Year in Review – 2020 – Gaming Under the Bat Plague

Some notes on what probably was, ironically, my single best year of playing tabletop roleplaying games since I started in the early nineties.


We played 34 sessions, 21 of which using a heavily house-ruled version of The Black Hack (2e) with various modules, and 13 using OD&D (Hackbut) with Castle Xyntillan. The modules we played through were: Prison of the Hated Pretender (1), The Croaking Fane (4), A Single, Small Cut (2), Tomb of the Serpent Kings (5), Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine (3), and Beneath the Windowless Tower (6). (Number of sessions for each in parentheses.)

The chart below shows the number of sessions for each month and the average attendance per session for that same month. Before COVID-19 we played a monthly face-to-face game. When our first lockdown in March happened we switched to a weekly remote game. In June a player took over to run a couple of sessions that are not part of my dataset. In August we had to cancel a couple of games due to low attendance because of people vacationing. In December we skipped the final Friday due to Christmas. Also worth noting is that we started our current OD&D / Castle Xyntillan campaign in the second half of September.

Our group counts seven players, not including myself. The top 3 players were good for 55,6% of the attendance. Most sessions had 3-6 players, with 3 being the most common. Once, we had two, and once we had the full seven.


Although I am eternally grateful for The Black Hack as my gateway to classic D&D, I am really happy we made the switch to OD&D for our current campaign. Black Hack is very accessible, easy to run, and easy to hack, but the roll-under-attribute core mechanic leads to player-characters that are very unlikely to fail. In addition, the armour rules and the out-of-action rules make it very unlikely characters perish. As a case in point: Over the course of 34 sessions of Black Hack, we had 6 player-character deaths, whereas we had 8 character deaths in 12 sessions of OD&D. That’s an 18% versus 67% chance of a character dying in a session between the two systems. Of course, I ran different modules in both systems but I don’t expect the numbers to be that much different. OD&D is ever so slightly less accessible to new players because of the greater variety of die rolls, but several players have expressed really enjoying the fact that the game is more perilous and challenging. On the referee side, OD&D is more constrained in its probabilities so I don’t feel like I constantly need to keep my foot on the brakes. Because of this, ironically, I think OD&D is easier to referee than Black Hack once the basic rules have been grokked.

As those who follow my Castle Xyntillan play reports know, I very much enjoy running this module. Of the modules we played through before that in The Black Hack I think Tomb of the Serpent Kings and Beneath the Windowless Tower were my favourites. Reasons for this included the fact that they are not too small but can still be completed in a reasonable number of sessions. They also have sufficient non-linearity built in to lead to surprising player approaches. Furthermore, they are both quite deadly, which makes for a tense and challenging game. Their vibe in both cases is very much classic D&D as well, with Windowless Tower in particular including some very enjoyable science-fantasy elements.

Playing online took some getting used to, and it’s a poor substitute for playing face-to-face, but the choice between an online game and no game at all is easily made. In addition, even if the quality of the experience is lacking, we do get more gaming in partly due to the fact that logging on after a hard day’s work on Friday evening is just easier to manage than convening at someone’s house. We are all getting older, and many of us have started families. An online game is just easier to fit in.

Our setup is pretty straightforward and probably resembles that of many others. We use someone’s corporate Zoom account for video and voice. I’ve found this to be incredibly stable and easy for everyone to on-board onto. For dice, we prefer to roll physical dice using the honour system. It is by far the quickest, and most fun. If someone does not have dice on hand, or wants to “roll in the open” because the situation is particularly high-stakes, we also have a Discord with a dice-rolling bot. (We tried many bots and ultimately settled on rollem, because it does not require commands to be prefaced with anything.) That’s the core of it.

Now, currently, for Castle Xyntillan, we are also using Roll20 — I loaded up the excellent VTT player maps that come with the module and unveil it using the fog-of-war feature. Players also take notes directly on the map for future reference. I ended up going with this because I did not want to inflict mapping by hand from verbal description on my group for this module — Xyntillan is just too big and labyrinthine. In other games, however, we did to the classic style of mapping. Some of our players really enjoy that part of the game.

Combats we run entirely theatre-of-the-mind, so do not require any digital support. Running combat TotM is by far the quickest and most versatile way of doing it. On my end I do have a little physical setup with tokens and a battle mat when I need to keep track of big battles with many combatants. Overall I am pretty happy with the setup we’ve got going. In general, my aim is to limit the amount of on-screen manipulation I have to do during the game to an absolute minimum because I find it takes me out of the game. This setup lets me for the most part just face the camera and run the game by talking.

With regards to player count, I find it much harder to handle a large group of players online than I do when sitting around a table. Playing online, I think three players is actually the sweet spot. Beyond that, things just bog down. This is also at least in part due to the challenges of group decision making over a video conference. Having the classic D&D role of a caller helps a bit, but does not entirely solve the issue. The absolute maximum number of players I am comfortable handling online is probably five.

In conclusion, although I can’t wait for this global pandemic to be behind us, it did lead to a remarkable amount of very enjoyable tabletop roleplaying game sessions. I hope, around this same time next year, I will sit down to write another report on a great year of gaming, but it will be titled “After the Bat Plague”.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #12 – Eye on the Prize

The Company:

  • Bartolomea (C3)
  • Jaquet (F2)
  • India & Rivka (porters)


  • Cosmetics
  • Whip
  • Corpse head with crystal teeth

Casualties: None!


A smaller-than-usual detachment makes its way to the castle. The plan is to do a quick hit-and-run expedition. If they pull it off, any treasure XP will only need to be shared by two player-characters…

They use rope and a grappling hook to climb up to the balcony on top of the countesses’s suite. The door in is still spiked from the previous expedition, so breaching the castle turns out to be trivial. They quickly move through the room with crusade frescoes and into the game room. Here, Bartolomea casts detect magic. Even though there are more than a few weird things on display, nothing lights up as ensorcelled.

They head further south into another small room decorated with murals of bucolic country scenes, made disturbing by the presence of fat ravens and people with empty eye sockets oozing blood. They decide to quickly move on.

They check the next door to the south and find an opulent bedroom notable for a large pitcher holding a gold-coloured fluid — which detects as magical — and a lady sleeping on a bed in the nude. The company sneaks back out of the room, collects themselves and ready holy water. Then, they pull open the door, jump inside and toss two vials at the woman on the bed. Before the vessels can hit her, she jumps up with a shout of surprise and easily dodges them. Bartolomea presents her holy symbol and begins preaching. The lady hisses like a cat and enchants Jaquet, who suddenly considers her a trusted friend and ally. Meanwhile, Bartolomea sees the lady’s true nature, which involves a forked tail, tiny horns, and bat wings. Still no clothes though.

It was a very tasteful scene, honest (Giorgione & Titian)

The fighter is disturbed that two friends are having an argument, and moves to interfere with Bartolomea. The cleric hurls an oversized container of holy water at the woman but misses again. In response, the lady snaps her finger and the company suddenly hears wheezing skeletons slowly approach from behind. The lady jumps off the bed, reaches into the air, and a sword suddenly appears in her hand. She slashes at the cleric but misses.

The company decides to cut and run. They retreat into the dining hall. The skeletons give chase, as well as the lady, who once again snaps her fingers, and from up the stairs a large group of undead lords comes running into the dining hall. The company makes for the frescoed room and out onto the balcony, managing to evade their pursuers. They slide down the rope and make it down to safety. One porter does suffer bruises from a hard landing. But it could be a lot worse. The undead lords shake fists and shout insults from the balcony, and begin to pull up the rope.

They take a breather, and decide they are not done yet. Leaving behind the porters, Jaquet and Bartolomea clamber up the first floor balcony leading to the suites of the count and countess. They check the door to the countess’s room. It appears to be padlocked. Jaquet bashes the door open, and they run inside. Bartolomea makes for the dresser and begins to hurriedly stuff her pockets with cosmetics. Meanwhile, Jaquet makes for the fireplace, where on the mantelpiece stands the severed head of a corpse with a crystalline toothy grin. He uses his backpack to scoop up the head, and makes for the exit. Bartolomea, having finished looting the dresser, snatches a whip from its top, and follows the fighter outside.

Outside, they are amazed to have gotten away with this without any interference, and clamber back down. They briefly debate pressing their luck further, but decide to quit while they are ahead, and travel back to town.


Upon return they sell off their loot, buy a healing potion, and peruse the curio shop’s inventory. Bartolomea visits father Brenard in the church, who has received a message from the bishop saying he certainly doesn’t mind that they have eliminated Gilbert, who was undoubtedly a sinner, but that he is specifically interested in the evil Malévols. Bartolomea writes back another letter, asking for reinforcements, and attaching the hit list they found several expeditions back. She also asks the father about the crypt. He admits to having the key, but says he’s never been inside. Bartolomea donates 400 GP to the church and leaves.

Meanwhile, Jaquet also spends 400 GP, but not on charity. He acquires a suit of plate.

We end this final session of the season with a scene in The Black Comedian, where the fighting man and the cleric are approached by a man introducing himself as Dario, a clerk in the employ of a lawyer named Stadelmann. The gist of the conversation is that Stadelmann and his associates are creditors of the now-deceased Gilbert Malévol, and that they consider the company to be the inheritors of his substantial debt. They expect prompt repayment, and if the company cannot afford to pay, they will have to work for it in stead. Bartolomea and Jaquet plead ignorance, but Dario is not fooled, and after a final warning leaves them to ponder their fate.

Referee Commentary:

This session proves a small party can still be successful in the castle, provided they rely on finesse more than force.

We had a nice chase scene this time around, which works surprisingly well without any additional mechanics, because we roll group initiative every round (this I took from Knave). That, and strict enforcement of classic D&D’s encumbrance and movement rules are sufficient to make for tense and interesting chases.

At the top of this session, Bartolomea’s player asked if they could create what amounts to a holy water bomb. I allowed for it but enforced a -2 to-hit penalty. It did not hit, but if it did it would have done the equivalent of 5 holy water vials of damage! Upon reflection, I don’t think that’s a good way to handle it, because scaling damage like that just completely breaks classic D&D’s game balance. I think in future I would bump the damage die size up from a d6 to a d10 at most, while sticking with the to-hit penalty. That seems about right.

The “lady” cast charm on Jaquet, but it did not figure into the encounter as much as I would have liked. Roleplaying the effects of a charm spell is just hard for a player. I think the only thing that works is if the referee takes control of them, but that removes player agency, which I am not a fan of. Maybe next time I will exchange it for the more focused and short-lived “suggestion”.

This was the last session of this first season. We ended up playing 12 proper sessions of 2-3 hours each, plus a session zero. As mentioned before, I find CX a dream to run. The only real prep I need to do is to pre-roll random encounters, and even that is optional, strictly speaking. This, paired with the one-expedition-per-session format, makes for an incredibly low-overhead game. I get to explore the castle along with my players and be surprised almost as much as they are, which is an absolute delight.

The vote is still out on what we will be doing next. However, it is looking increasingly likely a second season of Castle Xyntillan will happen in the new year, which makes me very happy. But first, we will be taking a bit of a break for the next couple of weeks.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #11 – Bag of Bones, Bag of Silver

The Company

  • Hendrik (MU1)
  • Jaquet (F2)
  • Ynes (T3)
  • Bartolomea (C3)
  • Benjamin, Edna & Lina (heavy foot)
  • Rivka, India & Lucas (porters)


  • Serpentine bracelet
  • Lorgnette
  • Couple of handfuls of gold pieces from Lydia’s purse and from a card table
  • A love letter from Lydia, to Lydia
  • Sack of silverware


  • Benjamin — torn to pieces by Lydia Malévol
  • Lucas — plummeted to his death from a second floor balcony


While in town, the company hears of an unfortunate lumberjack by the name of Balz who has been found in the woods hanging from a tree by one leg with his guts arranged around him in some unsettling pattern.

Also, Ynes is visited at night by the same angel as previously who in a booming voice reminds her to “Seek the sceptre! Or else!” and once again shows her a haloed Carolingian king on a plain marble throne sitting in a large hall, holding a sceptre shaped like an upturned hand.

The porter Elin, who fled the fight with the the countess and her bat swarms, has returned to town safely but is uninterested in entering into the company’s employ once more.

Bartolomea takes Father Brenard to visit Jacques Valt at the apothecary. She shows the alchemist the severed head of Gilbert Malévol and asks the apothecary to confirm his identity, which he does. Somewhat bemused, Valt asks Bartolomea if her company has now also taken upon themselves Gilbert’s debt, which he had with a number of well-to-do individuals in town. Brenard promises to message the bishop on Bartolomea’s behalf.

The company plans to find the throne room and locate the Sceptre of the Merovings. Some remember the butler had made mention of the throne room, and pointed them north from the portrait gallery.

After the usual uneventful two-day trek to the castle, the company form up at the grand entrance. They hear sobbing from inside and carefully open the large double doors. A disembodied voice is pleading innocence of various heinous crimes. Bartolomea attempts to appease the spirit, with little luck.

They move on to the portrait gallery but are careful to avoid the paintings. Ynes investigates a corridor leading north. However, the company decides to head up the stairs instead. They enter a large room with a domed ceiling, a statue of a rearing dragon, and a large u-shaped table set with silverware, crystal glasses filled with wine, and a generous spread of sumptuous foods. There are also many doors leading in various directions.

Gotta love a good banquet (Pietro Longhi)

Shortly after beginning their search of the room for valuables, they hear someone coming up the stairs. Everyone hides, and in walks an undead lady encircled by moths, dragging a large sack, followed by a single headless lackey. She spots Hendrik’s wizardly robes sticking out from under the table and approaches. The lady reaches under the table to grab him, but the mage manages to crawl out of her reach. Bartolomea smashes a flask of holy water into the lady’s face, who rears back sizzling and screaming in pain. Meanwhile, Ynes has snuck up on the headless manservant and stabs it in the back, instantly destroying it. The lady slashes Benjamin to pieces, but she is soon after cut down by the company and finished off with another holy water flask thrown at short range by the cleric. The company loot her sizzling and dissolving remains, fishing out a bracelet, opera glasses, coin purse, and a love letter both addressed to and written by one “Lydia”.

Someone picks up a knife from the table and braces for bad stuff to happen, but nothing does. They cast detect magic and see that the spread on the table, the painting and something inside the dragon statue are all magic. They empty the lady’s sack, which turns out to hold a bunch of human bones, and begin to stuff it with silverware, careful not to disturb any of the food.

Meanwhile, Ynes clears an escape route to the east, where she knows a balcony offers a way out. To get there, she must first cross a room covered in faded frescoes of crusaders battling saracens. The thief spikes the door to the frescoed room, and the door leading from it to the balcony. Then, she drops a rope two floors down to the ground. When she enters back into the frescoed room she notices the painting has become more vivid, and a screaming saracen’s head flies out, passes through her, and disappears through the door into the daylight. Slightly shaken, but determined to press on, she opens another door off of the banquet hall, this one leading to a game room. She proceeds to swipe coins from a card table.

Meanwhile, Jaquet hauls the sack stuffed with silverware to the balcony, ties it to the end of the rope, and lowers it back down. When he turns to leave for the hall, he is surprised by vines that attempt to grab him by the ankles.

At the same time, back in the hall, Bartolomea heaves at the dragon statue and smashes it to pieces in one blow, surprised to find it is actually made of plaster. Out falls a casket, crashing to the ground, spilling a huge heaving monstrously obese corpse, blinking at the sudden daylight in surprise. Not missing a beat, Bartolomea raises her holy symbol, begins preaching, and successfully keeps the undead at bay.

Hendrik and the company’s porters and mercenaries head to the frescoed room and the balcony beyond. Hendrik is nearly hit by a stray arrow flying at them from the frescoes. Ynes tries to open the door leading from the game room to the frescoed room but fails to get it unstuck. The mercenaries and the company’s fighting man begin to hack away at the vines. Bartolomea moves into the doorway to the frescoed room, followed at some distance by the huge fat undead, who curses her and insists he will eat her whole. Jaquet runs from the balcony to come to her aid, and easily breaks down the door. Ynes climbs down the chimney which she knows leads into the countess’s room but is stopped by a huge stone suspended below her. Jaquet repels down the rope to safety. Hendrik uses his Staff of the Woodlands to destroy the vines with a single blow. The porter Lucas tries to climb down to safety, fails, and plummets to his death. Bartolomea moves to the balcony door, the undead still following her and taunting her. Shaken by Lucas’s bad luck the rope is moved to the side of the balcony and the remaining company climb down to safety via the balcony between the count’s and countess’s room. Bartolomea takes a final look at the fat undead before her, takes a deep breath, turns around and jumps off the balcony. She crashes to the ground in full plate armour, lands with a heavy blow on her back, and looks up to see the fat undead leer at her hungrily from the balcony’s edge.

And with that, another expedition comes to an end.

Referee Commentary

This one ran pretty smoothly, but as always, there are a few things to make note of.

First of all, hiding as a group — I have yet to find a satisfying way to handle this. This time around I had each player roll to hide for their character (the usual 5+ on a d6 modified by DEX in this case). Of course, the odds of someone failing, and therefore the party as a whole effectively being found out, is quite high in such an approach. On the other hand, it feels kind of right for the situation in question.

Then, there was detect magic picking up the undead inside the casket inside the statue. It was a snap decision and it nicely illustrates my poor grasp of classic D&D ontology. I now understand undead typically are not found through detect magic. Furthermore, the magic would have probably been blocked by the statue’s stone and the casket.

Third, we had the panicked climb down to safety. I enforced rolls for this, but players were a bit miffed, because I typically don’t. The distinction was, of course, that we were now operating on combat time whereas in previous cases they were always climbing in an exploration situation. For the latter I think it’s unnecessary to make checks, especially when they use rope and such. The assumption is they move slow and carefully and will not drop to the ground. However, in combat, they will be moving faster and are more prone to mistakes. I think it makes sense. The only thing I did not have a good response to was the player of a -2 DEX character complaining it would be impossible for them to make the 5+ roll on a d6. In hindsight, I totally forgot that, under the OED climbing rules we are using, a rope gives you a +2, which would have nicely offset such a penalty. It may have even saved Lucas’s bacon. Oh well.

Much of the treasure they brought back this time around I had to adjudicate on the fly as the book does not list any values for it. The bracelet and glasses I simply used Basic Fantasy’s handy Equipment Emporium book for. The silverware was a different matter. I ended up hashing out a reasonable weight of the sack with my players, and from there could quite easily calculate the total value of the silver. (In Hackbut, an inventory slot holds ~2 kg of weight, or 100 coins.)

This was the penultimate session of our first “season”. At the time of writing it is unclear if we will continue to play Xyntillan after the holidays, or move on to something else. I hope it will be the former, because I am having a ton of fun running this, and I feel like we are only just hitting our stride.


Hackbut – Character Creation

Now that we’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, and alignment, it’s time to move on to character creation. My goal with this was to keep things as simple and quick as possible, while mitigating some of the most extreme aspects of classic D&D’s randomization. Here’s how it works:

  1. Roll 3d6 down the line for the six ability scores.
  2. Determine ability modifiers. If the sum is less than zero, you may start over.
  3. Pick a class: cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief.
  4. Optionally swap two ability scores.
  5. Determine your age.
  6. Pick your alignment.
  7. For starting HP, roll your HD and apply your CON modifier. Reroll natural 1s and 2s.
  8. Starting GP is 3d6×10. Buy starting equipment using it. The remainder is cash on hand.
  9. Pick or roll a name.

You’ll notice there is no step for picking a race. That’s because fantasy demihuman races is the only D&D trope I just really can’t stand in my games. So Hackbut is written for a human-only campaign, which for a sword & sorcery style setting in the vein of Howard or Leiber works perfectly fine.

Step 2, where you get to start over if your character is particularly unfit for duty, may raise some eyebrows. I took this from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I thought it would make the randomness a little more palatable to my players. They like it I think, but what troubles me is that it slows down character generation quite a bit. Calculating those modifiers each time is a little cumbersome. I also feel like it makes all the characters a little samey. It may be fun to have a wider spread of competence in the party. And it’s not like the modifiers make a huge amount of difference in most cases. So yeah, this is in there currently but might get cut.

The classes are the classic four, and will be written up in future posts. They are more or less the same as those in OD&D. I allow for swapping two abilities so that players have a little more control over which classes are viable, given that each relies on one ability in particular. Again, this is a bit of a modernism but I think it brings just the right amount of customization to what is otherwise an almost entirely random process.

Age determination is in there because Castle Xyntillan has several things in it that might unnaturally age characters. So I need to know how old characters are, and I have some rules for what happens when they do grow older (inspired by this post by Delta). For the starting ages I copied over the random rolls from 1e AD&D. For the most part they produce surprisingly youthful characters (the fighters and thieves in particular) which I find kind of amusing. If a player feels strongly about how old their character should be I let them just pick their age.

Alignment is an open pick, except for clerics, who must start the game aligned to Law. The remaining classes are neutral by default, and no player (so far) has picked Chaos.

Hit points is pretty straightforward. I added the rerolling of 1s and 2s to make first level characters a little more viable out of the gate (I took this from OED). Not that it makes a tremendous amount of difference (because, as I’ll blog about more at some point, we re-roll HD at the top of every session). It’s mostly to soften the psychological effect of rolling a 1 on your HP.

Starting gold and equipment is absolutely traditional. I’ll get around to writing about the equipment lists at some point, but for the most part their contents and prices are exactly as in OD&D.

Finally, you’ll notice I let players roll for a name. Character names that do not fit the setting are kind of a bugbear of mine. So I assembled a random table of names that are roughly from the time period the game is set in (late medieval, early Renaissance). On it, there are six male names and six female names for six modern-day European countries: The Netherlands, England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. (They were sourced from lists published on The Academy of Saint Gabriel.) So not only does the table yield a name but also a gender, which explains the delightfully anachronistic gender balance in our game’s mercenary company.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #10 – A Visit to the Countess’s Suite

The Company:

  • Heinz (MU3)
  • Ynes (T2)
  • Buerghedorn (F2)
  • Norin & Elsa (light foot)
  • Elin (porter)

Loot: 6.000 GP worth of precious stones, pearls and gold buttons

Casualties: Heinz, Norin, Elsa & Buerghedorn — ripped to shreds by two vampire bat swarms


Offscreen, Bartolomea visit father Brenard and shows him the severed head of Gilbert “the Fox”. Being new in town, the father does not recognize the unfortunate. “Was he a heretic?”

Bartolomea also receives a reply from the bishop of Chamrousse to the letter she sent in which she described her vision pertaining to the oils of cleansing. The bishop has heard of the oils and believes it is one of several relics that have been Malévol heirlooms for ages. The cross-shaped chapel he does not recognize, but he knows there are several chapels in the castle.

Finally, Bartolomea must deal with the aftermath of the accidental nuptials that were the result of her most recent carousing spree. The groom in question turns out to be a butcher’s son named Jürg. His parents are none too pleased, seeing as how a militant nun is hardly a suitable wife. Furthermore, they are terribly overworked and were hoping Jürg would finally begin to pull his weight in the butchery. In addition, Bartolomea may have to deal with the disapproval of her god if the marriage turns out to have been consummated…

Onscreen, during the company’s preparation for their ninth foray into the castle, Jacques Valt tells them that if they bring back an intact and preferably alive goatrice specimen, he may be able to develop a cure against petrification. For a fee, of course.

Upon arrival at the castle, they first head up north to inspect the lakeshore. They are disappointed to not find a boat, and so turn back.

Heinz goes to check on the magic dancing bean he planted along the southern battlements. It being winter, however, not much appears to be growing. Yet.

Heading towards the grand entrance, they spot the decapitated body of Gilbert and the corpse of his bandit companion. Their compatriots apparently left them there to rot. Buerghedorn dumps the remains in the stream to prevent them from being raised by the chimera statue’s magic.

The company decides to head counter clockwise along the perimeter of the castle. They discover a balcony on the eastern end of the castle. Further on, at the lake’s edge, they also see a windowless tower rising from the water, a bridge connecting it to the castle proper.

They return to the balcony and Ynes easily scales it. She drops a rope for her compatriots and proceeds to spy through some murder holes. On the other side she can see a wood-paneled room covered in yellowish slime trails. A sour odor wafts towards her.

There is a door on either side of the balcony. Believing the south door to lead to the count’s room, Ynes tries the one to the north. She peeks inside and surveys another curtained suite holding a casket, a fireplace, a wardrobe and a dresser, and a bulging rolled-up carpet. No one appears to be present inside.

The company sneaks in and begins to sack the room when suddenly the carpet spontaneously unrolls and out pops a badly chewed-on corpse with a mouth full of crystalline teeth. Somewhat disturbed, they decide to tear down the room’s curtains to let in the early morning winter sun. Buerghedorn tries to lift the casket and discovers it is quite heavy.

Then they hear footsteps and bells heading their way from the door to the west. Everyone except Ynes rushes outside. The thief disappears behind some curtains. Someone bangs on the door and calls out for “Maltricia” to “come out and play.” Soon after, the door to the north opens and a pale attractive lady dressed in faded pink silks appears on the doorstep. She cries out in pain when the sunlight hits her and her skin begins to smolder and burn. Almost immediately she dodges back into the room she came from and slams the door shut. “Kent, help me!” she cries out.

The western door is opened with the sound of a large iron mechanism being disarmed. In stalks a wild-eyes figure dressed in a jester’s outfit, with sharp claws and dripping teeth. A smell of corpses and decay fills the room. The thing moves to close the curtains. Ynes sneaks up behind it and tries to backstab, but misses by a hair’s breadth. The creature turns and rips into her with his claws. The rest of the company pile into the room and rapidly eliminate the monster.

Kent? (Jan Matejko)

While Maltricia continues to cry out for Kent from the other room, the company resumes their looting. Heinz begins to rip gemstones, pearls and golden buttons from decaying dresses in the wardrobe. Ynes discovers a secret exit in the back of the fireplace. Buerghedorn guards the north door. Ynes climbs up the fireplace chimney and emerges a floor up on the room’s roof, which doubles as a balcony.

Maltricia cracks the door and attempts to parlay. Buerghedorn will have none of it, yanks the door open, grabs the countess, and pulls her into the sunlight. She once again begins to smolder and cries out angrily. Heinz casts protection from evil on Buerghedorn. Ynes waits to see what happens. The light foot soldiers run forward to lay into the countess. One trips and falls, the other doesn’t manage to do any damage with their mundane weaponry.

With her otherworldly strength Maltricia wrenches free from Buerghedorn’s hold, and runs for the door. Ynes throws a silver dagger at her. It strikes home with a dull thud and does not appear to harm her. Maltricia summons a pair of vampire bat swarms that stream into the room from its shadowy corners. One swarm rips apart one of the light foot soldiers. Heinz is chewed to shreds by the other. The porter’s morale breaks and she runs for the balcony.

Ynes rushes to Heinz’s aid, pulls a healing potion from his pack, and manages to revive the mage. Meanwhile, a bat swarm tears apart the remaining mercenary. Buerghedorn continues to do battle with the other swarm. Heinz struggles to his feet and is immediately attacked again by bats, and drops to the floor once more. At this point, the company makes for the balcony exit, dragging the lifeless body of the mage with them, and slamming the door shut behind them.

Unfortunately, they fail to revive Heinz a second time. With a heavy heart, Ynes begins to pick through his belongings. Buerghedorn is overwhelmed with rage and runs back into the suite, wildly flailing at the bat swarms. He manages to go a few more rounds against the things, but must ultimately also succumb to their scratches and bites. Ynes shoulders her pack, now stuffed with mage equipment, bids her perished companions farewell, and hops over the balcony’s edge to once more begin the lonely trek back to town.

Referee Commentary:

Another dramatic session, almost entirely taken up by Maltricia’s room. (We generally play for 2.5 to 3 hours, the first 15 to 30 minutes or so are usually taken up by downtime shenanigans.)

Heinz’s player had smugly mentioned more than once that his character was the only remaining one from the original crop. In our previous campaign, they’d also managed to keep their PC alive all the way through. Now, they finally have the privilege to join the Dead Player-Character’s Society. I should admit, however, that the final failed death save was a punch to the gut. I really wanted then to make it.

The session’s turn for the worst was all the more dramatic because the players started out very strong and smart. Taking the time to (finally) survey the perimeter, using the balcony as a way in, catching Maltricia in the sunlight and bumrushing Kent. Maybe they should have known better than to try and grapple a lady vampire. But in any case, that’s when things rapidly went south.

As is beginning to be customary, there are a few referee regrets to cover. These were potentially quite lethal. But the players agreed we weren’t going to do any retconning when we discussed these afterwards. They are real sports that way.

First of all was the fact that I allowed the bat swarms to attack on the round they were summoned. This reduced the players ability to respond to the increased threat before the things were on top of them. I should add that I hadn’t expected these things to be that deadly. I was a bit at a loss actually for what would be a smart move for Maltricia to make. Calling in some reinforcements seemed to make sense. In hindsight, I guess it did. And then some. Anyway, looking back I should have probably waited a round for the bats to attack. In the past I’ve ruled similar situations to work the same way. E.g. when a character is healed back from 0 HP they can’t act that round. And when they used the staff of the woodlands to summon a servitor, it too was not allowed to act the same round.

Then there is the protection from evil spell which I had forgotten also prevents “conjured creatures” from touching the creature it is cast on (we are using OED book of spells). In hindsight, even though the bats are natural beings, I would still consider them conjured because the vampire summoned them. So Buerghedorn should have been completely impervious to their attacks. That would have made quite the difference, too.

So much for the regrets.

It’s ironic too, because I’d just made the rules for death slightly less punitive: In stead of save or die immediately when you hit zero hit points, I added the common rule of having a number of rounds equal to your level to be healed back up. When exceeded, if someone can “flip your body” after combat, you also still get to make that death save. In spite of this, Heinz still bought it. They had no cleric with them, and had brought only one healing potion. So it goes.

Another point that came up in our post-game discussions was initiative. We are currently rolling initiative every round. Players roll a d6 and on a 4+ they go before the opposition. This is reasonably fast, and injects a nice bit of chaos in the proceedings. But if players are unlucky, as was the case here when they failed to roll initiative after the bats had already attacked them for one round, they can really take a beating. We might try traditional group initiative in the next game, where we both roll a d6 at the top of combat and whoever gets highest goes first for the remainder of combat. Would make things a little quicker and easier to keep track of, but a little less perilous and exciting.

And then there was the moment when Ynes’s player discovered they were the sole beneficiary of 6000 XP. This really did add insult to injury for the players who lost their PCs. It was maybe the single biggest XP haul in the game to date. And I think about half of it simply evaporated, because I do not allow characters to increase more than one level per session, as is traditional. Ynes is now 1 XP short of level 4.

Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering, Buerghedorn’s demise was brought on by a classic “it’s what my character would do” moment. The player in question afterwards confessed they weren’t really enjoying themselves with the system and campaign setting and would be sitting the remainder of our run through it out.

So yeah, quite the session! I wonder what will happen next, maybe the players will launch a retaliatory expedition to take out their revenge in the countess. Or maybe they won’t. Only one way to find out.