Saturday, August 29, 2020

Visualizing AD&D Combat Rounds: Inigo Montoya is Second Level

Like many, I have a special place in my heart for The Princess Bride. But most especially, for one of its early scenes, one of cinema's legendary combats; the duel between Inigo Montoya and the Westley.

I was rewatching the iconic scene when I realized: the fight is almost exactly three minutes long. If one were to slavishly map the events of the fight to the AD&D round system one would find-

Ahahahaha, I had you going there. No, this is not going to be one of those posts. Nor am I going to pull a Bill Seligman and insist I can decipher the 'level' of a fictional character created with no reference to tabletop games. Rather, I'm going to use this example (keeping in mind the Principle of Linear Mediums) to show how much you can do with a 1 minute round.

How The Princess Bride Built Film's Most Beloved Sword Fight | Vanity Fair

Ready? Go.

Round 1: The duel begins. The duelists take experimental swipes at each other before beginning in earnest. They test each other's knowledge of medieval fencing techniques and take the time to make some flips and quips; this is a gentleman's duel after all, not one conducted by desperate adventurers in a dark dungeon.

The fighting is tense, but Westley soon has the upper hand. He is cool as a cucumber too, plainly the more skilled of the two. He has Inigo on the ropes, pushing him back against the Cliffs of Insanity...

Round 2: Reversal! Inigo switches to his right hand, no longer handicapping himself. If one wanted to simulate this, he was incurring a penalty to his to-hit rolls. Now he seems to be winning against Westley, forcing his retreat up the steps, nearly slicing his head off and pinning him against the stones. He's just moments away from pushing Westley into the water, when...

Round 3: Reversal again! Westley was also handicapped earlier, and now fights with his full ability. The advantage from the first round is solidly regained. Inigo is on the run, gets disarmed twice, while Westley is pirouetting, pulling out one-liners and sticking ten-point landings. Finally, Inigo is exhausted, unable to get a hit in, and is disarmed for the third and final time. He falls to his knees, and begs Westley for a swift death.

Eagle eyed readers and viewers will notice I messed with the time here. The first round is almost exactly a minute, while the second is dramatically shorter and the third is dramatically longer. How can I justify this?!

I mean, I just said it. Drama. It's very effective in that regard. Translating into game terms, Westley took one 'hit', and Inigo looks like he took two. These hits aren't flesh wounds or stabs or blunt force, they're exhaustion, getting forced into disadvantageous footing, disarmament and hair ruffling.

This also feeds into a discussion of hit points. When Westley was pinned against the wall, that very well could have been the end of him. A less skilled, or strong, or hardy fighter wouldn't have been able to push Inigo off and flip the tables. If Inigo's 'hit' had reduced Westley to 0hp, there he goes. 

Likewise, Inigo doesn't suffer even a cut to his flesh during the fight, but by the end, he's clearly down to 0. He's tired by a long fight, longer than he's used to against a more skilled opponent. Between the exhaustion, the loss of his blade, and the hair ruffle, signaling that Westley could have killed him at will, it is plain he is not capable of fighting further. Falling to his knees and making a final request is as good a depiction of being at 0hp as any.

Of course, one could split up the fight in numerous other ways, with more definition, and action segments, etc. Again, that's not what I'm here for. I'm here to point out that, though it's by no means the One True Interpretation, this fight can absolutely be an example of how fights are described in your game. The great advantage of a heavily abstracted system is that, even a simple three-round fight between a low- and mid-level fighter can be an epic confrontation.

P.S. Inb4 a level ecologist insists that Inigo Montoya has to be at least 7th level to be the second best duelist in a kingdom with the population and demographic makeup of Florin.


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Story Fragment: An Orc's Luck

This story fragment is meant as an addendum to my Another Approach to Orcs post, giving an example of what I imagine an orc to be like. It's not the primary focus, but I think it comes through.


In the southeastern reaches of the continent, where the winds slough off the glaciers and carry storms of ice to shore, there is a mountain the locals call Ar Merosha. It draws up gently from the northern plains, smooth and deceptive in slope, for mile after mile, before culminating in a terrible, squat spire of naked stone. No peak in sight challenges it. Ar Merosha's ugly face cows them, and the people who dwell in stone-dug apartments sheltered by thick curtains and coats of cowhide, into submission.

Fantasy Mountain | Dawn of the Knight Blog

The plainspeople migrate to the mountain in spring and emigrate in autumn, like a steady tide splashing the rocks. The apartments are built to house many more than today inhabit the mountain, even at the summer solstice, many more people than live today in the plains beneath Ar Merosha. So they bring everything, their wealth, their animals, their reserves of grain and vegetables to the mountain each spring, and there is no shortage of room. There are stores for the grain and pens for the animals and retreats for the ascetics and great open caverns for the young men and women of the plains who dance raucously to the fiddle and wrestle under the noonday sun and marry each other where the mountain is blind to their joy, and there are new homes for them and their families too. There are aeries for the gold-breasted thrush, which follows the plainspeople in their migration and which they believe is lucky, and there are nooks for the pale-faced eagle, which does the same and is not. There are even wind-blasted caverns inhabited by the orcs, which the plainspeople are always careful to keep out but which make it inside nevertheless.

All these leave the mountain when the plains below turn golden and needles of ice coat the roads in the morning. They take with them the bounty and plenty of the solstice, and the stone apartments sit nearly empty again. Only a rare few remain, to guard the upper passes and conduct the rites of the winter solstice. It is a formality, they know. Nobody travels the upper passes, which lead only to Ar Merosha and so lead not only to a dishonorable death, but a stupid one; and few today believe that the rites are necessary. Whatever dwells about the mountain has no interest in descending from its perch, and knows it would not be welcome if it did.

These few gather all together on the night on the winter solstice, and stay up till sunrise, then sleep clear past lunchtime. Only a handful are needed to fill the old posts: one to guard the pass up, one to guard the way down, and some earnest and hardy folk to keep safe the elders. Only, this year would be different, and there were three reasons why.

The first was that Kimrah, who was to guard the upper pass, traded her sacred post to an orc, furnishing the foul creature with an old leg of mutton. She did this so that she could spend the night in the lower post with the eldest grandson of the old magus, who fascinated her. She was long in arm and strong, strong enough to wrestle the orc to the ground if need be, and skilled enough to pin it securely. And she was clever, otherwise she would not have taken so quickly to the magic which the magus' grandson had whispered to her, and with the bribe of mutton she cast a curse on the orc, so that if it abandoned the post it would lose every drop of luck it had jealously gathered. She made only one mistake; she had assumed the orc valued such a thing, or anything, which was invisible and intangible.

The second was that, in that year, the reavings of the wolf-riders to the north had been few and light. With so much peace and safety about the plains, almost nobody had stayed in the mountain. But a company of strangers had arrived, mercenaries who had made the long trek in the spring from faraway places to make a fortune fighting the wolf-riders and had been left disappointed. Between making the journey home in winter or making some profit by guarding the elders, they chose the latter option. Among them were a pair of campaigning veterans from the armies of rival nations, a devotee of a foreign god with enough good sense to shut his mouth, a learned scholar who politely interviewed the elders for a travelogue she was writing, and several shifty-seeming folk who stuck hard to the heels of their patrons and dreamed of returning to their boring lives in another land. 

The third reason was that the leaders of the adventuring company and the orc matched one another for ambition and avarice. The company had relieved from the bloody hands of a fellow treasure seeker a tablet which detailed an ancient treasure hidden in the heart of the mountain, and the defenses within. The orc had dared a winter jaunt up the mountain pass years ago, and found the outline of a great door cut into the cliffside. The two schemed, and ensured Kimrah would be away from her post that night. 

So at sunset on the solstice, when the elders settled within for the long night, the company ventured out with hooded lanterns. A blizzard rose up from the plains as they passed the upper post and joined the orc. Any of the plainspeople would have run screaming from the omens that night. The croak of a pale-faced eagle followed the company the whole way. The orc swore constantly, damning the pebble in its boot and its stomachache and its soiled underclothes. No local swore outdoors if they could avoid it, let alone in the direction of the mountain, lest their curses carry on the wind and awake the winged demons under the snow there. It did not care, and the company was too ignorant of the local customs to be alarmed. 

They trudged up the sleet-slicked passes in silence. It was necessary to focus oneself entirely on the task of putting one foot in front of the other, or else one would slip, and getting back up would require two more pairs of hands. If the pass had been exposed to the mountainside, they would all surely have fallen to the crags below.

The orc led them up and down the spidery network of mountain passes, and the company despaired of ever making it back down without its help. Then, as the blizzard grew fearsome and threatened to blow out their lights, the orc exclaimed aloud and pointed to the doorway. 

A sheer, flat wall of stone was recessed into the mountainside. There were no markings, no handle, no lock. Only a hairline-thin fracture was visible in the rough shape of a great door. The company, already fatigued and exasperated with the creature, turned on it, accusing it of bringing them up the mountain for nothing. The scholar quieted them all, and continued her examination in the roaring blizzard. Then she stepped back and gave the order to break the door down. One of the soldiers held up a great sledgehammer, and bolstered by the acolyte's spell, he struck the stone with mighty blows, drowning out the blizzard. With each strike, the hairline fracture widened, and soon came open entirely. The stone fell away, and the company stood below an arch, wide enough for an oxcart and tall enough for a giant to stoop beneath it.

The adventurers and their torches found shelter from the buffeting winds. A sense of relief flooded over them, momentarily safe from the storm and no longer having to look upon the ugly face of Ar Merosha. But their relief was mistaken; they stood in the heart of the mountain, and their luck was running out swiftly.


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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Another Approach to Orcs

Ah, the humble orc. The HD 1 fodder enemy par excellence. What to do with them?

I'll be honest. I have a mostly secondhand understanding of Tolkien. I read The Hobbit at a young age, but it never grabbed me. I've never watched the Lord of the Rings Movies, and I've had the Fellowship of the Ring audiobook sitting on my phone for over a year without making it to the Prancing Pony. So I have no strong image of what an orc 'is' from literature. 

ArtStation - Orcs, Nuare Studio
Very nice, but not what I'm looking for

My real touchstone for orcs is the Elder Scrolls series, which was itself inspired by someone's homebrew 2e game. In that series, orcs began as low-level enemies, and only in the third game, Morrowind, did they become a playable/NPC race. The Tamrielic orc is interesting, and gives the race a neat treatment, canonizing the 'corrupted elves' idea from Tolkien while adding some complexity to the story and making them viable characters. Still, it's not what I want in my games.

Being a relatively new GM, I've actually never had orcs in any of my games either (except for the bohemian orcs at the end of my Elder Scrolls GLOG playtest, which were only used as NPCs). 

Honestly, I have no personal attachment to orcs. Or goblins for that matter. No particular reason to use them if I were to make my own campaign world. So why am I even thinking about them?

Partly because James of the Grognardia blog (that is not dead which may eternal lie!) just wrote about them. I quote:

OD&D orcs are the kinds of nasty brutes you'd find cowed into service by an evil magician or dark knight or even a dragon, while AD&D orcs are a parallel human race, albeit an irredeemably evil one. That is, AD&D orcs have an existence apart from whom they serve, which makes it far easier to believe they have a unique society and culture of their own. OD&D, it seems to me, suggests that a race of ready-made minions akin to Maleficent's twisted goons from Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

These days, I find myself preferring monstrous monsters over more nuanced and naturalistic humanoids, so OD&D rings my bell far better than does AD&D.

Orc | The Lord of the Rings Animated Wiki | Fandom 

I also just came across this Tolkien quote, from a letter to Christopher during WW2:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction … only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.

Keeping in mind that Tolkien's conception of orcs and backstory for them was never canonically decided (I may not have read the books, but I've dug through more secondary material than I care to mention), this image speaks much more strongly to me than anything in The Hobbit, or the Forgotten Realms.

It's, dare I say it, fantastic. I picture ugly, tusked men hunkered in an Allied trench, packed side by side with ordinary humans, with savage warbeasts and bound demons, facing down a similar lineup on the other side of no-man's land. Rifle butts etched with crude Goblinish innuendo and pictures. 'Kilroy was here' graffiti marking a swath across Europe... that one's actually the same as in our world.

That's kind of the point. Stories of good vs evil, myths that orcs traditionally feature in, are an externalization of an internal struggle: ordinary people wrestle with their inner demons, and we tell stories about great warriors battling literal demons for inspiration. In the real world, it's rare to see a conflict with such a clear delineation of morality, and so the figure of the orc falls a bit flat. 

You can try to make the orc more complicated, as AD&D did, by introducing orc babies and the possibility of redemption, but then you cut against the original purpose of the orc. You can use them as an allegory for an external conflict, but there's not many places that it fits. Maybe you could do 'WW2 except the Nazis are orcs', but even then I can't imagine it being very good. I might just be remembering Bright and tarring everything with that brush, but that film has probably poisoned the well as far as 'complex orc characters' go for a decade or so.

Orc | Bright Wiki | Fandom
Pictured: a monstrosity and an abomination

What am I proposing as an alternative? 

Going back to James' quote, I like the mythic understanding of orcs and the OD&D approach to orcs as monsters rather than 'humanoids.' But I'm also grabbed by the image from Tolkien's letter. Orcs fighting side by side with humans. Not just evil humans either. Orcs representing the worst of humanity, the very cruelest, most flippant and wicked, while still being able to barely function in a civilization. 

Take the very worst person you know. In particular, those who are horrible while managing to avoid being cast out of society entirely. Now turn those qualities up to 11. That's an orc.

Orcs form stable social groups among themselves, adapting to the local human expectation. Are the local humans nomadic shepherds? Are they hunter-gatherers? Sedentary city-folk? Orcs who live in the area, or are coming into it, will imitate their social structures. 

Life among the orcs is a perversion of life among the local humans. Human vices are their norm, and human virtues are absent. Orcish bands living near humans will always be pushing the line on their behavior, then backing away once they've gone too far. Any human forced by necessity to live among the orcs will find it nightmarish - but just marginally better than roughing it out and trying to make it on their own. Cruel or not, organized groups are excellent force and survival multipliers. 

Obviously, no human village or city wants an orc encampment nearby. But it's not always worthwhile, or justifiable, to expend effort to drive them out. Orcs will always be just one more offense, one more scandal or disruption away from getting a pogrom. They may be ignorant, foolish and boorish creatures, but they're smart enough to know where that line is, and how to get close without crossing it.

Ralph Bakshi on | Ralph bakshi, Illustration artwork, Art

And sometimes, the people will need the orcs. Wartime comes and the baron's men are coming in to press new recruits. They'll never take an orc when they could take a human - they're stinky, bad for morale and barley follow orders - but will they take twelve orcs rather than ten men? Thirteen? In spite of their vices, they do make good fodder and shock troops.

All the more if there's an invasion. Orcs don't have much to plunder, usually. Those dungeon orcs with treasure are guarding someone else's stuff, and they're terrible with money. Bandits or invaders don't usually bother with them.

So, if there aren't any plucky adventurer types nearby to rescue you, how much will you offer the local orcs to help defend your town? 

It's obviously a bad idea. You know they'll push their luck, ask for outlandish sums of money or things you can't possibly give them. But are you willing to risk not getting their help at all? Worse, are you willing to bet that the invaders or bandits won't want to recruit them, or outbid you? Orcs will absolutely sell you out and switch sides if offered so much as an extra silver piece.

Orcs are the things you would obviously be much better off without; but they're here and you've got to deal with the fuckers somehow.

Orc | The Lord of the Rings Animated Wiki | Fandom

Nobody will blame you for putting a bounty on orc ears, though they may disagree that it's a good way to spend your money. It's also not unheard of for orcs to cut off each other's ears and offer them to unscrupulous adventurers to get the locals off their backs and split the reward. 

And, of course, there's the orcs in service to a dark magician or anti-cleric or chaotic warrior or somesuch. As soon as somebody with enough personal strength and coordination comes around offering a home if only they kill the pesky humans, they'll toady up to the new dark lord, at least as long as their chances look even. Sometimes this role is filled by an especially strong or unusually smart orc, but that's rarer. 

Yes, it's horrible whenever the new dark lord rises up and orcs come out of the woodwork to burn and pillage; but it's at least possible to buy them off or intimidate them. And if you can convince the local duke to march against this new foe, there's a strong chance there'll be an orcish battalion wearing his colors against their own.

Orcs. They're the worst. But you can't just ignore them, and one of these days you might just end up in a foxhole with an orc, or you might be wandering the mountain half starved when you see a fire in the distance and hear goblinish drinking songs on the wind. Now what?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 16: Let's Not go to Hades, 'Tis a Silly Place

In the last session, the party pressed deeper into the dungeons beneath Castle Xyntillan, got ambushed by a fake mummy, mapped the tombs and faced down a pack of ghouls. They discovered a hidden item of great interest, the Will of Aristide Malevol! What revelation is contained in the will? Will the party make it out of the dungeons unscathed? All this and more 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. 
Rodolfo, Heavy Footman, running from a warrant in town.
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Herman, Arbalist, escaped convict and former boar.
Emil, Lightbearer, strange obsession with some Malevols.
Karo, Arbalist.
Allan, Arbalist, claims to know a great secret, pursues a Malevol for past crimes.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.

Bruno, murdered by the unidentified fighter.

Wine barrel, 3000gp
Sack of platinum, 700gp
The Joyhammer (created)

The Game
  • The party stood over the two coffins, with a sack of gold and the Will. Idred immediately opened and read it. Then he cackled evilly and read it to the rest of the party.
  • The gist of the will: Aristide disowned the estranged current Count of Xantillon, Jean-Giscard Malevol, and bequeathed all the family lands, including the Castle, to Claude Malevol.
  • The party was understandably excited. They discussed leaving the Will in its hiding spot, or finding somewhere else to safeguard it in the castle, but settled on taking it with them.
  • They filled out their map of the tombs, finally opening the door leading to the odd clacking. Another crypt, this one inhabited by a swarm of bats, four gargoyles in the corners, and a pair of animated dentures hopping about atop the coffin.
Boroth: This is dangerous. I mean, there's danger everywhere we go, but here... the gargoyles could animate, and a vampire could burst out, and the teeth could bite us in the face, and the bats!
  • They left the crypt alone, and followed a new corridor with the telltale signs of ghoul tracks. They located one of the injured ghouls they fought earlier in a side-closet gnawing on old bones, and it went down with ease. The other stragglers were still missing, however.
Boroth: We did it, let's see what treasures it was hiding in its closet!
  • They returned to the fizzing, bubbling pool, and Idred blew his copper cornucopia into it. A gigantic pile of copper (all of 8gp) splashed in... to no effect.
Idred: Sometimes no effect is an effect.
  • They paid Herman extra to drink the fizzy water. He did so, and gained the powers of future prophecy! 
  • *Future* being the operative word, as he entered a trance in which he promised to deliver a prophecy at a later date.
  • They found another tomb, this one flooded with tepid water. It smelled like bouillon, and the party paid Herman extra again to drink it. It was disgusting, but appeared normal.
GM: Just checking Idred, you have 6hp?
Idred: Yeah.
GM: Interesting.
Corby: Things you don't want to hear the GM say!


  • They returned to the grotto from last session where they left the bell. Since they were, more or less, on their way out, they decided to test it. Boroth stepped forward and rang the bell. Out of the mist came a skiff, paddled by a tall, robed figure. It came to the shore and intoned: "Three coins for passage."
Boroth: Where to?
Reaper: The Shores of Death.
Boroth: Oh. Thanks, but we're not going that way.
Reaper: I have been summoned. I shall not leave without a passenger.
Boroth: ...
Reaper: ...
Boroth: Soooo, Herman?
Herman: Fuck you guys!
Reaper: Eenie, meenie, miney...
Boroth: I don't think we have a Moe!
  • The Reaper randomly selected the hireling Hubert as his target. The party closed ranks and retreated, fighting off the Reaper. Though it attacked Hubert, its scythe missed, and Hubert responded with a critical hit, and the party was able to defeat it!
  • It swiftly turned to dust, leaving only a lantern and a pouch containing 11 coins.
Corby: Wait, 11 coins? That's not a multiple of three! What's going on here?
  • They inspected the lantern, hoping for it to be something magical. It wasn't, but as they lit it, they saw another figure down the corridor from them: Leopold Malevol, the factor they had received their wedding invitation from.
Boroth: Aren't we looking for Malevols to kill?
Idred: I think we're good on that.
Corby: Extra credit never hurt anyone.
  • He stood at a distance, and demanded they hand 'it' over. The party played dumb, but Boroth read his mind and confirmed he was looking for the Will, which he was fairly certain the party had stolen. Then a pack of Rigormortises emerged from the doors behind the party, and Leopold pulled out a jar of Razzle-Dazzles. 
  • The party conferred, and Boroth took a scrap of parchment out from Idred's pack. He walked forward to make the 'exchange.' Leopold protested and told Boroth to leave the scroll on the ground, halfway between them. Boroth did so, and the party got ready to attack when Leopold realized the deception. As soon as he opened the parchment, combat was on!
  • Leopold threw the jar and commanded the zombies to attack. The party closed ranks and Boroth charged at Leopold. But before he could connect, a bolt flew out from the darkness behind Leopold and struck Boroth!
  • The party's front lines dealt with the Razzle-Dazzles while Corby turned the zombies and the arbalists focused fire on Leopold. He turned to run, but was hit with a Sleep spell, and fell to the ground!
  • All seemed to go well for the party. But as they watched the zombies run, they saw another figure standing over Leopold. A fighter wearing a closed Corinthian helm, rummaging through Leopold's pockets... as Leopold bled to death from a slash across the neck.
  • Still surrounded by Razzle-Dazzles, the party chose to stay still. The figure stole Leopold's ring and a pocket watch, and ran off, out of the lamplight.
WANTED: Has anyone seen this man?
  • The party stayed still, letting the Razzle-Dazzles lose interest and drift away. The Rigormortises returned before long, but the party played them off against the floating balls of light and escaped in the confusion. They regrouped in the root cellar, the same direction the masked fighter ran off.
  • The party was eager to get out of dodge, but still wanted to get the wine barrel they marked at the start of the expedition. In the wine cellar, they found a gross, overweight monk tasting the wine. Though taken aback by the party's appearance, he introduced himself as Reynard Malevol. The party made conversation, during which he was intolerably rude. 
  • In the end, the party left him, and retreated down the goat-hole to visit Bumble. They stayed with him in the Indoornesse (just outside the cave) for a couple hours, while Longo waited up top as a lookout. He saw a lumbering undead creature scare Reynard away, which left the room a while later, leaving a trail of lime dust and plaster in its wake.
  • With the cellar clear, the party carefully carried the barrel upstairs and out of the castle. They exited without issue.
  • On their way back, still in high spirits, the party saw deep tracks on the path, as if from a person in heavy armor running. When they returned to the wagon, they found Bruno's body, only a couple hours old.
  • They pieced together the events of the fight from the environment. A crossbow bolt embedded in a tree by Bruno's lookout spot, and one of his arrows in a tree in the direction of the castle. Disturbances on the topsoil from wrestling, blood spread over a large area. Bruno's blade was clean, and two horses were missing.
  • LaBeouf, the company cook, emerged from the underbrush when the party approached and confirmed their interpretation of events. A warrior in a Corinthian helm had attacked Bruno while LaBeouf was picking mushrooms nearby. Bruno had insulted the warrior, as if he knew him. Bruno had been killed in cold blood while the warrior stole Boroth and Idred's horses and galloped off.
  • The party buried Bruno and held a short ceremony. Labeouf made mushroom stew. As he laid the hireling's spirit to rest, Corby heard a single word, whispered in the wind: 
  • Traitor!
  • The party returned to Tours-en-Savoy, got a good price on the wine barrel, and settled back in. Corby had a busy couple days. While dealing with the loss of a hireling, he noticed a new, very impressive warhorse in the town stables, and found Father Brenard in a deeply unsettled mood. He also buckled down on a longtime project of his: turning the animated hammer the party captured many expeditions ago into a tool he could use.
  • At great expense in components and effort, he succeeded! The animated hammer was repurposed toward a Lawful end, and so became the first magic item to be forged in the campaign: The Joyhammer, a warhammer+1 with the special properties of a Dancing Sword.
  • And so this session and expedition ended. What will happen next? Will the party reveal the Will to Claude? Will they discover the identity of the masked warrior, Bruno's murderer? And why is the town priest so disturbed? All this and more in the next session of Castle Xyntillan!


Corby expressed a desire to 'convert' the hammer quite some time ago, perhaps as early as the first session, when they first encountered it. I decided a while back what its properties would be if Corby worked to transform it, and suggested the name 'The Joyhammer' when it was forged. The name was adopted, and I'm quite happy with the outcome.

In the course of this session, and many others, I've noted long moments of silence at the table. Due to the online and voice-based nature of the game, it's difficult to read the room in these situations. I've decided there's value in leaving some of those moments, since I don't know when the players are checking their inventory, or just thinking/strategizing, or leaving room for other players to talk or make suggestions, It's just one of the limitations of the medium.

The masked warrior is a character the party knows. In fact, they're intimately familiar. The party brainstormed the warrior's identity, wondering if it might be Claude. Unless I missed their saying so, it seems they suggested every possible suspect besides the actual person. They will be back.

Relatedly, that ring and watch they stole off Leopold? Those items had a total worth exceeding the party's haul from the entire expedition! The masked warrior has not only escaped, but they have escaped with a great deal of funding for their mysterious plans! Muahahahaha!


And no, I haven't gone crazy from figuring out how to embed GIFs into my blog posts. Now go away, I have to detail the villain's plots for next session.

Next Chapter: The Groomsmen and the Quest for the...

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 15: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

In the last session, the party continued to explore the dungeon level, discovered new enchanted treasures, withstood another ambush by Mandrake Malevol, and succeeded in capturing and interrogating the hunchback. They encountered the miniature domain of the King of Swine, and continue their journey in relatively safe territory. What remains to be discovered in the dungeons of Castle Xyntillan? Is the hunt for the party over? All this and more 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. 
Rodolfo, Heavy Footman, running from a warrant in town.
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Herman, Arbalist, escaped convict and former boar.
Emil, Lightbearer, strange obsession with some Malevols.
Karo, Arbalist.
Allan, Arbalist, claims to know a great secret, pursues a Malevol for past crimes.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.

Rodolfo (unconscious and resuscitated)

900gp cash
450gp sapphire (inside dead rat)
Bottle of Amontillado
Bone-carved wand (unidentified)
The Last Will and Testament of Aristide Malevol the Patrician

The Game
  • The session picked up where they left off last time, in the pigsty court of the King of Swine. They investigated a nearby room which the swine apparently had no interest in. It was clean, with plush carpeting, a well-made bed, a table set out with food and some odd features; a spiral painted on the ceiling, plus a painting of an eye being cut by a sword.
Longo: This place seems boring.
Idred: Boring can be good in a dungeon.
Longo: Anyone want to stand under the saber?
Boroth: Don't we have hirelings for that?
Longo: They have names, Boroth.
  • They retraced their steps back to the excavation, and check back in on the toy closet. They found a pair of lead soldier figurines, which Boroth pocketed for use in his Kriegspiel game.
  • Down an unexplored corridor, they located a pair of doors, with heavy locks and barred openings. They heard pacing and muttering past one, and the chittering of rodents past the other.
Idred: Any size of rodent is usual.
  • Investigating the chittering, they found a wide, domed chamber, filled with dozens of niches inhabited by corpses. Chains led down from a hole in the ceiling.
Idred: Guys, I think this is an oubliette.
  • Searching the corpses, they discovered several items of note, including a large sapphire which a rat had choked on, and a sack of gold.
  • Exploring further, they came across two great double doors, which rhythmic scratching and marching beyond. Boroth took a peek inside, and saw a convent of zombie nuns, dancing around a giant pillar.
Boroth: Nundead!

zombie nun | Zombie, Horror art, Halloween art
  • They left the nuns to their own devices, not willing to risk their numbers. Further ahead, they were stopped in their progress when a figure swathed in bandages and covered in jewels stumbled into their path. A Mummy! It demanded tribute, in gold or in people, let they feel the mummy's curse.
  • The party refused, and prepared for combat. In that moment, a trio of ninjas melted out of the shadows behind the party!
Corby: They have auditors!
  • They held off the attack from the back, with Corby suffering only a scratch from the ninja's blade and getting a neat scar. The Boroth and the arbalists held down the mummy before it could cast a spell using a wand. It turned out to be much weaker than anticipated. On closer inspection, it was revealed to not be a mummy at all, just a ghoul wearing bandages. They looted its bone-carved wand and the jewels on its body, and moved on.
  • The room they had been ambushed from was a sort of dressing room. A pair of outfits hung on hooks, though one was infested with fleas.
Idred: Can I Sleep the fleas?
  • A nearby statue depicted a priest in prayer. Idred took an interest in it, searching extensively for hidden switches or triggers, going as far as probing it with his dagger. A voice spoke inside his head, and he lost a point of Wisdom!
Idred: I though priests were supposed to grant wisdom!
  • A grille was set flush with a nearby wall, not unlike a confessional booth. The party pushed Longo to speak to it, and they got a response. It identified itself as Nancille, a hermit living a simple life of self-denial and isolation.
Longo: Corby, your kind of  guy here.
Corby: You take me for someone who's all about peace and love and self-denial?
  • The main tunnel they had been traveling down turned into a rough cavern, opening into an underground lake with mist pouring out from the north. Uncovering Idred's sunstone showed that the lake was quite small, though it connected to the larger grotto they had mapped previously.
  • A post and bell was set up on the shore, along with a sign that read: 'Three coins for passage.' The party debated its meaning, and settled on this being a passage to the underworld. They weren't prepared to risk it at the moment, but they made a note to come back and ring it later.
Charon's Boat - Josep Benlliure Gil | Painting, Art, Art painting

Boroth: How many Hit Dice is Hades?
Longo: Like, 2.
Boroth: Let's get 'im!
  • They located what appeared to be a small shrine, occupied with the statues of several saints, and nearby the source of the mist; a font and pool producing gold and silver bubbles.
  • Then the party came upon a gruesome sight. More than a half-dozen ghouls feeding from open caskets, which attacked swiftly.
  • The party formed ranks, and their entire front line were savaged by the ghouls. Boroth resisted their paralysis, but Hubert was struck stiff, and Rodolfo was brought down to 0hp. They depended on Corby to Turn the ghouls...
  • ... and Corby rolled minimum for his Turning, sending only two of the ghouls scattering.
  • The party defended the bodies of their downed hirelings, killing more of the ghouls until their morale broke and they ran. They took a moment to breathe and overcome the paralysis, and used the Xyntillan vintage they bought from Blobert to restore some health.
  • Advancing further into what appeared to be a tomb complex, they found a corpse sitting on a bier.
Corby: I'm not sure there's a culture for Turning etiquette.
  • They left it be, and listened at two other doors: at one they heard shoveling, at the other, a chattering, like teeth.
Longo: We should get some treasure-sniffing weasels.
GM: I'm sorry, is that a new sentence?
  • At the end of the hallway, they found a strange well, with an inscription encouraging them to throw something in. A coin elicited only a contemptuous statement from an echoing voice. Boroth decided to throw in the lead figurines. As soon as he let them go, they began to scream in tiny pitched voices as they fell into the depths. The well responded: 'Mirror, mirror, on the door, take thy chances, one in four.'
  • Unsatisfied with the well, they returned to the tombs and gambled on the shoveling sound. They encountered an animated shovel, transferring dirt from one hole into another, and back again. They Turned it using their hammer and sickle, and discovered a coffin in each hole. One made no sound, and they opened it to find it empty. The other was the source of a rattling sound.
  • They opened this one as well, revealing a squirming mass of bones!
  • Which the party swiftly annihilated with some very lucky attack and damage rolls. 
  • The fight broke the coffin, and revealed a sack of gold under a false bottom. This prompted the party to search the other coffin for a false bottom. 
  • They found one, but there was no gold there. Just a parchment scroll. They opened it up. The title read: 'The Last Will and Testament of Aristide Malevol, the Patrician.'
  • The session ended on that cliffhanger. What is contained within the will? How will this affect the campaign going forward? Find out in next week's session of Castle Xyntillan!

The encounter with the bone mass took place right at the end of the session as it was winding down. I figured the party would either locate the will and leave the bones alone, or find the bones and get ripped to shreds. Color me surprised when they annihilated the damn thing.

A great part of the party's success has been their hirelings, especially their arbalists. It turns out that a wall of light crossbow fire solves a great many problems.

Next Chapter: Let's Not Go to Hades, 'Tis a Silly Place

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 14: Machinations of the Malicious Mixer

In the last session, the party returned to Xyntillan, fortified and refreshed. They investigated more of the lower level, facing off against the Gristle Knight which had killed their companions so long ago, and caught glimpses of their newest foe, the hunchback Mandrake Malevol. They discovered Runcius Malevol's realm, a forested demiplane underneath Xyntillan, and had a polite conversation with a ghostly philosopher. Will Mandrake attack again? Why is the party being targeted? All this and more 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. 
Rodolfo, Heavy Footman, running from a warrant in town.
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Herman, Arbalist, escaped convict and former boar.
Emil, Lightbearer, strange obsession with some Malevols.
Karo, Arbalist.
Allan, Arbalist, claims to know a great secret, pursues a Malevol for past crimes.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
LaBeouf, Camp Cook.
Raymond, Mule.


Holy cross (magical, not fully identified)
Salamander amulet (not identified)
Flask of acid, 300gp
Miraculous Sundial
Very Large Truffle, 100gp

The Game
  • Picking back up in the excavation chamber, the animated objects still working, the party wondered what could be buried there, but didn't take up the pick and shovel themselves.
  • A closet off the the east was empty, except for a child's doll against the wall, but they could hear whispering from the outside. Opening and closing it several times, its contents seemed to change, becoming empty and later holding only a chess piece.
Longo: It's the Squirrel Guard!
Idred: Singular, or is that the name of an organization?
Longo: Either.
Boroth: Spike it, we don't want a Chucky situation here.
  • A nearby room was filled with junk, rotting wooden furniture riddled with woodworms. In an alcove, a devotional wooden figure of a saint, though disfigured beyond recognition, still held a shining silver cross.
Boroth: I don't trust these worms, they're sinners.
  • After much fretting over whether it would be right to take the crucifix, Corby walked across the room and took it, making a mental note to refurbish and reconsecrate this chamber in the future.
  • Off a side corridor, the party found steps leading even further down! These led to a dead end and the bas-relief of a cat's head. Brief experimentation yielded no results, but any time a character got close, the hairs on the back of their neck stood on end and they had the feeling something was right behind them.
Longo: This is scary guys, we could charge tickets and people can come get scared!
Boroth: I’m always scared! 
Idred: Weird room, let’s leave.

244 Best Gargoyles & Grotesques images in 2020 | Gargoyles, Gothic gargoyles,  Green man
Who can resist that face?
  • Further exploration led them back to another area of the dungeon, right where their map said it would be, the corridor of gargoyles. They went back to the gargoyle which they had heard breathing before, and conducted a brief conversation with it. It made them an offer: destroy the Blind Beast of Xyntillan, and it would tell them a valuable secret. The party weighed up the offer.
Longo: Hey, do you know any of the gargoyles on the roof of the castle?
Gargoyle: Do you assume all gargoyles know each other?
Longo: Yes.
  • Another room off the corridor was filled to the brim with sundials. Small, large, wood, metal, stone, simple, ornate, all of which told the time accurately. Further experimentation confirmed that, if left out of sight for a moment, they would shift to accommodate a new light source. The party selected a sundial to take with them for further inspection.
  • Shortly afterwards, they encountered a trio of strange skeletons. Inside their ribcages were glass containers filled with swirling gas. Here, the party got a pleasant surprise: when Corby tried to Turn them, he instead Destroyed the skeletons automatically! The cross they had looted improved the level of his turning! In the aftermath, they determined that the gas would explode if damaged too much.
  • Hot on the tails of those skeletons were several more, and accompanying them, three Stygous birds! The party had encountered such creatures in an early expedition and barely drove them off then.
  • The players holed themselves up in the sundial room as the Stygous sent the skeletons to smoke them out. The door was blown open in short order, and the party blocked off the entrance with oil and fire as they fired crossbows through the doorway, the skeletons falling to bolts and Turnings while the Stygous fell to blades and a Sleep spell. 
  • As the last of the murderous creatures fell, the party heard scurrying and swearing around the corner. Hopping over a sleeping Stygous, Corby turned around the corner and saw the hunched figure of Mandrake Malevol. Before he could escape, Corby launched a Hold Person spell. Mandrake failed his save, and toppled to the ground mid-run.
  • Catching up, executing the Stygous and assessing the damage, the party interrogated Mandrake.
Longo: Are you a dick?
Mandrake: No! No!
Longo: He's a lying dick.
  • They learned that he had been charged to kill them by Serpentina, who was under severe pressure from an enraged Maltricia after the wedding. The modified skeletons, the Gas Walkers, were his creation. The party had little interest in keeping him around, and wanted to move forward with Medard's quest. Mandrake's blood spilled on the floor of the dungeon.
  • This was, in fact, the first time in the campaign that the party had killed a sapient living being. They briefly considered using their potion of resurrection to bring him back and get more use of out him, but banished the thought.
Idred: That's like a get-out-of-murder-free card.
  • On Mandrake's person were a valuable vial of acid, a salamander amulet, and a venomously written letter, signed by Serpentina ordering the party's death. Enfolded within was a key, which would allow entry to Serpentina's chambers in the Lake Tower.
  • With their pursuer dead, the party debated what to do next. One option floated was to kill and loot Tristano, the four-armed skeleton they found in their first expedition, whom their new hireling has a bone to pick with.
Longo: But Tristano has four arms!
Idred: Everyone has forearms, what are you taking about?
  • They chose to finish their map of the nearby area, and check out the room filled with pigs they had avoided in the last expedition. They found a giant pigsty, with vegetation and fungi growing in the ground and walls, being eaten by nearly a dozen gigantic pigs. The pigs took note of the party and nudged them for food, but allowed them entry.
  • Inside, sitting atop a pile of coins and miscellaneous treasure, was a pig bedecked in finery and wearing a laurel crown.
more on: or on my instagram: | Tierillustration, Illustration ...

Corby: Talking to animals is a spell anyone can at least try!
  • This pig spoke to the party, and introduced itself a Louis, King of Swine, master of all he surveyed. The party engaged with him as politely as they were able, and made an exchange of gifts; the party received a Very Large Truffle for their trouble.
  • The session ended there, with the party planning to explore an adjacent room which Louis seemed dismissive of, but plans otherwise in the air. They still have plenty of resources, and without Mandrake dogging their step, they'll be able to move about more freely. What will they come across next? Find out in next week's session of Castle Xyntillan!


The party was ambushed by the Stygous and Mandrake's exploding skeletons from both ends of a corridor. Instead of trying to fight their way out, they willingly locked themselves in and used the chokepoint for defense. In retrospect, I see a few ways I could have run that encounter differently. Another learning experience.

With the wedding arc concluded, the party's current motivations seem mostly to be 'get loot' and 'adventure because this is game night.' Not bad motivations, but by having Mandrake ambush them, giving them a breadcrumb trail to follow to Serpentina, and possibly to Maltricia from there, I give a minor push and offer a pull that would allow the party to chase and take down the villains of the wedding arc, this time in a more permanent and enriching fashion.

That, plus another subplot hook I whipped up during my absence, which will materialize once the party returns to town and which will recontextualize their expeditions going forward. No spoilers yet!

Next Chapter: Where there's a Will, There's a Way

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Tale of Skinny Gustav

Chamrousse, that city of spires and bridges, is distinct among its neighbors for a peaceful and orderly sense in even its slums and back alleys. It was the only heathen city in my travels which approached the sense of safety I felt among brethren. 

This great orderliness, I was told by the proud citizens, could be traced to the zealous and efficacious application of the law by the local guard. I stood aghast that this alone could induce such orderliness, and drawing upon some rumors I had heard when planning out my journey, inquired further into the more exotic methods of the Chamrousse law enforcement. I was thrown out from multiple noble homes for these questions, and nearly fled the city in panic; but while hiding out in a drinking den of lowlives I encountered a man who had undergone these extreme practices, and learned the whole story from him.

 A common superstition among the Chamrousse underclass tells of ‘Skinny Gustav’, seemingly a local boogeyman used to keep children in line: but widespread rumors and the criminal underclass insist he is real. 

The superstition dates back some hundred and fifty years, and originates with Gustav Malevol, one of the ancient noble house which politically rules Chamrousse and the Xantillon region, and has a historically poor relationship with the heathen Church, on account of that fearsome tendency I have already detailed; their consistent inability to accept death. Gustav Malevol held the same office and power as his current descendant, Count Jean-Giscard, and was possessed of a special zeal in punishing criminals for even minor and petty violations of the law. So desirous of punishment was he that he often conducted interrogations himself, under shadowy and unsavory conditions, to extract confessions. This, according to my source, did not end with his death. 

Some time after the old Count was supposedly laid to rest, rumors spread of his spirit haunting the streets at night. These rumors were summarily quashed. But the city has long known that which only a few are willing to speak openly: Gustav Malevol yet conducts interrogations. 

In the account of my source, a repeat burglar and cutpurse, after continued refusal to confess to a charge of assassination (which he yet claims innocence of) he was thrown into a cell at the bottom of the Count’s dungeon, totally dark. Initially planning to stick it out, he soon became aware he was not alone in the room. His cellmate did neither move nor breathe, but seemed to slowly wake after several hours. Though it was too dark to make out details, he recalls a sense of a creature scrabbling towards him, the straining of a chain like a dog on a collar, and a powerful odor of rot. The creature’s arms reached out towards him, he felt, but were some distance away. 

After some minutes, the guards returned, and continued their interrogation. This time, with each unsatisfactory answer, they turned a mechanical device, and the chain on which the creature was restrained slackened, and he soon had to pin himself against the far wall to avoid its grasp. After some minutes, he could feel the shifting air from its swipes, and, utterly panicked, laid all the blame for the assassination on a peer of his who was then hiding in a friend’s basement. He was summarily let out of the cell, and in a split moment of good sight recalls a ghastly vision: a desiccated body, crouched and straining with all its might to reach him, its dead eyes shining with a hateful intelligence. 

He was released, and some days later the man he accused of the crime (whom he also claims was innocent) was found floating in the river, his body desiccated, decapitated and scorched by magefire.

- The Journeys of al-Ufizi, popular travelogue

Gustav Malevol: HD 3; AC 5[14]; Atk claw 1d4+level drain; Sav 14; Spec only hit by magic or silver, 1hp/round in sunlight; ML 10; AL C. 

Hp 11