Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #4 – Really Tied the Room Together

The Company:

  • Guillemette (T1)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Bartolomea (C2)
  • Alina & Benjamin (heavy foot soldiers)
  • Lucas (porter)

Casualties: None.

Loot: None.


We begin the session with some downtime shenanigans. Various loot is sold off to a number of buyers in Tours-en-Savoy. The resulting XP is for the most part dumped into Bartolomea, the newly rolled up cleric. Some funds are spent on the identification of magic items, retainers are once again acquired, and what remains of the company’s wealth is squandered by Jaquet and Guillemette on a carousing spree. The latter promptly loses her newly-acquired +1 dagger to an ill-advised gambling bet. (Groans around the table when that happens, but the players agree it is true to form.)

With town activities out of the way, the company sets off once more for the castle, and gains access through what by now can be referred to as the “rose garden entrance”.

Their first goal is to find the body of Els and administer the last rites as prescribed by the church (better late than never). Trouble is, the phantom horses have returned to the galloping hallway, making what would have been a short walk to the room where they left the cleric’s body, a potentially lethal enterprise. To reduce risk, the party chooses to take a roundabout route, although this does mean braving the menagerie once more, where they previously encountered the huntsman. Timing their crossings exactly they run across the galloping hallway into the corridor leading to the menagerie. They then send Guillemette ahead to ensure the exit from the menagerie is unobstructed. She manages to sneak past any potential threats and finds the north door unobstructed. Taking their cue, the remainder of the company then begins to trundle across the room towards the door. However, several stuffed animals begin to shamble towards them menacingly. The company double times it, and makes it through the door before the animals can get to them. They spike the door shut with a crossbow bolt, and swiftly move on.

When they arrive in the rag-filled room, they are disappointed to find Els’s remains have vanished. Taking it in stride, they head west, crossing the room with the casket from which they retrieved the +1 dagger that Guillemette subsequently gambled away. Taking the north door, they enter a hallway with red plush carpets. At its eastern end they find a vaulted chamber with a fountain shaped like a dragon, gold pieces and gold fish in its water basin.

Bartolomea orders Alina to fish out a gold piece from the fountain, which the heavy foot soldier reluctantly obeys. Thankfully the water does not appear to have an adverse effect. Alina hands her employer the gold piece and asks her to please not order her to do something like that again.

The company proceeds to thoroughly search the room, but is alerted to the presence of something when the temperature suddenly drops. The ghostly apparition of a lady in white, holding her fair-haired severed head in her hands enters their torchlight and proceeds to absentmindedly search for something in the room. A cordial exchange develops between the phantom, who introduces herself as Claudette, and Jaquet. The lady has lost her wedding ring and is looking for it, but can’t remember where exactly she misplaced it. She does recall there being something hidden near the donjon’s torture chamber though, perhaps she should go and look there again some time. The company agrees to keep a look out for the lady’s ring, and the spirit, finding the party reasonably agreeable, departs, but not before emphasizing how she will be very grateful if the company returns her ring to her.

Giving up on the fountain, they head down the carpeted hallway in western direction. They recklessly barge into a room and are surprised to see a wolf-woman dressed in a gown care for six man-wolf whelps who are savaging a life-sized dummy dressed as an adventurer. They swiftly back out of the room and head south.

In a subsequent hallway they find a large closet stocked with carpets. Although they may be of some value they are also unwieldy, so they leave them, at least for the time being.

Surely these carpets should fetch something (Francesco Ballesio, The Carpet Merchant)

Turning a corner north, a long hallway stretches before them with several doors on their left hand. The first opens on a nursery, cots gently rocking, propelled by an unseen force, disembodied baby-noises filling the air. The walls are covered by razor-sharp daggers and one kitchen knife the size of a short sword. Furthermore, a door to the south is labeled “do not disturb” and drunken singing can be heard coming from beyond. Slightly disturbed, the company retreats back into the hallway.

Listening at the next door they hear a thundering voice talk about how everything must be polished to a shine, and how brilliant their plan is. The company decides to leave it be.

After another quick listen, the last door is opened, and a strange spectacle greets the company: a swarm of severed hands in pursuit of a cloud with a glowing nucleus, in a room filled with fluttering sheets hanging from lines. The hands are trying to pluck a giant purple heart-shaped bottle suspended in the cloud’s core, while the cloud is lazily zigzagging through the room. Remaining unnoticed, the company makes a note on their maps and once again backs away.

Deciding to end the expedition there, they return to the carpet closet and pull two of the nicest specimens from it. One person holding each end they carry the cumbersome plunder back to the rag-strewn room and ponder how to get them across the galloping hallway without being trampled by the phantom horses. Ultimately, they simply opt to make a run for it, Jaquet in front, ready to bash down the door across. They make it, and head back out through the rose garden.

Thinking they are home free, they are rudely surprised by the emergence of a small army of bandits on the gatehouse parapets, taking aim with their bows and demanding the company give up any loot they took from the castle. Seeing as how they are severely outmatched they drop the carpets and insist that is all they took. Satisfied, the bandit leader allows them to leave. Empty-handed but unscathed, the company begins the trek back to Tours-en-Savoy, bandits mocking them until they are out of sight.

Referee Commentary:

Another fun and satisfying session. Insisting on one expedition per session is working out well, I feel, building in a natural arc.

We lost quite a bit of time to downtime stuff at the top of the session. But I expect this will speed up as we all get used to the new system. I have also resolved to in future immediately handle XP for treasure at the end of a session, to further simplify bookkeeping.

Last time, I allowed myself to become overwhelmed trying to maintain a breakneck tempo. This time around I paced myself, asked for breaks when I had to take in a new room description, and generally just allowed things to unfold at a more leisurely clip. It made for a more fulfilling experience on my end, and I don’t think the player experience suffered much for it. (We hit far fewer random encounters this time around too, which I guess made a difference as well.)

This marked the first time players rolled on the carousing table (I’m using the notorious Jeff Rients classic) and players were shocked to discover failing their save could lead to some pretty dramatic consequences. Nevertheless I expect the lure of additional XP will keep them rolling on it.

The act of dumping almost all of their XP into a newly rolled up character was a bit surprising, and partially a function of the fact that I failed to hand out XP at the end of the previous session, when Bartolomea’s player lost their previous cleric, Els. I think in future I will enforce the rule that only PCs who were part of the expedition that acquired the XP can benefit from it. But for this once, I don’t think much harm was done.

So far, the players have been somewhat conservatively sticking to combing through the north-west corner of the ground floor. I wonder when they will decide a different approach. Perhaps the hint pointing them to the donjon will tempt them elsewhere next time.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #3 – Smash and Grab

The Company:

  • Els (C1)
  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Jaquet (F1)
  • Ynes (T1)
  • Alina, Benjamin, Midja, Nico (heavy foot soldiers )
  • Lucas, Manuel (porters)


  • Els — bled to death from a ghost-inflicted wound


  • Eery dagger
  • Crudely engraved copper sheets (9)
  • Flint-tipped spears (6)
  • Primitive drums (3)
  • Stone hand-axe
  • Loathsome mask


After last session’s TPK, the company is joined by some freshly rolled-up PCs, and a generous helping of retainers. Committed to finally acquiring some significant treasure, and not dying in the process, the company sets out for Castle Xyntillan once more. Upon arrival, they decide to enter the castle at the same point as previously, through a side entrance in the rose garden. Their first goal is to check the armoury where the previous party perished, to see if their bodies, and the treasure that accompanied them, is still present. When they prepare to cross the galloping hallway they are surprised and relieved to find the phantom horses absent. They proceed to the armoury and find it still unlocked, and littered with the bloodless corpses of their fallen comrades, save for the body of Michelle, one of the porters. A loud banging from one of the closets is judiciously ignored, and the company begins to strip adventurer bodies of their valuables.

Despite their preoccupation the company becomes aware of something or someone shuffling down the hallway towards them. While they ready their weapons a corpulent priest decked out in valuables appears in the doorway. He introduces himself as Reynard Malévol and lecherously ogles the company’s cleric. An exchange develops and the company and the priest take turns trying to sell each other indulgences at outrageous rates. Ultimately, the priest gives up, bids the company a good day, and shuffles off into the darkness.

The company briefly debates whether to follow and rob the priest, but ultimately decides against it. Instead, they decide to press on. Exploring the galloping hallway further, they soon come across another door. When Jaquet checks it, he is swarmed by animated severed hands. A brief melee follows and the hands are slain with little effort. The room itself turns out to be empty. The company moves on.

Not more than 10 feet further down the hallway they find an intersection. Peering down the north branch they can see the faint outline of what appears to be a motionless bear standing at the edge of what is certainly a large room. They toss a rock at it, and when the thing topples, they congratulate themselves but decide to first explore the remainder of the galloping hallway in the western direction.

The next door opens on a room littered with mouldy rags. One particularly large pile has a sword sticking out of it. When the pile is gingerly picked apart the musty corpse of a dandy emerges, the sword sticking out of his torso. While searching the room, the company is once again alerted to the sound of something approaching them from the hallway. This time around, they are faced by the awful appearance of semi-transparent naked man with an ashen complexion, his body covered in bleeding lash-marks. Els does not hesitate one moment and immediately begins a turning attempt, but fails. The ghost angrily responds by lashing out at her, and opens a deep wound across her face. Retainers and companions attempt to strike and shoot the monster but their mundane weapons appear to be useless. Despite her injury Els continues her turning attempts and ultimately succeeds, she pushes the ghost back into the hallway, and it recedes into the darkness. Although relieved to be rid of the monster, the company must still deal with Els’s wound, which oddly continues to bleed profusely. Staunching the bleeding with rags does not help, and so in a moment of desperation, Jaquet heats a dagger in a torch and presses it onto Els’s face. The wound is cauterised, the bleeding stops, but not before Els has succumbed to the trauma.

Horrified, but also grimly determined to not let Els’s death be in vain, the company once again decides to press on. A door leading to the west is forced open and the company is greeted by a nightmarish spectacle. In the middle of a room stands an open casket, with an eldritch light shining from it, and blood dripping upwards pooling on the ceiling. A number of phantoms are seen dancing around the casket before suddenly disappearing. Benjamin gathers his courage, steps into the room and looks into the casket. He sees a pitch-black outline of a body with a dagger sticking from its heart. He boldly pulls the dagger from the body. The trickle of blood becomes a cascade and a chorus of disembodied voices begin to shout. Benjamin rushes from the room, dagger in hand, while behind him the voices reach a crescendo and then fall deathly silent. At the same time, the eldritch light from the casket is snuffed out and the room is shrouded in darkness.

Relieved and somewhat emboldened they press on. They return to the galloping hallway and open the doorway at its western end. The next room is empty. Once again opening a door to the west, they enter what appears to be another empty hallway. Here they try the first door to the north and are greeted by an awful apparition. An ancient woman, eye sockets crawling with spiders, moths circling her unkempt hair. She introduces herself as lady Odile, and proceeds to harangue and curse the company for having the temerity to enter her family’s castle and insists they leave immediately. Rudely, the company instead decides to attack her, and after a brief melee the crone flees into the darkness.

Discouraged by the succession of empty rooms the company backtracks and returns to the branch off of the galloping hallway at the end of which they spotted the bear-like shape. They move down the hallway in formation and enter a large space. Four pillars are held up by statues of monkeys, and a collection of stuffed animals observe the various entrances. What is more, a man with a horrific black leathery visage, dressed in hunters’ garb, sits in a throne accompanied by a pack of dogs. An exchange develops in which the huntsman interrogates the company’s motivations for exploring the castle, and hints at the possibility of “accompanying him on a hunt”. When he appears to grow bored of the conversation, he blows a horn and disappears, along with his dogs.

The huntsman in better days (The Boke of Haukyng Huntynge and Fysshyng)

Puzzled, and slightly apprehensive of the stuffed animals, some of which appear to sometimes move ever so slightly, the room is briefly explored. Heinz finds that each monkey statue speaks when he stands in front of it: “see no evil,” “hear no evil,” “speak no evil,” and (you guessed it) “smell no evil.” Jaquet pushes the throne aside but finds nothing underneath it.

Frustrated by the lack of treasure, the company forces open the door to the north and enters yet another empty hallway. They take a door to the west and, curse this castle, find themselves in another empty room, except for a bricked up doorway to the south, and the vague sound of drumming in the room’s western section. The sounds grow louder as they near the south-western door. Forcing it open, they are greeted by the curious sight of what appears to be a collection of primitive arts and artefacts. Engraved copper sheets hang from the walls, supplemented by flint-tipped pears, wooden shields, drums and a number of man-sized reed baskets. But the thing that catches the eye most of all is the idol of a hunched caveman hanging over a prehistoric altar.

When they near the idol, invisible entities begin to beat the drums. The sounds becoming louder and louder, before suddenly stopping when they arrive next to the altar. After freezing for a moment to see if a bad thing might happen to them, the company begins to loot the room. The altar is soon discovered to have a removable lid. Inside, a cavity is filled with a resin-like substance. This is made short work of with the heat of several torches, and from the goo emerge a stone hand-axe and a decidedly creepy mask.

Collecting their plunder, the company decide to end the expedition there, and carefully but swiftly retrace their steps, leaving the castle the way they came, thankfully encountering no more of its denizens.

Referee Commentary:

This was a fun but challenging session to run. We had a large party, and I rolled an above average number of random encounters. These were fun to role-play, but at some point, all the improvisation becomes rather taxing. By the time we hit the menagerie and the encounter with the huntsman, I should have called for a break to take in the room’s extensive description at leisure. Instead I skimmed it on the fly, and missed some important details, primarily the fact that the stuffed animals attack on sight. I won’t beat myself up over it, but I will try to learn from it and take it a little bit slower at our next session.

Also, I was a little but puzzled as to what the huntsman’s motivation should be. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure and neither the room description nor his writeup in the monster list are of much help. But looking through the rest of the module to see where he pops up, I think I am going to consider him a recurring menace to the company, whom the huntsman will start to see as a fun quarry for his hunting endeavours.

I suggested we try to stick to one delve per session for the time being, and I made sure players understood movement rules and how they will be able to move more swiftly through previously explored parts of the castle, which allayed some concerns they had over not being able to delve deeper within the confines of a single session. The main reason I like this is that it simplifies having to handle absentee players, and also makes division of treasure and XP more straightforward.

The company also finally succeeded to bring back some treasure, although a considerable amount is either magical, or does not have a listed value in the book. I’ve decided the primitive artefacts will fetch a small sum from a collector back in town. But they will be more hard-pressed to sell off any magic items if they choose to do so. I’ll probably make it a n-in-6 chance, and for sale value use the XP-values of magic items listed in the 1e DMG as a guide. They also lucked out on finding the remains of the previously killed party back in the armoury. I decided to handle that with a roll as well. Maybe I’ll handle it differently in the future.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #2 – Killer Clouds

The Company:

  • Anna (F1)
  • Fernando (T1)
  • Robain (C1)
  • Michelle & Raul (porters)

Casualties: All of the above. That’s right, the session ended in a TPK. Read on for the sordid details.

Loot: None, obviously.


Resuming the action immediately after last session’s demise of bowman Mattia, the company takes a moment to debate where to go next. Ultimately Anna decides to try her luck once more with the locked door in the galloping hallway. She rushes across, bashes the lock to bits and tumbles into the room beyond. An armory!

While Anna takes stock of the armaments on display, the remainder of the company gingerly crosses the hallway, taking care to avoid the horses. The armory contains a generous amount of weapons (although, to Robain’s disappointment, none of them blunt). There are also four well-oiled chain hauberks on display, and a badly pierced suit of plate. From behind one of two closet doors something can be heard trying to bash it down.

They search the armory for exceptional weaponry, but none can be found. Anna inspects the plate armour, and although it is badly damaged, she decides to exchange it for her chain mail. Robain boldly opens the closet door from behind which no sounds can be heard, and is confronted with a bizarre monstrosity!

Real D&D heads know (Tony DiTerlizzi)

Robain immediately smashes the thing in the head with his mace and is surprised to see a glass eye fly from its head, stuffing protruding from the empty socket. The monster turns out to be a stuffed specimen. Puzzled and somewhat amused the company proceeds to investigate the thing and the closet it inhabits.

While they are thus preoccupied, the door through which they entered opens and six gaseous clouds, each with an iridescent nucleus, enter the room and proceed to suck blood from the company through remote osmosis. Horrified at the sight of blood streaming from their pores and flying off to the monsters, the company hesitates to engage.

Robain makes for the other closet, and flings open the door. An animated suit of armour emerges and immediately flies off to attack the armour that is now being worn by Anna. Fernando ducks into the closet that previously held the armour, followed by the retainers. Anna, meanwhile, barely manages to jump into the closet containing the monster and shuts the door in the proverbial face of the animated armour.

Panicking while blood continues to be sucked from their bodies, Robain attempts to push over a rack of weapons on top of the clouds but the thing won’t budge. Fernando takes aim with his crossbow and obliterates one of the clouds. The porters remain in their closet, terrified and near being exsanguinated. In the other closet, Anna begins to shed her plate armour, as the animated plate continues to hammer away at the door.

Fernando pushes over another weapons rack on top of the clouds and manages to eliminate a few more. Robain swipes at the evil things with his mace and deals some damage as well. But the clouds slowly but surely continue to suck blood from all the company’s members. The porters begin to collapse.

Having removed the plate armour, Anna flings open the door and dexterously sidesteps the animated suit. It flies into the closet and proceeds to assault the discarded plate in the corner. Fernando proceeds to fling daggers at the clouds. Robain succumbs to the clouds’ attacks and collapses.

Anna emerges from the closet and begins to bash away at the clouds as well. The two remaining companions persist for a while longer, eliminating clouds left and right, but ultimately are overwhelmed. Both Anna and Fernando fall to the armory’s floor, as the last of their blood is drawn from their bodies and consumed by the evil, killer clouds. Thus ends the company’s first expedition into Castle Xyntillan.

Referee Commentary:

Well, there you have it, the first honest-to-god TPK of my refereeing career. When I rolled this encounter I did not expect it to be quite so deadly. But a number of factors conspired to produce the regrettable fate of our player characters.

Classic D&D characters are indeed quite squishy. The party was rather limited as well, with only three 1st level PCs and no combatant retainers. Upon reflection this should have been reason enough for the players to terminate the expedition and return to town. Furthermore, the players found themselves in a cul-de-sac, with the only escape route leading past the clouds and through the hallway with the racing phantom horses. Despite this, again in hindsight, they should have probably still risked running for it, because they were squarely outmatched. The fact that the clouds’ attacks can only be averted through a save (effectively circumventing AC) also probably made a bit of a difference, although the players rolled very well on their saves throughout the battle. So it goes, I guess. We finished the session rolling up new characters.

The joke with the stuffed monster was lost on my players because most of them haven’t been playing classic D&D for that long. It still sort of worked as a puzzling oddity.

The moment when the animated suit of armour emerged from the closet and proceeded to attack Anna produced more than a few smiles around the table. It’s this kind of serendipitous mayhem that CX appears to be engineered to produce. I absolutely love those moments and can’t wait for the players to return to the castle to once again try their luck.


Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Ability Checks

So far in this series on Hackbut core mechanics I’ve described attack rolls and saving throws. That leaves a way to resolve anything else that may come up in the game. Out of these three components, ability checks, general task resolution, or “situation rolls” as Talysman aptly calls them, were the hardest to pin down, and I don’t feel I’ve completely settled on an approach yet. But what follows is what I am going with for the time being. Strap in, this one is a bit longer than usual.

Probably the biggest reason it’s hard to settle on a general way to handle situations is that there wasn’t really any general mechanic as such in the early editions of the game. The closest candidates would be the n-in-6 die roll pattern that frequently occurs (with the 2d6 reaction roll a close second), then we have the bit in Moldvay about using roll under ability checks, and finally there are the various ways thief skills are handled. Let’s tackle each in turn.

We can quickly eliminate roll under ability because, like I mentioned before, I have over 30 sessions of The Black Hack under my belt. This uses roll under for everything (attacks, defense, saves, skills, you name it). The problem I have with this is that it makes abilities too important. I also find it encourages rolling for trivial stuff. Used in moderation I guess it can be fine, but since I have had my fill of this mechanic I decided to not use it at all in my hack.

The thief skills are a different matter. Similar to save categories, I never got on with the granularity of the various skills. In the KéK classes, the separate skills are maintained but rationalized to n-in-6 probabilities. In WBFMAG, the thief has a generic “thievery” skill that is also an n-in-6 chance. I like the latter quite a bit because it affords some flexibility for determining what does and does not fall under the thief’s abilities. However, where these approaches fall short is in being generalizable across all classes for any kind of skill check (or situation roll) that may come up. This also applies in the other direction, so to speak, to those generic n-in-6 rolls you find in classic D&D, such as finding hidden things, forcing doors, etc.

Some searching (using Brendan’s invaluable OSR search engine) turned up an excellent post by Homebrew Homunculus, which outlines a general way of handling any skill check on a d20. The nice thing about this in particular for me is that it allows for applying an attribute modifier if desired, and it also allows for improvement with level if a class applies. The TLDR of it is: if a situation comes up for which a roll is warranted, roll a d20 and try to get a 15 or higher. If an attribute applies, add the modifier, if a class applies, add your level. Done.

Slick, right? I do like it quite a bit and have basically replaced all the typical n-in-6 rolls with this mechanic, as well as replaced the thief skills with this. It’s very easy to grok for players because it’s so similar to Target 20. And similar to roll under ability checks it’s easy to apply on the fly when a new situation comes up. However, abilities make less of a difference with this approach and if desired, improvement with level is baked in. Also, the target number is fixed, so trivial rolls are discouraged.

I wasn’t entirely happy with it, though, and the main reason for it is that I like the chunky feel of the d6, and I worried a bit this made rolling for various things feel too similar. In a way, I wanted to feel like I was refereeing the game more closely to the old ways, as for example described here by Delta:

If a “brand new” thing comes up (say: baking skill, something like that) then I revert back to a d6 roll — like OD&D uses for listening, opening doors, finding secret passages, traps opening, etc. I feel like on an improvisational basis I can estimate a reasonable chance for success out of 6 (but not 20) — as a default I give a 2-in-6 chance to succeed, like: roll d6, add some ability bonus, and a total roll of 5+ is success.

Delta’s D&D Hotspot

However, I wanted to stick to a fixed target number (5 on a d6) and I could not really figure out how to translate HH’s approach to a d6. The main issue being that levels and attribute modifiers quickly overwhelm the d6.

The final piece of the puzzle was the previously linked series of posts by Talysman on situation rolls, as well as a pamphlet on “general abilities”. First of all, John offers some neat guidelines for translating attribute modifiers across the various dice rolls (d6, 2d6, d20). Basically, if you have a +/-2 in an attribute, you get a +/-1 on a d6. (I use Delta’s attribute modifier sequence, so I don’t need to deal with +/-3.)

Second, in response to a comment of mine, John suggests a painfully elegant way of applying character level to a d6 roll: compare to dungeon level or monster HD. If lower, get a -1; if higher, get a +1.

The upshot of all of this is that I can now freely choose between resolving a situation on a d6 or a d20, depending on what I feel like in the moment. I might gravitate to one or the other at some point, it’s too soon to say. And for proper skills (like the thief skills) I expect I will stick to the d20 system. But for anything else, I now feel comfortable using the 2-in-6 roll as well.

Before I close, some of you may be wondering: isn’t a generic task resolution mechanic anathema to old-school D&D? You may be right. I don’t know. But what I do buy into is the insistence on reducing die rolls as much as possible. For this, Talysman also has some excellent guidelines which I’ve chosen to adopt. Because I feel it’s not just important to be able to explain to players when we will roll dice, but also when we won’t.

In closing, I think 15+ on a d20 and 5+ on a d6 are a sufficiently rich palette for adjudicating any situation that does not fall under an attack roll or a saving throw. With the tricks outlined above you can apply ability modifiers and class levels if you so wish, and if you pair this with a doctrine that prioritizes skipping die rolls all together, you are freed up as a referee to run a game at the blistering pace that classic D&D in my view requires.

Update: Next we move on to the various aspects that define a classic D&D character. First up are abilities.


Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Saving Throws

Continuing on my discussion of Hackbut core mechanics, let’s briefly touch on saving throws. This one did not take a lot of poking around. To begin with, I have no nostalgic attachment to the classic saving throw categories. They strike me as obtuse and needlessly granular. I know the origins of the S&W unified save are primarily legal, but they represent a welcome streamlining in my view. So I decided to port them over into the KéK classes. This was a trivial exercise. If you want to do the same, simply use a base save of 15 minus level for fighters and thieves, and 16 minus level for magic-users and clerics. I also use the +2 save bonuses for the various classes as listed in WBFMAG.

That more or less covers saving throws for player characters. One last thing would be how to handle monster and NPC saves. Here, interestingly, WBFMAG and S&W proper diverge. The former has the basic guideline of using 19 minus HD, whereas the latter has a table listing a save value for each HD.

I had problems with both approaches. While convenient, WBFMAG’s monster save seems high in comparison to those of player characters. S&W’s solution requires a table lookup which is a no-go for me. So I decided to do a quick analysis of the S&W numbers and arrived at an average base save of 16 minus HD. Let’s call it a nice and easy to remember 15, incidentally making them save the same as fighters. This means low-level monsters save a little better than by-the-book S&W, and high-level monsters get off ever so slightly worse. I call it a wash.

As an aside, I could have also gone with Delta’s approach to saves, which in many ways is similar in spirit and mathematically balanced to a comparable level as S&W’s solution. The reason I did not go for it is that it maintains the various save categories which, like I said at the top, are just not something I feel I need in my game.

So that covers saving throws. The point of all of this is basically: a unified saving throw is a convenient and justifiable streamlining, easily hacked into your preferred classic D&D ruleset of choice.

Update: Read on for the final of these three posts on core mechanics, discussing ability checks.


Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Attack Rolls

In the previous post I mentioned using Target 20 and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system. I should probably also mention that although I use those basic KéK classes, I did stick with Swords & Wizardry’s unified saving throw. Between the three of them those cover all the “core mechanics” in the game.

I arrived at Target 20 mostly through a process of elimination. I knew I did not want to do any lookups during gameplay so the traditional attack matrices were out. The logical alternative baked into S&W and also WBFMAG is ascending armor class. However, as HH has pointed out, S&W’s base ascending armor class of 10 is mathematically incorrect. You don’t really notice it when you use it out of the box, but I ran into trouble when I tried to come up with a player-facing defense roll that would be mathematically identical to a referee-facing monster attack roll.

This left me with two options: adjust the AACs listed in CX on the fly by 1 point (violating my rule to remain fully compatible with the module), or use descending AC after all. This is when the appeal of Target 20 really became apparent to me. It is both 100% mathematically identical to the original game, and very easy to use at the table. You just need to get over the fact that lower ACs are better.

Incidentally, it is also trivial to rewrite Target 20 as a player-facing defense roll:

Defend: d20 + your armor bonus + opponent attack value + modifiers ≥ 20

Armour bonus: 9 - AC
Attack value: 9 - HD

However, after using this for one session, I came to the conclusion that rolling to attack as a referee is actually faster (and possibly more fun). I’d gotten so used to The Black Hack’s player-facing defense rolls that I thought they were essential to a smooth-flowing game. But the big difference is that attack and defense rolls in TBH are exactly the same procedure, so there is no extra learning involved for players. With my so-called clever defense roll, players now need to learn two procedures. That’s one too many.

This is getting long-ish so I will leave discussion of saves and skill checks to future posts. I’ll just reiterate that Target 20 is indeed the superior procedure for attack rolls in classic D&D. I recommend using it.

Update: Read on for details on how I do saving throws.


Hackbut – Overview

So, let me tell you about my D&D hack.

I put this together for my Castle Xyntillan campaign. After a 30+ session campaign using The Black Hack I decided I wanted to try a ruleset that would be closer in feel to Original D&D. In particular, I had grown weary of the roll-under ability score mechanic. What I did like about TBH, and continue to appreciate, is its simplicity and accessibility. So whatever I would switch to would ideally be of a similar level of complexity.

The obvious choice would have been Swords & Wizardry, because that’s what the megadungeon is ostensibly written for, although I believe Gabor Lux used another system to play-test it, and there are a few details, like intelligent sword stats, that don’t show up anywhere in S&W. But I wanted something a bit more light-weight, while at the same time maintaining full compatibility with the module’s contents.

I also considered using Old-School Essentials, but although its presentation is incredibly slick, believe it or not, I still felt it comes with overhead that I would then have to house-rule out. I wanted to be able to have one document that would contain all of the rules.

So, I decided to put together a full-fledged hack of my own. The trigger, if I recall correctly, was reading the Kazamaták és Kompániák basic classes. I really liked the level 6 ceiling on those. It nicely matches the level range of CX and I prefer a low-level game anyway.

Not feeling like re-inventing the wheel, I looked around for a game to use as a chassis. Ultimately I went with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. It’s small but comprehensive, and therefore makes for easy copy-pasting and adapting.

So those are the two basic building blocks of what is now titled “Hackbut”, my classic D&D rules kit-bash: WBFMAG provides the rules framework, and KéK provides the classes, although I did overwrite quite a bit of both. Other key elements include Delta’s Target 20 for attack rolls, and Homebrew Homunculus’s simple d20 skill system for, well, most all other situations that need resolving through dice.

There is a lot more to be said about the various components that make up Hackbut, but I’ll leave that for future posts. The point here was mainly to say that if you are in the mood for putting together your own D&D hack, consider picking up WBFMAG. It’s an excellent place to start if you want something that is fully compatible with the old editions but easily adaptable.

Update: Read on for the first of three posts on Hackbut’s core mechanics, on attack rolls.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #1 – Off to the Races

The Company:

  • Marredorn (F1)
  • Fernando (T1)
  • Anna (F1)
  • Mattia & Giulia (bowmen)


  • Mattia — fried by a razzle-dazzle’s lightning bolt


  • Flask of fortified wine
  • Bag of dancing beans
  • Mysterious metal wand


We resume last session’s action immediately after the death of Iacopo at the hands of a couple of skeleton guardsmen. Marredorn’s bowman Mattia holds it together, merely raising an eyebrow at the sight of Iacopo’s corpse. Bowman Giulia, who was in the employ of Iacopo, loses her cool and requests she be let go. An argument develops and culminates with Anna hitting the bowman with her mace to make her point, to which Giulia responds by high-tailing it out of there.

The company continues their exploration of the courtyard. They make their way to several buildings attached to the interior of the castle wall. Fernando cautiously peeks through a bunch of murder holes and is surprised to see a hammer work at an anvil of its own accord, in what appears to be a smithy. They sneak through a door in an adjacent structure and find themselves in a stable. A search of the stalls does not uncover anything except debris crawling with gross bugs. Searching through the hayloft does turn up a flask of what appears to be a wine-like substance.

A door leading off from the stables is cautiously opened and peeked through. It opens on what appears to be a barracks where a bunch of skeleton guardsman are using the plate-clad corpse of an adventurer hanging from the rafters for target practice. Managing to remain unseen, the company quietly closes the door again on this grisly spectacle, and makes their way out of the building.

Back in the courtyard the company scale parapets and enter a tangled rose garden. The heady smell of the roses makes them drowsy and they spot decaying limbs writhing in the flower beds. Not wasting any time they quickly force open a door leading into a tower and are somewhat surprised to find it has been converted to a gardener’s shed. A search of the shed turns up nothing noteworthy except for a bag of beans that appear to jump and dance of their own accord. The bag is secured to a cask with some twine and the company continues on through a door into an empty hallway inside the castle wall. The door at the other end leads into one of the gatehouse’s ruined towers. They find nothing of note.

The company makes their way back to the shed, grab the bag of beans on their way out, and nervously cross the rose garden to the door on the other end that appears to lead into the castle. It opens onto an empty room. Fernando cautiously inspects one of the doors leading off from it and hears the sound of galloping horses. Carefully peeking beyond the door he sees a hallway strewn with smashed furniture and a thoroughly trampled corpse. Two ghostly horses speed past, one seemingly made of a bright light, the other of dark clouds.

Horses can be a problem (John Steuart Curry)

The company decide to try another approach. They enter another empty room and from there move into a room filled with rotting banners decorated with Malévol heraldry. After a search of the room they move on and open a door onto a hallway where a weird wind continuously pushes and pulls on them as they stand in the doorway. They shut the door and try another one. This leads into the same hallway where they spotted the phantom horses earlier. From this vantage point they can see several doors not too far down the hallway.

Marredorn volunteers to make a run for one of the doors. He waits for the horses to pass and sprints towards it. To his dismay it is locked not once but twice. Barely keeping it together while the horses fast approach he bashes into a door across the hallway and stumbles into another passage, this one strewn with withered leaves.

The remainder of the company take turns rushing across the hallway to rejoin Marredorn. After briefly debating some way of cracking the locks on the mystery door they decide to try their luck elsewhere instead. Turning a corner in the leaf-strewn hallway they bump into two headless manservants. Both parties confusedly observe each other until Anne boldly commands them to go into the phantom horse hallway to clean up the terrible mess it contains. Impressed by the fighting-woman’s show of authority, the manservants pass the company by and exit through the door into the hallway. Not much later, the crunch of manservants trampled by horses can be heard.

The company continues down the leaf-strewn hallway. Three doors lead north, east and south. They take the south door and enter a bedroom in disarray. Beans have collapsed into the room, the statue of a robed man has been knocked from its pedestal, and a large pile of leaves lies in front of an impressive painting of an autumnal park scene. The room is searched. When Marredorn replaces the statue, it comes to life and offers him a metal wand. He accepts the offer and the statue returns to normal. After taking a moment to loudly ask themselves what in the world just happened, they turn their attention to the leaf-pile. It is prodded with several implements and a massive mound made of moss and vines rises from it. They stagger back but the thing does not pursue. The company gingerly backs out of the room, and closes the door.

Losing her patience, Anne decides to make a run for the locked door back in the galloping hall. She smashes a lock with her mace and knocks it clean off. Just when the horses are about to trample her she dodges back into the leaf-strewn hallway. Although successful, it turned out to be a closer call than she liked and so she decides against going for the other lock as well.

The company goes back down the hallway and opens the east door at its end. Beyond is a hallway with curtains of moss hanging from the rafters. Deciding they need less plant matter, not more, they close the door and open the north one in stead. It opens on a small room filled with toadstools, and five clusters of flickering lights floating above it. Before they can close the door on this eery sight both Marredorn and Mattia are assaulted by the entities with lightning bolts. Marredorn barely survives the attack and Mattia collapses. Their companions drag the bowman’s lifeless body back into the hallway and Marredorn slams the door shut.

We leave the company there, standing in a leaf-strewn hallway, with the fuming body of poor Mattia lying at their feet.

Referee Commentary:

Our first full CX session did not disappoint. Play moved at a fair clip and some tense and interesting situations developed. The main pleasure for me as a referee is that I honestly can’t predict which way players will go, can’t really read ahead, and therefore am almost as much surprised as they are by the things that transpire.

We had a significantly smaller party with no spell-casters this time around. Our group consists of seven players and we game once a week. Who can make it to any single session varies from week to week, which I don’t consider an issue so long as we have a minimum of three players.

The only real question is with multi-session expeditions, how to handle absentee player characters, or characters joining mid-expedition. In our previous campaign we tried various approaches to this, but ultimately settled on just hand-waving it and having characters pop in and out depending on if their player is present. It’s a minor knock against verisimilitude, but the overhead introduced by most procedures for mitigating it just isn’t worth it for us.

I’d pre-rolled a bunch of random encounters and diligently checked for them at the top of every exploration turn. I also made reaction rolls for everything except when the encounter description clearly stated what a monster’s disposition would be. I believe this applied only to the phantom horses and the razzle-dazzles. I particular enjoyed the scene with the headless lackeys. Anna’s player intuitively grasped a way to resolve it with some bluffing and I just let them succeed.

They started the game with two retainers and ended with none. One was lost at the start due to a failed loyalty check, the other at the very end expired from a monster’s attack. I wonder if they’ll press on or cut and run. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Actual Play

Castle Xyntillan – Session #0 – A Halberd to the Back

The Company:

  • Heinz (MU1)
  • Robain (C1)
  • Marredorn (F1)
  • Fernando (T1)
  • Guillemette (T1)
  • Iacopo (F1)
  • Luna (light bearer)
  • Isabel, Raul & Michelle (porters)
  • Mattia & Giulia (bowmen)


  • Iacopo — chopped in the back by skeleton guardsmen


  • Bejeweled snuff box
  • Perfume bottle


Our freshly minted company of fortune seekers find themselves at the gates of Castle Xyntillan on the morning of Wednesday, September 27, 1525. Briefly considering their options, they decide against first exploring the castle perimeter and choose to cross a bridge over a muddy moat and barge straight through a ruined gatehouse. A flock of ravens quietly observes them from the parapets.

They find themselves in a destitute garden. To the north an island pavilion in a small lake piques their curiosity. Heinz, Iacopo and Robain wade across and discover the pavilion contains a grave marked with the name “Tristano Malévol” and four hands. Heinz and Iacopo shove the lid aside while Robain stands at the ready brandishing cross and stake. They are greeted by the sight of a four-armed skeleton dressed in ragged courtly attire. It awakens with a cackle and responds with chagrin to the sight of the cleric’s holy symbol. When its request for the adventurers to leave it in peace is met with hesitation, it lashes out at the magic-user with its four claws. Before it can do any damage it completely disintegrates in response to the clerics’s vigorous preaching. A hurrah rings out across the silent pond. The trio searches what remains of the creature for treasure, pockets a snuffbox, a perfume bottle and a dried rose, and wades across the lake to rejoin their companions.

The company continues their search of the courtyard. While Robain pokes around the vegetable patch, Iacopo wanders off towards two brightly painted guardhouses in poor repair. He spots two skeleton guardsmen, both armed with halberds, apparently snoozing on the job. Iacopo turns to return to his companions but is unaware of the skeletons quietly pursuing. Before his companions can intervene one of the halberds strikes home, dropping the fighter to the ground. A flurry of bolts and arrows from the bowmen and Marredorn make short work of the skeletons. But the damage is done: Iacopo has expired.

Welcome to the castle (Christian Degn Petersen)

Referee Commentary:

  • The majority of the session was taken up by character creation, a rules overview and some session zero questions. Some time was also spent on acquiring retainers. So we did not get in as much actual play as we normally would, but it was still an atmospheric and action-packed start to a campaign I have been looking forward to kicking off for some time.
  • The outright destruction of Tristano was due to a very lucky roll by Robain’s player. We are using turning rules by Brendan over at Necropraxis. Succeeding by 5 points or more on a d20 against 10 + the undead’s HD means they are destroyed. Tristano is a 4HD undead. They rolled a natural 20. There you go. Otherwise they could have had a pretty bad time fending off the skeleton.
  • Conversely, Iacopo met his demise due to a combination of careless play and bad rolls. I felt a little bad about this afterwards because the encounter happened when we were already pushing our usual stopping time and we were all a bit tired and prone to mistakes and bad decisions. I made a hidden roll to see if Iacopo would remain unnoticed, and failed the roll. Iacopo then rolled for surprise when he was being stalked by the skeletons and also failed. Because his companions were able to warn him I allowed a roll for initiative anyway, and they failed that roll as well. So the skeletons got to attack first, one hit, and I rolled 8 on the 1d8 for the halberd, enough to fell most level 1 fighters. Finally, they failed their death save, and that was it. My only real regret is that I forgot to make a reaction roll for the skeletons. They may not have attacked immediately. It’s a habit I still have to develop. I also go back and forth on hidden rolls for stealth and such. After this experience I’m inclined to go back to rolling everything in the open, even if that spoils things sometimes. It just doesn’t feel right to spring things on my players in this way. It verges on “gotcha” GM’ing which I strongly dislike. The book also has details on the skeletons, which upon reflection should have made it harder for them to wake up. But because of the hour and my fatigue I forgot all those things. For all these reasons I gave Iacopo’s player the option of making his death save after all. But being the good sport they are, they declined the offer, and the party will be rejoined by a newly rolled up fighter on the next session.


20 Quick Questions: Rules (Hackbut)

Answers to Necropraxis’s 20 questions about the rules of my upcoming Castle Xyntillan campaign. I’ll be using a kit-bash of rules mostly from OD&D and B/X (largely via Swords & Wizardry and Old-School Essentials) which I’ve dubbed “Hackbut”.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
    3d6 down the line, swap two
  2. How are death and dying handled?
    Save vs death at 0 hp, success means you are unconscious and at 1 hp, failure means you’re dead.
  3. What about raising the dead?
    The raise dead spell is in play, and handled as per old-school essentials (OSE) OD&D. It’s a 5th level cleric spell, which means you would need to find a cleric of sufficiently high level to cast it (7th level) which is unlikely anywhere in the immediate area of the campaign. However, the dungeon also contains a very small number of items that can raise someone from the dead…
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
    It’s recommended to bring a few retainers — these can easily be promoted into a class by assigning 250 gp worth of treasure to them if they are 1HD. 0-level “normal humans” (non-combatants) require an additional 125 gp 1000 gp. Any other replacement PC can be rolled up and can join the party at the earliest possible moment.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
    Individually rolled each round, winning initiative means you act before the opposition, losing means you act after.
    Group; roll 1d6 at the top of each round, on a 4-6 the PCs go before the opposition.
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
    Crits do max double damage. Fumbles give the opposition a free attack or might cause some other mishap which requires an action to recover from.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
    Helmets are assumed to be part of any armour worn. No specific benefits.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
    Yes, target hit when firing into melee is determined randomly, odds possibly adjusted for relative size.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
    Running will more than occasionally be a wise decision.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
    No. Undead drain attributes. Hitting 0 in an attribute means you’re lost and become undead yourself.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
    Yes. Save-or-die is on the table.
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
    Pretty strictly, but abstracted into a slot-based system.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
    No requirements other than returning to a safe haven and spending roughly a week of downtime there. Spells are acquired automatically at level-up.
  14. What do I get experience for?
    XP is gained by recovering treasure, and by spending treasure frivolously carousing.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
    Primary means of locating traps and other secrets is through description. Dice rolls are used when outcomes are uncertain or when a player insists they want to expedite things and handle them abstractly.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
    Retainers are encouraged and probably necessary to be successful, given the somewhat limited carrying capacity of characters. Each retainer has a morale rating which is rolled against when things get dicy. Failure means the retainer would very much like to terminate the expedition. Morale only ever goes down. (For more details see the rules in Castle Xyntillan.)
  17. How do I identify magic items?
    The primary means is to empirically test the item yourself, or convince some hapless retainer to do it for you. NPCs in town are able to identify potions and items for a fee.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
    Some magic items and potions are for sale in town.
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
    Yes, you can. It will cost a significant amount of time and money, and might require specific ingredients or components for which a quest is needed.
  20. What about splitting the party?
    Good luck, have fun.

Updated 15 September 2020.