HOW I PREP CON GAMES: Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier by Gus L

One of my favorite things to do for RPG conventions is run games. I think of it as giving back to the convention, supporting its growth, and as one of the best ways to evangelize the OSR. Especially in the era of 4-6 hour, live RPG shows at cons I think this activity is important. Why watch someone else play D&D when you can do it yourself?*

When thinking about what to run and how to run it, I follow two general guidelines: (1) showcase some interesting work of the OSR that goes beyond the standard expected fantasy & (2) try to preserve as much of the natural experience of playing an OSR game as I can in 4 hours. 

The last games I ran this way were at PAX 2019 when I DM'd Silent Titans and Tomb of Black Sand. For ReaperCon 2022, I have chosen Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier by Gus L and Through Ultan's Door by Ben L. Both of these modules showcase very non-standard fantasy setups but provide for classic OSR experience: dungeon crawling. 

However, despite wanting to avoid a one-shot setup, I do recognize that some things need to be adjusted given the time. To solve this problem, I try to create a 1-2 page document to help me frame the game to players. 

📝 Here is my prep sheet for Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier. 

In creating a prep sheet, I again stick to two principles: (1) tie character generation somehow to light world building usually through class selection and random equipment; (2) provide some sorta strong goal around something already found in the module.

Part I: World Building & Opening
So 4-6 strangers show up to your table to play your game. Even though they know its gonna be a short experience and get "the deal", they still want to know why their characters are there, what they are gonna be doing, and what makes this game unique.

For Tomb Robber, I provided the why in the game description: 
You, however, are just broke. A debt that currently extends further than your reach. So your hand found a pen and you signed up with Mab’s Gem Robbing crew. Now you are heading out of Scarlett Town toward Murkvey’s Rock a small tomb fortress fallen from its place in the sky.  
Next, I went through the module just trying to pick up on flavorful words and images that might be fun to incorporate into the armor and weapons tables-- you know vibes 'n stuff: hog-leather, falcata, alchemical-stained, Emperor's motto, crystal wrecked, magically infused. The equipment was a little harder, but I am pleased with the outcome.

Equipment in the OSR is a great way to describe the world. A solid example is Into The ODD's equipment packages. These packages are also nice because picking out equipment can take too much time at the table. However, handwaving this does potentially remove a great aspect of the OSR-- when someone comes up with a clever plan based on seemingly random junk.

I tried to mix both standard equipment (spikes & 50' rope) with more unique stuff (mirror & firecrackers) and top it off with some very special stuff (vial of acid & potential for a potion). To generate equipment, I have players roll a d4, d6, d8, d12. Common stuff is low numbers and rare stuff is 8-12. Adding to the old west feel, I made a poker-like doubles and triples section where players can pick equipment options or a magic potion.

Part II: DM Notes
The initial component is a brief opening for the game. My goal is to provide enough orientation that characters feel grounded, but I'm not gonna waste time with "you all meet at an inn".  That risks too much dead time. You all are in debt and here is the goal of these 4 hours. For Tomb Robbers the goal is to find the melon-size valuable magic orb that is in the dungeon. Also a clue about what else might be down there. Done.**

Next, If you know a module well, you might not need this section- important tables. With Tomb Robbers, I did notice that there will be tables that I will need to reference frequently or not want to eat up time looking for: Encounter tables with monster stats. But also the tables for how to safely break apart crystals, but more importantly what happens when you fail.

And that is it!

* I do realize most often folks are going more for reasons to watch notable people play RPGs, but I think the point still stands.
** People want to play D&D not listen to me read aloud my bad prose. And not faff around for ~1 hour of their game time with a fantasy meet-and-greet.

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People Session 26

Another Nightwick double-header mainly so that I can catch up. 

Previously in Nightwick...

The party awakens once again in Nightwick Village

Brother Breagdoir (Cleric 1)
Grodsworth van Snorly (Frogling 1)
Ianthi (Changling 1)
Luminal Space (Changling 1)
Mayfly (Magic-User 3)
Sotar (Cleric 2)

Hirelings: Assmus, Bartel, Elger, Fidgety, Grolmes, Heyno, Ticze, Mach, Ticze


Having returned from Lychgate every so slightly richer by retrieving the bounty on Hoppin-in-the-Hood and selling the location of the lost shrine of Richard the Pryor (PC NOTE: Basically Session 25) the party makes plans to plunge once again into Nightwick Abbey. The goal is to refind the stairs to the second level of the Abbey and potentially more of its treasures. Mayfly quickly grabs this "heretic" as described by Sotar: 

A peasant, Hartnid is branded with a strange sign (a # inside of a square, making a 3 x 3 block of nine squares). The clerics among you know this is a sign of the Xagygian heresy, which states that alignment is not a line but a quadrangle spectrum. Hartnid claims to not even know what a quadrangle is. 5sp per outing


WEST TOWER: In a rare break with tradition, the party descends into Nightwick and quickly travels back to the (former) Butcher's domain. 

PC NOTE: The interesting bit of procedure here. If we could post a map to our Discord, the DM is happy to move us near the room we desire in Nightwick; rolling of course for any random encounters. I think it is a nice way to reinforce the value of mapping. And cuts down on having to walk through rooms one by one.

LEVEL TWO: The party descended down into the second level and after some stomach-turning sensations, arrives in a room with two columns and 3 standard Nightwick doors. Having a couple of Changelings on hand, the party fans out to listen at each door. At the north door, a shuffling can be heard; at the south door, the crying of infants (that can't be good); at the east door...nothing (perfect). The party moves through the east door with van Snorly in the scout position. Two doors, north and south, in this hallway which continues east and turns south.

SIGIL ROOM: The party listens at the door and hearing nothing, opens it. The room is filled with a pulsing red and blue light. Mayfly asks Hartnid to enter and scout around...for 5 SP. The new hireling agrees, walks in, and calls more detail about the strange symbols on the floor. Then he screams and runs back out, slamming the door behind him. The party immediately pelts him with questions, but he can only stutter back something about walking plants.

The party readies themselves and peaks in to see three large ambulatory plants with hunched "bodies" but large pitcher plant-like heads. Through the bizarre sensory organs, the vegetation makes a move toward the party. The party backs up and readies themselves to strike!

Several slow seconds later, because those plants ain't fast, the plant emerges. The party was quick to set up oil across the threshold and construct a trip wire. The rest of the party let loose with slings and arrows. One of the strange creatures goes down! A second steps through the door. Mayfly fumbles the torch, missing the oil, and having it extinguish on the floor. The fearsome flower lashes out at Luminal with a barbed-tipped stinger from its large flower, hit!, but Luminal pass the save throw and avoids being poisoned!

The next few rounds go toward the party's favor and the abominations are dispatched. Luminal and Mayfly make quick work to remove a stinger from each of the vegetative beasts.

Mayfly investigates the sigils and notices that one contains what looks like the drawings of stairs. Thinking it a way to level 2, he presses it with his foot. A hum, then a crack and flash of lightning occurs behind the door to the south. A cacophany of animal noises is heard from the southern room and a stampede of shuffling misshapen bodies bolts out of the door and to the hallway west.

LIGHTNING ROOM: The party of course decided to investigate. Upon entering the room they found a metal column topped with a sorta thick metal wheel that was anchored to the floor but appeared to be moveable. They also discovered 3 charred corpses of the animal-folk. Oops. Rooting through the burned bookshelves and bodies, the party discovers 3 red potions and 200 SP.

SOIL ROOM: Returning to the SIGIL ROOM, the party moves east and turns north in a small room with really nothing in it.

THE SHACK: After a walk up a short flight of stairs, the party is struck to find a shack built on top of a dirt floor. About to investigate, the party hears a barking cry: "Halt! Who goes there?" And fading into view is another animalistic figure arising from the ground. Quickly and just as mysteriously others fade into view. After a quick negotiation by Luminal, the manamal group agrees to lead the party to the garden. As they march down a western corridor, they promptly fade from view.


Luckily a new group of manamals showed up. The second time around the party has no luck in convincing them to lead, so the group turns west and proceeds down the hallway. Mistake. Immediately, the group is set upon by 6 man-sized creatures, undead assuredly, but with large puff-ball-like heads. The skirmish does not go the party's way. Solid hits are struck, but those blows bring more trouble as the head bursts open with a cloud of spores. The front rank passes their save! Snorly then leaps into the action in an attempt to disrupt the undead grouping. Snorly's spear is driven home, killing another spore-head. But the party could only watch in horror as these horrible creatures pummeled Snorly to death!

The party could only do one thing... RUN!


Oof. Well that could have gone better.

DIM ILLUMINATIONS: My Guest Review of Desiccated Temple of Locha

 I know I've been hitting the Nightwick recaps pretty hard on the blog, but that is in part because I think actually reports from the playing of dungeons in a classic style are still an under-represented aspect of the OSR scene. 

But that does not mean I'm not writing other things. For instance, if you'd like to know some of my other thoughts on dungeon design and play, then click on my guest spot at Bones of Contention where I dissect the Desiccated Temple of Locha.

A dungeon of suspended animation fish-people-- yes!

I tried to cover what was nice about this small adventure as well as where it might be improved. The author was also kind enough to read the review and deem it fair. But also supplied the extra bit of context that it originated as a one-page dungeon. This really helps clarify some of the choices.

Also, I once again employ Arnold K's Dungeon Checklist which was featured in KNOCK and I think is a great set of criteria by which to judge dungeons.

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People Session 23 & 24

A Nightwick double-header mainly so that I can catch up. Previously in Nightwick...

The party awakens once again in Nightwick Village

Cherwe (Cleric 1)
Brother Breagdoir (Cleric 1)
Grodsworth van Snorly (Frogling 1)
Ianthi (Changling 1)
Luminal Space (Changling 1)
Mayfly (Magic-User 2.5)
Sotar (Cleric 2)

Hirelings: Assmus, Bartel, Elger, Fidgety, Grolmes, Heyno, Ticze, Mach, Ticze


Two brave souls have joined the party, hearing of adventure and clearly seeing the treasure that has been hauled back. The frogling van Snorly and Changling Luminal Space are particularly eager to quickly make a name for themselves and suggest the party take on the fabled Butcher.

Initially, the party is resistant but after taking stock of their number, now 16 strong, then its agreed-- the Butcher it is!


EAST TOWER > LIBARY > PILLARS of the LADY > DINNING HALL: The benefit of careful mapping and frequent delves is the party is able to quickly arrive near the Butcher. The telltale WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! giving away the fiend's presence. And the party hatches a plan.

There is a "T" junction in front of where the butcher appears. Luminal and van Snorly figure that a rope across the doorway might trip the brute. Then the party can get a jump on the Butch from all angles of the T-junction. Mayfly begins the motions for Light. The trap is set. And van Snorly steps up as the bait...

"Hello! Mr. Butcher? Umm... we've come to talk?"

The murderous metronome stops. All hearts beat. Once. Twice. Then, with a splintering groan, the wooden door is torn from its hinges! The hulking ogre-sized mass of the Butcher appears! With a too shrill cry, Mayfly's cracking voice lets loose Light! Twin stars now sit in place of the Butcher's eyes. The putrid hulk's next steps are to stumble into the trap laid by Luminal and van Snorly. And it falls to the floor with the weight of a dying bull.

The party's missiles do little to puncture the Butcher's warty bulk. The head-cleaver of Nightwick gets to its feet and with a frustrated roar sprays a horrible miasma about. But the swings of the mightly weapon fail to find purchase as the party scrambles out of the way.

However, it was not the outlandish antics of the outlanders that stilled the maligned heart of this beast, no, it was the humble hearts of the Dark Country's own woodsmen. The hirelings Heyno, Ticze, and Mach landed blow after blow with their heavy felling axes (PC NOTE: Seriously they all hit and rolled 6 dmg, 5 dmg, and 6 dmg. Damn!).

Cleaver taken, horns taken, and Mayfly Floating Disc's two large salt barrels out (XXX SP). Once again some *%&^ing deermen tried to stop us, but Ianthi's Sleep spell did the trick.

(PC NOTE: End of session 23 and Mayfly made it back to level 3!)


Exhilarated by the victory, the party turns toward other ventures- especially one that deals with a certain frogling bandit (session 19)

Cherwe (Cleric 1)
Brother Breagdoir (Cleric 1)
Grodswoth van Snorly (Frogling 1)
Grumund (Dwarf 1)
Ianthi (Changling 1)
Luminal Space (Changling 1)
Mayfly (Magic-User 2.5)
Sotar (Cleric 2)

Hirelings: Assmus, Bartel, Elger, Fidgety, Grolmes, Heyno, Ticze, Mach, Ticze

ON THE ROAD: The Party heads out of town toward the hamlet of Vollage to capture/kill Hoppin' in the Hood. How that will be done the party figures will be worked out before they get to the hamlet.

WEREWOLF SKINS(?): The party once again comes across 13 werewolf skins on the road. This time the risk-averse percentage of the party cannot convince the risk-seeking percentage of the party to leave those skins alone. A couple are taken.

As travel continues the party feels as if it is being watched...

ARRIVE IN VOLLAGE: Back to the other well-known inn, The Wonton Wench, Mayfly purchases expensive wine in an attempt to overcome his less than steller personality (PC NOTE: CHA 08) to learn of rumors in the surrounding area. The barkeep lets it be known that:
  • Hoppin in the Hood might be in league with the forces of the Pit
  • A rival gang led by Big John and Handsome Clauce might also be involved in deviltry and consort with a witch
  • The werewolves are known to be in service of the Horned One
After polishing off the wine, the party beds down in the common room.

RUDE AWAKENING: Luminal jolts awake with a man on top, demanding his skin back. Ah, the werewolves finally arrive. Luminal is very resistant to this idea and a fight breaks out resulting in the stranger being subdued. A variety of threats are made in order to get information out of the stranger, but nothing works owing to them being immune to mundane injury. So the Luminal hypnotizes the stranger to reveal the location of the werewolf camp on the party's map. And after a few pokes with a silver dagger, a deal is struck.

The werewolves will capture Hoppin' in the Hood for the save return on the skin. And the pack will not attack the party until the next full moon. Now, given the Dark Country's somewhat bizarre astronomical features, the moon is full at random intervals (PC NOTE: Specifically the full moon occurs on a 1:6 any given night).

LAST CROAK: And sure enough, a few days later the frog bandit arrives captured. His last wish is for the party to let him see who bested him with his remaining eye. Nope. That has to be a trick it is decided and they promptly slit his throat. Done. Anything valuable is removed including a potential magic ring and the party is off the Lychgate to hand the body over to the VanToad Trading House.