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Houska Castle – Adventure Seeds Pt. 3

Finishing out the 13 Adventure Seeds for Houska Castle!

Here are the links to the History & Legends post and Adventure Seeds Part One and Two.

10. Game of Death – In the mid-13th century Ottokar II sent his knights into the mountains to deal with a satanic threat.  A necromancer of frightful power had built a fortress using animated skeletons as slaves and warriors.  From there he terrorized the surrounding lands, his forces slaughtering the people and dragging their corpses back to join his undead ranks.

The knights fought a brutal battle, eventually laying siege to the fortress.  High in the tower of the necromancer they confronted the villain and cast him down, the Earth opening beneath them and swallowing the tower whole.  The knights were victorious, but they knew the necromancer was not dead.  They built Houska Castle over top of the chasm to seal him forever beneath the mountain.

Many years have passed and Europe is destroying itself in the horrors of the 30 Years War.  In the midst of this chaos the great leaders have each received a strange messenger.  Undead ravens have come bearing a challenge from the necromancer.  He has transformed the hell pit beneath the castle into a series of levels filled with traps and unholy monsters.  The necromancer will provide all the power of his dark arts to the side whose adventurers reach the bottom of the cavern first.

It is a truly Faustian bargain, but the war has already transformed central Europe into a landscape from Hell.  Besides, can anyone risk such power falling into the hands of their enemies?

11. Souls of Vengeance – When Houska Castle was built the old timber fortress before it was demolished as well as the homes of the peasants who were then forced to construct the new castle.  Conditions for the workers were brutal and scores died in accidents or from the harsh treatment of their overseers.

When the castle was completed the king brought a great treasure of gold and jewels taken from the pagans during the Northern Crusades.  He hid the wealth in the caverns beneath the castle, then ordered the remaining workers slaughtered to keep the secret.

The castle now lies empty and no priest has said prayers in its chapel for many years.  The new king has granted the castle and its lands to a group of adventures in thanks for their service, but the return of residents to the castle has caused the unquiet dead to stir in their forgotten vaults.

12. The Forgotten King – King Arthur, Emperor Barbarossa, Prince Vlad Dracula; occasionally a hero will rise up to embody the dreams of an entire people.  A warrior who achieves such power can transcend mortal life and when they are cut down they are taken into the Earth.  There they sleep until the day comes when they will once more take up their swords and lead their people in battle.  These are the Kings in the Mountains

In the 6th century such a king arose, a Celtic warlord who lead his people against the advancing Slavs.  He was a just lord, fierce in battle, and ultimately fell while holding a mountain pass single handed.  So great was his heroism that as death came for him the Morrigan herself turned the final blow aside, swept him up, and secreted him away in a hidden cavern.  There he would sleep as a King in the Mountain, waiting for the day he would once more lead his people.  But something went wrong.

His people did not stand against the invaders.  Instead they fled and the tales of the king and his deeds were lost.  Now his tomb lies forgotten beneath the mountain and Houska Castle rises overhead, it’s chapel covering its hidden entrance.  Christian prayers drift down to where the old king sleeps and have disturbed his dreams, telling him of the fall of his people and the loss of his legacy.

In the heart of the mountain the old king’s anger grows.

13. Vault of Chrome and Silicone – Ziny Flatline is the best hacker ever to dance through Cyberspace.  At 13 she’d run two megacorp mainframes.  By 16 she’d made her first smash-and-grab on the international bank-net, melting their black I.C.E. with software she’d written herself.  She dodged her first assassin less than 48 hours later.  For her 17th birthday an unknown corporate player sent her a gift courtesy of an attack drone.  She had just enough warning to escape before a missile turned her apartment building into a crater.  The rest of the residents were not so lucky.

It was all fun and games when it was only Ziny’s neck on the line, but seeing the collateral damage changed her outlook on life.  She used the funds she’d stolen to buy an abandoned pile of stone called Houska Castle and in the caves below it she set up a data vault of her own design. Then she assembled a team of like-minded hackers and they set out on a mission to fill the vault with a most unusual collection.

They collected malware of every kind.  Viruses, worms, trojans, rootkits, spyware, every piece of malicious code they could get their digital hands on.  They created the largest library of computer viruses ever assembled.  Now they take the viruses apart, examine their code, and compile new and more dangerous programs.  Their latest acquisition is a rogue A.I.

Ziny Flatline hasn’t said what her endgame is but you can bet it will be spectacular.



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Houska Castle – Adventure Seeds Pt. 1

In my previous post I talked about the history and legends of Houska Castle.  Today I’d like to offer some adventure seeds for using the castle in your games.  With Halloween fast approaching I thought that 13 would be a good number.

Let’s get things started with part one:

1. Vault of the Vampires – The ancient castle is home to an order of vampire hunters.  The corpses of vampires slain by the order are returned to the castle and their remains are cast down into the chasm hidden beneath the chapel floor.  A hidden switch causes the alter to slide back, revealing the hellish pit whose black stone walls are embedded with countless crucifixes stretching far down into the depths.  A constant whispering can be heard from far below.

Over the centuries the order has dwindled to a handful of aged monks spending their days attending to their senile grandmaster.  Some of the monks have begun to listen to the whispers from below, whispers that mock their forgotten purpose and promise rejuvenation and escape from the terrible wastes of age and madness.

2. Gateway to the Lost World – Damage to the castle causes the pits beneath the chapel to be rediscovered.  Not long afterwards local peasants report seeing the demonic winged beasts of legends.  The rumors take on a grim reality when a worker is found dead, torn apart by a wild beast and his corpse left dangling from the castle roof.

The caverns below the castle are a direct route to Pellucidar, the jungle world found within the hollow Earth and populated by prehistoric beasts.  The winged demons of Houska Castle are pterodactyls and its legendary beast men are the reptilian Mahars and their ape-like Sagoths.

3. Nazi Invasion through Time – Version A) The 30 Years War burns across Europe bringing death and plague wherever it touches.  A renegade Swedish commander ransacks the land before retreating to deserted Houska Castle to establish a base of operations.  They are never seen again.

Not long after the peasants begin telling stories of black garbed men moving through the forest.  They carry fearsome weapons, wear unknown heraldry, and the murdered anyone who falls into their grasp.  One night a nearby castle is annihilated by a massive iron monster armed with a terrible cannon.  A single survivor reports that the black clad men have lead prisoners back to Houska Castle where they are being used as slaves, helping the strange men assemble towers of steel.

Version B) The year is 1945 and the German war machine is crumbling.  Allied intelligence reports a massive troop movement heading into the mountains north of Prague, with Castle Houska as their destination.  The movement makes no sense as the location is poorly suited for a counter-attack on advancing Soviet forces.

The answer comes from a Nazi defector, a member of the mystical Thule Society who reveals that the castle is situated over a temporal anomaly.  With enough power a gateway can be opened through time allowing German forces to escape into the past where they will conquer the world centuries before the modern era.  A small advance force has already been sent back with orders to open the gate from the other side, using an array of lighting towers to fuel the portal.  When both gates are open an entire panzer battalion will be sent through.

Bonus points for running the players through both sides of the adventure.

4. All Nazis go to Hell – The year is 1941.  France has been conquered and Britain is reeling under the Blitz.  Panzer divisions range across North Africa and Soviet forces are crumbling in the face of over three million German soldiers.  The United States continues to remain neutral despite renewed U-boat attacks on merchant shipping.  The Nazi juggernaut seems unstoppable and drunk on success Hitler decides to open another front.  He orders Operation Lucifer to commence.

Allied Intelligence receives a communique from deep in occupied Czechoslovakia.  A division of SS panzergrenadiers under the direct command of Thule Society wizards is advancing on an obscure castle north of Prague, Houska Castle.  Thaumaturgical symbols are carved into the tanks and weapons and the commanding general bears the Spear of Destiny.  Their objective is to conquer Hell itself.

Whether the Nazis succeed or fail, it spells disaster for the world.  The Allies must stop the Nazis from opening the hell gate.

5. Nazis Defend the World – The year is 1945.  Mile by mile the Thousand Year Reich is crumbling into ash.  The liberation of France is underway and Soviet forces have annihilated the invading German armies.  Nazi forces continue to fight on, forcing the Allies to pay in blood for every step they take towards Berlin.  One day the OSS receives a coded message, a call for help from an unexpected source.

German forces have occupied Houska Castle since the early days of the war.  Their goal had been to investigate the supernatural forces contained beneath its foundations.  Against the protests of the aged priest they began excavations in the chapel, discovering the sealed pit and descended into it.  What followed was a nightmare of death as demons issued from the hell gate, painting the walls red with German blood.

In the end the army drove the monsters back.  The priest resealed the gate at the cost of his own life, but with his death the ritual of binding was lost.  A garrison of soldiers has stood guard over the castle ever since to ensure no one else disturbs the hell gate.

Now the garrison commander is faced with the oncoming tide of a vengeful Soviet army.  He knows they will not listen to him.  They will ransack the castle, risk opening the hell gate, and this time there will be no one to reseal it.  There are no German forces left to call for aid.  In desperation he sends a call to the Americans, praying that they will believe him.

Why yes, I do keep the B.P.R.D. on speed dial.


Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Fantasy, Gaming, Horror, Science Fiction


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Investigations and Failures Pt. 2

Part one on this topic can be found here.

Last time I spoke about when and why it’s a good idea to allow failures on investigation rolls.  This time I’d like to talk about ideas for using those failures in ways that will not simply road-block your players.  The goal is not to give your players a free pass but to avoid a situation where they are defeated by a stack of books.  These ideas can be used singly or you can mix-and-match as the adventure dictates.  As always, use your judgement and be willing to improvise.

These suggestions assume that there is information to be found and the players have failed to find it through dice rolls, not bad choices.

1) Many Roads lead to R’Lyeh – The first and best solution for an investigation campaign is good adventure design.  There should rarely be only one line of evidence that will lead the players to success or failure.  Investigations are legwork, so let them get gum on their shoes.  If the characters find nothing at the local library let them try the newspaper morgue, or the local historical society, police reports, or church records.  With novice players you may want to prod them by saying, “your search doesn’t turn up anything here,” instead of telling them they don’t find anything.  Experienced players should come up with alternate ideas on their own.

Good investigations also encompass more than searching the library stacks.  Have clues through other avenues such as the local speakeasy, school professors, retired beat cops, and neighborhood busybodies.  A colorful cast of NPCs can offer a wealth of chances for determined investigators to find the information they need.

Improvising this is also a good solution for dealing with the unexpected.  Players will come up with ideas you never thought of and if those ideas make good sense you may reward their ingenuity.  They may not receive all the information they would have through more traditional means, but realizing that the railroad switchman might have seen what happened in the tunnel should be worth a reward.

2) Time Marches On – Another simple answer to failed research rolls is to tell the player they haven’t found anything “yet”.  Time is a valuable resource in investigation games and a lot can happen in a few hours.  In this case the players are forced to make a choice between moving on to other lines of investigation, taking the problem head-on without all the clues they need, or forging ahead with their current search.  Continuing the search means that the players’ enemies will also have more time to carry out their plans, which could have disastrous results.  The choice to burn more time can build tension in the game.

3) No Talking in the Library – The investigators need help.  There’s just too much material to go through and the cataloging method in use here is unlike any rational system they’ve encountered.*  There is a professional on hand; a librarian, curator, director, or professor who created this crazy organizational system and would be invaluable in helping search for the information.  Can the players convince the person to help look for such strange information?  Can they trust the person?  Are they putting this person at risk?

4) Things just got Complicated –  Failure in the investigation roll can mean something more than just not finding the information.  Investigations into unusual cases can draw unwanted attention.  Here are a few curve balls to throw at your investigators:

1. A cultist picks up on what the investigator is doing.  The character realizes that he or she is being watched.  The library is almost empty and closing time is coming soon, and it gets dark awfully early here.

2. Another researcher has the books the investigator needs.  This person is researching the case for his own reasons and doesn’t want to share.

3. The investigator catches the attention of a wannabe cultist.  Depending on how the encounter goes the NPC may mistake the investigator for a member of the cult and pester him or her for admission, or an enemy of the cult that he could gain favor from destroying.

4. A reporter shows up and smells a story.  He’ll grill the investigator for details.  He lacks all subtly about it and won’t let it go.  He won’t have anything helpful for the characters and will become a nuisance to be dealt with before he draws too much attention.

5. A local detective or sheriff shows up to lean on the investigator.  He may not be involved in the plot, he’s just doing a favor for a friend.

6. Cosmic entities have ways of knowing when mortals are interfering in their plans.  The investigator’s work has drawn such attention.  The character will be visited by omens, such as seeing the shadows move or clusters of flies appearing on the window.  If the failure is particularly bad the cosmic being may send something after the investigator.

7. There is a mundane complication, such as a power outage or a fire alarm.  Couple it with a sudden storm for effect.  Let the players wonder if this was random chance or if something more sinister is at work.

8. The player blacks out.  When he or she awakens many hours have passed.  Books with the information they had been searching for are laid out on the table.  There are notes written in the investigator’s book with all the necessary details and the pen is still in his hand, but the handwriting is not his own.  The word “Yith” is written in the margin.  The character loses 1d6 SAN points.  If this happens repeatedly it could become an adventure in its own right.

Do you have any more thoughts or additions for the list?  I’d love to hear them!


*I’ve heard librarians tell the craziest stories about different people’s personal cataloging systems.  My favorite was about a school library where the librarian organized the books based on the color of the spines.


Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, Horror, Pulps


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Zombie Jamboree

Zombie love is at an all time high, once again proving that gamers are ahead of the cultural curve.

Geeks, represent!

And when you’re going to fill out your army of undead, the zombie is an excellent choice.  Zombies are also flexible and easy to tailor to your specific gaming genre.  Modern day games have zombies born of disease who propagate through their bite, in fantasy they are the creations of necromancers and the children of the demon-lord Orcus, and when it comes to horror the classic Voodoo zombie is hard to beat.

But why stop there?  Here are some variations on the zombie theme that will help keep your players guessing.

1. The Conqueror Worm – The Fiend Folio introduced us to my favorite of the official zombie variations, the Sons of Kyuss.  “These ghastly undead appear as animated putrid corpses with fat green worms crawling in and out of all their skull orifices.”  The description goes on to tell of zombies that will pummel you to death, if you are lucky.  If you are not lucky a worm will leap from the Son and land on the hapless PC, burrowing into their skin like a rot grub, then bore its way to the victim’s brain.  “If the worm reaches the brain, the victim becomes a Son of Kyuss, the process of putrefaction setting in without further delay.”  The rules allow several opportunities for the victim to destroy the worm, both while it is burrowing into his or her skin and through spells while it works its way towards the victim’s brain.  But the player needs to think of these measures and carry them out, most likely at the same time the battle is still raging with the Sons.  Frantic terror is the result.

Sons of Kyuss are truly horrific beings that can bring all new terror to the classic zombie horde.  A good way to use them is to mix one or two in with a mob of regular zombies, which will have the added result that your players will never take a mass of shambling corpses for granted again.

2. A Fungus Among-Us – Another zombie creation trope is one that relies on fungus, spreading their infection through spores.  This is a popular one for modern day and science fiction settings, which is appropriate since scientists have discovered a gruesome real-life zombie fungus that thankfully only attacks ants.  At least… for now.  Again the Fiend Folio provides us with an excellent example with the yellow musk zombie, created from the pollen of the yellow musk creeper vines.

Fungus zombies also prey on our fear of airborne pathogens and open the potential for chemical weapons.  This is a great way for an evil mastermind to terrorize the populace, be it a wizard, mad scientist, or pulp alien invader.

3. Mind over Matter – Mind control is another staple of fantasy and science fiction and it makes a great tool for zombification.  Mind controlled zombies may be created via hypnosis, such as subliminal messages in film or backmasking in music, or direct mind control from a powerful psionic being.  Mind Flayers are good candidates for this, but there is a different kind of horror that comes from a powerful mind that lacks intelligence.  Unleash a telepathic creature who is capable of mass mind control, but whose motives are animal in nature; safety, food, reproduction.  The result would be something like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

4. Exorcise Routines – A variation on the mind control theme is divine or demonic possession.  Clerics of an infernal being capture subjects and enslave them to diabolic spirits who take over their bodies.  These slaves range out in hordes to capture more victims and drag them back to the demon’s temple.  When the cult has created enough thralls the demon will be unleashed on the world.

This breed of zombie should be imbued with a sinister cunning.  Because they long to increase their numbers they will attack from ambushes instead of the traditional zombie wave attacks.  They will stalk and surprise travelers and isolated communities, leading to the players entering empty villages that show signs of recent habitation.  “They mostly come at night.  Mostly.”

5. All that Glitters – This breed of zombie is a trap conjured up by a necromancer of especially insidious nature.  The party will encounter a zombie whose eyes have been replaced by diamonds.  After dispatching the beast the party will likely follow the standard, “loot the bodies,” procedure and pry the jewels from their sockets.  Then the curse begins to take effect.

Anyone in possession of one of the gems must make a saving throw each midnight or lose 1d10 HP.  If the character possesses two gems, two saves must be made.  If someone dies while possessing a gem they will be reborn as a zombie, their own eyes having hardened into diamonds.  The curse is on the gems, so disposing of them or casting Remove Curse on the diamonds will solve the problem.  Anyone killed by one of these zombies will likewise be transformed.

If the players sell the diamonds they may have a nasty surprise waiting for them the next time they visit town.

For a cyberpunk twist on this, replace the diamonds with a valuable skill chip that rewrites the user’s brain and writes itself to any other skill chips slotted by the victim.  Bad luck choombata.

There are plenty of additional ways to come up with new breeds of zombies and if you have ideas I’d love to hear them.  Two rules of thumb to keep your creations zombie-like are;

1) Zombies are mindless.  They may have an innate cunning or be guided by an external intelligence, but the zombies themselves have no will.

2) There is some method of spreading their numbers, a threat that the players and populace will join the shambling ranks.


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The Dungeon Alphabet

This is a “first impression” review of The Dungeon Alphabet, 3rd Printing.

After reading that The Dungeon Alphabet was going into its third printing and reading even more glowing reviews of the book, I finally decided to order my own copy via my Friendly Not-So-Local Game Store and picked it up today.  I have barely had time to read it, but skimming the text and looking at the artwork has already left a profound impression on me.

The Dungeon Alphabet is a collection of classic dungeon tropes coupled with random tables to inspire and energize dungeon designers.  The items described within are given a flair of the fantastic without being over-the-top.  I’ll go into more detail after I’ve had a chance to properly read through the book.  What I want to talk about now is the artwork.

This book is beautiful and is utterly jam-packed with some of the finest old style artwork I’ve seen by artists like Erol Otis, Russ Nicholson, and Jeff Easley.  The only way I could be more happy with this collection of artwork is if David Trampier came out of retirement to contribute.  There is a lot of art in in this book, nearly every page appears to have at least some illustration, and these pieces are evocative and inspiring in their own right.  Just from thumbing through the book I’ve caught myself stopping and thinking, “I can use this!”

I was skeptical about how good this book could be.  I consider myself a creative person and a book of lists seemed unnecessary, but the low price and glowing reviews convinced me to give it a shot.  Now I can say that I’m both glad I did and excited to dig into it.

Do yourself a favor, drop $20 and pick this book up.  It’s worth it for the artwork alone.

The Dungeon Alphabet is produced by Goodman Games. It’s author is Michael Curtis who writes the OSR blog, The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope.

If you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

The Dungeon Alphabet cover


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