A farewell to Returns to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Last month was a milestone for my AD&D gaming group, as they defeated my latest version of the TSR classic supermodule, Temple of Elemental Evil. It’s the second time I’ve run the module and the first time my players have completed it ‘successfully’, which I judge as destroying the evil artefact, defeating the imprisoned demon lord, and making off with a heap of treasure. Two  of the triumphant PCs (human magic-user and dwarf cleric/thief) had come a long way from their generation as first level characters (for 1st time AD&D players) at the beginning of the campaign. Those less fortunate had perished, some less confident about their chances had retired, and of course other adventurers joined along the way. This ToEE lasted 2 years of game time. The module is far from perfect but you can get a hell of a lot of mileage out of it. 2 settlements, a starter dungeon, a 4-level megadungeon, planar travel, minor deities, and a host of NPCs and interesting items. For me, it’s a great foundation for a mini-setting. I never used Greyhawk used the Temple to springboard my own world-building, adding additional locations, NPCs and side-quests, more or less confident that the mystery of the Temple and its multiple levels would keep the players focus on the started area and get them invested in the world while I fleshed out it’s surroundings. It’s a bonus that the module was designed to provide enough treasure and enemies to level a party to around the 8th level, a perfect time for them to leave the dungeon and venture out into the wilderness to carve out territory for their strongholds, as encouraged by Gygax in the 1e core books.

I first ran ToEE more or less BTB, but the PCs never ventured into the nodes or the secret level. Once they had beaten the evil cult leaders and recovered the Golden Skull, it seemed enough to them that the thing should be removed far from its missing gems, and they pursued other interests that eventually took them to distant lands, never to return to Hommlet or its environs.  For my second ToEE campaign, aware that one of my players had played through the module many years ago, and that others owned the 3e-based videogame, Many events from the first campaign were incorporated as legacy elements in the new one, I added more background and locations, and replaced some of the original ‘surprises’ (illusionary vampire/paladin, Zuggytmoy, shopkeeper assassins), and re-fitted the lower levels with more demonic and elemental elements, replacing the nodes with side-adventures into the elemental planes themselves. This made the module harder than by the book, but with the additional resources from their sidequests, my current group of players still have the honour of ‘beating’ the Temple. Well before this part of the campaign was over, I was halfway through a 3rd revamping of the Temple for a future group, and I realised it was becoming very much its own beast, very different from the pages of T1-4, and perhaps it was time to cut the cord that tied it to the original.

Now as the AD&D campaign progresses, I’ve become more and more tempted after much perusal of the Basic/Expert Ruleset kindly gifted to me by one of the players (he found the English boxed set in a German flea market) to move further away from BTB and do some streamlining in a B/X direction. I’m very keen to give (Advanced) Labyrinth Lord a try, especially with how its character creation/progression and attribute bonuses appear to me to combine the best elements of Basic and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve got a serious itch to start new campaigns with LL rules (at least for players, even if they have the LL pdfs I can still pull surprises out of my 1e rulebooks), but it’s also time to say goodbye to Temple of Elemental Evil  to make room for more low-level adventuring locations. Version 3 might come into play some years on, but for now, I’d just like to pay tribute to the classic module and the great players who’ve braved its darkness, with a record of memories from my Temple campaigns.

Round 1

New party’s first encounter is with the comely face of a widow who hails them from the window of her house. Unsure of how to respond to this, the party falls into confusion and discussion- 15 minutes later, one of them formulates a response, but she is long gone. It’s an easy nerd gag, but there were few monster encounters in the following adventures that terrified the PCs more than talking to an attractive woman.

My last post on romance in the game world references this campaign, in which a PC won the heart of Elmo the uber-henchman and formed a relationship which persists in sucessive campaigns and game worlds, and a random comeliness roll for an NPC sparked a dangerous rivalry between two players.

The short but memorable career of Tuk, an Unearthed Arcana style barbarian, strong of body and short of patience. Tuk’s player took the barb’s suspicion of magic very seriously, and at one point discovered a reasonably powerful magic weapon early on the game, only to keep its existence a secret from the party. But his distrust of magic would be somewhat justified on the first dungeon level of the Temple, as he was fatally struck by a javelin of lightning. The party raised him after quite a hefty donation to the church of St. Cuthbert, but convinced him that he had only been stunned by the bolt, knowing full well that Tuk would rather die a thousand deaths than owe his life to vile magic. It would take the most mighty of magics to bring this barbarian to his end, however, as, upon drawing what must be the most unlucky hand possible from the Deck of Many Things, his soul was ripped from his body and cast into the void, while his body banished to a donjon somewhere in the Nine Hells. Tuk’s spirit (bound to a magic weapon), and his body (occupied by a new spirit), have since been encountered by adventurers in separate campaign worlds.

Squid, the amoral thief who made himself rather unpopular in Hommlet after trying to pick too many pockets at the Inn of the Welcome Wench, in particular that of fellow thief Furnok of Furd. He didn’t even make many friends among his own party members, fleeing a crucial battle and refusing to stick around to stabilise his allies when they were downed and critically wounded. The cowardly crook eventually made his home in the pirate town of Nulb, which was more tolerant of a man of his disposition, even shacking up with a local girl there. Squid had a strange approach to overcoming his fears, getting a tattoo of every monsters that had ever seriously injured him. A large grotesque rendition of a giant tick was his favourite piece. A colourful character in life, he was undistinguished in death. I can’t even remember what killed him.

Round 2

Players tackle the moathouse ghoul crypts by pouring oil down the well, throwing down corpses to lure the ghouls and then setting the crypts ablaze. A fantastic way to neutralise a terrifying low-level encounter.

One side adventure had the PCs sneaking into a wizard tower to rescue a hostage, they were discovered and in the eventual bloodbath everyone involved was dead, or dying or unconscious save for Xariarch, the party’s magic-user, and the evil NPC wizard. Both magic-users had exhausted their spells, so they would either have to come to terms or blows. The evil sorcerer had an ace up his sleeve in the form of an imp familiar, but the PC mage was possessed of a +2 dagger and more than his fair share of luck, and so the final round of the battle, two nerdy academics in star-spangled dresses grappled, punched, and stabbed each other until Xariarch came out victorious in his first hand-to-hand duel. He was as proud of this as any of his magical accomplishments, and there was much lamentation from his player when, later in the campaign, his dagger was melted by the energy attack of a Xag-Ya.

The presence of a pair of orcish prisoners in the Temple dungeons was used as an introduction for 2 new PCs, both half-orcs. One, a fighter-assassin named Gnolltwister, the other a strong bruiser of a fighter named Thuragh. Gnolltwister had a brief career which saw the beginnings of a sinister plan to murder prominent good NPCs in the area, but he was cut short by a bad draw on the Deck of Many Things. Thuragh, however, survived and became the party’s main melee fighter, and has been much changed by his life among humankind, having converted to good alignment and worship of the Norse gods, he adventures on in the Land of Ice and Fire.

Since Thuragh recruited another half-orc fighter henchman and the party has also hired a semi-retired former PC half-orc to adventure with them, it seems to me that this game is almost lousy with half-orcs, despite having very few orcs appear in play. Unusual as it is, this suits me fine, since I think half-orcs need some love. Murnol Rapak, a Lawful Good dervish-inspired warrior-priest of a Mesopotamian fire god, initially sought the destruction of the ‘heretics’ of the fire elemental temple, now seeks to revive the faith of Girru, his mostly forgotten and obscure deity.

Divine backing was provided by Aygarr Grimdeep, a cleric/thief, follower of Vergedain, god of luck and wealth. A fantastic patron deity for a party of old school adventurers, as the acquisition of wealth was sacred in itself to his faith. His greed often landed the party in trouble, however, as he strictly opposed spending money or gems to bargain with monsters or hire henchmen. At one point he even used a wish spell granted by a Talisman of Zagyg to wish for a chamber full of gold back in his ancestral home, a place that has yet to feature in the campaign. Late into the campaign he used a gate scroll so summon Straasha, Lord of Water Elementals (Elric mythos in Deities and Demigods), to aid in a battle, and earned the favour of the elemental prince by having the consideration to cast a humble cure light wounds on the powerful entity’s manifestation.

Fiona, the first transgender character I’ve seen in a D&D game not under some kind of curse, is one of the long term characters who survived the Temple. A female dwarf trapped in biologically male body, she struggles to express her femininity while indulging her rather unladylike appetite for bloodshed and mayhem. Is supremely excited whenever the opportunity to loot perfumes, unguents and fabrics present themselves, although she is not particularly skilled in their application. Despite her female identification, Fiona is a sucker for a hot babe, and has more than once come out a few levels short due to unfortunate encounters with succubi and sexy vampires.

My version of the 3rd level of the Temple had a succubus inside a secret room, disguised as a ‘sleeping beauty’ lady that could be awakened from her curse by a kiss. She weakened the PCs before gating in a type IV demon which chased them out of the dungeon. Then she escaped to the surface to plague the party as a subtle but vicious recurring antagonist. Cynthia the succubus played many dirty tricks on the players via impersonation, manipulating NPCs against them, picking on their henchmen or allies when the main characters were on an expedition or sabotaging their efforts from a distance. But she wasn’t afraid to get up close and personal. My girlfriend, who was trying D&D for the first time, had her half-elf wake up while Cynthia was riding her during the night (which would have resulted in level drain). She didn’t quite realise the peril of the situation enough to put up much of a fight but fortunate intervention from the other PCs saved her soul. Cynthia was eventually vanquished from this plane while attempting to disrupt a ritual to banish a demon lord who had been imprisoned in the temple. At first it seemed like she had charmed the key players into giving her control of the greater, but then she was entangled by a critical hit from a harpoon thrown by Thuragh, and dragged to the ground. The chamber they were in was enchanted to prevent extradimensional travel, so she could not escape easily. To add insult to injury, Xariarch the mage had managed to charm her at the last minute. While some considered that a bound, charmed succubus would be worth taking home to enjoy with the rest of the treasure, Fiona cut the poor demonette down in a bezerk fury, claiming vengeance for those treacherous kisses.

Thanks for the memories, ToEE, of which these are just a few. Thanks for spawning the ever-changing evil temple megadungeon in my mind. It might never become ‘perfect’ but many adventurers will have a great time playing through its evolution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Module Mash-Up

Most of my early experience playing D&D featured a lot playing through TSR adventure modules. In my first post, I mention a few of them. In addition to these, we also went though some higher level modules like A Star Falls, Baltron’s Beacon and Scourge of the Slave Lords. I remember that our DM always intended, one way or another to get us into the G-series, but the campaign always fizzled out before we could manage to. I had a great time with these modules, and since I want to pass some of that enjoyment on to players I have some modules I like to use in my campaigns. But as a DM with a lot of ideas of his own, I have an ambivalent relationship with published modules. To run modules as written seems lazy, almost cheating, and takes some of the fun away from being a DM in the first place. But on the other hand, they can be great time savers and templates. I’ve got a lot of published adventurers and I feel that most of them just aren’t up to scratch to run at the table, but on occasion I reach into them and pluck out an encounter, treasure list or NPC on the fly. Then there are a few that, with a bit of tinkering and development, can make a worthwhile addition to a campaign.

Of these my favourite and most oft-used is T1: The Village of Hommlet, even though I never played through it myself. But every time I’ve run it it’s been a blast. I like it so much because, when you need a quick adventure for first time players to see if they like D&D, this module has a perfect storm of ingredients for the low-level D&D experience. Village with a cheesy tavern. Detailed NPCs, treacherous hirelings, higher level NPCs building a stronghold, a religious centre, details of peasant treasure for the more antisocial PCs. My ‘Hommlets’, whatever I end up calling them, keep all those elements flesh out the NPCs, sometimes changing personalities or class, and play up the importance of the Church, usually having it as a popular place of pilgrimage and holder of a holy relic. On the dungeon side, you’ve got giant animals, cunning bandits, secret doors, traps, prisoners, humanoids, an ogre, undead and an evil priest. It’s tough going, especially once the priest and bodyguards are roused, but a well-played party can make it, and the rewards are rich.

some good art, too

some good art, too

But I’ve run T1 a few times and even with a tweak here and there, I’m getting a little bored with it. So I dug around for alternatives but failed to come up with an option that served up the kind of all round experience I was looking for. But one other low level module did hold my attention, and that was B3: The Palace of the Silver Princess. I’d played through that at the beginning of my first ever D&D game, and figured I’d make a go of it. But the copy I had obtained jarred with my memories of play. See, I’d picked up a pdf version of the original orange cover version of the scenario, whereas clearly, I had played though the revised green version. The reasons for the almost immediate recall of the original are detailed on wikipedia. This site elaborates and highlights differences between the original module and the later revision by Tom Moldvay.  Once I had a chance to compare the two I realised that there was a lot I liked about the original over the version I actually played though. There was also a lot of weirdness which I couldn’t quite appreciate for its own sake.

The good:

Location based adventure with a fabulous ruby as the hook. Ruby isn’t magical or anything, just legendarily beautiful. A good lure for relatively impoverished low-level types. Noble heroes may be more motivated to discover its history or to retrieve the gem to its rightful inheritors (of which there may be few rival claims to) or make a connection between it and the evil that haunts the ruins.

500-year-old backstory regarding the princess, dragon rider and the fall of her kingdom with multiple, contradictory accounts surviving to the modern age, tantalising clues here and there but no definitive answers in the text. I enjoy ruin-type locations and the intriguing history should give the players a good impression of picking through the leavings of a bygone age, even if they are uninterested in getting to the bottom of the story.

Detailed wilderness area with overview of local politics and other potential areas of adventure. Though I prefer to use my own stuff for this, it’s inclusion in a beginner module as inspiration for further worldbuilding is appreciated.

Dungeon Factions. Various bands of intelligent creatures with different allegiances can be encountered wandering or picking through the ruins. These include evil priests, barbarians/berserkers, humanoids, bandits and mysterious soldiers bearing a wolf insignia. Plenty of opportunities to confuse players who might expect a single ‘big boss’ to control the monsters, for negotiation, divide and rule and even acquiring henchmen or hirelings.

Some dungeon rooms are empty so they can be populated by the DM, and the book comes with random tables for creatures, treasure and traps. I’ve mentioned before how I like to have some extra randomness in dungeons and I use these rooms as places where the party can stumble upon the agents of other factions, also in the process of looting the area, clearing out invaders or expanding their power base. Since some of these bands don’t have their base in the dungeon, it keeps the threat fresh and will hopefully motivate the players into looting as much as they can before another gang gets their hands on the goods.

Catharandamus and his retinue. A slimy, cunning, charismatic evil cleric who’s managed to bring some unlikely allies under his sway. Aleigha the werebear, 2 dwarves and a host of goblinoids and cultists. Moldvay made this great NPC more boring and standard by changing his followers to a few orcs and a standard werewolf and forcing immediate hostilities with the PCs. Boo. In the original module, he also collected various holy symbols from different religions and placed them around his HQ. This could be an indicator of some interesting research into comparative religion, an obscure ritual or just some serious commitment issues.

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

The bad:

The map doesn’t make much sense if you think of it as a working palace, with functional rooms and noble quarters being placed apparently at random. A little rearrangement and repositioning of entrances fixes this though. Moldvay’s revised maps are better in this regard.

The original featured some seriously silly monsters (evil bubbles, 6 legged duck-billed rats, 3 headed hermaphrodite tribe of humanoids). Silly monsters are a fine part of D&D, but I don’t find most of these very inspiring and I want to tone down the weird a little in the more inconsequential encounters, to make it count in smaller doses.

There’s a ‘safe’ area watched over by sparkly lawful spirit beings called ‘Protectors’. Ugh. I don’t like this coddling of the PCs. Competent players can set watches, use barricades etc to secure a good resting spot, and I think supernatural aid from benevolent spirits should be rare, and then hard won and subtle.

The weird:

The nearby misandrist barony of Gulluvia. Where men are 2nd class citizens and have to have legal guardians of a woman of at least 15 years. It’s odd that a module written by a woman and features this kind of Drow-esque trope where ‘strong women’ follows into ‘evil matriarchy’. Problematic as it is I can see some potential for adventure in this, but it would need some development and fleshing out to stop it being a one-note caricature.

Reading this module with the author in mind (during a time when it was very rare for a published adventure to have a female author) with an eye for gender turns up some food for thought. Plenty of strong female characters and their relationships with men affect the plot and encounters. The Silver Princess and her mysterious suitor, for example. Plenty of rumours blame her lover for her kingdom’s downfall, but clues in the ruins suggest that they had a good relationship, though do not exactly settle whether there was a more sinister aspect to the dragon-riding knight. The little insights that players can get into their life and relationship are welcome nuggets of flavour. Aleigha, the good werebear is another example. She is venerated by the beserkers and commands their loyalty, but she is under the influence of the handsome and charismatic but slimy evil priest (who will maintain his control through ‘negging’, gaslighting and his own charm). Then there’s the Decapus, a monster which lures players into it’s tentacles with an illusion suggesting sexual violence (a bound and helpless woman surround by a gang of hostile thugs). I actually did my first play through of the mash-up with a mainly female group of players, and they really got stuck into roleplaying and getting to know the NPC relationships, though without much comment on the tales of the Gulluvian regime.

Speaking of gender, there are the Ubues, odd 3-headed humanoids with both male and female heads and bodies all mixed up. I can actually see the Ubue tribe as being quite fun in the right circumstances, in a kind of ‘wild magic blew up our castle and merged the population into jumbled up beings then need to share bodies now’ scenario, but they’re not really story-important and not what I want in an introductory adventure. The Ubues were drawn by Erol Otus as caricatures of TSR staff, and apparently this was the main reason for the product recall. Check out the male head ogling the breasts on its own female body.

uubs

So what to do? I jazzed up my old favourite T1 by blending it with B3 into a delicious module smoothie. Here’s my personal recipe:

T1 village Hommlet/Thorvald/whatever remains the base of operations, more or less unchanged. Agents of evil hidden in the village will be allied to a dungeon faction, likely the necromancer or ‘wolf soldiers’. ‘Elmo’ helper toned down somewhat, as he has an annoying tendency to upstage PCs.

B3’s palace and T1’s moathouse smashed together into specially calibrated Large Module Collider. Result: 3 level area with ground floor, upper works and dungeon.

Dungeon as in T1, reaching via secret staircase in the ground floor of the palace, controlled by Lareth. Lareth is now a female necromancer-priest of Orcus (the name seems to fit a woman more in my mind, plus it makes her a better foil to Catharandamus). She has noted a powerful well of necromantic energy in the area and seeks the gem as a means to control the ghosts and other undead. Her fighter bodyguard is her half-orc paramour and ‘cultists’ are now orcs. She commands the loyalty of the humanoid troops in her level, as well as some on the ground floor, and all non-intelligent undead encountered.

Ground floor of the palace is ‘no mans land’ disputed by various factions and freelance adventurers and looters. The sillier monsters from B3 area are removed and replaced by encounters based on the ground floor moathouse area of T1. Small parties of independent orcs and bandits occasionally raid the area, bringing loot to their lairs outside. The ‘wolf soldiers’ are scouts from a foreign power looking to secure the ruby as part of a territorial claim. The PCs can discover this ambition through interrogation or negotiation. Goblins, hobgoblins and acolytes serving Catharandamus battle skeletons, ghouls and orcs serving Lareth. Duchess and Candella are independent adventurers and likely PC allies.

Top level is Catharandamus’s power base. This charming villain is interesting in using the ruins as a power base for a new cult. He has yet to commit to a patron but courts the favour of multiple demon lords. He and Lareth were initially allies and had joined forces to banish the ghosts and take over the area but after their falling out wish nothing but death upon their counterpart and are individually too weak to risk taking on the powerful undead by themselves. Catharandamus is a womaniser who had hoped to control Lareth but now has settled for having the more naive Aleigha under his thumb. He is well read, curious, courteous and friendly to PCs encountered, hoping to use them to break the stalemate with his rival. Aleigha the werebear follows Catharandamus partly out of attraction but also because he has promised her a cure for her lycanthropy. The beserkers believe she is blessed and implore her to pass the bear-strength onto them, but she sees it as a curse, and stalls, unwilling to anger them with outright refusal, she tells them that they must first prove themselves worthy through their deeds in the dungeon. In time she has come to value her followers but cannot bring herself to tell them how she really feels, nor can she embrace their bloodthirsty ways.

The Ubues have been transformed into a tribe of Bugbears lead by a petty ‘king’. King Krule is too proud and haughty to serve under either evil faction or to admit their fear of the ghosts. Krule pretends authority over the whole palace, but in reality is paranoid and cautious, keeping to his territory. The PCs can spur this faction into action on one side or the other with some careful diplomacy.

The Decapus, Killer Plants and Princess/Dragon Rider story stay, rule of cool. The story of the Silver Princess’ true fate will likely still elude players, but there’s plenty going on in the present day to keep their minds busy.

sptres

Mm…yummy. Multi-level, open ended first level adventure location with plenty of interacting factions, a mysterious backstory, varied monsters and opportunities to roleplay. My new favourite 1st-level adventure setting.