Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #24 – “I… Am… Darkslayer!”

The Company:

  • Jürg (C4)
  • Amaranth (C4)
  • Julian & Frida (porters)
  • Conz, Nathan, Milia & Bern (heavy footsoldiers)

Loot:

  • Libram of Heinous Damnation
  • Book of infernal names
  • Astrological and alchemical papers

Casualties:

None.

Report:

Jürg goes shopping at Mordechai’s Curious & Antiques and chances upon a box of animated toy soldiers. He also buys a potion of speed.

The company purchase a rowboat and load it up on their wagon.

On the way to the castle, Jürg dips his toy soldiers in a jar of poisonous salve they once retrieved from the castle.

Upon arrival, they carry the rowboat to the lakeside west of the castle, and set out.

Seeing as how only two principals could join the expedition they have hired a sizable number of retainers.

They make their way across the lake, keeping the castle on their right hand, and see a lakefront garden, with what appears to be a chapel jutting out into the lake.

They land, tie up the boat, and carefully sneak along the chapel’s west wall, while keeping an eye on the windswept garden overgrown with weeds.

Shortly before reach the chapel’s south end, three goatrices jump from the scrubs and charge.

Jürg pulls out his box of soldiers and empties it out on the garden floor. Nine 8-inch high lead spearmen glistening with poisonous grease charge forward. The men-at-arms line up in front of their employers, and brace themselves for what is to come.

The goatrices fail to break through the line of toy soldiers. One even stumbles and falls. Only one toy soldier is smashed by goat hooves and horns.

The toy soldiers begin to stick in their deadly spears and several goatrices succumb to the poison. The heavy foot soldiers make a countercharge and inflict more damage on the monsters, in part aided by Amaranth’s divine blessings. Without suffering any significant injury, let alone petrification, the goatrices are slain.

Not the scale figurines Jürg used, but the line of figurines that started this whole crazy endeavor (Elastolin)

The company continues to the chapel, when Jürg attempts to enter, he is prevented from doing so as if by an invisible force. Amaranth’s section of the expeditionary force begin to explore the chapel’s ground floor.

At the entrance, a font is fed by water from a lamb’s head statue with gemstone eyes. Shields painted green and blue hang from the walls. Frescoes depict a procession of maidens. At the far wall, a simple altar is covered by a bright white cloth with faint bloodstains. Stairs leads to the next floor.

Deciding to hold off on disturbing anything, Amaranth goes up the stairs. She inspects a room to the south and discovers its floor is covered by a mass of rats. She slams the door shut and goes up to the north door. This opens onto a study largely stripped of its furnishings. Papers litter a desk, a bookcase is filled with volumes, and a large black tome rests on a lectern.

Detect magic causes one book in the bookcase to light up. The black tome also strongly radiates magic. The cleric hastily grabs the volume from the bookcase, and large grubs crawl from it onto her hand and immediately begin to chew their way into her skin. Her retainers try to slap the worms from her hand but fail to remove them.

Panicking, Amaranth runs back down the stairs. Acting quickly, Jürg lights a torch and sticks it into the cleric’s hand, instantly killing the grubs. The cleric barely manages to retain her consciousness from the pain.

After a brief moment of respite, Amaranth returns to the study, and takes both the papers and the black tome. Meanwhile Jürg, still stuck outside the chapel, convinces his porter to take a dagger and pry the gemstones from the eyes of the lamb. His hireling does so reluctantly. When the second gemstone plops from its socket, the porter’s forehead erupts in steam and sizzling flesh. The poor fellow cries out in pain while clasping his face. In a flash, Jürg can see the man has been branded by some invisible force. The porter’s morale breaks, and he flees across the garden and into the castle.

Amaranth returns from upstairs to see what the ruckus is about. When she sees the dagger and gemstones lie on the floor next to the font, she decides to head to the altar to grab the cloth so that they can make their getaway. But before she reaches the far side of the chapel she hears a man clear his throat behind her. At the foot of the stairs stand the ghost of a judge wearing a golden pegasus brooch, taking in the scene with a frown on his face.

The judge, whose name turns out to be Roberto Malévol, is very suspicious of the company’s intentions. The fact that Jürg cannot enter the chapel is a dead giveaway in particular. Although he recognizes Amarnth as a cleric of law, the fact that she has no tongue disturbs him.

Deciding to not take their chances, the company carefully backs out of the chapel. The ghostly judge follows them all the way to the doorstep, and remains in the doorway, eyeing them intently.

The company decide to try and ignore the judge, and start combing the garden in search of the magic sword that is rumored to be buried there, named “Darkslayer”. While making their search they also spot the statue of a woman overlooking the lake from a balcony. Not far from the statue, a set of stairs lead down to the lakeside.

After quite some time of searching, Frida alerts them to the presence of a patch of blackened, barren earth. Not wasting any time, Jürg drops to his knees and begins to scrape at the earth with his axe. Some time later, he uncovers a large, vicious-looking zweihander. Jürg tries to scoop it up with a sack, careful not to touch it, but the sword compels him to pick it up anyway. Jürg gets up, raising the weapon, and the thing growls in a low voice “I… Am… Darkslayer!” The fighter, still under the influence of the sword, surveys his surroundings, and notices Amaranth standing not too far away. Darkslayer says “a cleric of law!” Kill her!” and although Jürg tries to resist, he once again fails, and can’t help but slash at Amaranth, wounding her badly.

The company panics. Amaranth runs for the chapel, her retainers in tow. Jürg’s remaining men-at-arms decide they’ve had enough and flee. Jürg raises up his sword again and with a mighty swing throws it at Amaranth’s back. Amazingly, the sword hits, and the cleric drops to the ground, bleeding heavily.

Jürg approaches the lifeless body of Amaranth, and the judge, who has been patiently observing the whole thing from the chapel doorway says “stop criminal, of to jail with you!” and tries to teleport Jürg somewhere, but fails. Jürg is just in time to revive Amaranth with a potion. The two run from the scene together, leaving behind a ghost and a sword, cursing them each for their own particular reasons.

Referee Commentary:

We nearly had to cancel this session due to low attendance. Luckily two players were foolhardy enough to try their luck in the castle anyway. Running for such a small party is always a lot of fun because there is more room for players to inject some color in their narration. I also don’t have to worry as much about ensuring everyone gets a decent amount of spotlight.

I don’t have much to say about what went down. The toy soldiers were a random item in stock at the magic item shop. Jürg’s player, true to form, then went on to ask me if he could dip them in the poison they’d once found. Of course he could, and so we had nine retainers with a save-or-die effect and one hit point each running around. This is the kind of shenanigans that classic D&D is all about for me, and so I did not begrudge them the lopsided victory over the goatrices.

Since our previous encounter involving a magic sword I had tweaked and streamlined the control rules. I’d also been in touch with Melan about how to interpret the EGO scores listed in the module. But still I found resolving control too fiddly. I think I am going to sit down and see if I can boil it down even more. If I do I will share the results at some point.

Despite all this, the scene was priceless. Before the session, when the players were exchanging ideas about goals for the expedition in our group chat, Jürg suggested going after Darkslayer. In response I posted the following:

A lawful cleric and a chaotic fighter team up to find a chaotic intelligent magic sword. Should be fine.

And “fine” it was, indeed!

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #23 – Pigeons from Hell

The Company:

  • Claus (T4)
  • Jürg (F3)
  • Fernando (F3)
  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Amaranth (C3)
  • Niemir (crossbowman)
  • Kea (handgunner)
  • “Fat” Jonas (porter)
  • Gido (light foot)

Loot:

  • 6.000 gold pieces
  • Plate +1
  • Chain +2
  • Corpse of a giant pigeon

Casualties:

Fat Jonas & Gido — cut down by a mob of undead lords, ladies and headless manservants; Claus & Kea — captured and consumed by the restless dead.

Report:

Jürg buys several cargo nets, and has a contraption fashioned that lets him anchor himself to a doorpost so that he’s safe from future portable hole mishaps.

Hendrik hires a band of musicians to play the sheet music they found during the previous expedition. It turns out to be throughly unpleasant.

Othmar, captain of the guard has escalated matters further. The company’s landlords are put under pressure to evict them. In response, Jürg goes to talk to the captain to see what can be done to make amends. Othmar demands a public apology and reparations of some kind. After much hemming and hawing, Jürg ends up paying the captain a significant sum of gold, and all things are forgotten.

Hendrik studies the records they took during the previous expedition and finds a pair of potentially useful hints related to specific hazardous areas of the castle. One involves a large animated boulder. The other a statue made of salt and a trio of statues that appear to be goats but are actually goatrices.

Shortly before their departure, Jürg goes into a secluded barn to load up his purchased cargo nets into his portable hole. Worried that it might open onto the void of space once more, he secures himself to a doorpost with his new contraption. When the hole opens, an enormous monster with the head of an elephant, crab-like claws and a tentacled belly begins to crawl out. Jürg manages to close the hole again just in time. When he tries to reopen it again, all is well. Jürg wipes his brow and shoves in the nets.

***

The expedition is led by Claus, who doubles as scout, and is also made invisible by Hendrik. They decide to have another go at the donjon, and find out what might be hidden up on top where the huge pigeons roost.

They enter through the gatehouse. Jürg searches the garden for the chaotic blade known as Darkslayer but finds nothing. Meanwhile Claus scouts ahead to ensure the way is safe.

Upon entering the outer courtyard they decide to give the statues a closer look. When they make fun of the hunchback it comes to life and tells them off for being such jerks. Somewhat shaken, they decide to leave the statues of the king holding a globe and the sightless ape-crocodile monstrosity well enough alone.

They head into the castle and emerge into the donjon’s torture chamber, on the ground floor. Up the stairs they go, and at the end they exit onto the balcony. From here, they climb along the rungs attached to the donjon wall and make it all the way up to the balcony on the next floor. From here, they enter the temple.

Remembering where the secret door was, they open it, and Claus sneaks up the ladder in the shaft up to the aerie. At the end he opens a trap door, and sees man-sized pigeons care for young. He also spies a large bell in the center of the aerie. The floor is littered with corpses. One is even hanging from the bell’s clapper.

The thief returns to his companions, and they come up with a plan to eliminate the pigeons as quickly as possible. Claus climbs back up, and tosses a week’s worth of rations onto the aerie.

Next, Hendrik climbs up, and when he sees several pigeons pecking away at the rations, he blasts them with a fireball, instantly killing several. Pandemonium breaks out. Pigeons attack the magic-user, trying to peck his eyes out through the trap door. Hendrik hurries back down the ladder.

Next, a complicated game of cat and mouse develops: Hendrik and Fernando climb up together. Fernando uses his halberd to push open the hatch. They hope to blast pigeons with a wand of cold when they stick their heads down the shaft. But the pigeons don’t show themselves. Hendrik climbs all the way up in stead, and sees that the animals have returned to care for their young. He takes aim at one small group and obliterates them with his wand of cold. He then drops down the ladder some distance, points the wand up at several of the pigeons who have now come to attack him, and manages to kill a few more. More pigeons rush the hatch, one grabs Fernando’s halberd and pulls it up. The fighter lets go of his weapon, and the hatch closes behind it.

Next, Claus, still invisible, goes back up to lead what they expect to be the final mop-up. He intend to backstab one of the monstrous birds, and then the rest of the company is supposed to rush out of the hatch to finish off the remainder.

Jürg, however, loses his patience, and attacks before Claus can do his thing. The two remaining adult pigeons rush the fighter. One is back-stabbed by Claus, and vaporized by a magic missile fired off by Hendrik. The other pigeon grabs Jürg, and flies off.

Pigeons fly, so be careful (Charles Robinson)

Jürg, rapidly gaining altitude, stabs his abductor. Others shoot at it from the aerie. The bird ascends a little further and then, with a murderous squawk, lets go of the fighter, dropping him to the castle rooftop over 50 feet below.

The pigeon banks and swoops down for another attack at the remaining companions on the aerie but is shot to pieces by another salvo of magic missiles.

Jürg plummets to his death on top of the banquet hall roof. Miraculously, he just barely escapes instant death.

The adult pigeons defeated, the companions begin to search the aerie for treasure. Meanwhile Hendrik levitates down the tower to come to Jürg’s aid.

They find a significant hoard of gold pieces. They also find a large gemstone, and strip several items that they suspect might be magical from the corpses strewn about.

Jürg is patched up with the help of two healing potions. Hendrik levitates back up to the aerie, and Jürg climbs up using a rope.

The gold is way too much to carry. They risk opening the unstable portable hole again. It opens without issue, and so they stuff it with gold as well as a pigeon corpse that they hope to sell to an alchemist.

They head back down the shaft but find a pair of awful corpse birds hanging around the temple. And so they return to the aerie, and all of the company climb down the side of the donjon, to the bridge connecting it with the south-eastern upper quarters.

Rather than end the expedition there, they decide to press their luck, and go down into the wine cellar to find another high-value barrel.

When they arrive there, they find a rotund monk sampling the wine. The man is not too happy to see them, and prefers for them to leave. Their half-hearted attempts at ensuring him of their good intentions have little effect. The fact that their only lawful party member, the cleric Amaranth, is a woman who literally has no tongue, does not help their cause much.

As things begin to escalate, the monk threatens to sound the alarm. Claus loses his patience, and him and his posse fire their weapons at the monk. He miraculously manages to survive, shouts at the top of his lungs for help, and downs a bottle of champagne. The company cut him down before he can do anything more. Thinking that’s that, they take a moment to loot the body, stripping him of his very fine-looking chain mail.

However, before they can turn their attention to the wine barrels, a veritable horde of undead lords, as well as a handfull each of headless manservants and undead ladies set upon the company from all directions. They are trapped.

Assuming the cause is hopeless, Claus and his posse make a mad dash for the exit straight through the ranks of their enemies. They disappear into the darkness. Hendrik uses his wand of cold to kill a huge number of the undead lords, all of a sudden turning things into a more or less even fight. Fat porter Jonas is killed. Newly hired man-at-arms Gido dies as well. Hendrik is almost throttled by a manservant but manages to blast it to smithereens with magic missiles. Amaranth manages to heal the magic-user just in time. The fighters hack away at their opponents, and they manage to turn the tide of the battle in their favor. The opponent’s morale breaks, and they prevail.

Without missing a beat, they run for the exit, without taking a barrel.

***

Off-screen, Claus and Kea are lost in the castle. The restless dead find them, and they end up being some awful fiend’s dinner. Niemir, somehow, makes it out alive.

Back in town, they identify a number of items, and haul the gold and dead pigeon out of the hole. Quite a few significant items of treasure were lost along with Claus, however…

Several companions go out carousing. Amaranth is fined for bad behavior.

Referee Commentary:

A session almost entirely consisting of two fights! We haven’t had anything like that in a while, maybe ever.

The moment Jürg was carried off by the pigeon was probably one of he first times we used the grappling rules. How it works is that the attacker makes a to-hit roll against the target’s un-armoured AC. Then on subsequent rounds to do something they must make a contested STR check. It’s a great way for monsters to get at heavily-armored player characters, like poor old Jürg. And he was none too happy about it.

The fall to the castle roof could have easily killed Jürg. In our rules you take 1d6 damage for every 10 feet, but you also need to save or die at 50+ feet. This applied to Jürg’s situation. He succeeded at his save, though. So he was in the clear and Hendrik’s player could take his time to come to his aid.

I make heavy use of reaction rolls for all encounters. The monk (Ambrosius) had a poor initial reaction to the party. He is a living, lawful Malévol family member, but the company has gradually taken a turn for the more sinister, and so I did not find it too surprising that the monk would not consider them allies. Furthermore my players appear to have little patience for negotiating with NPCs, particularly as we get close to the end of a session. Perhaps things could be abstracted further by negotiating some stakes on a more meta level. I might try that next time we find ourselves in one of these situations.

The fight with the lords, ladies and manservants was probably the biggest one I ran yet. When we started we had 30 monsters on the board. How I handle this stuff these days is that on my side of the screen I have a battle mat and dry erase tokens to help me visualize things. But I convey everything through description. On the player side things are entirely theatre of the mind. It’s kind of a best of both worlds situation, I’ve found. I have the benefit of keeping track of things more easily, but we don’t get bogged down into exact movement and positioning. Now that our magic-user is throwing out more than a few big-ticket area-of-effect spells, I plan to also make a few simple overlays for those.

Another first this session was that Claus’s player decided to take his chances with the table of terror. The poor fellow rolled a natural 1 and so that was that. Had Hendrik’s player not pulled out that wand of cold and destroyed all but 4 of the 20 lords that were coming at them, we may have had a TPK on our hands. So the choice to try the table made sense at the time.

Only three more sessions to go before we end this season. The players may go and try to find that chaotic sword next. I would love to have a fighter with an intelligent magic sword in my campaign, so I hope they succeed.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #22 – Your Own Personal Reaper

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Jürg (F3)
  • Fernando (F3)
  • “Loyal” Lukas (heavy foot)
  • “Fat” Jonas (porter)

Loot:

  • A bottle of wine
  • A box with six medals
  • Big rolls of crumbling paper
  • A naughty pamphlet
  • Pickle jar with moving eyes
  • Unlabeled booklet
  • Handful of paper records of adventurer exploits

Casualties: Lukas, the fanatically loyal heavy footsoldier, beheaded by the grim reaper’s scythe.

Report:

In the week preceding the next expedition, Othmar, the captain of the guard who was insulted by Jürg some time ago during a carousing spree, talks trash about the company to the men for hire who hang out in the town’s bars. They double their fees in response.

Jürg talks to some shady types in The Tap who are looking for a magic sword known as “Darkslayer”. They recognize him as a fellow member of the faction of Chaos. They tell him the sword will give people like them untold power. Someone, probably one of the members of the pious arm of the family, has buried it in one of the castle’s gardens. Its dark powers should make the sword’s presence obvious once you get close to it.

The company also toys with the idea of using Blérot, who is still hiding out with them, to get rid of Othmar, but they don’t follow through on the plan (yet).

***

A smaller company than usual makes their way to the castle. Hendrik is put in charge of the expedition. The magic-user decides to take a second stab at seeking out one of the castle’s laboratories.

During their approach they check on “Heinz’s bean”, planted alongside the castle’s south wall. They are pleased to see it has grown to a height of 20 cm and is happily dancing on the spot, the soil it springs from vibrating to an unheard beat.

The company enters through the grand entrance, ignore the ghost of James the butler, and immediately tack west to a large empty room. Here they take a thus far unexplored stairway leading up. At its end, they find a door. Opening it, they see a door to the east, a hallway opening onto a large room to the west, and straight ahead an alcove with the bust of a stern bearded crusader who is observing them intently.

Having not brought any clerics with them, they ignore the crusader, and head west into a feasting hall. Here they see a large table scattered with bones. There is also a tapestry depicting a knight fighting a swamp creature, and many shields with local family crests. The bones appear to be a mix of goat, sheep, and — as feared — human.

With a shudder, the company continues west into another hallway. Here, they are greeted by animated vines which appear to be minding their own business. The company however do not trust the things, and Hendrik taps one with his woodland staff, instantly destroying it. The remaining vine attacks. Fernando makes to chop away with his halberd but in a rare moment of ineptitude the thing slips from his fingers. However, Hendrik and Jurg make short work of the thing.

The company emerges from the hallway into a large two-story library. Hendrik immediately begins to browse the holdings with great expectations. Fernando, somewhat out of his depth, tries to help by looking at the pictures. When he finds a particularly salacious pamphlet he decides to stick it in his tunic for safe keeping. With the aid of a detect magic spell, Hendrik locates a unmarked booklet stuck behind a row of sheet music.

They explore a hallway leading north from the far corner of the library. The first door they try opens onto a storage space filled with rolls of yellowing crumbling paper. Jürg decides he wants to take them, because you can never be too sure, and spreads out his portable hole on the floor. However, rather than a portal to the 10-feet-deep pocket dimension, the hole opens onto a vista of stars and planets in cold, dead space. Air begins to suck from the room, tugging at its occupants. Before disaster can strike, however, Jürg manages to snatch up the hole again, saving them from oblivion. With balls of steel, Jürg once again puts down the hole, and begins to shove rolls of paper down into the pocket dimension beyond.

The company returns to the library. They try a door next to a hearth in the north wall and discover a large room with a number of lamentable hunchbacks chained to desks, diligently copying passages from books onto sheafs of paper. Upon inspection the passages appear to be invariable of a scandalous nature. Picking through papers scattered throughout the room they discover accounts of hapless adventurers meeting their doom in the castle in a variety of grim but amusing ways. At some point, a trap door opens in the ceiling, and papers are dumped down it by persons unseen.

Leaving the room again, they try yet another door in the library, and find a spiral stairs leading up and down. They head up to the second level and enter the upper floor of the library. They search the shelves for more notable items, and come across the statue of a reaper holding a book. Fernando goes off to check the connecting room to the east. Hendrik continues to search for books to the west. Jürg stays behind and — true to form — bashes the statue in the head. It animates and gestures an invitation to peruse the book. Despite knowing better, Jürg begins to read, and finds his own name. That moment, a reaper appears next to him, which immediately makes a swipe for his head with its scythe.

Time’s up! (Pieter Brueghel the Elder)

Jürg backs away while frantically pulling a potion of heroism from his pack. Fernando runs to come to his aid, as does Hendrik — in the mean time casting a protective spell on himself. Jürg downs his potion, and Hendrik casts another protective spell on the fighting-man. At that point, a second reaper appears who goes for the magic-user. Loyal heavy foot soldier Lukas comes to his master’s aid, and is rewarded by a reaper of his very own. Fernando stops in his tracks and decides not to make things even worse by intervening as well. He can only look on helplessly as his companions do battle with their own personal reapers. Lukas is hit by death’s scythe, is paralyzed, and beheaded. His reaper emits a booming laugh and disappears along with the poor retainer’s corpse. Jürg and Hendrik continue to fight for their lives. The magic-user defeats death with a relentless barrage of magic missiles. Jürg, meanwhile, simply smashes the reaper with repeated bashings of his mace +1. A close call indeed.

As they collect their wits, the reaper statue appears from between bookcases and shows them how he strikes out two names from his book before returning to his original location. The company look at each other, shrug, and continue their expedition.

The next room to the east is a spacious lounge. Decapitated heads growl at them from couches. A glowing orb hangs over a card table. A large tapestry shows a chronicle of the Malévol family. On another wall hangs a wood carving of a procession of kings playing instruments. Hendrik approaches the card table and is invited by a pair of animated gloves to join in on a game. Despite his sharp wits the magic-user loses the game due to shameless cheating by the ghostly dealer. When they investigate the wood carving the kings begin to sing ballads, one of which is about a gallant knight named Roland “who lost his fiery heart.”

They consider continuing to the next room east, from where they see faint glimmers of candlelight and hear the sound of music. But in stead, they check a door to the north and find a hallway with two more doors. These they ignore, head back to the circular stairs, and down to the first floor of the library.

In the library they go into a hallway leading north and take a door into a largely empty room. A door to the south opens onto a thoroughly ruined bedroom of what must have been a military officer. Hendrik inspects a weapons cabinet filled with a wide range of armaments. Jürg tosses the matras and is surprised to find something invisible was lying on it which hops off and in a gruff man’s voice calls “attention!” All the weapons, including those held by the company, rise in response and point threateningly at the companions. Jürg calls “turn left!” and the weapons move around in confusion, buying enough time for Hendrik to flee the room. Then, slapping his forehead, Jürg remembers, and shouts “at ease!” and the weapons drop to the ground. Relieved, they make a quick search of the room and find a bottle of wine and a box of medals in a hidden compartment in the bottom of the weapon cabinet.

When Fernando and Jürg join Hendrik outside the room they are attacked from behind by a pair of hand swarms that emerge from the now-dark captain’s room. One is almost immediately obliterated by magic. The other begins to chortle a distressed Fernando. Jürg manages to bash the hands from his compatriot, and what remains is soon enough dispatched by combined physical and magical violence.

The company decides they have had enough, and make their way to the exit the way they came. At the top of the stairs down to the ground floor they hear awful sobbing come from below. They see a lamentable figure wrapped in bandages that weep black puss cross the empty room that they were heading towards. With held breaths they watch it disappear, and then pile out of the castle as fast as they can.

***

Upon return to town they sell off the medals for a modest return. The unlabeled booklet turns out to contain weird music, a spell called “irresistible rondeau”, and a handwritten note:

“Should the hunter hunted be, decipher this mystery: his heart is stone, but a heart he keeps — if you catch him when he’s at peace”

Referee Commentary:

This session was just a delight. A smaller party makes for even faster play than usual. There were more than a few pleasant surprises and fun little moments while running. When we came to the library and I read about the reaper I was like “really, Melan?” and laughing out loud. My players have gotten used to it. The scene with the weapons was also one where I did not expect the players to immediately catch on, but they did, and it was a lot of fun.

I should also give a tip of the hat to Jürg’s player who, when confronted by the reaper inviting him to read the book decided to flip a coin to see what Jürg would do. A lesser player would have decided their character would not do it for fear of the consequences. Or they would read it “because that’s what my character would do.” But in stead, they went to the dice, mirroring the way I’ve been trying to run the game as well, with a suitable degree of detachment from my monsters and NPCs. Delightful.

I don’t really have any referee regrets, and we did not come across any rules issues, so I think we can keep it at that. The players have uncovered more than a few new clues related to that mysterious heart they saw light up over the impenetrable secret door in the ghoul tomb. Let’s see if they’ll pursue these further…

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Character Classes – Cleric

The cleric gets it (Stefan Poag)

Okay, here are some design notes on the cleric class in Hackbut. This is the first of the classic four classes that are in my game. I will cover them in alphabetical order.

As previously mentioned in “the basics”, the chassis for my classes is from Hungarian retroclone KéK.

Using the cleric as described there as a base, I added and changed the following things:

  • I explicitly disallow missile weapons. Some allow slings, for example, but I don’t like the visual image it conjures up. If a cleric wants to kill something from a distance, they will have to use flaming oil flasks or holy water.
  • I replaced the classic turn undead mechanic with a d20-based approach taken from Necropraxis. The only thing I changed was that players get to add their WIS mod in stead of CHA, because I interpret turning as an expression of true faith rather than leveraging your force of personality. The main reason I went looking for an alternative to the classic mechanic was that I wanted something that does not require use of a lookup table, because I am all about speed of play at the table. This alternate mechanic does skew the odds of successful turning and destroying significantly in favour of the players. But if handled as an encounter action, it does not upset game balance too much, in my experience. Also, in Castle Xyntillan, named undead can never be destroyed, only turned. (If you want something that is mathematically equivalent of the table-based OD&D mechanic, I recommend Delta’s take.)
  • With regards to divine spell casting, I have clerics not carry a spell book. They gain access to all spells of the levels they can cast automatically at level-up. They do need to memorize spells, just like magic-users do.
  • The spell descriptions in Hackbut are adapted from an unofficial OED-style list of cleric spells created by “baquies”. These are basically exactly the spells that clerics get in OD&D, but the descriptions themselves are streamlined and harmonized. They’ve been working great so far.

And that’s basically it. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, clerics work great in a pseudo-historical early renaissance campaign setting if you lean into their faux catholic demon hunter characterization. They’ve gone from a class that I’d rather cut from D&D, to possibly my favorite class of the classic four.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #21 – Snake Whisperer

The Company:

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

Loot:

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

Report:

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant snake, a sword and sorcery classic (Frazetta)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Referee Commentary:

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

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

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

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #20 – Tentacular Novelty

The Company:

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

Loot:

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

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

Report:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cthulhu, is that you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Referee Commentary:

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

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

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #19 – Bitten by Beets

The Company:

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

Loot: a fragile barrel containing ancient delectable wine.

Casualties: Gunther, mauled by an angry giant beet.

Report:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Referee Commentary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #18 – Icarus Complex

The Company:

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

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

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

Report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghouls. Bad news. (Jim Holloway)

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

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

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

Referee Commentary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Character Classes – The Basics

It’s been a while since I last posted about Hackbut. We’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, alignment and character creation. Now it’s time to dig into the character classes.

Hackbut has the four classic classes. I did not spend a lot of time debating this. OD&D has cleric, fighter and magic-user. Greyhawk added the thief, and after that, came the rest. But those four cover the spectrum one needs in a classic medieval fantasy game.

I have a conflicted relationship with the cleric. In my homebrew setting I lean towards sword and sorcery, and so demon-hunting clergy are a bit of an ill fit. But it was clear from the get-go that I needed clerics in there for compatibility with the assumed rule set for Castle Xyntillan. And upon reflection, now that we are (at the time of writing) over 15 sessions in, the classic D&D cleric can be a lot of fun if the setting leans into its pseudo-catholic nature. So yeah, the cleric stays. Four classes it is.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the chassis for the Hackbut classes are taken from the Hungarian retroclone Kazamaták és Kompániák (KéK). Ynes Midgard translated them into English on his blog. When I saw those I felt like I had the kernel in my hands for the D&D hack that I wished for. Really the main thing about them is that the progression goes up to level six. I like a low-powered game, so seeing an example of how it could be achieved in a classic D&D framework was inspiring.

I changed a few things about the classes of course, as a home brewer is prone to do. I previously talked about saving throws, how I swapped those out for the unified save from Swords & Wizardry. One more thing I changed since posting about that is to express that unified saving throw as a “base save bonus” that gets added to a d20 roll against a fixed target number of 15. Players continuously struggled with the original save mechanic. This appears to be more intuitive for them because it resembles the target 20 attack roll mechanic we use.

Then there were a few less significant changes. I massaged the XP values on the thief a tiny bit. It bothered me those did not start at 1.250 and progressed from there. An insignificant change, but I’m just particular like that.

Another tweak I made was to the weapons allowed for the thief and the magic-user. Again, mostly just small changes because of personal preference. The thief is allowed leather armor only (no shields); hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling. The magic-user is allowed no armor at all; and clubs, daggers and staves.

I made further changes to the specific abilities of each class, but I will save discussing those for future posts. I’ll just close by saying that those KéK classes have served me well as a base for my game, and I recommend checking them out.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #17 – Quest’s End

The Company:

  • Jaquet (F3)
  • Hendrik (MU3)
  • Bartolomea (C4)
  • Heintz (F2)
  • Davide (handgunner)
  • Cleo, Rivka & India (porters)
  • Edna & Franziska (heavy foot)
  • Gene (C2 retainer)

Loot:

  • Splintered jasper heart
  • One goatrice, captured alive
  • Three barrels of Malévol wine; one an excellent vintage, one an ancient essence, and one a healing draft
  • Chainmail +1
  • Crusader’s surcoat +2
  • The Oils of Cleansing

Casualties: None, but not for lack of trying.

Report:

While preparing for the next expedition, Bartolomea shows the severed head of the undead matron to various people around town in the hopes of getting its identity confirmed. Ultimately it is Madame Geraldine, director of the hospital, who confirms this to be Odile Malévol, aka “The Odious”. Bartolomea gets her confirmation in writing, and sends it along with the head itself to the bishop of Chamrousse.

Bartolomea also figures out what exactly the properties of the alembic holding a famous alchemist’s ectoplasma works. Turns out it can answer questions, genie-like, or be used as the basis for a range of potions.

Finally, Bartolomea buys a +1 mace from a traveling salesman. She succeeds in driving down the price by offering many blessings in return.

Jaquet gives his trusted porter India some more gold pieces to boost her dwindling loyalty. She responds favorably, and is keen to earn more in expeditions to come.

Jaquet also hires a handgunner, seeing as how he’s grown tired of shooting off his arquebus himself. He prefers to be in the front rank of the melee.

The magic-user Hendrik asks around about labs in the castle and receives a bunch of leads.

Inspired by the surprisingly profitable sale of the wine barrel from last expedition, the company decide to acquire a cart and two mules, so that they might bring back a bunch more on the next foray into the castle.

***

And with that, they arrive once again at the castle, on an average late February day, in the year of our lord 1526. They lead their mule-cart along the south wall to the grand entrance, and hide it around a corner.

Next, they enter through the grand entrance into the vestibule, move on to the large room with fireplace, desk and grandfathers clock, and go down the stairs into the wine cellar.

Keeping up the pace, they make their way towards the root cellar, but are fired at by skeleton guardsmen from a lookout behind a pair of murder holes.

Bartolomea runs towards the arrow slits, brandishes her cross and begins preaching at the skeletons. A bunch are destroyed and the remainder flee the sight of her. But they continue to fire at the rest of the party from the remaining murder hole. One of Hendrik’s heavy foot women raises runs forward, raises her shield, and courageously blocks off the other slit. The rest of the company make a run for the corridor that leads to the root cellar. Cleric retainer Gene then relieves the heavy foot and also successfully turns away the skeletons on the other side. When the full company has made it to safety, both clerics turn and run.

In the root cellar, the animated giant beets they encountered previously are napping. The company attempts to sneak past them unnoticed, but they are many and heavily armed, so inevitably a few beets wake up and begin to grouchily approach the company. They double-time it to the next corridor leading north, successfully evading the ire of the beets.

Bartolomea leads the company north along the corridor, ignoring doors previously inspected left and right. They reach the point where they had previously turned back, and press on. The corridor begins to transition into a cave tunnel. They notice a curious dead end to the east and stop to check for secrets, when the rear of the column raise the alarm. Something is approaching from the back.

At the edge of their torchlight appears the the living corpse of a lady dressed in purple and black, accompanied by a bunch of masked men in black pajamas. They recognize the creatures as the ones who had previously ambushed them and killed Hendrik’s heavy foot woman Lina.

The reference was obvious (Satsuo Yamamoto)

For a moment the two parties nervously face off. Then, Hendrik steps forward, deciding to try diplomacy for once. His friendly greetings are met with hisses, growls and the occasional “braaaiiinnnnsss” from the purple-and-black-clad corpse lady. Then, Bartolomea looses her patience and starts to make her way to the back of the column, holy symbol already raised. At the sight of this, the lady and her masked men attacks.

A lengthy melee develops. Aided by the choke point of the corridor the company ultimately prevails without suffering any casualties. They pull out all the stops — tossing holy water, firing magic missiles, and the heavy hitters in the front ranks some clad in magical armour, are nearly impossible to harm. The enemy is crazed and relentlessly stabs away even though they suffer heavy casualties. The corpse lady is hit not once but twice by well-aimed holy water, and melts into a puddle. The remaining masked men fight to the bitter end.

The dust hasn’t even settled, when something else approaches from the darkness. They hear a blend of bleating and crowing, and see an unholy goat-rooster hybrid enter their torchlight, looking at them quizzically.

Remembering that Jaques Valt offers a bounty for a specimen of these monsters, Hendrik tries to magic it to sleep. But the creature manages to resist, and it angrily charges the front ranks. They brace themselves for the petrifying headbutt, but the animals trips and falls, sliding to a halt at their feet. Keen on capturing it alive, the burly fighter Heintz jumps on top, attempting to grapple it. Bartolomea aided by others frantically tie it up with a rope, all the while managing to evade its whipping horned head. And with that, they have captured themselves a live goatrice.

One of the porters is tasked with lugging around the poor beast, which occasionally bleat-crows complainingly.

They take a breather, and search the remains of the murderous corpse-lady and her masked men. They find a splintered jasper heart which must certainly fetch a handsome fee.

The company then turn their attention back to the strange dead end. They spend some time inspecting the walls, and ultimately succeed in finding a secret door.

Beyond they find a cell with an undead monk writing away at a desk, and a bunch of bell clappers hanging from the wall. Bartolomea tries to converse with the monk but it mostly ignores her. When she reads some of his writing she discovers it to be tall tales revolving around a courageous and handsome monk. They search the cell, find nothing of value, and move on.

At this point, the majority of the company are eager to return to the surface, but Bartolomea refuses to turn back. She leads the company further up north.

The cave tunnel opens onto a large grotto. To the west is the shore of an underground lake. Here stands a bell hanging from a wooden pole with a plaque that reads “3 coins for passage”. There are also large double doors to the east. The grotto is shrouded in mist.

Resisting the temptation to mess with the bell, and resisting further urging from her companions to turn back, Bartolomea heads further north and enters another corridor.

At an intersection, she feels a cool draft from the north carrying the smell of incense. She presses on and they enter…

The cross-shaped chapel of her visions!

Excited, they begin to search the chapel. It holds benches for kneeling in prayer, and lots of minor saints’ statues. After a thorough search, they find nothing.

Standing in the center of the chapel, Bartolomea prays to her angel and God Himself for guidance, and hears a voice in her head say “X marks the spot.”

She kneels, taps the chapel floor, and notices a hollow sound.

The company sets to work, and lifts out several of the flagstones. They uncover a trap door. They carefully check it for traps, find none, and open it. Underneath is a shaft with a ladder leading down into the darkness. Bartolomea descends, and at its bottom finds a footlocker. She opens it without hesitation. In it are a suit of chainmail, a surcoat bearing crusader heraldry, and a vial holding an oil-like substance. Could this be The Oils of Cleansing, the object of her holy quest?

She carries the loot up the ladder back to her companions who are suitably impressed. They agree that now, finally, it is time to return to the surface.

Heading back, they manage to evade the ire of the animated giant beets, and are not harassed any further by the skeleton guardsmen. In the wine cellar, they can’t resist inspecting the contents of a few barrels, and when they find a some that smell particularly promising, they task their porters to carry them up to the surface.

Luckily, they encounter no further resistance from the castle’s denizens, and in the afternoon light, they load up their cart and make their way back to town.

***

Upon their return they have their loot appraised and identified. The jasper heart and the goatrice fetch a decent amount. But the barrels of wine are the real moneymakers.

They learn about the miraculous properties of the Oils of Cleansing. It can, among other things, cure curses. They put two and two together, and Bartolomea hands over the cursed tome of black magic she had previously recovered to the magic-user Hendrik. He is afflicted by its curse, feels the awful disease it causes take hold of him for a moment, and then comes to with a greasy forehead, Bartolomea standing over him smiling benevolently, vial of holy oil in her hands.

To celebrate, Bartolomea and Jaquet go carousing. The cleric makes lewd advances at what turns out be a witch and barely avoids being turned into a pig. The fighter wakes up the next morning in the local church naked. He has lost his +1 dagger and love potion. Father Brenard helps him up, and warmly thanks him for his visit. Confused and a little worried, Jaquet scurries off back to his residence.

Referee’s Commentary:

The players were elated at the end of this one. Not only did Bartolomea complete her quest and recover a major magic item, the barrels of wine also fetched an obscene amount of gold pieces, and so everyone gained an additional level.

At the top of the session I struggled a little bit with dialing in the correct size of a wine barrel. I have now settled on the historic British measure of 120 liters the standard Burgundy barrel size of 225 liters. But in this session I ruled they were about half that size, and so they were able to carry up and bring back a significant number without too much trouble.

I wasn’t too pleased with how I handled the fight with Gillz and her assassins. They make for pretty crap fighters in a straight melee, but by the time I realized this, they were already committed. I also neglected to make use more than once of Gillz’s double-poison-dagger attack. I imagined she would be carrying only a limited supply of them, but maybe it would have been, shall we say, more interesting if she’d been able to pummel the company with save-or-die missiles throughout the fight. Another thing I could have done, in hindsight, is to have her feign a retreat, hide in the shadows, and then backstab whoever came running after her. But the thing with all these clever ideas is that you need a moment to think of them. When you try to run a combat in a high-paced fashion, and it’s your turn as the referee to act as the opposition, you really haven’t had time to strategize. So I often find myself defaulting to simply attacking (or if morale fails, running away). That does not work with these types of combatants. Ah well, live and learn.

The company is riding high these past few sessions. They have offed a significant number of family members, and have also acquired a family heirloom. So I think the family may finally take proper notice of these scoundrels. I look forward to figuring out how they may respond.