Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #21 – Snake Whisperer

The Company:

  • Claus (T3)
  • Jürg (F2)
  • Fernando (F2)
  • Hendrik (MU4)
  • Amaranth (C2)
  • Niemir (crossbowman)
  • Kea (handgunner)
  • Lukas (heavy foot)
  • Jonas (porter)

Loot:

  • Ten gems from a giant snake’s belly
  • Animated chess set
  • Magic hammer and sickle
  • Set of keys, including a golden one
  • Flask of wine
  • Poison ring
  • Service bell
  • Four barrels of wine: one hallucinogenic; one healing; one moldy but immune-boosting; and one ancient essence

Report:

The company decides to pause their operations until Amaranth recovers from her bout of madness in the care of the hospital’s sisters. Eight weeks later, she is released.

Claus hires a new arquebusier, a woman named Kea, who is the proud owner of a mace +1.

The masked “lumberjack” Blérot — whom the company freed from his prison in the castle, and who would later gifted them a magic staff cut from a legendary tree in the forests surrounding Tours-en-Savoy — appears on their doorstep, fear in his eyes, begging to be hidden from the woodsmen that are pursuing him. The company agrees to hide him for the time being.

Othmar, the captain of the guard who Jürg insulted some time ago while out carousing, confronts Jürg — accompanied by a couple of guardsmen — and demands reparations for the terrible insult he suffered.

The company acquires a portable hole from Ben Mordechai at the bargain basement price of 6.000 GP, because the thing is apparently a little unstable.

***

The company once again enters through the grand entrance. In the vestibule they come across the ghost of James the butler once more. He’s not too pleased to see them this time around. The company ignores them and hurries along in the direction of the portrait gallery and the throne room beyond.

When they make it there, they go to the throne to check if the scepter has been returned to the compartment underneath the seat. To their great disappointment, it is not there.

They decide to take the opportunity to check the various doors leading off from the throne room. The north doors lead into a massive eerily empty ball room. When they’ve just entered a large group of undead ladies stream past them and begin to pair up and dance to the tune of their own humming. The company hurries out and back into the throne room.

The double doors to the west open onto an overgrown inner courtyard under the shadow of the donjon, containing many statues in various states of decay. They do not enter the garden, and in stead move on to the south door.

This door appears to open onto a cell complex. It is dark and silent. They opt not to enter here either.

In stead, they decide to go down into the dungeons once more, and investigate the root cellar which during the previous expedition was cleared of its giant beet inhabitants.

They ride the throne down into the changing room. When the last group is making its way down, a massive snake drops down from the hole left by the throne and slithers between them. Everyone panics and tries to distance themselves from the snake as much as possible. The monster appears to ignore them, and begins to head north into the darkness. Before it entirely disappears from sight they hear it bid them a “good morning”.

Giant snake, a sword and sorcery classic (Frazetta)

This prompts Jürg to call out to the snake. A lengthy conversation develops. It turns out the snake is terribly bothered by a bunch of gems stuck in its belly. Jürg manages to persuade the snake to open its maw so that he can tickle its uvula. The snake hurls and vomits the gemstones onto the dungeon floor. It takes two tries to rid the beast of the full ten gems it had swallowed. Jürg all the while manages to avoid its huge fangs dripping venom. Relieved, the monster thanks the company and continues on its way, but not before it has introduced itself as “Meander Malévol”.

Amazed at how well this encounter went for them, the company next heads to the root cellar.

Here they first play around with the statue of the lady in the nude and discover it can be shifted to reveal a shaft that leads into a room with a cistern, beyond.

When they check the south door they find it opens onto circular room where animated tools are excavating a casket from an earthen pit in the center. Doors lead off to the east and south.

The company decides to once and for all rid themselves of those pesky skeleton guardsmen in the room overlooking the wine cellar. They open the door east, readying themselves for combat, but in stead find a small empty room with the obvious outlines of a secret door heading east.

The thief Claus (who had Invisibility cast on him at the expedition’s start) sneaks through the secret door. He remains unnoticed but the skeletons are alerted by the secret door swinging open. Not wasting any time, Jürg and Fernando barge in and begin smashing skeletons left and right. Hendrik follows up with magic missiles that obliterate a few more. Amaranth finishes the job with some preaching and brandishing of her cross, which turns the remaining skeletons to dust. The things did not stand a chance.

Searching the guardroom they find nothing of value except an animated chess set. They chase up the fleeing playing pieces, and return to the excavation room. Jürg, impatiently, smashes open the casket. Inside they find a hammer and sickle, as well as three thick volumes. They take everything, pleasantly surprised that the tools are ignoring them.

Next, they move into the wine cellar, and begin tapping and sampling barrels at their leisure. Those that appear promising are moved into their newly acquired portable hole.

Whole getting ready to move the final batch, they are surprised by a hunchbacked figure tapping them on the shoulder. The man turns out to be Samuel, servant of the count and countess. He’s nosy, and ogles Claus’s new handgunner Kea in an increasingly unpleasant manner. They try to get rid of Samuel with a string of bullshit excuses. But he won’t have none of it. When the conversation begins to turn nasty, Claus, still invisible, loses his patience and stabs Samuel in the back. Before the hunchback can even utter a cry of surprise, Kea follows up with a well-aimed shot to the head, splattering the company with gore.

Quickly, they roll the final pair of barrels into the portable hole, pack it up, and make their way out of the castle without further issue.

Referee Commentary:

A cellar stacked with high-value wine barrels and a portable hole on sale at the magic item shop. My players are no dummies, so of course they went for it. Now I find myself needing to adjudicate how portable holes work, exactly (Brendan’s OSR search engine is of great help there). I am also getting into the details of wine barrels, and how exactly they are tapped, typically (where would we be without YouTube).

This strategy did net them another significant haul of XP, which means the average company level is back around the 3-4 range. This makes them a little hardier. But as the infamous encounter with the ghouls a few sessions back has shown, fortunes can turn at a moment’s notice.

This session was characterized by a lot of roleplaying-oriented encounters. This emerged due to a combination of the specific NPCs and monsters rolled up, as well as the fact that I rolled a neutral or better reaction for almost all of them. The encounter with the giant snake Meander was the absolute highlight of the session, I feel like. It’s so funny how the vibe of a session can be significantly altered depending on those random encounters. I wonder what next session will have in store for us.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #20 – Tentacular Novelty

The Company:

  • Amaranth (C1)
  • Fernando (F2)
  • Claus (T2)
  • Jürg (F2)
  • Hendrik (MU4)
  • Niemir (crossbowman)
  • Penelope (handgunner)
  • Lukas (heavy foot)
  • Jan & Phine (porters)

Loot:

  • Plain snuff box
  • Iron key
  • Sun medaillon
  • Jug of golden wine
  • Painting of Priscilla Malévol, now ruined
  • Wand of cold

Casualties: Penelope, Jan & Phine — riddled by eldritch mirror shards. (Being a retainer in this nameless company of treasure hunters is once again shown not to be without risk.)

Report:

Some retainers whose morale broke during the previous expeditions’ fight with the giant beets return back to town. Others are not so lucky, and no one knows what happened to them after they fled into the darkness of the castle.

Strange men from the deep woods are spotted around town asking around for a man named Blérot.

Jürg asks the spirit of famed alchemist Girolamo Bartholdi about the whereabouts of the Scepter of the Merovings, but the giant ectoplasmic head is of little help in the matter.

***

Hendrik is given control of the expedition. He decides to follow up on some information he acquired earlier about the whereabouts of several laboratories and arcane studies in the castle. The aim is to locate one that is supposed to be located on the upper floor of the castle’s south-east section.

As they approach the castle, Hendrik casts Invisibility on the thief Claus, who will be the expedition’s scout.

They enter through the grand entrance. While crossing the vestibule a bunch of headless manservants stumble into the room. Both sides are surprised to encounter each other. After a moment of confusion, Amaranth begins preaching and turns them away. They slam the door shut and move on.

In the portrait gallery they open a door under stairs heading north. They find what appears to have been a clerk’s room. It is littered with yellowing moldy papers. They search through the piles and also the filing cabinets and desk. Underneath a particularly large pile they find the clerk’s corpse, his mouth stuffed with papers. In the east wall they find what appears to be a bricked up door. Jürg wants to break it down, but the remainder of the party insists on moving on.

They head back into the portrait gallery and go up stairs. They enter the grand dining hall where they had previously faced off an enormous undead that had emerged from the now-smashed plaster statue of a rearing dragon.

They also recall a room to the south where they had found a demonic lady lying, the room itself filled with an appealing jug of golden wine. They decide to make another detour from their goal to find a laboratory, and head towards said room.

After some trouble with stuck doors, the thief Claus — still invisible — manages to sneak into the demon lady’s room, grab the wine, and return to his companions, all the while remaining unnoticed by the lady, who is reclining on her bed, apparently asleep.

They continue their search for the lab and begin to check doors along the south wall of the dining hall. The first one opens onto a sitting room. A thick trail of slime crosses a dusty floor to a couch on with sits a skeleton encased in a gelatinous substance, a glinting amulet hanging from its neck.

The company carefully readies their ranged weapons, enter the room, line up their shots, and absolutely obliterate the ooze covering the skeleton before it can do any harm. The skeleton itself collapses onto the floor in a heap. They gingerly fish out the amulet from the debris. It is warm to the touch and emits glints of sunlight.

Just as they make ready to search the room, someone enters through the south door. It is a young man who closely resembles the wanted poster in the barracks, and the sad-looking fellow they sometimes see hanging around the Black Comedian. But this person is dressed in fine cherry clothes and wears a powdered wig. The boy proceeds to court poor handgunner Penelope, who is undoubtedly the fairest of the ladies who make up the expeditionary force. She is not too pleased with the man’s advances, and looks to her employer Claus for assistance. After some more back and forth, it all comes to a head when the party insists on moving on. The man suddenly transforms into a blob of grey ooze and proceeds to engulf Penelope. However, the company acts swiftly, and before it can harm the handgunner it is evaporated by a magic missile.

They search the room but don’t find anything. Deciding against entering the study to the south because it is deemed too dangerous, they return to dining hall and try the next door in the south wall. This one opens onto a hallway. With Claus scouting ahead, they follow it to the end where there is another door. This opens on what appears to have been the room of a maid. It is very tidy and unremarkable, except for a large mirror that absorbs rather than reflects light, and the portrait of a lady whose eyes follow the company’s every movement. They can also hear a low continuous humming. Worried about the portrait, Jürg and Fernando return to the dining hall to retrieve a tablecloth. Back in the room they cover the portrait with it, and pull it down from the wall. When they do, rays of rainbow-colored light bursts from the mirror, and eight huge tentacles emerge from it. The tentacles begin to whip around the room in search of prey to grab and pull back into the mirror.

Cthulhu, is that you?

One porter is instantly killed by a wet slap from a tentacle. Several companios attempt to flee the room in various directions. Fernando uses his spear to push the mirror from the wall. It drops to the ground but the portal remains open and tentacles continue to thrash about. Penelope aims her arquebus and fires at the mirror. The shot hits, and the mirror shatters into a thousand razorsharp pieces that spray everyone in the room. Penelope is instantly killed, as well as the remaining porter. Claus, still invisible, also drops to the ground. The tentacles have disappeared, and companions gingerly return to the room.

Miraculously, Hendrik manages to locate Claus’s body in time, and Jürg comes to his aid with a healing potion. The thief is pulled back from death’s doorstep.

They search the room, and find nothing of note except for a slim case stuffed in an alcove behind where the portrait used to hang.

Still not satisfied with the expedition’s finds, they open another door, this one leading to the east, and enter a room that appears to have belonged to a butler. They spot a brazier, coal bin and tongs, next to a large bed. The room has been tossed. Personal belongings are scattered everywhere. They open a large wardrobe and out stumbles the corpse of butler, garrote wound around his neck. It collapses to the ground. They search his pockets and find an iron key and a snuff box.

When they are about to leave, Jürg runs back to the maid’s room, and recklessly pulls opens the door to west. He is confronted by the ghostly apparition of a lady with a halo. She attempts to ensorcel the fighter, fails, and disappears with the sound of tinkling bells. They also search this room, which to appears to have been that of a servant, but find nothing.

The end of the expedition is called for at that point. They head back the way they came, and are almost down the large stairs heading to the portrait gallery, when they hear wheezing and shuffling come their way. The company panics and runs back up the stairs. From the dining hall they continue to the balcony above the countess’s suite. When they arrive they expect someone to pull a rope from their pack, but no one thought to bring one! Being a thief, Claus scrambles down the sheer wall without regardless. The rest are left behind. They run back into the dining hall and begin pulling table cloths from the tables, intending to create a makeshift rope. While they are thus preoccupied, wheezing skeletons appear at the head of the stairs. Hendrik takes aim with his wand of lightning and obliterates five of the creatures. Fighters close in to engage the remainder. Amaranth steps forward, raises her holy symbol, and turns the rest of the skeletons to dust.

Relieved, the company make their way out of the castle through the grand entrance, and head back to town.

***

Upon their return Amaranth can’t resist the lure of the golden wine and consumes it. She has deliciously awful visions, which benefit her experience greatly, but also drive her totally insane. She is admitted to the hospital, babbling like an idiot.

Jürg and Claus go carousing. Jürg gets a tattoo, which is cooler than one would at first expect. Something involving a unicorn and a goatrice, best not to go into too many details. Claus nearly gambles away all of his possessions, but at the last moment manages to resist also staking his bow +1.

Referee Commentary:

“We haven’t had tentacles yet, have we?” one player asked when the things burst from the mirror. That was another brutal and enjoyable scene. The thief dropping to zero HP while invisible also made for an interesting moment. I figured an invisible body riddled by eldritch mirror shards would be locatable, and the players managed to get to him just before his two round grace period ran out.

We also had a bit of a back and forth about climbing at the end. I ruled non-thieves can’t attempt to climb sheer castle walls without aid or equipment. But I still had the thief make a thievery check (1d20+level+DEX mod >=15) rather than a straight climbing check (1d6+DEX mod>=5). The odds on the latter are much better than the former. I have since decided, in line with OED, to remove climbing from the list of thief skills, and to simply provide a bonus on a regular climb check. The only other distinction is that thieves may attempt climbs that would be flat out impossible for other classes. Simple enough.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #19 – Bitten by Beets

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU4)
  • Jürg (F1)
  • Claus (T1)
  • Fernando (F1)
  • Gunther (C1)
  • Penelope, Juna & Aurora (handgunners)
  • Lukas & Tine (heavy foot)
  • Niemir (crossbowman)
  • Levi (porter)

Loot: a fragile barrel containing ancient delectable wine.

Casualties: Gunther, mauled by an angry giant beet.

Report:

Jürg is dismissed from the hospital, having recovered from his ability loss. He learns of his beloved Bartolomea’s demise when he receives her belongings from her former porter — who has managed to return to town alive after a harrowing escape — and also a letter from the bishop of Chamrousse. From this he discovers she was planning to divorce him, drug him, and send him off to a monastery. Embittered, Jürg breaks bad, and joins the company as a chaotically aligned fighter.

Hendrik spends several weeks immersed in arcane studies and manages to learn the spell Invisibility, which is sure to come in handy some day.

After the previous expedition’s near-decimation of the company, a number of new fortune-seekers join up: thief Claus; fighter Fernando and cleric Gunther. They also hire a number of porters and men-at-arms of various kinds.

***

Their aim for this expedition is to return to the tomb where many of their companions were massacred by ghouls, in the hopes of recovering their remains and the many valuable items they carried.

Their approach is once more through the grand entrance, which this time around is littered by bodies of hapless adventurers. They drag the corpses off to the river running south of the castle and dump them in the water. Then, they enter the vestibule, where they come across the ghost of James the butler, who is sobbing because of the poor state the room is in. After a brief exchange they continue on through the portrait gallery and into the throne room. They take turns riding the throne down into the catacombs, and then cautiously head towards the underground lake.

While crossing the grotto in northern direction they are surprised by Rodento Ratsputin, the giant rat they’d encountered once before. It demands they halt and explain their business. When they tell him of their plans to retrieve the bodies of their companions from the ghoul tomb, Rodento gives them a look of pity and allows them to continue on their way.

When they arrive at the intersection, Claus scouts ahead and confirms the ghouls’ presence in the tomb. The Company makes an elaborate plan to lure the ghouls into the intersection and ambush them with the combined fire power of several handgunners, a wand of lightning, and other projectiles. Claus is sent back to get the monsters’ attention.

The thief carefully heads back and tries to remain unseen and unheard for as long as possible but clumsily alerts the ghouls to his presence nonetheless. The monsters set upon him but he manages to run behind the ranks of fighters before they can get to him. Hendrik then sends a well-aimed lightning bolt from his wand into the corridor packed with ghouls, and obliterates nearly all of them. They hear one or two flee the scene, yipping in terror.

They carefully go to investigate the charred remains of the ghouls when they are once again surprised by something or someone approaching from behind, reciting Shakespeare. It turns out to be the ghost of a temperamental gentleman named Frédéric. He demands to be entertained, and when the company bores him with questions about treasure, he attempts to possess Hendrik, but fails. Annoyed, he then begins to pelt party members with charred ghoul limbs which he tosses at them using telekinesis. At the last moment, Jürg manages to defuse the situation by dancing a mad jig, which the ghost joins in on with gusto. He then thanks the company for the amusement, and leaves them to their devices.

The company continues to the tomb where the ghouls were first encountered. They make note of the murals depicting templars who are lead by a dark-skinned man to a hill lined with palm trees. They also note smashed and broken holy symbols and holy water vials littering the floor. Furthermore, they smell lingering odor of sulphur mixed with a particularly arousing perfume.

The sarcophagi are opened and here they see neatly arranged remains of their former companions — not much is left of them besides bones picked clean. They also find quite a few of their former belongings, but notably all lawful items are absent, including the Sceptre of the Merovings, and the Oils of Cleansing.

Upon further investigation, they spot the outlines of a secret door behind the mural section depicting the hill with palm trees. However, no matter what they try, it won’t budge. Even a knock spell has no effect besides briefly illuminating the symbols of a scepter and heart over the top of the doorway.

They backtrack, hoping to ride the throne back up, but they find it has returned to the throne room. And so, they decide they will have to continue on to the root cellar to make their escape that way.

They find the giant beets lumbering about. The company attempts to sneak past them but Gunther, the clumsiest of the lot, bumps rudely into a beet, which angers it and its kin, who attack in retaliation.

Of course, on the internet, angry beets are a thing (Scott Tolleson & George Gaspar)

Gunther is severely mauled by a beet, and he drops to the ground. Most retainers panic and run for the exit. Faced by an overwhelming majority of beets, the remaining company follow their routed hirelings into the wine cellar.

They are relieved to find they are not fired upon by skeletons from the lookout. The company regroups, and agree it is time to get rid of those troublesome beets once and for all. Hendrik leads the way, wielding his wand of lightning, and obliterates about half of them with one shot. The remainder are mopped up without much trouble.

Gunther, however, has sadly expired. He hasn’t even made it through his first expedition.

After briefly paying their respects they leave behind their companion’s body, and return to the wine cellar. Here they inspect several casks, tapping them in the hopes of identifying a promising specimen. Fernando find one particularly ancient cask containing a delightfully aromatic substance.

Just when they make ready to carry off the barrel of wine, the ghost of a woman wearing nothing but a flower wreath and a nightgown enters the cellar, accompanied by a number of glitterclouds. The company freezes, and they are relieved to see the ghost ignore them and pass them by.

They carefully roll the barrel up the stairs and out of the castle, and lug it all the way back to town. They have it appraised, and it turns out to be worth quite a fortune, but they can’t find a buyer for it just yet.

Referee Commentary:

Now that most players are at the helm of first level characters again, the vibe of the game has shifted again. They are keenly aware of how fragile they are, as exemplified by the lamentable demise of Gunther. And so they are more careful again, and appear not entirely sure what their purpose is, now that they have lost some of their most significant items.

I know what happened to the scepter and the oils, but I won’t note that down here, because I have cheeky players how like reading this commentary. But I will just say I largely used random rolls to figure out who came across the aftermath of the massacre, and what they would do with the items. This was a fun little exercise to engage in as a referee, what some call “lonely fun”.

The wand of lightning, and the lightning bolt spell as described in OED book of spells required a bit of interpretation and debate at the table during this session. Is the point the player aims for the tip, middle, or end of the bolt? What happens when it hits a wall? How do you determine how many creatures are hit when playing theatre of the mind? We’ve arrived at some satisfying answers to those questions since, but at the table it took a bit of back and forth.

By the way, I allow recharging of the wand by a magic-user NPC in town who happened to have the spell in his spell book. For a significant fee, of course.

The cask was a lucky find, and the significant XP it fetched was also lucky, because the value of these casks is determined randomly, too.

Players are plotting a full expedition aimed at liberating the most high-value casks from the cellar. We’ll see what happens when they make the attempt.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #18 – Icarus Complex

The Company:

  • Jaquet (F4)
  • Bartolomea (C5)
  • Ynes (T4)
  • Davignon (C3)
  • Heintz (F3)
  • Hendrik (MU4)
  • Davide (handgunner)
  • Edna (heavy foot)
  • India, Rivka & Cleo (porters)

Loot: None, unless you count the stone from Hubert Malévol’s chest cavity.

Casualties: Bartolomea, Davignon, Jaquet, Ynes, Davide and Edna — all paralyzed, torn apart and eaten by ghouls. RIP.

Report:

While preparing for the next expedition, Bartolomea receives a letter from the bishop of Chamrousse. He is well impressed with Odile’s head and takes it as evidence of Bartolomea’s dedication and capability to eliminating the evil Malévols. In return he would allow her into the crypt of Boniface underneath the town church, if it wasn’t for the troubling things he’s heard from Father Brenard about Bartolomea’s marriage to Jürg, the butcher’s son. The bishop demands Bartolomea annuls the marriage in the presence of Brenard. If she chooses not to comply, the cleric retainer Gene will be forbidden to lend further assistance to the company.

Bartolomea ponders her situation, and ultimately decides the charade has lasted long enough. She plans to have Jürg sent to a monastery, and will bribe the boy’s parents so that they don’t raise a fuss. Bartolomea confers with the nuns of the hospital who are currently treating Jürg for the energy drain attack he suffered from the undead matron Odile. To the cleric’s surprise, they agree to lend a hand when the time comes to get rid of the boy, by plying him with drink or worse. Bartolomea also writes a letter to the bishop informing him of her decision, and asking him to put in a good word with a monastery of his choosing.

The company places an order with local artisans to construct a number of specialised tools that should ease the transportation of wine barrels from the castle’s cellars.

Furthermore, the magic-user Hendrik studies The Dancing Plague and discovers it holds a number of reversed cleric spells that are suitable for casting by a wizard. He tries but fails to transcribe a spell from it. He also studies the late magic-user Heinz’s spellbook, and manages to transcribe a spell from it.

Hendrik wife’s Ronja, whom he has been shamefully neglecting, visits him and asks for a significant sum to support herself, her parents and her siblings, who are struggling to make ends meet by running a local bakery. Certain that the woman only married him in the hopes of acquiring his capital, he hands her more than she asked for, if she promises to leave him in peace.

Finally, the fighting-man Jaquet hears word of militiamen asking around town about him, trying to learn his name, occupation and place of residence…

***

On a pleasant day in early March, the company arrive at Castle Xyntillan once again. Their plan is to focus their efforts at completing the holy quest that has been Ynes’s burden for longer than she likes. They seek the Sceptre of the Merovings, and they suspect it can be found in the throne room. Studying their maps, they agree it will be fastest and safest to approach from the grand entrance, pass through the portrait gallery, and follow a hallway leading north. This they do, and they make it to the end of said corridor without incident, and find themselves at a door.

Ynes carefully opens it and sees curtains blocking her view into the room beyond. Using a mirror she spies under it, and sees what is certainly a very large space. She carefully sneaks along the wall, and steps into what she now sees is a throne room, hoping but failing to merge with the shadows.

The remainder of the party follows her into the room, and a thorough search commences. Daylight shines from glass eyes set in the room’s high arched ceiling, illuminating a plain marble throne in the east end of the room. At the room’s western end are large double doors. More doors line the northern and southern wall.

Next to the throne stand two rusty suits of armour holding halberd. They use poles and spears to tip them over. They clang to the floor and break into pieces. One suit emits a carpet of tiny spiders which immediately flee in terror.

Bartolomea and Ynes investigate what is behind the curtain lining the east wall, and discover a bunch of murder holes through which they can spy a shooting gallery.

While still busy searching, a door to the north opens and in steps Hubert Malévol, also known as The Huntsman, dressed in green, a heart-shaped patch on his chest, a hunting horn at his belt, his face a black putrid mess of rotten flesh. He growls at the party, “it’s you again, what are you doing here?” And the company begins to explain they are searching for a sceptre. Maybe the huntsman can assist them, in return for a favour of his choosing?

Hubert makes it pretty clear he thinks it is a bad idea for the company to seek the sceptre. Bartolomea, who was still hiding behind the curtains, looses her patience (as she is wont to do) steps into the room, and attempts to cast hold person. Hubert resists the cleric’s spell, and readies his bow, but before he can fire off an arrow he is turned away by Davignon. Having gained the advantage, the company piles on. Bartolomea succeeds her second attempt at hold person, and Hubert is hacked to pieces.

The company loots the huntsman’s body, douses it in oils, and lights it on fire. While acrid black smoke drifts to the vaulted ceiling, the company turn their attention back to the throne. Further searching reveals that the seat itself can be removed, and underneath is a compartment holding the sceptre of Ynes’s visions! Suspicious, they carefully scoop it up with a small sack and stash it away for future study. They also discover a switch underneath one of the throne’s armrests. Hendrik uses his pole to poke it. A cloud click echoes through the room, and the throne begins to lower. From the shaft it sinks into emerges a swarm of hands which attempt to choke the magic-user. But it is easily defeated.

The company make their way down the chains attached to the throne, and find themselves in a subterranean dressing room which they recognise from previous expeditions. This is where they had liberated a magical fool’s outfit and a valuable king’s garb from a closet. And also where they had discovered the hidden cell of an insane hermit.

They had previously discovered the statue of a wise-eyed saint at the end of a corridor. Bartolomea investigates it once more, but can’t find anything special about it. It does, however, detect as magic, and so the cleric decided, after some encouragement from her companions, to pray at its feet for guidance. The statue comes to life, and offers advice. True to form, she asks for aid with locating treasure. The statue responds “raise the sceptre”, blesses the cleric — who instantly feels a little wiser — and turns back to stone.

An argument follows over wether or not to unwrap the sceptre and indeed raise it. Ynes in particular is very worried about the potential consequences. It is Jaquet, finally, who pulls it out and raises it. In response the sceptre comes to life, and pulls the fighter in a north-easterly direction.

The company begin to follow the sceptre’s direction, and soon enough once more enter the grotto where at an underground lakeshore stands a bell hanging from a pole with a sign reading “three coins for passage”. The sceptre pulls them further north, and they arrive at the crossing of which the northern fork leads to the chapel where they found the oils of cleansing. The sceptre’s directions lead them into the east fork, and this, dear reader, is where the company’s fate takes a turn for the worse.

Scouting ahead, Ynes hears sounds of several creatures growling and gnawing from a small room beyond. Suspecting undead, she motions to the company’s clerics. In response, Bartolomea and Davignon confidently stride into the small room. It is a tomb holding several sarcophagi, the contents of which are being argued over by eight ghouls.

Ghouls. Bad news. (Jim Holloway)

The monsters immediately set upon the two clerics, who are not fast enough to begin preaching to hold them at bay. Davignon is paralysed and killed almost instantly. Bartolomea is also hurt badly and paralysed. More ghouls break through the front rank and attack Ynes, who was right behind the clerics. She is raked by claws and gnawed on, but miraculously manages to resist the monsters’ paralysing effect. The company’s rear guard moves forward to fend off the undead. Desperate to turn the tide, Ynes pulls out a magic missile scroll and attempts to cast it, but makes a mistake, and the missiles explode in her face. The thief drops to the ground, her body a smouldering ruin. More company members succumb to the ghouls’ claws and bites. Porters flee into the darkness. Hendrik, recognising the situation is hopeless, turns and runs as well. Heintz is the last one remaining, and for a moment considers hoisting Bartolomea on his shoulders, but realises he will be swamped by ghouls before he can get away, and so he too, reluctantly, flees the scene.

Hendrik manages to evade the lumbering beets in the root cellar, is clipped by an arrow from the skeleton guardsmen overlooking the wine cellar, and emerges from the grand entrance into the early afternoon light, a haunted look in his eyes.

Heintz flees back to the grotto, passes through the double doors to the east, and waits to see if he is pursued. When he thinks the coast is clear, he sneaks back to the tomb, hoping to salvage something from the catastrophe. However, when he hears the sound of bodies being ripped to shreds and consumed, and the smell of blood and guts fills his nose, he realises there really is nothing left to be done, and also flees the castle.

Referee Commentary:

What can I say? The last time a player character died was all the way back in session #10. Sure, they’d lost a retainer here and there, but for a long time a combination of good luck and clever play lead to a string of successes. In fact, with the majority of the company hovering around the level 4 mark I felt like they’d become quite the unstoppable juggernaut. In particular, the pair of high-level clerics were able to defeat many of the undead residing in the castle without breaking so much as a sweat.

And I was thinking the same thing again early in this session when they made short work of Hubert “The Huntsman” Malévol. I did make a mistake when I ruled hold person would work on him. The description in OED book of spells is a little ambiguous on if it works on undead. I have since come to realise that the canonical interpretation is that none of the mind-affecting magic works on undead, including charm, hold, and sleep. However, we operate on a strict no take-backs doctrine and our play is the better for it, even though I am prone to frequent mistakes like this since I am still, all things considered, a novice at refereeing classic D&D.

Anyway, the party had decimated Hubert, found the sceptre, which Ynes’s player had been after for I don’t remember how long. And so with the previous session’s memory of acquiring the oils of cleansing still fresh in their minds, and now this victory under their belts as well, it is understandable that they may have gotten a little careless.

Of course, D&D ghouls are notorious player-character killers. Multiple attacks and paralysis makes them punch way above their two-hit-dice weight. Seeing as how most of my players are not particularly familiar with all the ins and outs of old-school D&D, I also make a habit of communicating “meta” when they encounter something that a more experienced player would recognise as particularly hazardous. But before I could properly telegraph the threat level of the ghouls, the players of Davignon and Bartolomea had committed to stepping into the room and attempting to turn. They then lost their initiative. And Bartolomea, although she had an AC of -1, was hit not once but twice by a critical hit, and failed her save versus paralysis. Davignon’s AC wasn’t as good, and he also failed his save, and then took too many hits to remain standing. And so I ruled the ghouls could move past the front rank. The final bit of bad luck — aside from consistently failing their initiative check, which we roll every round — was of course Ynes’s player failing her save versus magic to successfully cast from a scroll. This is another house rule: I allow thieves of any level to use scrolls. If they fail a save versus magic, the spell miscasts. I had told the player that if they would fail, the missiles would explode in her face. In fact, this player, being very risk-averse, had never used a scroll before. So you can imagine how desperate the situation was!

Losing that many high-level characters was rough on the players. But they took it like champs. It helps that by now they’ve all lost least one character before, so they know what to expect from this campaign. In fact, they after a brief post-mortem on what went wrong, they immediately started making plans, and nominating a couple of retainers as potential next characters.

I have to admit I was both exhilarated and horrified by the way this one encounter absolutely wrecked the party. It’s this sudden turn of fate, this awareness that at any point, anything can happen, this high-risk high-reward kind of play, that makes me absolutely adore running this system, and this module.