The first adventure in the Expert series had been the fairly serious Isle of Dread. The second had been more of a funhouse dungeon in Castle Amber. Expert Set Adventure Module X3, Curse of Xanathon, wandered into some seriously weird territory. It is designed for 5-8 characters of levels 5-7.
Douglas Niles had begun his writing career at TSR by writing the not-for-novices novice-series adventure of Against the Reptile God, which I reviewed earlier this year. Curse of Xanathon was his second adventure, and although the adventure’s cover say it “combines town and wilderness adventuring”, it is a lot more accurate to say that there’s some town material, quite a bit of dungeon material, and a small amount of wilderness.
The adventure begins with the Duke of Rhoona suffering from madness. He’s been making decidedly odd decrees (riders must sit on their horses backwards; all taxes must be paid in beer), and the Ducal Guard is making sure the decrees are enforced. The populace rightly fears the Guard, and are obeying. The players are prodded by the adventure to go and find out the real reason for the Duke’s madness and to cure it. It’s the beginning of a five-act adventure that it’s probably best not to analyse too deeply.
In fact, the reason for the madness is a curse from a chaotic priest, Xanathon, who is in league with the captain of the guard to overthrow the Duke. Well, the captain believes they’re in league; Xanathon actually serves another master. Questions such as “if they captain controls the guard, why doesn’t he just depose the Duke?” come to mind, but that’s not the adventure we’ve been given.
The first act sees the characters investigating the guard’s barracks. The set-up for this is interesting: the Duke has outlawed dwarves, and the dwarves in town have decided to go back home and then return with an army and make Rhoona pay for the insult. One of the dwarves suggests that the group investigate the ducal barracks, and a cloaked stranger reinforces the suggestion. And does it again, more blatantly, if the group don’t get onto the tracks. It should be noted that a dwarf in the party might cause some problems here, which the adventure doesn’t really cover that well.
Inside the Ducal Barracks are a number of moderately uninteresting rooms. The one point of interest is a secret room accessed from the captain of the guard’s bedroom which contains an incriminating note. It should be noted at this point that, unlike later editions of D&D, there’s a good chance that the players will never find the room. I really wonder what the reaction of the guards would be to the invasion by the players. If I were them, I’d hunt them down – and there’s a lot of guards – but their reactions are left up to the DM to decide.
The second act of the adventure sees the group going after Xanathon in his temple, either because they found the note or because the cloaked stranger from the first act told them to. The temple contains more wondrous material than the guard barracks, but it’s still fairly straightforward. At it’s end is Xanathon, a 14th level cleric who has become invulnerable from harm. After killing a PC, he’ll continue to kill the PCs until they realise this is a no-win situation and flee. However, Xanathon – being chaotic – will give a clue as to how the characters can defeat him.
This then triggers the third act, where the players actually get to go into the wilderness looking for a shrine where Xanathon keeps the diamond that holds his “essence”. The wilderness is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” in nature, and consists basically of a number of wandering monster checks (there isn’t even a map!). The actual shrine isn’t that bad: human guards and then monsters on the lower level. A number of interesting tricks and traps round it out.
With Xanathon’s “essence” in their possession – it needs to be brought back to him to make him vulnerable – the group get another lot of wandering monsters checks before returning home. The fourth act is the shortest section of the adventure (less than a page) and is very much in the players’ hands as to how they deal with it: they need to use the diamond to force Xanathon to revoke his curse. Xanathon is unlikely to be a pushover if they attempt to take him down in his temple as he has many reinforcements at hand, but if cornered outdoors it should be possible to defeat him. The adventure notes that Xanathon will attempt to negotiate his way out of the situation, recover the jewel and then kill the characters after the jewel is safe again. It’s actually quite refreshing to see a villain acting so intelligently.
The final act of the adventure sees the group entering the palace, dealing with the corrupt captain of the guard, and finally curing the duke. It’s a fairly standard dungeon crawl, with a lot of empty rooms and one or two monsters and tricks.
As for the cloaked stranger who points the group in the right direction several times, he’s actually the high priest of Forsetta, a Lawful deity. Eric of Forsett can’t help the group directly as he’s lawful and so can’t work against the laws (however stupid they are), but apparently he’s great at bending them to the point of ridiculousness.
As an investigative adventure, Curse of Xanathon has a couple of big holes in it, the biggest being that there’s pretty much no investigation at all. The barracks have exactly one clue in them, which leads to the second act. Xanathon gives some pretty obscure clues that lead to the third act, but it’s up to Eric of Forsett to actually enlighten the party as to what’s going on. Looking for clues in town is a fruitless activity; the adventure actually advises the DM that none of the rumours should help the adventurers solve the mystery! The town is detailed in a manner that gives the broad details and provides lots of suggestions (and random methods) for the DM to detail the rest. It’s one of the more impressive parts of the adventure, even if I find parts of the methodology just a little tedious.
Is the adventure hack’n’slash then? Not really – slaughtering all the guards and priests, although possible, could well prove troublesome, especially for Lawful parties. Rather, there are elements in this adventure that reward role-playing and stealth; not everything needs to be slain.
Unfortunately, this is placed against a plot that really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Quite frankly, for a city adventure, there aren’t enough NPCs. Where are the other members of the ruling aristocracy? Even in a city-state, a Duke doesn’t govern just with the aid of his Guard Captain; however, the palace only has rooms for the Duke’s lady, some minstrels, and his pet displacer beasts (the Duke thinks tricking a visitor into their room is funny). I’m sorry, why are we rescuing him again?
I’m not averse to railroaded stories, as there are times when that’s the best way of approaching an adventure, but it feels like a particularly bad fit here. Although aspects of the adventure are quite good, and the possibilities allowed by the confrontation with Xanathon are excellent, there are some severe structural flaws in the adventure. It is probably salvageable by a good DM, but I don’t think the material warrants it.