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!




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!


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.


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. 

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.

Raymond the Mule, heroically sacrificed

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. 
  • 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.

Corby and Hilda, polymorphed into snails. They got better


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.

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

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Castle Xyntillan Session 33: Fear the Reaper

In the last session, the party jailbroke some witnesses, met a werewolf librarian, exorcised some ghosts, retrieved, and immediately lost, the Book of Valorous Deeds, claimed the Reliquary of Bygone Kings, and rested in a pocket of the Indoornesse. Will the party seek out yet more treasure in the halls of Xyntillan? Will they return to Claude and receive their reward? What mysterious illness* afflicts Longo? 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 horned helm. 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
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.

I'm not spoiling that. Read on

Charon's Scythe

The Game
  • The party exited the painting-portal to the Indoornesse, and found its appeal had disappeared. Still, they were not the type to leave a pocket dimension lying around, and assigned one of their hirelings to carry it with them. 
  • They journeyed to the royal hall and took the elevator down to the dungeon level. They wanted to explore the dungeon's waterways, and lacking a boat, they came up with a hare-brained scheme to get one.
  • Down in the dungeon was the Reaper's bell. Last time they rang it, the Grim Reaper came from the shores of death on a skiff. The party were confident in their abilities to drive off the spirit of death, or even destroy it, and so claim its vessel. 
  • Because that is a perfectly proportional way to get a boat.
  • They stood back and Idred commanded the shambling mound to ring the bell for them. If I recall correctly, one member of the party actually said:
"What's the worst that could happen?"

  • A figure paddled out of the fog towards them. But this was not a Reaper of the sort they had fought before. This one was taller, carried an brought an aura of cold into the cave, and nothing could be seen beneath its shawl. It carried a scythe, but it was carved from bone. 
  • The last creature to come through the fog and challenge the party was a lesser Reaper. This was Charon, Ferryman of Hades
  • He docked in front of the party and pointed an accusatory finger at Idred. It  had come for the one who had rung the bell, and was all too happy to finally get his hands on the wizard who had cheated death once too many. 
Idred: Well, actually it was the mound that rang the bell, not any of us. Take it!
Charon: Don't try those bullshit technicalities with me! I am the manager here!
  • The party begged and pleaded with Charon, trying to find some way to worm out of their predicament. Charon suggested they sacrifice one of their hirelings instead. There were no takers, and the party was unwilling to do so anyway. They offered to hunt down some Malevols and sacrifice them instead. Charon was unconvinced. 
  • The boatman grew tired of their dithering and threw the party a set of lots. If they could not decide, then Fortuna would choose for them. Longo attempted to rig the draw, but failed. So one by one, they drew the lots, and the lots chose...

  • Idred. Charon was practically salivating. He gave Idred a moment to remove any items he didn't want to take with him to the Shores of Death. The party slipped him their resurrection potion, hoping that drinking it while bodily on the other side would have a good effect. But Idred had a different plan in mind.
  • He placed one foot on Charon's skiff, and brought his Wand of Fear to bear on the ancient spirit.
  • A valiant last stand, but, alas. Creatures that old and powerful don't get that way by being easily pummeled by spells.
  • *rolls dice*
  • Aaaaaaaand he failed his Save.
  • Fuck.
  • Not only that, but Charon dropped what he was holding, which happened to be his scythe. The ancient boatman of Hades jumped backwards in fright, landing on the water and levitating just above the surface. His scythe fell and caught on the side of the skiff, and Longo rushed forward to grab it before it fell in the water. 
  • Charon ran over the water away from the party, yelling curses and swearing vengeance on Idred. As he ran away, he pulled a horn from beneath his cloak and blew it.
  • Back on the ground, a pair of specters rose from the earth, crowned and terrible to behold. They lunged for the party, but Corby managed to cow them and send them scurrying away. These were powerful spirits, however, immune to nonmagical weapons, and another successful turning was not guaranteed.

  • Boroth was torn about whether to wield the scythe. It was too large for Longo, Corby couldn't use bladed weapons, and Idred wasn't in the front row. He asked his telepathic blade, Scrupulous, if it would be alright, and it responded that it would. In fact, it was oddly titillated at the prospect of Boroth dual-wielding...
  • Having only a limited time before the Grim Reaper's boss and his minions returned to exact vengeance, the party decided that a boating expedition was not on the table anymore. 
  • Instead, they retreated to the tiny chapel just to the north, and Idred used the Scepter of the Merovings to seek out the Holy Grayl. Combined with their previous knowledge, they cut down their search space to just one room. 
  • They found a quartet of ghouls, the survivors from a previous dungeon expedition, picking the last scraps of meat off a corpse. Corby wasted no time in intimidating and commanding them to be on guard for the specters and to yell when they returned.
  • With the ghouls gone, they searched the room. Holding the Scepter aloft, Idred saw what should have been obvious: a door-shaped seam in the wall, under a fresco of the Crusades. The secret door opened with barely a push, and they entered the Grayl Chamber. 
  • A banner within read, "Your youngest and strongest will die by the sword." As the party went on in, Boroth and Corby barely dodged a huge blade, hidden in the wall. Further in, thy were confronted by frescoes of ancient saints. Some incautious words on Longo's part caused the fresco of a giant saint to hurl a boulder at him, dealing exactly enough damage to take him from full health to zero. 
  • The party extracted themselves and healed Longo, and found themselves in a domed chamber, lit by the glow of a thousand starlike gems, and a clear pool marked 'The waters of Renewal.'
  • After much hemming and hawing, Longo tested the pool. He thereafter immediately jumped in, and remarked that he felt immensely better.
Longo: Corby, I finally know what you mean about 'doing the right thing' and 'the love of your fellow man.'
Corby: I am not getting near that pool.
  • No amount of Longo's insistence could convince the (not at all suspicious!) cleric to jump in with him, and they explored the chambers further. There was a room filled with sarcophagi which creeped out Corby to no end, a room piled high with exotic treasures which the party elected not to take just yet, a room bearing a stone snail idol, and, finally, a simple golden cup atop a pedestal.

  • The party was immediately suspicious, and referred back to the Chanson of the Grayl. According to that poem, they would need a pair of items just to see and touch the Grayl. These they had, but this cup didn't disappear when those items were removed from its presence. Further, they supposedly needed a third item, either the Crown of Thorns worn by Runcius the Anti-Druid, or the Oils of Cleansing, which they don't know where to find, in order to 'break a shadowy fate of old.' This grail, they decided, must be a trapped decoy.
  • By that point, they had exhausted the available rooms. More than that, the specters must have returned already, but they had heard nothing from the ghouls. They realized that with the chamber sealed, they couldn't hear anything outside. Worse, Charon would have overcome his fear by now and come back.
  • Even worse, Boroth had a nasty surprise for the party. One of the castle's two remaining vampires, the one in the tombs just north of them, which had not moved in the entire time Boroth had his vampire sense, was now out and about. As if they weren't dealing with enough.
  • In a last attempt, Corby called on the Cherry Crow to search for magic nearby. In the room with the snail idol, he sensed the potent magic that permeated the chamber, but also a faint signature, nearly hidden. Following it, they discovered a secret door, and a tiny, cramped room. As they brought forth the Scepter, a golden cup appeared as if from thin air, and the presence of the Reliquary made it appear solid. There still remained a patina of filth covering the Grayl. 
  • Their victory was interrupted by the sound of cracking stone, as the snail idol burst out of its prison. The size of a lion, with ivory teeth and an iridescent shell, the Grayl Guardian stared down the party, prepared to attack.
  • The session ended there. The party is an arms' reach away from the greatest of all treasures, but they cannot yet claim it! They are faced with not only one, but two of the toughest monsters in the entirety of the castle, and whatever they do next, they must fight one of them. Might this truly be the end for our intrepid band of adventurers, who have survived all that the castle could throw at them and conquered it in turn? I do not know. What remains is in the hands of the players and the dice.
  • What I do know is that Melan will look upon what he has wrought. And he shall laugh. So don't miss the next (and very possibly final) installment of Castle Xyntillan!

Now that was an eventful session. Not all CX sessions are, many are a sequence of quirky and procedural dungeon exploration scenes, but sessions like these are really excellent. It also couldn't have happened without transparent rolls and a commitment to player freedom. The presence of Charon instead of a lesser reaper which the party would have swiftly overpowered? The whim of the dice. The fact that this entire sequence of events got set off by the party taking a ridiculous and roundabout route to finding a boat? A consequence of player decision which I could never have predicted. 

And then the last-ditch attempt to escape death actually working, against all odds. That doesn't happen when the enemy has legendary resistances. I could have said 'Charon is immune to fear' but that would have been ad hoc and boring. This is how the GM stays entertained. What glorious bathos!

I really don't know what will happen next. This party has evaded TPKs in the past, and they're not quite empty on resources, but they're being squeezed between two of the biggest threats in the dungeon. PC deaths are likely, and a TPK may be inbound. I rest sweetly knowing it is entirely due to the players' own choices. 

Final takeaway: Always use punny titles.

If you enjoyed this report, be sure to follow the blog and see posts as they come up. Until next time, have an excellent week!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Factions (or Lack Thereof) In Castle Xyntillan

An altogether embarrassing length of time ago, frequent commenter and fellow Castle Xyntillan GM kaeru said:

My first reaction to this was to think, "Wait, I do?"

My ego quickly reasserted control, and I got to figuring out what sort of wonderful things I was doing. 

[CX Players, Go No Further, Lest the Grayl Guardian Miraculously Roll Only Crits]

Castle Xyntillan is bursting to the seams with many things, but factions aren't one of them. There's the Malevol family, which is internally divided among numerous faults. There's several residents of the castle, such as Louis the Swine King, who seem to live there in spite of the family. Surprisingly, there's no explicit tension between the town and the castle itself. Townsfolk and foreign mercenaries try to plunder Xyntillan all the time, but the Malevols mostly take this as an amusing sport. 

Add to that the enormous size of the family, some sixty-odd unique NPCs of varying influence plus miscellaneous dungeon residents, and you have a great deal of difficulty in creating coherent factions.

So I don't.

When I started my campaign, I hadn't read so much as half of the book. I didn't have a strong handle on most NPCs either, such that it took me a few sessions to realize that the Beast and the Blind Beast are two different characters. Luckily, I didn't have to. The party was only beginning to explore the castle, and only a few NPCs get introduced each session, mostly by direct encounter rather than exposition.

The party assumed the castle was filled with centuries-old politicking beyond their ken. As a result, I was able to let the chips fall where they may and improvise plot and character as the campaign required.

This began with the very first wandering encounter. After a few hijinks in the gatehouse garden, the party wound up burning down the rose garden. A few turns later, still near the scene of the crime, the great doors of the castle opened, and they encountered Adelaide Malevol. She had a neutral reaction roll, but I wasn't going to play this as her being totally uninterested in the party. 

Instead, I had her blackmail the party with the knowledge that they burnt down the rose garden. It belonged to the Beast, the second most powerful member of the family. They didn't know who that was or what he could do. But Adelaide knew, and her threat indicated that the Beast ought to be feared, so the party took on that assumption. I also let Adelaide describe some other heavy-hitters in the castle hierarchy, namely, the Count and Countess, and Aristide the lich.

The effects were tangible. Several sessions later, when the Beast appeared as a random encounter, the party ran like hell at the description of his castle-shaking steps. To date they've encountered him only twice: once at the wedding, once in his court, and they've been careful not to anger him. 

The lich Aristide looms even larger in their minds. They've never encountered him. Everything they know about Aristide is known by implication, and that allows the party to fill in their own worst fears. 

And of course, the effects of Adelaide's request to the party set up the wedding 'arc' of the campaign, which culminated in the first sighting of several major NPCs that the party would either ally with or kill in recent sessions. 

Only in more recent sessions did I need to think more deeply about real factions within the castle, and that as a result of the party uncovering a conspiracy. They discovered the Last Will and Testament of the aforementioned lich, which made Claude, a friendly NPC that the party had grown to like, the true heir to the Count's throne.

This was a big deal which totally changed the direction of the campaign. I was also totally unprepared. I didn't realize this item existed until a few minutes before the party found it. So I improvised using what I knew. 

First, Aristide the lich is the most potent creature in the castle. But he's also totally divorced from day-to-day life. Claude is disliked by the family because he's a do-gooder. So if Aristide wanted Claude to take the throne, there would be powerful interested to prevent this, enabled by Aristide's lethargy. 

I then had to figure out who was in on the conspiracy, and how different NPCs would react. I decided that the Beast is loyal to Aristide, and so would not be in the know. Since Maltricia Malevol, the vampire Countess, had been built up for some time as the party's nemesis, I decided she should be at the head of the conspiracy. I figured her right-hand woman, Serpentina the Succubus, would be in on it as well. Of course, Serpentina just sold out the Countess and allied with the party when she saw the tables turning. Yay politics!

But what about the legion of miscellaneous NPCs and family members, especially the large ghost population? Which of them know, and which side would each take?

Don't know. Doesn't matter. The great majority of NPCs are bit players. If the party takes a shining to one, like James the ghost butler, they can be more involved, but there's plenty that the party just hasn't encountered. Until the party takes an interest in them or they become useful to the GM, their faction status doesn't matter. 

That's about as much advice as I can give on the subject. If you're going to start a campaign of your own, skim through the Rogues' Gallery. Pay attention to NPCs with 6 or more HD, those are the ones most likely to have influence on the game. The rest are bit players. Some NPCs have obvious relationships, such as servitude, marriage, enmity. Others you can improvise as the campaign requires. 

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to comment below and follow the blog! Until next time, have an excellent week, and I hope to see you all here soon (especially that one Swedish reader who's been binging the blog. I see you)