Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 82

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: indigolt/Fotolia

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 81

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

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

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

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

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

artist unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 79

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Trial of the Hunt. Artwork from Barrowmaze Complete.

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

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

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

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 78

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.

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 77

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.

Basilisk art by Jacob Atienza (Deviantart)

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

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

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

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 74

Summary:
A tragic session: Cobalt, a paladin that was a founding member of the Army of the Light and who has been in this campaign for 2.5 years (ever since Session 1), fell in combat. He had held off wraiths and a spectre (avoiding their level drain) but was taken down by two Necrolyte’s of Nergal blasting him with lightning bolts. A new 1st level wizard in her first adventure also died from shocking grasp. The campaign has been shaken up by this loss, and yet it has also opened up entirely new possible plotlines!

PC’s:
Cobalt, Human Paladin 6, of St. Agathos
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 6 of Celestian
Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 6 of Arcanus
Ahmeya
, Elf Wizard 1 (Wild Mage) of Maximillian
Rolando, Hobbit Rogue 3/Pacer 2 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Martin, Human Rogue 6 of Bacchus
Rosaline, Half-Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 6 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 5 of St. Agathos
Kiaria, Human Seeker 5 of Bast
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 5 of Haephestus

NPC:
Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

edited art excerpt of a paladin in prayer by LadyJotaro (DeviantArt)

Game Diary:
This session was a big deal for the character of Cobalt. He had last been in an adventure months before, where a Chosen of Nergal named Rendar Serouc turned him insane just before he died. The clerics in Ironguard Motte brought in priests and healers from the Crusader Kingdoms in the west to work their divine magic on him, and with their time, energy, and faith they brought him out of his catatonic state, and he healed in the temple, slowly regaining his mental faculties in daily prayer and meditation. One day, however, his weapon, a Saint’s Mace (artifact) which he had found in loot early on in his adventuring career, and which had the strong will to slay evil, spoke to him. It said that he needed to leave the temple and return to the Barrowmaze and destroy the evil within. Moreover, it gave him a quest: do more than half the damage on an evil leader (e.g. the leader of the Orcus Cult, or the leader of the Church of Nergal) and it would turn into his holy avenger when he reached his next stage of development (i.e. 7th level). Cobalt was energized! If this worked out his weapon, which was already an artifact, would further expand into a holy avenger, this would be a weapon beyond the imagination!

The other members of the Army of the Light had developed their own plans while Cobalt had been resting these last few months in the temple, the druid (Rosaline) and barbarian (Gorgat) were interested in finding the tomb of a barbarian named Thar that had predated the creation of the Barrowmaze. The group was ready to go, and that was when Cobalt entered their headquarters, returned from his months of silent prayer in the temple to join them. The paladin with the Saint’s Mace that could strike down hordes of undead with a single strike was back!

The group had been provided information from a sage regarding where the tomb of Thar might be, as well as a series of chambers dedicated to the four elements (something characters like Rosaline were also interested in). To get there, however, they would have to pass through areas that were most likely going to have undead.

They initially returned to a large chamber where they had met a gargoyle master several adventures back and finished exploring chambers they had left previously ignored. The treasure within these crypts numbered in thousands of gold pieces, but breaking the seal on these stone doors and sliding them away also unleashed wraiths and a spectre! These are always challenging undead, for these particular incorporeal undead that were encountered allowed a Constitution save to avoid losing a level. All three attacked and hit Cobalt, but he fortunately passed his saves and only briefly glimpsed his life experiences being pulled from him before he was able to summon the fortitude to push away the negative energy. The power of Cobalt and the Saint’s Mace stood strong against this chaos.

The party moved on and found a bricked up wall that led to a shrine of Demeter. The statue within wept, and those that caught the falling tears were healed of their wounds. Further emboldened, they proceeded to the next area.

Image of the Library Crypt of Nergal from Barrowmaze Complete by Greg Gillespie

The Army of the Light next arrived at a bricked up wall facing east. Breaking down this wall the sages in the party discovered the dark language of necromancy on the entry and discovered this was the secret library of Nergal. A large amount of their dark knowledge had been sealed and protected within. Cobalt stood at the entrance and heard whispering voices beckoning him to come in. His detect evil told him there were evil entities waiting for him. Cobalt entered into the library from the west door. Heading in ten feet, the library broke off in a T-section to the north and south with narrow 5 foot wide corridors continuing east from the N-S hall. These narrow corridors were filled with bookshelves going back 30 feet lit by ever-burning candles.

There was no time to reflect on this, for from the north and south two imposing crypt knights of Nergal attacked Cobalt! Their natural fear aura failed to do anything to the paladin due to his immunity to fear and strength of faith. His Saint’s Mace struck one down in a single blow. His friends came in to assist him, but the the crypt knight fear aura sent Rosaline and Zen rushing out through the west doorway and Martin and Rolando had to trip them and then other characters tried to tie them up, for the last thing they needed was screaming adventurers running down the corridors bringing wandering undead to attack them from behind!

Those adventurers not trying to prevent the fleeing feared members came and fired arrows and magic missiles at the remaining crypt knight and it went down. At this point Cobalt saw two half-undead/half-living Necrolytes of Nergal, one peaked out from the furthest north library corridor, and the other from the furthest south corridor. They both launched magic missiles and then darted behind the wall and down the corridor of books to remain out of his sight. They were clearly powerful magic-users since there were four magic missiles from each Necrolyte that hit Cobalt. He took the damage and headed north to take on that particular one.

Turning right at the top of the corridor the immortal magic-using guardian of the library was waiting for him. The church of Nergal had been trying to kill Cobalt for years (in game time and in real time!), and although the encounter with Rendar Serouc (a Chosen of Nergal) had made him insane, Cobalt had recovered and was clearly back to his old ways of slaying undead with every strike. The Necrolyte knew that extreme action had to be taken. Within the narrow confines of the corridor it launched a lightning bolt. It knew that this would most likely destroy many of the books in that area, but the paladin had been ruining their plans for years. The electrical blast hit Cobalt squarely and he failed his save, since he had neglected to heal himself from his previous attacks he was already down a lot of hit points, and the lightning bolt killed him!

It was at this point the player looked more closely at his character sheet and realized that from a special ability Cobalt had acquired from the C&C Mystical Companions book (which allowed him to summon a spirit to enter his armor and spiritually enhance it) that Cobalt had 65% magic resistance! (or SR13 in C&C terms on a d20). I won’t let my monsters or PC’s reroll dice or retcon stuff from mistakes we have made in previous rounds of combat, but since we were still technically on the lightning bolt round I let him roll his d20 SR roll, and he only had to roll 13 or under to ignore the electrical damage. He failed the roll! Cobalt was still dead!

There was shock all around. One player pleaded that surely there was something that could still be done. They looked at their Deck of Dirty Trick cards (players randomly pull three from the deck every game session to avoid catastrophes like this), but none of the cards were applicable to this situation. I thought about it and decided his Saint’s Mace artifact would intervene one last time, and it brought him to -6hp (in my C&C game, 0hp means you limp, crawl, and gasp for help, from -1 to -6 you are unconscious for hours, and from -7 you lose 1hp per round and die at -10). Of course, there has to be repercussions for what the Saint’s Mace did in preserving his life, and the characters noticed that as Cobalt lie on the ground at death’s door, that the mace rolled from his hands. In part this was because of the spell’s blast of magic energy projecting Cobalt against the west all and falling to the ground, and in part due to the mace rejecting Cobalt. It no longer accepted him as it’s wielder. Cobalt, in its mind had failed too many times and was no longer worthy of wielding it. But at least Cobalt was barely alive at -6 and just needed to get first aid and then a cure spell to return.

We now had to get back to combat, Ahmeya, a young wizard and student of Balthazar on her first adventure with the Army of the Light, headed south to attack the Necrolyte down there, while Arthur and Balthazar headed north to take on the one that had struck down Cobalt. Balthazar turned the northern corridor to attack the Necrolyte but it was nowhere to be seen. Balthazar is a no-nonsense guy, assumed he was invisible, and launched a special Barrowmaze spell he had learned called Ool’s Broiling Exhalation, which effectively produces a burning hands spell but from the caster’s mouth. The flames shot down the narrow corridor igniting whatever books remained from the lightning bolt. The spell normally would not quite have killed the Necrolyte, but the spell happens to do additional damage against undead, and after I rolled a %die to determine whether this creature was phasing as undead or not (50-50 chance) I discovered it was phasing as undead at that moment and it ended up getting burned up by the spell. Balthazar had killed it!

While this was happening Ahmeya turned to look down the south corridor and also couldn’t see the Necrolyte. She was briefly puzzled, but was then surprised as it emerged within arms reach from invisibility with electrical energy moving about its hand and used shocking grasp on her. She was a 1st level wizard with 5 hit points, it did three times that in damage – Ahmeya died!

By this point those in the north west corridor that had killed the northern Necrolyte returned to the main N-S hall and other members of the Army of the Light had also entered from the broken in wall to the west, and it was just as they were all along the hall that the southern Necrolyte emerged from its southern corridor (where it had just killed Ahmeya) and sent a lightning bolt up the corridor encompassing nearly everyone! Everyone managed to survive that blast, except for Cobalt, who was lying unmoving in its path at -6 hp. This lightning bolt hit him for 25 points of damage, ensuring that he now was truly dead.

The remaining members of the group killed the remaining Necrolyte and they discovered roughly 20,000 gold pieces worth of manuals and tomes of ancient necromantic knowledge in the surviving parts of the libray, as well as magical tomes that would provide enhancements for several characters (they found manuals of bodily health and martial skillfulness). At that point the session was at an end and the group said they were heading back to Ironguard Motte. The group wanted to grab the Saint’s Mace but it would only allow a lawful good person to wield it, and there were no lawful good people in this party except for Inaros, the NPC cleric of Osiris. He was truly happy to pick up such a mighty weapon!

Next week the players have said there will have to be a several week time jump to allow them to regain their Wisdom from the undead encounters (every undead encounter in the Barrowmaze effects a character’s wisdom and they need to rest a week for every undead encounter to regain the wisdom that is drained from them), plus mourn Cobalt, and presumably to read those magical manuals they found. But when this is over they will be heading back to the Barrowmaze to find the tomb of Thar and the elemental chambers.

A major character who had played such an important role in this group for 2.5 years and whose identity (whether he was present or not) helped shaped the identity of the group died in this adventure. This is tragic and impactful. I will miss Cobalt, I was developing some major campaign plots around him when he would reach 9th level and could own or build castles and get a duchy under his command. The person who played Cobalt will also miss him (obviously). But characters die (players lose roughly 3-4 every year in this deadly campaign). Next week we begin a new chapter in this campaign, for even though several plotlines have been thrown into disarray with Cobalt’s death, it has also opened things up in a very expansive way. There are new leadership roles to take on in the group. There may be new power maneuvering within Ironguard Motte with Cobalt gone. And this may effect the group’s relationship with the powers-that-be in Ironguard Motte since as I mentioned above, there are very few lawful good worshipers of the Crusader Kingdom Saints (which is one of the pantheons in my world, and which have a strong presence in Ironguard Motte). The campaign may have just been turned upside down at a point when everyone thought they could begin to predict the future path of the campaign!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 73

Summary:
The Army of the Light ascends several thousand feet into the Moon Peaks, battles three Stuhać (demonic Slavic creatures), a Likhoradka (a female Slavic spirit that spreads disease), and discovers her secret hidden cottage filled with exotic and poisonous plants.

PC’s:
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 6 of Celestian
Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 6 of Arcanus
Gimli
 “Rot Face”, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 6/Illusionist 5 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 6 of Bacchus
Rosaline, Half-Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 6 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 5 of St. Agathos
Kiaria, Human Seeker 5 of Bast
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus

NPC:
Conwrick Pimkin, Hobbit Ranger of Brandobaris Fleetfoot

Game Diary:
When half the players couldn’t play last week we did a small side adventure with different characters they had (The Army of the Light has 38 characters in it, so there are always characters for my players to use!). This week we had 5 of our regular 6 players and we continued where we left off on a…cliffhanger…two weeks ago at the edge of a cliff with a 600 foot drop and another 600 foot vertical ascent.

The Rosaline (the druid) had spend several days carefully casting plant growth to build up strong roots of the plants that hung in places within the rock, she then transformed into her spider totem shape and joined those that ascended the cliff. Belden acquired the ability to turn into an owl after gaining favor with the god Cernunnos during a trip to the Otherworld. Gnoosh, Martin, and Conwrick had slippers of spider climbing. And Balthazar cast multiple levitate spells on those that didn’t have spider climbing abilities or capabilities to shape change. There were a few checks for the climbers, and except for one failed check by Gnoosh as he reached the top (his luck stone saved him from falling to his death!), everyone got up fine.

Looking at what lie in front of them at the top, they saw 30 feet of thorns and brambles that reached as high as 5 feet in height. Beyond that there was a cottage covered with natural vegetation that camouflaged it almost completely. And beyond that there was a serious of gardens with many exotic plants and a cliff where exotic plants called cliff plives and fire flowers grew (they had come for the cliff plives, which, if used by the right person could harden leather armor garments into nearly steel-like strength.

But there was movement in the brambles. Three very well hidden humanoids dwelled within. Gnoosh’s hat of telepathy revealed to him their surface thoughts – defend their witch mistress and avenge the death of their air-dragon-elemental that had been killed by the group in the first part of this adventure. Belden pulled out his piccolo and began to fascinate them, which at his skill level functioned as a charm person. They emerged from the brambles and were frightening with their beef-jerky-like skin complexion, sharp claws, and demonic features. He persuasively convinced them that the group did not kill the elemental creature and that they were invited to see the witch. The Stuhać cleared a path through the brambles and led the way to their witch mistress.

The likhoradka witch – named Beoria – was not fooled by the bard’s performance. She was 7 feet tall, slender, and wore clothes that allowed her to blend into the surroundings. Unbeknownst to them, she was lying in wait. As a likhoradka, Beoria had the ability to transform into a spirit dive into a victim’s body (Wisdom save to resist) and possess them. She had been observing them and saw her perfect victim – Gnoosh! Gnoosh had the lowest wisdom in the group, and she knew that if she could take him over, she could wreak havoc on them (Gnoosh was also a rogue 6/illusionist 5 with a lot of magic, making him ideal for that reason as well, she was a very old woman who had learned a great deal in how to assess a person’s strengths and weaknesses).

The frightening appearance of the Likhoradka

Her careful observations and plan had to be altered on the spot, however, when one of the spellcasters said they were going to cast sanctuary on the Gnoosh. She had to act fast and before she wanted! She lept out from behind an arched trellis covered in vines (her spindly arms and straggly hair looked a lot like the plant material surrounding her). She did a vicious claw attack which made its mark. It was time for initiative and unfortunately for me, enough players rolled higher. The characters swarmed in and killed the spirit in three blows (although the disease that emanated from her did afflict five characters lowering their Strength and Constitution by 1 each, which took several days for the healers to remove). The players were relieved, but now the Stuhać saw the truth and the enchantment on them ended as they attacked the group. This took a few rounds to complete, for they also had vicious claw attacks, which, like the likhoradka, could’ve dropped some characters with one blow if I would’ve rolled well on damage. But fortune shined on them and the demonic creatures were slain.

Stuhać art by YoshiWoo at Deviantart

The group now had time to explore this isolated and hidden witch grove and cottage. They found exotic cliff plives, fire flowers (which offer fire resistance to dwarves that work their forges for hours on end) and ipple (which makes a tasty dessert and baked good, but can also extend life when used by the properly skilled herbalist and alchemist) [By the way, these items can be found in Harold the Halflings Herbology Handbook published by Deep Dungeon Games]. They also found materials like lamassu feathers, a unicorn horn, sea monster oil, etc, which could make a variety of potions and healing concoctions, as well as black lotus flowers which could make dust of death! Whether healers or assassins, everyone found something they could make use of!

Rosaline realized that this isolated place – once purged of its evil presence, for they discovered from Beoria’s diaries and notebooks that she had been living up here for over a century – could make a good druid grove. Additionally, Kiaria – who had acquired a Griffon egg many adventures back – thought this would be ideal to raise her griffon when it hatched and raise it to be her companion. So this adventure not only provided a large amount of materials for potions and elixirs, it would also serve as the safe and secure location of a druid and seeker as they get ever closer to reaching the level to establish their own druid grove and hidden outpost.

This was a fun adventure which has laid the groundwork for future character development, and for the players, it will only be when they read this game diary that they will discover how close they got to having Gnoosh possessed by the Slavic spirit and doing…well, now we’ll never know what havoc she could’ve done! Next week they return to the Barrowmaze and seek out the burial of a once great barbarian name Thar, whose burial predates the creation of the Barrowmaze. What ancient elements and magic will they discover?

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 72

Summary:
Side adventure where members of the Army of the Light help a farmer cleanse Slavic spirits and demons from under his granary/storage silo, discover a portal to the lower realms and return with a treasure hoard!

PC’s:
Kyra, Elf Cleric 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Skuld, Elf Sorceress (Seiðkona) 4 of Odin
Orgren, Dwarf Fighter 3 of Sif
Amelia, Half-Elf (Human lineage) Bard 2/Illusionist 1 of Apollo
Oswyn, Human Cleric 1 of St. Jasper
Edward, Human Bard 3 of St. Cecilia
Aristoteles, Human Ranger 1 of Uller
Cyron, Human Cleric 6 of Charon
Magni, Dwarf Fighter 2 of Barundar Battleaxe
Aturash, Half-Orc Berserker 3 of Odin
Sagira, Human Cleric 1 of Horus

Game Diary:
Half the players couldn’t make the session, so for the three players that could make, two made new characters they had previously outlined and with a few veteran members of the Army of the Light I came up with a one session side adventure to put them through their paces.

As so many adventures begin, this began in a tavern in Ironguard Motte. While relaxing in a tavern the door opened and a panicked farmer accompanied by a town guard entered seeking help with a problem he had. There were apparently strange fiery spirits under the granary and storage silo at his farm just a few minutes north of the town. The group of veterans and enthusiastic newcomers to the Army of the Light seeking to prove their worth in the group headed to the farm. Once there, the farmer opened the double doors that led down stairs into the storage area under his granary and storage silo. When they arrived they entered an area 30 feet in diameter with three tunnels leading off in different directions. Detect magic and detect evil told the spellcasters that there was the presence of neutral evil, lawful evil, and chaotic evil down each of the tunnels.

Ovinnik

As they were working out what to do three 4 foot all hairy beings wearing leather vests with symbols of Czernobog (a Slavic god of destruction and misery) emerged from the far left of the three tunnels. Although they were carrying pitchforks and were apparently doing laboring work in the underground area, the veteran members of the group had met demon beasts of Czernobog several months prior and weren’t going to wait for a conversation when they saw them raise their palms and small flames emerged from them, the adventurers immediately launched spells and attacks at them. I was looking forward to introducing my players to some interesting foes and their abilities, these little folk were whittled down fast. They whistled and from the far right tunnel they heard the howling of hounds and saw the flickering lights of flame – hell hounds were approaching!

One spellcaster cast patch of frost and this made the entire area in front of the three tunnels slick with ice as well as spreading a damaging chill to all those that entered the area. The five hell hounds entered as protection from evil was cast to protect the adventurers huddled together. The hell hounds took the chill damage, the warriors lunged forward with their weapons as well as firing their bows. The hellhounds were getting bloodied, and since these summoned creatures couldn’t enter the protected area, they breathed forth their fiery pellets. The veterans took the damage, but the newcomers were not used to such brutal, hellish, attacks, and three went down to zero and negative hit points, on the verge of dying. Fortunately, there were several clerics in the party, Kyra had an owl that could administer cure spells by touch, plus there was a Deck of Dirty Tricks card available that allowed two actions to take place in a single round. So with one cleric casting two healing spells in one round, the animal companion administering a heal, everyone was back up again! (although a couple of the cure spells only cured 1 or 2 hit points). Under the protection from evil aura, the group pushed the hell hounds back onto the patch of frost and the hell hounds froze over.

Drelb art by Peter Bradley for Castles & Crusades Classic Monsters & Treasure

The group, wiping their brow in relief for having survived the hellhounds that nearly killed the three newest members of the Army of the Light, were taken a back by a shadowy figure that emerged from the center tunnel, a being from the negative material realm, yet not seeming to be undead. Again, players decided this was no time for hesitation and Kyra launched a blast of fire from a circlet she had on her head. It was a powerful blast indeed – something I was not prepared for – and with a failed saving throw this potentially quite powerful and devastating monster went up in smoke.

It appeared this was the lead monster of the group (with the Ovinnik being workers and hell hounds being guards). They went down the central tunnel and found a portal to the fiery realm below (Hell? Hel? Muspelheim?). They analyzed it with their spells and knowledge and could sense the other side was going to be very hot, yet they could also make out distorted images through the red, orange, and yellow colors that there was treasure behind it. With the shadow creature gone, the portal was slowly shrinking, but they determined that it would remain open for more than 24 hours, so they took this time to return to Ironguard Motte, rest the night, heal up, learn new spells, and come back with reinforcements.

Death Dog from D&D 5E Monster Manual

So, the group returned 24 hours later to the portal to the fiery realms underneath the farmers grain silo having gone from 6 to 11 members. After they all got endure elements cast on themselves they entered the portal. Before them lay a grayish wasteland with steam rising everywhere. They couldn’t see more than 100 yards, for after that the steam made everything waver in heat waves. However, although seemingly empty in most directions, 100 yards in front of them, at the limits of their vision, their lie much treasure…with 7 double headed death dogs with hell hound capabilities! The dogs howled and charged at the obvious intruders to their realm! The group had a couple of rounds for ranged attacks, hoping to whittle them down before they could breath their double headed fiery breath at them! Other members threw caltrops to their sides since they could tell these dogs were moving to flank them on all sides to take them down. Their plan worked, the seven 2-headed hell hounds were down to just a few after their charge, and they were suitably dealt with by sword and axe.

This, then, left the treasure. They approached, and counted the loot – 13,000gp, magical halberd a phylactery of faithfulness, and a cursed stone that reduces Oswyn’s movement in half (he tried to throw it a way, but it always returns to him somehow). Still, that is a lot of treasure, did it all belong to the shadowy spirit (Drelb), or something else? Skuld, the sorceress, got a hint of an answer when the group was passing through the portal back to their realm and she heard a sinister chuckle in her mind’s ear. Had they now gained the attention of some strange devilish entity from the fiery realm below?…

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 70

Summary:

The Army of the Light encounters 20 animated severed heads that speak to them and bestow an array of magical gifts – and several curses – to the party members!

PC’s:
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 5 of Sehanine Moonbow
Elgiva, Elf
Cleric 1/Wizard 1/Archer 1 of Sehanine Moonbow
Kyra, 
Elf Cleric 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Remi, 
Gnome Harlequin (Rogue 5/Illusionist 2) of Hermes
Gorgat, 
Half-Orc Barbarian 5 of Haephestus
Roulf, 
Half-Orc Dragonslayer 5 of Crom
Edward, 
Human Bard 2 of St. Cecilia
Rosaline, 
Half Elf (Elfin Heritage) Druid 6 of The Daghda
Zen, 
Human Monk 5 of St. Agathos
Balthazar,
 Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 6 of Arcanus
Wright Dawnbreaker, 
Human Paladin 1 of St. Luther

Amelia, Half-Elf (human lineage) Bard 2/Illusionist 1 of Apollo
Skuld, Elf Sorceress 4 of Odin
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 6/Illusionist 5 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 6 of Bacchus
Gimli “Rot Face”, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Zen, Human Monk 5 of St. Agathos

NPC:
Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris
Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
After several sessions dealing with gargoyles, the group was ready to leave the Barrowmaze, head back to Ironguard Motte and level up so that they could adventure some more. Luckily for them they discovered a room with a secret door leading to a barrow mound where 30 severed heads. Ten had deteriorated, but twenty were still “functional.” What does that mean? It means that when spellcasters cast detect thoughts, detect magic, and detect evil, that many of these heads glowed to various degrees. When Balthazar cast detect thoughts and walked up and down the room where the heads were resting on shelves, they all spoke to him, sometimes mentally and verbally.

Artwork from Barrowmaze Complete.

offered the power of charming Balthazar’s enemies, the cyclops head allowed someone to see far beyond any natural range, the minotaur ensured that a person would never be lost, the witch would curse a foe, etc. Balthazar went along the shelf pushing the heads into his bag of holding! Some were quite skeptical and shook their heads with how dangerous this might be, but eventually others decided they wanted a head for themself.

Artwork from Barrowmaze Complete.

Once back at their headquarters in Ironguard Motte the wizards cast identify on the heads and then began to decide who wanted which head. They are described below, and with an important caveat regarding the heads provided afterward.

Balthazar took a wizard head that would detect magic, a homunculus head that would comprehend languages, and a witch head that would curse people. He also took the head of a woman who could only be described as a nagging wife! She bad mouthed him, ridiculed him, put him down, made him aware of how worthless he was. He tried to get rid of the head but discovered that he is now cursed and that if he gets rid of the head it returns to remind him how lazy and useless he is!

Roulf took the minotaur head that allowed him to never get lost and a zombie head which cursed him with a rotting disease! He immediately began to smell and disgusting fluids began to dribble out from pustules and through his pores. Much like Gimli experienced last year when he was afflicted with a rotting curse, this will have quite the effect on him!

Rosaline took the head of a large Scandinavia troll that would open its large mouth and offer to hold things of importance in it – its mouth functioned as a bag of holding! It was also quite friendly and talkative!

Zen received the head of a dwarf, which gave him deepvision as well as the head of a blind man, which bestowed clairvoyance.

Skuld took the head of a thief, this allowed her to detect traps.

Martin got the head of a huge cyclops, which allowed him to see things vast distances away and make them 100x closer, he thought it would be very useful to mount this head in an area that would allow him to survey the surrounding lands. He also grabbed a head of a tavern drunk, which would spew forth a stinking cloud.

Llewelyn became the owner of an elf head that provided divination.

Gorgat took a mummified head that could cause fear.

Gnoosh received the head of a marionette that could make use of ventriloquism.

Amelia snatched the head of the succubus which could charm person.

Wright took a paladin head which, after several days of lecturing him on what it takes to become a worthwhile paladin, bestowed him with two points to his charisma score, increasing it to 20 and elevating his leadership and influence.

I pointed out above that there were a few important caveats regarding these heads:
1) They only have a limited number of “charges,” so the wizards in the party will need to recharge them with magic when they become powerful enough to do so.
2) Most of these powers only work if the character has the head with them, which does complicate matters. Examples: place the cyclops head on the top of a tower in a mountain range and he could see things for you for many dozens of miles. The blind man allows you to use clairvoyance for any place you’ve previously been, so that could be used from his home. But in the case of heads like the mummy head that fears, the succubus that charms person, the wizard head that detects magic, and the marionette head that can use ventriloquism, will only work when it is in your presence, so either you cart a severed head around everywhere, or else you use it as a form of home defense.