Review of J1: Entombed with the Pharaohs

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

August 7, 2012

by: David Olshanski

Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

This is a solid little adventure, filled with great encounters and brilliant ideas.

David Olshanski has written 19 reviews, with average style of 3.26 and average substance of 3.63. The reviewer's previous review was of The Dread Crypt of Srihoz.

This review has been read 1709 times.

Product Summary
Name: J1: Entombed with the Pharaohs
Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Line: d20: Golarion
Author: Michael Kortes
Category: RPG

Cost: 12.99
Pages: 32
Year: 2007

Review of J1: Entombed with the Pharaohs

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Entombed with the Pharaohs (Paizo 2007) By Michael Kortes D&D 3.5 edition (Gamemastery module)

"The deadly pyramid tomb of the Four Pharaohs of Ascension has finally been discovered and the race is on to plunder its priceless treasures. Untold riches await the winner, but the prize might instead include an eternity of undead servitude."

THE BASICS: The adventure is 32 pages long, cover price of $12.99 American.

The adventure contains:

The adventure is designed for 4 characters of level 6.

The adventure starts with the party meeting both their secret contact and a rival adventuring group at an antiquities auction. Next, the party discovers that they need an artifact to gain access to the Pyramid, and they need to pull off a heist from a collector or museum to get the artifact. After a very short trip across a desert, the majority of the adventure takes place in a trick and trap filled pyramid. At the pyramid, they'll have to confront the rival adventuring party as well as the dangers of the tomb and the remains of the four pharaohs. It’s possible that at some point the rival parties may team up to overcome the dangers of the pyramid.

The adventure has three particularly clever encounters. The first is the auction, with rival parties bidding up to their various limits for various items. I think this is very well done and it was a novel way to introduce a party to various NPCs. The second interesting element is the over-arching trap in the pyramid, from which the module gets its name—there are hidden glyphs in the pyramid, and anyone who sees four unique glyphs must make a Will save or be transformed into an undead mummy and assist in guarding the pyramid. The third clever encounter is a weighted-room trap, in which the party must tip the scales by adding weights.

The name of the adventure is a nod to the short story by HP Lovecraft, who was ghost-writing for Houdini at the time. Unlike the short story, the adventure doesn't contain a mythos-creature monstrosity at its conclusion. Instead, the pyramid contains an anti-life shell trap at the entrance, sealing the party inside. So “Entombed with the Pharaohs” is apt.

THE SPECIFICS: I don't give much weight to text density and cost per page... I'd rather pay a lot for a small clever mystery than pay a little for a huge repetitive monster bash. I don't give much weight to new monsters, prestige classes, and magic items... they can add a little variety to an adventure, but to me they are minor decoration.

1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (5/5) I think this adventure has a very good mix of encounters, not too much combat, and not too many traps. Each encounter is unique and clever. There are no repeat monsters or traps. One great element is that the author has really played with the flavor of standard monsters in ways that make them look new and terrifying, while still using tried and true stats. For example, there is a shield guardian with a bronze cat’s head instead of a regular head. A swarm of entrails crawl out of canopic jars to attack a party that disturbs them. A burrowing dragon swims under a sea of coins. Almost every encounter makes me think “Hmm, I’ve never seen that before.”

The few tricks are clever, especially the weighted room trap mentioned above. Instead of an ordinary “elevator” between floors, there is a platform raised and lowered by a non-combatant stone golem enchanted with permanent spider climb. The auction that kicks off the adventure is also a novel way to get things going and gives the party a chance to meet with and interact with their friends and their rivals.

2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (5/5) The NPCs are particularly well written. There is a brilliant bit with a friendly NPC named Raegos who can inform the party about the curse of the four hidden glyphs that can turn the viewer into a mummy—instead of just dumping the information to the party, the NPC chooses to wear a blindfold and is paranoid about accidentally seeing the wrong thing. In another very clever portion of rival NPC tactics, the rival party’s cleric might turn a mummy, after which the rival party attaches a note to the mummy’s back and sends the mummy toward the PCs. One of the mummified Pharaohs is bored after thousands of undead years, and attempts to chat with the party prior to trying to kill them. I would like to have seen some sample dialog for the mummy in case the party is able and willing to communicate in a dead language. I’d suggest that a GM plan out a bit of this beforehand to add a little spice to the encounter. I would also like to have seen some more sample dialog from each of the rival adventuring party members.

3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that clever players can use to their advantage): (4/5) There are several ways that the party can deal with the curse of the four glyphs, and they have plenty of advance notice about the nature of the trap so they have plenty of time to consider their options. The tomb itself is a bit smaller than I expected, considering the fame of the four pharaohs involved. It is a fraction of the size of the pyramids found in the classic adventures “I3-Pharoah” and “B4-The lost City”. The finished interior is even smaller than “C1-The hidden shrine of Tamoachan”. I’d say that the tiny interior space is similar to the interior spaces of actual pyramids.

There is a portion of the adventure in which there is a giant telescope aimed at a distant planet. The telescope fixed in position, which makes it somewhat difficult to imagine how it “aims”, but this is a minor quibble. The distant planet is mostly a plot hook predicted by the pharaohs that could be developed by the GM if they choose.

At the very end of the adventure, the pyramid slips away into another plane. There is no warning to the characters that this is happening, and no warning that they would have 30 minutes to exit the pyramid once it starts shifting away. There are no suggestions as to what happens to characters still trapped in the tomb when it goes away. I would like to have seen more foreshadowing of this event, so that the players can anticipate it and plan accordingly. Alternately, I’d like to have seen some indication to the party that the pyramid is plane-shifting. There is absolutely nothing in the module that would warn a party of their doom. I’d advise the GM to give some warning, say a DC10 spellcraft check to tell that the pyramid is plane-shifting, and a DC20 check to know how much time is remaining. I’d also include some shimmering lights, some falling dust, some rumbling, and other obvious signs that something is going on.

4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (3/5) I’ve covered a lot of these details in other sections, the foreshadowing is good. The mystery is intriguing. The actions of the NPCs was very clever and entertaining, but the flavor text was just average. I hate to get nit-picky, but there were a number of elements that annoyed and distracted me. For example, the first three major NPCs that the party is introduced to are “the Mithral Scarab”, “the Crook Bearer”, and “the Arch Docent”—each of the NPCs name starts with “the”. I don’t mind a very rare use of “the” for extremely important characters… the star of a play (the Scarlet Pimpernel), or perhaps “the President of the United States”, or even “the Pope”. When a slew of fairly minor NPCs have names with “the” it becomes distracting. The adventure also features “the Ruby Prince” and “the Dune Runners”. I was eventually able to get past the fact that “the Mithral Scarab” was a person, and not a magic item, and then I discover that “Scepter” is also the name of an NPC, and “Scepter’s” distinguishing trait is that he uses wands in battle. Frankly if Scepter was the only oddly named NPC I would have been amused at the irony, but after dealing with all of the characters named “the…” I was no longer in the mood for ironic names. These are just minor nitpicks and shouldn’t distract too much from an overall outstanding adventure.

5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5) Any time a rival adventuring party is involved, there is a good chance that the players will go all-out to kill their rivals, thwarting any chance for future alliance(s). That may not be a bad thing, but it can be an extra challenge for the GM to juggle. There are no player handouts, and not much in the way of available player illustrations. There are some good illustrations of various runes and items up for auction… it would have been nice to see them more readily available to hand out to the players. There is a tiny amount of read-aloud text for the various rooms. This could definitely have been expanded upon, particularly when notable NPCs make their appearances, like the undead dragon rising from the sea of coins.

Except for the rival adventuring party, the majority of opponents in the adventure are undead, constructs, or otherwise immune to critical hits. This could be a drag for characters that rely on critical hits. The heist encounter early in the adventure seems a little skeletal. There could have been a good deal more about the heists, particularly how the rightful owners of the items react after finding they’ve been robbed. Presumably the party leaves town before the authorities can be alerted. The adventure mentions that if the party kills any guards or bystanders, that they’ll be fugitives, but any justice or pursuit is beyond the scope of the adventure. Perhaps one of the friendly NPCs should read the party the riot act, or at least warn them about the necessity of making the heist bloodless.

The encounter with the weighted room is very clever, but it I imagine it could be a bit of a bookkeeping hassle. Imagine giant scales, with the party standing on one side trying to make their side heavier than the opponents. Both sides can grab huge weighted stones out of slots in the wall to increase their side, but both sides can also engage in other methods, such as summoning heavy animals or monsters, or casting “enlarge person”. At the minimum, the GM should plan a round-by-round strategy for the opposition, and consider the ramification of various spells that the party may have at their disposal. There should also be a little more explicit instructions about what happens if the ceiling is braced or various other likely options. I would suggest a straight 2 bonus to the party if they brace the ceiling with wood, and I’d be prepared to give the party an automatic “win” if they come up with something like an immovable rod. There are large stone disks in slots in the wall, and it seems like it would be easier to pull the disks half-way out to act as a block, rather than pulling them all the way out to add weight on the floor.

As for the major trap with the four glyphs, I would also suggest that the GM give each player a cheat-sheet showing the four glyphs, so that when their character sees each glyph, they check it off… this would both be a useful tracking tool, as well as regularly reminding the players of their impending doom.

Overall, the encounters were well thought out, and plenty of possible outcomes were considered and advice provided for the GM. I’ve only mentioned the few places above where there might have been room for improvement, but the vast majority of the adventure provides excellent suggestions for the GM.

FINAL WORD: This is a solid little adventure, filled with great encounters and brilliant ideas. The author has given considerable thought to each of the unusual encounters. There were several times when I was pleasantly surprised at how clever the adventure was. I’ve mentioned the auction that kicks off the adventure… one NPC examines an antiquity and declares it a fake, after which nobody will make any serious bids on the item. (It isn’t a fake; the NPC is just trying to get the item cheap.) The PCs have a chance to notice the ruse with a sense motive check, or presumably making their own appraise check on the item. I think a lesser author would have just ran a straight-forward auction, but this author, Michael Kortes, is able to mine extra opportunities for drama out of many of the encounters. I was so impressed that I looked up this author’s other works, “The Pact Stone Pyramid (2009)” and “Carrion Crown Part 1 (2011).”

Finally, I also can’t help but notice that a significant portion of the adventure is filled with stat-blocks. I think this is a necessary problem with rules-heavy games like 3.5 edition D&D.

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