Friday, January 22, 2021

Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier - Play Report - Session 1

Adipose Mab
Expedition Leader

Below is the first play report for my current home campaign, a playtest of Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier, which I'm also working on for publication.  So far I've played five sessions, the first four within the initial location "Murkvey's Rock" - a starter adventure for the setting.


Manny had been a ruffian, one of the big, tough bums that pushes the weak face first into Aurum Ferro's fecund gutters until they give up their green glass bottle of grog or the pennies they'd begged. Sorcha a run away villiene from the Solar Papacy, her horse sold, armor filthy and pockets empty, but still swaggering bow legged and proud. Tiny a hedge warlock from some nameless village, Feather, an exiled Priestess of some jungle bird good, blue skinned and lamp eyed. Coldway had been born to wealth, a fop still, but also, like the rest she was another destitute last chancer, gems pried from the guard of a battered rapier, and white crocodile leather breeches filthy.

A last chance to die or be redeemed on the Crystal Frontier. Adipose Mab, a thin, dusty knife of a women: scholar, surgeon, torturer, antiquarian and tomb robber had offered them and twelve other wine soaked gutter leavings a future. Act as scouts and plunders, or bait Coldway said, in the exploration of one of the Sky Tombs that fell across the mountains and get set up for a new life. The terms were generous: passage out of the Empire and over the Maiden Tombs in Mab's mule train, a purse of coin and a set of Tombrobber's equipment. If they did a good job, Mab might keep them on for a percentage or hand over information about a crystal or two they could crack and loot on their own. It was a dangerous deal, but a lot better than any other offers Manny, Sorcha, Tiny, Feather or Coldway could expect.

At the edge of the towering mountains, arrested by the vista, the mules halted: Mab, her bodyguards, Kotto and Karo, her 'gemcutter' Flash, the Aurum Ferro exiles and 12 other wretched fools. Below to the South lay the Frontier, behind the friable, wind-tortured peaks and beyond the resurgent Bull Kingdom, once and Imperial dependency, now the personal demesne of the Warlock King. The Frontier was excessive -- stark but the sandy land erupting with fierce color: oranges,reds,chartreuse and magenta spattered and strung across dune, badland and hill. The painted land sectioned by the thin white lines of the crumbling Imperial highway and a meandering reflective river, Rio Ahogo.

Still far above, the band would not reach the plain until the next morning, camping at the edge of the hills sheltered in the ruins of a fallen villa, overgrown in dead tangled vine -- a monumental bonewhite wall, cabled in late Imperial false pillars and sweeping sinuous arches to block the night winds. As the brush fed fire burned low o half buried mosaic depicting a red, fire winged woman slaughtering legions, Feather watched the sky blazing with meteors - streaks of pink and blue plummeting towards the Frontier. Mab claimed they were the crystal ships, coffins and fortresses of Empryean people, falling through a single aperture in the spheres that held the moon and planet, to strike this one region. Feather wasn't sure she believed the greasy haired scholar but the colors and vast expanse reminded her that she was far from the tangled indigo depth of her home.


Two days later they were camped at the edge of a crumpling crater, floor growing waist high with prickly pear, and shadowed rim teeming with yellow lichen, red ice plant and tiny flowering succulents. At the center a cluster of pink crystal prisms, towering 30' or more from the dust -- a formation mostly buried by impact. Mab and Flash walked the crater floor, pointing at crystals and talking animatedly. Some of the newly hired scouts began to check the straps on their armor, readying themselves to delve whatever lay beneath the crystal spires, but Kotto, the more friendly of the Iceheller bodyguards, discouraged them, saying it would be hours before Flash faceted an entrance. Better to find some shade and wait.

The old gemcutter soon got to work, pulling lens, prisms and tuning rods from his case, tapping, shining light, examining the crystal and tapping again for hours before he started in with his hammers and pitons. It wasn't until the noon beans were boiling steadily that Flash's work produced cracking sounds from the crater, and sparkling slabs of crystal started to fall away from the spires. By mid-afternoon there was a gap deep tall enough to step through in the side of one high hexagonal prism, revealing a hollow interior. Mab cautioned against the cut crystal's poison dust and usher the five forward.

Manny descended first, the fresh proof stamp on his garrison armor catching the refracted light as he clambered down the rope, Sorcha, Coldway, Tiny and Feather followed, examining the hexagonal chamber at the root of the prism. The natural crystal walls were a smooth, lustrous lavender, pale and catching the sunlight from above to send beams dancing among the carpet of smaller crystals rising from the floor. A boot crushed path leads through one of two faceted archways cut from the natural crystal and the band follows it North. A triangular passage, walls still reflecting and reflecting and refracting torch light leads on for some distance before opening into another dazzling chamber lit with light bouncing down a hollow crystal shaft from above.

The sunlight flared off veins of gold in the crystal walls, near the room's two doors. Coldway, debt and needs pressing her mind as much as ever, rushed forward at the sight of gold. Gold it was, thin seams of lumpy natural looking nodules. The crystal of the walls didn't need to be smashed, the ominous dust avoided, but picking the gold from the seams without proper tools would ruin whatever implement Coldway used. She didn't much care, gold could buy a new dagger.

The rest waited and watched, Sorcha holding a torch high, as Coldway popped nodules of gold into her spread cloak. As if the wall itself took umbrage at the prying, the sounds began to resonate within, echoing through the crystal, making every scratch a disconcertingly loud tearing noise. As Coldway, finished, while she shifted a respectable pile of tiny gold nuggets to her pouch a low mournful wail came from beyond the doors. Perhaps a response to Coldway's scratching.

Low and long a trumpeting howl reverberated for a moment in the band’s chests, and they quickly resolved to move on before whatever made the sound came any closer. Choosing the left door, a plate of glassy obsidian engraved with scenes of bird riding warriors in combat, only to discover it was stuck. Rather than wait to oil the seizing hinges, Manny slammed his big shoulder into the door, smashing it open with the screech of grinding glass and the band tumbled into the hall beyond. Behind the dance of their orange torchlight on the faceted walls of the triangular tunnel the party moved cautiously -- it did not avail them.

As the tunnel opened and the gem robbers filed into a four way intersection something shuffled up a flight of natural crystal stairs to the right. Red eyes glowed in the depths of the stair, and the robbers watched transfixed by surprise as the beast climbed, clacking a sycthing red beak against the steps, sharpening it. It emerged with the glitter of iridescent green feathers among a mass of coarse black fur, and screamed, blue-black tongue trilling between the beak’s razor edges. Rearing up on hide legs, a 9’ tall mass of layered muscle and sinew, the Bearowl crashed down to lash out at the robber’s vanguard. Manny barely interposed the disc of his shield as the first claw slammed into him, laminated linden cracking under the force of the massive paw. Off balance and dazed the gutter fighter was powerless to protect against the beast’s second swipe and the other claw shredded Manny’s sword arm as it pulled him towards the horrible beak. In an instant the beak crushed Manny’s cheap helmet, steel plates popping under enormous pressure and the man died in a spray of blood and brains, axe tumbling from a nerveless hand.

The violence of the moment shocked the others to action, Sorcha darted in, her saber scoring the Groowlyhoot’s thick hide. Tiny stepped into the gap left by Manny, raising a short sword to little effect, while Feather attempted to call her god and control the rampaging avian horror. Coldway began to edge back calling for a retreat and loosed the raw power of her magic as a wave of burning teal dragonflies that hurtled towards the creature. Stung by Sorcha’s blade and hungry for Coldeye’s magic infused flesh, the rage of the beast was inconsolable even to the divinely inspired birdsong pouring from Feather. With magic dragonflies popping to little effect on the ravening arcanavore’s furred back, it plowed forward, deflecting Sorcha’s blow, and taking a scratch from Tiny. Another massive swipe knocked Sorcha aside, mostly absorbed by her weathered brigandine with claws tearing the old insignia of the orange setting sun on its chest and slamming the wiry churl headfirst into the wall unconscious. Tiny backed and waved his shortsword as the beast turned on him, sniffing his hedge wizard’s small sorcery.

Feather echoed Coldway’s call for flight and began to drag mumbling Sorcha down the hallway after the backpedaling noble. Tiny didn’t retreat, seeing the beasts injuries he called his power and sent a crackling cascade of red lighting forward towards the Bearowl as it pressed into him. The wizard died to claw and beak, not even seeing his magic’s ineffectual scorching as his remaining three companions rushed back, two dragging the injured third.

Glancing back as they reached the Obsidain door, Coldway saw the huge beast crouched at the hallway’s end, lit by Tiny’s fallen torch. It’s bloody beak rising and falling as it feasted on the Hedgewizard’s mangled remains. The survivors wedged the obsidian door as Sorcha stumbled to her feet, bruised and winded, but the Beakbear remained content to devour Tiny and his spellbook.


Defeated, but with a pocket full of gold nuggets and an appreciation for the dangers of the tomb they begin the climb back to the surface. The three survivors related their adventure to Mab, who shook her head at the decision to stand in combat with an enraged Bearowl, but smiled appreciatively at the gold, giving Coldway back a single 50GP nugget “for the dead”.

The next morning, Sorcha still groaning from her bruises, three of the other Greenhorns stepped forward, including “Cash Money” an unscrupulous former pirate quartermaster well known to Coldway and Feather from their past adventures in distant Ib. The other two were untested strangers, a lean Imperial with a scarred face who said he had no use for a name as he was surely doomed to die, and Patchy Stint, another dabbler in sorcery driven from a troupe of performers by superstition and bad ticket sales.

This is the play report for my first session of my playtest for Tombrobber’s of the Crystal Frontier, the party consisted of two of my long time players (the one that always plays an elf playing Coldeye the Death Fop and another playing Feather, autochthon priestess of the infamous Beaked God), and three new players who have only played 5E before(Manny, Sorcha and Tiny). There were obviously some learning pains that resulted in the growly hoot massacre, but since we’ve now completed the adventure it seems like the 5E fellows enjoyed themselves and have gotten a taste for risk v. reward location based exploration.

Mechanically I’m using my CRAWL rules which are based on 1970’s whitebox D&D with low HP totals, high lethality combat and lots of changes to the magic systems. What happened in this session was that the party descended, found some treasure that was stuck in a wall on turn 2 and started chiselling away at it, making a racket. I rolled an “Omen” on one of the two encounrer rolls and the dungeon’s resident alpha predator, a beak bear or “growlyhoot” showed up. The players heard its mournful call and then on the next turn encountered the thing (an unlucky random encounter roll). The new players, perhaps emboldened by 5E's tendency towards balanced design decided that they would win the fight.

A near TPK occurred with the old players rescuing one downed PC. The combat itself was mechanically typical of OD&D - three rounds, with both bad luck and good for the players and a tactical mistake that cost at least one character his life. The random encounter unfolded typically, with a negative reaction roll and the Beakbear rolling a 6 for initiative. A three attack, five HD monster is quite dangerous to a 1st and 2nd level party, especially meeting it head on, and the Bearowl is almost guaranteed to seriously injure or kill at least one PC in melee each round. Yet even the two magic missiles and melee attacks seriously injured the bear - despite its suffering only ½ damage from magic. Had Tiny fled with the other party members there is a good chance he would have survived. My new players learned a series of lessons about the quick lethality of OD&D combat, the way I design random encounter tables, and the danger of owlbears.

I don’t think they were entirely surprised by how dangerous the Owlbear was to their PCs, but the speed of OD&D style combat was certainly an unexpected for them. Tiny’s player later said he enjoyed the small amount of session time spent in combat, but didn’t expect that his character would die so fast and easily - thinking he could survive a round or two in melee. Manny’s player was less amused by the situation and rolled up another PC, naming him “Fighter 2” in protest to what he perceived as the unfairness of introducing the game with an “unbalanced” combat. He was back for a second session however and took the lead in hunting the owlbear, but getting distracted by shiny things.


  1. HA!- In some ways, few names are more old-school than "Fighter 2" written in protest of the first fighter's untimely demise.

    1. Funnily enough the "nameless" fighter is still with the party and the player has had to develop some 'backstory' through play to explain why he's such a nihilist. I suspect some of the peevishness that led to "Fighter" was having a backstory thought up for poor Manny -- and more a plan for a story for his future.

      The player is very into such things, and like the owlbear encounter, Lost Mines of Phandelver bred expectations of how character story works led him astray on the Crystal Frontier. Adjusting to less up front story and more emergent story wasn't hard though and I don't think he's felt it a diminished ability to enjoy story telling play because of it.

  2. I love a good owlbear story, and this is right up there with the best I've heard.

    "The random encounter unfolded typically, with a negative reaction roll and the Beakbear rolling a 6 for initiative."

    Yep, pretty typical. It's like how my players always seem to get surprised by a level-draining undead (who knew wights were so sneaky?). As they say, the dice don't lie.

    I'm reading about your players' reactions to the events at the table and my first thought is: I really have little-zero sympathy for players who bring a 5E mentality to an old school game. While I suppose that marks me (by some) as a rather "dickish" DM, I'm okay with recent years, I have mostly refrained from gaming with such individuals in order to avoid hard feelings, instead choosing players well-experienced with old style play OR taking on new players with no preconceived expectations. I've had pushback on only a couple occasions: one from an adult who'd had no RPG experience but a LOT of video game-bred expectation, and the other an adult who had played through every iteration of the game and evolved his play style along the same lines of development (i.e. he was a person who welcomed and enjoyed the changes in tone and structure over the years of D&D's evolution) and didn't particularly like "going backwards."

    I'm glad that your 5E players are adjusting to the new way of playing. I know other DMs who haven't been so lucky (i.e. they've found their players abandoning the game or revolting and forcing an edition switch). I can't think of anything more depressing (in the sphere of gaming) then being forced to run a game (or an edition of a game) that is distasteful to the guy or gal running it. Kudos for finding players with the maturity and ability to adapt.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I should finish writing up the next session, where they decided to hunt down the owlbear.

      As to 5E mentality, I think the three new players just didn't know what to expect exactly. They got my intro email, they heard my friend describe the play style, and they were on board. They just didn't realize there was really a wandering monster that could absolutely eat a PC's face in one round. Now that they have it they're getting their thrills mostly the same places my long term players do -- schemes! While I'm sure terrible players who only want to play one game, one way are out their, my experience has been positive - a few initial pains from the new play style, but a quick enough grasp of the differences.

      I suspect that Manny's player didn't like dying much - I mean who likes their PC dying? He also had some kind of redemption arc story planned for the murderous bum that is now "tears in the rain" as they say. He's a RPG storytelling sort of player and has been playing the "Fighter with no name" for four more session and seems quite content now.


Old Games

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