Castle Xyntillan review

By Gabor Lux
Levels 1-6

The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!

Non. Fucking. Stop. Buy more. 

Buy more now. Buy more, and be happy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree – – Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xyntillan, world’s largest private pleasure ground. Here, on the mountain valley, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xyntillan’s mountain. Contents of Xyntillan’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace. A collection of everything. So big it can never be catalogued or appraised. Enough for ten museums – the loot of the world. Xyntillan’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each, the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xyntillans’s landlords leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xyntillan is the costliest monument a man has built to himself…

This 132 page hardback adventure, an homage to Tegal, I don’t know know, fuck it, 350 rooms? In a castle, mansion, just like Tegal. Full of family members, paintings on the walls, a map reminiscent of Tegal … it shows what good writing and design actually ARE. Magnificent in its achievements, Charles Dexter Lux has created something very rare and wonderful. 

Sometimes publishers will respin a classic. They will rewrite Borderlands, or create new levels or caves or areas for it. They will update a classic adventure for fifth edition, or third, or whatever. I always look forward to these. And they all suck, disappointing me to no end. Inevitably the update is to add A LOT more words to existing entries and pad them out with trivia, what the butler ate for supper two weeks ago and the exhaustive contents of the kitchen cabinets. Maybe three paragraphs of tactics for some encounter. 

Xyntillan is not that. Xyntillan is the real deal. 

A respin of the Tegal Manor concept, it takes a sprawling manor home filled with the crazy Tegal/Amber family members that occupy it, as well as their paintings. Tegal fell in to the minimal keying side of the genre, just a step beyond “only a monster listing.” Xyntillan takes inspiration from Tegal and then expands the text to EXACTLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT. Both have a certain OD&D charm to the encounters, with Tegal being so because of the minimalism and Xyntillan having it because Melan understands adventure design and his soul evidently not (yet?) having been crushed by modern life. 

The encounters are reminiscent of Tegal, but not one for one respins. Tegal has a room where a screaming woman runs across a room every four turns. That’s the extent of the entry. Xyntillan has a room where a screaming mortally wounded woman in white runs across the room (33% chance), stumbling before she reaches the NW corner. And this is after a two sentence description of the potting room. And before a few sentences describing what happens when you dig in the NW corner. Evocative of, but expanded to the correct degree.

Expanded to the correct degree? Indeed. We’re looking for an encounter description that inspires the DM, the implants a seed idea in their head that will grow and allow the DM to fully visualize the room and riff on it as they describe and run it for their players. Writing that inspires the DM to greatness. And, writing that does it in a split second. And I mean a second. The DM glances down at the page, takes a second to read the entry, look up and runs the room. A second. Maybe two. The DM’s job is not reading the adventure at the table, it’s interacting with the players. The DM glances at and scans a room entry and then runs it. While the players are fumbling about with that to do, etc, the DM is glancing/scanning a bit more, in another couple of seconds. Not minutes. Not 30 seconds. A few, less than five or so. (I should time this one day …) So the job of the text is to give the DM the mental picture that inspires them to run a magnificent encounter and to do it in mere seconds. Evocative and terse, is generally the technique. 

And Gabor Lux does it magnificently. The text is the correct length. You get the overview of the room. Then you get indents and bullets to highlight important aspects of the room that the players may follow up on. The rooms have titles to orient the DM. Monster stats are brief and at the end of the room for easy reference during play, almost Ready Ref sheet style. (Although, perhaps not quite as stark as the Ref sheets, thankfully.) It’s cross-referenced, so if there’s a quest, or an object of a quest, for example, it tells you where to find more information. Bolding is used appropriately to highlight important features and call the DM’s attention to them, sometimes with further follow up text again, indented, bulleted.) The text manages around eight or so entries to the page, with wide margins, with the generous formatting contributing immensely to usability by the DM at the table. 

Encounters are wonderful. Skeleton guardsmen sing and tall tall tales in their barracks. The kitchen knives fly at the party … once. Statues mock the party, or give them a level boost. An unseen hand stays a killing blow, if the party restores a statue. A body buried under a gazebo on a small hill in the center of a pond. A horseshoe in the stables that, if found, gives you a good luck effect. These are things you fucking expect to happen, which make them wonderful. A horseshoe giving luck? Of course it does! That’s what SHOULD happen when you find a horseshoe. Of course the skeleton guardsmen sing and boast. Of course there are phantom steeds in the stables. Duh? WTF? Aren’t we playing D&D? Of course the iron stove in the kitchen closes, biting you in half, if you look inside. It makes PERFECT sense. Tropes are good for a reason and when done right they really shine, acting as cultural clues to the metagaming player. Which is exactly what the fuck they should be doing in order to stay alive in this place. 

Oh, what else? The wanderers are easy to find, in the back of the book. The little town presented as a home base has EXACTLY enough detail to fulfill its purpose. It’s a home base to make forays from. It details a couple of bars, etc to recruit henchmen and stay at to recover. A cleric to heal. Some secret police. Wait, what?! Yes, a couple of subplots in the town. But no more! It concentrates on the details and flavour that are useful IN PLAY. And only the important stuff that inspires, not boring old lists of prices, etc., or Yet Another Description Of a Jovial Barman. The maps are great, Conley does a great job of making something reminiscent of Tegal but much more useful, with little side notes on the maps about webs in the hallways, lighting, sound, refuse on the floors, etc. A perfect tool to assist in both usability and creating an evocative environment. Treasure is magnificent. Ocacular brains in jars, unique magic swords. A whole host of things both mundane and magic to keep the party busy and for them to leverage. Notes on how the family in the castle react to intruders. It’s all great. And presented in pretty much the perfect amount of detail. And monsters? How about “The Blind Beast of Xyntillian.” That’s fucking right! No generic-o “animated statue” crap in this adventure! I got a name baby! New rules./clarifications are present for morale, hiring, fleeing the dungeon … things very pertinent to actual play. It’s perfect.

There’s an occasional miss. Every once in awhile there’s a bit of information that you wish were present. The most notable, for me, is the roof/window/vista-view situation. Only a sucker goes in through the door. A couple of words on the exterior entrance situation, and overview if you would, would have been nice. And, also, a little description of Xyntillian when seen from approach. This is clearly a tie in to the roof/window/door commentary, giving the party notable landmarks to seek out (a dome, etc) and/or holes to poke their heads in to. “Where are the doors?” the party asks. One can intuit a great deal from the maps, especially major border landmarks like doors and side towers, but the dome, interior towers and courtyards are less clear without intense study … the kind I don’t like to do during play. 

But, magnificent! Ye Olde Kente once said that Thracia was the only adventure you ever needed. He was, I think, correct, at least in general. This however IS the only adventure you ever need. You could run a party through this for YEARS, with more than enough information present to riff on. A perfect OD&D product, with whimsy and wonder without going off in to Funhouse territory. I got this last night, stayed up all night reading and re-reading, write this the next morning, and will be adding it to my “No Prep” Dungeonland game tonight. 

This is good. 

This is available at his storefront: for $40 for a Print+PDF copy. $40 is a FUCKING STEAL! G1, at 8 pages, would be $20 in todays cash. $40 for this this is a BARGAIN! But it also costs $22 to ship to the US so, even at $62 it’s a bargain. (Mother fuck! Seriously? $22 to ship it? I don’t doubt this is the actual cost; my own experiences with international shipping have been price gougy also. You can ship a boatload, literally, of stuff from Asia to the US for nothing but the worldwide national post office conspiracy bends you the fuck over and makes you take it!) 

There’s a sample layout on MEGA, if you want a preview:!dwIkXYiJ!4lZA2ar0h5RhKM7n7Z9U0ACJqPkJStmF0wnCB7U8HYQ

But why not go ahead and just buy it? Because you hate quality? Seriously? You’re on the fence about one of the five best adventures ever written? Why, because it’s $60, shipped? I’ve had lunch for one that is more than $60. It’s not worth a lunch to you? Really?

Gabor Lux also has some philosophical statements about adventuring and how they apply to Xyntillan on his blog. They are useful to understand the concepts behind Xyntillan.

This entry was posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, Reviews, The Best. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to Castle Xyntillan review

  1. Matt P says:

    2 questions:
    – What are the other 4 best adventures ever written?
    – How does CX compare to Stonehell? Stonehell’s also large enough to run a campaign in, and is also fairly cheap – would you pick one over the other or is it more of a personal preference thing?

  2. Bryce Lynch says:

    You monster! You force me to make Sofie’s Choice amongst my favorite children?! I do’t know, which is why I put it in those terms. You can check my ratings on RPGGEEK, but be aware I’ve also rated some things 10’s for nostalgia reasons (Oh Gamma World …) Hyquetious Vaults. Blue medusa, ASE1, Barrowmaze. Marlinko, DCO, Spire of Iron & Crystal, Bull King, Stonehell, RappenA. Who knows what’s the best. They all have their strengths.

    But Xyntillan is VERY strong in just about every single aspect, which is why I put that wording how I did. It’s hard to imagine it not being better than most of those others I mentioned. But it’s also just quibbling amongst things that are all quite good; an academic exercise. “Which rock band really is/was the best from amongst these ten legends?”

    Stonehell is limited because of it’s one pager format, even with the “explanation pages” that it uses . Because of that it can come off a little dry or generic in places. It’s a limitation of the format. This is more colorful. Stonehell could support a longer campaign, I think, but CX is good enough to get you to 5/6, which is quite substantial. And more colorful, a bit more whimsy without going full on silly/funhouse.

    And I like your CX abbreviation. I declare it to be so! CX!

  3. DangerousPuhson says:

    Congrats to Melan for hitting THE adventure design milestone: publishing the magnum opus!

    You’re at the pinnacle at this very moment Melan. Savor it for what it is. Hopefully it’s not all downhill from here.

  4. Anders H says:

    One question: From a list of your favorite ten rock bands, which one is/was *really* the best?

  5. Anonymous says:

    There is no pdf only option, correct?

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Not yet, I think, but coming in the future, I think, iirc.

      I’m sure Melan will chime in at some point.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you. Pdf only option would be nice.

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          I, also, struggle with owning physical things. In the end I gave myself permission to own Only The Best. But I also weaseled out and justified it as “research material since I’m a reviewer.” Oh, the agonizing decisions of the trivial!

    • Edgewise says:

      At the end of the product page, it says this:

      “Please note that your print order also makes you eligible for a free copy of the PDF edition, published a few months after the print version. PDFs will be delivered via DriveThruRPG to your regular e-mail address, unless you request otherwise.”

      To be honest, I find that a little frustrating. He’s sitting on the PDF for now so it doesn’t cut into hardcover sales, I suspect. It’s a bit frustrating considering the $22 shipping charge. Well, that’s his right, and I can wait a few months.

      • HDA says:

        It’s the same deal with his zines, the PDF comes out a few months after. I thought it took time to reformat for DTRPG, but who knows.

        • Edgewise says:

          It only takes time to reformat for DriveThru if you explicitly want a new format for the PDF. Whatever format the digital file is in, pretty much anything can be exported to PDF and should look exactly like a printed copy (that’s what PDF is supposed to be all about). Maybe they all do it, but I could never believe the reason is because they all need to change the formatting.

          • Anonymous says:

            Perhaps he’s taking the time to properly bookmark/link the PDF. There are references to the Rogues’ Gallery for example, putting links for each of those takes time. I do hope the PDF is really cross-referenced, and if it is, I can wait a little longer to get it. Many PDF don’t even have a table of content, which is what you get if you “only” export to PDF.

  6. Yolande d’Bar says:

    You can get this from Exalted Funeral without paying 22 bucks for shipping. Mine is on the way.

  7. Melan says:

    Thanks for that – it’s been my pleasure!

    On to miscellaneous things that have come up:
    1) The review is slightly incorrect about shipping – I had to raise it to $20/$25 (Europe/Worldwide) due to the annual postal price increases. Yeah, this is quite steep, and I hate it too, but that’s how much it costs. On the upside, it is also a flat fee, so it stays there no matter how many other books you order. (Smaller things like zines/modules ship at $6/$7, and that’s also flat.). But I live or die by the post. Which leads to…

    2) I had a few lost or heavily delayed packages over the holidays – I never would have thought international shipping is *that* bad at that time of the year, but apparently, it is. Whoops. If you ordered something and it didn’t arrive, please mail me and I will arrange a no-cost replacement. Things should work better now.

    3) There is no PDF-only option at the moment, but one will be released on DTRPG in early April. I am a print-focused publisher for reasons which range from the personal (I enjoy the physical aspects of production and sending people mail) to quality control (I work with a friendly, gamer-run printer) and even that DIY ethics thing. I understand the importance and appeal of PDF, but my heart is still with paper!

  8. Gnarley Bones says:

    Is there a purple worm lying in wait in a bedroom? Because that is Tegal! ?

  9. Malrex says:

    Well done Melan! Looking forward to my copy.

  10. Grützi says:

    Congrats to Melan 🙂
    But man … don’t set the bar to high for all the other publishers 😉

  11. EOTB says:

    Congrats to Melan on getting this out the door! That accomplishment is akin to the monk passing its next-level combat challenge. This is the next RPG item I’ll purchase.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Great review, my copy is on its way and now I can’t wait to read this!

  13. I own almost everything Gabor has published that I can get my hands on, dude is so underrated it hurts. Bryce, thank you for shining the light on this guy’s talent!

  14. Melan’s stuff is always great. The Fomalhaut zine is a ideas-mine. Just received CX (even the stamps on the enveloppe are great!!!)

  15. Chainsaw says:

    Melan always does a fantastic job, never had any doubts. Holding off reading CX though because francisca may run it at Gary Con and there’s a good chance capitalbill may run it for me this spring. Fingers crossed!

  16. Derek says:

    Does anyone know whether any vendors will have this for sale in hard copy at Gary Con?

  17. Muddy says:

    This should be added to “My favorite of the old school”, no?

  18. Alyn S Rumbold says:

    I just received my copy in the mail today. Gabor, hat’s off to you, sir! What a spectacular piece of work, I am truly impressed. Thank you very much!

  19. Knutz Deep says:

    Castle Xyntillan is available again at Exalted Funeral.

  20. Legion says:

    It is as good as you say it is.

    So worth it!

  21. Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

    The PDF is here!

  22. Evard's Small Tentacle says:

    So in prepping Castle X, one of the questions that keep cropping up in my mind (and I am sure the party is very likely to ask multiple times) is what does Person X think/know of Person Y? I think a relationship matrix would be super handy for this adventure (and maybe needed).

    • Melan says:

      This was something I didn’t want to set in stone, because it would evolve into a horrid 60×60 matrix which people would then take as gospel and try to memorise – the last thing I would like to see happen. So unless something is noted in the text, the best thing is to make something up, or roll randomly.

      For the default, see the family motto, prominently displayed on the first page! .)

      • Anonymous says:

        That makes sense..:it is a rather large brood! Love the interactivity and the magical items and layering. The party should hopefully hit on the castle next session.

  23. Evard's Small Tentacle says:

    Whither is the “Random Mail Call” Table?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Is the layout for this readable at using booklet printing via home printer 8.5 by 11 paper.

    For those who done know.its roughly a5

    • Melan says:

      It was designed for the A4 format with 11-point text, but should be readable as a booklet if you have decent eyesight. I print my zines with the same font size, and only a few people are finding trouble with that.

      • Anonymous says:

        Wow what a response! Thanks man.
        I think its so cool to have authors keep booklet printing in mind.
        Its core to the history of the hobby with 70s school libraries banning DND/rpg materials from being printed.
        Its still the most accessable way for DMs to use all these pdfsas most only have home printers.
        I think WOTC and 3.5 is when these books (mainstream) started to get so booklet unfriendly.

  25. Milo T says:

    Love the blog!
    I’m just starting up a monthly OSR game and was wondering if you had more information about how you set up your “no prep dungeonland” game because that sounds like precisely the type of game I want to run in this scenario.

    I’m so used to modern RPG’s either following a main story line or homebrewing so I’m finding my ability to string together modules has atrophied.

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