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.

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