Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 62

Summary:
20 flaming zombies and 20 skeletons break down walls to attack the Army of the Light. But what made the battle especially vivid was the 7 critical hits and the 5 critical fumbles that were rolled by the players during the combat!

PC’s:
Gimli, Dwarf Berserker of Odin
Cyron, Human Cleric of Charon
Belden, Gnome Bard of Aengus
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Noro, Human Warrior Priest of Hyperion
Elfgiva, Elf Archer/Cleric/Wizard of Sehanine
Martin, Human Rogue of Bacchus

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

Game Diary:
Last time the Army of the Light defeated Rendar Serouc, a barrow wight and Chosen of Nergal. The battle was taxing, with the paladin Cobalt in a catatonic state after he had made eye contact with Serouc and was driven insane. The group now wanted to collect the treasure and head back to Helix or Ironguard Motte to see if Cobalt could be returned to normal.

However, as they collected their things and prepared to head south to the skull entrance to this section devoted to Nergal’s Chosen, they heard in the distance pieces of wall crumbling to the ground. When a few scouts headed south down the corridor towards the sound and peaked into a chamber, they could see bricked up walls to the west and the east getting broken down. On the east zombies with black runes were breaking through, and on the west side it was skeletons. They could make out that these undead would be able to break through one at a time, which seemed manageable, but the scouts could also see that there were many breaking at the walls from the other side so the opening on both sides was going to expand over time.

Critical Hit and Fumble Dice by New Comet Games

The group gathered, headed south broke roughly into two groups to take on the eastern zombies and western skeletons. Normally one would have the clerics try and turn them, but all the undead in this section of the Chosen had unholy symbols that resisted turning, so this was was was going to be old fashioned combat. Gimli remembered that the zombies with runes would ignite into flames when struck, so he summoned Odin’s Fury, this berserker ability made him immune to flame and he headed in for an attack. As soon as he struck the first one it ignited, and since the others were so close, that ignited them all! Others wanting to assist Gimli stood back and from higher ground used ranged attacks to try and hit the zombies pounding through the wall.

Noro and Ria happened to have a magical halberd and bardiche, so with these polearms in hand they had the ability to take on each skeleton as it broke through the wall one by one and at a distance.

All seemed to be going well taking down one or two skeletons and one or two zombies each round. These early undead had a few hit points and it frequently took multiple hits to take them down. One would expect this to be slow but manageable, but as the undead slowly made their way through the bricked-up opening, the hole kept getting larger, soon more were going to come through.

Then the unexpected happened – everyone began rolling critical hits and fumbles! Since I use the critical hit and fumble dice by New Comet Games, crits and fumbles have spectacular results that can transform a battle. The critical hits were marvelous as I asked players to describe how it looked when they “blind opponent + 2d6 damage,” or “gain +1 attack.” The players were enjoying multiple attacks and describing how they were beheading skeletons, slicing through them, or pulverizing them to bone dust. But then everyone got nervous when the fumbles landed, now players had to deal with “hit self” and “crit ally.” With 7 critical hits and 5 fumbles, this was by far the most 1s and 20s I’ve ever seen rolled in an RPG game – and this was just one (extended) combat!

Every adventure has highlights when friends or enemies go down, but in this elaborate battle it was happening every round! What would normally become a highlight for the adventure would sometimes be overridden by the very next die roll later. We were being smothered in epic successes and fails. The 7 crits guaranteed that the undead were going down quicker than normal, but the fumbles meant the healers who had been in the back had to move forward to heal people up, and it was just as this happened that more of the bricked walls crumbled and more undead began pouring through. When the last 5 skeletons and last 5 runic zombies stumbled through from the west and east sides they had to climb over the 15 bodies of their fallen comrades in front of them, and all those undead corpses slowed them down a bit.

When that battle ended we – both players and characters – were all exhausted. Gimli, as a berserker, had to make a Wisdom check to see if he could exit Odin’s Fury with his mind intact, but he failed (his first time in 5 levels!) and his Wisdom went down by one. This was the first battle where Gimli failed his Wisdom check, but it was understandable. This was a taxing battle. Gimli will never forget the first battle when his mind began to slip away (well, he probably will at some point, but not until it reaches single digits!).

There was more to this adventure, for the group did want to loot the areas where the skeletons and zombies came from, and several characters ended up in a 30 foot by 20 foot pit trap fighting a four armed bone golem with magical maces and scimitars, and yet this almost became an after thought to what happened before. When they all eventually made it back to town and could rest, four of the nine characters that fought in the adventure over the last two sessions leveled up. They deserved it from the ghasts, wights, golems, and waves of skeletons and runic zombies. One character is comatose and some magic weapons were lost, but so much more could’ve happened (several could’ve lost levels). With so many characters training for new abilities after leveling up, it will be interesting to see who is available to adventure next week, or will the players just decide to let several weeks pass so that their characters can complete their training and they have more choice. There are currently over 30 members of the Army of the Light, but only about a half dozen are probably available to adventure! Next week we’ll see who will adventure and what is in store for them.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, session 23.

Summary:
The Adventurers finish exploring the Tomb of the Barbarian Prince Thorin Zuse and return to Dale. Enroute rot vultures and grimlocks attack them. Upon returning to Dale, several gain a level, and rest for a month as they prepare for their next adventure.

PC’s:
Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk/Cleric (class and a half) of Horus
Magnus, Gnome Druid of Belenus
Sir Sandwyche, Human Paladin of St. Agathos
Gwar, Half-Orc Barbarian of Crom
Endur “the Thick”, Human Fighter of Gobniu
Malcolm, Human Wizard/Bard (class-and-a-half) of Arcanus
Homonoea, Human Dragonslayer/Giant Killer (class-and-a-half) of Athena
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter of Crom
Anne, Elven Cleric/Rogue of Laeroth

NPC:
Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor

Game Diary:
Although the players didn’t know it, there were just two rooms left to explore in the Tomb of Thorin Zuse. Those rooms were quickly explored and more treasure was found, and from there they focused on how they were going to get all their treasure out (several thousand gold pieces, some chests, and four massive tapestries. It took them half a day, but they managed to carry their findings through secret and small hatchways, and up stairways several hundred feet up to the surface. Even though they had been underground for several days, the horses they had left behind were safe, but hungry.

They had a several day journey to get back to the town of Dale. During their first day a group of rot vultures smelled the death of Juhraveal (the half-elf rogue who had died in the previous session and was now being taken back to Dale for burial). Endur was riding on the horse that carried Juhraveal and he fought to defend her body as the undead vultures swooped down from the sky.

“Scavenger” art by Shin KongZilla @klawarts (Twitter)

Endur fought one of them off while two others chose to attack Rok. The group attacked with magic missiles, bows, and spears. As they went down Rok galloped forward on his mount to fight the one near Endur, but he rolled a critical fail and ended up critically hitting Endur! Fortunately, Endur didn’t get hurt too badly and they got the last rot vulture down. The smell of them caused many to vomit.

For their first nights rest the people on second watch were attacked by grimlocks, gray-skinned, blind, humanoids that normally dwell underground. The night sky was cloudy and there was no moon out, so all they had to rely on for light was their campfire. There were only two of them and those on watch dealt with them just as the other members of the group were awakened. The group took note of where this happened, for if grimlocks could be found coming to the surface in this area of the Llancrest Wood, that could mean there may be a deep cave system or even access to the underworld nearby.

Overall this was a rather light session and a couple of characters leveled up. Several months back I sent emails to players with information their characters might have which could lead to future adventures. So whenever an adventure comes to an end I let the players make a pitch for what to do and where to go next. After discussing some of their options they agreed to head in two weeks to an abandoned village bordering the Llancrest Forest where the Zombraire Estate is located, a home of former nobles, for if you are looking for treasure, then an estate where a noble family once dwelled could be a good choice! When our next session comes in two weeks I will supply them with more information (their characters did take a one month break) and they will head out.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 61

Summary:
1. Entering the Death Vault of the Chosen of Nergal the paladin Cobalt meets the gaze of the powerful barrow wight Rendar Serouc, is driven insane and enters a catatonic state.
2. The berserker Gimli encounters barrow ghasts and is paralyzed. Then, after being cured of that barely escapes a poison save vs. death from a trapped chest!

PC’s:
Cobalt, Human Paladin of St. Agathos
Roulf, Half-Orc Drachentoten (Dragonslayer) of Crom
Gimli, Dwarf Berserker of Odin
Cyron, Human Cleric of Charon
Belden, Gnome Bard of Aengus
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Noro, Human Warrior Priest of Hyperion
Elfgiva, Elf Archer/Cleric/Wizard of Sehanine
Martin, Human Rogue of Bacchus

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

Game Diary:
Last time the Army of the Light found the animated left arm of their undead paladin seeking redemption – Dhekeon “the Disgraced.” They asked the arm where the rest of his body was and he pointed toward the Barrowmoor.

This session began with them entering the Barrowmaze. Cobalt asked Dhekeon’s arm where to go next. The left arm, which had tucked its shoulder joint in Cobalt’s belt effectively giving him a third arm, seemed a bit confused and half-heartedly pointed in a few directions before finally pointing north. The players began speculating that perhaps Dhekeon’s body had been further broken up and was now located in multiple directions. They followed the pointing arm and found their way to the entrance to the Death Vault of the Chosen of Nergal. The opening was a giant skull with an open mouth large enough for two people to enter side-by-side.

Entrance to the Death Vault (art from Barrowmaze Complete)

Upon entering the mouth the jaws clamped shut before releasing its victim. The group managed to pile some of the rocky rubble found at the base of the lower jaw into the two points where the upper and lower jaws meet and that prevented the mouth from closing long enough for the entire group to enter.

They entered a chamber with a large statue to Nergal (a skeleton shrouded in robes) with an offering bowl that had been used recently by his followers. In fact, with the Army of the Light destroying the Grand Temple to Nergal, as well as another important worship area, the church of this god of the underworld was running out of places to practice their evil faith! Examining the area they found bricked up walls to the east and west, and a hidden door behind the statue to the north. This hidden passage led to several rooms, one for embalming, one for clerical gear storage, a weapons room, a small altar room, and some crypts. However, since Dhekeon’s arm kept pointing north, they decided to conserve their spells and chose to skip exploring some rooms so as to save their resources for the greater danger they sensed they were heading into.

Continuing to head north they arrived at another hidden door and upon entering found themselves in a 10 foot by 20 foot corridor. To the north was a bricked-up archway, some of which had been sealed for centuries, but another smaller part that had been bricked up only days before and would be large enough for a medium-sized individual bowing down to enter once broken. Observant individuals also noticed a secret door to their left. They choose to go through the secret door to ensure that nothing would attack them from behind when they broke through the bricked wall (where Dhekeon continued to indicate part of his body could be found).

Walking single file down the 5 foot secret corridor to the west, Gimli and Cobalt were surprised by two barrow ghasts just as they entered a crypt. One was especially clumsy (I rolled a couple of 1s and 2s for attacks), the other was much more focused. It got an attack in and when Gimli failed his save, his muscles tightened up and he became paralyzed. While the clumsy barrow ghast continued to try and fight the group as they worked to enter the crypt, the one that paralyzed Gimli took him to its sarcophagus for the purposes of devouring him alive right then and their. Those with polearms lunged forward for attacks, Cobalt swung his Saint’s Mace with the assured confidence of dozens upon dozens of previous battles with undead expecting the impact of the artifact to either blast the undead into dust or turn them. But these ghasts were chosen lieutenants of Nergal. Their holy symbols glowed sinister colors and Cobalt was shocked to realize they wouldn’t get blown to dust or get turned. However, even without being able to use the higher artifact powers of his weapon, he could still hit hard with it, and the ghasts were destroyed the old fashioned way – pounding them down with weapons.

The group found a large amount of treasure (magic weapons, potions, and gems) and with several clerics in the group, Gimli was released from his paralysis. Since he was already in a sarcophagus, he decided to loot the material inside! One chest was already open and filled with gems, another was closed, so he decided he would open it. He immediately felt a prick on his finger. I told him to make a poison save. He passed – by one! I described how a drop of blood fell from his finger and turned black as it fell to the bottom of the sarcophagus where he sat (he learned that if he had rolled just one lower on his saving throw that his blood would’ve turned into a black ichor and he would’ve died). Gimli once again had barely gotten by! They were now ready for the bricked up room.

Rendar Serouc’s Crypt (art from Barrowmaze Complete)

They pounded away at the newly bricked up portion with their sledgehammers and entered. Dhekeon’s hand pointed immediately to the right at an amphora where his right arm had been placed in with the shoulder joint sticking out the top. The right arm, now sensing the left arm began tapping its fingers from inside. While the first few people to enter the room were distracted by Dehekeon’s unattached arms signaling themselves and the party, an undead figure lept to Cobalt and Gimli from the shadows between two statues. The robed figure had white skin pulled tight over its skeletal frame. This barrow wight swung at Gimli but missed, barely. It cursed at him and Cobalt and revealed that it was Rendar Serouc, a Chosen of Nergal, and the person who had been a High Priest of Nergal 250 years before when Dhekeon was still alive and the Barrowmaze was still young. The gaze of his eyes then met that of Cobalt. The paladin felt the powerful presence of this Chosen High Priest of Nergal enter into him. He rolled his saving throw – and failed! Another roll was made to determine what type of insanity he would suffer as the high priest’s mind entered his. The roll resulted in entering a catatonic state. The amount of evil that Cobalt witnessed from the mind of Rendar overwhelmed him, his eyes rolled up into his head, he shuddered, and then collapsed to the ground in a catatonic state unable to function, his mind in shock from the imagery.

The Army of the Light saw that Rendar was a very serious threat! They could also tell that Rendar was some kind of a wight, and new that if he physically struck them that they might have their memories and life experiences stripped from them (i.e. they would lose a level). Polearm wielders jabbed with their reach weapons. Gimli summoned Odin’s Fury and also summoned forth his lycanthropic powers and became a werewolf (a dwarven berserking werewolf is a force to be reckoned with!). The barrage of weapons hitting Rendar pushed him back against the base of his sarcophagus. He got a couple more swings in, but they missed. The mighty weapon blows from the group eventually split open his stomach causing several of his undead organs to spill out onto the ground with a trail of black dust (dried blood? negative energy residue?). The attacks also cracked several vertebra on on his spine and he fell backward at an awkward angle into his sarcophagus.

Gimli left Odin’s Fury and werewolf form and the rest of the group tried to pour a high-powered curative potion into Cobalt’s mouth hoping it could cure him. Upon swallowing it his mind left the horrific, nightmarish world he was inhabiting, to briefly acknowledge his friends, but the potion wasn’t strong enough and he was pulled back into the state of catatonic shock. As some began to ponder what to do with Cobalt, others began to take notice of Rendar’s generous treasure hoard! Looting was about to begin, but then they saw the black dust from Rendar’s organs, as well as from inside his eyes, nose sockets, and mouth, rise up into the air and enter the facial openings of the female and male stone guardians behind his sarcophagus. He voice emerged from both of them as they came to life – “did you think you could defeat me that easily?!” he bellowed.

The barrow guardians came to life and so did Gimli as he summoned Odin’s Fury again along with his werewolf form. Noro swung a recently acquired magical halberd into the male warrior’s left arm – and it got stuck in it – he was disarmed! Cyron stepped forward and swung his mace against it and he lost it as it merged with its left arm! Rendar’s voice chuckled and he then removed the halberd from its left arm and was looking forward to striking down the intruders with it. But I rolled a 1 on the attack and decided that while swinging the halberd it got caught on the handle of the mace in his other arm and the halberd went flying over everyone’s heads – he disarmed himself! He was pissed!

The group lunged forward and attacked with everything they had. The male stone barrow guardian fell to one knee and Rendar’s voice emerged from it as he voiced his frustration, and the female barrow guardian had her head chopped off. It rolled to the feet of Martin and Rendar hissed a final “I curse all of you!”

And that is where we left that session.

The Castles & Crusades Illusionist

In the history of D&D the Illusionist has shifted about when it comes to what they are and what they can do. In AD&D the illusionist was a sub-class of the magic-user. In 2nd edition eight schools of magic appeared and the illusionist was now just one of the eight (this has remained for all subsequent D&D editions). But Castles & Crusades went back to the AD&D illusionist and then gave it a unique twist that allowed it to stand on its own.

The Mirror Image spell (art from the AD&D 1st ed. Players Handbook, p.75)

When I left D&D and switched to Castles & Crusades I was excited to see that the Illusionist was it’s own class and not subordinate to the magic-user like in 1st edition (“Illusionists form a sub-class of magic-users…[w]hile being equal, or even slightly inferior, to normal magic-users in most respects…”, AD&D 1E PHB p.26), or in recent editions just becoming lost in the crowd of arcane magic, in C&C the illusionist was elevated to something unique (“…it could be argued that illusionist magic is the most powerful of all magics as it can allow those affected by it to defy nature and its physical laws”, C&C PHB, 7th printing, p.69).

Still, I’ve had some issues with how the illusionist class is written up. On the one hand it is clearly TLG trying to bring the AD&D class into C&C, and on the other hand, it feels like someone had an idea for a unique new class but it then got shoehorned into the illusionist. I’ve seen so much potential, and yet the class write-up needs to cleaned up.

Expanding Current C&C Illusionist Monster-specific Spells.
First, let me consider some of the illusionist spells. C&C has greatly expanded the types of spells that illusionists have at hand to cast, and yet some seem strangely restrictive and narrowly focused.

In C&C we have specific illusionist spells like Dragon Mark (0-level), Dragon Armor (1st-level), Dragon Image (1st-level), Illusionary Hounds (1st-level), Dragon Bite (2nd-level), Dragon Mount (3rd-level), Dragon Scales (4th-level), Dragon Shadow (5th-level), etc. Why so many dragon spells? Do illusionists have some special connection to these creatures that we don’t know about? What is the rationale? You could simply say that dragons are cool and this makes the class cooler as a result, but if you have people constantly throwing dragon images and sounds all over the place (and people discovered that most of these are illusions), would this not actually diminish dragons in the world? And what would dragons think if they heard about short-lived, spindly, bipedal apes running about using the majestic images and sounds of dragons to spook people? (Perhaps that is why dragons are always destroying cities and hoarding people’s treasure, they hate that illusionists are using their likeness without permission!)

These illusionist spells are all so very specific. The illusionist is touted as being “masters of time and substance” (C&C PHB p.70), illusion spells “are not simple parlor tricks to fool the weak of mind, but are powerful incantations drawing upon his own powerful mind; he weaves these musings with magic drawn from the world around him, thereby fabricating the very stuff of reality. Illusionists can literally create something from nothing” (C&C PHB p.72), yet why the focus on conjuring hounds and dragon sounds/images? It seems limiting when there are so many other great monsters out their that players can draw upon for a fun encounter.

To give my players more creative flexibility I will be telling them to re-imagine some of the spell names, so instead of Illusionary Hounds, it will be Illusionary Animal. This allows them to choose the animal they wish to make an illusion. Think about how that opens the door to their imagination. Dragon Bite can become Monster Bite and the player can once again choose the beast they wish to create to lunge in and bite the target. This doesn’t have to happen to all of the monster-specific spells, but it would be good to open a few of them up. It would also be a good house rule that an illusionist can only summon the image/sound/scent/feel of a creature they have previously encountered. This allows the character to grow from one encounter to another and from one game session to another. They might begin with by making Monster Bite that of a wolf they previously encountered in combat, then after encountering a cave bear they could add that to their repertoire, in the third session they might encounter a saber-toothed cat, etc. The spell remains the same mechanics-wise, yet the player gets an amazing expansion as to how they creatively present and describe the spell, and that adds so much to an encounter when the player has the ability to imaginatively present a spell in a new way each time they cast it.

Bringing Back Old Illusionist Spells.
I also miss some of the 1E spells like Phantasmal Force (1st-level), Improved Phantasmal Force (2nd-level), and Spectral Force (3rd-level). Now, I suppose Minor Image (2nd-level) and Major Image (3rd-level) are the C&C versions of those (and those names came from D&D 3E), but I plan to take a closer look at this, if nothing else the AD&D spell names are much more interesting than the rather bland “minor” or “major” image. If you were a spellcaster and you came up with a new spell, would you call it “minor illusion” or “phantasmal force”? I suppose it depends on whether you were some austere academic obsessed with the taxonomic ordering of all known forms of magic, or if you were more of an artistic spellcaster seeking to project with a flourish your imaginative imagery into the world around you.

Illusionists and Healing.
I do like the C&C idea that illusionists can heal. “How do they do that?” You might ask. “They heal damage in the same manner in which they cause damage – not by tricking their targets but rather by projecting their own magical power into the target and changing the nature of time and substance. They do not trick the target’s mind into physically healing itself…An illusionist channels or controls the natural magic of the world around him” (C&C PHB, p.72).

However, this is contradicted when you look at the healing spells in the PHB. The Players Handbooks spell entries for the Cure Light Wounds, Cure Critical Wounds, and Cure Critical Wounds (p.99-100) all say that when the illusionist casts the spell that the “the recipient of the spell must make an intelligence saving throw. If the creature fails the saving throw, the spell acts normally. If the creature makes the saving throw, the spell fails as the creature realises that the spell is an illusion” (C&C PHB p.100).

But then in the Castle Keepers Guide (2nd printing) it gets it right by saying this: “To bring greater continuity to the table and to better express the illusionist’s power as a manipulator of time and space in regard to his ability to heal, it may simply make more sense to have the illusionist make an attribute check to succeed at casting any curing spells. When an illusionist attempts to heal, the recipient, either unconscious or conscious, receives the magic only if the illusionist successfully makes his attribute check. In this case, the CL equals the level of the target. Use this rule in place of the target making the check against the illusionist. This approach expresses the nature of the class better than when the target makes a save” (C&C CKG p. 52).

Yes! So why does the PHB still have the outdated and confusing statements in the cure spells that the target makes the check? I will be sure to let my players know to ignore what the PHB says in the cure wounds spell entries regarding illusionists.

So those are my thoughts on the C&C illusionist, what do you think?

Table-top RPGs and Social Media

I have experienced table-top RPGs on several social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, MeWe, and Discord – and each have played a role in my life at a particular time. Discord seems to be the big thing right now, but will it remain so after the pandemic subsides and we no longer have to do all our gaming online? What follows are my thoughts and feelings on this matter and what direction I am heading.

Google+, Facebook, and MeWe:
Google+ was perhaps the best community for table-top gaming that I experienced, but when it was made known that it was being shutdown, I, like so many others, made the move to MeWe in 2018. I like MeWe. I use it only for RPG gaming and it has a good environment to share ideas and have discussions over a long period of time. This became even more important when I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts in 2019. MeWe didn’t have the algorithms manipulating what you see, there were no ads, and no privacy violation, the community – probably because it came from the pleasant G+ environment – was also significantly more civil and pleasant than I ever found on FB.

Discord:
Then Discord became the new thing and once the pandemic hit and everyone had to game online, this became the place to go. But I’ve never felt fully at home on Discord. At its core it is a chat app. I’ve never been drawn to chat environments. The conversations begin and end in a matter of minutes and disappear into oblivion not long after, it is so fleeting and there is minimal room for substantive, long term conversation. Perhaps this is my introvert personality showing through. I’ve never really liked small talk and talking for the sake of talking. Extroverts seem to need the constant sound of conversation, but I prefer my conversations to be more substantive. Back on FB – and now on MeWe – I can have a conversation that stays on point and lasts for days, but on Discord there is the constant “noise” of multiple fleeting conversations (and side conversations that take you off-topic). That is not to say that good conversations don’t happen – they do! But the frustrating thing for me is that I can browse through a particular channel and notice that there were 3 or 4 conversations that I would’ve loved to have taken part in, but since they ended an hour ago, or even just a couple of minutes before, that the time has passed. It can give you a sense of fear of missing out.

I joined Discord in 2019 when I left Facebook and as you can imagine from what I said in the previous paragraph, it was a place I looked at, but never got too involved with, since because it was a chat room the only way you make an impact is if you spend every waking moment on the the server (at least if it is an active one). But I also discovered when I deleted FB and Twitter that I abruptly gained 12 hours of free time each week (you can see how many hours each week I wasted on those platforms! Imagine what you could do with abruptly gaining 12 hours each week!). I was not planning on plunging my life again into another social media platform like that. With the 12 hours of time I suddenly acquired I had to time read again, and design and run my campaigns, and have a real life!

Social Media pandemic and post-pandemic:
When the pandemic hit we all had to game online. Discord became one of the only ways to game, both with friends and at the conventions that were now being conducted virtually. For the last year I’ve done nearly all my gaming on Discord. Discord use seems to have grown a lot in that time (most Kickstarters now create or promote their Discord server as a way to engage their community and keep people in touch).

But I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. My online gaming is going to decline. I run two Castles & Crusades campaigns on the TLG (Troll Lord Games) Discord server. My fortnightly Saturday game has people from all over the US, Canada, and Europe, this will be a campaign that will remain online. But my weekly Tuesday game will be shifting back to in-person in the future (except, perhaps, when we in Minnesota get the occasional 12+ inch snowfall and decide to stay home and game online for that session). Once this happens my Discord use is going to drop. It is true that a lot of online gaming is here to stay, but I will predominantly be seeking face-to-face games and I wonder what will happen to platforms like Discord?

I also wonder about all the VTT’s that are being promoted right now. New VTTs are springing up all the time. I run my games mostly theater of mind. However, the last year on Discord made me realize I sometimes need table-top assistance, but I use Owlbear Rodeo, which allows me to load up a map and set it up in a matter of one or two minutes, tops. I have no need for anything else and largely ignore the VTT conversations being had. And once most people shift back to face-to-face gaming the sense of urgency to find the next best VTT will probably decline for them as well.

So, what will happen next? Presumably a lot of the VTT talk will die down post-pandemic, I suspect that although we won’t completely go back to where we were (I will be maintaining my twice-monthly Saturday Discord campaign and participate in the occasional virtual convention game), that most of us will embrace getting back to gaming in-person. Will Discord use decline? I am already feeling overwhelmed on some of the Discord servers I am on and find myself muting more and more channels and I am on the verge of leaving a few of them (I am currently on 20 Discord servers, over the next few months I see myself leaving the majority of them). Once I am gaming in person again my need for Discord and my need to use Discord will decline.

What is your experience? Is your engagement with these platforms going to be changing over the next few months as we work out what the “new normal” of table-top gaming will be?

A snapshot of me preparing for one of my online Castles & Crusades games (I run my games mostly standing up and moving around which is why the camera is placed farther away, plus, lets be honest, the natural background is pretty cool!). Once we return to in-person gaming this will become more of a rarity as many of my players will return to sitting around the table!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 60.

Summary:
1. Under a heavy downpour the Army of the Light are swarmed by trolls making burning them extremely difficult, but the druid Called Lightning. Weather conditions once again played a noticeable role in combat.
2. Dhekeon “the Disgraced”, the undead fallen paladin that travels with the group seeking redemption is discovered to have been nearly obliterated by some explosion with most of his body parts taken away (into the Barrowmaze?). The left arm that survives points to where the group needs to go to retrieve it.

PC’s:
Cobalt, Human Paladin of St. Agathos
Roulf, Half-Orc Drachentoten (Dragonslayer) of Crom
Gimli, Dwarf Berserker of Odin
Cyron, Human Cleric of Charon
Belden, Gnome Bard of Aengus
Rosaline, Half-Elf (Elven lineage) Druid of Daghda
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Elfgiva, Elf Cleric/Wizard/Archer of Sehanine
Martin, Human Rogue of Bacchus

NPC:
Conwrick Pimkin, Hobbit Ranger of Brandobaris

Game Diary:
Last session the group entered the Blackened Forest to hunt Bugbears where it had been rumored they were allying with one of the necromancer factions in the Barrowmaze. They defeated 20 bugbears that had tried to ambush them during the night. This session began with them finding the bugbear loot, and this made our Druid, Rosaline, quite excited: they found a glass orb with moving storm clouds within it, a silver torc with celtic knots on it, and several druid scrolls. Clearly the bugbears had previously killed an important druid, but who?

The next morning they chose to go hunting for trolls, but rain came in, heavily, and they chose to turn back. They had two choices, cut through the Barrowmoor where the rain would be heavier and the swamp would fill and slow them down, or stick within the forest where the rain would be partially broken up by the canopy. They chose the forest. Even with this route the going was slow as the roots were intertwined and they were going to trip if they had to run.

Troll (art by Tony DTerlizzi from the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual)

It was then that the ground began to move near their feet and six trolls emerged from the roots and moss – they were surrounded! Even with their three attacks each round my trolls somehow missed more than they should have (I rolled a surprising number of 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s on combat rolls). Still, the hits came in and the characters were getting battered down slowly. Conwrick had two vicious hits, one claw was about to take him down to negative hit points and a bite – which was clearly a critical hit – was going to tear his leather coat to shreds and rip open his chest. The group chose to use one of there cards from the Deck of Dirty Tricks to prevent the critical hit attack, and Conwrick instead collapsed into the soaked peaty ground.

Gimli entered Odin’s Fury, summoning his berserking power. Rosaline Called Lightning and using the glass globe with thunder clouds that had previously been discovered and learned that it enhanced her spell increasing the speed and damage of the spell. A lightning bold came down from the sky and struck two trolls, their bodies burned and even under the heavy downpour they could see smoke rise from their sizzling flesh. Gimli was also struck by the lightning, but he had previously acquired a Belt of Grounding with metal chains that dragged on the ground, and that sent all the electrical damage into the earth leaving him unharmed.

The group finally got most of the trolls down, but except for the lightning struck ones, these were regenerating, and the group could tell they were going to rise again. However, under the heavy rain and difficult terrain, it would be difficult to move to leave and nearly impossible to light a fire and burn them. One player managed to do so, but other attempts failed. Meanwhile, the other members of the group continued hacking at the severed heads, legs, and arms to prevent them from regenerating while Rosaline summoned another lightning strike from the storm clouds above. Most combats may only last 3-6 rounds, but due to the need to continue hacking at regenerating troll limbs while others tried to lite a fire under heavy rain and summon and control weather conditions, this took nearly 10 minutes. If the group would’ve had even one more challenge they would’ve been facing exhaustion and combat disadvantages. Fortunately, this was the end of their struggles.

Setting up the next adventure.
While this combat was taking place in the Blackened Forest, Cobalt was visiting the town of Helix and noticed a large crowd gathered around the Brazen Strumpet Tavern. Curious, Cobalt approached and saw an adventurer bragging inside about possessing an animated left arm of a skeleton which he held above him. Cobalt entered and interrogated the man about where he found it. He said there had been a large explosion near a lone willow tree and all that remained was this left arm (from finger tips to shoulder). Cobalt realized this was what remained of Dhekeon “the Disgraced”, for whenever the group is about to enter the Barrowmaze they pass by the willow tree where Dhekeon, the fallen paladin, rests and prays between the time he is needed (bringing him into to a civilized town like Helix or Irongaurd Motte would raise concern from the people frightened of the undead). Cobalt managed to intimidate the adventurer and get the arm from him.

It seems – from what the adventurers have noticed so far – that Dhekeon cannot be destroyed, for his god (St. Justus) has punished him to eternal un-life for betraying his paladin order 250 years before. Whenever he has been destroyed in the past he has managed to re-assemble himself (although sometimes it takes many days). Cobalt addressed the left arm he was holding: “where is the rest of you” and the arm pointed in the direction of the Barrowmaze. Cobalt knew they needed to retrieve and save Dhekeon and that it was time to return to the Barrowmaze.

When the group returned from their adventure in the Blackened Forest, Cobalt told them what happened and they prepared to head to the Barrowmaze. And that is where we will continue next time!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, session 22.

Summary:
1. The adventurers battle black orc skeletons wielding shadow blades that drain strength!
2. Characters make offerings and get blessed by the gods in a shrine.
3. Juhraveal, beloved rogue, dies from falling into a deadly pit.

PC’s:
Juhraveal, Half-Elf (human lineage) Rogue of Bast [now deceased]
Magnus, Gnome Druid of Belenus
Sir Sandwyche, Human Paladin of St. Agathos
Gwar, Half-Orc Barbarian of Crom
Endur “the Thick”, Human Fighter of Gobniu
Malcolm, Human Wizard/Bard (class-and-a-half) of Arcanus
Homonoea, Human Dragonslayer/Giant Killer (class-and-a-half) of Athena
Bitters Forthill, Dwarven Cleric/Fighter of Thor
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter of Crom
Anne, Elven Cleric/Rogue of Laeroth

NPC:
Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor

Game Diary:
When we last left off the adventurers had passed through a portion of the Tomb of Thorin Zuse (a barbarian prince that had held off thousands of orcs during the Orc Wars 500 years ago) that had been taken over by some goblins. They then discovered a secret passage behind an altar and made their way into an area untouched by the last half millennia.

The group continued to head deeper into the earth (they were now 13 rooms in and well over 200 feet underground). They came upon a room filled with seven statues that were on 8 foot diameter pedestals and rose 8 feet high. There was also an offering bowl in front of each statue with a variety of gems, gold, magic items, and broken weapons. The main statue was of Crom, the god Thorin worshipped 500 years ago. The other statues included the Celtic god of blacksmiths, Gobniu, and the Celtic god of hunting, Cernunnus, amongst others. Gwar charged forward and punched the statue of his god, demonstrating his strength and then smashed a weapon into the offering bowl. Crom bestowed upon him the ability to speak the language of the Giants. Rok made an offering to Crom (who was also his god) and Crom gave him a bloodstone gem. Endur made an offering to his god Gobniu and was given a +1 to his Wisdom (this raised it from 12 to 13, so he now has a bonus to his wisdom checks, however, he is known as “the thick” due to his 4 Intelligence, so his nick name is not changing anytime soon!). These characters then left the room, choosing to respect these gods by not to taking the offerings. However, Anne and Malcom remained in the room and did grab the magic items and gems from the offering bowls and hid some of them away. Anne grabbed items since she is a rogue of the Elven god of outcasts, and Malcolm because his god of Arcanus is all about collecting magic.

They then made their way to a room with a passage to the west, and a passageway to the east, however, it was the two double doors to the south made of steel and with a carving of a mighty barbarian 6 and-a-half feet tall that caught their attention. Normally the group chooses to check all rooms in a methodical order to ensure that nothing can come at them from behind, but the double doors were too enticing. Rok rushed forward along with the two rogues. They rogues tried and failed to pick the lock to the door, so Rok attacked it with his two-handed axe. With several mighty blows the lock broke and he could push open the door. It so happened that Crom had come to Rok in a dream and challenged him to open or destroy a door and he would bestow the ability to double a Dexterity or Constitution check. Since Rok had open these mighty steel doors, he felt a rush of reserve energy enter his body!

Orc skeleton (art by Mehran Mehrabi, artstation.com)

They entered the room and saw the coffin of Thorin Zuse. It was large, clearly made for a man nearly 7 feet tall. It was also surrounded by skeletons – blackened orc skeletons. Malcolm detected magic from the skeletons and from inside the coffin, and Sir Sandwyche detected evil from the skeletons. Rok moved in and the skeletons sprung to life. Magic missiles were launched from a recently found wand. Sound burst was cast. And Bitters drew upon the power of his god Thor and summoned the Hammer of Thor. In the 30 foot high chamber clouds formed, lightning flashed, and a hammer descended from the sky and destroyed the top and sides of the coffin of Thorin Zuse spraying the fragments into most of the skeletons (also weakened from previous attacks). The coffin, now with the top and sides splintered and embedded in the skeleton’s bodies lying on the floor, began tilting forward and Thorin’s two-handed sword began sliding forward onto the ground. Gwar, Rok, and Endur charged forward to destroy the remaining two skeletons. Along with attacking, Gwar tried to reduce the skeletons movement and combat abilities by spilling marbles on the floor before them.

At this point the two remaining skeletons pulled out wispy, shadowy short swords to attack. The warriors fighting them were armored well and had proper stamina to endure bodily harm, but these orc skeletons were clearly enhanced with these mysterious weapons. Each of three warriors were struck several times, and each failed a Constitution save once (Rok actually failed twice, but he used the reward Crom had given him to double his Con save and that ensured he passed one of the checks). The failed Con saves meant they each lost one point of Strength – this was not good! Thorthic and Bitters both hurled their hammers at the skeletons. Thorthic’s hammer fell to the ground, but Bitters’ hammer lodged itself within the rib cage of a black skeleton!

Homonoea lunged forward and picked up the mighty two-handed sword from the dead hands of Thorin Zuse. The sword spoke to her telling her to plunge the blade of the sword into the earth and summon a chasm. She did so and the earth cracked open before her, creating a chasm 10 feet wide, 10 feet deep, and 60 feet long, breaking right through the back wall of the tomb. Gwar, Endur, and one of the two skeletons fell into the chasm taking falling damage. The subsequent battle in the chasm was difficult, not only because of the uneven ground, but also because there were loose marbles rolling around from when Gwar previously dropped them on the ground!

The warriors finally got a grip on the situation and with mighty swings of swords and axes sliced into the black skeletons and they crumpled from the blows. The characters were healed and brought back up out of the chasm. It had been one tough battle! Anne was now out of spells and wanted to rest, but many of the others must’ve still had the rush of the battle still surging through them and wanted to go on, for there were still more things to see. A secret door was discovered on the east wall of the tomb. Most of the group wanted to go through it. Anne and Juhraveal (the two rogues) opened it. Anne passed through first and Juhraveal held onto to her clothing close behind to be safe.

A pit trap opened before them!

Anne made her saving throw and managed to turn her body so as to hang onto the ledge hanging above the pit below, but Juhraveal failed her save and when Anne managed to turn and grab onto the side of the pit, Juhraveal went hurling head first into it. The pit trap was 30 foot deep and had spikes at the bottom. The damage took her well below -10 hit points and she was impaled multiple times on the stakes. Dear Juhraveal was dead. She had made it to 3rd level as a rogue and was among only three others that have gotten that high. She had been great fun.

Our game session had reached its time limit. This game is on Discord and is played with people from the US, Canada, and Europe, so although some had to leave at this point, others stayed on and we talked for another couple of hours. The player who had used Juhraveal discussed his next character and we talked about future sessions. This is a really fun group! There is growing amounts of role-playing as we get to know each other better, and the characters – who had already done favors on behalf of the local town – are now poised to return as heroes in a very new way. I think the players can see the group transitioning to something much greater. The group should probably begin considering a name for their adventuring company.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 59.

Summary:
1. The entire west end of the Barrowmaze is explored.
2. The adventurers hunt Bugbears setting up an alliance with one of the Barrowmaze necromancer factions.
3. OwlbearRodeo VTT comes to the rescue again.

Game Diary:
We began the session with only two rooms left to explore in the NW corner of the Barrowmaze. Both entrances to the rooms were bricked up, so the strong members began smashing them down with their sledge hammers. This attracted attention from crawling claws, but they were easily destroyed. In the last room one rogue accidentally triggered a trap and the entrance to the room was blocked by a falling rock and those inside the room had to try and find an escape route as the 20 x 20 foot room was filled with water in a mere 5 rounds from two water tubes in the ceiling! Luckily, just as they were about to begin worrying about drowning, they found a secret entrance out of the room and escape! The group picked up some nice coins and treasure for their effort and they headed back to Ironguard Motte.

Once back in town, Conwrick Pimkin, a hobbit ranger they know from some of their adventures in the nearby woods, told them of rumors he heard from his hobbit friends that a nearby group of bugbears are possibly setting up an alliance with one of the necromancer groups in the Barrowmaze. Hobbits (i.e. halfings) pay attention to bugbears since in my world bugbears are a corruption of the hobbits. All hobbits in my world are told stories that if their oversized greed for treasure gets the better of them that they could grow to into the monstrous proportion of these beasts, and the hair on their feet will spread to the rest of their body. In actual fact this takes generations of corruption to occur, but it still makes great stories to scare young hobbits with when they are children!).

Bugbear (art by CMOFFITT, ZBrushCentral)

The group decided to seek out these bugbears and stop them. One player decided to use this opportunity to bring in a new character he had created – a triple class elven cleric/wizard/archer.

This was one of those times that I was glad I use the OwlbearRodeo VTT. When I had Conwrick convey the bugbear rumor to the group, my thought was simply to lay plot down for a future game session, for we had already spent three sessions out of the Barrowmaze and I thought the group would go right back in, but, no, they decided to go bugbear hunting! So I suggested a 5 minute bio break and during that time I took a quick break, replenished my water, and then jumped to Owlbear Rodeo to design an adventure on the spot that could last the remaining 3-4 hours!

I quickly loaded a grass map on a grid, drew some green circles representing trees of various diameters, and then threw on 20 tokens to represent the bugbear ambush at night (I made the tokens invisible to the players until the monsters would begin attacking from surprise each round) . This simple and efficient setup only took a couple of minutes and was perfect for me. I refuse to spend more than 10 minutes on any VTT setup for a game, especially since in situations like this one, I need to make spontaneous and on-the-spot decisions based on what my players choose to do. Any VTT that requires elaborate pre-setup and lots of automation is a complete non-starter for me. I use as much as possible theater of mind and look up details in books only if necessary. The map was simple, but more than did the job and verbal descriptions took care of the rest.

The Owlbear Rodeo map I put together in seconds to layout the bugbear night ambush.

Conwrick led the way to the woods doing the tracking for the group, and they traveled for an entire day before needing to seek a campsite in the western woods of the Duchy of Aerik for the evening. It was during first watch that the druid saw the flickering orange campfire light illuminate the canopy of trees above them, along with the movement of some being in the shadows of the leafy branches. She alerted her friends just as a bunch of arrows descended down upon them from the trees above from bugbear archers!

Initially the group thought they were only fighting 3-5 bugbears, but as each round progressed 3-4 more bugbears would reveal themselves when a volley of arrows fell down upon them from a new set of nearby trees, either from behind trees on the ground, or in the canopy 30-70 feet above. Eventually the group realized they were fighting 20 bugbears. Gimli, the dwarven berserker who had lycanthropy, summoned Odin’s Fury and also transformed himself into a werewolf! He howled and hoped to summon any wolves in the area to aid him (he also had to make a wisdom check to be able to control his new chaotic evil werewolf personality and be able to recognize friend from foe).

The fighting was elaborate as some characters with spider climbing ability were climbing trees and running across the canopy from one tree to another, while others attacked from the ground with their melee or ranged weapons, and others were climbing trees to backstab the bugbears. There was great use of flanking, backstabs, and charges taking place. The bugbear leader had acquired some necromantic power and upon firing an arrow into Ria (the human pacer climbing the tree toward him), filled her with paralysis, and even with slippers of spider climbing, she tumbled 40 feet down the trunk of the tree – but somehow managed to survive! Another bugbear nearly took out the mystical owl companion of Belden (gnome bard), but a card from the Deck of Dirty Tricks saved it from death and it managed to get healed up in future rounds.

Due to the staggered and careful attacks of the bugbears, this battle took time (in game terms), and by the time they were defeated, several minutes had passed (normally a combat is over in just a few rounds). It was as the last bugbears fell from the trees that Gimli’s wolves were arriving. He left Odin’s Fury (and had to make a Wisdom check so as to not lose a point of wisdom from the effort of his berserk state of mind), but he chose to stay in werewolf form to maintain control of his wolves and so they could remain with him through the remainder of the night and protect him.

Next time they will loot the bugbears, and…then what? Look for more bugbears? Head back to the Barrowmaze? We’ll all find out next week!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 58.

Summary:
Players make new characters to serve as henchmen/followers to their higher-level characters. The Army of the Light battle sapphire skeletons, crypt knights, a gemstone golem, and Gimli loses his magical warhammer when it merges with a caryatid column warrior!

Game Diary:
After three sessions away from the Barrowmaze (which took several weeks of game time) while attending a Viking Thing (Assembly), the group returned to the Barrowmaze.

The group have gotten into a rhythm of sending a group of adventurers into the Barrowmaze for 1-3 days in a row, and then take 4-8 weeks off as characters level up and they use the downtime to learn knew skills, abilities, acquire mystical companions, and begin setting themselves up for building towers and establishments when they reach 9th level. However, this also gives the necromancers living within the Barrowmaze time to recover, since the other rival adventuring companies in the area do not have the organization, resources, or skills to pose as much of a threat to them as the Army of the Light does (at least not yet…).

As a result of the sporadic delving into the Barrowmaze over a two year period, the Church of Nergal have developed a long-standing hatred of this group. The Acolytes of Orcus, which have thus far played a more minor role (the adventurers are not in their part of the dungeon yet) are also more indirectly familiar with them. It has reached a point where the adventurers are sometimes being sought out and singled-out by the necromantic factions.

This session the adventurers explored the final four rooms in the NW corner of the Barrowmaze. When they complete this, they will have explored the entire western end of the Barrowmaze, encompassing over 200 rooms and probably an equal number of sub rooms. This is quite an accomplishment, and I think the players are excited about having covered that much territory! But they know there is more to come with new sub-plots to be revealed. Additionally, along with many of the players possessing 1-3 characters in the 5th-6th level range (that much closer to 9th level when they begin building their own structures and getting henchmen and followers), the type of game I run is one where the players themselves can begin setting up characters to play those roles (instead of making the followers one-dimensional NPCs). So, for this adventure two new 1st level characters entered the group – Astrid, a CG Human Skald of Hel, and Magni, a CN Dwarven Fighter of Barundar, the dwarven god of honorable warriors.

It so happened that the the 10 adventurers that entered the Barrowmaze tonight were almost entirely non-lawful and non-good (there was one LG character, and two CG characters, the other 7 were some type of neutral, with 4 being CN). This shift away from lawful and good may have an impact later on. The Army of the Light destroyed and sealed the Pit of Chaos awhile back and that – in the long term – will have a profound effect on the area. But it was open for centuries, so you can expect the effects of the Pit of Chaos to linger for a time.

One example in this adventure were nine hooded skeletal undead that were dedicated to attacking lawful characters. When I asked my players who had a lawful alignment, only one player had one! So Cobalt, the mighty paladin was swarmed by all nine of these undead. Fortunately for him, I only hit with 1 of my 9 undead in the first round (Cobalt has a very high AC, especially vs. evil). He was lucky, for these undead had some nasty surprises if they would’ve succeeded on their attacks and if he would’ve failed a few saving throws. The group of 10 adventurers swarmed in and destroyed them after that, but Cobalt will not be able to rely on luck like that for every encounter! As I mentioned above, this adventuring party is clearing up the last portion of the west end of the dungeon, there is a much greater likelihood that when they begin to head east the organized groups in those areas will be prepared to take advantage of at least a few of the adventurers weaknesses [I should mention for those that aren’t aware, that the Barrowmaze is a horizontal dungeon as opposed to a vertical dungeon, so instead of getting more difficult as you descend levels, the (mostly) single-level Barrowmaze gets more difficult as you head east].

art from the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual

Other undead were encountered, including skeletons with gemstones embedded in their skulls. When you take them down, they simply re-assemble again unless you can destroy the gem in their skulls. This kept the adventurers busy taking down the ones that were attacking them while trying to prevent the ones they thought they destroyed from coming back together and rising again.

Crypt knights came in to attack and attempted to scatter the group with their fear aura, but the group resisted their aura of evil and destroyed them.

A golem creature made of gems attacked, and although the new 1st level characters (with no magic weapons) discovered they couldn’t do anything to it, there were several other 4-6th level characters with magic weapons that could damage it, and soon they destroyed it and acquired a load of new sparkling gem treasure.

For our old friend Gimli, the dwarven berserker of Odin who recently returned from the Viking Thing excited for his future offer to become a Viking lord, he had a minor setback when caryatid columns came to life. He had previous fought creatures like this and lost the head of a previous warhammer when it merged with the stone body of the creature. He had since acquired a new magical warhammer and was a bit superstitious about losing this new weapon to these creatures, and it was just his luck that as his warhammer struck the female stone warrrior in the head and it merged with her and turned to stone, and as a result he lost a second magical warhammer to these creatures!

The adventure ended immediately after this encounter ended. Next time we will see what they decide to do next.