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RetroReview: X3 – Curse of Xanathon

X3 – Curse of Xanathon


Continuing my series of RetroReviews, this week I tackle the next module in the X-Expert series, X3: Curse of Xanathon.

X3: Curse of Xanathon was written by Douglas Niles and published by TSR in 1982. It is a 32 page module for use with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules Blue Box (set 2). As its code designation (X3) implies, it is the third module in the series designed for characters of levels described in the expert set. Specifically, X3 is designed for a party of 5-8 characters from levels 5-7. It is intended to be played with a group whose total experience levels are between 35 and 50, with the best fit at 46. It is intended that the party have at least 1 dwarf, 1 magic user or elf, 2 thieves, and a ”goodly number of fighters.”

If you have never played/read this module before and you may do that in the future, this review contains SPOILERS!! Read at your own risk.

Basic Background:

Rhoona is a busting and important port town that boasts a surprisingly diverse population. The Duchy of Rhoona is part of the Kingdom of Vestland, which stretches all the way to the northeast coast. Rhoona is allied with the Jarldom of Soderfjord to the east and the Dwarves of Rockhome in the southwest. Though not officially allied with Rhoona, there is a civil relationship with the people of the Ethengar Khanate, which lies to the northwest. Five generations of Dukes have ruled Rhoona with an even hand, gaining the town a reputation as a just and respectable place to live and work.

Lately, the Duke has been given to strange proclamations and his schedule no longer allows him to walk amongst the town and its people. Two strange proclamations are that all taxes are now to be paid in beer, and any horses ridden within the town boundaries must be ridden with the rider facing the horse’s tail. As the party enters the scene, a new decree is announced by the town crier and posted by the Ducal guard. The decree is that Rhoona is in a state of war with Rockhome and that Dwarves are no longer allowed within the town boundaries. Any Dwarf seen in town within one hour of the posting and announcement are subject to arrest!

Rumors are flying around town that Duke Stephen is sick or dead, and that Draco Stormsailer, the guard captain of Rhoona and chief advisor to the duke, is responsible for the strange behavior and decrees. Rumors also abound that Duke Stephen has finally found true love and the beer and strange horse decrees are due to the planning of a large gala in honor of the wedding. Yet a third rumor is that the Ethengarian immigrants, fresh from the Khanate lands, are responsible for the weird activities of the Duke, and the rumor mongers point to a brand new temple in honor of the Ethengarian God Cretia as proof of nefarious deeds. The party must investigate and try to find out as much as possible about these three possibilities and try to get to the bottom of the problem to save the town from war!

X3 is an interesting module that incorporates investigation, town-centered adventure, dungeon crawl, wilderness journey, and a battle with a true big-bad-evil-guy (or 2) all into one single 32 page adventure module. Douglas Niles does a good job of giving the DM everything he/she needs to flesh out the town and its people.

The module is split into 8 parts, most with several pages of information. The module includes maps to go along with each major location.

Parts of the Module:

Part I: Introduction and Background
Part I contains introductory information for the DM. This includes pertinent background on the Duchy of Rhoona, recent events, a rumor table, a map, and a key to the Town of Rhoona. The most interesting part of this for me is the way that the map and key are laid out for the DM. The town is split into 11 districts; old town, warehouse, marketplace, temple 1, temple 2, barracks, middle class residences, ethangarian sector, palace, dwarven quarters, and upper class residences. Each of these districts gets a couple of paragraphs of description to set the atmosphere. If the section is not detailed in a later scenario (e.g. the barracks is given lots of detail in scenario 1) the DM is given tables to help determine what type of building is on a given specific street the party may travel down. For example, if the party is in old town and they come upon a business, the DM rolls on the Old Town Business table and determines what is there – (this table features 17 common business types one might find in a port town in a fantasy world. Similarly, there are a multitude of taverns in old town and a table with tavern names is given so that the DM doesn’t have to come up with the names of taverns throughout the game. My favorites are The Waltzing Dolphin and The Blarney Chicken, and there is one that you just may recognize – The Red Dragon Inn (this may be the first instance of the use of this name in D&D – does anyone know?).

The idea here is that the party can investigate the rumors and clues throughout the entire town, and the DM can create the town as the game goes on without having to do a lot of pre-planning. If the party doesn’t visit a particular part of town, then the DM didn’t do any extra work planning for it and isn’t likely to be disappointed that the party failed to go to a particular place. The DM can keep track of which buildings were in which places right on the map using an easy lettering system. This is a wonderful way to set up a town and it works very well for this module.

Part II: Scenario 1, Skulking Through the Barracks

This section begins the adventure proper for the group. The party starts in a tavern/inn and while they listen to the grousing (“No beer!”) around them, the Duke’s Herald approaches with a new decree. This is the aforementioned decree of war with the dwarves and it puts the people in an uproar. Boisterous people start shouting tidbits and rumors fly. During the uproar, a dwarf standing close to the party says that, from his vantage point working as a stonemason on the ducal palace, he has seen strange people coming and going from the barracks. He asserts that Draco, the head of the guard, must be behind this blasphemous decree. He urges the group to investigate the barracks. If the player’s don’t take this hint, they will be approached by a beggar, who turns out to be a high priest in the Temple of Forsetta in disguise, who will give them a subtle clue. If they do not approach the barracks within24 hours, he will approach them again and give a less-subtle clue about where to go to find answers.

It is pointed out that all the dwarves are leaving town and that if the party has a dwarf, it may be awkward to travel around town with that PC. The DM is told how to handle the group trying to hide a single PC while still walking among the populace, including a way to let the dice decide whether or not the dwarf PC is detected.

The rest of this section contains descriptions of each room of the barracks. This is a well laid out barracks with rooms that make sense for the purpose of the building. There are about 120 soldiers and 25 officers in the ducal guard and the group may encounter up to 1/3 of these combatants while skulking around the barracks (the other 2/3 are on duty in town). There is nothing especially out of the ordinary in this barracks set-up, but how the players proceed will determine how quickly the group is able to get the information they need and get out of the barracks and on to the next stage of the adventure. Two things I like are the way the servants are dealt with and the fact that the party is able to help a couple of captured dwarves if they stumble upon the cellblock.

If the party is astute and has a couple of skilled thieves, they can gain entry into a secret treasure room just off of Draco’s bedroom chamber. This room contains, among other things, a coded scroll from Xanathon, High Priest of Cretia, to Draco – the scroll indicates that the Duke has been cursed and that Draco is in on it.

Part III: Scenario 2, The Temple of Chaos
It is assumed that the group returns to the inn for a good night’s rest or to regroup and re-plan. While the party is back at the inn, another decree is announced. This proclamation states that no fire is to be set and nothing is to be burned in the hours between the setting of the sun and the rising of the sun (i.e. no fires for warmth at night, no fires for cooking, and no torches after sunset). The disguised Priest of Forsetta will, once again, give a subtle clue as to where the party should go next (The Temple of Cretia) and if the party doesn’t get the hint and explores somewhere else, he will return in 24 hours with a much less subtle clue. If there are seriously injured party members, the Priest of Forsetta can be of some assistance if the DM so chooses.

At this point, timing is starting to be important because the Dwarves in Rockhome are gathering an army and getting ready to march on Rhoona due to the grand disrespect shown their people since the last Ducal Decree. If the party is slow to gather evidence and decipher clues to figure out how to break the curse on the Duke, they could see the town of Rhoona dissolve into war.

The next step for the party is to go to the Temple of Cretia and seek out the High Priest Xanathon in an attempt to get a cure for the curse upon Duke Stephen. The rest of this section describes the details of each room in the temple. Like the barracks, this is a well laid out building plan and it is given in enough detail to create a nice atmosphere for the PCs to explore. The temple is easy to gain entry into, but the guards within are more formidable than the 1st level whelps found in the barracks. A couple of interesting parts are a couple of living crystal statues and a high level magic user whose favorite defense is to polymorph others into toads and salamanders. When the party finally encounters Xanathon, they learn the awful truth – he cannot be harmed by traditional weapons because the god Cretia has allowed his life force to be stored elsewhere. Xanathon gives them a clue as to where they can find it and there is also a map they can see before they flee. He will pursue them only to the edge of the temple and will not go outside.

Part IV: Scenario 3, Journey to the Shrine
If the group has gathered all the clues that they could, they will understand that they should now travel to the Shrine of Cretia. The shrine lies at the top of the mountain pass between Vestland and the Ethangar Khanate. If they don’t know where to go, the beggar/priest is there to help them, of course. Also, when they return to the inn to recoup, they hear more rumors – this time about a massive dwarven army camped just outside of Rhoona. If they choose to stay the night in the inn, the next morning, before they leave, they will hear another ducal decree: All horses shall only be fed meat from now on.

The journey to the Shrine of Cretia takes 5 days over land. The party will probably not get lost, but if they have an evil DM, they very well may. When they arrive, they have to pick the correct entrance to the shrine or possibly waste three or more days searching for the entrance on the wrong path. Since the dwarves are gathering an army, time is of the essence and this is a good time for the DM to put the pressure on.

The rest of this section describes the room to room details of the shrine. There are a couple of nice illusion-based traps and a den of zombies (20 of them!), along with the opportunity to meet a carrion crawler family, a powerful mummy, and some imprisoned ogres. The group also comes face to face with a wight, quickly followed by a spectre – these two dastardly undead creatures can drain levels and can make for a very unhappy party if something goes awry. These creatures are unavoidable if the party wants to get to the room which houses the life force of Xanathon. The life force is stored/contained within a large diamond. Bringing the diamond near Xanathon will render him mortal. The room containing the diamond is also filled with vast other riches for the party to plunder. The group then needs to take a 5 day trek back to Rhoona.

Part V: Scenario 4, Duel with the High Priest
This is the shortest scenario in the module, but could prove to be one of the most interesting sessions of play. The group now has the diamond which houses the life-force and they need to figure out how to gain the upper hand on Xanathon. If they try to destroy the diamond, they find it impervious to damage. Arranging a meeting with Xanathon or seeking him out in the temple are two approaches. If they try to arrange a meeting, they can send a messenger and Xanathon will agree to meet with them. How do they know they should arrange a meeting? Well, the disguised Priest of Forsetta is always at the inn, tracking the players and ready and willing to give them advice.

The really interesting part if this is that the real goal is to get the antidote for the curse, not to destroy Xanathon. If the party tries to bargain with him, and they are smart about it, he will give them the antidote and flee to fight another day (and try to come and assassinate the PCs). If they are not smart, he could give them a fake antidote and they might end up looking very foolish and end up in prison. Or they could figure out how to kill him and then kill him before they get the antidote, leaving them to try and figure out how to remove the curse themselves. Lots of role-playing opportunities abound in this section and whatever happens will have a huge impact on the resolution of the plot.

Part VI: Scenario 5, To the Rescue!
This last section of the module details the party entering the palace to find the Duke and cure him of the curse. This part of the module contains detailed descriptions for each of the rooms in the opulently decorated ducal palace. While looking for the duke, the players are likely to find an elegant museum (meant to temp the thieves of the party, but accompanied by a deadly consequence), a trained displacer beast that is hungry, an excellent library, clues to the whereabouts of a group of missing minstrels, and the ducal treasury.

The final encounter is against Draco Stormsailer and two of his henchmen. Once they defeat Draco they will find Duke Stephen in very bad shape, in his bedroom. If they figured out how to use the antidote to the curse, they can cure him and gain his trust and some gold. The Duke will immediately go to parlay with the dwarves and stop the impending war. He also immediately reverses all the ridiculous decrees set forth by Draco and Xanathon while he was under the influence of the curse.

Part VII: Further Adventuring in Rhoona
This section includes 3 new adventure ideas for a DM to flesh out and run the party through using Rhoona as a base of operations. The three adventure ideas are somewhat iconic – 1) a guild of thieves is active and needs to be rooted out, 2) children have begun disappearing and it turns out there is a slaver’s ring in operation in town, and 3) An old red dragon has taken a lair just above the fjord that Rhoona and Norvik and is wreaking havoc on the area.

Part VIII: New Monster
There is only one new monster in the module – the Hypnosnake. This creature is encountered in the Shrine of Cretia and has some interesting characteristics. The last page of the module has a list of pre-generated PCs on one side and contains a player’s map of Rhoona on the other.

Notables:

1) About the Town – I love the way that the town in this module is created by the DM and party as they go through and explore. I think this is a shining example of goodness in an old school style and I have used this type of pseudo-random generation of buildings in other campaigns I have run.

2) Servants in the Barracks – When reading through the sections on the barracks and the palace, I was struck by how easy, and at the same time varied, the servants reactions could be. I like how the text described the typical reactions of servants and how likely they would be to react a certain way. This opened up the opportunity for a servant to become a relatively important NPC.

3) Non-evil guards? – One of the issues with storming the barracks and palace is that the typical guard the party will encounter is not an evil person. These guards are part of the town and being part of the ducal guard is really just their job, in a way. I suppose the party could say that the ends justify the means, and that killing these guards was necessary to save the life of the Duke. It is at least something to ponder…

4) War with the Dwarves – Technically, this particular event doesn’t happen whether the PCs succeed in saving the Duke or not. The text states that if the party fails and Draco takes power, he will ride out to the approaching dwarven army and diplomatically convince them that the decree was given by a crazed or sick Duke who is no longer in power. Then Draco would ride back into town as a hero who stopped the war. But… what if he was unsuccessful? This could actually be a good follow-up adventure, whether or not the adventure ended with the PCs rescuing the Duke.

5) Speaking of Dwarves – Does the party have a dwarf in the group? If so this can make for some very interesting scenes where the group has to hide the dwarf PC in plain sight, or possibly an offshoot mini-quest where the group has can parlay with the Dwarves of Rockhome and tell them what is happening in Rhoona, or possibly the group will get thrown in jail for harboring a fugitive Dwarf… the opportunities abound!

6) Xanathon can be a real foe – Xanathon is set up to be a real big bad evil guy in this module. The first time the PCs battle him, they learn that he is invincible – that will throw a wrench in any party’s plan! This is a great opportunity for the DM to play up the personality of the High Priest and even perhaps make him a recurring bad guy in a longer campaign. He can be played very smart and become a formidable villain.

7) Investigation? Railroad? – Is it an investigation? The very first sentence for the DM is The Curse of Xanathon is an unusual module, in that much of the players’ actions will be in the form of detective work, as they try to discover clues to the problem plaguing the town.” Is this accurate? Well… maybe, depending upon your perspective. The module is written in a very linear fashion and it doesn’t provide very much advice to the DM for how to structure the actual adventure as an investigative excursion. If the players can’t figure out what to do or have ideas different from the activities in the order they are presented, the disguised beggar priest is always there to give them a clue, but there are so many other things an inventive DM can do to get the party interested. I can see where the module tries to encourage investigation by structuring the different sections as scenarios, evoking the idea that they are different mini-adventures that should be handled separately. But in this the text largely fails. The module comes off as a linear series of objectives to accomplish in the order written. For example, the module gives no provision or advice to the DM for dealing with a group that wants to confront Draco or the Duke directly and before accomplishing the objectives in scenarios 1-4. This could have easily been remedied by a passage or two about how the group would be received if they attempted such a meeting, how to set it up, and what the consequences might be for such activity. Something like this would have been good for every section or as part of the introduction and background in a small section entitled ”How to run this module as an investigation.” I can easily see how the module could be expanded with this type of advice and at the same time would feel much less linear. Some advice on how to give clues, some ideas for what different NPCs in different parts of the town would say, and how to encourage the PCs to keep investigating in the face of a seemingly dead end. Perhaps space constraints stopped this type of addition to the adventure?

8) Role-playing? – The role-playing opportunities in this adventure are vast, especially in scenario 4, in which the party has to bargain with the villainous High Priest of Cretia. There are several other areas where role-playing can get the party through encounters without having to fight (e.g. the barracks and palace) if they try that tact. Of course, the module is written assuming the party will just go in and fight everything (except in scenario 4) and so the opportunities for role-playing will have to be actively mined and encouraged by the resourceful DM. For a DM and group that really wants to play this as an investigation into the Duke’s strange behavior, role-playing will be the key to figuring everything out.

Final Thoughts:
This module, more than most others, requires that the players don’t read it before playing. Much of the appeal and surprise of the story rest upon the players honestly not knowing what is going on and how to stop it. There is not a great deal of absolutely unique stuff in this module, but it does have quite a bit that can be expanded on, making it great. If the DM is willing to really role-play out some of the encounters with NPCs and give the townsfolk a definite personality, this module can sing. It will take work on the DM’s part to make this module more than a linear adventure, but what it offers is a very good foundation for a fun 5 session campaign arc. This module is not one of the greatest adventures of all time, but with the right group and DM, it can make for an exceptional campaign that provides a solid home-base in a region with dynamic neighbors and a ready-made uber-villain.

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

2 Responses to “RetroReview: X3 – Curse of Xanathon”

  • I didn’t realize how much I loved these old modules until you started reviewing them. This module went off really well when I ran it, but the “investigation” part fell pretty flat. The link from Draco to Xanathon required you to find that secret door in the barrack and that was no easy task. Using some more clues to further the mystery would have been welcome.

    Fighting Xanathon was always a highlight, both before and after the diamond was recovered. Xanathon is not only a threat due to his invulnerability, but he’s a high level cleric as well with access to very powerful spells. (which he doesn’t use until confronted with the diamond) He was a memorable foe.

    One last criticism- the entire first page of this module was read aloud text. This information was better served to be organically fed to the players throughout town. Nowadays, scanning the text and emailing it out beforehand would have worked, but that wasn’t an option for me in the 80s.

  • I completely agree. The “investigation” was a real problem for me in the text of the module. There really was no investigation – but if the text had given tips and tricks on how to have the players actually investigate, then it would have gone a lot smoother.

    That’s why I say it would work better if the DM puts a bit of work into the town and its residents. If the party actually travels around town asking questions, the DM could add in a lot of flavor and cover pretty much all the background and rumors in a way that is meaningful to the group.

    As a younger DM, I didn’t do so well at that. But reading it now, so many years later and with a LOT more experience and wisdom, I can think of a TON of ways to make this work as a real investigation. This is sort of the way I feel about the AD&D module L2: The Assassin’s Knot, though X3 is a much more expansive adventure than L2.