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Don’t Breathe Too Deeply or We are Doomed

As stated in my last review, I am planning my next 5th edition D&D game to be a desert-themed campaign with pyramids, tombs, mummies, etc. and have been reading Egyptian and desert themed products to prepare my campaign. I’ve never run an Egyptian or wholly desert themed campaign before, so I have been looking for lots of inspirational fodder to read while planning. My next foray into the desert was published by Kobold Press in 2015, and was written by Dan Dillon for use with 5th edition D&D. This adventure is for 5 or 6 PCs of 6th level and is set in a tomb at the foot of a statue of the God Anu-Akma (God of Death and the Underworld, used in the Southlands desert setting in Midgard) in the middle of an oasis. Does it offer anything I can use in my up-coming campaign? Let’s find out…

Spoilers ahead, read at your own risk!

What’s the Story?

A wealthy and powerful, though ultimately just greedy and misguided, businessman obtains an ancient bronze plaque stamped with the seal of Menet-Ka. The plaque not only contained the valuable seal, but also had instructions on where/how to find the oasis containing the statue of Anu-Akma, under which was built the tomb of Menet-Ka. History paints Menet-Ka as a minor king who coveted the opulent palaces and tombs of the god kings. He became more envious as he grew older and commissioned a tomb… the location of the tomb was very important as it was very close to an oasis/lake containing water fed by an underground branch of a powerful river – and had a ley line cut directly across the lake. The idea was that his body would be laid to rest in a great temple tomb devoted to Anu-Akma, and the magical waters of the river, imbued with particular energies from the ley line, would awaken Menet-Ka and he would ascend to godhood.

As he aged and the vast temple and statue structures were built, Menet-Ka became paranoid and abusive. He behaved harshly toward his servants, priests, and family members… pretty much everyone hated being around him at this point and their dark dispositions seeped into the structures they built. Also, as he became more paranoid, Menet-Ka ordered traps and devious devices set into the very architecture of the tomb. His final order was carried out as his body was laid to rest just after his death – that his servants and family members would be buried with him so that they could rise again as well, and continue to serve him in the afterlife.

As you may have already guessed, the PCs are hired by the wealthy businessman, Wasif al-Jayid, to act as his bodyguards as he finds the tomb and plunders its riches. This adventure is, then, a tomb-robbing foray into an ancient structure under the sand. The twist is that Menet-Ka wanted tomb-robbers brave enough to enter his domain to become trapped in the tomb, so the main trap is sprung as soon as the party enters the temple – it traps them in the structure with air-tight blocking stones. Now it becomes a balance between finding treasure and finding a way out before the oxygen supply gets too low to sustain life!

Initial Thoughts:

This is a relatively short adventure, but its main shtick – the fact that there is a limited amount of air in the tomb – is very well done. There are clear instructions to the DM regarding how to best adjudicate the traps and tricks in the tomb, and also on how to keep time in a way that puts an appropriate amount of pressure on the PCs due to the lack of air.

Good Stuff:

 Short and Easy to Read: This adventure was originally written to be run at GenCon 2015 and is meant to be run in its entirety in no more than 4 hours. Background information takes up only 1.5 pages, a synopsis and GM notes takes up another 2 pages, a map of the region of the Southlands takes up another half page. New creatures and NPC info fills the last 4 pages. The tomb/adventure itself is a mere 11 pages and it is well-written and clear. This is the type of adventure I could have in my back pocket to run at a special occasion or last minute RPG session, or as a back-up if some of my regular players didn’t show up on short notice. It is quickly digestible and easily run, and should make for an entertaining evening. This is an area where there is a lack of good products for 5e, in my opinion, so it is very nice to see this very-well-done one.

 Background Info is Discoverable: One of the things that I really liked about this adventure is that the background information is short and is also discoverable by the PCs. What does that mean? It means that the information provided the DM is relevant to the adventure if the players are paying attention because the story of Menet-Ka’s hubris is told on the walls of the tomb. PCs who take a bit of time to look at the frescoes and carvings abundant in the tomb will learn about what happened and why Menet-Ka fell out of favor with Anu-Akma. It makes the tomb feel like it has a rich history that can really bring the place alive. Also, many of the carvings and inscriptions will help the PCs overcome the traps and tricks in the tomb. So this design does double duty and it was executed better than I have seen in many products.

 Traps and Timing: The main villain in this adventure is the tomb itself, and traps abound in this unholy place. Along with the carvings, plaques, and hieroglyphs on the walls of the tomb, there are geomancy glyphs running along the tops of the walls in each chamber. These add an interesting element because the PCs can use them against the creatures they fight if they figure out how. The biggest danger, however, is that the party is trapped in the tomb with a limited amount of air. The rules for how much air is consumed per PC are direct and easy to understand. The rules for how much air is consumed by torch fire, lanterns, and fire producing spells are also spelled out in an easy to understand and track manner. The tracking here is the thing that might get the DM bogged down, but the system is easy enough that it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Other than the air running out while you are in a sealed tomb, there are a few other traps that are dangerous, mostly because they produce fire, which consumes air, but there are work-arounds for almost everything the party will encounter. If the players are actively engaged in exploring things quickly and coming to decisions quickly then they will have a chance to survive and escape. These elements of the tomb are well done, evocative, and I imagine very fun to play through.

 Creatures: The creatures in this adventure are meant to be tomb-dwelling ancient things, so you get your standard zombies, ghosts, and flaming skulls. You also get two creature which were new at the time this adventure was published, but have since been published in the Tome of Beasts produced by Kobold Press in 2016, the anubian and the rotting wind – both of which are very sand-and-tomb flavored.

 Maps (with a caveat): The maps of each individual area/room in the tomb are well done and easy to understand. The descriptions match the maps for almost every area. The maps compliment the text very well and make it easy for the DM to understand. This is the reason that I have this under the good section, but I have a caveat… there is no overall map of the tomb. I thought this was strange at first, and I was disappointed and thought that I might put it as a bad aspect of the adventure, but then I read it all. After reading it I now think that an overall map is unnecessary – it isn’t needed to understand what is happening.

In a couple areas of the tomb there are basically large mazes that have no map. The designer provides very good instructions on how to run these areas without a map. Area 7 is meant to be a vast, maze-like necropolis. Area 10 is meant to be a large, maze-like mausoleum of halls and alcoves for the storage of ash urns of the foes of Menet-Ka. Neither of these area contains creatures to fight, but rather, these are areas meant to be places where the party can get lost searching for an important chamber or looking for loot, leading to the group spending much more time than they wanted in that wing of the tomb and thereby using more air than is safe. It is map-less by design, and after reading the two regions in question and the notes from the designer about how these areas should be run, I don’t think there needs to be a map for the two areas. In fact, a large map of these two maze-y regions would be the opposite of useful because it would detract from what is supposed to be happening there. Having said that, it still feels a bit off to not have an overall map of the entire tomb complex for the DM. I think an overall map could have been provided, and the cartographer could have just put a shaded box in place of the non-detailed regions of the tomb.

 NPC Merchant: The one who hires the group is a whiny upper-class merchant who turns into a nervous wreck when he realizes that he just entered a tomb that, instead of bringing him riches beyond his wildest dreams, will likely bring him death. This character accompanies the group into the tomb, but he isn’t a powerful DM PC or Mary Sue or a deus ex machina to rescue the party at the last minute, or a betrayer who will backstab them. He is there to add interest and tension and possibly some conflict to the excursion. For example, he smokes a hookah when he gets nervous and that thing consumes air – how the PCs react to him could be the difference between life and death in the tomb, and that is a good thing.

Bad Stuff:

 Editing: Though the writing in this product is top notch and there are few, if any, grammatical errors, it could have used a good editing pass. There is an immediate reference to the Desert Falcons in the very beginning of the adventure. Is this a local faction that the PCs belong to? Is this a competing adventuring company? Should the DM just make something up? I even went so far as to look for a Desert Falcons reference in the Southlands guidebook, but to no avail. This is an issue that could have been resolved with a simple addition to the sentence that made it clear the party is part of the Falcons. Something like this: “The Desert Falcons, an adventuring company the PCs are affiliated with, have been hired by a wealthy merchant.” 7 simple words would have added a ton of clarity to the beginning of the adventure and should have been caught by an editing pass.

 Pre-generated PCs referenced, but not included: This was extremely annoying to me. The book even mentions the pregens by name in a couple of different places. Here’s one example:

Last Gasp page 16 wrote: Zafirah (from the pre-generated characters) has advantage on this check due to her understanding of the life giving energy of the river Nuria.

That is great, except the pre-generated PCs are NOT included with the product. On page 17 it mentions Table F (a treasure table, apparently) but there is no table F to be found. These items should have been caught and corrected. I got in touch with the designer and he sent me a copy of the pre-gens he used when he ran this at GenCon and they are very nice – completely fit the theme and abilities needed here and would have been a great addition to the product. Their backstories also clear up the Desert Falcons item I mentioned above, and including them would have made this product even better.

 Mislabeled Map: A minor quibble, but one that led to a few minutes of confusion for me – the maps containing rooms 10 and 11 have the number locations switched. In other words, room 11 is labeled 10 on the map. Given that area 10 is one of the maze-y PCs-get-lost rooms, this made it difficult for a brief moment. And it was brief because the description of room 11 matched the cartography of room 10 so well that it was easy to figure out. It is still something to be noted, however, so I am noting it.

Things to Watch Out For:

 Deadly Traps: This thing is brutal, but in a different way than one normally associates with traps (including the ones I talked about in my last review, of Raiders of the lost oasis). This place is all about using your time wisely and has dire consequences for not doing so. The traps are deadly because they put even more time pressure on the PCs by starting fires that consume precious air instead of, or in addition to, doing regular (physical) damage. The traps in Raiders of the Lost Oasis just did a ton of damage and wore the party down until they used their resources up and were still damaged and fatigued. In Last Gasp, the danger is more pressing, but it isn’t direct HP-reducing damage that will kill the party. There is the lack of air. And then there is the water – yes, one part of the tomb is flooded, making combat tough and holding your breath while finding your way out is even tougher! There are creatures too, and they are dangerous, but the traps in this thing could easily result in a TPK. By Design.

Final Thoughts:

This is a very good, evocative, desert/tomb based adventure. It is short and deadly, and is meant as a one-shot adventure. You could work it into a larger campaign, but I would recommend really preparing your players for the danger here. If they have been raising their PCs up from level 1 and will be upset if they die, then you need to warn them of the danger. Expectations are everything.

This adventure is well written and easy to read, and only has a few minor grammatical issues. The story is coherent and the background is discoverable in a useful way. The pdf of this is $3.99 at the Kobold Press website and is definitely worth the money, in my opinion. You can also buy a dead tree copy for $14.99. I have both and they are the same document (i.e. the pdf has not been corrected or had the pre-gens added to it).

 

And that brings us to the end of my second desert/Egyptian themed product review.

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!

~DMSamuel

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.