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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.

4 replies on “Castle Xyntillan – Session #18 – Icarus Complex”

In preparation of running CX myself, I’ve been following both A Distant Chime’s and your play reports. Your style of DM-ing is very close to mine and I’ve really been enjoying learning from your experience. Thank you! (The lethality of your campaign appears much closer to the playtesters’ experience with the module too.)

Adam, thanks for dropping by and commenting, and thank you for the kind words! I’m glad to know these posts are useful to other referees out there.

Indeed, the game is pretty lethal. I don’t go out of my way to kill PCs, I just try to consistently roll the dice in the open and adjudicate things as fairly as I can. Classic D&D rules and Melan’s masterful module conspire to do the rest.

It took my players (and me) a little while to get used to, but they’ve come around to it, and some now even actively express their fondness for this high risk high reward style of play.

As long as you keep writing these reports, I will keep reading them. I think that your table’s lethality seems about right given my read of CX. And, with time, players are bound to get (even) better at avoiding unnecessary danger and mitigating risk.

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