Wednesday, November 16, 2022


The last couple days I've been going through the old TSR modules I3: Pharaoh, I4: Oasis of the White Palm, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek. Pharaoh was Laura and Tracy Hickman's first (self-published) adventure module prior to their being hired on at TSR...along with Rahasia, it was on the strength of this module that the couple were acquired. I've owned the TSR version of Pharaoh...and the its sequel titles...for decades. I first ran I4 for several cousins at a Christmas gathering in Port Angeles, circa 1986 or '87. I ran the entire trilogy for my brother and his friends circa '88 or '89.

I don't think I've looked at them since. And it shows as, in more than a decade of writing this blog, I've mentioned them only a couple times...and then only briefly. 

[oh, what's all this about then? Aren't I supposed to be continuing my prior post about "adventures?" Yeah, I am. Is this a sign that I'm procrastinating? Probably. Still figuring out how I want to start and whether or not it needs to be a two-parter. Patience, folks! I'll get to it!]

So why am I looking for them now? Well, in considering fitting the entirety of the War of the Lance campaign (a campaign played out on a rather small continent) into my little corner of fantasy reality, I started thinking about the Hickman's other noteworthy creation (not Ravenloft): the Desert of Desolation trilogy. After all, the desert was a magical, cursed big is it that it couldn't be laid over a corner of my world?  

Welp, it turns out...not very big at all. The area it encompasses is about 90 miles across its longest axis and 50 miles the other way. It's too much area to wedge in south of the Palouse (where I would have liked to have it), but it would be pretty easy to throw in that southeast corner of Oregon.  Just means I have to actually develop Oregon, a world building exercise I'm NOT extremely enthused about.

But WHY Desolation? Well, it's in that low/mid-range level of adventures. My players are in that range. And they were pre-Dragonlance/story garbage, so they should, okay? And they're well-written/laid out (i.e. nice and clear for reading) so prep is minimal. And I do have fond memories of would my memories hold up upon analysis with my old, veteran (geezer) eyes.

How indeed.

I3: Pharaoh is "designed for a party of six to eight players of the 5th to 7th levels of experience." I4: Oasis of the White Palm is written for characters of level 6th to 8th. I5: Lost Tomb of Martek is written for levels 7th to 9th. Reading this we can infer that a party of the proper number should expect to gain a level of experience upon completion of each portion of the trilogy (or, at least, after finishing the first two portions).

SO...a party of the maximum size (eight) should EXPECT to receive enough x.p. to level them from 5th to 6th level after I3 and from 6th to 7th after I4. Everyone groks this, right? A 5th level fighter needs 17,000 experience points to rise to 6th level, but I think it's okay peg this at 15.5, considering almost all fighters should receive a 10% bonus, given the ability score guidelines in the PHB. So, 15.5 x 8 = 124K. Now, for me, I'd probably want that entire amount (124,000) available in potential treasure found, especially in a trap/trick-heavy dungeon like Pharaoh, but I'd be satisfied with 60%-70% considering monster encounters and the possibility of selling unwanted magic items (yes, there is such a thing in AD&D). So, let's call it 74K - 86K worth of treasure at minimum.

A quest-giving ghost isn't
bad...but what if the cleric turns it?
How much does Pharaoh offer? 72,335 worth (if one counts the Star of Mo-Pelar as a gem of seeing). And that's pretty close to right! Especially when one understands the Hickman's presume goody-good adventurers who will most likely sell that libram of ineffable damnation for 40,000 rather than retaining (and using) it for 8,000. 104,000 x.p.? Not bad. And while the distribution isn't great (just under 33% of numbered encounters have treasure)'s OKAY (B/X distribution is one-to-three, but I prefer my AD&D adventures to have more of a 40-50% ratio). Yes, the Hickmans had some design chops, back in the day.

Oasis of the White Palm, unfortunately, is not quite as good. A group of eight 6th level PCs of the fighter variety would need 255K (including 10% bonus) to achieve 7th level...the minimum suggested for the final part of the trilogy. I4 (credited to Tracy Hickman and Philip Meyers) provides only a bit more than 62,000 (62,519, to be exact), of which barely more than 35K is monetary treasure. 

A couple quick caveats: there is MORE treasure than that in the adventure, but acquiring it would require the PCs to rob/kill the many good-aligned NPCs that they are supposed to be aiding (I don't think that's the authors' intention!). The players are working for a Sheik Kassim Arslan, who does offer "the wealth of my tent" in exchange for the PCs' help which means, taken literally, that he could dig up another 17,250 worth of treasure experience (16,250 x.p. worth is actual monetary treasure). BUT...would the leader of his tribe REALLY give up a decanter of endless water (considering they're a band of desert nomads!)? Would he bankrupt his clan out of gratitude? Um...

Even so, that's under 80K in treasure experience. Even if we gave 'em that 60% leeway you're only about halfway to where you need to be (you'd want over 152,000). This is TERRIBLE...especially considering the overall quality of the module (in comparison to other modules of the time) and the attention displayed in I3. Quite possibly Oasis was rolled out with less play-testing (I3 had been developed over several years prior to its TSR publication in 1982; I4 was published in 1983).

Anyway, it IS possible to get the treasure count higher: by selling all the crap magic items that are present throughout the adventure. Four maces +1. Chainmail +2, plate +1. A scimitar +1, shield +2, sword +2. 6 arrows +1 and a potion of gaseous form. And...hoo boy!...more cursed magic items than I've EVER seen in a single adventure; here's the full list:

Potion of poison, incense of obsession (x2!), phylactery of monstrous attention, periapt of foul rotting, necklace of strangulation, helmet of opposite alignment, and the skull of cargath (an evil artifact that injures non-evil clerics if used). Of course, there's also a libram of gainful conjuration that only functions for neutral magic-users and drive NON-magic-users insane. 

I mean, it's really notable just how shitty the treasure is in this adventure. 20,000 g.p. worth of the monetary treasure comes from a pair of gemstone eyes in a statue that will PROBABLY BE DESTROYED by the PCs as the statue summons a relentless hoard of monsters so long as the eyes are functioning, and they may be destroyed far more swiftly than pried out (resulting in the total treasure "take" to be reduced substantially). Likewise, two of the major opponents in the adventure are DROW (in the desert! In the freaking desert!!) armed with all the usual Drow goodies (magic weapons, armor, cloaks, boots, etc.) ALL of which dissolve in sunlight (and such is stated in the module text). Did I mention this adventure takes place in a DESERT?

*sigh* Now I feel bad for pumping the tires on this module.  I'm going to blame the absence of Laura from the design process, but...poorly done, Oasis. Poorly done.

Lastly, we come to I5: Lost Tomb of Martek (credited solely to Tracy Raye Hickman). Assuming, somehow, we get the character to the minimum suggested level (7th) to tackle this, will they find the adventure "rewarding?" How does 127,000 experience points worth of potential treasure sound? To me, it sounds like "not much" for a party of eight 7th level characters. Considering a fighter is looking for 55,000 x.p. to advance (and an 8th level character would be looking for 125K!!!) that's a pretty small dent in the overall pie needed to level up.

"But JB! They don't NEED to level up at the end of this epic adventure do they?" No, I suppose not. But 80+ numbered encounters (in I5 alone)? How many sessions to navigate this thing? How many months spent playing out the entirety of this trilogy? Still: here's the part that REALLY chaps my hide:

There are only eight encounter areas in the entire adventure module that contain treasure. That's less than 1-in-10.  That SUCKS.

And really only SIX encounter areas...because at the end of the adventure, after you've gone through all the time, space, distance distortion levels and fought upteen monsters (many the same-same types of monsters) and halve faced untold frustrations with the crazy tricks/traps...after all THAT you get to Martek's dimensionally displaced tomb and see his treasure halls (three different chambers) with wealth so vast that the thieves that beat you there have LITERALLY DIED OF HEART ATTACKS FROM GLIMPSING THE TREASURE and you (DM) get the following instructions from the module:
Everything in the citadel. including all treasure, cannot be taken out of the citadel without Martek's permission. All of Martek's treasure has been magically enchanted so that it cannot be removed from this citadel. Only Martek can remove that enchantment, so unless he says it can go, it stays.
So, guess what: the PCs don't get to cart off all the treasure. IF they raise Martek from the dead (the goal of the adventure) he thanks the PCs and allows each to select THREE items from the hoard of items available. That 127K figure I came to? That's from assuming you have an average (surviving) party size of six and are selecting the 18 most profitable (in terms of x.p.) items from the hoard.

Still, it would be unfair not to point that many of these items are rare, "big ticket" types, easily worth three to five times their value on the open market: a lot of magical books (including a book of infinite spells), a dancing sword, a nine lives stealer, a shield +5. Selling those items (instead of retaining them) would make for a fairly profitable haul...AND keep the party's inventory of enchanted items manageable.

[for what it's worth, Lost Tomb of Martek is also mercifully devoid of cursed magic items]

When it comes to AD&D, selling magic items is both valid and necessary with regard to the game economy. It doesn't mean that there are "magic shops" in your game world (*barf*)...generally, the DM simply hand waves the sale and the item vanishes from play, replaced with a pile of gold (and x.p.). You can make it a bigger deal, forcing players to find buyers. etc. (I've done this at times), but then you risk players trying to steal items back or knock-over the dude who has the money for such a purchase...which short-circuits the game economy (not the game world economy, but the way the mechanics of the game interacts with each other). 

Still, finding buyers of 20K or 40K items in the middle of the desert (much less willing to buy cursed items) is a bit of a stretch for the verisimilitude of one's campaign.

[as an aside, I'll note that Anthony Huso, in his adventure design, uses the cash value of magic items when doing his spreadsheets for treasure as opposed to x.p. value (which I generally do). This is probably the better procedure for DMs whose players are likely to dig every piece out of all the nooks and crannies, or who play regular, looong sessions. For an intermittent campaign, or one where players routinely miss half of what's available, using the x.p. value for treasure counts seems to work slightly better]

Of course, Hickman is not overly concerned with verisimilitude. He clearly stated his design priorities long before joining TSR with his wife, endeavoring to meet four objectives:
  1. a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing
  2. an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself
  3. dungeons with some sort of architectural sense, AND
  4. an attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions playing time
That's really the whole "Hickman Revolution" in a nutshell, isn't it? Less attention paid to the mechanics of D&D (like treasure acquisition), instead looking to meeting "story goals." Elaborate plots and story arcs to be played out (with hard rails coded in to prohibit deviation). Expansive, isometric dungeon maps. And assumptions of "heroic goodness" from the players in a battle against evil.

[ha! Just realized Oasis of the White Palm, much like DL2: Dragons of Flame, has one of those "dying bystander" info-dump encounters where the NPC dies, no matter how much healing PCs might apply. See GusL's post for an echo of my opinions on this tactic]

Okay...that's long enough for now; have to run some errands before the kids get out of school (Wednesday's their short day). I have a couple more things to say about the Desert of Desolation series...especially with regard to dromedaries and the logistics of desert travel...but that's going to have to wait for a later post. Maybe tomorrow. When I try to tie this whole thing into the "better adventure design" conversation.
; )

Later, Gators.


  1. As I rember there are lots of level draining undead in I3. I remember my ranger loosing a level and me as a player going ape and having my character run as fast as I could through the rest of the dungeon abandoning the rest of the party.

    My point being you need to up the treasure even more to make up for some folks loosing XP that way.

    1. There are actually very few encounter areas with level-draining undead: two rooms with wraiths (2 and 3) appear on a Halls of the Upper Priesthood level...and those are relatively easy to turn for clerics of 6th and 7th level (a bit harder for 5th, but possible).

      On the other hand, the wandering monster table is FILTHY with level-drainers: four out of 12 (a one-in-three chance!) random encounters are either multiple wights or multiple wraiths. Chance of encounter is 1 in 6 every 30 minutes, So...yeah. That sucks, especially as there appears to be no end to the number of times they spawn.

      I4 is actually a lot single wights for packs of wraiths...until you get to the Crypt of Badr Al-Mosak. But even then, there's never better than a 1-in-4 chance of encountering a level drainer.

      Interestingly, the last module (I5) does away will almost ALL level-draining undead, instead featuring Hickman's trademark "spectral minions" (from DragonLance) and "crypt knights."

      [these are some of the lamest undead ever devised: hit point bags that cause fear and make standard attacks. LAME!]

      However, in the Crypt of Al-Alisk portion, the wandering monster table table has only four entries: one is 3-8 wights; another is 2-8 wraiths. 50% of encountering a level drainer? Rough. BUT even on that level there is only a single level drain encounter ("1 spectre").

      My personal hypothesis: as time went on (look at all the level draining in Ravenloft!!), Hickman found that his adherence to postulate #1 (ignoring treasure) interfered with #2 (riding the railroad) when level-draining got involved...because without enough treasure to make up the lost levels, the "heroes" would get hosed before they could ever reach the Big Bad Climax. Thus...less and less energy drain over the course of his adventure writing career.

  2. I think that you've hit on one of the reasons that the campaigns I played in in the 80s and early 90s petered out at around level 7 or 8 - there just isn't enough treasure in the published modules to get you up. If you look at a party of 6 level 7 BX PC then to get to level 8 you need about 400,000xp. That is more than 7 average dragon hoards and potentially 17 or 18 dragons.

    The root cause of this is the quadratic progression in the XP charts.

    1. With the exception of 1E AD&D, I’m not sure that ANY version of D&D can handle play from 1st level to, say, the high teens…not B/X, not OD&D, not BECMI/RC or 2E.

      The treasure “problem” is only a problem with a failure of adequate world building. PCs need treasure for x.p. (otherwise they end up fighting A LOT)…however, there must be appropriate things for PCs to spend such funds on, otherwise it becomes a tedious logistical exercise.

      [or it’s hand-waved…at which point PCs are carrying millions of coins in their backpack and your game devolves into farce]

      The DMG alone doesn’t suffice…it is but the cornerstone on which to build your temple.
      ; )

    2. I found that the revision of gem/jewelry values in Mentzer Companion helped get the higher level PCs up there. Of course, I only had a few modules so it was mostly homebrew, and there was always plenty of treasure (and bags of holding/strongholds to store loot between adventures). Also, once they hit Name Level players just went on adventures without worrying how long it took to level up.

    3. Going back to this comments about the xp in the modules my conclusion is that TSR didn't perform a basic QA checklist for them. Nowadays because of the ubiquity of computers and spreadsheets it would a lot easier to check the drafts of the adventures to see how closely they followed the guidelines on stocking. It annoys me a lot when an authority sets a guideline and then doesn't follow it or highlights that it is deviating from it.

  3. Real-estate. Either as a reward or as a purchase. You can partialy fix I5 by saying as a reward the players get 300 acres of valuable grazing land or something. That provides steady rental income from the peasants.