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Building a D&D Situation – Castle Orzelbirg from Empire of the Ghouls

by Mike on 21 August 2023

I love running situation-based RPG sessions. A situation-based session is one in which the GM sets up the situation at a location and lets the characters navigate the situation as the players wish, while inhabitants of the location react to the actions of the characters. The easiest way to think of a situation is a heist, even if the characters aren't trying to steal anything.

When prepping a situation, build the following components:

Once we've planned this situation, let the characters learn about location and inhabitants, and allow the characters to reinforce their goal. Then, during the session, we let the players choose their characters' approach and enjoy the outcome.

Setting Up Castle Orzelbirg

In Empire of the Ghouls, Castle Orzelbirg is a keep overtaken by servants of the vampire King Lucan. In my running of the adventure, I determined that it's inhabited by followers of Hristina, duchess and grand marshall of Karakva.

Location. Castle Orzelbirg is a keep on a rocky hill above the broken town of Orzelbirg whose people felt the claws and teeth of Hristina's forces at their throats for years. They're a broken people going about their days trying not to think about the oncoming night. The castle is well fortified with guard towers, an outer wall, an inner wall, and a central keep. A well in the inner courtyard leads to a series of caves in which servants of the Red Priestesses throw failed experiments. These cast-asides become beggar ghouls, wandering the caves and seeking any living creature to devour.

Inside the castle is a mess hall, a dungeon, and a chapel in which the resident high priestess of the Red Mother conducts her rituals. There's a bunch of other rooms you'd expect in such a place which are outlined in the adventure so I didn't need to prep them.

Inhabitants. The current inhabitants of Castle Orzelbirg include:

You'll notice the challenge rating of the inhabitants ranges from very low CR 1/4 guards to CR 8 vampires and ghost knights. Just because the characters are 6th level doesn't mean the guards all turn into veterans. Killing guards with single attacks is a lot of fun. When they kick in the door to the chapel and see three darakhul (intelligent and powerful ghouls), a vampire, a ghost knight, a high priestess, and six cult fanatics – the characters are challenged with a real threat. Facing all these monsters in combat might not be the best solution to the problem.

Behaviors. One of the ghost knights takes four of the men at arms and a dozen conscripts and patrols outside of the castle looking for any trouble. Another dozen of the guards are usually asleep or eating while the remaining dozen conscripts watch the keep's towers and doors. At the time the characters approach, the high priestess, her cult fanatics, the ghouls, the vampire, and the high lord ghost knight are conducting or observing a ceremony in which a powerful warrior of Sif is being transformed into a darakhul. They're all in the chapel. The remaining Sisters of Sif are being held in the dungeon below guarded by two men-at-arms. The caves beneath the keep are filled with beggar ghouls. The ghost knight third in command walks through the halls and outer courtyards of the castle with two men-at-arms keeping an eye on things while the ritual takes place.

The goal. The characters come to Castle Orzelbirg to rescue the kidnapped Sisters of Sif and recover an artifact held by one of them, a reliquary of the holy robes of Sister Adelind. Four of the five sisters are in the dungeon while the fifth is being turned into a darakhul in the central chapel.

Potential complications. The ghost knight patrol could return. Allies of the characters might blow up a granary outside the castle to cause a distraction. The ceremony might cause the ghouls from below to crawl their way to the surface. A commoner cook or housekeeper might see the characters and scream. The ritual could cause arcane instability in the area.

A Blueprint for the Story to Come

With the description above, you can get a general idea of the situation without knowing exactly what the characters are going to do. Maybe they try to stop the ceremony first. Maybe they rescue the other sisters. Do they go in fireballs blazing or sneak inside? Do they pretend to be villagers or guards or do they crawl their way up from the ghoul caves below? We don't know and that's the fun of watching a situation unfold.

Hopefully this gives you a good example how to set up situations so you too can enjoy watching them unfold at the table.

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