I greatly enjoy Endzeitgeist's reviews, but find the review philosophy from tenfootpole.org (Bryce Lynch) gels with me, so this review will be based more on the latter with a nod of appreciation to both luminaries... the full original review can be found here.
This 1E module, now available in PDF is 38 pages: 1 page card front cover, 4 colour pages of maps on card, 1 page contents, 2 pages intro with fiction, 1 page pre-generated characters, 1 page of paper maps, 1 page card back cover, leaving us with 27 pages of of module text.
Originally setting-agnostic, this 1984 module by TSR UK staffer Jim Bambra is generally agreed upon to be set in Greyhawk in an area of the Hellfurnaces between the Amedio Jungle and the Sea of Dust as adopted by the Living Greyhawk team years ago. This puts it to the south of the Hold of the Sea Princes and Jeklea Bay, just to the south of the Cauldron-Sasserine region used for the pre-PFRPG 3.5E Adventure Paths The Shackled City and The Savage Tide featured in the then softcover print run of DUNGEON magazine.
As if this wasn't potential enough, it begins, like many an adventure with a torn treasure map!
But... it's actually for Level 5-7 characters!
Unfortunately, it also begins with a glaring error as although the front cover says "Levels 3-5", the contents page states "5-7", as does the back cover spiel, and these are the indicated levels of the pre-generated characters on page 34. For a number of reasons (see below), a party with the lower range of levels would stand little chance against some of the encounters. This would be a pity if you bought it thinking it was for lower levels like the "Level 3-5" pitched Alderweg series (UK2 & UK3), or the excellent UK4 When A Star Falls and intending to follow on with the same characters. I think this is worth pointing out in this review, as it's not mentioned in the older 2003 RPG.net review.
Note: this could put it neatly as a side-trek between the 3rd and 4th instalments (DUNGEON #98 and #102 respectively) of the Shackled City 3E Adventure Path set on Oerth with a few modifications, although exactly why the party would divert their attention on a long overland journey in search of fabled treasure needs to be determined. The again, murderhobos are like that right?
Now on to the structured review...
This is an adventure review and as such, it contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
Review per Bryce Lynch's Philosophy of a "Good Adventure"
I find myself agreeing with a lot of Bryce's philosophy and prefer a narrative review rather than a numeric grading and section by section reveal of the plot and secrets, so I'll structure this review accordingly, but I've decided to group the principles into sections and present them as questions where YES is the positive answer: General, Maps and Graphics, Creatures, and Objects. I've also added an "Artwork?" paragraph based on a criterion of his sometime offsider, "the Pretty Girl".
Evocative atmosphere? YES. It's why I like this adventure so much - the core concept of the Passages is unique and the unexpected shifting from the jungle to the subterranean to the desert is unexpected yet seems to make sense within the story as a whole. Although the jungle section is a sometime typical colonialist "Green Hell" filled with primitive savage tropes, the Ash Mire inhabitants are highly distinctive and the Temple degenerates creepily memorable. I think the maps, particularly the style of the trifold overland maps, contributes greatly for me to the appeal.
Terse writing style? NO. Maybe it's the age of the product reflecting the style of the times but compared to more modern OSR standards. The "Tikul's Saga" fiction is an example of a backstory that while not overly long, remains mostly hidden from the players without a real way of piecing it together unless you're the DM. I think the backstory adds to the impact of this module, but really wish it was more manifest, otherwise it's just word count wasted.
Lack of Boxed text? NO, there's rather a lot actually. Particularly if you include the "Tikul's Saga" fiction that oddly occupies the top half of pages 2-3 instead of a single page to itself because of the artwork. This is specifically called out in a "Boxed Sections" paragraph, itself in a boxed textbox. I suspect this is a product of the times however given that it's the trade format of the whole UK series.
Element of surprise? YES. There's the ultimate treasure twist that fulfils the title quote, the Passages themselves, the Ash Mire and some other minor elements. Sure it's not as extreme as Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, but it contains more surprises than most standard modules.
Player ability/options preserved? YES. The adventure is a railroad, particularly the final encounter with the allied Hek tribes, but apart from presenting the Passages as the only way out of the Ash Mire, there is no DM's fiat preventing the use of any specific player's core ability and within the limitations of the 1E ruleset. Some more development would increase player options admittedly.
So 3 YES, 2 NOs. Likely a reflection of the sensibilities of the time.
Maps and Graphics
Overland portion? YES. The first jungle section and third desert section of the module are wilderness areas, complete with hex map. Unfortunately the first section is very much a sequential physical railroad along the obvious river route without incentive to explore the deeper jungle, and the latter section is similarly linear in story although more "event driven" in a way.
Dungeons with Loops? NO, not really. Sadly, there's at most 2 alternate paths for the dungeon sections of the Passages, but the central Temple section (T6-T16) does contain some looping before reverting to a very linear progression. Given this zone contains the skeleton warrior, the main antagonist Kegen, some ghouls, and the degenerate members of Kegen's family this could have been the setting for potentially quite the chaotic running encounter, but no guidance is given and the lack of random encounter tables makes even this zone overly static as written unfortunately.
Multiple levels? NO. Sure there's a bit of an underpass to the Passages but it hardly counts.
Empty rooms? YES, some. Speaking only of the two "dungeon" sections, there's several unoccupied rooms that can be part of moving encounters and give a sense of exploration.
Artwork? YES, plenty and it's varied. I don't find the cover art of what I presume is the shadow demon that great but there's about half a dozen almost half-page pieces of black & white by Tim Sell and a few smaller pictures of the Atem, Hek and one of the Hek leaders holding the decanter. The maps by Paul Ruiz (Geoff Wingate, who also did the maps for the Blood Sword books and later Dragon Warriors supplements) cover the inside covers and an extra "gatefold" 3rd page and are highly distinctive, definitely a highlight.
Again 3 YES, 2 NOs. Mainly reflects the linear structure.
Wandering monsters? YES and NO. There are tables only for the overland sections noted above. Apart from the Atem band in the jungle section these are all just local animals unfortunately, without any action or further description. The lack of wandering monsters, not even vermin, in the Passages or Kegen's family going about their daily duties in the Temple, makes little sense and is a major missed opportunity.
Theme appropriate creatures? YES, except for the devils in the Passages section which seem a bit arbitrary although unified in theme. The Indicara, Ash Mire and Temple inhabitants are all consistent but the devils and hellcat don't really make sense to me. Likewise the shadow demon. There's no real explanation of how they arrived and it's implied they only arrived recently, after Tikul's expedition less than two years before. As commented in Shannon Applecline's DriveThru RPG Product History, apart from the basic animals and undead, most of the creatures are seemingly deliberately drawn from TSR UK's Fiend Folio almost as a fledgling attempt at a cross-promotion. This makes it more difficult to run with a basic game setup or OSR approach unfortunately. But I do think the Hek on giant striders are cool.
Monsters doing something? NO, not really. If it ends up coming through the gate the spined devil is herding lemures I suppose if I'm being generous, but otherwise there's no sense of action, timetable or dynamic to the "dungeon" sections.
Light on the humanoids? YES. The Atem and Hek could easily have been jungle orcs or desert goblins but the author choosing to make them variant humans fits well and avoids the "kill the orc, steal it's loot" cycle. Aratek Fezatl could have just been another forgettable humanoid chieftan, but making him and his tribe human creates more moral tension and opportunity I think.
Order of battle for humanoids? NO. Apart from the simple "extra opponents arrive per round" of the Barrier Shrine battle and the Hek kidnap attempt which don't really count, there's not really any guidance for how the various creatures react to encountering the party unfortunately.
Factions? NO. Unless you count the Hek vs Kegen's family conflict. The options are presented as black or white with the default option presented as clearly preferred. There's no inter-Hek tribe rivalry to play up on and the Atem are presented as a united tribe without further depth.
Foreshadowing of the main villain? NO. This is due in part to the surprise element maybe, but there's no indication of the conflict with Kegen until he's encountered in his home.
2 YES, 4 NOs, and one "YES and NO", which should probably be a NO as the lack of wandering monsters accounts for half of the sections, and the dungeon ones at that!
There's a lot of room for improvement here, even accounting for the module's age. Harsh? Maybe.
Weird and unique items? NO. Maybe it's just a sign of the times given this was published back in 1984, but apart from Tikul's dagger being noted as being jewelled (and worth 400gp, why the hell does he leave it behind as a clue?) and the Hek's water bottles being beautifully crafted out of (presumably giant strider?) bone and hide there's nothing distinctive mentioned. The only potential candidate, the somewhat convenient "longsword +1, +4 vs devils" isn't given any character, a name or any history. It's briefly hinted it was the possession of one of Tikul's party - maybe a ranger, but who knows? I'm in the camp of more interesting treasure so this is a bit disappointing.
Tricks and traps? YES, maybe. If you count the clue from the magic mouth tree to the Barrier Shrine and Kegen's antics with the voice throwing "Room of Command". Everything else is just secret doors and they're only in the Temple section. Sure, the actual wind walking hoops are cool with all the clues to work out how to activate them, but they're hardly a trap as such.
Pools/statues/etc that do strange things? YES, the steel hoops, coloured incense triggers and the Passages themselves are an excellent complex example of this. The lengthy section on explaining the workings of the system may not appeal to some, but to me it shows planning and forethought. There's a few other ones like the statue containing the decanter of endless water and Kegen's voice throwing peephole but not otherwise to the extent that I think Bryce is referring to.
Unguarded treasure? YES. There's a couple of areas in the Passages and the Temple that make sense within the sections context in terms of why they are unattended. Nothing excessive though.
3 YES, 1 NO. Main issue is the lack of memorable items. More traps perhaps?
From the editorial side, apart from the cover's recommended character level mistake, there's no significant editing issues and the 3 column text layout is easy to read, with the 4 section structure and alternating wilderness / dungeon pattern making sense. The maps are great, with the inset style really binding everything together, although I'm unclear why the Indicara maps use blue rather than green or the default orange of the mountain sections as their primary colour.
From a usability perspective it's a Greyhawk module, and one set in the distant reaches of the Flanaess at that so not easily "dropped in" to an existing campaign unless set in a jungle frontier area. Maztica or less likely Chult in the Realms may work as an alternative. Sure, it was technically setting agnostic originally, but the combination of biomes likely makes it a bit tricky to place for most without invoking a long sea voyage or upriver trip so it's not likely to be part of a core campaign arc for most. For me this decreases it's usability, although adapting jungle to forest may increase it's flexibility perhaps at the lost of some of its atmosphere.
The pre-generated characters are useful enough, although presumably designed to be bland intentionally to fit with the generic style of the UK series. The absence of NPCs with personality for use as hirelings or any detail of the insignificant settlement of Kett's Rapids makes it difficult to set the locale it in context and adds to the prep work unfortunately.
Given the challenging environments there's a welcome addition of some basic survival rules for both the jungle and the desert sections. These are simple enough to not bog down play yet add some non-creature related sense of danger and non-combat pressure to the adventure.
There's two inevitable outcome encounters that force the railroad and cannot be overcome: the fight at the Atem Barrier Shrine cannot be won readily by the recommended level party (although can be potentially avoided) and the final encounter with the massed Hek tribes essentially forces to either give up the main "treasure" or their cleric without offering any other options. The latter options strikes me as somewhat harsh as the required command word is only really obtainable via a non-obvious secret door without any clues to it's existence being foreshadowed.
Although easily hand-waved, the return journey back through the Ash Mire, the Passages and the Indicara (with potentially angry Atem seeking revenge) isn't covered at all - given there's really only one route to civilisation this seems an oversight. Again this may just be a reflection of the maturity of design at the time but the possibility of an Atem ambush at the Terabar terminus or in the bog leading to the maintenance access could have been explicit or at least implied.
I admit like this module for a lot of nostalgic reasons (or I wouldn't be working on a "Return to..." version of it frankly), and overall I think it's a good module, but not a great module. On the one hand it's evocative with great maps, surprise and high concept, but it's also an underdeveloped railroad without moral depth and suffers from showing its age in terms of lack of modern design concepts and some notably archaic features (the "boxed text", the lack of active creatures, no factions). Yet still there's something about it that draws me to praise it.
As I find it hard to judge it fairly in the context of more modern offerings I'm not going to give this a clear rating, but while not a classic or a "Top 10" it's overall, I believe it's worth a look as long as you take into account the limitations of the very specific peripheral setting, caveats about the age related design issues and the suggestions noted above.
Looking over my comments, I've given it 11 YES and 10 NO responses, which sounds... somewhat average if it was a balanced numeric scale. Accounting for the older writing style (terse text, boxed text), most of the NO responses except for the two map layout questions are readily fixed with some additional light prep work (add wandering monsters in the two "dungeons", detail default monster actions and response to the party, flesh out potential factions, make some of the items more memorable).
So I'm standing by my impression of "good".