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! 



  1. Thank you for the thorough review, Allan! It is always good to be reviewed, but this detailed examination that goes into the finest technical detail has been not just excellent feedback, it has been educational in creating new adventures. Much appreciated!

    1. You're quite welcome, Gabor! It's always a pleasure to read and run good work, and I always look forward to more from your pen :D


  2. Nice thorough review, thanks for typing it up.

  3. Additional reviews for Castle Xyntillan are beginning to appear:
    - https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=6475
    - https://adventuresingaming2.blogspot.com/2020/01/games-i-wish-i-had-written.html


  4. I've really enjoyed Xyntillin and your review. Agree that a map site the castle relative to the roads and the nearby town of Tours-en-Savoy would have been great. I kept looking for it when I first received it. Xantillan is lovely.


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