Tuesday, May 26, 2020

How Jaquayed is Castle Xyntillan: Part 1, The Upper Floors

Since I last looked at TotSK's mapping (two weeks ago?! Time flies) I've gotten some extra practice at mapping and finally got cracking on Castle Xyntillan. Since Melan himself said that he hasn't made such a diagram for the dungeon, this should be taken with a bucket of salt, and the knowledge that this is not an analysis by an experienced game designer (of the sort Melan just did for Winter Tombs) but an exercise by a novice designer to dissect a complex piece and try to figure out how it works.

To start off, I'm looking at the six above-ground sections of the castle, since these are smaller and each is mostly self contained, unlike the sprawling dungeon and main floor levels which I dread trying to map.

I use the same tracing, sketching and finalizing process I used in my post about TotSK, but for brevity (and in order to not show any of the maps directly) I'll only be showing the final diagrams, with some annotation when I want to point out specific features.

Es represent entrances from another level, which might be horizontal or vertical, while parallel lines with squiggles represent stairways within a single section. Dotted lines represent secret or blocked doors and passages.

The Upper Floors

Section C, 'The Gothic Wing I' is located near the entrance to the castle, and is likely the first of the upper levels the party will visit. Its level of difficulty is close to that of the lower floor that it connects to, but it contains a good deal of treasure. It boasts a fair number of entrances, though variously hidden in amusing places or guarded by an encounter too deadly for a 1st level party to deal with in a head-on fight.

It's also quite well looped; there are four overlapping loops in the main body of the floor. The placement of the encounters in the upper part of the diagram makes it very likely the party will run into a couple of treasure heavy rooms. While it's not combat heavy, the floor also introduces some tougher enemies the party will be seeing more elsewhere, but makes fighting them optional or isolates them from the body of the floor, in a location that makes it relatively easy to escape to another floor or to the outside of the dungeon.

And don't forget that this section hides an entire hidden subsection. It's just a few rooms, but it prepares the party for later areas. The presence of this hidden region can be discovered quickly if the party is mapping carefully, as mine is, and its presence becomes very obvious once the party reaches section D. Though my party has determined its rough location, they have yet to find a way in.

Section D, 'The Gothic Wing II' can only be accessed by the first floor of the Wing, and doubles down on the previous floor's lessons. Like the previous floor, it's not very combat focused, with the greatest challenges coming from tricks, traps and interactivity. If the party has been mapping carefully, some secrets in this wing will become quite obvious.

This wing is likely to be the first exposure the party has to a demiplane which runs through the castle. Also, it provides the conclusion to The Toilet Gag. I provide no explanation for either feature, and hope the burning desire to know the answer will encourage you to purchase the adventure yourself.

Section F, 'The Upper Quarters' is built similarly to the Gothic Wing, de-emphasizing straight out combat encounters in favor of traps and interactive dangers. It even boasts a hidden area, which for those on a certain geas-quest will be quite important.

In terms of mapping, it's positively riddled with entrances, many hidden, but is considerably less loopy than the Gothic Wings, and the likely combat encounters aren't immediately accessible from the section's hub. A careless mapper might place multiple loops due to the presence of many small, interconnected rooms adjoining a larger one, but I cleaned those out of the model.

Out of the entire castle, section G, 'The Donjon' is the most linear. However, it's characterized by a large number of entrances between a very small number of actual rooms, may of them unusual. It does hide one nasty, but potentially very profitable secret, and leaves the method of obtaining it implicit, for players and GM alike to discover by exploring the map. Also, the vertical progression has an absurd cap when the party discovers the way to the top.

Section I, 'The Lake Tower' isn't quite as sparse as G, but neither is it as varied in its entrances and exits. There's just the one entrance, and the upper levels provide an almost predetermined path, unless you find one of a few secret doors, which mostly allow you to skip a room and find an extra hidden area, like in C.

This is an example of a tight loop composed of only a few rooms, which would show up as a larger, multi-part loop if you stuck to the regular mapping method without cleaning it up. This is one of the limitations of the diagram, that the scope insensitivity indicates the existence of loops where they are actually trivial.

Section L, 'The Maze of the Occult' is arguably the most dangerous of all the castle's sections. This is, however, quite adequately signposted. Most of the entrances, obvious, secret and vertical, link to very dangerous rooms on the lower floors. It's very unlikely, though still possible, to reach section L without too much difficulty if one follows a very particular path and gets a bit lucky, but this would result in a very nasty difficulty spike for said party.

Here in the L section we see a good deal of looping and complexity. However, not all of the section is obviously accessible from multiple angles. The lower part of the diagram is only obviously accessible through the chokepoint at L6, which just so happens to be a very nasty trap. There are ways to bypass it via secret blocked off doors, but one is extremely dangerous and the other is so well hidden I doubt any party would find it from the useful end. It so happens that the rooms hidden behind this chokepoint are some of the deadliest in the entire castle, in addition to containing a portal to a certain demiplane.

Some more neat features: on the upper left, three rooms must be discovered sequentially, and likely experienced in the same way. These rooms happen to be very theatrical and showy, with a great deal of interactivity. Though it is technically possible to enter this section via the entrance in the top left corner, it's blocked by some nasty traps, and in practice the party is extremely likely to find the secret entrance to the right before it becomes passable, providing an additional environmental gate and puzzle.


Are there any particular patterns we can glean from this? At a moment's glace, I see frequent use of gatekeeping mechanisms, hiding clusters of tough encounters (and the appropriate treasure) behind deadly rooms that test if the party is ready to enter the area or not.

In the earlier, easier areas, straight combat and highly lethal traps are de-emphasized in favor of interactivity, and where tough combats do exits they are usually placed at the end of short chains of rooms, and not far from an exit.

Where heavy NPC or environmental interaction is present, room progression is often much more linear, though I can't say for sure this is a pattern rather than my spurious assumption.

A few shapes keep cropping up. Boxes with sticks inside of them, overlapping boxes or boxes entirely contained in other boxes. I can only assume that there features would be even more prevalent in the dungeon and main floor sections.

The diagrams also show that areas like the Lake Tower, despite being composed of several adjacent rooms, don't loop horizontally very much, but are heavily jaquayed vertically, which this sort of diagram doesn't show very well. If nothing else, I'm now more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of this method.

Until next time, be sure to subscribe to the blog to see every post when it comes up, and let me know what you think in the comments below!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 6: Ruin and Riches

In the last session, the party was threatened with a lawsuit if they didn't comply with Adelaide's order, delivered Giacomo's marriage proposal, examined more of the castle and got chased by the embodiment of death itself. What hijinks will they get into this time? Will their excellent luck keep holding up? Well, sorta. Find out in this week's session of Castle Xyntillan!

The Party

Longo Lightfoot, Halfling Thief, wears a sky-blue headscarf. Played by CaptainSabatini.
Corby the Joyful, Human Cleric of Sucellus, wears a short, conical hat. Played by diregrizzlybear.
Idred the Most Omniscient, Human MU, wears a full-visored greathelm. Played by David Perry.
Boroth Swinney the Joyous, Human Fighter, wears a masked helm, depicting a happy human face. played by Justin Hamilton
Lisette the Lucky, Torchbearer who had been on a previous expedition to the castle, and saw most of her companions butchered.
Willemot the Wary, Light Footman.
Francois, Light Footman, and his hunting dog Fideaux.
Aymeric, Heavy Footman, boasts about the bonuses the party will pay him once he saves their asses.
Ysabeau, Heavy Footman, wants to start his own adventuring company once he has the funds.
Regis, Light Footman.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
Raymond, Mule.

Lisette the Lucky, lost in the castle
Willemot the Wary, animated armor
Fideaux, animated armor
Aymeric, animated armor
Ysabeau, lost in the castle
Regis, animated armor

2 halberds (only 1 recovered)
The Libram of Heinous Damnation, 15,000gp

The Game

  • The party started the session resting by the wagon. They were spooked after narrowly escaping the reaper they awakened, and made a careful search of the gatehouse before going back in. They found tracks to the north, likely the fleeing bandits, but the reaper was nowhere to be seen.
  • Their first act was to return to the Doors of Good and Bad Fortune, hoping they had gotten the worst of it. Corby and Longo entered the room, plugging their noses, while the rest of the party waited outside. Throwing open the north door... and a grinning skeletal figure carrying a giant scythe stepped out. 
Where Does the Concept of a “Grim Reaper” Come From? | Britannica
Sunnuva- again?!
This is my good fortune - to meet you here!
  • They screamed and the party ran for the exit. Again. But not before the reaper got a swipe in at Corby. It hit, but rolled minimal damage and Corby succeeded his save against paralysis. 
  • Overcoming the cold running through his veins he and Longo beat a hasty retreat through the gatehouse and back to the wagon for the second time that day. 
  • They took another breather, with Longo spying on the reaper from afar, but failing to hide in the bushes from its sight.
Longo: I’ll go see if the reaper is still there. 
Idred: Go ahead, it’s your death. 
Longo: No, it’s Corby’s Death. 
Longo (failing to hide): My explanation will be that it has a magical sense.
  • Waiting out the reaper, the party delved into the castle for the third time that day. Exploring past the doors of Good and Bad Fortune, they encountered several odd features; a spiral staircase leading to the basement, a hallway with a slight magnetic field, a windy tunnel and an old war room bedecked in rotten banners. They heard the banging of metal not far away; Corby got excited by the thought of another hammer. 
  • They located the banging behind a locked door, and Longo's loud attempts to pick it open earned him some jokes. Inside was an armory, filled with weapons and dummies wearing suits of armor. There were also two closet doors, in a similar configuration to the room they had encountered the reapers, with the banging sound coming from the southern door. Something was trying to break out.
Boroth: Longo, is this one of your friends?
  • They set about making a catalogue of the room's contents and opened the north door. Rearing up out of the darkness, fixing its beady eyes on the party, was a rust monster!
All Sorts Of Critters — Monster Spotlight: Rust Monsters
  • ... which turned out to be a taxidermy. Never to be accused of not being resourceful, the party got over their collective heart attack and dragged the taxidermied monster out in front of the southern door, hoping whatever came out would be as spooked as they were. Longo undid the lock in record time, and Boroth stood to the side to open the door.
  • They timed it just right, opening before the next strike against the door. Out of the closet stepped a suit of beat-up plate armor, swinging a sword which got stuck in the rust monster, and was rapidly wrenched out. It turned to the north and stepped forward, backing Boroth into one of the armored training dummies. 
  • The party let loose with missiles, and Idred got a couple good hits in with his darts. That was the moment the party's luck ran out, however.
  • Every single one of the party's subsequent attacks bounced off the armor. It tore into the party, cleaving hirelings apart. Regis and the hunting dog Fideaux went down in a single swing. Boroth was slashed terribly, taking maximum damage, but his tremendous constitution allowed him to stay up. As the party sounded the retreat, the armor's attacks to the party's back took down Aymeric and Willemot as well. 
  • Worse, Lisette and Ysabeau panicked at the sight of their slaughtered companions, and got lost in the confusion. Lisette took the party's lamp, and they had to crawl along the wall, holding hands to avoid losing each other. Boroth lit his lamp, and they scurried back to the spiral staircase they discovered earlier. 
  • When the dust settled, five party members stood in the lamplight. The four player characters and Francois, the only hireling present who had not broken rank and had not been murdered. Bruno was still waiting outside by the wagon with the mule, and Stanislas was sick back in town. The party had been cut in half. 
  • In that vulnerable position, another silhouette appeared in their light. A jovial and finely dressed man with a shortsword at his belt petting a black cat in his arms. He introduced himself as Leopold Malevol, a local factor, and handed Corby a letter sealed with the wax image of a smiling bat. He read it aloud to the party. 
Written to the best of my ability in actual medieval style.
Longo: I think they’re expecting me to be ring bearer, given how suave I am. 
GM: And short. 
Longo: I wasn’t going to mention that.
  • Leopold excused himself upon making his delivery, and expressed regret he wouldn't be invited. After discussing the letter and its implications, the party decided to soldier on and complete their original objective; find the lakeside chapel and see what preparations would need to be made to host the wedding there. Also, find some loot so that the expedition wasn't a complete disaster.
Idred: Maybe James could tell us more about it.
Longo: James is kind of a dick.
Idred: James is perfectly well put together how dare you.
  • They passed by the grand bath, thankfully with no sign of the Beast this time. A long, wide hallway was home to the rolling to and fro of a giant boulder, which the party managed to time their dash across. They popped out into an outdoor garden. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun glittered on the lake. In front of them was a sizable two-story chapel, and among the bushes trotted a trio of goats-
  • which approached the party in an excellent mood, jumping up and down around them.
  • A feeling of calm pervaded the whole garden, and the party decided to use their daily Detect Magic to examine the area. The goats appeared to be magical beasts, though non-hostile at the moment. A statue and a dark patch of ground gave off a slight aura as well, but the party kept their eye on the prize and entered the chapel.
  • Bizarrely, every single character asked themselves the same question upon entering, "Am I contemplating violence or treachery?" Answering honestly to themselves in the negative, they crossed the threshold and were overwhelmed by a sense of peace inside. The chapel was clean and orderly, lit by sunlight through stained-glass windows. A font filled with clear water and a simple altar covered in a white cloth. This place was excellent for a Lawful wedding.
Speedpaint: Church Interior by inetgrafx | Church interior ...
  • The upstairs of the chapel contained a hallway with two doors; one barred and nailed up. The party entered the open door and found a bare study room covered in dust. Idred examined a bookshelf, and a pair of rotgrubs jumped out of the pages and burrowed into his skin, but the party quickly burned them with torches and lamp oil while Idred picked up and read dusty alchemical calculations to distract from the pain.
  • The centerpiece of the room was a lectern, with a heavy book closed atop it. It was bound in leather, with a dizen black jewels inlaid into the cover, and gold lettering which read, 'The Libram of Heinous Damnation'. At a moment's glace, it seemed to be a tome that would allow a spellcaster to quickly and easily sell their soul for power, and was worth over 10,000 gold pieces for the cover alone.
Idred: Yeah, we're taking that.
  • With a gigantic find, a major objective completed, and almost all of the party's hirelings wiped out, we ended the session. Next time, the party will be substantially richer and more powerful, and will begin to prepare in earnest for what promises to be an eventful wedding.


Between sessions, I took a moment to choose a concrete fleeing rule. I settled on, 'You can successfully flee from an encounter as long as you are as fats or faster than them, but each enemy in range gets a free attack as you escape.' It came into play twice this game, both times to good effect in my opinion.

The incident with the reaper was super intense for me. Corby was lucky to only take 1 point of damage and succeed his save. If he hadn't, we would have just been killed in that moment.

The animated armor wasn't entirely out of the party's league, and they might have defeated it if they hadn't had terrible luck on their rolls and stuck out the second round of the fight. Its cleaving ability made it a terror for the 1HD hirelings, however, and it just tore through the party's front line. If they stuck around, they may have conquered it, or the player character might have gotten chopped up.

It's a credit to Castle Xyntillan that, in the face of a totally improvised plot with no root in the original module, it's held up very well. There's enough moving parts here, enough varied locations and opportunities, that it can be host to a great variety of player experiences.

My plan for the wedding scene, which I've already mentioned to the players and expect will take place in two or three sessions, will be a break from the usual exploration gameplay, instead being a social encounter based around trickery, deception, plans within plans and the like. My ideal outcome for that scene will be one party defeating the other through guile, pulling a final ace out of their sleeve. Note that I didn't say it would be the players' victory. I've committed to setting the villains' plans in motion before I know what the players intend to do. It won't be easy, and it won't be fair, but it'll genuinely be up to player agency to win the day. And if they fail, the stakes aren't a TPK, but the loss of an NPC and the humiliation of the party. And either way, there will be a clear new villain for the players to go up against...

Monday, May 18, 2020

Adapting AD&D's Psionics, Part 1

Prompted by Anthony Huso at The Blue Bard, I've been digging into AD&D's psionics. It's been illuminating, seeing how this much-maligned system actually works. Which is not to say its reputation is undeserved. Because, hoo boy.

I was expecting the system to be clunky, but functional, with its complexity being an exaggerated meme. Nope. The AD&D psionics rules are about as confusing as advertised. Worse, the rules are split between the DMG and PHB, with outright contradictory information in some cases.

I'll be reviewing the rules for Psionics from both the 1e PHB and DMG. Much of this is already covered in Anthony Huso's Psionics: The Way No One Ever Played Them, but I'll be covering the topic more briefly while cribbing from him.

Telekinesis by remplica on DeviantArt

Review of the Rules

Determining Psionic Ability
Before anything else, you need to figure out if your character is psionic or not. Unlike later editions, psionics isn't a class you can choose, but an ability granted to characters by chance. To determine if you're Psionic, the following applies.

You must have at least 1 mental attribute (Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) at 16 or above.
If only 1 is at or above 16, you have a 1% chance to be psionic.
For each point of Int above 16, add 2.5% to that chance.
For each point of Wis and Cha over 16, add 1.5% to that chance.
Drop fractions. All the scores above must be unmodified.

Example. A character with all 16s has just a 1% chance to be Psionic. A character with natural 18s in each ability has 12% chance to be Psionic.

Generating Psionic Strength
If your character is psionic, congratulations! Now we have to generate your psychic strength. The formula goes like this.
Take each of your mental attributes, and subtract 12 from each. If the number is positive, keep it. If two of the scores are greater than 16, double the total. If all three scores are over 16, quadruple it.
Take this total, which ranges from 4-72 (the PHB lists the range as 1-72, but because of the requirements for being psionic no character will have less than 4) and add it to a d100 roll.
This number is your Psionic Strength, which ranges from 5-172. This is not the same as your Psionic Ability, which is your P. Strength doubled, and so ranges from 10-344. This will get confusing.

Example: A character with 16, 16, 16, has 12+1d100 points. A character with 17, 15, 10, has 8+1d100. A character with 18, 17, 17 has 64+1d100.

The Psionic Strength scores directly determines several things. First, Both your Psionic Attack and Psionic Defense point pools have a maximum equal to your P. Strength.
Note that while both the pools of Attack and Defense points are expended and regained in play, your total P. Ability score does not change with them, and is only ever decreased by brain injury.

Attack and Defense Modes and Disciplines
Those point pools, believe it or not, are actually used for something.
Roll a percentile die and consult the table in the PHB to see how many attack modes you have, from 1-5. Do the same again for defense modes, from 2-5. You must take mode F, Mind Blank, and can choose the rest.

Roll on a similar table to see how many Major and Minor Disciplines you can learn. At character creation you only get one of your Minor Disciplines, and the rest of your Disciplines are learned every other level, Minor first. This means that the more Disciplines you can learn, the longer until you learn your first Major Discipline.

Also note that while Attack and Defense modes consume points from your Attack and Defense pools, Disciplines use Psionic Strength points, which means that for every P. Strength point consumed, you lose a point in both your Attack and Defense pools.

Psionics in Play

There, that wasn't so painful, was it? Next up, a quick overview of Psionics in Play, with a focus on combat.

Using Minor and Major Disciplines consumes points as explained above. Each discipline has its own rate of consumption, rules for when and how it can be used, etc. Many of them are mechanically soft abilities which require GM improvisation.

A combat between Psionics happens in the blink of an eye, before regular initiative is rolled (this is silly and we'll get to it later, but this is what the book says). It is all determined by a table, which Anthony Huso has conveniently remade with color coding for optimum choices.

If a Psionic runs out of Defense points, psionic attacks against them are made on a special table with nasty conditions. If a creature has no psionic power at all, then they cannot be the victim of a psionic attack unless you use Psionic Blast. All attacks and defenses are simultaneous, meaning there is no initiative order like in regular combat. In practice, this means that the GM and player both secretly write the attack and defense they intend to use next round and reveal it together.

Also, if you have any intention of using this in play, you will need an automated spreadsheet to take care of the numbers. Huso has one linked at the top of his post which you can download.

Adapting the Damn Thing

And that's Psionics in a nutshell. Trying to adapt it is a tremendous task, and I'll definitely need to split this into another post. Before putting down too many concrete rules and recommendations, I'll to some more fancy-pants analysis of the existing rules, mostly as an exercise for ordering my own thoughts.

Limited Role of Chance in Psionic Play

One of the results of the Psionic system is a schizophrenic attitude towards randomness. Determining Psionic Strength and whether you have the ability at all is based entirely on random chance, as is the number of attack and defense modes you have access to. In contrast, actual psionic combat involves almost no randomness, unlike the rest of AD&D's combat system. A psionic combat is decided entirely by the choices made, and the results of a static table. The exception is Psychic Crush's percentage chance to instantly kill an enemy.

A reduced emphasis on random chance and instead focusing on tactics and decision-making actually makes sense for the fiction the Psionics system is trying to simulate. Psionics being spice rather than staple, it provides a different texture to psionic play which can very effectively create mystique and a feeling of specialness around the system. But this doesn't mesh with the extremely random system of determining psionic ability, determined entirely by percentile dice and randomly generated attribute scores.

My reason this dissonance is that the psionics fiction emphasizes the strangeness and rarity of those powers, leading the creators of AD&D to want the powers to be rare even among players. But the implied setting of AD&D is one in which other forms of magic are relatively common, where players become powerful through effort and risk, becoming truly exceptional. The psionics system, instead of emphasizing the role of self-improvement and mental development native to the concept, makes it something you're effectively born with or not.

Psyker | Warhammer 40k | Fandom

Psionic Development and Leveling
A quirk of the Discipline system is that, the higher your roll for maximum disciplines, the longer it takes for you to develop your Major Disciplines. You gain a new discipline every other level, but have to get all your Minor ones first. So if you rolled in the middle of the Discipline table, you'll only need to advance to 5th level before gaining your first Major Discipline, while rolling high, you'll need to advance to ninth or 11th level.

The effect of this is that overall weaker characters get access to the goodies earlier on, while ostensibly more powerful characters have to advance more slowly, but will be very versatile at high levels. There's also a weird discontinuity in the Discipline table which looks like an error to me.

Psionic Combat Speed
The ruling that Psionic combat takes place in the blink of an eye, before initiative is rolled? Yeah, that doesn't work, and even Anthony 'By-the-Book' Huso doesn't use it. His ruling is to add a psionic combat stage at the beginning of each initiative segment (if you're playing AD&D, before every round otherwise). This solves a few issues.

First, instead of making non-psionic players sit back while the psionic combat goes on, it's distributed across the fight. The typical result of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it mental combat is that most psionic monsters have bigger point totals than a player will, and with the low-randomness nature of the system, the psionic player will end up falling over dead after making eye contact with the enemy.

This actually involves the rest of the party, making the role of a psionicist to take the heat and divide the enemy's attention while the rest of the party takes it down the normal way.

When a psionicist runs out of defense points, they are utterly screwed, unless the enemy is forced to attack another target or takes mercy, their next attack will likely kill the psionicist outright or impose a horrible condition on them that might prevent them from ever using psionics again.
Live by the sword, die by the sword and all that, but there's an additional wrinkle.

If you were unlucky enough to roll a character with very low Psionic Strength, and thus very low Defense, you are actually more vulnerable than if you never developed your powers. If you want that to be a risk of psionics, so be it, but it means there's a good chance that a player will be forever stuck with a death sentence that gets called in the moment a psionic creature enters the game.


Through dark science he had recovered a fragment of the Universal Song

If you want to add psionics to your game (an do it well), you'll need to do some real work integrating the themes of the fiction into your game as well. It is in many ways at odds with the standard fantasy milieu, and if you're just trying to run an old-school fantasy game with a low barrier to entry, this could very well get in the way.

In particular, you'll need to decide what psionics looks like in your game. My points of reference for this are the psychic combat is the Dresden files series, Kill Six Billion Demons and (and stick with me here) JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I'll explain more of my thoughts on this in the next installment, in which I get down to the actual work of adapting the damn thing. Until then, be at peace, psychonauts.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

OSR: What's in a Tomb Adventure?

In today's rambling screed about underdetailed and lackluster trends in RPG design, Tombs!

Everyone loves tombs! Half of all action RPG adventures (especially dungeon-centered ones) involve tombs! If you're going to descend into an dark maze filled with monsters and traps in search of treasure, there's really only a few ways to do that without being excessively contrived. Those are:

  • Ancient Tomb
  • Hidden Vault
  • Dank Cave
  • Decrepit Palace
  • Wicked Temple
  • Funhouse Labyrinth Built by an Evil Wizard

No wonder tombs are so attractive. They're naturally isolated, walled off, confined locations. Most ancient societies buried their honored dead with the treasures they owned in life. There several real world examples, namely the pyramids, of such tombs being trapped. If the Ancient Egyptians had access to animated skeletons, you could bet your bottom dollar they'd have populated their tombs with them.

The Deadly Shift of Tomb of Annihilation: Sly Flourish

Flavoring your dungeon as a tomb, mausoleum, crypt or some such resting place of the dead is an effective, iconic and naturalistic approach. So no wonder it's overused thoughtlessly.

It's very easy to just say that the dungeon is in a tomb, and then completely fail to make that a part of the dungeon's identity. Sure, you'll see rooms keyed as crypts, decorated with coffins and altars, but that won't be reflected in the structure of the dungeon.

The worst failure mode is the kind seen in Bryce's review of this module, which sparked this little series of posts, in which a supposed tomb is filled with high-level undead without rhyme or reason, and the actual reason for the tomb's existence, to house a dead master assassin, is moot because the assassin isn't dead, and is hanging out in his crypt waiting to ambush whoever comes in. For some reason.

That's a very obvious and severe example, but I find it illustrative. The ecology and nature of a tomb is paid absolutely no heed. The fact that powerful undead haunt the halls of this crypt is taken as a given, a genre guarantee, and that just kills the intrigue out of the gate. If you have vampires, mummies and death lords in your resting place, it means (in terms of the in-game fiction) something has gone terribly wrong, let alone having all of them together.

The standard excuse, especially for mummies, skeletons and zombies, is that they're the guardians of the tomb. That's fine and dandy, but it has certain implications that very few dungeons follow up on. If these are meant to guard the valuables in the tomb, why do they almost exclusively attack mindlessly on sight? The actual reason is that 'this is a dungeon and they are monsters' but unless you're playing a self-aware satire of the action-RPG that doesn't cut it as a diegetic reason. Why are they totally uncoordinated? Why are they spread out across many rooms instead of being concentrated where they can actually do their best to protect valuables?

And don't get me started on other forms of undead and monsters. If vampires or ghouls are in your tomb, it's because they broke in. If you have those and supposed 'guardian' monsters, then those two factions should be at each others' throats, not living together is perfect harmony.

But while complaining endlessly about poor, thoughtless design is very cathartic (and better bloggers than I have built their whole readership off the same) it's not especially helpful. Here's a few options you can use to create tomb dungeons, hopefully with a little novelty.

Pickman's Model H.P. Lovecraft : creepy
Pickman's Model

The Invaded Tomb
A classic setup. This tomb, burial ground, mausoluem, etc. is invaded and desecrated by any of a laundry list of common antagonists. Ghouls, vampires and necromancers are the most common, but they each have unique reasons to be there. The ghouls are eating the honored dead, the vampires are using the tomb as a hiding spot during the day and possibly raising the corpses as thralls, and the necromancer is using the tomb as a base of operations and raising the dead as an army.

All good, so long as you flesh out the original thread. If you want some variety, try making those invaders something unexpected. For example, perhaps the invaders are a pair of nobles and their coterie, escaping schemes or exile in the court. A crew of criminals involving the tomb in a heist, such as by digging tunnels from there into a nearby building.

Also, pay some attention to why the party is investigating the invasion, and who involved them, if applicable. There's a big difference between being involved by the descendants of the interred, being deputized by local law enforcement, asked to investigate by suspicious villagers or just going on their own initiative. Whatever is actually happening in the tomb, make sure it has some effect on the surrounding area.

The Awoken Dead/Haunting
The dead have risen! Or maybe the place has always been haunted, but it's just getting intolerable now. Like the above, this is a classic option that you need to put some more thought into to stand out. First off, why are the dead rising? What kind? Is this a recent phenomenon, or is it an old one which has been made acute by another recent change? You can get a great deal more variety with this prompt than you might think.

If this is recent, why are the dead waking now? Was it foretold in a prophecy? Has a necromancer popped into town? Was an item of significance stolen from the tomb? Were the descendants of the interred harmed, and the dead are rising to restore the honor of their line and bring the evil to justice? I quite like that one, actually.

For a subversion, make the whole haunting a farce concocted by one group to dupe the party. The whole town might be in on it, in a scheme to rob and dispose of wealthy adventurers, or it might just be a bandit crew using the haunting to scare people off their hideout.

The Recent Burial
Tomb dungeons are almost always ancient, long-forgotten affairs, which serves to explain why the PCs get first pick of the treasures. Instead, make the tomb a recent one. Maybe it's just been there for a few years, or maybe the mourners are still beating their chests. Either way, everything is brand-spanking new. If you take this option, you need to let the setting inform the size and scope of the dungeon. If your game takes place in the standard implied post-great dungeon building empire setting, then it's not going to be a sprawling

A twist on this one would be to have a new burial, but inside a previous ancient tomb. A would-be pharaoh reopened the old pyramid, cleared out a section of it, rearmed all the old traps and likely added new ones, and willed himself buried in it with the rulers of old. A double twist would be that the party are the ones clearing out the old tomb, careful not to permanently damage anything and taking measurements to see how large the sarcophagus can be.

Thieves use Paris catacombs to steal wine
What do you mean this is a real place?

Surprise Tomb
This used to be a perfectly normal farm/town square/sewer main, until the earthquake/renovations/archaeological dig uncovered a tunnel into the old catacombs. This makes the most sense if your game is set in a city built on the ruins of a greater empire (see every other city in Europe). But even absent that, any ruin-making ancient civilization will do. You still get people in rural England discovering medieval mining shafts in sinkholes.

The classic example of this is the Paris catacombs. Ideally, a setup like this builds on previous hints of a dark and traumatic past for the location. Bonus points if it leads to other parts of the city, with potential for mischief and skulduggery and reward for whoever can best explore and document the catacombs.

It's a Trap!
You thought there was plunder in the tomb, but in reality, its only occupants will be you! An extension of the false haunting conspiracy above, the party was hired to investigate the tomb, but this was actually a trap set by their enemies. It's unexpected, but quite straightforward once the trap is sprung.

Note: The Ecosystem of a Tomb

The key thing about tombs is that they are artificial structures built to be sterile. If everything went right, there shouldn't be an ecosystem here at all. If animals or monsters have gotten inside, it's because the walls have been burrowed through, wayward spirits have been unable to rest, the dead weren't consecrated properly, or the tomb leads into the Veins.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 5: Groomsmen and Grim Reapers

In the last session, the party discovered the Gothic Wing of Castle Xyntillan, struck it rich with a chance find and caroused their butts off. With a couple of new hirelings in the company and two leveled-up party members, what mischief awaits our protagonists? Find out in this week's session of Castle Xyntillan!

The Party

Longo Lightfoot, Halfling Thief, wears a sky-blue headscarf. Played by CaptainSabatini.
Corby the Joyful, Human Cleric of Sucellus, wears a short, conical hat. Played by diregrizzlybear.
Idred the Most Omniscient, Human MU, wears a full-visored greathelm. Played by David Perry.
Boroth Swinney the Joyous, Human Fighter, played by Justin Hamilton
Lisette the Lucky, Torchbearer who had been on a previous expedition to the castle, and saw most of her companions butchered.
Willemot the Wary, Light Footman.
Francois, Light Footman, and his hunting dog Fideaux.
Aymeric, Heavy Footman, boasts about the bonuses the party will pay him once he saves their asses.
Ysabeau, Heavy Footman, wants to start his own adventuring company once he has the funds.
Regis, Light Footman.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
Raymond, Mule.

Animated hammer (bound and captured)
Copper Horn
Approximately 10gp in copper pieces
(Identified) Horseshoe of Saving

The Game

  • We kicked off the session by continuing the carousing from last time. Longo was on a gambling spree, with Idred providing extra funds and advice. The two did rather poorly, and Longo almost went into debt but for a loan from Idred. Corby lived up to his religion by getting blackout drunk on cheap wine on a week-long barhopping expedition. Boroth found a local kid to tutor him in Kriegspiel and entered a local tournament. Predictably, he lost big.
  • Now established in town, the party gave themselves a proper name: the Groomsmen.
Ask the Expert: "How Do I Coordinate the Groomsmen and Bridesmaids ...
What the party aspires to be
  • Among all the celebration, Ranucci went missing. The night before the next expedition, as the party was nursing their collective hangover, someone knocked at their door. Boroth got up to answer. Across their threshold stood a tall, wiry man in a powdered wig and elegant suit. 
Vincent: Excuse me, are you the Groomsmen?
Boroth: Um, yes?
Vincent: Wonderful. I am Vincent Godefroy-Malevol. May I come in?
Boroth: Uhhh..
Idred: Check his teeth!
Vincent: Don't worry. I'm not a vampire. Worse, I'm a lawyer.
Boroth: *almost vomits*

Maximilien Robespierre - Wikipedia
A look that says,
'I'd kick your ass and sue for the shoe leather'
  • Vincent stepped inside and informed the party that he was giving them a courtesy call. Under instructions from Adelaide, who was growing frustrated with their delay, he and his companions had kidnapped Ranucci, and were holding him in Castle Xyntillan. Unless they bring Giacomo to her, she will inform The Beast of their actions, Ranucci will be torn limb from limb, and the party will be sued for arson.
  • The party negotiated with Vincent, trying to figure out how much time they have. They settled on a fortnight. The party promised to deliver Giacomo, and Vincent stepped back out into the night.
  • The next morning the party visited Giacomo in the hospital. He had more color in his face, but he won't be in proper fighting shape for another month. Though the party found the chapel last expedition, the chaotic monks which inhabit it would prevent a Lawful marriage from occurring. They'd need to clear out the monks and clean up the chapel, or else find another one, before the marriage could go forward.
Corby: So we need to stock up on holy water and Lawful-scented candles and reconsecrate a chapel. In a fortnight.
  • With their next objective clear, the party returned to the castle, now equipped with two new henchmen, a mule and a wagon. Their first action was to go back to the smithy from the first expedition, where they had trapped the animate hammer, and capture it. They locked it in a chest, bound it with rope, and carried it back to the wagon. The next step would be to bring it back to town, and hopefully reconsecrate the hammer as a trophy and symbol of Sucellus (god of wine and hammers).
  • That would have to wait until later. The party had also left the barracks building unexplored in their first expedition, and was about to kick down the door when they were interrupted by a random encounter! 
  • Luckily, it was just James the ghostly butler. He spoke politely with the party, and requested that they not disturb the soldiers during their drills. 
Boroth: So, how many soldiers are there in the castle?
James: Well, if I told you that, I’d have to kill you. Ha ha!
Steven Noble Illustrations: Sherlock Holmes
That would be tremendously ambitious of you.
  • Leaving the soldiers be, the party held up their end of the deal and waited for Adelaide. At the eleventh toll of the bell, she walked out into the courtyard, surrounded by a wave o black cats. The party gave her the good news. Not only had they received her message loud and clear, but Giacomo was prepared to marry her! With his token in hand, Adelaide jumped for joy and ran off to plan the wedding. She also indicated that the servants' chapel in the south wasn't ideal; that the chapel in the north would be a much better venue.
  • With their responsibilities for the moment fulfilled, the party decided to tie up some loose ends. The walled-off doorway and the corpses of the adventurers they discovered on a previous expedition were still there, waiting to be further investigated.
  • Retracing their steps, the party found an altogether different scene. The corpses had decomposed tremendously since their first visit, and they had some new company; a pair of wheezing, creaking skeletons, which were tearing chunks of flesh off the bodies.The errant undead were no match for the party, and were quickly turned and cut down against the dead end hall.
  • The party sat down and took a chisel to the bricked up wall, taking turns and watching for monsters. Before long, the bricks were debris on the floor, and the party opened a new wing to explore.
  • The next few rooms contained several curiosities; a peasant corpse decapitated by a miniature guillotine; a pair of adventurers dead in a ransacked room, bearing a drinking horn filled with copper pieces. The highlight of the area was a run-down kitchen, the walls painted with a scene of two devils, and a pair of doors labeled 'the Doors of Good and Bad Fortune'. In a moment, the room transformed into a fungus-ridden ruin, stifled by a sickly smell.
Longo: Idred, you're the magic-user explain this. 
Idred: Idred explains it via an intelligence check. 
Longo: What? 
Idred: Ha ha, just kidding.
  • After much worry and deliberation, Boroth stepped forward to open one of the doors. It opened into a cramped cupboard. A cold wind issued forth, and a grinning skeletal figure carrying a giant scythe stepped out.
  • Predictably, the whole party panicked and fled. They sprinted back outside with the reaper hot on their heels, aiming for the western gatehouse and the wagon they left on the trail beyond. 
  • That was when more than a dozen bandits jumped out from behind cover and shouted, 'STAND AND DELIVER!'
Robin Hood and his Merry Men | Robin hood, Robin, Swans art
And if you look over there, you'll see the embodiment of death itself charging us.
  • The party refused to stop, barreling forwards. Seeing the reaper, the bandits broke rank and scattered. The party ran straight out of the castle, and only afterwards turned to see the reaper waiting at the threshold scythe in hand.
Idred: Surely the Grim Reaper does not just wait around closets waiting for people to open them.
Longo: Maybe that’s how everyone dies.
  • They got back to the wagon to find Bruno, the new hireling left to guard the cart, had rustled up a couple of hares to eat for dinner. Finally able to rest and catch their breaths, the party settled in for a break.
  • Idred dedicated a few moments of his time to investigating the drinking horn, which had previously held far more copper coins than could feasibly fit inside, and his henchmen had been unable to stuff them all back in. 
David: At this time, Idred would be playing his his horn.
Longo: This is no time for that!
  • He discovered that blowing on the horn caused a wave of copper coins to spill out. Doing do twice, almost a thousand copper pieces accumulated in the back of the wagon, heavy, but comprising no more than 10gp in wealth.
  • With this dubiously useful discovery, the session ended. Next time, the party will delve back into the castle, hopefully avoiding the bandits and the reaper.


This session, more than any of the previous ones, emphasized how much this style of gaming requires letting go of outcomes and trusting in the dice. The ending, with party chased by the reaper and facing a bandit ambush in front, was utter, unpredictable chaos that I couldn't have come up with if I tried.

Incidentally, I had no idea how to run that scenario, and told the players as much. I had some difficulty a couple of sessions ago when the party ran away from the Stygous birds, since S&W doesn't have clearly defined fleeing and disengaging rules, instead recommending the GM choose between several options or make their own, which I have neglected to do.

That sort of extreme scenario is ripe for GM fiat and rationalization. What is the bandit's reaction to seeing the reaper? How does this affect their modus operandi? Would they even launch an ambush under those circumstances? Is rolling a morale check called for? This is a scenario where good judgement and improvisation is needed, and as a fairly new GM who struggles with being too soft on players, it's not the best place to be in.

Though in my defense, the group has had some tremendous luck in the last few sessions avoiding death. The clearest examples were with the animate swords and the Stygous birds. If Longo hadn't won his initiative roll, he would have been outright skewered, and the party could have easily been one-shot by creatures who dealt 1d10 damage, but the dice were in their favor. I'll stop using my blog as a place to rag on myself for being too soft, and instead spend some time planning a proper gauntlet for the party to suffer through.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

OSR: How To Forget a God

A passage from Bryce's latest review stuck with me. He criticizes the hilariously named 'Tomb of Raven Darkmore', and goes on his usual spiel about lack of evocative detail.

A chapel to a forgotten god. A tomb with an alter(sic) to the same god. That’s the detail you get. Nothing special. All abstracted. Everything boring and generic, when it exists at all.

I will, for the millionth time, link to Joseph Manola's 'Conceptual Density'. Nine times out of ten when an RPG product is unsatisfying, you can reference that post and find something applicable. 

Here, it's the fact that a forgotten god can be cliche, generic and boring. To begin with, gods in fantasy are mysterious and powerful beings, and can be used to effectively communicate your themes, conflicts and world. The idea of a forgotten god, whatever that means, should immediately be evocative and surprising.

Instead, we're so saturated in Howard/Lovecraft clones that, like their close relatives The Unknowable Horrors Beyond Human Understanding, forgotten gods are just part and parcel of a dark-ish fantasy world. Find an unholy altar carved with incomprehensible runes and frescoes detailing a scene of torture and bloodshed, and the immediate reaction will be, 'oh, an altar to a forgotten god, is there anything worth looting?'

ArtStation - The evil altar of egypt, Minjeong Kim
Another day, another altar

Which is a shame, because the potential of the concept is immense, if you just detail it a bit.


It should be hard to lose track of something that big. There's a few ways I could think of that going down, and none of them merit a 'meh' response. Forgetting a god should be a big, traumatic deal. It's not guaranteed that anyone would know that there used to be a god where there is now a deity-shaped hole.

Here's a few ways I can think of treating forgotten gods, and how players can interact with them.

How To Forget a God

Belief Equals Power
This is an extension of the fairly well-known trope that deities feed on worship. As a result, a truly forgotten god would be starved, either dead or too weak to act on its own, in a state of hibernation. Once, long ago, their cult was put to the sword, and their worship banned. Some gods might not be totally forgotten, kept on life support by a cult numbering just tens, but they're usually not a threat in that state. If a god has been forgotten this way, there's little chance the party would ever know. That is, after all, the whole point of forgetting.

A God Imprisoned
Maybe they weren't forgotten per se, but locked away. Either their fellow deities united to imprison them beyond time and space, or an ancient ritual sealed them in a terrestrial vessel. You can do some fun stuff with reincarnation or MacGuffins in this case. An alternate take on this is the god captured as a trophy; if a deity physically dwells in a place, moving it elsewhere can turn the god into a political prisoner, weakened and on display for the glory of the conqueror. As usual, Arnold K treats this well.

ArtStation - "god prison" 30 min , Michał Biskup
Now THAT'S what I call evocative!

A False Deity
Perhaps as a variation on imprisonment, a god is impersonated by another being, whether another divine or a mortal. This other being steals their worship, draining the old god of their nourishment and empowering themselves. If this deception isn't discovered, then you don't end up with a 'forgotten' god as much as one who underwent a strange shift and is probably less competent/crueler/less cruel than they used to be. This has some decent interaction potential, what with a mantled usurper, return the true deity to power twist.

This god's name was struck from books, rituals burned, icons literally defaced. The god is still around, but nobody remembers how to invoke it. It may be weakened if it relied on worship, or it may be an angry and frustrated shadow of its former self. I think this is a very fruitful version of the trope, as there is direct evidence of a god once existing (broken statuary, crossed out names, etc), and the possibility of discovering its name and gaining a great deal of power through that is attractive. The area near its old temple is likely blasted and haunted by what remains of the deity, faceless, nameless and pathetic.


Image result for dagoth ur
We've been over this before, Dagoth, sit down.

If you want to kill a god, sometimes you gotta do it the hard way. This is likely the fault of the rest of the pantheon, and the dead god in question may or may not have deserved it. If evidence of this crime was well and truly erased, and the god can't return, the players won't be able to interact much with it, and that's boring. I'd prefer a FOUL MURDER setup where the true circumstances of the god's death are kept hidden.

On the other hand, it's possible that the god can come back from the dead. If so, one cult or another is definitely working on that. What a grand and intoxicating innocence!

All this talk of cultists and rituals has me thinking about how generic and lame most 'dark rituals' in RPGs are, for the same reason 'forgotten gods' are generic and lame, lack of thought and detail. I'll likely write about that next in this... series?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

How Jaquayed is Tomb of the Serpent Kings?

Now that I'm running Gabor 'Melan' Lux's Castle Xyntillan module, I've been giving more thought to level design, especially the process of creating complex loops The Alexandrian calls 'Jacquaying'. Melan created the diagrams we use to examine these kinds of design, and Castle Xyntillan is deliberately built around that philosophy.

Unfortunately, trying to make a Melan diagram out of CX is very challenging on account of all those loops, and jumping right into mapping the main level is inadvisable. So I got some practice with the diagrams on a much simpler, but well-known and easily available module, which I've also run before: Skerples' Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

The end result looked like this:

Tomb of the Serpent Kings: Is it Jaquayed enough?

I don't know what software The Alexandrian uses to make these all look nice, but this is what I could mock up.

My process is to first draw a line through the area I'm mapping. A line which I can draw without needing to lift my stylus or backtrack can be straightened out into a single, straight line. When rooms or corridors split, we end that line and make another perpendicular line.

The original map contains several staircases, but since the dungeon doesn't bend under itself and it can all be seen clearly from above, we can remove most of the stairs from the diagram without needing to worry.

Straightening out the lines, the flow of the map starts to look more familiar

Now that we have a sketch, we can straighten the lines and make it all look nice (as best as OneNote can), and we end up with our final diagram.

I'd say it's pretty well Jaquayed

We can now see that there's two major segments of the dungeon: the false and upper tombs, which are largely linear, and the lower tomb, which is where the dungeon gets Jaquayed; there are three major, obvious loops, plus a mini-loop in the warrens and three loops closed by secret passages. The loop in the warrens is a part of a larger loop, same with the overlapping loops in the priestly/tomb area. There's a secondary exit to the surface that the goblins use, but there's not much chance of a thorough party missing much.

TotSK buries its complexity deep (no pun intended), likely part of its choice to be a teaching dungeon. For new players, a relatively linear opening that gradually adds more branching paths before dropping them into the maze would be more approachable, and experienced players accustomed to more linear dungeons will feel at home before they get introduced to greater complexity.

In my completely unauthoritative opinion, TotSK is nicely Jaquayed for its size and stated purpose.

It's worth noting what Melan diagrams are good for. The'y're not maps. If you handed a party a Melan diagram of the dungeon they were in, it would probably confuse them more than anything. The diagram deliberately cuts out information like the number, size, shape, orientation and content of rooms, all the features that players interact with in moment-to-moment play, to highlight the major choices in space which sculpt the general experience of the dungeon, but which are invisible at any given moment.

These diagrams can tell you how players are likely to move around the dungeon at a glance, where the chokepoints are, where parties are likely to get lost, or feel overwhelmed by choices. For example, though it's far from the most complex part of the dungeon, the pool room in the upper tomb always gives players pause, because they come into a new room and suddenly see eight objects to interact with. In contrast, the much more complex lower dungeon is easier to approach because there's only a couple new paths at a time, though they're built to compound on each other and create loops.

Meanwhile, this is as far as I've gotten on mapping just one wing of CX.