Okay, here are some design notes on the cleric class in Hackbut. This is the first of the classic four classes that are in my game. I will cover them in alphabetical order.
As previously mentioned in “the basics”, the chassis for my classes is from Hungarian retroclone KéK.
Using the cleric as described there as a base, I added and changed the following things:
I explicitly disallow missile weapons. Some allow slings, for example, but I don’t like the visual image it conjures up. If a cleric wants to kill something from a distance, they will have to use flaming oil flasks or holy water.
I replaced the classic turn undead mechanic with a d20-based approach taken from Necropraxis. The only thing I changed was that players get to add their WIS mod in stead of CHA, because I interpret turning as an expression of true faith rather than leveraging your force of personality. The main reason I went looking for an alternative to the classic mechanic was that I wanted something that does not require use of a lookup table, because I am all about speed of play at the table. This alternate mechanic does skew the odds of successful turning and destroying significantly in favour of the players. But if handled as an encounter action, it does not upset game balance too much, in my experience. Also, in Castle Xyntillan, named undead can never be destroyed, only turned. (If you want something that is mathematically equivalent of the table-based OD&D mechanic, I recommend Delta’s take.)
With regards to divine spell casting, I have clerics not carry a spell book. They gain access to all spells of the levels they can cast automatically at level-up. They do need to memorize spells, just like magic-users do.
The spell descriptions in Hackbut are adapted from an unofficial OED-style list of cleric spells created by “baquies”. These are basically exactly the spells that clerics get in OD&D, but the descriptions themselves are streamlined and harmonized. They’ve been working great so far.
And that’s basically it. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, clerics work great in a pseudo-historical early renaissance campaign setting if you lean into their faux catholic demon hunter characterization. They’ve gone from a class that I’d rather cut from D&D, to possibly my favorite class of the classic four.
Four barrels of wine: one hallucinogenic; one healing; one moldy but immune-boosting; and one ancient essence
The company decides to pause their operations until Amaranth recovers from her bout of madness in the care of the hospital’s sisters. Eight weeks later, she is released.
Claus hires a new arquebusier, a woman named Kea, who is the proud owner of a mace +1.
The masked “lumberjack” Blérot — whom the company freed from his prison in the castle, and who would later gifted them a magic staff cut from a legendary tree in the forests surrounding Tours-en-Savoy — appears on their doorstep, fear in his eyes, begging to be hidden from the woodsmen that are pursuing him. The company agrees to hide him for the time being.
Othmar, the captain of the guard who Jürg insulted some time ago while out carousing, confronts Jürg — accompanied by a couple of guardsmen — and demands reparations for the terrible insult he suffered.
The company acquires a portable hole from Ben Mordechai at the bargain basement price of 6.000 GP, because the thing is apparently a little unstable.
The company once again enters through the grand entrance. In the vestibule they come across the ghost of James the butler once more. He’s not too pleased to see them this time around. The company ignores them and hurries along in the direction of the portrait gallery and the throne room beyond.
When they make it there, they go to the throne to check if the scepter has been returned to the compartment underneath the seat. To their great disappointment, it is not there.
They decide to take the opportunity to check the various doors leading off from the throne room. The north doors lead into a massive eerily empty ball room. When they’ve just entered a large group of undead ladies stream past them and begin to pair up and dance to the tune of their own humming. The company hurries out and back into the throne room.
The double doors to the west open onto an overgrown inner courtyard under the shadow of the donjon, containing many statues in various states of decay. They do not enter the garden, and in stead move on to the south door.
This door appears to open onto a cell complex. It is dark and silent. They opt not to enter here either.
In stead, they decide to go down into the dungeons once more, and investigate the root cellar which during the previous expedition was cleared of its giant beet inhabitants.
They ride the throne down into the changing room. When the last group is making its way down, a massive snake drops down from the hole left by the throne and slithers between them. Everyone panics and tries to distance themselves from the snake as much as possible. The monster appears to ignore them, and begins to head north into the darkness. Before it entirely disappears from sight they hear it bid them a “good morning”.
This prompts Jürg to call out to the snake. A lengthy conversation develops. It turns out the snake is terribly bothered by a bunch of gems stuck in its belly. Jürg manages to persuade the snake to open its maw so that he can tickle its uvula. The snake hurls and vomits the gemstones onto the dungeon floor. It takes two tries to rid the beast of the full ten gems it had swallowed. Jürg all the while manages to avoid its huge fangs dripping venom. Relieved, the monster thanks the company and continues on its way, but not before it has introduced itself as “Meander Malévol”.
Amazed at how well this encounter went for them, the company next heads to the root cellar.
Here they first play around with the statue of the lady in the nude and discover it can be shifted to reveal a shaft that leads into a room with a cistern, beyond.
When they check the south door they find it opens onto circular room where animated tools are excavating a casket from an earthen pit in the center. Doors lead off to the east and south.
The company decides to once and for all rid themselves of those pesky skeleton guardsmen in the room overlooking the wine cellar. They open the door east, readying themselves for combat, but in stead find a small empty room with the obvious outlines of a secret door heading east.
The thief Claus (who had Invisibility cast on him at the expedition’s start) sneaks through the secret door. He remains unnoticed but the skeletons are alerted by the secret door swinging open. Not wasting any time, Jürg and Fernando barge in and begin smashing skeletons left and right. Hendrik follows up with magic missiles that obliterate a few more. Amaranth finishes the job with some preaching and brandishing of her cross, which turns the remaining skeletons to dust. The things did not stand a chance.
Searching the guardroom they find nothing of value except an animated chess set. They chase up the fleeing playing pieces, and return to the excavation room. Jürg, impatiently, smashes open the casket. Inside they find a hammer and sickle, as well as three thick volumes. They take everything, pleasantly surprised that the tools are ignoring them.
Next, they move into the wine cellar, and begin tapping and sampling barrels at their leisure. Those that appear promising are moved into their newly acquired portable hole.
Whole getting ready to move the final batch, they are surprised by a hunchbacked figure tapping them on the shoulder. The man turns out to be Samuel, servant of the count and countess. He’s nosy, and ogles Claus’s new handgunner Kea in an increasingly unpleasant manner. They try to get rid of Samuel with a string of bullshit excuses. But he won’t have none of it. When the conversation begins to turn nasty, Claus, still invisible, loses his patience and stabs Samuel in the back. Before the hunchback can even utter a cry of surprise, Kea follows up with a well-aimed shot to the head, splattering the company with gore.
Quickly, they roll the final pair of barrels into the portable hole, pack it up, and make their way out of the castle without further issue.
A cellar stacked with high-value wine barrels and a portable hole on sale at the magic item shop. My players are no dummies, so of course they went for it. Now I find myself needing to adjudicate how portable holes work, exactly (Brendan’s OSR search engine is of great help there). I am also getting into the details of wine barrels, and how exactly they are tapped, typically (where would we be without YouTube).
This strategy did net them another significant haul of XP, which means the average company level is back around the 3-4 range. This makes them a little hardier. But as the infamous encounter with the ghouls a few sessions back has shown, fortunes can turn at a moment’s notice.
This session was characterized by a lot of roleplaying-oriented encounters. This emerged due to a combination of the specific NPCs and monsters rolled up, as well as the fact that I rolled a neutral or better reaction for almost all of them. The encounter with the giant snake Meander was the absolute highlight of the session, I feel like. It’s so funny how the vibe of a session can be significantly altered depending on those random encounters. I wonder what next session will have in store for us.
Casualties: Penelope, Jan & Phine — riddled by eldritch mirror shards. (Being a retainer in this nameless company of treasure hunters is once again shown not to be without risk.)
Some retainers whose morale broke during the previous expeditions’ fight with the giant beets return back to town. Others are not so lucky, and no one knows what happened to them after they fled into the darkness of the castle.
Strange men from the deep woods are spotted around town asking around for a man named Blérot.
Jürg asks the spirit of famed alchemist Girolamo Bartholdi about the whereabouts of the Scepter of the Merovings, but the giant ectoplasmic head is of little help in the matter.
Hendrik is given control of the expedition. He decides to follow up on some information he acquired earlier about the whereabouts of several laboratories and arcane studies in the castle. The aim is to locate one that is supposed to be located on the upper floor of the castle’s south-east section.
As they approach the castle, Hendrik casts Invisibility on the thief Claus, who will be the expedition’s scout.
They enter through the grand entrance. While crossing the vestibule a bunch of headless manservants stumble into the room. Both sides are surprised to encounter each other. After a moment of confusion, Amaranth begins preaching and turns them away. They slam the door shut and move on.
In the portrait gallery they open a door under stairs heading north. They find what appears to have been a clerk’s room. It is littered with yellowing moldy papers. They search through the piles and also the filing cabinets and desk. Underneath a particularly large pile they find the clerk’s corpse, his mouth stuffed with papers. In the east wall they find what appears to be a bricked up door. Jürg wants to break it down, but the remainder of the party insists on moving on.
They head back into the portrait gallery and go up stairs. They enter the grand dining hall where they had previously faced off an enormous undead that had emerged from the now-smashed plaster statue of a rearing dragon.
They also recall a room to the south where they had found a demonic lady lying, the room itself filled with an appealing jug of golden wine. They decide to make another detour from their goal to find a laboratory, and head towards said room.
After some trouble with stuck doors, the thief Claus — still invisible — manages to sneak into the demon lady’s room, grab the wine, and return to his companions, all the while remaining unnoticed by the lady, who is reclining on her bed, apparently asleep.
They continue their search for the lab and begin to check doors along the south wall of the dining hall. The first one opens onto a sitting room. A thick trail of slime crosses a dusty floor to a couch on with sits a skeleton encased in a gelatinous substance, a glinting amulet hanging from its neck.
The company carefully readies their ranged weapons, enter the room, line up their shots, and absolutely obliterate the ooze covering the skeleton before it can do any harm. The skeleton itself collapses onto the floor in a heap. They gingerly fish out the amulet from the debris. It is warm to the touch and emits glints of sunlight.
Just as they make ready to search the room, someone enters through the south door. It is a young man who closely resembles the wanted poster in the barracks, and the sad-looking fellow they sometimes see hanging around the Black Comedian. But this person is dressed in fine cherry clothes and wears a powdered wig. The boy proceeds to court poor handgunner Penelope, who is undoubtedly the fairest of the ladies who make up the expeditionary force. She is not too pleased with the man’s advances, and looks to her employer Claus for assistance. After some more back and forth, it all comes to a head when the party insists on moving on. The man suddenly transforms into a blob of grey ooze and proceeds to engulf Penelope. However, the company acts swiftly, and before it can harm the handgunner it is evaporated by a magic missile.
They search the room but don’t find anything. Deciding against entering the study to the south because it is deemed too dangerous, they return to dining hall and try the next door in the south wall. This one opens onto a hallway. With Claus scouting ahead, they follow it to the end where there is another door. This opens on what appears to have been the room of a maid. It is very tidy and unremarkable, except for a large mirror that absorbs rather than reflects light, and the portrait of a lady whose eyes follow the company’s every movement. They can also hear a low continuous humming. Worried about the portrait, Jürg and Fernando return to the dining hall to retrieve a tablecloth. Back in the room they cover the portrait with it, and pull it down from the wall. When they do, rays of rainbow-colored light bursts from the mirror, and eight huge tentacles emerge from it. The tentacles begin to whip around the room in search of prey to grab and pull back into the mirror.
One porter is instantly killed by a wet slap from a tentacle. Several companios attempt to flee the room in various directions. Fernando uses his spear to push the mirror from the wall. It drops to the ground but the portal remains open and tentacles continue to thrash about. Penelope aims her arquebus and fires at the mirror. The shot hits, and the mirror shatters into a thousand razorsharp pieces that spray everyone in the room. Penelope is instantly killed, as well as the remaining porter. Claus, still invisible, also drops to the ground. The tentacles have disappeared, and companions gingerly return to the room.
Miraculously, Hendrik manages to locate Claus’s body in time, and Jürg comes to his aid with a healing potion. The thief is pulled back from death’s doorstep.
They search the room, and find nothing of note except for a slim case stuffed in an alcove behind where the portrait used to hang.
Still not satisfied with the expedition’s finds, they open another door, this one leading to the east, and enter a room that appears to have belonged to a butler. They spot a brazier, coal bin and tongs, next to a large bed. The room has been tossed. Personal belongings are scattered everywhere. They open a large wardrobe and out stumbles the corpse of butler, garrote wound around his neck. It collapses to the ground. They search his pockets and find an iron key and a snuff box.
When they are about to leave, Jürg runs back to the maid’s room, and recklessly pulls opens the door to west. He is confronted by the ghostly apparition of a lady with a halo. She attempts to ensorcel the fighter, fails, and disappears with the sound of tinkling bells. They also search this room, which to appears to have been that of a servant, but find nothing.
The end of the expedition is called for at that point. They head back the way they came, and are almost down the large stairs heading to the portrait gallery, when they hear wheezing and shuffling come their way. The company panics and runs back up the stairs. From the dining hall they continue to the balcony above the countess’s suite. When they arrive they expect someone to pull a rope from their pack, but no one thought to bring one! Being a thief, Claus scrambles down the sheer wall without regardless. The rest are left behind. They run back into the dining hall and begin pulling table cloths from the tables, intending to create a makeshift rope. While they are thus preoccupied, wheezing skeletons appear at the head of the stairs. Hendrik takes aim with his wand of lightning and obliterates five of the creatures. Fighters close in to engage the remainder. Amaranth steps forward, raises her holy symbol, and turns the rest of the skeletons to dust.
Relieved, the company make their way out of the castle through the grand entrance, and head back to town.
Upon their return Amaranth can’t resist the lure of the golden wine and consumes it. She has deliciously awful visions, which benefit her experience greatly, but also drive her totally insane. She is admitted to the hospital, babbling like an idiot.
Jürg and Claus go carousing. Jürg gets a tattoo, which is cooler than one would at first expect. Something involving a unicorn and a goatrice, best not to go into too many details. Claus nearly gambles away all of his possessions, but at the last moment manages to resist also staking his bow +1.
“We haven’t had tentacles yet, have we?” one player asked when the things burst from the mirror. That was another brutal and enjoyable scene. The thief dropping to zero HP while invisible also made for an interesting moment. I figured an invisible body riddled by eldritch mirror shards would be locatable, and the players managed to get to him just before his two round grace period ran out.
We also had a bit of a back and forth about climbing at the end. I ruled non-thieves can’t attempt to climb sheer castle walls without aid or equipment. But I still had the thief make a thievery check (1d20+level+DEX mod >=15) rather than a straight climbing check (1d6+DEX mod>=5). The odds on the latter are much better than the former. I have since decided, in line with OED, to remove climbing from the list of thief skills, and to simply provide a bonus on a regular climb check. The only other distinction is that thieves may attempt climbs that would be flat out impossible for other classes. Simple enough.
Loot: a fragile barrel containing ancient delectable wine.
Casualties: Gunther, mauled by an angry giant beet.
Jürg is dismissed from the hospital, having recovered from his ability loss. He learns of his beloved Bartolomea’s demise when he receives her belongings from her former porter — who has managed to return to town alive after a harrowing escape — and also a letter from the bishop of Chamrousse. From this he discovers she was planning to divorce him, drug him, and send him off to a monastery. Embittered, Jürg breaks bad, and joins the company as a chaotically aligned fighter.
Hendrik spends several weeks immersed in arcane studies and manages to learn the spell Invisibility, which is sure to come in handy some day.
After the previous expedition’s near-decimation of the company, a number of new fortune-seekers join up: thief Claus; fighter Fernando and cleric Gunther. They also hire a number of porters and men-at-arms of various kinds.
Their aim for this expedition is to return to the tomb where many of their companions were massacred by ghouls, in the hopes of recovering their remains and the many valuable items they carried.
Their approach is once more through the grand entrance, which this time around is littered by bodies of hapless adventurers. They drag the corpses off to the river running south of the castle and dump them in the water. Then, they enter the vestibule, where they come across the ghost of James the butler, who is sobbing because of the poor state the room is in. After a brief exchange they continue on through the portrait gallery and into the throne room. They take turns riding the throne down into the catacombs, and then cautiously head towards the underground lake.
While crossing the grotto in northern direction they are surprised by Rodento Ratsputin, the giant rat they’d encountered once before. It demands they halt and explain their business. When they tell him of their plans to retrieve the bodies of their companions from the ghoul tomb, Rodento gives them a look of pity and allows them to continue on their way.
When they arrive at the intersection, Claus scouts ahead and confirms the ghouls’ presence in the tomb. The Company makes an elaborate plan to lure the ghouls into the intersection and ambush them with the combined fire power of several handgunners, a wand of lightning, and other projectiles. Claus is sent back to get the monsters’ attention.
The thief carefully heads back and tries to remain unseen and unheard for as long as possible but clumsily alerts the ghouls to his presence nonetheless. The monsters set upon him but he manages to run behind the ranks of fighters before they can get to him. Hendrik then sends a well-aimed lightning bolt from his wand into the corridor packed with ghouls, and obliterates nearly all of them. They hear one or two flee the scene, yipping in terror.
They carefully go to investigate the charred remains of the ghouls when they are once again surprised by something or someone approaching from behind, reciting Shakespeare. It turns out to be the ghost of a temperamental gentleman named Frédéric. He demands to be entertained, and when the company bores him with questions about treasure, he attempts to possess Hendrik, but fails. Annoyed, he then begins to pelt party members with charred ghoul limbs which he tosses at them using telekinesis. At the last moment, Jürg manages to defuse the situation by dancing a mad jig, which the ghost joins in on with gusto. He then thanks the company for the amusement, and leaves them to their devices.
The company continues to the tomb where the ghouls were first encountered. They make note of the murals depicting templars who are lead by a dark-skinned man to a hill lined with palm trees. They also note smashed and broken holy symbols and holy water vials littering the floor. Furthermore, they smell lingering odor of sulphur mixed with a particularly arousing perfume.
The sarcophagi are opened and here they see neatly arranged remains of their former companions — not much is left of them besides bones picked clean. They also find quite a few of their former belongings, but notably all lawful items are absent, including the Sceptre of the Merovings, and the Oils of Cleansing.
Upon further investigation, they spot the outlines of a secret door behind the mural section depicting the hill with palm trees. However, no matter what they try, it won’t budge. Even a knock spell has no effect besides briefly illuminating the symbols of a scepter and heart over the top of the doorway.
They backtrack, hoping to ride the throne back up, but they find it has returned to the throne room. And so, they decide they will have to continue on to the root cellar to make their escape that way.
They find the giant beets lumbering about. The company attempts to sneak past them but Gunther, the clumsiest of the lot, bumps rudely into a beet, which angers it and its kin, who attack in retaliation.
Gunther is severely mauled by a beet, and he drops to the ground. Most retainers panic and run for the exit. Faced by an overwhelming majority of beets, the remaining company follow their routed hirelings into the wine cellar.
They are relieved to find they are not fired upon by skeletons from the lookout. The company regroups, and agree it is time to get rid of those troublesome beets once and for all. Hendrik leads the way, wielding his wand of lightning, and obliterates about half of them with one shot. The remainder are mopped up without much trouble.
Gunther, however, has sadly expired. He hasn’t even made it through his first expedition.
After briefly paying their respects they leave behind their companion’s body, and return to the wine cellar. Here they inspect several casks, tapping them in the hopes of identifying a promising specimen. Fernando find one particularly ancient cask containing a delightfully aromatic substance.
Just when they make ready to carry off the barrel of wine, the ghost of a woman wearing nothing but a flower wreath and a nightgown enters the cellar, accompanied by a number of glitterclouds. The company freezes, and they are relieved to see the ghost ignore them and pass them by.
They carefully roll the barrel up the stairs and out of the castle, and lug it all the way back to town. They have it appraised, and it turns out to be worth quite a fortune, but they can’t find a buyer for it just yet.
Now that most players are at the helm of first level characters again, the vibe of the game has shifted again. They are keenly aware of how fragile they are, as exemplified by the lamentable demise of Gunther. And so they are more careful again, and appear not entirely sure what their purpose is, now that they have lost some of their most significant items.
I know what happened to the scepter and the oils, but I won’t note that down here, because I have cheeky players how like reading this commentary. But I will just say I largely used random rolls to figure out who came across the aftermath of the massacre, and what they would do with the items. This was a fun little exercise to engage in as a referee, what some call “lonely fun”.
The wand of lightning, and the lightning bolt spell as described in OED book of spells required a bit of interpretation and debate at the table during this session. Is the point the player aims for the tip, middle, or end of the bolt? What happens when it hits a wall? How do you determine how many creatures are hit when playing theatre of the mind? We’ve arrived at some satisfying answers to those questions since, but at the table it took a bit of back and forth.
By the way, I allow recharging of the wand by a magic-user NPC in town who happened to have the spell in his spell book. For a significant fee, of course.
The cask was a lucky find, and the significant XP it fetched was also lucky, because the value of these casks is determined randomly, too.
Players are plotting a full expedition aimed at liberating the most high-value casks from the cellar. We’ll see what happens when they make the attempt.
Loot: None, unless you count the stone from Hubert Malévol’s chest cavity.
Casualties: Bartolomea, Davignon, Jaquet, Ynes, Davide and Edna — all paralyzed, torn apart and eaten by ghouls. RIP.
While preparing for the next expedition, Bartolomea receives a letter from the bishop of Chamrousse. He is well impressed with Odile’s head and takes it as evidence of Bartolomea’s dedication and capability to eliminating the evil Malévols. In return he would allow her into the crypt of Boniface underneath the town church, if it wasn’t for the troubling things he’s heard from Father Brenard about Bartolomea’s marriage to Jürg, the butcher’s son. The bishop demands Bartolomea annuls the marriage in the presence of Brenard. If she chooses not to comply, the cleric retainer Gene will be forbidden to lend further assistance to the company.
Bartolomea ponders her situation, and ultimately decides the charade has lasted long enough. She plans to have Jürg sent to a monastery, and will bribe the boy’s parents so that they don’t raise a fuss. Bartolomea confers with the nuns of the hospital who are currently treating Jürg for the energy drain attack he suffered from the undead matron Odile. To the cleric’s surprise, they agree to lend a hand when the time comes to get rid of the boy, by plying him with drink or worse. Bartolomea also writes a letter to the bishop informing him of her decision, and asking him to put in a good word with a monastery of his choosing.
The company places an order with local artisans to construct a number of specialised tools that should ease the transportation of wine barrels from the castle’s cellars.
Furthermore, the magic-user Hendrik studies The Dancing Plague and discovers it holds a number of reversed cleric spells that are suitable for casting by a wizard. He tries but fails to transcribe a spell from it. He also studies the late magic-user Heinz’s spellbook, and manages to transcribe a spell from it.
Hendrik wife’s Ronja, whom he has been shamefully neglecting, visits him and asks for a significant sum to support herself, her parents and her siblings, who are struggling to make ends meet by running a local bakery. Certain that the woman only married him in the hopes of acquiring his capital, he hands her more than she asked for, if she promises to leave him in peace.
Finally, the fighting-man Jaquet hears word of militiamen asking around town about him, trying to learn his name, occupation and place of residence…
On a pleasant day in early March, the company arrive at Castle Xyntillan once again. Their plan is to focus their efforts at completing the holy quest that has been Ynes’s burden for longer than she likes. They seek the Sceptre of the Merovings, and they suspect it can be found in the throne room. Studying their maps, they agree it will be fastest and safest to approach from the grand entrance, pass through the portrait gallery, and follow a hallway leading north. This they do, and they make it to the end of said corridor without incident, and find themselves at a door.
Ynes carefully opens it and sees curtains blocking her view into the room beyond. Using a mirror she spies under it, and sees what is certainly a very large space. She carefully sneaks along the wall, and steps into what she now sees is a throne room, hoping but failing to merge with the shadows.
The remainder of the party follows her into the room, and a thorough search commences. Daylight shines from glass eyes set in the room’s high arched ceiling, illuminating a plain marble throne in the east end of the room. At the room’s western end are large double doors. More doors line the northern and southern wall.
Next to the throne stand two rusty suits of armour holding halberd. They use poles and spears to tip them over. They clang to the floor and break into pieces. One suit emits a carpet of tiny spiders which immediately flee in terror.
Bartolomea and Ynes investigate what is behind the curtain lining the east wall, and discover a bunch of murder holes through which they can spy a shooting gallery.
While still busy searching, a door to the north opens and in steps Hubert Malévol, also known as The Huntsman, dressed in green, a heart-shaped patch on his chest, a hunting horn at his belt, his face a black putrid mess of rotten flesh. He growls at the party, “it’s you again, what are you doing here?” And the company begins to explain they are searching for a sceptre. Maybe the huntsman can assist them, in return for a favour of his choosing?
Hubert makes it pretty clear he thinks it is a bad idea for the company to seek the sceptre. Bartolomea, who was still hiding behind the curtains, looses her patience (as she is wont to do) steps into the room, and attempts to cast hold person. Hubert resists the cleric’s spell, and readies his bow, but before he can fire off an arrow he is turned away by Davignon. Having gained the advantage, the company piles on. Bartolomea succeeds her second attempt at hold person, and Hubert is hacked to pieces.
The company loots the huntsman’s body, douses it in oils, and lights it on fire. While acrid black smoke drifts to the vaulted ceiling, the company turn their attention back to the throne. Further searching reveals that the seat itself can be removed, and underneath is a compartment holding the sceptre of Ynes’s visions! Suspicious, they carefully scoop it up with a small sack and stash it away for future study. They also discover a switch underneath one of the throne’s armrests. Hendrik uses his pole to poke it. A cloud click echoes through the room, and the throne begins to lower. From the shaft it sinks into emerges a swarm of hands which attempt to choke the magic-user. But it is easily defeated.
The company make their way down the chains attached to the throne, and find themselves in a subterranean dressing room which they recognise from previous expeditions. This is where they had liberated a magical fool’s outfit and a valuable king’s garb from a closet. And also where they had discovered the hidden cell of an insane hermit.
They had previously discovered the statue of a wise-eyed saint at the end of a corridor. Bartolomea investigates it once more, but can’t find anything special about it. It does, however, detect as magic, and so the cleric decided, after some encouragement from her companions, to pray at its feet for guidance. The statue comes to life, and offers advice. True to form, she asks for aid with locating treasure. The statue responds “raise the sceptre”, blesses the cleric — who instantly feels a little wiser — and turns back to stone.
An argument follows over wether or not to unwrap the sceptre and indeed raise it. Ynes in particular is very worried about the potential consequences. It is Jaquet, finally, who pulls it out and raises it. In response the sceptre comes to life, and pulls the fighter in a north-easterly direction.
The company begin to follow the sceptre’s direction, and soon enough once more enter the grotto where at an underground lakeshore stands a bell hanging from a pole with a sign reading “three coins for passage”. The sceptre pulls them further north, and they arrive at the crossing of which the northern fork leads to the chapel where they found the oils of cleansing. The sceptre’s directions lead them into the east fork, and this, dear reader, is where the company’s fate takes a turn for the worse.
Scouting ahead, Ynes hears sounds of several creatures growling and gnawing from a small room beyond. Suspecting undead, she motions to the company’s clerics. In response, Bartolomea and Davignon confidently stride into the small room. It is a tomb holding several sarcophagi, the contents of which are being argued over by eight ghouls.
The monsters immediately set upon the two clerics, who are not fast enough to begin preaching to hold them at bay. Davignon is paralysed and killed almost instantly. Bartolomea is also hurt badly and paralysed. More ghouls break through the front rank and attack Ynes, who was right behind the clerics. She is raked by claws and gnawed on, but miraculously manages to resist the monsters’ paralysing effect. The company’s rear guard moves forward to fend off the undead. Desperate to turn the tide, Ynes pulls out a magic missile scroll and attempts to cast it, but makes a mistake, and the missiles explode in her face. The thief drops to the ground, her body a smouldering ruin. More company members succumb to the ghouls’ claws and bites. Porters flee into the darkness. Hendrik, recognising the situation is hopeless, turns and runs as well. Heintz is the last one remaining, and for a moment considers hoisting Bartolomea on his shoulders, but realises he will be swamped by ghouls before he can get away, and so he too, reluctantly, flees the scene.
Hendrik manages to evade the lumbering beets in the root cellar, is clipped by an arrow from the skeleton guardsmen overlooking the wine cellar, and emerges from the grand entrance into the early afternoon light, a haunted look in his eyes.
Heintz flees back to the grotto, passes through the double doors to the east, and waits to see if he is pursued. When he thinks the coast is clear, he sneaks back to the tomb, hoping to salvage something from the catastrophe. However, when he hears the sound of bodies being ripped to shreds and consumed, and the smell of blood and guts fills his nose, he realises there really is nothing left to be done, and also flees the castle.
What can I say? The last time a player character died was all the way back in session #10. Sure, they’d lost a retainer here and there, but for a long time a combination of good luck and clever play lead to a string of successes. In fact, with the majority of the company hovering around the level 4 mark I felt like they’d become quite the unstoppable juggernaut. In particular, the pair of high-level clerics were able to defeat many of the undead residing in the castle without breaking so much as a sweat.
And I was thinking the same thing again early in this session when they made short work of Hubert “The Huntsman” Malévol. I did make a mistake when I ruled hold person would work on him. The description in OED book of spells is a little ambiguous on if it works on undead. I have since come to realise that the canonical interpretation is that none of the mind-affecting magic works on undead, including charm, hold, and sleep. However, we operate on a strict no take-backs doctrine and our play is the better for it, even though I am prone to frequent mistakes like this since I am still, all things considered, a novice at refereeing classic D&D.
Anyway, the party had decimated Hubert, found the sceptre, which Ynes’s player had been after for I don’t remember how long. And so with the previous session’s memory of acquiring the oils of cleansing still fresh in their minds, and now this victory under their belts as well, it is understandable that they may have gotten a little careless.
Of course, D&D ghouls are notorious player-character killers. Multiple attacks and paralysis makes them punch way above their two-hit-dice weight. Seeing as how most of my players are not particularly familiar with all the ins and outs of old-school D&D, I also make a habit of communicating “meta” when they encounter something that a more experienced player would recognise as particularly hazardous. But before I could properly telegraph the threat level of the ghouls, the players of Davignon and Bartolomea had committed to stepping into the room and attempting to turn. They then lost their initiative. And Bartolomea, although she had an AC of -1, was hit not once but twice by a critical hit, and failed her save versus paralysis. Davignon’s AC wasn’t as good, and he also failed his save, and then took too many hits to remain standing. And so I ruled the ghouls could move past the front rank. The final bit of bad luck — aside from consistently failing their initiative check, which we roll every round — was of course Ynes’s player failing her save versus magic to successfully cast from a scroll. This is another house rule: I allow thieves of any level to use scrolls. If they fail a save versus magic, the spell miscasts. I had told the player that if they would fail, the missiles would explode in her face. In fact, this player, being very risk-averse, had never used a scroll before. So you can imagine how desperate the situation was!
Losing that many high-level characters was rough on the players. But they took it like champs. It helps that by now they’ve all lost least one character before, so they know what to expect from this campaign. In fact, they after a brief post-mortem on what went wrong, they immediately started making plans, and nominating a couple of retainers as potential next characters.
I have to admit I was both exhilarated and horrified by the way this one encounter absolutely wrecked the party. It’s this sudden turn of fate, this awareness that at any point, anything can happen, this high-risk high-reward kind of play, that makes me absolutely adore running this system, and this module.
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.
Update (May 25, 2021): the four classes have now each been covered in their own post, read on for the cleric, fighter, magic-user and thief.
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.