Tuesday, December 24, 2013

REVIEW OF I3 - PHARAOH


I4 - cover art, this has promise - it's a lie

Don't go into the desert of boring, you'll choke to death on the blandness. - Should have been the tagline, not “Lazy mists, deep blue wind, desert night”. The night and desert thing, that’s not a bad start to an adventure – and I3 – Pharaoh is a desert adventure, which is the best I can say for it. Pharaoh is from 1982, when adventure design seems to have been heading away from the sandbox and towards Curse of the Azure Bonds and Dragonlance Adventures. I figured I’d give it a read, because ASE’s Land of 1,000 towers has a lot of desert, or green sanded radioactive wastes, and not everything can be a dragon’s desolation.


Pharaoh starts badly, the box text becomes too silly even for something like ASE. The key to a good gonzo game is that the silly is deadly seriousness for the characters. In the past I have suggested that a good example is having a character hunted by a giant rooster, a T-Rex sized cock. Visually I think this is pretty funny: thunderous crowing, slashing chicken feet with spurs the size of knives. Mechanically this is terrifying for the player who wants to see their character survive as it’s a 16HD monster with no reasoning ability a 6D6 attack. The T-Rex/Rooster doesn’t miss much, and a single peck is enough. Subjectively this would also be terrifying. That’s a gonzo setting element.

The beginning of Pharoah is not – it’s a bad joke with box text that goes on too long. The basic pretext, that the party awakes after a binge (undefined, but likely exotic fantasy drugs) in the midst of the desert, surrounded by petulant royal lancers who are forcing them a cursed land, isn’t terrible. The delivery is awful however; the party short sheeted a wizard’s bed, and caused him to have “wench” troubles. That the party is given supplies by the lancers is also dumb, the emperor, or caliph perhaps, isn’t too angry I guess. A page of box text (the charges against the PCs) provides this dumb story. Now I don’t mind adventure hooks that push the party into adventure, but TSR seems to have loved them back in the day.

Perhaps these poor hooks are simply the product of mid-level adventure design. In any game I’ve played, by the time a party is 5th-7th level they will have their own reasons to wander into the cursed lands of the lich pharaoh (because the cover of pharaoh promises a lich pharaoh - though he is sadly lacking) in search of something. Still, if one is going to have royal forces strong arm a party of hardened murder hobos (undoubtedly packing magical artillery) a squadron of lancers on fast horses is unlikely to do it. This hook is likely to have 50% of GMs suddenly trying to find a suitable map for the caliph’s (he’s simply described as “ruler” here in case one doesn’t want to sink too deep into orientalism) palace and stating up his guard forces.

As a module there are elements in Pharaoh that are nice to see after the messier B series. The room descriptions are broken up for easier use during play, and there a some useful rules for traversing the desert built into the text, but at the same time descriptions don't reach Dickensian proportions -while Pharaoh uses boxed text, it’s short enough to be something that can be skimmed and paraphrased. Random encounter tables are also nested and include a few non-monster hazards, such as acid rain. The art lacks the joking vitality of earlier D&D modules, but is perfectly nice in a mid 80’s TSR ink drawing sort of way. The best of the art is architectural style elevations of special rooms and traps, which are always useful.  The maps are also quite nicely produced and have some interesting elements, such as many round or oddly shaped rooms, but suffer from being symmetrical or nearly symmetrical, and filled with a lot of empty rooms. The basic conceit of at least one of the maps is that it’s filled with magical mists to make an effectively an unmappable maze. I’m not sure how useful that map really is.

The adventure itself, a trek across a desert with the required sandworm (three kinds, two new and the purple worm) encounters, some lost caravans, good desert raiders in conflict with band of good pegasi mounted noble types who will be snide and unhelpful. Nothing especially interesting, but it’s mercifully short and functional. The monsters (well the varieties of sandworm and the desert people) are written up with full Monster Manual stats in the back, but they just aren’t very interesting. The desert is a hex crawl of sorts with two locations of note that are mapped out.

The first of these locations is a city, sunken beneath the sands. While the entrance to the city (falling through the ceiling of a buried dome, while reading the plinth of a maudlin statute, is interesting enough, but a very short trip through sand filled ruins to release a nasty efreet is all it leads to.  The party gets a wish and has to avoid some magical traps, but there’s nothing interesting here. It's nice that the efreet wanders off promising to destroy civilization, but like much else that's a set up for the next two modules in the I series. Magical traps like the curtains of glowing light that blast characters with various elemental attacks guarding the efreet's lamp are something I personally dislike. They don’t operate on any kind of decent logic making them feel lazy, especially when they lack wonder. The ones here aren’t terrible (the blue curtain that freezes intruders solid and requires them to be defrosted has a nice feel), but they are rather pedestrian.

The main adventure location is a pyramid, the empty tomb of a cursed evil pharaoh.  The pharaoh's pathetic ghost will wander up to the party at some point and read a page of boxed text stuffed with mentions of Egyptian cosmology and myth. It is annoying and useless, because ultimately all it does is inform the party that it’s okay for them to loot the old pharaoh’s tomb.  The plundering of ancient relics is a good deed, the cure to an ancient curse.  I don’t really think this soft peddling of the moral ambiguity of tomb plundering is helpful, and while I am all for backstory and mystery, a giant chunk of read aloud cliché fails to provide it. The ghost is fine, that he is indestructible (rather he comes back every night, or the GM can let a competent cleric blast him and deal with the consequences of having no clues) is lame, but worse, how he is presented is silly.  Encounters with doomed spirits that want to talk are great, they are a lesson to party members not to attack everything, and if handled right offer clues and hints - not the pitch for one of the Scorpion King movies.  The ghost here is an excuse for bad genre fiction.

This is concept art from The Mummy III, it is more evocative of an ancient
desert tomb, and presents more interesting perils then the entirety of I4. It is
set in a Indian style temple filled with crocodiles.
The temple in front of the ghost pharaoh's pyramid is tolerable, with a central quandary of “massacre the good dervishes and plunder or try to talk nice, follow their mores and move on to the pyramid”. The pyramid tombs themselves have some good ideas in them, the false tomb is especially nice and that the place is crawling with lost adventurers is amusing, but the reliance on magical trickery, teleportation and lengthy areas where nothing happens and nothing is to be found are a problem. Treasure is a worse problem though. A magical item that removes player agency in the most annoying and irksome way (ring of contrariness) requiring constant reminders to the player, filled out by +X this and that.  Monetary treasure is likewise dull piles of GP. This is a desert tomb of an ancient pharaoh, one of the few locations actually based on a historical treasure trove. Yet every monster in Pharaoh is a coin collector: minotaur with an all electrum collection, and a fountain where only platinum coins have come to rest. Seriously, rather than 500GP in coins (not even interesting coins) how about a rotten chariot with gold panels that can be removed – it’s not hard, that’s a real thing from a real Egyptian tomb.

The tomb is largely a maze of magic, confusing, light dampening mist, designed to be wandered and unmappable. The cues to survival and finding a way on are found in sounds and smells. This is a nice concept, but I don’t know how well it is pulled off by Pharaoh, perhaps a play test would tell. Of course a party with plenty of rope (adventurers with rope – what never!) and methodical minds shouldn’t have too much trouble. Plus the cues (the scent of rotting, falling water) are boring. This whole adventure is boring in fact. Some encounters, like a pack of sneaky doppelgangers, are decent enough, but compared with the sort of thing the day job working non-professional I play with online cobble together weekly this is a fundamentally dull adventure. Other encounters are terrible. The sphinx asks the classic ‘man’ sphinx riddle and then a dumb logic puzzle, that’s the way to take a magnificent creature of myth and turn it into something from a mid 80’s text adventure.

After traveling onward endlessly through tunnels of boring encounters and finally reach an area where undead priests lurk. These are undead priests, mostly ghouls, but from their description “ghouls” or “dark cloaked figures”, you won’t get much of anything about the whole undead priest, trapped for eons because of an ancient curse angle.  The ghoul priests do have the standard “ATK 3 DAM 1-3/1-3/1-6” and can paralyze though. Your party can also rescue a damsel/paladin from some ghouls – why a 6th level paladin would need rescuing from a handful of ghouls is a question I cannot answer.  Indeed this whole are, with small gangs of weak undead, seems like it would be a mere annoyance to a party with a 5-7 level cleric. Sacrophagi may also be found, many are scratched up because it’s easier to described scratched up sarcophagi then making up what’s actually on them.

In the end there’s no mummy lich, this was the payoff I wanted, but alas one has to push through two more of these modules to meet a mummy lich (presumably). There’s a mummy at the end, but only as a afterthought after fighting an evil priest with a phylactery and his alchemically manufactured servants (I made the alchemical manufacturing part up because it’s more interesting then the bland statement that the servants are “magical creations”). Maybe I shouldn’t complain, there’s a giant flying fist that is at the priest’s command, which is amusing, and in the end there’s a mummy and a sorta lich, but the mummy is described as “If the sarcophagus is opened, the Mummy (AC 3; MV6"; HD 6+3; hp40;#AT1; Dmg 1-12 + disease; ALC) will attack.” This is the same guy who’s ghost asked the players in here, give me some details about his resplendent face mask or anything really, beyond a stat line and a sarcophagus gag.

So Pharaoh’s weak start turns out to be its strong point, because at least the three kinds of sand worms get descriptions. In looking over the whole thing, before I forever delete it, I think the worst part was the treasure. Everything is in round numbers of single types of coins, and really in a pharaoh’s tomb treasure is supposed to be the exciting part. Dervishes shouldn’t lug about Gold pieces – they should have hand tufted carpets depicting ancient mysteries, aromatic wooden camel saddles inlayed with ivory. Pharaoh mummies need to be clad in bandages that when unraveled act as a scroll of insect plague, they need to have coffins studded with rubies carved into eyes, and a floor of gold tiles engraved with dread symbols of withering. This is the first old TSR product I’ve read that made me actually perturbed that I spent $5.00 on it. Well the maps might be salvageable.
This was the Mummy Lich we wanted.

10 comments:

  1. From this review, I think I could make a kick-ass version of this module as the opening gambit for a new campaign.

    Basically identical to the module, but made of fun and kick-ass instead of boring and boring.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could - but why? I mean if you men steal a few bits and put an adventure in a pseudo Egyptian desert sure - that would be great, especially if you made everyone wear linen armor and carry sickle swords - or set it much later with hind of a horrible D&D people as colonialists and the locals trying to trick them into awakening all the mummy lichs. Yet, that wouldn't be this module. You could even use the maps, but the problem here is that there's just a startling lack of kick-ass.

      Delete
  2. Definitely save the maps, write your own hooks, and swap out the encounters and your obviously better ideas. This module is best used as a framework for your own ideas of a good Egyptian themed adventure. Five bucks is way too much for this one as is.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like this when I was 14 when it came out and we enjoyed it then. Still a few bits I would use. Mid era modules best for art and maps not story or interesting archaeology. I couldn't railroad players like this anymore.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I ran this for my group back in the early 80's and it was a lot of fun. Looking back now I agree with most of your comments on it, particularly the bad railroady start and the boring treasures. If I were to run it again I'd spruce it up a lot first.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "The key to a good gonzo game is that the silly is deadly seriousness for the characters."

    This is a wonderful mantra.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Always nice to hear from a new(?) reader that they are enjoying stuff I post. Here's a larger thought on the nature of gonzo games (and the source of the Poultry-Rex discussion)

      http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2013/02/thoughts-on-gonzo-games.html

      Delete
    2. Pretty new. I've been reading for a couple months now. I'll check it out!

      Delete
  6. You had the round numbers, but at least you didn't have the rats...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not the round numbers Keith, it's the boring. Everything should be round numbers - but it need not be boring - heck even Gygax managed that in 1978. Like in D4 - Vault of the drow everything is worth round numbers of GP. Yet, it's not borning, why because it's not all coinage. Like 2,000 GP platinum scroll case, sounds valuable and sounds like something a Drow commander would wave around to look decadent.

      A mummy's tomb? Why is it filled with coins. I mean there are actual reords of the cool stuff found in ancient Egyptian tombs, alabaster statuary, golden masks, chariots, incense, lapis inlays, silver jugs etc etc. Why not use that - it's not many additional words really.

      Rats, it's like the idea of a huge rat is disgusting and terrifying, but if you say "Giant Rat" the rpg gamer goes - "1/2 HD, AC 8, 1 ATK, DAM 1D4" or something. Call it a featherless vulture or feral lizard monkey and it's suddenly scary.

      Delete