Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Retrospective: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

In many ways, 1980's The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is not unlike the more in/famous Tomb of Horrors -- a dungeon with lots of traps, few monsters, and little treasure explicitly designed as a test of "the skill and common sense of players," as states in its prefatory "Notes for the Dungeon Master." Consequently, I suspect, much like module S1, it's often dismissed out of hand as a "killer module." That's a pity, because, in many ways, it's actually a much more interesting adventure than Tomb of Horrors and its challenges, while certainly deadly, have a greater degree of naturalism to them, which is to say, they feel more less like explicit challenges to players of a game and ingenuity and more like the kinds of things you might find in an ancient ruin.

Of course, like most early D&D adventures, this one began its life as a tournament module, so there's still a certain amount of artificiality to some of what it describes. However, The Hidden Shrine transcends its origins on two fronts. First, the published module is extensive, providing lots of detail to enable the referee to present it effectively to the players. (There's even an illustration booklet included to show significant portions of the shrine) Thus, it feels as if it's more than a gauntlet intended to put players through the wringer for a 4-hour convention time slot. Second, the Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an "alien," exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal. There's a H. Rider Haggard-esque vibe to the module that sets it apart from The Tomb of Horrors and provides a much-needed hook to its challenges.

On the other hand, the detail and exotic flavor of module C1 also hampers its accessibility. This is not an easy module to run, as its "Notes for the Dungeon Master" makes clear: "It is recommended that the DM read the module thoroughly before play starts, making notes in the margins where useful." That's no idle warning and reading through the module recently I often found myself confused and forgetting details as I went along, even though I was already familiar with the basic structure of the dungeon complex and its challenges. The Hidden Shrine of the Tamoachan could thus be quite rightly called an "advanced" adventure, demanding much preparation by the referee beforehand in order to use it to its full potential.

That said, in the hands of a well-prepared and experienced referee, I have little doubt that this module is an excellent one. As a younger man, I ran it for my friends and the results were mediocre. We appreciated the cleverness of the environment and its unusual flavor, but I don't think I was up to the task of making the whole thing hang together the way it could have. I'm honestly not sure I'm even up to it nowadays, as I so rarely work directly from someone else's adventures, preferring to do my own thing instead. Still, there's a part of me that's seriously considering running The Hidden Shrine of the Tamoachan sometime in the near future, perhaps as a one-off disconnected to my current campaign. It's too intriguing a module not to use properly.


  1. Pre-columbian Mesoamerican and South American cultures scream "D&D!" to me more than any other real-world cultures.

    In my own Carcosa, the human cultures owe a lot to Meso- and South America. I mostly left that out of the book, however, so as to give referees maximum flexibility.

  2. One of the things that first struck about this adventure was the initial set-up where you fell into the dungeon and had to find your way out. Sure it can be seen as a ham handed, but I thought it was a good hook and at the time, still do really, and I’d never seen anything like that before. I also think that this is the first time, that I can recall anyway, that the pregenerated characters had backgrounds, which in retrospect maybe a bad thing, but I thought it was cool at the time, and even though the times I ran the adventure everyone used their own characters, I did end using those guys as adversaries as point.

  3. One of my favorite memories was a long adventure/mini-campaign where I inserted the Hidden Shrine as part of Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

    I changed things so that the tunnels became an alternate way to reach the summit of the temple, which was heavily fortified on the outside. Instead of poison gas, the time limit marked when a ceremony would begin on the top. It worked out very well.

  4. For what it's worth, now that we've finished examining WG4 over at Lord of the Green Dragons, C1 was voted as the next module for study.

    @Gray: I think it was over at Dragonsfoot where someone mentioned another good hook of getting characters to pursue another group into the shrine.

    @Tom: I've seen a couple of people pair I1 and C1, which is a great idea. It might make a nice starting point for a DM to throw the combination somewhere in the setting of X1...

  5. I absolutely loved the flavor of this module. When I went through university I ended up getting a degree in physical anthropology and had a class in Mesoamerican history...needless to say, I completely immersed myself and my players in all sorts of fun little factoids and flavorful trappings.

    The authors certainly did their homework on this module, and it was clearly evident. They had a fantastic way of setting the scene and bringing about a wonderful sense of ancient, impending danger.

  6. As I recall, Kenzer and co put out a hackmaster version of this module which aded some interesting variations to the original material.

  7. When I was a kid this and keep on the borderlands were the only modules I had. I love the Mesoamerican feel. In fact, my AD&D game I've just started (first time playing any flavor of D&D in 20 years) is set in a Mesoamerican culture.

  8. That whole "lost of traps, hardly any monsters" thing never did it for me. Those kinds of dungeons were always more fun to hear about than to DM or play in (for me, anyway).

  9. The interesting thing about the old school "traps over monsters" modules was that the players really had to use their minds to overcome a lot of the obstacles.

    Nowadays, everyone just looks for a skill on their character sheet and roll to overcome everything. Most of the imagination is taken away...IMHO

  10. "The central chamber holds a tarnished copper raft, crafted to resemble a dragon, bearing a copper coffin. The raft is afloat on a sea of silver-white molten metal fed by several rivers which lace the floor of this room and wend their way across painted plaines from beneath the room's walls."

    This describes room #33. It is #9 in the illustration book. If you look at the dragon's head, it looks very Chinese.

    Open up a copy of the April, 1978 issue of National Geographic to page 442. Look at the three page pull-out painting by Yang Hsien-Min from the article entitled "China's Incredible Find". You'll see the same picture.

    The painting describes an un-excavated room in the tomb of Emperor Qin, the first Chinese, emperor. The caption paragraph describes the a wood dragon barge floating on a mercury pool bearing a copper coffin. It is surrounded by a city in miniature broken by mercury river tributaries. To finish it off, the caption says the room was defended by "traps of hair-trigger crossbows."

    I defy anybody to look at the two pictures side by side and say that one did not inspire the other.

  11. I've run this module so many times...both tournament style and's hard to remember. I even did a D20 conversion back when I was still playing 3rd edition.

  12. the serrated sword says it all!

  13. @brasspen

    Absolutely-- I saw an exhibit about the terra cotta warriors recently and I was trying to figure out why the description of the miniature landscape sounded so familiar.

  14. Lots of great flavor and illustrations, but for me, C1 is an unusable module. (Possibly it's the only one of the classic AD&D modules in that category.) The reasons are exactly what GrayPumpkin praises above: (1) The almost unalterable way the adventure is tied to the 3 unique tournament characters, and (2) The fact the the adventure runs backwards -- falling into the end of the shrine and fighting to get out the entrance -- takes away the option for PCs to withdraw and manage their acceptable risk level.

    Thus, as set up, it's a beat-the-whole-dungeon-or-die-trying prospect, and the latter is really a lot more likely. And just as a final kick in the teeth you've got a "timed" mechanic in the rising poison level that kills the party once your 4-hour convention slot ends. Perfectly fine for a tournament, but not something I'd want to place in a sandbox campaign.

    You could think about running it in the "forward" direction, but many of the natural traps/ secret doors wouldn't work right approached in that direction. (IIRC, there's an attempt at the very entrance itself to discuss a possible forward-direction approach, but nothing for any of the rest of the module.)

  15. I just finished running this module for my 4e group. I ran it from back to front and it needed very few modifications to work this way (actually just one, the removal of the gate and secret mechanism that blocks the way from the outside of the temple to the inside and which, as written, needs to be triggered from the inside).

    I love the module, and it instantly had my players going in full old school mode. They were tapping the ground in front of them with their polearms after half the party got sent through a hidden teleporter.

    The illustration booklet is awesome, I really wish more modern modules used this concept.

    I talk about a few of my experiences running the module for 4e at my

  16. In my opinion C1 was a much better module that S1-Tomb Of Horrors. S1 was merely a death-fest while in C1 the challenges seemed as though you could figure them out if you tried. S1 just seemed to kill the PC's outright which is why there were so many pregenerated character included at the end of the module whereas C1 only had 3.

    The "serrated sword" that was located behind the statue was called a "Macana" or a "Macuahuitl". It was quite an ingenious weapon but probably handled more like a club due to all the weight of the obsidian stones located in the "Blade".

  17. There may be more danger from traps than monsters, but what always stood out for me was how weird and special the monster encounters there were tended to be. This is not a "1d10+2 orcs" type of adventure.


    Yup. I'm definitely reminded of the Japanese war club.

  19. "n my opinion C1 was a much better module that S1-Tomb Of Horrors. S1 was merely a death-fest while in C1 the challenges seemed as though you could figure them out if you tried."

    I wouldn't call this a matter of "better" or "worse." The characteristics you highlight probably make C1 a better module for a traditional "campaign" game with treasured recurring PC characters.

    Playing S1 in the manner it was intended (with pre-gens), you can actually enjoy the sadistic deadliness the same way you would a wild splatter horror flick. It's really a blast if you take the pressure of losing a long-time favorite PC out of the picture.

  20. I don't have a problem dropping players in. But I would make sure that a cautious, logical, careful, and yes, ingenious group could reason their way out alive. Traps can be awesome, but they have to be avoidable/passable/survivable in order to make it into my game.

    A great module for the Wilderlands, or Mystara.

  21. I ran the "hacked" version of this module published by KenzerCo at GaryCon. We were not able to complete it but I must say I still think it's a great module for a "one off" and especially good for convention play.

  22. I actually prefer to reverse the way the party explores the shrine by having them try and figure out how to get in and them being able to leave through the hole in the celling. Infact the last time I ran it, the PC's did just that so as to escape from the Gibbering Mouther that was hot on their trail.

  23. Re: the Macuahuitl, I believe their were stats for it in a Dragon magazine adventure. It did less damage the more it was used as the obsidian chips dulled and broke off.

    I want to say the adventure was called Maztica or something similar. Had were-jaguars. Will check my Dragon CD Archive tonight.

  24. I have run this module four times now (in fact, the last occasion was just three weeks ago), and it was great every time. At all times, we used custom characters, but the setup was a little bit different from the original - the characters didn't fall into a hole but transported to the temple's lower halls by a curse.

    It is a different module than S1 despite the resemblances. That's a "step here and die" module; C1 meanwhile is a brutal slog that keeps whittling away the PCs' hit points until they get out or die. Nasty, but a different sort of it.

    My personal #2 module of all time, right after Realm of the Slime God.

  25. This module was purchased for me and for some reason, even as a young man, the module rang hallow.

    Considering exposure to different viewpoints and racial perspectives, some might be caused to come face to face with the stereotypical nature of the module. The descriptive 'Meso-American' is improper on its face, as "America/American' is, it seems, the derivation from Amerigo Vespuci's name, i.e. a European imposed naming convention on an indigenous location, ignoring whatever names may have existed under the indigenous culture as if they were of no worth.

    Likewise, the ceremonial activities hinted at therein would seem to be taken from Cortes' worst misinterpretion of the religious devotions of the native peoples to justify his conquest of a clearly superior civilization.

  26. By those standards, the same could be said of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms -- they are a simplified caricature of the European Middle Ages, which were a lot more complex than both the "Ye Olde Renfaire Lande" and the (more insiduous) "grimy, stupid peasants burning each other at the stake in front of their stinking hovels" stereotypes bandied about.

    The thing is, however, there is no need for such accuracy: fiction, especially fantasy fiction, is about what might have been, not what really was. Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan doesn't need to paint a historically and ethnographically accurate picture - neither does Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers or even Tros of Samothrace. The Transylvania of vampire stories has absolutely nothing to do with the real locale (seriously: absolutely nothing - it was, and to an extent still is a very interesting place, but in a completely different way), yet it is a compelling thing as a bit of fiction.