Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
The early days of adventures at TSR had provided us with a lot of converted tournament adventures; indeed, most of the classics from this era (Giants, Drow and Slavelords) are of this type. By 1982, we were getting adventures specifically written for the purpose of being run at home rather than at conventions.
Tracy Hickman and his wife, Laura, had self-published two D&D adventures in 1980, but debts from a collapsed business had led to Hickman trying to sell his adventures to TSR. In one of the most significant decisions of the RPG industry, the folk at TSR chose to hire Hickman in addition to publishing his adventures. Gary Gygax was the most influential figure in the early days of D&D, but the influence of Tracy Hickman on D&D would prove just as important to the development of the game.
Hickman had published two adventures with his wife; both those adventures were now revised at TSR and republished. His first self-published adventure was Rahasia, which would see publication first by the RPGA and then later in the Basic line of adventures. The other adventure was Pharaoh, which saw wide-scale publication towards the end of 1982. (The original publication run by Hickman was less than 200 copies, possibly fewer than 20 remain; it's one of the rarest of D&D collectibles).
The design precepts of the Hickmans' original adventures were as follows:
1) A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
2) An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself.
3) Dungeons with an architectural sense.
4) An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time. (source)
The fourth precept went by the wayside as the adventures were expanded for TSR, but the first three precepts were core to most of Tracy Hickman's output at TSR. Pharaoh was originally just a dungeon adventure, but a wilderness section and new introduction were added during the development process.
Pharaoh begins with the characters being thrown into a desert and being told to deal with a problem with raiders; once they do so, they can be released. From then on, the adventure basically ignores this; it is just a device to get the group into the adventure. Instead, the group are soon drawn into the deeper story: the desert nation was cursed by its last Pharaoh. He himself was denied entry to the afterlife and, in an unnerving encounter, his ghost confronts the party and begs them to free his land. The group then have to make their way through his “theft-proof” pyramid and take his treasures to break the curse.
This strong core to the adventure - breaking a foolish man's curse on his land - is backed up by very strong dungeon design. The pyramid is made up of six levels: a temple and then five levels of the pyramid proper.
Inhabiting the temple is a group of dervishes who protect the pyramid from being despoiled. Interestingly, they're not just presented as combat fodder; a number of the chief characters have their personalities described, which allows meaningful interaction apart from just combat. The dervishes are worried because their chief priest has vanished - in fact, he accidentally was transported into the pyramid proper whilst praying in the Plundered Tomb, an area which is intended to fool tomb-robbers into thinking that they're too late to loot the pyramid.
The chief of the dervishes can be found in Kordan's Master Maze. Mazes are typically difficult to run in D&D - they take a lot of time to map and are boring for the rest of the players. Hickman's solution was to make the plan of the maze pretty simple, but to put in a lot of misty corridors that confused the party as to which direction they were going: a group could easily get completely turned around. Once you add the dopplegangers that inhabit this level, you have a lot of fun for the DM and a manageable level of frustration for the players. There are enough clues about (stench of carrion, sacks and coins) that the group should be able to get an idea of what is happening, though.
The chief dervish is not described in great detail, although it is noted that he and his companions will join the party if rescued, but still attempt to slay them if they despoil the tomb; it makes for some delightful tension and role-playing.
Several exits lead up to the Halls of the Upper Priesthood, where various undead lurk and wait to slay the party. A wonderful “trick” room, the Dome of Flight, gives access to the the Gauntlet level, which sees Hickman's first humorous gnome: Prit, who has been tunnelling through the pyramid with a spoon. His tunnels allow the group to bypass the extremely dangerous encounters of this level if they so desire, otherwise the group will have to fight the undead high priest of the Pharaoh.
Finally, a Mummy lies in the Tomb of Amun-Re, where the royal treasures must be taken from. It is quite possible to take the treasures without waking the mummy (something quite foreign to most adventures), but knowing how curious players can be, I'm sure most groups ended up fighting it.
The layout for this adventure is quite interesting: boxed text is abundant and describes each of the rooms. Then, Hickman uses paragraphs marked Play, Monster, Character, Treasure, Trap/Trick and Lore as necessary to describe the contents of the room. It's a far more structured style than seen in previous adventures, which greatly aids the readability of the adventure. The level of breaking up the text is occasionally excessive, but it does make the adventure easier to read and run.
There are a lot of empty rooms in the dungeon, as is common for this era of adventure design. They all have descriptions, however, which aids in keeping things interesting. There are still many inventive encounters: interesting tricks and traps, as well as role-playing possibilities and a fair share of combat. The design is excellent, and maintains interest thoroughout. What is particularly commendable is the frequent lore sections that allow the players (normally through decryption of the inscriptions on the tomb’s walls) to learn more about the history of the land and pyramid.
And then there’s the wilderness…
As noted above, Tracy and Laura Hickman wrote only the dungeon portion of this adventure for its original release. When Tracy Hickman was engaged by TSR, he was given a second desert-themed adventure by Philip Meyers, which would go on to be published as Oasis of the White Palm. I don’t know who made the decision to join the two adventures and make a greater series, but that is what occurred, and so Tracy Hickman developed the Oasis and constructed a plot linking it and the events of Pharaoh, as well as creating a third adventure in which all the events reached a conclusion.
In the second and third parts of the series – entitled the Desert of Desolation – the chief threat is an efreeti that is destroying the land. It is quite possible that this was part of Oasis of the White Palm from the start. In any case, Hickman added a section to Pharaoh in which the efreeti could be released by the adventurers – the Sunken City of Pazar. A statue at its entrance gives a corrupted version of Shelley’s poem, Ozymandius. “My name is Maniozimus. Look upon the ruins of the great city that surrounds you and despair…”
There is no particular problem with Pazar; it’s a perfectly fine small dungeon. The trouble with it comes when you try integrating it into the greater story: what happens if the adventurers never release the efreeti? It’s never addressed in the original adventures. In my own play, I’ve assumed that another group of adventurers released the efreeti (and are slain by it) if the group enter the second adventure without releasing it, but the moral consequences of having to save the desert peoples from a danger the group themselves released make for a much stronger story. This tension between railroading and the freestyle type of play is very evident in this adventure: there’s nothing actually forcing the group to go in a particular direction, but a group who completely ignores the pyramid and the Pharaoh’s request is likely to cause the DM a few troubles.
The rest of the wilderness is dedicated to showing how horrible the desert is, which drives the group towards “sanctuary” at the pyramid, and giving clues as to its two groups of feuding inhabitants: the Thune Dervishes are seen in this adventure, the Symbayan Airlancers appear in the sequel. Two new monsters also appear, the Dustdiggers, a starfish-like sand-dweller that works like a trapper, and the Thunderherders, a non-aggressive version of the Purple Worm which can cause a great deal of confusion as they pass – small earthquakes, stampeding animals, and so on and so forth.
In theory, the group could bypass the first adventure entirely and make their way into the Oasis of the White Palm (the maps join together), which just demonstrates home much weaker the addition of the wilderness makes the adventure. This isn't a pure sandbox adventure, however much it might resemble them, and requires some attention by the DM.
Physically, the adventure is very impressive: 32 pages with quite a number of interior illustrations and maps, and a double gatefold cover depicting all the dungeon maps, as well as a player’s version of the pyramid (given to them when they’re thrown into the dungeon) as well as a full-page coloured artwork depicting a group of adventurers fighting giant spiders in the Sunken City of Pazar. The artwork is by Jim Holloway, and has all of his normal defects when depicting humans and humanoids and, I believe, quite detracts from the feel the adventure needs; however, his front cover piece, depicting the ghost of Amun-Re and the pyramid is quite possibly Holloway’s best work for D&D and is fantastically effective.
Pharaoh is my favourite adventure for D&D. Partly this is due to the Egyptian theme – I react similarly well to Gary Gygax’s Necropolis – but it is also due to the strong design of its dungeon and its story. There are opportunities for exploration, combat and role-playing. With the exception of its beginning, Pharaoh does not railroad the players. Instead, it gives them the opportunity to change the world; to make a difference. Pharaoh cares as much about the end as the beginning of the adventure. An optional ending allows the DM to close things out if the players have succeeded in breaking the curse, and provides closure to the adventure. It was an auspicious start for Tracy Hickman’s tenure at TSR, and his further adventures would continue to explore the possibilities of the game.
The sand in the air drifts slowly to the earth below in silence and all is at it was. Yet not quite, for the silence is not complete. Down below, as yet unseen through the settling dust, lifts the coll sound of running water. The clearing air soon reveals a cracked pool, now overflowing with spring-clear water, and a long dead channel, taking, at each step, its own parched drink before passing the flowing river on. It will take time to heal this land, but there will be blossomes in the spring, for Athis has return from her exile – and with her comes life.