To arms! To arms! The battle lines are drawn as desert men and inhuman tribes wait poised to strike on the fertile and rich lands of the east. The call has gone out through the civilized lands. The armies have been raised to match the invading foes from the west. Nobles and peasants have joined swords to greet the foes.
But Fate or Chance has decreed another role for a small few. No glorious banners will wave on their march. No squadrons of knights will charge at their word. Instead, they will fight the war through stealth, secrecy, and cunning. The risks they will take are great, but the fates of both armies lie with them.
It begins one night for your party far from the fighting. Suddenly you are entrusted with the most dangerous missions of the war. Can you cross the Sind Desert, occupied now by enemy armies, to find the Great Pass? Can you find the one known only as The Master? What will you do if your do find him?
So begins your adventure in "Master of the Desert Nomads," the first module of a two-part adventure that can be concluded in the exciting "Temple of Death" or played entirely on its own. Can your party do what must be done?
For character levels 6-9.
X4: "Master of the Desert Nomads" (1983), by David "Zeb" Cook, is the fourth adventure in the Expert series for Basic D&D and the first adventure in the Desert Nomads duology. It was published in 1983.
Between the Editions. "Master" was published the same year that Frank Mentzer revised the Basic Rules Set (1983) and the Expert Rules Set (1983) for Basic D&D. It thus appeared amidst many new Basic D&D module series - including the "AC," "M," and "O" lines.
About the Cover. That's a juggernaut lumbering toward the PCs on the cover - one of the wackiest and coolest constructs in any version of D&D.
Pulp Inspirations. Cook's adventures are often inspired by the pulp genre. Thus, in X4 the players make a desperate journey across a (fairly unusual) desert setting that's largely bereft of humanoids, all in the hope of holding back an army. In many ways, it plays more like a Conan adventure than standard D&D! James Maliszewski suggests that the "Evil Abbey" is also pretty pulpy, in the style of Clark Ashton Smith.
The First 'Known World' Epic. The Desert Nomads series offers the first really epic adventure for Basic D&D. X3: "Curse of Xanathon" (1982) had broken some new ground the previous year, with its plot centered around a king gone mad. However, the Desert Nomads adventures paints on an even bigger canvas, with a literal army of of nomads threatening the Known World.
The epic adventure was an idea whose time had come. A short time later, the Dragonlance series (1984-86) would have an even bigger impact starting the next year.
Return to the Wilderness. X1: "The Isle of Dread" (1981) introduced the idea of wilderness adventuring, but then the follow-up Expert adventures, X2 and X3, largely skirted this possibility. "Master" returns to the Wilderness with a vengeance. It even calls itself a "Wilderness Module" on its first page, to underline the fact.
X4 is a hex crawl, as is X1, but it manages its encounters using a different methodology: Rather than encounters being keyed to individual locations, they're instead keyed to the general areas that the players travel through. The GM is instructed to introduce them as he sees fits, sometimes in any order. The result keeps players from randomly wandering about, hoping to find a specific location, but it also trends toward the railroaded encounters that would appear alongside the epic adventures of the mid-to-late 80s and (especially) the 90s.
Before the Battlesystems. In "Master of the Desert Nomads," Cook uses a simple mass combat system in an encounter involving an ambush by 100 desert nomads, a first for an Expert-level adventure. Mass combat would become much more common under the D&D Companion Rules Set (1984), which had its own "War Machine" rules. Full mass combat rules for AD&D appeared a year later as Battlesystem (1985).
Expanding the Known World. The Known World is greatly expanded in X4 thanks to the "Wilderness Map of the Great Waste." This map continues directly on from the left edge of the continental map in "The Isle of Dread" and thus shows hundreds of miles of new Known World, much of it taken up by the Sind Desert.
"Master" gives particular attention to the Asanda River and the farming village of Pramayama, which lies alongside it; the Sind Desert and the caravan tracks crossing it; and the Black Mountains and their Great Pass.
Monsters of Note. "Master" contains several new monsters, none of which became particularly iconic other than the aforementioned Juggernaut, which made appearances in somewhat different forms in Dungeon magazine and even in AD&D, beginning with T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985).
Among X4's other critters are the bhut (bhoot), from Hindu mythology, and the vulture-like Nagpa, which were likely influenced by similar creatures in the 1982 film The Dark Crystal.
Whoops! "Master of the Desert Nomads" includes a Magic Mouth spell on page 28, though the spell doesn't exist in Basic D&D. The authors of O1: "The Gem & The Staff" (1983) made the same mistake that same year.
The Adventure Continues. X4: "Master of the Desert Nomads" and X5: "Temple of Death" (1983) are essentially one adventure that's been split into two parts. More than one reviewer has opined that "Master" is largely a prelude to "Temple of Death."
About the Creators. Cook had taken a few years off from Basic D&D adventures following the 1981 release of "The Isle of Dread." X4 thus marked his return to the Known World. The same year he wrote X4 and X5, Cook also produced the less well-known M1: "Blizzard Pass" (1983) for Basic D&D.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.