Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 80

The Army of the Light is pulled from the crypts of the Barbarian Lord Uthuk Amon Thar into an alternate prehistoric reality where they battle a legendary Hydra followed by a legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex that nearly kills a PC in a single bite!

Gimli Hearthfire, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Wright Dawnbreaker, Human Paladin 3 of St. Luther
Edward, Human Bard 4 of St. Cecilia
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus
Elfgiva, Archer 2/Cleric 2/Wizard 2 of Sehanine Moonbow
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Rosaline, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 6 of St. Agathos

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
Last session the Army of the Light entered the crypt of Uthuk Amon Thar, a barbarian lord that died long before the Barrowmaze was built. Entering the tomb they fought former servants of his that had become undead and the session ended with them completing the first Trial of the Hunt by fighting and defeating cave bears and carnivorous apes.

This session began with them entering a second room where a voice boomed “Let the Second Trial of the Hunt begin!” From the walls leapt owl bears and hell hounds. Gimli summoned Odin’s Fury and this berserker ability made him immune to the hell hound’s fire. Dhekeon was able to walk on the ceiling (he has a death mask that allows spider climbing) and attacked the owl bears from above. Upon destroying these beasts a door opened and they entered a third room where they saw a 12 headed hydra on one wall and a tyrannosaurus rex on another. A voice then boomed “Let the Final Trial of the Hunt begin!” The legendary beasts shimmered, the group felt light-headed, fell to the ground, and then awoke in a warm, steamy jungle-like swamp in the middle of the night. Above them in the sky the stars seemed to rotate and eerie lights shimmered and shifted about. The elves that had twilight vision and those that had darkvision could tell there were massive, prehistoric plants all around them. The sounds of jungle and swamp assaulted their ears. Where were they?

The sky came alive in my game room to pull the players into the adventure.

I love to immerse my players in a game when I can, and when they were brought to this strange place I activated a nebula/star projector I have and turned on ambient music from my computer. I usually keep the lighting low in my games around the table, so the projections of rotating stars and nebulae showed up well on the ceiling!

The players immediately went on the hunt. While seeking out evidence of where the hydra might be, a pack of 12 velociraptors picked up their scent and charged in a pack, Edward used a special bard ability and a cacophony of sound burst around them and injuring them enough for the others to destroy them.

They next managed to track down the hydra after several hours. The battle would’ve been quite rough, but Llewelyn has a mirror of opposition and when he held it up the 12 headed legendary hydra appeared in front of the PCs throwing them all to the side. The true hydra hated this imposter and it spend most of the first two rounds attacking and destroying the heads of the mirrored hydra. That gave the PCs time to attack the legendary hydras body. But with the body dead there were still 12 heads. The only way they could reach the heads properly with non-reach melee weapons was to climb the body of the hydra, so those melee combatants climbed its body. Gimli went to the back and summoned his Blood of Tyr berserker ability and began to burn the beast, while ranged combatants fire their arrows and bolts from afar. This took it down, but the group was grateful for the duplicate that was summoned, for this legendary hydra had 12 attacks a round and could have done some lethal damage!

Looking for the T-Rex they instead found two megalosaurus. It took a while for the group to whittle down these powerful beasts and the group was worried for what might happen when they found the T-Rex!

As the group took a chance in this strange, surreal, realm to find a place to rest and sleep the third watch was caught by surprised, for in the soft, marshy, ground the legendary T-Rex was able to sneak up on the members on watch. With one swift bite it emerged from the darkness and took a mighty bite of Elfgiva. The damage from the bite clearly killed her, but the group had a card from the Deck of Dirty Tricks that allowed one attack to only do half damage. A quick vote around the table meant that the card could be used on Elfgiva. With half damage she was only at -1 hit point and thus just unconscious. The group was clearly frightened, for in the first surprise round one character escaped death by the skin of the teeth.

Initiative was rolled. I rolled low. Everyone was awake, but 2/3 didn’t have their armor on since they had been sleeping (and anyone who tries to sleep in metal armor in my game – especially in prehistoric humid swamp weather – will take heavy combat penalties) they had to fight with low armor class. Spells were cast at it, but the T-Rex passed all its saves. The players were able to estimate that this beast was in the range of 20 hit dice, so even secondary saves were probably going to succeed against them. So they swarmed in for physical attacks for all they could. They rolled well, with many attacks doing 9-14 points of damage per hit. As the combat round came to an end I managed to get another bite in with the powerful beast but I rolled low damage and that character had more hit points. The next initiative round was rolled and again the players got what they needed to mostly go before me and the powerful blows finally took the king of beasts down. The legendary T-Rex with just over 100 hit points (which is a lot for an old school monster!) was defeated!

Immediately everything around the players shimmered, and after regaining their footing and blinking a few times they found themselves back in the chamber which had the image of the hydra and T-Rex. Only now a brand new door was open. Surely now that they have completed the Trials of the Hunt the group could enter the tomb of Uthuk Amon Thar! Well, the session was at an end, so the group will find out next week!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, Session 31

This game diary is going to focus almost exclusively on how I got things wrong in this game session. I will discuss: 1. Providing too many details. 2. Revealing too much. 3. Overuse of hirelings. 4. Railroading.

Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk 2/Cleric 1 (class and a half) of Horus 
Magnus, Gnome Druid 3 of Belenus 
Malcolm, Human Wizard 3/Bard 1 of Arcanus
Homonoea, Dragonslayer 2 of Athena
Ser Sanwyche, Human Paladin 3 of St. Agathos
Gwar, Half-Orc Barbarian 3 of Crom
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter 3 of Crom
Anne, Elf Rogue 3/Cleric 2 of Laeroth Mestarine

Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor

Three “Axe for Hire” Dwarves of Dumathoin
Three “Wayfinder” Dwarves of Dumathoin

Game Session Diary:
In the adventure the players descended more than 200 feet down a nearly vertical shaft with the help of dwarven hirelings that made use of stalls as platforms to assist the PCs get to the bottom. They then had to pass through a large chamber where the lower portion was filled with deadly methane gas. They then entered an audience chamber where grimlocks were listening to their leader speak. Under the protection of a silence spell, characters moved in silently and destroyed the 3 leaders and their 30 followers with relative ease. Since grimlocks are blind and use sound and smell to navigate, the silence spell rendered them deaf and “blind” and an otherwise challenging battle was resolved quickly. So, what went wrong? I will reflect upon that below.

An opening in a cave with stalls. Screenshot from Abandoned and Forgotten Places.

GM Reflection on Errors Made
As today’s session came to an end and I was going to ask my players (as I always do) what they thought of it. I expected some minor issues to be brought up. I was aware that I had done too much talking, that I had spent too much time describing things in order to try and provide rich detail to immerse the players in the environment, and that some parts were a bit to railroad-y. What I didn’t realize was that all those were indeed issues, but several players thought they were a lot more worse than I thought. Let us go through what I got wrong and try and discover why (I hope that I can learn from this, and if this has happened to you as a GM, perhaps it can be a reminder to try and avoid these things).

1. Providing too many details and over using hirelings
I have been watching a lot of mining exploration videos on YouTube (a link to a great channel called Abandoned and Forgotten Places is provided in the caption above). I have been using screenshots from some of these videos to provide visual examples of what the players see while they explore. At the very beginning of the session I was discussing stalls and how they were used in caves at a point when the players had to descend a 200 foot near vertical drop. Here were a couple of thoughts expressed regarding that (I am paraphrasing):

a. “It is nice that you love mine exploration, and some of the details were interesting to learn about, but you went into far too much detail that I just didn’t care about. We should know what is necessary to engage in the adventure.” It seems that my current obsession with mine exploration has gone a little too far, and my explanations were too detailed and long-winded. I need to curb my enthusiasm on some subjects and keep it confined to the essentials.

b. Over use of hirelings. In my Barrowmaze group all my players use two characters, in this group only about half the players do, and a few of them expressed the opinion that we could make use of hirelings to expand the resources and capabilities for the group. I love the use of hirelings and since I have not really used them much since my AD&D 1E days, I happily supplied six dwarven miners to help the group out. It now seems clear that six was too many. The challenge I presented of having the players descend a vertical shaft with ropes became relatively easy when I had dwarven miners at each stall assisting the PCs in their descent. Although players did fail some of their climb checks, because there were so many safety measures in place most characters just got scratches of 1-4 hit points in damage per fall to the next stall. I made things too easy. Since the group doesn’t have any dwarves or characters with mining backgrounds in the group, without the hirelings the challenge level to climb down would’ve jumped substantially, and instead of only needing to cast one cure light wounds spell on one player after the descent, there would probably have been a lot more injured characters. But it was stated that “without the dwarven miner hirelings, I think we would’ve found a solution to climb down on our own even if we were a bit more roughed up.”

2. Revealing too much.
Earlier this week in my Barrowmaze campaign, I described one point in the adventure where the players spent 20 minutes trying to solve a puzzle. I almost intervened to assist them several times, but just as I was about to do so a player would nearly come up with the solution, so I would back off, only for them to veer in a different direction. After the game the players expressed real annoyance at that room and the setup (they blamed the game designer for making such a “dumb” way to design a room, but I suspect some of that was meant for me but they were too polite to say so).

Since that game session was still so fresh in my mind, I chose in this session to try and make up for that by being a more helpful GM. The problem is that I now moved too far in the opposite direction and used the dwarven hirelings to pretty much tell the players everything they needed to know. The players didn’t really need to solve much at all. I was just handing them information in chunks. One comment to me was that I should only give reasons or explanation when it is asked for and not just freely give it out. That is a fair point. I have gone from one extreme of patiently waiting for my players to solve a problem to giving them a steady flow of easy answers so as to make the challenges nearly trivial. I need to work to find that middle-ground point again.

3. Railroading.
Finally, we have railroading. In several places I gave the players a false sense of choice. This held true most strongly in the large chamber with the low-lying methane gas. They were all prepped to extinguish their fire sources, hold their breath, and have the dwarven miners and half orc party members lead them through the dark, when abruptly there was the “option” to climb up a 15-20 foot area above the methane. So, a lot of prep for avoiding the methane became an unnecessary waste of time and effectively a non-problem.

So, as you can see, there were a lot of issues tonight. A conversation with one player lasted a good half an hour after the end of the game session as they laid out their issues and problems (with support from another player).

It wasn’t all doom and disappointment with my GMing, though, for I had a conversation with another player on Discord (this campaign is an online Discord game) for the next three hours discussing the challenges and triumphs of developing our individual campaign worlds (there is some overlap with what we are trying to do with our worlds, so we face similar challenges). I love discussing world-building!

Still, since I just spent almost this entire blog post examining mistakes I made, I haven’t forgotten the issues that need to be addressed. I’ve been DMing for decades (since AD&D 1E) and yet no matter how long you run games, you are going to have bad spells and stumble sometimes. I only hope I can find that middle-ground between extremes for my next Barrowmaze game in a few days!

Chromatic Dungeons Review

In this post I review Chromatic Dungeons, an OSR game that pays homage to the roots of D&D while freshening things up. In the OSR community, if we are to continue, we need to try some new things. Chromatic Dungeons is a game that respects the past, but takes steps toward what the OSR could do to remain relevant now.

I love old school gaming. It is a significant guiding force in all the games that I run. Yet, I sometimes feel like the OSR is stagnating by just reproducing yet another woodgrain/white box “collector” set. I am 47 years old and I was born the year OD&D came out! Continuing to market to people in the 50-70 age range is not a long term path to growth and prosperity in our movement! We can’t keep looking back, we need to look forward to see what new ideas or twists we can use and apply them to excite the youth into trying out the OSR style of play, for it is great fun! Put another way, time didn’t stop in 1974 (or 1984), there have been improvements and innovations to the game throughout the 90’s, 00’s, 10’s, and as we enter the 20’s.

Chromatic Dungeons is an OSR game that is firmly rooted in the past, but also happily brings in new ideas and gives them an OSR spin. As the author Roderic Waibel states in the preface: “I am trying to capture the feel of gaming in the 70s/80s without necessarily copying the mechanics of that era, whereas most clones are almost near copies of both presentation and rules. Some rules are important to capture the feel, sure, but only when necessary. We have decades of lessons learned since then, and the FEEL of the game is more important than any sacred cow.”

I am glad Waibel is taking some chances to explore new areas in the OSR. Let us look at what he keeps from the 70s/80s and what new ideas he has introduced below (my review will begin with the 330 page hardcover that serves as the core book. I will discuss the two softcover Basic Rules books afterward).

Classic and Modern Features Compared and Discussed:
Broadly speaking, Waibel tries to make use of the simplicity of 1981 B/X Basic D&D, with some 2E improvements, and the aesthetic of 1E. It is a combination of 70s and 80s D&D. This has been done before with games like Basic Fantasy, but when bringing a variety of old systems together you have options in how you do it. Here are some examples of what Chromatic Dungeons does:
Alignment: Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful. A throwback to B/X Basic. Some monsters have an alignment listed (dragons and giants are frequently chaotic), but many other monsters have N/A listed (humanoids such as orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc., are listed as N/A, although the author makes clear – like any OSR gamer knows – if you want chaotic (evil) orcs, then by all means do so, it is your game).
Race, Ancestry, and Heritage. The term Race has been replaced by Ancestry. I remember asking in the 90s why the term ‘race’ was used in D&D as it didn’t seem to make sense to me even then. It took a few decades, but gaming is finally making some changes in this area (think Pathfinder, or recent 5E third-party creations), and although I don’t always agree with some of the changes that have been made, I always look forward to seeing what the latest attempt looks like since I am slowly transitioning away from race and into ancestry in my games. The innovation that Chromatic Dungeons takes is to divide things into ancestry and heritage and move attribute bonuses into something a character gets based on the class they choose.

So, for example, a dwarf’s ancestry would include their size and weight, movement rate, infravision, and their ‘solid build’ which reduces the damage they receive. You then chose your dwarf’s heritage (the background, culture and region where they were raised). Was the dwarf raised in the desert? Then they would get immunity to heat exposure and half damage from fire. Were they raised as a hunter? Then they get +2 to stealth checks and +1 to attack rolls with bows. Were they raised in mountains? Then they would get cold resistance and half damage from cold attacks. I like the versatility here. The whole race/subrace categorization that has existed for so long can be a bit boring – why do ALL high elves ALWAYS have the same abilities? Surely the background and region where they live would play a role. You get that here. There are ancestry tables listed for a variety of non-traditional creatures as well, such as bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, etc., when you then pick a heritage for them, you have some great varieties available to freshen up and broaden out your characters and monsters. Finally, demihumans and humanoids have some variety. I like it.
Classes and Class Categories. Classes are placed in groupings like we found in 2E (i.e. Warriors encompass Fighter, Berserker, Ranger, and Paladin). Moreover, it is your class that determines your attribute bonus. Are you a fighter? You can choose to give yourself a +1 to your Str, Dex, or Con (depending on what type of fighter you want to be). Paladins get a +1 to Charisma. Rangers can choose either +1 to Wisdom or Dexterity. I like this and want to give this a closer look. As I mentioned above, your ancestry provides your height, weight, and movement rate, your heritage or region provides specific resistances, and your class training provides the attributes you have focused on. This make sense to me. I think it is intuitive. I am surprised this hasn’t been done before (at least I can’t think of previous examples of this as I type this).
Experience Points. Experience points follow a single table that represents the path for all classes (like we’ve seen for post-3E D&D). I have to admit I am not a fan of character classes all advancing at the same rate. It is easier on book keeping to be sure, but I want an occasional dose of realism in my games, and there isn’t any way that a fighter that trains and learns things in barracks and on the battlefield learns and advances in an identical way to the wizard that spends their time in libraries and academies engaged in abstract metaphysical speculations, along with the rogue that spends their time in back alleys and guild halls learning secrets. These are distinctly different pursuits with very different skills sets. But of course, with so many OSR options out there, you could always just grab something like the AD&D or Castles & Crusades advancement for individual classes if you wanted (assuming you agree with my reasoning above, if not, then you have nothing to worry about!).
Ability Checks. Most skill resolutions are accomplished by an ability check. This keeps things broader than nit-picking with an overly detailed skill systems. But, being old school, you succeed on an ability check by rolling under your attribute.

Chromatic Dungeons Basic Rules
I’ve very briefly touched on the 330 page hardcover book. But what if you want something even simpler and in softcover? Well, there are also Basic Rules available (in an 86 page Player’s Book and a 58 page Monsters & Treasure Book). Everything here has been stripped down. The classes you can choose from are simply Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards. Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Humans are all summarized on roughly one page. It is simple and to-the-point. If the hardcover is a creative mixture of B/X, 1E, and 2E with a few modern innovations, then these softcover booklets simplify things to a genuine Basic level. I like when OSR games do this. BlueHolme, Labyrinth Lord, and Old School Essentials all have simpler and more elaborate – or ‘Advanced’ versions – and it is nice that Chromatic Dungeons does the same.

Finally, when I supported this Kickstarter I had the opportunity to get some small (25-30 page) zines called The Gnoll Sage that cover specific topics in each issue such as an Animist class, a Psionicist class, or the Ecology of the Orcs. Looking through these I am very happy I got them. The Animist class is very simple and playable and I may incorporate it into my Castles & Crusades game. The Psionicist class is also very well done in its simplicity. I am still leaning towards importing the Amazing Adventures Mentalist class into my C&C game, but this Psionicist class is now sitting in second place. The Ecology of the Orcs has, wait for it, pig-faced orcs! I can’t tell you how weary I am of seeing yet another World of Warcraft-style orc, or something clearly copied from the Lord of the Rings films. The Gnoll Sage has some nice old school pig orc art! So, even though Chromatic Dungeons brings up the idea that orcs do not have to be chaotic and/or evil, if it is something you want, you can get it here, for there is one heritage trait where one orc clan eats the flesh and drinks the blood of the defeated and gain hit points from it. Flexibility. That is what the OSR constantly prides itself on, and in Chromatic Dungeons you get it. Want blood thirsty orcs? You can get them. Want orcs with diverse alignments/moral outlooks? That is available here as well.

Final Thoughts.
The cover of Chromatic Dungeons is an homage to an art piece by David Trampier in the 1E PHB. The interior layout is normal paper and black and white art with charts that resemble AD&D. I love this. I wish more gaming books stepped away from full color art on glossy pages (I am almost at the point that if a book has glossy pages I won’t buy it, they are just too difficult to read and you can’t write notes on glossy pages). This book looks and is filled with a lot of classic old school content.

But this game is not stuck in the past. It mixes and matches old school systems – and importantly – provides space to move away from old, tired tropes that have had their day and open itself up to modernity. It is traditional, yet fresh. It embraces so many features of the past, and yet realizes that you can’t continue living in the past, for eventually you will be left behind and will have nobody to game with since you will be out of touch and have made no effort to reach out to the newer generation of gamers. Chromatic Dungeons allows you to soak up the nostalgia of late 20th century gaming, and yet shifts into the present and assists you in finding ways to share your love of OSR game play with modern gamers of the 21st century.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 79

1. The Army of the Light enters a series of crypts leading to Barbarian Lord Uthuk Amon Thar and begins the Trial of the Hunt!
2. I somehow miss on 14 out of 15 attacks in a single round!
3. I discuss some players growing frustration as they spent 20 minutes trying to solve a challenging puzzle in a room. Should I as the GM have intervened earlier?

Gimli Hearthfire, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Wright Dawnbreaker, Human Paladin 3 of St. Luther
Skuld, Elf Sorceress 4 of Odin
Sophia, Human Paladin 2 of St. Solania 
Edward, Human Bard 4 of St. Cecilia
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus
Elfgiva, Archer 2/Cleric 2/Wizard 2 of Sehanine Moonbow
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Rosaline, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 6 of St. Agathos

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
This session had 6 players and 12 characters (plus 1 NPC), so fully loaded, the group sought out the tomb of a barbarian lord name Thar that was buried long before the Barrowmaze was built (it was built around his tomb later).

Arriving at a bricked up wall with illustrations of a barbarian with an exotic spear made from a mysterious alloy, they broke through and entered crypts not touched for centuries. The first crypt they entered was where a half a dozen of Thar’s loyal servants were buried. Over the centuries the corruption of the Barrowmaze had crept into this area and turned them into funeral pyre zombies, which means that when these zombies (with black runes on them) are first struck they burst into flames and their flesh falls away from them. Since the group didn’t bring any rogues with them, Dhekeon was checking the doors for the group and as a result he took the main brunt of the explosive fire damage when the doors opened and the zombies were struck by an arrow which caused them all to explode.

Moving to the next crypt, Dhekeon and Gimli opened the door to find a wight who called himself “The Huntmaster” along with his two lieutenants (juju zombies). They were intelligent and spread themselves out to make it difficult for them to get hit by area of effect attacks. As the juju zombies taunted Skuld, The Huntmaster pulled forth a dagger that lit up in flames and prepared to take the adventurers on. Arthur sent out a cone of energy on the wight. Skuld had a slick solution and cast patch of frost, filling the entire crypt (the PCs were at the doorway) with a layer of frost that caused the undead a decent amount of damage, slowed their movement, and caused them to slip and fall prone if they failed saves. Rosaline cast insect swarm on The Huntmaster, further wearing him down, and when the wight did go down, the swarm moved to a juju zombie. Although the barrow wight was intelligent and had a unique magic item, the spells – especially patch of frost – rendered him unable to even get to the PCs to attempt to level drain them before he went down. The same with the juju zombies. Both they and The Huntmaster had magical Death Masks that enhanced their abilities, but the players proved to clever!

Next, they entered a crypt with a sarcophagus. The top had a carving of a great warrior lying in state with his spear and shield – was this Thar? No. It was a powerful barrow guardian! It was able to absorb some of the PCs spells with its magic resistance, but with 12 PCs it was pummeled down to stone chunks with their powerful weapons. Inside the sarcophagus were a spear and shield, Gorgat took them, pleased with the items that came from a barbarian’s crypt. Gimli then found a secret door that led into a highly decorated room.

First Trial of the Hunt. Artwork from Barrowmaze Complete.

The decorated room showed Thar fighting cave bears and carnivorous apes. The group had a map fragment and suspected that there was another door in the room, but they couldn’t see one. Most of the group filed into the room and I watched as my players came up with some truly interesting ways to test out techniques to find what they were certain was a secret exit point. Gorgat poked, prodded, and posed with his new spear and shield. Detect magic was cast. Those with slippers of spider climbing walked along the ceiling. They examined the different levels of the floor. They spent 20 minutes thoroughly examining the room. Some players were getting frustrated at this point. There was speculation that “the answer is probably something quite simple” and “this is probably going to be some kind of trial.” And even though these statements were right on the mark, they couldn’t quite figure it out. During this time, I mostly listened to the truly creative ideas they were coming up with, but I kept asking “how many of you are now in the room?” Finally, some were catching on, and one player said, “everyone, get in the room!” And yet there was hesitation – some players wanted to remain in the previous room! FINALLY, they all entered, and when that happened, the door sealed shut behind them and a magical mouth said, “The Great Uthuk Amon Thar Welcomes You, Tomb-Robber—Let the Trial of the Hunt begin!” and at this point the cave bears and apes came to life, emerged from the walls and attacked.

This could’ve been quite challenging, however, as I rolled the three attacks that each cave bear and ape got against the PCs, I rolled 15 attacks and missed on 14 of them (my highest roll was an 8, most were 2-5)! With effectively an entire round where the beasts did nothing, that effectively gave the PCs a free round of combat. Gimli entered Odin’s Fury and turned himself into a werewolf (he has a modified version of lycanthrope) and tore some of these beasts to shreds.

As the beasts lie dead before them, a door appeared from nowhere and allowed them to enter a similar room. Upon entering the beasts on this wall were owlbears and hell hounds. A mouth appeared and said “Let the Second Trial of the Hunt begin!” and that is the cliffhanger we left the adventure for next week.

GM Reflection:
Some players were a bit confused by how “the room” knew that not all of the group had entered the room – how did it “know” that some PCs were still in the other room? I had told the players at the beginning of the session that as they were entering this unique tomb that existed long before the Barrowmaze, that there seemed to be something different – semi-sentient – about the place. In the room for the first Trial of the Hunt the walls glowed with magic when a wizard cast detect magic (and no one had bothered to cast detect magic in any of the rooms prior to it). There was also the barrow guardian that was “keeping an eye” on who was entering the place.

I do worry that I allowed the players to speculate about the room for too long and that might be why there was a bit of lingering frustration afterward. It was a tough call, for although the conversations they had with each other went on for 20 minutes, there were several times when they pretty much had the answer, and I was ready to begin the battle and then they backed away and focused on another theory. I honestly did not expect it to take 20 minutes! Plus, I was enjoying the discussions (these players are really creative!). Still, I may have to move things forward a bit more quickly next time. If the players haven’t realized it yet, they will soon enough that if the room would’ve shut the doors and begun the Trial of the Hunt with some characters in the previous room, that those characters would effectively have been left out of the remaining parts of this adventure, so they should be happy they still have those characters, because they will need them!

Rackham Vale Review

This is a review of Rackham Vale, a fascinating RPG sandbox supplement based on the classic illustrations of Arthur Rackham. There is a lot to enjoy here if you love classic art to read and enjoy, as well as an addition to your fantasy RPG!

Back in February I promoted a Kickstarter called Rackham Vale. The Kickstarter promotion states it is “A fey-filled mini-sandbox teeming with fantasy creatures and locations from the mind and paintbox of the immortal Arthur Rackham. Available now in multiple formats at and DriveThruRPG.”

Well, the Kickstarter has now been delivered and it has delivered far more than was ever promised – a rarity for Kickstarter! Let me elaborate.

As part of the zinequest promotion (which is to create A5 sized folded, staple, or saddle-stiched zines). Rackham Vale aimed to meet this requirement with a 40 page zine and some art cards. Well, the project funded and even met some stretch goals. But the creator was truly committed to making this the best project he could, and what he has produced is a 153 page book(!) with 24 art cards on solid card stock, a map of Rackham Vale (all of these are A5), and a 22 minute soundtrack available to accompany any adventuring you might do.

This book is filled with rich details, encompassing mythological creatures, seelies and unseelies, key features of the map of Rackham Vale (the map is available in the book and as a sturdy 5×7 card), and lots of charts and tables you can roll on for inspiration or variety. Factions are detailed, and there is a nearly 80 page bestiary. The monsters have an Old School Essentials stat block, but then have additional fun categories and details such as: what they like, what they hate, what they want, allies, and enemies (try and zoom in on the pictures I’ve linked above and below). This gives a GM a lot of fun roleplaying and adventure design ideas. Through the short and succinct text you can use these creatures many times and emphasize something different. Of course, the motivation for this project was to tie everything in to Arthur Rackham’s art, so each monster gets a full page picture to itself and art is visible on almost every page of the book – Brian Saliba took true advantage of Arthur Rackham’s art to provide detail illustrations for monsters, people, and landscapes, bringing a full environment to life. You really feel immersed in this world.

I supported this Kickstarter at a high level and received 24 art cards (these are available for purchase on the website linked below). I think they are worth it. On one side of the card is a full color illustration of a creature by Arthur Rackham, and on the back are all the details you need to run it. This is great for the GM to hold up to the players during an encounter while referencing everything on the back. The card stock is thick and sturdy – quality stuff.

There is also a map card that comes with the book. It is 5×7, but the text and locations are a bit small since this place is so richly detailed, but it is fine for a quick reference for the lay of the land. I would use it as reference during gameplay and utilize the zoomed-in PDF for game prep (there is also a more close-up version of the map as a 2-page spread in the book).

The art within the book is black and white (which is apparently a zinequest requirement. However, the PDF is in color as are the art cards, and there may be a printed color version of the book available in the future). The print size is also a bit small (for me at least), and due to the glued binding some maps, text, and art might be difficult to see without forcing the book open more than you’d like.

Overall Thoughts and Possibilities
That said, I love this book enough that if it were to become available in a larger print format (A4 with larger font) with color art, I’d get another copy. As it stands right now, I will most likely research material on Rackham Vale for a game session through the PDF on my computer and use the printed book and art cards during play.

If you are running a Dolmenwood campaign, this would complement that greatly. Once Gavin Norman releases Dolmenwood (hopefully in 2022), I plan to use Rackham Vale and Dolmenwood together to expand the realm of possibilities for the Otherworld/Realm of Faerie when it bleeds into my fantasy world (with probably some elements from Glynn Seal’s Midderlands to increase the level of strangeness). Rackham Vale is a really fun product with a plethora of creative possibilities for the GM, and I am very happy that I supported this project.

More information and how to get this product.

Questing Beast has done a great review of this book detailing its many quirks and possibilities for use, so feel free to take a look at his review for a clear presentation of what is on offer with this great product.

The product is now available on crwbr. The shop allows you to get the book, art cards, and map. All of them are worth it if you like Arthur Rackham’s art and want a full mini-setting to explore.

If you have Rackham Vale, let me know what you think of it!

Preparing A New Castles & Crusades Campaign, Part 1: Aufstrag!

I am outlining a new Castles & Crusades campaign for 2022: The Dungeons of Aufstrag by Troll Lord Games (TLG) but modified and placed within my own homebrew world.

TLG’s Dungeons of Aufstrag box sets.

I need to begin preparing a new C&C campaign. My fortnightly Dragonclaw Barony campaign just completed session 30 and I think it has a good year or two left. However, my weekly Barrowmaze campaign just finished session 78 and it has between 6-9 months left (this all depends on how players proceed through what remains). As a result, I need to begin laying the groundwork for what will follow. The current two campaigns have relied a lot on designing things on the fly, but for the new campaign I aim to have a firm foundation created and a fully written and laid out gazetteer for my players to read and reference prior to character creation in Session 0. But what will the campaign be built around?

When presented with what I was interested in running, the players in my Barrowmaze campaign expressed clearly their desire for The Dungeons of Aufstrag by TLG. Although I have made Castles & Crusades the game system to run my campaigns since 2018, I have not yet run an official TLG C&C game. My Saturday game is currently using Basic Fantasy adventures and will transition to AD&D 2nd edition for the classic TSR adventure Dragon Mountain. My Tuesday game is using Barrowmaze which is made for Labyrinth Lord. So Aufstrag will be my first campaign to actually make use of the C&C game system!

Still, I will be making some substantial changes to Aufstrag to fit within my own homebrew world:

Altering Aufstrag:

  • Aufstrag takes place in the World of Aihrde (by TLG), but I use my own game world. So although I will be using some of the immediate areas around Aufstrag – and some Aihrde monsters, they will be firmly placed in my own game world with my own pantheons of gods and my own kingdoms. They need to fit within my own storyline and metaphysics.
  • Aufstrag was involved in 1,000 year “Winter’s Dark” when a demon ruled the region. I will be using the Winter’s Dark as an important and pivotal feature of a region in my world (my world is based around the idea of corruption), and a demon will be involved, but why it happened, what happened during that time, and the name of the demon involved will be altered to suit my campaign needs.

Why change the material, why not use the campaign world?

There are two answers. First, we have a more negative reason. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from having run the Forgotten Realms for 26 years. I am still tired of having players come to my games and reference things they read in a novel, game product, or website and say “I want to do that,” completely ignoring the work I had done on my world moulding it to something unique over a quarter century.

Secondly, there is a more positive reason. The overall themes and ideas found in Aufstrag overlap in several key areas with my world. So, I think it makes great sense to draw upon what Steve Chenault has created and give it a unique twist and (hopefully) a fresh knew take for my world. All the players who will be in this Aufstrag campaign aren’t familiar with the world of Aihrde (which should work in my favor, since they are not bringing any previous baggage with them on “how it should look or be done”). But for those who are familiar with Aufstrag, they might enjoy hearing about the new ways I have interpreted it.

Other Areas of Campaign Focus (these will be discussed in future campaign design posts)

  • Historical Realism. I want this campaign to be heavily grounded in medieval history. I am academically a philosopher and historian and I want to bring true historical grit to the game. I am reading academic texts on rural and urban medieval life and building up my notes on the time period I am focusing on (roughly the High Middle Ages, c.1000-1250 CE). This will be the foundation from which Aufstrag will be build upon.
  • Central City or Village. I want the players to have a central location to visit between the Aufstrag adventures when they are resting or leveling up and acquiring new abilities.
  • Guilds. I plan to create a series of guilds located in the central city, village, or barony. These will be tied to the PC’s family backgrounds and professions (e.g. soldier, farmer, miller, sage)
  • Cults. I need to create some cults and secret organizations, some relevant to my conception of Aufstrag, but others that tie in to my game world and the region in general.
  • Crafting System. I want to create a crafting system that allows PCs to create the things they need over time with a noticeable progression in ability based on the effort they put into it. It has to meet the needs of historical realism within a fantasy RPG.
  • Mystical Companions. A lot of players want cool animal, pet, or mystical familiars. The Mystical Companions book by TLG I think is the best of its kind out there. But there are problems with it, and I need to sit down and simplify and correct them for easier use.
  • Race/Ancestry as Class. I have thus far stuck with humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, hobbits, and half-orcs/half-elves in my C&C campaigns. For Aufstrag I will be adding Elder Elves and Dwarves, and High Gnomes and Hobbits. These will be similar to race-as-class (or ancestry-as-class) inspired from Basic D&D.
  • New Ancestries and Subraces/Alternate Ancestries and Heritage. I am also going to introduce some new playable races: centaurs, changelings, and a type of giant race (and perhaps more). I am having a lot of fun reading old European folklore tales and creative gaming sources for inspiration.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 78

1. The Army of the Light kills a basilisk and brings a petrified friend back home.
2. An examination of the joys and deep challenges of trying to use the Castles & Crusades Mystical Companions book to expand player companion/pet/familiar options.

Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus
, Human Cleric 5 of Charon
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 7/Illusionist 6 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 7 of Bacchus
Astrid, Human Skald 3 of Hel
Noro, Human Warrior Priest 3 of Hyperion
Remi, Gnome Rogue 5/Illusionist 4 of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin 2 of St. Ingrid
Jasper, Dwarf Fighter 3/Cleric 3 of Dumathoin
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
Last session we ended on a cliffhanger as Balthazar was thrown into a room by a revolving door, met the gaze of a basilisk, failed his save, and turned to stone. This session began with careful planning, and then Arthur entered the basilisk room through the revolving door, but it got stuck when it struck the stone Balthazar. Arthur responded – while avoiding the gaze of the basilisk – to place his portable hole over the head Balthazar and then with a push his stone friend fell into it and Arthur could store him away.

During this time the other members of the group entered the room, and even when they took a -4 to hit it to avoid the creature’s gaze, they swiftly killed it. After looting its tomb, they wanted to get back to Ironguard Motte, count their treasure, and put Balthazar in storage/on display until they find a way to reverse his petrification. After more than two full sessions on this adventure, there was a lot of XP to distribute, and several characters leveled up. At this point the remainder of our game session turned to upgrading characters.

Castles & Crusades book Mystical Companions
This takes us to Mystical Companions. Have you ever wanted a special companion, pet, or familiar for your character that is unique to your character class? Well, then, this is probably the best book I’ve found to meet that need with all its imaginative options. Ever since my players have gotten a hold of this book there have been two things they have consistently said: “that is so cool!” and “what does that mean?”

There is an abundance of amazingly fresh ideas in this book, but they are sometimes cancelled out by all the page turning you have to do to find and cross-reference everything. Additionally, this book was previously a D&D 3E book called the Book of Familiars, and a substantial amount of 3E terminology remains within its covers and it is confusing a lot of my players who never played that edition (and for the few that do know 3E, they want to know how it applies to C&C). Using this book requires extra time to prepare and plan what companion your character wants to acquire, how they are going to do it, and what path they want that companion to take over their level advancement as it grows with the character. The problem is that with all the page-turning and leftover 3E terminology, references to 3E monsters that we are frequently told are to be found in the Monsters & Treasure book (but are not), this becomes a genuine headache and exercise in frustration. This may be the best companion book I’ve come across for an RPG, but it is also probably the most poorly executed.

Examples of the Good Parts:
The Variety of Options for Character Classes. An Illusionist, for example, can summon animistic spirits (classic familiars from myth and literature), automatons (non-sentient mechanical objects), fetish familiars (a physical receptacle that serves as a container for a spirit), and mercurial familiars (intelligent spirits that only want to satisfy their own desires). Each of these options takes up several pages with charts and details showing the paths a character can make. Multiple players could make the same choice and yet take them in very different directions. The options here are amazing!

And every single character class has an option available to it (well, not every character class, the knight, for example, is missing an entry in this book, but since this book began as a 3E product, and 3E didn’t have a knight class, they didn’t bother to add it to this book. That is a little annoying, but it is easy enough to just have the player use options from the paladin or fighter chapters, but as we will see, the little bit of extra work here and there that the player and GM have to do builds up over time).

The Problems:
Mixed Messages from the Rules. My players and I get different messages depending on what we are reading. One of the things I like about C&C is that there is a lot of openness to the system, there are not too many rules telling you how to do something, they leave a lot up to each GM and their players to creatively work things out. But in this case that doesn’t really work. That may be in part because of this book previous existence as a 3E book and 3E was a system that tried to have an answer for every question and instead usually gave you a question for every answer (that is why many of us got bogged down and lost in the details of the 3E rules-heavy system). I think there needed to be more paring down when this book was brought into C&C, and I don’t think that was done. There are 8 authors listed for this book. That might explain why the book has (i) so many unique approaches to companions, as well (ii) why the book is all over the place and sometimes lacks a consistent unity. An editor could’ve helped in this regard.

Editing. I mentioned the illusionist options above. The header for the illusionist chapter begins with “The Illusionist’s Familiar,” but a few pages later the header changes to “The Wizard’s Familiar” (the Wizard chapter follows the Illusionist chapter). Even though we are now all familiar with this glaring error, it still gets us when we are paging through the book to look something up and we can’t rely on the header to let us know where we are.

Then there are the references to creatures and beasts that don’t exist in C&C. Believe it or not bats don’t appear in the C&C Monsters & Treasure (M&T) or any other C&C book I’ve looked at. As you can imagine, bats are mentioned constantly as a companion that someone can procure, it is stated numerous times that “these creatures can be found in Monsters and Treasure” or in “Appendix A.” They appear in neither. I have a player who has a bat familiar, but I used the stats from the Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary (which has bat entries for every kind of bat you could ever need).

Dire wolves. They are also referenced constantly as being in either Monsters & Treasure or Appendix A, but they are a 3E monster and don’t appear in M&T or Appendix A. Even though it is easy enough to just replace a dire wolf with a worg, or something similar that does appear in M&T, the names of creatures that don’t exist in C&C products, or are a reference to a different game system, should’ve been found in editing and removed or altered. These errors are obvious, and it shouldn’t be up to the GM and the players to wade through these unnecessary issues and do all this extra work themselves. The book should help you, not put-up roadblocks.

The problem might be that there are 6 editors listed for this book. This probably doesn’t help with the hit-and-miss editing. Troll Lord Games is notorious for its poor editing and that really stands out in this book. They really need to stop asking well-meaning and well-intentioned friends who will look over their books after work and on weekends and hire professional editors that are being paid to do specific editorial jobs (i.e., developmental editing, content editing, copy editing, and mechanical editing).

I do get enjoyment as a GM in grabbing monsters from any edition of D&D and throwing them in my game to keep my players on their toes. But this book is supposed to assist players in planning a cool companion for their specific C&C characters to grow with them over time. The information they need should be at their fingertips, or else the information should be easily accessible by their GM in other C&C products.

And yet every single game session when someone brings up a question about a companion option or a type of 3E phrasing that is used, we typically spend 20 minutes pouring through books trying to find the answer or the best way to make a ruling that is happy for everyone involved. And most frustratingly, when we do arrive at a ruling that satisfies those involved, another question usually appears the following week and we must go back to page turning and try to remember what we decided and why. There was one point in my game last night where everyone who had a copy of Mystical Companions (I think it was four players) had their copy opened and we had open debate as to what was meant by the phrasing and the monsters being referenced. Meanwhile, another player got up and grabbed my 1E Monster Manual to find more information that might help us in making a ruling, while I am trying to find other means to find the best C&C alternative for a dire wolf, since all the players involved had different interpretations in their mind based on their previous gaming experience. It was a muddled mess. We must’ve spent close to an hour wading through various issues related to the Mystical Companions book. When everyone at your game table from their late teens to their early 50s who have played everything from B/X to Pathfinder and 5E are unanimously and consistently from week to week confused by the contents and presentation of a book, it needs work.

I so badly want to continue using this book, but it needs to be fixed up, and since I can’t predict what my current or future players are going to choose and how they will want to progress with a companion (due to the variety of options), I say to myself I will just keep things on a case-by-case basis. Yet, I need to do something to clear up, clarify, and simplify this book. I have never owned an RPG book that has been so useful and overflowing with options for expanding the choices for my players and yet cause such a staggering headache trying to work through the editing errors, and references to things from the first version of the book that don’t exist in the current game that the book is supposedly made to support.

So, there you have it. I think this book has more options and ideas for expanding companions, pets, and familiars than any other I am aware of, and yet the references and terminology from other game systems, internal consistency, cross-referencing, and editing errors is going to wear you down.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Dragonclaw Barony, Session 30

The adventurers descend into the underworld using dwarven spelunker hirelings to assist. They fight cavernlight moss, bats, and giant funnel-web spiders. I also do a review of Owlbear Rodeo VTT, discuss use of hirelings to enhance the game, mine exploration videos, and dungeoneer survival guides.

Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk 2/Cleric 1 (class and a half) of Horus 
Magnus, Gnome Druid 3 of Belenus 
Malcolm, Human Wizard 3/Bard 1 of Arcanus
Homonoea, Dragonslayer 2 of Athena
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter 3 of Crom
Anne, Elf Rogue 3/Cleric 2 of Laeroth Mestarine

Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor

Three “Axe for Hire” Dwarves of Dumathoin
Three “Wayfinder” Dwarves of Dumathoin

Game Session Diary:
The adventurers descend into the underworld seeking out the origins of raiding Grimlocks they had previously encountered, seeking treasure, exotic underground creatures and draconic creatures.

Before getting any further, I want to mention how much I still love Owlbear Rodeo VTT for games I run online. For this session I used an initiative tracker that I learned of watching some You Tube tutorials (you can take whatever style initiative tracker you like, upload it as a token, and then just drag it onto your map and your players can drop their tokens on top of it when they roll initiative. In the map shown below you can see the initiative bar and player tokens at the bottom left. In the top left the players have set up marching order (or watch order if they are resting). And on the map we simply use one token to represent the group, NPC, and monster(s) and rely on theatre of mind to deal with the details. I am a huge theatre of mind person and only want to rely on a VTT at the most minimal, non-intrusive level, and Owlbear Rodeo is the best VTT out their to assist a GM in running a game and not become a crutch for which you have to spend untold hours using it to prepare for a game. The setup below took me 5 minutes.

This VTT map I used for my adventure can be located at:

Okay, back to the game diary. Thorthic, an NPC that has been with this group for quite a while new they would need some help when he learned they were going to descend into the earth. He may be a dwarf and has some knowledge regarding stonework, but he is a barbarian/cleric of Thor, so decided to hire (with some of the money he got from previous adventures with the group) some dwarven miners and mercenaries of the dwarven god Dumathoin, who has enhanced their mining abilities (in my game world worshipping a god bestows some special abilities, much like specialty priests from 2E or prestige classes from 3E). With their additional abilities (background as miners) and equipment (e.g. expert dungeoneer backpacks with lots of rope, grappling hooks, etc.) they were prepared.

And now a quick aside on Hirelings! Hirelings are a great way provide much needed skill enhancement and extra muscle if the group ends up in a tough situation. It allows players to focus on what is important to them without having to get too bogged down in other details while I still get to emphasize other important parts of the adventure. With extra muscle the adventure can also be more challenging. It really is the perfect balance, the NPC and hirelings lurk in the background letting the PC’s shine, and when a major challenge arises, they can then do their thing as support.

Okay, now back to the game diary! After descending through the original Grimlock area they had visited more than a month before, they arrived at a large cavern filled with a green moss with yellow glowing spheres (Cavernlight Moss, see picture below). It mostly hugged the edges of this huge cavern (see the map above; each square represents 10 feet). In the central part of the cavern hundreds of bats lurked on the ceiling a hundred feet above them.

Cavernlight Moss art from Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press

The characters had to decide how they were going to proceed through the cavern, down the central portion underneath the bats and move through as much as several feet of bat guano, or hug the sides and discover whether the cavernlight moss was carnivorous.

They moved to the side to avoid as much guano as possible and the cavernlight moss swung its tendrils toward the party members! Many swung their weapons and tore off a tendril here and there, but Anne was not going to waste any time, she cast sound burst, which caused such a boom that chunks of moss fell to the ground as well as over a dozen bats! If they weren’t awake before, the bats were sure awake now! While other adventurers tried to move forward, Anne sent up another sound burst, the cavernlight moss in that early section was now dead and dozens more bats fell from the air, with the rest deafened or confused by the sound. Anne then cast the spell a third time! Dozens more bats fell. Even though there were hundreds of bats in the cavern, they couldn’t deal with this anymore and fled through openings in the ceiling found in the northeast alcoves that led to the surface (this had also provided air currents throughout the cavern which ensured the bat guano smell was not overwhelming).

Exiting through the southern part of the chamber they found a 60° descending shaft. The rock on this shaft was very unstable and could break off in your hands or under your feet. This was why Thorthic hired dwarven mining experts! They set off ahead to set up at roughly 50-60 foot intervals iron spikes hammered into the rock and connected by rope. At each of the roughly 60 foot sections one of the dwarves stood, ready to catch an adventurer that might fail their climb check and beginning to tumble down the shaft. And tumble a few of them did! I had the players make checks to descend the shaft (Strength or Dexterity, depending on how they chose to descend, this is part of the virtue of C&Cs SIEGE Engine mechanic, you have versatility and choice when it comes to how you do things). If they failed that check I gave them a Dex save to try and catch the rope, hold on, and regain their footing. If they failed that save they then began tumbling down the 20 foot wide tunnel and had to hope that a dwarf or another companion would catch them at some point during a 50-60 foot tumble. Several characters did indeed take a tumble, but luckily with this setup a dwarf or companion always got them (albeit a little scuffed up and damaged!).

Screenshot from the You Tube mine exploration programme Abandoned and Forgotten Places.

Arriving at the bottom they found small side caverns that darted off to the side of the main corridor. These, however were filled with large funnel-web spiders. All the tumbling rock and dust had covered up most of the webs and they were hard to see. The group knew from a few Grimlock foot prints that they needed to head north. They ended up tripping over some hidden webs and giant spiders darted out. The spiders found it hard to hit the well armored Homonoea, but Thorthic got a mighty bite, and even though dwarves get impressive poison saves, I rolled low and he became paralyzed…for 13 hours! Fortunately, the adventurers killed the spiders before that! But they did choose to enter one of the empty alcoves to rest for the night waiting for their dwarven friend to recover. With six dwarves with 120 foot deepvision spread out among the three watches, nothing got near the group.

The next “morning” (a rather meaningless term underground), they continued north and fought more spiders, eventually arriving at a large, multi-leveled cavern (see map above). To the west was a large group of giant rats (they estimated around 30), some party members went back and procured some spider meat and with two hands heaved mighty chunks to the hungry rats (which seemed to satisfy them) and they were temporarily left alone.

To the northwest they found a small mushroom patch of what seemed to be edible mushrooms (according to the dwarves). There was also a set of tracks from a single rat. What could tracks from a lone giant-ish rat mean?

To the east they found several large steps leading nearly 60 feet below to another stone platform. On that platform the dwarves, making use of a finely focused beam from their bullseye lantern, saw a strange erected stone monument by the Grimlocks to some kind of serpent creature. Could this be some kind of dragon or drake?

The dwarves also could tell the platform would be descending into the earth even further at more than an 80° angle – the dwarven hirelings were going to be even more important here! But that will be for our next session in two weeks.

I’ve been watching a lot of mining shows recently, such as Abandoned and Forgotten Places. I’ve also enjoyed re-reading portions of the AD&D Dungeoneeer’s Survival Guide, as well as the recently published Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking by AAW games (a homage and modern take on the DSG, indeed Douglass Niles contributed to this modern book as well). It is always fun to try and bring an environment to life and hope you can give everyone a fresh look at something. I look forward to seeing what I can add in the future.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 77

Stunning adventure! One character is petrified by a basilisk. Two characters contract mummy rot. Players lose more than a dozen potions and holy water vials from a shatter spell. They collect 50,000+ gp in treasure. They have a unique encounter with a boy ghoul who doesn’t realize he is undead.

Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus
, Human Cleric 5 of Charon
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 7/Illusionist 6 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 7 of Bacchus
Astrid, Human Skald 3 of Hel
Noro, Human Warrior Priest 3 of Hyperion
Remi, Gnome Rogue 5/Illusionist 4 of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin 2 of St. Ingrid
Jasper, Dwarf Fighter 3/Cleric 3 of Dumathoin
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
In this session the highs and lows were were unrelenting. In the Barrowmaze players are very careful and sometimes may only manage to explore a half-dozen rooms, in this session they continued pushing forward, exploring 17 rooms. So many things happened that I simply can’t cover everything in this game diary, but I will try to hit the highlights.

In the previous session they had fought Barrow mummies and a gemstone golem, but they still had spells and abilities they could use so they plowed forward into new and undisturbed crypts. Several characters have abilities to detect treasure (Jasper, for example, can detect gold, courtesy of his dwarven god Dumathoin), and they used their natural abilities and magic items to seek this out. The pull of treasure was high! so they entered rooms where the floor gave way to a 20 foot deep pit with poisoned spikes at the bottom. Anther room had a brown pudding that ate away the padding underneath their metal armor, reducing its effectiveness (i.e., its AC goes down by one for each round the pudding can eat away its interior. so as the bruises built up and the armor was reduced in effectiveness, they managed to pull in thousands of gold pieces worth of gems.

Moving to a new section of the dungeon, they found a room with a sitting clay statue with rubies in its eyes. The players awoke what they suspected was an enchanted creature, and it was – a clay golem! Balthazar chose to cast shatter, hoping it would cause the creature to crumble, but it was immune, and everyone in the room had to make saving throws for their potions, flask, and elixirs. There were more than a dozen failed saves among the characters, with Tiberius saddened to see all 10 of his holy water vials shatter and soak through his backpack!

After defeating the golem, they entered a burial chamber for a mother, father, and son of the Ironguard family (the Ironguards are currently ruling the Duchy of Aerik, where the Barrowmaze is located). The bodies of the mother and father remained resting in peace in their sarcophagi, but the Army of the Light found the boy, Parnel Ironguard, standing next to his sarcophagus, risen as a ghoul. However, he was not yet aware he was undead and was struggling to understand why his skin had changed color and the room looked like a crypt. He began asking the PCs questions in his state of confusion as his mortal mind was fading and being slowly taken over with ghoulish hunger. The more time he was able to smell the PCs fresh flesh his ghoulish hunger began to grow. Characters that could detect evil could sense the hunger for flesh was growing, he was succumbing to it, and his moral compass was shifting. Kyron commanded undead and told him to “go back to sleep.” Parnel did so and crawled back into his sarcophagus and pulled the top back over him. The group realized they needed to bring the boy to peace, so they partially re-opened the sarcophagus and Kyron commanded him to drink some water (which happened to be holy water), the boy did so and then screamed as the holy water began to eat away at him from the inside. He now fully turned evil, but directly drinking holy water had weakened him considerably, and the Army of the Light laid the boy to rest swiftly. The group collected Ironguard signet rings and Ironguard circlets with the family crest on them. Some of the roguish PCs are planning a careful and secretive take over of Ironguard Motte, and these items may make it easier for them!

Next they entered a series of rooms dedicated to Zuul, a chaotic entity that united the force of Chaos with the four elements. One large chamber showed Zuul standing with the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water pouring into him. Some characters were able to detect undead and from their familiarity with the Barrowmaze they picked up the presence of two mummies beyond some doors. Carefully, they prepared spells and tactics. They focused a lot on elemental spells, thinking these might work best on the mummies. Unfortunately, they guessed incorrectly! After making some sounds to lure the mummies out, they laid out a path of frost to fill the entire chamber. The mummies walked onto it and instead of slowing their movement and giving them damage, the mummies praised the PCs for their respect and use of the elements! They then charged toward the door where the group awaited.

Arthur and Martin were struck by the mummies and they failed their saves, causing a -2 reduction to their charisma scores as well as a weakening of their healing capabilities (healing was now impossible in some cases or took 10 times longer in other instances). These two sickly looking friends spurred on the group. Dhekeon, who was capable of walking on walls because of a magical silver death mask he wore, attacked the mummies with his two-handed sword. Martin, seeking revenge, made a backstab attack and decapitated one, and Arthur took his revenge by making another killing blow. Fortunately, this group had some clerics, and after casting cure disease and making spell caster checks to try and overcome the strength of the mummy curses, succeeded, removing the affliction on the two characters.

The Army of the light was now worn down. Two players were recovering from mummy rot, several others had their armor reduced from a pudding (although mending spells managed to temporarily overcome the problems). But the characters knew there were still a couple of rooms they wanted to explore before they would head back to Ironguard Motte to rest and heal.

Basilisk art by Jacob Atienza (Deviantart)

They found a door which required a scarab to be inserted into a socket in the door and rotated to open. They found the scarab “key” around the neck of one of the mummies. Balthazar used it. The door, which they thought was connected on hinges (like most door are!), but the door in fact operated on a pivot located in the center point of the door. The door immediately spun from this center point and smacking and pushing Balthazar into the next room. As he was propelled into the dark room, the torch light from his companions illuminated a strange lizard-type creature. Its eyes glowed. He failed his constitution save, and just as the door finished its 180 degree turn and Balthazar disappeared from sight in the room on the other side, the other members of the group saw his flesh harden and turn into gray stone…

They began to plot how they could get into the room, kill the basilisk, and retrieve Balthazar. But they had several challenges. One, the scarab key was now on the other side of the door with the now petrified Balthazar, and secondly, our game session was running over its allotted time and players needed to head home. There was excitement to try and solve this, so we did go a bit over our time, but the session ended on a cliffhanger.

So, for next week we are now all wondering – will the Army of the Light defeat the basilisk and retrieve Balthazar?

Character Death

I’ve been thinking about character death recently. Depending on what TTRPG you run, lethality can vary. So for me the answer on how you should deal with it depends on the game system you use and the specific campaign you are running.

Types of Character Death
First let me clarify some terms and positions one can have regarding character death. There are at least two types of character death: (i) death based on a bad die roll (e.g., failing a saving throw vs. poison from a wyvern sting, or perhaps a failed save and falling into a bottomless pit), (ii) death because the player didn’t use their character’s abilities.

Game System Lethality
Some game systems are structurally more dangerous than others. It is much easier for a character to die in AD&D, whereas in D&D 5E character death is rare.

5E has structural components built into the game to prevent character death for categories (i) and (ii) (e.g., instead of a vampire draining two levels like in AD&D, it just takes away some hit points, and then after you rest for 8 hours you get them back. That is a substantial weakening of that monster from what it once was). To die in 5E you almost have to work at it. On the other hand, character death in AD&D is sometimes effortless. From 2018-2019 I spent a year playing AD&D twice a month and a character died roughly every game session (keep in mind, though, we frequently had 5-6 players running two characters each, so that ended up being 1 character out of 10-12), during the first six months of that game I only lost one character, during my final six months in that campaign I lost 5 characters. After 4 years of 5E I found it boring and unchallenging and walked away seeking a game where I felt challenged and alive again. After one full year of playing in that AD&D campaign I only had two 1st level characters who had only been in 1 or 2 games to show for it. I no longer felt any sense of progress or connection to that campaign, because no matter how thoughtful or careful I would be, I knew I could trip over a pebble and die. So I experienced the two extremes of games where nothing you do has any consequences, and no matter what you, or how careful you are, you could die. I have tried to learn from both those extreme experiences.

Campaign Lethality
We also have campaigns that challenge you differently. I have been running Castles & Crusades since 2018. It allows me to run any edition of D&D through it. I currently run two campaigns. One is the Barrowmaze, made for Labyrinth Lord (i.e. 1981 B/X D&D), and the other is the Dragonclaw Barony, which is currently using Basic Fantasy (but will transition to AD&D 2nd edition when the players head toward Dragon Mountain). I also need to begin prep on a new campaign for 2022 when Barrowmaze wraps up, and that new campaign will be the Dungeons of Aufstrag (imported from the world of Aihrde and altered to fit my world), this is a C&C designed game. Each of these campaigns have a different sense of challenge and lethality.

How I deal with a campaign that has high lethality.
In my weekly Barrowmaze campaign (which has been running since 2019, having finished our 76th session), my players lose roughly 2-3 characters a year.

  1. Multiple Characters. Every player uses two characters each session and has a minimum of 5 characters in their roster which they rotate out of the game when they level up and train to acquire a new ability (I have a homebrew option where characters can take time off and pay to learn a new language, profession, attempt to raise an attribute, or gain an “advantage” – i.e. feat – from the Castle Keepers Guide). The players know well that the Barrowmaze is unforgiving and one of the ways in which they have responded is to create a lot of characters. Using more than one character in post-2000 D&D-type games is a rarity, since characters these modern games have become overly complicated. But in oldschool games (and in my C&C games) where the character sheets are a lot less cluttered with numbers and stats, and success is based more on player creativity than referencing numbers on a character sheet, you have a greater ability to use more than one character (in any given battle in an oldschool game you may only have to use one of your characters and the other can sit out if they have nothing to contribute).
  2. More Careful Planning and Evaluation of Situations. Because the Barrowmaze is filled with plenty of old school “saving throw vs. poison or die,” or “Dexterity saving throw or fall into a bottomless pit” situations, the players tend to be more cautious and engage in more careful analysis and evaluation of a situation before proceeding. They understand the need to bring more than one rogue/thief to check for traps, they have more than one cleric to cure wounds, remove poison, and remove curse. Having more characters and engaging in more planning gives you more options to avoid catastrophe.
  3. Deck of Dirty Tricks. I use the Deck of Dirty Tricks from Frog God Games. Each adventure I fan out the card deck and have players randomly pull out roughly 3 cards. These cards give options that provide a benefit such as a dice re-roll, automatic success on a die roll, cause enemies to attack a different target, and there are even two cards in the 52 card deck that provide limited wish, and raise dead (all have been used by my players to avoid catastrophe!). These cards will alter how the players behave (if you have a raise dead card, you know that if a character dies there will be a strange twist of fate that will allow them to avoid it). I think this is good, it keeps the game a bit unpredictable from session to session, and players can try out different gaming tactics, sometimes being more cautious and sometimes throwing caution to the wind when they know “the gods” are looking down on them.
  4. Alter Critical Hits by Monsters.
    When my monsters roll a critical hit against a player I don’t have them do extra damage, instead, the attack either destroys their shield or weapon (magic items get a saving throw), or their armor is reduced by one point (example: some strapping on the shoulder piece is cut and now it hangs in front of the character, reducing their armor AC bonus by 1 and in some instances reducing Dexterity checks by 1. By using armor/weapon wastage instead of extra damage, characters have an increased chance to survive and hang on a little longer, while adding a new dynamic to the game (the need to fix armor/shield/weapon, or buy a new one when back in town).
  5. Death and Dying in Castles & Crusades.
    There is a rule I use in C&C (slightly modified from what is in the PHB and the Castle Keepers Guide). When you are brought down to 0 hit points you are not yet unconscious. You cannot attack, cast a spell, drink a potion, or defend yourself with your shield, but you can croak out “help!” and move at half your movement rate to try and take yourself out of danger (or put your arm around a companion and have them drag you out of the way). You have some hope and it ties in well with dramatic scenes we’ve read in books and seen in films with heroes on their last legs. From -1 to -6 you are unconscious and will remain so for hours or days (it will depend on what the wound). It is only when you reach -7 that you begin bleeding out, losing 1 hit point each round and dying at -10. I really like this approach because it presents characters with a range of effects. This approach provides opportunities to crawl out of combat, lie unconscious if you slipped and fell in a ravine only to wake up hours or days later, or try and get other players to frantically get to you to try and prevent you from dying. There is an array of possibilities.

Still, in spite of these rules my Barrowmaze players still lose several characters a year! Still, if I ran Barrowmaze without this approach there would have been a lot more deaths.

Campaigns with lower lethality.
My Dragonclaw Barony campaign is (currently) a lot less lethal. In the 1.5 years that campaign has run (it recently completed session 29), there have only been a couple of character deaths. I have mentioned how players in my games are encouraged to roleplay two characters each (since I prefer large old school groups that have as many as 10 characters and NPCs), but only half the players in that group have two characters, the other half have chosen to stick with just one. This group is filled with a large number of oldschool gamers, and they have begun talking about bringing in hirelings to carry torches, carry treasure, guard the camp, etc. But since character deaths have been minimal so far, there hasn’t been the need. I also don’t use the Deck of Dirty Tricks with this group since they aren’t needed.

This group will, however, begin to transition from the relatively easier Basic Fantasy adventures I have been using to more dangerous adventures I am designing, and then into a homebrewed version of AD&D 2E’s Dragon Mountain, and the transition to greater danger will be noticeable for that second half of the campaign.

How to Deal with Character Death.
Regardless of whether you have a high or low lethality game, when a character dies, what do you do? In a recent game we lost a character that was approaching 7th level and had been in the campaign for 2.5 years. That caused a stir. The frustrating thing about that character’s death was not that it was a fluke failed saving throw (category, i), but the player forgot to use their character’s class abilities several times during the battle that led to their death (category, ii). Player’s with pleading eyes and desperate voices can have an effect on you, and during that battle I threw that character an extra chance and only had them lying at the brink of death in the battle at -6 hit points (although the character eventually did die when a lightning bolt went off on top of him).

I have also sometimes thrown a character a subtle life line if they’ve been around for a while and happen to fail one of those “saving throw or die” situations. I think the “Save or die” is fine for low level characters (levels 1-4 in C&C), they are young and inexperienced adventurers and don’t yet know what they are doing. But once you enter the mid range (levels 5-8 in C&C) I begin to doubt whether a single failed save should result in automatic death, characters at that level have begun to develop a “second sense” for danger. Still, I am reluctant to do that for category, ii, situations, since by that point in the character’s development and that point in the campaign you really should know your character and what abilities they have. And when you get to high levels (levels 9+ in C&C), the characters in the party will, in many instances, have their own class abilities to bring back dead companions.

I wonder whether the mid-level character deaths are the toughest to deal with. By that point you’ve developed an attachment to the character, but characters aren’t quite powerful enough to bring their companions back, and you may not be influential enough to get others to bring them back. It is that transitional phase between being a low-level nobody and a high-level hero of the land.

The Death of King Arthur by John Garrick

Final Thoughts.
So, I try to find a middle ground between the older games where if you fail a single die roll you are automatically dead, to the game where nothing bad will ever happen to you. Games where you die constantly just become tedious and annoying, since you get no sense of being part of the campaign. If you have been part of a campaign for an entire year and you still only have two 1st level characters, they have no connection to the group, they have no shared narrative of challenges that have been faced, and you as a player begin to wonder “what’s the point?” On the other hand, in games where you can get healed, recover, or overcome all obstacles in a matter of just a few hours rest, and there is always some way to cheat death, then the game loses its impact. It is boring. Nothing is ever truly threatening. It may have a lot of flash and special effects, but it lacks substance and impact.

I make it clear in all my games that players will lose characters. They need to expect that. They will probably lose at least one character per campaign, and in lethal games they will lose several characters. If players don’t want that play experience, they probably won’t enjoy my games.

Still, there are different way to deal with high lethality games to give the players the chance to overcome the threat:

  1. Have them use more than one character (this works more in old school games with simpler and easier to manage characters).
  2. Promote careful and attentive group problem solving.
  3. Throw in random chances to alter fate. I enjoy using cards like the Deck of Dirty Tricks for Barrowmaze, but I plan to use other cool options that are available, such as the Heroic Challenges deck made my LoreSmyth, and probability dice to alter an outcome.
  4. Find alternate means for monsters/villains to hurt or reduce PCs. Armor/weapon wastage is a lot more fun, in my view, than simply doing more damage. It keeps the game dangerous as armor or weapons are reduced in effectiveness, or even destroyed, yet it doesn’t just destroy the PC on the spot.

There has been a shift in some games to get rid of “save or die” situations, but I like danger – real danger – in my games, but it is a matter of finding out what works for each style of campaign and the make up of the players/characters.

What are your thoughts? What are some of the things you do, or have done?