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Epic in Scale and Hard to Beat!

This is the fourth adventure module I am reading in my quest to explore desert/Egyptian themed items as I plan my next 5th edition D&D game.

My next foray into the desert was published by Paizo Publishing in 2007, and was written by Michael Kortes. This adventure was written for use with Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 Edition) as the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game wasn’t released until 2009. This adventure is for four 6th level PCs. As with the other adventures I reviewed recently, the majority of this one is set in a tomb in the desert. In this case it is an ages old pyramid of the Four Pharaohs of Ascension. This adventure is set in Osirion in the Pathfinder RPG world of Golarion. 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?

The expansive history of the Nation of Osirion includes a group called the Four Pharaohs of Ascension. The story here is that they were the representatives of their own powerful dynasties, but warring with each other was depleting their resources and causing their individual nations to become vulnerable to attack from the outside. They decided to band together and form an alliance of their peoples to ensure the future of Osirion. The only way they could do so and still somewhat trust each other was to create a magical bond between them that protected each of them, but held them bound in death as well. As such, the four Pharaohs had one giant pyramid tomb complex erected in their honor. The Tomb of the Four Pharaohs of Ascension was their final resting place, but of course the location of this tomb has been lost to time. Recently, important clues to its location have surfaced, along with some valuable relics.

Said relics are being sold at a gray-market antiquities auction in Sothis, a large city in Osirion. This is where the party comes into the picture. The PCs have been sent to the auction to meet a Pathfinder Society contact and learn more about the Tomb. They meet others at the auction as well, possibly including their chief rivals. The Pathfinder Society contact puts them in touch with another contact who has knowledge specific to the Tomb they seek and how to summon it from the demiplane it normally resides on.

To summon the Tomb the party must have a specific artifact. This can be found using information provided by people in the city or some of the other contacts the party met at the auction. Once the item is retrieved the party rushes off to the spot where the Pyramid Tomb will appear.

Exploring the massive Pyramid Tomb takes a lot of time, especially if the party is properly exploring. They might still have to contend with the rival group. After defeating the four Pharaohs the party can leave (maybe) signaling the end of the adventure.

Initial Thoughts:

This is a well-constructed adventure with multiple interesting elements to deal with. The designer packs a lot into a mere 32 pages and it is mostly complete. Every element of this adventure reads as a very satisfying foray into the underworld of antique trade and a tomb raiding venture. There are lots of things that can be used to seed the campaign for future mysteries, or could be ignored in future sessions. This aspect of the module makes it feel very sandbox in form even though the meat of the adventure is basically a short dungeon crawl.

Good Stuff:

 The Set Up: The initial action in this adventure takes place in a gray market auction at the Malhitu Bazaar, a large tent structure in the major city of Sothis. In case you are wondering… A gray market isn’t completely legal (that would be just a market). It is also not treated as completely illegal (that would be a black market). A gray market is an illegitimate auction (so not totally legal) which the authorities choose NOT to halt or fine (which they would do for a black market). In other words, the guards and rulers look the other way as long as no-one causes trouble. But I digress – back to the main issue at hand.

This auction is very free-form and the GM gets lots of information as to how the NPCs will act, who will bid on which artifact, and what a rival NPC group will do. The auction scene can be played out with a focus on the auction itself, or with a focus on the people at the auction, or on the items that are being auctioned, or with a focus on all three. How it plays out will depend on the tastes of the GM and the players, and what has gone on in the campaign before this point. If the GM has integrated clues about anything in this module into the previous events in their campaign then this might end up being a drawn out scene – the PCs are 6th level by now, after all, so lots of stuff has probably happened to them by now and they may pursue threads based on previous clues. If the players aren’t interested in playing out an auction, this might be a short scene.

In other words, at this auction the PCs have the opportunity to meet several people in town who may help or hinder them in the future. They also get to learn about the antiquities trade in the city, meet a contact from the Pathfinder Society, and get a chance to bid on some items that will help them later in the adventure. The auction sets up a sandbox beginning, making for a tapestry of rich interactions introducing this into your campaign. This is well done, provides lots of information to the GM, and is flexible enough to be molded into what the players and GM enjoy most in their game.

 NPC Rivals: I mentioned a Rival group of NPCs above. This set of characters is seeking the same thing the PCs are – riches and renown! The party will probably end up working against the rival group at the beginning, seeing them as competition if they pay attention to the activities at the auction. However, the PCs might end up working with the rival group during the adventure, and there are several opportunities to do so. This is another case where the preferences of the GM and players will likely be the most important factor here. Some groups will simply try to wipe out the rivals at the earliest opportunities while other game groups might enjoy a friendly, but tension filled, rivalry. This set of NPCs have the ability to become recurring foils in a campaign, if not full-on villains. The GM is given advice about how the NPCs act and react throughout the adventure.

 To Betray or Not To Betray: Speaking of the NPC Rival group… one member of the rival group is sent to infiltrate the PC party early on. This is, of course, in the guise of someone who can help the PCs decipher some ancient scripts or find meaning in some ancient artifacts. This can result in betrayal by the NPC when it is revealed that she actually works for the Rival group at a pivotal point in the adventure. Or, and this is what makes this so great, she might choose NOT to betray the PCs at all. A GM who carefully reads the biographical information for this NPC in the back of the adventure will learn that she is as likely to choose to remain loyal to the Rival NPC group as she is likely to switch sides and help the PCs throughout the rest of the adventure. She is ultimately loyal only to herself. She will do what is best for her and only her and will not make that decision until the winning side becomes clear. If she determines that the PCs will come out victorious, she will side with them. If not, well, betrayal by a trusted NPC is a D&D trope for a reason.

 Variety in Accomplishing Tasks: This adventure provides room for lots of different approaches to solving the problems presented in the scenario. For example, after the auction scene the party learns that finding the Pyramid Tomb requires calling it to this plane from the demiplane it normally resides in and summoning it requires a specific magical funerary mask. Acquiring this mask is a task in and of itself involving a red herring (fake), a dangerous caper into a guarded compound, and possibly being set up by the Rival NPC group if something should go wrong. There are multiple ways for the party to find out the correct information and to acquire the mask. They also might fail to acquire the mask, which has consequences but doesn’t end the adventure, which is a nice thing to see in a published scenario. This sort of variety in problem-solving opportunities is seen throughout the adventure and it is wonderful.

 Notes and Sidebars for the GM: I have mentioned advice for the GM a couple of different times now, so this might be a good time to mention it specifically. The text of the module has advice and information packed into it in every section. In addition, there are ample notes and sidebars highlighting specific topics and important concepts in the adventure. This not only provides information but also breaks up some of the text-heavy pages and makes the book easier to read. I love this sort of design and think it adds a great deal to the usability of the book and also to the aesthetic value of the product.

 Runes and Paranoia: Back to story-related things… The creatures in this adventure are dangerous. The Rival NPC group is dangerous. The trek to get to the summoning location of Pyramid Tomb is dangerous. But, by far, the most dangerous thing in this adventure is a set of Runes. To guard against grave robbing, the four pharaohs placed four dangerous rune symbols in strategic locations throughout the tomb. Any individual who sees all four runes will likely becomes the victim of a curse which immediately turns the victim into a mindless decayed mummy tasked with destroying all living things in the tomb. The PCs learn about this particular difficulty early on in the adventure from one of their contacts in Sothis.

The contact is a former adventurer who was a member of the last expedition to investigate the Pyramid Tomb 56 years ago. He is so paranoid about accidentally seeing the fourth rune that he lives perpetually blindfolded, using strings strung through his house to help him navigate, and he refuses to let anyone in his house without first removing every scrap of parchment, linen, or vellum that contains hieroglyphs of any kind. This curse is so devastating that he is the only surviving member of that expedition. So the players/PCs get fair warning there, and if they ignore it or skip the interaction with that contact they get a second chance warning in one of the chambers in the tomb. This can seed the players with paranoia, especially if they have been playing their PCs since level 1. They will each have to constantly balance their desire for treasure and information with the danger of accidentally seeing another rune. This vigilance itself is enough to cause some interesting roleplaying.

 Traps: Of course it is a Pyramid Tomb of four ancient Pharaohs, so it contains traps. Most of these traps have multiple ways to bypass them and they offer plenty of room for a curious and creative party to work through the place without too much damage. There is also a very cool room with an interesting trap that works very well with the attitude/personality of one of the four pharaohs. I don’t want to spoil it too much here, so I won’t say much, but I do want to praise the way this was done. It’s not that I have never seen a trap that altered a room’s floor or ceiling, but the way this is described, complete with side-view pictures, is very well done. Also, the multitude of ways that this trap can be dealt with provides ample variety in activities, allowing for each member of the party to be doing something constructive during the challenge. The designer notes in the sidebar even mention one particular way the trap was disabled during playtest that surprised the playtest GM, and then it encourages the acceptance of and rewarding of that out of the box thinking.

 Numerological Mystery: There is a thread of information that runs through this adventure that seems to form a mystery. One of the Four Pharaohs of Ascension was the Pharaoh of Numbers and he is the most mysterious of the four, so much so that his real name has been lost to history while the names of the other three are still in mind to any Osirian who paid attention to their nation’s history. In any case, the mystery in the Pyramid Tomb involves the numbers 56 and 11, the cosmic association between Golarion and the planet Aucturn, and a mystical countdown clock prominently displayed in the burial chamber of the Pharoah of Numbers. These three items are threaded throughout the adventure and the GM can highlight them as much or as little as they choose, which could also be determined by how much interest the players show in these mysterious elements. The adventure itself doesn’t provide any answers, but there is enough there for the GM to make these items important to the future of their own overarching campaign, or to create a simple explanation that the PCs discover at the end of this adventure. These elements are well done and can be as understated or highlighted as suits the needs of the group – once again, a well-done yet flexible set of information.

 A Mummy is Not a Mummy is Not a Mummy: Encountering a mummy is par for the course if you are running a desert-based tomb-robbing adventure. In this case, even though there is a relatively simple template applied to create the mummies of the Four Pharaohs, they each have their own personality. This comes out in the thematic elements included in their burial chambers, the types of protective methods they used in life to preserve them in death, and the sorts of treasures they kept. But it also comes out in the direct personalities of the four, with each pharaoh presenting a different set of challenges to the party. As written this works very well and allows for the pharaonic encounters to feel different despite the similar mummy template.

 Attention to Background Information is Rewarded: Not much space is taken up by background information at the beginning of the book. Most of the information provided is in the relevant portion of the adventure when the PCs will be exposed to it. There IS a lot of background information hidden in the different sections, but almost all of it is discoverable and relevant to the tomb investigation. The information economy here is very tight and players who pay attention to the thematic elements and the background information provided by NPCs and the tomb itself will be richly rewarded. I like that because it feels like the thematic elements and the activities of the PCs line up, making it worthwhile for the players to pay attention to the details of the items they find, the rooms they raid, and NPCs they interact with.

 Thematic Elements:

Speaking of thematic elements, the Egyptian Pharoah desert tomb raiding theme here is perfectly executed. The magic items, descriptions, NPCs, events, and creatures are all matched perfectly to the tone and theme of the adventure. And these thematic elements, as noted above, can be helpful to the PCs if they pay attention, so it is important that they are matched so perfectly. In other words, I didn’t read anything in this adventure and think, “Huh? Where did that come from?”

 Maps: There are several maps in the product that are all well done. When a side-view or different angle is needed the adventure provides it. This sounds par for the course, but I have to mention it here as a good component of the adventure because, if it was missing it would be a disaster. The maps add to the reader’s understanding of the structure of the pyramid and certain problematic elements the PCs will have to face. So it is a very good thing they are included.

 Time Pressure: The time pressure in this adventure is not as extreme as the one in Last Gasp. The time pressure in this adventure comes in two forms. The first is the face against the Rival NPC group. It is preferable (or maybe not, depending on the attitudes of the PCs/players) for the PCs to be the first into the tomb. That is a race across the dunes, with the summoning funerary mask, to the Pyramid’s location, and then getting into the Pyramid. The second time pressure is the race to escape at the end. After the fourth pharaoh is destroyed, the key mask shatters and the Pyramid begins to phase back to its usual demiplanar resting place, giving the PCs about a half hour to escape from the Pyramid. This may seem like a long time for a relatively small-ish tomb, but it is at this point that the PCs might discover the first trap they set off, which traps them into the tomb unless they performed some specific actions with some of the items they discovered. Discovering this trap might lead them to having to find another way out, and they have already spent precious time going back to the initial entrance, which is now blocked to them.

 Excellent Production Values: Last but not least, I want to call out the excellent production values found in this product. High quality art (some of which I have put on exhibit in this review), a heavy-duty card stock cover, and thick paper all make this feel like a high value product. Good proofreading and editing – only a few grammatical errors in the text of the adventure to be found – rounds out the product. When this product was released it has a $12.99 MSRP and it is worth every penny, as I have come to expect out of products produced by Paizo Publishing.

Bad Stuff:

Sorry to say, but despite all of my praise above, this is not a perfect product. Here are some things I feel could be improved upon:

 Not Much Information About Sothis: The city the PCs begin in is a large metropolis with a population of almost 112,000. It is a crying shame that no map of the city is provided – not even a sketch of the major neighborhood regions of the city. Given that this is meant to NOT be a one-shot, it is pretty important to me to have a city that feels alive. This is, after all, a place the PCs will use as a home base for at least the next 3 sessions. The information provided in the text, and what the PCs can learn via interacting with NPCs can help fill in a lot of gaps in city knowledge, but it could be a lot better. So much information is already packed into the 32 pages of this product, and I am sure that more info on the city would have pushed up the page count, but I still feel it is a missed opportunity.

 Getting to the Pyramid: After all of the interesting interactions, NPCs, and events that happen in the city, the portion of the adventure in which the party travels to the Pyramid summoning location is a big let down. This non-highlighted part of the adventure is a missed opportunity. There are a couple of possible events mentioned, but nothing really fleshed out and given a treatment akin to the other thematic elements in this adventure. An alternative to this would possibly be to have set up some mechanics for the race against the Rival group to get to the pyramid location first. Instead there are couple of suggested combats. *yawn*

 Disappearing Treasure: The dais upon which rests the sarcophagus of the Cerulean Pharaoh, Anok Fero, is surrounded by a deep moat of gold, gems, jewelry, and other treasures. This, of course, is a huge boon and could possibly be the ultimate find of tomb-robbing PCs. Alas, the designer states that the amount of treasure in this area would unbalance the game, so the treasure in the moat is not removable. Well, it can be removed from the chamber itself, but cannot leave the pyramid because it is bound to the demiplane that is the usual location of the tomb. Any of the treasure removed from the moat itself disappears when it leaves the pyramid. I really hate this. There are better ways to do this than to trick the PCs into thinking they hit the motherlode and them not finding out until they try and leave the pyramid. For example, why not make the treasure that fills the moat a permanent illusion? The blue dragon mummy that guards the Cerulean Pharaoh wouldn’t mind. Or the designer could make it immediately discoverable that the treasure cannot leave the pyramid by making it not able to leave the room. Then at least the players know and aren’t in for a huge disappointment, especially if they spent a lot of resources fighting that blue mummy dragon.

Things to Watch Out For:

 GM Has a LOT of Work To Do: If you have read this far you have probably figured this out by now, but it is fair to add it to the list. When I finished reading this module my immediate thought was that I need to read it at least twice more before I can begin to prep it to run. In my opinion, to make all of the moving parts of this adventure run smoothly, including the NPCs, city, mask caper, travel to the pyramid, Rival group, traps, pharaohs, mysterious information, runes, and creatures, the GM needs to know this module backwards and forwards. There is so much going on in this thing that I can’t imagine running it on short notice, even after reading it once or twice. A lot of prepping, information organization, and management of theme will have to be done before starting to run this. Will it be worth it? Definitely!

 Not a One-Shot: This is also not a one session adventure – and it doesn’t purport to be. The most recent items I reviewed were meant for one-shot or side-quest level speed of completion, this is not one of those. To convert this to a one-shot would cause it to lose many/most of the elements that make it so fantastic, so I want to set your expectations – plan on this taking 3 or 4 sessions, depending on how long you spend in town and how much development of NPCs and city events you want to take place.

 Mysteries: That mystery thread (56 & 11, Aucturn, Countdown Clock) that I talked about before is something you will want to prep for. The players/PCs might be interested or they might not – so you might be prepping for something they don’t care about. On the other hand, if you don’t prep specifically for it, it might not be satisfying to the players or GM.

 Trapped in the Pyramid: As mentioned earlier there is a time limit when the mummies are defeated and the party must escape the tomb, and there is a trap that won’t let them leave the way they entered. That trap is called the anti-life curse and it might shock the players – not literally, but there is no indication that a trap has been triggered unless someone in the group specifically investigates the very first archway they all pass through. This investigation will both trigger the trap and possibly allow for the group to figure out the complication, but maybe not. Just be prepared for that. There is at least one major alternative to exiting the way they came in and they can probably spot it with no problem, but be prepared for the possibility of a brief mini-panic. Hopefully this mystery was solved earlier and the party can exit, but if not, you might want to prep a seed of another way to break the anti-life curse into another room of the tomb.

 Conversion: This adventure was written for 3.5 D&D and the creature statistics included are, of course, for that edition. The Rival NPC party is also for that edition. And the pre-generated PCs, while they are the iconic Pathfinder PCs, are in their 3.5 D&D format so will also require conversion. This conversion may have some tricky parts, depending on what system you are converting into, so you will want to be aware of that.

Final Thoughts:

This is one of the most well-constructed adventures designed for modern fantasy RPGs that I have read. It is best run as a sprawling epic wherein the party spends a lot of time researching and getting to know NPCs in Sothis, then travelling to the tomb, then searching the tomb, and finally returning to Sothis triumphant and with more artifacts that have secrets to reveal. It reads as an epic even though it is only 32 pages. This is a very busy adventure and the GM will have to put in a lot of work to make this all run smoothly together, especially the rival tomb raiding party and the possible consequences of exposure to the dangerous cursed runes. This is built for 6th level PCs and is positioned nicely to kick off a campaign arc that spans as many or as few levels as the GM desires.

This is really suited for experienced GMs, so I can’t recommend it for a new GM to run. If you are a designer and you want to know what a good adventure is, I recommend you read this one – if you can identify the elements that make this great, you will be able to put great elements into your designs. Is it perfect? No, but it nails so many great elements that it is close, so very close.

The pdf of this product is $8.99 at the Paizo online store. This module is out of print, so if you want a hardcopy you’ll have to print it yourself or visit ebay.

And that’s another one down. As Always, 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.

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