the gallery they also visited a few expeditions past. They briefly investigate the decomposing body of an unfortunate adventurer who is covered in moths. Then, they move on to have another look at the portraits.

Heinz engages in a staring contest with the portrait of Aristide Malévol — an impossibly ancient-looking man dressed in blue robes decorated with stars and wearing a pointy hat, who returns the magic-user’s gaze with disconcerting interest. Meanwhile, Jaquet’s curiosity is piqued by the statue of a griffon. The fighter wedges a spike in the things beak and after much hemming and hawing reaches in and pulls out — a flask! Amazed to still be in possession of both hands, he pockets the item with a satisfied grin. Heinz moves on to the familiar-looking gruesome visage of a huntsman. The portrait bears a plaque with the name “Hubert Malvévol”. Before the magic-user can do anything, Hubert raises a bow and fires an arrow, which barely misses Heinz. Terrified, and with time running out, the company decides they have had enough of the portraits and head back to the hallway with the boulder, desperate to find some treasure.

They continue to retrace their steps back to the bat-locked door. They are relieved to find whatever was following them has left. Ynes pushes the wings of the lock down, and gingerly dodges its presumably poisonous bite. The door unlocks with an audible click. Very carefully, the thief opens the door and uses her mirror to peer inside.

She observes a luxurious suite, the walls covered in red and black drapes. There are three portraits on the walls, a couch with a coffin on it, a table with a decanter holding a red liquid, a pair of duelling swords on the wall, a trunk, a desk and a liquor cabinet. The whole scene is lit by four golden candelabras. Most notably, behind the desk, facing the door, sits a pale, immaculately dressed man, pondering papers and mumbling to himself.

Stumped by the presence of the person, the company debates what to do next. Rather than engage the man in the room, they decide it’s time to end the expedition. They head back to the hallway with the boulder, and bust open another door to the north. Here, they find the room of a young lady, with a large mirror and numerous cosmetics. They toss the room and find a bundle of golden buttons in a trunk filled with decomposing dresses. Finally, some treasure! Somewhat satisfied, they begin to leave the room when a terrible scream rings out and the mirror shatters. Shaken, they spot an alcove where the mirror used to be, holding a golden box. At the same time, they hear heavy footsteps and gruff humming nearing from the north. They swipe the box and once again make a run for it, this time heading for the grand entrance. To their amazement and relief, they make it outside without trouble, and find themselves back in the late morning sun of a pleasant early November day. The trek back to Tours-en-Savoy begins once more.

Referee Commentary:

I was quite satisfied with the run of this session. I managed to keep my cool, and implemented a few changes to my refereeing procedure to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed. Most importantly, I tried to stick to the following exploration turn procedure:

  1. Roll for random encounter
  2. Establish player actions
  3. Resolve player actions
  4. Resolve random encounter (if applicable)
  5. Update time records (including light source depletion)

I’ve been using a time-keeping sheet of my own design for quite a while. It’s nothing special, I can just use it to easily check off turns as the game progresses. The problem I often ran into, however, is that I lost track of where we were in a turn. I tried to fix that by marking a turn at its beginning, and then crossing it off at its end. This actually worked quite well. I also got myself a fun red d6 with a skull in place of the 1 for my encounter roll. I can keep this lying around on the result I rolled for that round as a reminder. That also improved things noticeably.

My time-keeping sheet, designed to be printed off on A5. It allows for tracking by day, 4-hour watch, hour, and 10-minute turn.

The main thing that trips me up is that when I do roll a random encounter I somehow feel rushed to throw it in at just the right moment. This is strange, because ultimately I am in control of the progression of time. And so, by sticking to the turn procedure more faithfully, I relieve myself of this burden. I just resolve what players want to do, and then move on to introduce the encounter. It’s maybe sometimes a bit less elegant, but it does prevent things from spiralling out of my control entirely.

The opening skirmish aside, the players chose to avoid most encounters (and in some cases wisely so, for sure). There were some fun and atmospheric moments.

Afterwards one player did comment he’s still not entirely sure how to approach the game. He feels they are mostly just going around poking things and hoping for the best. Things feel random and out of their control. Some moments in this session — the zombies at the entrance, the arrow fired by Hubert, came across as impossible to avoid gotchas, and they have a point. Hubert’s arrow I should have telegraphed much clearer. Probably by describing him raising a bow and giving them the opportunity to react. The zombies I think are less of a gotcha because they can be easily avoided after they are raised. But I screwed up with a ruling related to range penalties on missile fire, and so the players felt they were punished for trying to be smart and increasing distance between themselves and the monsters. I have resolved to do better in future on that count (and will slightly revise the range penalty rules in Hackbut, which I’ve taken from OED.)

The flip-side is of course that Castle Xyntillan also rewards risk-taking. In this session, Heinz’s player was rewarded for investigating the obviously sinister diagrams with a +1 to Heinz’s intelligence score, bumping his modifier to a +2 in the process, which they were understandably pleased with. Jaquet’s player was certain he would have his hand bit off by the griffon statue but in stead was rewarded for his foolhardiness with a potion of heroism. I love this kind of stuff, but then I have it easy as the referee, sitting on the other end of the screen. For players, I think this type of stuff only works if you remain a little detached from your characters, and can accept they can perish at any moment due to a cruel twist of fate. This can be hard in a roleplaying game, and I think as a group we are still figuring out how best to balance these things.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #7 – Sword Riot

The Company:

  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Buerghedorn (F1)
  • Heinz (MU2)
  • Ynes (T1)
  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Milia, Lionel & Benjamin (heavy foot)
  • Mena, Mathilde & Lucas (porters)

Loot:

  • Vial of liquid and small dagger
  • Signet ring
  • Gold-rimmed spectacles
  • Bottle of brandy, champagne & vial of aquavit
  • Mace

Casualties:

  • Milia — choked by a cloaker
  • Lionel — decapitated by a man-eating hat
The company? (Gustave Jean Jacquet)

Report:

Following last session’s windfall, this week’s downtime is a relaxed affair where money is no object. Retainers are hired, items are identified, supplies are replenished and Heinz even finds the time to scribe his first honest-to-goodness scroll (magic missile, of course). Subsequently, the company sets out for the castle again.

They decide to once again use the grand entrance. Previous expedition’s members respond with a shrug when the western statue erupts in laughter again. The rest of the company is less indifferent.

Things immediately go south when they enter the vestibule. The cloak, along with hat, cane, and shoes jump from the coatrack and rush to engage the company. Milia is almost immediately enfurled and choked by the cloak, Lionel is soon decapitated by the hat. Mathilde immediately flees at the sight of several retainers biting the dust. The remaining porters hold their ground. Benjamin rushes forward to join Jaquet and Buerghedorn in what is now the front rank, and a fight develops on the doorstep of the castle. Jaquet enters his +2 axe’s battle rage. Heinz makes good use of his wand of lightning, dealing ridiculous amounts of damage to the conjured creatures. Bartolomea tries dousing the things in holy water but finds they are not harmed by it. Jaquet, Buerghedorn and Benjamin hack away, Ynes takes potshots with her crossbow, and at one point, desperate to turn the tide, Heinz even summons the wand of the deep woods’ guardian. Ultimately, the company prevails, but it’s quite the desperate start to the expedition.

Having collected themselves, the company checks a couple of rooms to the west of the vestibule but those turn out to be largely empty. They return to the vestibule and try to first door to the east. It opens on a large room shrouded in unnaturally dense shadows. It contains a grandfather clock, a writing desk piled with papers, a closet, a chest and a fireplace.

Bartolomea and Heinz start rifling through the papers on the desk. Ynes begins to investigate the clock. Jaquet pops open the chest. Buerghedorn pokes around the fireplace. The papers turn out to be ravings of a madman. They do find what appears to be a hit list, which includes the name of the bishop of Chamrousse, as well as (at the very bottom) a certain “Louis”. The chest holds a false compartment with a vial and a small dagger. Buerghedorn pulls the strangled body of a young gentleman from the chimney, who soon after collapses into a cloud of ash and jumble of blackened bones. Ynes spies bones in stead of gears inside the clock, and an owl on a platform in a compartment above the clock-face.

Just when Bartolomea fishes a signet ring from the moth-eaten clothes in the closet, the rear-guard cries out in horror at the sight of blood being sucked from their pores. It’s another group of those damn glitterclouds at the door leading into the room from the vestibule! The company has little appetite for a fight with the things, so Jaquet swiftly moves to slam the door shut before they can enter the room, and it is spiked with a dagger in the jamb. After a moment of pressure from the other side, things turn quiet. Satisfied the clouds are kept at bay for the moment, the company turns their attention to the other doors in the room.

A door south opens onto a stairway leading down into darkness. With a loud “no thank you” the door is shut again.

Meanwhile, the clock is shoved aside to check behind it. Suddenly, the clock begins to strike and the owl pops out, loudly proclaiming “doom, dooom, doooom!” The company braces for what comes next, but is relieved to find nothing else happens.

The first of two doors to the north opens onto a sitting room. A decapitated corpse is slumped in one of several armchairs set around an oak table marked with deep cuts. There is also a wardrobe in a corner. They kick the corpse from the chair and are relieved to see it collapse on the floor. When Bartolomea pulls open the closet, a stream of skulls fall from it. She begins to pick through it, and eventually turns up one bearing a pair of fancy gold-rimmed spectacles.

Heading east, they enter a cosy den with a card table, couches and liquor cabinet. The walls are also covered by a large number of swords on display. The centerpiece is a sinister-looking zweihander with a nameplate beneath it: “The Blade of Rel”.

While some are investigating the card table and others are pillaging the liquor cabinet, Jaquet and Buerghedorn jostle for position at the zweihander. Buerghedorn wins out and before anyone can intervene he grabs the sword from the wall. Instantly, all the edged weapons that the company is carrying spring to life and go for their throats. Ynes and Jaquet are cut down. Acting swiftly, Bartolomea manages to pull Jaquet from death’s door with a cure light wounds. Ynes recovers on her own accord and is further revived with a swig from a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet. In the meantime, Buerghedorn struggles for control over his faculties with the chaotic sword and fails. Furthermore, the swords on display also come to life and attack. The complete company flees in terror from the room and barely manages to evade the blades.

Back in the sitting room, they take a moment to debate how best to egress from the castle. They are worried about the clouds in the vestibule, but also dislike the bedroom to the immediate west, which has an oppressive atmosphere and a lantern swinging back and forth under the influence of some unseen force. Before they can resolve their dispute they are interrupted by a bunch of headless manservants entering from said eery room, and halting in confusion at the entrance.

They attempt to get rid of them with some bluffing but the manservants aren’t impressed. Overcome by the blade of Rel, Buerghedorn in stead chops down one of the manservants, and the rest attack in anger. The company makes a run for it, but Buerghedorn is compelled by the blade to stay and hack away. The rest of the company return to the large room, pull the dagger from the jamb and throw open the door. To their relief, the clouds have departed. At that moment, Buerghedorn manages to wrest back control from the sword and turns to run as well. The manservants pursue, but the whole company succeeds in shaking them off and emerge into daylight from the grand entrance. Buerghedorn tosses the blade into the castle moat in disgust. Exhausted, the company begins the two-day journey back to Tours-en-Savoy.

Referee Commentary:

“Regrets, I’ve had a few…”

This was quite the action packed and chaotic session. When we ended I felt like I had made a number of less-than-great calls.

The opening fight did go well, I feel like I am getting an increasingly solid handle on how to run fights purely theatre of the mind and despite the large-ish number of combatants things proceeded at a satisfying clip. The only thing I am still a bit unsure about is how forgiving to be with positioning in melee. Next time I might try to keep a small dry-erase battle mat next to me for keeping track of everyone. I do this now with pen and pencil in my notebook but when a combat takes a while and positions change it resists quick updating.

Where I really stumbled was room E7, the den. As usual, a combination of fatigue and an unreasonable desire to keep things moving conspired to make me misread the room key. My unfamiliarity with the intelligent sword rules also made me unnecessarily cut corners on resolving the situation. As a result, when Buerghedorn’s player grabbed the sword of Rel, I did not have all edged weapons make attack rolls against the PCs. In stead I had each PC who carried edged weapons save, and those who failed I rolled their weapons damage for. I also forgot about their retainers. Furthermore, I botched the control check on the sword by leaving out the wound modifier (I’m using Paul’s reinterpretation of the OD&D control check, which is relatively straightforward, but still more math than I would have liked). So Buerghedorn lost control, but I was then at a loss what the weapon would want. I also overlooked the fact that he should have been taking damage each round, following the B/X rules I am using, because he’s neutral and the sword is chaotic. Only later did I realize my mistake about the weapons in the room and did I read the detail of twenty swords on the walls. I then narrated that they were coming to life to attack as well. We rolled for initiative, they got to go first, and were able to speed out of the room. My final mistake here was that the room entrance is curtained, but I narrated that they slammed the door shut and the swords flew into it. With curtains, it would have been a different story. For some reason I misread the key here too (I have a tendency to confuse left/right, east/west, it’s an annoying flaw) and I also disregarded the key difference in the map, even after a player asked me about it! What the hell was I doing? I know what I was doing, I was rushing. And I shouldn’t have. I’m not kicking myself because the players probably got off easy. I’m bummed because if I’d run this sequence of events as written, it would probably have been even more dramatic than it already was.

So, for the umpteenth time, note to self: do not rush. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, just take five already.

This session also has me reconsider the intelligent sword rules I am using. I am now wondering which rules Lux uses himself. I notice all swords but one only have ego listed, no intelligence, but these ego values tend to be quite high. I suspect Lux uses something similar to the 1e rules. And I might start using those, via OSRIC. The main thing I would like to know is how to interpret the ego-only stat block to understand how intelligent a given sword is, and specifically what (if any) capacity for communication it has with its wielder.

There are more regrets, mainly to do with unfamiliarity with a lot of D&D tropes, such as wands disintegrating when they are depleted (a thing that should have happened when Heinz went HAM using his wand of lightning). I guess I should chalk up some or most of those things to learning. But others are really my own fault, and I hope next session I will manage to take things a little slower.

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Alignment

Alignment never really sat right with me. As typically presented, it tends to prescribe player character morality, and imply monolithic, unidimensional world views. Judging by its absence from many contemporary OSR games I’m not alone in that sentiment. But Castle Xyntillan features alignment in its stat blocks, Swords & Wizardry includes it (of course) and the goal of Hackbut was to have full compatibility with the classic editions, so I felt I had to include some statement of what alignment means.

I went trawling through my collection of retroclones and hit the OSR search engine again. This turned up more than a few useful sources of inspiration.

The things that clicked the most for me were those that presented alignment as allegiance to a faction in an ongoing supernatural battle of cosmic proportions. Lamentations of the Flame Princess does this quite well, although the way it conflates arcane magic with chaos and divine magic with law makes it too far removed from classic D&D’s implied setting.

I also like Talysman’s take on alignment. Like him I prefer the simplicity of the chaos/law split. I too prefer alignment not to prescribe morality. In light of this, I likewise interpret spells that relate to “evil” as not targeting alignment but harmful intent.

Finally, I’ll point to the Wandering DMs episode on alignment. In particular, there is a moment when Dan boils alignment down to the following: “When Cthulhu rises, do you run, stay and fight it, or join its side?”

I guess the one thing that makes my take a little out of sync with the original game is that neutrality is not a faction or cosmic force. I realize that in AD&D in particular, this idea is that classes like druids adhere to a belief system that is about balance between chaos and law. I kind of dislike that interpretation, and although it features a little bit in Castle Xyntillan — for example there are intelligent swords that are of neutral alignment — I don’t consider it a huge problem and can easily work around it on the fly.

That’s about all I have to say about alignment at this point. It hasn’t come up much in our game so far. But I expect once we hit higher levels and players begin to acquire intelligent swords for example, it might become more of a thing. I’m pretty happy with where I ended up with this, and it makes me comfortable with having alignment in my game. Perhaps some of these ideas make you reconsider completely ignoring it yourself, too.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #6 – Jackpot

The Company:

  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Buerghedorn (F1)
  • Lucas (porter)
  • Alina, Benjamin & Milia (heavy foot)
  • Stefanie (bow)

Loot:

  • Diadem set with opals
  • 16 pearls
  • Two goatrice heads

Casualties:

  • Stefanie — ribcage crushed and thereafter petrified by a goatrice

Report:

The company once again scrapes together what remains of their diminishing funds to pay for their upkeep, resupply and hire a significant number of retainers.

The night before their departure for Castle Xyntillan the man called Blérot appears on Heinz’s doorstep. He once again thanks him for freeing him from captivity, and hands over a wooden staff as a token of his gratitude. He says it’s been cut from the fabled talking tree he did indeed go off to chop down. Before Heinz can act, the masked lumberjack turns and leaves, soon disappearing in Tours-en-Savoy’s darkened streets.

When they have the staff identified, it is revealed to have a number of magical properties: it can warp wooden objects, kill wooden creatures, and even turn into a servitor creature. The company is quite impressed with this unexpected gift.

On Wednesday, October 25, 1525, they find themselves at the gates of Castle Xyntillan once again, ready to begin their fifth expedition.

Deciding they’ve had enough of the northwest sector, they follow the path along the south wall of the castle, and arrive at the grand entrance. They listen at the double doors while nervously eying the chimera statues flanking it. From within, they hear quiet sobbing. They push open the doors and are startled by sudden evil laughter emitted by the statue to their left. Quickly they continue on inside to find themselves in a dusty, guano-littered vestibule.

The sobbing turns out to come from a ghostly butler named James who is quite distraught by the state of the room, and profusely apologizes. He also provides them with directions to some particularly charming parts of the castle. The company attempts to extract the location of treasure from him, but their ham-fisted probing is easily deflected. After a while, the butler excuses himself and leaves to find servants to clean the room.

Bartolomea begins to rifle through a cloak hanging from a coatrack and is surprised to be immediately enveloped by it. Retainers rush to her aid and manage to pull it from her. Buerghedorn attempts to smash it, but it emits a horrid moaning sound which forces the majority of the company to flee in terror. Buerghedorn however holds ground and prepares to attack the cloak again when he’s suddenly attacked by a hat. It jumps from the coat rack and tries to bite off the fighter’s head but only ends up chomping on Buerghedorn’s cranium. Still, this is more than he can handle and he drops to the ground.

The remaining company has reconvened at the entrance and has hurried through the double doors outside. When they hear no sounds coming from the vestibule they collect themselves and push open the doors once more. To their relief, the cloak, hat and other items have returned to their resting place on the coatrack and appear not to be hostile for the time being.

Buerghedorn struggles back up from the floor, blood streaming down his forehead from numerous bite marks, but still alive. Bartolomea proceeds to cure the fighter, and somewhat refreshed he is ready once again to continue the expedition.

They proceed north and enter a portrait gallery illuminated by floating candles. Thinking some painting should fetch a decent sum, Bartolomea immediately orders her retainers to rip the first painting from the wall. Before they can do so, however, it begins to speak to them and the retainers back away from it, afraid of what else it may be capable of. Bartolomea approaches the painting and is greeted by a pale, skinny lady by the name of Philoméne who invites her to join her upstairs in her suite for some fun. The cleric tries to ascertain if there would be treasure involved but discovers the painting is only capable of limited conversation. She does, however, notice a silver locket with an aquamarine gem hanging from the lady’s neck.

Meanwhile, Heinz inspects the next painting, named “Girolamo”, which features a severe bureaucrat, who for some reason is holding a wood axe. Through clenched teeth the man insists Heinz hand over a signed affidavit. The magic-user carefully backs away from the painting again.

Somewhat puzzled and frustrated by the paintings, the company decides to shift gears. They return to the vestibule and take a door west, where they enter a comfortable sitting room. From the entrance they spot a lady in a chair, her back to them, vainly inspecting herself in a mirror. Carefully, they approach the person, and quickly move to ram a stake through her heart and chop off her head. It plonks on the floor with a hollow thud, and a diadem set with three opals falls from her crown.

Maybe a little less sophisticated, and a little less alive (Peter de Kempeneer)

They bag the diadem and proceed to toss the room when suddenly from a passage to the south a swarm of severed hands emerges and assaults Alina. Having dealt with this adversary before, they keep their cool and without too much trouble dispatch most of the hands. The remainder of the swarm flee, with Buerghedorn momentarily in pursuit, but when he finds himself all alone at the end of a winding passage, he decides to break off the chase and return to his companions.

The next room is littered by wrecked simple furniture. They proceed to search the rubble and turn up four pearls. When they decide to keep searching, the mercenaries posted at the door are surprised by a pair of grotesque goat-rooster monstrosities. They manage to hold the door and alert the rest of the company, but soon after Stefanie is overrun by one of the things. It bashes into her chest, crushing her ribs and instantly killing her, but before her lifeless body lands on the floor it has turned to stone. At the sight of the bow-woman’s terrible fate, Alina’s already dwindling morale breaks and she makes for the door, narrowly escaping the horns of the monsters. A grim and vicious melee follows. Heinz summons the servant contained in his woodland staff. The company somehow miraculously evades further petrification. The goatrices turn out to be more resilient than the company would prefer, and stubbornly hold their ground, but ultimately perish to the company’s many stabs, strikes and slashes.

When the dust has settled, the company resumes their search of the room’s debris, now coated in goat-rooster blood and entrails. When they have turned up a total of 16 pearls, and are confident they’ve searched the room exhaustively, they decide to quit while they are ahead. They leave the castle posthaste, but not before also severing both goatrice heads and having a grossed-out Lucas carry them back to town.

Referee Commentary:

Finally, the players have completed a lucrative expedition. I’ve been telling them there really is treasure in the castle, but so far, because of their stubborn sticking to the northwest sector, the pickings were slim. Imagine everyone’s satisfaction when, upon return to town, they discover they’ve accumulated sufficient XP to level up two of the three expedition members. (Their inspiration to finally breach another part of the castle may have been partially due to reading some previous installments of this referee commentary, but I don’t begrudge them a little metagaming every so often. This is classic D&D after all.)

Quite a few fights in this, but they move at a fair clip, despite the presence of more than a few mercenaries. Players have gotten accustomed to the target-20 attack roll, and I simply give turns in the order that I see fit. We do roll initiative each round, but it’s one-sided: the players roll a d6 and if it comes up 4+ they act before the opposition. Finally, we play pure theatre of the mind, monsters simply attack those at the front of the marching order, and I am generous with positioning. These things combine to make things fun, dynamic, and fast. I’m also getting better at remembering to roll for morale, although in the case of the goatrices they kept making their checks! I resisted fudging the roll though.

Downtime is becoming more streamlined. I decided I wanted to keep town as boring and abstract as possible. So I boiled down all the downtime possibilities in Tours-en-Savoy to one page of bullets, which I screenshare at the top of every session. That way people can either resolve things by themselves while the group assembles in the zoom call, or ask me to handle a particular thing if needed. Works pretty well.

Not much else of note to report, really. This was a satisfying session and for once I don’t think I have any real referee regrets. Castle Xyntillan continues to be a lot of fun to run. Prep is near nonexistent at this point, aside from pre-rolling retainer availability and random encounters. Such a big difference compared to my previous campaign. Looking forward to the next session.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #5 – Hunchback Havoc

The Company:

  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Marredorn (F1)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Guillemette (T1)
  • Ynes (T1)
  • Midja & Nico (heavy foot soldiers)
  • Manuel (porter)

Loot:

  • Purple heart-shaped bottle
  • Brass rod
  • Thieves tools

Casualties:

  • Midja & Nico — sucked dry by a large malicious cloud
  • Marredorn — bludgeoned to death by hunchbacked technicians

Report:

The company scrapes together what remains of their rapidly diminishing funds to pay for their upkeep, resupply and hire a few retainers. Then, they once again set out for the castle, determined to finally return with significant treasure.

Upon arrival, they take the rose garden entrance once more. Their plan is to return to the washroom where they spotted a large glittercloud carrying a purple heart-shaped bottle in its nucleus. Checking the galloping hallway they are relieved to find the phantom horses absent. Carefully, they move to the washroom without encountering any of the castle’s denizens.

Guillemette checks the door and sees the hand swarm and cloud still present in the room, as well as the eerily fluttering linen on lines. The company forms up, kicks open the door, and loose arrows at the swarm of hands. A few more hits later and the hand swarm is vanquished, but the cloud immediately begins to suck blood from the nearest companions. They focus their attack on the thing while Guillemette slides under it to catch the bottle of it drops from the cloud. The thing is destroyed, but the thief fails to catch the bottle. Luckily it remains in one piece. The same cannot be said for the two heavy foot soldiers, who lie dead on the floor, sucked dry by the cloud. They bag the bottle and move on.

The company heads east, and has the choice between two doors. From behind the southernmost of the two they hear the sound of chains, the chopping of wood, and the occasional sigh. Carefully opening the door they are greeted by a man in chains wearing a featureless mask and holding an axe. The room is otherwise filled with a large pile of chopped wood. The man introduces himself as Blérot and begs to be released, but most of the company is somewhat apprehensive at the prospect. However, before anyone can intervene, Marredorn smashes the chain from the wall, freeing the man. A brief exchange develops, in which Blérot admits to a fondness for chopping, and not just wood. The company attempts to recruit the masked lumberjack for the remainder of the expedition, but Blérot requests to be let go so that he can go find a special tree which he’s been very much looking forward to chop. They let him go, and he wanders off into the darkness. Ynes briefly pursues but when Blérot detects her presence she hurries back to rejoin her companions.

The company returns to the hallway and tries the northeast door. They enter another corridor with a door almost immediately leading north. Checking it, they spot a handful of hunchbacked men in greasy overalls tending to a broken-down coil. The room also contains an additional two coils which appear to be functional, another door to the north, and a shaft with rungs leading up into the ceiling.

Like this, but in greasy overalls (Antoine Wiertz)

Guillemette enters the room and greets the men, who react less than favorable to her presence. She tries to win them over but botches the attempt and is rewarded for her efforts with a wrench tossed at her head. Opting to stand and fight, a brutal melee develops in which the company’s fighters use the doorway as a choke point and duke it out with the hunchbacks, who wield ends of metal pipe. Both Marredorn and Jaquet drop to the ground at one point. The latter is saved by Guillemette who feeds him the fortified wine they found several expeditions ago. Marredorn is not so lucky. When Jaquet is revived he enters a battle rage aided by his +2 axe and utterly slaughters the remaining hunchbacks.

The hunchback bodies are looted (they take a set of thieves tools), the room is searched, the functioning coils are deactivated, and a rod is removed from the busted coil. Deciding they’ve had enough, the company swiftly but carefully makes their way back out of the castle, and returns to Tours-en-Savoy.

Referee Commentary:

The players impressed me with their initial approach to the big glittercloud, making good use of crossbow volleys and fighting in formation. Despite this fact, the retainers bought it. Those clouds are really nasty, partly because I run their osmosis drain attack as something to save against, and level 1 characters have pretty shitty saves.

The encounter with Blérot was fun to roleplay and it also has a neat bit of follow-up that can happen next downtime. I look forward to surprising my players with this tidbit. It will reinforce that their actions in the dungeon can have longer term repercussions.

The fight with the hunchbacks dragged on a bit. In part, this was because they kept making their morale checks, but also because I let the players use the door as a choke point unhindered. I overlooked the fact that the hunchbacks could have also tried to grapple them and toss them against the coils. That would have added some neat variety to the scene. But once we got rolling I did not really pay attention to the encounter description anymore, as usual trying to keep the pace of the combat up. Next time when I feel like I need to change things up I will allow myself to take a moment to review the encounter description for ideas.

When the group returned to town they had the bottle identified (a love potion), and they also wanted to try and sell several of their magic items. They are desperate for both gold and experience, which I can understand, but I stuck to my guns and told them there isn’t a buyer’s market for magic items in Tours-en-Savoy, and therefore they also get no xp for the things.

Afterwards however I started doubting myself and considered allowing them to sell items and therefore also get xp. If I would have gone that way I probably would have used the xp values listed in the 1e DMG as a guide. But I decided to drop Gabor Lux a line about this first to ask how he ran it in his playtests. He confirmed my initial impression that magic items do not yield xp nor can they be sold. He also emphasized there is a sufficiently generous amount of non magical treasure in the castle to run a purely xp-for-gold campaign. And so I have resolved to stay the course, and will have a little meta conversation about this with my players at the top of the next session. Basically, the fact that they’ve been having very little luck gaining xp so far is largely due to their strategy and tactics. At some point this should become apparent to them. When they do finally hit the jackpot, the victory will be all the sweeter for it.

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Abilities

This being a classic D&D hack, I went with the traditional six abilities of course. For their description, I mainly cribbed from Old-School Essentials. I also added a note to each about which things it modifies. I won’t enumerate those here because we’ll get to those individually when I discuss other parts of Hackbut. Suffice to say that I am largely sticking to B/X here.

Speaking of modifiers, I did choose to diverge from OD&D and B/X for their values. OD&D via S&W has a diversity of modifiers across abilities, which I find unwieldy. B/X has that +/-3 at the extremes which feels a bit much when used as a generic modifier with my previously discussed approach to ability checks. Instead I’ve gone with Delta’s rationalized range of modifiers: 18-16 +2; 15-13 +1; 12-9 0; 8-6 -1; 5-3 -2. Nice and clean and if necessary easily repeatable in both directions (increase by 1 for every three points).

I guess the final thing to remark upon is experience modifiers for prime abilities. Here I follow Ynas Midgard’s approach in KéK, which I found quite clever. In a response to a comment of mine he explains how prime abilities modify the experience required for the next level, in stead of XP received. This eliminates the need for repeat calculations each time XP is received. Smart. The XP modifiers follow the same segments as the ability modifiers: 90%, 95%, 100%, 110%, 120%.

That’s about all I have to say about abilities. Pretty straightforward, as can be expected from a thoroughly vanilla classic D&D hack.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #4 – Really Tied the Room Together

The Company:

  • Guillemette (T1)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Alina & Benjamin (heavy foot soldiers)
  • Lucas (porter)

Casualties: None.

Loot: None.

Report:

We begin the session with some downtime shenanigans. Various loot is sold off to a number of buyers in Tours-en-Savoy. The resulting XP is for the most part dumped into Bartolomea, the newly rolled up cleric. Some funds are spent on the identification of magic items, retainers are once again acquired, and what remains of the company’s wealth is squandered by Jaquet and Guillemette on a carousing spree. The latter promptly loses her newly-acquired +1 dagger to an ill-advised gambling bet. (Groans around the table when that happens, but the players agree it is true to form.)

With town activities out of the way, the company sets off once more for the castle, and gains access through what by now can be referred to as the “rose garden entrance”.

Their first goal is to find the body of Els and administer the last rites as prescribed by the church (better late than never). Trouble is, the phantom horses have returned to the galloping hallway, making what would have been a short walk to the room where they left the cleric’s body, a potentially lethal enterprise. To reduce risk, the party chooses to take a roundabout route, although this does mean braving the menagerie once more, where they previously encountered the huntsman. Timing their crossings exactly they run across the galloping hallway into the corridor leading to the menagerie. They then send Guillemette ahead to ensure the exit from the menagerie is unobstructed. She manages to sneak past any potential threats and finds the north door unobstructed. Taking their cue, the remainder of the company then begins to trundle across the room towards the door. However, several stuffed animals begin to shamble towards them menacingly. The company double times it, and makes it through the door before the animals can get to them. They spike the door shut with a crossbow bolt, and swiftly move on.

When they arrive in the rag-filled room, they are disappointed to find Els’s remains have vanished. Taking it in stride, they head west, crossing the room with the casket from which they retrieved the +1 dagger that Guillemette subsequently gambled away. Taking the north door, they enter a hallway with red plush carpets. At its eastern end they find a vaulted chamber with a fountain shaped like a dragon, gold pieces and gold fish in its water basin.

Bartolomea orders Alina to fish out a gold piece from the fountain, which the heavy foot soldier reluctantly obeys. Thankfully the water does not appear to have an adverse effect. Alina hands her employer the gold piece and asks her to please not order her to do something like that again.

The company proceeds to thoroughly search the room, but is alerted to the presence of something when the temperature suddenly drops. The ghostly apparition of a lady in white, holding her fair-haired severed head in her hands enters their torchlight and proceeds to absentmindedly search for something in the room. A cordial exchange develops between the phantom, who introduces herself as Claudette, and Jaquet. The lady has lost her wedding ring and is looking for it, but can’t remember where exactly she misplaced it. She does recall there being something hidden near the donjon’s torture chamber though, perhaps she should go and look there again some time. The company agrees to keep a look out for the lady’s ring, and the spirit, finding the party reasonably agreeable, departs, but not before emphasizing how she will be very grateful if the company returns her ring to her.

Giving up on the fountain, they head down the carpeted hallway in western direction. They recklessly barge into a room and are surprised to see a wolf-woman dressed in a gown care for six man-wolf whelps who are savaging a life-sized dummy dressed as an adventurer. They swiftly back out of the room and head south.

In a subsequent hallway they find a large closet stocked with carpets. Although they may be of some value they are also unwieldy, so they leave them, at least for the time being.

Surely these carpets should fetch something (Francesco Ballesio, The Carpet Merchant)

Turning a corner north, a long hallway stretches before them with several doors on their left hand. The first opens on a nursery, cots gently rocking, propelled by an unseen force, disembodied baby-noises filling the air. The walls are covered by razor-sharp daggers and one kitchen knife the size of a short sword. Furthermore, a door to the south is labeled “do not disturb” and drunken singing can be heard coming from beyond. Slightly disturbed, the company retreats back into the hallway.

Listening at the next door they hear a thundering voice talk about how everything must be polished to a shine, and how brilliant their plan is. The company decides to leave it be.

After another quick listen, the last door is opened, and a strange spectacle greets the company: a swarm of severed hands in pursuit of a cloud with a glowing nucleus, in a room filled with fluttering sheets hanging from lines. The hands are trying to pluck a giant purple heart-shaped bottle suspended in the cloud’s core, while the cloud is lazily zigzagging through the room. Remaining unnoticed, the company makes a note on their maps and once again backs away.

Deciding to end the expedition there, they return to the carpet closet and pull two of the nicest specimens from it. One person holding each end they carry the cumbersome plunder back to the rag-strewn room and ponder how to get them across the galloping hallway without being trampled by the phantom horses. Ultimately, they simply opt to make a run for it, Jaquet in front, ready to bash down the door across. They make it, and head back out through the rose garden.

Thinking they are home free, they are rudely surprised by the emergence of a small army of bandits on the gatehouse parapets, taking aim with their bows and demanding the company give up any loot they took from the castle. Seeing as how they are severely outmatched they drop the carpets and insist that is all they took. Satisfied, the bandit leader allows them to leave. Empty-handed but unscathed, the company begins the trek back to Tours-en-Savoy, bandits mocking them until they are out of sight.

Referee Commentary:

Another fun and satisfying session. Insisting on one expedition per session is working out well, I feel, building in a natural arc.

We lost quite a bit of time to downtime stuff at the top of the session. But I expect this will speed up as we all get used to the new system. I have also resolved to in future immediately handle XP for treasure at the end of a session, to further simplify bookkeeping.

Last time, I allowed myself to become overwhelmed trying to maintain a breakneck tempo. This time around I paced myself, asked for breaks when I had to take in a new room description, and generally just allowed things to unfold at a more leisurely clip. It made for a more fulfilling experience on my end, and I don’t think the player experience suffered much for it. (We hit far fewer random encounters this time around too, which I guess made a difference as well.)

This marked the first time players rolled on the carousing table (I’m using the notorious Jeff Rients classic) and players were shocked to discover failing their save could lead to some pretty dramatic consequences. Nevertheless I expect the lure of additional XP will keep them rolling on it.

The act of dumping almost all of their XP into a newly rolled up character was a bit surprising, and partially a function of the fact that I failed to hand out XP at the end of the previous session, when Bartolomea’s player lost their previous cleric, Els. I think in future I will enforce the rule that only PCs who were part of the expedition that acquired the XP can benefit from it. But for this once, I don’t think much harm was done.

So far, the players have been somewhat conservatively sticking to combing through the north-west corner of the ground floor. I wonder when they will decide a different approach. Perhaps the hint pointing them to the donjon will tempt them elsewhere next time.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #3 – Smash and Grab

The Company:

  • Els (C1)
  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Ynes (T1)
  • Alina, Benjamin, Midja, Nico (heavy foot soldiers )
  • Lucas, Manuel (porters)

Casualties:

  • Els — bled to death from a ghost-inflicted wound

Loot:

  • Eery dagger
  • Crudely engraved copper sheets (9)
  • Flint-tipped spears (6)
  • Primitive drums (3)
  • Stone hand-axe
  • Loathsome mask

Report:

After last session’s TPK, the company is joined by some freshly rolled-up PCs, and a generous helping of retainers. Committed to finally acquiring some significant treasure, and not dying in the process, the company sets out for Castle Xyntillan once more. Upon arrival, they decide to enter the castle at the same point as previously, through a side entrance in the rose garden. Their first goal is to check the armoury where the previous party perished, to see if their bodies, and the treasure that accompanied them, is still present. When they prepare to cross the galloping hallway they are surprised and relieved to find the phantom horses absent. They proceed to the armoury and find it still unlocked, and littered with the bloodless corpses of their fallen comrades, save for the body of Michelle, one of the porters. A loud banging from one of the closets is judiciously ignored, and the company begins to strip adventurer bodies of their valuables.

Despite their preoccupation the company becomes aware of something or someone shuffling down the hallway towards them. While they ready their weapons a corpulent priest decked out in valuables appears in the doorway. He introduces himself as Reynard Malévol and lecherously ogles the company’s cleric. An exchange develops and the company and the priest take turns trying to sell each other indulgences at outrageous rates. Ultimately, the priest gives up, bids the company a good day, and shuffles off into the darkness.

The company briefly debates whether to follow and rob the priest, but ultimately decides against it. Instead, they decide to press on. Exploring the galloping hallway further, they soon come across another door. When Jaquet checks it, he is swarmed by animated severed hands. A brief melee follows and the hands are slain with little effort. The room itself turns out to be empty. The company moves on.

Not more than 10 feet further down the hallway they find an intersection. Peering down the north branch they can see the faint outline of what appears to be a motionless bear standing at the edge of what is certainly a large room. They toss a rock at it, and when the thing topples, they congratulate themselves but decide to first explore the remainder of the galloping hallway in the western direction.

The next door opens on a room littered with mouldy rags. One particularly large pile has a sword sticking out of it. When the pile is gingerly picked apart the musty corpse of a dandy emerges, the sword sticking out of his torso. While searching the room, the company is once again alerted to the sound of something approaching them from the hallway. This time around, they are faced by the awful appearance of semi-transparent naked man with an ashen complexion, his body covered in bleeding lash-marks. Els does not hesitate one moment and immediately begins a turning attempt, but fails. The ghost angrily responds by lashing out at her, and opens a deep wound across her face. Retainers and companions attempt to strike and shoot the monster but their mundane weapons appear to be useless. Despite her injury Els continues her turning attempts and ultimately succeeds, she pushes the ghost back into the hallway, and it recedes into the darkness. Although relieved to be rid of the monster, the company must still deal with Els’s wound, which oddly continues to bleed profusely. Staunching the bleeding with rags does not help, and so in a moment of desperation, Jaquet heats a dagger in a torch and presses it onto Els’s face. The wound is cauterised, the bleeding stops, but not before Els has succumbed to the trauma.

Horrified, but also grimly determined to not let Els’s death be in vain, the company once again decides to press on. A door leading to the west is forced open and the company is greeted by a nightmarish spectacle. In the middle of a room stands an open casket, with an eldritch light shining from it, and blood dripping upwards pooling on the ceiling. A number of phantoms are seen dancing around the casket before suddenly disappearing. Benjamin gathers his courage, steps into the room and looks into the casket. He sees a pitch-black outline of a body with a dagger sticking from its heart. He boldly pulls the dagger from the body. The trickle of blood becomes a cascade and a chorus of disembodied voices begin to shout. Benjamin rushes from the room, dagger in hand, while behind him the voices reach a crescendo and then fall deathly silent. At the same time, the eldritch light from the casket is snuffed out and the room is shrouded in darkness.

Relieved and somewhat emboldened they press on. They return to the galloping hallway and open the doorway at its western end. The next room is empty. Once again opening a door to the west, they enter what appears to be another empty hallway. Here they try the first door to the north and are greeted by an awful apparition. An ancient woman, eye sockets crawling with spiders, moths circling her unkempt hair. She introduces herself as lady Odile, and proceeds to harangue and curse the company for having the temerity to enter her family’s castle and insists they leave immediately. Rudely, the company instead decides to attack her, and after a brief melee the crone flees into the darkness.

Discouraged by the succession of empty rooms the company backtracks and returns to the branch off of the galloping hallway at the end of which they spotted the bear-like shape. They move down the hallway in formation and enter a large space. Four pillars are held up by statues of monkeys, and a collection of stuffed animals observe the various entrances. What is more, a man with a horrific black leathery visage, dressed in hunters’ garb, sits in a throne accompanied by a pack of dogs. An exchange develops in which the huntsman interrogates the company’s motivations for exploring the castle, and hints at the possibility of “accompanying him on a hunt”. When he appears to grow bored of the conversation, he blows a horn and disappears, along with his dogs.

The huntsman in better days (The Boke of Haukyng Huntynge and Fysshyng)

Puzzled, and slightly apprehensive of the stuffed animals, some of which appear to sometimes move ever so slightly, the room is briefly explored. Heinz finds that each monkey statue speaks when he stands in front of it: “see no evil,” “hear no evil,” “speak no evil,” and (you guessed it) “smell no evil.” Jaquet pushes the throne aside but finds nothing underneath it.

Frustrated by the lack of treasure, the company forces open the door to the north and enters yet another empty hallway. They take a door to the west and, curse this castle, find themselves in another empty room, except for a bricked up doorway to the south, and the vague sound of drumming in the room’s western section. The sounds grow louder as they near the south-western door. Forcing it open, they are greeted by the curious sight of what appears to be a collection of primitive arts and artefacts. Engraved copper sheets hang from the walls, supplemented by flint-tipped pears, wooden shields, drums and a number of man-sized reed baskets. But the thing that catches the eye most of all is the idol of a hunched caveman hanging over a prehistoric altar.

When they near the idol, invisible entities begin to beat the drums. The sounds becoming louder and louder, before suddenly stopping when they arrive next to the altar. After freezing for a moment to see if a bad thing might happen to them, the company begins to loot the room. The altar is soon discovered to have a removable lid. Inside, a cavity is filled with a resin-like substance. This is made short work of with the heat of several torches, and from the goo emerge a stone hand-axe and a decidedly creepy mask.

Collecting their plunder, the company decide to end the expedition there, and carefully but swiftly retrace their steps, leaving the castle the way they came, thankfully encountering no more of its denizens.

Referee Commentary:

This was a fun but challenging session to run. We had a large party, and I rolled an above average number of random encounters. These were fun to role-play, but at some point, all the improvisation becomes rather taxing. By the time we hit the menagerie and the encounter with the huntsman, I should have called for a break to take in the room’s extensive description at leisure. Instead I skimmed it on the fly, and missed some important details, primarily the fact that the stuffed animals attack on sight. I won’t beat myself up over it, but I will try to learn from it and take it a little bit slower at our next session.

Also, I was a little but puzzled as to what the huntsman’s motivation should be. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure and neither the room description nor his writeup in the monster list are of much help. But looking through the rest of the module to see where he pops up, I think I am going to consider him a recurring menace to the company, whom the huntsman will start to see as a fun quarry for his hunting endeavours.

I suggested we try to stick to one delve per session for the time being, and I made sure players understood movement rules and how they will be able to move more swiftly through previously explored parts of the castle, which allayed some concerns they had over not being able to delve deeper within the confines of a single session. The main reason I like this is that it simplifies having to handle absentee players, and also makes division of treasure and XP more straightforward.

The company also finally succeeded to bring back some treasure, although a considerable amount is either magical, or does not have a listed value in the book. I’ve decided the primitive artefacts will fetch a small sum from a collector back in town. But they will be more hard-pressed to sell off any magic items if they choose to do so. I’ll probably make it a n-in-6 chance, and for sale value use the XP-values of magic items listed in the 1e DMG as a guide. They also lucked out on finding the remains of the previously killed party back in the armoury. I decided to handle that with a roll as well. Maybe I’ll handle it differently in the future.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #2 – Killer Clouds

The Company:

  • Anna (F1)
  • Fernando (T1)
  • Robain (C1)
  • Michelle & Raul (porters)

Casualties: All of the above. That’s right, the session ended in a TPK. Read on for the sordid details.

Loot: None, obviously.

Report:

Resuming the action immediately after last session’s demise of bowman Mattia, the company takes a moment to debate where to go next. Ultimately Anna decides to try her luck once more with the locked door in the galloping hallway. She rushes across, bashes the lock to bits and tumbles into the room beyond. An armory!

While Anna takes stock of the armaments on display, the remainder of the company gingerly crosses the hallway, taking care to avoid the horses. The armory contains a generous amount of weapons (although, to Robain’s disappointment, none of them blunt). There are also four well-oiled chain hauberks on display, and a badly pierced suit of plate. From behind one of two closet doors something can be heard trying to bash it down.

They search the armory for exceptional weaponry, but none can be found. Anna inspects the plate armour, and although it is badly damaged, she decides to exchange it for her chain mail. Robain boldly opens the closet door from behind which no sounds can be heard, and is confronted with a bizarre monstrosity!

Real D&D heads know (Tony DiTerlizzi)

Robain immediately smashes the thing in the head with his mace and is surprised to see a glass eye fly from its head, stuffing protruding from the empty socket. The monster turns out to be a stuffed specimen. Puzzled and somewhat amused the company proceeds to investigate the thing and the closet it inhabits.

While they are thus preoccupied, the door through which they entered opens and six gaseous clouds, each with an iridescent nucleus, enter the room and proceed to suck blood from the company through remote osmosis. Horrified at the sight of blood streaming from their pores and flying off to the monsters, the company hesitates to engage.

Robain makes for the other closet, and flings open the door. An animated suit of armour emerges and immediately flies off to attack the armour that is now being worn by Anna. Fernando ducks into the closet that previously held the armour, followed by the retainers. Anna, meanwhile, barely manages to jump into the closet containing the monster and shuts the door in the proverbial face of the animated armour.

Panicking while blood continues to be sucked from their bodies, Robain attempts to push over a rack of weapons on top of the clouds but the thing won’t budge. Fernando takes aim with his crossbow and obliterates one of the clouds. The porters remain in their closet, terrified and near being exsanguinated. In the other closet, Anna begins to shed her plate armour, as the animated plate continues to hammer away at the door.

Fernando pushes over another weapons rack on top of the clouds and manages to eliminate a few more. Robain swipes at the evil things with his mace and deals some damage as well. But the clouds slowly but surely continue to suck blood from all the company’s members. The porters begin to collapse.

Having removed the plate armour, Anna flings open the door and dexterously sidesteps the animated suit. It flies into the closet and proceeds to assault the discarded plate in the corner. Fernando proceeds to fling daggers at the clouds. Robain succumbs to the clouds’ attacks and collapses.

Anna emerges from the closet and begins to bash away at the clouds as well. The two remaining companions persist for a while longer, eliminating clouds left and right, but ultimately are overwhelmed. Both Anna and Fernando fall to the armory’s floor, as the last of their blood is drawn from their bodies and consumed by the evil, killer clouds. Thus ends the company’s first expedition into Castle Xyntillan.

Referee Commentary:

Well, there you have it, the first honest-to-god TPK of my refereeing career. When I rolled this encounter I did not expect it to be quite so deadly. But a number of factors conspired to produce the regrettable fate of our player characters.

Classic D&D characters are indeed quite squishy. The party was rather limited as well, with only three 1st level PCs and no combatant retainers. Upon reflection this should have been reason enough for the players to terminate the expedition and return to town. Furthermore, the players found themselves in a cul-de-sac, with the only escape route leading past the clouds and through the hallway with the racing phantom horses. Despite this, again in hindsight, they should have probably still risked running for it, because they were squarely outmatched. The fact that the clouds’ attacks can only be averted through a save (effectively circumventing AC) also probably made a bit of a difference, although the players rolled very well on their saves throughout the battle. So it goes, I guess. We finished the session rolling up new characters.

The joke with the stuffed monster was lost on my players because most of them haven’t been playing classic D&D for that long. It still sort of worked as a puzzling oddity.

The moment when the animated suit of armour emerged from the closet and proceeded to attack Anna produced more than a few smiles around the table. It’s this kind of serendipitous mayhem that CX appears to be engineered to produce. I absolutely love those moments and can’t wait for the players to return to the castle to once again try their luck.

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Ability Checks

So far in this series on Hackbut core mechanics I’ve described attack rolls and saving throws. That leaves a way to resolve anything else that may come up in the game. Out of these three components, ability checks, general task resolution, or “situation rolls” as Talysman aptly calls them, were the hardest to pin down, and I don’t feel I’ve completely settled on an approach yet. But what follows is what I am going with for the time being. Strap in, this one is a bit longer than usual.

Probably the biggest reason it’s hard to settle on a general way to handle situations is that there wasn’t really any general mechanic as such in the early editions of the game. The closest candidates would be the n-in-6 die roll pattern that frequently occurs (with the 2d6 reaction roll a close second), then we have the bit in Moldvay about using roll under ability checks, and finally there are the various ways thief skills are handled. Let’s tackle each in turn.

We can quickly eliminate roll under ability because, like I mentioned before, I have over 30 sessions of The Black Hack under my belt. This uses roll under for everything (attacks, defense, saves, skills, you name it). The problem I have with this is that it makes abilities too important. I also find it encourages rolling for trivial stuff. Used in moderation I guess it can be fine, but since I have had my fill of this mechanic I decided to not use it at all in my hack.

The thief skills are a different matter. Similar to save categories, I never got on with the granularity of the various skills. In the KéK classes, the separate skills are maintained but rationalized to n-in-6 probabilities. In WBFMAG, the thief has a generic “thievery” skill that is also an n-in-6 chance. I like the latter quite a bit because it affords some flexibility for determining what does and does not fall under the thief’s abilities. However, where these approaches fall short is in being generalizable across all classes for any kind of skill check (or situation roll) that may come up. This also applies in the other direction, so to speak, to those generic n-in-6 rolls you find in classic D&D, such as finding hidden things, forcing doors, etc.

Some searching (using Brendan’s invaluable OSR search engine) turned up an excellent post by Homebrew Homunculus, which outlines a general way of handling any skill check on a d20. The nice thing about this in particular for me is that it allows for applying an attribute modifier if desired, and it also allows for improvement with level if a class applies. The TLDR of it is: if a situation comes up for which a roll is warranted, roll a d20 and try to get a 15 or higher. If an attribute applies, add the modifier, if a class applies, add your level. Done.

Slick, right? I do like it quite a bit and have basically replaced all the typical n-in-6 rolls with this mechanic, as well as replaced the thief skills with this. It’s very easy to grok for players because it’s so similar to Target 20. And similar to roll under ability checks it’s easy to apply on the fly when a new situation comes up. However, abilities make less of a difference with this approach and if desired, improvement with level is baked in. Also, the target number is fixed, so trivial rolls are discouraged.

I wasn’t entirely happy with it, though, and the main reason for it is that I like the chunky feel of the d6, and I worried a bit this made rolling for various things feel too similar. In a way, I wanted to feel like I was refereeing the game more closely to the old ways, as for example described here by Delta:

If a “brand new” thing comes up (say: baking skill, something like that) then I revert back to a d6 roll — like OD&D uses for listening, opening doors, finding secret passages, traps opening, etc. I feel like on an improvisational basis I can estimate a reasonable chance for success out of 6 (but not 20) — as a default I give a 2-in-6 chance to succeed, like: roll d6, add some ability bonus, and a total roll of 5+ is success.

Delta’s D&D Hotspot

However, I wanted to stick to a fixed target number (5 on a d6) and I could not really figure out how to translate HH’s approach to a d6. The main issue being that levels and attribute modifiers quickly overwhelm the d6.

The final piece of the puzzle was the previously linked series of posts by Talysman on situation rolls, as well as a pamphlet on “general abilities”. First of all, John offers some neat guidelines for translating attribute modifiers across the various dice rolls (d6, 2d6, d20). Basically, if you have a +/-2 in an attribute, you get a +/-1 on a d6. (I use Delta’s attribute modifier sequence, so I don’t need to deal with +/-3.)

Second, in response to a comment of mine, John suggests a painfully elegant way of applying character level to a d6 roll: compare to dungeon level or monster HD. If lower, get a -1; if higher, get a +1.

The upshot of all of this is that I can now freely choose between resolving a situation on a d6 or a d20, depending on what I feel like in the moment. I might gravitate to one or the other at some point, it’s too soon to say. And for proper skills (like the thief skills) I expect I will stick to the d20 system. But for anything else, I now feel comfortable using the 2-in-6 roll as well.

Before I close, some of you may be wondering: isn’t a generic task resolution mechanic anathema to old-school D&D? You may be right. I don’t know. But what I do buy into is the insistence on reducing die rolls as much as possible. For this, Talysman also has some excellent guidelines which I’ve chosen to adopt. Because I feel it’s not just important to be able to explain to players when we will roll dice, but also when we won’t.

In closing, I think 15+ on a d20 and 5+ on a d6 are a sufficiently rich palette for adjudicating any situation that does not fall under an attack roll or a saving throw. With the tricks outlined above you can apply ability modifiers and class levels if you so wish, and if you pair this with a doctrine that prioritizes skipping die rolls all together, you are freed up as a referee to run a game at the blistering pace that classic D&D in my view requires.