Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Sessions 83 and 84

First: battles with crypt shades, spectres, ghouls, and a Remorhaz!
Next: Ironguard Motte is attacked at night by a bloodsoaker vine creeping over the city gate, a bonecrawler – composed of the corpses of the citizens of the city – along with bone delvers (grave diggers turned undead with glowing lanterns that drain life), enter the city and begin a march through the streets!

PC’s, Session 83:
Kyron, Human Cleric 6 of Charon
Magni, Dwarf Fighter 3 of Barundar Battleaxe
Rosaline, Half Elf (elven lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 7 of St. Agathos
Roulf, Half-Orc Dragonslayer 6 of Crom
Oswyn, Human Cleric 2 of St. Jasper
Rolando, Hobbit Rogue 4/Pacer 3 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Gorgat, Half Orc Barbarian 7 of Haephestus
Remi, Gnome Harlequin (Rogue 6/Illusionist 5) of Hermes

NPC, Session 83:
Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary, Session 83:
This diary was delayed a week due to Gamehole Con.

In session 83 the group continued to work their way through crypts they had begun the previous session. They battled crypt shades, ghouls, spectres, and after they had enough of the undead, and chose to leave the Barrowmaze and head home to warm up (the session took place during the third week of December after a good snowfall), they encountered a Remorhaz! It was a…heated…battle! The heat its body generated along with its attacks knocked some PCs hit points down nicely. But there were a lot of them and even though it shrugged off some magic spells with its magic resistance, the fighting types beat it down.

They arrive back and after several leveled up after several sessions of combatting the undead, they took 10 weeks off to relax, recover, and prepare for more adventuring in the spring.

PC’s, Session 84:
Zen, Human Monk 7 of St. Agathos
Rosaline, Half-Elf (elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 7/Illusionist 6 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 7 of Bacchus
Kyron, Human Cleric 7 of Charon
Sagira, Human Cleric 3 of Horus

Game Diary, Session 84:
This session began during the first week of March. However, since in real-time we are in the Halloween season, I decided to have a spooky adventure.

I described a cool evening (10°C/50°F) with many white clouds drifting over the sky covering most stars and both of the moons. The lantern lighters have just lit the street lanterns for the evening and all seems calm. Except the main headquarters of the Army of the Light gets a frantic knock on the door. A town administrator tells the 6 PCs who were up that the southeast gates had been opened and that former caretakers of the cemetery were carrying lanterns with an evil red glow and shovels which they were using to decapitate guards and citizens. At that point horrifying screams could be heard and the group headed out to stop them.

A Bone Delver. Art from Tome of Horrors 4 (Frog God Games)

Rushing down a side street they see two former caretakers heading down the 10-foot wide side street as half a dozen more headed down the much wider main road. The group split up. Gnoosh, used burning ground and dark chaos, and Zen used his fists to batter away at these undead. They managed to avoid the negative effects of their horrifying howl and they also noticed that there was black negative energy emanating from the lanterns (implying some kind of undead life or essence drain). Fortunately, the burning ground weakened the bone delvers and the dark chaos and monk attacks finished the job.

Meanwhile, the other members entered the main street. Area of effect spells would not work here as town guards and brave citizens were engaged in melee with the bone delvers. The heroes noticed that the blows from their shovels caused some effect which weakened the guards and citizens fighting them, reducing their ability to hit and do damage. Their screams also caused many to scatter – but not the adventurers!

The clerics managed to turn these former caretakers and Kyron called out for the children and vulnerable adults to gather around him as he cast a circle of protection. Attacking the bone delvers from behind made combat easier and they went down. Kyron then sent those he protected away and took to destroying their lanterns, knowing that if others touched them they may lose their lives.

Rosaline noticed at this point that there was some kind of moving mass of bloodsoaked vines moving over the high entry gates. Kyron arrowhawk familiar blasted it with lightning and Rosaline summoned a swarm of bats to attack it. Slashing weapons were needed to truly be effective on this, so those melee combatants struggled, even more so since the bloodsoaker vines when they struck a victim, would cause a bleeding wound that could only be closed by magical healing. Luckily, the group had two clerics, a druid, and an illusionist (illusionists in C&C can heal through the sheer force and power of their mind). Still, this caused them to use up a lot of their healing spells!

Once the vines were destroyed the group noticed a writhing mass of sharpened bones held together by flesh and muscle, clearly an amalgamation of the recently dead of Ironguard Motte stitched together my some sick necromantic magic. They moved forward to attack. There were six characters, but this bonecrawler had 12 whipfronds – so there were two attacks on each character! The bone blades cut deep on several, but the summoned swarm of bats moved in to weaken it and Gnoosh, who had conjured a flaming cape around himself, burned it away when it made contact with him. The battle was over!

Heading to the cemetery to try to discover what had caused this, Rosaline spoke with plants – a tree in this case – and asked what it had seen recently. It appeared that hooded shepherds herding their goats had passed through the area as their goats fed to keep the grass in the graveyard manageable. However, the shepherds were really acolytes of Orcus, and their goats were Gehennian Goats! The necromancers visited the graveyard caretakers, turned them undead, and then worked their horrific necromancy on the graveyard and deceased people of Ironguard Motte. As soon as you think the dangers of the Barrowmaze are contained, the group is reminded that the reach of undeath has long arms!

Castles & Crusades Diary: The End of The Dragonclaw Barony Campaign

A 19-month online campaign has come to an end. I reflect on my experiences running my first Discord game, my first time using a VTT, challenges and changes to my gaming style, campaign successes and failures, and what is happening next.

The Beginning.

In April of 2020, we were one month into the pandemic. All my face-to-face games at my house and at game stores were canceled. However, I still wanted to game. So I initially spent time on the TLG (Troll Lord Games) Discord servers trying to recruit players. I got some interest and we began using Google Hangouts (I had run some Hangouts games back in 2015 when I was running 5E with former philosophy students of mine from my time living in Scotland). But Hangouts was no longer the way to run things and everyone else was using many other platforms. After a few sessions, I had learned enough and the TLG folk were very welcoming and helpful and I had my own channels on their Discord.

I was still trying to run the games as if at a table, with the camera aimed at my GM screen, whiteboard beside me, and initiative cards were placed in a row on my GM screen. Time to change things up. So I began using Jamboard. This digital whiteboard allowed players to set up marching order, sleep order, and even set up some tactical positions when theatre of mind was lacking.

There was still room for improvement, though. I don’t like overcomplicated games and high-tech TTRPG gaming. I hate rolling digital dice. I am a tactile hands-on gamer. I want to roll dice by hand and turn the pages of books by hand. I fI have to spend more than 10 minutes prepping a VTT before a game, that is too much. But then I found Owlbear Rodeo. I loved it! I could upload a map and throw on some tokens 5 minutes before the game. It was exactly what I wanted. In the last year I think I’ve spent a total of a couple of hours using Owlbear Rodeo, I suspect most Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds people have spent that much time on their VTT in just one day, or one week. I saved all that time to do other things which, for me, were more productive and interesting. Owlbear Rodeo VTT was a huge step forward for my game.

The Campaign.

In April 2020 I thought the online games would only be for a few months, so for those first few fortnightly sessions, I had simple Basic Fantasy adventures and random encounters taken from a 5E encounter book I had supported on Kickstarter. By the autumn of 2020, the interest in the game had risen, I was developing a core crew of players, and it was clear this pandemic was not going to end soon and that online gaming was expanding and here to stay. I decided to run a full campaign. Unfortunately, I got a little over-ambitious and decided to run the AD&D 2nd edition box set Dragon Mountain! I had run it nearly 30 years before, but now I would run it in my world using C&C. But to get there I would need to set things up. I ran more Basic Fantasy adventures, but I laid the foundation too slowly and didn’t establish a direction to the campaign. I think my players enjoyed these still mostly small-scale adventures, but I should’ve dropped some future plot hooks earlier on to give them a hint of the big picture that was planned. That is a bit of a lost opportunity.

The World Continued to Change.

Of course, nothing stands still. The pandemic changed with new covid variants. My players from around the U.S., Canada, and Europe continued to respond to the pandemic. And we as individuals had to deal with new issues when it came to home life, jobs, illness, and injury. Now, more than 19 months later many of us were at different places in our home life, work-life, and gaming life. Players that had been firm members of the gaming group began to miss sessions and either drifted away or politely back out. We were all beginning to adjust to – not so much a post-covid world – but a world of covid which we were adjusting to and forging new paths in.

Final Thoughts.
I don’t think planning a 2-3 year online campaign is the best idea unless you have organized it much better from the very beginning with these expectations in place and with the right players in place. I should’ve aimed for a 3-6 month campaign (maybe 9 months) with achievable and noticeable goals at regular intervals.

I plan to take a break from running online games. There are times when players in my Barrowmaze group can’t physically show up to my house and game and they join my homegroup via Discord, but as for a full online game, I want to reassess where I am and where I want to go. I am hoping 2022 will allow more gaming at game stores again. I was running some great C&C games at my FLGS in 2019 and early 2020 and I would like to return to that. Although rather than run a campaign at a game store, I would mostly run one-off demo sessions perhaps once a month to introduce new players to C&C and give some of my home players the opportunity to show up and join a game not connected to one of our large scale campaigns. We will see what happens. At the moment I welcome the chance to take a break from running two campaigns and just focus on my Barrowmaze campaign and continue work on the campaign that will follow it next year when the Barrowmaze is completed and The Dungeons of Aufstrag campaign begin!

Plans that were begun, but never completed…

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 4: Final Loot

It was great to be at my first physical convention in 20 months. Interaction is a lot better face-to-face than online. I met old friends and made new friends. Loot was less than previous conventions, but (re)meeting vendors in Dealer Hall was something I welcomed.

The Last Day.
This morning involved a short visit to the lobby where a Castles & Crusades game was being run by one of the new friends I made at Gamehole 2021 (he ran a Swords & Wizardry game a few days before that was my most enjoyable game of this convention). I couldn’t stick around for his game since I had to drive back to Minnesota, complete some tasks at home, and then wind down, but I wanted to touch base one more time and see another C&C game in action.

I then made one more visit to the Dealer Hall and went straight to Black Oak Workshop booth. Craig Zipse (who owns Black Oak Workshop) is a great guy, makes some unique dice, and my last purchase of the convention before I headed back to my car to drive home was one of his fun Advent-ure Calendars and a dice set. The Advent-ure calandars began as holiday themed boxes where each day of the month you open a little box and a wonderful die lies waiting to be revealed. I have purchased previous Christmas themed calendars for December and I love my daily dice present! I felt this was a great way to end the convention – setting myself up for a daily Christmas present for the month of December.

I have had some serious set back in recent months. I fractured my humerus in a fall back in June and I had to have surgery for a titanium rod to be put in to correct it. I also don’t have medical insurance. Thus, as I slowly gain the ability to lift things again, regain some flexibility, and worry about how I am supposed to deal with medical bills in the 10s of thousands of dollars, I am physically and financially restricted for the foreseeable future (Gamehole was my first major outing, not only since the pandemic began, but just as importantly, since I was handicapped from my injury in June and restricted in what I could do). It is the small things in life – like knowing I will get a nice die each day of the month during December – that brighten my day.

Black Oak Workshop products as I prepare for my Christmas presents!

Overall loot was down from previous conventions. One reason is that I own pretty much all that I want or need. Secondly, is that I need to conserve money as I still don’t know how the hospital bills will be dealt with. I really needed this holiday and getaway. It is no longer the quantity of the loot I acquire, but the quality.

Total loot from Gamehole 2021. Black Oak Workshop. Fate of the Norns, and Frog God Games, dominate.

During this convention I welcomed talking with old friends and making some new ones. There are now new GMs that I will be seeking out at future conventions.

What about future conventions?

Con of the North (just a few minutes from my house) is in February (18-20). Gary Con would normally be what I visit in March, but I couldn’t get the hotels I want that connect with Gary Con or offer shuttle service to the convention, so I have decided not to go. I know that the people who run it want it to remain in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but I honestly don’t care about that. I’d rather they put the convention in a city that can actually house the attendees. But that seems unlikely, so I might be cutting Gary Con out of my convention rotation if it continues to be a hassle. Honestly, Con of the North at the beginning of the year and Gamehole at the end might be enough for me. Some folk have told me I need to attend North Texas RPG Con, but I want to attend conventions I can drive to in a reasonable amount of time. Texas is too far away.

So, now I get to wind down from the last five days traveling and convention attendance.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 3

My last full day of gaming.
1. Played in the first game of the convention (S&W) that I didn’t enjoy that much, and I am reminded of some of the things in OSR games I don’t care for.
2. Munchkin, my last game of the convention was great fun.
3. Why are there nearly plague levels of flies in Madison, WI?

Swords & Wizardry game
My first game of the day was a S&W game. But this game experience was a bit of a let down for me.

First, I was expecting more traditional fantasy and this game ended up with us flying rockets in space. I wasn’t interested in that and if I knew that was what we were going to do I would not have signed up for the game. Thus, this was a game that right away I realized I was not interested in.

Second, in some ways a lot happened in the session and in some ways very little happened. There is an attitude in OSR games that unlike Pathfinder and D&D 5E where you look at your character sheet to see what you can do, in OSR games you rely on player creativity. In this game there was so much player creativity and player problem solving, no one had to roll a die for the first two hours of the four hour game! Our race and class were for the most part irrelevant – we almost didn’t need a character sheet! I didn’t make my first die roll until hour three, and it was only in the last 20 minutes of the game when I did anything of any importance or significance. I was not expecting to just solve puzzles for four hours using my own thinking – I created a character for a reason!

It’s funny how just a few days ago I was in a Savage Worlds game where the GM said we would determine the narrative, but more often than not as soon as a player described what they wanted to do, he had us roll a die and if we rolled badly then all that roleplaying was discarded. So, a lot of player narrative was simply a waste of time in that game if it was ignored when the die was rolled. In this game we hardly rolled the dice at all, it was the opposite problem from the Savage Worlds game.

Third, since this was an old school game OD&D-type game, everything was considered potentially an instant death scenario, or hugely debilitating. As such, people were extremely cautious and talked through things endlessly (what you might call “paralysis by analysis”). We didn’t travel that far in four hours of gaming, exploring perhaps a half a dozen rooms. It would’ve been nice for some people to simply roll a check once in a while to see if anything could be discovered and then move on. Because of this I was bored for extended periods of time.

If one of the problems with modern D&D 5E-style gaming is that combat can last forever as every player is focused on their character sheet trying to find all the different things they might be able to do in their combat action, move action, bonus action, reaction, etc. (I was once part of an adventuring party where it took 3 hours to fight 12 orcs in the woods!), then the place where OSR games can get bogged down is when players won’t do anything since any action could mean instant death, or limb loss, or insanity, etc. I don’t like 5E situations where there is no danger or consequences to actions, and I also don’t like the other extreme where every action could mean instant death. Neither is fun for me. I lean toward old school, obviously, but I want some balance.

Fourth, about half the players had been in this GMs games for many years and several had moleskine notebooks filled with notes, hand-drawn maps, sketches, etc. I had only played with this GM once before several years ago and the same “insider” feeling existed then as well. Don’t get me wrong, these folk were extremely friendly and helpful, but when you add in the factors I mentioned above, I mostly just sat back and watched as a passive viewer this tight gang of players who knew each other, the GM, and the on-going campaign so intimately simply continue the adventures they had been doing for years.

Fifth, we were in a small room by ourselves, and with noise coming from the lobby, at one point someone closed the doors, half the people had their masks off (the reason was for eating and drinking), and I was sitting next to one older man who coughed a lot and whenever he coughed he would take off his mask and try to cough into his hand?! The room was also poorly ventilated. I was not comfortable being in a poorly ventilated room with people I don’t know eating, drinking, coughing, and laughing spewing forth…”stuff.” I am a bit of a germaphobe under normal conditions, but under the pandemic situation we are currently in, I was not comfortable.

For all the above reasons this was overall not a very enjoyable experience for me.

Munchkin game
After a few hour break I came back in the evening for my final game to “learn how to play Munchkin.” I had played it once in 2008 when I was in graduate school in Scotland, but it had been a long time and I wanted a new experience. The person who instructed us was really good. She gave us some free cards, a play mat to hold the cards, player aid handout sheets, and a wooden token to keep track of level-ups. This introductory session was really well organized, presented, and taught. We got an overview of the game, did a practice session, and then began a full-on session until our time ran out.

I am not really a card game sort of guy (I don’t enjoy any card games to be honest, whether Magic: The Gathering, or Poker), the last time I enjoyed a card game was probably UNO back when I was 10 years old. But this Munchkin game was fun, so with the gaming society she is a part of – and which usually get a large room to themselves during Gamehole – I will consider making a Munchkin game a part of future visits to Gamehole.

Cool free Munchkin goodies from my “Learn to Play Munchkin” session.

From the moment I arrived in Madison on Wednesday, I was taken aback by the huge quantity of flies that are to be found EVERYWHERE. You can’t escape them. On Wednesday evening I had dinner at Liberty Station and there were dozens upon dozens of flies on the windows, tables, food, drinks, etc. At the Alliant Energy Center where this convention took place there were flies outside and inside. I can’t believe it. I have seen more flies since Wednesday than I have seen all year in Minnesota. Now, being from Minnesota I could easily make some reference as to why such disgusting insects flourish so freely in Wisconsin, but I shall refrain and let you all come to your own conclusions why beautiful Minnesota is so fly free compared to Wisconsin.

Preparing for the final day tomorrow
Tomorrow is the last day of Gamehole Con. I was going to try and sneak in a Castles & Crusades game in the morning, but it is four hours long and I have things to do once I get back to Minnesota and that will be a five hour drive, plus, even though the Munchkin game was fun, the S&W game deflated me in a lot of ways and I am ready to go home. In my first Gamehole 2021 blog post on Wednesday I expressed my growing disappointment with some aspects of the OSR, then over Thursday and Friday my energy and hope was renewed for old-school gaming, and then today some of that disappointment returned. I will visit the Dealer Hall one last time in the morning and then I will head out for the drive home.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 2

I expand my Frog God Game (FGG) selection of excellent products as well as some marvelous new dice that allow me to create things spontaneously on the fly in my C&C games. I had an incredible time in an Old School Essentials (OSE) game (Palace of the Silver Princess) in the morning and a Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game (Baron’s Gambit) in the afternoon.

New Products.
First, my loot for the day. The “Tome of Horrors 2020” expands my monster selection. There are some true bastards in this book ready to be unleashed on my players (with some truly stellar artwork!). The new demonic creatures and fey will be great additions to my games. The new “Torchlight” zine made for S&W (but easily useable for any OSR game) provides some nice options for torchbearers, alternate thief abilities, and a way to do “social combat.” “The Tome of Blighted Horrors” introduces more horrific monster additions to a game. I got a Lost Lands world map. And finally, I got some specialty dice so that I can create a random dungeon in real time simply based on die rolls, add traps on the fly with a die rolls, and several dice that allow me to randomly roll up an NPCs race and class. The race and class dice are made for 5E, but I can just swap out the 5E race/classes for something C&C specific. I love dice that allow me to improv on the spot and these now add more options to my repertoire.

OSE game
As for my gaming today, in the morning I played OSE for the first time. I own all the books and love these neatly organized and richly illustrated tomes based on B/X D&D created by Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome. This morning I finally got to play the game. It was also fun to experience it through the classic D&D adventure “Palace of the Silver Princess.” The adventure is your typical adventure from the early 80s with a castle layout that doesn’t make much logical sense, and we all had our characters laugh and roll their eyes at whoever the madman was who had been hired to lay out and create the palace and dungeon. I had an elf, and both me and another elf in the party tag-teamed listening at doors, and there were A Lot Of Doors! We were also reminded of one of the most important OSR rules – if you can avoid combat, it means you stay alive longer. I lost track of how many times we opened a door, saw what we would have to fight, realized that we preferred to live a little bit longer, and closed the door again (sealing it with a couple of hammered-in iron spikes)!

S&W game
I visited Dealer Hall in the afternoon and chatted with more vendors and game designers as well as pick up a few more items.

Then for the late afternoon it was time for my S&W game of the day. I once again had a great bunch of players to adventure with. I have been truly fortunate to have been with such great players so far, and this game took it even further. Puns and play-on-words were non-stop, our GM was also a great on-the-fly referee who lived in the moment and improved things on the spot. This is my GMing style and I love to be able to see other successful improv GMs practice their trade. Being with good GMs and players not only makes the adventure fun, but it can inspire you as both a GM and player. After spending so much time during this pandemic gaming either online, or in small groups in my home, I have welcomed the opportunity to game in person again and embrace the face-to-face gaming experience which simply can’t be beat.

As for the adventure, “Baron’s Gambit” is a straightforward enough and fun adventure that is a great way to introduce players to the S&W game, and do to our great success with two monks, a thief, an assassin, and a dwarf fighter, we intelligently went through all the challenges and the game ended early. But we had such a great time that several of us hung out and had a great chat and drink afterward. The referee is also running a Castles & Crusades game on Sunday and even though it is currently full, I will most likely be able to sit in on his C&C game. So, I look forward to this new game which is firmly in my area of expertise!

From this S&W game I once saw how the flexibility of an OSR game shines through. S&W doesn’t have a formal skill system, so if you want to attempt something, you present your idea to the referee and they either let you do it after you’ve described how you hope to accomplish it, or they come up with a die roll to resolve the situation. The spontaneity of it keeps the game fresh and always new. I really enjoy playing old school games at conventions where you rely on your imagination and not on what you are forced to adhere to on your character. Although the C&C games I run allow the use of a general attribute check if one is needed for a task (it is a nice mid-point between high crunch games like 3E/Pathfinder and no formal skill system games like S&W), at conventions I lean more toward gaming with the least amount of rules that slow you down and prevent you from gaming.

Tomorrow I game in Matt Finch’s always great Mythrus Tower S&W game and then play some Munchkin in the early evening!

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 1

1. I play in a Swords & Wizardry and a Savage Worlds game.
2. Spend hours speaking with vendors and game designers in Dealer Hall, lightly expand my art and game collection and review Alayna Danner art and Fate of the Norns books (and discuss my love of back-to-basics folk-lore inspired RPGs).

Swords & Wizardry game.
I arrive in Madison, WI, yesterday and registered. Today was my first day of gaming. In the morning I had a S&W game. It was a short 2 hour game called Turf War where we were recruited to look into a gang that was looking to rough up some people in a rival establishment. Lethal combat was not necessary (nonlethal combat would be sufficient). We had some great players who enjoyed trying things out, since this game could emphasize roleplaying over combat, we could focus on where we wanted to be for observation and were all pretty spread out over a neighborhood map. But I had a dwarf fighter with single digit intelligence and wisdom, so after a leader of a rival group came in to the establishment to have his ruffians push people around, Bork, the dwarf, just went up and stabbed the guy with his longsword (instead of using his brass knuckles like the ruffians). And that pretty much determined the flow of the remainder of the adventure as things became serious very quickly. Town guard were called in by one character. Another charmed a gang member and led a group of them on a wild goose chase all over the place, and another threw in smoke bombs to obscure things. My dwarf died in combat (the only casualty of the group), but it was great fun with some great players!

Dealer Hall.
After that game ended before noon, I had seven hours before my next game, so it was time for a quick lunch and then dedicate a few hours to catching up with old acquaintances in the gaming hall and meeting some new people.

I could go on for a long time on this, but I will just hit the highlights. I got to catch up with the folks at dozens of booths, including Frog God Games, Kobold Press, Pacesetter Games, Black Oak Workshop, Alayna Danner (illustrator), and Fate of the Norns. I spent four hours chatting with these fine folk.

Alayna Danner.
At previous Gary Cons and GameHole Cons I had acquired art from Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, and Darlene (the artists that defined what D&D was for me when I first began gaming in 1983). However, I didn’t want to neglect the great artists of today! Alayna Danner has done past work for Troll Lord Games, but now is an important Wizards of the Coast illustrator for D&D 5E and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve enjoyed her art a lot and after struggling with what piece of art I wanted to purchase, picked up a print that was made for MtG. I must admit I know nothing about MtG or the cityscape of Ravnica, but I look forward to taking that piece of art and letting it lead me to my own imaginary place (I am currently viewing the piece – shown below – as an elven city). Ravnica fans will get one perspective from it, I am going to get another. That’s the joy of art, we can all interpret it differently!

Fate of the Norns.
There is an RPG called Fate of the Norns. If you buy the game itself, it is a dice less game that promotes a lot of freedom of choice in what you do. I had always browsed through their unique books, but they can be expensive and I would want to play the system at a Con before I made a commitment to buy their system. But they have continued to expand what they offer and now have system neutral products like the Celtic Cyclopedia, fresh translations of the Eddas (which have impressed some Norse scholars), and there are also new 5E offerings, including a book of Fairy Tales and Myths. With 5E game stats I now have something which I can use for my Castles & Crusades games, so with system neutral and 5E products, I have more I can work with. But what makes this material stand out is the approach it takes with folk lore and mythology, and the art style.

When I left 5E I initially went old school, thus, there was a shift from, for example, full reptile kobolds to the older dog-like kobolds. But in European folklore, kobolds are neither reptile nor dog-like. I had enjoyed the initial shift back to B/X or 1E kobolds, but what I really want is to go back to the folk tale source material and then go in a new direction. Another example is the D&D duergar. They do not resemble the creatures that inspired them. The only game products that I am aware of that have attempted to seriously present respectful folk-lore inspired versions are the Codex Nordica, Germania, Slavorum, etc. from Troll Lord Games. But Fate of the Norns has now done an amazing job going to the source material and giving us a completely new look at creatures like kobolds and duergar. More than that, the art is neither modern D&D art, nor old school art, it has its own look that stands out on its own. I really appreciate the attempt to go to the source and then do something new and original. I will enjoy working my way through these books to pull forth new insights to move beyond what I am presented with in 5E and the OSR.

GameHoleCon, Day 1

Savage Worlds game.
In the evening I returned to gaming using the Savage Worlds system. I had heard a lot about it before and looked forward to a game emphasizing narrative, storytelling, and “exploding” dice. It was a five hour game with only about two combats, so it was mostly roleplaying and investigation, as a result it required more attention than some other games. But by this point in the evening (18:00-23:00) I was pretty knackered from gaming and hours of socializing, so my batteries were a bit low, thus my roleplaying was not what it normally could have been.

Still, in spite of being tired, I did enjoy the game. I liked the experience of rolling dice and if you roll the max on that die you roll again (thus, if I rolled a d6 and I rolled 6, I would roll another d6, and if I rolled a 6 again, I would roll and add yet another d6, etc., each time adding these numbers together), as a result things can escalate quickly!

This is also a game where the character sheet does not tell you all that you can do, if you want to try something, bring it up and state what you think you should roll to get that task done. This is nice, however, Savage Worlds does fall into an issue I see in D&D, in that someone may come up with a brilliant idea and then roleplay out a scenario we all laugh and enjoy, and then the GM asks the person to roll a die and if they roll badly then that great idea and the accompanying roleplaying amounted to nothing. In C&C there have been times where a player has told me they wanted to try something and if they idea is really great I either give it to them as a success, or I have them roll and I make the challenge level really low so that the possibility of failure is very small. I realize that I don’t do this often enough, but that is what I strive for – for it is a role playing game! In the case of this Savage World game, some players had some amazing ideas, but then horrific die rolls caused all their creativity to come crashing to the ground. Sometimes it can be fun to come up with an idea for a character action, fail miserably at it due to a bad die roll and then have to improv how their idea managed to fail so badly, so I don’t deny that this can be fun as well, but I still haven’t found the right way to balance between a player coming up with a great idea to explore, investigate, or roleplay, and rolling dice.

This game was fun and I will probably try Savage Worlds again, but will attempt to plan it earlier in the day when I am more alert.

For Day 2 I will be playing in an Old School Essentials game and another Swords & Wizardry game.

Gamehole 2021 Diary: Arrival

1. I arrive in Madison, Wisconsin, and check-in for Gamehole.
2. I ponder what I might buy in the Dealer Hall in the coming days.
3. I reflect on a growing dissatisfaction I am having with a segment of the OSR.

I enjoyed a most relaxing 5 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin from Minnesota. The weather was cool with a brief encounter with rain, and the leaves were an array of yellows, oranges, and red. After checking in at my hotel I headed over to the Alliant Energy Center to check in. Checking in was quick and easy and I enjoyed a wee wander about to refamiliarize myself with where things will be over the next four days.

One thing that did catch my eye was the massive beholder in the Dealer Hall! Luckily, I survived the encounter and will be returning tomorrow to provided merchants with my hard earned coin in exchange for their finely crafted products!

What do I plan to buy at Gamehole this year? Well, Troll Lord Games (TLG), Frog God Games (FGG), Goodman Games, and Nord Games are companies where I previously purchased the most merchandise and I now, frankly, have most of what they offer. However, TLG, Goodman, and Nord are not here this year, so I couldn’t buy anything from them even if I wanted.

Since I will be unable to chat with most of the folks from these companies, I am going to take advantage of their absence to meet other vendors and perhaps forge new relationships that can take me in new directions. Along with the companies I mentioned above, I quite enjoy the creative output of Kobold Press. They, like Nord games, make 5E material, but I like the twist they give things.

I am also beginning to feel a distance growing between myself and the OSR.

Let me explain. There are at least two types of OSR folk I encounter:

i. Those gamers that never stopped playing their favorite old school game (e.g. AD&D 1E, B/X, OD&D, etc.).

ii. Those that continued gaming through most editions, then left the hobby for a while, and then returned later.

All the people I gamed with in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s are in category (ii). We played BECMI, AD&D 1E, 2E, and moved to D&D 3E. It was in 3E, however, where we grew disillusioned and all left RPG gaming at roughly the same time (c.2007). 4E held no interest for us when it appeared, and Pathfinder was just more 3E.

What brought us back to tabletop RPG gaming?

D&D 5E.

Compared to 3E/4E/Pathfinder, 5E was a throwback to old school (something that was talked about a lot in 2014-2015 but is now strangely forgotten by many). I ran and played 5E pretty heavily until 2018, when I then grew disillusioned with it and made the shift to the OSR. It should be noted, though, that all my 80s, 90s, and early 00s friends continue to play – and love – 5E and have no interest in going back to the games of their youth. When I made the shift to the OSR I had to find completely new players for my games. Funny enough, the most energetic players I have in my Castles & Crusades games are players in their teens and 20s! So on a weekly basis I am surrounded by the youthful excitement of the 5E/Pathfinder generation.

This obviously has effected my view of gaming. For example, I haven’t met a single 5E/Pathfinder player that has anything bad to say about old school gaming or gamers, I have, however, heard substantial amounts of moaning from some old school gamers about the 5E generation of players, WotC, etc. And since I do know 5E somewhat well from the half decade I ran and played it, those that complain the most about 5E are usually the most uninformed about what they talk about. These OSR folk may be a minority, but I think they are a growing voice in the OSR community. Some seem to get enjoyment out of denigrating the new RPG players out there and I am just getting weary of it all (and you don’t have to bring up the whole “cancel culture” response, I have heard all of that before).

I still love old school game play. I own enough material just from TLG and FGG to run weekly games for the next one to two decades! But I am now broadening my perspective on what gaming material I will be drawing upon.

WotC is, for the most part, not producing products that interest me, but third-party 5E publishers are coming up with some exciting material I can use. When I wandered past the Kobold Press booth this afternoon as they were setting up, I realized that I will be giving them several visits over the next few days and may be further building up my library of Kobold Press goodies.

Also, with a substantial academic background in various areas of philosophy and history, I am now mostly doing my own research and game creation, so that is making it easier for me to do my own thing and distance myself from the community with which I feel I am losing a connection.

I seem to find myself in a strange place. I don’t want to go back to 5E. I have no interest in Pathfinder. And the OSR is becoming alienating. Is there a mid-point between 5E and the OSR? I get the feeling that if there is I am now moving onto that path, I just don’t know where it will take me.

With that being said, I am playing a half-dozen old school Swords & Wizardry and Old School Essentials games this week, so maybe I will encounter good OSR folk that will rebuild my faith in the OSR community of GMs and players.

Gamehole Con 2021 approaches!

Gamehole Con 2021 is coming (21-24 October) and I am excited!
Today’s Topics: Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials, Savage Worlds, Munchkin, Adventures Dark & Deep, Exhibitor Hall.

I haven’t been to a physical convention since Con of the North in February of 2020. The virtual cons over the last year and eight months have been fun in their own way, so I will probably make use of them in the future if I am unable to attend physically (However, I will not be attending Gary Con XIV in person in 2021, so I have been hoping virtual Gary Con goes forward, but sadly it currently only looks like 14 people have signed up for Ethereal Gary Con so far, so I may not even get to participate in Gary Con online next year).

For this upcoming Gamehole I was saddened to not see Castles & Crusades games being offered. I could, of course, run my own C&C games (friends have asked me to do so), however, I run six games in two C&C campaigns each month, that means I run up to 72 C&C games each year, that is a lot of C&C games! So, I use gaming conventions as my time to relax from the pressure of being a GM and just be a player in someone else’s game.

I also love to play different types of games to broaden my perspective on rules and rulings that might come in handy for my C&C game. At Con of the North, Dungeon Crawl Classics has a strong presence, so I get a heavy dose of DCC at that convention, and I expect to again this upcoming February. This time at Gamehole the games I am playing are heavily focused on Swords & Wizardry (S&W) (three games, including the classic Mythrus Tower with Matt Finch), an Old School Essentials (OSE) game, a Savage Worlds game, and a fun session of Munchkin.

As you can see, I will be wearing my shirts promoting the greatest of all RPGs – Castles & Crusades – but I am bringing my S&W and OSE books to use at the gaming tables.

Swords & Wizardry
S&W is a fun game and I look forward to three solid games. Three S&W games will be the most S&W I’ve played at a single convention. It can be fun to immerse yourself in one system (much like I do DCC at Con of the North).

Old School Essentials
I am surprised that OSE doesn’t have more people running the system (I think there was only the one OSE game offered at Gamehole – the one I got in) considering that most OSR designers are now making their games OSE-compatible, OSE games should be offered more at conventions. OSE is a great system and I want to use my OSE books, so we need more people at conventions to run OSE!

Savage Worlds
I’ve never played Savage Worlds before. I’ve heard a lot about it, though, so I am long overdue to get a feel for what it can offer.

I only played Munchkin a couple of times in 2008 when I had moved to St Andrews, Scotland, to pursue my Masters degree. One of my fellow graduate students from Poland was a huge role-player and he introduced a bunch of us to Munchkin. Unfortunately, the Masters programme was grueling and I had to drop gaming to focus on my studies. So, after 13 years I look forward to trying Munchkin out again.

Adventures Dark and Deep
This is more of a public service announcement. I love this game. I wish there was more love for Joseph Bloch’s Adventures Dark and Deep (ADD). I have yet to see anyone run ADD at the cons I visit. I want to play ADD. So, if there is anyone out there who also loves ADD and wants to run it at Gamehole or Con of the North in the future, contact me – I will join your game!

When I checked the exhibitor information at Gamehole, I was sad to see that Troll Lord Games and Goodman Games won’t have a location in the Dealer Hall this year (they normally have double-sized booths). It is always a joy to talk with the Troll Lords, and Goodman Games and the people at their table are also great people to chat with. On the other hand, that just means I get to spend my time – and money – in the Dealer Hall on companies and products that I have previously overlooked! Having said that, I have spent far too much money on RPGs and I have already shut down my Indiegogo account and my Kickstarter account will be shutdown early next year as I focus on what I already own. Still, there are so many enticing things to find at a convention, so we will see by next Sunday evening how good I was at resisting the new trinkets, bits and bobs that will be calling out my name in the Dealer Hall!

The Drive
I am heading out for the roughly 4.5 hour drive from where I live in Minnesota to Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday. The lovely autumn coolness and the leaves changing color should make the journey there fun! Maybe I will see some of you there!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 82

The Army of the Light is on the verge of falling into a deep sleep courtesy of the Sandman. Zen, the monk, shakes the hand of a long-dead nobleman turned into a wight (but the wight doesn’t realize he is undead). Zen then has to fight Death!

Kyron, Human Cleric 6 of Charon
Magni, Dwarf Fighter 3 of Barundar Battleaxe
Rosaline, Half Elf (elven lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 7 of St. Agathos
Roulf, Half-Orc Dragonslayer 6 of Crom
Oswyn, Human Cleric 2 of St. Jasper
Rolando, Hobbit Rogue 4/Pacer 3 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Gorgat, Half Orc Barbarian 7 of Haephestus
Remi, Gnome Harlequin (Rogue 6/Illusionist 5) of Hermes
Kyra, Elf Cleric 7 of Sehanine Moonbow
Orgren, Dwarf Fighter 3 of Sif

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

Game Diary:
Towards the end of the previous session the characters returned to Helix and swapped out some characters and then headed straight back in. Upon their return they entered the crypt of Halgritte, a former Shield Maiden. The group had to battle a caryatid column, brown mold, a couple of runic golems, and a variety of traps (such as poison darts that could’ve caused death if they had hit players). Fortunately, they defeated the foes, disarmed or avoided the traps, and this resulted in them collecting more than 9,000gp in treasure, as well as magical shield maiden chain armor, shield, and a winged helmet.

Next they entered a new crypt filled with dry sand that seemed to have mostly come from cracks in the stone walls. But the characters knew that above the Barrowmaze is a very peaty and wet barrowmoor, so they were suspicious, and so they should’ve been, for as they progressed further they were attacked by elemental sandlings. Wiping them out they entered a side chamber where a former priest with a shroud covering his face was sorting gemstones on a sarcophagus. When the group entered he seemed overjoyed and introduced himself as Yasuq-Jac and stepped forward to shake their hands in greeting. Zen stepped forward and asked if he could pull back his hood. Yasuq-Jac did and they saw white skin pulled tight over bones – my not so subtle suggestion that he is a wight. What made this different is that the former priest did not seem to realize he was dead. He seem genuinely pleased to see someone “after what has seemed like eternity.” Of course, his reaching out to shake hands was perhaps also a subconscious urge to drain their life force to empower himself. Zen, who as a monk has Constitution as a prime attribute, took a chance and shook Yasuq-Jac’s hand – and passed his save and thus did not loose a level! He then spoke with the wight for a while, asking about his past and life. He had trouble believing when he was told that he has been dead for hundreds of years! Kyron then thought he must be thirsty and handed him a vial of water – holy water! Yasuq-Jac had come to trust these people even as his undead nature began to surface more. He drank it and it burned him badly burning him as it went down his throat creating a hole in his neck where air from his lungs whistled out. He was easily destroyed after that, although they felt sad for the man who they killed.

Moving further into this sandy crypt they heard the softest and most calming voice saying “you look soooo tired. Don’t you need to sleep?” All non-elves immediately fell to the ground in a deep slumber. Luckily the elves got a saving throw and passed. They found a figure made of sand who appeared to be the cause of their friends sudden slumber and moved in to attack, for they could tell this sandman was going to continue trying to put them to sleep until they eventually failed (their saves). The two elves, one half-elf, and Dhekeon – who was immune to sleep since he is undead – attacked the sandman. Over the next couple rounds they continued to make their saves and that gave them time to kill him, at which point they could awaken their friends.

Surrounding them in this chamber where the sandman dwelled were scarabs – both magical and non-magical – all over the walls. They began taking them off. Some provided a boon (which an identify will reveal to them), and others had a negative effect, such as exploding in their face, and in the case of Zen, Death emerged and he had to battle death one on one. Death was very difficult to hit (AC 24), but Zen has multiple attacks each round as a monk and with the extra attacks he was able to beat down Death first. Fortunate indeed!

Image: indigolt/Fotolia

Entering a new set of crypts, they fought runic golems that caused them some light wounds, held others, and caused explosions on yet others (the runes covering them are filled with magical effects). When they defeated these their remains include some runic tablets, which can be a source of weal or woe depending on what random chance has given them (they plan to read them when they get back to their headquarters).

At this point the session had come to an end. There are just a few rooms left in this section and the Army of the Light will finish examining them next session!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 81

1. The Army of the Light defeats barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar (vampire) along with his two wives (wights), but in the process, Arthur loses two levels from energy drain!
2. The response to energy drain has caused me to rethink and alter its use in my games. I explore alternatives and variations.

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

Remi, Rogue 6/Illusionist 5 of Hermes
Rolando, Rogue 4/Pacer 3 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Kyra, Cleric 7 of Sehanine Moonbow
Orgren, Fighter 3 of Sif

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

Game Diary:
This adventure began moments after the group defeated a legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex in some strange realm. They had barely gotten some healing done when they became dizzy, collapsed, and reawakened in a chamber with the crypt of the barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar awaiting them.

artist unknown

The group entered and noticed that Thar’s sarcophagus had been pulled from the wall where is legendary spear was hanging. He sat up in his black burial shroud and smiled – and the group saw vicious fangs with wisps of negative energy drifting from them like breath in a cold environment. To their immediate left they saw Thar’s two wives – now wights – with their white flesh pulled tight over their bones.

Arthur surged forward and attacked with his mighty weapon and dealt 36 points of damage (that is a large amount for a blow in an old school game)! From that first blow Thar was surprised and staggered back. Then Llewelyn stepped forward and blasted the wives with a lightning bolt, which, due to the configuration of the room and their placement, meant that they were hit with it twice as it bounced off a wall and he completely destroyed them! The villains were off to a bad start!

But Thar stepped forward to strike Arthur – and hit. Arthur failed his save and this meant that many of his recent memories and experiences were drained from him as Thar empowered himself. Arthur had gone from 7th level to the mid-point of 5th level. Still, Arthur had dealt a powerful blow and even with a boost of un-life from his attack, the other members stepped in and could focus all their attacks on the vampire. They battered him to his knees and he turned to mist to seek escape. At this point Gorgat grabbed the spear off the wall and immediately it spoke to him giving him instructions. He twirled the spear above his head and all around him sunlight burst out from it. The sun enveloped the vampiric mist of Thar and he sizzled away into oblivion, unable to find shelter and regenerate. He had been destroyed.

The Spear Predestined (as it was called), once the weapon of the barbarian lord, had become unusable by him when the Barrowmaze chaos magic seeped into him and turned him chaotic evil. But now the spear found a new worthy barbarian – Gorgat! It immediately turned him lawful good (Gorgat had originally been neutral, then the Pit of Chaos long ago turned him chaotic neutral, and now his alignment changed again!). Gorgat discovered he now had the power to slay chaotic beings, cause double damage against undead, and create sunlight in an ever growing radius. Gorgat’s power had now increased substantially!

Two players at this point had to leave (they had joined our face-to-face game via discord) and we began another adventure with some new characters rotated in with the time that remained. But I will save that for the next game diary.

What I want to finish with here is the problems with energy/level drain. When I left 5E and went to playing old school games, I was happy to bring level-drain into the game again. My thought was that some of these dangerous undead had lost their punch or their bite (so to speak; pun intended), and I was glad to bring back monsters where fighting them had consequences, and there was an actual reason to fear them again. In my view it had become far to easy to defeat monsters in 5E, for if you had been injured, the 5E approach is usually that you can just “sleep it off” with an 8 hour long rest and its as if nothing happened.

But going from the 5E “sleep it off” approach to energy draining two levels from a vampire is not really a solution, but really just a polar opposite extreme. Wanting to put challenge back into the games I run doesn’t meant that players could now lose weeks or months of adventuring effort in a single hit and missed saving throw. But there can be a middle ground (browsing through gaming forums going back 15+ years have shown that even a lot of old school gamers haven’t liked level draining, so it is not just a recent annoyance).

So, going forward in my games undead that normally level drain will have impactful but less extreme results (since my C&C games draw on material from C&C, AD&D/1E/2E, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, etc., the way energy draining undead operate can vary depending on the adventure I am using, it also adds some nice variety and regional variants to the foes they fight). Examples of how energy draining undead will work going forward:
– Hit point loss that returns at a rate of 1 hit point per day (this may be dependent on passing a Con save). So, if a character is struck for 8 damage by a wight, it may take them 8 days to get it back (if they pass their saves). Lesser restoration can restore the hit points if the clerical caster can make a spellcaster check vs. the monsters hit dice as the challenge level (the priests are trying to defeat the negative undead power with the strength of their faith). With this example, the results of the undead battle linger with the character, but they do recover. This works with some of the lesser energy draining undead.
– Constitution drain. Each point of constitution is regained at the rate of 1 point per week of rest. Think back to books or films where a hero spends weeks recovering their vitality, stamina, and health after a vampire bite. The character won’t forget this encounter and it will take time to recover, but you don’t have to re-do weeks or months of game time. Lesser restoration could again work, but the cleric would have to make a spellcaster check to overcome the undead force within the victim and only at a rate of 1 attribute point per casting. You can recover, but it requires effort.
– Levels do get drained, but they are restored at a rate of 1 level per month. These would be for the legendary undead that level drain (the character could get a Greater Restoration to correct this, but it is a 7th level spell, so out of reach for most characters). This form of level drain will impact the character, but it doesn’t end it for them. Imagine the player brought back to their home after the adventure, lying restlessly in bed soaked in sweat slowly regaining their memories and experiences from the previous weeks and months. They may have haunting dreams at night of what they think is a fictitious dream persona only to realize that these are their own memories coming back to them across the gulf from their realm and the negative energy realm. There can be some great drama here (it is also worth mentioning that in my games when players gain levels they sometimes take time off and spend time to train to learn new languages, new professions, or gain an advantage – i.e. feat – so characters are always taking time off in my games. Thus, having a player take a couple of months off will be noticeable, but it fits in with what everyone does normally in my games).

So, those are some of the ideas I plan to test out with undead in the future. I am trying to find the balance to the “nice” 5E approach vs. the oldschool approach of needlessly tearing away weeks and months of campaign development for the sake of trying to appear “tough.” Middle ground. That is the area I plan to explore. What are your thoughts on level drain?