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 crwbr.com 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.
Strengths. 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).
Weaknesses. 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!
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.
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:
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.
Summary: 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.
PC’s: Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus Kyron, 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
NPC: 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.
Summary: 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.
PC’s: 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
NPC: Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor
Hirelings: 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.
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.
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!).
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.
Summary: 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.
PC’s: Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus Kyron, 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
NPC: 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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
Have them use more than one character (this works more in old school games with simpler and easier to manage characters).
Promote careful and attentive group problem solving.
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.
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?
Summary: The Army of the Light battle a Gemstone Golem, Sandling, a half-dozen Barrow Mummies that paralyzed a player’s legs in ice, fought an Ochre Jelly and an Amber Golem as they progress further into the oldest portions of the Barrowmaze!
PC’s: Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus Kyron, 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 Calista, Elf Thief 1 of Loki Noro, Human Warrior Priest 3 of Hyperion Kiaria, Human Seeker 6 of Bast Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus Remi, Gnome Rogue 5/Illusionist 4 of Hermes Tiberius, Human Paladin 2 of St. Ingrid Chonk, Half-Orc Barbarian 4/Cleric 4 of The Morrigan Kyra, Elf Cleric 6 of Sehanine Moonbow Sophia, Human Paladin 1 of St. Solania
NPC: Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)
Game Diary: Fresh off the success of their battles with bone golems in the previous session they broke down several bricked up walls in a corridor knowing that when they find walls that have been built up to block entry there is usually treasure, and these players know that I use the 1gp=1xp rule in my games. Additionally, in my game when you level up you can train to get new abilities (e.g. learn a new language, learn a new profession, attempt to raise an attribute, or take an advantage from the Castle Keepers Guide), but these new abilities require taking time off and spending money to acquire the ability (the time required is their new level x 2 in weeks, and the cost is 10% of the difference in xp they need from the beginning of their current level to their next level in gold pieces. So down went the wall bricked up walls!
The adventurers came to two doorways facing north and south. Entering the north door they found a pile of gemstones in a five foot diameter bowl and the body of a clearly accomplished gemcutter (based on the tools that were lying next to him). A dagger was tossed into the bowl of gems, causing them all to assemble together to create a giant gemstone golem (they had encountered one previously). They knew it was immune to magic spells, but magic weapons helped them out and by letting the fighter types take control of the combat it eventually crumbled into a pile of expensive gem treasure.
Entering the south room they saw a pile of sand. A spare dagger was thrown into it as well and it rose up into a sandling (a type of sand elemental). Its death was swift, for an arrow was shot toward it and a natural 20 was rolled. When a player rolls a critical hit, I hand them the critical hit die made by New Comet Games. They rolled “instant kill” and down it went!
Breaking down another bricked up wall they arrived at north and south doors. Several characters could detect undead and they sensed a half-dozen powerful undead, three behind the north door and three behind the south. Gnoosh has a hat of telepathy and could detect sleeping, dream-like thoughts from the intelligent undead in the crypts behind both doors. The rogues tried to pick the locks but found themselves struggling and it took several attempts by the different rogues before they could succeed. This awoke the undead (Gnoosh could sense the dreamy thoughts had changed into “attack the intruders!” The Army of the Light tried to prepare by having Chonk set up his magical tower shield and Balthazar was preparing a special Barrowmaze spell that allowed him to breath fire (Ool’s Broiling Exhalation), but the undead were prepared as well, so instead of allowing surprise, we all rolled initiative and the undead won! The doors opened and three barrow mummies emerged to strike. Unlike traditional mummies that can give someone mummy rot, the curse of these mummies it to freeze a persons limbs for several hours. Gorgat was swarmed over by the multiple clawed hands of the mummies, and one-by-one both his legs froze to the ground and he was unmoving and paralyzed. His friends cast sanctuary and invisibility to undead on him to protect him from certain death as they continued the attack. Magic missiles and normal missiles were fired at the mummies. Balthazar also got to cast Ool’s Broiling Exhalation and caused the bandages on the mummies to burn off and their flesh burned from his magical fire. The first three went down, but Kyra had to use up some spell slots casting several remove curse spells to free Gorgat from the frozen paralysis.
Gnoosh’s hat of telepathy told him the undead behind the other door were now awake from the sound of battle and waiting. Suspecting that these were more barrow mummies they were better prepared and when the door opened they unleashed their barrage of spells and attacks. Dhekeon, their fallen paladin friend with a powerful two-handed sword, as well as possessing the power of spider climb because of a silver death mask found in the Barrowmaze, ran along the walls and attacked the barrow mummies from a non-traditional attack angle, slicing at them with his mighty blows. They couldn’t hold up to the attacks. Over 9,000 gold pieces of treasure was collected from these creatures and the gemstone golem. But the spellcasters were out of spells and they chose to return to Ironguard Motte.
Several people advanced levels and because the players chose to pursue the level-up training options I offer in my campaigns they were swapped out for some other characters. We still had just over an hour left in the session, so they headed back to the Barrowmaze to continue down their path. I rolled for random encounters, got nothing, so they successfully got back to where they left off.
They next moved to a north-south corridor with two archways which opened to the east and west, in each there were a series of small 10 foot x 10 foot crypts, some had doors, others had tattered curtains covering them. The Army of the Light managed to explore most of the six rooms through the west archway, which included fighting an amber golem and an ochre jelly. But the struggle was worth it for the over 6,000 gp additional treasure they found (platinum rhytons).
The session had now run out of time and they still had a couple of crypts left to explore, which includes investigating two partially decayed corpses, one of whom had a clearly unique magical scroll in his hand. The players are also aware from the map fragment they possess that they might be just one doorway away from entering ancient tombs that existed prior to the construction of the Barrowmaze. We will see what will happen next week!
Summary: The adventurers battle Justin Wrenwald III, a cursed undead wizard and his mage followers at the top of his wizard tower. The battle becomes tight as the undead mages cast several sleep spells on the group, whittling them down.
PC’s: Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk 1/Cleric 0 (class and a half) of Horus Magnus, Gnome Druid 2 of Belenus Endur “the Thick”, Human Fighter 2 of Gobniu Eliam, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Cleric 3/Wizard 3 of Lugh Homonoea, Dragonslayer 1 of Athena Rok, Half-Orc Fighter 2 of Crom
NPC: Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor
Game Session Diary: We left off last session with the adventurers entering the manor house of the Wrenwalds (the wizard family that once ran the now abandoned town of Somber Grove, whose ruins they had been exploring the last few days). They had encountered a wraith (which had level-drained Jabari from level 1 to 0) in the Great Hall and now proceeded to explore the master bedroom.
In the master bedroom they found four skeletons with dusters and dressed as maids cleaning the room. The housecleaners were upset by the arrival of the dirty adventures that were entering the clean room and attacked. Blows from a Great axe, a magical pitchfork, and a monk’s fist destroyed the remains of the Wrenwald’s cleaning staff.
From there they proceeded to the kitchen and found a secret passage to the library of the Wrenwalds. A detect magic cast by Eliam revealed a blanket of magic covering all the bookshelves. He took a chance, touched the books, and after succeeding on a saving throw, managed to avoid acquiring a donkey tail and have his head turn into a donkey!
Working their way through a secret door behind a swiveling bookshelf, they arrived at a wizard’s tower where they were sure the remains of the Wrenwald mages would be found. Ascending the spiral stairs they arrived at a room with a large cage filled with seven trained stirges in a cage. The stirges began to fly out and attack, but Magnus cast calm animal, which relaxed 5 of the 7. After the two that got out were killed, they locked the cage and moved further up.
After passing through a navigator’s level with a telescope, star charts, lunar cycles, and maps of the Dragonclaw Barony (including maps of potential dragon lairs!), they continued to the top.
They entered a door marked with the name “Justin Wrenwald III,” upon entering, however, they saw nothing but some tables and books.
Was this it?
No! Justin Wrenwald III, who had turned into some kind of a strange undead creature (a “zombraire” in the Basic Fantasy game) over the decades, emerged – with two apprentices – from behind an illusionary boundary where the group thought the windows of the tower were located (the illusion simply made the windows appear further inward than they actually were allowing Wrenwald and his two wizard apprentices to remain unseen). Initially Wrenwald and the two mages attacked with daggers. They were getting beat up as warriors like Rok cut some aside with his great axe and Endur impaled one with his magical pitchfork and hurled it over his head through the air against a wall. As the rounds continued, Wrenwald ordered his mages to do what they are best at. Magic missiles were shot at Eliam and Rok (dropping Eliam to unconsciousness), and sleep spells were cast within the area. One-by-one the characters yawned and fell into a slumber on the ground. Eliam, Homonoea, Magnus, Jabari, and Thorthic, were now out of action. It was up to Rok and Endur to complete the task of destroying the undead mages. The last swipes of the great axe and pitchfork were made and the wizards fell.
Once wakened from their slumber (and getting Eliam back above 0 hit points), they discovered that Justin Wrenwald III had a large collection of spells to expand Eliam’s spellbook as well as a magic ring and a wand (later discovered by identify to be a ring of protection +2 and a wand of illusion.
They still had the family cemetery to explore, and the crypts revealed three more undead Wrenwalds (including a shadow). The loot included a staff of healing, which went to Jabari.
They all returned to the town of Dale and Eliam, Homonoea, Magnus, Jabari, and Endur all leveled up. They were going to take about 6 weeks off to train for some new abilities and then they will head to an old Grimlock lair they discovered a while back and descend into the underworld. What will lie under the earth for them to find?
The Castle Keepers Guide is one of the top GM guides you can get. Although it is made for Castles & Crusades (and includes C&C stats for a numerous variety of subjects), it has a wealth of material in its 370 pages that is system neutral and nearly all of it can apply to any fantasy RPG.
The Cover Logo Font and Cover Art I received my third printing of the Castle Keepers Guide (CKG) from Troll Lord Games (TLG) yesterday and the book is a beauty! It seems TLG is introducing a new look for their C&C products and I welcome this. I remember when I first noticed C&C books at my FLGS in 2017, the font used on the covers of their books appeared to resemble what I interpreted as a far-east samurai font, and I initially assumed C&C was a non-western fantasy game and I just moved on to the next RPG books on the shelf (fortunately, the FLGS also had earlier printings when TLG used – in my view – a better logo, and when I later realized that C&C wasn’t a medieval samurai game I took a closer look). Now, with the 3rd printing, the cover font has been freshened up and looks like what you would expect from a modern RPG game. Hopefully, the D&D 5E and Pathfinder crowd will take a look at it if they see it at their FLGS (unfortunately, the white coloring of the book’s name on the spine almost blends in with the art that is spread across the front and back covers, so most people glancing at the CKG on a bookshelf at their FLGS may have difficulty reading the name of the book!
Any gamers that have played AD&D will recognize the echo of the 1E DMG figure on the cover. So while this latest printing presents a freshened up and much needed font style change to move C&C into the new decade, it still retains an echo of the past. Which make sense, since C&C is in my view the best RPG for mixing and mashing together the best of pre-2000 old school D&D and post-2000 D&D. You can make C&C a rules-lite D&D 5E, or AD&D with a consistent rule system (these are the primary reasons why I switched to C&C).
Castle Keepers Guide – what’s in it? The CKG has 19 chapters covering subjects such as expanding characters, magic, expanding equipment, NPCs, world building, cities, dungeons, air and water adventures, equipment wastage, land as treasure, going to war, monsters, treasure, combat, skill packages, and character death. I won’t go through all the chapters, but just hit a few highlights.
Classes & Races The expanding characters chapter used to include optional material to take C&C characters from levels 14-24 (the PHB takes characters to level 13), but this material has been moved to the soon-to-be published 8th printing of the PHB. The material that remains covers optional attributes, racial interactions, and expanding playable races. Although this is obviously usable for C&C, it is also very useful for anyone running a D&D-type game.
Magic The magic chapter provides prices of material components, buying, selling, and trading magic, how one can interpret magic in your game, summoning options, and alternate spellcasting systems. It is useful across-the-board for any C&C or D&D game master.
City Types The CKG has always had a section on castles, cities, towns, villages, etc. with stats and information on how they operate and how they are structured. But in this printing they brought in Alyssa Faden, and she provided an incredible amount of map art, some of which are full-page spreads to illustrate the varieties of castles, towns, and cities one can create or adventure in. The text was useful in itself before, but this art really brings it alive and truly enhances the chapter. The art is informative, but can also serve as inspiration, and if you are at a loss for a town or city floorplan, just grab one of the illustrations from the book!
Expanded Equipment The expanded equipment chapter is filled with information for GMs that want information on rations, animal care, room and board, provisions, etc. This is useful for any fantasy RPG game system. But once again, art has been added for this printing. There is a two-page spread on ships and a two page spread on different types of wagons. The art is top quality and I love the realism it presents.
Dungeons The Dungeons chapter previously had text to describe the different cave landscapes and how they look. But this chapter has also received a fresh lick of paint with illustrations to assist the reader. The quality of this chapter has also been raised.
SIEGE Engine, Skills, and Feats I’ve mostly just touched on the chapters that received new art to illustrate and enhance the text. But the other chapters on treasure, combat, and world building are filled with gems to enhance your game. C&C is one of the most rules-flexible RPGs out there and the SIEGE Engine is what drives the game (the SIEGE Engine is a d20-style rule system that binds the C&C game together). For those running C&C, the chapter on the SIEGE Engine provides new ways to use the system to meet the needs of the Castle Keeper. Although C&C core rules don’t use formalized skills or feats, if you want that in your game, the Skill Packages chapter provides the means to do so (and if you use an RPG that already has skills and feats, this chapter can expand your options or provide a new way to look at them).
Supplemental Kickstarter Material The CKG Kickstarter came with some additional books to those who pledged at a higher level. The Core Index is a useful quick reference for the CKG, PHB, and Monster books. The CKG Tables booklet is 60 pages of the most useful tables from the CKG. This will probably get used by me every game session – this was badly needed! I’ve said that the CKG is one of the best GM guides out there, but sometimes trying to find what you need in a 370 page book is difficult to do in the middle of a battle during a game session. This booklet makes that a lot easier by putting things right at my fingertips. Adtherpe’s Natural Materials covers herbalism, alchemy, creature harvesting, and mixing compounds. At just 20 pages it is brief and compact, but it appears to me on a first perusal to be highly useful!
Final Thoughts It was frustrating that this book arrived 11 months beyond its original delivery date of September, 2020. Keep in mind the textual content was largely unchanged from the 2nd printing, the book mostly just had some new art added. Unfortunately, delivering late Kickstarters is something TLG is known for. Still, I must say that this is a really beautiful book, and both it and the user-friendly supplemental material that came with it will get a lot of use from me. The book gives Castle Keepers guidance and suggestions on almost anything they might face in their game, and for non-C&C GMs out there, this is a very useful addition to your game as well. This book come highly recommended!
Summary: The Army of the Light takes on a Barrowmaze Witch with her ghast and ghoul followers and then take on a series of bone golems.
PC’s: Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian Jasper, Dwarf Cleric 2/Fighter 2 of DumathoinDeepdelver Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 6 of Arcanus Cyron, Human Cleric 6 of Charon Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 6/Illusionist 6 of Baravar Cloakshadow Martin, Human Rogue 6 of Bacchus Astrid, Human Skald 3 of Hel Calista, Elf Thief 1 of Loki Kiaria, Human Seeker 5 of Bast Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 5 of Haephestus Chonk, Half-Orc Barbarian 4/Cleric 4 of The Morrigan Kyra, Elf Cleric 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
NPC: Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)
Game Diary: Last session we lost Cobalt, a founding member of the Army of the Light, as well as our newest member, a wizard named Ahmeya. There was a procession in the streets of Ironguard Motte in his memory and of his accomplishments. Some of this was out of respect for him and part was clearly propaganda by the church of the Saints as they do not want the Norse and Celtic faiths getting anymore inroads into the town. The church then took Cobalt’s body and buried it under the temple floor of the church annex dedicated to St. Agathos.
Several members of the group leveled up last session and they took time off to acquire new level-up abilities (e.g. Advantages from the Castle Keepers Guide, which are effectively feats, as well as researching other things such as Rosaline the druid working out a way to re-purpose an Amber Golem they picked up from the Barrowmaze many sessions ago). With some fresh faces in the adventuring party they headed back to the Barrowmaze to try and find the tomb of a barbarian ruler named Thar and and a crypt of the elements, both areas that may predate the Barrowmaze.
They arrived where they left off last session at the library to Nergal (which they had largely destroyed). There they discovered that bricks had been placed on either side of the entrance to the archway with moist footprints of barefoot ghouls and ghasts. It seems the undead were preparing to brick up and re-seal the library. The adventurers knocked the bricks over and headed down the passageway following the foot prints. They arrived at a door where a cackling voice of a witch from behind the door invited them to enter. Balthazar opened the door to peek in and throw in a fireball. Opening the door he saw a room with a boiling cauldron (with the arm of Ahmeya floating in it), 8 ghouls, 5 ghasts, and the witch (named Grizelda) stood upside down on the ceiling looking down upon him. She breathed forth a blast of fire. The damage on the wizard was substantial. He responded by hurling a fireball into the room and then stepped back so others could heal him.
The fireball destroyed all the ghouls and one ghast. Still, Grizelda and four ghasts remained. The smell and stench of the undead caused Arthur to vomit violently, taking him out of the combat. Gnoosh cast head fog on Grizelda, but even blinded she managed to throw down a darkness spell on the doorway due to her familiarity with the room and corridor. Her darkness only lasted a brief second, however, since others in the party had magic weapons and spells of light which counteracted her darkness.
The ghasts rushed forth to the doorway and reached out with their…ghastly…hands to strike the adventurers. Kyra failed her save and was paralyzed by a touch. But with 12 PC’s and one NPC against four ghasts and a blind witch, the battle was clearly in favor of the Army of the Light. Fellow clerics removed Kyra’s paralysis and she used a magical circlet to blast Grizelda with fire. Fate was decided. Moments later the undead were dead as was Grizelda. Finding parts of Ahmeya in Grizelda’s cauldron was disturbing, but finding her treasure of gold was not!
The group found a secret door in her chamber leading south. Passing through it they could tell they were now in a much older part of the Barrowmaze. They knew they were moving toward the crypts where Tharn and the Elemental chambers were located.
Further down they passed two bricked up walls. Several members could sense undead and by doing so they were able to establish that one of the bricked up walls would lead to undead more powerful than the ghasts and ghouls they had fought. They chose to move on, thinking they were safe with a few feet of bricked up walls protecting them.
Moving further south they came upon a room with a large square room with a 30 foot high ceiling. The room was slightly pyramidal with a stone sarcophagus at the top where there were two dead adventurers lying next to it. The militaristically trained members discovered that they had been killed by scimitar and mace attacks from four armed creatures. Having fought a four armed bone golem in a previous adventure they thought this might be the cause of the deaths here. They began to investigate the room to determine where they might be lurking. They discovered that of the four pillars that were lending support in the room, two had hidden panels where 7 foot tall guardians could be lurking. Three of the strong members ascended the pyramid structure and pushed off the stone sarcophagus cover. This activated the bone golems from the pillars. The group had guessed this would happen and were prepared. The spellcasters did have to rethink their strategies when they were reminded that these golems were immune to spells. Nonetheless, Balthazar cast mirror image a few times to distract the golems, and there were still many mighty warriors with magical weapons who could attack. It was the warrior-types that pushed forth and attacked the golems. The golems had four attacks, but the 7 mirror images took many of the blows that could’ve hit the adventurers. The Army of the Light swung back with their blades and bludgeoning weapons. The bone golems had a lot of hit points but 12 adventurers and Dhekeon cut them down. Within the sarcophagus they found a bag with thousands of gold pieces in gems.
It was now time for the session to end. Next week they will continue their journey into this oldest part of the Barrowmaze.
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