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!


  1. Love it! Thanks so much for taking the time to record your thoughts. Very inspirational as my players prepare to enter the castle x.

  2. Can't wait for the next one. Will be very interested if you attempt a Black Company campaign. Quite possibly my favorite set of fantasy novels.

    Session reports are awesome. To take the pressure off of you, see if you can get your players to write them sometimes.

  3. Great! I am, and have been both entertained and impressed by the campaign. It proceeded in a different style and direction than ours, and that act of making it your own is an accomplishment in its own right - for both the GM and the players. Our campaign was more exploration-focused; it is a major feat that you added a much stronger social dimension than in the base text.

    I believe there is no overwhelming need to follow every piece of advice and procedure in this module, or any other module. The doors rule is actually a fairly interesting and fun aspect of the TRV 1974 OD&D experience - but it is something I only discovered after concluding our main playtest campaign. You live and learn. And I occasionally forget those morale rules myself.

    It has been an adventure, and certainly a pleasure! Thanks.

  4. Some unexpectedly lengthy thoughts on this, though since I did kind of request this campaign in the first place, out of a combination of curiosity about CX, the fact that I haven't been in a long-running old school game, and particularly wanted to scratch a megadungeon itch, I feel like I owe the campaign even more... grounding? perspective? marginalia? Also it helps me feel a bit better for not writing on my own blog.

    First of all, amazing job running this campaign, I feel like I lucked out with this LFG request. Your NPC acting is seriously so good, both character portrayal, and like, world-simulation from their POV. I tend take a more meta-level stance to conversations because I know it can be difficult, but I never felt like I couldn't be completely in character for NPC discussions. That aspect of GMing is a deficiency of mine, though, so perhaps I'm easily impressed.

    The procedural bits of dungeoncrawling started a little bit rough, but drastically improved over the campaign, so nice work there. It would have been cool to be able to do all our own mapping, but it did feel pretty impractical in terms of smoothly running the game; I think you taking over was for the best.

    I also really appreciate the session reports, I know its a bunch of work. And I really enjoyed hearing the bits in this post too.

    I thought the gameplay accommodations for the wedding session went really well, I really liked the occasional 1-2 session deviations from the dungeon crawling meat of the campaign, and breaking up the tone of the castle a bit.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed the meta-tone we fell into as a group... I'm sure there's a word for this, not cinematic exactly, but having a heavy dose of self-awareness at both the absurd and life-threatening bits while retaining the gravity of the situation in terms of what it meant for our PCs. The campaign (and I think the module) had a great mix of these, and the absurd was the right kind of absurd, which is impressive because it's impossible to pin down a definition of. I guess "not gonzo" is a good start.

  5. The Charon play was a great, classic OSR playstyle-generated story material, and I have Longo to thank for it, I'm not sure he was correctly credited in the session report. I was able ot get to a place where I could let go of the PC if I had to, and see what you whipped up for Idred beyond the Styx, and was genuinely curious to see what drinking the potion of revival there would do. But after he made the suggestion, I was like fuck it, sure, nothing left to lose, I'll cast Fear on Charon, the the Ferryman of Hades to whom I metaphysically owed my soul. And the way it played out was amazing.

    CX definitely seems to live up to the ideals and intent of modern megadungeon design, and be pretty functional to run. I had the worry that it hewed too closely to its content inspirations, and while I do think there were a few instances of maybe too-close character similarity such as the Beast (which on the other hand, I imagine helps run them, not that you needed it), I think a lot of the "spooky castle" tropes were very well handled and didn't feel played out or obvious. I also vaguely recall it being billed (perhaps by Melan himself) as a funhouse dungeon, but I don't think it is at all (but the definition can be debated in any case).

    Of course the design seemed great. The layout was a great mix of functional/practical such that we could make educated guesses about architecture, interspersed with weird and unusual locations that retained a great sense of exploratory unknown-dungeon mystery. I greatly enjoyed the spatial puzzling of narrowing down secret room locations via the map layout, as well as the location riddles and such. It would definitely have been cool to have the roofs mapped out for easier reference if we wanted to lean in to "boundary breaking".

    I'm also still a bit proud of immediately finding the wand behind Priscilla's portrait after handling the frankly terrifying tentacular mirror thing after it trapped us in that sideroom, particularly since we hadn't thought to look behind any of the many portraits we'd seen prior to that. It was straight old school dungeon design arithmetic - big threat with no apparent reward, might be hidden.

    That said, the wands we found had waaaay too many charges, to the extent that it began to trivialize many combat challenges. I held back on using them unless it was the obvious choice. I'm a huge proponent of the maybe new-ish philosophy of magic item design to make effects big and weird but very limited in quantity, broadening the toolset and seeding unique problem-solving opportunities, but not making it repeatable or exploitable.

    Anyhow, I'll raise a grayl to a great campaign, then throw a suspicious silver coin in!