Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Retrospective: Tomb of the Lizard King

Depending on one's perspective, 1982 is either the penultimate year of D&D's Golden Age or close to the start of a transitional Electrum Age. These days, I incline more toward the latter interpretation and modules like 1982's Tomb of the Lizard King are part of the reason why. The module is written by Mark Acres, who's best known for his work on some of TSR's "lesser" RPG efforts (including my beloved Gangbusters). I was honestly surprised that Acres was its designer, as I hadn't recalled his ever writing anything for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I also think I had confused this module with Against the Cult of the Reptile God by Doug Niles, perhaps due to the presence of lizard men in both.

Before even looking at the contents of the module itself, the first thing that's obvious is that it makes use of the then-new trade dress for AD&D modules – the first module to do so, I believe, even though I more strongly associate it with Pharaoh, published the same year. Aside from the gold bar across the top – visually similar to the gold spines on books like Monster Manual IIanother notable feature is the AD&D logo with its distinctive draconic ampersand. Finally, Tomb of the Lizard King is billed as a "fantasy adventure module" rather than a "dungeon module" as were all its predecessors. Taken together, these changes demonstrate, I think, that AD&D was in the midst of a shift, esthetically if nothing else, away from its earlier form.

The adventure is written for levels 5–7 and includes eight pre-generated characters, as so many modules of the era did. I enjoy examining pre-generated characters, with an eye toward the power level of player characters presumed by the designer. The pre-gens here are pretty much in line with those of the time, with middling ability scores and hit points and comparatively few magic items. I prefer characters of this sort, but it's clear that, as time went on, this approach fell out of favor and presumed PC power increased considerably – a shift we'll see strongly during the Silver Age proper.

The adventure takes place on the plain of the River Ardo in the County of Eor, which has recently been beset by bandits. If none of those place names sound familiar, you're not alone. Tomb of the Lizard King is a "generic" module in that it's not specifically keyed to the World of Greyhawk setting, as most AD&D modules were at the time, if only tangentially. This is another shift worth noting, as it's one that becomes much more widespread as the 1980s wear on. In any case, the characters are asked by the Count of Eor (with the rather mundane name of John Brunis) to find out first what happened to the men he sent to deal with these bandits and who never returned and, if they can, to deal with the bandits themselves. 

Of course, the bandits are no ordinary highwaymen but rather a coalition of evil men and monsters assembled by Sakatha, the titular lizard king. Sakatha, we learn, died more than two centuries ago, slain, like all his kind, by the ancestors of the people of Eor. Dying on the battlefield, he begged whatever powers that might hear him to have his revenge. Sakatha then rose from the dead as a vampire and has slowly been building up his power base so that he could avenge himself and his people upon Eor. (I feel like I should add that, in addition to being a vampire, Sakatha is also a 9th-level magic-user, so he's quite powerful.)

It's a good set-up for an adventure in my opinion and, for the most part, it doesn't disappoint. The encounters throughout, both in the obligatory wilderness section and in several underwound locales, are very challenging. In fact, I'm not really sure that they're suitable for 5th–7th level characters, not without a great deal of luck and planning on the part of the players. In that respect, I think Tomb of the Lizard King is in keeping with earlier AD&D adventures, which demanded attentive play and skill to survive. However much its presentation may differ from those of earlier modules, its level of difficulty still feels as if it were a product of previous years.

That said, the module does suffer from a lack of flavor. Yes, Sakatha is a compelling and well fleshed out antagonist and that's important. However, the Count of Eor, the realm he rules, and even the wilderness the characters explore while in his employ all feel bland and generic. There's none of the details or idiosyncratic flourishes one would find in Gygax's adventures, let alone the overwrought melodrama of Hickman's efforts. Instead, this is a fairly bare bones affair that's notable mostly for its clever villain and demanding encounters. Perhaps that is enough.


  1. It IS enough, in my opinion. I just finished running this for my 1e group, and it was a hell of a good time! Of course, having had this module since the 80's, it's not the first time that I've run it, but it was the first time in over 20 years, I'm sure. The older modules gave you enough detail to work with without overwhelming you, which is how I feel the direction of later D&D modules (or adventures) went.

  2. It's also noteworthy for the Big Bad being quite an original and surprising idea back in the day. In 2022 the concept of a non-human vampire is tame, but back then a reptilian bloodsucker was quite the shock for a lot of players when they finally confront him. Adding magic user levels on top of that was icing on the cake.

    Very hard to recapture the surprise these days with the module having been around so long and the internet spoiling everything, but I still have fond memories of the "no way, he's a lizard man vampire?" moment on my playthrough way back when.

  3. I agree, its bare bones approach is enough. . And some of the illustrations, added flavor to our campaign. The pic of Barto Trume, the traumatized soldier with his mail shirt and migration era sword, suggested the campaign was set in a merovingian/carolingian era. my 2d, thanks for a great review of an old favorite

  4. From my experience, the genericness of the County made the adventure easy to place . . . and the tomb and the swamps were very entertaining. So much so I adapted it for GURPS and used it as a side-area in my own current GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaing:

    We ended up with a dozen or so sessions in the swamps and the dungeons themselves, and the BBEG ended up being an important connecting piece in my campaign. Good stuff - I enjoyed it back in the day and recently again.

    I ran this for my group some 15 years ago and found it decent but not excellent with a couple of flaws.
    The one that more or less stuck to my memory is the River of Nothingness and the caves that give access to the tomb proper.
    I think that's the worst written part of the module, and I dare say somewhat non-sensical.
    Either that, or I badly failed my DMing roll.

  6. I would have to change the name of the Count if I ran this, lest I fall foul of my players' inevitable "grumpy donkey" jokes.

  7. This is a module I always felt just needed a bit more rewrite to make it stand out. For example the backstory of Sakatha, pleading to the gods to let him come back from the dead, when in actuality, he has a ring of wishes and could have used one to heal him instantly back to health. Personally, I'd probably would have skipped the ring and vampire shenanigan's all together and have made him the last of the Lizardmen kings, wrecking havoc on the lands with his motley crew of orcs and bad guys.

    1. That assumes he had the ring before he became undead. I don't recall that being an established fact. As a vampire he'd have no reason to wish himself back to mere mortality - D&D vamps aren't generally angsty bemoan-my-fate types.

    2. He had the ring before his undeath: first he wished himself magical abilities...later he wished to return from death and drink the blood of his enemies.

  8. Having run I2 at least once or twice back in the day, it's pretty dragon ambushes have a tendency to TPK or (at least) discourage parties from further participation.

    However, I think the real downgrade of the module is the beginning of extensive box text and railroady-ness that comes right from the opening "scenes" of the adventure. Aside from the trade dress, THIS more than anything marks a departure from earlier adventures (compared, for example, to I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City). Admonitions against allowing clerics of high enough level to render the adventure "too easy," allowing special snowflake NPCs to escape brutal PC justice, etc....I2 included many precursors of bad things to come.

  9. If there is no appearance made by Jim Morrison I am not interested.