I've mentioned before that, back in the day, my friends and I didn't really distinguish between "D&D" and "AD&D." Indeed, the distinction between them was somewhat baffling to us, since we freely bought and used products for both game systems to use in our weird Holmes/AD&D/Moldvay mishmash campaigns. A good case in point of this principle in action was 1982's The Lost City, the final part of what I call Tom Moldvay's "Pulp Fantasy Trilogy," the previous two installments being The Isle of Dread and Castle Amber. That the module was sold as part of the B-series aimed at players of the 1981 Basic Rules didn't matter one whit to me. I simply thought the module's premise was really cool, which trumped any consideration of TSR's ridiculous attempts at brand management.
The Lost City's connection to pulp fantasy is readily apparent, as it presents a decadent subterranean civilization of great antiquity (Cynidicea) in the thrall of a foul alien being known as Zargon, whom many worship as a god. The player characters are flung headlong into this civilization, which is riven with factions and secret societies, each of which has its own plots and goals. Success in this module is judged at least in part by how adeptly the PCs can navigate the treacherous waters of Cynidicean society in order to achieve their own goals, whatever they may be.
What's interesting is that the module itself consists largely of a dungeon crawl inside a ziggurat buried in the sand. The ziggurat itself is a well-presented low-level dungeon (with the obligatory wight encounter -- nearly every introductory module includes an encounter with these undead, it seems), but what attracted me to the module was the aforementioned subterranean civilization and its factions, which are only briefly sketched out in the actual text of the module. Yet, that brief sketch is pregnant with ideas, many of which sustained my campaign for weeks and months. What Moldvay did here is nothing short of remarkable. He presented us with a mini-sandbox campaign setting that reminds me both of Howard's "Red Nails" and Paul Jaquays's The Caverns of Thracia, but in a format more readily accessible to inexperienced referees.
I can't stress enough how inspirational I found this module when I first read it. Even now, I consider it the best thing Moldvay ever wrote and one of the great adventures of the Golden Age. Compare it to its AD&D contemporary, Pharaoh, which was released in the same year, and Moldvay's genius is all the more apparent. The Lost City is a bit of a throwback in many ways. It presents no story; it's almost pure location and so much of that location is left to the referee to develop for himself, aided only by a few short paragraphs and some maps provided by the module. Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- I find myself continually drawn back to The Lost City, whereas Pharaoh, a module I loved when it was released in 1982, no longer holds much appeal to me.
I find it a pity that it was Hickman's epic storylines that carried the day rather than Moldvay's evocations of pulp fantasy like this one. More than 25 years later, it's hard to judge whether the former created an audience for that style of adventure or whether it simply catered to an already-existing one that Moldvay's style wasn't serving. Either way, The Lost City is an overlooked masterpiece and a reminder of the amazing creativity of the late Tom Moldvay. He is deeply missed.