Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Campaign That Wasn't: Curse of the Wednesdays

Woof! Now that's what I call a hiatus. Rest assured, I've been active gaming (in particular, learning a new system) and don't intend to stop writing for the blog. Just need to work my way back in with a few short posts before diving into any systems or writing longform. 

I find true the maxim that if you need something done, ask a busy person to do it. Around last month I very suddenly became less busy, and my drive to write fell substantially as a result. So here's a story of what I did(n't get to do) in between. 

Over my little break, I unexpectedly dove into Legend of the 5 Rings RPG, a system and setting based on the collective card game of the same name. I ran my first session earlier this week after some ill-fated attempts to join a game, which resulted in playing a quarter of a session over two weeks. This is about that latter tale. Next post is about some system considerations and how that impacts player expectations. Right now, funny story. 

Just two blokes against the GM's world

The Curse of the Wednesdays

When I first got into L5R, I obviously wanted to find a game to try out the system. I had little luck. Most games were for the 5th edition, not the 4th I was interested in. Still, I applied for a 5th ed game promoted by a GM looking to upload the recordings online and build a career as a paid GM. 

And I got rejected, as the game was already full. Ah well. I put it behind me and looked elsewhere. 

Imagine my surprise when I got pinged a few days later asking if I still want to play. It turns out his group had unusual bad luck and, despite the large group he'd recruited for just this purpose, needed another player for this session to go forward. 

The game was in 3 hours, of course. Cue speed-reading the rulebook and making a character in a system I don't understand. 

When I arrive on their server, I get an inkling of what's going on. Seven players, besides me, had been gathered explicitly to offset the tendency of online randoms to flake, find schedule conflicts and disappear without warning. Nevertheless, one player suffered a sudden death in the family, the Lion player had work at the time, the Mantis had recently developed a kidney stone and was in and out of the doctor's office, and the remaining players either flaked, ghosted or were unavailable for miscellaneous reasons I can't recall. This would have been their second session, except that they had missed a few players the previous week and only had a session zero then. 

It was me (CRAB CLAN! BEST CLAN! CLACKETY CLACK!) and the Falcon player with the GM, waiting on the Mantis, who insisted that she would be present at a slightly delayed hour and the game could go forward. 

I found the Falcon to be good company, and the GM was largely quiet. Good thing as well, as we spent the next two hours waiting before it was called off and delayed to next week. We learned the next day that our Mantis had truly abysmal luck on her end, running out of cell battery at the same time that her PC decided to buckle down for a lengthy update. 

I tweaked several errors in my character waiting for next session, looking forward to actually playing. In the intervening days, a couple players I didn't know left the server. I spoke with the GM, and in one conversation he told me that he was looking at paid GMing because, after so many years of running the game, he was fatigued and it just wasn't enough to run without recompense. 

I really should have run at that point. 

The next Wednesday rolled around and it was me, the Falcon, and the Lion. The Mantis was once again unavailable. Still, 3 is a quorum and we got down to playing. 

Now, I don't want to come across as overly harsh here. I want to come across exactly as harsh as necessary. I've spent most of my RPG-playing career as a GM. I treasure moments to sit on the other side of the screen and play, especially when the GM is new and just spreading their wings for the first time. It has its own charm, and even GMs with very loose system knowledge can run solid sessions with enthusiasm and reasonable calls.

So I was surprised to find a GM, supposedly very experienced and looking to get paid for this, delivering an extremely low-energy exposition dump, at the end of which he simply fell silent. Only with further player prodding did he realize that he forgot to set the scene. So he set us in the middle of Winter Court, called for us to make Earth rolls to stay awake during the proceedings (we failed) and then had a major NPC break into the room and make a startling declaration. In the GM's own words, both the NPC and the news were "a big fucking deal."

The Lion player developed convenient connection issues early into the game and had to drop out, leaving just me and the Falcon. As soon as the second wave of exposition was over and our characters were awake, I finally got to investigate a bit. Literally, exactly as the GM was telling me what to roll, his voice sputtered out and he disconnected from his own server. 

The Falcon and I spent the next few minutes laughing our asses off and confirming that the other had experienced the same thing. He even pointed out to me a detail I'd missed, that the GM's repeated swearing in odd places, beyond killing the tone, also would have made it difficult to monetize the audio on Youtube. And lest I not stress this enough, this game was supposed to be a demo reel in support of getting paying players. 

When he reconnected, we learned that his entire neighborhood's wifi had gone out, and the session was delayed again to next week. 

I would like to say I left immediately, but it took the Falcon letting me know he was bailing to do the same myself. He ghosted, but I took the time to write a polite, but firm message to the GM explaining why I left and that I wouldn't advise GMing as a career for him. His only response was, "Well ok." I have no idea what rem

I subsequently invited the Falcon to join my regular server, opened a side-game there to introduce players there to L5R 4e, and had a fun first session that I expect will continue for the foreseeable future. It even took place on the same day and time as the old game, the cad that I am. 

Thus was the Curse of the Wednesdays broken. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

5e Adventure Review: Ship of the Damned

You know what this blog doesn't do? Reviews!

And fair enough that I don't write reviews. I have no taste! I've run, what, one reasonably long campaign, a few short, aborted campaigns, and some one-shots? And I've hardly read any modules or published adventures at all! Really, who would take my recommendations on this front seriously?

The realization struck me as I was halfway through writing this review that in such scenarios, recommendations and the qualifications to provide them are moot. The subject under discussion today is plainly of poor quality. Nobody would purchase it on my say-so. No, what the blog-reading audience wants is blood. The grasping, thirsting audience may only be sated by my ripping into a work and finding new, verbose ways to trash it. How else could Bryce maintain such a readership when the bulk of his reviews are of poor products? 

That must be it. He and I are of the blood, love and rhetoric school. We can praise a work by contrasting it to worse works it outshines, and we can muster up terrific rhetoric in the process of destroying others, and we can do all three, together or in sequence. But we can never do without the blood.


Ship of the Damned
By MonkeyDM
Art by Limithron
5e
6th level
A horrific terror on the high seas has been ravaging ports and settlements, leaving few survivors to tell the tale. Now its up to you to hunt down and take out Captain Catacomb, the feared Pirate Vampire behind it all.
This 11-page adventure bills itself as a Halloween one-shot, and describes the cursed ship of a vampire pirate, with a handful of combats and traps. I received it as a gift from one of my players, and figured that trying to ape Bryce's schtick would be a valuable exercise in blogging. 

Note that this is a Roll20 adventure. As in, I have to go into Roll20, start a new game, add it in, and then I can actually read the damn thing. Now, it is available as a free PDF (listed as "Free Vampirate Adventure") although you have to track it down on Reddit. But even that's not the whole story, as the free PDF is missing sections C and D! I shall limit myself (mostly) to commenting on and quoting from what is freely available. 

Underlines are mine, bold are in the original adventure. 

Where do we start? With a single, unevocative hook which mentions neither reward nor motivation! Of course! This wouldn't be a 5e adventure without that!

Okay, okay, but that's standard. What is there that might be unusual?

For one, several typographical errors on the first page (which as I read ahead, do not abate), and the insistence on listing multiple monsters with their singular name. Sometimes skills within parentheses are capitalized (as they should be, below) but usually aren't, and parenthetical asides are capitalized when they shouldn't be. Text that should be in quotes is presented plainly. The author visibly screws up the markup at one point. 

Some of this is fixed in the Roll20 version, but hardly all of it. If I looked at both side by side, might I notice unique errors in each?

I know that must sound intensely petty, but my stint as a copyeditor for my school paper trained me to see this shit, and ingrained in me good habits. In the process of trying to make my own adventure, I strove to remove every extraneous word. It taught me how hard adventure writing really is. And then … this. 
A successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check will reveal to the players that, half-translucent below then(sic) (In area B.1) are 3 ghostly pirate(sic), which seem oblivious to their presence if they didn't trigger the trap in area A.3.
Well, are they oblivious or not? There's a lot of seeming in this adventure, objects which seem to stare at you, rooms in which only death and decay seem to exist. Just as often, skill checks reveal things. It seems (aha! There it is!) to be a writing tic. 

There's off-putting parenthetical intrusions into the text, such as insisting that the poop deck is the historically accurate name, and offhandedly saying a lizardman NPC is cute. I haven't seen anything like it before (again, not much said there) and I don't like it, but could be passed off as an element of authorial voice, and I can conceive of a reader who would think, "Why yes, that lizardman is cute!" It's just not me. 

Here's some of the read-aloud.
"As you look around, the world seems to have fallen to silence, not a single soul is seen around you, the deck is completely empty. You see ropes, barrels, ladders and sails, but no one to man them. When you listen, only the murmur of the waves and the wind can be heard. Behind you is what you reckon to be the helm and captain's cabin, in front of you the bow of the deck but the way there seems covered by a thick green fog."
Not the longest I've ever seen by far, but it's befuddling. Doubt is inserted into what should be plainly visible features of the environment. More galling, it's a bad habit of narration I'm guilty of, and which I deliberately tried to cut down on in CX. Yet here it is enshrined in the read-aloud
If the players climb up there, the bat-dragon figurehead will look at them during their climb up. Once up there, one could swear that it winks.
What do you mean "if?" The players are already climbing or else I wouldn't be referencing that section of the text. Again, more seeming. It feels as though the author is embarrassed at including weird elements and tries to distance themselves, as though, when the party is assaulting the ghost ship of a vampirate captain, I want to leave them in any suspense about whether the masthead is animate. Of course it is! Why cheapen the moment with qualifications?
After the battle, as the chaos clears, the players find a small book, laying on the desk it's written in Common with really poor grammar.
A wonderful addition to the literary genre of "phrases which describe the work itself." And what boldness with which the frame after combat is forcefully shifted to exposition (pointless, natch)!
In the closet, fancy noble clothes can be found, as well as a more relaxed bed robe with little cute skulls embroidered on it, on the etiquette on the back is written To Captain Catacomb, from Mama, with love. 
In the latrines, well you'll find what you normally find in latrines, feel free to lengthen or shorten your description with that information.
That's a keyed room! No, actually, that's two keyed rooms on the map, listed under a single entry. Why separate them out? Why not merge them into the larger room they're a part of? More to the point, why is the Captain's Cabin split across multiple keys, some of which aren't separated by doors, while two subrooms, which are separated by doors, are crammed together while having separate keys? 

Why are the little skulls described as "cute" when that should be a conclusion the players come to, rather than being prescribed by the GM text? Why does that description violate the ordering of adjectives, a grammatical rule which every English speaker learns subconsciously? It's [quality] [size] [noun], not [size] [quality] [noun]. 

And why the latrine description? I'm not asking why about any aspect of it, or why it does something, but why of the thing itself. Is this a sick joke? It's self-consciously pointless text used to describe a latrine. Is this an Infinite Jest-esque prank at my expense? Will MonkeyDM's perverted genius become clear only with repeated readings?

Is this an ESL author? I suppose that would explain some of the errors, but hardly all of them, and it would double my recommendation to get a damn editor. At least get a native speaker to look it over. People will copyedit for free! Hell, I will copyedit for free. I've done it before. I'll make a pledge. If you read this post and contact me, whether via comment or Discord, to copyedit your work, I'll take you up, so long as it's not too long. 

[At this point in the writing process I took a chill pill and returned to the topic at hand]

In fact, there seems to be a deliberate effort to inflate the number of keyed rooms. When I first counted up the rooms by my typical method (skip to the end of each section, take the last room number and add them all together) I was quite impressed by the ratio of rooms to pages. Not so. 

Rooms B10-B20 are all under the same key! A central room and ten bedrooms adjacent, eight of which are occupied by sleeping monsters. There's nothing unique about any of them, no indication which monsters inhabit which, just numbers on a map!

Bryce has described similar phenomena in the past, but I didn't fully understand his meaning. The keying process is nigh-vestigial in places! The rooms have numbers, but in many cases the transitions between them aren't clearly demarcated, or there is no reason to key them separately! It's the structure of a keyed dungeon, applied blindly and purposelessly!
E.1. Dungeon
This are(sic) contains 1d4 commoners in various states on health. They are all suffer from 3 or 4 levels of exhaustion. Their cells can be unlocked with a DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, or using the key that Captain Catacomb has.
Thee or four levels of exhaustion? Could the author not make up his mind? Unless the commoners are getting into combat, there isn't a meaningful difference, so just pick one! The key that Captain Catacomb has? Why not "Captain Catacomb's key?" It's even alliterative! Does the 5e crowd simply lack the instinct to cut down on unnecessary words?

Only the vaguest possible attempt to describe the prisoners' state, and no effort at all in describing the dungeon of a vampire pirate. Are you shitting me? Of all the times to add exactly no flavor, you choose now?

Oh, and it just gets better, here's the read-aloud in the next room.
A literal sea of bones has formed from the countless corpses that Catacomb has desecrated over the years. This area is constituted of bloody femurs, broken skulls, shattered spines and more. Enough to constitute an anatomical course. On top of the massive pile of Bones stands Captain Catacomb, and next to him a large, bone white Umbral Skullbearer.
It goes on for another paragraph after that, initiating the final combat without so much as a villain monologue. Also, the captain's pet monster is described as an Umbral Skullbearer here, but as a Gleaming Skullbearer everywhere else, and Reddit assures me those are two monsters which fight very differently. 

A literal sea of bones? You know what, if there had been even a token environmental effect from fighting atop a pile of bones, I would accept that wholeheartedly. But no. Not even difficult terrain!

It just keeps going! The key cross-references to itself! The room text instructs the GM to congratulate the players for stopping the vile experiments of Ghostbeard. Ghostbeard! A name which appears nowhere else in the adventure, which I can only guess is another name for the vampire captain that got missed in editing. And the portrait of the vampire captain shows him clean-shaven!

The treasure? 2300gp, a rare magic item and a very rare magic item. Not only no flavor, but not even any particular items!

The ship's curse prevents characters from taking long rests, though the GM may "wave(sic) this restriction" if they wish. Is there any penalty for spamming short rests? Nope! There are no wanderers, or any indication that the monsters leave their respective closets. The captain just waits at the bottom of the ship, not doing anything in particular, and attacks immediately. There are no opportunities for negotiation (except for a trivial instance with some hags in the paid version). Imagine leading a mutiny of the undead crew against the captain that holds their souls captive. That would be cool! But no, you just go from room to room, slaying whatever is within until you reach the boss. 

Was this adventure playtested at all? There are no playtesters credited, but they usually aren't so that tells me nothing. Personally, I doubt it. If the author didn't even get a second pair of eyes to fix the spelling and grammar, I don't think anyone ran through this. 

Is there anything it does well? It makes use of inline statblocks (given this is 5e, they take up between a quarter and a half of the page, but still). It bolds skill checks, which makes it easier to skim. WOTC's own Rime of the Frostmaiden doesn't do that. 

And the art is … well, here it's nothing to write home about, but the artist's other work is filled with naval and island maps I quite like, and may use. 

Most of the adventure is available for free, so I guess that counts as a preview? Roll20 doesn't have that though. Actually, I don't think Roll20 has any kind of rating system. Yet this author's work is prominently displayed on the front page of the marketplace! Why? A cursory glance at the author's other work shows it to be of the same quality. 

Is this why Bryce is so cynical? If I keep down this path, will I too become cranky and turn off spellcheck on my blog?

You can read the free version here

Should I give this a rating? Given my general lack of perspective, I don't think it really makes sense. Eh, whatever.

DAH VURST!1!!!1!

Friday, February 26, 2021

Towards Seasonal Campaigns

[Epistemic Status: Speculative. I haven't tried out anything I'm writing below, though I intend to test it out soon.]

With the conclusion of my long-running Castle Xyntillan campaign, I allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief and take a break for a short while. I'm still running my Icewind Dale game, but that's compatible with a break.

Still, I know it won't be long before I'm back to running another campaign. I've got too many ideas on the brain. I'll make a post listing those soon enough, but before I commit to a new campaign, I need to think of my future schedule.

I started the CX campaign in April of 2020, a couple months after the breakout of the pandemic and my return home. I was starved for play, the summer stretched out before me and the end of lockdown was nowhere in sight. I didn't know how long the campaign would go, and didn't much mind.

Now, my schedule is a good deal more concrete. With multiple vaccines out, I hope to return to my old schedule later this year, and if I'm still playing TTRPGs at all then, I will be prioritizing in-person games. So whatever I start in the next month, I want it to conclude, not just fizzle, but properly conclude, before September. And even if it's good, I don't necessarily want to stick to the same campaign all that time. I might want some variety.

What sort of campaign could give me flexibility, the opportunity to conclude solidly, and do so in a set window of time? The seasonal campaign.




The Seasonal Campaign

This is a concept I picked up a little while ago, though I completely forget from where. It's not original to me! 

The seasonal campaign is modeled on the structure of serial television. You're only guaranteed the first season (so long as the pilot gets picked up). You could get cancelled for any number of reasons after that. So you've got to deliver a satisfying story in a set number of episodes, while leaving threads for a subsequent season to build on if you're fortunate enough to get renewed. 

The application to TTRPGs is clear. Set a duration of play; thirteen sessions, give or take one, seems right, it covers about three months real time, enough to get attached but doesn't overstay its welcome. The duration of a modern-day TV season. 

Make it clear from session 0 that this is the duration of the campaign. If the players and GM enjoy it, it can be renewed for another season. The most obvious way is to continue the same plot and setting with the same characters; but the new season offers other opportunities. Make your game an anthology, moving to another part of the setting, or a new plot, or switch out characters.

The benefits we outlined above; the short and concrete term of the campaign allows for campaigns to conclude more often and avoid fizzling out, set expectations for short-term play, and allow flexibility in switching between groups, setting, characters and even systems. 

What are the downsides? If you're running seasonal campaigns, switching periodically, you can't have the experience of building a single setting or campaign over the long term. I'm talking really long-term, like Rick Stump's campaigns with his kids which have been going for decades. If you take the seasonal path, then that sort of play is forever closed to you.

You'll probably have a hard time adapting campaign books to your purpose. Short modules are fine, but whole campaign books spill over multiple tiers and (due to Wizards) don't split their chapters in complementary ways.

Systems and Leveling

This, incidentally, touches on a point I forgot to include in my CX Post-Mortem. The expected speed of advancement between groups and systems. In modern 5e games, the expectations seems to be levelling once every few sessions (five or six on the upper bound, at least that's how I interpret the milestone leveling advice from the campaign books). In CX, the pace was dramatically less predictable. They leveled, on average, once every six or seven sessions, but at one point jumped one or two levels from a single discovery, and went for a while without leveling after that. It ended at level 6.

That unpredictability is key. Old-school games, especially those where gold-for-XP reins supreme, are bound to have uneven progression, if only on the micro-level. Plus, many old-school systems have characters level at different rates anyway!

In contrast, 5e usually focuses on XP-for-combat (which appears to me much less unpredictable) or milestone XP (you level when I tell you!). This lends itself very well to campaigns with predetermined plots (Icewind Dale uses it) but also to seasonal campaigns. 

But first, a caveat.

I'm not into the full 1-20 level progression, the upper tiers of play just seem ridiculous. But it strikes me that even if you go for all of it, the typical pace of leveling will lead to campaigns that can't possibly last more than a couple years, even if you stretch out the levels. Much less if leveling is faster, and less than that if the campaign doesn't go to level 20. I mean, my Icewind Dale campaign is supposed to go from 1-12 or 13, and I expect it will last roughly as long as my CX campaign, if not less

This is all assuming low mortality and a coherent group of characters from start to finish. Old-school games aren't limited to that, but 5e is very strongly influenced by that assumption.

My conclusion is that this sort of seasonal play is probably quite good for 5e and similar systems. Old-school systems and campaigns benefit from longer term play and less discrete divisions. 

This also dovetails nicely with the concept of tiers of play built into 5e's level system. No, I'm not talking about the tiers described in the DMG, which don't make very much sense in light of level progression. I'm talking about the AngryGM's tiered encounter design system. The tiers go as follows: Apprentice (1st and 2nd level), Journeyman (3rd to 5th level), Adventurer (6th to 8th level), Veteran (9th to 11th level), Champion (12th to 14th level), Heroic (15th to 17th level), and Legendary (18th level +).

Behold! The table upon which all my hopes rest!

The synergy between seasonal play and tiered play is the entire reason I got interested in the concept to begin with. Angry's Division of Tiers is structured such that the end of each tier coincides with a major jump in character power, as opposed to the WOTC Division, which starts each tier after the first with a power jump. 

Angry uses the tier system to build his encounters, targeting the center of the appropriate tier. So long as you're in the 3-5 tier, you'll be facing encounters tuned for level 4. At the start of the tier, you'll be struggling. Then, you'll start turning the tables. Finally, when characters get a massive power boost, they start tearing encounters apart, and feel like badasses. 

So you tie each tier of play to a season. At the start, the party is dealing with tough new threats. They're on the run, reacting instead of acting. Then they get their feet back under them, figure out what's going on, and finally get powerful enough to trounce the encounters which gave them a hard time a few sessions ago. They get the opportunity to test their new and improved abilities against threats they already have a frame of reference for, and get to feel dominant

The season ends, and if the game is renewed, the next season begins at the start of the next tier. On paper, they're even more powerful than where they ended, but they're now facing even greater threats than before, and the cycle begins anew.

I'm really, really tempted to test this theory out, not in the least because Angry's encounter-building table in the linked page is very easy to use, and without it I wouldn't be doing any 5e homebrew at all. It'll also be a palate cleanser, a short-term plot driven 5e campaign. Everything the miniature Alexis Smolensk on my shoulder despises. I'll probably do Age of Sail pirates. Do Apprentice Tier in the first few sessions, then Journeyman Tier with the rest. 

Avast me hearties!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Castle Xyntillan Megapost

Welcome! To

Castle Xyntillan: The Campaign: The Session Reports: The Megapost

With the conclusion of the campaign, I've compiled everything into one document for ease of reading. Enjoy!

Preparation



Epilogue/Analysis/Advice




Sessions























Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Castle Xyntillan: Epilogue and Post-Mortem

So it ends! My first real campaign, stretching nearly a year and comprising 36 near-weekly sessions. 36, incidentally, is half of 72, the kabbalistic number of completion and wholeness. So... we got halway there. If the campaign had lasted a little longer, I would also have accepted 40 sessions, the common biblical shorthand for 'a long time.'

I didn't include any Takeaways at the end of the last post, because I wanted to concentrate everything here.

Ask and ye shall receive!

Epilogue

These last two sessions, the last expedition, were shorter than usual. In the first, they finally acquired the Holy Grayl, having already destroyed the defenses protecting it, requiring only an artifact which they finally figured out where to find. I could have ended the campaign there. The party was immensely powerful, now had the greatest treasure in the castle, and had expressed no desire to defeat the Beast and Aristide, the only remaining enemies who posed a real threat. I decided that would be  bit anticlimactic, and I had already prepared for this eventuality by introducing Serpentina's control of the castle and the demons she brought with her.

I had also given Corby, the fallen cleric, an unholy artifact, effectively as a blank cheque to make use of later. So I maneuvered to ensure that Corby did an evil ritual, with the result that the party would be dropped temporarily into Hell, for a climactic escape to cap off the campaign. 

Their mastery of the castle made the escape much quicker and less deadly than I had anticipated. That might be the biggest compliment I can offer the adventure. Only in a dungeon this large, with such a long term of play and a gradual understanding of the structure, would it be possible for the GM to be surprised in this way. Hats off to Melan!

I feel that the campaign was at its best when it was absurd. If I tried to get into melodrama it usually bounced off the party, with the exception of Giacomo and Adelaide's relationship. And though they joked around a lot, the party took some things very seriously: namely, Aristide and the Beast, since I built them up as unassailable badasses from the start.

In the end, the campaign's death toll amounted to the following:

Fideaux (dog), slain by the Gristle Knight
Aymeric, slain by the Gristle Knight
Willemot, slain by the Gristle Knight
Regis, slain by the Gristle Knight
Bruno, treacherously slain by Rel/Ysabeau
Herman, slain by the arrow of Hubert the Huntsman
Clovis, pecked to death by a giant stuffed owl, accidentally reanimated by Corby, then eaten by a cyclops
Raymond (talking mule), heroically sacrificed itself to save the party from the marilith
Longo, 6th level halfling thief, struck by lightning after the campaign ended

I still can't believe Idred escaped Charon in such a manner. I expect that if I remember one story from the whole campaign, it will be that one. All for a boat.

Changes to the Adventure

The single largest change I made to the dungeon was in accommodating the wedding plot, which culminated in session 12. It all developed in a gradual and unexpected way. First, the party encountered Adelaide Malevol in their first session. Then she had a sudden mood change, and I quickly improvised a task for her to blackmail the party into doing, and settled on creating Giacomo and ordering the party to return him to her. This wound up resonating with their allegiance to the Cherry Crow. When they finally met Giacomo in Tours-en-Savoy, I had thought it over more, and decided that Giacomo would have his own (possibly ill-conceived) plot to screw over the Malevols with a wedding. 

I then had to figure out how to run such a session, and how to make Xyntillan work with that. I made it a sort of special event, where the typical dungeoneering rules were deemphasized, and the party instead got a chance to do some intrigue, got tricked by Maltricia and Serpentina's machinations, and won anyway. It was satisfying. Some parts of it may have been awkward and clumsy, but on the whole I'm happy with how it turned out.

At the end of the campaign I made some cosmetic changes to the dungeon to emphasize Serpentina's rule, and put some threatening demons in there where the party would see them. The short term of that expedition meant that the interactions with these changes were fewer, but that's fine.

What else? There was the Gristle Knight, which I'll mention in the following section. A couple enemies didn't have names, like Angela the succubus, so I named them and gave them some character. I made the mummy in the tower into Aurora Malevol, a sleeping beauty, sister to Adelaide and possible threat to the stability of the castle if released. If I run the castle again, I'll keep that element.

The invasion and occupation of Tours-en-Savoy was all me, and the dungeon underneath the prefecture was a small Dyson map. There's no information in the book about the town of Wolkmarstal which the party sheltered in, so I just made stuff up, little detail was actually needed in the end. 

Oh, and there was Raymond the Talking Mule. There's not too much to tell about that. When the party bought a mule, I decided it would be funny to roll quirks for it as if it was a regular hireling. Turns out, it was pursuing a vendetta against a resident of the castle. I never determined which one, nor did I have any idea how to implement this. When the campaign was at its end, I decided to crown a very serious session with a moment of absurdity, and so had the talking mule reveal itself immediately before sacrificing itself to save the party. Not quite a deus ex machina. 

GM Secrets and Screwups

The time has arrived! Let the hidden arcana be shown to all!

So, there's a few places where I just didn't keep up with bookkeeping and rolling as well as I should have. For one, locked doors. One in six doors in the main castle should have been locked, and twice as many in the dungeon! Yet, for the most part, this wasn't the case. I forgot the rule in the first few sessions, and felt weird about reintroducing it. I also wasn't sure how to implement it. Roll right when the party tries to open a door? Try to assign which doors are locked ahead of time? 

I eventually applied locked doors, but not all that consistently. In the later stages of the campaign, the party were no longer moving room by room, but traveling from one section of the castle to another, and I just wasn't willing to make them sketch out an exact path, then roll for every door in their way. 

Also, any commitment I had to letting the dice fall was broken in the first session with the very first random encounter.

The first time I rolled for a random encounter, I rolled Countess Maltricia Malevol, vampire. I took one look at that, and rerolled it. I wasn't going to throw a vampire at the party right at the start, not in the least because they were outdoors in the sun at the time. So they encountered Adelaide Malevol instead, which kicked off the whole wedding 'arc' which is probably my favorite part of the whole campaign.

That fight with the Gristle Knight in the armory, the one that left most of the party's hirelings dead or missing and nearly killed a couple players?

So, ummmm, that was kinda-sorta a screwup on my part. The animated armor was listed as HD 4+4, which at the time I thought applied to to-hot rolls as well. Sooooo it attacked as an 8HD creature. If not for that error, it likely would have been destroyed in that combat, though it likely would have taken at least a couple hirelings with it. I conferred with Melan after this happened, and realized my error, but he advised me to use that error and turn it into something cool. So I retconned that animated armor as a unique monster, and the next time the party encountered it, it was wearing the bones and ligaments of their fallen hirelings. Also, it had infrared vision. The party swiftly destroyed it, but it was cool nonetheless.

Maybe my biggest recurring screwup was with hirelings. For one, late in the campaign we ran into a snafu in that we couldn't figure out which hirelings were which. One that I thought had died was still in the party. This was my mistake in not doing good public bookkeeping. 

More generally, I wasn't sure when and how to impose morale checks. In instances like the death of Herman, I wasn't willing to roll morale in the midst of combat and after the fact didn't know how to play the hirelings. I generally described them as shaken, but didn't have them take actions to subvert the party or desert. The only time that happened was in the fight with the Gristle Knight, the closest the party ever got to a TPK.

In general, the hirelings faded into the background, especially as the campaign matured. I didn't have distinct characters for any of them. 

In future campaigns, I will make a point of creating a standard format for hirelings in the campaign document, so I can easily see who is whose, their morale score, and so each player can quickly roll morale for each. 

While it's not an explicit screwup per se, I get the definite feeling that the campaign lost flavor towards the end. Maybe it was my burnout, or the players acquiring lots of power, or maybe it had been going so long that I had forgotten the way I initially visualized everything.

Perhaps that's related to my taking fewer notes. In the early session reports, I reproduce detailed exchanges between players, mostly for comedic purposes. As the campaign wound on, I did much less of that, and found it harder to take detailed notes. Maybe I didn't need them? Certainly I couldn't remember funny quotes without writing them down, but I could more easily recall the general events of a session.

I still can't get over the fact that the party never even saw Aristide. There's a lot of characters the party never met, but the lich cast such a shadow over the campaign that never meeting him is a bit of a shame. Or maybe it's for the best, as he will be remembered as the shadowy threat the players were always too scared to face. Even now, diregrizzlybear has gotten the book and has shown the other players the maps and statblocks. The Beast's is a doozy.

Shrines and Saints

I started the campaign with a new development on the Shrines and Saints system, and three saints made specifically for the campaign. The party selected the Cherry Crow, which quite unpredictably was a major reason for the development of the wedding subplot.

However, I never used the other two saints, nor did I work the Cherry Crow into the world at all. I could have added some more flavor to the towns with the saints and their respective worshippers, but the party spent very little time in towns. 

It was modestly successful. The party really took to being worshippers of a saint like this, and the spell it granted them was useful, though they never sacrificed to get extra uses. Still, as the campaign matured the Cherry Crow became less and less of a consideration, until it appeared only once every few sessions as an offhanded remark.

I expect to be reworking the Saints and Shrines system sometime soon (say such six times swiftly) with lessons gained from using this in actual play. Also, I recall seeing someone else doing some really good work on that subject, and I believe I commented on that post, but can't remember! If you recall what that was, please comment below. I believe it related to regional deities and the conflicts between them.

Leftovers

Stuff from the last couple sessions that didn't see play, plus other plots that never came up:

The two statues outside the south entrance were replaced by statues of Maltricia and Giscard Malevol, the vampires (I intended for them to come alive and attack the party)

The cloaker, man-eating hat, and other accoutrements in the southern vestibule were going to form up into a single humanoid creature, which would come apart and be revealed as a collection of animated objects. Imma recycle that one for another campaign.

Rel/Ysabeau entered a pact with Angela the succubus, and if the party found and confronted them, he would have been dragged into Hell. In my headcanon, I assume as much happened in order to escape Claude's army. 

Adelaide and Giacomo... yeah I wasn't sure what to do about those. I toyed with making Giacomo an antagonist later on, maybe a rival for a certain treasure, but never went through with it. Later, after the party rescued Giacomo from imprisonment, he effectively dropped out of the campaign. 

Going Forward

When next I return to old-school play, maybe with S&W, maybe OSE, which I hear many good things about, I expect to run a campaign with a 'stable' of characters, so I'm less tempted to cut down on PC mortality. Get fully into the old-school mindset. I've been considering a Black Company-inspired campaign along those lines, though I should actually finish the book first. Stay tuned. 

I expect to return to Xyntillan with other parties in the future. Actually, I already have: I ran a session of 5e Hardcore Mode in the castle for a 5e party (most of the same people as the Icewind Dale campaign, which is ongoing, I just haven't been taking extensive notes). They slew some skeletons, met a friendly ghost, found the Gristle Knight in the armory and barely escaped with one downed party member, which they abandoned to be eaten by crows. Good times.

I do expect to make session reports of future campaigns, but I doubt they will be as detailed as these. These session reports take a good deal of time, even once I got a good system in place for them. 

What remains now? A Megapost. I will be going back through all the Castle Xyntillan posts, linking them up properly and placing them all into a single Megapost for ease of reference. Thus I will pay homage to my first great campaign, which I will look back on years from now, and be able to see exactly what happened. 

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So it ends! Whether you've been following this series since the beginning or just joined us now, thank you! Be sure to comment below and subscribe to the blog to see where we go from here. Until the next post, have an excellent week!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Castle Xyntillan Sessions 35 and 36: The End

In the last session, the party destroyed the guardian of the Holy Grayl, very nearly claimed the artefact for themselves, ran from the ferryman of the Styx and returned to their patron Claude. They took a long vacation while Claude took power in the realm and established them as a chartered company. Now, they return to Castle Xyntillan, seeking the Grayl once again. Will they locate the artefacts they need to claim the Grayl? What will they find waiting for them after so long away from the Castle? All this and more in the final sessions 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.
Francois, Light Footman, noticeably dogless.
Jorg, Promoted to Relic-Bearer
Yessica, Arbalist
Stanislas, light footman
Hilda, heavy footman
Kaleb, Arbalist with a nose for booze and a magic pipe
Eric, Light Footman and cart driver.
Oscar, Arbalist of unusual strength
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.

Casualties
Raymond the Mule, heroically sacrificed

Loot
The Grayl of Good and Bad Destiny

Session 35
  • After a timeskip and a well-deserved vacation, the party returned to Castle Xyntillan. This time, they were a chartered company, with Claude as their patron. And their objective was clearer than ever before. 
  • At the gates to Xyntillan, they met with Gilbert Malevol the Fox, better known as the bandit leader from session 5. He and his men were camping openly in front of the castle, and greeted the party warmly. After all, they were on the same side.
  • Claude had conscripted Gilbert and his men to become tax collectors; specifically, to collect 80% of the party's findings coming out of the castle. Ah, the joys of going legit. They bantered about, and Gilbert directed the party's attention to the castle gate.
  • Xyntillan's crumbling gatehouse, the party's go-to entrance to the castle in numerous expeditions, had been handsomely repaired. Above it hung a banner reading, 
Avernus University Class of 1286 Reunion
  • Further in, the party noted other repairs and improvements in the months they'd been away. Tristano's coffin had been replaced by a statue of him, the garden was cleaned up, the path was paved. And in front of the great doors, an envelope drew the party's attention. The letter within read, 
Follow the road, then head west. Happy hunting, and remember the Snark. 
-Serpentina
  • Sure enough, there were arrows and roadsigns painted on the walls and floors inside. The party took one look at those and went in the exact opposite direction. 
  • Their oh-so familiar castle was strange and new. The entrance hall to the south had been scrubbed of bat guano and re-painted in hellish scenes of torment. The party was moving under invisibility, and so chanced to see a woman, strong and cruel-eyed, storming out of the room they sought, putting her jewelry back on. Within that room, the furniture was broken and scattered, and sleeping in the broken remains of a dresser, a demon. A humanoid with the head of a vulture and great dark wings. It was snoring loudly, and the party snuck right past it, down the stairs into the dungeon. 
  • Down in the wine cellar, they found yet another demon, a humongous minotaur with skeletal wings, sleeping drunkenly among the debris of a dozen wine barrels. It too, the party snuck past. 
  • It had been clear to the party that they were missing a single piece of the puzzle, a single artifact needed to cleanse the Grayl. And in the intervening months, they had nothing but downtime to look over their maps and puzzle out its location.
  • Thus they made their way past the warring beet-people past the cave entrance to Hades, to the minor shrine they had sheltered in as recently as the last expedition. They pried up the flagstones, opened the trapdoor beneath, and dragged out the buried treasure. X indeed marked the spot.
  • Within, they found a gorgeous set of chain, a crusader's cloak, and an oil lamp. With this final artifact in hand, they journeyed into the Grayl Chamber. The Grayl was right where they had left it, and the Oil washed away the darkness that coated it. 


  • At last, the Grayl was in hand! Corby marveled at it, and drank some wine from it. We was joined by the party, and they subsequently decided to use the water from the nearby pool to baptize all their hirelings. If you have the Holy Grayl, you might as well use it.
  • When the ritual was done, the party breathed a sigh of relief. That was the moment everything went to hell.
  • From the moment he touched the Grayl, Corby had been performing a dark ritual, hiding it with the motions of the baptism. Then, he flipped the silver coin Father Chlodowig had given him, one of the thirty silver pieces of Judas Iscariot, into the Grayl.
  • The two opposing artefacts burned. The coin combusted and melted to slag, and the energy released was absorbed into the ritual. The party felt the ground beneath them tremble. They felt as though in freefall for a moment, before they came crashing down.
  • The party had no idea what just happened. Even Corby wasn't sure. The zombie crusaders ran out from their tombs, their flesh melting.
"What have you done!?"
  • Was all they could say before they were reduced to nothing.
  • Outside the Grayl Chamber, the party came face to face with Serpentina and her pet python. She cackled madly, and revealed what had just occurred.
  • Corby's ritual had sent Castle Xyntillan and its surroundings into Hell itself.


Session 36
  • Castle Xyntillan was going to Hell. The party could feel the ground trembling beneath their feet still. Serpentina was the very picture of calm. Castle Xyntillan would become the anchor for a new layer of Hell, a demonic fortress from which Serpentina herself would rule. The party tried to conspire in the midst of her gloating, but decided against taking her on now.
Longo: Her Boroth, didn't your sister always use to say, 'Shoot for the fences?'
Boroth: My sister was a mute.
  • Serpentina dismissed the party and instructed them to get the Grayl out of her castle Its presence was delaying the descent. She then stepped through a magical gate, out of sight.
Corby: Isn’t burying this den of villainy in Hell better for the world?
  • The party considered staying in the castle for the time being, at least until they got some phat loot. Stop 1 was the Grayl Chamber again. They had long since decided which items to take from the treasury. The horn of blasting, the magical warhammer, and the two books. They also stole the double-headed axe from the crusader's chamber and gave it to Francois. 
Longo has no self-control
  • Their exit path was blocked by a crowd of ghosts at the shore of the lake. They cried out, begging for coin. The party recognized several of the faces in the crowd. Medard the crusader, the pale ladies, a man bleeding from a hundred wounds, and James the butler. 
  • They asked James what this was. He explained it was an evacuation. The many ghosts and shades of Xyntillan taking their chances with judgement in Hades instead of Hell. Hell is not kind to ghosts.
  • Unfortunately, the psychopomps had spiked their prices due to sudden demand, up to thirty obols. The ghosts were begging the party for coins to assure their passage. 
  • The hirelings all threw their coinpurses to the crowd to distract them, and the party followed suit (except for Longo, careful to hide the jingling of his pockets).
  • But before they could leave, one thought struck the party. Hortensia, the youngest daughter of the Malevol family. She would still be in the castle. They desperately asked James where she might be found, and he directed them to the mossy chapel nearby. They filled his hands with coins, and bade him farewell.
James: I pray we find each other again in Asphodel, masters. 
  • Further south, in the wine cellar, they heard the sound of crushing bones. They once again saw the bull demon, now awake and wringing the blood-stained white-furred body of Bumble the satyr into a barrel to drink his blood. The party elected to take a different route out.
Idred: The Throne would be faster than the ham ladder!
  • The party consulted their map, and decided to take a more direct route. They blasted down a wall with the horn, and stepped into the mossy chapel, where Hortensia was hiding behind the altar. They explained the situation to her and led her out.
  • They marched past the domain of Louis the Swine King, where they saw his pigs were growing monstrous and red-eyed, and the hirelings covered Hortensia's ears as the King's yells turned to screams and his subjects tore him limb from limb.
  • Inside a room of hanging ham legs, they took a ladder up to the main floor, and blew out a pair of walls, leading right outside. The sky was choked with smoke, and the sun took on a red pallor. The castle was surrounded by towering cliffs, growing taller as the castle fell further into Hell. They dashed with Hortensia to the gate, and a shadow fell over the party.


  • The winged vulture demon from earlier had been attracted to the noise, and swooped down to attack! The party struck it out of the air with the horn, and fell on it with enchanted weapons of every sort. It lashed out with talons and claws, injuring Hortensia. The skirmish quickly turned against the demon, and it reached out to grab Hortensia, but she wriggled out of its grasp. Then it was over for the foul creature. 
  • The party ran out of the castle and towards the cliffs. At the top, Eric and Labeouef, their hirelings, and Raymond the mule, were on lookout for them. They yelled and waved their arms, then dropped a rope.
  • But before they could begin their climb, they heard a terrible scream. The cruel-eyed woman from before was chasing after them... but now she had six arms and the lower body of a serpent. 
  • They sent Longo and Hortensia up first, while Idred cast a Web spell on the demon. Against all odds, it succeeded, overcoming her magic resistance and sticking her to the ground. That gave the party the time they needed to climb up, but she cut her way out of the webs by the time they made it up. 
  • At the lip of a cliff looking into the newest level of Hell, with a fifth-category demon flying toward them, the party heard a new voice.
Raymond: Gentlemen. It's been an honor.
Corby: Did the mule just talk?!
  • Raymond the mule, now unhitched from the wagon, charged forward, and off the cliff. It smashed into the demon, and both tumbled to the ground below. 


  • The party grabbed what supplies they could from the wagon, and ran. Without the influence of the Grayl, the castle went into freefall, the ground nearby was swallowed up. Only a fiery pit remained.
  • Two days later, the party arrived, ragged and tired, in Tours-en-Savoy. In the coming days, they would deliver Hortensia to Claude. Only a handful of Malevols remained alive and in the material world. They never revealed their part in the mess, and all were sworn to silence as to their possession of the Grayl. 
  • In the tenth layer of Hell, there stood a new castle, beside a lake of flaming acid, ruled by a cruel succubus and her cronies. 
  • One day, perhaps, the Groomsmen will return to a life of adventure. Or a new party will take up their mantle. But for now, they rest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Castle Xyntillan Session 34: 'Twixt a Rock and a Hard Place

In the last session, the party confronted the ferryman of Hades, delved into the resting place of the Holy Grayl, and nearly claimed the treasure for themselves before being attacked by its guardian. All because, and I refuse to let this go, the party was looking for a boat. Now, they must get themselves out from between the Charybdis and Scylla of their inadvisable life choices. How will they deal with two of the most powerful creatures in the castle? Will they actually be able to claim the Grayl? And what lies ahead for the party? Read on 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.
Francois, Light Footman, noticeably dogless.
Jorg, Promoted to Relic-Bearer
Yessica, Arbalist
Stanislas, light footman
Hilda, heavy footman
Kaleb, Arbalist with a nose for booze and a magic pipe
Eric, Light Footman and cart driver.
Oscar, Arbalist of unusual strength
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.

Casualties
Corby and Hilda, polymorphed into snails. They got better

Loot
None

The Game
  • The party stood inches from the Holy Grayl. Its guardian, a lion-sized snail with an iridescent shell and ivory teeth, bore down on them. The party rushed in to do battle with the monster. 
  • In the very first round, it aimed a ray of energy at their hireling Hilda. She collapsed, disappeared, her armor and equipment falling to the floor. And from that pile crawled... a snail.
  • The same thing happened the very next round to Corby. All his equipment fell, including his horn, and he was reduced to the form of a snail.
  • Even with thee setbacks, the party was demolishing the guardian. multiple critical hits, plenty of high rolls, and the snail had some bad luck on its attacks. With the shambling mount getting multiple hits of its own, the snail was destroyed in the third round, with no casualties besides the victims of polymorph. 
  • The party then settled down. Idred memorized dispel magic, but failed to undo the polymorph on Corby. Boroth harvested the snail's shell to make into armor. The party elected to stay put and rest in the dungeon. It was clear that Charon could not enter, and likely didn't know where they were. 
  • For a few hours, this plan worked... until the chamber's guardians interrupted them. A squadron of undead knights filed in and evicted the party. None would cheapen the search for the Grayl by resting there. 
  • Thus, the party left, and was immediately found by Charon, who had been exploring the chamber just outside. The party engaged a fighting retreat, avoiding Charon's attacks and running once his specters arrived. They ran through the dungeon, up the stairs to the main floor, and magically sealed the door behind them. The ferryman of Hades cursed them as they ran from the castle, and the party hopped on their wagon and hoofed it back to Wolkmarstal. 
  • Back in safety, the party got to business. They had dinner with Claude and the count of Wolkmarstal, debriefed, but kept the business of the Holy Grayl to themselves. They turned in Maltricia's bone, and confirmed that Claude was now the legitimate ruler of Xyntillan and environs, though they did not hand over the Malevol relics.
  • The party also pretended not to have seen the Book of Valorous Deeds when talking to Brother Michel and Boroth contracted Wolkmarstal's master blacksmith to craft a suit of armor from the snail's shell. They also got some news: Claude was engaged. As part of his politicking, he had arranged a marriage with Lady Annabella des Tructore, a Milanese princess. The party attended his wedding, and were assured that the two would have a perfectly functional arranged marriage, in accordance with the Cherry Crow's precepts. The party even got their own rings from Claude, carved from the bone of Maltricia, signifying Claude's deep and everlasting debt to the party. 
  • When the party had concluded their business, we went into a little time skip.
  • With Claude's rule legitimated, the forces of Wolkmarstal invaded Tours-en-Savoy. The people had prepared for the army's arrival, and the occupying orcs were swiftly driven out of town into the wilderness. They were hunted down and slaughtered. Rel's lieutenants were captured, but Rel himself vanished without a trace. 
  • Claude gathered the local soldiers to his army, strengthening his position and riding a wave of popular support. They reached the gates of Chamrousse, the seat of county power, but the old count had fled to fantasy Bavaria several days before. The local hierarchy was left in chaos. Claude executed a few remaining loyalists and the Bishop of Chamrousse announced that his rulership was in accordance with the laws of man and God. Claude Malevol took the throne, and after a well-deserved vacation, the party began to plan their next expedition to Castle Xyntillan.
  • Change is coming to the campaign. The party is now under the direct patronage of a powerful noble. That means they're going to be taxed out the ass, even with Claude's blessing. The castle is under new management, with Serpentina taking Maltricia's role as top schemer. And the ultimate treasure is ready to be plucked from the dungeon, just as soon as the party acquires one of two Malevol heirlooms. 
  • Change is coming. This campaign is not yet over.
Takeaways

I was worried about a TPK when I wrote the last session report. Oh, ye of little faith. The party dished out almost thirty points of damage in the first round. Granted, that was with some luckily to-hit rolls, Boroth's new swanky scythe and the shambling mound, but none of that's going away anytime soon. I have to recalibrate my expectations for what the party can and can't take on.

This session was dramatically shorter than most. Beating the snail and escaping from Charon didn't take too long, and the denouement was just explaining all the stuff in the timeskip.

I was worried about how to continue the campaign from here without a complete anticlimax. Once the party gets the Grayl, everything else seems like mopping up side quests by comparison. But I have a plan. A dastardly plan. Melan already knows. I'm not sure I can pull it off, but it will certainly be interesting.  

Next Chapter: The End