David Cook is a divisive figure in old school circles. To some, his shepherding of the second edition of AD&D overshadows everything else he did while at TSR. Regardless of one's feelings toward 2e (and my own, if I ever articulated them in depth, would probably earn me anathematization -- that's a joke BTW), I don't think it fair to make it the sole criterion by which to judge Cook's contributions to the hobby. For myself, I tend to think of him primarily as an adventure designer, both for his Dwellers of the Forbidden City, perhaps my favorite adventure of all time, and his "Desert Nomads" series, the first part of which I'd like to discuss today.
Module X4, Master of the Desert Nomads, was published in 1983 and, while theoretically stand-alone, it's really an extended introduction to module X5, The Temple of Death. That's either a boon or a bane depending on one's point of view. As a younger person, I definitely felt it was a good thing, since it gave Cook ample time to flesh out the wilderness of the Great Waste, from which the eponymous desert nomads have launched their attacks against civilized lands. X4 thus tends toward being, no pun intended, a sandbox module without much in the way of direction for either the players or the referee. It's a classic example of a location-based adventure and I loved it for its open-endedness, a virtue I appreciate even more nowadays.
Master of the Desert Nomads isn't a pure sandbox, though, as it does provide a weak framing device: the PCs are recruited as part of an army to take the fight to the desert nomads on their home turf, but they arrive too late to the staging area and must hurry on their own to catch up with the army as it prepares to fight the nomads led by the mysterious "Master" (or "Black Master," as he's sometimes called). With that established, the PCs are thrown on their own devices to find the army, along the way encountering monsters, NPCs, and hazards of various sorts, some of which give them clues about the nature of the Master and his evil plans. Their journeys culminate in the discovery of an ancient abbey, where things are not what they seem. The abbey is the main non-wilderness portion of the module and it remains a favorite of mine.
Re-reading X4, I will admit that it's neither as good as Dwellers of the Forbidden City nor even as good as I remembered its being. Though published only two years after Dwellers, there's a definite shift in the module's presentation, with more examples of heavy-handed NPCs who push the characters to and fro and injunctions to the referee to help the players if they get into trouble. I don't think these things irreparably harm the module, as they feel more like pro forma asides than integral to its content, but I won't deny that I was disappointed to see them nonetheless. On the other hand, Master of the Desert Nomads has a delightfully pulpy feel to it, particularly so in the abbey, which reminds me of something out of a Clark Ashton Smith tale. Likewise, the Great Waste is a fun, fantasy wilderness for adventuring -- no Gygaxian naturalism here.
For all that, I still like Master of the Desert Nomads, though not as much as its companion module, which I'll discuss next week. It rather nicely comports with my style of play circa 1983, which was heavily influenced by Cook's own Expert Rules, which is where D&D told me what it was about. Were I running a campaign with characters in the 8th-10th level range, I might well dust off these two modules and throw them at my players. I suspect we'd all have a very good time with them.