Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Retrospective: Master of the Desert Nomads

For reasons I've never quite understood, 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.


  1. I remember playing and DM-ing this module back in the mid-80s. I had a lot of fun with it.

  2. I've been running a C&C campaign for several months now - The Lost City first, and they just finished Castle Amber. Right now they are transitioning back to Darokin where I'll be running them through X4 and X5.

    Compared to the Lost City and Castle Amber I think we're all looking forward to something a bit ....well, a bit less silly as those Moldvay modules tended to be at times.

  3. As a side note, this module significantly expanded the Known World for the Basic/Expert or BECMI rules. X4 and X5 also significantly influenced the events of X10 Red Arrow Black Shield, though the timeline was advanced, which made it somewhat confusing when I first encountered it. X10 is interesting because it focused heavily on elements of the D&D endgame while also allowing side adventures. I never played it, so it is hard to tell how successfully it pulled this off, but I thought at the time that the side adventures seemed a little vanilla.

    Just as people complain about 4th edition cannibilizing old settings, it is interesting to me how 3rd edition grabbed old modules from the Known World (or Mystara) and plunked them down in Greyhawk or other places.

  4. I am now scouring the intertubes for this module. After a rework, it would fit splendidly in my campaign. I estimate my players are about two weeks away from completing the ToEE.

  5. Never played or ran this, but it always interested me. And I'm surprised Dave Cook is such a controversial figure; 2E wasn't really to my tastes, but it was hardly bad enough to make me want to curse Dave to the deepest darkest corners of the Pit. Meanwhile, I think it's time to dust off X4 for a re-reading...

  6. I've been unsuccessful obtaining a copy of this off ebay (for a reasonable price and a copy that's in good condition). It's on the top of my list of modules to get my grubby hands on. Seeing the cover of this module pop up on today's post, I will admit my eyes lit up. Looking forward to next week's Temple of Death review.

  7. One of my favorite set-pieces in the module is an eldritch environmental hazard. I sha'n't say more, not wishing to spoil the creepy fun.

    The monsters introduced in the module are excellent as well, they are especially valuable since B/X lacks the complicated cosmology of AD&D.

  8. Now I am going to have to unearth X4 and X5 to see if they live up to my fond memories. I went through these both as a player and a DM and enjoyed them immensely. Looking back at this moment I only have vague recollections of being chased by a giant battering ram, of good artwork and fighting in some kind of abbey.

  9. 2E is a great system to foster a dungeons and dragons experience. its way too similar to all the other editions to overlook that in place corny, nostalgic, false traditionalism where supposedly there was a "perfect object" of Dungeons and Dragons in any "one" edition. they all work. theyre all great to play.

    all that counts is how good of players you have and how good of an improvisational/storyteller your DM is to create a coalesce/scaffolding of imagination. all the system crap and "missing words" like Magic-User, etc... is all aesthetic bickering that really holds use value to the actual game.

    theres no "pure" D&D. there never was. it was changing the entire time (Which is the prime lesson of 2E in the first place if you read the intro/foreward). embrace the strange deformities and species of all the pre-d20 versions and have a good time.

  10. 2E is a great system to foster a dungeons and dragons experience.

    I don't want to start an editions war, but a lot of it is the lens through which you came to the hobby. There are a lot of people who remember 2e fondly because many of those who came to the game that recent still have some connection to the game. Unlike the great rise and bust of 1e that came from its brief period in mainstream culture.

    I have very technical, game design reasons for why I rank 2e below both 1e and 3e, but I won't go into them.

  11. Back on topic, I fondly remember DMing X10. Managing a campaign of that epic scope really influenced my take on RPG design. It helped me understand the balance of having solid, well-designed (and not arbitrary) rules that do not bog down the flow of the game.

  12. X4 an X5 are great! I often dream of running an epic 'Known World' campaign, starting with B1 and B2, moving onto B10, then X1, followed by X4 and X5, and culminating with X10. (Perhaps with X8 somewhere in there.)

    Some day...

  13. X4/X5 are wonderfully evocative setting-wise -- I would dream about them, lust about playing them. Possibly more than any other adventure.

    However, I'll counter the idea that it's a good "sandbox". I agree with everything in the post's 2nd-to last paragraph ("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").

    Moreover, the desert wilderness encounters are of the variety "these happen automatically regardless of where the PCs decide to go". In retrospect, I consider that the first, and single biggest straying into the "story uber alles" camp that I personally encountered. I've written bitterly about that particular sequence in the past (in fact, it might be the first essay I ever posted on my website).

    Oddly, back in the day, my group played X4 and then I found out the players had obtained X5 and read through all the contents -- so I aborted play of that module. Which (a) left me itching forever after to play it, but (b) magnificently set us up for the followup X10 (where the Master comes back with an all-out continental wargame), which is a module so good it makes my head hurt.

  14. Moreover, the desert wilderness encounters are of the variety "these happen automatically regardless of where the PCs decide to go". In retrospect, I consider that the first, and single biggest straying into the "story uber alles" camp that I personally encountered.. I've written bitterly about that particular sequence in the past (in fact, it might be the first essay I ever posted on my website).

    It's possible that this is a case where my own nostalgia for these modules, which I didn't run according as "story uber alles" principles, gets the better of me. I think the fact that it's still possible to do that is a point in its favor, but I readily admit that, as written, X4 does imposes more structure on play than I acknowledged.

  15. And you may have a point that with some additions and deletions there's a basis for a nice sandbox campaign there. Admittedly this was back when I was much more in a "run by rules-as-written" phase than now. There's a lot of great raw material in X4.

    Although to pile it on some more, I'm also not in favor of the red-herring plot (quest to find the army that doesn't exist anymore).

  16. "the red-herring plot (quest to find the army that doesn't exist anymore)"--Delta

    That's not a red herring. It's a MacGuffin. And, without it, the PCs would have to be either ignorant of the situation or fools to go into that desert.

  17. I blogged about these a couple years back:

    They really show the potential of straight B/X play, back before BECMI. Cook doing some of his best work.

  18. Oddly enough X5 Temple of Death held a confusing gem...The PCs stumble across the Well of the Moon and can gain Lycanthropy from it. Except that it isnt any specific Animal subtype of Lycanthropy.

    I'm thinking...Is this the First Time a Demihuman can be a Were-Demihuman of the Same name? What does a Were-elf look like?

  19. I combined 4 modules into a nice campaign, with this and Temple of Death being the last half. Instead of just joining and army and told what to do, I had the Master be the overall enemy for the entire adventure, so that once the first two modules were done, characters had a reason to go after the Master. They didn't know a war was going on until they reached Pramayama! And in that campaign I had run no other desert adventure, this module had a nice overland challenge with it.

    1. What were your first two modules @Tubbs? I am thinking of a short campaign with X4 and X5 as the centerpiece.