I3-4-5: Desert of Desolation

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Desert of Desolation comprises I3: Pharaoh, I4: Oasis of the White Palm, and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek. Tracy Hickman was the overall mastermind of these modules. We won't call it a "series" - we'll get to why not.

Tracy cowrote Pharaoh with newly-Mrs Laura Hickman in 1977, alongside that Hindustani brilliance which would become B7: Rahasia. The couple sold these two privately in Utah, which did well locally. But they got shafted on an unrelated business deal so sold these titles to TSR, who - in a rare flash of business sense - realised what a goldmine they had so hired them outright. Tracy did I4 instead with Philip Meyers. He did the last one on his own and it kind of shows.


As backstory for the first module then-standalone, Pharaoh Amun-Re once upon a time offended Osiris by his acts of tyranny and blasphemy not least the erection of a grandiose "theft-proof" pyramid to himself. As a result, the god cursed Amun-Re to become a restless ghost whose presence blighted his own land into a barren waste. Only by having his fabulous treasure stolen would the curse be broken, banishing the desert that had swallowed up his kingdom and allowing Amun-Re's soul to enter the peace of the afterlife. The story begins when Amun-Re's ghost appears to the party as they wander the Desert of Desolation that has sprung up around his tomb, pleading with them to risk the traps and guardians of his pyramid and end his curse.

By happenstance this pyramid is the earliest ever Egyptian themed dungeon to see publication for Dungeons & Dragons. Alan Lucien had plotted "Tomb of Ra-Hotep" before that, but this would become something else.

So the old pagan gods kind-of/sort-of exist; they blend in with historical figures; and they are all complete cocks. As for RPGs, they are a vehicle to teach Important Moral Lessons, here that greed and pride are mortal sins hmmkay and you can't enjoy your wealth after death. Unless you're a PC murderhobo. Yay, Hickmans!


The angel Moroni must have instilled some cognitive-dissonance in Tracy because he couldn't leave that story, nor that setting, be.

As the I-series casts Pharaoh: in the course of healing the land, the party has the opportunity to... kick off the next two I-modules. They might, by raiding another tomb, loose The Treasure That Must Be Kept: a Wishmaster-esque evil afrit. The party has to fix THAT by robbing still more graves and collecting soul-gems. The first gem is/was had in the Pharaoh's tomb in the first module. The other two are got in the course of followup I4, starting with a temple of Set and culminating in the tomb of Badr al-Musak.

Note how the core of I3 is entirely disconnected with the I4-5 cycle. Literally a side-encounter of the first one becomes the root of some other epic. (How very Arabian Nights...) I3-5 is not a series, in a narrative sense; it is two adventures set in the same location. Thematically the two storylines are mutually redundant, at that - the land was supposed to be healed in I3 and, oops, we're still in a desert I4-5.

An apologist for these modules would say that the two storylines are mutually balanced, the point being that consent matters when doing a plunder, unless it's against dead Set worshippers in which case screw 'em. But what if the players aren't tomb raiders? In this case groups who'd play Hickman's "full" epic must railroad the PCs into committing an act Hickman himself would classify as a crime (and a stupid one). Don't eat that forbidden fruit - the really tasty one over there, and by the way you're stuck here until you do.

The I-series ramps up the Islam, by way of the Ibn Ishaq Sira. Hickman and Meyers pose a holy cold-war between the Thune Dervishes and the Symbayans. The Thune protect ALL the holy sites of the wastelands, whatever their supposed "alignment". The pegasi-riding Symbayans are monotheists to Anu. I4 especially would have you side with the latter against those intolerant fanatical ... pluralistic pagans. Well at least Hickman (and Meyers) allowed the Thune have an ethos (as The Great Lebowski might put it).

The finale I5 is mostly in one final tomb, that of Martek, where Hickman rewards you with a ... Liahona. Well so much for all the Islamic themes, here's that Hickmanite Mormonism you'd been wanting.


It was all compiled into a single book and retconned for the Forgotten Realms setting. Hamfistedly. Although not such as to ruin them. Nor to fix them as a series...

Also the skate-ship in I5 was reused (maybe stolen) for the glass sailship in para-Dragonlance's Time of the Dragon. Since Hickman started the whole Dragonlance thing why not, we guess.