[Review] Pharaoh’s Tomb (OD&D 3PP); Small Step For A Man

The Pharaoh’s Tomb (1976)

Jim Ward (Judges Guild)
Lvl ??? (8+)

A tomb adventure. Maybe the first published tomb adventure ever? By the creator of Metamorphosis Alpha no less? Back to the Dungeoneer. Stone Age DnD is inevitably fresh, eager, brimming with youthful exuberance, but there has been considerable growth since then.

Pharaoh’s tomb, like many of the other entries in the Adventuresome Companion, is almost a one-page dungeon, and as such, merits some suspicion. There is an ideal density to DnD encounters and the short format requires more skill to convey evocative material. If we squint we can see the thematic fealty and we are transported to some ancient Pharaoh’s necropolis. A room filled with supplies for the Pharaoh to use in the afterlife. Murals of various elements of society. A fake tomb to trick robbers. Rooms that fill with sand, pits with spikes and spear traps. Fundamental DnD. Monsters are given no hit points and traps are given no damage. Figure something out, says Ward.

It is so archetypal it has, nor needs, an introduction. The map proper is decent, which is the standard for the time, when gameplay, not emulation, was king. A single point of egress branches out into corridors. It does not loop but the corridors keep dividing so the whole feels expansive. Occasional subtle pointers, like the trap density increasing around the actual corridor of the Pharaoh’s tomb, are intermixed with the odd dead end. It will serve.

Encounter design is primitive. Monsters are isolated, never surprised, and there is no co-ordination. In case the Pharaoh’s tomb is breached one group of monsters will leave their room and rush towards it, and one other group will actually start roaming if released. The encounters proper pay occasional homage to the overarching tomb theme and display a zesty lack of restraint. 10 Mummy guards, minions of Set and 50% of FUCKING ANUBIS showing up to kill the tomb robbers are interspersed with more traditional high level monsters. 2 beholders here, a Balrog with a Sword of monster charming there, 2 Invisible Stalkers here, 10 displacer beasts and a rust monster in here, a 30th level Lich standing under an inverted crystal pyramid that makes him immune to all spells (I like that) there…Jim Ward was not fucking around. What do the Displacer beasts eat? Shut up. Fuck you.

This tomb is also pretty heavy on traps, in ways that are too screwbaggy. A man puts a 50 foot pit trap with spikes in a hallway to the Pharaoh’s tomb. Okay, I have Find Traps, it’s a high level adventure, I can dig that. What about a room with a diamond idol, if you remove it, the room wizard locks and fills with poison gas. And you put it behind a room that fills with sand while you are in it, so you can’t calmly wait outside and deliberate. That’s still sort of fair. What about a room with a mural of laughing people. If you touch the room, a 20HD fireball hits everyone inside, leaving the rest of the room untouched. You are starting to grind my gears there a bit Pharaoh’s Tomb. I know, says Pharaoh’s tomb. What if I use the rooms that fill with Sand in 4 rounds if you enter, a recurring feature of the tomb, place one at the end of a hallway, then place a room behind it filled with entirely with acid. Augury did not exist yet in OD&D, but maybe you could use Clairvoyance? Its a bit much, even if there is a way to find a map that contains all the traps.

The rooms that slowly fill with sand are used often and they are fairly innocuous by themselves but when used in combination with other traps they are actually rather vicious, I like it. I would have enjoyed a sand maze with a room with a monster in the middle of it, to create a more panicked atmosphere. Someone reading this, use that for No Artpunk.

Maybe the most important part, treasure, is plentiful and occasionally creative. You can get a fairly large haul early on and you just have to walk through a series of rooms that slowly fill up with sand (possibly trapping and then killing you but only if you stop moving). Gold weapons, silver plated arrows, platinum plated bow. The type of ceremonial weaponry a Pharaoh would have. Some new treasure. A bag of beans, each bean, if planted, turns into a hostile orc. Nice. You get some trinkles of treasure early on, then mostly traps, and then a GIANT HOARD at the end, all of it well trapped, guarded, secret etc. etc. The golden thrones of the Pharaoh’s defeated enemies. 9 chests with 50.000 gp. More magic items then you can shake a stick at. High risk, high reward. Its probably playable in an era that does not yet have Etherealness, Gaseous Form and other frame-skipping dirtbag spells.  

For an early attempt at a high level adventure, especially a tomb adventure, I don’t hate it. It’s not boring, its certainly challenging, there are some nice nods to themes, the odd unconventional challenge (like the Lich guarded by the inverted pyramid) keep players on edge. It is hardly a masterwork and it doesn’t hold a candle to some of the later tomb modules but if you just want something suitably tough, atmospheric and Egyptian-y you’ll hardly cause great violence by running your players through this one. I think under OD&D rules you might actually be able to kick the shit out of Anubis if you are lucky. Hell yes.

A light ***. Short, punchy, fantastic, high level.


10 thoughts on “[Review] Pharaoh’s Tomb (OD&D 3PP); Small Step For A Man

  1. If I ran my players through some of those traps there might be great violence at the table. Deadly mechanical traps should have some sort of clue to their presence. Magical traps should be more fantastical than “poison gas fills the room.” Traps should encourage player interaction with the world, not discourage it. I have no doubt losing a high level character because they opened a door or walked into a room would turn a good player into a surly and incurious one.


    1. Its all about telegraphing but at high levels you are allowed to be a bit coy. If the door with the acid behind it would have a sluice, or the mural room would have blackened stone, then that might be just enough of a hint. The traps here definitely go too far in places.


  2. Those are reasonable fixes. My essential philosophy on traps is that players should blame themselves when they get caught in one.


  3. Gas traps ought to have air vents/pipes into the room, which could be spotted, or detected by Find Traps (which any non-death wish party ought to have cast). I agree with both the review and the comments: it is interesting when one trap leads into another, forcing the party to act quickly; observant/creative players making sensible use of their characters’ abilities should escape nearly all traps.
    I have always thought the opening quest for the golden idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect tomb robber scenario.


  4. Jim Ward was literally “Monty Haul” – he was all about leveraging the extreme ends of the ruleset with all the biggest monsters and deadliest traps and most powerful magic items. Cartoony epic “blow shit up” D&D in contrast the the more grounded and lower-key stuff Gary and Dave and Rob Kuntz ran. It’s no wonder he’s the one they gave the job to of statting out all the gods, because he was the only one actually using that level of stuff in regular play.

    That said, he never showed any particular sophistication or depth or real creativity. It’s all surface-level flash. It’s fun and adrenaline-pumping and apparently everybody in Lake Geneva loved playing in his games, but it’s not really real. We know from 2E and 3E what actual high level D&D play looks like when the players and DM really know the system and their characters’ capabilities and how they all work in combination – it’s all about scrying and plane-shifting and nuking opponents with overwhelming force to gimp them into uselessness in a single round. Because of that Ward’s stuff actually feels more primitive and naive than the level 1-10 stuff everyone else was doing.


    1. Yeah, came here to post roughly the same thing. This is quintessential “Mr. Monty Haul” Ward. For all the high-level flourishes, this is the kind of dungeon your usual thirteen years old GM would write. It is a series of arbitrary rooms that do not connect meaningfully, and only reward player creativity accidentally. And it fails as a funhouse dungeon next to the Fabled Garden of Merlin, let alone the Jaquays stuff (I am not going to compare it to the Egyptian-themed Dark Tower, only F’Chelrak’s Tomb). Enormous skill gap there. Any way you slice it, it is kind of dumb.

      Interesting museum piece, I would put it at ** if feeling generous.


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