The Anthropophagi of Xambaala

By Corey Walden
North Wind Adventures
AS&SH
Levels 1-3

Furtive and odious tales circle through various Hyperborean ports of call. Rumours whisper of an ancient occult city, Xambaala, clinging to the edge of the Zakath Desert. Perhaps the hideous horrors said to assail the city in the darkest hours are exaggerated. Maybe too another explanation can be found for the foreigners who are said to have disappeared to some uncanny fate. But the whispering tongues also hint that gold glints in the shadows of Xambaala, ready to be taken by the bold.

This sixty page adventure details a desert trading city in about twenty pages, a couple of desert locales, and then a seventy-ish room three-level dungeon full of cannibals and snake-men. The primary adventure locale, the three level dungeon, is fairly interesting if a little heavy on the hack & trap side of the interactivity spectrum. While the writing is better than most North Wind adventures it is still burdened by the cramped layout and phrasing that plagues almost all of them. Do you like to READ adventures? Buy this.

It is pure speculation, but I suspect that the hand of Talanian and his editors are HEAVILY involved in the writing of these adventures. So many of them show the same issues that it’s hard to believe that the designers are all engaging in the same ponderous habits. As such the review becomes as much about the production style of North Wind as it does about what the designer has produced. How much is their work and how much is corruption by the snake-men?

What’s the purpose of an adventure? Is it to run a game at the table? That’s my take on them. And therefore I expect the adventure to facilitate that. But it is certainly the case that others, Paizo most notably, have deduced that most adventures purchased are never run. People buy them and read them and that’s the enjoyment they obtain. And thus the publisher is then working at a cross-purpose: to produce adventures that are enjoyable to read … and thus make money therein. They want to make money by writing something that appeals to the reader consumers. I want to have something to help me run it at the table. I guess it’s possible that the two are not mutually exclusive.Like, maybe, a quantum event suddenly turning my keyboard to old platinum is a possibility.  Possible & probable: different definitions. 

And I don’t give a FUCK about the readers. And I especially don’t give a MOTHER FUCK about the publishers who are writing for the readers. Fuck. You. You’re not producing adventures. You’re producing some fan service bullshit. Further, you’re producition of these fucking things is dragging the entire fucking hobby down because you insist of labeling them “adventures.” They are not adventures. Adventures are written to be used at the table. “It COULD be used at the table” is not a viable response. At this point I think it’s safe to say that North Wind is producing adventures meant to be consumed by reading. 

The primary issues, as with ALL North Wind adventures, is the ponderous writing and the layout. The fonts are less legible but evocative of the pulp fiction novels of old. The margins are wide to allow border art … reducing the overall space for text. And the writing is ponderous. “The iron door has yielded to rust and the force of grave robbers.” That’s not technical writing meant to help the DM. That’s fiction writing. “In some areas the exterior plaster still retains its

original decorations of monsters, warlords, and illustrious merchants.” Again, more fiction writing. This is not a phrasing or word choice that enables the running of the adventure. The phrasing and word choice gets in the way. It’s ponderous. You don’t have to appeal to lowest common denominator. That’s not what this is about. You have to target the writing so that it’s easy for a DM to run. Making them fight through illustrious merchants and yielding to rust is not in service to that. That sort of writing is fiction writing. Technical writing, for D&D adventure, is in service, in these examples, of creating an image in the DM’s mind. Yielding to rust and Illustrious merchants doesn’t do that. And no, it’s not just those phrases. It’s the entire sentences. Which are just examples of the problems inherent to ALL of the writing in this adventure.

There ARE bullet point summaries at the start of each room. This DOES help somewhat. There is a style of writing in which general overview concepts, or the room, are introduced and as the players are mucking about deciding what to do, the DM is reading further ahead and/or the follow-up information helps expand on that general overview. The bullets in this adventure serve much the same purpose. They introduce room concepts quickly and then the DM gets to … wade through the ponderous text that follows, digging for more information. There are a lot of decent styles to choose from to help the DM, this is one, and it DOES help. It’s just dragged down by the “DM text” in the usual North Wind style. 

It’s a shame. The core of the adventure isn’t bad. Cannibal slaves  with sharp pointy teeth “Uh, Sir, I recommend that we examine the mouth of each slave and kill all of the ones with pointy teethe.” A cult, duped by snake men. A nice ruined palace to explore. Evil norse dwarves. A toad-woman. It’s all pretty good, in theory. Heavy on the combat, I think (especially for level 1’s)  and on the trap side of interactivity. Some of the treasure is ok: a magic bow very briefly described to be of laminated white wood, or ion stones that “Once the gunk has been cleaned away, the stones will slip out and begin floating around the head of the investigating

Character.” That’s decent imagery, a little wondrous, which is what magic should be.

I don’t know man. I’ve always WANTED to like AS&SH. There are promises made by the setting that are great. But the execution of them is SO bad. I don’t see how this is usable at the table in any way that I would find meaningful to run. (Which is to say: easy.) It’s SO disappointing. And it seems so avoidable. There seems to be such a devotion to the style guide, over usability, and that’s what is making me question the actual intent of North Wind: playability vs just producing things to read. There has got to be some middle ground in which North Wind can still evoke the style they are going for while enhancing playability rather than detracting from it. 

Also, first level my ass. This is a hard ass adventure.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows you nothing of the adventure writing AT ALL. Just a map and the title pages. That’s a bad preview. For it’s faults, North Wind IS professional and I would expect a preview from them, on a $10 product, that actually shows us a few rooms and therefore the writing and content style of the adventure.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/248582/The-Anthropophagi-of-Xambaala?1892600

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27 Responses to The Anthropophagi of Xambaala

  1. Anonymous says:

    “The iron door has yielded to rust and the force of grave robbers.”

    “Rusty iron door hangs open.”

    • squeen says:

      Based on what Gus L. wrote over at https://alldeadgenerations.blogspot.com/, I’m seeing a case for D&D settings to be mainly about the topology of the environment (static elements)—that are a container for action/events. That container is then filled with dynamic (non-stationary) elements (e.g. factions, rival NPCs, Big Baddies, etc.).

      Mentally segregating the container might mitigate some of the storytelling temptation (via description), and give the designer a clearer idea of what he or she is providing—a wondrous place first, and (separately) interesting actors that also move about it.

      Good (keyed) prose then factually describes the environment using highly efficient words (i.e. maximum data-transfer to the DM’s brain—who can then relate/embellish it for the players). The dreaded “…this used to be…” is a cheat used by the designer to skip factually describing the scene and either dump the burden entirely on the DM to improvise…OR…as a sneaky (and intrusive) way to fold in the back story.

      Evocative description is different than colourful phrases that make for a good read (Bryce’s complaint above). In a good book, you don’t mind re-reading a passage whose meanings was cleverly obscured, or delaying complete understanding until further later—not so much while running an adventure. In fact, humour (i.e. something that is fun to read) frequently involves a moment of misunderstanding. Focus should instead be on getting the observable (noteworthy) phenomena info across as compactly as possible. The trick it to do it in a way the builds a mood. I’m not sure “Rusty iron door hangs open.” achieves that secondary goal very artfully but is still better than personification of the door.

      Outside the key, in an “adventure overview”, is perhaps a better place to introduce the factions/NPC actors, but you’ll also want some sort of handy table that makes it easy to move them around the joint.

      In some other place (TDB) goes the ancient history and Lore for anyone who cares (e.g. maybe a DM who, between sessions, needs to generate some new consistent content).

      A good adventure has both interesting actors and a fascinating place in which future events can take place—with an understanding that things are (hopefully) going to “get crazy” once the PCs arrive. Knowing that, it had better be organized efficiently to facilitate rapid movement through the topology.

      …or maybe not—brain still asleep today. Why do I write this stuff?

    • Gnarley Bones says:

      I think that particular example is terse and evocative, therefore pretty perfect.

  2. Sean says:

    If AS&SH adventures and Advanced Adventures were blended, would they be the perfect adventures? AS&SH provides the flavor, AA provides the format and terseness.

    This one deserved more than having 90% of the review spent on the same tired rehash of AS&SH formatting, though. Definitely not for 1st level characters however, very true.

    • allan grohe says:

      I think that Bryce raises good points, however, in valuing usability at the table. The main problem I see with that concern is that even a module that’s not as user-friendly as others may still play really well: that’s been my experience playing most of the ASSH adventure over the years (although I haven’t played this one or the more-recent Lost Treasure of Atlantis).

      So layout and book design become a proxy for DM effort required to run the module. T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil has many editing and development issues that make it largely unappealing to me to run as a DM, despite my love for the original T2’s potential that we glimpse in T1 Village of Hommlet. Whether the layout/style faults that Bryce sees in ASSH adventures are worth the effort required to use them at the table is a tough call, and one that I can’t personally help resolve (since I’ve played, but not DM’d, ASSH to date).

      I did post these comments in a discussion of the ASSH adventures at reddit this morning, since I still think this is a topic that’s well-worth digging into further:

      ==
      u/bryce0lynch articulates his issues with ASSH modules well, in particular in his new new review of The Anthropophagi of Xambaala at https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=6446

      I haven’t played this one, but I’ve found the adventures that I have played to be very enjoyable at the table. However, Bryce’s concerns don’t seem to primarily be with how well the adventures play, but how easy they are to run and how well the adventure supports the ease of play through it’s information architecture and usability at the table. Since I’ve not run these modules myself, I can’t talk to that side of the screen’s play experience yet, but it’s definitely something I’ve been paying attention to for awhile now, and is a very important consideration (in my mind) that should be an integral requirement in any publisher’s book design strategy.
      ==

      Allan.

      • Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

        Your statement, Allen, is an oxymoron for me. It’s hard for me to run a “good” adventure buried under walls of text and other bullshit well at the table; the verbosity and design issues makes both comprehension and communication difficult.

        Also it seems like you might be equating DM skill to run shitty adventures well at the table to the module being good. I’ve done great things with shitty modules like Gargoyle and Isle of the Ape before. Doesn’t mean the modules were any less shitty.

        • Anonymous says:

          I agree, but if I read Allen correctly, he’s saying that a module can be bad but the adventure within still good. A lot of old TSR adventures would fall into this category from my experience.

          • Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

            That’s fair. However it’s also impossible to judge because an adventure being bad or good in play is very DM dependent and that’s a variable that you cannot really quantify in the play experience (was The Night Below that I played great because of the GM running it or because there was a kernel of a good adventure in it?).

      • Sean says:

        Hey Allan,

        I definitely agree on the formatting overall. That wasn’t my point, though. The adventure itself got ONE. FREAKING. PARAGRAPH….ONE. Let me state up front that I like Xambaala, love it even, despite the formatting flaws. My complaint though has nothing to do with being butthurt because Bryce didn’t give a glowing review of it. My issue is that the review itself is not helpful. I don’t give a crap whether Bryce liked it or not. But, as my group is two sessions into it I was at least hoping for some constructive feedback on the adventure itself – some things that maybe don’t work as well as they could have that I could fix in advance like I see in many of his other reviews. We got nothing but a wall of regurgitated spew for this one. Bad Reviewer, haha!

        At least from an initial read of it combined with reading about the experiences of others, I knew this wasn’t for 1st level characters. So, I ran them through ASE1 to start (they woke up from stasis already inside), before ending up in Xambaala. Good, helpful information.

        I’ll definitely check out your reddit topic later today and look forward to some meaningful discussion.

        Sean

      • Anonymous says:

        @Evard’s Small Tentacle. The adventure within, separate and distinct from the DM running it, can be good despite formatting and layout issues etc. It might be a pain to run and I probably don’t have time to wrestle with poor information architecture these days, but I’d say it holds true. I think Bryce’s review of the Lost Treasure of Atlantis would suggest the same: Bryce put it as ‘the best’ despite rubbishing its formatting, layout and writing style.

        • Anonymous says:

          Reading back over the Atlantis review, Bryce seems largely content with the writing style (unlike other AS&SH adventures) and his criticism focused mainly on the layout and editing choices.

  3. DangerousPuhson says:

    I for one am tired of the trend of “put big, complex, flowery word into the title to make it sound more interesting”. Anthropophagi? Such an unnecessarily convoluted choice of noun, for no reason other than to sound fancy. it means “cannibal” say “cannibal”… everyone knows what a cannibal is. What is gained by obfuscating the term with 5-dollar words, other than trying to sound smarter than you are by virtue of owning a thesaurus?

  4. Commodore says:

    So this makes me wonder, how much fun would it be to just run Howard’s short stories as adventures? I suspect “Beyond the Black River”, for instance, might actually be easier to run at the table as a rollicking fun D&D game.

    • Anonymous says:

      Someone actually created PDFs of versions Conan stories converted into D&D adventures, complete with pulp art. I remember really digging them.

  5. Reason says:

    Tower of the Elephant springs to mind as one that would work.

    Pretty sure someone has done this for a few of these and made them available free at Hyboria.xoth.net

  6. Landifarne says:

    Florid, Gygaxian prose is a problem if you don’t appreciate it AND if you’re running a module on the fly. If you enjoy that style of writing [I generally do] then the major drawback is that it will take quite a bit of prep time to familiarize yourself with the module [which I also don’t mind…I would never run something that I only gave a cursory look.]

    The major drawback to Anthropophagi’s writing, IMO, is that a lot of pertinent information is given late in keyed locations’ descriptions [this is true for all North-Wind Adventures.] If you haven’t commited a large amount of time to absorbing the entirety of the module it will be rather difficult to run a high percentage of it [perhaps this reinforces Bryce’s perception that they are written to be read, rather than run?] An attempt was made to remedy this issue in this particular module by providing bullet points at the beginning of each description [fantastic goal!] However, the DM could readily argue that half a dozen additional bullet points could be added to each set, and that many key descriptions that are presented after the stat blocks SHOULD have been hit upon in the bullets.

    Which gets to what Allan alludes to:

    How do you effectively relate all of the necessary information about the location? How do you relate all the information about factional play (that Bryce so loves)…and marching orders (that Bryce so loves)…and event triggers…and so forth, without making the whole thing sensory overload?

    I can definitely say that you should not cramp your format with border graphics, and you should make stat blocks as simple as possible…the two biggest flaws in these products, IMO, as they compound difficulties.

    As I said after the last NWA review: despite these issues, I’d still rank Talanian’s products as being in the pretty good-to-very good range.

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      I’d agree with your many good points about presentation and layout. Something else I would throw in is that the author should write in a style suited to their talents: I share your liking for Gygaxian prose as written by Gary Gygax, some of which enhances your ability to describe the locations, and makes you excited to run the module. Some can take that classic TSR format and write excellent adventures e.g. The Pod-Caverns of Sinister Shroom.

      I think there is a great deal of very helpful advice to aspiring authors on this site, but I am a little wary of “usability at the table” being judged by something other than reports of actual play.

    • squeen says:

      I think that first paragraph below each numbered key is critical—perhaps supported by bullets. You got to get the physical description across and lay out the major actionable items/events like a Table of Contents

      The supporting paragraphs can then be a bit more verbose, IMO. Tangential stuff is name-dropped and fleshed out in sidebars and Appendices?

  7. Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

    As much as I loathe Monte Cook’s work, his gargantuan products like Ptolus did do some pretty innovative stuff from a formatting, referencing and design perspective. Most adventures do need a one page flow chart (with references), cross referencing, and summarized components like NPCs (a page at best) as standard design though very few if any do this.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great convo. My experience is that a good quality core (interactivity, maps, writing) can make up for inconvenient/clumsy layout and formatting, but not the opposite. YMMV.

  9. Bryce Lynch says:

    My taxonomy is imperfect; I should research the correct terms one day.

    This is more than the High Gygaxian/vocabulary found in things like the title. It’s the asides, passive voice, placing important things deep in the text (as pointed out by several of you) and a tortured use of sentence structure that betrays easy comprehension & reference. Finnigan’s Wake may be the greatest D&D adventure ever written, but can you use it at the table?

    And there are not gates. Imagine a perfectly organized adventure with no/little interactivity and plane use of language. Or the most evocative adventure ever with little organization. There tends to be some minimum effort required in all three areas that is needed to make an adventure good. Likewise, it is possible to do a stellar job in one area a poor one in another and still be “good.” In these situations it’s a more complex judgement call. Are the poor areas good enough to make the STELLAR parts worth running? Kent like to point out that I would rate Thracia poorly. I would certainly critique parts of it, but the overall design of Thracia makes up for it. … I would like to see it better though. 🙂

    Life is grey.

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