Thursday, December 1, 2022

Sand Zones, Star Scepters, And Pharoid's Legacy

SO...looking back over my old blog posts, I thought for sure I'd mentioned my love/fascination with Micronauts somewhere. Clearly this isn't the case. I suppose another dive into my personal history is necessary.

My earliest memories of Micronauts are, of course, the toys which for several years (I'm guessing 1977 to 1980 based on release dates) would inexplicably appear beneath my Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

I say "inexplicably" because (as far as I can remember) I never asked Santa (or my parents) for a Micronaut toy ever (at least, not till the very final series) and they were largely off my "kid radar;" I didn't see ads on TV for them (Saturday morning cartoons had not yet started marketing toys via serial tie-ins to children), my cousins/friends didn't own them (so far as I knew), nor did I ever see them in the stores (not that I frequented these regularly as a small child).  In later years, following the first batch's appearance on Christmas morning, my brother and I, now familiar with them, would sometimes pore over the Sears "wishbook," divvying up which Micronauts each of us would eventually own (as we did with ALL toys appearing in such catalogues)...but we never went so far as to actually LIST these, so far as I can recall.

Typical Micronaut
As a matter of fact, this led to tears (on my part) one Christmas morning when I received a Galactic Command Center and my brother received a Star Wars "landspeeder." While the Micronauts base was, by far, the more interesting and useful toy of the two gifts, all my young mind could process was the fact that my brother had received a Star Wars spaceship...and I had not. Where was my tie fighter? Where was my X-wing? Ah, well, I did get over it (even the same day) as children do, and while I have immense affection for all the Star Wars toys and action figures I received over the years of my childhood, the Micronauts, in retrospect, are far more interesting. There are many times I've thought that I'd wished I'd been a bit older when they'd been released so that I'd appreciated them more.

Then again, if I had been older would they have gotten so tightly woven into my subconscious imagination?

If you had asked me, as a child, which was my favorite Micronaut toy EVER, I would probably cite the last one received: centaurus, with his laser crossbow and glow-in-the-dark (removable!) brain. That's a figure I absolutely wanted and asked for...even saw it on a store toy rack before Christmas. And even today, it's still of the coolest action figures I remember owning. But two other figures stand out as being exceptionally loved and played with by Yours Truly. One was the (original) Acroyear, whose dagger I managed to retain for years, despite being of the age when one loses accessories right and left. The other was Pharoid and his Time Chamber which fascinated me endlessly. I took it with me to Christmas morning Mass (the only toy I ever treated with such reverence) and recall spending long hours just...fiddling...with the thing. Opening the tomb. Putting him in the tomb. Taking him out. Repeat. What was the story of this guy?

Such a weird toy.

[if I had to guess, the Egyptian motif probably had much to do with the fascination. The King Tut exhibit traveled to Seattle in 1978, and was another momentous experience in my formative years]

But regardless of childhood toys, it was the Marvel comics written by Bill Mantlo that really cemented my love of the Micronauts.  I am 99.9% sure I started reading Micronauts with issue #34 (circa 1981) in the middle of the whole "Enigma Force" storyline (guest starring Doctor Strange!). I mean, talk about starting with a bang: mysticism, magic, super science, alien species, drama, betrayal...and, of course, a murderous band of gunslinging adventurer-heroes...all in the desert environment ("Sand Zone") of Aegyptia, with its towering tomb monuments, said to house the giant ancestors of the Microversians.

In addition, there was also Pharoid and Acroyear, Force Commander and Baron Karza. 

Well, whatever. I collected more than a few of the comics during its 50-some issue runs, including several of the back issues...mostly ones that were Micronauts-specific rather than crossovers with the X-Men and such. See, I wanted stories steeped in the lore of the specific IP, strange as it was, weird as it was...and, often, quite "dark" in nature (considering the concept's origin as a children's toy line). Some of those body bank stories...brr, frighteningly gruesome. A lot of body horror in Ye Old Micronauts, even the first issue of "The New Voyages" (the last issue I ever purchased, summer of '84) when protagonist Commander Rann was forced to sever his own hand at the wrist

[and people wonder why I like to make player characters suffer...]

Okay, okay, enough with the nostalgia: why am I writing about the Micronauts? Well, the last few days I've been working with the Desert of Desolation module series (I3: Pharaoh, I4: Oasis of the White Palm, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek), seeing if there is some way, somehow, that I can twist them into something fun and functional for use in my own D&D campaign.  After all, they ARE just sitting there on my shelf, and I have fond memories of them as a child. Plus, they seem to be...more or the proper "level range" for my current batch of players.

Mm. I won't lie. They're all pretty bad. Or, maybe, "inconsistent" is the operative word. Take Martek, for example: it's got some pretty cool ideas in it. The Cursed Garden. The Abyss. The Moebius Tower. But it's a real stinker of an adventure...just really poorly designed and fatally flawed in several gross ways (the Skysea is AWESOME...but it also one of the easiest TPKs I've ever seen in a TSR module). As well, it is just...missing...stuff. Things to do. Monsters to fight. Places to a non-linear, nor railroad fashion. There are several "here's a place that the DM can long as it doesn't PCs too long from the story being told" instances. Why the heck not? Because we're in such a hurry to get onto the next story? 

[probably...considering the absolute dearth of requisite treasure levels in these modules]

SO...interesting concepts/ideas, poor-to-terrible execution...and as with my analysis of I6: Ravenloft, I find that a LOT of this adventure would work just fine for LOWER LEVEL CHARACTERS. There is really nothing "mid-level" about this adventure, save that all the Hit Dice of encounters have been pumped no good end.

FOR EXAMPLE: You don't need these unique "noble class" djinni and efreeti...a normal 10 HD efreet with max hit points would work JUST FINE for characters of levels 3 to 5 (remember also that the MM specifically says there are noble djinni with the same HD as an efreet). You don't need all these 4 hit dice dervishes and air lancers...just make them standard dervishes and nomads of the MM. And these new undead? They're just 8 and 10 hit dice NOTHINGS that cause fear and hit for 1d10 points of damage. Just what the hell are we playing at Hickman? It's not like the treasure count justifies a party of 6th - 8th level!

And remember that whole post about how much water you need to carry? In AD&D (the edition for which these adventures were...ostensibly...written) a cleric receives the create water spell at 1st level. By 5th level (the minimum suggested level for I3: Pharaoh), a cleric with a 16 WIS can cast five such spells per day, each casting conjuring 20 gallons of water per day...enough for some 25 humans. As with my review of I6: Ravenloft, it appears that Hickman's design assumptions are based on an earlier rule set (in OD&D, only a 6th level bishop can create water...and doing so leaves the character without the ability to neutralize poison, cure serious wounds, or cast protection from evil 10' radius). 

[side note: when I ran the Desert of Desolation series in my youth, the party tackled it withOUT a cleric, making the adventure considerably more difficult]


SO...the modules are crap, but they're crap with interesting bits. They're railroads and poorly stocked, but they've got a bunch of maps that ain't terrible. So when I think of how to fix take their interesting bits, and make them both playable and (if possible) more interesting...I keep coming back to the Micronauts and those images from my youth: Giant, upright sarcophagus-tombs. Ancient tech/magic lost centuries before. Techno-bedouins riding giant, domesticated "ostras" (think: axebeak) against horse-headed "centauri" (re-skinned centaurs) in tribal warfare. And somewhere, lost in the sands, a laboratory-temple housing the ghost of Baron Karza, waiting to be resurrected and resume his conqueror's ways.

Lots of ways to spin and 'skin this thing. And probably a lot of ways to do it in a way that doesn't require a large group of mid-level characters. A post-apocalyptic, desert wasteland concealing generational secrets buried beneath riddles, legends, and sand. Sand and blood and treasure. Dig it.

Who needs "Sambayan air lancers"
and "Thune dervishes?"


  1. I too was a HUGE fan of the Micronauts, from the first issue of the Marvel Comics series to the toys.

    My Centaurus was Repto: A green skinned, winged, reptilian humanoid (and that's being kind), with a tail and the most peculiar head design I'd ever seen. Glowing brain like the others in the series but no eyes. Repto had no eyes! One hand is a gun and the other a g** d*** circular buzzsaw!

    These guys appealed to me on so many levels. They were Science Fiction Aliens merging tech and biology from a subatomic universe. What's not to love? They also contributed to and reinforced my fascination with scale; the idea of very small things and very big things interacting.

    Pharaoid was a favorite of mine as well and eventually made his way into one of my Superhero campaigns. V&V I think. In my mind his Sarcophagus was a Healing Chamber. Twenty-four hours of rest would heal any disease, poison, wound, etc. If the innocent citizens of this fine city couldn't wait 24 hours for our hero to rejoin the fight his friend and fellow hero Time Traveler (also a Micronaut toy) would simply speed things up. Twenty-four hours would pass in twenty-four seconds! lol

    Now to the modules...

    Your love/hate relationship (if it can be called that) with this series has been interesting to read. Fascinated by Egyptian Mythology since the 3rd grade and still very much into using modules, I LOVED this series as a kid. I used them in D&D, a Dimension-Hopping campaign, and later reworked them for other RPGs.

    I guess I never used them verbatim (when have I ever?) and added a lot of my own story, backstory, NPCs, and such and I'm remembering not so much the modules as they were but as I made them.

    A fantastic read JB! Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome...and thank you for the kind words.

      Yeah, if I'd had a Top 4 list, Repto (which I also owned) would have been #4. All the enemies were good and strange; Repto feels very much like an old-school Japanese alien antagonist (a la Spectreman or something).

      RE the DoD module series

      Before I started re-analyzing these the last month or so, I would have definitely considered myself a LOVER of these adventures, with nothing but fond thoughts and memories of them (and, I think this is evident in my past blog posts on the modules). Heck, there's STILL stuff I like, including the scope and ambition, the layout and usability, and many of the ideas and concepts in the adventure. And that's not just nostalgia and digging on Egyptian appropriation!

      But 30+ years of additional gaming experience gives me a more refined and (I hope) mature perspective on adventure design. It's not just a matter of these modules having aged poorly...there are adventures being published today that are worse than the Desert series and/or that make similar (or more reprehensible) mistakes.

      AND...even though it may not seem like it...I'm really NOT trying to build more evidence of "trash adventure writing" from the Hickmans. This series is NOT about beating them up at all. At all!

      Instead, I'm trying to point out flaws so that they can be corrected and updated for (to my current thinking is) a better way of playing D&D. Keeping the good stuff and adding more goodness on top...if possible.

      Everyone needs a hobby, right?
      ; )

  2. I loved the Micronauts! comics and toys! Pharoid was one of my favorites! Great idea about reworking the Desolation series! I'm definitely intrigued!

    1. Thanks, Bill. Results will be posted here if/when I follow through.
      ; )

  3. I recently had the opportunity to meet Michael Golden, the original artist on the Micronauts comics. I had most of the toys as a kid, and his spot-on designs really made the Microverse come alive...fantastic stuff. I shook his hand and explained what a huge impact his work on Micronauts (and his solo Star Wars issue) had on me as a young fan. He looked at me and said, "Yep..." and then just stared at me. It was an uncomfortable few moments, but I said my piece.

    1. Ha! That’s not terribly surprising. Retrospectives I’ve read of Mantlo and his writing “process” have t been too complimentary either…these were guys who were just putting in (what they’d consider) workman-like effort, rather than any high-concept creative artsy stuff. That it left indelible impressions on some of us meant little compared to earning their paycheck…and that’s okay!

      I think…I THINK it says more about the state of creativity TODAY (and from whence such creativity springs) that we look back at such things as “genius” when they were just stealing and cribbing from non-fantasy sources (say Egyptian motifs as one example), rather than cannibalizing other “fantasy” sources.

      Folks do it differently these days. And we can all make our own judgments about how we feel about that.
      ; )

    2. That should say “have NOT been too complimentary…”

  4. I must have had that Pharoah sarcophagus, too, because I remember playing with it.

  5. "crap with interesting bits" feels like a great description of adventure modules as a whole :)

    1. Probably. And who am I to think I could do better?