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),
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.