Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sidequest: The Curse of Xanathon Part 1

As I previously mentioned, I was finally able to become a player in a Swords & Wizardry campaign adventure.  These sessions were run by Brian, one of the players in our gaming group that has been going strong since 2009!

Brian ran classic TSR adventure: X-3 Curse of Xanathon!

Like I said, I had a great time playing my thief, McDagger and we all had a lot of laughs with this adventure, as any good group of sessions should have, but the Curse of Xanathon, as an adventure module, has it's 'issues'.

This adventure was written in 1982, around the time adventure modules evolved from a sandbox environment into more of a story-based adventure. Being X-3, you can see the evolution of that through the X series of modules.

X-1, The Isle of Dread (by David Cook and Tom Moldvay) is a crazy open sandbox in a pulp fantasy lost island in the middle of the sea.  It's open ended and the players can determine their own fate by their choices.  There is no real 'plot' or linear story. Just an anything goes fantasy.  It's a classic in it's own right.

X-2, Castle Amber (by Tom Moldvay) was another open ended "fun-house" adventure with a loose plot of the D'Amberville family. It's essentially a classic mega-dungeon crawl.  This one is slightly more rail-roady in that the PCs would be 'trapped' in the castle until they figure out the way to escape.

The Curse of Xanathon (by Douglas Niles) breaks with that free-form openness and railroads the party into 5 plot-points (scenarios) that need to be hit to move the story along. It involves a curse upon the duke of the town of Rhoona and a cult worshiping a chaotic god and an 'invincible' priest and an powerful pirate working in tandem with the priest to control the Duke.  Oh, and a time limit of an invading dwarven army that the Mad Duke pissed off, all this to support the underlying concept of a civil war in the town to weaken it and allow for an invasion from the steeps.  This all sounds like the making of a great fantasy story - and it is, but as an open adventure, it doesn't work very well.

The general problem with 'story' based adventures such as this is always having the critical need for players
to hit the plot-points to move the adventure along. You can't kill the wrong NPC, or stray from the path, or  just blow-up the Duke's castle and be done with it, or what if you don't find the exact key to defeat the evil priest? or just saying, this town is fucked, lets rob the castle and get out of here.  To reveal the 'story' as the author intended, you need to do everything in the way the author needs to you to do it. And for a group that is use to open ended adventures where the stories evolve themselves this was quite rail-roady.  I mean, why should a group of traveling rogues care about this town or this Mad Duke? I guess outlawing ale would do the trick, right?

All that said, we had a good laugh at some of the forced plot points.  Many of the encounters were quite enjoyable and I really loved the dungeon/shrine. This would be a challenging module to run for even veteran DMs but Brian rolled with this adventure with his usual dry humor and twisted charm which leveled this module up from an attempted mysterious drama to a romp that involved fire-balling the barracks.

I guess you can't keep a good party down.

A brief word about the author, Douglas Niles. He was part of the early second group of TSR employees after the initial explosion of the game. He came on board in '82 as a game designer. He ended up writing Top Secret (one of my favorite non-D&D games) and the first three Forgotten Realms novels.  He also wrote the B-5 Horror on the Hill adventure, a less rail-roady adventure which I worked into our campaign way back and was pretty fun. He has some chops but Curse of Xanathon just didn't cut it.  It's obvious he had a story concept in mind that he translated into an adventure module which doesn't quite work as a stand-alone.  I suppose that if you used the town of Rhooma as a starting point for an entire campaign with level 1 characters and then you could slowly build up the story and plot points so that when the characters were powerful enough they could tackle the 'story adventure' organically with the stakes being higher, that probably could work.

More on the actual session recaps coming next.

Another, more thorough, dive into this module over at RetroReview

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