Gunther must die!

In the Realm of the Nibelungs has begun! My consultation with Ron can be found at Adept Play here.

The game is set in 5th century Burgundy (as portrayed in the medieval German epic The Song of the Nibelungs) and uses a ‘homunculus of (old) D&D’ I crafted for this purpose.

(I claim that it will work just as well with B/X, Labyrinth Lord etc., though keeping the rules flexible on this point, yet easy-to-use is proving difficult.)

Adventures will consist of small-team commando operations (i.e. my take on dungeoncrawling) in the titular fairy realm whose various magical laws are the game’s heart. Thus, the party must number seven, accomplishing a daring deed three times yields extra benefits (e.g. the third hit triggers a save vs. death in combat), bested monsters owe you a service if spared and so on.

Spoiler Alert! This actual play report reveals all sorts of things from the planned introductory adventure Gunther must die!


Heroes (7): Freyalinde (Valkyrie2/Vicky), Oswald (Knight2/Kevin), Gunnar (Knight2/Gary), Emilie (Witch2/Cindy), Volker (Minstrel2/Greg), Elgar (Hunter2/Carl), Pikaro (Thief2/Hank)

King Dankrat is dead. His three sons Gunther, Gernot and Giselher are crowned as the new kings of the Burgundians. But a few weeks after the festivities, disaster strikes at the summer solstice: The giantess Jord, scorned and humiliated when approaching Gunther, kidnaps him and announces she’ll eat his private parts within seven days… Knights and henchmen gather to form rescue squads of seven to scour the nearby forest for a grotto, Jord’s likely lair.

(Note: The kidnapping takes place in the absence of the PCs, because I hate having to deprotagonise PCs in such scenes. Everything is purely backstory and set-up so far. In other words, the adventure hasn’t begun yet.)

(Note: I revealed the mechanics for Gunther’s survival at this point: We roll the dice openly as soon as the PCs are in a situation where Gunther’s status is potentially relevant / must be revealed. He dies on the evening of day [1d6+1]. The chance that Gunther is dead is 1/6 from the very beginning, in fact 2/6 because the PCs need a day to gather and two more to travel to the forest and cross over into its magical parts. Haste is required!)

A priest blesses the PCs as they leave (except Emilie, who eludes him) and has a vision: the least of the heroes should lead: Pikaro the Thief!

(This is a game mechanic. I draw one of the players’ names from an envelope and that player is a kind of caller for the evening. If the mission succeeds, the player’s character gets an extra experience point.)

The PCs travel to the southern part of the forest and choose their magically limited equipment: besides personal weapons they bring a lantern, a torch, a waterskin, a rope, a stewpot and the silk ribbon of the noblewoman Gisela, Oswald’s beloved.

In the Realm of the Nibelungs, the PCs find a cold campfire and otherwise escape further encounters. Elgar quickly finds the Unkensee, a lake and likely location for Jord’s lair and behold: a grotto!

In the grotto’s entrance, three bronze statues of young women imploringly stretch out one hand to the onlookers – while the other is hidden behind their backs in each case. Three Rottweilers pant in the summer heat in the sandy entrance area.

(This is straight from Dyson Logo’s map and description Heart of Darkling – The Hags.)

Elgar ropes himself down above the entrance to the cave and gently makes contact with the dogs. He succeeds in stopping them from barking and feeds them. The statues show decayed bodies and clawed hands from behind….

The other PCs follow and Volker uses his legend lore-like ability to recall verses that identify the statues as three child-eating witches that can turn to bronze and back. The witches Asta, Erla and Sigrun hear Volker tell the other PCs about their legend and Sigrun turns into flesh and blood. She requests, as Volker predicted, “the beating heart of a living creature, perhaps a fox or even a wolf.” She offers information or an ability point….

Volker and Gunnar are eager to take up the offer and Elgar suggests silently drowning the Rottweilers to unconsciousness in the lake. This succeeds in a concerted action.

The PCs sacrifice a Rottweiler each to Sigrun, then to Asta, and finally to Erla, and receive a lot of information about Jord (It’s her grotto! She can teleport to the Western part of the grotto! She’s very vain! Etc.) as well as a point of Dexterity (for Oswald).

But woe! The mists come, earlier than expected (because we had to finish at ten o’clock that night). All the PCs are engulfed and some time later find themselves in the normal part of the forest…. Emilie almost gets lost in the mists, but her saving throw succeeds.

(The magical mists come erratically from the POV of the PCs — they are triggered at session’s end so everyone is safely back … or not, as occasionally characters get lost in the wilderness for months etc. I’m very curious to see how the time limit due to the magical mists will shape the game!)

On the way home players start making plans on WhatsApp to deceive Jord…


This is an entry from my blog / campaign log; translated with and cleaned up and expanded a bit.

5 responses to “Gunther must die!”

  1. Magical Mists

    This sounds like a fun game, and the bit about the mist is intriguing. I recall reading early competitive AD&D modules that incorporated a time limit (Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is mainly what I'm thinking of), but I've never actually played anything like that myself. Characterizing it as a magical mist is a nice bit of thematic decoration, which I'm a sucker for — I'd be interested to hear how it plays out over multiple cycles of adventure/mist/back-to-the-starting-point.

    • The players are operating

      The players are operating under two different time limits: (1) All characters are transported back from the magical realm by magical mists at the end of the session (possibly getting temporarily lost in the mists or, perhaps, killed) and (2) characters are, individually, limited to twelve forays into the magical realm (because the mists then get extremely aggressive).

      Like you, I have no experience with tournament play (and not even con games, I might add), so I'm very curious. The players' reactions have been mixed so far (we're three sessions in at this point):

      On the one hand, randomly designated leaders (Hank, Vicky and Carl) have readily and even eagerly (Hank) taken responsibility for driving the game forward. This has mostly entailed prompting/prodding others as well as deciding on a course of action when several options had been developed/discussed. The others have gone along with this, defering to the leader, playfully in-character (e.g. expressing trust in an obviously dangerous plan) and happily out-of-character (i.e. being comfortable with the leader declaring, for example, "Okay, let's do a direct assault on the skeletons then. [to the GM] Gunnar opens the door while Emilie …").

      On the other hand, Carl half-jokingly, half-seriously, declared that the players must abandon all roleyplay (in the sense of character portrayal, in-character talk, playing out small interactions etc.) in order to hurry up and get through the adventures.

      Scoring XP is discussed at the beginning of an adventure and apparently on the minds of the players (especially Carl and whoever is leading) quite a bit.

      Near the beginning of our first session, for instance, I declared that saving Gunther would yield 2 XP, retrieving his crown as proof-of-death 1 XP instead, and killing Jord +1 XP. No extra XP for gold, as the mission was too serious. +1 XP for the leader of the expedition for at least a partial success (e.g. killing Jord).

  2. The king and a PC die

    Heroes (5): Freyalinde (Valkyrie2), Oswald the Bear (Knight2), Gunnar (Knight2), Elgar (Hunter2), Pikaro (Sly2)

    The players of Emilie and Volker can't make it so their characters are declared feverish. Leader Freyalinde chooses a henchman and a hunting dog to bring the team to the lucky number of seven participants.

    Back in the magical part of the forest, the heroes dispatch an angry boar. 

    (Note: I handled our first fight rather poorly — due to the long combat rounds of 1 minute each, I let the boar and the characters move all over the place despite being engaged. In retrospect that was rather too loose. I need more experience here.)

    Elgar leads the party safely to the lake, where the heroes find that the water has risen — a result of my dungeon mutation table I get to roll on between forays. The heroes knock on the front door so that Oswald can court Jord to entrap her. He is perfectly suited and prepared for this: He is a knight, he displays his beloved's silken ribbon as an ostensible gift for Jord, and has had the feverish Volker teach him some flattering verses.

    Jord is quickly ready for a picnic nearby, but takes her dire wolf with her. Oswald successfully wraps her around his finger there for the second time, proclaiming that he will win her heart, invoking the Three Strikes rule for three identical daring deeds. Despite the now imminent danger of falling for him, Jord does not withdraw. She asks Oswald to prove his commitment by slaying the (ever-recurring) giant bear 'Old One-Eye'.

    (An entry from the excellent wilderness encounter table in Zzarchov Kowolski's module Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess).

    The characters construct an oversized cheval-de-frise and carry it in front of the bear's den. When the bear comes out growling, Pikaro manages to put a sack over its head from above.

    (Note: I forgot that most special maneuvers like disarming, pushing back etc. can be canceled by sacrificing hit points. However, it is doubtful that the bear would have immediately freed itself so brutally with its paws that it would have inflicted injuries on itself.)

    The heroes attack the bear from their cover and quickly dispatch it.

    Jord is delighted, but she does not fall for Oswald (i.e. she successfully saves against the Three Strikes effect). When the knights gently explain to her that man-eating giantesses are always portrayed as ugly in tales, she becomes angry and reveals that she has already killed Gunther. This is rolled for in the open at this point because as a GM I need to know whether Gunther is still alive.

    The plan to offer doctoring the knights' tale fails, as Jord flies into a rage. (A roll to get her to hear the characters out fails.)

    (Note: The possibility of Gunther's death and the open roll for his fate are key here, because I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that we are playing in the world of the Song of the Nibelungs, but are by no means bound to its plot. With Gunther's death many developments of the source material are moot.)

    Jord is, as expected, a dangerous opponent, but goes down to Three Strikes by Gunnar.

    (Note: I completely forgot that group initiative is rolled every turn! Old habits die hard. I'm confident though that we can make it work. Simultaneous initiative – complete with a declaration phase – feels odd, but I think we've avoided several incongruous situations alreay on account of it being very natural. No more running a full 120' before anyone can react!)

    The heroes recover Gunther's remains and Pikaro frees a water spirit named Vanita and releases her into the lake in return for a favor in the future. Elgar pockets a bone shard from the king's remains….

    It's 11 o'clock in the real world, so the successful heroes go back through the mist in the game, but alas, Pikaro is lost (1/6), fails his save (50% chance of success or thereabouts) and rolls the worst result (1/6) on the "Lost in the Mists" table: He encounters a nightelf (level d6+2, 5 in this case) bent on murdering men. Pikaro is mortally wounded early on, almost manages to kill the elf due to the Three Strikes rule, but goes down and has his head cut off. The other PCs sees his fate in a dream which I expand to include information setting up an adventuring opportunity for the next session (which the players indeed chose to take).

    (Note: I barely described the nightelf because I was a bit upset that the first character lost in the mists directly got into a barely winnable fight to the death. Kevin reminded us that 'Three Strikes' offered some hope. Hank wistfully noted he had already grown fond of Pikaro. He handled his death well, i.e. mourning but not complaining or being bitter etc.)


    From my blog; translated with and cleaned up and expanded a bit.

  3. Cultural roots

    Hi Johann. I enjoy a lot what you are doing with this game. I have no special loyalty or interest into any version of d&d for its sake, but I like how you get your inspiration from german tales and epics and induce them to make the game its own things.

    This made me think a lot. I realize I'm myself inspired a lot by americain fantasy but I'm not able to design or create a fantasy game that I enjoy. This made me think that I may have to get back into my own cultural roots in Fantasy, produced in a very different context than german fairytale, norse saga or american fantasy – direct into surrealism and french romantic poetry. And now I can't stop thinking about it and got back into reading them. Surely those consultation session and you're commitment to your own literary corpuse inspired me, so thank you!



  4. Back to the roots

    I'm glad you got something out of this! The specificity of the research the project has required has been an absolute pleasure — much more so than throwing together a hodgepodge of ideas for yet another elfdwarf or kitchen sink setting. Creative constraints are great!

    The original inspiration for my project was Jason Cone's essay "The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld" in his seminal Philotomy's Musings. I found Gygax's 'mythical rules' range from inspiring (e.g. all doors in the underworld being either locked or stuck — but opening freely for monsters) to petty (monsters can see in the dark unless they serve or ally with the PCs).

    I came up with my various magical laws when rereading the essay in 2020, but was still in need of a setting. I considered a mythic Greece with adventures taking place in Hades, but then rekindled my love of The Song of the Nibelungs and went with that.

    An early step was rediscoving an interesting re-telling from the 60s, with plenty of analytical asides, which I had read as a teen: Disteln für Hagen (Thistles for Hagen). And, having become a more critical reader, I also found out that the author had been a particularly vile Nazi propagandist, responsible for promising ultimate victory ("Endsieg") as late as the winter of '44.

    Because I had studied medieval German literature at university (though specialising in the crusades rather than heroic epics) a ton of stuff came back to me when I reread the original text of The Song of the Nibelungs (albeit mostly in translation and only switching to medieval Middle High German for the best bits).

    This is really just a long-winded way of me saying that writing Im Reich der Nibelungen has been a delightful journey and learning process which has led me to weird places (such as downloading topographical maps from the public domain to use as a background layer for my first map with Wonderdraft). The hobby just keeps on giving and I encourage you to revisit surrealism and those French poets. Not in the sense of "I have got to make a game out of this" but "What does this mean to me now?". Who knows where you'll end up? 

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