- Ynes (T1)
- Heinz (MU2)
- Jaquet (F1)
- Vito & Enzo (heavy foot)
- Jana (crossbowwoman)
- Elin (porter)
- 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
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.
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.
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:
- Roll for random encounter
- Establish player actions
- Resolve player actions
- Resolve random encounter (if applicable)
- 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.
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.