Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, Session 20.

The adventurers find the Tomb of barbarian-prince Thorin Zuse, encounter traps, and due to good rolls on their part and poor rolls on my part, successfully march through room-upon-room slaying stirges and goblins in their path!

Game Diary:
Last session the group defended two centaurs from a pack of wolves. After defeating them the female centaur gave birth and other centaurs and satyrs entered the sacred site and drums and pan pipes filled the night with music and dancing in celebration. The next morning the group awoke weary from the festivities and headed north where they thought the Tomb of Thorin Zuse might be.

The barbarians and druid in the party came across trapped animals. The druid used his empathy with animals to learn what had set these traps and learned from the empathic exchange that goblins had been hunting them. The dwarves perked up (goblins are a corruption of the dwarves in my world). Searching further they discovered an opening into the earth shrouded by bushes and brambles. Brushing it aside they saw a shattered stone door and two pillars on either side with engravings indicating that a great man was buried within and that orcs should not enter (Thorin Zuse was a barbarian prince who lived 500 years ago during the Orc Wars who allegedly fought off 2,000 orcs before succumbing to his wounds, he was buried in a hidden tomb so that future orcs could not desecrate it). Lighting torches they descended the steps.

The first three rooms of the Tomb of barbarian warrior-prince Thorin Zuse.

Entering a room empty except for four pillars in the corners (1), the rogue Anne (elven rogue) examined the perimeter as Rok (half-orc fighter) stepped into the center of the room. Rok triggered a pit trap and fell 20 feet into the earth where three dead goblins lay. While he was getting hauled back up, Anne noticed a 1 foot diameter hole in the ceiling with the sound of bat-like wings fluttering inside. Most characters braced themselves and held their attacks, but Sir Sandwyche (paladin) and Gwar (half-orc barbarian) threw oil up into the hole followed by a lit torch. I had the player roll damage just as the creatures were emerging, he rolled a 6 which was the maximum hit points for these creatures – stirges – and the four that were about to come out and attack fell from the hole above charred and dead!

Entering the southern corridor from room 1 Sir Sandwyche and Gwar could hear the clanging of shields, indicating that there were goblins in room 2 below setting up a shield wall (the goblins had heard the pit trap go off above and the dying of the stirges by fire). Descending the stairs towards room 2, Malcolm (Wizard/Bard) cast sleep and immediately heard the banging sounds of soldiers in a shield wall falling to the side like dominoes. The group descended and dealt with the sleeping goblins swiftly.

Anne went to examine the corridor leading out of room 2 toward 3 and failed to notice a scythe trap that sprung out from the side of the wall cutting her and then sliding back in and re-setting. Characters pounded some iron spikes into the walls to block the scythe from springing out again and moved ahead.

Entering room three they saw a room 30 x 50 foot with four pillars in each corner (just like room 1), with the only difference being a coffin in the southern portion of the room. Characters entered and goblins with crossbows peaked out from behind each of the four corner pillars and attacked them with their ranged weapons. My rolls were bad and my surprise round was a disappointment (for me!). With initiative rolled the players broke up to address each of the four goblins. Since there were 7 players in my group this session with a total of 10 characters and 1 NPC, there were plenty of options for clusters of 2-3 characters to attempt to flank the goblin behind each pillar from either side (although the goblins were still got between 1/4 to 1/2 cover AC bonuses from their positioning). I continued to mostly miss with my goblin attacks and the players mostly hit, and one-by-one the goblins fell, with only one managing to remain alive long enough get a couple wounds in.

With time now available to examine the room, they learned that the goblins had turned the coffin into their toilet, using the bones of the barbarian who had been buried here 500 years ago as a toilet seat. Disgusted by this they looked behind the coffin on the south wall and saw a 3 foot by 4 foot circular opening that could activate a secret door opening deeper into the tomb. Both rogues failed to find a way to open it, so Magnus (gnome druid) and Juhraveal (half-elf rogue) carefully slid through to the other side to find a way to open the larger secret door from the other side. Juhraveal found the mechanism and began activating it, but Magnus found four goblins ascending a stairway to attack them from behind. These goblins could apparently attack (my dice finally co-operated) and Magnus had three goblins attacking and hitting him and one got to Juhraveal just as she managed to trigger the opening of the secret door to allow her companions to enter.

Her companions came charging in and a couple goblins went down, but Rok was a bit too excited by the combat and when he rolled a critical fail of 1, the critical fail die that was then rolled said he hit an ally, and upon striking Magnus, knocked him aside to the stone floor with his damage roll unconscious at -5 hit points (-7 is when you begin bleeding out each round and die at -10). More goblins began ascending the stairs from rooms 4 and 5 below, but the characters got their successful die rolls back and I didn’t, and the goblins were struck down and the worst injured adventurers were given good berries and heals. The group now descended into room 4 (a food preparation room) and room 5 (a room where the goblins had shattered barbarian statues and used the fragments to bury a couple of their dead).

Our session had now reached its end. In two weeks the group will descend further into the earth – how many more goblins are there? What barbarian remains will they find in the deepest levels of this tomb?

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 53.

Owlbear Rodeo VTT continues to enhance my game. The two full moons of Lunacy empowers lycanthropes: two players become werewolves and one of them dies in the intense battle. I reflect again on character death.

Owlbear Rodeo VTT with a mixture of their tokens placed upon a white board photo I had taken over a year ago.

VTT Thoughts – Owlbear Rodeo:
First, I want to bring up Owlbear Rodeo. I brought it in to my Saturday Dragonclaw Barony campaign at the end of January to help the players of that group wander through the simplified Basic Fantasy floor plan I was using. It worked well and it was nice to see the players interact with it while still relying on Theatre of Mind for most things. For my Barrowmaze group last night it was time for a different application. They were returning to an outpost called East Tan (the East Tannery), where they were going to help defend it from Lycanthropes that are enhanced and go on a rampage during the two full moons of Lunacy. I had drawn up a map of East Tan on a large white board in the summer of 2019 for the players who game at my home. But due to the pandemic we are all gaming virtually. How was I going to provide them with that white board picture and maintain that interaction like we have in person? Luckily, I have a habit of taking pictures of things I draw on the white board for future reference (it is a leftover habit from when I was a philosophy professor and wanted to keep the logic formulas I wrote on the whiteboards in my classrooms in case I needed to refer to them after class if students had questions). In this case nearly 1.5 years later, I just uploaded the picture into Owlbear Rodeo right before the session and threw some tokens on it to represent some wagons (they are the large gear symbols you see in the picture above). The players then added tokens for themselves, and the red circles represented bear traps they set and attempting to hide to capture or kill any lycanthropes that would dare to attack them, It worked really well! And as you can see, the red dots and the letters on the buildings done in this VTT look like they were the original markings I made on my whiteboard in the summer of 2019! The scale isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t matter to me in this instance since the placement of the tokens is simply to provide a point of reference, for details we verbally discuss actions, and this allows a flexible and adjustable interpretation of the situation which I prefer. I love the broad and simple application of this software.

Game Diary:
The players knew Lunacy was approaching. The Army of the Light are now becoming very well known in the Duchy of Aerik. The outpost of East Tan, which had been been liberated from a kobold infestation two years ago, requested the now much more powerful group to return and defend them, for they had heard that lycanthropes might be preparing to attack them during lunacy. The group was excited. The players spent 90 minutes purchasing supplies (they already had a “war wagon” with crossbow turrets, and now they purchased another wagon to block off another area of road. They silvered over 170 arrows, and bought dozens of bear traps (which they also silvered). They had a month in game time to prepare, and prepare they did!

90 minutes may seem like a lot of time to prep, but Lunacy game sessions are always high intensity adventures in my campaign. It was pointed out that in the three lunacy sessions I’ve run, that 3-4 characters turned into lycanthropes (two, who are wererats, are currently in gaming limbo and out of the campaign, but someday I will have a lycanthrope adventure for them), and several characters died. The most memorable of those sessions was when I had players defend the Keep on the Borderlands from a siege from all directions: werewolves attacked by battering the front gate with a battering ram, wererats crawled up through the lower levels and fountain, and werebats flew overhead and dropped werespiders into the keep from the air, where they used their webbing to create choke points in the streets preventing movement! It was lots of fun!

With 2.5 hours left in our game, the players arrived in East Tan and set themselves up (see the map above for the placement of the wagons (gear symbols) and bear traps (red dots).

In the first attack, some wereboars disguised as patrons of the Inn (“I” on map) transformed themselves, but Cobalt (paladin), and Balthazar (wizard), killed them. Next, more wererats attacked people in the Tannery (“T” on map), but they were also killed. More wereboars appeared in the Lumber Mill (“L” on the map), but Cobalt and Zen (monk) dealt with them without much fuss. Yet another pair of wereboars charged west on the road from the bridge to take on the characters on the southern wagon. One was skewered on a pole arm and the other stunned and taken down by silver arrow fire from the Guard Tower. The group was surprised (and I am sure the lycanthropes were too, for those lurking in the woods nearby would’ve hear screams from outpost victims, and then members of the Army of the Light would go in and a few moments later come out having successfully dispatching the intruders)!

The pack leader of the werewolves – name MaGallan – had enough of this. As the adventurers at the southern wagon were cheering during the skewering of the wereboar, MaGallan charged in from the west with three werewolves and six wolves. Gimli “Rot-Face” (dwarven berskerker) was bitten by MaGallan and two werewolves (the third was caught in a bear trap), and a couple of the wolves got a bite in as well. Gimli failed his saving throws – and right then and there under the power of lunacy he transformed into a werewolf before their eyes! MaGallan ordered him to attack Kiaria (seeker) right next to him. Next round MaGallan lunged in and bit James (arcane thief), he failed his save and also abruptly turned into a werewolf under the power of the savage double moons! The player’s were shocked by this sudden turn of events! Gnoosh (gnome rogue/illusionist) cast fear and somehow got the six wolves and two werewolves to flee. MaGallen looked up, pointed at Gnoosh, and told him he was next to join his pack. One player threw caution to the wind, he had his wizard launch a fireball into the intersection. The werewolf in the bear trap was scorched to death, James, the new turned werewolf also failed his save and was scorched so bad that not even his enhanced werewolf regeneration could save him; he was dead. MaGallan passed his save, but was left burned badly. In short order he was struck down.

The werewolves had now been either scared away, or burned by the fireball. Gimli had survived the fireball, but was unconscious at -8 hit points. Normally a person would bleed out -1 hit point per round and then die at -10, but he was a werewolf during lunacy, and he was regenerating 4 hit points per round – he would be back up and fighting in mere seconds! Several players wanted to save him if they could, but how could they render harmless a Dwarven Berserker Werewolf fueled by Odin’s Fury? The druid cast entangle, and other spell casters cast charm person and sleep. This restricted his movement, diverted his attention, and then lulled him to sleep. They shackled him up in chains and put him in the Barracks (“B” on the map). We ended the adventure there.

As I always do after each adventure, I asked the players what they thought of the session. There were some extended pauses and then a few quietly said “intense.” The feeling in the air was noticeably different. I am sure one player was sad that his Arcane Thief had perished, and others were wondering what the fate of Gimli might be. There is one player in the group who is a long-time AD&D player, so losing characters in the much less forgiving 1st edition is something he is long used to (“characters die” is a phrase I’ve heard him say many times), indeed, although he has four characters now, he previously lost one character to lycanthropy in a Lunacy adventure, and three other characters have died in my game, so he has effectively lost half his characters over the last three years. But not everyone has that perspective on character loss. Just a few days ago I wrote a blog post about why I have players use multiple characters. This may be one of the tests to see if my system works, for even though I want players to focus on a group of characters rather than put all their hopes and desires onto one character, we really can’t help but develop a favorite character at some point, can we? Even I as the GM am rooting for characters, especially if someone has put 20 or 30 sessions into building that character up. You can tell a player “a character may have existed for one session or thirty sessions, but don’t forget the joy you had using them, and the anecdotes you will be able to share years from now with other gamers.” It’s a nice sentiment, but that thought process doesn’t always work.

The case for players playing multiple characters.

Should a TTRPG be run as one character per player, or can players have multiple characters? I’ve done it both ways over 30 years of gaming, but I now have my players use multiple characters.

When I first began running game regularly during AD&D 2nd edition, I only had three players and to have a full group they each had 2-3 characters each, plus I used an NPC or two. Our adventuring groups were roughly 10 characters (keep in mind that many older D&D adventures were designed for 6-9 characters). There were multiples of rogues, clerics, mages, warriors, etc. We had a lot of fun. Once 3E appeared and all the way up through my time with 5E, there was one character per player, and our groups were down to 4-5 characters. This worked to some degree since modern D&D characters are substantially more powerful than older versions of D&D (everyone has more hit points, it is incredibly easy to heal, you rarely run out of spells, and character death is rare). I now run Castles & Crusades and have returned in part to the multiple characters approach of the past, but with some modifications. Below I will lay out my reasons for doing so and why I enjoy it so much.

What if everyone here were all part of one adventuring group? (art from Gameloft “March of Empires”)

Reason 1: Old-school gaming – dangerous and less complicated
The Barrowmaze campaign I run on Tuesday’s is particularly challenging and you need as many people skilled in arms, spells, and problem solving as you can get. Being an old school game, I think using an extra character is more fun than just making use of henchmen, hirelings, or retainers, to accompany the group. In old-school games spellcasters run out of spells, hit points are lower, and healing is slower. In my days playing AD&D 1st edition, my magic-user had one or two spells per day. He used them for one or two encounters and the rest of the time he sat in the back of the party (or the middle, whichever was safer), and used his intelligence to solve puzzles that might arise. If you just use one character, that player could get bored. Whereas, if they were to have a wizard and a fighter, for example, they will always have someone they can use in most situations.

Old-school characters are also less complicated than modern D&D characters (there are a lot less special class abilities to manage in most old-school games), so it is much easier to manage them. Finally, whereas modern D&D and Pathfinder focuses on cramming a lot into one round (move action, attack action, bonus action, reaction), which necessitates the need for players to feel that their characters must always do something. Old-school games shift the focus from doing up to four things in a single round, to (sometimes) doing four things in an entire combat. This leaves plenty of room for players to have multiple characters with multiple things to do and not feel overburdened.

Reason 2: Expanded options allows players get more done
Each of my players are urged to create up to four characters and then swap them in and out based on:
1) What they are interested in playing that session.
2) Meeting the needs of the adventuring party for that session.
3) Some characters may be out training for new abilities (see this post for more information on that).

In my C&C games I encourage my players to bring up to two of their four characters on an adventure, or to have 10 characters go on any given adventure. So on days when five players show up to game, they usually bring two characters each, and if seven players are available to play, then only three of them will bring an extra character.

I like this because every player is not just invested in one character, they are far more involved with the adventuring company overall. In my Tuesday Barrowmaze campaign, there are 7 players with roughly 4 characters each, giving us 28 characters (and keep in mind that some characters are dual-classed, so there are actually well over 30 character classes represented). In the town where they reside – Ironguard Motte – they have their own building the size of a multistory tavern. At any given time when 10 characters are out adventuring, the other 18 are making or repairing weapons and armor, creating scrolls or potions, learning spells, identifying magic items, practicing their trade or profession, training lower level characters, connecting with local people of importance, and keeping the long-term interests of the adventuring company going on in the background. On any given four hour game session with the adventurers fighting their way through the Barrowmaze, I sometimes – in a lull or slow spot – throw in a 5-10 minute interlude when we return to Ironguard Motte for someone to knock on the door of their establishment and in a brief conversation set the stage for a future adventure. I think it is quite successful in conveying the feeling that there is always something going on in the world.

Reason 3: A Total Party Kill (TPK) is not the end of a campaign
In most D&D-type games, if everyone dies in an encounter, the campaign may be over. I ran Dragon Mountain in 1993-94 and there was a TPK. After two years of committed adventuring everyone died. It was a letdown. I also ran a Tomb of Horrors campaign over the period of a year. Everyone died in an encounter. But the way I run games now, if there were to ever be a TPK, the campaign would not end, since the other adventurers could avenge their friend’s deaths, and may even retrieve their bodies and equipment. It could add renewed vigor and more passion for the campaign (although obviously one does not want that to happen).

Summary thoughts:
Games like D&D 5E focus on one character. Many players will purchase a new set of dice to represent their new character. There is an array cool material on Kickstarter and Etsy for players wanting to purchase a journal for their character, or a unique token or miniature to represent the character. That is perfectly fine if that is the style of game you are aiming for. But my games are more dangerous and I aim for more group flexibility, and rather than focus on the beliefs and goals of a single individual, I’d rather focus on a family group dynamic, both a small family group that a player will have if they rotate four characters in and out of adventures, and a larger family dynamic which encompasses all the other player’s characters combined. This can also work more positively in keeping the focus on the overall arc of the campaign instead of on a particular character (although obviously individual characters will shine and stand out. That has happened in my Barrowmaze campaign, where the highest level characters have taken on leadership roles, and the younger, lower level adventurers, view them more as veterans, or parental figures and seek them out for their experiences and insights).

There are other ways in which this could be done. D&D 5E recently introduced the idea of a side kick. Older editions of D&D encouraged the use of hirelings, henchmen, and retainers. The game Ars Magica makes use of a “troupe system” style of play. And Dungeon Crawl Classics has the 0-level funnel where a player uses four characters in an adventure and whoever survives by the end makes it to 1st level. The approach I take seems to be a bit different.

What do you think? Would having players use multiple characters and rotate others in and out of adventures work in your game?

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 52.

The Army of the Light encounters a pool room with a Water Weird, and a secret room with two Gargoyles – that spew Green Slime! – protecting a chest filled with magical items. While working to deal with this a Wight stumbles in (its left foot is missing) looking to drain the life from them. Did they survive unharmed?

A pool with a Water Weird lurking within. Previous victims lie nearby (artwork from Barrowmaze Complete).

Game Diary:
Continuing where they left off last week in the north-west corner of the Barrowmaze, they enter a large room 100 feet long filled with a large central pool. To either side are four pillars and four very large wall mounted torches. There are also a series of bodies lying to the side of the pool with weapons lying by their side. Balthazar the wizard casts detect magic and sees that there is a magical shield, broadsword, and chain shirt lying before them. They want to retrieve these items, but they are cautious, for they can see no weapon wounds on the dead people and they aren’t sure what has had killed them. The rogue, Martin, steps forward and tosses a gold coin into the pool. At that point a watery pseudopod which moves like a serpent launches itself from the pool, enveloping Martin, and pulling him into the pool. He fails his saving throw and because of being held and squeezed underwater he begins to drown. The other nine characters move in launching spells and attacking with their weapons. The water weird has great potential to take down adventurers, but the Army of the Light is bold and unrelenting, and their attacks beat it down to nothing almost immediately and it’s body dissipates into the water. Moments later, Martin is released. After coming up for breath, Martin points out that he notices a nice number of silver, gold, and platinum coins in the pool, as well as a key. Since he is already wet, he takes the time to retrieve them.

Gargoyles ready to spew green slime protect a chest filled with magical items (artwork from Barrowmaze Complete).

The next major area the group enters is a room with two gargoyles surrounding an attractive looking chest. Rosaline, the druid, steps forward and attempts to place a gold coin in the open mouth of the gargoyle to her right as an offering. Doing so she notices a green residue in its mouth going down its hollow throat. With the intent to examine the chest clear, the gargoyle guardians spring to life. The one where Rosaline placed the gold coin into its mouth attempts to claw, bite and ram her with its horn. It misses with all its attack except one – the bite – and that attack results in it vomiting forth green slime, covering her left arm and spreading onto her shoulder and the left side of her torso. The other gargoyle attacks her as well and misses with all of its attacks! The group jumps in with weapon blows and magic missiles. The second round kicks in and both gargoyles again somehow miss nearly all their attacks (I am so disappointed with my dice!). Still, the green slime has by now destroyed half of Rosaline’s clothes and her armor. But she is lucky in that just before she stepped forward she had cast barkskin, and this was slowing down the green slime absorbing her into it, for as it ate away the woody exterior, the energy from the spell brought the bark exterior back.

At this point the group heard a strange stumping sound and looking behind them they see the piercing black lights coming from the eye sockets of an undead with white skin pulled tight around it – it was a wight – an no one was interested in losing an experience level from it’s attacks! Gorgat, the barbarian, marched toward it and tried to intimidate it with his attack, but he missed. The wight smiled. Others stepped up to it and pounded it as well.

The group was split in two, but with five players using two characters and one NPC, there was enough people to take care of the threats both in front and behind them. This was made much easier by the fact that the gargoyles had missed most of their attacks and the PC’s had not, so the gargoyles dropped dead to the ground at almost the same time as the wight was moving in for an attempt to steal a PC’s life essence. The monsters were foiled again!

The Army of the Light decided this was enough adventuring, stuck the chest in their bag of holding, and headed back to Ironguard Motte. Once back in their cozy organizational head quarters, they identified all their new loot: +1 shield, +2 broadsword, +1 chain shirt, a spell book with several unique spells from past wizards in the Barrowmaze region, and a conical wizard hat that provides a magic-user with a +1 on concentration checks to overcome losing its spell. Several characters leveled up and next time they will have to decide how much time they are going to take off before returning to the Barrowmaze. There are also several local events in the Duchy of Aerik which are about to take off, Lunacy which is the event when the two moons in my world are full and lycanthropes increase in power and go wild, and Thorgrimr, a local Viking lord who is organizing a Thing (which is a Viking governing assembly for the local community), and some players are interested in what might result from that. There is always something going on in my Barrowmaze campaign, next week we’ll find out what the players engage in!

Rackham Vale

I love classic fantasy art. February is Zinequest on Kickstarter, and Rackham Vale is inspired by the art of Arthur Rackham. My campaigns are filled with folklore from the past, and classic art like Rackham’s adds a lot to the look and feel I like to present to my players. When funded, this is offering:

  • An original map with key locations identified (can be used as a point-crawl map if so desired), 
  • factions spread with relationships charted for easy reference, 
  • Adventure hooks
  • An illustrated bestiary with twelve new creature interpretations of Rackham’s artwork, 
  • Tables for creating new settlements, random encounters, and creatures that fit the setting. 

The monsters have OSR-compatible stats (see the No-Moon Crone example listed). Once funded, I am curious what stretch goals might emerge during its last 8 days.

Edit: Since writing this post, the Rackham Vale kickstarter has been delivered and I have reviewed it in this post.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony Campaign, Session 19.

Victorious from their previous adventure, the characters return to town, level up, purchase new equipment, and then set off on a new adventure seeking the Tomb of Thorin Zuse, a barbarian warrior-prince who died 500 years ago in a battle against an orc horde. En route, they encounter a pair of centaurs hunted by a vicious pack of wolves.

Game Diary:
Having cleared out Rodemus Keep, the adventurers brought Arlen, Sarah, and Galen Rodemus back to town. The town officials collected the materials and stories they brought back and there was a celebration. Multiple characters leveled up and several took a month off so as to train to acquire new skills and abilities. Several of the warriors in the group had heard stories of a great barbarian warrior-prince who, as legend says, fought off over a thousand orcs before being over-run by the horde. It took over 13,000 troops to halt the orcs and drive them back. The chieftains chose to lay Zuse’s body to rest in a deep, secret tomb hoping the orcs would never find his grave to desecrate it. So, the legends says. The warriors in the group made the case to seek out the tomb and the group agreed. The group took some of the treasure they collected from the previous adventure and purchased horses and mules for themselves and headed off toward where they thought the tomb might be based on the rumors.

A half a day into their travels they were hit by a terrible storm; the rain came down in sheets. Through the heavy rain and as lightning illuminated the sky, they heard the howls of wolves and the yelp of help. The gnome druid worked out that the yelp came from centaurs. The group chose to help the centaurs in need and galloped off into the forest. There they saw two centaurs located at the top of a 50-foot-tall hill, one was a male centaur archer, and the female – who was pregnant and just hours away from giving birth – was lying down and bloody from wolf attacks. Surrounding them on all sides were eight wolves slowly working their way up the steep hill, slick from the heavy rain. The centaur male had already taken down five wolves with his bow, but the remaining eight had him surrounded and at a disadvantage.

The adventurers moved in. Two of the spellcasters used sound burst to stun and damage three of the wolves. Archery and magic missiles took down other wolves, and Rok, one of the fighters, closed into melee. It briefly looked grim for Rok, as four wolves surrounded him and attacked. One wolf hit him and knocked him prone, but the other wolves on that round and the following round missed all their attacks! That was good for Rok, obviously, but I was a bit taken aback by how my dice failed me! The two rounds of failed attacks by my wolves allowed the other characters to move in and kill the wolves down.

With the battle over, healers in the group ascended the hill and provided healing for the centaur female, named Pronaris. Her partner, named Priaeon, expressed his appreciation and promised to offer the wolf hides to the characters as gifts for their help. As Pronaris was preparing to give birth, she used some of her sylvan nature magic (the centaurs were worshippers of Demeter) to reduce the rain coming down and prepared for a ceremony on the hill (named Halefoal). At this point 20 other centaurs that were part of this centaur family band emerged from the forest to partake in the birthing. The ceremony was elaborate with drums and chanting. The foal was born, and they celebrated into the night with bonfires and dancing, enhanced by some friendly local satyrs who turned up with their pan pipes. As the game session came to an end, the characters asked the centaurs if they knew where the great warrior-prince Thorin Zuse was buried. The centaur elder consulted the ancient branches he held onto, which were carefully treated to remain resistant to the elements over time and marked with carved runes. He was sure he could provide them with some assistance. In two weeks, we meet again and the adventurers will set off again for the Tomb of Thorin Zuse.

A new approach to downtime activities and leveling up character abilities.

Dungeons & Dragons have had many options over the years on how you can personalize characters (e.g. training for acquiring class abilities upon leveling up, skills, feats, downtime activities, etc.). I enjoy drawing upon all these sources, but for my Castles & Crusades campaigns I have come up with my own formula for character improvement.

(art by dleoblack)

In AD&D there were secondary skills, in AD&D 2nd edition we got non-weapon proficiencies and later kits, in 3E there was a certain sequence when people would acquire skills or feats, 5E shares a similar approach, plus they have subclasses and downtime activities. They all offer something for players seeking to personalize their character, but they also tend to present things in a restricted manner which can make everything feel the same, such as getting a feat every fourth level. Why every fourth? What is so special about that fourth level? I want my players to have maximal amount of flexibility to mold their characters the way they want for the particular campaign they are in (each of my campaigns can have a very different feel and approach).

Now, if one were to offer new feats or skills every level, then that could easily make over-powered characters and I have far too many experiences with power gamers and min/maxers that ruin the game for the other players that are quite happy to simply play what they have and enjoy it for what it is. Can one accommodate everyone?

My approach is to offer players the opportunity to acquire a new ability every time they level up if they want to, but there is a price. In what follows, I will present what players can gain upon leveling up, and then provide the formula I use.

Leveling Up.
After gaining a level, some players may have discovered that they need to upgrade or expand an ability or skill based on their experiences during the previous level. Here are some of the options open to them.
1. Learn a new language.
2. Learn a new profession (e.g. blacksmith, herbalist, gem cutter, sage).
3. Attempt to raise an attribute (my formula for the player is to roll a d20 with no modifiers, and if they can roll the attribute or higher it will go up by one, if they fail, they can try again next level. This obviously makes it easier to raise low attributes, but more difficult to raise high attributes).
4. Increase a class skill (e.g. a 1st level fighter specialized in the long sword, but half way through 1st level discovered a +1 battle axe and now wants to specialize in the battle axe).
5. Enhance a racial/ancestral ability, a combat ability (melee/ranged), a defensive ability, a magic ability through a feat (or as they are called in C&C, advantages).

The Formula.
When you are younger you tend to pick things up a lot easier, and as you get older you become more set in your ways and things become more difficult to learn. My formula accounts for this.

Time: Level x 2 in weeks to learn/acquire the new ability.
Cost: The experience points you need to gain your next level x 10% in gold piece cost.

Example 1:
A fighter called Ecbert is specialized in the long sword. Halfway through 1st level he gets a +1 battle axe and decides he wants to make that his main weapon and specialize in it. He continues to use it through the remainder of 1st level and upon 2nd level he seeks out a warrior in the area that is a known specialist in the battle axe and has them train him. Since he is 2nd level, it will take 4 weeks (2nd level x 2). To go from 2nd to 3rd level as a fighter requires 2,001 XP in C&C, so 10% of that is 200, as a result he will pay this person 200 gp over that 4 week period.

Some time has passed and part way through 4th level Ecbert acquires a +3 spear that does double damage against undead and now wants to specialize in that. He will use this new spear until he reaches 5th level, upon which time he will seek out an expert in the spear. Ecbert is now a bit more set in his ways, so learning to specialize in the spear will require 10 weeks (5th level x 2), and the XP needed to increase from 5th to 6th level for a fighter in C&C is 17,001, so 10% of that is 1,700, which means he will have to spend 1,700 gp for the training and any materials over that 10 week period.

Example 2:
An elven wizard named Kythaela who knows the common, elvish, and orcish languages, encounters numerous gnomes in her first two levels of adventuring and decides that she should learn the gnomish language so as to better interact with them and understand them. When she reaches 3rd level she seeks out a local sage that knows gnomish. Learning the rudiments of the gnomish tongue will take 6 weeks (3rd level x 2), and cost 520 gp (as a wizard in C&C she needs 5,200 xp to progress from 3rd to 4th level).

As she adventures some more she travels through ancient elven villages and decides that when she reaches her next stage of development (i.e. gains her next level), she will want to take some time off and delve more into her elven culture and pull forth new elven abilities and reach a new stage of development (i.e. gain an elven advantage, or feat). When she reaches 7th level she heads off into the dense wilderness and spends 14 weeks (7th level x 2) with her elven elders to acquire this new elven ability (which, let us say is the Affinity to Nature elven advantage found in the Castle Keepers Guide, which gives her a +1 on checks to avoid surprise, detect hidden foes, and to initiative when in natural surroundings). The cost will be high, since she needs 85,001 xp to go from 7th to 8th level, thus the cost will be 8,500 gp for materials, training, supplies, and anything else related to enhancing her elven awareness.

Comparing players that do and do not use this system.
What you might have seen in the above examples is that you could gain abilities every level, perhaps take a new language at 2nd level, at 3rd learn a new background, at 4th take an advantage, at 5th level try and raise an attribute, etc. You could rack up a lot of abilities. However, this takes time and costs money. Each level will require time off, and unless the party you are in agrees to take time off with you, your character will have to stop adventuring for awhile and that will slow their level advancement (I should mention that in my C&C campaigns I encourage all my players to make several characters and swap them in and out depending on their preferences for that game session, to meet the needs of the group for that session (perhaps a player with the main rogue can’t make it and you have the other rogue in the party, or perhaps you know you are about to enter a trap-heavy dungeon and having two rogues would be useful), or to swap out if they are acquiring a new ability for leveling up. This will also cost a lot of money. Characters in my C&C game are encouraged to have their characters begin building towers, castles, establishments, temples, etc. based on their classes when they reach 9th level (much like AD&D) and that costs a lot of money. If you are spending all your gold on extra abilities, then you might be a bit short on cash to build your class structures and pay the staff and followers.

As a result, those players who are a happy with what they have, may have less abilities than their fellow party members, but they will be higher level then those that take time off (since they will be adventuring more), and from that additional adventuring they may have more loot and treasure as well, and of course they will have more cash sitting around to construct their buildings and draw in followers, since they didn’t spend it on training.

I’ve been using this system since 2018 and it has worked quite well. It also allows a campaign to spread out over time. Weeks and months can pass in game time between adventures, and the players see the seasons change, members of the town may pass on, children are born, others grow up and move on, and the regional politics in the region continue to develop around them. I’ve been able to present the larger world around them grow and change as they grow and change. I think it has made my games more immersive and feel more lived-in.

I’d be interested in knowing what you think of this system.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 51.

The Army of the Light marched through the northwest portion of the Barrowmaze, slaying a large variety of undead as they went (e.g. wights, exploding bone skeletons, funeral pyre zombies, fossilized skeletons, and sons of Gaxx – zombie-like undead with rot grubs squirming out of their bodies). They could not be stopped!

(art by Markus Neidel)

Game Diary:
Several times in recent sessions the group would get involved with a major combat or a series of mysterious rooms that have mysteries that need to be solved. But in this session there were no major mysteries or puzzles, and no major combat that took up a lot of time. Instead, they were able to march from room to room taking down one type of undead after another.

But don’t get the feeling that they were all easy. Early on they encountered two wights, which of course can drain away a character’s life experiences and life essence (i.e. drain away a character’s levels).

The Son’s of Gaxx were another type of undead they encountered. These are a rotting undead creature that have rot grubs squirming out of its mouth, eyes, and other rotting openings in their body. We all know how dangerous rot grubs can be (quick death!), so the players knew they had to take these down as quickly as possible. The Army of the Light can be quite bold sometimes, and in this case when they saw some rot grubs enter the body of Gorgat, their barbarian friend, Balthazar, one of the wizards abruptly launched a fireball into the room where the Sons of Gaxx adn Gorgat were to be found, and the room was engulfed in flame! Gorgat got 22 hit points of damage, but the rot grubs were destroyed!

There were also exploding bone skeletons. They were a type of skeleton which moved slowly and had a black inverted triangle on their forehead. When these skeletons were struck their final blow, they would blow up, sending bone fragments everywhere!

Funeral pyre zombies. When they were struck in combat, they erupted in flames, burning everyone around them. When close together, if one erupted in flames, this could trigger the one next to it in a domino effect. The players just by accident played this well, for when they saw six of these undead, Llewelyn cast web, which covered 4 of them. The group then set off the other two pyre zombies, and then proceeded to work on the remaining four knowing that they were restrained by the web. They then triggered the burst of flame one by one on the remaining four. It did burn away the web, but they were destroyed as well, so it didn’t matter!

Finally, there were fossilized skeletons. Due to the contact of limestone and mineralized water with their bones, their bones were made almost as hard as rock. One warrior shoved their spear through its rib cage and get lodged within, it then turned to the side and the warrior found the weapon torn from his hand. Others attacked, but the bones were resistant to many of their attacks, and they had to be more careful with their attacks to make sure that weapons would not get blunted or ruined. The session ended after this encounter, and next week we will see what they plan to do next.

Folklore & RPGs: Vaesen

Do you like to make use of folklore in your RPGs? Are you tired of the same D&D tropes that have been used over and over again? I do. I love using folklore in my Castles & Crusades campaigns. Folklore and mythology are forming an ever-growing core foundation of my world. Initially when I switched from D&D 5E over to C&C I fell back upon older versions of AD&D monsters, undead, and spirits. But I’ve been gaming since 1983 and even switching to different editions of D&D didn’t really help, since I had seen and experienced it all before. Going back to original D&D sources wasn’t enough, so I began to visit the classical and medieval sources and start fresh. You could say that I wanted my old-school game to be really old-school! I wanted to feel that wonder and uncertainty again and to give my players – whether those new to RPGs, or those who have played for over 40 years – to experience monsters, undead, and nature spirits from a fresh perspective.

The Folklore & RPGs heading will be a new series I will be visiting where I will introduce some sourcebook – whether academic, or artistic – which I have found inspiring for bringing something fresh and new to my C&C games and may be of interest to you as well in your games, or just for enjoyment.

First up, Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore (I purchased this book from Grimfrost). This book is beautifully illustrated by Johan Egerkrans. Color and black and white illustrations accompany folklore drawn from Scandinavian sources. Most entries cover one or two pages, with a few encompassing four. Each entry is overflowing with flavor to enhance any RPG game you want to run. It will give you plenty of new creatures to bring into your game, and even give you dynamic ways to re-envision old ones (my players may think they know what a will-o-the-wisp is and does, but they will be learning there are many varieties out there!). Let me examine two nature spirits as examples, the Källrå (the “Nymph of the Springs”) and the Näcken.

Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore, Collected and Illustrated by Johan Egerkrans

First, let us look at the Källrå, the “Nymph of the Springs” or “Spring Guardian.” It is said that a nymph guards her own spring and in return for those that make an offering the Källrå will give the water healing powers. Normally this nymph is invisible, but sometimes she takes the form of a frog (that right there could be knowledge a druid in a party might know which could benefit the party after a deadly encounter). Let us look further. It is also wise to address the spring with a short prayer or incantation when you are taking water from it (again, the druid could be useful here). We all know that nature spirits can be quite touchy if you don’t approach them properly and demonstrate enough deference and respect! As it says in the entry (“It was also safest to collect water during the daytime when the invisible forces were at their weakest – at night you never knew what kind of mischievous beings would follow you back into your house.” p. 44).

Finally, consider what exciting possibilities this could open up for an adventure: “The shining reflection of a still pool or lake was thought to be a window into the Other World [and this] could reveal glimpses of the future” (ibid). But if you spend too long gazing into the spring, “the nymph living down in the depths could steal away your reflection and along with it your soul” (ibid). There are some amazing opportunities to have a druidic or nature-based character interact with this spring guardian and bring forth healing powers (if done in the right way!), and moreover, you have a great opportunity to get glimpses of the Other World or the future…but this is not guaranteed and there are consequences for players that are too greedy for knowledge and power! I know that the Källrå is going to become a part of my C&C game!

Källrå: Nymph of the Springs/Spring Guardian

Next, consider the Näcken (The Neck). This is a mysterious water spirit which lives in rivers, rapids, brooks, and lakes. If you see lilies that are in flower, that could be a sign that the Neck might be nearby. They have long, greenish-black hair with dark eyes. One unique characteristic of the Näcken is that it is an expert musician that can distort the minds of people and spellbind them with the sound of its music (it could be a fiddle, flute, or harp). If the Näcken is seen to be crying “while he is playing, it is a sure sign something unpleasant is about to happen” (p.57).

Consider the following possibilities for a player with a bard. Approaching the Näcken in the correct way could give them access to supernatural musical performances to spellbind their audience. But you must get this right! “The Neck can teach his musical skills to anyone who is brave enough to try” (ibid). They must go to a “fast-flowing river or crossroads for three Thursday nights in a row and sit there playing.” On the third night the Näcken will appear and at that point it is important to have a black cat with you, for the Näcken will demand that as their payment. The bard will want to be on their guard during the entire lesson, for the Näcken will try to lure their pupil into the water source they are at and drown them! But if the bard survives the lesson, they will be able to play such entrancing music that “even chairs and tables would begin to jerk and move about” (ibid). But the Näcken will warn that certain melodies are very dangerous, and they will be warned not to play them.

Once again, think of the possibilities for a character and how this can enrich a campaign! There are some great powers that one could gain, but there is also great risks as well. A player would want to have their character thoroughly research the materials and procedures involved in approaching and interacting with creatures like these (this could end up being an adventure or adventures in themselves), and if they get as far as beginning the rituals and training then there is the risk of losing their mind, their soul, or any number of things.

I have just provided a sneak peek at two of the creatures in Vaesen, there are over 30 in the book. The stories are enjoyable and entertaining. The art is evocative and provides a look and feel that stands out from the familiar gaming art we find in RPG products. Whether for personal enjoyment or gaming, this is a good book to have to fill you with wonder and spur your imagination.


History & RPGs: Shields

How did the functions of shields change over time? What were the functions of different shield sizes and shapes?

Some Medieval fantasy RPGs have rules regarding weapon types vs. armor types. Medieval fantasy RPGs also frequently have critical hit systems or charts that cover certain battle techniques. Back when I ran AD&D 2nd edition, we did initially make use of weapon type vs. armor type, but in the end it involved too much book-keeping and slowed down combat so we stopped. On the other hand, The Complete Fighters Handbook had a rich amount of combat tactics, melee maneuvers, and called shots, which we did enjoy using. I now use Castles & Crusades and enjoy using the combat maneuvers they have available (and as I page through my Complete Fighters Handbook in preparing this blog, I am reminded I could bring back a few more dynamic combat maneuvers from 2nd edition).

In the Modern History TV video, I have linked here (roughly 15 minutes long), Jason Kingsley covers three different shield styles and describes how they were used, and what modifications may have been made to them depending on whether the user was on foot, on horseback, or if they were using missile weapons (like crossbows). This is can add a rich addition to your RPG game for combat flavour and to open up the combat techniques available.

For example, the shield style used by the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons was more easily knocked aside by weapons in one-on-one combat, opening up the warrior’s chest and abdominal region for a thrust or a slash, yet they could be used more successfully together in a shield wall formation. However, once you move forward in time and the shields become smaller and more curved, then it was more difficult to knock it aside to open up the lone warrior to a blow, yet it also made them less effective for a shield wall (indeed, they were no longer using shield walls by then). In my C&C game I have a variety of cultures represented (Norse, Celtic, Knightly, Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian), so these cultural differences will allow me to bring in different styles of combat.

Enjoy the video, and perhaps you will find a way to add a unique twist to your RPG combat.