Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Starting a Castle Xyntillan Campaign

I'm currently running a Castle Xyntillan campaign for some good folks on the OSR Discord. You can read my first session report here.

I've praised the module highly before, so some of you might be wondering: how might one run a Castle Xyntillan campaign?


Castle Xyntillan is a megadungeon adventure in the vein of Tegel Manor, a whimsical, dark fortress populated by a decadent undead noble family and their many servitors. There's just shy of 300 rooms altogether, plus a well-detailed town for the players to return to.

If you're still on the fence about buying or running it, it might be useful to know what kind of content one can find inside. Is there anything in the adventure that requires special tact, or a content warning for players?

I call this the Raiders test: if a kid has just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, would anything in here shock them?

Not really. There's the usual baseline of violence, ghosts, undead, undead, nasty traps and curses. If you're playing D&D or any action RPG, that's all background noise. There's also the OSR leaning towards body horror, but nothing extreme. It's a little edgier than the regular fare. The sexual themes are pretty mild as well. There's a succubus or two lounging naked, ready to seduce players, and there's a brothel in town. How far that goes is dependent on the table and GM.

Castle Fortifications in Dungeons and Dragons - Old School Role ...


Next, how do you run it? The structure and pedigree of CX lends itself to the dungeon-delve format. Each session is a single foray into the mad halls of the castle. Breach, explore, grab treasure, get out before you're overwhelmed. The information gained in each expedition allows better planning next time. Get back to town, where you sell treasure, get bandaged up, recruit more meat shields and carouse. That loop should be reinforced by starting the players off in town, at least for a short scene.

If you're doing a formal session 0 without the expectation of doing any adventuring, then you can drop the players into the town of Tours-en-Savoy as soon as their characters are drawn up. There they can do some shopping, hire some henchmen, and get to know the local NPCs. The shop and innkeepers, the religious and authority figures in town.

However, if you've drawn up the characters outside the table or plan to roll characters and adventure in the same session, it's best to do the hiring and shopping beforehand. Give the players the price list and the costs/risks of hiring henchmen from certain locations. Rolling for henchman quirks and morale can be done quickly at the table.

The Book

I recommend reading through the introduction, town and guidelines in the front of the book before everything else. Afterwards, a good skim of the castle would be in order. Of course, it's a gigantic dungeon, so if you're strapped for time, you can focus on the sections which your players are most likely to encounter early on: areas A, B, E, J, G, and possibly Q, although it's unlikely that the party will find themselves there too soon. Some of the regions the party can reach in the first session are very lethal, as you can see from the death-map on the inner cover.

Once you've gotten the game together, I recommend going back through those areas with a pen or pencil. The margins are large, so it's easy to make notes or changes for yourself. Also, look through the Rogues' Gallery in the back, as the relationships between various family members and certain locations carry a good bit of hidden meaning. I've included some of my own notes at the bottom.

Character Creation

CX is designed for characters of levels 1-6, maybe 7 on the high end. I would start characters on first level, but if you use the level 3 house rule, it won't break the game.

Standard character creation best practices apply, especially if you don't have a formal session 0. Let the players know about the structure of the game, the basic setting and what the characters will be doing. Everyone needs to come to the table with a motivation to enter a dangerous dungeon and escape with loot.

One thing I suggest, just because I really find it funny, is to give all the PCs funny hats. It's just a nice cherry on top of character creation that makes the PCs stand out a bit more. I use Blackrazor's B/X Headgear table here. One of the wizards in my game is running a full greathelm, and the players have decided it's because he's overcompensating for his low CON score.

I couldn't find clear hireling statblocks in the S&W rulebook. It lists costs for equipment and upkeep, but most of the players' time (especially in a low-level, dungeon exploration game like this one) is going to be spent interacting with torchbearers, porters and men-at-arms. Luckily, CX has a bit more definition on what different hirelings have, and we can gather a stat block based on the humans listed in the S&W monster list.

Non-combatants, anything from torchbearers to porters to hype-men, take a wage of 1gp each adventuring day, plus weekly rations and lodging costs. S&W lists men-at-arms as taking anywhere from 2 to more than 5gp a day depending on the circumstance, but CX splits them up with equipment, availability and cost. It also lists mounted riders, but I don't foresee using much of them in the dungeon.

In the S&W world, a 0-level human has a d6 hit die, while most monsters and tougher humans have a d8. I'll round down for them and round up for combatants. They all have a movement score of 12.

Porter: HP 3 AC 9 [10] ATK +0(1d4) SAV 18
club, 60lbs sacks

Lightbearer: HP 3 AC 9 [10] ATK +0(1d4) SAV 18
dgr, 30lbs sack, 3x torches, lamb, lamp oil

Light Footsoldier: HP 5 AC 6 [13] ATK +1(1d8)  SAV 17
wpn, shld, lthr, 30lbs sack

Heavy Footsoldier: HP 5 AC 4 [15] ATK +1(1d8) SAV 17
wpn, shld, ch, 30lbs sack

Bowman: HP 5 AC 7 [12] ATK +1(1d6)  SAV 17 
mace, bow, lthr, 30lbs sack

Crossbowman: HP 5 AC 5 [14] ATK +1(1d4+1) SAV 17
dgr, cb, ch, 30lbs sack

Henchmen and Hirelings in Dungeons and Dragons - Old School Role ...

Running the Game

Get in the Mood
You are about to transport your players to a labyrinthine Gothic castle in fantasy Switzerland. Put on some folk music, and pour yourself a glass of the closest thing to mulled wine you have on hand.

Starting the Game
You might give some thought as to how to start the campaign. Since CX is primarily about delving into a mysterious and deadly dungeon, starting at the drawbridge would be an obvious start. But I would offer a different option.

Start in a tavern. Yes, really.

BuT nICo! Starting is a tavern is so hackneyed and boring! Well maybe for you it is, but I've never started a game in a tavern before, so this is new territory for me. Also, it doesn't have to be hackneyed at all, and with the right flavor starting in a tavern can be an excellent start.

In this case, the party is in The Black Comedian tavern, the more reputable establishment the players are likely to frequent. If the party is of a shadier disposition, or they only hired cut-rate henchmen, you might put them in the shadier bar, The Tap. The party has just finished doing their shopping, henchman hiring and rumor-mongering (you already did that before the game itself started, right?) and are celebrating their last night in town before they head out for the castle.

Chances are that the party will want to explore the town and get to know it a bit. If you've done all your bookkeeping and shopping before the game starts, you can get to the good stuff right away. The party may want to explore the town and roleplay with the NPCs a bit, which would be bets done in the form of a flashback. On the other hand, if they want to jump right into the dungeon, you can just give them a quick overview of the town, then narrate past the two days of travel to Castle Xyntillan.

Some Further Notes

Under the S&W reaction system, family members will only be hostile less than half the time they are encountered, and may have a positive reaction to them about one in six times. When this happens, it's a good idea to know what these family members want out of the party in exchange for their help. They may be friendly or gruff, but, with very few exceptions, they are not good people, and none of them are very altruistic. They may offer to keep the party's activities secret (blackmail under a nicer name), cover for them or exchange secrets, but never without their own price.

Some good requests for them to make:

  • Interact with the NPCs in town on their behalf, likely secretly. Many of them cannot enter the town anymore, and none of them would be trusted by anyone there. Perhaps one of their toys has escaped there, or they want the PCs to spread good PR.
  • Help them with a specific request in the castle, such as Claudette wanting the PCs to help her find her ring, or Merton recruiting the party to catalog the architecture of a certain (very dangerous) wing.
  • They want to antagonize or even murder a rival family member. Many of them cannot be killed under normal circumstances, so such bounties are less trouble than they may seem. Alternately, one of the Malevol's enemies in the castle, such as the King of Swine, have gone too far and must be hunted down. 
  • A rival adventuring party has breached the castle, and they're substantially less likable than the PCs. They must be chased out. The party is welcome to anything they have looted. 

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