Warning! Here be spoilers, though thereís not too much to spoil.
Curse of Xanathon is the third adventure module put out for TSRís Expert expansion for Basic Dungeons and Dragons, and is designated X3. As is typical of the Basic modules, the cover is not attached to the interior contents, allowing it to be set up as a DM screen. The front cover has a green background with a painting of a group of adventurers facing off against a chimera in a cave, the back cover has a brief teaser for the adventure, and the interior cover has a map of the town of Rhoona. It is advertised for a group of adventurers of levels five to seven.
The introduction begins with the usual ďSTOP!Ē and exhorts those who are going to play the adventure not to read any further, lest they ruin their enjoyment of it. Most of the action takes place in Rhoona, a city that is the capitol of the Dutchy of Rhoona, itself part of the Kingdom of Vestland in Mystara, the default setting of Basic D&D. Maps of the city show its blocks are often two hundred feet on a side and seem to be otherwise solid masses of buildings with tiny alleyways snaking through them. Regular streets arenít really to be found in the city, so these blocks make the city look more like an archipelago than anything else. For those who wish to explore the city, there is a lot of information about it. A history is provided, along with information on the three main temples in the town (one each Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic), warehouse contents, guard patrols, market costs for common items, and several tables for business type and tavern name for both the lower and middle class sections of town. Some of the names for taverns are especially odd (The Blarney Chicken?), but the oddest name of all goes to the whale-like Neutral god that much of the town worships: The Spuming Nooga. One of the most notable things on the map is just how much of the town is taken up by the temples, dukeís palace, and ducal barracks. The barracks grounds alone looks to be about a third or a quarter the combined size of the residences, businesses and taverns in the city. Those must be some rowdy residents!
Itís nice to see lots of information for the oddly laid-out city, given that the adventure promises that it breaks from the norm by being largely detective work. This promise, sadly, doesnít really hold. The adventure begins with the party in... a tavern. Yes, it begins in a tavern. And there really isnít much reason for the PCs to start in the town, but thatís to be expected in early-80s modules. Odd decrees from the Duke have recently ordered citizens to pay taxes in beer and to ride horses backwards. While getting soused in the tavern, the characters get to hear rumors and listen to a dwarf grumble. A herald approaches and the PCs get to hear the latest decree, that Rhoona has declared war on the neighbouring dwarven nation because theyíre short. Well, thatís part of the reason, at any rate. Any dwarf in Rhoona has an hour to get out of town. The aforementioned grumbling dwarf goes on about Draco Stormsailer, the head of the Ducal Guard, accusing him of being behind all this, and then leaves town. If the PCs donít get the hint that they should immediately find and possibly kill Draco, a beggar suggests that the dwarf might be right. This beggar is, of course, a 14th-level cleric named Eric whose religion prevents him from doing anything useful other than healing or raising PCs.
So the PCs are expected to roam about in the Ducal Barracks on the word of an angry and short dwarf, during which they will be fighting and killing many innocent Lawful and Neutral guards who will rightfully see them as being dangerous intruders. Realistically, this should be a serious issue for Lawful characters, but thatís not dealt with in the module. Disgruntled dwarves and apparent beggars trump alignment restrictions here. What happens if the PCs decide to kill the Dukeís guards and confront the Duke instead? Thatís not dealt with either. After carving through the pride of Rhoona the PCs find that Draco is unfortunately not home and as it turns out canít be found until the module says so. Fortunately, heís left behind a secret message that will help the party. Unfortunately, itís in code. Fortunately, a Helm of Reading Languages and Magic is in the same room and can be used to decipher the code. Wasnít this covered in the Evil Overlord list? No matter how much this makes Draco look like a dolt, what makes it worse is that the note calls him ďthe future Duke of RhoonaĒ -- letting everyone know his aspirations -- and that the author, Xanathon, High Priest of Cretia, signs the note with his real name and title, admits to casting a curse on the Duke and identifies himself as Dracoís ďfaithful compatriotĒ. How can the stalwart party ever hope to identify, much less defeat, this Tweedledum and Tweedledee of evil?
One might think that this would be enough to get the party heading off, note in hand, to someone in charge other than the apparently cursed Duke or the evil and stupid Draco, but the module wonít allow this, or at least makes no mention of this as a possibility. Instead, they must head off to confront Xanathon in the Temple of Cretia. If they donít do this, cleric Eric approaches them and demands that they do so. Ericís still dressed up as a beggar and is therefore an obvious source of good advice. He of course canít accompany them, but heíll cheer them on. Another decree shows up. Now no oneís allowed to burn anything at night. So itís off to the temple of Cretia. Cretia is a Chaotic (Basic D&Dís version of Chaotic Evil) deity, but the mostly Lawful town doesnít have a problem with a temple being built to him thatís bigger than either the Lawful Temple of Forsetta or the Neutral Temple of the Spuming Nooga (hey, at least itís not the Temple of the Blarney Chicken). The NPCs that the party kills in the temple are evil, which makes for a pleasant change. One such NPC is Dervill the Treacherous, a magic-user who hopefully doesnít put his full name on job applications.
Xanathon awaits them at the very end of the temple in full old-time serial villain glory. He snarls! His laugh rings with madness! He laughs like a maniac! He laughs mockingly! He sneers! He sneers mockingly! His dialogue includes such gems as ďpoor miserable foolsĒ and ďhere is a puzzle for your feeble brainsĒ. All he lacks is a thick black mustache to twirl. But no matter how much the players may snicker, their characters are in for a right good thrashing, as Xanathonís in Cretiaís favour and canít be hurt. Once the PCs realize this and heís given them a clue about how to remove his invulnerability they can make their escape, though during all the bloodletting they are expected to notice a map which indicates where a certain cave on a mountain road may be found. This map is very important, and if the playerís donít take the time to examine it they wonít know what to do next. They may be a bit distracted by the indestructible cleric whacking them with his magical mace, but thatís no excuse to not pay attention.
After their escape from Xanathon the PCs are likely to be a bit confused as to just what to do next. They may hear a rumour that the villainous Draco is spending all of his time at the Dukeís side, but they arenít supposed to go there yet. The DM is encouraged to remind them about what they saw in the temple. You know, the map that was being splattered with their blood. Eric the cleric luckily knows where the shrine marked on the map is but naturally canít really help them otherwise. Not only can he not take any action, he also seems prohibited from giving them useful information at anything other than the last minute. With a religion like this, itís no wonder evil this incompetent does so well. Another decree shows up, stating that meat is the only decent feed for a horse. And then itís off to the shrine.
Should the party go the wrong way near the shrine, they run into the chimera depicted on the cover. Yes, the cover illustration shows a misstep, which was apparently the most interesting thing to have on the front of the module. The correct way leads to a two-level dungeon with a new monster, the hypnosnake, which makes you fall asleep and then eats you. Perhaps its eyes show you copies of Maztica. Not a bad monster, but like the rest of the module itís not too inspired. The rest of the shrineís occupants are a grab bag of clerics, carrion crawlers, ogres, zombies, and more, but they pale next to the most devious trap ever devised, which is set up in the middle of a long deserted hallway and turns the players around. When they finally make it to the boss spectre, it guards a gem that pulsates with an evil light. This evil disco ball of Chaos contains Xanathonís life force, so after whacking the spectre itís back to Rhoona.
In Rhoona, they party uses the gem to get the powdered cure for the Duke and then most likely kill the head priest. This shouldnít be too difficult, as heís unarmoured and has all of 39 hit points. The biggest problem would be a moral one; assuming that the PCs negotiate with Xanathon to get the cure, he would surely stipulate as part of the negotiations that they were not to kill him. Lawful characters would then be bound to let him go, no?
Having the cure, the PCs are finally allowed to rampage through the Dukeís residence, meeting and then killing Draco. Sadly, Draco doesnít get a chance to ham it up the way Xanathon did. He just attacks the party with two lackeys, and the only way that he can be identified as Draco is by his high hit points and the large ďDĒ on his armour. Oh, that and his ďwicked slash of a mouthĒ and ďan evil gleam [...] in his eyesĒ. The Duke is found, cured, and rides off to placate the dwarves, who remain short. PCs get fÍted at a banquet, get a 2000 gp gem each, and eventually head off for more adventures with the knowledge that Rhoona is safe until another group of villains with IQs at least in the double digits threaten it. The end.
The module ends with suggestions for further adventures that are right out of a random generation table (the band of master thieves, the slaversí warehouse, raiding red dragon), a new monster description for the sad-sack looking hypnosnake, and some petty wimpy pregenerated characters.
Curse of Xanathon (occasionally referred to as The Curse of Xanathon in the module) is a throw-away adventure that seems to have been made to fill up space in a catalog. Itís not very exciting, often doesnít make much sense, the city looks like it was designed by an eight-year old, the villains arenít too bright, and itís not so much railroaded as unable to conceive of the players doing something different than intended. Sure, the players could have tried to get to the Duke at any point, but thatís never covered until they get the cure. What if they bring the incriminating note to someone? Why does the Lawful religion not allow its members to do anything, other than to force the PCs to do all the heavy lifting?
In terms of appearance, the module looks nice. The art works well and is pleasant to look at, the writing is straightforward, the boxed text not embarrassing unless Draco or Xanathon is in it. There are several small illustrations here and there, and theyíre quite nice. Extra points for putting the decrees on a background that looks like rolled paper. Layout is clean and obvious. Using a single set of numbers to key all the rooms is a nice touch, so you donít have to worry about reading the description of room 4 in the Temple of Cretia when you meant room 4 in the Barracks, especially given the number of places to pillage. Pity about the actual contents of the module.