Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Retrospective: The Temple of Elemental Evil

I'm a huge fan of The Village of Hommlet. I consider it one of the most perfect low-level adventures ever written for any edition of D&D and have probably played it more times than I can recall. The original module was released in 1979, with a monochrome cover. That was the version my friend's older brother had, but the one I first owned was the 1981 one with Jeff Dee cover art. What's interesting is that, in the two years between the initial release and the change in the cover art, module T1's sequel, The Temple of Elemental Evil, was never released. This baffled and disappointed me, as I was used to TSR's comparatively rapid release schedule of other modules in a series and I was looking forward to seeing what greater evil threatened the good folk of Hommlet.

In the years since, I've learned some of why it took six years for The Temple of Elemental Evil to be published, but, at the time, I couldn't imagine why it had taken so long. In the interim, I'd put together my own Temple and had some fun with it, but I assumed my own efforts would be a pale reflection of the "true" one -- once Gary Gygax got around to writing it. As it turned out, the published version of the Temple wasn't written by Gary Gygax, or rather it wasn't written solely by him. As I understand it, Gary created an outline for the module, which Frank Mentzer fleshed out and expanded upon. The result is a module that feels very inconsistent to me, with shifts in tone and content throughout. That's to be expected, of course, given its origins, but I think it detracts greatly from what should have been a terrific companion piece to The Village of Hommlet.

No published version of The Temple of Elemental Evil would have lived up to my expectations after so many years of waiting for it. Likewise, D&D itself -- and my relationship with it -- had changed considerably in the span of time it took for module T1-4 to appear. Whereas The Village of Hommlet was the product of an earlier, more "sandbox-y" age, the first of TSR's "super modules" was a product of a time when modules couldn't just present adventuring locales; they had to present stories as well. Now, The Temple of Elemental Evil is not Ravenloft or even Pharaoh, but neither is it Vault of the Drow. T1-4 is much more detailed and background-heavy an adventure than those of the Golden Age, filled with all sorts additions that both unnecessarily complicated its presentation and seemed at odds with what was implied in The Village of Hommlet. In short, it wasn't what I was expecting at all.

None of this should be taken as a condemnation of the module, which I think holds up better than it ought to, given its various infelicities. Frank Mentzer made a very valiant effort at trying to be true to what came before while also taking into account changing sensibilities about what a D&D module should be. Goodness knows I used the Temple to good effect in my old campaign, although I changed many of its elements, eliminating things I felt weakened its premise and adding elements I expected to be there -- such as Lolth -- based on what we'd been told in module T1. T1-4 is, I think, a diamond in the rough, but there's a lot of carbon that needs to be shorn away before it can truly shine.

On the current debate regarding its megadungeon status, I side with Joseph Bloch and say that, for both historical and stylistic reasons, The Temple of Elemental Evil does not qualify as a true megadungeon. Of course, I don't believe it was ever intended to be perceived as such, so this is no mark against it and I think viewing it according to this category only makes it look like more of a failure than it is. As I said, I think T1-4 is solid and workmanlike, but it's not a classic on par with most of the Gygaxian canon or even lesser TSR works from 1978-1981 period. It's an attempt to capture something of the feel of the older style of adventure module and conform it to the decadent dress of late 1e, a project that, in retrospect, holds no appeal for me, but I can certainly understand why those for whom the Hickman era or post-Unearthed Arcana AD&D were their introductions to the hobby would find it far more attractive than I do.


  1. I think you're being slightly too kind, but overall I agree with your assessment.

    I myself didn't own a copy of T1-4 until the 21st century. I took an extended vacation from AD&D from 1984 through mid-1995. By then it was OOP, and when eBay came around it was expensive and I was broke. When I finally had both the cash and the opportunity around 2003, I was so disappointed with the "super"module that I consigned it to a stack in my storage room and left it there until recently. Occasionally now I'll thumb through it to see if my opinion has changed. It hasn't, at least not so far. So much unrealized potential.

  2. In my opinion this was the starting point to when D&D cover-art started looking good. Most of the stuff after ToEE throughout the late 80's had really great cover art.

  3. "In the years since, I've learned some of why it took six years for The Temple of Elemental Evil to be published...."

    Could you share why it took six years, or at point us to a resource you believe to be reliable on the matter? I too was a bit surprised at the long gap between the two.

  4. Allan Grohe probably knows more about than I, but I recall Gary Gygax explaining in one of his Q&A threads on ENWorld or Dragonsfoot that he simply ran out of steam when it came to finishing ToEE. Coupled with the fact that the ideas he did have very vaguely similar to the ideas he'd also had for Q1, he simply didn't proceed and had other projects to distract him. I suspect (though this is pure speculation) that if TSR's financial crisis hadn't occurred -- and thus necessitated the quick publication of "sure-fire" products -- we might never have seen ToEE at all.

  5. As far as supermodules go, T1-4 is my favorite. I have no issue with GDQ1-7 or I3-5. Even A1-4 is okay in my books.

    Expressions of affection for B1-9 or S1-4 will yield you a raised eyebrow, however.

  6. I have to confess I'm jealous. I'm only 21, started playing D&D in 3.5. I read this blog, and I envy these games, and these stories you have about this "Golden Age". I wish I had the opportunity to just play a game, where it wasn't always some plot-driven, pre-bought super-module that is so superficial and focused on tie-ins that my wallet pains.

    Be grateful, gentlemen, some of us have never seen, and likely will never experience the joys of OD&D and AD&D.

  7. Vampyr, why be jealous? Are you excited about the idea? Be excited to your other players! With a bit of luck your enthusiasm will be infectious and they'll want to play. Grab yourself a free copy of Swords & Wizardry, check out the Quick Primer for Old Schol gaming to help ground you in expectations and go to town! One of the many strengths of old-school play is the very minimal cost in time and money to start up, and thanks to the generosity of people like Mythmere Games, the financial cost is free (assuming you're willing to read it online, or can mooch free printouts). Go forth and play!

  8. Wow.

    Could not disagree more.

    T1-4 is a classic and I'd probably rank it as the greatest module ever written.

    I'd also rate it as the greatest dungeon ever published by a company.

    The biggest sign of T1-4's greatness, to me, is that it very much does not play "canned".

    There are a lot of ingredients in the stew and every time I run it, they come together in different combinations.

    The interactions of the various factions in town, with the PCs and the factions in the dungeon especially, always lead to side adventures and intrigue that vary in timing, nature and intensity.

  9. My experience with both the ToEE and the VoH seem to parallel yours. I loved the Village used it as a kick off point to many a campaign, both as written (I too made attempts at my own ToEE) and as a back drop for my own inventions, the most successful being what came to be known as the Troll Wars Campaign.
    Like you I was excited to pick up the ToEE when it came out and clearly remember the giddy excitement of the ride home from Boardroom Games in Indianapolis where I lived at the time, only to get home to the slow but inexorable creeping disappointment as I read further in further into the module.
    At the time it wasn't anything I could put my finger on, just the realization that this just didn't have the magic of the classic Gygax modules. Even looking back now I can't say for sure what it was, perhaps as you said it was that lack of a cohesive feel, it was perhaps too big a task, many of the rooms where just monster repositories with not nearly enough of the touches of Gyaxian cleverness and imagination that made so many previous modules so wonderful.
    Still there was much I did like, I thought the Nodes were cool, and got some good use out of them in more than one game. Also Nulb while sparsely detailed was, to me at least, a great spring board for many a night of adventuring.

  10. I think I like TOEE a bit more than most (without having actually gamed it). It's a long read, doesn't have the eye-popping "wow" factor of S/G/D stuff, but it doesn't outright anger me like some old-timers. I give it maybe 6 out of 10.

    Main criticisms are contradictions with T1, esp., the wilderness map: (1) distances don't match, (2) unclear where the moathouse is, (3) undefined encounter areas, (4) the trail out of town from the T1 map doesn't make sense (sort of an inexcusable gaffe). Not clear why the TOEE sealed gateways are important, inasmuch as you can just walk around them by numerous alternate paths.

    Best thing is where the "lost druid on a mission" from T1 turns up. That's maybe the one really nice touch that sticks in my head after a few years.

  11. This is all from memory...

    Delta, the sealed gateways aren't there to stop the PCs, nor most of the dungeon's inhabitants. They're magical seals that bind Zuggtmoy. Zuggtmoy can't just walk around him because the seals aren't specifically blocking that one path, they're binding Zuggtmoy directly. The seals just happen to take the form of doors on the main route, which fits in with lots of magical traditions that emphasize the symbolism of the magical focus.

  12. Be grateful, gentlemen, some of us have never seen, and likely will never experience the joys of OD&D and AD&D.

    The truly great thing is that it's never too late to experience older games, if you can find others who share your interest in them. Fortunately, that's a lot easier nowadays than it used to be thanks to the many sites, blogs, and forums dedicated to old school gaming. I've made quite a few new acquaintances who share my passions this way and I don't think I'm alone in this regard.

  13. Rarely do I actually comment on your BLOG posts James , but have to agree with you wholeheartedly here. T1 is also one of my all time fave D&D products and I remember waiting and waiting anxiously for "T2". T1-4 is/was quite disappointing for me. Not a fan at all.

  14. Keep in mind that Zuggy is being imprisoned by what amounts to be a Hedged Prison version of the Binding spell.

    I actually like T1-4, but then again, I'm a big fan of EGG and thought he improved over time, with Yggsburg being his last true creation and the capstone to his efforts. I really dismiss the thoughts of the "vague, less defined" modules as being "classic", as I felt as time marched on, most of us wanted more background and some details. But then I disagree with the whole "golden age" label. (The golden age of comics had a lot of stinkers and rather poor art, for instance).

    One very interesting thing is that this is the only "classic Gygax" module that has ever seen conversion to a computer game, and despite the use of 3e I think it translates well. It's too bad it didn't do as well in the marketplace. (Though I personally hope one of the things Gail is doing is trying to get Castle Zagyg turned into a computer game).

  15. i suppose you chose to continue to ignore 'CASTLE WHITEROCK' from Goodman Games as an example of a successful mega-dunngeon

  16. I don't own ma copy of Castle Whiterock, so it's impossible for me to say whether I consider it a successful megadungeon or not. At the price it commanded when released -- and commands now -- I doubt I ever will own it.

  17. "They're magical seals that bind Zuggtmoy. Zuggtmoy can't just walk around him because the seals aren't specifically blocking that one path, they're binding Zuggtmoy directly."

    Agreed that is the explanation. It's never made sense to me.

  18. Seeing grognard grumblings I once again is reminded why it's impossible to trust anyone talking about the T series. Almost everyone of the grumbling grognards say they loved T1 and waited forever for T2 and was then disappointed when ToEE came out.

    With that history, and the built up expectations, it's impossible to get a objective view of things.

    I'm not saying that James is talking nonsense above, I'm just saying that when grognards speak about the qualities of ToEE it's very rarely not obscured by wishes of what their youthful selves would have liked seeing. T1-4 might suck, or be great. Give it to a 2nd ed gamer and he will probably give it a truer evaluation.

  19. I wonder if this contributes to my love of ToEE.

    See, I never owned T1. We had two DMs in my group and my friend who DM'd when I wasn't had bought T1 and planned to run it, but never actually did.

    Thus, I didn't buy it and never played through it.

    So when T1-4 came out, I bought it fresh.

  20. I never played T1-4 but from reading it I see that there is much potential. As James said, a diamond in the rough.

    What you can do with the ToEE if you are willing to heavily modify it, you can read in the blow campaign log. This is a massive word doc and only the first 45 pages are about th Temple. But I urge you to give it a try.

  21. @john That computer game is one of my favourites.

    As last couple comments pointed out. I see a very sharp line in responses/opinions re: ToEE.

    If you were around for and owned T1, you don't like/are disappointed by T1-4.

    If you first sampled the T with T1-4, your much more inclined to think it rocks.

    My post on ToEE was trying to get those T1'ers (and others) to take a fresh, objective look at ToEE.

  22. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to run an AD&D 2E Greyhawk campaign, using the supermodules as the baseline - T1-4, A1-4, GDQ1-7 - and topping it off with Vecna Lives. I put a fair bit of time and effort into fleshing out T1-4, and figured I'd develop the rest as play unfurled.

    The campaign crashed and burned after a few game sessions. Player reaction to the T1 section (we didn't even finish the moathouse) ranged from apathy to snide comments.

    I recently sold my collection of supermodules on EBay (for more than I paid for them), and have no regrets.

    In retrospect, the village in T1 would have made a fairly good 'home base' to campaign outwards from.

    Sad to say, the classics are not always what they're cracked up to be.

  23. Funny thing about age and time...When I was a young man I had no interest in Hommlet, I thought it was a joke really. When ToEE came out though, I saw it as the super module that it was.

    When I was younger we used to shop for games (mostly boxed) based on "heft value". In other words, if it weighed a lot there was probably a lot of stuff in it. Which of course was a "good" thing. ToEE certainly fell under this criteria.

    Now, as I'm older, I LOVE Village of Hommlet. I'm running a game out of it right this moment in fact. When my players saw it, they all asked if we were going to run ToEE as well. No way.

    The module, while chock full of neat ideas, is just way too much of a staid dungeon crawl. It's not mythic nor is it worthy of a tent-pole designation in my humble opinion. But I still hold a soft spot in my heart for it.

  24. I couldn't get the computer version of TOE working on my PC, which is a shame because I love turn based RPG especially D&D. Pool of radiance rocked, for example, as did the Bard's Tale. Right now I'm playing through the original Baldurs Gate to complete it a second time, after all these years... which you can kind of run turn based, but ... oh well. My brother loves the computer version of Temple of Elemental Evil, and he's only 19, anyhow.

  25. Probably I don't like Temple part of T1-4 for other reasons than you.
    I don't have strong memories of when I played on the T1-4, but one thing impressed me: at last, instead of starting the adventure in front of the dungeon entrance (maybe after a short briefing at the usual "The Golden Dragon Inn"), we found ourselves on the road, in front of a village. It was something new and fun, I had the feeling of facing something alive: the stories, the legends, the names of neighboring villages, the npcs characterization, helped satisfy my sense of wonder.
    Then we reached Nulb, and started to explore the Temple. Initially it was very exciting (as always is to explore the very core of the evil), but after a dozen sessions, each player had hoped to finish the dungeon as soon as possible... all sense of wonder experienced previously had given way to a series of soulless rooms, often disconnected each other, where defeating monsters one after another.
    We tried a few years ago, "Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil" for the 3rd edition and it was even worse...

  26. I was chatting with some of my gaming group about the poor state of D&D starter modules, in particular those for 3e and 4e, and how they don't really convey the strengths and feel of the game. Having only a little experience of D&D, I wondered if there wasn't one classic adventure they could include in each iteration of the game, merely updated to the latest set of mechanics; I was thinking of how Call of Cthulhu has always included The Haunting as a primer for new players. My friends couldn't think of a D&D analogue, but I wonder if The Village of Hommlet might not be that adventure?

  27. One very interesting thing is that this is the only "classic Gygax" module that has ever seen conversion to a computer game
    Yikes, that game was a stinker! Although in fairness, it suffered from coding issues rather than any problems with the module itself.