Sunday 5 November 2023

[BLOG] The Sinister Secret of Schloß Hohenroda

The Cauldron Crew

It was already 19:30, a mere thirty minutes before I was supposed to GM my first session, and we were not yet in Hohenroda. We had come far and we had come fast on Hungarian State Railways, the Austrian Federal Railways, and finally Germany’s Autobahns, racking up a speeding ticket in the process while rain was beginning to fall in earnest, but we were just not there yet. The staff at the car rental agency were out for lunch at the checkout time, and would not show up for a nerve-wracking forty minutes, nor be accessible by phone. On our way North, we were caught in the congested traffic of München’s ring roads, and later rural Bavaria’s labyrinth of third-class roads. Stuck among barns and church steeples, we pressed on to the great Autobahns, heavy with traffic, and mired in cars due to a massive automobile accident. From a rest stop, we proceeded along an agricultural road, hoping the BMW’s state-of-the-art nav software would not lead us into an ambush by Bavaria’s backwoods cannibals (these, we would later learn, are organised and numerous beyond the Autobahn system). In the end, though, in Stygian darkness and incessant rain, the timber-framed houses of Hohenroda appeared in view, and, on a side-road, the central bulk and side-wings of an ominous structure: Schloß Hohenroda.

World's Least Surly Hungarians
We travelled to the uttermost fringes of civilisation to participate in the events of Cauldron Con 2023, organised by the secretive German game club only referred to as “the Nexus”. Indeed, many brethren had gathered at the venue from the far-flung corners of Germany, the mercantile lands of the Dutch, the sinking island of Hibernia (at the time of the convention, just barely above the waterline), the icy wastes of Finland, and the barbarous wilderness of Skåne. From across the sea came Jonathan Becker, a slayer of men. All these, and the Hungarian delegation of five, would spend the next two days gaming, drinking excellent beers, feasting on suckling pig roast and the Settembrini clan’s bio-apples, and meeting people we had mostly only interacted with virtually.

It is often easy to overlook the work behind good organisation when everything goes smoothly. But things were so tight that it became noticeable: all the background effort translated into an experience where everything went without a hitch, and we could focus on the actual gaming. For being a first-time event, people organising mini-conventions could do well to learn from Cauldron. A lot of the larger gaming events are flabby affairs with plenty of idling, questionable seminars, and filler content. This con was all killer, no filler, with sitting down and playing at its forefront. A concentrated dose of dice-rolling over two days with local signup and a focus on the action. In the end, not only was the time spent well, there was still enough slack in the system to sit down for discussion by dinner, a bottle beer, or the miniatures table.

I ended up running three sessions and playing in two more with old friends and recent acquaintances. Only brief descriptions are provided here:

The Mysterious Estate

I GMed Urmalk the Boundless, an expedition to the Pentastadion Necropolis to recover the abundant treasures of a decadent magnate. A series of surface mausoleums were plundered, including one of the most dangerous ones (another was wisely avoided once the risks were calculated). While the adventurers did not make it down into the underground catacombs, nor find a way into Urmalk’s tomb, they made off with decent treasure, and avoided a costly confrontation with a bandit gang by bribing them with a valuable piece of loot coated with contact poison. Devin, 4th-level Cleric (Caelin), died in an assassination attempt after the session, failing to secure a valuable shield he was tasked to recover from one of the tombs to settle a debt. (I mix things up a little by letting players draw from a deck of random items, missions and curses before session if they so please.)

The Convention's Winner Claims
the Cup of Demise Best Player Award
I also GMed Catacombs of the Pariahs, one of the dungeon complexes from the City of Vultures. Transported to the depth of the catacombs by the sorcerer Padog Miir, the adventurers had four hours to emerge alive from the labyrinth. An undead lord and his entourage of concubines were defeated, the tomb of a powerful magic-user looted, cultists fought, an enigmatic device of the ancients messed with (successful saving throws helped out here), and a band of pariahs press-ganged into the party’s service. The players made it back up to the upper level reasonably quickly, avoiding the dangerous depths visited in a much earlier playtest. Morrill, 4th-level Magic-User (Patrick) was strangled by an invisible apparition who snuck up on the party. The company emerged from the depths with moderate but adequate treasure, and a magic sword.

Dr. Becker Racks Up the Kills
I played in Storming the Forbidden City III, run by Jonathan Becker. This was a series of three self-contained adventures developing sites in the classic TSR module. Having suffered heavy casualties in the previous round in a humanoid lair assault, the Hungarian team was augmented with new reinforcements to seek the treasures of the yuan-ti in their most ancient pyramid-temple. The adventure started with careful reconnaissance (probably overly cautious for truly effective play, but the second round made the veterans cautious), and followed with dungeon-crawling beneath the pyramid. We saw one of the adventure’s three levels, and found one of the major treasure-caches, where got embroiled in a fight against a well of water weirds. The half-orc Cleric who could immediately dispatch them with purify food and water was the first to be dragged under, and while he could survive effectively with his helm of underwater action, this made the battle into a much more perilous affair. The adventure thus produced Cauldron Con’s signature casualty for Marcella, 7th-level Ranger (Max), who was drowned, revived, and subsequently fireballed by Chomy’s careless use of a wand of wonder. Another character, Thomas Peacock, a Thief-Bard, drowned ingloriously. Grabbing the bounty of the chamber and fending off the enormous giant spider that tagged along in the catacombs on the way back to ambush us from the rear, we emerged rich and victorious.

The Slyth Never Saw It Coming

I also played in Slyth Hive II, a high-level deathfest of a module by Prince of Nothing (now available on DriveThruRPG). This is kind of a scenario where you bring your best to fight the worst: the finest champions of multiple dimensions were called to face a world-ending menace. When your convention pregen is named Oberon, the Old Man of the Mountain, Jacques de Molay, Sir Giselher, Solomon the Magician, Brandoch Daha, or The Master of Summer, you’d better start paying attention (the most mighty of them all, the elusive “Kent”, was too powerful to handle by our group). Since this was a night session, we unfortunately had limited time to explore what is an enormous multi-level module, but we tore through two high-end setpiece battles, one with a horde of howling caveman in a cyclopean cavern passage, and a second with several hundred insectile slyth and their psionic overseers in a cavern littered with prehistoric bones. This is a tier of play where high and versatile player capabilities can be used individually or in combination, giving rise to unexpected hacks to regular AD&D procedures. We were somewhat constrained without a steady supply of mass killing powers that’d turn these confrontations into simple massacres, but ended up steamrolling the foe nevertheless with crowd control and targeted action. The session also featured gaming history’s laziest Djinn, whose expertise in avoiding having to do useful work impressed even this team of hardened adventurers.
An Expedition to Hohenwart
Finally, I ran The Saint in Hohenwart, a Helvéczia scenario, where the group was tasked with saving their friend, the young mercenary captain Konrad Göttlinger, from the influence of a strange and ominous saint in the high valley of Hohenwart. Travelling through a mountain wilderness, a grotesque recluse engaging in deviltry was captured, tried and lawfully executed by James Raggi; a duel was fought between two Italian clerics who turned out to be life-long mortal enemies (the affair was settled in a tense card game, eventually won with the devil’s assistance); and Konrad rescued from his predicament. Willem, 2nd-level Dutch Vagabond (David), an agent of the Dutch East Indies Company not at all modelled on Prince of Nothing, was dashed on the rocks of a waterfall after trying to climb a slippery rock surface with a rope, and assuring everyone he had abundant practice in these matters on the high seas.

The Battle for Safeton Rages On

It cannot be emphasised enough how well things can go if players are focused on getting things done, and having a common interest. There was a lot of creative play demonstrated over the sessions, from clever spell use to bold and smart decision-making, and sometimes just pure on-the-spot improvisation. It helped that Cauldron Con was deliberately targeted at a specific kind of experience, and set up to deliver on that promise. But there was also the energy brought by the players, who all gave their best over two days. It was good to see that the con spoke not only to the grognards among us, but also a younger cohort; some recently acquainted with old-school gaming, and some entirely new to it, who came to Hohenroda to check out what this all meant. It was all focused, with a good fighting spirit and high cheer, and that’s the best thing.

The Revievers' Conclave Meets... Again!
Beyond the games, the convention also hosted a surprise star guest in the person of Mr. Bryce Lynch, reviewer extraordinaire. It has been a long four years since our first meeting in Athens, Ohio, so when we heard Bryce was in the general area, steps were taken to arrange what was, truly, a random encounter. Unfortunately, Bryce was on a tight schedule – he was travelling “to take care of family business”, and the way he stressed the phrase, we decided not to probe further – so most people at the con missed him due to ongoing sessions, but it was an excellent opportunity to catch up on things and shoot the breeze for half an hour or so. It may be too early to reveal details about Bryce’s new OSRIC module line, but we can all be sure it will be a “No Regerts”. Tentative plans of a Crusade to get rid of the sub-par creators littering the “OSR” with irrelevant junk were outlined, and we can promise with some confidence that the response to this particular “problem” will be highly effective, even if it has to rely on Mr. Lynch’s “business associates”. Unfortunately, Bryce had to leave early in his black BMW, so the fine details are still to be elaborated.

Extra-Fabulous Collectibles

Finally, Cauldron Con featured an auction of riches from the community: treasures from 1980s German comic books to uncommon old-school publications went to lucky buyers, some after an energetic bidding war. Settembrini proved a skilled auctioneer at introducing the titles and their context, and generous lucre was gained by the sellers, as well as various charity organisations. On the final day, an award ceremony was also held: hand-engraved copper cauldrons went to the convention’s best player, most effective looter, the player who died most (“the Cup of Demise”), and the best GM – the mighty Jonathan Becker, who will no doubt fill it with the skulls of his enemies back in the U.S. of A. And that was Cauldron Con 2023. With the pace and energy, it felt a day short, although that may be asking for too much from the hard-working hosts. There was just a lot crammed into it, and there were things you’d inevitably miss – an ongoing multi-day Chainmail battle to determine the fate of empires in the German old-school scene’s shared Greyhawk campaign, an OD&D hex-crawl, the classily named Don’t Fuck the Priest, The Smorgasbord of Adventure, and many more. As always, you can’t come away with everything, but it felt like coming away with a lot. We also saw a pizza vending machine, which proves, once and for all, that greatness is still within mankind’s reach. 2024 sounds like a nice number. Appetites were whetted. Spielen wir AD&D!

An Assortment of Excellence
Until then, stay tuned for part II of the convention report, where we will present the Handshake Firmness Evaluation Chart. Strict records have been kept!

Vorsprung Durch Technik:
The Pizza Vending Machine


  1. Outstanding. Were the games in German or English?

    1. Almost exclusively in English - I think there may have been a table or two where there were no non-German participants, so they'd play in German.

  2. It was a pity that José Carlos and I could not finally go... It looked awesome! I'm glad you all had a great time!

  3. I suffered a dreadful FOMO for not being able to attend and be the (presumably) sole representant from the lands of the ungrateful Bohemians but alas, the event coincided with too much personal stuff.

    Great to at least be able to read some reports. Sounds like a mighty fun. But next year, next year...!

    1. No, you would not have been the sole representant! Although I could not represent Bohemia, I represented Moravia with my head held high.
      Coming from the steel heart of our country, I braved numerous dangers and was able to raise my bottle more than once to toast the friendship of all those present. Thus, the glory of Bohemia was not in the least diminished.

    2. What's this? A fellow countryman that's hardcore enough to attend an AD&D con? Do we know each other? Care to drop me a message? Perhaps here...

  4. "Magic-User"

    Inconceiveable! :O

  5. Fantastic report and great photos...thanks for sharing!

    I *am* sorry I was unable to attend your Helvéczia game Sunday morning...that had been my original plan before I decided to run one last "brunch" session. Hopefully we will meet again and I can experience your picaresque world of adventure! That and my lack of participation in the Chainmail event were my only (very slight) regrets.

    So glad I was able to meet you and the other non-surly Hungarians!

  6. We have a con in Ohio called Con on the Cob and it's a beautifully Chaotic affair. This sounds beautifully Lawful.

  7. How did you like being in the player seat, nudging things along discreetly, asking the anxious forgetful DM pertinent questions?

    Was that skirmish game with figures and terrain (in the photo) part of an AD&D scenario?

    1. The Chainmail game was a separate event, though it did tie into the goings-on of an ongoing online AD&D campaign.

    2. Crème de la crème. War infused AD&D.

    3. Ah, the sweet, envious murmurs of the perpetually embittered nogames.

    4. I was kidding about Melan probably being the most experienced DM there. Don't know what you are on about, don't want to know.

  8. Can you spot the folder that once held Weird Fates maps? (It's blue.)

  9. How much time do DMs spend explaining their AD&D rule variants (classes-magic) and describing their setting? It must be hard to hit the ground running but the general feeling at the table must be 'let's just go go go!'

    It must be tempting to strip out mechanics to some extent if the players could trust the DMs heavier than usual hand. When time is short is conversation and exploration more valuable than chart reading and less important dice-rolling?

    1. Hey, Kadot:

      I can say for myself that it really doesn’t (or doesn’t need to) take too long. I opened every one of my four sessions with a short list of my table rules (I really don’t differ too much from BTB)…probably spent about the same amount of time as explaining the adventure background. And usually got BOTH spiels done by the time the players had finished selecting pregens.

      As Melan wrote, there’s something to be said for focused game play. You didn’t see much in the way of digressions/wasted time at the tables.

    2. *pregens* must be the key then, give the players attractive handouts, and tie them together for 'focused play'. In other words they are survivors from a battalion that was wiped out, or they are all members of the same thieves' guild, or a MU, his major-domo and attendants etc.

      "four sessions" -- you much prefer to DM?