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.
Three barrels of Malévol wine; one an excellent vintage, one an ancient essence, and one a healing draft
Crusader’s surcoat +2
The Oils of Cleansing
Casualties: None, but not for lack of trying.
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.
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.
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.
And also: a cursed silver cross, an ominous magic mirror, a silver dagger, an empty bottle marked “spirits”, a jar of poisoned salve, and a broken trilobite fossil
Casualties: None, barely.
In the week before the next expedition, Bartolomea is once again visited by her angel. It is very angry with her because she has been neglecting her quest for the oils of cleansing. Bartolomea wakes up feeling absolutely terrible.
While going about her business in town, someone tells her the goats are not what they seem. She wants to know more, but the person just thinks they’re dangerous maybe?
Late one night while hanging around The Black Comedian, she has a run-in with what looks like the ghost of a dark-clad thespian. The man is looking for someone named Patrice Desjardin-Malévol, who betrayed him. Bartolomea tries to negotiate a deal with the phantom, nut it responds poorly, and vanishes.
Meanwhile, Ynes asks around where she might find the marble throne of her vision. She does not learn much beyond some well-meant suggestions that a throne is typically found in a throne room?
Finally, Bartolomea goes carousing. Several days later, when sobriety returns to her, she vaguely remembers being inducted into some kind of secret society or perhaps even a cult? But for the life of her she can’t remember the secret symbols that members use to signal each other.
On the morning of Wednesday, February 14, 1526 the company find themselves once more at the gates of Castle Xyntillan. They head to the grand entrance. Before entering, they diligently drag away a couple of dead bodies from the gates and dump them in the stream that runs south of the castle and empties into the lake. They’ve been attacked before by bodies raised by one of the statues next to the entrance and did not much care for it.
In the vestibule an argument develops between Ynes and Bartolomea about where to head next. Both are under a quest and each have their own goal in mind. Jaquet, being this expedition’s captain, decides in Ynes’s favor, and they head through a west door that opens onto a corridor.
The company explores a number of rooms along the corridor’s north fork. First they poke around a closet, and take an empty bottle marked “spirits” that vaguely smells of alcohol. Then they stick their heads into what appears to be a bathroom of sorts, holding several tubs, one occupied by a large toad that croaks at the company pleadingly.
While they are figuring out how to deal with the toad, they are attacked in the rear by a vicious undead matron whom they had crossed paths with previously. The woman is wild haired, has empty eye sockets crawling with spiders, a cloud of moths circling around her. She has not forgotten the company, curses them, tells them to leave, and to make her point absolutely clear, proceeds to shred poor Jürg to pieces and drains his life energy.
Thanks to clever maneuvering and a lucky turning attempt, Jürg is pulled back from death’s door, and the undead matron is trapped and destroyed. They chop of her head, stow it for future use, and turn their attention back to the toad-occupied bathroom.
Bartolomea casts speak with animals and tries to figure out what the toad’s needs are, because they want to make sure they can search the room safely for treasure. It appears to be hungry, not much more than that. They try to placate it with rations, which it appreciates, but it remains more than a little peckish. Jaquet loses his patience and blows the toad to smithereens with his arquebus. They find no treasure except a greasy jar of what appears to be some kind of salve, and leave.
The next room they search appears to have been previously occupied by a maid. A large mirror with a dusty surface stands out in particular. It detects as magic but they don’t trust it so they carefully cover it with a sheet and place it at the corridor’s entrance so they can easily take it with them when they leave. The room is tossed, but not much else is found. They take a tarnished silver dagger from between bloody bed sheets, and a green felt cloak from the wardrobe.
The company heads further south down the hallway, and check a door to the west. It opens onto what appear to be stables. Ynes wants to investigate further, but Jaquet pulls her back into the corridor, determined to first explore further south.
The next door, also heading west, opens onto a large chapel decorated with frescoes of wine-harvesting monks. The room’s centerpiece is an altar marked by the fossil of a trilobite. The clerics are impressed with the chapel and kneel in prayer at the altar. The remainder of the company begin to search the room.
Suddenly, a door to the southeast open and in files a large procession of undead monks chanting satanic hymns. They make a circuit of the chapel, while the company looks on flabbergasted. Then, they surround the clerics at the altar and close in for the attack!
The company regain their senses and don’t hesitate to act. Ynes shoots a monk in the back from the shadows with her crossbow. Jaquet also fires with his crossbow. Davignon tries to turn the monsters but fails. Then, Bartolomea begins to preach, and in one fell swoop absolutely obliterates every single monk.
They continue their search of the chapel. They hear singing from a hallway leading west. Bartolomea tries and fails to remove the trilobite fossil, which detects as magical, from the altar.
They also find a secret entrance behind the altar. Beyond it, a crawl space is filled with casks of what appears to be an excellent vintage. Searching the space further, they find a shaft in the floor on one end, and another secret door at the other end.
This secret door, as well as the door from which the evil monks entered the room, lead to the pleasure den of a cleric gone bad. Behind the portrait of the pope they find a liquor cabinet. They take its contents. Several wall hangings showing young nymphs are taken down and rolled up for transport upon departure. Under the bed, of course, they find dirty books.
A door heading north opens into a hallway. In it, the body of a cleric slumps against the next door. When they approach, a toad emerges from the man’s mouth, observes the company blankly, and makes for the exit.
They push the body aside, and open the door he was slumped against. Here they see a prayer room with a silver cross hanging upside down from the wall. Bartolomea has a vision of herself rushing in, grabbing the cross, and nearly dying from a curse, the cross crumbling to ashes. Instead, they carefully the cross in cloth, and pack it for future inspection.
With that, the company decides they’ve had enough excitement. They shoulder the rolled up wall hangings, roll out a cask of wine, and safely make it back out of the castle.
Along the way, Ynes thinks to check on the dancing bean once planted by the late magic user Heinz along the south wall near the grand entrance. She is surprised to find a small vine has sprouted and that it is rhythmically swaying side to side, the soil from which it emerges gently vibrating…
Back in town they have a bunch of stuff identified and sold off. They experiment with the creepy mirror, which turns out to show a parallel world in which the dead are alive and the living are dead. Bartolomea uses it to have the undead matron’s severed head confirm she is a Malévol.
The company goes carousing again, and manage to avoid any serious mishaps. The worst that happens is that Ynes is find for misbehavior.
Poor Jürg is admitted to the local hospital to be treated for his drained energy. The sisters say it will take more than a few weeks for him to recover.
Their final act is to pack up the undead matron’s head in a box, and send it, along with a letter, to the bishop of Chamrousse. Bartolomea hopes dearly this will be the evidence she needs to gain access to the crypt below the church…
This was a relatively compact session due to the fact that the players decided to head back to town early once they’d collected more than a few bulky pieces of treasure. We diligently track encumbrance and they are always apprehensive of dropping below their maximum movement rate.
The scene towards the end in the prayer room with Bartolomea’s vision requires a small explanation, perhaps. What happened is that I mistakenly described the prayer room when they explored the maid’s room. When I discovered this, I hesitated for a moment to correct myself, but ultimately decided to explain my mistake to the players, and we explored the maid’s room instead. When they did come across the prayer room in its correct location, I decided to work in the meta-knowledge Bartolomea’s player had gained the first time around in the form of a vision. It worked out quite well in this case, I think.
I use the alternative rules in Castle Xyntillan for undead energy drain. So characters do not lose levels, but depending on the type of undead are drained of ability points. In the case of Jürg and (slight spoiler) Odile, I ruled she was the equivalent of a wight and therefore would drain 1d6 CON with every successful hit. Jürg dropped from 9 to 6 to 4. A close call! It’s funny how the mere fact that a non-combatant retainer in question is Bartolomea’s husband adds to the drama. I don’t think any normal retainer would have received the care and attention Jürg did.
The outright destruction of the pack of evil monks was another lucky break. I am beginning to wonder if the alternative turning mechanic we are using might be a bit unbalanced. Or maybe I’m just being fooled by randomness. Hard to say. In any case I might switch to a more traditional approach, at least as an experiment. Although I will try to adapt the OD&D turning rules to something that does not require a lookup table. Because I absolutely hate those.
Alembic holding the spirit of famed alchemist Girolomo Bartholdi
Trunk of neatly folded, dated nobleman outfits
6 fancy goblets
4 flasks of brandy, identified as potions of extra healing, of which 1 poisoned
Decanter filled with blood
Aristide Malévol’s crystal ball
Jürg disappears for a couple of days and when he next appears on Bartolomea’s doorstep he is reeking of booze, and no longer in possession of the 200 GP he was gifted after the previous expedition.
Bartolomea asks around for information on the castle’s plumbing but does not find any. She also does some research on gelatinous cubes and learns quite a bit. The cleric also haggles with a merchant at The Tap over an iron masque he is selling, which he claims belonged to a famed Gaul warrior. She decides not to buy it in the end.
Jaquet goes out and buys himself an arquebus, and spends some time training up India on how to reload it for him.
When they get to the castle, the expedition’s goal is clear: Find the bathroom where the gelatinous cube that absconded with Aristide’s crystal ball was last seen, and recover the item, so that the company is released from their geas.
They know the most direct approach will be through the count’s suite, so they head to the eastern balcony. Along the way Ynes scales the wall to inspect a couple of murder holes. She sees some objects hovering in a large room that is otherwise shrouded in darkness.
When they arrive at the count’s suite, Ynes once again climbs up to a murder hole to make sure the count is not present. However, the hole is covered with a thick curtain.
Moving on, the thief easily makes it up the balcony. She checks the door, hears nothing, and carefully opens it. She sees it is also secured with a padlocked chain on the inside. The thief easily picks it, and parts the curtains. The count’s suite is more or less as they last left it, and the vampire itself is not present, to everyone’s relief.
The rest of the company make it up the balcony with the help of a rope. They resist the temptation to immediately loot the room, and head to the south door instead. It opens onto an empty hall.
They cross the room to another door. Bartolomea impatiently kicks it open, and sees a study holding more than a few remarkable things: Shriveled toads twitching on copper wire, a thief’s corpse on a spiked throne flanked by goat statues with bleeding eye-sockets, a ghostly disembodied head floating over an alembic on an alchemical workbench… but most notable of all are the chairs dancing through the air around a large table. When the cleric steps into the room she is immediately attacked by the haunted furniture.
A huge fight happens in which new company member Heintz is nearly kicked to death by the table, but the company ultimately prevails. When the dust settles, they find themselves amidst the debris of wooden furniture.
Wasting no time they head straight for the door to the south, but it opens on an empty closet. Certain that there must be some way leading further west they begin to search the room for secret passages. But they are interrupted by a posse of headless manservants. These are easily turned away by Bartolomea.
Ynes inspects the fireplace and sees an opening one floor up from which a strange light flickers. She also hears faint breathing and occasional mumbling. Steeling herself, she climbs up. The light turns out to come from weird black flames that emit no heat. Beyond, she can see yet another study, decorated in scarlets and blacks. She crawls through the flames and drops a rope down to her companions below.
The breathing and mumbling are more prominent here, but does not appear to come from any particular direction. The room has a striking portrait of a man dressed in crimson robes, holding a scythe. It is also host to an impressive large bookcase holding many thick tomes. When they search the bookcase, they recover a particularly evil-looking book titled “The Dancing Plague: Its Causes and Consequences”. When one particular book is pulled out, they hear a loud click and a section of the bookcase swings open. At the same time, however, another secret door next to the fireplace rotates open, and into the room flies a crimson-robed specter that swings its scythe at Jaquet, barely missing him.
Bartolomea begins to preach and manages to keep the reaper at bay. Meanwhile, the company rushes through the secret door behind the bookcase and down the stairs beyond. Bartolomea is the last to follow, and the door is quickly shut behind her.
They carefully creep down the stairs and emerge into a pleasant den furnished with an ebony table and leather chairs. A number of portraits are on the walls. Everything is covered in silvery cobwebs. A smell of rot and mildew emanates from behind the west door, which is boarded up. There is also a door to the north.
Then, several things happen at once. Jaquet abruptly breaks down the west door. Ynes carefully peeks behind the the north door, and is surprised by a cluster of dazzling lights on the other side, which immediately zaps her with a bolt of lightning. Bartolomea pulls a random portrait from the wall, the horned young lady in it comes to life and tries to kiss her. Ynes manages to slam the door shut before the dazzling lights can do more damage. Bartolomea can just avoid the demon’s kiss and hangs the portrait back on the wall. The company turn their attention to the room to the west from which water vapors and the smell of rot are wafting into the den.
Upon entering they see it is a bathroom gone to seed. Mildewed towels hang from racks, a large shallow pool makes up the majority of the room. In it lies a mermaid, thoroughly cooked and rotting. Across the pool they see two doors shrouded in mist, with skeletons slumped against the nearby walls.
They poke the mermaid, and toss various items into the pool. Each time a substance hits the water’s surface it begins to swirl. Larger items simply disappear after being engulfed by a vortex.
Preferring not to enter the pool itself, the company drags the ebony table from the den and tips it across the pool, making a bridge to the other side.
They cross and carefully open one of the doors on the other side. Through it they can see a bunch of coins and a crystal ball suspended in mid-air behind the other door. Jaquet takes aim with his arquebus and fires in the general direction of where he is confident the gelatinous cube must be. A loud bang reverberates through the room. The bullet penetrates a jelly-like mass, splattering goo all over the place, and comes to a halt amidst the suspended coins. The thing begins to crawl towards the fighter.
Everyone runs back into the den and awaits the cube in formation. It crawls across the table, squeezes through the doorway, and extends a pseudopod to grab and paralyze one of the companions, but fails. In response, it is met by a barrage of stabs, shots and strikes. The cube‘s structural integrity fails and it collapses in a wave of goo across the den floor.
The company begin to pick the generous amount of gold pieces from the goopy remains of the cube. Bartolomea picks up the crystal ball, wipes off some of the pudding, and from inside sees the lich stare back at her. In her head she hears its voice boom “Ah. You’ve found it… Good.” The geased companions feel a heavy burden lifted from their bodies and minds. Bartolomea, surprised they are not compelled to return the item, mumbles to herself “The guy was just screwing with us.”
Moving quickly, they make their way back the way they came without incident. In the downstairs study Heintz can’t resist poking around the alchemical workbench. The ghostly head floating above it is sucked into the alembic with a loud moan. The fighter, intrigued, stows the container now filled with a coursing ectoplasmic mass in his pack.
In the count’s suite they loot the liquor cabinet, and drag the trunk with them outside. Giddy with the satisfaction of a successful mission, they climb back down the balcony, and head back to Tours-en-Savoy.
Back in town they have a bunch of stuff identified, and most of the loot is sold off, including, notably, the brandy spiked with a connoisseur poison. Bartolomea had intended to gift the creepy occult tome to the magic-user Hendrik, but discovers the thing is cursed with an awful disease and so is forced to hold onto it. The cleric also gives 400 GP to her husband Jürg and tells him not to spend all of it on drink this time, but also give some of it to his poor bedraggled parents. Jaquet, a little stingier, gives 10 GP to his trusty porter India, in the hopes of boosting her morale. The fighter also goes off on a drinking spree, and manages to piss off a bunch of musketeers, the leader of which, unbeknownst to him, is a high-ranking officer in the local militia…
Another session that demonstrates what a difference it makes when a party has a clear goal in mind and sticks to it. We covered a lot of ground, had more than one combat encounter, but still only spent maybe two hours of our session inside the dungeon.
The players were a little lucky with the random encounter rolls. I only triggered two over the course of more than a dozen exploration turns. I also rolled at the end of every combat, and every time Jaquet fired his gun. They also rolled well in combat, and when trying to turn the undead. By comparison, I think many of my attack rolls were whiffs.
Those turn undead rolls in particular can make a big difference. Without the protection of a cleric, Castle Xyntillan’s many undead can really gum up the works. One of these days though, they will fail their checks when faced with a significant threat. I for one can’t wait for that moment to happen.
Casualties: Lina, stabbed to death by a bunch of masked murderers.
While preparing for the next expedition, Hendrik considers buying seemingly mundane crystal ball from the Mordechai’s curio shop, but ultimately decides against it. In an effort to increase her chances of completing her holy quest to find the oil of cleansing, Bartolomea asks around for information on chapels in the castle, and manages to acquire intel on the general location of a number of chapels. She also deals with Father Brenard, who challenges her about her ongoing relationship with Jürg. She insists she is helping him by training him up to become an adventurer, just like her. The father reminds her of the plight of Jürg’s parents, and leaves, unimpressed.
Upon arrival at the castle, the company has agreed the plan is to head underground and find the cross-shaped chapel of Bartolomea’s visions.
They enter through the grand entrance and head for the stairs to the wine cellar. They quickly make their way past the many stacked casks and enter a root cellar, where they are surprised to find a dozen giant beets waddling around.
They decide not to provoke the things and carefully cross the room to a corridor leading further north. The beets growl like pugs in a bad mood when they get close, but otherwise leave the company alone. Upon reaching the corridor they start moving further up north, checking doors left and right. From behind one door, they hear pleas for help (“release meee!”) and decide to steer clear. Behind the next they see a large circular room with alcoves along its perimeter, a shaft in the ceiling, the floor scattered with corpses, and a pervasive sound of scratching and squeaking.
Before they can decide what to do about the rodent-infested room, they hear multiple creatures head their way from the south. They make a run for the next door and crash through it into an empty hall. But the company’s escape was a loud one (several are wearing plate) and so their pursuers are soon at the door, too. When it opens, they see a skeleton in disheveled courtly attire carrying paintbrush, palette and bucket, followed by an entourage of undead courtesans. The artist (whom the ladies refer to as “Bartholomew”) demands to know who the intruders are, but they immediately respond with brandished holy symbols and vigorous preaching. The ladies are instantly destroyed and the painter turns and flees in terror.
The company gives chase. Hendrik’s heavy foot soldiers both score hits with flung spears, and they catch up with the artist near the root cellar, almost killing him. But when he runs into the mob of animated beets, they decide to let him go.
They head back to the empty hall where the altercation started and open a double door to the east. They are greeted by yet another bizarre spectacle: A large group of undead nuns dancing around a pillar. However, the nuns are even more surprised to see them, and so the company’s contingent of clerics once again start preaching and waving their crosses around. Most of the nuns are instantly turned to ashes. The remainder are mopped up without too much trouble in the ensuing melee.
They search the room. Bartolomea finds a peep hole in the north wall. Through it they see a cosy little cubicle with some books, bottles of wine, and a bishop’s staff and mitre. They also see the outlines of a secret door in the back.
Keen on acquiring the bishop’s items, they resolve to find an entrance to the room. The company backtracks and goes up another hallway heading northeast. They arrive in a room with a statue, a five-by-five foot square seam on the ceiling, a closet door, a grate in the east wall, and a corridor leading northwest.
They check the statue, which turns out to be a wise-looking priest. They don’t find anything curious about it.
Through the grate they see a plain-dressed man sitting in a room with frescoes. He appears to have been willingly locked in there to atone for his sins, and believes he is in a very holy place. He also says a man named Samuel sometimes brings him food. Bartolomea finds a secret entrance to his room and barges in. Here, she spots another secret door and passes through it, into the cubicle she was hoping to find! Here, she inspects the literature, which unsurprisingly turns out to be a little naughty. She grabs the bottles, staff, and mitre, and heads back out. The man can only react with surprise and confusion.
Meanwhile, Hendrik checks the closet. The locked door is broken down by one of their mercenaries with a lot of noise. Inside is a dressing screen, a fool’s garb and king’s outfit. The magic-user takes both.
As they are stowing away their loot (and Hendrik feels the itch of flees that were in the king’s suit) they here something large and insectoid scurrying towards them in the hallway leading north.
Intent on avoiding whatever it may be they make to head back south but there see a man dressed in robes and a pointy hat heading their way, too.
Pressing on, they see the man has a skeletal visage, two burning eyes observing them somewhat absentmindedly.
While the rest of the company is considering how best to engage the impossibly ancient wizard, Davignon once again raises his holy symbol, and commences preaching…
The next moment, the lich waves a hand and all of the company’s members hear a voice booming inside their skulls: “I seem to have misplaced my crystal ball… Please find it for me? I believe that one gelatinous cube absconded with it… Someone told me, I forget who, the jelly is partial to bathes. I think it was last seen in the count’s bathroom, near the grand entrance. Let me know when you find it.”
And with that, the lich makes his way past the company, while they recover from the shock of what just happened. As they collect themselves, they hear the lich greet someone named Gregor from behind them. The greeting is returned with an unsettling sound of chittering.
The company realises they are now magically compelled to seek out the loch’s crystal ball. Hendrik slaps himself for not buying that damn ball back in town. They pull out their maps and consider various approaches. In particular, they want to try and avoid having to pass through the count’s suite. Ultimately though, they decide to resist the geas’s compulsion and return to town, so that they can properly prepare for a run at finding the item.
As they make their way towards the exit, just when they are about to enter the vestibule, they hear a scuffle develop in the back ranks. An ambush! Some corpse-like figure dressed in purple and black tights, along with a bunch of black-clad masked assassins, are backstabbing away at their hirelings and their cleric retainer Gene. Lina is killed, and the rest make a run for it, while Gene desperately holds the villains at bay. As they emerge from the castle, they are relieved to see he too has made it out alive. Together, they begin the trek back to Tours-en-Savoy.
Oh boy, another A+ session this time around. I was laughing so hard at some of the room descriptions as we encountered them. First the root cellar with the giant beets, and then later, the room with the dancing nuns. Very funny, but I guess you had to be there.
And then there were several random rolls that conspired to produce the absolutely delightful moment where the lich geased the company. The crystal ball for sale in town was randomly determined. The lich (Aristide) was a random encounter. The fact that he geased them was the result of a random roll, triggered by Davignon’s player’s hot-brained turning attempt. The substance of the geas however I did predetermine by searching through the module for things related to Aristide elsewhere in the castle. (This was a while back, well before randomly determining the availability of a crystal ball in town.) When I came across the thing with the gelatinous cube and the crystal ball it seemed funny to have him command PCs to go find it.
We did have to have a little “meta” discussion about what the mechanical consequences of the geas are, in particular because we have this strict one expedition per session policy that we’ve really become fond of, which at first glance is a bit at odds with the rules around geas. In OED Book of Spells, a character that disregards a geas loses 1 STR per day. When they hit zero, they die. That’s nice and clear but also kind of brutal, and does not jive well with our structure of single-session expeditions with one in-game (and out-game) week of down-time between them. So I decided to relax the consequences somewhat, and will tell my players they will suffer STR loss only every expedition not devoted to satisfying the geas. Should work okay.
Finally, I don’t think I ever mentioned this, but those quests that the cleric Bartolomea and the thief Ynes are pursuing are both the result of carousing outcomes. (As mentioned before, we use the table by Jeff Rients.) So is, by the way, the whole subplot around Bartolomea’s husband Jürg. I don’t devote too much space in these write-ups to the fun little back-and-forths we have between sessions about these elements, but they add just that little bit of low-stakes drama to an otherwise full-on dungeon crawl-focused game.
Gene (C1 retainer, agent of the bishop of Chamrousse)
Lina & Edna (heavy foot)
Gold crown (later found to be a tin fake)
Two golden urns
A ruby gear
A month has passed since the previous expedition. It is now the year 1526. The bishop of Chamrousse has sent a retainer cleric named Gene to reinforce the party. Bartolomea invites her newly wedded husband Jürg to join her on the next expedition. Hendrik worries about possible ulterior motives of his brand new wife Ronja. A new cleric named Davignon also joins the company as a full partner.
On Wednesday, January 3, 1526, a miserable winter day, the company finds itself once again at Castle Xyntillan’s gates.
Ynes and Bartolomea are both eager to fulfill the holy quests imposed on them by the angel that keeps visiting them at nighttime. Their first goal is to find the throne room and the scepter that should be there somewhere. They decide to take a new approach and head for the gate beyond the gatehouse.
In the courtyard they check the windows of the smithy and see the same hammer as before, still working away at the anvil under its own power.
Moving on, they also peek through the windows of the barracks and see a bunch of skeletons are still using a plate-clad adventurer hanging from the rafters for target practice.
The company assumes formation, enters the stables and kicks open the door to the barracks. Vicious skeletons make to attack them, but Bartolomea uses her divine powers to destroy them before they do. Jaquet jokes about the impossibility of making mincemeat of skeletons.
The company searches the room, but find little besides a bunch of “wanted” posters for someone named Claude Malévol. 3.000 GP reward, dead or alive, “preferably dead!”
They head to the smithy and open the door. The hammer stops what it is doing and hovers in the air ominously. They decide not to enter and exit the stables back into the courtyard.
The company heads to the pair of guardhouses fronting the gate. The skeleton guardsmen dozing inside are easily dispatched this time around.
Ynes goes to check a number of windows to the south of the gate. Seeing nothing of immediate concern, they open the double door and observe a wide corridor with another set of double doors at the other end. The walls are lined by murder holes, and another door is set in the middle of the south wall.
Ynes melds with the shadows and carefully heads for the south door. She opens it, checks a few corridors behind it, but once again does not note anything out of the ordinary.
The thief returns to the company and continues to check the murder holes in the north wall. Behind it she sees a large room with the remains of what appears to be a scorched battle site. Slightly worried, she once again heads back to her companions.
The company marches down the corridor in formation and safely makes it to the double doors at the other end. They open it, and enter yet another courtyard. The donjon towers over them. There are three statues (a king, a sightless ape, and a hunchback) and a large circular stone set in the floor. Several doors lead off into various directions.
They shove aside the stone and look down into what appears to be a cistern gone bad. Dirty water, smell of rotten eggs.
When they prepare to move on, a grizzled veteran carrying a large sack, accompanied by a bunch of axe-wielding crazed-looking types enters from another door. The men are surprised to find the company there. Before they can act, Hendrik pulls a scroll from his robe’s sleeves and quickly casts charm person on the leader.
The man turns out to be Patrice Desjardin-Malévol. Hendrik makes clever use of the situation to interrogate him about potential treasure nearby. Patrice does not know of any but does point them in the direction of the throne room.
Meanwhile, Ynes sneaks closer and nicks open the sack with her dagger. Gold pieces spill to the ground, but no one dares grab any. Patrice absentmindedly comments that it looks like he needs a better sack.
They bid Patrice and his entourage adieu, and head through the north door. It opens onto a corridor, and they decide to head east in the direction of the donjon.
At the corridor’s end, they open another door, and emerge into what appears to be the ground floor of the donjon: a torture chamber. Nasty implements of torture are spread around the room, some holding rotting remains of poor saps who fell victim to the Malévols. In the center of the room’s floor and ceiling is a large shaft with chains suspended inside it. Looking down, they see a lot of corpses in the basement, and they hear the sound of scratching and squeezing rodents. They inspect a statue of a lady justice, and pluck what appears to be a gold crown from her head. Then, they head up stairs leading to the next floor.
At the head of the stairs are two doors. The first one opens onto a room filled with uniformed skeletons lying against the walls. They do not enter, and in stead check the other door. This one opens onto a balcony, with rungs attached to the donjon wall leading to a balcony on the next floor.
Carefully, one after the other, they climb up and open the balcony door. This leads into what appears to be a temple. A raised platform is shrouded in curtains. Before it are two golden urns and also ash-filled braziers.
The room is searched. Jaquet discovers a bricked-up door to the north, and Ynes discovers a secret door to the east. Before she can enter, Bartolomea picks up one of the urns and a wraith emerges from it, enveloping her in shrouds of darkness. Acting quickly, Bartolomea brandishes her holy symbol and begins to preach at the thing. It shrinks back. Davignon joins her, and drives the thing back further. It tries to make for the balcony exit, where Bartolomea’s husband Jürg is ensuring the door remains open for a swift escape, but the clerics manage to pin the creature, and ultimately destroy it.
Meanwhile, Ynes opens the secret door, climbs up the ladder hidden behind it, and on the next floor discovers the roof of the donjon, which has become the roosting place of a large number of enormous evil-looking pigeons. Various bodies of humans who have fallen prey to the monsters are scattered about. Ynes carefully creeps back down.
Davignon, foolhardily picks up the other urn, and wouldn’t you know it, another wraith emerges. Well-prepared for the eventuality however, it too is destroyed in short order by joint turning attempts from the three clerics present.
Convinced that they have put the worst this room has to offer behind them, they pull back the curtains encircling the platform. Behind it stands a large primitive metallic idol of an owl-like monstrosity. They inspect the thing, and discover a panel in its back. They open it, and see that the statue’s guts are made up of clockwork. One of the gears is cut from a ruby. After much hemming and hawing, the gear is plucked out. The statue shudders and collapses, and the company, satisfied with their haul, make for the castle’s exit and get out without any trouble.
We kicked off a second “season” of Castle Xyntillan with a doozy of a session. Despite a large party play moved at a high pace thanks largely to decisive play. I also think my current referee doctrine of being extremely generous with information — to the point where I never require a roll to find hidden things — also helps a lot with fuelling player decision-making. A final thing that has sped up play on my end of the screen is that I have figured out how to add the referee map to its own layer in Roll20, so I have one less thing to look at now.
Three clerics, one of which level 3 at this point, made mince-meat of the many undead that were in the party’s way. I did make a mistake though, in that I allowed multiple turning attempts per encounter. From now on, every cleric gets one shot, and that’s it. (We use the delightfully straightforward d20 turn undead mechanic created by Brendan over at Necropraxis.)
The highlight of the session was undoubtedly the clutch charm person pulled out by Hendrik’s player when they ran into Patrice and his band of berserkers. They were poised to immediately attack and it could have turned into a real slaughter if they had done so. It really was lucky: Hendrik’s player at the last moment decided to scribe the scroll before heading out, and equipped it in one of his three quick-draw slots (a rule I have adopted from Skerples’s glog-hack Many Rats on Sticks). One thing I did forget was that under the spell-casting rules we are using (OED book of spells) monsters do get a save against charm. But no matter, the scene that unfolded was absolutely hilarious.
So yeah, the players made out like bandits, despite the fact that the gold crown turned out to be fake. Almost all of the company members levelled up at the end of the session. Let’s see how long their luck will last!
The chart below shows the number of sessions for each month and the average attendance per session for that same month. Before COVID-19 we played a monthly face-to-face game. When our first lockdown in March happened we switched to a weekly remote game. In June a player took over to run a couple of sessions that are not part of my dataset. In August we had to cancel a couple of games due to low attendance because of people vacationing. In December we skipped the final Friday due to Christmas. Also worth noting is that we started our current OD&D / Castle Xyntillan campaign in the second half of September.
Our group counts seven players, not including myself. The top 3 players were good for 55,6% of the attendance. Most sessions had 3-6 players, with 3 being the most common. Once, we had two, and once we had the full seven.
Although I am eternally grateful for The Black Hack as my gateway to classic D&D, I am really happy we made the switch to OD&D for our current campaign. Black Hack is very accessible, easy to run, and easy to hack, but the roll-under-attribute core mechanic leads to player-characters that are very unlikely to fail. In addition, the armour rules and the out-of-action rules make it very unlikely characters perish. As a case in point: Over the course of 34 sessions of Black Hack, we had 6 player-character deaths, whereas we had 8 character deaths in 12 sessions of OD&D. That’s an 18% versus 67% chance of a character dying in a session between the two systems. Of course, I ran different modules in both systems but I don’t expect the numbers to be that much different. OD&D is ever so slightly less accessible to new players because of the greater variety of die rolls, but several players have expressed really enjoying the fact that the game is more perilous and challenging. On the referee side, OD&D is more constrained in its probabilities so I don’t feel like I constantly need to keep my foot on the brakes. Because of this, ironically, I think OD&D is easier to referee than Black Hack once the basic rules have been grokked.
As those who follow my Castle Xyntillan play reports know, I very much enjoy running this module. Of the modules we played through before that in The Black Hack I think Tomb of the Serpent Kings and Beneath the Windowless Tower were my favourites. Reasons for this included the fact that they are not too small but can still be completed in a reasonable number of sessions. They also have sufficient non-linearity built in to lead to surprising player approaches. Furthermore, they are both quite deadly, which makes for a tense and challenging game. Their vibe in both cases is very much classic D&D as well, with Windowless Tower in particular including some very enjoyable science-fantasy elements.
Playing online took some getting used to, and it’s a poor substitute for playing face-to-face, but the choice between an online game and no game at all is easily made. In addition, even if the quality of the experience is lacking, we do get more gaming in partly due to the fact that logging on after a hard day’s work on Friday evening is just easier to manage than convening at someone’s house. We are all getting older, and many of us have started families. An online game is just easier to fit in.
Our setup is pretty straightforward and probably resembles that of many others. We use someone’s corporate Zoom account for video and voice. I’ve found this to be incredibly stable and easy for everyone to on-board onto. For dice, we prefer to roll physical dice using the honour system. It is by far the quickest, and most fun. If someone does not have dice on hand, or wants to “roll in the open” because the situation is particularly high-stakes, we also have a Discord with a dice-rolling bot. (We tried many bots and ultimately settled on rollem, because it does not require commands to be prefaced with anything.) That’s the core of it.
Now, currently, for Castle Xyntillan, we are also using Roll20 — I loaded up the excellent VTT player maps that come with the module and unveil it using the fog-of-war feature. Players also take notes directly on the map for future reference. I ended up going with this because I did not want to inflict mapping by hand from verbal description on my group for this module — Xyntillan is just too big and labyrinthine. In other games, however, we did to the classic style of mapping. Some of our players really enjoy that part of the game.
Combats we run entirely theatre-of-the-mind, so do not require any digital support. Running combat TotM is by far the quickest and most versatile way of doing it. On my end I do have a little physical setup with tokens and a battle mat when I need to keep track of big battles with many combatants. Overall I am pretty happy with the setup we’ve got going. In general, my aim is to limit the amount of on-screen manipulation I have to do during the game to an absolute minimum because I find it takes me out of the game. This setup lets me for the most part just face the camera and run the game by talking.
With regards to player count, I find it much harder to handle a large group of players online than I do when sitting around a table. Playing online, I think three players is actually the sweet spot. Beyond that, things just bog down. This is also at least in part due to the challenges of group decision making over a video conference. Having the classic D&D role of a caller helps a bit, but does not entirely solve the issue. The absolute maximum number of players I am comfortable handling online is probably five.
In conclusion, although I can’t wait for this global pandemic to be behind us, it did lead to a remarkable amount of very enjoyable tabletop roleplaying game sessions. I hope, around this same time next year, I will sit down to write another report on a great year of gaming, but it will be titled “After the Bat Plague”.
A smaller-than-usual detachment makes its way to the castle. The plan is to do a quick hit-and-run expedition. If they pull it off, any treasure XP will only need to be shared by two player-characters…
They use rope and a grappling hook to climb up to the balcony on top of the countesses’s suite. The door in is still spiked from the previous expedition, so breaching the castle turns out to be trivial. They quickly move through the room with crusade frescoes and into the game room. Here, Bartolomea casts detect magic. Even though there are more than a few weird things on display, nothing lights up as ensorcelled.
They head further south into another small room decorated with murals of bucolic country scenes, made disturbing by the presence of fat ravens and people with empty eye sockets oozing blood. They decide to quickly move on.
They check the next door to the south and find an opulent bedroom notable for a large pitcher holding a gold-coloured fluid — which detects as magical — and a lady sleeping on a bed in the nude. The company sneaks back out of the room, collects themselves and ready holy water. Then, they pull open the door, jump inside and toss two vials at the woman on the bed. Before the vessels can hit her, she jumps up with a shout of surprise and easily dodges them. Bartolomea presents her holy symbol and begins preaching. The lady hisses like a cat and enchants Jaquet, who suddenly considers her a trusted friend and ally. Meanwhile, Bartolomea sees the lady’s true nature, which involves a forked tail, tiny horns, and bat wings. Still no clothes though.
The fighter is disturbed that two friends are having an argument, and moves to interfere with Bartolomea. The cleric hurls an oversized container of holy water at the woman but misses again. In response, the lady snaps her finger and the company suddenly hears wheezing skeletons slowly approach from behind. The lady jumps off the bed, reaches into the air, and a sword suddenly appears in her hand. She slashes at the cleric but misses.
The company decides to cut and run. They retreat into the dining hall. The skeletons give chase, as well as the lady, who once again snaps her fingers, and from up the stairs a large group of undead lords comes running into the dining hall. The company makes for the frescoed room and out onto the balcony, managing to evade their pursuers. They slide down the rope and make it down to safety. One porter does suffer bruises from a hard landing. But it could be a lot worse. The undead lords shake fists and shout insults from the balcony, and begin to pull up the rope.
They take a breather, and decide they are not done yet. Leaving behind the porters, Jaquet and Bartolomea clamber up the first floor balcony leading to the suites of the count and countess. They check the door to the countess’s room. It appears to be padlocked. Jaquet bashes the door open, and they run inside. Bartolomea makes for the dresser and begins to hurriedly stuff her pockets with cosmetics. Meanwhile, Jaquet makes for the fireplace, where on the mantelpiece stands the severed head of a corpse with a crystalline toothy grin. He uses his backpack to scoop up the head, and makes for the exit. Bartolomea, having finished looting the dresser, snatches a whip from its top, and follows the fighter outside.
Outside, they are amazed to have gotten away with this without any interference, and clamber back down. They briefly debate pressing their luck further, but decide to quit while they are ahead, and travel back to town.
Upon return they sell off their loot, buy a healing potion, and peruse the curio shop’s inventory. Bartolomea visits father Brenard in the church, who has received a message from the bishop saying he certainly doesn’t mind that they have eliminated Gilbert, who was undoubtedly a sinner, but that he is specifically interested in the evil Malévols. Bartolomea writes back another letter, asking for reinforcements, and attaching the hit list they found several expeditions back. She also asks the father about the crypt. He admits to having the key, but says he’s never been inside. Bartolomea donates 400 GP to the church and leaves.
Meanwhile, Jaquet also spends 400 GP, but not on charity. He acquires a suit of plate.
We end this final session of the season with a scene in The Black Comedian, where the fighting man and the cleric are approached by a man introducing himself as Dario, a clerk in the employ of a lawyer named Stadelmann. The gist of the conversation is that Stadelmann and his associates are creditors of the now-deceased Gilbert Malévol, and that they consider the company to be the inheritors of his substantial debt. They expect prompt repayment, and if the company cannot afford to pay, they will have to work for it in stead. Bartolomea and Jaquet plead ignorance, but Dario is not fooled, and after a final warning leaves them to ponder their fate.
This session proves a small party can still be successful in the castle, provided they rely on finesse more than force.
We had a nice chase scene this time around, which works surprisingly well without any additional mechanics, because we roll group initiative every round (this I took from Knave). That, and strict enforcement of classic D&D’s encumbrance and movement rules are sufficient to make for tense and interesting chases.
At the top of this session, Bartolomea’s player asked if they could create what amounts to a holy water bomb. I allowed for it but enforced a -2 to-hit penalty. It did not hit, but if it did it would have done the equivalent of 5 holy water vials of damage! Upon reflection, I don’t think that’s a good way to handle it, because scaling damage like that just completely breaks classic D&D’s game balance. I think in future I would bump the damage die size up from a d6 to a d10 at most, while sticking with the to-hit penalty. That seems about right.
The “lady” cast charm on Jaquet, but it did not figure into the encounter as much as I would have liked. Roleplaying the effects of a charm spell is just hard for a player. I think the only thing that works is if the referee takes control of them, but that removes player agency, which I am not a fan of. Maybe next time I will exchange it for the more focused and short-lived “suggestion”.
This was the last session of this first season. We ended up playing 12 proper sessions of 2-3 hours each, plus a session zero. As mentioned before, I find CX a dream to run. The only real prep I need to do is to pre-roll random encounters, and even that is optional, strictly speaking. This, paired with the one-expedition-per-session format, makes for an incredibly low-overhead game. I get to explore the castle along with my players and be surprised almost as much as they are, which is an absolute delight.
The vote is still out on what we will be doing next. However, it is looking increasingly likely a second season of Castle Xyntillan will happen in the new year, which makes me very happy. But first, we will be taking a bit of a break for the next couple of weeks.
Couple of handfuls of gold pieces from Lydia’s purse and from a card table
A love letter from Lydia, to Lydia
Sack of silverware
Benjamin — torn to pieces by Lydia Malévol
Lucas — plummeted to his death from a second floor balcony
While in town, the company hears of an unfortunate lumberjack by the name of Balz who has been found in the woods hanging from a tree by one leg with his guts arranged around him in some unsettling pattern.
Also, Ynes is visited at night by the same angel as previously who in a booming voice reminds her to “Seek the sceptre! Or else!” and once again shows her a haloed Carolingian king on a plain marble throne sitting in a large hall, holding a sceptre shaped like an upturned hand.
The porter Elin, who fled the fight with the the countess and her bat swarms, has returned to town safely but is uninterested in entering into the company’s employ once more.
Bartolomea takes Father Brenard to visit Jacques Valt at the apothecary. She shows the alchemist the severed head of Gilbert Malévol and asks the apothecary to confirm his identity, which he does. Somewhat bemused, Valt asks Bartolomea if her company has now also taken upon themselves Gilbert’s debt, which he had with a number of well-to-do individuals in town. Brenard promises to message the bishop on Bartolomea’s behalf.
The company plans to find the throne room and locate the Sceptre of the Merovings. Some remember the butler had made mention of the throne room, and pointed them north from the portrait gallery.
After the usual uneventful two-day trek to the castle, the company form up at the grand entrance. They hear sobbing from inside and carefully open the large double doors. A disembodied voice is pleading innocence of various heinous crimes. Bartolomea attempts to appease the spirit, with little luck.
They move on to the portrait gallery but are careful to avoid the paintings. Ynes investigates a corridor leading north. However, the company decides to head up the stairs instead. They enter a large room with a domed ceiling, a statue of a rearing dragon, and a large u-shaped table set with silverware, crystal glasses filled with wine, and a generous spread of sumptuous foods. There are also many doors leading in various directions.
Shortly after beginning their search of the room for valuables, they hear someone coming up the stairs. Everyone hides, and in walks an undead lady encircled by moths, dragging a large sack, followed by a single headless lackey. She spots Hendrik’s wizardly robes sticking out from under the table and approaches. The lady reaches under the table to grab him, but the mage manages to crawl out of her reach. Bartolomea smashes a flask of holy water into the lady’s face, who rears back sizzling and screaming in pain. Meanwhile, Ynes has snuck up on the headless manservant and stabs it in the back, instantly destroying it. The lady slashes Benjamin to pieces, but she is soon after cut down by the company and finished off with another holy water flask thrown at short range by the cleric. The company loot her sizzling and dissolving remains, fishing out a bracelet, opera glasses, coin purse, and a love letter both addressed to and written by one “Lydia”.
Someone picks up a knife from the table and braces for bad stuff to happen, but nothing does. They cast detect magic and see that the spread on the table, the painting and something inside the dragon statue are all magic. They empty the lady’s sack, which turns out to hold a bunch of human bones, and begin to stuff it with silverware, careful not to disturb any of the food.
Meanwhile, Ynes clears an escape route to the east, where she knows a balcony offers a way out. To get there, she must first cross a room covered in faded frescoes of crusaders battling saracens. The thief spikes the door to the frescoed room, and the door leading from it to the balcony. Then, she drops a rope two floors down to the ground. When she enters back into the frescoed room she notices the painting has become more vivid, and a screaming saracen’s head flies out, passes through her, and disappears through the door into the daylight. Slightly shaken, but determined to press on, she opens another door off of the banquet hall, this one leading to a game room. She proceeds to swipe coins from a card table.
Meanwhile, Jaquet hauls the sack stuffed with silverware to the balcony, ties it to the end of the rope, and lowers it back down. When he turns to leave for the hall, he is surprised by vines that attempt to grab him by the ankles.
At the same time, back in the hall, Bartolomea heaves at the dragon statue and smashes it to pieces in one blow, surprised to find it is actually made of plaster. Out falls a casket, crashing to the ground, spilling a huge heaving monstrously obese corpse, blinking at the sudden daylight in surprise. Not missing a beat, Bartolomea raises her holy symbol, begins preaching, and successfully keeps the undead at bay.
Hendrik and the company’s porters and mercenaries head to the frescoed room and the balcony beyond. Hendrik is nearly hit by a stray arrow flying at them from the frescoes. Ynes tries to open the door leading from the game room to the frescoed room but fails to get it unstuck. The mercenaries and the company’s fighting man begin to hack away at the vines. Bartolomea moves into the doorway to the frescoed room, followed at some distance by the huge fat undead, who curses her and insists he will eat her whole. Jaquet runs from the balcony to come to her aid, and easily breaks down the door. Ynes climbs down the chimney which she knows leads into the countess’s room but is stopped by a huge stone suspended below her. Jaquet repels down the rope to safety. Hendrik uses his Staff of the Woodlands to destroy the vines with a single blow. The porter Lucas tries to climb down to safety, fails, and plummets to his death. Bartolomea moves to the balcony door, the undead still following her and taunting her. Shaken by Lucas’s bad luck the rope is moved to the side of the balcony and the remaining company climb down to safety via the balcony between the count’s and countess’s room. Bartolomea takes a final look at the fat undead before her, takes a deep breath, turns around and jumps off the balcony. She crashes to the ground in full plate armour, lands with a heavy blow on her back, and looks up to see the fat undead leer at her hungrily from the balcony’s edge.
And with that, another expedition comes to an end.
This one ran pretty smoothly, but as always, there are a few things to make note of.
First of all, hiding as a group — I have yet to find a satisfying way to handle this. This time around I had each player roll to hide for their character (the usual 5+ on a d6 modified by DEX in this case). Of course, the odds of someone failing, and therefore the party as a whole effectively being found out, is quite high in such an approach. On the other hand, it feels kind of right for the situation in question.
Then, there was detect magic picking up the undead inside the casket inside the statue. It was a snap decision and it nicely illustrates my poor grasp of classic D&D ontology. I now understand undead typically are not found through detect magic. Furthermore, the magic would have probably been blocked by the statue’s stone and the casket.
Third, we had the panicked climb down to safety. I enforced rolls for this, but players were a bit miffed, because I typically don’t. The distinction was, of course, that we were now operating on combat time whereas in previous cases they were always climbing in an exploration situation. For the latter I think it’s unnecessary to make checks, especially when they use rope and such. The assumption is they move slow and carefully and will not drop to the ground. However, in combat, they will be moving faster and are more prone to mistakes. I think it makes sense. The only thing I did not have a good response to was the player of a -2 DEX character complaining it would be impossible for them to make the 5+ roll on a d6. In hindsight, I totally forgot that, under the OED climbing rules we are using, a rope gives you a +2, which would have nicely offset such a penalty. It may have even saved Lucas’s bacon. Oh well.
Much of the treasure they brought back this time around I had to adjudicate on the fly as the book does not list any values for it. The bracelet and glasses I simply used Basic Fantasy’s handy Equipment Emporium book for. The silverware was a different matter. I ended up hashing out a reasonable weight of the sack with my players, and from there could quite easily calculate the total value of the silver. (In Hackbut, an inventory slot holds ~2 kg of weight, or 100 coins.)
This was the penultimate session of our first “season”. At the time of writing it is unclear if we will continue to play Xyntillan after the holidays, or move on to something else. I hope it will be the former, because I am having a ton of fun running this, and I feel like we are only just hitting our stride.
Now that we’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, and alignment, it’s time to move on to character creation. My goal with this was to keep things as simple and quick as possible, while mitigating some of the most extreme aspects of classic D&D’s randomization. Here’s how it works:
Roll 3d6 down the line for the six ability scores.
Determine ability modifiers. If the sum is less than zero, you may start over.
Pick a class: cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief.
Optionally swap two ability scores.
Determine your age.
Pick your alignment.
For starting HP, roll your HD and apply your CON modifier. Reroll natural 1s and 2s.
Starting GP is 3d6×10. Buy starting equipment using it. The remainder is cash on hand.
Pick or roll a name.
You’ll notice there is no step for picking a race. That’s because fantasy demihuman races is the only D&D trope I just really can’t stand in my games. So Hackbut is written for a human-only campaign, which for a sword & sorcery style setting in the vein of Howard or Leiber works perfectly fine.
Step 2, where you get to start over if your character is particularly unfit for duty, may raise some eyebrows. I took this from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I thought it would make the randomness a little more palatable to my players. They like it I think, but what troubles me is that it slows down character generation quite a bit. Calculating those modifiers each time is a little cumbersome. I also feel like it makes all the characters a little samey. It may be fun to have a wider spread of competence in the party. And it’s not like the modifiers make a huge amount of difference in most cases. So yeah, this is in there currently but might get cut.
The classes are the classic four, and will be written up in future posts. They are more or less the same as those in OD&D. I allow for swapping two abilities so that players have a little more control over which classes are viable, given that each relies on one ability in particular. Again, this is a bit of a modernism but I think it brings just the right amount of customization to what is otherwise an almost entirely random process.
Age determination is in there because Castle Xyntillan has several things in it that might unnaturally age characters. So I need to know how old characters are, and I have some rules for what happens when they do grow older (inspired by this post by Delta). For the starting ages I copied over the random rolls from 1e AD&D. For the most part they produce surprisingly youthful characters (the fighters and thieves in particular) which I find kind of amusing. If a player feels strongly about how old their character should be I let them just pick their age.
Alignment is an open pick, except for clerics, who must start the game aligned to Law. The remaining classes are neutral by default, and no player (so far) has picked Chaos.
Hit points is pretty straightforward. I added the rerolling of 1s and 2s to make first level characters a little more viable out of the gate (I took this from OED). Not that it makes a tremendous amount of difference (because, as I’ll blog about more at some point, we re-roll HD at the top of every session). It’s mostly to soften the psychological effect of rolling a 1 on your HP.
Starting gold and equipment is absolutely traditional. I’ll get around to writing about the equipment lists at some point, but for the most part their contents and prices are exactly as in OD&D.
Finally, you’ll notice I let players roll for a name. Character names that do not fit the setting are kind of a bugbear of mine. So I assembled a random table of names that are roughly from the time period the game is set in (late medieval, early Renaissance). On it, there are six male names and six female names for six modern-day European countries: The Netherlands, England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. (They were sourced from lists published on The Academy of Saint Gabriel.) So not only does the table yield a name but also a gender, which explains the delightfully anachronistic gender balance in our game’s mercenary company.