Sunday, September 23, 2018

AS&SH: The Anthropophagi of Xambaala

The Anthropophagi of Xambaala is a module for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea written by Corey R. Walden and kickstarted by North Wind Adventures along with The Beasts of Kraggoth Manor in the aptly named Beasts and Cannibals campaign.  The kickstarter was launched back in March with an estimated delivery date in August.  PDFs were delivered to backers on July 30th and the printed books started shipping over Labor Day weekend.  I've said before that Jeff Talanian runs an extremely professional and punctual operation and he continues to deliver.

I've had time to read through the adventure and my game group has a few weeks of play in it now, so let's see what this Anthropophagi stuff is all about.  Spoiler review after the break.

The Anthropophagi of Xambaala is both a dungeon module and an adventure setting.  It is set in the city of Xambaala in the Zakath Desert.  This region gets a few paragraphs in the core book's gazetteer but Corey really injects a lot of personality into the city.  The city has a hereditary slave caste made up of mixed Ixian-Esquimaux stock, a pair of rival temples serving Rel, God of Thieves, and Helios, the Sun, and plenty for adventurers to see and do in between dungeon delves.  The arena provides the spectacle of gladiatorial combat with a roster of gladiators and the buzzing anticipation of a crocodile and a sabre-tooth tiger being introduced to the sport soon.  There are a few henchmen to be acquired, a table of rumors to hook adventurers into the intrigue of the city, and a pair of taverns to rest up and mingle with the locals.  One of these taverns is a pretty shoddy affair with just a common room to sleep in, while the other is a luxury caravanserai, much more tempting and somewhat integral to the happenings of the region.  And what's troubling the city?  From the back cover:

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.

The title and setup of the adventure are derived from Robert E. Howard's Conan story, The Man-Eaters of Zamboula.  I reread that story in preparation for running this adventure and suggest doing the same.  Corey lifts the premise directly from the story and then creates added layers of intrigue and leads the adventurers to a dungeon in the ruins of an ancient warlord's palace.  From there, Conan's adventure is left behind and the players will find a sinister force at work behind the rise of cannibalism amongst the slaves and a surprisingly deep dungeon with connections to the darkest realms of Underborea.
The Warlord's Palace
The dungeon of the Warlord's Palace is 3 levels and 69 rooms.  It starts with the surface level ruins of the palace, mostly inhabited by the titular Anthropophagi, and as it descends the adventurers will confront a variety of other creatures.  There are a few factions at play in the dungeon and room for the players to ally with or manipulate some of them.  The dungeon maps are by Glynn Seal of Monkey Blood Design, who always impresses.  There is a nice variety in routes available (although only a single normal option for level transitions), a few clever traps and puzzles, some secrets hidden around, and a good sense of depth.  There are cliffs inside the dungeon that drop 200'-500' into yawning abysses.  There are large sections of cyclopean ruins of alien design that are left for the judge to expand on.  I love how easily a fairly normal seeming dungeon can transition into the weird and frightening world of Underborea.  Although the module is written for levels 1-3, this provides plenty of opportunity to develop this into a larger campaign and the city of Xambaala is a fun base of operations to work out of.  It's great to see a module written with so much support for long term campaign play.

The art throughout is very good, such as the above Warlord's Palace.  There is art of the new gloom-eater zombies, the cannibals and their ritual, and the serpent-men at work that stands out.  One of my favorite pieces is by Del Teigeler, showing a winding path descending deeper into the dungeon through giant mushroom fields and approaching a massive stone bridge.  The book is well organized and room descriptions are written with a few bullet points listing important facts first followed by a short description and then monster stats.  It's very useful for reference and easy to run at the table.

I'm trying to think of anything to criticize in this adventure.  The hook to look into the cannibals is a little weak, but fortunately my players understand that the game is about looking for adventure so I don't need intricate motivations to entice them.  The outer Xambaala region is kind of sparse, with only one real adventure site aside from the Warlord's Palace, but if the book had completely skipped the region map and just included the city and the nearby dungeon that wouldn't even be noticeable.  As it is, there's plenty of room in the desert to throw in extra material if you'd like to add even more possibilities to the area.

Overall, it's a great adventure module that adds some welcome depth to a small region of Hyperborea.  Highly recommended for fans of AS&SH, Conan stories, or just quality design.

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