In the weapons permitted, I removed the sling and added the club. Historically, slings are actually among the hardest missile weapons to master. It doesn’t make sense to me that a wizard would have time to learn how to use one in-between all the arcane studying. Clubs, by contrast, are possibly the simplest weapon to use (a stick, basically) and furthermore, on the Hackbut equipment list they are free and do 1d4 damage. I see no reason why a magic-user wouldn’t be allowed to use them.
The rest of the things to note are all related, unsurprisingly, to spell-casting.
Starting spells, and gaining spells at level up, are basically as described in the aforementioned KéK blog post. I do, however, prescribe that such spells are determined randomly.
The spell list and spell descriptions themselves are from Delta’s excellent OED Book of Spells. The spell selection is classic but flavorful, and the description are streamlined and rationalized. This one comes highly recommended.
Finally, I tweaked the rules for memorizing and casting spells as described in White Box to be a little bit more flexible and forgiving. Taking a page from 5e, magic-users can memorize level + INT modifier spells from their spellbook. They can cast memorized spells by “expending” a spell slot, but the spell itself remains memorized for further use. Essentially, memorized spells and spell slots are decoupled. So yes, this does mean a magic-user can cast the same spell more than once, which I know is frowned upon in old-school D&D circles. However, the number of spells a magic-user can cast per day remains as per the original game, so some looseness aside, the system is no more powerful than before.
And that’s all there is to say about magic-users, really. Next time I will tackle the last of the four classes, the thief.
Continuing the series on the four classes in Hackbut, having previously covered the cleric, next up is the fighter. This is the simplest class in the game (not that the others are particularly complicated, but still). I buy into the notion that the fighter should be kept as simple as possible so that there is a clear go-to for new players, or players who just don’t feel like something too involved.
As with all the classes in the game, I have used Kazamaták és Kompániák as the base. It is worth noting the multi-attack ability. This is an adaptation of the rule in OD&D and first edition AD&D where fighters may attack creatures of 1 HD or less a number of times equal to their level. KéK tweaks this. The rule reads as follows:
They may attack multiple opponents, provided their combined HD doesn’t exceed the fighting-man’s own (e.g. a level 4 fighting-man may attack four 1 HD goblins, two 2 HD wolves, or a 3 HD crystal statue and a 1 HD cultist).
So the power level of creatures that a fighter can perform multiple attacks against scales with their level, without getting out of hand. When I saw this I was immediately taken with it, because it solves this strange break point at the 1 HD mark without unbalancing the game unduly. (I should add it is also listed as an option in the Castle Xyntillan stat blocks.)
In play, I have found one slight drawback to this ability is that players are prone to ask about enemy HD, which is an unwelcome intrusion of rules concepts into the game’s fiction. I do not expose HD to players (nor do I AC, for that matter). So I handle this by telling a fighter their options with regards to performing multiple attacks in a round. This works fine. And in any case the ability leads to fighter characters wading into melee ahead of other characters.
One other ability that I added is a +1 to open door checks and other feats of strength for every three levels the fighter has. (So it improves to +2 at level four.) Such ability checks in Hackbut are always 5+ on a d6. Everyone gets to add their STR mod, and fighters get a little boost. In play this means that fighters are typically the designated door-opener, and the first one in harm’s way. (I believe a version of this ability is also in OD&D and Moldvay Basic D&D.)
Fighters are the only class who get to use all weapons and armour. In addition it is worth pointing out I restrict the use of magic swords to fighters only. I believe the Greyhawk thief was able to use such swords, but I have dialed back the weapons they are allowed. When I first came to classic D&D I did not realise this, but magic swords are a major way for fighters to acquire special powers. And I have really come to appreciate that aspect of the game. Character advancement for a large part happens through the junk they acquire along the way, rather than marking off stuff on their character sheets in return for XP.
That’s all I have to say about fighters. Like I said, pretty simple. Next time we will cover the magic-user.
Loot: Sack of magic turnips & seed bag of “Miracle Formula”.
Hendrik talks to Father Brenard about annulling his marriage to Ronja the baker’s daughter. The preacher explains to Hendrik that he will need some grounds for doing so. They’re not heretics after all. For example, if Ronja was found to be unfaithful to her spouse…
Jürg has an artisan fashion the unbreakable glass dome into an impervious helmet.
Blérot, the masked “lumberjack” who has been hiding out with the company for fear of the wrath of mysterious men from the woods, is found one day in the company’s residence amidst the wreckage of furniture. It appears he is having increasing trouble controlling his chopping urges.
When Hendrik returns to his study one morning, he discovers his writing implements and signature seal have been misplaced by someone or something.
Before departure, they read The Guidebook to Historical Curiosities, vol. 1, which they purchased a while back. They read about “The Oracle of Saint Blakemore” which is a fountain supposedly hidden somewhere in the grottos beneath the castle. It is said that whoever drinks from it may predict the future.
They also burn a small fortune’s worth of incense in front of the reliquary, and receive a vague but truthful omen about the upcoming expedition (which, dear reader, will be revealed in the report below).
A small but fairly powerful expeditionary force heads to the castle for once last time before the close of this year’s adventuring season. They only bring one porter with them.
Upon arrival, they pass by the spot where the late magic-user Heinz once planted a jumping bean. It has since grown to a beanstalk of over 10 feet high, and sturdy enough to carry the weight of a man. Its ceaseless dancing has caused the wall it grows against to begin cracking and crumbling…
They continue on to the grand entrance, and drag off the body of a fallen adventurer so that it won’t be resurrected by one of the two statues flanking the door when they enter.
In the vestibule they head immediately west and in the next room they head up the stairs. When they open the door at the top of the stairs they are greeted by the stern gaze of a crusader’s bust labeled “Medard”. Amaranth steps forward and locks eyes with the holy warrior. She is overcome by divine bloodlust, and begins to repeatedly croak something resembling “deus vult!” (Amaranth has no tongue. It’s a long story.) She also instantly recalls the names of three heinous fiends that reside in the castle whom she absolutely must slay: Serpentina, Runcius, and Merlerik. The remainder of the company collectively facepalm, groan “not another quest” and continue the current mission.
They check the room to the east. It is large, contains creepy shadows shifting about, and a large cracked mirror hangs from the wall. They do not like the look of the room at all (they’ve had bad experiences with mirrors in the castle so far) and decide not to enter but in stead head the other way.
They head west into the feasting hall. When they pass the door to the stairs from which they entered, they hear insect sounds coming from behind it. They are unnerved, but decide to continue on their way regardless.
In the feasting hall they take one of the doors leading north, and enter a massive hall decorated with weaponry and a ceiling reaching to the top of the next floor. A number of headless manservants are waiting with jugs of wine on serving platters. Faint sounds of a party can be heard from the balcony on the next floor. They bluff the manservants into serving them wine. Meanwhile they survey the room and identify both a battered suit of armor and a large sword hanging over the massive unlit fireplace as magical. Fernando nervously inspects the armor more closely, and notices it has an arrow lodged in its leg. They decide against pressing on, and leave the way they came.
They head back downstairs, and from there head west. They enter stables, and again from behind them they hear insect-like chittering, which again they choose to ignore. They take their time to search the stables, and Hendrik finds a magical lucky horseshoe. Then, they hear two men in conversation, approaching from the west. They pile into one of the stables and hold their breath. In walks the liche Aristide and the ghost of a bookish fellow whom they have not met before. The ghost is asking the lich about a book he’s looking for, by one “Flamel”. Aristide absentmindedly indulges the ghost, whom he refers to as “Merton”. He suggests they go up to the library and look for the book there. The two undead leave the stables, and the company are just about to breath a sigh of relief, when outside the door they hear Aristide greet someone named Gregor. The response is the sound of chittering. With mounting dread the company hear Gregor tell Aristide about the adventurers he has been following, and Aristide agrees he will return to the stables and kick the rabble out of the castle.
The company decides to make a run for it. They burst from the stable and run for the double doors to the north. However, its hinges turn out to be rusted shut. Meanwhile, Aristide, Merton and Gregor enter the stables at a leisurely pace. Merton approaches, mumbling something about a book. Meanwhile Gregor who to their horror turns out to be an enormous bug, shambling on his hind legs, hangs back. Aristide stands and lambasts the company from a distance. Hendrik pulls out the Staff of the Woodlands, taps the double door, which warp open in response. The company hurries into the courtyard, not daring to look over their shoulders. They run for the first door they see, and are relieved to find it opens without trouble. When it slams shut they are in a nondescript corridor, and take a moment to catch their breath.
Relieved to find they are not being followed, they head down the hallway to see where it leads. It ends at a door in front of which the floor is littered with decomposing corpses. They don’t like the looks if that and so want to turn back when from a door to the south they hear a large group of men approach. They form up a line and brace themselves for what is to come.
A large group of undead noblemen enter the hallway and accost the company, demanding to know what they’re up to. Hendrik uses his considerable charm to bullshit his way out of their predicament, and even manages to get the noblemen to point the way to the nearest exit.
They head back into the courtyard but decide to press their luck rather than leave, and head north. They enter the hallway that they know leads into the donjon to the east. In stead, they turn west.
At the next door, Hendrik has a déjà vu. He sees himself enter the next room after this doorway and battle a bunch of ghouls who are guarding a valuable treasure. Bolstered by this vision, the company opens the door and finds themselves in a hallway with three doors. They check all of them for noises, and from behind one they do indeed hear ghouls fighting over what they assume to be their meal. But they also once again hear Gregor’s familiar insectoid chittering back from where they came. They have been followed after all!
They decide Gregor needs to be dealt with, and attempt to surprise him by bashing open the door behind which they presume he is hiding. The massive bug has however anticipated their return and is at some distance from the doorway. It looks at them attentively, clicking its mandibles. Hendrik has no compassion for the thing, whips out his wand of lightning, and zaps the creature with a massive bolt. Somehow it survives, runs at the magic-user, and begins to chomp at him with its mandibles. Fernando bashes at it with his halberd, and Hendrik lets fly several magic missiles. It’s all too much for the bug to take, and it explodes in a mess of gore and chitin.
The company scrape off Gregor’s remains, and return to the room with the ghouls. A simple plan is hatched. Fernando throws open the door while standing to its side, and Hendrik and Amaranth stand at the ready some distance from it. But before they can act, the ghouls are already upon them, clawing and biting and attempting to paralyze them. Miraculously, the company manages to withstand the onslaught. Hendrik kills a number of ghouls with a blast from his wand of cold. Fernando sweeps at the monsters with his halberd. Amaranth successfully turns away the remaining undead. Hendrik lets fly a fireball at the ghouls cowering in the corner of their room, killing several more. And the whole thing is ended with that old standby: magic missile.
The company searches the room, which appears to have been the abode of a gardener. Using Detect Magic they find a sack of remarkable turnips and a large bag of seed that is labeled “Miracle Formula”.
They load the loot into a wheelbarrow and begin to make their way out of the castle. In the hallway leading to the donjon they are barely able to avoid the notice of the ghost of Roberto the judge. The remainder of the way is smooth sailing, however, and several days later they return safely to Tours-en-Savoy.
Thus ends the last session of this second season of Castle Xyntillan. I know this is beginning to sound like a stuck record but never did I think we would get so much mileage out of this module. Every session is a surprise, and plays out different than the last.
In this one, I rolled lots of random encounters (five in total). That drove most of the action. At one point, we had one random encounter following the party (Gregor) and then, when they decided to comb the stables, I ruled it would take them three turns. I roll three d6s and what do you know? Two come up a one. So now I had to improvise at the drop of a hat Aristide and Merton somehow bumping into the party. They managed to avoid their notice but of course it was inevitable that Aristide would bump into Gregor, and Gregor would of course alert him to the presence of the adventurers. All of this emerged completely organically and was an absolute delight at the table.
The “déjà vu” moment is how we decided to handle the omen players can get from spending 200 GP on incense burnt at the reliquary. The book says to provide a vague but truthful omen. However, I don’t see how I as a referee can actually predict the future of a given session without resorting to some degree of railroading, which is anathema to how I am running this thing. So I talked to the players and suggested it would be some kind of meta currency they could spend during the session to get a hint whenever they would like to receive it. Hendrik’s player, towards the end of the session, was desperate for some treasure and it just so happened they weren’t too far removed from a room with some significant loot. So I decided to narrate that premonition. Was a bit awkward but it worked out well enough.
The treasure in question was an interesting case that by the book tries to (I think) introduce a bit of player skill in getting the most out of it, but I decided to hand wave it and simply narrate how they would use the seed to grow money plants, and how the turnips would grow to enormous size. This was the last session of the season after all, and I just wanted to hand them the GP and XP and not have those dangling as loose ends.
By golly, a fifth level magic-user is a force to be reckoned with. Especially now that they have also collected a few devastating wands. A previous encounter with a bunch of ghouls lead to a near-TPK for a much larger party. But this time around they were able to avoid surprise and get off their devastating magic before succumbing to paralysis.
I got rid of my battle mat and simply kept track of combat using dry erase tokens and index cards with Fate-style “zones” scrawled on them. It worked out fine. I’m quite pleased with these new tokens I got — they are simply 1-inch diameter circles laser cut from 3mm thick opaque white PMMA.
We are taking a break from Castle Xyntillan for a while at least. But more than one player has expressed a desire to continue their explorations, so it is unlikely we have seen the last of the abode of the Malévols. It would be interesting to continue, not in the least because of Amaranth’s newly acquired quest!
Hendrik’s wife Ronja appears with a will she has had drawn up that ensures the magic-user’s property and share of the company’s capital will be transferred to her in the case of his demise. She asks him to please sign it, because she is very worried about his safety and what will happen to her and her family if Hendrik is no longer there to take care of them, heaven forbid. Hendrik responds by ignoring her.
They sell a barrel of Malévol wine to a merchant who is passing through town. They also pull apart the Libram of Heinous Damnation and begin selling off the precious gemstones and metals it yields.
Hendrik buys The Guidebook to Historical Curiosities, Vol. 1 from Ben Mordechai.
Shortly before their departure, they are surprised by the return of heavy footman Bern. He is the only one of the retainers that fled during the previous expedition who has made it back safely. Bern comes to the company with news of a great discovery. While he was making his way out of the castle he came across the statue of a sightless crocodile-ape monstrosity. It came to life and told him a riddle:
“Beyond frolick and dance, Lies the seeing gem’s rest, Break its curse asunder, And in baptism let it be blest.”
Bern has no idea what it means, but he’s sure it’s of interest to his former employers.
The company nominates Jürg as the expedition leader. They decide to revisit the menagerie where they once encountered the huntsman Hubert. Seeing as how they eliminated him a while ago, perhaps the coast is now clear for a leisurely look-see.
They enter the courtyard through the gatehouse and make their way to the parapets shielding the rose garden. They lasso a rope over the wall and one by one climb up and over. Amaranth is one of the last to go and clumsily drops from almost up the top. After dusting herself off she tries again and joins her companions without too much further trouble.
They pick their way through the rose garden, careful not to be tripped by the arms sticking out of the flowerbeds. The heady smell of the roses makes them drowsy, but they manage to enter the castle before succumbing to the vapors.
In the room beyond the entrance they are reminded of the presence of the pair of phantom horses in the hallway beyond. When they open a door to the north they confirm the presence of the things. Jürg decides he will try to use his portable hole to trap them. He waits for the creatures to pass, steps into the hallway and spreads out the hole. But in stead of it opening, the hole begins to strobe a bright white light while a low hum increases in volume. Jürg manages to grab the hole again and step out of the hallway just in time not to be trampled by the horses.
Losing their patience, Hendrik zaps the dark storm cloud horse with a magic missile. Jürg steps into the hallway to face the bright sunlight horse and is nearly run underfoot, but his bacon is saved by another magic missile from Hendrik’s finger tips.
Pleased with the idea that they’ll never be bothered by those nightmare horses again, the company advances northwards through a hallway leading to the menagerie. At its edge they observe an empty marble throne, four eyeless ape stairs holding up pillars, and a motley collection of stuffed animals staring blankly at the various entrances to the room.
Fernando approaches a stuffed centaur and makes to prod it with his halberd. The centaur animates, takes a few steps back, and takes aim with his bow at the fighter. The remaining animals also come to life and angrily approach the company.
A massive battle ensues in which Fernando and Heintz in the vanguard are quickly overwhelmed by the combined forces of a lion, boar, centaur, a giant owl, and several rabid baby deer. Jürg once again deploys his toy soldiers and the things manage to hold off the monsters in time for Heintz to retreat. Fernando however, is not so lucky and falls to tooth, claw and hoof. In the hopes of turning the tide of battle, Hendrik risks lobbing a fireball into the melee, narrowly avoiding Fernando’s body, and incinerates several of the opposition. Jürg then raises the hammer and sickle they acquired several expeditions back, and turns away the diseased bambis. This is enough for the company to press on and stuffed animal after animal falls in a cloud of sawdust and wadding. The lion is the last to be defeated, Jürg’s toy soldiers hopping on its back and gleefully stabbing it repeatedly with their tiny spears.
Fernando is revived just in time, and the company begins to explore the room. They discover the four apes can speak: “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil.” When four of the companions each stands in front of a statue and take the appropriate pose, they are rewarded with strange disposable spells.
Quite pleased with themselves for solving that riddle, they next check the door leading north-east. It opens onto a display room lit by an eerie brazier fire, and containing a glass-domed pedestal holding a silver reliquary on a red velvet pillow.
When they enter, Hendrik barely manages to avoid being hypnotized by the fire and sticking his hands into the flames. Jürg tries to smack the dome with a weapon, but it does not break. He tries to pull it off, but it won’t budge. Finally, he ties a rope around it, and stands back while Hendrik casts a knock spell from a safe distance.
Jürg easily pulls away the dome, but a poisonous gas immediately fills the room, burning both the fighter’s and magic-user’s lungs. Furthermore, the ghost of a Carolingian retainer appears, who immediately makes to touch the companions standing in the doorway. They manage to avoid it, and retreat from the room.
Amaranth steps forward preaching and brandishing her holy weapon. She turns away the wraith, and backs it into a corner of the display room. Jürg and Heintz run after her into the room, grab the dome, pillow and reliquary, and make their way back out. Meanwhile Niemir takes pot shots at the phantom with his longbow but it appears to be impervious to his arrows.
Everyone begins to move to the far end of the menagerie, and Amaranth slowly backs out of the display room. Fernando shuts the door before the wraith can follow, and Hendrik casts a wizard lock onto it. Then, the whole company turns and runs like bats out of hell.
They make it out of the castle without further issue, and two days later return to Tours-en-Savoy. Here, they have the reliquary inspected and learn several remarkable things about it. Jürg and Amaranth also go carousing. Jürg returns with a tattoo (again). It is Chinese script which Jürg insists is some bad-ass proverb. The Chinese know better…
Our penultimate session of this season saw almost all of the active player-characters join the expedition. As a result, this referee was sweating a little to keep the whole affair from not going entirely off the rails. But the copious practice I’ve been getting is serving me well.
The big fight with the stuffed animals was challenging to run because all the monsters had different abilities and I had to try and get the most out of each while keeping the fight moving in the mean time. It went well enough, but it did once again make me reevaluate how I handle movement and positioning in our pseudo-theatre of the mind setup. I think next time I am going to try and go a little bit looser again, and possibly bring in Fate-style zones.
The hammer and sickle is a magic item the players recovered several sessions back, and have been aching to make use of. Here we had the corner case of stuffed animals: do those count as animated objects? I ended up rolling for it, and the players lucked out. However, Jürg’s player rolled kind of badly on his turn check, and so only the bambis were turned.
Finally, we had the stand-off with the reliquary wraith, which made for a suitably tense final scene. (Players literally told me so when we ended the session. I felt so proud I managed that.) Running turned undead is always challenging. I mainly use the guidelines described by Philotomy for it. But still, it really takes a lot of judgement to decide if an undead can escape from being cornered, for example. I erred in the players’ favor, and I don’t regret doing so.
One more session to go before we end the season and possibly the campaign. Although several players have expressed they are keen to keep exploring the castle. I myself am not tired of running the module either. It would be awesome if at some point the players will crack the castle’s central puzzle. Maybe in season 3? But first, this season’s finale. And then, a short break.
Jürg goes shopping at Mordechai’s Curious & Antiques and chances upon a box of animated toy soldiers. He also buys a potion of speed.
The company purchase a rowboat and load it up on their wagon.
On the way to the castle, Jürg dips his toy soldiers in a jar of poisonous salve they once retrieved from the castle.
Upon arrival, they carry the rowboat to the lakeside west of the castle, and set out.
Seeing as how only two principals could join the expedition they have hired a sizable number of retainers.
They make their way across the lake, keeping the castle on their right hand, and see a lakefront garden, with what appears to be a chapel jutting out into the lake.
They land, tie up the boat, and carefully sneak along the chapel’s west wall, while keeping an eye on the windswept garden overgrown with weeds.
Shortly before reach the chapel’s south end, three goatrices jump from the scrubs and charge.
Jürg pulls out his box of soldiers and empties it out on the garden floor. Nine 8-inch high lead spearmen glistening with poisonous grease charge forward. The men-at-arms line up in front of their employers, and brace themselves for what is to come.
The goatrices fail to break through the line of toy soldiers. One even stumbles and falls. Only one toy soldier is smashed by goat hooves and horns.
The toy soldiers begin to stick in their deadly spears and several goatrices succumb to the poison. The heavy foot soldiers make a countercharge and inflict more damage on the monsters, in part aided by Amaranth’s divine blessings. Without suffering any significant injury, let alone petrification, the goatrices are slain.
The company continues to the chapel, when Jürg attempts to enter, he is prevented from doing so as if by an invisible force. Amaranth’s section of the expeditionary force begin to explore the chapel’s ground floor.
At the entrance, a font is fed by water from a lamb’s head statue with gemstone eyes. Shields painted green and blue hang from the walls. Frescoes depict a procession of maidens. At the far wall, a simple altar is covered by a bright white cloth with faint bloodstains. Stairs leads to the next floor.
Deciding to hold off on disturbing anything, Amaranth goes up the stairs. She inspects a room to the south and discovers its floor is covered by a mass of rats. She slams the door shut and goes up to the north door. This opens onto a study largely stripped of its furnishings. Papers litter a desk, a bookcase is filled with volumes, and a large black tome rests on a lectern.
Detect magic causes one book in the bookcase to light up. The black tome also strongly radiates magic. The cleric hastily grabs the volume from the bookcase, and large grubs crawl from it onto her hand and immediately begin to chew their way into her skin. Her retainers try to slap the worms from her hand but fail to remove them.
Panicking, Amaranth runs back down the stairs. Acting quickly, Jürg lights a torch and sticks it into the cleric’s hand, instantly killing the grubs. The cleric barely manages to retain her consciousness from the pain.
After a brief moment of respite, Amaranth returns to the study, and takes both the papers and the black tome. Meanwhile Jürg, still stuck outside the chapel, convinces his porter to take a dagger and pry the gemstones from the eyes of the lamb. His hireling does so reluctantly. When the second gemstone plops from its socket, the porter’s forehead erupts in steam and sizzling flesh. The poor fellow cries out in pain while clasping his face. In a flash, Jürg can see the man has been branded by some invisible force. The porter’s morale breaks, and he flees across the garden and into the castle.
Amaranth returns from upstairs to see what the ruckus is about. When she sees the dagger and gemstones lie on the floor next to the font, she decides to head to the altar to grab the cloth so that they can make their getaway. But before she reaches the far side of the chapel she hears a man clear his throat behind her. At the foot of the stairs stand the ghost of a judge wearing a golden pegasus brooch, taking in the scene with a frown on his face.
The judge, whose name turns out to be Roberto Malévol, is very suspicious of the company’s intentions. The fact that Jürg cannot enter the chapel is a dead giveaway in particular. Although he recognizes Amarnth as a cleric of law, the fact that she has no tongue disturbs him.
Deciding to not take their chances, the company carefully backs out of the chapel. The ghostly judge follows them all the way to the doorstep, and remains in the doorway, eyeing them intently.
The company decide to try and ignore the judge, and start combing the garden in search of the magic sword that is rumored to be buried there, named “Darkslayer”. While making their search they also spot the statue of a woman overlooking the lake from a balcony. Not far from the statue, a set of stairs lead down to the lakeside.
After quite some time of searching, Frida alerts them to the presence of a patch of blackened, barren earth. Not wasting any time, Jürg drops to his knees and begins to scrape at the earth with his axe. Some time later, he uncovers a large, vicious-looking zweihander. Jürg tries to scoop it up with a sack, careful not to touch it, but the sword compels him to pick it up anyway. Jürg gets up, raising the weapon, and the thing growls in a low voice “I… Am… Darkslayer!” The fighter, still under the influence of the sword, surveys his surroundings, and notices Amaranth standing not too far away. Darkslayer says “a cleric of law!” Kill her!” and although Jürg tries to resist, he once again fails, and can’t help but slash at Amaranth, wounding her badly.
The company panics. Amaranth runs for the chapel, her retainers in tow. Jürg’s remaining men-at-arms decide they’ve had enough and flee. Jürg raises up his sword again and with a mighty swing throws it at Amaranth’s back. Amazingly, the sword hits, and the cleric drops to the ground, bleeding heavily.
Jürg approaches the lifeless body of Amaranth, and the judge, who has been patiently observing the whole thing from the chapel doorway says “stop criminal, of to jail with you!” and tries to teleport Jürg somewhere, but fails. Jürg is just in time to revive Amaranth with a potion. The two run from the scene together, leaving behind a ghost and a sword, cursing them each for their own particular reasons.
We nearly had to cancel this session due to low attendance. Luckily two players were foolhardy enough to try their luck in the castle anyway. Running for such a small party is always a lot of fun because there is more room for players to inject some color in their narration. I also don’t have to worry as much about ensuring everyone gets a decent amount of spotlight.
I don’t have much to say about what went down. The toy soldiers were a random item in stock at the magic item shop. Jürg’s player, true to form, then went on to ask me if he could dip them in the poison they’d once found. Of course he could, and so we had nine retainers with a save-or-die effect and one hit point each running around. This is the kind of shenanigans that classic D&D is all about for me, and so I did not begrudge them the lopsided victory over the goatrices.
Since our previous encounter involving a magic sword I had tweaked and streamlined the control rules. I’d also been in touch with Melan about how to interpret the EGO scores listed in the module. But still I found resolving control too fiddly. I think I am going to sit down and see if I can boil it down even more. If I do I will share the results at some point.
Despite all this, the scene was priceless. Before the session, when the players were exchanging ideas about goals for the expedition in our group chat, Jürg suggested going after Darkslayer. In response I posted the following:
A lawful cleric and a chaotic fighter team up to find a chaotic intelligent magic sword. Should be fine.
Fat Jonas & Gido — cut down by a mob of undead lords, ladies and headless manservants; Claus & Kea — captured and consumed by the restless dead.
Jürg buys several cargo nets, and has a contraption fashioned that lets him anchor himself to a doorpost so that he’s safe from future portable hole mishaps.
Hendrik hires a band of musicians to play the sheet music they found during the previous expedition. It turns out to be throughly unpleasant.
Othmar, captain of the guard has escalated matters further. The company’s landlords are put under pressure to evict them. In response, Jürg goes to talk to the captain to see what can be done to make amends. Othmar demands a public apology and reparations of some kind. After much hemming and hawing, Jürg ends up paying the captain a significant sum of gold, and all things are forgotten.
Hendrik studies the records they took during the previous expedition and finds a pair of potentially useful hints related to specific hazardous areas of the castle. One involves a large animated boulder. The other a statue made of salt and a trio of statues that appear to be goats but are actually goatrices.
Shortly before their departure, Jürg goes into a secluded barn to load up his purchased cargo nets into his portable hole. Worried that it might open onto the void of space once more, he secures himself to a doorpost with his new contraption. When the hole opens, an enormous monster with the head of an elephant, crab-like claws and a tentacled belly begins to crawl out. Jürg manages to close the hole again just in time. When he tries to reopen it again, all is well. Jürg wipes his brow and shoves in the nets.
The expedition is led by Claus, who doubles as scout, and is also made invisible by Hendrik. They decide to have another go at the donjon, and find out what might be hidden up on top where the huge pigeons roost.
They enter through the gatehouse. Jürg searches the garden for the chaotic blade known as Darkslayer but finds nothing. Meanwhile Claus scouts ahead to ensure the way is safe.
Upon entering the outer courtyard they decide to give the statues a closer look. When they make fun of the hunchback it comes to life and tells them off for being such jerks. Somewhat shaken, they decide to leave the statues of the king holding a globe and the sightless ape-crocodile monstrosity well enough alone.
They head into the castle and emerge into the donjon’s torture chamber, on the ground floor. Up the stairs they go, and at the end they exit onto the balcony. From here, they climb along the rungs attached to the donjon wall and make it all the way up to the balcony on the next floor. From here, they enter the temple.
Remembering where the secret door was, they open it, and Claus sneaks up the ladder in the shaft up to the aerie. At the end he opens a trap door, and sees man-sized pigeons care for young. He also spies a large bell in the center of the aerie. The floor is littered with corpses. One is even hanging from the bell’s clapper.
The thief returns to his companions, and they come up with a plan to eliminate the pigeons as quickly as possible. Claus climbs back up, and tosses a week’s worth of rations onto the aerie.
Next, Hendrik climbs up, and when he sees several pigeons pecking away at the rations, he blasts them with a fireball, instantly killing several. Pandemonium breaks out. Pigeons attack the magic-user, trying to peck his eyes out through the trap door. Hendrik hurries back down the ladder.
Next, a complicated game of cat and mouse develops: Hendrik and Fernando climb up together. Fernando uses his halberd to push open the hatch. They hope to blast pigeons with a wand of cold when they stick their heads down the shaft. But the pigeons don’t show themselves. Hendrik climbs all the way up in stead, and sees that the animals have returned to care for their young. He takes aim at one small group and obliterates them with his wand of cold. He then drops down the ladder some distance, points the wand up at several of the pigeons who have now come to attack him, and manages to kill a few more. More pigeons rush the hatch, one grabs Fernando’s halberd and pulls it up. The fighter lets go of his weapon, and the hatch closes behind it.
Next, Claus, still invisible, goes back up to lead what they expect to be the final mop-up. He intend to backstab one of the monstrous birds, and then the rest of the company is supposed to rush out of the hatch to finish off the remainder.
Jürg, however, loses his patience, and attacks before Claus can do his thing. The two remaining adult pigeons rush the fighter. One is back-stabbed by Claus, and vaporized by a magic missile fired off by Hendrik. The other pigeon grabs Jürg, and flies off.
Jürg, rapidly gaining altitude, stabs his abductor. Others shoot at it from the aerie. The bird ascends a little further and then, with a murderous squawk, lets go of the fighter, dropping him to the castle rooftop over 50 feet below.
The pigeon banks and swoops down for another attack at the remaining companions on the aerie but is shot to pieces by another salvo of magic missiles.
Jürg plummets to his death on top of the banquet hall roof. Miraculously, he just barely escapes instant death.
The adult pigeons defeated, the companions begin to search the aerie for treasure. Meanwhile Hendrik levitates down the tower to come to Jürg’s aid.
They find a significant hoard of gold pieces. They also find a large gemstone, and strip several items that they suspect might be magical from the corpses strewn about.
Jürg is patched up with the help of two healing potions. Hendrik levitates back up to the aerie, and Jürg climbs up using a rope.
The gold is way too much to carry. They risk opening the unstable portable hole again. It opens without issue, and so they stuff it with gold as well as a pigeon corpse that they hope to sell to an alchemist.
They head back down the shaft but find a pair of awful corpse birds hanging around the temple. And so they return to the aerie, and all of the company climb down the side of the donjon, to the bridge connecting it with the south-eastern upper quarters.
Rather than end the expedition there, they decide to press their luck, and go down into the wine cellar to find another high-value barrel.
When they arrive there, they find a rotund monk sampling the wine. The man is not too happy to see them, and prefers for them to leave. Their half-hearted attempts at ensuring him of their good intentions have little effect. The fact that their only lawful party member, the cleric Amaranth, is a woman who literally has no tongue, does not help their cause much.
As things begin to escalate, the monk threatens to sound the alarm. Claus loses his patience, and him and his posse fire their weapons at the monk. He miraculously manages to survive, shouts at the top of his lungs for help, and downs a bottle of champagne. The company cut him down before he can do anything more. Thinking that’s that, they take a moment to loot the body, stripping him of his very fine-looking chain mail.
However, before they can turn their attention to the wine barrels, a veritable horde of undead lords, as well as a handfull each of headless manservants and undead ladies set upon the company from all directions. They are trapped.
Assuming the cause is hopeless, Claus and his posse make a mad dash for the exit straight through the ranks of their enemies. They disappear into the darkness. Hendrik uses his wand of cold to kill a huge number of the undead lords, all of a sudden turning things into a more or less even fight. Fat porter Jonas is killed. Newly hired man-at-arms Gido dies as well. Hendrik is almost throttled by a manservant but manages to blast it to smithereens with magic missiles. Amaranth manages to heal the magic-user just in time. The fighters hack away at their opponents, and they manage to turn the tide of the battle in their favor. The opponent’s morale breaks, and they prevail.
Without missing a beat, they run for the exit, without taking a barrel.
Off-screen, Claus and Kea are lost in the castle. The restless dead find them, and they end up being some awful fiend’s dinner. Niemir, somehow, makes it out alive.
Back in town, they identify a number of items, and haul the gold and dead pigeon out of the hole. Quite a few significant items of treasure were lost along with Claus, however…
Several companions go out carousing. Amaranth is fined for bad behavior.
A session almost entirely consisting of two fights! We haven’t had anything like that in a while, maybe ever.
The moment Jürg was carried off by the pigeon was probably one of he first times we used the grappling rules. How it works is that the attacker makes a to-hit roll against the target’s un-armoured AC. Then on subsequent rounds to do something they must make a contested STR check. It’s a great way for monsters to get at heavily-armored player characters, like poor old Jürg. And he was none too happy about it.
The fall to the castle roof could have easily killed Jürg. In our rules you take 1d6 damage for every 10 feet, but you also need to save or die at 50+ feet. This applied to Jürg’s situation. He succeeded at his save, though. So he was in the clear and Hendrik’s player could take his time to come to his aid.
I make heavy use of reaction rolls for all encounters. The monk (Ambrosius) had a poor initial reaction to the party. He is a living, lawful Malévol family member, but the company has gradually taken a turn for the more sinister, and so I did not find it too surprising that the monk would not consider them allies. Furthermore my players appear to have little patience for negotiating with NPCs, particularly as we get close to the end of a session. Perhaps things could be abstracted further by negotiating some stakes on a more meta level. I might try that next time we find ourselves in one of these situations.
The fight with the lords, ladies and manservants was probably the biggest one I ran yet. When we started we had 30 monsters on the board. How I handle this stuff these days is that on my side of the screen I have a battle mat and dry erase tokens to help me visualize things. But I convey everything through description. On the player side things are entirely theatre of the mind. It’s kind of a best of both worlds situation, I’ve found. I have the benefit of keeping track of things more easily, but we don’t get bogged down into exact movement and positioning. Now that our magic-user is throwing out more than a few big-ticket area-of-effect spells, I plan to also make a few simple overlays for those.
Another first this session was that Claus’s player decided to take his chances with the table of terror. The poor fellow rolled a natural 1 and so that was that. Had Hendrik’s player not pulled out that wand of cold and destroyed all but 4 of the 20 lords that were coming at them, we may have had a TPK on our hands. So the choice to try the table made sense at the time.
Only three more sessions to go before we end this season. The players may go and try to find that chaotic sword next. I would love to have a fighter with an intelligent magic sword in my campaign, so I hope they succeed.
Casualties: Lukas, the fanatically loyal heavy footsoldier, beheaded by the grim reaper’s scythe.
In the week preceding the next expedition, Othmar, the captain of the guard who was insulted by Jürg some time ago during a carousing spree, talks trash about the company to the men for hire who hang out in the town’s bars. They double their fees in response.
Jürg talks to some shady types in The Tap who are looking for a magic sword known as “Darkslayer”. They recognize him as a fellow member of the faction of Chaos. They tell him the sword will give people like them untold power. Someone, probably one of the members of the pious arm of the family, has buried it in one of the castle’s gardens. Its dark powers should make the sword’s presence obvious once you get close to it.
The company also toys with the idea of using Blérot, who is still hiding out with them, to get rid of Othmar, but they don’t follow through on the plan (yet).
A smaller company than usual makes their way to the castle. Hendrik is put in charge of the expedition. The magic-user decides to take a second stab at seeking out one of the castle’s laboratories.
During their approach they check on “Heinz’s bean”, planted alongside the castle’s south wall. They are pleased to see it has grown to a height of 20 cm and is happily dancing on the spot, the soil it springs from vibrating to an unheard beat.
The company enters through the grand entrance, ignore the ghost of James the butler, and immediately tack west to a large empty room. Here they take a thus far unexplored stairway leading up. At its end, they find a door. Opening it, they see a door to the east, a hallway opening onto a large room to the west, and straight ahead an alcove with the bust of a stern bearded crusader who is observing them intently.
Having not brought any clerics with them, they ignore the crusader, and head west into a feasting hall. Here they see a large table scattered with bones. There is also a tapestry depicting a knight fighting a swamp creature, and many shields with local family crests. The bones appear to be a mix of goat, sheep, and — as feared — human.
With a shudder, the company continues west into another hallway. Here, they are greeted by animated vines which appear to be minding their own business. The company however do not trust the things, and Hendrik taps one with his woodland staff, instantly destroying it. The remaining vine attacks. Fernando makes to chop away with his halberd but in a rare moment of ineptitude the thing slips from his fingers. However, Hendrik and Jurg make short work of the thing.
The company emerges from the hallway into a large two-story library. Hendrik immediately begins to browse the holdings with great expectations. Fernando, somewhat out of his depth, tries to help by looking at the pictures. When he finds a particularly salacious pamphlet he decides to stick it in his tunic for safe keeping. With the aid of a detect magic spell, Hendrik locates a unmarked booklet stuck behind a row of sheet music.
They explore a hallway leading north from the far corner of the library. The first door they try opens onto a storage space filled with rolls of yellowing crumbling paper. Jürg decides he wants to take them, because you can never be too sure, and spreads out his portable hole on the floor. However, rather than a portal to the 10-feet-deep pocket dimension, the hole opens onto a vista of stars and planets in cold, dead space. Air begins to suck from the room, tugging at its occupants. Before disaster can strike, however, Jürg manages to snatch up the hole again, saving them from oblivion. With balls of steel, Jürg once again puts down the hole, and begins to shove rolls of paper down into the pocket dimension beyond.
The company returns to the library. They try a door next to a hearth in the north wall and discover a large room with a number of lamentable hunchbacks chained to desks, diligently copying passages from books onto sheafs of paper. Upon inspection the passages appear to be invariable of a scandalous nature. Picking through papers scattered throughout the room they discover accounts of hapless adventurers meeting their doom in the castle in a variety of grim but amusing ways. At some point, a trap door opens in the ceiling, and papers are dumped down it by persons unseen.
Leaving the room again, they try yet another door in the library, and find a spiral stairs leading up and down. They head up to the second level and enter the upper floor of the library. They search the shelves for more notable items, and come across the statue of a reaper holding a book. Fernando goes off to check the connecting room to the east. Hendrik continues to search for books to the west. Jürg stays behind and — true to form — bashes the statue in the head. It animates and gestures an invitation to peruse the book. Despite knowing better, Jürg begins to read, and finds his own name. That moment, a reaper appears next to him, which immediately makes a swipe for his head with its scythe.
Jürg backs away while frantically pulling a potion of heroism from his pack. Fernando runs to come to his aid, as does Hendrik — in the mean time casting a protective spell on himself. Jürg downs his potion, and Hendrik casts another protective spell on the fighting-man. At that point, a second reaper appears who goes for the magic-user. Loyal heavy foot soldier Lukas comes to his master’s aid, and is rewarded by a reaper of his very own. Fernando stops in his tracks and decides not to make things even worse by intervening as well. He can only look on helplessly as his companions do battle with their own personal reapers. Lukas is hit by death’s scythe, is paralyzed, and beheaded. His reaper emits a booming laugh and disappears along with the poor retainer’s corpse. Jürg and Hendrik continue to fight for their lives. The magic-user defeats death with a relentless barrage of magic missiles. Jürg, meanwhile, simply smashes the reaper with repeated bashings of his mace +1. A close call indeed.
As they collect their wits, the reaper statue appears from between bookcases and shows them how he strikes out two names from his book before returning to his original location. The company look at each other, shrug, and continue their expedition.
The next room to the east is a spacious lounge. Decapitated heads growl at them from couches. A glowing orb hangs over a card table. A large tapestry shows a chronicle of the Malévol family. On another wall hangs a wood carving of a procession of kings playing instruments. Hendrik approaches the card table and is invited by a pair of animated gloves to join in on a game. Despite his sharp wits the magic-user loses the game due to shameless cheating by the ghostly dealer. When they investigate the wood carving the kings begin to sing ballads, one of which is about a gallant knight named Roland “who lost his fiery heart.”
They consider continuing to the next room east, from where they see faint glimmers of candlelight and hear the sound of music. But in stead, they check a door to the north and find a hallway with two more doors. These they ignore, head back to the circular stairs, and down to the first floor of the library.
In the library they go into a hallway leading north and take a door into a largely empty room. A door to the south opens onto a thoroughly ruined bedroom of what must have been a military officer. Hendrik inspects a weapons cabinet filled with a wide range of armaments. Jürg tosses the matras and is surprised to find something invisible was lying on it which hops off and in a gruff man’s voice calls “attention!” All the weapons, including those held by the company, rise in response and point threateningly at the companions. Jürg calls “turn left!” and the weapons move around in confusion, buying enough time for Hendrik to flee the room. Then, slapping his forehead, Jürg remembers, and shouts “at ease!” and the weapons drop to the ground. Relieved, they make a quick search of the room and find a bottle of wine and a box of medals in a hidden compartment in the bottom of the weapon cabinet.
When Fernando and Jürg join Hendrik outside the room they are attacked from behind by a pair of hand swarms that emerge from the now-dark captain’s room. One is almost immediately obliterated by magic. The other begins to chortle a distressed Fernando. Jürg manages to bash the hands from his compatriot, and what remains is soon enough dispatched by combined physical and magical violence.
The company decides they have had enough, and make their way to the exit the way they came. At the top of the stairs down to the ground floor they hear awful sobbing come from below. They see a lamentable figure wrapped in bandages that weep black puss cross the empty room that they were heading towards. With held breaths they watch it disappear, and then pile out of the castle as fast as they can.
Upon return to town they sell off the medals for a modest return. The unlabeled booklet turns out to contain weird music, a spell called “irresistible rondeau”, and a handwritten note:
“Should the hunter hunted be, decipher this mystery: his heart is stone, but a heart he keeps — if you catch him when he’s at peace”
This session was just a delight. A smaller party makes for even faster play than usual. There were more than a few pleasant surprises and fun little moments while running. When we came to the library and I read about the reaper I was like “really, Melan?” and laughing out loud. My players have gotten used to it. The scene with the weapons was also one where I did not expect the players to immediately catch on, but they did, and it was a lot of fun.
I should also give a tip of the hat to Jürg’s player who, when confronted by the reaper inviting him to read the book decided to flip a coin to see what Jürg would do. A lesser player would have decided their character would not do it for fear of the consequences. Or they would read it “because that’s what my character would do.” But in stead, they went to the dice, mirroring the way I’ve been trying to run the game as well, with a suitable degree of detachment from my monsters and NPCs. Delightful.
I don’t really have any referee regrets, and we did not come across any rules issues, so I think we can keep it at that. The players have uncovered more than a few new clues related to that mysterious heart they saw light up over the impenetrable secret door in the ghoul tomb. Let’s see if they’ll pursue these further…
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.