Sunday, December 13, 2015

Retro Review Of X5 Temple of Death For Expert Dungeons & Dragons And Your Old School Campaigns

If you were playing D&D in Eighty Three then you might have had your PC's stumble into Temple of Death, a pulpy and very dangerous conclusion to the 'Nomad' adventures by David 'Zeb' Cook. Last night I ran seven players through this adventure using the Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea rpg system. Here's my review and commentary

X5 Temple of Death is an adventure that I've had extraordinary fond memories of running and Saturday night, I can honestly say why I've had such solid memories of it. The module always seems to bring a crowd to the table. Temple of Death and Master of the Desert Nomads can be thought of two halves of the same whole of an expert Dungeons and Dragons whole. The over all feel is here is one slick and well thought out module but this one is not without problems as well. Fortunately they don't detract from the adventure or how it's put together to run at the table.

Everything about the set up here is classic pulpy sword and sorcery action with the PC's going into classic hostile terrority of the enemy for the set up but everything they know isn't enough. The blurb from D&D classics is provides everything the dungeon master really needs with the intro;"Sent on a desperate mission into an unknown land, you must seek out one called "the Master" and his Temple of Death. There is little time to waste, as you must act before the Master's armies destroy your homelands. But to complete your task, you must battle fearsome guardians, travel through a hostile kingdom, and discover the secret of the Master. Can you survive his defenses and win?" 
The blurb from D&D classics dot com is also wrong,  "This adventure contains referee's notes, background, maps, and detailed keys. It is the second adventure in the two-part Desert Nomads series begun in X4: "Master of the Desert Nomads," but it can stand on its own as a separate adventure. Whether you play "Temple of Death" by itself or as part of a series, the adventure will offer you hours of excitement and fun!"
A DM really needs to run this as part of a two part mini campaign and its one that hooks right into the back end of Master of the Desert Nomads. My players knew exactly what they were getting into with the background, adventure set up, and high pulpy weirdness of the adventure itself.
The Temple of Death is clearly for characters level 6-10 and there are parts that are especially deadly. But this is a perfect adventure to convert over to Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, everything in the module is keyed right into the sword and sorcery pulp tradition we have desert nomads, a lack of demihumans, a mechanical flying ship, and a maniacal arch-villain with his henchmen all surrounded by an oppressive theocracy. The PC's really are in hostile territory of  the Black Mountains and traverse the Great Pass through them to reach the land of Hule. Hule is an interesting dichotomy of oppressive religion and clerical horror under the booted heel of its religious leaders and very, very dangerous to PC's health.  Hule is an oppressive religious  totalitarian state in which social orders are carefully defined, and where the Master's stronghold is located. This is one of those states that seems like it came straight out of a late Seventies Marvel Conan comic book, one of those minor style states that would employ mercenaries along its borders or crush any adventurers within its sphere of influence.

After reading the Grognardia Retrospective on Temple of Death, I took the adventure and made some notes before running this adventure:

  • I back filled in the clerical orders of the Temple of Death sprinkling several random encounters with their religions that the PC's witness giving the adventure's setting an added boast of pulpy weirdness that enforces the notion that the PC's are in deed in a dangerous land. 
  • Back off on the hand of God clues sprinkled throughout the module especially if your running this one with veteran role players and D&D players. They'll know and find their way especially if they they've played The Master of the Desert Nomads. The PC's will find their way into the back end of Temple of Death quite nicely. 
  • The DM is going to have to be aware that there are errors in some copies of X5 and things like a walled town without any gates shown on the map are bound to crop up. The DM should be ready for these and make notes to deal with this. This stuff is all easy to overcome with some prep time and effort .
  • Have extra PC 's statted up and ready to go, during play several deaths occurred and this isn't an adventure that favors special snow flake PC's at all. They will die and pretty badly if certain decisions are made especially in certain adventure locations.
On the whole if a DM was to use X 4 and X5 in pseudo real world history there are several areas that can easily suit the pulpy conceits of  Temple of Death. The Iran,India, Pakistan triangle of legend and mythology easily takes on yet another kingdom whose existence has fallen through the cracks of history. But I digress that it would actually be another influence from the early Seventies that has a far more reaching impact in the form of the Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad film's pulp and mythological tradition that Temple of Death owes much of its roots and influence from.

The fact is that Temple of Death has several adventure elements that have been keyed off the Orientalist school of the pulp tradition which David 'Zeb' Cook seems to take and warp making them all of his own. This is especially true of the encounters in  the Great Pass. All of the encounters in the Great Pass including  a mechanical dragon, a palace of hallucinogenic fungi, and a moon pool, and more are ones that my players want to revisit as soon as possible. Especially the moon pool which creates a ladder to the moon on nights of the full moon. Each and everyone of these has analogues within the Orientalist fairy tales and legends of real world mythology making X4 and X5 a snap to run and convert with Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Dark Albion. Each of these is steeped in pulpy dark fantasy to pull PC's right into the deep end of a Fourteen or Fifteen Hundreds alternative history adventure on their own. 

I also have to say that I really loved Tim Truman's artwork throughout X5, it gave a unifying feel to the adventure and really brought home the harsh sword and sorcery vibe of the adventure for me. Which brings me to Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The fact is that X4 and X5 easily fit the bill for sword and sorcery action, many of the elements presented in this series of modules is already build into the background of the setting. There are several desert areas that can be used for the X4 and X5 but as I mentioned before the Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes environs are ideally suited for exactly this sort of treatment. In fact to break up the action of the X series I would easily use both modules and follow those up with the Ghost Ship, giving the PC's a reason to stick around the region.

The set up of the Ghost Ship adventure for AS&SH   along the Diamond Desert is just the sort thing that would attract the 'Master' and his minions. The state of Hule would be looking for any military or magical tactical advantage and those nearby legends would be very enticing to them..
"Somewhere in the depths of Diamond Desert lie the skeletal remains of Ymir’s Serpent, a legendary Viking longship. In days of yore, Sigtrygg Forkbeard led his company upriver, piercing the desert’s hostile heart. There the Vikings unearthed a lost mine brimming with green diamonds, but the River ├ćolus desiccated as the Serpent prepared for launch, and the ship was swallowed by the dunes. Forkbeard and his company were never seen again, but tales of a shimmering Viking ghost ship gliding over the dunes persist to this day."
Both Temple of Death and The Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes  include wilderness, town, and dungeon encounters which should challenge a party of experienced adventurers easily. The legend of the Ghost Ship is built along the same pulpy lines as X4 & X5 all the while weaving its own Hyperborean mythology and legends around Ymir’s Serpent. All of the while drawing the PC's deeper and deeper into the adventure while revealing more of the mysteries of Hyperborea's glorious past as well as  its peoples, locations , setting bits, and even more weirdness. This sets up the foundation for a glorious sword and sorcery adventure campaign. This was the feeling I got running X5 last night for my players.

Two other sword and sorcery  monsters that fit the bill for the pulpy goodness of AS&SH, the Malfera is an elephant-faced monster from the "Dimension of Nightmares," which has shades of a Robert Howard demon but is pretty horrific on its own and would make an excellent addition to Hyperborea's roster of horrors.
While the Spectral Hound is from the "Dimensional Vortex," which is defined as "the void between all dimensions." also could be known as a part of the Outer Darkness of the planar nature of Hyperborea. Some adjustments might need to be made for stats but all in all these are two iconic monsters that should be used in far more dungeon and sword and sorcery venues. After last night's game I don't see my players ever wanting to tangle with the horrors of Hule for a while.

But Temple of Death wasn't the last time that we'd see Hule or the Master in print, there were two other times that he and his desert nomads graced the pages of an adventure. According to Classic D&D dot com;
 "Cook never intended a sequel to the X4/X5 sequence, but the characters and setting were sufficiently evocative that Michael S. Dobson later wrote X10: "Red Arrow, Black Shield", which features the return of the Master and his desert nomads."
But I shall have to return to X4 and X5 another day, while Temple of Death is with some problems the Desert Nomad modules remain a favorite of mine and its a certainly made an impression upon my players. I started at four in the afternoon and finished at about three this morning. All in all a very deadly adventure, out of seven players three PC's bit the dust and were replaced during play along the way.

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