Categories
Notes

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.

Data:

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.

Reflections:

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”.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #12 – Eye on the Prize

The Company:

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

Loot:

  • Cosmetics
  • Whip
  • Corpse head with crystal teeth

Casualties: None!

Report:

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.

Categories
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)

Loot

  • 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

Casualties

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

Report

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.

Categories
Rules

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.

Categories
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

Report:

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.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #9 – Rats in the Cellar

The Company:

  • Heinz (MU2)
  • Buerghedorn (F2)
  • Jaquet (F2)
  • Bartolomea (C3)
  • Guillemette (T1)
  • Enzo & Benjamin (heavy foot)
  • Lucas, Elin & India (porters)

Loot:

  • 4 gold-covered copper candelabra
  • Plain duelling sword
  • Duelling dagger +2
  • 3 wine skins filled with various Malévol vintages
  • Gold pocket watch

Casualties: Enzo — pincushioned by bandit arrows

Report:

Another week, another expedition. Prior to their departure this time around, the company notices the grumblings about dead retainers continue. Furthermore, Alina, the heavy foot woman who fled the fight with the goatrices during expedition #6, has somehow made her way back to Tours-en-Savoy after being lost for two weeks. She is treating her trauma with copious amounts of alcohol in the town’s watering holes. Bartolomea receives a letter from the bishop of Chamrousse, saying the company will first need to prove they are enemies of the evil Malévols before they will be admitted into the crypt of Boniface. In addition, Bartolomea is visited by an angelic figure in the night, who orders her to quest for the Oils of Cleansing, and shows her a saint-like figure standing in the center of a cross-shaped chapel, anointing a procession of clergy with oil from a vial. The company also sell off the goatrice heads they brought back as a trophy to Jacques Valt, who apparently has a use for them in his alchemical practice.

Two days later, on November 15, 1525, the company find themselves back at the gates of Castle Xyntillan.

They head for the grand entrance once more, and cautiously head back east to the hall where they previously messed with the bat-locked door. Remembering how to disarm it, Guillemette peeks inside and surveys the same well-appointed room. What is more, the same immaculately dressed pale man is sitting behind the desk once again as well. When she closes the door to confer with her companions they hear the noise of many high-heeled footsteps and lady’s voices heading their way. They quickly head out to hide in the occult room and wait to see what happens.

The company hear a large group of ladies enter the hall and knock on the bat-locked door. One lady calls out for “Count Giscard” to join them for a drink. After several unanswered attempts, the ladies leave again, saying the count must be busy making plans again.

Armed with the newly acquired knowledge of the count’s name, Guillemette sneaks back, unlocks the door, and sticks her head in while exclaiming “Count Giscard! Count Giscard! A troll has broken into the wine cellar and is running amok! You must come quick!” Only to be greeted by a deserted room. Not missing a beat, she motions to the rest of the company to come over, and they begin to quickly loot the room.

Suddenly, they hear a single pair of footsteps nearing from behind curtains to the south. Not hesitating for a moment the company piles out of the room again with some sweet loot in tow, and cautiously but quickly heads as far away from the room as possible.

Deciding to press their luck, the company heads to the stairs leading down from the room with thick shadows and fireplace. Guillemette once again takes the lead and sneaks down the stairs. In the weak illumination of the torches all the way back up she can see a large room with casks and wine presses. Confident that the coast is clear, she signals to her companions to join her.

What follows is an extended exploration of this room and an even larger adjacent cellar. The contents of many casks are inspected, and a section of wall is checked for secret doors. Malévol vintages turn out to range from sour swill, through green slime, all the way to wine with an extraordinarily reinvigorating aroma. They also sample one wine with a meaty note to it, which later turns out to be due to the dead rats that have made their way into the cask. Also, exploring the northeast end of the cellar, they find two murderholes through which they spy nine skeletal sentries sitting on benches… They slowly back away from this scene.

Tapping (Tacuinum Sanitatis)

Making ready to leave, the company begins to fill several wine skins with samples taken from casks. Thusly occupied, Heinz is surprised by a swarm of severed hands. Before anyone can intervene, he’s chortled and drops to the ground. The company makes short work of the things, and Bartolomea manages to quickly revive the magic-user with some divine magic. Only moments back from death’s door, Heinz scolds his mercenary retainer Enzo for sleeping on the job.

As they begin to head back, Guillemette scouts ahead once more. When she starts up the stairs she spots a man-sized furry figure at the top, heading towards them. Having only seconds to prepare, the company forms a shield wall at the foot of the stairs and waits. From the darkness emerges a man-sized rat in large leather boots, wearing a feathered cap and armed with a rapier. The thing is surprised by the company’s presence but not immediately hostile. He does however warn the company not to mess with him, or else they will have to contend with his numerous companions. Bartolomea attempts to parley with the man sized rat, who it becomes clear is called Rodento Ratsputin, but when the thing insults her god, she immediately smacks it in the head with her mace. Rodento retaliates with rapid stabs from his rapier, which appears to be poisoned as well. But when the company lays into it, he reaches into a pouch, sprinkles dust over himself, and disappears from sight.

Relieved to have survived the encounter with barely a scratch, but annoyed that their adversary got away, the company once again heads back up the stairs. Thinking the way out is clear, they casually open the next door but are just in time to dodge back at the sight of ten bandits milling about the vestibule. They recognize their leader as Gilbert “the fox” Malévol, the man who some expeditions back relieved them of the carpets they were going to bring back to town.

Stumped about how to proceed, Guillemette is sent ahead once more. Using her thievery skills she blends into the shadows and sneaks about the vestibule. At first sight the space is empty, but soon she notices several doors opening onto the room are slightly ajar, and she also spots a couple of bandits at the ready in the portrait gallery to the north. Thinking to make the way clear for the rest of the company’s rush outside, she moves to the grand entrance and pulls the doors open. On the other side she is surprised to find Gilbert and a bandit. Before she can act, the bandit grapples her, to Gilbert’s obvious amusement.

Without any hesitation the rest of the company streams into the vestibule and runs for the exit. The front lines ram into Gilbert and his companion and they are quickly slain. The remainder of the company stream out of the castle. Bandits kick open doors and fire arrows at the company. Most do not hit home but Enzo is less lucky and killed on the spot. Having freed Guillemette, everyone runs outside and follows the path into the woods and up the mountains, back to Tours-en-Savoy.

Referee Commentary:

This session was quite the nail biter, and also driven almost entirely by random encounters, which I absolutely adore. The final escape scene in particular was a result of me rolling an encounter for the very last turn. I was almost going to fudge it because we were running over time. But I felt obliged not to, because it would rob the players of a memorable challenge. I was also very pleased with my improvising on the spot for the bandits’ tactics.

On the topic of fudging, the sudden disappearance of the count was also the result of a roll. In this case I decided to check for the count’s continued presence when Guillemette returned to confront him. The result indicated he was not present (anymore) and so I narrated accordingly. I think it made for a funny scene. But some players thought I was fudging things to spare them a hazardous encounter or something. I stuck to my guns, but upon reflection, I probably should not have checked for his presence that second time. Perhaps it was also due in part to my insecurity about roleplaying the count, and I was subconsciously looking for a way out of it. Anyway, in future, I will only roll for room encounters once per session and stick to the results, unless explicitly indicated otherwise.

Then there was Ratsputin, who was a lot of fun to roleplay, and was also well received by the players. What made me more confident about playing him is that the key included a note about what he might say (kind of a catch phrase) and that was exactly what I needed to get into character. I wish all NPC write ups included something along those lines. Some are a little less immediately evocative.

The session was light on treasure, but thanks to a small bit of carousing the party now includes a level 3 magic-user and most other characters are level 2. I expect advancement will slow down a little now, and the group will probably have to become a little more daring and resolute to rake in the big scores. I look forward to seeing how long they will manage to continue their streak of not losing any player characters as well.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #8 – Operation Chimney Sweep

The Company:

  • Ynes (T1)
  • Heinz (MU2)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Vito & Enzo (heavy foot)
  • Jana (crossbowwoman)
  • Elin (porter)

Loot:

  • Potion of heroism
  • Bundle of golden buttons
  • Golden box of candied fingers and toes

Casualties: Vito — left foot ripped off and eaten by a zombie

Report:

While preparing for the next expedition in Tours-en-Savoy, the company hears rumours about rough out-of-town folks who have been asking around about people who are particularly good at logging. They also hear the locals are grumbling about the frequent deaths of retainers in the company’s employ. Indeed, the availability of non-combatants and heavy footmen in particular appears to be on the decline. Jaquet orders the “special” at The Black Comedian and is told chimneys are something to seek out while in the castle. Finally, Ynes is visited in the dead of night by an angelic appearance who orders her to quest for the Sceptre of the Merovings, and shows her a vision of a haloed king in Carolingian garb, sat on a plain marble throne, holding a rod shaped like an upturned hand…

Two days later, the company arrives at the castle, and heads back to the grand entrance. There they find the decomposing bodies of the previous expedition’s casualties, the heavy footmen Milia and Lionel. Ignoring these, they proceed to push open the double doors. As expected the western statue laughs ominously. This time, however, the eastern statue also animates to snap its fingers, upon which the corpses of the men-at-arms rise to attack the company.

The company makes an ordered retreat, and fires a volley of crossbow bolts at the things from a safe distance. One is downed, but the other manages to make it to the front line. It is hacked to pieces, but not before it manages to pull the unfortunate Vito to the ground with it. The heavy footman expires as blood gushes from his left ankle where his foot has been ripped off.

The remaining retainers are shaken by the spectacle but agree to continue the expedition. The company, aiming to prevent the same thing from happening again, toss all three bodies into the stream running not far from the path. As the corpses wash into the lake, the company once again enters the castle. This time, only the western statue laughs.

Preparing to shoot some zombies? (Hans Holbein)

They return to the large room shrouded in shadows which they know holds a fireplace. Ynes begins a careful inspection. She establishes that she would be able to climb up the chimney without much issue. She also finds a secret door in the rear. Opening it, they find a small room filled with smoked meats hanging from the ceiling. While Ynes begins to investigate, the remaining company hears something approaching from a door to the north. A chorus of whispers grows louder, and mist begins to seep from under the door. Not interested in meeting whatever it is head-on, they quickly pile into the smoke room.

Remaining hidden, the company spies a pale lady shrouded in mists entering the room. She is accompanied by two shadowy outlines of male bodies. Lucky for them, Ynes finds another secret door leading out of the room. Quickly and quietly, they leave the smoked meats behind them.

The next room is large, and holds many shelves filled with esoteric paraphernalia. The smell of dried herbs fills the space. A large stuffed raven sits on a desk, and most notably, walls and floor are covered with eery occult diagrams in white chalk. They toss the room and find nothing of interest. But when Heinz studies the diagram, his head begins to spin and he is nearly driven insane by their geometric implications. Managing to keep it together however, he gains invaluable insights into the nature of reality and emerges from the ordeal an even more intelligent man than he already was.

Heading further east, they enter a hall with doors leading north and east. The eastern door is particularly notable for the large wrought-iron bat-shaped device in place of a lock. Ynes investigates and establishes the bat’s wings can be moved either up or down. She flips a coin and moves the wings up. A piercing wail sounds off by way of an alarm. The company is nailed to the ground and waits for a moment to see what may happen next. Then, they hear a large number of high-heeled footsteps nearing from the west, accompanied by fussy lady’s voices going “what in heavens could that be” and so on. The company makes a dash for door to the north and is relieved to find it unlocked and unstuck. They barely manage to remain out of sight while whatever was heading their way enters the hall.

Getting their bearings, the company see they are in a hallway leading west, with a fork north. Ynes proceeds to investigate, and finds, at the western end of the hallway, a large boulder sat on a pedestal. She gingerly investigates it, being careful not to touch, but can not find anything obviously suspicious.

Ignoring the thing for the moment, the company heads north and takes the first door on their left hand. Here, they emerge underneath a large stairway shrouded in spiderwebs. Beyond, they see floating candles illuminating several portraits. It’s the gallery they also visited a few expeditions past. They briefly investigate the decomposing body of an unfortunate adventurer who is covered in moths. Then, they move on to have another look at the portraits.

Heinz engages in a staring contest with the portrait of Aristide Malévol — an impossibly ancient-looking man dressed in blue robes decorated with stars and wearing a pointy hat, who returns the magic-user’s gaze with disconcerting interest. Meanwhile, Jaquet’s curiosity is piqued by the statue of a griffon. The fighter wedges a spike in the things beak and after much hemming and hawing reaches in and pulls out — a flask! Amazed to still be in possession of both hands, he pockets the item with a satisfied grin. Heinz moves on to the familiar-looking gruesome visage of a huntsman. The portrait bears a plaque with the name “Hubert Malvévol”. Before the magic-user can do anything, Hubert raises a bow and fires an arrow, which barely misses Heinz. Terrified, and with time running out, the company decides they have had enough of the portraits and head back to the hallway with the boulder, desperate to find some treasure.

They continue to retrace their steps back to the bat-locked door. They are relieved to find whatever was following them has left. Ynes pushes the wings of the lock down, and gingerly dodges its presumably poisonous bite. The door unlocks with an audible click. Very carefully, the thief opens the door and uses her mirror to peer inside.

She observes a luxurious suite, the walls covered in red and black drapes. There are three portraits on the walls, a couch with a coffin on it, a table with a decanter holding a red liquid, a pair of duelling swords on the wall, a trunk, a desk and a liquor cabinet. The whole scene is lit by four golden candelabras. Most notably, behind the desk, facing the door, sits a pale, immaculately dressed man, pondering papers and mumbling to himself.

Stumped by the presence of the person, the company debates what to do next. Rather than engage the man in the room, they decide it’s time to end the expedition. They head back to the hallway with the boulder, and bust open another door to the north. Here, they find the room of a young lady, with a large mirror and numerous cosmetics. They toss the room and find a bundle of golden buttons in a trunk filled with decomposing dresses. Finally, some treasure! Somewhat satisfied, they begin to leave the room when a terrible scream rings out and the mirror shatters. Shaken, they spot an alcove where the mirror used to be, holding a golden box. At the same time, they hear heavy footsteps and gruff humming nearing from the north. They swipe the box and once again make a run for it, this time heading for the grand entrance. To their amazement and relief, they make it outside without trouble, and find themselves back in the late morning sun of a pleasant early November day. The trek back to Tours-en-Savoy begins once more.

Referee Commentary:

I was quite satisfied with the run of this session. I managed to keep my cool, and implemented a few changes to my refereeing procedure to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed. Most importantly, I tried to stick to the following exploration turn procedure:

  1. Roll for random encounter
  2. Establish player actions
  3. Resolve player actions
  4. Resolve random encounter (if applicable)
  5. Update time records (including light source depletion)

I’ve been using a time-keeping sheet of my own design for quite a while. It’s nothing special, I can just use it to easily check off turns as the game progresses. The problem I often ran into, however, is that I lost track of where we were in a turn. I tried to fix that by marking a turn at its beginning, and then crossing it off at its end. This actually worked quite well. I also got myself a fun red d6 with a skull in place of the 1 for my encounter roll. I can keep this lying around on the result I rolled for that round as a reminder. That also improved things noticeably.

My time-keeping sheet, designed to be printed off on A5. It allows for tracking by day, 4-hour watch, hour, and 10-minute turn.

The main thing that trips me up is that when I do roll a random encounter I somehow feel rushed to throw it in at just the right moment. This is strange, because ultimately I am in control of the progression of time. And so, by sticking to the turn procedure more faithfully, I relieve myself of this burden. I just resolve what players want to do, and then move on to introduce the encounter. It’s maybe sometimes a bit less elegant, but it does prevent things from spiralling out of my control entirely.

The opening skirmish aside, the players chose to avoid most encounters (and in some cases wisely so, for sure). There were some fun and atmospheric moments.

Afterwards one player did comment he’s still not entirely sure how to approach the game. He feels they are mostly just going around poking things and hoping for the best. Things feel random and out of their control. Some moments in this session — the zombies at the entrance, the arrow fired by Hubert, came across as impossible to avoid gotchas, and they have a point. Hubert’s arrow I should have telegraphed much clearer. Probably by describing him raising a bow and giving them the opportunity to react. The zombies I think are less of a gotcha because they can be easily avoided after they are raised. But I screwed up with a ruling related to range penalties on missile fire, and so the players felt they were punished for trying to be smart and increasing distance between themselves and the monsters. I have resolved to do better in future on that count (and will slightly revise the range penalty rules in Hackbut, which I’ve taken from OED.)

The flip-side is of course that Castle Xyntillan also rewards risk-taking. In this session, Heinz’s player was rewarded for investigating the obviously sinister diagrams with a +1 to Heinz’s intelligence score, bumping his modifier to a +2 in the process, which they were understandably pleased with. Jaquet’s player was certain he would have his hand bit off by the griffon statue but in stead was rewarded for his foolhardiness with a potion of heroism. I love this kind of stuff, but then I have it easy as the referee, sitting on the other end of the screen. For players, I think this type of stuff only works if you remain a little detached from your characters, and can accept they can perish at any moment due to a cruel twist of fate. This can be hard in a roleplaying game, and I think as a group we are still figuring out how best to balance these things.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #7 – Sword Riot

The Company:

  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Buerghedorn (F1)
  • Heinz (MU2)
  • Ynes (T1)
  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Milia, Lionel & Benjamin (heavy foot)
  • Mena, Mathilde & Lucas (porters)

Loot:

  • Vial of liquid and small dagger
  • Signet ring
  • Gold-rimmed spectacles
  • Bottle of brandy, champagne & vial of aquavit
  • Mace

Casualties:

  • Milia — choked by a cloaker
  • Lionel — decapitated by a man-eating hat
The company? (Gustave Jean Jacquet)

Report:

Following last session’s windfall, this week’s downtime is a relaxed affair where money is no object. Retainers are hired, items are identified, supplies are replenished and Heinz even finds the time to scribe his first honest-to-goodness scroll (magic missile, of course). Subsequently, the company sets out for the castle again.

They decide to once again use the grand entrance. Previous expedition’s members respond with a shrug when the western statue erupts in laughter again. The rest of the company is less indifferent.

Things immediately go south when they enter the vestibule. The cloak, along with hat, cane, and shoes jump from the coatrack and rush to engage the company. Milia is almost immediately enfurled and choked by the cloak, Lionel is soon decapitated by the hat. Mathilde immediately flees at the sight of several retainers biting the dust. The remaining porters hold their ground. Benjamin rushes forward to join Jaquet and Buerghedorn in what is now the front rank, and a fight develops on the doorstep of the castle. Jaquet enters his +2 axe’s battle rage. Heinz makes good use of his wand of lightning, dealing ridiculous amounts of damage to the conjured creatures. Bartolomea tries dousing the things in holy water but finds they are not harmed by it. Jaquet, Buerghedorn and Benjamin hack away, Ynes takes potshots with her crossbow, and at one point, desperate to turn the tide, Heinz even summons the wand of the deep woods’ guardian. Ultimately, the company prevails, but it’s quite the desperate start to the expedition.

Having collected themselves, the company checks a couple of rooms to the west of the vestibule but those turn out to be largely empty. They return to the vestibule and try to first door to the east. It opens on a large room shrouded in unnaturally dense shadows. It contains a grandfather clock, a writing desk piled with papers, a closet, a chest and a fireplace.

Bartolomea and Heinz start rifling through the papers on the desk. Ynes begins to investigate the clock. Jaquet pops open the chest. Buerghedorn pokes around the fireplace. The papers turn out to be ravings of a madman. They do find what appears to be a hit list, which includes the name of the bishop of Chamrousse, as well as (at the very bottom) a certain “Louis”. The chest holds a false compartment with a vial and a small dagger. Buerghedorn pulls the strangled body of a young gentleman from the chimney, who soon after collapses into a cloud of ash and jumble of blackened bones. Ynes spies bones in stead of gears inside the clock, and an owl on a platform in a compartment above the clock-face.

Just when Bartolomea fishes a signet ring from the moth-eaten clothes in the closet, the rear-guard cries out in horror at the sight of blood being sucked from their pores. It’s another group of those damn glitterclouds at the door leading into the room from the vestibule! The company has little appetite for a fight with the things, so Jaquet swiftly moves to slam the door shut before they can enter the room, and it is spiked with a dagger in the jamb. After a moment of pressure from the other side, things turn quiet. Satisfied the clouds are kept at bay for the moment, the company turns their attention to the other doors in the room.

A door south opens onto a stairway leading down into darkness. With a loud “no thank you” the door is shut again.

Meanwhile, the clock is shoved aside to check behind it. Suddenly, the clock begins to strike and the owl pops out, loudly proclaiming “doom, dooom, doooom!” The company braces for what comes next, but is relieved to find nothing else happens.

The first of two doors to the north opens onto a sitting room. A decapitated corpse is slumped in one of several armchairs set around an oak table marked with deep cuts. There is also a wardrobe in a corner. They kick the corpse from the chair and are relieved to see it collapse on the floor. When Bartolomea pulls open the closet, a stream of skulls fall from it. She begins to pick through it, and eventually turns up one bearing a pair of fancy gold-rimmed spectacles.

Heading east, they enter a cosy den with a card table, couches and liquor cabinet. The walls are also covered by a large number of swords on display. The centerpiece is a sinister-looking zweihander with a nameplate beneath it: “The Blade of Rel”.

While some are investigating the card table and others are pillaging the liquor cabinet, Jaquet and Buerghedorn jostle for position at the zweihander. Buerghedorn wins out and before anyone can intervene he grabs the sword from the wall. Instantly, all the edged weapons that the company is carrying spring to life and go for their throats. Ynes and Jaquet are cut down. Acting swiftly, Bartolomea manages to pull Jaquet from death’s door with a cure light wounds. Ynes recovers on her own accord and is further revived with a swig from a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet. In the meantime, Buerghedorn struggles for control over his faculties with the chaotic sword and fails. Furthermore, the swords on display also come to life and attack. The complete company flees in terror from the room and barely manages to evade the blades.

Back in the sitting room, they take a moment to debate how best to egress from the castle. They are worried about the clouds in the vestibule, but also dislike the bedroom to the immediate west, which has an oppressive atmosphere and a lantern swinging back and forth under the influence of some unseen force. Before they can resolve their dispute they are interrupted by a bunch of headless manservants entering from said eery room, and halting in confusion at the entrance.

They attempt to get rid of them with some bluffing but the manservants aren’t impressed. Overcome by the blade of Rel, Buerghedorn in stead chops down one of the manservants, and the rest attack in anger. The company makes a run for it, but Buerghedorn is compelled by the blade to stay and hack away. The rest of the company return to the large room, pull the dagger from the jamb and throw open the door. To their relief, the clouds have departed. At that moment, Buerghedorn manages to wrest back control from the sword and turns to run as well. The manservants pursue, but the whole company succeeds in shaking them off and emerge into daylight from the grand entrance. Buerghedorn tosses the blade into the castle moat in disgust. Exhausted, the company begins the two-day journey back to Tours-en-Savoy.

Referee Commentary:

“Regrets, I’ve had a few…”

This was quite the action packed and chaotic session. When we ended I felt like I had made a number of less-than-great calls.

The opening fight did go well, I feel like I am getting an increasingly solid handle on how to run fights purely theatre of the mind and despite the large-ish number of combatants things proceeded at a satisfying clip. The only thing I am still a bit unsure about is how forgiving to be with positioning in melee. Next time I might try to keep a small dry-erase battle mat next to me for keeping track of everyone. I do this now with pen and pencil in my notebook but when a combat takes a while and positions change it resists quick updating.

Where I really stumbled was room E7, the den. As usual, a combination of fatigue and an unreasonable desire to keep things moving conspired to make me misread the room key. My unfamiliarity with the intelligent sword rules also made me unnecessarily cut corners on resolving the situation. As a result, when Buerghedorn’s player grabbed the sword of Rel, I did not have all edged weapons make attack rolls against the PCs. In stead I had each PC who carried edged weapons save, and those who failed I rolled their weapons damage for. I also forgot about their retainers. Furthermore, I botched the control check on the sword by leaving out the wound modifier (I’m using Paul’s reinterpretation of the OD&D control check, which is relatively straightforward, but still more math than I would have liked). So Buerghedorn lost control, but I was then at a loss what the weapon would want. I also overlooked the fact that he should have been taking damage each round, following the B/X rules I am using, because he’s neutral and the sword is chaotic. Only later did I realize my mistake about the weapons in the room and did I read the detail of twenty swords on the walls. I then narrated that they were coming to life to attack as well. We rolled for initiative, they got to go first, and were able to speed out of the room. My final mistake here was that the room entrance is curtained, but I narrated that they slammed the door shut and the swords flew into it. With curtains, it would have been a different story. For some reason I misread the key here too (I have a tendency to confuse left/right, east/west, it’s an annoying flaw) and I also disregarded the key difference in the map, even after a player asked me about it! What the hell was I doing? I know what I was doing, I was rushing. And I shouldn’t have. I’m not kicking myself because the players probably got off easy. I’m bummed because if I’d run this sequence of events as written, it would probably have been even more dramatic than it already was.

So, for the umpteenth time, note to self: do not rush. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, just take five already.

This session also has me reconsider the intelligent sword rules I am using. I am now wondering which rules Lux uses himself. I notice all swords but one only have ego listed, no intelligence, but these ego values tend to be quite high. I suspect Lux uses something similar to the 1e rules. And I might start using those, via OSRIC. The main thing I would like to know is how to interpret the ego-only stat block to understand how intelligent a given sword is, and specifically what (if any) capacity for communication it has with its wielder.

There are more regrets, mainly to do with unfamiliarity with a lot of D&D tropes, such as wands disintegrating when they are depleted (a thing that should have happened when Heinz went HAM using his wand of lightning). I guess I should chalk up some or most of those things to learning. But others are really my own fault, and I hope next session I will manage to take things a little slower.

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Alignment

Alignment never really sat right with me. As typically presented, it tends to prescribe player character morality, and imply monolithic, unidimensional world views. Judging by its absence from many contemporary OSR games I’m not alone in that sentiment. But Castle Xyntillan features alignment in its stat blocks, Swords & Wizardry includes it (of course) and the goal of Hackbut was to have full compatibility with the classic editions, so I felt I had to include some statement of what alignment means.

I went trawling through my collection of retroclones and hit the OSR search engine again. This turned up more than a few useful sources of inspiration.

The things that clicked the most for me were those that presented alignment as allegiance to a faction in an ongoing supernatural battle of cosmic proportions. Lamentations of the Flame Princess does this quite well, although the way it conflates arcane magic with chaos and divine magic with law makes it too far removed from classic D&D’s implied setting.

I also like Talysman’s take on alignment. Like him I prefer the simplicity of the chaos/law split. I too prefer alignment not to prescribe morality. In light of this, I likewise interpret spells that relate to “evil” as not targeting alignment but harmful intent.

Finally, I’ll point to the Wandering DMs episode on alignment. In particular, there is a moment when Dan boils alignment down to the following: “When Cthulhu rises, do you run, stay and fight it, or join its side?”

I guess the one thing that makes my take a little out of sync with the original game is that neutrality is not a faction or cosmic force. I realize that in AD&D in particular, this idea is that classes like druids adhere to a belief system that is about balance between chaos and law. I kind of dislike that interpretation, and although it features a little bit in Castle Xyntillan — for example there are intelligent swords that are of neutral alignment — I don’t consider it a huge problem and can easily work around it on the fly.

That’s about all I have to say about alignment at this point. It hasn’t come up much in our game so far. But I expect once we hit higher levels and players begin to acquire intelligent swords for example, it might become more of a thing. I’m pretty happy with where I ended up with this, and it makes me comfortable with having alignment in my game. Perhaps some of these ideas make you reconsider completely ignoring it yourself, too.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #6 – Jackpot

The Company:

  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Buerghedorn (F1)
  • Lucas (porter)
  • Alina, Benjamin & Milia (heavy foot)
  • Stefanie (bow)

Loot:

  • Diadem set with opals
  • 16 pearls
  • Two goatrice heads

Casualties:

  • Stefanie — ribcage crushed and thereafter petrified by a goatrice

Report:

The company once again scrapes together what remains of their diminishing funds to pay for their upkeep, resupply and hire a significant number of retainers.

The night before their departure for Castle Xyntillan the man called Blérot appears on Heinz’s doorstep. He once again thanks him for freeing him from captivity, and hands over a wooden staff as a token of his gratitude. He says it’s been cut from the fabled talking tree he did indeed go off to chop down. Before Heinz can act, the masked lumberjack turns and leaves, soon disappearing in Tours-en-Savoy’s darkened streets.

When they have the staff identified, it is revealed to have a number of magical properties: it can warp wooden objects, kill wooden creatures, and even turn into a servitor creature. The company is quite impressed with this unexpected gift.

On Wednesday, October 25, 1525, they find themselves at the gates of Castle Xyntillan once again, ready to begin their fifth expedition.

Deciding they’ve had enough of the northwest sector, they follow the path along the south wall of the castle, and arrive at the grand entrance. They listen at the double doors while nervously eying the chimera statues flanking it. From within, they hear quiet sobbing. They push open the doors and are startled by sudden evil laughter emitted by the statue to their left. Quickly they continue on inside to find themselves in a dusty, guano-littered vestibule.

The sobbing turns out to come from a ghostly butler named James who is quite distraught by the state of the room, and profusely apologizes. He also provides them with directions to some particularly charming parts of the castle. The company attempts to extract the location of treasure from him, but their ham-fisted probing is easily deflected. After a while, the butler excuses himself and leaves to find servants to clean the room.

Bartolomea begins to rifle through a cloak hanging from a coatrack and is surprised to be immediately enveloped by it. Retainers rush to her aid and manage to pull it from her. Buerghedorn attempts to smash it, but it emits a horrid moaning sound which forces the majority of the company to flee in terror. Buerghedorn however holds ground and prepares to attack the cloak again when he’s suddenly attacked by a hat. It jumps from the coat rack and tries to bite off the fighter’s head but only ends up chomping on Buerghedorn’s cranium. Still, this is more than he can handle and he drops to the ground.

The remaining company has reconvened at the entrance and has hurried through the double doors outside. When they hear no sounds coming from the vestibule they collect themselves and push open the doors once more. To their relief, the cloak, hat and other items have returned to their resting place on the coatrack and appear not to be hostile for the time being.

Buerghedorn struggles back up from the floor, blood streaming down his forehead from numerous bite marks, but still alive. Bartolomea proceeds to cure the fighter, and somewhat refreshed he is ready once again to continue the expedition.

They proceed north and enter a portrait gallery illuminated by floating candles. Thinking some painting should fetch a decent sum, Bartolomea immediately orders her retainers to rip the first painting from the wall. Before they can do so, however, it begins to speak to them and the retainers back away from it, afraid of what else it may be capable of. Bartolomea approaches the painting and is greeted by a pale, skinny lady by the name of Philoméne who invites her to join her upstairs in her suite for some fun. The cleric tries to ascertain if there would be treasure involved but discovers the painting is only capable of limited conversation. She does, however, notice a silver locket with an aquamarine gem hanging from the lady’s neck.

Meanwhile, Heinz inspects the next painting, named “Girolamo”, which features a severe bureaucrat, who for some reason is holding a wood axe. Through clenched teeth the man insists Heinz hand over a signed affidavit. The magic-user carefully backs away from the painting again.

Somewhat puzzled and frustrated by the paintings, the company decides to shift gears. They return to the vestibule and take a door west, where they enter a comfortable sitting room. From the entrance they spot a lady in a chair, her back to them, vainly inspecting herself in a mirror. Carefully, they approach the person, and quickly move to ram a stake through her heart and chop off her head. It plonks on the floor with a hollow thud, and a diadem set with three opals falls from her crown.

Maybe a little less sophisticated, and a little less alive (Peter de Kempeneer)

They bag the diadem and proceed to toss the room when suddenly from a passage to the south a swarm of severed hands emerges and assaults Alina. Having dealt with this adversary before, they keep their cool and without too much trouble dispatch most of the hands. The remainder of the swarm flee, with Buerghedorn momentarily in pursuit, but when he finds himself all alone at the end of a winding passage, he decides to break off the chase and return to his companions.

The next room is littered by wrecked simple furniture. They proceed to search the rubble and turn up four pearls. When they decide to keep searching, the mercenaries posted at the door are surprised by a pair of grotesque goat-rooster monstrosities. They manage to hold the door and alert the rest of the company, but soon after Stefanie is overrun by one of the things. It bashes into her chest, crushing her ribs and instantly killing her, but before her lifeless body lands on the floor it has turned to stone. At the sight of the bow-woman’s terrible fate, Alina’s already dwindling morale breaks and she makes for the door, narrowly escaping the horns of the monsters. A grim and vicious melee follows. Heinz summons the servant contained in his woodland staff. The company somehow miraculously evades further petrification. The goatrices turn out to be more resilient than the company would prefer, and stubbornly hold their ground, but ultimately perish to the company’s many stabs, strikes and slashes.

When the dust has settled, the company resumes their search of the room’s debris, now coated in goat-rooster blood and entrails. When they have turned up a total of 16 pearls, and are confident they’ve searched the room exhaustively, they decide to quit while they are ahead. They leave the castle posthaste, but not before also severing both goatrice heads and having a grossed-out Lucas carry them back to town.

Referee Commentary:

Finally, the players have completed a lucrative expedition. I’ve been telling them there really is treasure in the castle, but so far, because of their stubborn sticking to the northwest sector, the pickings were slim. Imagine everyone’s satisfaction when, upon return to town, they discover they’ve accumulated sufficient XP to level up two of the three expedition members. (Their inspiration to finally breach another part of the castle may have been partially due to reading some previous installments of this referee commentary, but I don’t begrudge them a little metagaming every so often. This is classic D&D after all.)

Quite a few fights in this, but they move at a fair clip, despite the presence of more than a few mercenaries. Players have gotten accustomed to the target-20 attack roll, and I simply give turns in the order that I see fit. We do roll initiative each round, but it’s one-sided: the players roll a d6 and if it comes up 4+ they act before the opposition. Finally, we play pure theatre of the mind, monsters simply attack those at the front of the marching order, and I am generous with positioning. These things combine to make things fun, dynamic, and fast. I’m also getting better at remembering to roll for morale, although in the case of the goatrices they kept making their checks! I resisted fudging the roll though.

Downtime is becoming more streamlined. I decided I wanted to keep town as boring and abstract as possible. So I boiled down all the downtime possibilities in Tours-en-Savoy to one page of bullets, which I screenshare at the top of every session. That way people can either resolve things by themselves while the group assembles in the zoom call, or ask me to handle a particular thing if needed. Works pretty well.

Not much else of note to report, really. This was a satisfying session and for once I don’t think I have any real referee regrets. Castle Xyntillan continues to be a lot of fun to run. Prep is near nonexistent at this point, aside from pre-rolling retainer availability and random encounters. Such a big difference compared to my previous campaign. Looking forward to the next session.