Review of I4: Oasis of the White Palm

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

October 12, 2012


by: David Olshanski


Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

The Oasis of the White Palm, with its three competing factions, is a rich milieu for role-playing. The two smaller dungeons have clever tricks and traps.

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 I3: Pharaoh.

This review has been read 1586 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: I4: Oasis of the White Palm
Publisher: TSR
Line: AD&D: Forgotten Realms
Author: Philip Meyers, Tracy Hickman
Category: RPG

Pages: 32
Year: 1983

SKU: 9053
ISBN: 0-88038-008-X


Review of I4: Oasis of the White Palm


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Oasis of the White Palm (TSR 1983)
By Philip Meyers and Tracy Hickman
AD&D adventure for characters levels 6-8

Tired and sore, you struggle over the burning sands toward the long-forgotten city. Will you reach the place in time to save yourselves from the evil Efreeti? The sun beats down, making your wounds stiff and worsening the constant thirst that plagues anyone who travels these waterless wastes. But there is hope -- are those the ruins over there?

THE BASICS:
The adventure is 32 pages long.


Depending on how thoroughly your party explores or how mission oriented they are, some encounters will be bypassed. In my estimation, there are:

Overview:
The adventure "Oasis of the White Palm" is a stand-alone adventure that also can be played as the second part of the "Desert of Desolation" trilogy. It continues the Egyptian/desert theme that started in "Pharaoh". The module provides excellent role-playing opportunities as the party encounters an oasis town with three factions competing for power. There is some desert/wilderness travel, two dungeons to explore and a princess to be rescued.

The wilderness encounters that start the adventure are mostly a repeat of the encounters in the first part of the trilogy, I3-Pharaoh. The main table of random rumors has 3 false rumors and 7 true rumors. All of the true rumors are related to other adventures in the trilogy. In other words, none of the rumors are relevant to this adventure. There is a supplemental table of 10 rumors known by NPCs which are relevant to the adventure.

The Oasis of the White Palm is where things get interesting. The Sheik has identical twin sons, with the oldest about to be wed. The younger son has allied himself with a secretive cult that wants to return to "the old Thune ways". The cultists want to kill the Sheik and the older son and put the younger son in power. The sand voyagers' guild was secretly taken over by slave traders, and they are trying to remain hidden from the sheik while keeping the guild as a front. They are willing to work with the cultists if the cultists leave the slave trade operations alone once they come into power.
The bride of the Sheik's son has markings on her palm indicating she is betrothed to the royal family, and also that she is part of a prophesy to defeat an ancient evil. The Sheik offers the party an important medallion if they offer to help find the bride. Meanwhile the Sheik has sent several of his loyal troops to help defeat an ancient evil, an Efreet that is rampaging across the desert. As the party investigates the missing bride, they'll have an opportunity to discover the hidden cultists and slavers.

The Efreet, who was freed in adventure I3-Pharaoh, is the ancient evil foretold in the prophesy. The Efreet recently appeared to the cultists and asked them for the bride. The cultists asked the slavers for help kidnapping the bride. On the same night that the cultists and slavers planned to kidnap the bride, the Efreet found her and took her away. The cultists and the slavers don't know that the Efreet has the girl, and they each suspect each other: the cultists think the slavers are holding out for more money, the slavers don't know what the cultists are doing. The Sheik and the older son want the bride returned so the marriage can take place.

To make things more confusing, both the cultists and the slavers operate out a single dungeon below the oasis. The two halves of the dungeon have two different entrances and are connected via a secret door that neither party knows about. Once the party explores one half of the dungeon, they are very likely to discover the other half (since they carry a gem of seeing discovered in Pharaoh or granted in the introduction if playing this as a stand-alone adventure.) The slavers half of the dungeon has the imprisoned sand-voyager guild leader, and the Cult half of the dungeon has an imprisoned slaver captain. The guild leader and the slaver captain think that the Efreet has the bride in another dungeon several miles away, in the crypt of Badr Al-Mosak.

At the crypt of Badr Al-Mosak, the party must negotiate a number of tricks, traps, and part of the undead army that the Efreet is gathering. When they meet the Efreet, the medallion provided by the Sheik blasts the Efreet who flees in 3 rounds. The party can find the bride, and by holding the medallion over the palm markings, they learn a secret ritual that will free a Djinn to fight off the Efreet.

Strengths of the Adventure
The multiple factions and richly described cast of NPCs and motivations was one of the most fertile areas for social encounters in a published adventure. Beyond the Sheik, his sons, the cult leader, and the slaver leader, there were numerous NPCs around the oasis that each know pieces of the big picture. The adventure demands more role-playing than any other previously published adventure.

The idea of fulfilling a grand prophecy can be appealing to some players. Also, the battle with the Efreet (who holds the bride) is a re-enactment of the famous illustration on the cover of the DMG.

Several of the tricks and traps in the two dungeons are quite devious and clever. There is a dimensional gate to Pandemonium, with monsters eager to push the party through the gate. There is a rope bridge over a chasm full of undead. There are "everfall" shafts with teleporters at the bottom that send falling characters back to the top of the shaft.

Weaknesses of the adventure
There isn't a really strong hook to get the party into the dungeons below the oasis. When I ran the game, the party first took the stance that they shouldn't get involved in local politics. They ended up wandering around, not really knowing what to do. Even once they got involved, they didn't want to start a war with the cultists or slavers, but the ONLY person who can tell what the efreet was up to is located in the prison of the slavers.
The key "trick" to the adventure is a medallion handed down from sheik to son over the years, and a mysterious symbol that appears on the hand of the bride-to-be. When the woman with the symbol on her hand dies, the symbol returns to an altar until a new marriage is ready. The amulet can be laid over the palm-symbol to provide the secret code to free the djinn. Somehow, over the hundreds of years of the prophecy, no sheik has ever previously put the medallion over the hand of his bride to see the message. This doesn't usually get noticed in the heat of play, but when players reflect on it in the future it seems a bit odd.

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 or 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)
The variety of encounters is just about perfect. There is a broad range of investigation and role-playing in the oasis. There is good dungeon-crawling and monster slaying in the temple of Set under the oasis. The Crypt of Badr Al-Mosak has some very clever tricks and traps. There is something for every player to like in this adventure, and all of it is very high quality. There aren't any "filler" encounters for characters to slog through.

2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (5/5)
The NPCs are outstanding in this adventure. There is a 2 page appendix of 8 major NPCs that lists their motivations, their attitude toward the characters, and their attitude toward other NPCs. There are several NPCs with defined schedules of when they can be found in particular places (this is ideal if the players plan to stake-out a suspicious character or location).

3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that players can use to their advantage): (3/5)
The adventure starts with the party meeting a badly injured soldier who makes a dying request before passing away. D&D doesn't work well with dying requests, because every cleric or person with a healing potion immediately tries to administer aid, at which point the DM says "Sorry, it doesn't work."
The adventure has a great mystery, "who took the bride". Some of the tricks and traps are inventive and hugely entertaining, but not really logical.
There are some interesting puzzles that let the players feel rewarded for solving them; for example, there is a temple of Seker with some runes asking for a sacrifice. If a magic item is sacrificed, the character gets a powerful weapon to use against undead, and when the weapon runs out of charges, it disappears and the sacrificed item is returned.
An amulet that the party is provided by the Sheik has a property that is completely unexpected… it drives away the efreet after 3 rounds. This is an interesting mechanic that allows for a bit of a climactic encounter at the end that lets the party fight the efreet for 3 rounds, pretty much assuring that the efreet doesn't get killed (which would defeat the whole purpose of the trilogy), and it also makes it likely that some party members will survive. Some people might complain about this taking away player agency, and it does to a degree.

4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (4/5)
The descriptions for a lot of the people and places are entertaining. The mystery of "who took the bride" is exceptionally well done, as well as the intrigues between the factions.
I am going to get a little soapbox here. There was a noticeable disparity in the treatment of male and female characters. All of the women in the adventure are slaves, or part of a harem, or they carry water or clothing. There two exeptions, the shy halfling niece of the bartender, and a drow cleric allied with the slavers. I thought back and realized that the only significant female in I3-Pharaoh was a paladin, but she needed to be rescued from a bunch of ghouls. Contemporary players may want to take some steps to address this disparity, perhaps by changing a few more of the significant NPCs to women.

5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5)
The maps are very clear. The stat blocks are fine. There is one player handout which could be greatly improved (see my notes below). There are a number of excellent side-view illustrations for the GM that demonstrate how some of the trickier tricks operate. Many of the NPCs have bits of sample dialog.
This adventure, like the others in the trilogy, uses a standard format for all encounters. This includes things like a "monster" section that describes the monster, a "Treasure" section that describes any treasure, and a "play" section that describes how it all works. In practice, this makes it very easy for a GM to follow instructions to run the encounter as the designer expected. Every important element of the encounter is easy to find and doesn't get lost in a paragraph of text (I'm looking at some older Gygax modules here). This "improved" method sometimes makes for clunky writing. An example is the tent of the sheik's second son. "PLAY: From dawn to midnight Monster #1 will be present lounging and eating while MONSTER #2 dances for him. From midnight to dawn, MONSTER #2 will be alone." when you look up MONSTER #1 you get a short stat block and are referred to the NPC appendix for additional details about the Sheik's son. Monster #2 is a slave girl.
Id say that having the key NPCs written up at the back of the book is useful, because many of them could be found in a number of different places—they aren't bound to one location. On the other hand, this requires that the GM be well prepared--they should pretty much have the main NPCs memorized so that they can play them on the spot. Once the players enter one of the location-based dungeons it gets much easier to run.
A number of locations are left for development by the GM. In particular, there are a number of ruins in the desert, and a number of locations in the Oasis, such as the market tents.

FINAL WORD:
When the Desert of Desolation trilogy was published, these were my favorite modules by a good margin. The emphasis on the over-arching story seemed like a turning-point for TSR, as adventures before this time were more sandbox style, and adventures after this point being more driven by an author's narrative. There was a lot to like about the Oasis of the White Palm. I loved the desert theme. The double-covers that provided 4 extra pages of maps were far larger than I had seen in any other modules. The side-views of sliding floor trap and "everfall" teleporters tweaked my imagination.
The Oasis of the White Palm, with its three competing factions, is a rich milieu for role-playing. The two smaller dungeons have clever tricks and traps. The dungeons are small enough that they can usually be conquered in one or two passes, without long siege tactics.
On paper, this adventure looks like it should be outstanding, but in play it didn't live up to my high expectations. There are a number of elements that make for a good story, at the cost of player agency. The only NPCs that can point the characters toward the crypt of Badr Al-Mosak are the prisoners in the dungeon under the Oasis. I've seen this adventure called a railroad, and at the time it was published it probably had one of the strongest "stories" of the TSR published adventures. In later years, TSR and (Tracy Hickman) would go on to write some adventures that seriously constrained player choice. On a "railroad" scale where 1=Dragonlance, and 10=In search of the Unknown, Oasis of the White Palm is about a 5.

Play Test Results:
I've only run this adventure once in 1985. There were rich opportunities for role-playing at the Oasis, but my players were not really interested in making a lot of connections with the local people. They were not particularly interested in the local politics, and didn't care so much about the Sheik, the cult, or the slavers. They sort of imagined they were just passing through town on their way to the next dungeon crawl.
The players also missed the star gem in the dungeon below the Oasis. When playing the trilogy, the players need all three star-gems in order to fulfill the grand prophecy in the next adventure "Lost Tomb of Martek". I had to push the characters a bit to make sure they retrieved the star gem. It was heavy-handed, but necessary for the trilogy.
There were a number of ruins on the maps (including the player handout "Martek's Map"), such as the city of phoenix, and my players were determined to explore ruins and loot whatever treasure that might still exist in these lost or buried cities. Unfortunately, the published adventure doesn't flesh out those areas at all. I was a less-experienced GM at the time and not prepared with ruins or mini-dungeons, so the players just wandered around searching and hoping to find stuff, and I had to repeatedly break the bad news that there was nothing to discover.
If I were to run the adventure again, I'd be sure to have some mini-dungeons ready for them to explore in the city of phoenix. I'd excise a number of these alternate ruins from the player handout. If you are running the whole desert of desolation series, I'd radically change the "Martek's map" handout to also indicate the pyramid from I3, I'd mark the location of Martek's tomb (to foreshadow the next adventure in the trilogy), and most importantly I'd have a distinctive marking on the map to show where each of the 3 star-gems are--If the party doesn't have all 3 star-gems, they cannot proceed through the final adventure in the trilogy.
Running the adventure was only average, but I suspect that with a more mature group of players (and more experienced GM) this adventure could have been really memorable. If I were to run it again, I'd try to make some of the characters in the oasis more compelling and work harder to give the characters reasons to get involved.

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