Since wrapping up the Castle Xyntillan campaign I’ve been kind of busy with work, then summer happened. And now I have emerged out from under a deadline and so here then finally is another blog post. We have recently kicked off a new campaign, Planet Karus, which I will share more about soon, but first I have a few more posts on Castle Xyntillan planned, focusing on how I ran the game: methods I developed, problems I solved, that sort of thing. Hopefully it is of some use. To start things off relatively manageable, I will talk about the magic swords. This was inspired by a recent comment left by Michael.
Here’s the issue: Castle Xyntillan has several intelligent magic swords littered throughout. The treasury (page 122-123) lists seven in total. In all cases, an EGO score is included, but, somewhat curiously, no intelligence (INT, excepting the wonderfully curious Rabbit Sword). Furthermore, Swords & Wizardry, the OD&D retroclone for which Castle Xyntillan is nominally written, has no rules for how to deal with intelligent swords. In my case, I cared about two things: how do I determine if a sword is able to communicate with its wielder (and in which fashion), and how should I read the EGO score for purposes of what OD&D calls “egoism” and B/X (the expert set specifically, on page X47) “control”.
Back in November 2020, after a session in which I had to improvise sword control on the spot with unsatisfactory results, I asked Melan about this via email, and he shared that in fact, they were using Hungarian retroclone Kazamaták és Kompániák to playtest the module. Gaps in the rules they would fill out using OD&D.
With this knowledge, I looked at the EGO scores in the module, and noticed they regularly exceed 12, which is the upper limit in OD&D. You are supposed to add up EGO, INT, and a point for each extraordinary ability for a total score ranging from 8-28 (what B/X calls a “willpower” score).
Anyway, the crucial bit in OD&D is this: Intelligence, which is a score ranging from 1-12 not only determines communicative ability, but also the number of powers a sword has. So by analyzing the powers listed for each sword in Castle Xyntillan, we can reverse-engineer its INT. The resulting scores are listed in the table below.
The Blade of Rel
Book states it speaks
See extended note below
Book lists INT of 8
Intelligence of magic swords in Castle Xyntillan
Special note on Onwards!: Looking at its power in question, it is a lawful blade that can paralyze chaotics. This suggests it is in fact a sword with a special purpose (see page 30 of OD&D volume 2). OD&D says such swords have the maximum intelligence and ego scores. However, Castle Xyntillan states the sword is “fairly dumb”. How you want to square that circle I will leave up to you. In my game, it was never encountered. But I think I would have run it as being telepathic, and just very thickheaded.
Assuming you are running Castle Xyntillan in Swords & Wizardry, a final question is what rules to use to handle egoism and control. You could just use the rules in OD&D, or those in B/X (which, note, are different). Me, I found both to be too involved to be used on the spot. I was not alone in this. Paul Siegel, of Wandering DMs, once wrote a nice two-part series of posts in which he looked at “EGO through the ages”, and crunched the numbers on the control check in OD&D to derive a simpler d20-based alternative. This, effectively, is the one I used in Hackbut, my own home-brew rules.
In case it isn’t obvious, I simply use the EGO score listed in Castle Xyntillan as the sword’s full willpower score for purposes of control checks.
When I started running Castle Xyntillan I had a copy of the PDF printed at my local print shop and wire bound. This is the copy I used at the table while running the game. I marked up the hell out of it, and the binding makes it lie nice and flat. I also used some post-it note book tabs to label each section of the castle, for easy flipping back and forth. And, as you can see here, I noted the intelligence and communicative ability of each sword in the treasury. Highly recommended.
That’s it. Hope this is of some use to folks out there.
Hendrik spends several weeks in the hospital to recover from the curse bestowed on him by the pendant he picked up in the previous expedition.
Meanwhile, Jürg experiments with his ring of invisibility, to ensure he fully grasps its functioning. He also asks around about The Beast, and learns a number of strange and troubling things about it.
Although the recent demise of several retainers have made hired hands reluctant to join the company, they do manage to find a few foolhardy enough to join them.
And so, on Wednesday, January 1st, 1528, the company find themselves once more at the gates of Castle Xyntillan, for what will turn out to be their very last expedition. They steel themselves, for they have resolved to go after the count and countess, both vampires, and among the most powerful of the remaining family members.
They head towards their suites, along the south wall. While passing by the grand entrance they spot two headless manservants, standing around, waiting. The company draw their missile weapons, take pot shots, and kill one almost immediately. They hit the other, who drops something, and stands around confused. They fire at him again, hit once more, and the servant turns and runs back into the castle. They decide not to pursue, but do go to see what they dropped. It turns out to be an invitation from the count and countess to the company to attend a dinner that night, in the grand dining hall, where they may come to an understanding.
They guffaw, and continue on their way, figuring it is better to confront vampires while the sun is still out.
At the suites, Claus climbs up to the balcony, ties off a rope, and drops it so that the remaining party can climb up easily. Next, Claus picks the lock to the countess’ suite with some trouble. Inside things appear all quiet. They enter, open curtains to let the sun in, and turn to the casket that is sitting on a stone altar underneath the window. It is pushed over, and crashes to the floor, spilling soil all over it. Otherwise, it appears to be empty.
On a hunch, they push against the slab atop the altar, and sure enough, it slides away to reveal a space holding a second casket. They pull it up, and carry it out onto the balcony. Jürg opens it, and a noxious cloud of dust puffs out into his face. He manages to cover his mouth and nose in time to stave off its lethal effects. Inside the casket lies the countess in her satins and silks. She immediately begins to smolder in the sunlight, awakes, and cries out in agony. Jürg chops at her eck with his axe but it bounces off her skin as if it is steel. Claus leaps out and plunges a stake straight into her chest. Hendrik fires off a bunch of magic missiles.
They make to repeat their devastating barrage of attacks, but she transforms into a cloud of gas, and floats back into the castle. They pursue, puzzled about what to do to stop her. Hendrik fires off more magic missiles. Claus fishes out a vial of holy water from his pack. Jürg removes his helmet and readies his horn of blasting. Meanwhile, the countess squeezes through the cracks around a door leading off from her suite, several swarms of vampire bats begin to emerge from the suite’s shadowy corners, and two skeleton guardsmen barge in through the suite entrance.
They manage to bash open the door, revealing a study. Hendrik’s protective magics keeps the conjured bat swarms at bay. Claus tries to spray the cloud with holy water from his flask, but fails. Jürg blows his horn and completely dissipates the cloud. They hear a hair raising scream recede into the distance. Meanwhile, one of the skeletons is cut down. The other flees, and so do the vampire bat swarms.
They search the study and the suite. Hendrik finds a curious worm-eaten tome amidst bookshelves full of decaying volumes. Jürg finds a necklace in the dresser, and also scoops up a bunch of cosmetics. In the casket, they discover a ruby ring.
Next, they head to the count’s suite.
They cross the balcony, and Claus once again picks the lock. Opening the door to a crack, they find all is quiet here as well. They enter, and immediately fling open the casket that sits on a couch. It is empty. They push the casket to the floor, and rip open the couch’s seating, but find nothing.
Continuing the hunt, they enter the count’s study and lab, but remember they more or less picked it clean during their hunt for the gelatinous cube all those expeditions ago. Impatient as ever, Jürg whips out his horn and blasts a horn through a wall of the lab. When the dust has settled, they see on the other side a bedroom with silver crosses on the walls, and yet another casket! They enter, open the casket, but it holds only grave dust. They hear a disembodied sigh, all the crosses blacken and crumble, and then the sounds of a person breathing heavily and dragging chains leave the room through its doorway. They give each other a look, shrug, and tip the casket’s contests on the floor. They find nothing.
Deciding this won’t get them to the count, they backtrack, and make their way to the vestibule, with a plan in mind.
As they leave the count’s suite they are faced with two more skeleton guardsmen who sound the alarm but are destroyed before help can arrive.
As they arrive in the vestibule, they hear the familiar sobbing of the ghost of James, the family butler. Not missing a beat, they immediately begin to tidy up the vestibule. James expresses his gratitude, and the company ask him about the count’s whereabouts. James tells them the count is inspecting the family treasures in the crusader’s tomb. They thank him, and head off to descend into the castle dungeons.
It just so happens Jürg had the presence of mind to bring the Heart of Roland with him. He holds it up, and the secret door behind the fresco slides open. They enter, gingerly avoiding the slicing blade trap in the entrance. They pass into the pool room, and open the door to the treasury. Sure enough, with his back to them, the count is standing there, inspecting the treasure hoard on the elevation in the center of the room.
The count has heard them enter, looks over his shoulder, and greets them, the company without a name. He tells them he wants to come to some agreement. After all, they have absconded with several of the family’s most valued heirlooms, and have destroyed several of its most powerful members. What would it take for the company to leave the castle and its inhabitants alone? They humor him for a moment, and then close for the attack.
Jürg drops his axe. Claus plunges a stake soaked in holy water and rubbed with garlic into the count’s chest. The vampire shrieks, punctuated with a comment about how he adores garlic. The count claws at Claus but fails to harm him. Jürg picks up his axe. Claus steps back from the count. The vampire howls like a wolf, and dark shapes begin to emerge from the room’s corners. He’s hit by a barrage of magic missiles, and explodes into a cloud of gas. Jürg grabs his horn, and Claus fishes out the sun medaillon.
They chase the cloud, which isn’t very fast, and it is blasted by the horn and hit by a bright ray of sunlight from the medaillon at the same time. They hear the count’s voice scream out “cuuurrrssseee yyyooouuu” and then recede into nothingness. The medaillon turns to slag. Everything is silent.
The company can almost not believe their luck. They book it out of the castle, which has gone even more eerily quiet than it usually is.
On the way out, as they pass the gatehouse, Jürg tells his companions to wait for a moment, and heads back into the garden. A moment later, he returns, holding in his hand a single perfect rose.
We fade to black. The end.
Well, that’s it for our play-through of Castle Xyntillan. We had decided this would be our final season, and fittingly, this last session of the run had the company face off against the count and countess, a confrontation that was long in the making.
Sure, we could play on, there is plenty of castle left to explore, but as most characters hav reached level 5 or 6, and have also amassed a frightening array of magic items, very few of the castle’s denizens pose any real threat to them anymore. Case in point: the ease with which Giscard and Maltricia were dispatched.
I rolled very few random encounters, and forgot about monster saves against damaging magics. I also at one point decided to skip actually having reinforcements appear because it would just delay the inevitable.
But they played smart as well. Leveraging James the butler was clever. I rolled for the count’s location randomly and came up with the treasure room in the crusader’s tomb. Just too perfect a place for the final showdown. They were agin lucky that they had brought the Heart of Roland, otherwise they may have been stuck.
The big question I was left with after this session was: vampires, how the hell do they work? How to play them well? There’s this rule about them turning into a gaseous cloud when they reach zero hit points and then returning to their casket to regenerate. But what if the casket is destroyed? And they can also turn into such a cloud at will, but why is that so advantageous? Maybe a lesser party would be stumped, but after a quick glance at the first edition dungeon masters guide I decided things like magic missile, as well as that horn of blasting, would affect the cloud. They also had protection magic to keep conjured creatures at bay. So all of that combined with some lucky initiative rolls made it so that they made quick work of the vampires. And maybe I wasn’t playing as viciously as I should have, but I also felt they had earned it. And honestly I don’t see how those vampires could have come out on top.
So fittingly, with those last small referee ruminations, I end this last session report. I might at some point blog a reflection on running the campaign and the module overall. But for now I will just say I am very happy I came across it at the time I did, just when we were about to hit a strange few years wherein circumstances would make it that I could referee more D&D than I have ever had up to this point. Castle Xyntillan also helped me experience what it is like to run a megadungeon campaign, and it is a revelation. I have never felt more like a player just like the rest of our group than while running this. So my hat’s off to Gabor Lux for creating it.
Ironically, after this I don’t think I will go back to running modules any time soon. We ran this game with homebrew rules, and now I want to push on to have my next campaign be homebrew everything, as Dave and Gary intended it in the beginning days. Castle Xyntillan has given me the confidence and the insight into what I do and don’t need when it comes to prep, and I think it is more doable than I had ever previously thought.
Session reports and other excerpts from that next campaign might appear here at some point. At the moment I am not sure when that might be. I hope these reports have been enjoyable and useful. In any case, writing them has been a great help in sorting out my learnings from our weekly sessions. For now, I will just thank you if you have read this far.
Casualties: Kjell, Agnes & Enie, frozen stiff by a reflected cone of cold); Jonas, sucked dry by a glittercloud.
The company decide to postpone their assault on the count and countess due to the absence of their heaviest hitter, Jürg. Instead, Hendrik wants to have another go at finding a lab that should be somewhere in the north-east part of the castle’s ground floor, the so-called Summer Wing.
They approach the grand entrance, and find yet another pile of dead adventurers, stripped of their belongings. They get rid of these in the usual manner, dumping them in the river, and make their way to the throne room.
As they make their way across the room towards the doors leading to the ballroom, they hear noises from the shooting gallery behind the east wall. They duck for cover and remain still. The noises disappear.
Thinking nothing further of it, they plug their ears with wax, and enter the ballroom. Another spectral dance is underway, and they spot the ghost of their lost comrade Niemir again, dancing away with a hopeless look in his eyes. They skirt the dancefloor and make their way towards the salon without issue.
Once safe from the dance’s influence they decide they do want to check the gallery. They open the secret door leading to it, and see an empty gallery. As they are about to turn around, doors open behind them, and masked murderers fire at them with crossbows. Claus immediately dives behind a couch and disappears. Hendrik hides behind his men, who form a shield wall in front of him. The attackers close for melee, and several go to try and find Claus.
The retainers fend of the murderers’ attacks. Claus is spotted, and the attackers make to stab him. Desperate, the murderers try to grab the heavy foot soldiers and drag them away. The retainers duck out of the way, and Hendrik whips out his wand of lightning. He zaps four of the murderers, killing them instantly. The remaining attackers flee. The company attempts to pursue but quickly lose sight of them.
The continue on their way in north-western direction, and arrive at the overlook suite.
They head west, and enter a room with once comfortable, now gutted seating. The ghost of a mountebank is focused on a floating orb in which several people appear to be trapped. The company cheerfully greet him, the ghost loses focus, and the orb drops to the floor, shattering. Its tiny inhabitants run off and disappear in various directions. The ghost is not pleased, obviously, but they do talk for a while. Then, Claus sneaks up behind him, and backstabs the ghost with his magically electrified sword, instantly destroying it.
They search the room but find nothing. The seating, however, looks very inviting, so they allow several retainers to take a load off and sit for a moments. The men at arms immediately begin to nod off. So, they wake them, and move on.
The room is connected with a passage leading west to the next room.
It’s another large space with a lot going on. Purple bubbles float through the air. Bones are scattered across the floor, and skulls line the mantle of a fireplace. The apparition of a sleeping lady, only dressed in a white nightgown, also floats through the air, apparently sleeping in a reverie. Several glitterclouds accompany her.
As the company observe the room from the hallway, the bones begin to assemble into… something… Meanwhile, the glitterclouds approach, flickering ominously.
Claus ducks into a corner and disappears, as usual. Hendrik and his men retreat, attempting to draw the clouds with them into a chokepoint. The clouds stop at the edge of the room. Hendrik takes his wand of cold and blasts them. The cone that shoots out hits the purple bubbles in the room, and is reflected back at Hendrik and his retainers. Kjell, Agnes and Enie are instantly killed, and Jonas is severely injured. The clouds make to attack. Hendrik and Jonas run away, but the clouds manage to suck the final heavy footman dry regardless.
As this is going on, Claus sneaks into the gallery beyond the room with the bubbles. He decides to study the nameplates on the portraits hanging here, careful not to look at the paintings themselves, and trying to remain hidden. The portraits do spot him, though, and attempt to engage him in various ways, none immediately harmful. Maximilian tries to trip him with chains, Hortensia offers flowers, Jerome asks Claus to hold out his hand, Merton asks about a book he has lost, Reynard offers to bless Claus in return for a little favor, and Eustace wails and moans about his ill fate.
Meanwhile, Hendrik patches himself up, casts invisibility, and goes to find Claus in the portrait gallery. He also makes Claus invisible, and they decide to begin their retreat.
They head back to the parlour where they encountered the ghost, and try a door leading west. This opens on a room with four beds which has been thoroughly ransacked. It smells vaguely of roses and is decorated with lewd frescoes. One image depicts a woman holding a pomegranate, which appears to be real. They pluck it, and it turns into a beating heart, while the frescoes disappear in a wash of blood.
They leave the room, and pass through the doors leading south. In this large empty hall they take the first door east, which leads to a small empty room with one door leading south.
The next room is dark, with a canopy of yellow eyes looking down from above. A blindfolded skeleton wearing a dark cloak sits on a chair, a curious-looking pendant around its neck. Claus stays behind while Hendrik enters to investigate, both still invisible.
The pendant is a shapeless lump of some sort of metal. It radiates magic and evil intent. Regardless, Hendrik can’t resist the temptation to pluck the thing from the skeleton’s neck, using a small sack to scoop it up. Hendrik immediately feels burdened by the heaviest of loads, unable to move. The skeleton’s head detaches, floats up into the air, cries something about “only the blind can see!” and drops to the ground.
A second skeleton enters the room carrying a platter with several pairs of eyes on it, and holding a spoon. The skeleton observes the floating necklace, but nothing else. It looks around confused, in search of someone to relieve of their eyes. Claus sneaks up, still invisible, backstabs the skeleton, instantly destroying it. The thief turns visible again.
Hendrik drops everting he carries, and finds he can move again, except very slowly. However much he likes to, he is unable to let go of the necklace. Claus picks up all of Hendrik’s gear, and they crawl out of the castle without further issue, luckily.
Back in town, Hendrik admits himself in the hospital, hoping the nuns will be able to cure him of the curse of the pendant in good time…
Every time I think we might be growing tired of this module, we have a session like this with a ton of weird and interesting rooms and fun and challenging situations that emerge from players unable to help themselves.
I also enjoy the fact that the players are finally beginning to take an interest in the portraits. They never really had an incentive it seems, and I was a bit heavy handed in the beginning with some of the hazardous ones. So they steered clear of them for the most part. But now they want to get an idea of how many Malévols are actually in the castle and how many they eliminated already.
The moment the cone of cold reflected off of the bubbles was a nice “oh fuck” occurrence. It’s always fun when a tried and true strategy suddenly backfires because of a strange new situation.
I’m also getting better at keeping combats dynamic and interesting, I think. The encounter with the masked murderers being a case in point. It was fun to try and ambush the players, and then once combat was engaged, this rule that I have sort of set for myself where I am not allowed to have monsters do the same thing two rounds in a row, also makes a big difference.
On the other hand, encounters with NPCs kind of drag lately. The ghost in this session being the case in point. I should get back to the approach where we roleplay an opening exchange, and then zoom out and establish stakes for the social encounter and resolve them with a reaction roll or two. Only go back to speaking in first person if it really adds something.
Our pace of sessions has slowed slightly due to various circumstances, but we are still playing, and the players are intent on properly finishing up the module somehow. So stay tuned for more!
We pick up where we left off last session. Upon their return to town, the company see Othmar, captain of the guard, along with 25 guardsmen posted outside their residence.
The company duck into an ally, and find a quiet spot to plan their approach. They see a peasant with a wheelbarrow passing by and grab him. They give the man a few coin with the promise of more, in return for going up to Othmar and asking what is going on. The man reluctantly assents, and heads up to the guards. Meanwhile, Jürg downs a potion of ESP, puts on his ring of invisibility, and sneaks up on Othmar and his men, miraculously avoiding making too much noise, despite wearing plate.
The peasant asks Othmar what he’s doing there. He is given a curt response and told to move along. Jürg picks up on some worries Othmar has about his secret identity being found out. Meanwhile, Ezio climbs up on a roof and readies his discus in case things start going south, and Claus makes his way unseen to their residence and climbs inside through a window.
Jürg takes off his ring, and approaches Othmar. The guards clasp their halberds in fear, and Othmar tells him to keep his distance. “You are under arrest for murdering the prefect, and acting as an agent of the evil Malévol. Please come along peacefully.” Jürg refuses, and the men are hesitant to apprehend him with force, knowing his mighty reputation.
Inside the residence, Claus heads to their treasure room, pops open a loose ceiling board, and starts stashing valuables up there, out of sight.
They end up debating things right then and there in the streets. And eventually, Jürg manages to convince the captain that he might be a secret agent just like him. Othmar, confused agrees to speak to Jürg privately in his residence. Jürg unlocks the front door, and leads Othmar into a sitting room, while the guardsmen wait outside, on high alert.
After more discussion, Othmar tells Jürg he will let him and his company off the hook if he agrees to aid the Royal Secret Police in putting the Malévols back in their place. Jürg is all like “what’s in it for me?” And suggest he is given the castle as a reward if he does manage to defeat its current rulers. Othmar responds that if they do manage such a feat, they would be the areas de facto ruler after all.
Othmar is clearly afraid of Jürg and his companions, who have developed a reputation of being ruthless killers capable of incredible feats. Furthermore, they killed the prefect by gifting the man some kind of cursed item (even though Jürg insists it was a misunderstanding). Othmar would prefer to not end up the same way. So they leave it at that. Jürg, surprised at how things have gone, bids Othmar and the guards farewell, and lets the company back into their residence. They are confident the guard won’t give them much trouble anymore.
Claus and Ezio celebrate their safe return to town by spending the week drinking and partying. Ezio emerges from the bender with a tattoo of a rose and a slogan in latin that would be bad-ass if it were’nt for the spelling mistake. But Ezio doesn’t know that.
Jürg has the heart in a box identified by Ben Mordechai. It turns out to be the fabled Heart of Roland, a legendary Malévol heirloom with several remarkable magical properties.
Jürg also spends more than a bit of time in The Tap, buying rounds and picking people’s brains about the Malévol family and who might be in charge of things. He gets a pretty good sense of some of the most powerful family members, most of whom they have met at least once. Clearly, they need to focus their efforts on the count and countess. Although The Beast might also stand in the way of their overtaking the castle.
The company begin planning their attack on the count and countess, debating the most viable strategy against not one but two vampires. Claus visits the church and is provided by Father Bernard with some knowledge related to vampire hunting, and suitable equipment to boot: garlic, mirror, stakes, holy water. He leaves a little more confident that they might be able to pull off this crazy scheme…
We are finally back at it after a spell of no gaming due to various personal circumstances.
This was a bit of a strange session because we ended on a cliffhanger last time, and we started later than normal this time around. By the time the scene with the guard was resolved very little time was left on the clock for proper dungeon delving, so we decided to hold off on that until next time. As a result, we had an atypical session of what the kids these days call “RP” I believe.
Running the confrontation with Othmar was interesting. I relied heavily on reaction checks throughout. I could have perhaps done a bit more explicit stakes setting as things progressed. But Jürg’s ESP ability actually made it easier to be transparent about NPC motivations than it would otherwise be. As the debate proceeded I think both the NPC and the referee realized that they would not be able to do anything about Jürg and his companions because they have become simply too damn powerful. I did not feel like Othmar would make a suicidal attempt at taking them in regardless. So, the whole thing just kind of fizzled out. Maybe a bit anticlimactic, but also true to the situation at hand. Furthermore, leveraging the combination of invisibility and ESP was just smart play, and I like rewarding those sorts of schemes.
Will they indeed go head to head with the count and countess? The endgame continues! If they do manage to take the vampires out, that might a good place to call it. I don’t think we want to play out the company smoking out the Malévols until every single one has been purged from the castle. But maybe we do? Or at least we might also see what happens when the company confront The Beast? I wonder what my players’ expectations are. In any case, the castle might turn out to be a less desirable residence than they expect it to be. It is full-on haunted and has a will of his own. That much should be clear by now.
Jürg haggles with Mordechai over an unopened parcel addressed to Vincent-Godefroy Malévol and ends up acquiring it in exchange for 550 GP. When he opens it he finds it contains a high-quality powdered gentleman’s wig.
Jürg also has a run-in with some shady types in The Tap who are looking for a book called Libellus de Alchimia. They explain it was penned by the famed Albertus Magnus, can be used to dispelled summoned creatures, and must be in one of Xyntillan’s numerous laboratory libraries. Having insulted his intelligence, Jürg later waits for them in an alley, puts on his ring of invisibility, and kicks the living daylights out of them.
Hendrik studies one of the tomes he stole from Aristide’s laboratory, titled Conjuration & Invocation, and learns that it holds several extremely powerful spells.
The company decide it is time to take their shot at acquiring that mysterious heart they’ve heard so much about. They burn incense at the reliquary, and Jürg has a vision of passing through the upper library, then a lounge with snarling heads, entering a hallway where it is very cold, and finally arriving in a hunting lodge.
They enter through the grand entrance, swiftly make their way up to the 2nd floor of the gothic wing, and are just about to enter the library when they hear a bone chilling voice from back the way they came saying something about “they went that way”. They stop, turn, form up and wait. A large group of druids led by a man who must be Runcius, wearing crown shaped like thorns, enters their torchlight. Runcius wants the staff of the deep woods, plus a human sacrifice. Before anyone can do anything, Jürg blasts them with his horn. At the same time, Hendrik whips out and lets loose with his wand of cold. All of Runcius’s men are instantly killed. The leader draws a bone dagger and attacks Hendrik, grabbing the staff and stabbing away while growling “I’ll perform that sacrifice right here and now!” Hendrik is hurt but not killed. Claus stabs him in the back. Jürg chops him with his axe. The druid cries out in pain and anger and shimmers out of existence.
The company take a moment to catch their breath, and speculate about the degree to which Runcius has been definitively defeated. Then, they continue on their way.
They make it up to the third floor library, pass through the lounge with those snarling heads, and enter a door to the north-east. In the hallway beyond, they try the first door east, from which they hear faint sounds of music. It opens on a small balcony littered with broken musical instruments, a wardrobe along one side. Jürg steps onto the balcony, which creaks ominously. He opens the wardrobe and the corpse of a conductor comes rolling out, followed by a swarm of rats. Non-plussed, Jürg steps back into the hallway, and dispatches the vicious rodents without breaking a sweat.
They continue on their way.
The door at the end of the hallway, heading north, leads to a bedroom that has been torn to shreds. They hear chittering and occasional flapping. Up in the rafters they see a large sack sitting on a beam. A ladder stands against the beam. Claus shoots at the sack, hits it, but it does not fall from the beam.
Jürg climbs up the ladder and shimmies along the beam towards the sack. It turns out to be the corpse of a matron, crawling with vampire bats. She is wearing a remarkable ring. So Jürg takes his axe and chops off her hand at the wrist. It drops to the ground. The bats, disturbed, fly up from the corpse and attack. Jürg nearly falls from the beam but manages to hold on. He makes it down the ladder while fending off attacks from bats. The things attach themselves to several party members and proceed to suck at the wounds. But eventually most are destroyed and the remainder flee.
They turn their attention to the next door, leading south-west.
Hendrik uses a clairvoyance spell to see behind the door. It is poorly illuminated so he can only make out faint outlines. They open the door, and find a room hung with rotting animal skins, and a large wooden throne. The sounds of metallic clinking come from the rafters. There is also the sound of rattling from behind the northern wood panel wall. Hendrik uses his remote viewing to see what is above them, and sees seven huntsmen swinging by their legs, their swords softly beating against their chainmail vests.
Jürg discovers a secret door in the wood paneling, opens it, and is showered with bones. A disembodied animal roar emits and dies away. The door reveals a cell with broken chains. Whoever or whatever was held here has clearly escaped…
They take the next door south-west.
It turns out to be the hunting lodge of Jürg’s vision. There’s a long table, rustic chairs, and tankards. The walls are decorated with trophies and tapestries. A large moldy tapestry covers the entirety of the north wall. It depicts seven huntsmen led by a galant figure.
When the company enter, the tankards lift up and slam the table. A loud “huzzah!” rings out. Jürg instantly responds with a “huzzah” of his own. All is quiet again.
Peeking behind the tapestry, Jürg sees a passage scattered with detritus. Vines growing in the passage come alive and attack him. In the ensuing confusion, Finnian attacks Jürg from behind, trying to grab his horn of blasting. Several retainers wrestle him to the ground while Jürg continues to fight the vines. Finnian manages to escape and runs from the room. Claus strikes him with an arrow in the back, but does not kill him. For a moment, Finnian transforms into a disgusting grey rubbery humanoid before disappearing.
The vines are destroyed without too much trouble. They search the passage, and find a lead box, vibrating with something rhythmically beating inside. At the end of the passage is the mural of a doorway, strongly radiating with magic.
The company decide it is time to head back. They manage to escape the castle without further trouble, and travel back to town without issue.
When they arrive at their residences, they see Othmar, captain of the guard along with a sizable detachment posting outside their door, waiting for them…
Our 40th session! A rather momentous occasion I would say. Things continue to hurtle towards a finale of some sort almost of its own accord.
A few quick thoughts. I was probably a little too lenient with the first round of combat with Runcius. I should have allowed for missile fire from the druids before they were blasted by Jürg’s horn and Hendrik’s wand. Or at least, I should have rolled for initiative.
The secret cell in Hubert’s room is mentioned in the key but missing from the map. That there me off for a moment, and I ultimately decided to simply add it by hand to the player’s map on an ad-hoc basis.
We ended on a cliffhanger this time around. I thought I would change it up for once. Players have gotten very used to the fact that town is a safe haven. But when they choose to send a lethal item to the prefect, there has to be consequences. So when we pick up next session, we will do a cold open on the confrontation with Othmar and the guard, and take it from there.
The Manual of Intelligence (formerly The Tome of Learning)
Ring of invisibility
Tomes “Conjuration & Invocation” and “Ephemerality”
Casualties: Julia, sucked dry by a glittercloud.
An agent of the royal mail delivers a set of silk gloves, care of Judges Guild.
Heavy footman Finnian returns to town, eager to rejoin the company for the next expedition. No word of Alyssia though…
Poor porter Noel is found one morning, hanging by his right leg from a tree near the company’s residences. His entrails have been arranged in a circle around the tree. A note is stabbed to his chest with a bone dagger. Written in blood, it reads: “Leave the staff of the deep woods at the indoornesse entrance before the next new moon. This is your final warning”.
A tax agent of the town prefect, Richard Justin Saint-Égréve, visits the company accompanied by Othmar, captain of the guard, and a couple of guardsmen. The tax agent inquires after the treasure the company have been liberating from the castle. Does the company realize the prefect was appointed by the current head of the Malévol family, count Jean-Giscard, who resides in the Chamrousse summer palace? Furthermore, do they realize any treasure recovered remains property of the count, and should therefore be presented to the prefect for safe-keeping?
Jurg hands the prefect a box that holds a cursed silver cross. “Here you go, sir, as a token of our appreciation. Please send that Malévol our best.”
The tax officer takes the box, “it’s a start, we’ll hand it over to the prefect” and leaves. Othmar leaves as well, grumbling all the way.
They also try to open the mysteriously rattling mahogany box they took from Aristide’s upper laboratory. Magic weapons, fire, knock spells, etc. Nothing seems to do the trick.
Hendrik gets the wand of lightning recharged, and scribes another knock scroll.
They do the rounds of the local bars, and find number of new retainers foolhardy enough to accompany them.
The company decide they want to continue their pillaging of the late Aristide’s lab. This time, they will try their hand at the lower level. They enter through the rose garden again, swiftly make their way to the upstairs hallway with the eerie singing, head into the wax works room, through the hole in that was blasted in the wall there, into the room with the defunct coils, and through the large double doors into the upstairs lab which they so expertly stripped of its valuables during the previous expedition.
They head down the spiral staircase. At the bottom they see demijohns with suspicious-looking liquids inside. They head into the lab proper, and see a vast array of alchemical equipment, materials, and huge metal vats wafting acrid vapors. A large book sits on a lecture stand facing a large dark mirror. Shelves hold many books. At the far end there is a hallway that dead ends, and along the south wall are four closet doors.
Hendrik collects a pair of magical books from the shelves. Jürg takes a moment to study the Castle Xyntillan guide book, but learns nothing of relevance. Meanwhile, Hendrik, intrigued by the tome near the mirror, can’t resist the temptation to peruse it, and is instantly struck by a feeblemind spell. He is reduced to 1 INT idiocy, and has lost all his magical capabilities.
For a moment, the company do not know what to do next. Then, they decide to press on anyway. Hendrik may be dumb as a rock now, but he can still hit stuff with a stick, and is tougher than one might at first think.
Jürg proceeds to inspect the closets, one by one, working from west to east.
The first contains what turns out to be a crystallized gelatinous cube, lots of detritus floating in mid-air. Jürg blasts it with his horn. The cube turns out not to have held anything of value. The closet is otherwise empty. Suspicious, Jürg inspect the rear wall, and indeed, it turns out to be a secret doorway.
Jürg opens the door a tiny bit and peers inside. He sees a large number of skulls float about. Not one for subtlety, Jürg goes “hello!” and opens the door all the way. He tries to chat up the skulls, and the things are stupid enough to reveal they are guarding a ring of some sort. When he tries to bullshit them into leaving, however, they turn vicious, and attack. Before they can do much harm, Jürg blasts them with his horn, and swats the remainder from the air. Only a single skull manages to escape into the castle’s dark hallways.
Jürg then enters the room and looks for the ring that was mentioned by the skulls, but does not find anything. Maybe it’s invisible, he thinks to himself, so he goes down on hands and knees and feels around and sure enough he comes across what must be a ring, entirely invisible.
The next door they open reveals a huge mouth on the far wall. It licks its lips and whispers things about revealing secrets in exchange for food. Jürg tosses one of the defeated floating skulls at it. The mouth greedily gobbles it up, but demands more. Jürg goes “nah” and shuts the door.
The third door opens on a closet holding variety of furniture covered by sheets. When Jürg enters to search for valuables, four huge corpse birds with oily feathers and long sharp beaks emerge from the shadows. They peck at his chest. Jürg once again whips out his horn and blast the creatures, but they continue to try and attack. One manages to dent Jürg’s breast plate, but he manages to cut them down without too much trouble.
The final door opens on a collection of stuffed mimics, and a pedestal with a ledger on it. The company don’t trust it, and expect the book must be a live mimic. So Jürg enters the closet and makes to tip over the pedestal with his axe. But the pedestal itself comes to life and attacks. Again, Jürg dispatches it without too much trouble.
As they make up their minds about what to do next, they hear footsteps and voices from the top of the spiral stairs coming their way. They pile into the east most closet to hide. They hear a large group enter the room, and begin to search it. Soon enough, an undead lord opens their door. Jürg was ready with his axe, and cuts the thing down right away. However, there are 14 more lords to contend with. They demand the company leave the castle and never return, or else. The company decide to humor them, and begin to head for the exit. The lords follow in a column. Then, Jürg suddenly whips around and blast them with his horn. Many perks outright. Two lords were carrying large flasks containing glitterclouds, and one was holding a sack of hands. The containers burst open and the monsters attack, as do the few remaining lords.
What follows is quite the fight. Jürg is hypnotized by a glitterclouds. Julia is sucked dry by another cloud. The hand swam begins to chortle Jürg. Hendrik tries to get the fighting man to snap out of it. He does, and proceeds to dispatch the hands crawling all over him. Hendrik raises his staff and charges the glitterclouds. Jürg gets rid of the hands and follows Hendrik. The remaining lords follow and begin to stab the fighter and magic-user in the back. The retainers in turn follow, and stab the lords in the back. The tide is turned, and the company prevails.
They catch their breath for a moment. Spooked, they decide to make sure they have a quick way of getting out of the castle. They use the horn to blast a hole in the outer wall. They go back and search that corridor that dead-ends, and find a bricked-up doorway. They decide they’ve done enough blasting for one day. They collect some of the alchemical materials. They also mess with one of the demijohns at a safe distance, and it explodes in an acrid cloud of smoke. With that, they leave, and safely make it back to town in one piece.
An eventful session, even though they have explored just one room. But what a room it was.
The feeblemind at the beginning of the session really caught the players off guard a little. I softened the blow a little bit by suggesting that there might be a way for Hendrik to recover. And so the player leaned into the being dumb bit, and had a fun session anyway. I also commend them for being foolhardy enough to just read the damn book and not play it safe. Safe is boring.
Again, I have some ideas in hindsight about what I could have done differently in the big fight in the end. I could have, for example, had the lords try and grab a character and toss them in those vats of acid. That would have been fun. In general it’s easy to forget what’s in the environment when you get in the rhythm of running a fight.
I continue to find the glitterclouds awkward to run — their blood suck attack is a ranged attack, which doesn’t feel quite right to me. And then there is this hypnotize power they can use once per day, but it’s not clear what that triggers off of. I guess I just lack experience with this kind of monster.
There were more than a few fun interactions with monsters and NPCs. In general, if there is an opportunity for players to chat with monsters, I should always take it. It adds a little spice to the proceedings.
Jürg really is incredibly powerful with the combination of that horn of blasting and his crusader’s two-handed axe. But it’s well-earned, and I do feel like the whole game has started to hit overdrive and we are zipping towards what I hope will be a satisfying finale of the campaign.
And yes, all the way at the top of the session, during downtime, Jürg did indeed hand the prefect’s agents a cross bearing a lethal curse. I’m sure that won’t have any consequences down the line…
Sara, head smashed to a pulp by a frankensteinian monster
The company sit down with the Compendium of Champions, a magic book recovered during the previous expedition, and look up the tale of their lost comrade, Claus. As they recount his many heroic deeds, and come to the fateful moment of his flight into the castle’s dark halls, they turn the page, and suddenly hear a knock at the door. Opening it, they see standing there, alive and well, bucknaked, and very confused — Claus!
Intrigued by the plain gold cup they recovered as well, Jürg begins to experiment with it. He puts it to the lips it to the rotting head of his once-beloved Bartholomea, and revives it. It begins to mindlessly snap and snarl, and roll its eyes. He also pours a cup of deadly poison from it.
Next, Jürg consults the spirit of alchemist Girolamo. It tells him the thing is the dreaded False Grayl, and that it is the phylactery of Aristide “The Patrician” Malévol. Jürg asks around town about what it would take to destroy the thing, and if he should worry about any adverse consequences. As he goes about his preparations it becomes clear to him the forces of Chaos are being channeled through the grayl, and are seeking to control his actions. Jürg might be aligned to Chaos, but he considers himself his own man, so he resolves to risk it.
First, however, he must get rid of the Blade of Rel. He spends a lavish sum on satanic paraphernalia and constructs a shrine and case for the sword. Then, he takes the blade, and using all the willpower he can muster, places it in the case and locks it. The weapons tries to fight it, but Jürg ultimately prevails.
Next, under a clear star-lit night sky, Jürg lights a fire under a cauldron set in their residence’s courtyard. A maelstrom of Chaos energy whirls around him as he, with trembling hands, takes the cup and tosses it in the cauldron. As it begins to melt, phantasmic forces burst from it, and the spirit of Aristide appears, translucent, hovering over the fire. “Jürg, you have foresaken uuuussss!” it cries, and with a bone-chilling scream is then sucked into the darkness between the stars. Jürg faints. The next morning, attendants awaken him. The False Grayl is gone. The liche Aristide has been destroyed. And Jürg is no longer aligned to Chaos, nor to Law for that matter. He is a plain old neutral.
Claus, meanwhile, acquires some new mundane equipment, and then goes on a mean bender to celebrate his return from the dead, if indeed he ever really was dead. As he does so, he manages to insult Othmar, captain of the guard, whom Jürg previously had a feud with. What are the odds?
As they prepare for the next expedition, they manage to hire a new bunch of foolhardy heavy footpeople. (The previous batch was lost in the confrontation with undead crusaders.)
Now that the liche is out of the way, they decide to go straight for the jugular, and finally try and breach Aristide’s laboratory. They enter through the rose garden, and make their way through the north-west section of the ground floor, and up the stairs, to the carpeted hallway. Family portraits leer at them, and an eerie disembodied singing can be heard.
They study the door to the lab, which has an ominous text written on it. Claus tries to pick it, but the door appears to be magically sealed somehow. The signing in the hallway grows louder, and a cold breeze starts blowing. The company decide they have overstayed their welcome, and make for the wax works room which should be adjacent to the lab.
Jürg takes the horn of blasting they acquired in the previous expedition. Sages have told him it may have the equivalent effect of a catapult. So he points it at the wall and blows on it with all his might. A deafening sound erupts and a shock wave smashes through the wall. As the dust settles, they see machines and coils in the next room. The coils resemble the ones they had previously seen downstairs. But these no longer function. They search the room but find nothing noteworthy.
They open a set of double doors to the north, and find themselves in a massive laboratory space. A vast array of alchemical equipment is hissing and bubbling away. In the center of the room stands a huge glass dome covering a table with various intriguing items on it. The dome won’t budge and appears to be impenetrable.
There is a door to the south, and to the west. The south one opens onto circular stairs leading down. The west door opens onto a short hallway that dead-ends.
This not being their first rodeo, they check the end of the corridor and of course find a secret door. Without thinking twice they immediately open it, and find themselves in some sort of control room. Lots of machines, a metal cabinet, an operating table with a coil pointed at it, and in the middle of it all a huge monstrosity composed of disjointed human body parts, busily throwing levers and flipping switches. The thing notices them straight away, and demands to know what they are doing here. The company, flabbergasted, can only stammer some nonsense about Aristide sending them. Offended by the obvious lie, the monster attacks.
Claus fires an arrow at the thing, dodges into the room, and melds with the shadows. The monster smashes Sara’s head to a bloody pulp between his two mighty fists. Jürg, taking his news acquired crusader’s two-handed axe, begins to chop away. Witnessing the fate of Sara, the rest of te retainers immediately make a run for the exit. Jürg and the monster continue to trade blows as Claus steps in and out of melee range to occasionally jab the thing in the back. But mundane weapons don’t appear to harm it. Jürg takes a terrible beating, but in the end prevails. The monster is chopped to tiny pieces.
They search the room, and open the metal cabinet. Inside they find three pyramidal coils, weirdly buzzing. Jürg smashes one with his axe, and it is disabled, but not before a bolt of energy shoots into his weapon. They do the same trick with two other weapons, and as the final pyramid is shut down, they hear a heavy whooshing sound from back in the lab.
Returning there, they are very pleased to see the glass dome has disappeared. They grab everything on the table, and leave the castle in a hurry. They make their way back without further issue.
A shorter session than usual due to circumstances, but no less uneventful because of it. Players made good use of the newly acquired major magic items. Claus was brought back, to its player’s great pleasure.
Jürg’s actions during downtime were quite dramatic. I like to keep the action outside the dungeon moving so did not make a huge hassle out of his plans. We handle such things with broad strokes and a few rolls at most. For ditching the Blade of Rel we did one control check. For destroying the grayl I had him do one save. He succeeded at both. Before the session I did some quick reading in early editions of D&D on phylacteries, cross-compared with the magic jar spell, and decided that if they did destroy the cup, that would be it, Aristide would be done for.
As for using the horn of blasting to, well, blast a hole in a wall, that seems to be what the thing was designed to do, so we rolled with it. I love how these kind of items can really function as circuit breakers for what would otherwise be quite challenging sections of the dungeon.
That lawful two-handed axe allows a player to keep rolling attacks so long as they hit. Stupid powerful as well, and we had a bit of a debate how it would work in combination with the fighter’s multi-attack ability in Hackbut. If it wasn’t for this weapon, I think they may have been in real trouble facing that Frankenstein monster.
The players were once again incredibly lucky with their encounter rolls. I rolled none again. This has been the case for several sessions now. The law of averages demands I start rolling an awful lot of 1s anytime soon now.
Welcome, dear reader, to the fourth and likely final “season” of our play-through of Castle Xyntillan.
Noel & Göpf (porter)
Francesca, Nathalie & Liv (F1 retainers)
Loot: Oh boy. No mundane treasure was recovered, but the company did acquire a Horn of Blasting, a blue book titled Castle Xyntillan, a black book titled The Compendium of Champions, a crusader’s two-handed axe +1, and a plain gold cup containing powerful evil magics.
Casualties: Göpf and Florin, struck dead while trying to grab treasure; Nathalie, polymorphed into a snail by the eye beams of a giant snail statue; Francesca & Liv, slaughtered by undead crusaders.
It is Monday, September 2, 1527. Five weeks have passed since the last expedition by our nameless company into Castle Xyntillan. Having recovered the Scepter of the Merovings, the company set their sights on the mysterious stuccoed secret door in the castle dungeons, which they suspect may be opened by it.
Upon arrival, they make for the grand entrance. They keep an eye on the walls to see if any of their beans have sprouted. Most appear to have been weeded out by the skeleton gardening crew. But one sturdy stalk is growing along the south wall of the gatehouse.
They enter through the grand entrance, make their way down into the wine cellar without trouble, and head up to the tomb where once the company had an ill-fated encounter with a pack of ghouls, and lost many of their most powerful members and equipment. They go up the the stuccoed secret door depicting a dark-skinned man leading crusaders up a hill lined with palm trees. They hold the scepter up to it, and lo and behold, it opens!
At that very moment, however, the rear ranks are attacked by a lone ghoul. There is a moment of panic while Jürg pushes through to the melee, and cleaves the thing in two with one mighty strike of his chaotic magic zweihander, the Blade of Rel. With that out of the way, they turn back to the newly opened corridor, and cautiously head inside.
Jürg asks his blade if any traps are nearby, and it trembles with confirmation. They spot a suspicious-looking crack half-way down the corridor, and notice an elevated floor tile just in front. They drag the ghoul corpse from the tomb and toss it on the tile. It presses down, making a loud clicking noise, and the next moment, a huge blade slams down along the crack. Next, it slowly ascends again to the sounds of some hidden ratcheting mechanism. When they test the switch again, it does not trigger anymore. Gingerly, the company step over the tile one by one and make their way into the room beyond.
This room’s walls are decorated with portraits of various warrior saints with stern looks on their faces. Their eyes follow the company as they make their way to a door leading east. They enter a large room with a pool and several doors. They first check the door north-west. It opens onto a corridor that stretches into the darkness beyond their torchlight. They try the next door, leading east.
At this point, the players were joking about how it would be nice to come across a door with a sign reading “treasure” for a change. You won’t believe what happened next.
The center piece of this room is a circle of statues of dwarves in chains holding up a massive plateau. On it is piled a massive amount of treasure. Gold, gems, jewelry, magic items, weapons, scrolls and books. Oh my! The plateau’s edge is inscribed with: “To each hero, one treasure of far lands shall be the prize.”
The company agonize over what to do. Is it wise to grab this treasure? Might it be cursed? Etcetera. Finally, Jürg has had enough, and grabs the horn. The very next instance, they hear a loud bang of stone on stone, reverberating throughout the dungeon. They look at each other worriedly. Swallow, take a deep breath, and then Hendrik steps up and grabs one of the books…
Nothing happens. Puzzled, they next ask one of the retainers to grab something. Some resist, worried that it might be a trap or something. Finally, one of the fighting-women retainers is courageous enough to grab the other book. And nothing happens again. So then they convince bowman Florin to grab something. The moment he lays a hand on the treasure, his breath chokes in his throat, his eyes glaze over, and he drops to the dungeon floor, dead.
The company manage to hold it together, and speculate about why this might be. Hendrik and Jürg pressure porter Göpf into grabbing something despite what happened to Florin, and for some reason, the man is foolish enough to go for it. Alas for poor Göpf, his fate is identical to that of the bowman. Soon enough he lies dead on the floor as well.
They decide they have had enough of this room and will not push their luck any further. They return to the pool room. They next check the south door. They find themselves in another large room containing a massive statue of a monstrous snail. They make their way to the next door north, all the while wearily eyeing the snail.
The next room contains dazzling mosaics. From here they take another door north, and find themselves in a room with an altar on which stands a plain gold cup. Hendrik detects strong evil magical energies emanating from it. Jürg (who is aligned to Chaos) goes “great,” steps up to the pedestal and with one smooth motion tips the cup into a sack. Nothing happens.
They backtrack to the room with the snail statue and search it for secret doors. Sure enough, they find one in the south-east corner. They push it open, but something blocks it. Through a crack they see a massive stone block that was clearly dropped very recently.
That very moment, the snail statue animates and starts to crawl their way. They decide to make a run for the exit as fast as they can. They escape the room before the thing can get to them, but it does manage to zap one of the fighting women in their rear rank with a beam from its eye stalks. The poor retainer is polymorphed into a snail. The door slams shut.
They catch their breath and briefly mourn the loss of yet another companion. They decide they should check the door leading to that dark corridor which they abandoned earlier. As they cautiously move down it they pass gated alcoves holding sarcophagi left and right. At the end, a small circular room holds a glass case containing a huge double-headed axe. Before going for the axe they decide to check the sarcophagi. As they open the first one, a skeletal hand reaches out and an undead crusader knight starts to climb out. Meanwhile, the remaining sarcophagi are pushed open from inside as well, and more crusaders appear.
The company decide to face the undead, but make their way to the door they came from, which should serve as a convenient choke point. When they get there they turn around, and Hendrik flings a lightning bolt from his wand back down the hallway. The crusaders are harmed but still going. The distance is closed, and Jürg and a retainer make a stand in the doorway.
A lot of hacking and slashing ensues. Hendrik uses many spells to increase the company’s powers, and reduce that of the undead. When that seems to be insufficient, he pulls out a scroll of protection from undead, and manages to turn away about half of the crusader fighting force. Still, the remaining fighting women are killed, one by one.
At the very end, Hendrik is standing next to Jürg in the doorway. They blast the crusaders with their wand of cold, Jürg hacks away with his Blade of Rel. And finally, the battle is won.
Very cautiously, they had back down the hallway. They know several undead crusaders have fled down it. When they get to the end they see several have returned to their sarcophagi. A lone crusader has ended up in the room with the axe in the glass case. They manage to flush it out, and turn their attention to the axe.
They smash the glass case, and grab the axe. They decide this is the time to leave. They move back the way they came until they get to a door behind which they know is the cellar of the donjon. A ghost once told them it lost her ring in there somewhere. They hear a lot of rodent noises from behind the door. Hendrik uses clairvoyance to see what is behind the door, and detects magic to see if he can find the ring. He sees a large circular cellar lined with alcoves. A lot of human remains and debris on the floor. But no ring.
They decide to definitively end the expedition there, and head back out of the castle and back to town without further issue.
We’re back in that damn castle after a welcome Christmas break. I polled the players if they had enough, but some were keen on going for one more season. It’s clear we are nearing a climax, now that we have several very powerful characters in the company (recall that level 6 is the highest level in my homebrew version of D&D), and they have acquired many, many powerful items. Not to mention a ludicrous amount of wealth.
I keep urging them to think bigger than simply continuing to clear the dungeon room by room. Let’s see if they catch on. This session at least immediately kick-started things with a more or less complete looting of the crusader tomb. However, readers familiar with the module will know they made a very fateful decision in the treasure room.
Without entirely spoiling what the module states, as written it closes off a particular direction for the players entirely if they do something, but they have no real way of knowing this. (At least, mine did not.) So I decided to make it a little less definitive, but still hugely significant. That was the point of the thing with the secret door and the stone blocking it. Sorry for being so vague about it.
As I continue to tinker with our combat sequence, we are now trying full-on phases. So we revolve actions in the order of missile, movement, melee, and magic for both sides. Initiative decides who goes first within each phase. It worked okay, yielding some interesting dilemmas, and it nicely reinforces this idea that everything more or less happens at the same time during combat.
The fight with the undead turned into a bit of a slog. I guess I should have had them change tactics after the second round of simply exchanging blows in the doorway. But my mental bandwidth was too limited to come up with something, I guess. In hindsight, I think I should have had one crusader try and push their way past the front rank. Maybe using an opposed attack roll to resolve it or something? Would have been more dramatic.
The two books recovered in the treasure room are neat. The Champions book in particular is crazy powerful. As written it allows for summoning living or dead characters listed in the module, that were played by the playtesters. I decided to change this into any character lost by the players in our own campaign. They loved that, and have already decided to bring back good old Claus, who died after failing his roll on the table of terror.
And that plain gold cup. Oh boy. Readers who know about the module, know that it was particularly significant for the one chaotic character in the company to grab it. I am still puzzling over what the effects for Jürg will be. They have had it identified and know about its powers, they also know it contains a powerful malevolent spirit. But they don’t know who or what specifically is in there…
The second year of blogging has come to a close, time to take stock. Contrary to my hopes and expectations this time last year, 2021 turned out to be the second year of playing in times of a global pandemic. In spite of this, we managed to continue our gaming.
What we played
So what did we play? Most notably, I refereed two seasons of Castle Xyntillan using my homebrew classic D&D rules, Hackbut. Season two ran for 14 sessions, from late January to late April. Season three lasted 10 sessions and ran from mid-September to mid-December. In between these, from early May to mid-July, one of our players stepped up to “warden” a season of Mothership. We played one session of The Haunting of Ypsilon 14 and 10 sessions of Gradient Descent. Over summer I ran a two-shot of The Coming of Sorg, again using Hackbut. When circumstances allowed for it, we managed to resume our monthly face-to-face boardgame night. To celebrate, I acquired Kemet Blood & Sand, which according to many is the pinnacle of Matagot “dudes on a map” games. We managed to play this three times between late July and late October.
With regards to our ongoing Castle Xyntillan campaign I kept pretty extensive records. What follows is some data on attendance, character deaths, and experience points. Just for kicks.
Like last year, our play group numbers 7 players, not including me. Most sessions had 2-3 players attending, with average attendance being 3,6. Season 2 had an average attendance of 4,4, season 3’s average attendance was 2,6. This drop in attendance is probably the result of a number of factors, including big life events for at least one of our players, and perhaps also some fatigue with online gaming setting in for a few others.
The top 3 players were good for 66% of the attendance. This was 56% in the previous year. This shift can be explained mostly by one of our group not participating at all this year, and another only playing in the beginning of the year.
Ah, killing player-characters, the thing every classic D&D referee enjoys doing the most. I am kidding of course, but still, deaths is a good indication of how hazardous my game is. Seeing as how a key distinguishing aspect of classic D&D is that it is a game of challenge for the players, character death serves as a reasonable proxy for it.
In total, 10 player-characters died in the dungeon. That’s an average of 1,7 per session. The most PCs killed in one session was four, which happened during session #18 when the company had an ill-fated run-in with a bunch of ghouls.
Retainers were unluckier still, with a total of 27 perishing across this year’s two seasons, for an average of 2,3 per session. The most retainers killed in one session was five, during session #33, when the company got lost in a pocket dimension forest.
Overall, 37 characters were killed by the dungeon, for an average of 1,5 per session. I don’t have a baseline to compare these numbers to, so I really can’t say if I run an extraordinarily deadly game, or if I am soft-pedaling it. I guess over 1 PC killed on average every session is kind of rough, but I don’t go out of my way to try and slaughter them. In fact I often feel bad about not giving the players the challenge they deserve. Maybe this number is an indication I should relax a little on that front.
In any case, was all that dying good for anything? I would say so. The players brought back 132.796 XP. This breaks down to 84.754 XP in season 2, and 48.042 XP in season 3. That is an average of 5.533 XP per session (6.054 XP in season 2, 4.804 XP in season 3). I think it is safe to say Castle Xyntillan is a pretty generously stocked dungeon, but not overly so. I think this nicely offsets its lethality. Yes it is easy to die in the dungeon. But it is is also easy for players to get back into the game reasonably quickly, and level up past those first fragile levels.
All of this XP is from treasure recovered, at a rate of 1 GP equals 1 XP. I award no XP for killing monsters and in case you are wondering, magic items also do not yield any. Another important thing to note is that players get to divide XP between all player-characters that participated in an expedition as they see fit. I do not enforce shares for player-characters.
The highest single haul was 15.900 XP, in session #21 (in season 3, the biggest score was 11.660 XP during session #34). In general, it is those wine barrels in the cellar that are the real money makers.
The seven currently active player-characters between them have acquired 106.393 XP. The average party level is 4.
The lowest level character is Guillemette, a level 1 thief, with 432 XP collected over 4 sessions. But this character saw no action this year. The next lowest-level character is Robert, a level 2 cleric, at 2.529 XP, all of which was acquired in one session.
The highest level character is Hendrik, a level 6 magic-user, at 36.000 XP, collected over a whopping 24 sessions of careful, diligent play. Level 6 is the highest level in the game and the magic-user is of course the class that requires the highest amount of XP. Getting there was quite an achievement, well-earned.
Closely following Hendrik is Jürg, a level 6 fighter / level 1 thief, at 31.600 XP collected over 14 sessions. Jürg is the only multi-classed character in the game. I wonder if more will follow now that some of them are plateauing and have no use for XP anymore. It’s also worth noting Jürg began life as a retainer (and husband) of this player’s previous PC, Bartolomea.
Moving on, what happened with the blog? I mostly wrote play reports, for Castle Xyntillan seasons 2 and 3 (see the index), as well as the Coming of Sorg two-shot (a, b).
WordPress tells me I had 3.519 views and 1.188 visitors over the past year. This is of course very modest, and in truth I pay little attention to this sort of stuff. I do promote my posts on the OSR discord server and my twitter, but not anywhere else really.
I got quite a bit of traffic through referrals from Beyond Fomalhaut (thanks Melan). Most of my visitors are from the anglosphere (US, UK, CA) and also from The Netherlands of course.
I hope I will be able to keep our weekly online D&D game going. It is definitely something that keeps me sane, and a welcome outlet for my many creative urges. I think we have one more season of Castle Xyntillan in us. I might try to add a new player or two to our group, so that we push the average attendance back up to the 3-4 mark. We are a close-knit group though, so recruiting will have to rely on our immediate social networks.
After Xyntillan, I think I want to try my hand at running material of my own fabrication. I have come to realize that this is the purest form of D&D, homebrewing everything, and I want to experience it first-hand. I have been quietly chipping away at a mid-size dungeon (about 120 rooms across three levels) and am about half-way through completing it. It is strongly OD&D inspired, but filtered through my personal fantasy canon, which is very much in a science fantasy vein and includes things like Masters of the Universe, Storm, and The Incal.
Of course, once we are able to, I look forward to once again playing games face-to-face, but that will most likely mean more boardgames. I recently acquired both a copy of Tigris & Euphrates, and Quantum and I hope to get those to the table in 2022.
In terms of blogging, I will continue to write up play reports for as long as I referee games. I like keeping a record of what happened and most of all reflecting on what went well and what I can improve on as a referee. Occasionally I get a comment saying others are getting some use out of them as well, which is always nice. I also intend to continue the series on Hackbut, although we have now hit the section on running the game, which may lend itself a little less well to the kind of posts I have been doing so far.
In any case, despite circumstances, 2021 was another good year for me for gaming, and I hope to maintain this in the year to come, bat plague be damned.
“Retainer” is the catch-all term I use in my game for NPCs that accompany player characters on adventures. I make no distinction between hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, etc. In some editions, each serves a particular purpose: Some accompany PCs on wilderness treks, others also go with them into dungeons, etc. In our current campaign, town is mostly handled off-screen and we don’t do wilderness treks. It’s all about the dungeon crawl, so different types of retainer don’t add anything.
The reason for having rules for retainers in Hackbut is mainly so players can pad out their expeditionary force with some extra muscle. This way player-character death rate is reduced, without having to dial down the lethality of the campaign. Retainers are usually the first ones to drop, as anyone who has been following my Castle Xyntillan play reports will know. Retainers also add to the party’s carrying capacity, which nicely complements the rather strict encumbrance rules we enforce.
Okay, so how do they work? The short answer is that I lifted the Morale & Men rules module by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Sandor Gebei published in Castle Xyntillan (as well as Echoes from Fomalhaut #1). These are a coherent, comprehensive, but straightforward set of rules that fit on a single A4 page. They cover:
Determining the availability of retainers that takes into account settlement size, and includes light & heavy footmen, bow & crossbowmen, and mounted troops
Determining their level
Loyalty and morale (very close to the rules in B/X, with a few clever tweaks)
I more or less lifted these rules wholesale, so I won’t describe them here. I will note the few small changes and additions I made.
Rather than having all retainers be 1 HD by default, I say that non-combatants are 0 HD, and men-at-arms are 1 HD but have no class.
I add a line to the table for determining availability of classed NPCs. These are the ones for whom a level and class can be determined as the original rules module suggests. The probabilities and amounts for village, town, city and metro are: 10% 1d2, 10% 1d4, 20% 1d6, 30% 1d8.
These classed NPCs don’t take a per-expedition wage as the others do, but instead insist on a half-share of the expedition’s treasure haul (and as a result, because of the way my XP rules work, they also get a half-share of the XP).
I say that unclassed retainers can be promoted into a level 1 class by assigning XP to them. For 0 HD this requires an initial expenditure of 1000 XP. I took this rule, like so often, from Delta.
I added stat blocks for the basic retainer types to my rules booklet, which are largely based off of those created by Nic, with just a few tweaks to bring them in line with my flavor of classic D&D.
And that’s it, really. These rules have served us so well hardly a game has gone by we do not have at least a few retainers join the party. I cannot count the number that have perished in those haunted halls of Castle Xyntillan. At least one of the currently still active player characters, a level 6 fighter now, started out as a lowly porter. In short I can’t imagine playing classic D&D without retainers, and this set of rules make running them a breeze.
That’s it for this Hackbut rules post. With this, we have also come to the end of the equipment section of the rules booklet. The next section is “playing the game”, which is substantial, but also in many cases maybe less interesting to blog about section by section. So I will have to see how I will go about that. In any case, to be continued.