November 28, 2010

NaClaMomo: Reviewing The Temple of Elemental Evil

For this installment of NaClaMomo, I'll tackle a favorite of mine (alright, yes, they all are) ... that uber-dungeon, The Temple of Elemental Evil. (I'll refer to it as TOEE going forward.) I've already covered The Village of Hommlet here last November, so I'll stick to the additional material.

The Temple was the long-awaited—and I do mean loooong—sequel/continuation to T1 The Village of Hommlet. TOEE has gotten both heaps of praise as well as some criticism over the years, both with good reason. This adventure has had more printings than any other TSR/Wizards adventure before or since, so there must be some "beef" there. Let's take a closer look.


1. Atmosphere

Holy smoke is there atmosphere here! Loevcraftian imagery abounds. Here is a mere part of the initial Temple description:

The myriad leering faces and twisting, contorted forms writhing and posturing on every face of the Temple seem to jape at the obscenities they depict. The growth in the compound is rank and noisome. Thorns clutch, burrs stick, and crushed stems either emit foul stench or raise angry weals on exposed flesh. Worst of all, however, is the pervading fear which seems to hang over the whole area—a smothering, clinging, almost tangible cloud of vileness and horror. Sounds seem distorted, either muffled and shrill or unnaturally loud and grating.

Your eyes play tricks. You see darting movements out of the corner of your eye, just at the edge of vision; but when you shift your gaze towards such, of course, there is nothing there at all. You cannot help but wonder who or what made the maze of narrow paths through the weedy courtyard. What sort of thing would wander here and there around the ghastly edifice of Evil without shrieking and gibbering and going completely mad?

The whole description is, to date, the most evocative description I've seen in an RPG adventure, period. And I've been reading these things for 30 years. Characters entering these ruins can expect a green light to smite the evil within (largely) without mercy.

2. Great backstory

In TOEE, the DM really gets the good stuff. In that I mean the secret history of the Temple makes for a great read, and presents a fully realized background in which the bad guys are evil, strategic, and play things to their own advantage. Iuz and Zuggtmoy are equally insidious, and they compete between themselves, yet each presents a challenge to good-aligned characters

3. It’s almost a complete ecosystem.

Somehow this dungeon combines some six competing factions into what feels to be a living breathing place. Clever players will play those factions against each other.

4. It has some great set pieces.

I love the “zoo” section of the third level. The leucrotta and umber hulk areas, as well as the laboratory and chapel areas are very cool. In fact, I’d easily name the third level as my favorite part of the whole affair, due to the number of unique and memorable rooms.


1. Production values

Production values were a little lacking in this TSR offering. The book is 128 pages long, but sports a mere 23 pieces of art (about a fourth of them repeats from T1). Some of the maps are also crude; after the great maps in T1 the Nulb and upper Temple maps are a disappointment and the other level maps also feature doors that look scribbled in. I will however give credit to Keith Parkinson for an outstanding cover that faithfully serves me as the best player handout ever (see below)!

2. It’s ponderous.

Enter small room. Defeat humanoids with meager treasure. Rinse, wash, repeat. The seemingly endless rooms of humanoids, especially on the upper levels, can get old fast. Today’s DM is advised to take a black marker to the map and simply strike a number of rooms on the two upper levels for sake of faster, more entertaining play.

Interestingly enough, I think the biggest flaw in Monte Cook’s remake, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, was a similar endless similar rooms approach.

3. It’s damn tough

No really. Some clues can prove maddeningly hard. The attrition factor is wicked, and there are a few encounters that are very deadly for their level (such as the earth elementals on Level One). The bad guys are clever. It’s the combination of all three that can prove very deadly indeed. Zuggtmoy’s tactics are very clever, and Gygax, in typical 1st Edition style, isn’t afraid to make use of illusion or charm effects in helping the PCs find their way to an early demise.

One chamber contains a cloak of poisonousness, a super-nasty little item that resembles a black cloak, but if tried on instantly slays the wearer … with no saving throw! Ah, the First Edition days…

4. The Nulb section is lacking.

I’m guessing Nulb would have been T2, had T1-4 actually been released in four parts instead of two. I wish it had been, because perhaps—assuming the existing material were not simply divided up differently—we might have gotten a bit more Nulb.

The Nulb encounter key provides a mere four keyed encounters. And a crude Nulb map. That’s all. The rest is left to the DM to create. I’m all in favor in giving the DM a bit to develop and a hand in shaping the village, especially after the hyper-detailed Hommlet, but after having so very much of the rather tame Hommet described building-to-building and at times with expanded building maps, not getting more out of Hommet’s evil sibling Nulb seems a waste. At least one inner building map (for the waterside hostel for example) would have been much appreciated.

The Temple of Elemental Evil isn’t for everyone, but if your DM is up to the task of filling out things and editing a tad, and the players have a patient for a long haul of a dungeon, the rewards are there to be had. This very old-school gem contains lots of atmosphere, numerous dangerous and interesting encounters, cool magic items, and more villains than you can shake a stick at. All in all, a worthy investment and something that belongs on every DM’s shelf, if only for inspiration.

November 12, 2010

I think this year I’ll start off NaClaMomo with a bang, by giving my humble take on a very unique Gygax classic: S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We’ll call it Expedition for short. The origins of this adventure harken back to Origins II and 1976(?) and the influence of James Ward's Metamorphosis Alpha, and TSR eventually published it in 1980.

Expedition tickles a special geek spot for me. As I mentioned in a different post, I’m not a huge fan of mixing genres. The result usually ends up—even well done, as in Rifts or TORG—as a chaotic jumble that tends to promote insane characters at the expense of defined atmosphere. Sometimes however, as in the case of Expedition or Talons of the Horned King, the author can present an RPG one-off that really works well. Gygax was no stranger to this, and he admitted to rare gunslinger or tech-equipped characters and penned two Alice in Wonderland-based adventures for good measure. Put simply, every campaign needs a little fresh air once in a while. Expedition provides fresh air in spades.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
I love sandbox modules. In
Expedition, there’s a whole spaceship to play in! Lots of unique encounters and areas that can test a player’s roleplaying ability, as well as the ability to resist meta-gaming. Sure, the player knows it a ray gun, but would the character?

2. Cool critters aplenty
The starship nodule contains a host of weirdies, from the webbirds to berserk androids to the vegepygmies, not to mention a whole alien zoo! The unique nature of the “dungeon” allows for a host of new creatures without that odd feeling that comes from a standard adventure packed with too many oddball monsters. Adventurers entering this place can’t know what to expect, and neither can the players. That makes for very memorable play.

3. There’s nothing like it.
As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, Expedition is a wonderful breath of fresh air for any campaign that’s grown a bit stale or predictable. The adventure is scaled for higher-level characters, so there’s a great chance that the running campaign has grown long in the tooth and the players need a change, if only for a single adventure.

4. The tech goodies have limits.
Almost all the rayguns and powersuits and such run on charges, so after a while they become useless. Indeed many of the tech weapons found may well see action before the characters even leave the ship, further decreasing the amount of advanced loot the characters retain. The upshot is that the players get a taste of some powerful (and often well-earned) items but there’s little chance they’ll be around for many adventures to come and bedevil the Dm at every turn. Instead, the players are forced to decide when is the best moment to use the really powerful but short-lasting items, which is (IMHO) how it should be.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
There isn’t much of a mission here. Oh, the characters can try to close the starship doors and prevent further spread of the alien beasts, but that’s a secondary goal at best. Exploration and the possible acquisition of high tech goodies in the main show here. For those that enjoy open exploration, it’s great, but players that require that “I’ve defeated the Big Bad Guy” plot element will be disappointed, unless defeating the froghemoth can somehow qualify.

2. It’s damned deadly
Characters that are unprepared are going to get their heads torn off, either by rampant police robots, or the aurumvorax, or perhaps the dreaded froghemoth. Plus there are several more traditional creatures, such as the psionic-powerful intellect devourer, can present steep challenges if played properly.

Gary Gygax wasn't known for writing forgiving modules, and he certainly doesn’t make Expedition a walk in the park. Oh yes, any party that doesn’t hole itself up and rest in a quiet abandoned living quarters somewhere will certainly pay the price sooner or later. Probably sooner.

3. It’s not for D&D purists
It’s obviously not for those that dislike science-fiction elements in their AD&D game, to be sure. Though one hopes that players, lovable fools that they are, will try anything once.

4. It’s more work than it looks.
Like the D-series (to be covered another day), this module requires some work. There aren’t whole cities to develop here, but certainly the endless empty or near-empty rooms common to earlier TSR adventures are well in evidence here. The top floor in particular can be a snooze fest of abandoned rooms and skeletons unless a creative DM fills in the proper details and atmosphere.

I believe
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a very special, one-of-a-kind module. Oft-imitated but never matched, everyone deserves to either run this once or, better yet, experience it as a player.

So what are you waiting for? Obtain this old-school wonder, dig out your ancient 1e DMG, and give it a spin. You’ll be glad you did, if only for the change of pace.

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