The Desert of Desolation
This Kickstarter is about writing great adventure modules. The designers involved all took inspiration from the adventure-designers who came before them. As part of the Kickstarter we've asked the contributors to discuss the great adventures that inspired them. Previously we've heard about The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Secret of the Slavers Stockade, and Castle Amber. And now, here is Jean Rabe to tell us how the Desert of Desolation series shaped her perspective as an adventure designer.
Falling in Love in the Desert
By Jean Rabe
It was all the sand.
I fell in love with DMing and writing my own adventures because of Tracy and Laura Hickman’s Desert of Desolation series. They penned a perfect meld of story, magic, and monsters. I stretched the three adventure modules out so they would last a long, long while; the players could explore every inch of the arid wastes; and I would get that proverbial bang for my hard-earned sheckles. (My gaming budget was quite lean in those years.)
- I3, Pharaoh, Tracy and Laura Hickman
- I4, Oasis of the White Palm, Tracy Hickman and Philip Meyers
- I5, Lost Tomb of Martek, Tracy Hickman
Pharaoh was first published in 1980 by DayStar West Media, a game company the Hickmans owned. It was expanded and published by TSR two years later for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. Oasis of the White Palm and Lost Tomb of Martek were published in 1983. The three became a single 128-page product, a “super-module” in the summer of 1987 for the Forgotten Realms setting. You can still find them—separately and in super-module form—on eBay and through collectible game markets. And it is available as a PDF bundle from Dungeon Masters Guild online.
I ran it for my game group back in the early eighties, before it was keyed to any specific setting. A student of Egyptian history, I adored the flavor and attention to detail. It taught me a lot about adventure design, especially in how to make the setting a crucial component, as much a factor as anything a villain could do to thwart the heroes. It made me realize I could borrow from real-world history to craft my own fantasy tales. And it showed me how important it is to let every character class play a necessary part in achieving final success.
Despite all the years that have fallen in between my buying Pharaoh, and the myriad scenarios I have written or run, those three modules remain my favorite. I even reran part of it a summer ago, refitting it for the Pathfinder game…thirty-three years down the road from the first time I cracked it open. Ahhhhhh—the desert was still just as glorious.
Jim Holloway painted the original cover art, Amun-re in the forefront, pyramids behind him, an eerie moon hanging high, a magical mist swirling just above the sand that hinted at horror. When I went to work for TSR in 1987, I had the pleasure of meeting Tracy and Laura Hickman and Jim Holloway…I count them all friends now. I have a few Holloway pieces hanging on my walls—but not of his precious, memorable desert.
“Back in the day,” TSR’s modules were blessedly simple on the inside—black print on white pages, basic artwork, great maps, no frills. As the years went by the company printed some of its products on muted tone parchment-looking paper, sometimes with brown ink, sometimes with color interiors, elaborate and overlarge maps, fancy fonts. I still prefer the simple black on white…easier to read, to highlight, and to make notes in the margins. The design aesthetics of the later years were lost on me because from a DM’s standpoint they were unnecessary. I just needed the adventure, and all the colorful and artsy staging should come from my running of it and should dance vividly in the players’ imaginations. I think the company could have saved a lot of money if it had kept things simple.
The Desert of Desolation delivered everything a DM and her players could need: an exotic setting, a desperate mission, magnificent treasure, and near-death experiences at the claws of powerful foes. The background read like a fine piece of fiction. “I am the pharaoh Amun-re, son of Takosh-re of the House of Mo-pelar. I am now only a shadow….” The Hickmans knew—and know—how to weave a story.
Tension, humor (a gnome named Prit who tunnels with a spoon), terror, enchantments…there was nothing lacking. Okay, it takes a gimmick to get it rolling, an event that transports the characters to the desert and forces them to take part. I remember a player grumbling about that. But I also remember the player having a fine time and not sure at the end if his character should go back “home.” He’d become rather attached to the setting.
For me it wasn’t just another “dungeon crawl,” it was an epic, a story the characters wrote as I led them through the pages of a desert nation that had been foully cursed by its last pharaoh. It had an intriguing plot peppered with twists, traps, and a fine assortment of beasties to bash.
Denied a path the afterlife, the ghost of Amun-re begs the characters’ aid. He claims to need his treasures to defeat the curse. So it’s part maguffin hunt. Awesome. The characters must explore a six-level temple and pyramid. So it’s part crawl. Wonderful. It has a cult bent on protecting the place…with personalities to encourage role-playing above hack-n-slash. Great. And there are empty rooms that let me throw in my own encounters. Nice. Those empty rooms provided my first platform for game-related design; I started to create my own after that, and had several published by TSR.
As Pharaoh played out you could feel the sun, the heat, imagine your skin blistering and your throat tightening for lack of water, the grit swirling around and pelting your burning eyes. You could sense the wonder at the massive pyramids that rose in the vast barren stretches.
Every character class in the D&D game got to shine—fighters because there were, indeed, things that needed bashing; thieves because there were plenty of traps to maneuver around; wizards because magic was required above steel and fists to best some of the challenges; clerics because this realm was rich with faith and mysticism. The adventure was so well designed that no one character class outshined another; every player had equal opportunities to be at the center of the action. And there were objects in the treasures useful to all the classes.
It’s got a mummy in it—pyramids, ya know…there has to be a mummy. In both my runnings of the adventure—in the early eighties and a summer past—the characters woke it up. And neither time did they need to. It’s the lever-factor, the button…gotta pull it or push it, or in the mummy’s case prod it to see what happens.
After Pharaoh concluded, the Oasis of the White Palm kicked in with a vile efreeti intent on destroying the desert. The characters inadvertently release the fiend and so are faced with the task of making things right.
There are dervishes, dustdiggers, thunderherders, and Symbayan Airlancers, giant spiders, a sunken city, and exploding fruit. There is a bride to rescue and a crypt to plunder.
And there are three “star gems,” which are used to trigger parts of the scenarios. It is not intended for the characters to keep the powerful gems, and there are safeguards to prevent it. My players…ah, my players were clever and crafty and determined. They found a way around the “boxed text.” Their characters got those star gems. They were having such a grand time; I certainly was not going to deny them.
I think it was all the sand.
Jean Rabe learned to play Dungeons & Dragons from the white box more years ago than she wants to admit. It was in the con suite at WindyCon…where she met Joe Haldeman (before he won all those awards and became famous…and she’s since published some of his short stories in her anthologies). She’s enjoyed RPGs ever since…AD&D, Star Wars, Champions, and 77 Lost Worlds. Once upon a time she worked at TSR, Inc. in Lake Geneva, running the Role-Playing Games Association (RPGA); she designed scenarios, monsters, and big robots for TSR and other game companies.