16 February 2020

Renovating the Monastery - Recasting the Classic DMG Dungeon in Greyhawk - Part 1



Wichita Greyhawk Campaigning
Wichita Greyhawk Campaigning

I ran the unnamed sample monastery dungeon from the Dungeon Masters Guide for my eldest son's after-school AD&D group a few years ago, and I've repurposed it as one of the starting points for the new Wichita Greyhawk campaign that kicked off last month.  


I've compiled the bits and pieces about it that I've discussed over at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse forum and Scott Gregg's Doomsday Games forum:
  1. Background
  2. Maps - Wilderness Environs 
  3. Maps - Dungeon Levels
  4. Keys
I'm detailing #1 and #2 in this post, with more info to follow on the updated, revised, and expanded dungeon maps and keys later. 

Below I dig into plenty of spoilers for the sample dungeon, so if you are currently playing through it, you should stop reading now. 


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Background

 

I've decided to leverage my continued interest in the sects and cults of Wee Jas for my background to the DMG Monastery dungeon in the Wicihta campaign.  This necessitates some changes to the original sketchy background from the DMG:


  • The slain abbot becomes an abbess
  • The fire opal becomes a holy relic of Wee Jas, perhaps in part reflecting her vanity
  • The lower level needs a new rationale from how I'd originally conceived it, and I'm thinking it may be tied to the Plane of Shadow now, but am still noodling on that:  perhaps the shadow influences are what, in part, lead to the near-total destruction of the monastery, and if so, it seems likely that the destruction was meted out by other, more-orthodox sects within her faith (this aligns well with my depiction of the relationship between the primary and heretical sects in my Castle Greyhawk level)

Some other changes are related to the broader picture of the historical record of Greyhawk, too:

  • The fen that surrounds the monastery was caused by the subsistence of the ground due to the deleterious effects of the cult of Elemental Evil a decade ago
  • The EE cult's origins will tie back more closely to Dyvers and Wild Coast (as hinted in T1), but the DMG Monastery will not be a significant part of that network as I've previously used it (it will however still have some ties to there, via the brigands)
  • I think I'm going to insert an octych piece in the dungeon somewhere as well....


Wilderness Environs Maps

 

I've been sketching out the larger campaign environment on and off for awhile now, and spent some time over the past few weeks building it out further.

I began with the larger regional level for mapping out roads, smaller-sized settlements that don't appear on the Darlene Greyhawk map, etc.:



Kron Hills, Gnarley Forest, and Welkwood environs
Kron Hills, Gnarley Forest, and Welkwood environs -
map by grodog

On the above map, each large hex is a single Darlene Greyhawk hex, so 30 miles each. The smaller hexes within each are 5 miles each. 

The hex with the DMG monastery dungeon is one hex north of Narwell, in hex # I4-93 on the Darlene map grid location system.  Then I use our single-hex sheets to drill down into each campaign hex; the single hex sheets have three layers of hexes, which break out like this in scale:
  • Layer 1 = large campaign hex = 30 miles
  • Layer 2 (6 medium hexes per large hex) = 5 miles
  • Layer 3 (6 small hexes per medium hex) = 5/6 miles = 1466 2/3 yards/4400 feet



Greyhawk hex I4-93 - detail map by grodog
Greyhawk hex I4-93 -
detail map by grodog

I haven't started to color the above map yet, so it's probably a bit faint....  

Then I drill down to a detail view using the 5 mile hex as the large scale on the same hex sheet template:
  • Layer 1 = 1 large campaign hex = 5 miles = 1 medium campaign hex (layer 2 above)
  • Layer 2 (6 medium hexes per large hex) = 5/6 mile
  • Layer 3 (6 small hexes per medium hex) = 244.4 yards = 733 1/3 feet



Detail within Greyhawk hex I4-93 -
map by grodog



The small hex that the monastery ruins are part of is now 244 yards across, and sited on a hilltop that measures about two full hexes in area (the smallest hexes), which feels about right for the complex size as I envision it.  


The small-scale (colored) hex map shows the subsided fen round the monastery hill (which I've not decided whether to color in part with forest or to leave "cleared"), and some other forested areas on higher-ground in its immediate vicinity.

Next up:  the ruins of the monastery site, as well as the dungeon levels and keys.

Allan.

03 February 2020

Mega-Dungeon Mondays - Hitting the Monsters Hard and Book-Keeping in the Dada Dungeon

Henry and I played in his "Dada Dungeon" again on Saturday.  We explored less, and hit two big targets after our previous mapping rereconnoiters:  a young white dragon (blissfully asleep on its treasures) and two ogres.  The dragon we had discovered in the previous session, but we found the ogres only after exploring further in the vicinity of the dragon's lair.  

The updated map; our play focused in the NE and E zones of the level:


Henry's Daddy-Dungeon - Level 2 Player Map by Allan Grohe
Henry's Dada-Dungeon -
Level 2 Player Map by Allan Grohe


Based on our previous session activities, we had befriended the (normal-sized) badger family in the dungeon (they're located in the top-center in the oddly shaped room with the sloping northern wall), and the druid PC was a bit concerned that the dragon might decide that they'd make a good meal one day, given their relative proximity.  So after some prep and consulting among the characters (which didn't take too long, since Henry and I are playing this game just the two of us ;) ), and warning the badgers about our plans (in case we TPK'd...), we attacked the sleeping white dragon and killed it in the first first round of surprise attacks.  Even level 1 PCs attacking with the benefits of bless, faerie fire, and a charge bonus against a sleeping dragon is no guarantee for victory, since two of the four attacking PCs missed (one with a natural "1" which didn't result in losing his weapon).  The dragon's hoard included:


  • 1200 cp
  • 684 gp
  • 5 potions:  animal control (reptiles, fish, and amphibeans), extra healing (2 doses), fire resistance (2 doses), polymorph self (2 doses), and speed
  • and a ring of invisibility that we found in its stomach!

Quite the nice haul!

The two ogres were equally profitable but substantially less lucrative.  We surprised them as well, but only for one round, and the PCs all missed.  The second round the MU/thief successfully slept one of the two ogres, and we killed the first one in the third round of battle.  They only netted 500 cp and 80 gp in coin, but they also had a suit of chainmail +1 (don't know its size yet), and another potion (of hill giant strength).

At that point we called it quits and exited the dungeon.  The rest of the session was spent tallying up monster and treasure XP gained since 17 August 2019, so we didn't return to play in the afternoon (and, in fact, didn't complete the calculus either given the need for previously-postponed homework to be completed as well ;) ). 


A fun time.  My hunch is that at least a few of the PCs will level up, and we'll need to sell some of the more-powerful magic items that we've found in order to pay for training costs.  Whether that'll end up being the gem of seeing, or some of the spell scrolls, or the chainmail +1 or the shirt of protection +2 remains to be seen....

Allan.

02 February 2020

Greyhawk - Setting the Wichita Campaign in Motion

Last Sunday, 26 January 2020, we created characters (some both of two, some just one of two since they had create PCs at TsunamiCon in October) and began to adventure in our local Wichita Greyhawk campaign

The players created the following first-level characters---two each, since I wanted them to have backups in case PCs are turned to stone, killed, or otherwise out-of-action for awhile:

  • Brad - one new PC:  Verdure, a female half-elf druid; 2nd PC TBD
  • Brian - one new PC:  Varis, a half-elf mercenary for hire (assassin), who is being played in preference to Melisor, a human magic-user (who delved my Castle Greyhawk at TsunamiCon)
  • Henry - one PC:  Vilador, male human magic-user, who also delved Castle Greyhawk at TsunamiCon; 2nd PC TBD after I figure out if we're doing children in the game or not (I'm leaning toward yes)
  • Jeff - one new PC:  Hagrid, male dwarf fighter/thief; 2nd PC is Oberon Canorbe, human cleric of St. Cuthbert; Hagrid and Verdure split the costs for Fang, a wardog
  • Jon - two new PCs:  Danger Ranger II, male human ranger; 2nd PC is Slim Bandicoot, human thief
  • Vince - one new PC:  Lugh, male human ranger; 2nd PC is Seriat, human cleric of Obah-Hai

Several other players participated in the TsunamiCon events, but weren't able to attend on Sunday's kickoff, so I'm still waiting to see where the mix of regular and semi-players settles out.

After creating PCs, the players opted to explore through the ruined monastery dungeons from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, which I've set on the southern verge of the western side of the Gnarley Forest:


Darlene's Greyhawk map from the 1980 Greyhawk Folio
Darlene's Greyhawk map
from the 1980 Greyhawk Folio

The PCs began in Ellorn, a small mining thorp north of Narwell, on 26 Fireseek 576 Common Year (CY).  (I'm using Clay Luther's Greyhawk calendar, if you're curious).  They heard rumor of the old monastery of Wee Jas, with its fabled fire opal never discovered during the siege that laid the site low in ages past.  More-recently, the lands around the monastery were caught up in some of the elemental chaos from the Cathedral of Elemental Evil on the western side of the Gnarley---some of the land around the monastery subsided, and a fen now surrounds much of the tor that the monastery ruins sit atop. 

With the help of a local guide, A'zor'an (a Balklunish hunter/trapper/furrier), the PCs found the ruins.  While advancing across the fen on the raised causeway, Hagrid the dwarf slipped and fell into a pool sufficiently deep to submerge him completely as an edge of the track crumbled; this also attracted the attention of a fast-moving fen spider, that rushed the PCs in an attempt to find its next meal.  They were not surprised, but were somewhat divided between those above on the causeway, and Danger Ranger and the guide below attempting to help pull the dwarf from the mire.  The characters were able to wound the spider and drive it off without it causing any significant harm to them, although they were a bit surprised at its ability to skim quickly across the water's surface, as well as when it dove underwater and swim away out of sight. 

After driving off the spider, the party began to explore, finding a pair of intact structures in the center of the pile:  a well-building, partially open to the elements (in its construction, not due to it being ruined), with a large stone well-cover intact atop the well-shaft.  Lowering Hagrid the dwarf into the shaft via ropes revealed that it a strongly-flowing stream about 40-50' below, rushing with cold water and no significant space for breathable air to allow PCs follow its course.  The players returned the cap to the well, and marked it carefully with chalk to show whether anyone else moved it in the future.

The other building contained a stairwell down into the dungeons below.  Lhou the ranger determined that tracks showed some booted traffic going in and out of the second building, and Verdure the druidess employed speak with animals to learn from a mouse on site that other "giants" would move into/out of the ruins with some regularity. 

Dusk fell, and while preparing to camp, the PCs saw a large group of figures moving across the fen, along its edge and parallel to the ruins.  Hiding themselves, they were able to observe a large body of humans (more than 50), from which a smaller group of 10-20 split off and crossed the causeway.  They marched right up to the ruins, and met with a group that emerged from the stairwell building; the leaders of the two groups conferred for several minutes while 8 of the motley crew (seemingly bandits) went below and did not return.  The characters were not able to overhear much of the conversation, and chose not to engage either group, given the larger force just across the causeway.  

And that is where play concluded for the day.   The next session should be next week!

Allan.

20 January 2020

The Dada Dungeon and Wichita Greyhawk

Henry has been DMing me through his "Dada Dungeon" since mid-August 2019, and we picked up our game again yesterday afternoon over the long weekend.  (Well, a long weekend for Henry and his older brother, anyway ;) ).   

Since August I've spent a lot campaign time dealing with machinations, assassins, and attacks on the town of Scortop (located in South Province hex #N2-87 on the Darlene Greyhawk map, which is 3 1/2 hexes up from the D in Rieuwood), which were only "resolved" recently.  I still don't know the identity of the mysterious and seemingly-ancient Octarius---of the long-lost Archbarony of Ilgelgoron, east of Blackmoor (mentioned in a letter dated 319 CY, over 257 years ago!)---or of his possible agent Frengier and his long-distance-writing magical quills (they seem to act like longhand telegraphs).  That has allowed a return to the abandoned dwarven gem mine dungeon, which we hadn't revisited since the start of the school year:


Henry's Dada Mega-Dungeon - Level 1 Player Map by Allan Grohe
Henry's Dada Mega-Dungeon - Level 1 Player Map by Allan Grohe


Henry completely improvised the upper caves level, as well as most of the resulting escapades in town.  I had previously only discovered a well (visible in the upper left of the above map in the "dog with pointy ears" cave") as a possible lower entrance.  I think that the surface plottings had grown a bit beyond what Henry originally intended, and he was happy to return to the dungeon itself today.

We played for about 4-5 hours, from before and through lunch, until about 4pm.  The PCs spent time exploring the level rather than engaging everything encountered---we didn't open any doors, and were really just trying to get the lay of the land.  Nonetheless, several encounters found us:

  • avoided an ochre jelly---we'd previously observed its trail in the caves above, and they descended the stairwell we found today into the second level (or the first dungeon level, depending on how you think of it)
  • befriended a family of (normal-sized) badgers via Speak with Animals
  • discovered a sleeping white dragon in its lair (and backed away quietly)
  • we slept 7 of 8 members of a squad of orcs (the eighth surrendered), tied them up, looted them, and escorted them out of the dungeon with dire warnings never to return
  • we traded information with a dungeon merchant (there's a dungeon town to the south that has a subdued red dragon!), who is also selling a magic longsword for 1500 gp (we can't afford it until after we hit the white dragon, perhaps...)
  • we avoided another group of 8 orcs, but were ambushed by 3 others and we killed them

This is where we left our explorations off today:


Henry's Dada Mega-Dungeon - Level 2 Player Map by Allan Grohe
Henry's Dada Mega-Dungeon - Level 2 Player Map by Allan Grohe

I'm very-much looking forward to exploring Henry's dungeon further! :D

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In other Greyhawk news, I'm launching my local Wichita Greyhawk campaign this coming Sunday, 26 January 2020, in honor of the roughly 46th anniversary for the publication of OD&D.   Some friends in Austin are holding a local meetup game on the day, which inspired me to put my stake in the ground for kicking off my local game too.

In case anyone is local and interested in playing, I posted this notice to the Wichita Dungeons & Dragons group on Facebook:

New in-person Greyhawk campaign to begin on Sunday, 26 January 2020 at Hero Complex at 1pm! Estimated stop time 5-6pm.
In honor of the upcoming 46th anniversary of the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons, I'll kickoff a new AD&D 1st edition campaign set in the World of Greyhawk. Previously discussed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/111904705646730/permalink/958413074329218/ and with some introductory steps taken at TsunamiCon in October 2019, this session will mark the campaign's official start.

No previous experience with AD&D 1st edition or the World of Greyhawk required.

Allan.

14 January 2020

Mega-Dungeon Monday links - New Castle Greyhawk Analysis (and more!)

While I'm still getting back on the post-holiday track for blog writing, I thought I'd mention some interesting mega-dungeon and adventure design discussions going on within the old-school folks I follow:

  1. Daniel "delta" Collins has performed some new analysis of the first level map and key of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk @ https://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2020/01/subterrane-surveys-gygaxs-castle.html, with some interesting results---well-worth the read!
  2. Some excellent discussion about adventure module book design and usability in the comments of Bryce Lynch's recent review of the The Anthropophagi of Xambaala for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, one of my favorite creations from the OSR
  3. Illusions are in the air!  Anthony Huso has continued his examination of house rules and interpretations to make sense of of illusions at his AD&D table, while over on Dragonsfoot a timely discussion arose in response to how mixed saving throws are adjudicated for a group of PCs facing down illusions
  4. Trent Foster has outlined the scope of the ongoing revisions to his AD&D Companion, now entitled The Heroic Legendarium!---an exciting new expansion to the core of AD&D's rules that I'm planning to introduce into my new Greyhawk Campaign :D

Your regularly-scheduled Mega-Dungeon Mondays will reappear next week =)

Allan. 

13 January 2020

New local Greyhawk Campaign in Wichita - 26 Jan 2020 Kickoff!



New in-person Greyhawk campaign to begin on Sunday, 26 January 2020 at Hero Complex in Wichita, Kansas, at 1pm CST!  Estimated stop time 5-6pm. 

In honor of the upcoming 46th anniversary of the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons, I'm kicking off a new AD&D 1st edition campaign set in my version of the World of Greyhawk.  

Previously discussed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/111904705646730/permalink/958413074329218/ and with some introductory steps taken at TsunamiCon in October 2019, this session will mark the campaign's official start.

No previous experience with AD&D 1st edition or the World of Greyhawk required:  newcomers welcome! :D

Allan.

11 January 2020

Review - Castle Xyntillan by Gabor "Melan" Lux (Part 2)



Castle Xyntillan by Gabor Lux
(E.M.D.T. release #60) - Maps by Rob Conley

 

Review - Castle Xyntillan by Gabor "Melan" Lux (Part 2)


This review continues from Part 1, and focuses in detail on the adventuring content of Castle Xyntillan.   Unlike in the first part of the review, it is impossible for me to discuss details about Gabor's maps and encounters without spoilers:  so, if you plan to play this adventure, read no further.
 
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Castle Xyntillan - The Maps



The map packet is important to not lose track of, since referencing the maps' broader context and the map key is much easier using the poster maps. I mention this specifically since I hadn't noticed the map packet envelope in my cardboard shipping sleeve and thought it was packing/padding; I should have known better since Gabor includes separate maps in most of his publications.  That said, reading through the entire book without the map key was a bit confusing at times until I eventually ran into it on page 128, so please learn from my mistake!

In addition to the map booklet, the endpapers of the hardcover display Gabor's original hand-drawn maps for the castle (front endpapers) and the upper levels (back endpapers).  The hand-drawn and -written notes are rendered in sepia ink, with the hand-written notes replaced with typed labels for easier reading.  In addition, Gabor adds locations details for where many of the playtesting PCs and their companions met their demise---a nice touch that provides some "at a glance" encounter threat-level visibility for the DM.  I'm sure that each such location being marked with a plus-sign (which I keep seeing as an X marks the spot, or alternately as a headstone) is purely coincidental....

The maps are well-labelled throughout, with details that are both part of the key, and part of the dungeon dressing environs and not detailed beyond mention on the maps:  corridors and chambers may be noted with "coat racks" and "rotting banners" or "singing" and "clammy" which the DM will need to pay attention to as the PCs explore.  By positioning these details on the map, Gabor enhances the immediacy and utility of the map's sensory descriptiveness, and helps to layer into play that "what's around the corner" context as the PCs explore the corridors.  

Castle Xyntillan Upper Quarters -
Map Detail - Map by Rob Conley

In addition, not all rooms on the maps are given encounter key numbers.  I happen to prefer this style of map keying (a style I first encountered in Rob Kuntz's WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure module from TSR), since it also helps to identify "empty rooms" for dungeon dressing, WM appearances/ready-retreat areas, and locations where I can freely insert my own encounters without worrying about disturbing Gabor's existing work. 
Castle Xyntillan Maps Key - by Rob Conley


Castle Xyntillan's map symbols offer some further refinements and differentiations from standard dungeon maps, most notably with:
  • Doors - external (standard D&D door symbol of a box within its wall) vs. internal (double-lines which create a more narrow door than the traditional symbol, somewhat difficult to distinguish from the grid lines at times)
  • Bricked-up doors are displayed using the traditional false-door symbol
  • Secret doors are displayed showing the traditional capital S but beside its wall, instead of within it; the S is on the side that secret door looks like a normal door, and the blank wall side is the secret side; I found this a bit confusing at first, but eventually figured it out during my initial reading even without the key :)
  • Fireplaces seem to be drawn with flames within them if actively in use, and with a small round circle if cold (but this difference doesn't show in the map key, and it doesn't always line up with the encounter keys; it may also be that they're the same symbol, just rendered in different sizes, perhaps?)
  • Open shafts in ceiling (outlined square) and floor (filled in square); these were a bit more tricky to figure out without the key, since trapdoors and also waterclosets use the same symbols, which begs the question of multi-floor downward-trickling waste connections....
  • Stairs are always drawn evenly (the lines don't taper on either end), and an arrow always points to the downward direction, so it's easy to track the flow of each stairway, as well as where it starts/stops on each floor---a noteworthy improvement over the proliferation of often-confusing (and/or hard to render) stairwell symbols used over the years!

The maps are well-rendered, and both easy to use and easy on the eyes.  Including paved walkways in the outdoor environs, adding a boat to the small pier, and the liberal sprinkling of mud and rubble, several different tree silhouettes and a vegetable patch (!) within and around its walls make Castle Xyntillan easy to envision as both a working/living keep, and in its present state of malign neglect.
 

Castle Xyntillan - The Adventuring!



While Castle Xyntillan isn't a traditional mega-dungeon---similar to the Castle Zagyg boxed set, it presents a large manor house/château with a single dungeon level beneath (although unlike CZ, Castle Xyntillan is a complete product!)---it does present an extensive adventuring environment that consists of:


  • 298 encounters, broken down as:
    • 8 sites in town 
    • 226 castle and immediate grounds encounters, including 21 in a castle demi-plane wilderness
    • 64 locations in the dungeons
  • 60 NPCs residents of the castle
  • 11 new monsters/servants/allies of the castle inhabitants
  •  48 new and unique magical treasures

While those are useful numbers for a general sense of scope, they don't do any justice to Gabor's creation, which is filled with interesting and evocative encounters supported by useful gaming details, like:


  •  NPC family members who are, variously, undead (lots of these in a variety of flavors, including many that are uniques like a four-armed skeleton, and various ghosts with non-standard powers), sentient bugs a la Kafka's Metamorphosis, hunchbacks, intelligent slimes, a giant rat-man, the odd demon or three, The Beast (a la "Beauty and..."), as well as actual human beings (!)
  • The family members variously have positive, negative, and indifferent relationships with one another, the non-family castle residents, and NPCs from the surrounding region.  While smart PCs can discover and potentially exploit these relationships to their advantage, and the Malévol family NPCs are a sort of uber-faction to themselves that spans the entire castle, their rivalries are more individual in nature and not group- or faction-based, for the most part.
  • An escalation mechanic for campaign play that's somewhat reminiscent of the Notoriety mechanics from Carl Sargent's WG6 City of Skulls.  The PCs collect or absolve themselves of infraction points through their interactions with the Malévols, as well as how they comport themselves on the grounds and in the castle---if the PCs are wantonly destructive to the family tree or to the grounds/castle itself, they earn a black mark.  Once the tally of black marks reaches 6 points, the family begins to take notice and sends more random encounters their way.  As the PCs continue their depradations and earn 12 points, the family organizes hits, ambushes, and installs new traps for the PCs, while at 18+ the Malévol calls an emergency family meeting to address the dire threat that the PCs represent.

When I state that " Castle Xyntillan isn't a traditional mega-dungeon" what I mean that Gabor has created a large, but primarily above-ground, adventuring environment.  Many key design elements from mega-dungeons are featured throughout Castle Xyntillan's structures---the upper floors and dungeon level and wilderness environs serve as "delving deeper" in difficulty like descending levels in a traditional dungeon; in some cases, they also double as sub-levels, in that some areas of the second and third stories are only accessible via specific paths from above or below.   Like a good mega-dungeon, Castle Xyntillan also suggests and inspires additional creations from me as the DM-reader, both to expand upon its existing framework, and to build within it using the tools that already exist between the covers. 

The monster population heavily features undead, but a wide variety of other creatures appear within the castle's walls, too.  The 11 new monsters include new environmental threats (creeping vines, glitterclouds, razzle-dazzles), ghostly remnants of former victims (hand swarms), resident undead servitors and sycophants (headless manservants, masked murderers, undead ladies, undead lords), and other creatures unique to the site (goatrices, rigormortis, stygous).  Several have already made their way into my own Greyhawk campaign planning :D

Gabor embeds a strong sense of action-response throughout the adventure that helps to tighten the tension of PCs roaming about and encountering one monster and trap after another as they blunder about in the usual fashion.  

Traps and tricks also abound, many of which are unforgivingly lethal in addition to being thematically appropriate, quirky and interesting in execution, and occasinally humorous in effect.  Many of the unique magic items and some of the non-magical treasures bear curses, detrimental side effects, and/or suggest alternative skullduggery usages (perhaps originally by Malévol family members); most are unique items (whether magical or not) that range in description from one-liners in the 100 Random Curious table to short entries of one to four sentences for the unique magic items.


Format and Ease of Use



I've already waxed on about how useful the Castle Xyntillan maps are and how they support and compliment the encounter keys.  Map sections are also reproduced inside the pages of the book, and zoomed in to show encounter keys nearby in the text.  The zoomed maps are probably only enlarged 10-20% or so, and the amount of zoom does vary across the map sections, but it makes the maps in the book useful for detail viewing (and perhaps also notes), with the poster maps providing big picture view of the site. 

Another nice feature in the book is that while the two primary maps depicting the castle's ground floor and dungeon level appear on facing full-page spreads (pages 124-125 and 128-129), the map images overlap along the edges of the book's spine, so that we as readers don't need to peer deep into the gutter in order to figure out a map symbol, an encounter key number, or a word label.  This feature obviously isn't required on the poster maps, but the attention to detail and usability shown here manifests nicely throughout the book, and in particular through excellent cross-referencing.  The cross-references help knit to together Castle Xyntillan's multitude of encounters, plot hooks, relationships, and mysteries, and make the setting come alive through: 


  • Making clear the vertical connections between the upper and lower floors of the castle, as well as the dungeons 
  • NPCs who are available at multiple possible encounter locations  
  • Thematic and motivational connections between NPCs and treasures/objects they seek, or other specific goals that they wish accomplished---including several that reach outward from Castle Xyntillan to the nearby town (or even further to the capital) 
This attention to detail is also especially evident in the information design of Castle Xyntillan's encnouters.  The two-page PDF sample provides a good sense of the overall layout style, including the page template, the organization of the encounters, and monster stat blocks.  They blend well into a economicly-presented and highly-usable flow of encounter information:
 

  • Each encounter key entry has a title, which provides a quick gloss in context; this title is reproduced on the maps, too
  • Each room and chamber's dimensions follow (although these are not exact for oddly-shaped chambers, caves, etc.), again providing key information at-first-glance
  • A short introductory paragraph sets the scene, sometimes with bold-faced text for prominent features
  • Further detail on such features is provided via indented arrows below each key, sometimes with another layer of indenting too (but that's less common and appears with longer lists of things, as when describing a group of the magical portraits for example)
  • Monster stats round out each encounter key, with the monster name bolded, the stat block details, and hit points listed last in a string with space allocated to mark off each creature's hp as needed during play
 
The design allows for quick scanning, and also presents more detail the further you read into the encounter key's description, with first-glance/obvious features appearing earlier in the text.  The bullets and bolding help to drive home important points, and remain well-focused with each new item of import having its own bullet point.

Another distinctive usability feature is that the Rogues' Gallery for NPCs and new monster entries doubles as a wandering monster table listing---although it spans 10 full pages!  You can roll d% for your WM, and a result of 01-60 finds the PCs face-to-face with a Malévol family member (perhaps with entourage), while 61-100 is with one of the 11 new monster types. 

My only concern with Castle Xyntillan on the usability front is that some tables are rendered as bulleted lists when they should have simply been presented as tables, which would make their 1d12 or 1d20 or whatever entries stand out more visibly, as well as increase their immediate utility.   I'm not sure if this was an active design decision (it does conserve page space a bit versus a full table, I think), or if it's a minor formatting oversight, or something else.  A far cry from a serious layout issue like "see Page XX" remnants in the text, but given the otherwise high-caliber presentation, this did stand out to my eye (and probably more than it would to your eye!).  


In Summary (but not Conclusion) 


Castle Xyntillan is a brilliant product, and it achieves what I wish T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil had turned out to be---a living, breathing large-scale adventuring environment with a distinct flavor of its own that calls out to me to fill it out further!  

A few small inconsistencies appear here and there in the book (arrows slits are described as murder holes in the text once, and the southern tower/wall area has no access from the main building), and some useful details could have been added here and there (the heights of the cliffs to the east behind the castle), and a couple of pieces of artwork seem a bit too dark (pages 82 and 91---and they're from the Dead Victorians, so this could be an artifact of the quality of the originals, or perhaps the scanning or printing processes), but I see very few true gaps in the design of this adventure: 


  • Adding a regional map to site the castle relative to the roads and the nearby town of Tours-en-Savoy, would whet our appetites further for Helvéczia
  • Adding some description and details about the roofs and what hazards await the PCs who clamber out onto those heights
  • Adding a summary table of the NPCs (a one-pager for WM rolls), and perhaps another summary with NPC short descriptions/mnemonics (or even thumbnail-portraits---given the number of magical paintings adorning the walls that would be a very useful download!), and perhaps also including some summary notes toward a day/night activity cycle for the family members and other inhabitants

All of these are very much "nice to haves"---so while their inclusion would have improved the final product, the book doesn't suffer greatly for their lack.  Well, I suppose it would have been more than merely "nice" to get that second dungeon level alluded to in R15's Folly, too!  =)
 
All of the above issues are minor quibbles, at best.  To be very clear---I am VERY pleased!.  Go forth, and buy Castle Xyntillan NOW
 
I'll wrap up my take on Castle Xyntillan's inspirational footing in an Addendum to this review, but the core of why I love Castle Xyntillan is here, and hopefully you'll find it as compellingly-excellent a product as I do! 


Allan.