The Ballad of Sir Roland

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With nary a backward glance, Sir Roland stepped out of the dawn light and into the cold gloom of the castle tower. Lighting his lantern, he checked that his healing ring was in place underneath his armour, although the knowledge gave him scant comfort considering the terrors reputed to lurk in the dungeons of Dragonfire Castle. He made a quick scan of his other equipment: sword, shield, a magical compass, and a candle in the lantern marked to approximate the progress of hours until sunset, by which time he would need to be out of the castle. Swallowing, he walked down the steps, northward into the musty darkness.

Instantly, he was shocked by a grinding, crash behind him. Whirling around, his red cape spinning about him in the dusty air, he saw that a portcullis had blocked his exit. Cursing the foul contraptions of the dungeon he peered about. There was another exit to the north, and the room was empty. But there would be no coming back this way to make his escape, should he survive the perils ahead.

Moving through the northern archway he was relieved to find another empty room, this one with a choice of exits to the north and east. Knowing he was on the westernmost edge of the castle and that he needed to progress to the very centre to find the Dragon and its treasure, he chose the eastern arch.

The flickering lantern illuminated a new room, different from those he had seen before. Instead of the gritty yellow sandstone that formed most of the dungeon, this chamber was lined with pallid marble. In the midst stood a dais on which rested an ancient coffin, the wood rotted and the brass fittings tarnished with age. He circled the casket, expecting a revenant to spring forth so it was some time before he realised that this chamber was a dead end. He'd have to waste valuable minutes retracing his steps. But first, there was time to check the coffin and see if it contained anything of use or value. Sir Roland lifted the lid carefully and, as he did so, spikes from either end of the box slammed down toward the middle with murderous speed. The knight let go of the lid just in time to avoid injury and stepped, away muttering to himself and trembling with shock, leaving nothing but the dying echoes of the falling lid behind him.

Heading back west, he found the room still empty. No horrors were trailing him through the dungeon yet, it seemed. This time he chose the northern exit.

This room seemed like a clone of the one he had left behind with sandstone walls and floor and archways to the north and east. It was untenanted, so thinking it to be identical to the previous chamber he stepped forward confidently, only for the floor to give way beneath him. Sir Roland was a bulky man, and slowed by his heavy armour he had no chance of leaping aside in time. He toppled and fell heavily into the pit beneath, injuring himself grievously on the spikes that lined the bottom and bellowed with pain and rage. After a few moments he gingerly eased himself off the floor of the pit and gave thanks that his lantern had survived the fall. Standing he found that his fingertips could just close over the rim of the pit, but that he lacked the strength to pull himself out. Directly he hit on a solution: he began to remove his armour, piece by piece, and throw it upward on to the floor of the room above. It cost precious time and made so much noise that he feared greatly some horror would be attracted to the room and find him defenceless. But after what seemed like an eternity of effort and terror he was light enough to haul himself up and lie, gasping, on the floor. He spent yet more time bandaging his wounds and donning his armour once more before he picked up his lantern and ventured on into the eastern arch.

He had not gone but two paces into the room which presented itself before his unfeeling, metal-shod feet stepped on to a false plate which clicked beneath his weight. Cursing his armour again for the second time that day he flung himself aside as the walls erupted in a frenzy of sharp-tipped darts and arrows. Balling himself up on the floor, he felt a series of powerful impacts on his back and arms until, eventually, the dungeon returned to its former silence and stillness. Peeking out, he saw a large room with exits to the north and east, the floor now littered with the razor-edged debris of the crossfire trap he'd triggered. Much as it might make him clumsy and slow, this time the armour had saved his life - not one point had penetrated the steel. He stepped onward toward the east and toward the lair of the dragon.

The next room was smaller, with a rickety wooden floor and a single exit to the north. After the previous two encounters, Sir Roland stepped across this one gingerly, wasting more time. Arriving at the northern arch without mishap he glanced at the bands on his candle. There was still time, but a further delay would prove costly.

The weak light of the lantern began to devour the darkness of a new room, revealing four exits. At last, a choice, and a retreat path should a path up ahead be blocked. He turned toward the eastern exit when a stench of decay hit him. From the darkness strode a fearful undead, the pallid skin on its head drawn back to expose the teeth in a humourless grin of death. Sir Roland was a knight, trained in combat, and he reacted without thinking, drawing his sword and stepping forward. The creature attempted to respond but jerked, stumbled, and started to collapse, bones and armour shedding off its carcass with every twitch. Shortly it was nothing but a jumble of rags on the floor. Sir Roland snorted as he prodded the remains with the tip of his sword. The magic holding the thing together had been eroded, weak. How long had it waited down here in the darkness, with a patience that only the dead can manage?

The eastern archway revealed another sandstone room with another heap of bones. This time nothing stirred - there was nought here but the remains of some other poor soul who'd come seeking for the fabled treasure. Perhaps the undead in the previous room had seen to him? Sir Roland would never know, but the misfortune of this adventurer could be his gain. He started rifling through the pockets of the jerkin, feeling too late the tell-tale prickle of some insect crawling inside his mail gloves. Quickly he tried to crush it but a burning pain had already started shooting up his forearm. Removing the gauntlet he found the squashed remains of a scorpion - small, but who knew how deadly its poison might be. He waited in quiet terror for a few minutes, watching for telltale signs of worse to come: nausea, cramps, shaking. But none came. He relaxed and flexed his fingers. The limb was painful but serviceable. There were exits to the south and east, but only one would lead closer to the dragon. As he moved eastward, sweat began to trickle down his back and forehead. Was it his imagination, or was it getting hotter?

His reverie was broken by another grinding crash. A second portcullis had dropped and cut off his escape. He recognised the sound this time and did not turn, a stroke of luck as it turned out, for the darkness formed itself into a snarling mountain troll, hurling itself toward him with a makeshift club raised. The stench of the thing was terrible, and its guttural cries echoed inside his helm. As the brute closed, Sir Roland stepped back smartly and, gripping his sword with two hands, bought a crushing blow down onto the troll’s head. It split in two, showering them both with sticky green blood, and its corpse fell, kicking in its death throws. Such an abomination was no match for a trained warrior. Again, there were archways to the east and south, again only one way led toward the centre of the castle.

The next room was empty of anything but a hellish level of heat. A single archway led to the north. Sir Roland removed his helm and cloak and wiped the sweat pouring from his brow on the fine red velvet of the garment. He looked at it a moment, remembering what it had cost him at the clothiers and how fine his brother knights had thought it, before casting it aside. There was a single exit, toward the north.

It was another small room, hotter than the last. The only way out was an archway to the east, which contained only further darkness. Sir Roland paused, puzzled. Surely he must be near the centre by now! Taking in his surroundings, he noticed that the northern wall was more dilapidated than the others. He walked toward it, feeling the heat grow more intense with every step. The wall itself was too hot to touch. Sir Roland put his ear as close as he dared to the red-hot sandstone and concentrated. He could hear it through the bricks: the deep, rhythmic breathing of a gargantuan beast, asleep. The dragons' chamber was just beyond the wall, but for the solidity of the stone before him, it might as well be a million miles. Snarling with frustration he headed east, looking for another way in.

The next room appeared empty. He glanced around, feverishly and spotted a northern exit. But on bringing his lantern round, he found nothing but more dust and gloom beyond the exits. He checked the walls again. This time the heat was most intense in the northwest corner. In growing fury, he realised the chambers were winding around the dragons' lair, without presenting him with an actual entry! Whatever hell-spawn had designed this place had gone to great pains to torment and frustrate treasure seekers.

He hurried through the northern opening and saw for the first time, light up ahead. Breaking in to a run he found himself suddenly in a room with a northern arch and one to the west from which the filthy, orange glow was falling. Turning, mid-stride he saw it! The treasure chamber! Unable to contain his avarice and excitement he plunged forward, directly into yet another pit. Blinking and choking in the dust sent up by his descent into the earth, Sir Roland cursed his stupidity. But this time he knew the drill. Again he slowly began to strip his armour and toss it upward, although with greater care this time lest the noise waken the sleeping behemoth in the next chamber. Again he watched in tortured silence as the candle burned down, ever down, toward certain doom.

After what seemed like an eternity, Sir Roland dragged his bleeding and sweaty body out of the pit. He was weak now with fatigue and loss of blood but there was no rest in this infernal heat. Knowing that fabulous riches or death awaited and aware, as ever, of the guttering candle in its glass shell, he has to use every ounce of willpower to restrain himself to a creeping pace as he went into the treasure chamber. The great worm lay there, in the midst of mountains of gold and gems, more wealth than many kings could ever hope to see. Trembling with both excitement and fear, Sir Roland unrolled a great cloth bag and, as quietly as he could manage, he grabbed two fistfuls of gold and released them into the sack.

The coins clinked.

The dragon twitched and …

… rolled over in its slumber.

Sir Roland did all he could to compress his sigh of relief into the merest whisper of breath. He glanced at the banding on his candle, set atop a nearby mound of gold, and almost gasped in shock. How long had that taken? How much time had been spent ensuring the utmost stealth as he raided the horde? Now there was scarcely enough time left to escape the dungeon! All the wealth he now held in the sack at his waist would be for nought if he died here in this terrible place! As quickly as he dared, he stepped back eastward into the pit room.

This time Sir Roland simply stepped around the yawning hole in the floor and picked up the pace. But the eruption of the previous trap had weakened the structure of the room. As he rushed for the southern exit, everything collapsed around him. Great chunks of masonry fell from the roof, crashing to the floor and sending further shockwaves through the fragile stone. Columns fell, slabs cracked and pebbles poured as Sir Roland dodged and weaved as best he could manage, trusting his armour to save him from the smaller stones. He leapt for the exit, but as he did so the lintel of the arch cracked and fell, smashing into his helmet and sending him sprawling headlong into the passageway. Behind him the room collapsed completely into a heap of rubble. He had escaped death by inches, but, as the blood poured down his face and matted his hair, he wondered how much more life he had in him. Briefly he thought of the healing ring. But there was no time for that.

Lifting his head, he saw that the room he'd fallen in to was different from the others. It was much smaller, and the walls were rounded and seemed to have been hewn from the bedrock itself instead of being tiled in sandstone. The guttering candle picked out in shadow where there were still chisel-marks visible on the floors. It was empty, and as Sir Roland lay on the floor, thankful for the brief respite from the terrors of the dungeon, the room begin to tremble! The vibrations were gentle at first, but they soon began to mount into a terrible grinding and wrenching and before he knew it, the room was revolving. In a panic, Sir Roland pulled his feet from the exit just in time before the walls slid by and cut them off. The juddering made his gorge rise in this throat and retched dryly on to the floor. By the time his spasms had passed, the room had revealed a new exit to the east. There was no choice but to take it.

Feeling as though the hounds of time were tearing at his heels, Sir Roland ran through the yawning arch and barrelled directly into a troll in the next chamber, impaling it on the spikes on his armour. Roaring a challenge the creature bought its paired hands down on to Roland's head as it fell. He was sure he felt the already fractured skull plates grind at the impact and a stabbing pain lanced through his head. Trying to ignore it, he drew his sword as he blinked back further blood from his eyes. The troll rose from the floor and the two combatants circled each other. This creature was smarter than the previous one that Roland has dispatched. A greater challenge! Judging his moment carefully, Roland lunged, swinging his sword out in a wide arc, at the same moment as the troll attempted a similar manoeuvre with his great taloned hand. Both blows connected and drew blood. Both figures fell with the impact. But only Roland arose. Dizzy now with loss of blood, and with every limb aching from bruising and exhaustion, Roland staggered onward to the south.

The next room seemed colder, somehow. There was a corpse in here, too, but such as the knights disorientation that it took him a moment to realise that the corpse was standing upright and holding a weapon in a manner that no corpse ever should. There was eldritch magic at work again here. Roland drew himself to his full height and, with a great battle cry, brandished his sword, still gory with troll ichor. He hoped the thing would collapse as the last one had, but this time he was not to be so lucky. With a horrid mechanical precision, the thing advanced toward him, sweeping its sword at rhythmic intervals. Roland steeled himself, gathered his strength, and put every effort in to one killer blow at the creature. It attempted to dodge, but dry bone and dust was no match for living nerve and sinew. The sword crashed in to the skull of the creature and down into the ribs, sending shards of bone in every direction. Sometimes, though, magic is stronger even than flesh, and the ruined form of the undead stood, its sword arm still attached and able to wield the weapon to deadly effect. Roland felt like weeping, but his warrior instincts kept him upright. For a few moments, he traded blows with the thing, each impact crushing more of the skeleton before him, until finally only a pair of legs were left. He kicked at them, and they fell. The foe was vanquished, but at such cost. Rolands' sword slipped from a palm slick with his own blood. He didn't bother to retrieve it. The arm itself dangled rent and useless, at his side.

He was almost spent now. The primal centres in his brain screamed for survival and drove his feet onward to the south. A ring. Didn't he have a healing ring? But it would take time to use, time he no longer had. The combats had taken too long, and the nub of the candle spoke to him of a terrible fate, unseen horrors slithering on to him in the darkness after the sunset. He was tired, so tired, and had not the energy to run in spite of what awaited him. Here, alone in the blackness of the dungeon, bleeding and bedraggled his manliness left him and he began to weep with pain and fear. The room he had entered was quiet and cold, with more exits to the south and west. So there was an exit in the right direction at least. As he stumbled on toward it, he noticed, forgotten in the corner of the room, a tiny phial. Trembling, he bent, picked it up and put it to his lips. Either salvation or damnation awaited him. He closed his eyes and waited, feeling a warm fire growing in his belly and spreading further out into his limbs with every heartbeat. It grew, hotter and more intense until the very moment he felt he could stand it no longer, it left him. He opened his eyes, and surveyed his wounds. Caked in filth and dried blood they might be, but they were whole again! With renewed hope and vigour, he dashed for the southern arch.

It was another case of identikit rooms, exits south and west again. He risked a brief glance at his candle, and the hope began to die within him. The wick was yet aflame but it was guttering in little more than a pool of flame. He needed a corridor - something straight and true and not the endless maze of these wide rooms with their bewildering arches. Surely, a corridor was his only hope. He knew he was close to the exit now perhaps only two rooms away. But without a corridor he was as good as lost. But while the candle burned, so did the chance of escape. He ran southwards.

The next room held a goblin. Roland suddenly wished he had not let his sword fall so easily. At the sight of the great warrior, encased in blood-spattered armour and running at full tilt into the room whilst screaming himself to greater exertions the little creature turned tail and fled off into an eastern archway. East! That's the direction he needed! But the light was dying - a corridor was his only hope now. Madly, heedless of danger, he ran after the tiny greenskin.

And it was a corridor! Oh joy of joys, a corridor! He was going to make it! Feet pounding on the grit below him he ran west, faster than he had ever done in his life, praying to every god above that he would not slip and fall. The weak light remaining in his lantern illuminated a turn in the corridor up ahead, just as he needed to head south to light and air and freedom.

But the corridor turned north.

He stood, stunned for a moment, in the fading light. Then he slowly sank to his knees in time with the last dying flickers from the candle. Outside the sun was sinking down below the horizon. In the absolute darkness of the dungeon, finally, his tears came. And with them, from every side, came the horrors…

This is a session report of an actual solo game of Dungeonquest - I took simple notes of each turn and wrote it up afterwards. And what a session it turned out to be! When I drew that last corridor tile, I actually thought I'd made it out with my highest loot total ever until I discovered it bent in the wrong direction!

DungeonQuest review
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


DungeonQuest review
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

There Will Be Games DungeonQuest review

DungeonQuest review
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


Articles by Matt

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