Monday 17 October 2016

[BLOG] Castle Xyntillan

Once upon a time (more precisely, ten years ago), I was invited by Necromancer Games to produce a revised and expanded edition of Judges Guild’s classic Tegel Manor. Despite producing two draft versions of the manuscript and a whole lot of playtesting, the project fell through, and my take on the dungeons was never published. However, that is an old story, already told elsewhere. The manuscript mostly languished in my archives, although I occasionally took it out for a ride on tournaments and one-offs, where it ate up a generous amount of characters, and some of it (my key for the dungeons as well as two wilderness sites) ended up in Cloister of the Frog God, a side-adventure published in Frog God Games’ edition of Rappan Athuk. However, the bulk of it was never seen by anyone except a circle of close friends who received a PDF of the first draft (some of them ran full campaigns with it, too),

Castle Xyntillan
However, the project was still on my mind. Tegel Manor is fascinating not just because of its terse key and ingenious encounter system, but even more so because of its dense, compact map. The dungeon mainly consists of rooms that map well to a square grid, but create interesting and complex spaces due to the way they connect. “Crossword mazes” are usually not very entertaining to explore in D&D, but Tegel Manor manages to walk the fine line between a mapping puzzle and a more content-oriented dungeon. It looks deceptively simple at any specific decision point (there are rarely more than three or four ways to go), while hiding the more obscure sections behind twisting corridors and apparent dead ends. While the dungeon’s bulk is one sprawling level, there are towers and other extensions which further complicate path-finding – some of the rooms are effectively and very cleverly isolated from the others via 3d tricks and even non-standard connections (e.g. an extra layer of rat tunnels).

Castle Xyntillan came from a 2013 attempt to consciously recreate a “Tegel-style” dungeon map using the ideas summed up in the previous paragraph, with a late French gothic theme instead of the English manor house of the JG classic. This was a pure mapping exercise, more to see if I could do something different from my usual mapping style than to follow any deliberate plan. The results replicate some of the patterns you can find in Tegel:
  • Easy to map at specific decision points, rooms are typically rectangular or follow simple shapes.
  • Long, twisting corridors connecting room complexes, but hiding certain rooms and sections.
  • Misdirection and obscuring elements based more on layout (2d/3d) than secret doors.

However, there are also notable differences:
  • The overall footprint of the castle is smaller, and the courtyards serve to separate the lightly themed dungeon sections more accurately than you can find in Tegel. (Although Tegel has similar elements within the complex, like the Grand Dining Hall, the Torture Chamber or the Throne Room, which serve as nexus points you are likely to cross multiple times).
  • It is deliberately more 3d, with four larger upper levels and two towers, all of which follow different layout principles. The “Gothic I” and “Gothic II” levels are mazy, “Core II” is a more simple hub-and-spokes place, the NE “Lake Tower” is compact, the “Donjon” has obstacles before progression, and the “Occult” section combines an accessible exterior with a more obscure and deadly core.
  • The dungeons (which were added much later, in 2016, and are still to be keyed) are one single level, and more traditional.

After some vacillation, I made a first pass attempt to map the key of my “un-Tegeled” manuscript to the dungeon, redistributing rooms where they seemed to fit. The result was pretty good, although during keying, it turned out that most of the empty space got eaten up, resulting in fewer unkeyed/empty rooms than common dungeon design wisdom suggests.

Megadungeon mapping
This is where Castle Xyntillan stood from 2013 to 2016, when I finally decided to stop procrastinating and turn it into a functional, playable funhouse dungeon. The idea is to combine the whimsical and often startling ideas of the odder old-school modules (beyond Tegel Manor, I also drew on the mood of one of my favourites, the eerie and “off-key” orange Palace of the Silver Princess) with accessible presentation – easy to get into, while allowing for deeper and more complex environmental interaction than either Tegel or some of the ultra- minimalist dungeon keys you tend to see around the OSR.

In my mind, some of the most interesting moments during dungeon exploration come from the moments when the players start to connect the dots and come up with their own interpretations and ideas to deal with the environment – sometimes by combining the elements of one room, and sometimes by drawing connections between rooms to create an even bigger picture. The Xyntillan dungeons provide plenty of content and ideas for the first option, while leaving much of the second to the GM and the players.

To achieve these goals, the room descriptions start from a terse and essential “first glance” base to get the GM’s and players’ bearings and get the action started, then add more detail and exploration opportunities through nested bullet points presented in order of importance. For instance…

==================SAMPLE KEY==================
H12. Overlook Suite. (30’x60’) Peeling paint and mossy wooden panelling, humid smell of earth. Scorch marks mar the beauty of a row of marble vases full of rank vegetation. The dissected cadaver of a dead horse lies under fallen beams and debris, its innards meticulously removed.
  • Half-buried in the earth of the vases are a bunch of chewed up bones, rotten meat still clinging to them.
  • The dead horse rises to stand upright on its hind legs, howling, “Why hast thou forsaken meee? Feed meeee!” Unless sated with meat, bones and blood, it attacks.

Dead Horse: HD 3; AC 7; Atk #2 kick 1d6 and bite 1d6; Spec double hit knocks down for trample attack +2d6; ML 10; AL C.
Hp          17

H13. Parlour. (50’x40’) Colourful glass panes cast shifting lights on the interior. Comfortable armchairs and couches have been gutted. The dancing flames of a large copper brazier hiss and whisper as a skull sizzles within.
  • 1:2 the wraith of a bearded mountebank studies a glass globe suspended in mid-air, looking at the small humanoid figures dancing within. If he stops his concentration, the globe falls and its prisoners escape in all directions. 
  • The armchairs and footstools are an inviting place to relax; save or fall into dreamlike state, where a short doze of 3 turns restores 1d6 Hp, and may cure ailments 1:6. 1:6 of waking up next to slumbering family member.

Wraith: HD 4; AC 3; Atk touch 1d6 + drain; Spec energy drain, incorporeal, magic missile  from eyes 1/3 rounds (2 missiles); ML 10; AL C.
Hp          27

H14. Rattling Room. (40’x40’) Long row of skulls is placed on the fireplace and on ledges around it. Several bones are scattered on the parquette, or are caught on an intricate crystal chandelier (800 gp if transported, but bulky and fragile). Stray purple bubbles, size varying from plum to watermelon, float gently in the air.
  • 1:6 of Guillemette Malévol the Enchanted (#42), drifting among the bubbles in somnolent reverie. If present, also check 5:6 for 1d6 glitterclouds.
  • The bones animate and rattle, assembling into fantastic configurations and scattering apart. They will coalesce into what is expected of them – a terrible monstrosity if they are attacked, a sinister oracle if spoken to, a treacherous guide if asked for directions... sinking back on floor in disappointment if ignored.
  • The bubbles reflect spells cast on them, and 1:6 one is caught in trajectory by accident if targeting others.

Bone Monstrosity: HD 6; AC 5; Atk #2 gore 1d8; Spec rush 3d6 Hp (save avoids); ML 11; AL C.
Hp          21

H15. Round Gallery. (50’x20’) Four portraits hang in the low arched passage, blackened by some kind of mouldy decay. A heavily corroded suit of full plate stands in the corner. 1:6 of the rolling boulder from H25. coming down the hall.
  • The paintings depict:
  • Hortensia Malévol the Lovely (#17): offers gift of flower bouquet to party (harmless, useless, clueless).
  • Jerôme Malévol the Meticulous (#41): waves his bloody hacksaw, asks viewer to “hold out hand” in rasping voice, grins.
  • Merton Malévol the Encyclopedian (#4): asks “Have you seen my book? It must be here somewhere...
  • Reynard Malévol the Relapse (#19): offers to cast bless on company... for a little service.
  • The armour falls apart on a mere touch with a loud clang, releasing its mace and metal shield. More careful investigation reveals someone has stuffed heavy bags of gold inside the breastplate (6*100 gp).

==================SAMPLE KEY==================

Just like Tegel Manor and Castle Amber (which I always took for the first Tegel homage module), Castle Xyntillan is centred around an eccentric and sinister noble family. The Malévols, a bunch of disreputable degenerates, schemers and outright evildoers, are the masters of a backwater province located somewhere in the French Alps (or anywhere else the GM wants to place it), and some of them still haunt their old family nest... whether alive or dead. Like with the room descriptions, the Malévols offer more than combatant encounters or window dressing (although they fare well as such): they are a treacherous and unpredictable lot, a rich source of information, temporary aliances, double-dealings and missions. For instance...

==================SAMPLE NPCs==================
41. Jerôme Malévol the Meticulous. Distant relative, ragged drifter carries sack full of discarded, soiled clothing and tremendous rusty hacksaw. Toothy grin, cheeks reddened with makeup, 1:3 of 1d6 hacked-off hands.
Jerôme Malévol the Meticulous: Thief 4; AC 9; Atk hacksaw 1d6; Spec backstab, +2 vs. traps and devices, thievery; ML 5; AL C; bottle of cognac, silver mirror (15 gp), golden comb (35 gp), inaccurate musical pocket watch (110 gp), rouge.
Hp          12
42. Guillemette Malévol the Enchanted (H14). Barefoot and wearing only a flower wreath and a white nightcloth, her ghost drifts through Xyntillan, listening to the tune of music only she can hear. No reaction if encountered or attacked, but 5:6 of 1d6 glitterclouds trailing behind and attacking anyone who would harm her.
Guillemette Malévol the Enchanted: HD 3; AC 2; Atk –; Spec incorporeal, immune to mind-affecting and caster must save or go insane; ML 12; AL N.
Hp          11
Glitterclouds (1d6): HD 3; AC 8; Atk osmosis drain 1d4/round; Spec drained blood heals monster, hypnosis 1/day; ML 10; AL N.
Hp          14, 14, 6, 14, 9, 18
43. Uncle Montfort Malévol the Bygone (I1). Kelps and algae cling to the green, water-soaked corpse of this rotting old sack of evil, stalking through Xyntillan in oversized wooden shoes and an outmoded tailcoat. 1:3 offers first character a handful of candy (save vs. severe hallucinations, but see secret things not normally found in room key), 1:3 offers live fish kept in his pocket in exchange for other item, 1:3 attempting to grope most handsome character. Those who don’t humour Uncle Montfort for his senile cackling and unpleasant eccentricities will quickly find him a resentful, vicious old coot.
Uncle Montfort Malévol the Bygone: HD 6+3; AC 4; Atk #2 claws 1d6 and bite 1d10; Spec regenerates 3 Hp/r unless destroyed by fire or acid; ML 10; AL C; hallucinogenic candy, live fish with a golden key in its belly, pearl cuffs 2*130 gp, sapphire locket 900 gp, bag of severed rotten-black fingers.
Hp          41
==================SAMPLE NPCs================== 

Castle Xyntillan is rounded out by a small town section, and perhaps a wilderness (although we haven’t yet explored it during play, and it will probably be relatively limited), a dungeon level (mapped but not yet keyed), and a few extras.

We are currently playtesting the castle with a regular group and at the occasional one-off session – it will also make an appearance at The Adventurers’ Society, a Budapest-based mini-convention next Spring. So far, 12 player characters and 19 followers have set out from the mountain town of Tours-en-Savoy to brave the gates of Xyntillan (and there are multiple gates!), of whom 3 player characters and 15 followers never returned to tell the tale. Right now, the main group is in a bit of a bind, since rumours of the heavy turnover are making even the most adventurous travellers reluctant to join their company... and soon, rival adventurer groups may turn up to make their lives even more interesting.

Our campaign uses Kazamaták és Kompániák (Dungeons and Companies), a light Hungarian old-school system perhaps closest in complexity to Swords&Wizardry. Beyond its simple rules, K&K has some desirable qualities which make it a natural choice for our game: it has a very interesting system for tracking NPC morale and making retainers an integral part of the gameplay, and it takes full advantage of game procedures like surprise and reaction rolls (an essential part of megadungeoneering). These elements will be presented in a short recap of our “table rules”.

I have plans to publish Castle Xyntillan as a standalone supplement when it is ready – fully written, thoroughly tested with multiple groups, and decently polished. It will either be a self-published version that’s going to be a bit rough around the edges (i.e. it will feature my maps and artwork), or something released through an existing publisher – this will be a question after writing’s done. Since I am also working on the English edition of Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG (on which I will post later), it may take some time – but we will get there, eventually. It has been a long ten years, but sooner or later, even a golden baby may fly.


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    1. I see the risks of commercialisation, and the way it can lead to "100 Fantastic Street Names"-style desperation and formulaic five-room lair dungeons, but fortunately, there is no pressing need for me to treat it as a source of livelihood.

      However, I have always wanted to make something physical and handmade, and it was mostly out of convenience that I stuck to PDF (and fanzines). Nowadays, it is finally feasible to do small-scale print editions, then let latecomers pick up the PDF.

      I also know a local printer who can handle the production, and we have already worked together on a bunch of projects - including a print module in 2003, and the world's sturdiest boxed set with Helvéczia. Coincidentally, he was also a playtester in our first Tegel Manor game, where he and his companions looted the Temple of Tsathoggus, drove the pirates from the seacoast, and Made Tegel Great Again, but never dared to go close to the manor proper. Not once.

      Finally, I like random tables, some of my best friends are random tables, and I have written a supplement that's all random tables (the nocturnal companion to Mythmere's City Encounters, so far only published in the Hungarian). They are probably the hardest kind of support material to get right - even harder than monster books - but it can be done.

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    4. We usually just stick with Swords&Magic. The rules have been stable since 2006 with only minor refinements. It does most of the things we want out of D&D, and it is easy to pick up. Campaigns typically add minor changes like "no Clerics" or "humans only", but rarely anything radical.

      There have been two major exceptions in recent years: Helvéczia is its own game, while for Xyntillan, we chose KéK mainly for
      a) its utter simplicity;
      b) its companion rules;
      c) and its well-developed dungeoneering procedures.

      S&M is a flexible generalist D&Desque system; KéK is fine-tuned for OD&D-style dungeoneering. Before Xyntillan, I was using it to run Palace of the Silver Princess, with detours to Realm of the Walking Wet (where the PCs and their companions amazingly slew the sea monster of Loch Krake, but ended up running in terror from a wight).

    5. Disagree on that point. Random tables are useful to come up with ideas or combinations that'd never occur naturally. They go where routine doesn't, and the surprises keep the mind fresh and exercised. What is the significance of black snow? What is a camel doing in a temperate forest? Why is that man selling dried tongues? Not a bad start for an adventure.

      Mythmere was right when he wrote about "creativity aid, not creativity replacement". Random tables take a crucial step in the creative process, but there is a need to continue from there.

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    7. Even utterly creative types like yours truly find it useful once in a while to juxtapose completely different elements and guess how they connect. Complete randomization is useless for generating all of the content, but an encounter or a bizarre adventure idea may stem from it.

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    9. Anyone who doubts the profound utility of a competently compiled random table in the hands of a competent DM has clearly never heard of Raimundus Lullus and his ars combinatoria.

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  3. Looking forward to it, sounds great based on what you've outlined here!

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    1. It turned into its own system almost overnight through the application of setting logic. Just like D&D is the product of a particular set of influences ('Appendix N', comic books, monster movies), Helvéczia is the product of another (picaresque novels, swashbuckling movies, local legends and the Grimm Brothers).

      Identical basic concepts - classes, spells, alignment and even saving throws - take on a different form when viewed through this different lens.

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  5. Dungeons and Companies looks awesome, judging by the art alone. :) Looks like it takes a Blue Book approach and only goes up to 3rd level?

    1. The original release went up to 3rd level; the new one (still in testing) goes to 6th. Otherwise, it is a distinctly Blue Book-style system, with some extras (e.g. the helmet rule originally published in Fight On!, etc.).

  6. I will jump all over this when it becomes available, and gladly pay. Your free resources have provided months and months of fun gaming for my group!

  7. What happened? Is this still planned or lost forever?

    1. Still under development, and being playtested (we just had a session last weekend, and I took it to a local mini-con late February). So, slowly but surely; playtest should wrap up in the next few months.

      What happened was that I wrote about half the room key in one go, then lost inspiration for a while, then started again before getting sidetracked by other tasks... in the meantime, I added a second dungeon level (the blank area to the bottom left). I would rather let it take its time than rush it and release something lacking.

      "Getting there" is the right phrase.

  8. Were the K&K table rules for the play test of Xyntillan ever released?

    1. Yes, but only in the Hungarian:

      The core novelty of the system - the retainer and morale system - is included in the book, however.