Is the current explosion in the RPG market sustainable?

Is the current explosion in the RPG market heading toward a saturation point? There is a post on EN World regarding the explosion of $1 million+ kickstarters and Erik Tenkar also discussed it recently. D&D and RPGs are flying high right now. But beneath it I know a lot of people – like myself – are weary of all the products and promotions. Here are some of my musings on the current situation and ponderings on the future.

RPGs are flying high right now.
RPGs are everywhere. Last year D&D appeared to have its best year by a noticeable margin. Through platforms like DriveThruRPG, Indiegogo, and Kickstarter, we are seeing an explosion of material from virtually anyone who has a sliver of an RPG idea. 5E-inspired indie products released on any given week on DriveThruRPG are drowned out the following week as new products replace them by a fresh number of aspiring designers trying to show off their newly acquired InDesign skills. Can the current heavy release by independent designers continue?

The previous d20 boom and bust.
We saw something similar to this once before during the d20 boom and bust. Third parties saturated the market after the release of 3E in 2000. By 2005 there were so many products of varying quality that people were burned out and quit buying. I wonder if we are going to see something like this in the near future?

I wrote a post last week about why I was going to leave Kickstarter next year (I shutdown Indiegogo over the weekend). The feedback I received from that post was surprising in that a significant number of people – the majority – had all either cut back on their crowdfunding support, were planning to cut back, or had ended crowdfunding support all together. The reasons included:
– There were too many things being published that they didn’t need (i.e. the market is flooded with product and many people already have more than they need).
– Too many crowdfunded products don’t live up to what was pitched to them (i.e. product quality was lacking).
– Poor business practices (i.e. products routinely delivered late, lack of proper editing, etc.).

I wonder if we are once again headed for RPG fatigue? The market is overflowing with products with varying quality and standards. But, what about all the “collector editions” and “leather-bound editions” that appear in virtually every Kickstarter nowadays? Surely that is a sign of an increase in quality and perhaps even demand?

It is true that high-quality products are being produced. But most people I have spoken to (and like the responses to my blog post about crowd funding, this is obviously anecdotal, so please keep that in mind) in the last few months are tired of the leather collector editions. When everything is a “collector’s edition” is it actually a collector’s item anymore? At some point it is going to register with people who pledge that high on Kickstarter that routinely spending $100 for a book that is just going to rest on a bookshelf and look nice is not sustainable. I wonder how many of these books are going to end up at Half-Price Books or eBay in 5-10 years time (albeit at an inflated price so the person can attempt to recoup their money).

We are just three years away from the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons (and the 10th anniversary of D&D 5E). A new D&D movie will be coming out in 2023 (a year before the anniversaries). WotC will undoubtedly be capitalizing on the new high-budget film and the two anniversaries with new product releases. The third-party market will try and do so as well. It is looking like the D&D frenzy will only be increasing.

We are also attempting to come out of a pandemic. I suspect that a contributing factor for why 9 of the 13 $1 million+ RPG Kickstarters have occurred this year is due to some people’s feelings and desires to try and “leave the pandemic behind,” and as a result have increased their “fun” spending to make up for the holidays they weren’t able to take over the last 18 months. But will this continue? Is this just a temporary blip? Some people are clearly spending more on RPGs based on those 9, $1 million+ Kickstarters), but most people I know – including myself – are stepping back from RPG spending.

My speculative thought.
So here is what I am thinking. D&D will be everywhere over the next three years with Hollywood films, merchandise, and promotions for upcoming anniversaries. DriveThruRPG, Kickstarter, and other crowdfunding organizations are going to continue full-speed ahead as more people try to jump on the D&D and RPG bandwagon, adding to the available products. But at some point it will dawn on people that the glut of “collector editions” are unnecessary and too expensive to continue supporting, and the continuation of delayed and poorly executed Kickstarters will take its toll on people. I think RPG product fatigue is going to set in. People will look at all the things they bought and realize they will never use most of it. They will be exhausted and drained financially and emotionally.

In a few years time we will also have to reflect on our jobs and life post-pandemic. Many people are already making big changes to their life and job based on the situation they find themselves in, and in just a few years they will see the results of the decisions they are now making and will have to re-evaluate them to see if those choices were the correct ones and if they need to make a new career pivot or change in personal/family choices. The attitude of “let’s leave this all behind and get back to normal” is something we’ve seen before and it has a limited life span. With the RPG saturation point I think we are headed toward at the moment, along with the larger issues tied-to the pandemic and post-pandemic world, what will the results be?

So, those are my thoughts. Do you think there is any truth in my musings, or am I talking utter bollocks!? What do you think?

What is the future of the current RPG market?

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 65

Summary:
The Army of the Light battle zombie babies, zombie mothers and their male slaves!

PC’s:
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric/Wizard of Sehanine
Rolando, Hobbit Rogue/Pacer of Brandobaris
Astrid, Human Skald of Hel
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Remi, Gnome Harlequin (Rogue/Illusionist) of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin of St. Ingrid
Roulf, Half-Orc Drachentoten (i.e. Dragonslayer) of Crom
Edward, Human Bard of St. Cecilia
Aturash, Half-Orc Berserker of Odin
Orwin, Half-Elf (human lineage) Fighter/Drachentoten of St. Agathos
Kyra, Elven Cleric of Sehanine

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

Game Diary:
After only a day of rest from their previous excursion into the Barrowmaze, they headed back again, they had nearly all of Dhekeon’s body parts (Dhekeon is the fallen skeletal paladin who has joined them to seek redemption), all that was missing was his head and torso. Inaros, the highest ranking lawful good member of this particular group that was going on the adventure (The Army of the Light now numbers over 30!), had one of Dhekeon’s arms lodged within the arm loop of his shield, and so the army could point in the direction of where his remaining parts could be found.

Upon entering the Barrowmoor, the Army of the Light saw three adventuring groups at work, two were excavating barrow mounds, but one was entering the Barrowmaze itself through the one known and common entrance. The group though they should use this entrance point for quickest access to where Dhekeon’s parts lie. It was mid-June in the Duchy of Aerik and adventuring parties and tomb-raiders were quite busy seeking glory and treasure!

Upon entering this old entrance they headed south to explore areas they had last been in between 1 and 2 years ago. Things had changed. Adventuring parties had left some graffiti on the walls, traps had been sprung with dead tomb-raiders within, and the undead in the area were not the older undead from the original people buried here, now the undead were the recently deceased tomb-raiders that had met their end here.

Zombie baby art by Chris Woodall.

In one part of these halls the group was reminded they had encountered some zombie babies that ended up falling to their death in a pit trap, although they had never discovered at the time where these undead infants had come from. Now, over a year later their heads had been carefully placed on a platform in remembrance right next to the pit. What did this mean? They found out immediately as two angry, screaming zombie mothers emerged from opposite ends of the hall, trapping the group in between!

One character took a mother and noticed that she was pregnant with an undead child in her (its hand prints pressed at her stomach from the inside). She had a purplish skin hue, looked ready to breathe some noxious spray onto the hero, but attacks from melee and range took her down. A key check made the group aware that if one of these undead were to successfully breath their spray of undeath on a member of the group, that it could kill them with its toxicity. They were very careful in keeping their distance from the other undead mother and managed to kill them without losing anyone. After exploring the room they had set up as lairs and birthing chambers, the group then discovered a room of twenty fresh zombie men (i.e. recently deceased adventurers), that the undead women had been using to produce their zombie babies. Clerics managed to turn half of them while cutting down the rest with there weapons.

At this point they managed to find a clear path to where Dhekeon’s final parts could be found. They were now entering an area where a necromancer named Kelmok had tried to ambush them over a year ago. Now, it seemed, a new necromancer had take up residence here – Grimstaff. He was a necromancer from more civilized lands that had heard of the Barrowmaze within the Borderlands and had come here to claim greater power. Somehow he had gotten a hold of Dhekeon’s remaining parts and was now lying in wait for the Army of the Light to come to him. If this was his attempt to gain favor with the necromancers in the Barrowmaze, then if he could defeat part of the Army of the Light with this ambush, then he should undoubtedly be able to elevate himself through the ranks quite quickly!

After reading his taunting message, they entered the long north to south corridor and systematically battled ghoulish undead waiting for them. The whole time they fought the ghouls they could hear the voice of Grimstaff taunting them from further down the hall. Successfully destroying the ghouls the group made it to the double doors of the chamber where Grimstaff awaited. On the top of a obelisk in the center of this massive chamber they could see Dhekeon’s torso tied (his head seemed to have been removed). From behind four other pillars in the room and from under various piles of refuse and bone, the group could hear the sounds of arcane and divine necromancers preparing to cast spells at them. We were about to roll initiative to begin combat, but the session was over and this combat would have to wait until next week!

art from Barrowmaze Complete.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 64

Summary:
1. Attacked by a unique variant of cockatrice, Gnoosh, our gnome rogue/illusionist is nearly turned to stone – twice – through bite attacks!
2. Activating a trap, the Army of the Light is chased down flights of stairs with a giant boulder rolling after them!

PC’s:
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue/Illusionist of Baravar
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric/Wizard of Sehanine
Astrid, Human Skald of Hel
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Remi, Gnome Harlequin (Rogue/Illusionist) of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin of St. Ingrid
Roulf, Half-Orc Drachentoten (i.e. Dragonslayer) of Crom
Edward, Human Bard of St. Cecilia
Aturash, Half-Orc Berserker of Odin
Orwin, Half-Elf (human lineage) Fighter/Drachentoten of St. Agathos

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

Game Diary:
The group left off last time on a cliffhanger at the doorway of a room with two cockatrice bounding toward them.

Cockatrice (art from D&D 5E Monster Manual)

We began the session with an initiative roll. The players held their attacks and the cockatrice, although 40 feet away, launched themselves into the air and used their wings to soar right into melee combat. Some might think of cockatrice as creatures that petrify people with a gaze attack (like so many other monsters of that type, like medusa and basilisks), and although I frequently use the Labyrinth Lord monsters (which is what Barrowmaze was designed for), I chose to use the Castles & Crusades version instead. In C&C the cockatrice transmits petrification through a bite attack. I found that a lot more interesting, and it allowed me to potentially catch some players off guard who might otherwise rely on prior game knowledge (one of the challenges I have as a GM is that although it is sometimes nice to have a player rely on prior knowledge to move an encounter or adventure forward, other times I want to show them something new they haven’t seen before).

Two characters were bitten by the two cockatrice. One passed their save, but Gnoosh did not. I told him that it felt like cold concrete was being injected into his veins and his skin began to turn gray in color and his body began to stiffen (I was not going to petrify him in one round, like many other bite attacks that inject something, I felt it should take some time to spread through his body). Since the cockatrice bite attack was described in the C&C Monsters & Treasure as: “A wound from the beast’s bite becomes instantly infected…” a player asked if a they could cast remove disease to cure him. I thought that sounded great, but I had them make a spellcaster check with the Challenge Level equaling the cockatrice HD to over ride the power of the bite. They succeeded. I began to describe how Gnoosh began to re-acquire his dark tan/brownish gnome complexion again. But then the next round came and it bit Gnoosh again AND he failed his save again! I described how just as he was getting his roguish flexibility back he felt the rush of the cold, petrifying, saliva enter his system again and he began to return to a grayish stone color. Most players were able to keep the magical beasts at bay with their polearms as well as cut them up with them, and a cleric stepped up and succeeded in removing the petrifying disease of the cockatrice a second time on Gnoosh.

A large room lay before them with a tantalizing chamber in the back, but they decided they didn’t want to take any more risks, shut the door, and headed in the opposite direction! I had never seen the group do this before, they have traditionally never left a room unexplored. Since they were in this area to find the missing body parts of Dhekeon, the undead fallen paladin seeking redemption (and if brought together, his body parts will re-attach), they decided to get on with that mission. His left arm pointed to where his next appendage was. They got to a door and Gnoosh went to unlock it but rolled a 1! When that happened I described how his lock picks broke. I also explained that it appears his fingers still had some stiffening residue left over from the cockatrice bites. So Remi stepped up and as it happened, effortlessly unlocked the door!

They eventually got to a stone door that neither of the rogues could open. They knew somewhere behind it Dhekeon’s body parts were located, so they took out their sledges and broke it down. They then saw a series of stairs that slowly went up in a loose spiral pattern into an ever tightening center point (see map picture).

The stone trap (map from Barrowmaze Complete).

They got to the top and on the door there was an inscription: “Knock and Pull to Enter the Crypt of Mahle Royc.” They discussed what this could mean, eventually deciding to knock once and pull the pull ring. Apparently that was not the correct decision and a massive stone boulder fell from above. Dexterity saves were made, those that failed were hit for damage and the boulder roll over them (crushing some of their potions), those that passed were now being chased by the boulder as it descended the stairs after them! They had to make several more saves as they ran from the pursuing boulder, eventually making it to the bottom. There was a lot of healing that needed to get done when that was over. They then made their way back towards the top of the stairs and entered the crypt. There stood Dhekeon’s legs attached to his hip. Dhekeon’s lower body walked towards them. They already had his left and right arms, so all that remained was his torso and head and he would be complete. The crypt of this once mighty warrior – Mahle Royce – held his body in a full chain suit in incredible condition (and magical!). Roulf took that for himself.

The group was worn out and out of spells. They wanted to head back to Ironguard Motte. As they made their way out of the Crypt of Mahle Royce there were ghouls waiting for them (it seems that those that hid away Dhekeon’s body parts in the crypts knew the Army of the Light would go after it and set up undead to attack them). The ghouls were destroyed – they were much less challenging than the cockatrice and the crushing boulder! But it further depleted the groups resources. They left through a new exit they discovered and made their way back to town.

In the past they would take a few weeks off to rest, but this time they decided to heal up with curative spells and head back the following day to seek out the final body parts of Dhekeon. The players seem to be changing up the way they do things. This is understandable, since in an email I sent them prior to this session, I pointed out that they are mostly past the “easy” parts of the Barrowmaze and that things are going to get a lot more difficult going forward. I am guessing they have decided to be more cautious as a result, perhaps in part because three of the 10 characters in this session were level 1 and one was level 2 (40% of the group were newcomers). We did have four characters that were level 5-6, and having 10 PC’s in a party plus an NPC increases their chance for survival, but at this stage in the Barrowmaze 1st level characters have a much higher likelihood of perishing (although these new 1st level characters are all lawful good and the group was sorely lacking lawful good characters before, so having these lawful good characters is going to help them in the long run versus the undead and the forces of chaos, plus, with the higher amount of monster XP and treasure – I use the Gold Piece = XP rule – the low level characters will level up quite swiftly…if they survive). I look forward to seeing how this group takes on their next challenge!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 62

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

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

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

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

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

Critical Hit and Fumble Dice by New Comet Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 61

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

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

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

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

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

Entrance to the Death Vault (art from Barrowmaze Complete)

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

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

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

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

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

Rendar Serouc’s Crypt (art from Barrowmaze Complete)

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

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

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

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

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

And that is where we left that session.

GaryCon XIII, Day 3

For the third day of GaryCon I participated in a six hour Swords & Wizardry game – Rogues in Remballo.

This morning when I was preparing to get on Discord for my fourth game for this Con and my third in the Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game system I realized that I had unintentionally selected different styles of games for each day.
– Thursday: the two S&W games I played were underground dungeon crawls.
– Friday: the Castles & Crusades game I played was entirely outdoors and involved climbing cliffs and aerial assaults.
– Saturday: today my S&W game took place in a city involving lots of role-playing and puzzle solving.
– Sunday: tomorrow the Dungeon Crawl Classics game I will play in will be of mixed setting, as we begin in a tavern and then head into the sewers and the underworld.

Although I didn’t plan this, this has actually been quite enjoyable and I like the change of environments for each game, for I get to explore a plethora of challenges. Steve Chenault’s game reinforced for me the importance of using environment and I look forward to elevating that element of my game. Since I already use weather conditions in my game, further enhancing the physical environment is the next step I want to take to further enhance my game. But unlike weather, which is more of an outdoor phenomena, terrain is something that you encounter under ground as well (I think most prominently of the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide from AD&D as one of the top resources for this, which, it just so happens, is getting an homage and update in Kickstarter right now as the Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking for DnD 5th Edition).

Rogues in Remballo was the S&W city adventure that I played today. I was specifically looking to play this game for one big reason. Playing in this game would serve as a great introduction to the Borderland Provinces within the Lost Lands campaign setting by Frog God Games. I own most of the Lost Lands material and have read through much of it, but you learn best not just by reading, but by doing, so I saw this as a great opportunity to get thrown right into the setting and learn about the city, the organizations, and local political color. I chose right.

When doing a city-based adventure which would have role-playing and puzzle solving, you need to allow extra time, and so the GM was wise to make this a six hour adventure. We spent the first three hours just navigating a small district within the city and through each interaction with an NPC stable-hand, barkeep, shopkeeper, and captain of the guard, we picked up snippets of information which led to the final three hours of taking on the villains and monsters of the adventure.

There was one major problem I experienced during this six hour game. At about the 3 hour mark there was a power went out (it effected more than 5,000 people in the area where I lived), and it took about an hour for the power to get restored. When I was able to return to the game roughly an hour later the role-playing had come to an end (they had gathered all the information they needed to find the people causing the trouble we were tasked with solving), and the combat portion of the game had begun. The final couple of hours were filled with great combat and even further negotiations with rogues from rival guilds pleading for their lives.

This was an all-around great game. I acquired some great insights into the Lost Lands, enjoyed a well laid-out city adventure with a marvelous balance of role-playing, problem-solving, and combat. I can easily see each GM emphasizing different aspects of the game depending on whether the players are interested or good at roleplaying, and the order and approach the players take in interacting with the abundant NPCs within the district and town. As a result, this makes a great convention game, for it can take many different turns and directions each time it is run. I will likely want to play in this again (if for no other reason than to enjoy it in its entirety and not miss out due to a power cut!).

GaryCon XIII, Day 2

Summary:
Played in a Castles & Crusades game streamed on Twitch run by Steve Chenault. An absolutely amazing game with players jumping off a 200-foot high bridge onto the backs of flying beasts and the beasts tossed players into the sky to play with their prey before devouring them! It was aerial madness like you rarely see!

Today at GaryCon XIII I had just one thing planned: play in a Castles & Crusades game with the CEO of Troll Lord Games in one of his infamous “big” GaryCon games. When in person these games can include 20 or more players (I was in the 2019 game and was one of 24 players). When done virtually you have to reduce that number, so this time there were just 8 players (and only a few of us made it out alive!).

For those who have not been in one of Steve’s games, he makes creative use of the outdoor environment. I’ve never been in games where the landscape plays such an important role. At some point you almost always come across a large river that needs to be crossed (usually swift moving!). As Steve has said, crossing a river is a great opportunity to showcase the SIEGE Engine (this is the mechanic which drives C&C and makes it so versatile, and was such a strong drawing point when I was looking for the perfect RPG for me. It is now the game system I use to run all my campaigns).

Unlike most RPG games you experience – especially at a convention – where there is usually some task or goal you are supposed to accomplish during the time limit available, in Steve’s game you mostly enjoy the moment, and since his games take place outdoors, you can roam anywhere you want and there is always something that will spring up and you have to deal with it. You rarely find such an open-world gaming experience.

A Fiedoth “Shovel Mouth” (Castles & Crusades Monsters & Treasure of Aihrde)

So what happened in this adventure? I think this game should be watched to experience it, but if you want a quick teaser, then I can tell you that most of the game took place on a bridge 200 feet above a fast moving river spanning two cliffs. We fought a large, strange flying creature called a Fiedoth “shovel mouth” with a 40 ft. wingspan. Much like an Orca (which when hunting seals throws them into the air before it kills them) the fiedoth does something similar to those it catches with its tail – throwing them into the air as an aerial plaything! The three hour adventure saw players being tossed into the air, jumping off the bridge onto the back of these beasts, getting partially swallowed and fighting to get out from inside its mouth, and many other attempts at aerial acrobatics. Many things went wrong, since several characters did not survive this adventure. But this was one of those adventures that you want to tell your friends about, and since it was streamed live, others can actually see it for themselves!

Those of us who played in this game learned after it was over that our entire adventure was mostly planned as an encounter, and that the adventure he had planned we never got to! But as I said above, in Steve’s games you end up creating your own path and we all deal with the choices we make. The two C&C campaigns I run possess a lot of occurrences that require improvisation from myself and my players on the spot, so this is a game-style that I really embrace.

If you are interested in seeing this game, then check out the link below.
Troll Lord Games Twitch channel: https://www.twitch.tv/trolllordgames
The streamed GaryCon game was called “When the Iron Gives Way.”

For those that want to see the an adventure where Steve takes the players onto a challenging river crossing, take a look at “TLG 1500 – The Glade” here: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/960511627
This game took place the week before GaryCon XIII and I happened to be a player in that game as well.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 55.

Summary:
On their way to a Viking Thing (i.e. Assembly), the Army of the Light are ambushed by Norse Hill Giants and their Ogre followers under the payment of the more influential Norse Jötun Giants, who are seeking blood vengeance for an attack on clan allies the previous year.

Backstory:
The previous year the Army of the Light was recruited to stop Jötun Giants that had attacked the walls of Ironguard Motte. The group headed into the Moon Peaks to take them on. The challenge was almost beyond them, however, they had a card from the Deck of Dirty Tricks that allowed them to summon a random encounter to come to their aid, and the random roll of the dice brought in Stone Giants to aid them! All seemed well and they were hailed as heroes upon return.

Game Diary:
It is now a year later. Gimli “rot face”, the dwarven berserker afflicted with a rotting body resulting from his encounter entering the Pit of Chaos, and a week before becoming a werewolf under the dual moons of Lunacy, is heading east out of the Duchy of Aerik with his “thingmen” to attend the Þhing (assembly), organized by the goði (chieftain) of this district, Thorgrímr Osricsson [a quick aside: I am currently working my way through the Icelandic Sagas and engaging in academic research into Norse culture, which is making its way into my game world, and thus some of the medieval Icelandic terms and spelling]. Thorgrímr has noticed that Gimli is on his way to becoming a major figure in the area and wants that power on his side (Gimli is currently 5th level, and a situation is being set up so that if Gimli survives to 9th level and has reached the point when he can gather followers and acquire a piece of land, then it will be Thorgrímr who will provide him with a longhouse and an elite group of berserkers under his command).

The journey to the Þhing is one week east of the Duchy of Aerik. The first evening at resting on the side of the road as the forest is giving way to open grass lands with rocky plateaus scattered about, they encountered a 30 foot long gray worm with sharp teeth surrounding its open maw sneaks in during the middle of the night and swallows the gnome bard, Belden whole and moves off. The rest on watch kill the massive beast and little Bedlen crawls out and spends the night washing and cleaning his clothes from all the worms interior goo.

On day two they follow the lonely road with their two wagons of ten adventurers and gifts for the assembly. But then on a plateau north of the west-east road they are traveling on, they make out three hill giants, two are beating drums, and one, clearly the chieftain named Bogar, is chanting. The giant’s morale goes up from the frightening sounds and those of the adventurers slips. Then six ogres emerge from the 6 foot tall grass and begin hurling rocks at the group. The Army of the Light break into roughly two groups, five make their way south of the road to take on three of the ogres, and another five focus on the three ogres north of the road (as well as the three hill giants, who are currently focused on enhancing their ogre minions). Even with the hill giant chants/drum beats and a blessing from their god (Grolantor), I miss more than I hit, and the adventurers send in their owl companion to distract ogres, others summon swarm to wear down other ogres, Balthazar, the elven wizard (who has the head of a lizard and torso of an ape due to the Pit of Chaos) launches magic missiles at the hill giants, and Gimli enters Oðins Fury and makes multiple bow attacks each round on ogres and hill giants.

Bogar, the Hill Giant Chieftain

The hill giants and ogres are a bit taken aback by their lack of success from the war chants and Grolantor’s blessings, the hill giants stop the drumming and chanting and begin hurling boulders from the plateau south toward the adventurers. The rock and boulder throwing is met by magic missiles and arrow fire. Eventually players make it through the high grass and enter melee with the ogres. Some are more enthusiastic than others and a critical fail of 1 ended up being a critical hit on an ally next to them (when I rolled the critical fail die). Bogar, the hill giant chief leaps off the plateau and is met by Roulf, the half-roc Drachentöten (Dragonslayer) of Crom. Bogar falls under many blows and Roulf cuts off his head and enters his dragon dance of intimidation with Bogar’s head held above him. Another hill giant falls from ranged attacks onto the surface of the plateau, and the third leaps off the plateau and heads away from Roulf to attack Gimli. Rolando, a hobbit rogue/pacer stabs him from behind, and other powerful warriors attack him from the front. Just like Bogar before him, he falls into the tall grass with a thud, like a giant tree. The remaining ogres are easily dispatched.

The Army of the Light took a lot of damage and needed rest, and upon looking behind the plateau discover the hill giants and ogres had a giant wagon with over a 1,000 gold pieces and some gifts which they were going to take to the Þhing. The group took the loot as their own and rest up for the next leg of their trip. They might be worried, though, for it was known that Bogar was most likely under the pay of a Jötun Giant named Asbjorn, who is the one seeking blood vengeance for the fallen Jötun Giants from last year. He is most likely waiting for them somewhere during their remaining four day journey. They can only hope they are prepared well enough to take on this challenging obstacle!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 52.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rackham Vale

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

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


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

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