Pharaoh (TSR 1982)
By Tracy and Laura Hickman
AD&D adventure for characters levels 5-7
You shiver as you and your friends huddle around your campfire, glancing nervously at the giant pyramid in the distance. There is an eerie and mysterious feeling about that place
Gradually, the winds change direction, carrying a thin streak of white mist that swirls into the shape of a faceless man dressed in ancient robes. The moonlight seems to shine through him as he raises his arms toward the pyramid and speaks.
"I am Pharaoh Amun-re, son of Takosh-re of the House of Mo-pelar. I am now only a shadow who has walked these sands for a thousand years in search of wise and mighty warriors to break into my pyramid and plunder my tomb."
The winds shift again; his robes begin to swirl about him and he fades back into the mist and winds. Why does this desert spirit want you to plunder his tomb? Can you survive the challenges of a pyramid that has stood for a thousand years or are you being led into a trap?
The adventure is 32 pages long, cover price of $x American.
- 1 page of credits/legal/advertising
- 3 pages of background/exposition
- 2 pages desert/wilderness travel
- 21 pages of dungeon encounters (sunken city, temple, pyramid
- 4 pages of new monsters and magic
- 4 pages of maps and 2 handouts on inside covers and extra slip-cover
Depending on how thoroughly your party explores or how mission oriented they are, some encounters will be bypassed. In my estimation, there are:
- Approximately 15 combat encounters plus 10 wandering encounters
- Approximately 12 roleplay or avoidable combat encounters
- Approximately 22 trap/trick encounters
- Approximately 24 encounters with things to examine or discover
- Approximately 28 empty rooms or insignificant encounters
The adventure "Pharaoh" is a stand-alone adventure that also can be played as the first part of the "Desert of Desolation" trilogy. The module marked a turning point between old-school and new-school play, as adventures before this point tended to be driven by player action, and adventures after this point would have a much stronger focus on telling a story. Regardless of people's philosophy on playing, this adventure often ranks among the best of the TSR adventures, but does it live up to its reputation?
The adventure starts out with the party being banished to the desert to search for bandits as punishment for things they may or may not have done. The exposition is long and a bit silly (the party is accused of short-sheeting a wizard and inviting two women to the womanizing wizard's home, wherepon the women start a cat-fight. The really long exposition is quickly abandoned, as the bandit's tracks disappear, and the bandits never actually show up anywhere in the Desert of Desolation trilogy, let alone in this adventure.
The party may come across the ruins of a sunken city, during which they may accidentally release an imprisoned Efreet Pasha, who will set out to wreak havoc on the world with his new freedom. Dealing with the Efreet is the over-arching plot of the Desert of Desolation trilogy, but it doesn't play much of a role in this adventure. The sunken city is purely optional, and its key to note that there is absolutely no railroading--the adventure doesn't seem to care whether the Efreet is freed by the party or not. Later TSR adventures will take a stronger hand and suggest various methods of railroading the players. This adventure assumes that if the party doesn't free the Efreet, then some other hapless wanderer will free the Efreet.
About the time the party's water is running out, they'll encounter the ghost of Amun-re. Pharaoh Amun-re was paranoid that he wouldn't be able to buy his way into a good position in the afterlife, so he broke the back of his people building a theft-proof tomb. As the people revolted against him, he swore an curse that with his death the river would dry up. Amun-re was killed, and the god Osiris was bound to fulfill the curse and dry the land, but Osiris cursed Amun-re that he would not be able to go to the afterlife until his theft-proof tomb was plundered. This initial set-up a masterpiece of writing and adventure design. On the one hand, you have a solid reason for a dungeon filled with treasure. On the other hand, you have a deliciously ironic back-story of an ancient ruler doomed by his own machinations.
Before entering the pyramid, the party must pass through a temple that is occupied by dervishes sworn to prevent the tomb from being robbed. There are some good role-playing opportunities here. The temple has a false pre-looted tomb, and a very good trick concealing the entrance to the true tomb. I've had parties leave the pyramid, thinking it was looted, only to once again meet the ghost of Amun-re begging them to go back. I've also had parties carefully trying to investigate the temple, while bald-faced lying to the dervishes about their true intentions.
Once the party enters the true tomb, they'll find themselves trapped in a disorienting "master maze". The maze is twisty, disorienting, and has numerous death-traps (as well as several already-triggered traps). As long as the party continues to explore the maze, they'll be trapped, but by thinking outside the box they can find one of 8 exits to the upper chambers. The maze has a surprising number of living occupants, including a minotaur, some lost adventurers, a lost group of dervishes, and a number of doppelgangers. The party can take reasonable precautions-making a map and leaving permanent evidence of their passage to make sure that they don't get lost.
Exiting the maze, the party finds themselves in the "upper chambers" These chambers have a magical source of light, foliage, and food. Here living priests could watch the demise of would-be thieves trapped in the maze below. There is evidence here that at least one of the living priests was a potent wizard that became undead, and several other priests became ghouls. Even this far in the tomb the party can meet a trapped paladin who is willing to team up with them.
Above the upper chambers is "the gantlet", a series of dangerous illusions and monsters crafted by the undead wizard-priest. The priest cannot be harmed by damaging attacks, as his "heart" is stored elsewhere. The party will need to either tackle, subdue, and immobilize the wizard while they look for his heart, or else they'll need to find a concealed passage bypassing the gauntlet. After the gauntlet, the party discovers the final resting place of Amun-re, with his magic staff and gem. The treasure is visible through a portal, in a flying reed boat anchored to a cloud some 10,000 feet above the pyramid. It is a really fantastic climax to the adventure… not particularly dangerous or tricky, but pretty awe-inspiring to a party that has worked their way through the pyramid. There is also a teleporter trick here that can take the party safely back to the temple.
Strengths of the Adventure
The adventure has one of the greatest plots of the TSR adventures, including a really solid and interesting back-story. There is a huge number of role-playing opportunities, even though the party will eventually come into conflict with the dervishes, because their motives are at odds. There are numerous really clever tricks inside the pyramid, including some that require side-view diagrams to depict.
Weaknesses of the adventure
The introduction and background exposition is silly and many players will object to it. A number of the upper chambers in the pyramid(the priests quarters) were sparsely furnished, and some extra evidence of these being living quarters would have gone a long way. It would have been nice to have seen some more evidence of the priests descent into undeath over the years. There were perhaps a few too many living occupants trapped in the master maze—these provide good role-playing opportunities, but at the cost of credibility. There is a gnome digging his way through the pyramid with a spoon that provides some comic relief, perhaps too much comic relief if you want to play your games seriously.
1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (5/5)
There great variety of encounters. The tricks are outstanding. The Dervishes provide excellent role-playing opportunities. The pyramid is a great non-linear dungeon, with plenty of ways from getting from one place to another. There are only three choke-points, the entrance to the master-maze, and one is the entrance to the gauntlet, and the exit to the final chamber of Amun-re. The dangerous traps are in appropriate places.
There is a sphinx that asks a riddle. The riddles suggested by the adventure are pretty well-known, so a GM may consider changing them. The sphinx doesn't make sense as a normal living creature, because it has no food source or reason for hanging out in the dungeon. If you treat the sphinx as a magical creature or supernatural guardian, it will fit better.
There are a lot of notes, verses, and runes throughout the adventure, but they often have only a 30% chance of being readable. If the party has comprehend languages or a few thieves with good "read languages" skills this will not be a problem, but some of the verses are crucial to solving tricks. Some groups may consider the number of verses (exposition) excessive.
2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (3/5)
The main NPCs are the ghost of Amun-re, whose motivations are outstanding and given plenty of history that the party can fill in for themselves as they discover clues through the pyramid. There dervishes that occupy the temple seem to have reasonable motives, and these usually end up in a violent confrontation once the party's true motives are discovered. There is actually a sub-plot that a dervish priest is looking for a dervish leader and some followers that disappeared inside the pyramid. The adventure doesn't follow-through on this, as the dervish leader is never seen again, though some nameless dervishes are. I think that some of the random NPCs that can be encountered in the master maze should be replaced with the dervish leader and some of his followers; and those characters should all have names and personalities or motives. It would have made a LOT of sense resolved some of the incongruity of finding random wizards, elves, thieves, and other characters inside the maze.
There are a group of doppelgangers trapped in the maze, and they have no motivation other than to kill the party. The master-maze could probably have used a few undead. There was an abundance of treasure laying around or in odd places… sacks of gold, rings of protection, and other stuff just lying around.
There is a high priest of the dervishes in the temple that has a book with numerous clues. According to the adventure, the priest "under no circumstances will he knowingly release the book out of his hands," I think it would have been nice to have included some suggestions for role-playing or circumstances under which the priest would share information with the party. This is older-school writing, and thus role-play opportunities are determined by DM Fiat.
3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that players can use to their advantage): (4/5)
Some of the tricks make very good sense, and the overall layout of the pyramid dungeon is very reasonable given the background of Amun-re. The players particularly have to pay attention to clues to figure out how to proceed. The dangerous priest with his heart in hiding was foreshadowed by an NPC, and I believe there were other runes that give some indication that something was rotten
4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (5/5)
This was one of the first adventures that struck me as being very interesting beyond the adventure contained within. The ironic fate of Amun-re struck a chord with me. There was some literary allusions, such as the Ozymandias-like writing at the sunken city.
The adventure has some clever bits of comedy, such as long list of practical jokes the party is accused of during the introduction. There is a later bit where a priest confesses that he transposed a prayer "cleanse our feet and live in our land", and instead said "cleanse our land and live in our feet" after which it rained for several days during which the priests could do nothing but dance. Some of this humor probably wears thin, and the sillier elements go over-the-top (the gnome digging through the pyramid with the spoon and the exploding pineapples.)
5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5)
There is boxed read-aloud text. The adventure uses a systematic method of describing encounter contents (describing every NPC as a "monster"). I think that this can be a distraction to some GMs, particularly when every potential ally is referred to as a monster.
The maps are good, with the exception of the maze, in which the adventure switches to a alphabetic system, and some of the letters are hard to read on the map. I suspect that at least a few of the room letters on the map are off, as some rooms indicate the smells that don't seem to jive with the neighboring rooms. When running the master-maze portion of the adventure, I typically allow the rotting smell to come from the rooms near the pile of dead bodies, and I allow the "fresh air" smell to come from the room with the running water. Otherwise the party ends up chasing smells that go nowhere.
its interesting that this adventure doesn't open with an "adventure outline" or "summary" that tells the GM all of the important plot-points. The adventure doesn't tell you that the Efreet will become a recurring character in the later series. The adventure doesn't outline the dramatic tension between the Dervishes protecting the temple from those that would loot it; that is up to the DM to discover by carefully reading the description of the Dervish culture found in the monster appendix.
There are two player illustrations, one showing an encounter with monstrous spiders in the sunken city, and a stylized "map" of the temple, that really is just a decoration for the DM-Screen part of the cover. One of the most complicated rooms in the adventure is "the gantlet", and the text calls for the GM to show the picture of the room to the players, but there is no illustration in the adventure.
All of those complaints aside, it is still primarily a location-based adventure that is very easy to run.
This adventure represents perhaps the ideal marriage of story and game play. There is a great back-story, but it doesn't get in the way of the characters having agency to make their own decisions. This adventure is often hailed as a classic and I think the praise is well deserved. Tracy Hickman goes on from this to write both Ravenloft and Dragonlance, both adventures were strong enough to kick of their own adventure lines. I have some harsh criticisms of various Dragonlance adventures, and even later adventures in the Desert of Desolation trilogy, but I'll save those for a later review. I've seen accusations of railroading in this adventure by other reviewers, but I really don't see it.
I've run this adventure 3 times. There is no explicit railroading (contrary to what other reviewers have said), but every time I've played the party has freed the Efreet as expected. There are some clues, such as a fallen obelisk pointing in the direction of the sunken city, that point the characters toward the expected course of action. There is a LOT of exposition to kick off the adventure, and while it is loaded with humor, it can get a bit long for players to sit through when they are anxious to start playing, and if you are trying to insert this into an ongoing campaign it may strike some players as insulting.
One group of younger players (ages 13-14) got stuck by the tricks a few times, because they missed the clues (literally they ignored the writing on the wall). I also complained a bit about the randomness of the NPCS trapped in the master-maze during my review, but in play a few of them ended up becoming replacement characters or henchmen.
There is a cursed berserking sword that was responsible for a few character deaths.
The players have always been appropriately awestruck as they pyramid becomes stranger and stranger as the party approaches the final resting place of Amun-re. The fruity-flies came across as more weird than silly, (I didn't refer to them by name). This adventure has always been great fun to run and play.
I will be running this adventure as a stand-alone in a week for my son and his friends. I'll eliminate the sunken city, the wilderness travel, and the introduction. I'll start with the plea from the spirit of Amun-re. I'll eliminate most of the random NPCs in the pyramid, replacing them with the lost Dervish leader, who will have his own agenda. I'll get rid of the exploding pineapples and the NPC digging through the pyramid with a spoon.
You can see my other reviews on the forums at GrippingTales