Castle Xyntillan is a Masterpiece (an Actual Play)


I have been playing 5e with some friends for several years now. When Covid hit we moved online and have been using VTTs to play, with a few in person sessions here and there. It's worked out nicely because one of our group members is remote from the rest of us (yay technology). DMs and campaigns have rotated, and here at the end of 2022, we wanted to have an in person game. The current campaign had reached a transition point so the idea was floated of doing a one-shot.

I, knowing I'd have to run it, suggested we do an "old school" one shot, and everyone was down to give it a try. It was fantastic. Everyone had a great time, and at the end of it, these dyed in the wool 5e players were even asking for more old school play: "This could be a whole campaign, maybe we could continue it....?"

Here's what I used to corrupt my 5e friends and tempt them with the OSR.

  1. I ran Castle Xyntillan by Gabor Lux
  2. We used OSE for the rules
  3. To get started, I printed off character sheets, but had everyone roll their character's using Total Party Kill's Basic D&D Character Generator.
  4. I printed off 1 page character reference sheets, so if you were playing a Cleric, you could see level progression, turning rules, etc, all in one spot.
  5. I used the Barrowmaze meatshield generator to have hirelings at the ready

We used ascending AC, and to keep it simple I based the AC off 20 and told everyone they could have a +1 to hit. It's a "funshot" after all.

For prep-work I:
  1. Read the first 15 or so pages of Xyntillan
  2. Printed out the DM maps of Xyntillan
  3. Printed out the player maps of Castle Xyntillan
  4. Printed out Cameron Hawkey's map and key of the Valley of Three Rainbows (the area around Xyntillan) and skimmed the region key
  5. I used colored markers to outline the sections of Xyntillan's ground floor (a blue outline around the A rooms, an orange outline around the B rooms, and so on), so I could know which section of the book I'd need to turn to based on where they party ended up.
  6. I pre-rolled "stuck doors" for the entire complex. 1:6 chance for the ground/upper floor, 2:6 for the basement.
  7. I decided that I wanted it to have a bit of a "How the Grinch stole Christmas" theme, so I used ChatGPT to list 20 Christmas related decorations, and 20 Christmas related food items.


I had everyone copy their randomly generated characters over to the character sheets, and while they were doing this I went over the following details that I figured would be most relevant for 5e players new to the OSR.

  1. We're going to try and use turns, and track light. So generally you're going to be able to move ~240' every 10 minutes (this got loose as the game progressed)
  2. For your SAVES you need to MEET or BEAT the number on the sheet
  3. For your CHECKS you need to MEET or ROLL UNDER your stat
  4. STR Bonuses/Negatives affect your chance to HIT and DAMAGE
  5. DEX Bonuses/Negatives affect your AC, Missile HIT, and initiative
  6. Power comes from finding weapons/treasure, it doesn't really come from "leveling up".
  7. At 0 HP you die

There was a great deal of excitement/anticipation about dying when you hit 0 hp, especially as our most boisterous player had rolled a cleric with only 1 hit point. I also asked the table how they wanted to handle death. If someone died did they want to automatically regroup and go back to town to pick up a new party member? Or did they want to "find" the dead player's next character in a nearby room in the dungeon? The group decided they wanted to stay in the dungeon and find the new character, if necessary.

Our adventure began in the town of Tours-en-Savoy. I listed out the buildings there, and explained that members of the Malévol family had come through the town earlier and cleared out all the Christmas presents and decorations.

Our party was comprised of:

  • Rogziel - Fighter
  • Thomas - Fighter
  • Jerry - Thief
  • Prior Georg - Cleric
  • Swaggins - Halfling
  • Deedra - Elf

Prior Georg's character had 1hp and no armor, but the random generator supplied him with a mule, which he named Sally.

The party went to look for some potential NPC henchmen. Someone to "set off the traps" so to speak. They began at the Prefect's home, and he directed them to the taverns. They then went to The Black Comedian and Prior Georg immediately began asking the whereabouts of a Prior Richard, and Christopher "of the Rock". Sadly they were not to be found, but they were able to enlist the aid of two men at arms, Gulbash (an ex-scribe with a club) and Goltik (an ex viking with a longsword). Goltik was not keen on making oath's to Prior Georg's god but deals were struck and the party of 8 (plus one mule) headed out to Castle Xyntillan.

On the way to the valley of three rainbows, and having already been paid 7gp upfront, the viking Goltik offered to sell the party a map of Castle Xyntillan for an additional 5 gold. There was hemming and hawing about this, but the group made the purchase and I tossed the blank player map of the ground floor of Xyntillan onto the table. There were boos and statements of consternation when the players discovered that it only depicted the outside of the castle and the room and hallway details were all blank. But Goltik was unconcerned, and he suggested they study the map to figure out how they wanted to enter the structure.

The group reached the Priory on the Pass and had simple lunch of iron rations and fresh goat cheese. The monks had not seen any large wagon loads of presents and decorations pass by, but they said that they locked themselves up tight each night and may have missed it. The group also learned that Castle Xyntillan was rumored to have a large cavern beneath it that could be accessed from the lake.

The group headed out.

At this point, I stressed to the players that: This isn't a 5e dungeon. This is an old school mega dungeon. There are multiple ways into it. Check out the map, and figure out how you want to approach it. I also stressed that some doors in the dungeon would be stuck, and that if they failed their strength check to open those doors they might face random encounters if they made a lot of noise, or spent a lot of time. However, they needn't worry, because most rooms had multiple entrances, so if was was stuck they could likely enter it from a different way.

The group decided to approach the crumbled gate house, but strike north along the muddy moat and see if there were any visible entrances from the lake shore. As they approached the lake, the thief Jerry climbed the western wall of the castle and peered into a hallway on the second floor: L10 The Singing Hall. Jerry heard ethereal singing, that began to turn into a cold wind. She decided to climb back down and report.

The group then passed through the gatehouse and looked around. The fighter Thomas, peeked in the window of the blacksmith shop and saw the hot forge and and hammer being swung around by... apparently nothing. The cleric proudly stated that there was no such thing as ghosts. They wanted to confront it, so they entered the building and found themselves in the stables. They checked the stalls to ensure nothing would jump out and get them, then threw open the door to the smithy. The ghost(?) not pleased at the interruption threw the hammer at Thomas, but missed. Thomas wisely kicked the hammer behind him and into the stables. The group found some festive garland of dried flowers on the anvil which they transferred to the mule, and then they picked up the various iron items found in the smithy.

They headed to A4: Barracks. Thomas went to open the door, but found it stuck. But he was able to use his strength and open it on one smooth motion. Inside were 7 skeletons shooting at a hanging skeleton in plate mail armor. He shut the door immediately. The cleric didn't believe that skeletons were actually doing this, so he peeked in quickly and was forced to reevaluate his deeply held convictions. He shut the door too and the fighter Rogziel rushed over to use his mallet and spikes to seal the door closed.

The party went back into the courtyard, passed through the vegetable garden (grabbing some of the last, late squash), and walked straight to the large double doors leading into the castle itself. They ignored the guard houses, and the sleeping skeletons within paid them no heed. They balked a bit at the bone fragments, armor pieces and murder holes in A8: Entrance Passage, but they went through the door on the south wall and into the Servant's Quarters area.

They immediately went to the right, into an empty room. Being a bad DM, I completely missed one of the doors in that room, and didn't tell them about it. Behind that door would have been a shaft going up, so things could have gone very differently if I hadn't missed it. But I did. No worries through. They headed west into the next hallway, but as they turned the corner they found it filled with spider webs. I explained they weren't webs from big spiders, and were webs from lots of little spiders. They decided to turn around and go back to the hallway where they'd entered the servant's quarters.

They began heading south down this hallway, but at this point I rolled the first random encounter, then a 92. 11 (2d12) undead ladies, in fraying dresses and wigs, with fans, came in the door behind them. There was a moment of stunned silence on both sides, and then the cleric Prior Georg, stepped forward, bowed deeply and tried to schmooze them. It explicitly said in their entry that they would respond well to good manners, and good manners were on full display.

The first lady attempted to introduce herself, but her jaw dislocated so they only knew her as Lady Ever-yawwwww. The other skeletal ladies considered this hilarious and Lady Ever-yaw put her fan up to cover her skull and scooted to the back of the group, thoroughly embarrassed. The cleric asked the ladies where they were headed. I looked down at the map in a panic and before realizing, obviously, they were headed to B12: Chapel for service. As they were undead, whenever the cleric mentioned the word "god" I had all the skeletons pause, and I decided that if he said it too much, or prayed over them it could drive them to attack, but he caught on quickly and chilled out with mentions of the divine.

(Aside: How does this jive? Why would the ladies be going to church if they couldn't handle mentions of the divine due to their undeath? Simple, they were ritualistically going through the motions with no meaning or attachment. An echo of what they had done in life.)

Our group accompanied the ladies to the chapel, first passing B1: The nook with the zombie statue in it. Then into the hall where loud drunken singing could be heard coming from B4: Mess Hall. The groups entered the mess hall and found 24 skeletal warriors drinking and singing songs and making toasts to past glories. A rambunctious skeletal warrior made a play at one of the skeletal ladies, as if to goose or embrace her, causing the group of ladies to rush off down the hallway to church, with the players following closely behind.

I thought the players might go through one of the doors in the hallway between the Mess Hall and Chapel, but they didn't, and they went straight to the Chapel. The skeletal ladies filed in and filled up the first couple of pews. The party explored the room, but didn't investigate the large painting hiding a secret door or touch the altar. They did find some more festive garland, a Christmas tree and a small wooden nativity. Baby Jesus was missing though.

For some reason, the cleric made as if he was going to address the "congregation". The skeletal ladies were confused by this and said that "the monks will be coming soon to lead the service, what are you doing?" Everyone's heads snapped around. "Monks. As in plural? As in more than one?"
"Oh yes of course."
"Oh wonderful! And what, pray tell, do these monks look like? Are they... like you beautiful ladies with such clean and polished shining bone?"
"Oh no, tee hee, they have more skin on them, but they're... well I guess they're quite gaunt."
"And uhh.. what door do these monks normally come in from?"
"The north door."

So now the cleric attempted to lead the ladies in a rousing song to prepare for the monks arrival and get everyone "in the spirit". It was more like a camp song, with clapping and no direct mentions of divinity. The ladies ate it up, clapping along, and during the clapping, the fighters used a mallet and spikes to seal the north door. The cleric took up a collection "for the orphans" and got 8gp. At the conclusion of the song the party fled into B13: Cleric's Room. The door had been stuck but the fighters made quick work of it. As they entered the room, I said that they heard someone or something trying to open the north door of the chapel they'd just sealed.

Despite their desperation to find an exit, NO ONE, looked behind the curtains/tapestries in the room where a secret door awaited them. Instead they headed north through the door towards B14: Prayer Room. It was also stuck but opened easily before the fighter's strength. The bloated corpse of the cleric was seated on the floor of the hallway, and as they drew near his head began moving and a giant toad emerged from it's mouth. As I described the movement of the head they immediately began insisting they were decapitating the corpse, and then they killed the toad as it "obviously could not be trusted".

In B14: Prayer Room a silver crucifix hung upside down on the wall. The good cleric attempted to turn it right way up. As he touched it, it began to turn black. In a clutch roll he just made his save and did NOT contract the black plague. The crucifix then crumbled to ash.

During this time, the two henchmen were stationed by the door between the Cleric's room and the Chapel to keep a look out and listen for the "monks" who were still trying to get through the Chapel's north door. The "monks" were clearly struggling with the door. There was banging now.

Feeling trapped, the party decided to search the room. I listed out the interactable objects: the portrait, the bed, the curtains/tapestries, the bed, etc.
Fighter: "I'm going to search them all."
"Ok, you're going to spend the entire turn searching the room?"
Fighter: "No... I'll check the portrait"
Cleric: Searches under the bed and finds the stash of dirty books.

There's more banging from the chapel. The secret door is right there, but no one is looking behind the curtains! ARG! "We've got to go now!"

They try and hustle back through the chapel. I roll a d6. Low the door breaks. High the door holds. Low. The door broke. A ghoul in a monk's robe steps through the now shattered door. Most of the party is across the chapel, but the cleric and the mule are in the rear. I make a reaction roll. 3. "Unfriendly, may attack" Oof.

I figure the ghouls are upset at the door, but could chalk it up to it having been stuck too tightly (which happens everywhere in the castle) so I have the leader focus on the mule. "What is a mule doing in my church?" More ghouls in monk robes begin filing in. The cleric begins apologizing and spinning BS about taking a collection and picking up items for "the orphans". The mule is draped in festive garland at this point. The skeletal ladies are nodding along emphatically and they'd just contributed themselves. I call for a charisma check. It's a success, and the party makes it through the church and the ghoul monks begin their "service".

The party decides to pop into the north door in the hallway between the Chapel and Mess Hall. They discover a spiral staircase that I rule is too small for the mule, especially with her burden of a Christmas tree. A few of them pop upstairs into the Library of the Gothic Wing. They decide to come back down stairs almost immediately.

The group then tries to head hastily through the Mess Hall and continue exploring. They wave and toast the drinking skeletons, and continue to the northern hall. They ignore the zombie statue, and now head to the East from the door where they initially came into this part of the dungeon. They enter a new hallway, pass 2 doors on the West and enter the one to the East leading to B7: The Kitchen.

5 ghouls in chef's attire are chopping up a body on the table. They can see some doors in the room, so I ask what they want to do. They want to head to the North door which leads to B10: Flower Room. I personally want to run the event/encounter that's in the Flower Room and see what they'll do, so I let them sneak past the ghoul chefs, mule and all.

In the Flower Room, they look around and then... a mortally wounded woman in a white dress runs across the room screaming. She falls down in the northwestern corner of the room and vanishes. Sinking into the floor. Jerry, the thief, investigates. She finds that the flagstones here are disrupted and not flat. She pries them up. She finds freshly dug/disrupted earth beneath them. She wants to dig it up. No one has a shovel. The cleric had been joking, since the beginning of the session (with his 1hp) that his abbot had sent him with a wooden grave marker expecting his death on this adventure. So they used the marker and their hands to dig up the freshly dug earth. They uncovered a wooden coffin. They opened it. Inside was the dead and bloated woman they'd seen run across the room. Her hands were tightly clutching a leather bag. The thief: "I grab the bag."

Let's walk through the steps again:
  • They saw the ghost
  • They lifted the pavers
  • They dug the fresh earth
  • They opened the coffin
  • They saw the body

At any of those points they could have stopped or changed their tactics. But the thief grabbed the bag. So the 4 HD ghast woke up screaming with maggots falling from her open mouth. Her 3 damage killed the 2hp having thief. The party, from outside the hole, was able to kill the ghast though and recover the leather bag, containing 75, 100gp gems.

They decided to bury Jerry the thief and the ghast back in the same place it was dug up, but the cleric did a little service and tried to consecrate the ground before doing so. Jerry's player did ask if Jerry might come back as a zombie though, and she rolled up a new character (a dwarf).

It was getting late by this point anyway and everyone decided to go back to town, so I let them slip past the ghouls in the kitchen again (still busy hacking up that body). And everyone went to town, sold the gems and some other things they'd found. A couple of them leveled up. The cleric sent his tithe off to his Abbot and now has 4 hit points, and a dwarf joined the party.

Everyone said they had a great time and expressed interest in making it more than a one shot. And ultimately, the best thing for me is how easily the game came together. I ran it with (what I feel like) was minimal prep work, straight from the book. All the complexities emerged during play and there was minimal if any downtime. Castle Xyntillan is so well done.


Post a Comment