Hackbut – Classes – Thief

What it’s all about (David A. Trampier)

So after last post’s discussion of the magic-user we’ve come to the final entry in this series on the character classes in Hackbut: the thief.

Out of the four, I’ve probably tinkered with this class the most. As is often pointed out, the skills-based nature of the thief is at least a little at odds with the spirit of early D&D. On the other hand, the sneaky dungeon-delving specialist does add a nice bit of sword & sorcery genre flavor. There was no way I wasn’t going to include them in my game.

As always, I’ll just note that all of Hackbut’s classes are based on Hungarian retroclone Kamazaták és Kompániák. And again I’ll point out that the saves are replaced with the unified save in WB:FMAG. Below are the further changes I made to this class specifically.

  • Only simple and light weapons are allowed (hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling). This is mainly to protect the fighter’s niche and reinforce the fact that the thief is not a front-line fighter. It was inspired by Brendan’s OD&D “rogue” class.
  • I use the term “sneak attack” (rather than, say “backstab”) and some language from OD&D (“silent attacks from behind”). This to allow for some looseness in the interpretation of what counts as such an attack.
  • The OD&D percentile-based thief skills are collected under a single “thievery” ability and operate on a d20. This was inspired by Homebrew Homunculus’s deep dive into thief skills. For disarming traps I borrow some additional language from OED (three tries allowed, traps are only triggered on a fumble). I also make explicit that this skill is only applicable to small devices (aka “treasure traps”).
  • The hear noise skill is covered by a bonus to “perception checks” (+1 every four levels). Perception checks are handled by rolling 1d6, adding your WIS mod, with success on a 5+.
  • Climbing is similarly treated as a bonus. As well as allow for attempts at climbing unequipped that would be impossible for others. (This is based off of how Delta handles it in OED.)
  • Finally I allow thieves of any level to try and use magic-user scrolls, provided they succeed at a save vs. magic. If they fail, the spell backfires in some amusing and possibly deadly fashion. This is once again taken by a blog post by Brendan on the LBB thief.

So yeah, as you can tell, this is a mix-and-match of elements from various interpretations of the thief in the glorious OSR blogosphere. I should probably add that I would have not been able to assemble this version if (a) people had not taken the trouble to blog their OD&D house rules, and (b) those blogs were not made easily searchable through the OSR search engine created by Brendan (of Necropraxis).

And with that, we’ve come to the end of this series of class write-ups for Hackbut. I hope they will be of use to fellow homebrew enthusiasts out there.


Hackbut – Classes – Magic-User

Russ does the best wizards (Russ Nicholson)

Next up in this series on Hackbut’s character classes is the magic-user. (The previous instalment was on the fighter.) Once again, the Kazamaták és Kompániák class serves as the foundation. As always, it is worth noting I replaced the classic saving throws with the unified save found in WBFMAG.

In the weapons permitted, I removed the sling and added the club. Historically, slings are actually among the hardest missile weapons to master. It doesn’t make sense to me that a wizard would have time to learn how to use one in-between all the arcane studying. Clubs, by contrast, are possibly the simplest weapon to use (a stick, basically) and furthermore, on the Hackbut equipment list they are free and do 1d4 damage. I see no reason why a magic-user wouldn’t be allowed to use them.

The rest of the things to note are all related, unsurprisingly, to spell-casting.

Starting spells, and gaining spells at level up, are basically as described in the aforementioned KéK blog post. I do, however, prescribe that such spells are determined randomly.

The spell list and spell descriptions themselves are from Delta’s excellent OED Book of Spells. The spell selection is classic but flavorful, and the description are streamlined and rationalized. This one comes highly recommended.

Finally, I tweaked the rules for memorizing and casting spells as described in White Box to be a little bit more flexible and forgiving. Taking a page from 5e, magic-users can memorize level + INT modifier spells from their spellbook. They can cast memorized spells by “expending” a spell slot, but the spell itself remains memorized for further use. Essentially, memorized spells and spell slots are decoupled. So yes, this does mean a magic-user can cast the same spell more than once, which I know is frowned upon in old-school D&D circles. However, the number of spells a magic-user can cast per day remains as per the original game, so some looseness aside, the system is no more powerful than before.

And that’s all there is to say about magic-users, really. Next time I will tackle the last of the four classes, the thief.


Hackbut – Classes – Fighter

Fighting-men doing their thing (Dave Trampier)

Continuing the series on the four classes in Hackbut, having previously covered the cleric, next up is the fighter. This is the simplest class in the game (not that the others are particularly complicated, but still). I buy into the notion that the fighter should be kept as simple as possible so that there is a clear go-to for new players, or players who just don’t feel like something too involved.

As with all the classes in the game, I have used Kazamaták és Kompániák as the base. It is worth noting the multi-attack ability. This is an adaptation of the rule in OD&D and first edition AD&D where fighters may attack creatures of 1 HD or less a number of times equal to their level. KéK tweaks this. The rule reads as follows:

They may attack multiple opponents, provided their combined HD doesn’t exceed the fighting-man’s own (e.g. a level 4 fighting-man may attack four 1 HD goblins, two 2 HD wolves, or a 3 HD crystal statue and a 1 HD cultist).

So the power level of creatures that a fighter can perform multiple attacks against scales with their level, without getting out of hand. When I saw this I was immediately taken with it, because it solves this strange break point at the 1 HD mark without unbalancing the game unduly. (I should add it is also listed as an option in the Castle Xyntillan stat blocks.)

In play, I have found one slight drawback to this ability is that players are prone to ask about enemy HD, which is an unwelcome intrusion of rules concepts into the game’s fiction. I do not expose HD to players (nor do I AC, for that matter). So I handle this by telling a fighter their options with regards to performing multiple attacks in a round. This works fine. And in any case the ability leads to fighter characters wading into melee ahead of other characters.

One other ability that I added is a +1 to open door checks and other feats of strength for every three levels the fighter has. (So it improves to +2 at level four.) Such ability checks in Hackbut are always 5+ on a d6. Everyone gets to add their STR mod, and fighters get a little boost. In play this means that fighters are typically the designated door-opener, and the first one in harm’s way. (I believe a version of this ability is also in OD&D and Moldvay Basic D&D.)

Fighters are the only class who get to use all weapons and armour. In addition it is worth pointing out I restrict the use of magic swords to fighters only. I believe the Greyhawk thief was able to use such swords, but I have dialed back the weapons they are allowed. When I first came to classic D&D I did not realise this, but magic swords are a major way for fighters to acquire special powers. And I have really come to appreciate that aspect of the game. Character advancement for a large part happens through the junk they acquire along the way, rather than marking off stuff on their character sheets in return for XP.

That’s all I have to say about fighters. Like I said, pretty simple. Next time we will cover the magic-user.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #26 – Peeping Bug

The Company:

  • Fernando (F4)
  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Amaranth (C5)
  • Leon (porter)

Loot: Sack of magic turnips & seed bag of “Miracle Formula”.

Casualties: None!


Hendrik talks to Father Brenard about annulling his marriage to Ronja the baker’s daughter. The preacher explains to Hendrik that he will need some grounds for doing so. They’re not heretics after all. For example, if Ronja was found to be unfaithful to her spouse…

Jürg has an artisan fashion the unbreakable glass dome into an impervious helmet.

Blérot, the masked “lumberjack” who has been hiding out with the company for fear of the wrath of mysterious men from the woods, is found one day in the company’s residence amidst the wreckage of furniture. It appears he is having increasing trouble controlling his chopping urges.

When Hendrik returns to his study one morning, he discovers his writing implements and signature seal have been misplaced by someone or something.

Before departure, they read The Guidebook to Historical
Curiosities, vol. 1, which they purchased a while back. They read about “The Oracle of Saint Blakemore” which is a fountain supposedly hidden somewhere in the grottos beneath the castle. It is said that whoever drinks from it may predict the future.

They also burn a small fortune’s worth of incense in front of the reliquary, and receive a vague but truthful omen about the upcoming expedition (which, dear reader, will be revealed in the report below).


A small but fairly powerful expeditionary force heads to the castle for once last time before the close of this year’s adventuring season. They only bring one porter with them.

Upon arrival, they pass by the spot where the late magic-user Heinz once planted a jumping bean. It has since grown to a beanstalk of over 10 feet high, and sturdy enough to carry the weight of a man. Its ceaseless dancing has caused the wall it grows against to begin cracking and crumbling…

They continue on to the grand entrance, and drag off the body of a fallen adventurer so that it won’t be resurrected by one of the two statues flanking the door when they enter.

In the vestibule they head immediately west and in the next room they head up the stairs. When they open the door at the top of the stairs they are greeted by the stern gaze of a crusader’s bust labeled “Medard”. Amaranth steps forward and locks eyes with the holy warrior. She is overcome by divine bloodlust, and begins to repeatedly croak something resembling “deus vult!” (Amaranth has no tongue. It’s a long story.) She also instantly recalls the names of three heinous fiends that reside in the castle whom she absolutely must slay: Serpentina, Runcius, and Merlerik. The remainder of the company collectively facepalm, groan “not another quest” and continue the current mission.

They check the room to the east. It is large, contains creepy shadows shifting about, and a large cracked mirror hangs from the wall. They do not like the look of the room at all (they’ve had bad experiences with mirrors in the castle so far) and decide not to enter but in stead head the other way.

They head west into the feasting hall. When they pass the door to the stairs from which they entered, they hear insect sounds coming from behind it. They are unnerved, but decide to continue on their way regardless.

In the feasting hall they take one of the doors leading north, and enter a massive hall decorated with weaponry and a ceiling reaching to the top of the next floor. A number of headless manservants are waiting with jugs of wine on serving platters. Faint sounds of a party can be heard from the balcony on the next floor. They bluff the manservants into serving them wine. Meanwhile they survey the room and identify both a battered suit of armor and a large sword hanging over the massive unlit fireplace as magical. Fernando nervously inspects the armor more closely, and notices it has an arrow lodged in its leg. They decide against pressing on, and leave the way they came.

They head back downstairs, and from there head west. They enter stables, and again from behind them they hear insect-like chittering, which again they choose to ignore. They take their time to search the stables, and Hendrik finds a magical lucky horseshoe. Then, they hear two men in conversation, approaching from the west. They pile into one of the stables and hold their breath. In walks the liche Aristide and the ghost of a bookish fellow whom they have not met before. The ghost is asking the lich about a book he’s looking for, by one “Flamel”. Aristide absentmindedly indulges the ghost, whom he refers to as “Merton”. He suggests they go up to the library and look for the book there. The two undead leave the stables, and the company are just about to breath a sigh of relief, when outside the door they hear Aristide greet someone named Gregor. The response is the sound of chittering. With mounting dread the company hear Gregor tell Aristide about the adventurers he has been following, and Aristide agrees he will return to the stables and kick the rabble out of the castle.

The company decides to make a run for it. They burst from the stable and run for the double doors to the north. However, its hinges turn out to be rusted shut. Meanwhile, Aristide, Merton and Gregor enter the stables at a leisurely pace. Merton approaches, mumbling something about a book. Meanwhile Gregor who to their horror turns out to be an enormous bug, shambling on his hind legs, hangs back. Aristide stands and lambasts the company from a distance. Hendrik pulls out the Staff of the Woodlands, taps the double door, which warp open in response. The company hurries into the courtyard, not daring to look over their shoulders. They run for the first door they see, and are relieved to find it opens without trouble. When it slams shut they are in a nondescript corridor, and take a moment to catch their breath.

”Gregor” eh? Sure, Melan, throw in some Kafka while you’re at it (Rich Johnson)

Relieved to find they are not being followed, they head down the hallway to see where it leads. It ends at a door in front of which the floor is littered with decomposing corpses. They don’t like the looks if that and so want to turn back when from a door to the south they hear a large group of men approach. They form up a line and brace themselves for what is to come.

A large group of undead noblemen enter the hallway and accost the company, demanding to know what they’re up to. Hendrik uses his considerable charm to bullshit his way out of their predicament, and even manages to get the noblemen to point the way to the nearest exit.

They head back into the courtyard but decide to press their luck rather than leave, and head north. They enter the hallway that they know leads into the donjon to the east. In stead, they turn west.

At the next door, Hendrik has a déjà vu. He sees himself enter the next room after this doorway and battle a bunch of ghouls who are guarding a valuable treasure. Bolstered by this vision, the company opens the door and finds themselves in a hallway with three doors. They check all of them for noises, and from behind one they do indeed hear ghouls fighting over what they assume to be their meal. But they also once again hear Gregor’s familiar insectoid chittering back from where they came. They have been followed after all!

They decide Gregor needs to be dealt with, and attempt to surprise him by bashing open the door behind which they presume he is hiding. The massive bug has however anticipated their return and is at some distance from the doorway. It looks at them attentively, clicking its mandibles. Hendrik has no compassion for the thing, whips out his wand of lightning, and zaps the creature with a massive bolt. Somehow it survives, runs at the magic-user, and begins to chomp at him with its mandibles. Fernando bashes at it with his halberd, and Hendrik lets fly several magic missiles. It’s all too much for the bug to take, and it explodes in a mess of gore and chitin.

The company scrape off Gregor’s remains, and return to the room with the ghouls. A simple plan is hatched. Fernando throws open the door while standing to its side, and Hendrik and Amaranth stand at the ready some distance from it. But before they can act, the ghouls are already upon them, clawing and biting and attempting to paralyze them. Miraculously, the company manages to withstand the onslaught. Hendrik kills a number of ghouls with a blast from his wand of cold. Fernando sweeps at the monsters with his halberd. Amaranth successfully turns away the remaining undead. Hendrik lets fly a fireball at the ghouls cowering in the corner of their room, killing several more. And the whole thing is ended with that old standby: magic missile.

The company searches the room, which appears to have been the abode of a gardener. Using Detect Magic they find a sack of remarkable turnips and a large bag of seed that is labeled “Miracle Formula”.

They load the loot into a wheelbarrow and begin to make their way out of the castle. In the hallway leading to the donjon they are barely able to avoid the notice of the ghost of Roberto the judge. The remainder of the way is smooth sailing, however, and several days later they return safely to Tours-en-Savoy.

Referee Commentary:

Thus ends the last session of this second season of Castle Xyntillan. I know this is beginning to sound like a stuck record but never did I think we would get so much mileage out of this module. Every session is a surprise, and plays out different than the last.

In this one, I rolled lots of random encounters (five in total). That drove most of the action. At one point, we had one random encounter following the party (Gregor) and then, when they decided to comb the stables, I ruled it would take them three turns. I roll three d6s and what do you know? Two come up a one. So now I had to improvise at the drop of a hat Aristide and Merton somehow bumping into the party. They managed to avoid their notice but of course it was inevitable that Aristide would bump into Gregor, and Gregor would of course alert him to the presence of the adventurers. All of this emerged completely organically and was an absolute delight at the table.

The “déjà vu” moment is how we decided to handle the omen players can get from spending 200 GP on incense burnt at the reliquary. The book says to provide a vague but truthful omen. However, I don’t see how I as a referee can actually predict the future of a given session without resorting to some degree of railroading, which is anathema to how I am running this thing. So I talked to the players and suggested it would be some kind of meta currency they could spend during the session to get a hint whenever they would like to receive it. Hendrik’s player, towards the end of the session, was desperate for some treasure and it just so happened they weren’t too far removed from a room with some significant loot. So I decided to narrate that premonition. Was a bit awkward but it worked out well enough.

The treasure in question was an interesting case that by the book tries to (I think) introduce a bit of player skill in getting the most out of it, but I decided to hand wave it and simply narrate how they would use the seed to grow money plants, and how the turnips would grow to enormous size. This was the last session of the season after all, and I just wanted to hand them the GP and XP and not have those dangling as loose ends.

By golly, a fifth level magic-user is a force to be reckoned with. Especially now that they have also collected a few devastating wands. A previous encounter with a bunch of ghouls lead to a near-TPK for a much larger party. But this time around they were able to avoid surprise and get off their devastating magic before succumbing to paralysis.

I got rid of my battle mat and simply kept track of combat using dry erase tokens and index cards with Fate-style “zones” scrawled on them. It worked out fine. I’m quite pleased with these new tokens I got — they are simply 1-inch diameter circles laser cut from 3mm thick opaque white PMMA.

We are taking a break from Castle Xyntillan for a while at least. But more than one player has expressed a desire to continue their explorations, so it is unlikely we have seen the last of the abode of the Malévols. It would be interesting to continue, not in the least because of Amaranth’s newly acquired quest!