Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Retrospective: Pharaoh

Module I3, Pharaoh, was a minor revelation to me in 1982, when it was released. I don't know that it was in fact the first module TSR published after it had changed AD&D's logo and trade dress -- I suspect it wasn't -- but it's the one "new look" module whose appearance is forever seared in my memory. I'm generally very ambivalent about Jim Holloway's art. He definitely has a flair of the "extraordinary ordinary," but he also has a tendency to veer too wildly into Three Stooges territory, with illustrations lacking either in the whimsy of Tom Wham or the quirkiness of Will McLean. But the cover of Pharaoh is moody, evocative piece of work and it really won me over at the time. Of course, it helps that I'm a big fan of ancient Egypt, but that shouldn't minimize the power of Holloway's artwork or how it signaled to me that the times they were a-changin' for D&D.

Pharaoh is, in some respects, more and less an example of the Hickman Revolution than is the later Ravenloft. It's less, because, even moreso than Ravenloft, it's a first class old school dungeon crawl. The Pyramid of Amun-Re, though small in size, packs a lot of punch in terms of its fiendish inventiveness. It's chock full of great puzzles and well-conceived traps, some of which are sufficiently elaborate to require diagrams to explain properly. That's something you don't see much nowadays. The maps of the Pyramid's various levels are very nice too. They're rendered in 2-D without the need for the over-hyped isometric cartography of Ravenloft, since a simple cross-section drawing of the Pyramid achieves the same effect without any fuss. The levels themselves adhere to a number of old school design principles too, allowing lots of lateral movement and offering plenty of choices about how to proceed. One level is made up of a large maze that causes magical confusion and disorientation, demanding that the players keep their wits about them if they ever hope to find their way out.

On the other hand, Pharaoh is explicitly billed as "The 1st module in the DESERT OF DESOLATION series." While it is eminently playable in its own right, its sequels, Oasis of the White Palm and Lost Tomb of Martek are much less stand-alone. Likewise, even within Pharaoh, there's a powerful undercurrent of a larger story above and beyond the characters' stumbling upon a cursed pyramid while wandering in the desert. A lot of the module is given over to providing background and in-game "texts" intended to advance this story along. Within Pharaoh alone, this can be ignored without too much difficulty, but, once a referee has committed himself to the module's sequels, there's no escaping it. In this respect, I3 is far more committed to the project of remaking the concept of an "adventure module" than is I6, which, for all its melodramatic excesses, is but a single -- and fairly simple -- story, not the kick-off to an epic story of prophecies and legends in the making.

I still like Pharaoh a great deal; it's proof that, for all the changes his work wrought on D&D, Tracy Hickman knew how to craft a very fine dungeon crawl. As a younger man, I played the heck out of this series and loved every minute of it. Pharaoh is definitely a product strongly grounded in the old school but you can see that it's trying fitfully to break free from its conventions. In its day, that was seen as a very good thing; goodness knows I loved it. Now, I feel a lot more ambivalent about its approach.

20 comments:

  1. This module has a lot of problems.

    While in one way it seems to be a marvelous little sandbox (teeheehee, but really, check out the first map set inside the cover!), the actual options within the desert are very shallowly described, except for the set-pieces of each of the modules.

    On one hand, that's good traditional design. "Here's the area, here are the important bits for our current purposes... go wild with the rest of them."

    But it really is a linear series. You need to go to point A before point B and you're screwed if you get to point C before doing specific other things - campaign over. So it's really a "false sandbox."

    But the module, and series, pretty much DEMANDS that the party go to that sunken city (made up of seven rooms...) and free the Pasha. That's pretty weak, and I wonder how much back-bending DMs back in the day really had to do to make that happen. Surely the impact of this thing running around in the series is completely lost if it wasn't the PCs who goofed and caused it...

    Not to mention the "read this" prologue for the adventure is downright insulting. And what group of 6-8 level 5-7s is going to get arrested and tossed on their ass in a desert without a fight? Who could do that to them?

    If this had just been a pyramid, and some desert locations (filled out a bit more in the space freed by dropping the plot), this could have been simply awesome. As it is... ay ay ay ay.

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  2. "Likewise, even within Pharaoh, there's a powerful undercurrent of a larger story above and beyond the characters' stumbling upon a cursed pyramid while wandering in the desert. A lot of the module is given over to providing background and in-game 'texts' intended to advance this story along..."

    Agree with the previous poster. I own the I3-5 modules as part of my collection, but I've never had the faintest whiff of desire to run them. If I get attracted the module cover (and it's nice), I open up the text, see the railroady plot thread inside, and immediately put it down. There's just too much time, energy, and pagecount dedicated to the Hickman story for me to consider excising it away.

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  3. I think this was the first (and last) Hickman mod I was a player in. It has some funhouse-esque elements (exploding pineapples, I'm looking at you...wasn't their some kind if fruity flies also?) which had us rolling our eyes...

    Not a great module...although we'd always get a rise out of the DM when we called it the Temple of Ham-on-Rye.


    Although Pritt the insane gnome? was commandeered as a lackey, which provided some fun in later modules....

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  4. I think Pharaoh is a great base for an adventure, but definitely requires customization and tweaking. The intro of the adventure is extremely railroady, but also easily jettisoned.

    It definitely features the best PNP maze I've ever seen; unlike a traditional maze, the one in Pharaoh really exploits the strengths of old school mapping and exploring.

    And I love JM's term "extraordinary ordinary" concerning Holloway. The module cover is indeed, great, but the interior art is amazingly bland and spiritless.

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  5. James, you have mail.

    @JimLotFP-
    Interestingly the Daystar-West version of the mod did not have any introduction aside from the chant found in the intro (it was 10 times longer though according to the Acaeum). If you want to play this in its daystar glory, cut out all the wilderness encounters and focus only on the Pyramid. That is all it was when it was written in 1980, a pyramid in the desert. The Intro to I3 and the subsequent mods are completely the beginning of TSRs Empire Builder days.

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  6. And I just realised that I have been mispelling Pharaoh for the last 6 hours!

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  7. I played through this and its sequel with the DM having converted it to 3.5 D&D; we found it a slog and heavy going - I believe the DM cut out a chunk when we were clearly getting bored, and we were glad to finish it. I certainly never had any sense of an open, sandbox sort of environment, in play it felt very linear.

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  8. I've been to Ham-on Rye. It's a quiet little place, but has good book shops.

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  9. James---

    How does the "series-ness" of I3-5 fit into your issues with the storyline, in particular in comparison to the G/D modules and A1-4, both of which predate I3-5 and which have some levels of story associated with them.

    Allan.

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  10. I'll take a stab at grodog's question. The crown-jewel-distinction is that I3-5 has a prescripted "climax scene" and, say, G/D does not.

    The waterfall from that is that I3-5 has a whole bunch of particular places the PCs must go, specific things they must say and do in a particular order, NPCs they must interact with in a particular fashion, and pagecount spent on meta-plots which are going to unfold regardless of PC desires. G/D doesn't have any of that.

    But it's always a prescripted "climax scene" at the end which is the biggest signal that that's going to be how a given adventure is designed.

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  11. If this had just been a pyramid, and some desert locations (filled out a bit more in the space freed by dropping the plot), this could have been simply awesome. As it is... ay ay ay ay.

    I know what you mean, believe me. The module is quite flawed and laid the groundwork for a lot of mischief that followed. I still think there's some salvageable material in the Pyramid dungeon, which is generally quite well done and a good example of late old school design.

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  12. There's just too much time, energy, and pagecount dedicated to the Hickman story for me to consider excising it away.

    Again, no disagreement from me, though I do very much like the Pyramid dungeon levels.

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  13. It definitely features the best PNP maze I've ever seen; unlike a traditional maze, the one in Pharaoh really exploits the strengths of old school mapping and exploring.

    That alone keeps me from dismissing this module entirely, despite its many other flaws.

    And I love JM's term "extraordinary ordinary" concerning Holloway. The module cover is indeed, great, but the interior art is amazingly bland and spiritless.

    The interior artwork is terrible. I find Holloway very hit or miss and in this module it's entirely miss.

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  14. I certainly never had any sense of an open, sandbox sort of environment, in play it felt very linear.

    I don't think it's meant to be very open, but it can be played that way if you give short shrift to the pre-scripted plot, which is what I did back in the day. Play "straight," though, I suspect it's not much fun.

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  15. Allan,

    I think Delta pretty much hit all the points I'd have made. The difference between this series and, say, the GDQ series is that the "Desert of Desolation" assumes not only a conclusion, but also that certain "scenes" will occur along the way. The GDQ series makes no such assumptions.

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  16. I think I missed the Desert of Desolation modules completely, but you can find some nice miniatures on Ebay on the cheap from the series.

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  17. That's interesting about the Daystar West version! These are great examples of modules to which "less is more" might apply. The later compilation book is the only version I have, and I think it lays on even more baggage.

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  18. Imagine replacing the column inches devoted to "plot tokens" with reusable tools for the DM depicting the larger environment, so that the trilogy ended up being thereby that much more than the sum of its parts.

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  19. It has been a long while since I played in Desert of Desolation...in fact, not since they were published.

    I actually think it depends when you joined the hobby is when you feel the way that you do. For I absolutely hate the beginnings of D&D which were dungeoncrawls without story. Pharoah, as you stated here and elsewhere was the beginning of something different. It is a pity that this type of sweeping campaign did not go farther IMHO.

    I remember agonizing over how to integrate different modules into a seemless campaign (even as a Teen) I did not have much time. The Hickman Revolution came at the right time...although, I despised Dragonlance, as I saw it as a subtle attempt to displace Greyhawk (my players home base) and the whole background was too extensive without reading the novels (which again I did not have time for ~ how ironic for a future librarian).

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  20. The Desert of Desolation series were essentially the first modules I went through as a player back when I was a kid. (I was almost always the DM of our group of friends.) It made a big impact on me back then, not just because I was finally getting a chance to play, but also because I was (and still am) a big fan of all things dealing with ancient Egypt. I recently got a chance to purchase these modules again and it represents the first time in almost 30 years that I have had to actually read the things myself... and I have to say I am a little underwhelmed.

    The fact that the series is a railroad doesn't bother me too much... I remember that from back in the day. I don't really think it would require all that much effort to make things more of a “sandbox-style”. What really struck me was the lack of imagination when it came to the various monsters and traps. (Especially in the Pharaoh module.) Don't get me wrong, back in the day I had a great time figuring things out, but now as an adult I find most of the traps kind of boring and lacking in Egyptian flavor. Not to mention the extremely lengthy “runes” that are spread everywhere that pretty much hand-hold the players through all the tricks. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the Necropolis adventure that was put out by Gygax under the Mythus system. (Now, Necropolis... THAT was a freaky, dangerous module with perplexing traps and a truly Egyptian flavor!) The Desert of Desolation series is more like Egypt-lite with a very strong mix of Arabic-style culture. These two cultures aren't completely incompatible, but it doesn't feel like the authors actually knew all that much about either.

    I also mentioned that the choice of monsters in this series was lacking in imagination as well. For example, the same set of undead appear as wandering monsters in almost all of the encounter areas and efreet and djinni keep turning up as the only genie choices. (Perhaps this was before the jann, marid, and dao made their first appearance in the game system?) I mean, Egyptian and Arabic mythology are both rich in monster ideas that could be used to flesh out the flavor of these modules. (Where are the crocodiles, jackals, falcons, lions, and snakes... just to name a few basic animal types?) Heck, even Babylonian mythology could be tapped here without stretching the style of the series' mish-mash cultural background.

    Despite my rather critical observations above, I still find much to like in this series regardless. The overall tone of the adventures are pretty cool... rival dervish clans battling over lost temples in a sea of dust while a war of genies takes place in the sky over everyone's head. And a good number of the tricks and traps are indeed compelling (the black abyss and the mobius tower come to mind) even if they due require a bit of spit and polish to fix minor inconsistancies. Overall, the Desert of the Desolation series needs a bit more work than I normally expect out of a finished module, but the good things that are hidden in there are good enough to merit the effort in my opinion.

    (I should also mention that the way the encounter descriptions are presented in the modules is extremely clunky and awkward to read. I guess this was supposed to be the brilliant new design system TSR came up with to make adventures easier to read for the average fellow? Bah! I still look to The Forgotton Temple of Tharizdun for the best example of concise and easy-to-read encounter descriptions.)

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