David Cook had previously shown his love for Sword and Sorcery tales in the first couple of Slave Lords adventures and, especially, in Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which has a specific debt to Howard’s Red Nails. Master of the Desert Nomads is, for me, Cook’s most successful venture into the Sword and Sorcery genre. Conan or Hawkmoon could quite easily be imagined as the hero of this adventure. This is quite an achievement, and it manages this primarily through its structure: this is a road-trip adventure, where encounters meet the characters along the road rather than at specific locations.
Cook manages something with the adventure’s structure that Hickman did not in his otherwise superb masterpiece, Pharaoh. Having encounters that take place due to time triggers rather than merely location triggers makes a huge difference. Pharaoh really needs the players to explore the Sunken City of Pazar, but because it doesn’t force the issue, the later adventures can feel incomplete. Pharaoh works a lot better if the players free the efreeti and must then stop him in penance. Because Cook has encounters finding the players as they cross the desert, not placed in specific locations, key elements of the story can be introduced and built upon later. This is a visionary approach, and is one used in adventures designed today.
Although the adventure’s structure feels modern, the encounters are evocative of older Sword and Sorcery works. The set-up for the adventure is simple: a large raiding force has attacked the players’ kingdom, and the king’s army has gone to fight them. The players have reached one of the raided areas too late to join the army, but a priest sends them on a quest to find the Temple of Death, which he believes is somehow connected to the outcome of the war…
From there, the adventure exists as a selection of set-pieces along the road, with two “dungeon” areas to explore to break the monotony of travel. There’s a moderate amount of role-playing, and quite a few tricks and traps to keep the players on their toes.
Cook’s best technique here is to foreshadow the mysterious “Master”. The players will hear rumours of him along the way, as well as possibly “meeting” him through a magic mirror. More foreshadowing is added in an encounter with a desert priest, who prophesises for the party, thus giving clues for future encounters in the adventure.
“On your way seek three things: first, a land where terror sleeps beneath the earth; second, four strong men who cannot move; and last, a man who is not a man.”
There’s no doubt that this is a challenging adventure. Tension is maintained through the pace and scale of the encounters. Meeting a portion of the Master’s army gives great possibilities for deception and stealth, as well as showing the scale of the threat. News that the king’s army has been destroyed just helps things along. If the players don’t save their homeland, who will?
The adventure also is very much of a piece. Items found in early encounters prove important in later encounters, and not everything is as it seems – but the players have enough allies along the way that they can get clarification on some of the things they’ve learnt.
The first half of the adventure deals with the character’s journey to the land of the Master. The second half deals with the entrance to the land, the “Gates of the Pass”, where the adventurers must negotiate an evil abbey. Yes, despite the name of the adventure, the players won’t get to fight the Master here – the adventure concludes in a second adventure, Temple of Death.
The abbey itself is a classic case of deception: the lawful monks who once lived there have been replaced by evil, shape-changing bhuts, a new monster in this adventure. As the bhuts are themselves under threat from an evil frost salamander, there’s just enough truth in the situation to make things difficult for the players and fiendishly enjoyable for the DM. Cook gives a potential sequence of events to guide the DM as to how to run this section, another example of just how well this adventure is written, as without a guide the intent of this section could be obscure.
The artwork of the adventure is uncredited, although Parkinson and Easley are easily-spotted contributors. It’s still early days for those artists, and the artwork is competent without being special. The formatting and layout of the adventure are pretty good, and it’s easy to read through and run.
Master of the Desert Nomads could be seen as a rail-road. Personally, I don’t think that’s the case. Is it linear in structure? Undoubtedly, but there’s surprisingly little heavy-handedness in dictating the players’ actions. (Consider G1, which tells the players “defeat the giants or be executed”). What X4 is doing is guiding the players towards their destination, using a lot of classic sword and sorcery tropes to do so. Ultimately, the path the players take through the adventure is limited by its structure, but not much more than a standard dungeon crawl where the corridors are limiting the players’ actions. However, the linking of encounters shows us something new and it deserves to be commended for it. Later adventures would use elements of its structure, but this is one of the true classics of D&D.