Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #37 – Good and Bad Destiny

Welcome, dear reader, to the fourth and likely final “season” of our play-through of Castle Xyntillan.

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU6)
  • Jürg (F6/T1)
  • Noel & Göpf (porter)
  • Florin (bowmen)
  • Francesca, Nathalie & Liv (F1 retainers)

Loot: Oh boy. No mundane treasure was recovered, but the company did acquire a Horn of Blasting, a blue book titled Castle Xyntillan, a black book titled The Compendium of Champions, a crusader’s two-handed axe +1, and a plain gold cup containing powerful evil magics.

Casualties: Göpf and Florin, struck dead while trying to grab treasure; Nathalie, polymorphed into a snail by the eye beams of a giant snail statue; Francesca & Liv, slaughtered by undead crusaders.

Report:

It is Monday, September 2, 1527. Five weeks have passed since the last expedition by our nameless company into Castle Xyntillan. Having recovered the Scepter of the Merovings, the company set their sights on the mysterious stuccoed secret door in the castle dungeons, which they suspect may be opened by it.

Upon arrival, they make for the grand entrance. They keep an eye on the walls to see if any of their beans have sprouted. Most appear to have been weeded out by the skeleton gardening crew. But one sturdy stalk is growing along the south wall of the gatehouse.

They enter through the grand entrance, make their way down into the wine cellar without trouble, and head up to the tomb where once the company had an ill-fated encounter with a pack of ghouls, and lost many of their most powerful members and equipment. They go up the the stuccoed secret door depicting a dark-skinned man leading crusaders up a hill lined with palm trees. They hold the scepter up to it, and lo and behold, it opens!

At that very moment, however, the rear ranks are attacked by a lone ghoul. There is a moment of panic while Jürg pushes through to the melee, and cleaves the thing in two with one mighty strike of his chaotic magic zweihander, the Blade of Rel. With that out of the way, they turn back to the newly opened corridor, and cautiously head inside.

Jürg asks his blade if any traps are nearby, and it trembles with confirmation. They spot a suspicious-looking crack half-way down the corridor, and notice an elevated floor tile just in front. They drag the ghoul corpse from the tomb and toss it on the tile. It presses down, making a loud clicking noise, and the next moment, a huge blade slams down along the crack. Next, it slowly ascends again to the sounds of some hidden ratcheting mechanism. When they test the switch again, it does not trigger anymore. Gingerly, the company step over the tile one by one and make their way into the room beyond.

This room’s walls are decorated with portraits of various warrior saints with stern looks on their faces. Their eyes follow the company as they make their way to a door leading east. They enter a large room with a pool and several doors. They first check the door north-west. It opens onto a corridor that stretches into the darkness beyond their torchlight. They try the next door, leading east.

At this point, the players were joking about how it would be nice to come across a door with a sign reading “treasure” for a change. You won’t believe what happened next.

The center piece of this room is a circle of statues of dwarves in chains holding up a massive plateau. On it is piled a massive amount of treasure. Gold, gems, jewelry, magic items, weapons, scrolls and books. Oh my! The plateau’s edge is inscribed with: “To each hero, one treasure of far lands shall be the prize.”

The company agonize over what to do. Is it wise to grab this treasure? Might it be cursed? Etcetera. Finally, Jürg has had enough, and grabs the horn. The very next instance, they hear a loud bang of stone on stone, reverberating throughout the dungeon. They look at each other worriedly. Swallow, take a deep breath, and then Hendrik steps up and grabs one of the books…

Nothing happens. Puzzled, they next ask one of the retainers to grab something. Some resist, worried that it might be a trap or something. Finally, one of the fighting-women retainers is courageous enough to grab the other book. And nothing happens again. So then they convince bowman Florin to grab something. The moment he lays a hand on the treasure, his breath chokes in his throat, his eyes glaze over, and he drops to the dungeon floor, dead.

The company manage to hold it together, and speculate about why this might be. Hendrik and Jürg pressure porter Göpf into grabbing something despite what happened to Florin, and for some reason, the man is foolish enough to go for it. Alas for poor Göpf, his fate is identical to that of the bowman. Soon enough he lies dead on the floor as well.

They decide they have had enough of this room and will not push their luck any further. They return to the pool room. They next check the south door. They find themselves in another large room containing a massive statue of a monstrous snail. They make their way to the next door north, all the while wearily eyeing the snail.

The next room contains dazzling mosaics. From here they take another door north, and find themselves in a room with an altar on which stands a plain gold cup. Hendrik detects strong evil magical energies emanating from it. Jürg (who is aligned to Chaos) goes “great,” steps up to the pedestal and with one smooth motion tips the cup into a sack. Nothing happens.

They backtrack to the room with the snail statue and search it for secret doors. Sure enough, they find one in the south-east corner. They push it open, but something blocks it. Through a crack they see a massive stone block that was clearly dropped very recently.

That very moment, the snail statue animates and starts to crawl their way. They decide to make a run for the exit as fast as they can. They escape the room before the thing can get to them, but it does manage to zap one of the fighting women in their rear rank with a beam from its eye stalks. The poor retainer is polymorphed into a snail. The door slams shut.

They catch their breath and briefly mourn the loss of yet another companion. They decide they should check the door leading to that dark corridor which they abandoned earlier. As they cautiously move down it they pass gated alcoves holding sarcophagi left and right. At the end, a small circular room holds a glass case containing a huge double-headed axe. Before going for the axe they decide to check the sarcophagi. As they open the first one, a skeletal hand reaches out and an undead crusader knight starts to climb out. Meanwhile, the remaining sarcophagi are pushed open from inside as well, and more crusaders appear.

“God wills it!” (Eloi Firmin Feron)

The company decide to face the undead, but make their way to the door they came from, which should serve as a convenient choke point. When they get there they turn around, and Hendrik flings a lightning bolt from his wand back down the hallway. The crusaders are harmed but still going. The distance is closed, and Jürg and a retainer make a stand in the doorway.

A lot of hacking and slashing ensues. Hendrik uses many spells to increase the company’s powers, and reduce that of the undead. When that seems to be insufficient, he pulls out a scroll of protection from undead, and manages to turn away about half of the crusader fighting force. Still, the remaining fighting women are killed, one by one.

At the very end, Hendrik is standing next to Jürg in the doorway. They blast the crusaders with their wand of cold, Jürg hacks away with his Blade of Rel. And finally, the battle is won.

Very cautiously, they had back down the hallway. They know several undead crusaders have fled down it. When they get to the end they see several have returned to their sarcophagi. A lone crusader has ended up in the room with the axe in the glass case. They manage to flush it out, and turn their attention to the axe.

They smash the glass case, and grab the axe. They decide this is the time to leave. They move back the way they came until they get to a door behind which they know is the cellar of the donjon. A ghost once told them it lost her ring in there somewhere. They hear a lot of rodent noises from behind the door. Hendrik uses clairvoyance to see what is behind the door, and detects magic to see if he can find the ring. He sees a large circular cellar lined with alcoves. A lot of human remains and debris on the floor. But no ring.

They decide to definitively end the expedition there, and head back out of the castle and back to town without further issue.

Referee Commentary:

We’re back in that damn castle after a welcome Christmas break. I polled the players if they had enough, but some were keen on going for one more season. It’s clear we are nearing a climax, now that we have several very powerful characters in the company (recall that level 6 is the highest level in my homebrew version of D&D), and they have acquired many, many powerful items. Not to mention a ludicrous amount of wealth.

I keep urging them to think bigger than simply continuing to clear the dungeon room by room. Let’s see if they catch on. This session at least immediately kick-started things with a more or less complete looting of the crusader tomb. However, readers familiar with the module will know they made a very fateful decision in the treasure room.

Without entirely spoiling what the module states, as written it closes off a particular direction for the players entirely if they do something, but they have no real way of knowing this. (At least, mine did not.) So I decided to make it a little less definitive, but still hugely significant. That was the point of the thing with the secret door and the stone blocking it. Sorry for being so vague about it.

As I continue to tinker with our combat sequence, we are now trying full-on phases. So we revolve actions in the order of missile, movement, melee, and magic for both sides. Initiative decides who goes first within each phase. It worked okay, yielding some interesting dilemmas, and it nicely reinforces this idea that everything more or less happens at the same time during combat.

The fight with the undead turned into a bit of a slog. I guess I should have had them change tactics after the second round of simply exchanging blows in the doorway. But my mental bandwidth was too limited to come up with something, I guess. In hindsight, I think I should have had one crusader try and push their way past the front rank. Maybe using an opposed attack roll to resolve it or something? Would have been more dramatic.

The two books recovered in the treasure room are neat. The Champions book in particular is crazy powerful. As written it allows for summoning living or dead characters listed in the module, that were played by the playtesters. I decided to change this into any character lost by the players in our own campaign. They loved that, and have already decided to bring back good old Claus, who died after failing his roll on the table of terror.

And that plain gold cup. Oh boy. Readers who know about the module, know that it was particularly significant for the one chaotic character in the company to grab it. I am still puzzling over what the effects for Jürg will be. They have had it identified and know about its powers, they also know it contains a powerful malevolent spirit. But they don’t know who or what specifically is in there…

Categories
Notes

Year In Review – 2021 – Spitting in the Face of the Bat Plague

The second year of blogging has come to a close, time to take stock. Contrary to my hopes and expectations this time last year, 2021 turned out to be the second year of playing in times of a global pandemic. In spite of this, we managed to continue our gaming.

What we played

So what did we play? Most notably, I refereed two seasons of Castle Xyntillan using my homebrew classic D&D rules, Hackbut. Season two ran for 14 sessions, from late January to late April. Season three lasted 10 sessions and ran from mid-September to mid-December. In between these, from early May to mid-July, one of our players stepped up to “warden” a season of Mothership. We played one session of The Haunting of Ypsilon 14 and 10 sessions of Gradient Descent. Over summer I ran a two-shot of The Coming of Sorg, again using Hackbut. When circumstances allowed for it, we managed to resume our monthly face-to-face boardgame night. To celebrate, I acquired Kemet Blood & Sand, which according to many is the pinnacle of Matagot “dudes on a map” games. We managed to play this three times between late July and late October.

With regards to our ongoing Castle Xyntillan campaign I kept pretty extensive records. What follows is some data on attendance, character deaths, and experience points. Just for kicks.

Attendance

Like last year, our play group numbers 7 players, not including me. Most sessions had 2-3 players attending, with average attendance being 3,6. Season 2 had an average attendance of 4,4, season 3’s average attendance was 2,6. This drop in attendance is probably the result of a number of factors, including big life events for at least one of our players, and perhaps also some fatigue with online gaming setting in for a few others.

Attendance

The top 3 players were good for 66% of the attendance. This was 56% in the previous year. This shift can be explained mostly by one of our group not participating at all this year, and another only playing in the beginning of the year.

Number of players

Character deaths

Ah, killing player-characters, the thing every classic D&D referee enjoys doing the most. I am kidding of course, but still, deaths is a good indication of how hazardous my game is. Seeing as how a key distinguishing aspect of classic D&D is that it is a game of challenge for the players, character death serves as a reasonable proxy for it.

Deaths

In total, 10 player-characters died in the dungeon. That’s an average of 1,7 per session. The most PCs killed in one session was four, which happened during session #18 when the company had an ill-fated run-in with a bunch of ghouls.

Retainers were unluckier still, with a total of 27 perishing across this year’s two seasons, for an average of 2,3 per session. The most retainers killed in one session was five, during session #33, when the company got lost in a pocket dimension forest.

Overall, 37 characters were killed by the dungeon, for an average of 1,5 per session. I don’t have a baseline to compare these numbers to, so I really can’t say if I run an extraordinarily deadly game, or if I am soft-pedaling it. I guess over 1 PC killed on average every session is kind of rough, but I don’t go out of my way to try and slaughter them. In fact I often feel bad about not giving the players the challenge they deserve. Maybe this number is an indication I should relax a little on that front.

Experience points

In any case, was all that dying good for anything? I would say so. The players brought back 132.796 XP. This breaks down to 84.754 XP in season 2, and 48.042 XP in season 3. That is an average of 5.533 XP per session (6.054 XP in season 2, 4.804 XP in season 3). I think it is safe to say Castle Xyntillan is a pretty generously stocked dungeon, but not overly so. I think this nicely offsets its lethality. Yes it is easy to die in the dungeon. But it is is also easy for players to get back into the game reasonably quickly, and level up past those first fragile levels.

Experience points

All of this XP is from treasure recovered, at a rate of 1 GP equals 1 XP. I award no XP for killing monsters and in case you are wondering, magic items also do not yield any. Another important thing to note is that players get to divide XP between all player-characters that participated in an expedition as they see fit. I do not enforce shares for player-characters.

The highest single haul was 15.900 XP, in session #21 (in season 3, the biggest score was 11.660 XP during session #34). In general, it is those wine barrels in the cellar that are the real money makers.

The seven currently active player-characters between them have acquired 106.393 XP. The average party level is 4.

The lowest level character is Guillemette, a level 1 thief, with 432 XP collected over 4 sessions. But this character saw no action this year. The next lowest-level character is Robert, a level 2 cleric, at 2.529 XP, all of which was acquired in one session.

The highest level character is Hendrik, a level 6 magic-user, at 36.000 XP, collected over a whopping 24 sessions of careful, diligent play. Level 6 is the highest level in the game and the magic-user is of course the class that requires the highest amount of XP. Getting there was quite an achievement, well-earned.

Closely following Hendrik is Jürg, a level 6 fighter / level 1 thief, at 31.600 XP collected over 14 sessions. Jürg is the only multi-classed character in the game. I wonder if more will follow now that some of them are plateauing and have no use for XP anymore. It’s also worth noting Jürg began life as a retainer (and husband) of this player’s previous PC, Bartolomea.

Blogging

Moving on, what happened with the blog? I mostly wrote play reports, for Castle Xyntillan seasons 2 and 3 (see the index), as well as the Coming of Sorg two-shot (a, b).

I also continued to write up commentaries on my homebrew ruleset, Hackbut. This year I covered the four character classes, equipment, encumbrance and retainers.

WordPress tells me I had 3.519 views and 1.188 visitors over the past year. This is of course very modest, and in truth I pay little attention to this sort of stuff. I do promote my posts on the OSR discord server and my twitter, but not anywhere else really.

The best performing posts this year were the first Castle Xyntillan play report, the thief class, and The Coming of Sorg.

I got quite a bit of traffic through referrals from Beyond Fomalhaut (thanks Melan). Most of my visitors are from the anglosphere (US, UK, CA) and also from The Netherlands of course.

Looking ahead

I hope I will be able to keep our weekly online D&D game going. It is definitely something that keeps me sane, and a welcome outlet for my many creative urges. I think we have one more season of Castle Xyntillan in us. I might try to add a new player or two to our group, so that we push the average attendance back up to the 3-4 mark. We are a close-knit group though, so recruiting will have to rely on our immediate social networks.

After Xyntillan, I think I want to try my hand at running material of my own fabrication. I have come to realize that this is the purest form of D&D, homebrewing everything, and I want to experience it first-hand. I have been quietly chipping away at a mid-size dungeon (about 120 rooms across three levels) and am about half-way through completing it. It is strongly OD&D inspired, but filtered through my personal fantasy canon, which is very much in a science fantasy vein and includes things like Masters of the Universe, Storm, and The Incal.

Of course, once we are able to, I look forward to once again playing games face-to-face, but that will most likely mean more boardgames. I recently acquired both a copy of Tigris & Euphrates, and Quantum and I hope to get those to the table in 2022.

In terms of blogging, I will continue to write up play reports for as long as I referee games. I like keeping a record of what happened and most of all reflecting on what went well and what I can improve on as a referee. Occasionally I get a comment saying others are getting some use out of them as well, which is always nice. I also intend to continue the series on Hackbut, although we have now hit the section on running the game, which may lend itself a little less well to the kind of posts I have been doing so far.

In any case, despite circumstances, 2021 was another good year for me for gaming, and I hope to maintain this in the year to come, bat plague be damned.

Categories
Rules

Hackbut – Retainers

“Retainer” is the catch-all term I use in my game for NPCs that accompany player characters on adventures. I make no distinction between hirelings, henchmen, mercenaries, etc. In some editions, each serves a particular purpose: Some accompany PCs on wilderness treks, others also go with them into dungeons, etc. In our current campaign, town is mostly handled off-screen and we don’t do wilderness treks. It’s all about the dungeon crawl, so different types of retainer don’t add anything.

The reason for having rules for retainers in Hackbut is mainly so players can pad out their expeditionary force with some extra muscle. This way player-character death rate is reduced, without having to dial down the lethality of the campaign. Retainers are usually the first ones to drop, as anyone who has been following my Castle Xyntillan play reports will know. Retainers also add to the party’s carrying capacity, which nicely complements the rather strict encumbrance rules we enforce.

Okay, so how do they work? The short answer is that I lifted the Morale & Men rules module by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Sandor Gebei published in Castle Xyntillan (as well as Echoes from Fomalhaut #1). These are a coherent, comprehensive, but straightforward set of rules that fit on a single A4 page. They cover:

  • Determining the availability of retainers that takes into account settlement size, and includes light & heavy footmen, bow & crossbowmen, and mounted troops
  • Recruiting retainers
  • Determining their level
  • Loyalty and morale (very close to the rules in B/X, with a few clever tweaks)

I more or less lifted these rules wholesale, so I won’t describe them here. I will note the few small changes and additions I made.

  1. Rather than having all retainers be 1 HD by default, I say that non-combatants are 0 HD, and men-at-arms are 1 HD but have no class.
  2. I add a line to the table for determining availability of classed NPCs. These are the ones for whom a level and class can be determined as the original rules module suggests. The probabilities and amounts for village, town, city and metro are: 10% 1d2, 10% 1d4, 20% 1d6, 30% 1d8.
  3. These classed NPCs don’t take a per-expedition wage as the others do, but instead insist on a half-share of the expedition’s treasure haul (and as a result, because of the way my XP rules work, they also get a half-share of the XP).
  4. I say that unclassed retainers can be promoted into a level 1 class by assigning XP to them. For 0 HD this requires an initial expenditure of 1000 XP. I took this rule, like so often, from Delta.
  5. I added stat blocks for the basic retainer types to my rules booklet, which are largely based off of those created by Nic, with just a few tweaks to bring them in line with my flavor of classic D&D.

And that’s it, really. These rules have served us so well hardly a game has gone by we do not have at least a few retainers join the party. I cannot count the number that have perished in those haunted halls of Castle Xyntillan. At least one of the currently still active player characters, a level 6 fighter now, started out as a lowly porter. In short I can’t imagine playing classic D&D without retainers, and this set of rules make running them a breeze.

That’s it for this Hackbut rules post. With this, we have also come to the end of the equipment section of the rules booklet. The next section is “playing the game”, which is substantial, but also in many cases maybe less interesting to blog about section by section. So I will have to see how I will go about that. In any case, to be continued.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #36 – Assault on Lake Tower Part II

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU6)
  • Ezio (T3)
  • Jürg (F5)
  • Liv, Nathalie, Francesca (heavy foot)
  • “Randy” Florin (bowman)
  • “Griping” Göpf & Noel (porters)

Loot:

  • A bunch of soporific flowers
  • A poison dagger with a gemstone pommel
  • The Scepter of the Merovings
  • Bishop’s mitre +1
  • The Oils of Cleansing
  • Ring with inset gem
  • Fancy drinking horn
  • An eviction notice addressed to Aristide Malévol
  • A huge pile of gold
  • A Pegasus brooch
  • Several doses of poison
  • Potions of animal control, clairaudience, speed, levitation, extra-healing, and an oil of ESP
  • A spellbook
  • Two skulls with crystalline brains

Casualties: None!

Report:

The company decide to try their luck once more in the lake tower, hoping to this time finally make their way to wherever Serpentina may be hiding out.

Upon arrival, they spot the skeleton gardening crew again, weeding along the walls. They decide to rush them. One skeleton is blown to dust by Ezio’s discus and the remainder are smashed to bits by Jürg and the heavy foot soldiers. A lone skeleton manages to make its escape.

When they get to the grand entrance they see a pile of adventurers’ corpses. They do the usual trick of dragging them down to the river and dumping them in the water. With that out of the way, they enter the castle, and make their way to the throne room.

When they get to the throne room they find two headless manservants ambling about. They try to bluff their way past them, telling them to get lost. But the manservants appear doubtful. They are attacked and destroyed before they can do any harm.

They move on to the ballroom, and are relieved to find no phantom dance is taking place this time around. They pass through it and make their way to the hallway beyond, and up north to the overlook suite. Here they open the double doors to the bridge that crosses the lake to the tower. They take a moment to scan the waters to make sure the lake monster isn’t anywhere near. Then, they cross the bridge and enter the tower.

They immediately head up the stairs, and enter the drafty hallway. This time they know not to look behind them when they hear footsteps behind them. They go up the next stairs, and the Blade of Rel begins to tremble. Jürg barely avoids stepping on a suspicious-looking step. Across the way they see a cabinet suspended from the wall, ready to be dropped down the stairs towards them. Ezio moves up and inspects the step. He expertly disarms it by wedging several spikes between in. They leave the cabinet, just in case.

The next floor up there are two doors, and stairs going further up. Checking the north door, they hear the sounds of a legal proceeding. They decide not to mess with this one for now. The south door opens on a greenhouse filled with flowers. A heady smell hangs in the air. They quickly harvest a handful, and leave again.

They go up the next set of stairs. As they go, they suspect there might be a secret space behind it. At the top of the stairs they see only one door. They look for secret doors again, and find one to the south. It opens onto a room with wall tapestries depicting underwater forests. One carpet is torn down, revealing an empty niche. They tear down the remainder but find noting. From this room, a door leads west and another north-east. From behind the west door they hear music. They try the north door first.

They find themselves in what must be the room of a lady. A large comfortable bed, with odd colored lights dancing around it. A chamber screen with titillating decorations, and a huge ominously creaking wardrobe. They search the room. In the bed, between the pillows, they find a fancy dagger covered in a nasty-looking substance. They also recover the Scepter of the Merovings, soiled in a manner best left unsaid. Behind the screen is a boudoir littered with all manner of things, including an array of flasks and vials. Among these they recover the Oils of Cleansing!

Next up, they turn their attention to the creaking wardrobe, while Ezio messes with the strange colors floating around the bed. They open it, and find it is full of moth-eaten clothes, mostly gentlemen’s attire. Hendrik’s eye is caught by a bearskin coat. He pulls it out, and it comes to life to attack him. They manage to avoid surprise, and destroy it before it can do any harm. On the top shelf of the wardrobe they recover the bishop’s mitre +1.

Very pleased to have recovered all these lost items, they take the door to the north-west. This leads to a maid’s room, weirdly lit by stained glass windows. A nude woman lies on a couch covered by creased sheets, apparently asleep. A half-finished painting of her stands on an easel. The floor is covered by men’s clothing. A fireplace has two skulls on its mantle. They avoid the woman, and go straight for the skulls.

Meanwhile, Ezio clambers up the chimney to inspect the roof. He determines there must be an attic. He also looks across the lake for signs of the monster but does not see any.

As they approach the skulls the things telepathically warn them not to take them. Hendrik can’t resist the temptation, and takes them anyway. The skulls try to explode his head with their psychic powers, but fail. They are meekly stuffed in a sack.

Skulls. Memento mori and all that. (Philippe de Champaigne)

Next they return to the room with the wall hangings, and take the door west that had music coming from behind it. In this room there are more tapestries with the same underwater scenery. A pair of gloved severed hands play a harpsichord. One hand has a fancy-looking ring on a finger. They smash the hands and take the ring.

They spot a trapdoor in the ceiling. Ezio is boosted up there, and find himself in a messy attic space full of boxes and four chained and locked plain caskets. In the north-west corner, the floor appears to be weakened. Ezio pokes a hole in it, and through it sees a cell. Barred windows, chains hanging from the wall, a shaft in the floor, and four tiny gargoyles sitting in the corners.

All of the company make their way up to the attic. They empty the boxes, finding only trash. Ezio also tries to pick the lock on one of the caskets, fails, and they decide not to open them right now anyway. Instead, they tear open the floor, and drop down into the cell. The small gargoyles animate, and fly around excitedly. The company try to calm the things down but really rub them the wrong way, and are attacked. When the first gargoyle is easily destroyed, the remainder lose their appetite for violence and cower in a corner. The things are mercilessly pounded to dust.

They search the cell, and it turns out the ring in the north wall opens a secret door. It is a small space pulled with personal belongings, and a ledger on a stand. They search the pile and find all kinds of valuables. The book tells them these are items once owned by “visitors” of the castle and deposited here as “evidence”. They also find ancient entries referring to great relics, including the Grayl of Good and Bad Destiny (recovered by Médard Malévol). When they look for it, they also discover an entry referring to the Heart of Roland, recovered by Hubert.

They return to the cell, and peek down the shaft. They see another small space containing a huge chest. They climb down and see the chest is marked “property of Judges Guild, do not open”. The Blade of Rel trembles at the sight of it. It must be trapped. Ezio inspects it and determines it is not the lock, but probably the lid on the chest itself. He tries to pick it, fails, and Hendrik steps in to cast a knock spell. They then attach a rope to the lid’s clasp, climb back up the shaft, and pull the chest open. They hear a cracking sound, and the room below them fills with a gas. They wait for it to dissipate, climb back down, and see the chest is absolutely crammed with more gold than they can carry.

Or can they? Risking disaster in such a cramped space with no ready escape route, Jürg spreads out his portable hole. Lucky for them, nothing happens. They shove the chest into the hole, and decide it is time to leave. They head back the way they came. Along the way, Hendrik takes a moment to smoke his hookah, and loses a fireball spell to it. They exit the castle and make their way to Tours-en-Savoy without further trouble.

Referee Commentary:

A triumphant session for our players. They more or less cleared out the lake tower, and walked away with significant treasure, including several previously lost major items. They also lost zero company members.

A job well done, largely thanks to expert play, and a little luck of the dice. They were really smart about using the map to find secret rooms. The way they handled the trap on the chest was also very smart. The Blade of Rel’s power to detect traps turns out to be a major boon in this castle as well.

I also really enjoyed the encounter with the skulls. They were fun to roleplay, and the moment Hendrik’s player decided to go for it, knowing full well he was taking a big risk, was also quite tense. He does have a ridiculously good saving throw at this point, though.

Not much else to say, really. Next session is the last one of the season. Will they try and put their recovered items to use? Will we continue for another season in the new year? Who’s to say?

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #35 – Assault on Lake Tower

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU6)
  • Jürg (F5)
  • Ezio (T2)
  • Agnes (F1)
  • Robert (C1)
  • Francesco & Nathalie (heavy foot)
  • Liv (light foot)
  • Florin (bowman)
  • Ronja & Noel (porters)

Loot:

  • Crusader’s cloak +1
  • 510 GP from Patrice’s corpse
  • Gemstone eyes from saint’s heads
  • Blackened table silver
  • Large gemstone from a skeleton’s gullet
  • Horned helmet and flail from the same skeleton

Casualties: Agnes, fried by a razzle-dazzle lightning bolt. Ronja, shredded by animated porcelain.

Report:

While recovering from the previous expedition, several mushrooms from the forest pocket dimension are sampled. Hendrik, already feared by many in town, goes “screw it” and consumes one that turns him blue and rubbery and tougher to wound. Poor Agnes is handed a portion from Jürg with the promise it will make her stronger somehow, but instead she just turns red with white polka dots all over.

***

Having assembled a formidable expeditionary force, and knowing where they might find the relics they once lost to the near-TPK at the hands of the ghouls in the castle dungeon, the company decide to head to the lake tower to try and find this Serpentina who this one ghost told them has taken up lodgings in.

They enter through the grand entrance, head up to the throne room without trouble, and when they open the doors to it, they see a pair of hand swarms crawling around seemingly oblivious to their presence. The company do not hesitate and attack right away. The fight turns a bit rough, with Jürg being strangled for some time, but they ultimately defeat te swarms without much trouble. It does, however, deplete some of their resources. A few spells, and the odd healing potion to patch up Jürg.

They continue to the ballroom, but find another phantom dance in progress. Weary about losing any more to the ballroom’s curse, they take the time to seal their ears with wax. They carefully skirt the dance floor while they make their way to the sitting room. They reach safety, but do see the ghost of poor Niemir dance with a look of desperation on his face.

From the sitting room they go on to the empty room adjacent, and there try the door leading to the hallway that runs north to the bridge to the lake tower. When they open the door they are face to face with three razzle-dazzles. Jürg almost gets tripple-zapped, but manages to slam the door shut just in time. The company prepare themselves, fling open the door again, and engage the weird things in melee. Jürg and Agnes fight on the front line. The fierce but inexperienced Agnes is sadly no match for the creatures and soon drops to the castle floor still fuming from a lightning attack. Once again, however, they manage to defeat the things without too much issue.

The company is joined by a young cleric named Robert. They head up to the overlook suite, and open the double doors to the bridge across the lake. They carefully make their way across. Upon reaching the other end they can’t resist once again messing with the winch. It pulls up an empty cage, however. They continue on to the tower.

Having previously explored the main hall, they try the door to the north. It is a room filled with tattered cloaks hanging from hooks. Two specimens appear well-preserved. One turns out to be a dead cloak-like monster like the one they once fought in the vestibule. The other cloak is white with a Red Cross on one side and a red sword on the other. It is obviously a lawful relic of some sort. They take both cloaks with them.

Heading back, they hear someone milling about the hall. This turns out to be the grizzled and paranoid veteran they previously encountered, named Patrice. This time around, he does not have a small army of berserkers with him, though. Hendrik tries to cast charm from a scroll but fails. Robert and Jürg then simply attempt to bullshit him about some treasure which can supposedly be found near the grand entrance and succeed. When Patrice makes to leave, they immediately cut him down, and loot his body, finding little of worth besides a sack of gold.

Next they try the door to the south, which opens onto an empty storage space. A thorough search does not yield any secrets whatsoever.

They head up the stairs. At its head, they find themselves in a draft passage, lined with saint’s heads. As they walk down it, each of them hears a person walking right behind them. Only Hendrik and his two heavy foots do not resist the urge to turn around. They immediately each find themselves eye to eye with a black-clad assassin, who proceeds to choke them. Everyone fights back, of course, and Hendrik even manages to draw his wand of lightning and zap his assailant. The masked murderers are eventually cut down.

The company search the passage and find some of the saint’s heads have gemstone eyes. Those are of course removed, but not before receiving Robert’s blessing. They see stairs leading further up, and pair of doors leading west. They decide to try these first.

They find themselves in a dining room. The severed head of a cook sits on a table, with a bell next to it. The table is set with blackened silverware. A chained cabinet is over in one corner. A strong smell of spices permeates the room. Jürg immediately begins to shovel silverware into a sack. A mummy, the source of the smell, bursts into the room from the west door. Several of the members of the company are paralyzed in terror. The rest attempt to fight it but only magical weapons harm it. Hendrik regains his courage, and tells everyone to back away from the mummy. He flings a fireball at it, and the thing lights up like a torch. Not yet destroyed, it pursues Jürg, but stumbles and falls. The company make short work of it as it tries to get back up.

Mummies, always in a bad mood when woken up (Dave A. Trampier)

They loot the room, and are intrigued by the cabinet. The Blade of Rel trembles at the sight of it. Ezio is asked to disarm whatever trap it might contain, but the thief quickly ascertains it is not mechanical in nature. The next plan is to drill a peep hole to see what is inside. But Jürg loses his patience and simply cleaves open the cabinet with his zweihander. The thing bursts open, and spews porcelain shards all through the room. Most only suffer cuts and bruises, but poor Ronja is not so lucky and expires from her wounds.

They check the door to the west, but it leads to another hallway with more doors. In stead they try the door north, and discover a large kitchen. A massive pot is bubbling away on a stove, an animated spoon stirring away. Various supplies are stacked in the room’s corners. The Blade of Rel trembles again… Jürg pulls out his hammer and sickle and steps into the room spouting gibberish about the means of production in attempt to banish the spoon. He succeeds, and the spoon jumps through a window and into the lake several floors below with a loud splash.

They search the room and fill a flask with bouillon. Ezio is nearly infested with rot grubs when checking on the wheels of cheese. They find a skeleton with a horned helmet and a flail. It is smashed open, and out rolls a massive gem. They take all of it, and decide it is about time to head back. They make their way out of the castle without further issue.

Referee Commentary:

The largest number of players in quite a while. Refereeing for such a large group online is quite the workshop. But this was a very satisfying and fun session. Don’t believe I have any real refereeing regrets this time around, which is good to make note of.

There were lots of random encounters, which slowed the players down on their way to the tower and depleted their resources a little. They also had no luck with doors. Many were stuck, and many open door checks were failed, which I rule means they need to make a lot of ruckus to get it unstuck, and as a result trigger another encounter check.

Agnes’s player can get no luck lately. They lost another level 1 PC. Agnes’s stats were very bad though, so they weren’t too sad about it. Robert, their cleric, has already reached level 2.

I handled the mummy’s terror by requiring a morale check from retainers and a save from PCs before they could act in an offensive manner.

One thing I might do differently going forward is when resolving attacks of the same kind aimed at the same target, only confirm the kill after all rolls have been made. That makes it a little more satisfying for all the players involved, and emphasizes the supposedly simultaneous nature of action.

Another session coming up soon. We are already nearing the end of another season. Will they return to the tower? Will they find Serpentina and confront her? Only one way to find out.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #34 – Out of the Woods, Into the Maze

The company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Jurg (F5)
  • Ezio (T1)
  • Julia (heavy foot)
  • Gido (porter)

Loot:

  • 400 GP
  • Mace +2
  • One scroll: protection from undead
  • Three potions: extra healing, animal control, plant control
  • Seven kinds of magic mushroom, one for each color of the rainbow, three samples each
  • Eight pairs of crystal eyes
  • Five barrels of wine of varying quality
  • A golden candlestick
  • Five gems shaped as Platonic solids
  • A pearlescent giant spider egg
  • Mediocre philosophy papers
  • A dagger +1, +2 vs. beasts

Casualties: Gido and Julia, bludgeoned to death by anti-monks.

Report:

We pick up the action where we left off last session. The company has stumbled into what appears to be a magical forest realm. They have no idea how to get back to the castle.

They arrive at a clearing in the woods with a chapel near collapse. A cleric emerges, waving at them. The man is clearly garbed in satanic garb. Similarly dressed monks are milling about the grounds. Jürg steps forward and does the talking. The heartbroken fighter has turned to the dark side ever since his break with the late Bartolomea. The cleric, who introduces himself as Venger, eyes Hendrik’s crusader surcoat suspiciously but is taken in by Jürg’s impressively gnarly arms and armor. They chat for a while, and Venger points them to a park where they might find this castle they are looking for, and a stone circle where the lord of this realm, a man known as Runcius, can usually be found. They make to leave but the anti-cleric stops them, demanding something in return for the help he just gave them. Maybe that nice big evil-looking sword Jürg is carrying? Jürg disagrees and without warning makes to chop Venger’s head off. He misses completely and loses his grip on the sword. It flies across the chapel floor. Monks jump and grab the fighter. The rest of the company runs outside. Hendrik immediately casts levitate to get out of harms way. Ezio hides in the bushes.

Monks stream out of the chapel and engage poor Julia and Gido. Inside, Venger begins to stab away at the helpless Jürg while he struggles to break free. Outside, Gido is immediately slain. Hendrik casts plant control and entangles some of the monks. Julia also falls to the many strikes of the monks. Ezio sneaks back into the chapel and flings his sickle-shaped discus at the anti-cleric. Jürg breaks free and dives for the Blade of Rel. Outside, Hendrik blasts the monks with a fireball from above, instantly killing all of them. Inside, Jürg cuts down the remaining monks and faces off agains Venger. The anti-cleric turns and runs. They chase him for a while but fail to catch him.

After taking a moment to morn the loss of the last remaining retainers, they search the chapel. They find a magical mace, and a scroll. They head back the way they came, having decided to seek out the mushroom garden the shepherd mentioned to them.

Upon arrival they see huge mushrooms of all colors of the rainbow, and an enormous caterpillar sitting on a toadstool, smoking a pipe and reading a spellbook. The caterpillar is very friendly. He also appears to know exactly what they are thinking. The mentions two ways to go if they want to exit this “world”. The caterpillar also tells them it dearly wants to change into something. It asks Hendrik to promise to come back and help him do so. In return he will receive the caterpillar’s spellbook and amulet. Meanwhile, Jürg collects samples of all the varieties of mushrooms present to bring back to town for inspection. They bid the caterpillar farewell, and head back the way they came. Back across the hilly meadow, through the forest, back to where they originally entered. They now see a small trail leading deeper into the woods, which they follow. After some time the trail widens again, they hear the sound of woodland animals, and they emerge… into an indoor garden!

***

They have managed to get back to the castle, but they have arrived somewhere different from where they left. There is a glass roof overhead, and animated trophies on the walls with crystalline eyes. They remove those eyes, while the animals complain loudly. Next they listen at the door south, and hear wheezing and shuffling.

They throw open the door and see four desiccated skeletons with huge claws, moving slowly about the room. The company immediately attacks, and the skeletons are slain without much trouble. They search the room’s writing desk and liquor cabinet and take away some sub-par philosophy and three unidentified potions.

They peek out of the window to orient themselves, and see the courtyard with rose garden, gate house and so on. They then move up to the next door leading east. This opens on a parlor with multiple family portraits, a helm floating over a chair, and a badly damaged closet with an axe still stuck in it. On the floor is a huge carpet with the Malévol crest of arms. They try their hammer and sickle on the helmet but nothing happens. They carefully move to the door north, which opens onto a hallway with red velvet carpet.

They head west and north, and arrive at a dead end with one door east. From behind it, they hear machine-like humming and the sound of static crackles. They decide not to try their luck here, and backtrack.

They head north and west unseated, following the hallway to its end again, passing several doors, one of which a revolving one. They first try the north most one, and find a bedroom. A swine in pajamas is snoring away on a bed. Next to it is a gold candlestick magically emitting light. Weird shadows dance on the walls. A desk is stuffed with papers/. Ezio sneaks in but is mesmerized by the shadows. They come to life and make to attack him. Hendrik whips out his wand of cold and in a moment of brilliance blasts the swine and candlestick, extinguishing the light and disappearing the shadows in the nick of time. They plunder the room, taking the candlestick and pulling a bag of curiously shaped gemstones from the desk.

They check the other door in the room, but it opens onto an empty corridor leading nowhere. So they backtrack to the carpeted hallway and for a moment consider trying their luck with the rotating door. But the Blade of Rel begins to tremble nervously in Jürg’s hands, so they are quite sure it is trapped. In stead, they move on to the one remaining door. Please let this lead to a way out of the castle! The door is locked. From beyond it they hear low feline grumbling…

As Ezio attempts to pick the lock, they suddenly hear several voices shout “boo!” from behind their backs. It’s a bunch of those black-clad assassins. They just stand there for a moment and laugh at them, and then head the other way. Somewhat puzzled, the company decide to let them leave.

Ezio picks the lock, and they carefully move inside. It is a huge throne room lit from numerous glass “eyes” set in the arched ceiling. At the far end, a huge figure sits slumped in a throne, flanked by two suits of armor. The creature is shrouded in hellfire, and has a cat-like face. It holds a single rose which it appears to be gloomily contemplating. The creature appears to not notice or otherwise ignore the company. There is a door to the north and south.

The Beast (Jean Cocteau)

They sneak up to the north door. It opens onto another bedroom, this one clearly furnished for royalty. A portrait of Count Giscard hangs over a canopy bed littered with large pillows, a finely decorated dagger stuck in the headboard. There is also a writing desk. Jürg is foolish enough to inspect the portrait and is mesmerized by the count, who invites him to visit him in his suite. They make to search the bed, but the pillow come to life with huge slobbering toothy maws, making to eat them. They manage to evade the damn things and run from the room, but not before Hendrik pulls the dagger from the headboard. They manage to escape the throne room without the figure reacting.

Back in the hallway, they are now truly desperate about finding a way home. Then, Jürg remembers the indoor garden has a glass roof. And Hendrik can levitate, can’t he? That’s it! They return to the garden, Ezio smashes the roof with his discus, and Hendrik carries the company one by one up to the roof, and down again into the courtyard. With that, they have managed to escape, and relieved, head back to town.

Referee commentary:

Boy oh boy, one of the most dramatic sessions of the campaign so far. Starting in medias res was a nice change of pace. Normally there are always some preparations to take care of, which I consider part of the fun. But this time we could start out right away with an encounter, which of course is also cool.

We had one absentee player (Ezio’s). They agreed we would have the character still be there, but he would be run like we do with retainers, under shared control. I also promised we would not but the character in more risk than absolutely necessary. It was a close call there for a second in the bedroom with the shadows, but they made it out alive.

On the fight with the anti-cleric and monks: the grappling of Jürg we now resolved with an opposed attack roll, which is quick and easy and feels about right. So I think we will keep that. Stabbing a helpless opponent per Hackbut rules auto-hits for max damage. Which on paper looks okay, but in the case of a level 5 fighter being attacked with a dagger means the opponent needs to do a lot of rounds of stabbing before they are actually down. Still seems about right for a character of such heroic stature.

The caterpillar was a lot of fun to roleplay. They got box-cars on their reaction roll, so I decided this was the perfect moment to “fix” my “mistake” from last session, and outright tell them where the ways out of here are. Of course, the caterpillar does not know what is on the other side of those exits, so they ended up emerging in a different part of the castle with no immediately obvious way out. This led to the dramatic second half of the session.

Speaking of reaction rolls. They also lucked out on a reaction roll for those masked murderers. Friendly, so I had them play a prank on the company. Seemed in keeping with the spirit of the module, and I like rolling reactions for all encounters, even dumb stuff like plants, just to add variety to how they play out.

They finally encounter the Beast! They were very scared of this thing, I think, and absolutely did not want to engage. Hopefully they will run into it again…

The moment when Jürg’s player had that light bulb go off about a possible way out through the roof was classic D&D play at its finest. So I decided it should just succeed, no rolls required (except a final encounter check). It was just too good.

They made it back to town with an absolutely massive haul. As a result, Hendrik, the magic-user reached level 6. Quite the achievement, the first player to do so. It took them 21 sessions. And now they have a very powerful PC to continue to play with, or, if they like, they can start leveling a second character. I am curious to see which way they will go.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #33 – Lost in the Woods

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Jürg (F5)
  • Ezio (F1)
  • Julia, Bettina, Alexandre, Isak & Bern (heavy foot)
  • Gido & Julian (porters)

Loot: None.

Casualties: Julian, molten by green slime. Bettina and Alexandre, killed by poisonous giant spiders. Isak & Bern, fled into the woods.

Report:

After some debate the company decide to have another go at looting the wine cellar. They enter through the grand entrance and make their way downstairs speedily. Upon arrival, Jürg has his porter tie a rope around his waist. The rest of the company stands at a safe distance as he places his unstable portable hole. The hole opens without issue. The company begin to methodically tap barrels. Promising specimens are lowered one by one into the hole.

Suddenly, porter Julian, who was also on wine sampling duty, starts screaming. The barrel he just tapped is spilling green slime, and he has managed to get it all over his hands. They quickly, close the tap on the barrel, and Hendrik opens the one on the last one he was checking, which contained something resembling vinegar. Julian collapses arms outstretched in the stream of sour wine. The slime washes away, and he is left with two stumps ending just below the elbows. His arms continue to transform into slime. Jürg takes his sword and in one blow severs the poor porter’s arms. The transformation is ended, but Julian also expires from the trauma.

With extra caution the company continue their plundering. As they do so, the ghost of a fair lady holding her severe head in her hands enters the circle of their torchlight. She appears to be looking for a ring. The company engage her in conversation and she appears reasonably friendly, although it is clear she has a strong dislike for Jürg. They ask her about where in the caste it might smell like sulphur and perfume. The ghost responds “you mean who rather than where” and continues to describe this demoness who has made her home in the lake tower, by name of Serpentina. Then she asks for directions to the donjon, because that’s where she thinks she may have misplaced her ring. The company send her the wrong way.

They once again return to the further looting of the Malévol’s supply of wine. While hauling barrels, Jürg notices a bricked up doorway in the north wall, and a secret passage beyond the east wall. They finish up lowering one more barrel into the portable hole, pack it up, and then open the secret passage.

It reveals a stairway leading down

Amazed and excited abut the prospects of a second dungeon level, the company cautiously begin to head down the stairs. As they descend, their senses begin to play tricks on them. One moment they are still on those stone steps leading down into darkness, the next they are on a forest path, yellow leaves crunching underfoot. Shocked, they check the way they came, but it leads to a dead end. They have no choice but to continue down the path.

“Where the heck are we?” (George Hodan)

They arrive at a T-junction. Further on they hear the sound of running water. From the right turn they can hear the soft bleating of sheep. They turn right. After about a half hour’s walk they arrive at an opening in the woods with steep green hills. It appears to a bright spring day here, whereas the forest they have been traversing is shrouded in autumnal twilight. They see a flock of sheep, and a shepherd snoring away under a tree. They head up to the shepherd, who appears to be counting sheep in between snores, and wake him. The man is startled by the company’s appearance, and does not appear to know much about the world our heroes have found themselves in. He does appear to be very afraid of Runcius, “the dark man of the woods” whom appears to rule over this domain. The shepherd also mentions the huntsman Hubert, but comments they haven’t seen him for quite some time. The company give each other knowing looks. They ask the shepherd about who might be able to help them find their way back home, and he points them in the direction of a chapel, but does warn them about the nest of giant spiders along the way.

They set out down the path indicated, and after a short walk arrive at an intersection covered with silvery webs. They test the strands with their weapons, and several spiders come out hiding, attracted by the disturbance. The company immediately attack. The spiders, determined to protect their lair and the eggs within, of course respond by fighting back. As the melee develops, more waves of spiders keep appearing. Several mercenaries fall to the creatures’ poisonous bites. Several retainers run away at the sight of the carnage. Ezio makes good use of his gifted discus +1. Hendrik picks off spiders with magic missiles. Jürg’s toy soldiers kill several spiders with poisonous stabs of their own. And Jürg himself cuts down one spider after another with his Blade of Rel and his superior fighting prowess. When the dust settles, they’ve killed nine spiders and a final one flees.

They inspect the nest and its eggs, take one egg, and torch the rest. They continue on, and after some more time arrive at an opening in the woods with a crumbling chapel. A cleric emerges, dressed in obviously chaotic garb, and waves to the company as they approach from the woods.

And we fade to black.

Referee Commentary:

It’s a truism I never know what to expect going into a session of Castle Xyntillan, but this turn of events I certainly did not see coming.

First we spend a ludicrous amount of time playing out the looting of the cellar. I mean, if players want to do that sort of thing, I am there to facilitate. We streamlined things quite a bit, but hey, figuring out what is in those barrels, describing it, and players deciding what to do in response takes time at the table.

And then that secret passage got discovered. This was just sitting there for I don’t know how many sessions of play in that particular room. I had completely forgotten it led to the Indoornesse and so that threw me for a loop.

This is also where I fucked up, basically.

The map only indicates the stairs lead to “R”. I feverishly scanned the Indoornesse map and key to find where the passage from the wine cellar might lead to. On the Indoornesse map it is erroneously listed as “M13” next to “R10 Hermitage”. It is correctly listed in the key for that room, but I did not spot it in my hurry. But most stupidly I did not think to take a moment to check the key for M1 itself, and it is plainly listed there, below the random table for wine barrels. So yeah, my hurry to keep the game moving combined with a few minor errors in the map, and a key that takes a bit of time to parse, conspired to me making a decision on the spot that the transition into the Indoornesse would be dream-like, and that the players would start out in the bottom right of the map at the dead end that actually connects up with L23. (Another key I overlooked.)

The consequences of this is that the players were trapped in this dream land, and that the game was now all of a sudden about escaping back home. This meant for the first time we were forced to stop play in the midst of the action, breaking my “always return to town at the end” rule, and offering further challenges for when we pick up again with regards to absentee players or previously absent players joining.

I guess I will have to roll with the punches now. I will not correct my mistake and we will play through this until players find one of the ways back. I won’t make it any harder on them than necessary of course. And once we wrap up this episode I will probably own up to my mistake and make sure they understand they can now freely move between the Indoornesse and the castle as they like.

It’s been a while since I’ve really regretted a call I’ve had to make because I felt unnecessarily rushed. Time to recommit to allowing myself to take breaks to properly figure something out at the table when it is clear I absolutely have to.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #32 – Last Dance

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Niemir (F3)
  • Madlaina, Isak, Bettina, Julia (heavy foot)
  • Frido (porter)
  • Margaret (C1)
  • Agnes (F1)

Loot: incriminating guestbook, glass slipper, a dozen silver cups, magical hookah, a dozen landscape paintings, six golden harp strings, a half-moon shaped discus +1, and a bunch of nasty mold.

Casualties: Niemir, doomed to dance the tarantella for eternity. Frido and Madlaina, fled into the darkness of the castle, missing, presumed dead. Margaret, trampled to death by a vivisected horse.

Report:

The company decide to try and breach a new section of the castle, heretofore unexplored: the part to the north-east. Their aim is to see if they can find a way that leads to the bridge across the lake to the lake tower.

They enter through main entrance, pass through the portrait gallery, and move on to the throne room. Along the way they check a door to the east, which opens onto a hallway that leads off further east into the darkness. They ignore it and move on. When they get to the throne room, it is unoccupied.

They immediately continue towards the ballroom to the north. As they listen at the doors, they hear music and dancing. They open the door and see a group of phantoms dance to music performed by an invisible orchestra. They carefully, and half-dancing, cross the dance floor towards the first door east. However, most of the members of the company are overcome by the irresistible urge to join in with the dancing.

Luckily, a couple of retainers are unaffected, and they come to their companions’ aid. Most snap out of it, except for poor Niemir. The company look on in horror as the music begins to fade along with the phantoms, and Niemir himself as well blinks out of existence.

When all is quiet, a spectral maestro appears on stage at the north end of the room, takes a deep bow, and is then sucked screaming into a crack in the wall. Dejected, they search the room. They find a guest book filled with names of notables from Tours-en-Savoy and beyond, which might come in handy as leverage. They also find a single glass slipper…

May I have this dance? (Hieronymus Janssens)

Moving on, they try the first door to the east. Here, they find a sitting room, with lots of nice landscape paintings, comfortable couches, and a hookah filled with swirling blue mist. Next to it on the table are some nice silver cups. Those are swiped right away. Hendrik can’t resist trying the hookah. He feels magical powers sucked out and pushed back in, and ends up acquiring a new spell: rope trick!

A militant nun named Margaret appears in the doorway and immediately joins the company. They continue to search the room and find a secret door leading to a shooting gallery hidden behind the east end of the throne room. Several loaded crossbows and cases of quarrels lie about. Hendrik notices in time a crack in the floor boards near the secret door with a bear trap hidden inside. A retainer sets off the trap with their spear, and they head inside to search the gallery. They find nothing.

Returning to the sitting room, they next head through the door to the north. This opens onto an empty room with doors leading north and east. They try the east door first, and see a hallway leading north and south. Returning to the empty room, they try the north door next, and find it opens onto a corridor zigzagging north-west.

As they explore it, they come upon ancient signs of a battle fought. At the end of the corridor, they find another door, north. They try it, and find a smallish room littered wuth yellowing sheet music. A decrepit harp and clavichord are played by ghostly shimmering outlines of musicians. The harp appears to have strings of gold. They move into the room, search it, and smash the instruments to pieces in the hopes of bringing back Niemir, to no avail. The musicians’ ghosts impotently toss sheet music at them. They take the golden strings, and leave.

Backtracking, they enter the corridor they found earlier. They head up north, and pass a nook with the statue if a reaper bearing an ominous inscription: “Dost thou desire the burden of thy death?” The nook and statue are carefully studied for secrets, but they avoid messing with the statue itself, remembering the confrontation with the personal reapers some time ago.

Continuing north, they enter a room with a view of the lake. It contains pots with decayed plants, and a pile of rubble covering something large in the middle of the room. The pots turn out to contain chewed-on bones and rotting meat. When they remove the debris they uncover a vivisected horse. Once free from the debris it gets up, but before it can rear on its hind legs and speak, Margaret whacks it in the head with her mace. The horse whinnies “why hast thou forsaken meee?” The rest of the company look on in horror as the horse tramples Margaret to death, and immediately starts tearing off her flesh. Now that the horse is distracted the mercenaries move and attack. Hendrik fires off a magic missile. The horse is quickly destroyed.

A fighter named Agnes appears, and immediately joins the party. They open the double doors to the east and find themselves on the bridge crossing the lake towards the tower. It appears slippery and treacherous, so the company carefully start moving across it. A huge dark shape appears under the lake surface, heading their way. They continue to cross, hoping to get to the other end before whatever it is gets to them. As they reach the double doors to the tower, a massive dinosauric head on a long neck emerges from the water to take a disinterested look at the bridge and the creatures on it. The company stand and wait, hoping not to provoke the thing. To their great relief it takes one more look, and leaves again.

At this end of the bridge they see a winch with a chain leading down into the lake. They pull it up, and a padlocked cage holding a casket emerges. Hendrik does not want to mess with the casket and heads into the tower with his entourage. Agnes can’t resist the temptation, bashes off the padlock and opens the casket. Meanwhile, Hendrik finds himself in a massive arched hall. Mildewed frescoes depict knights and goats. There are goat-shaped candelabras. Nasty lichen hang from the ceiling. Across the hall a statue of a goat-headed demon sits crosslegged on a black slab of granite holding a metal crescent moon, its eyes glinting emerald green.

Back on the bridge, Agnes locks eyes with the corpse in the casket: an old man dressed in an old fashioned surcoat and wooden shoes, covered in weed and kelp. He opens his eyes and gives her a wicked groin. Before he can do anything, Agnes kicks the casket over the edge of the bridge, and the man disappears under the surface crying “would you like some candyyy?” Agnes turns to join the rest of the company inside the hall.

Hendrik and Agnes approach the statue together. Agnes goes for the eyes, and Hendrik grabs the sickle-shaped discus. The statue animates and sneezes green slime at them, its eye-sockets now empty (those weren’t emeralds after all but slime-clogged cavities). Everyone manages to avoid getting smeared with the goo, to their great relief. Hendrik holds the discus and realizes it is magical. They debate exploring the tower further, but ultimately decide to call it there.

They head back the way they came, but do make a stop in the sitting room to pull down those nice paintings. As they do so, several of those awful clouds float inside. They manage to evade the, and run for the exit for the castle and back to safety without further incident.

Referee Commentary:

An action-packed session that moved at a high pace — only two players does make quite a bit of difference there. Niemir’s player went on to loose their next character, Margaret almost immediately as well. I’ve been racking up quite the body count lately. It is a good thing character creation in Hackbut is streamlined as heck, and I make a point of introducing the new character at the earliest possible opportunity, verisimilitude be damned.

The demise of Niemir came as a bit of a shock and a surprise to the players. I think I should have telegraphed the danger of the room more clearly. It also did not help the players had vague recollections of being in the room before and not suffering any adverse effect (because there was no phantom dance going on that time, but that wasn’t entirely clear). Niemir’s player failed his save twice, the second time with a bonus no less, so it is also simply the luck of the dice, but I found the scene somewhat unsatisfactory in the end. Maybe if I hadn’t rushed things as much it would have been more interesting. In this case I was probably trying to stick to the room’s mechanical description a bit too closely. Knowing when to diverge from and when to stick to the letter of the module can be quite the challenge, particularly in the moment.

The players have managed to find a route to the lake tower, which is quite exciting. I also delighted when I rolled for the lake monster to appear and it did, that was quite the “oh fuck” moment. The players lucked out on the monster reaction roll there. I also rolled exactly one random encounter, namely the clouds at the very end. Another lucky break. But I guess they were owed one after all the carnage lately.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #31 – Many Hands Problem

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Francesco (F5)
  • Madlaina, Julia, Penelope & Finian (heavy foot)
  • Leon (porter)

Treasure: a flask of acid, a ring +1, a vial of holy tears and an extremely aromatic flower.

Casualties: Finian, Penelope and Francesco, throttled by swarms of severed hands. Leon, zapped by a razzle-dazzle lightning bolt.

Report:

On the morning of Wednesday, April 1, 1527, the company are once again at the gates of Castle Xyntillan. They make their way to where they know a giant jumping beanstalk has breached the wall. But as they approach they see a group of figures come their way. They slide down the slope towards the river and hide at its foot. When they hear the group pass, Hendrik turns invisible and crawls up to the top. He sees a crew of skeleton gardeners remove weeds along the walls. He also sees that the beanstalk has been cut down. The breach, however, still remains. The company carefully crawl back up the slope and sneak to the crack in the castle wall one by one, escaping notice.

They pass through the cleric’s room, into the chapel and from here head into the hallway. Drunken singing swells in volume as they continue west. They arrive in a mess hall, where skeleton soldiers sit at tables drinking and singing and toasting their fallen comrades. They appear uninterested in the company, who carefully but quickly move on to the south.

They try the first door they see on the east. It is a laundry room, with a large tub containing boiling water sitting on a rickety table. Several bodies lie about covered in dirty linnen. Hendrik tosses the staff of the woodlands into the room and commands it to tip over the tub while they remain at a safe distance out in the hallway. The table collapses and the tub spills its scalding hot contents on the floor. Out rolls a thoroughly cooked foppish gentleman along with vegetables and herbs and spices. They search the room but find nothing of value.

The next door to the west opens on a hallway. They go north and try the first door west, which opens onto a room that was apparently once the room of a military officer of some sort. It is plainly furnished but has nice wood paneling with martial themed carvings. They search it and find a flask with a curious liquid amongst personal effects in a chest. They also find, after inspecting the paneling, a secret door to the north. Inside is a corridor with many sacks filled with silver pieces, as well as at its end, a shaft leading down into the castle dungeons. They hammer in an iron spike, tie off a rope, and one by one climb down.

They find themselves in an empty room with doors to the north and east. They try the north door, and find themselves in a larder. Hams and sausages hang from the ceiling, several large barrels stand in a corner. Francesco pops open a barrel and finds a pig’s head staring back at him, surrounded by jellied human hands packed in lard.

Shopping to stock the larder (Lucas van Valckenborch)

Suddenly Francesco is attacked by not one but two hand swarms that were hiding behind the barrels. He is quickly overwhelmed and the hands begin squeezing the life out of him. Mercenaries come to his aid and Hendrik fires off magic missiles. One hand swarm hops across to Finian and almost immediately chokes him to death. Francesco manages to free himself, and the whole group runs for the exit. However, Francesco is the last one to get to the door and the hands catch up with him and once again manage to grab him and begin choking him again. Francesco collapses in the doorway before anyone can do anything. The swarms head for the mercenaries, but Hendrik tells them to get out of the way, and he whips out his wand of cold and blasts both swarms to smithereens. One hand leaves behind a curious-looking ring. They briefly mourn the loss of Francesco, collect the fighter’s valuables, and leave behind the corpse.

The next door, leading east, opens onto a hallway. They head north and after some time find it connects up with a passage they explored earlier, which leads off from the underground lake’s beach.

They backtrack, and continue east. Here they enter a hallway with bloody footprints, and take another door to the east. It leads to an empty room. The next door east again opens onto… a chapel!

Four statues of monks, covered with moss, surround an altar upon which stands the bas-reliëf of a maiden. Around it sprout flowers. The walls are covered with faded frescoes. Upon inspection they find the maiden in the relief cries real tears. The flowers are beautiful and smell delightful. They collect the tears in a vial and pick one flower. They inspect the frescoes and find another secret door.

They are about to open it when another hand swarm emerges from under the door through which they entered. They don’t hesitate for a moment and immediately attack it. Penelope is overwhelmed and choked to death almost immediately. Despite this, they manage to drive the things off before it can do more harm.

They return to the secret door, open it, and are surprised by several floating clusters of light. Before they can shut the door again each attacks with a bolt of lightning. Leon is killed, his lifeless body hits the floor fuming, and transforms into a gross rubbery gray featureless humanoid. Despite this puzzling display the company shut the door on the light cluster things, and run for the exit. Luckily, they make their way out of the castle and back to town without further incident.

Referee’s Commentary:

I’ve been steadily slaughtering retainers throughout our campaign, but I don’t recall the last time I offed a player character. This time it was poor Francesco’s fate, and by the hands of hand swarms no less. These things so far never posed any issues for the players, so when Francesco was jumped by them their initial response was: “we can handle this.” But things quickly spiraled out of control, Francesco failed his death save, and that was that.

Post-game we did have a discussion about how I handled this fight. I used my grappling rules for the hands’ choke attack, which means they need to hit a PC’s unarmored AC. Francesco is usually very hard to hit because he’s wearing plate and all. But with the swarms having a +4 to hit and my grappling rules combined, they made short work of him. They do 3d4 damage per round, which is enough to cut through a fifth level fighter’s HP in a reasonably short amount of time.

Upon further reflection, I think I will no longer use my grappling rules for this monster. Francesco’s player rightly pointed out it should be harder to choke someone wearing plate than it would be someone in no armor at all, and I agree. So from now on hand swarms will simply need a regular attack roll to do their thing.

It’s a matter of interpretation though. I mean, how would you run this stat block:

Hand Swarms: A mass of severed, decaying hands skittering on the ground. They go for the throat, or pull opponents down on the ground.
Hand Swarms (1d2): HD 4; AC 6 [13]; Atk swarm 2d4; Spec choke 3d4/round; ML 6; C.

I ran this by the folks in the Wandering DMs Discord server as well and got a fascinating range of responses. But nobody there runs classic D&D with touch attacks, as far as I can tell. And for grapples and the like most run with some combination of opposed attack rolls or attack rolls and saves. I am still mulling over wether I will axe my grappling rules entirely, but for now I will at least, like I said, run the hand swarm in a way that is a bit more predictable for players. (If Melan is reading this and would like to weigh in, I’d be curious to hear his take as well.)

We operate on a strict no take-backs policy though, so dead is dead and Francesco’s player will be rolling up a new level one character for the next session he joins. So it goes.

Categories
Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #30 – Another Round

The Company:

  • Hendrik (MU5)
  • Niemir (F3)
  • Penelope, Julia, Madlaina & Sanna (heavy foot)
  • Leon (porter)

Loot: cheap necklace and a box of golden buttons.

Casualties: Sanna, repeatedly stabbed by skeleton guardsmen. Leon, fled down the dark corridors of the castle dungeon, missing, presumed dead.

Report:

In the weeks leading up to the next expedition, Hendrik has his treacherous wife Ronja arrested for forging his will and planning his assassination. She is locked away in the town jail. Meanwhile, Jürg solves the problem of the deranged lumberjack Blérot by tricking him into drinking water from the castle’s magic fountain, which transforms the poor fool into a sizable sum of gold. Finally, they invest some funds into advertising for the company, and manage to recruit a colorful bunch of heavy footsoldiers.

***

Upon arriving at the castle, they decide to further explore the new section of the castle dungeon uncovered during a previous expedition. They enter through the rose garden and head straight for the spiral staircase leading down into the windy corridor. There they head north and east, and find themselves in a short hallway with two more doors.

They try the one furthest back leading south first, and see a room with three goat statues and a statue of a maiden made of salt pointing in their direction. This room they recall from previously recovered papers which tell of the demise of adventurers who messed with the statues in this room. They debate their approach at length. Finally, a plan is hatched, and a rope is tied around the neck of the goat statue closest to the door. They run the rope back under the door which they close, and pull. Sure enough they hear the statue topple, almost immediately followed by angry bleating of several goats, and the sound of nearing hoof steps.

The company quickly spike the door and then create some distance from it. They ready missiles and wait. The goatrices bash down the door after several attempt and rush into the hallway. Hendrik takes aim with his wand of lightning and zaps the creatures before they can do any harm. All three are instantly turned to ash.

The company head back into the room, and debate things some more. Ultimately. Niemir plucks up courage and licks the salt statue of the maiden. He instantly feels his sense of taste improve. Niemir is now able to detect ingested poisons, but he does not know it yet. They then chop of the hand of the statue to bring back with them to town, hoping it will be of some value, and leave the room.

Back in the hallway they try the door to the north. It opens onto a plain room with several beds and basic furnishings. More notably, the ghost of a maiden is seen float through a wall and disappear, giggling all the while. They search the room and find little of note, except for an animated hairbrush floating in front of a mirror. They do notice the cabinets on each side of the room have been moved frequently, and when they do the same, secret doors are unlocked. Each hides a small room. The one to the west contains a pile of bones, a cheap necklace and a box filled with golden buttons. The one to the east is entirely empty. They take the necklace and box, and leave.

Heading further north, the next door they try opens onto, to their surprise, a tavern. A ghostly rotund barkeep is cleaning glasses with a dirty rag and a dozen skeletons and a single headless manservant are living it up in the common room. Before the company can discretely leave, the undead clientele notice them, and angrily make for their arms. Nonplussed, the company head into the room and engage the skeletons. A massive brawl ensues. Poor Sanna is almost instantly stabbed to death. At the sight of this, Leon panics and flees. Hendrik casts Blight to help turn the tide. Niemir is tearing through skeletons like nobody’s business. Madlaina is also almost killed and retreats from the melee, barely avoiding being overcome by her trademark berserker rage. The remaining heavy footwomen hold their ground. More skeletons drop, their morale fails, and they decide they have had enough, and escape through the other door.

Skeletons deserve some after work drinks too (gkbgraphics)

The company lick their wounds, catch their breath, and chat with the barkeep. The drinks list offers quite the colorful selection, with prices ranging from the humble to the astronomical. Niemir ends up buying a Poltergeist Porter, but rather than consume it, he pours it into an empty flask for inspection back in town.

Next, they decide to have a quick look behind the doors across the room. The first they check holds a piles of broken furniture turned firewood. An animated chair is chained to a wall. A table is bleeding profusely from cuts made by an animated hatchet.

The next door they open reveals a storeroom where massive mice are eating from sacks of flour. They gingerly close the door again.

The final door has a sign that says “kitchen, keep out!” which they decide to heed. And with that, they bid the barkeep farewell, and head back up and out of the castle and back to town, without incident.

Referee Commentary:

A quick one. A low player count again, and a late start meant we did not cover a heck of a lot. But we had some memorable scenes regardless.

Players enjoyed running into a room they’d read about previously, and being able to act on that knowledge. I enjoyed it as well because I’d previously generated those hints entirely randomly, running with the suggestion given in the module about papers that describe how adventurers meet their end in the castle.

We ran the fight with the skeletons entirely theatre of the mind and it went pretty fast despite the large amount of characters. These days I default to having monsters target retainers before turning to player characters and that simplifies things as well.

Niemir’s player enjoyed being able to attack three skeletons every round thanks to his fighter class ability. It’s a little tweak that really makes the fighter feel like the best at, well, fighting, which is as it should be.