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By Tracy Hickman
AD&D adventure for characters levels 7-9
One thousand years ago, the wizard Martek knew that you would come to find his Sphere of Power. Now, one of his glowing Star Gems shows you the way. The starlight, reflected in the glass beneath you, flickers peacefully.
Martek's prophesy spoke of heroes, tests and dangers. Are you the heroes? What are the tests? What dangers and riches lie ahead?
The adventure is 32 pages long.
Depending on how thoroughly your party explores or how mission oriented they are, some encounters will be bypassed. In my estimation, there are:
The adventure "Lost Tomb of Martek" is a stand-alone adventure that also can be played as the final episode of the "Desert of Desolation" trilogy. If your players are finishing the trilogy, this will make them feel a little bit like bozos. In the first episode, the characters accidentally freed a dangerous Efreet Pasha that terrorizes the desert and plans to conquer the world by raising an undead army. In the second episode, the party is able to free a Djinn Vizier to fight the Efreet, but the Djinn is evenly matched and the battle between the two mighty combatants causes even more harm and suffering to the desert people. In this final episode, the party can locate the lost tomb of Martek in search of his "sphere of power" which should solve the problem once and for all. At the end of the adventure, the party finds the Sphere of Power, which turns out to be the old wizard Martek, raised from the dead. Martek asks the adventurers "what took you so long", and then he goes out and defeats the Efreet. In other words, an NPC saves the day—solving the problems caused by the bumbling characters.
The adventure starts very promising, with the party coming across a vast area of desert that has been turned to glass by some magical conflagration. The "skysea" can only be safely passed by magical boats that float over the glass. This is spectacular fantasy, and it plays out with wilderness encounters like a pirate helmed by skeletons, or by a purple worm breaking through the "skysea" to attack the party in their boat.
Eventually the party finds some crystal pillars, which teleport the party to the Tomb of Martek, a huge place that exists in an extra-dimensional space. The party finds themselves in the Garden of the Cursed, a one-mile Eden with no escape for anyone unless they have the 3 Star Gems. Fortunately the character acquired the Star Gems earlier in the trilogy, or they have the Star Gems to start with if this is a stand-alone adventure. Inside the Cursed Garden, generations of thieves and paladins have been in-breeding, creating two tribes of dim-wits that don't know about the outside world. These groups are the 'Guilders' (thieves) and 'Maddogs' (paladins). Both groups have a religion based on stealing (or preventing stealing), but the leaders of both groups want to steal or acquire the Star Gems. The "exploding pineapples" from I3-Pharaoh reappear in this garden, adding to the lighter tone here.
The Star Gems unlock the path to the "Crystal Prism" and a set of 6 challenges. Some notable NPCs from the cursed garden may be running ahead of the party if they stole the Star Gems. The six challenges are actually only 3 challenges, because some challenges have already been solved. I am not sure why, but I suspect that 6 challenges looked nicer with the hex-grid map that is used in this area. Each challenge is a stand-alone mini-quest. The party is teleported somewhere, they need to acquire a MacGuffin, then they are teleported back.
The three challenges have wildly different themes. The first challenge is the "black Abyss". This is a rocky path floating over a gate to the 666 layers of the abyss. Reality breaks down along this path; the further the party proceeds the stranger things get. First distance is distorted, then time, then magic. Unless there are wandering monsters or NPCs, there is no challenge to this test at all. The party just walks forward until they reach the end. If there are monsters or NPCs, then this becomes a bit of a logistical challenge. Distance measurements change each round basis, and time-flow likewise changes for each different character, with some moving up to 16x faster than others. I think that this time/distance trick is an excellent idea, but it is ruined by having a strictly linear path--and the absence of any dramatic tension other than wandering monsters. In other words, this would be very interesting if the party had anything to do other than walk forward until they reach the end.
The second test, the "Mobius Tower" is far and away the wildest thing in the book. This is a small four-floor tower that is connected at the top and bottom so you can walk up stairs forever, or walk down stairs forever—always passing the same four levels. Each level of the tower has 5-10 rooms. The entire tower is trapped in time at the very moment that the Sheik is getting assassinated. Within the dungeon, time is frozen. Nothing can be moved or altered, including the quest object, the Sheik or the arrow flying through the air about to kill him. Any door that is closed must stay closed, as it is trapped in time. Even a simple bead curtain is an impenetrable wall to the party. Only the characters seem to be able to be free to move. There is one room in the dungeon in which time operates normally, and if the MacGuffin is teleported here, the party can take it. This room also has a weird flow of liquid time running from floor to ceiling, and if this flow is blocked, then time in the dungeon operates normally for a short time. The party can exit the Mobius tower by flipping an hourglass, which causes their own time to flow backwards, reversing everything that happened to them in the tower until they arrive before they started. This is a really amazing little quest, and the time-flow is very creative. Unfortunately, there are a lot of undead creatures that are also free from the time constraints in this dungeon. The combat with the undead provides some relief from the static time-trapped nature of the dungeon, but I feel that it also distracts from the crazy mystery of the place.
The third test, "the Crypt of Al-Alisk" has the party in a desert wilderness. A princess appears in a vision asking for help, because she has been imprisoned. Each night two ghost armies clash. The party must fight their way past some spectral minions in order to find the crypt of Al-Alisk. The crypt has a single revolving-room trick and a princess trapped in crystal. If the princess is freed, the ghost armies can finally rest. This is kind of a nice mini-quest, but there isn't much to it. The whole thing is too short for the characters to get drawn into the drama or really care about the fate of the princess. Once she is freed, her body turns to dust and her remains blow away. It is kind of a downbeat ending.
Once the party reaches the final resting place of Martek, the 3 star-gems bring the powerful wizard back to life. The wizard offers the party 3 items of treasure each, and then goes out to take care of the Efreet once and for all. Some of the treasure that the party can discover or take is really hilarious: there is a collection of books including such gems as "Gone with the Air Elemental", "Paradise Displaced" and "Snow Dwarf and the Seven Wights". Martek is not provided with a stat-block as he is the deus ex machina to wrap up the adventure.
There are some incredibly creative fantasy elements here, particularly the skysea and the Mobius tower. I think that the Black Abyss portion also showed a lot of potential, though it wasn't used effectively. Some groups will probably have a lot of fun role-playing with the tribes of "guilders" and "maddogs" in the cursed garden.
The set-up and ending both make the characters less heroic. There are a lot of places where the party must do some task (place gems in a specific place in a particular order), and there is a nearby obelisk with runes explaining what the party needs to do. The tests, while very imaginative, don't resonate with any overall theme of the adventure. I'd go so far as to say that there isn't a consistent tone in the adventure. The adventure starts gritty with the challenge of traversing the skysea, then it becomes silly with the dimwits in the cursed garden, then it becomes fantastic with the 3 challenges, then it becomes silly at the end.
I don't give much weight to text density and cost per page. . . I'd rather pay a lot for a small clever mystery than pay a little for a huge repetitive monster bash. I don't give much weight to new monsters or magic items... they can add a little variety to an adventure, but to me they are minor decoration.
1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (3/5) The encounters here cover a wide variety of puzzles, role-playing, combat, and wilderness travel. The "Mobius tower" in particular is outstanding. There is some very good potential for role-playing in the cursed garden. I am downgrading this category by 2 because of the linear nature of many encounters, the bad ending encounter, and fairly large number of encounters where the party has to read some runes to figure out what to do next.
2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (4/5) In the cursed garden there are two dimwitted tribes, but there are also some recent arrivals that are plenty clever and taking advantage of the locals. Each of these NPCs gets their own write-up in the back of the adventure, explaining their relationships with each other. There is also some interesting intrigues among the time-trapped residents of the Mobius tower and the ghosts in the Crypt of Al-Alisk, even if the players are unlikely to interact much with the residents.
3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that players can use to their advantage): (2/5) There isn't a lot that players can count on that will help them anticipate upcoming challenges. A number of the challenges involve finding the runes scrawled on an ancient text that tell the characters what to do next… usually this involves inserting the star gems into one receptacle or another. I really liked the time-trapped objects in the Mobius tower, but I think the large number of undead wandering around that were not subject to time-trapping tends to ruin the effect. It would have been interesting for the party to be able to see their opposition, and plan for how to deal with them if/when time is released. It also might have been nifty to have some odd effects when time is reversed.
4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (2/5) This is a difficult category for me to grade. When the author is being serious, the encounters are very well done, particularly the skysea encounters, the Mobius tower, and the crypt of Al-Alisk. When the author is being silly, the encounters are very funny, including the garden of the cursed and the final meeting with Martek. Unfortunately, I personally didn't appreciate the major tonal shifts in the different parts of the adventure, and I especially didn't like the major NPC stealing the spotlight at the climax. I felt that a lot of this adventure had the characters following a fairly linear path laid out by the adventure.
5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5) There is boxed read-aloud text. The maps are clear and functional. (there are a few maps on hex-grids). There are no player handouts or illustrations. Each encounter is split into subsections that detail the Monster, the Treasure, the Trap/Trick, and the Play of how these different parts work together. This is the same methodology used in the other Desert of Desolation adventures. Splitting up the encounter makes it very easy for a DM to run the encounter as the writer expected. Everything is easy to find and nothing gets lost.
The Lost Tomb of Martek has some really creative and fantastic encounters. The inconsistent tone of the adventure and the major flaw of having an NPC steal the spotlight ultimately makes this a disappointing conclusion to the Desert of Desolation trilogy. When these three adventures were released, they were my favorite adventures to read by a considerable margin. The first part of the trilogy, Pharaoh, still seems like the best of the bunch, and it is the only one I still use to this day. The Lost Tomb of Martek has some really good ideas, definitely worth stealing or adapting to other adventures. This is not a bad adventure by any means, and many groups could have a lot of fun with it, especially if they had a better appreciation for the lighter elements.
The party really seemed to enjoy the skysea portion of the adventure. I played this in late 1985, not long after "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" was in theaters, and the post-civilization occupants of the garden seemed a bit like the characters from the Mad Max movies. My players had a good time with them. The "black abyss" was tedious, and the crypt of Al-Alisk was not much of a challenge. The players were really freaked out by the Mobius Tower, and it left a strong impression. Once the party freed Martek, we retired the characters, as they were only created to play through the Desert of Desolation trilogy. The combination of the silly books and the dismissive attitude of Martek left a bad taste in our mouths. If all-knowing, all-powerful Martek knew the Efreet would cause such a problem, why didn't he just deal with it way back when he was first alive?. According to the adventure, Martek was the wizard that originally imprisoned the Efreet in the sunken city of Pazar that started the Desert of Desolation trilogy. You can see my other reviews on the forums at GrippingTales.