Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Retrospective: Temple of Death

David Cook's 1983 Dungeons & Dragons module, Temple of Death, is the sequel to or, perhaps more accurately, the second part of an adventure begun in Master of the Desert Nomads. Like its predecessor, it presents a mix of wilderness and "dungeon" challenges and, also like its predecessor, it's not wholly satisfying taken solely on its own merits. That's why I prefer to think of these two modules as two parts of a greater whole. The whole is not without its problems, but I think there's enough good about it that I retain a fondness for modules X4 and X5, the last Expert-level modules for which I can say that without significant qualifications.

Both Temple of Death and Master of Desert Nomads are products of the "new," more mainstream TSR Hobbies, as evidenced by the change in trade dress, corporate logo, and artwork style from earlier entries in the X series. Of particular note is the growing tendency of modules and rulebooks to be illustrated by one or maybe two artists in order to give it a "unified" appearance. While I can see the logic in such an approach, it can be risky, especially if the artist chosen is not one you personally favor. Such is the case in module X5, whose artist is Timothy Truman, whose artwork I've never held in particularly high regard, even less so in the fantasy genre. Even had I liked Truman's work, there's a sameness that comes from having only one artistic vision that I think weakens the product.

Temple of Death sees the characters make their way through the tunnels of the Great Pass into a series of valleys that lead to the land of Hule, where the evil Master rules. Cook really pulls out the stops when it comes to the encounters of the Great Pass. There's a mechanical dragon, a palace of hallucinogenic fungi, and a moon pool, among others. Many of these encounters could spark mini-campaigns in themselves, particularly the moon pool, which, on nights of the full moon, generates a ladder to the Moon itself. It's terrific stuff and reminder (as if we needed one) that David Cook's imagination is steeped in the lore of pulp fantasy.

Hule itself has always read to me like a fantasy version of Khomeini's Iran, with the Master substituting for the Ayatollah. It's an evil theocracy, where clerics rule over all, though we're not given much information about what this theocracy believes or why. It's a common problem in the D&D line: religion is treated as a potential source of controversy, so it's generally ignored, despite the presence of clerics. Now, granted, Temple of Death, as its title ought to make clear, was never intended to be anything more than a fantasy adventure, so I've never been too broken up about what it glosses over. Still, I think it's an opportunity missed. Moreso than Master of the Desert Nomads, the action of module X5 takes place within a "dungeon" location, the eponymous temple from which the Master rules. It's a large, heavily-fortified complex filled with a variety of evil spellcasters, guards, and monsters. Surviving to face the Master should prove a difficult endeavor for a party of characters level 6-10, especially since the Master has several tricks up his sleeve to ensure that, even in defeat, he might still carry the day.

As a kid, I liked Temple of Death better than its predecessor by a wide margin and, while I still think I prefer it of the two, I don't think it's the hands-down superior choice that I once did. Part of it comes from the fact that I think Temple of Death's reach exceeds its grasp. The characters must enter an evil theocratic nation, find its leader, and slay him -- all in the span of 32 pages. That's a tall order for any module and I don't think Cook succeeded in fulfilling the promise module X5 seemed to hold before I'd read it. In addition, there are still worrisome instances of heavy-handed NPCs to nudge the PCs in the right direction and ensure that events go "as planned." I've certainly seen worse examples of this shtick, but that does little to exonerate Temple of Death's use of it. In the end, I think there's still a lot to recommend this module, though I'd rework a great deal of it if I ever chose to run it today.


  1. X4 and X5 are among my favourite D&D modules, although I too would not run them today without reworking them quite a bit.

    "I think there's enough good about it that I retain a fondness for modules X4 and X5, the last Expert-level modules for which I can say that without significant qualifications"

    I'd be curious to know your opinion of X8, 'Drums on Fire Island' (I think it's very good) or X10, 'Red Arrow, Black Shield', which is a sequel to X4 and X5. (I'm not sure what I think of X10 myself, having only looked at it a few times.)

  2. "Hule itself has always read to me like a fantasy version of Khomeini's Iran, with the Master substituting for the Ayatollah."

    In module X10 (one of my all-time favories; I think it surpasses X4+X5 by a good margin, partly due to openness of the conclusion), there's an illustration of the Master with his face revealed that is an absolute carbon-copy of the Ayatollah Khomeini. I still find it quite jarring (I can't think of another time D&D art made a direct reference to a modern political figure).

    "It's a common problem in the D&D line: religion is treated as a potential source of controversy, so it's generally ignored, despite the presence of clerics."


  3. Coincidentally, I've just reread this, and it didn't hold up as well as I recalled it. There were a couple of moments when the "guiding hand of God" (aka the DM) bugged me, and the clues leading the players to the temple felt awfully heavy-handed. Most of the individual encounters in the tunnels were great, and I thought the town had quite a bit of promise. I was less pleased with the Temple, itself, mostly because it was another example of the Big Bad Guy sitting at the end of the habitrail waiting for the hamsters PCs to find him. (But that's a common problem in dungeon modules.)

    Still, I like it better than X4, and I think the pair put together make great raw material for a GM to work into a proper campaign.

  4. I agree with some of the other posters. X10 is my favorite of the X series and almost a campaign in itself if the timeline was expanded.

    We played through it once many, many years ago and everyone involved had a great time.

  5. I got these both when they were brand new, from KB Toys of all places--in a mall that had an actual gaming store...anyway, I always found them so evocative and expansive. Pretty classic, though Cook does do more than a little hand-holding throughout.

    While the Master and Hule are pretty clearly modeled on Khomeini-era Iran, between the art in this module (as well as the then-recent release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) it always had more an Ancient India vibe to me. Today, my interpretation(since I'm actually gearing up to run both of these) is that it's totally Mughal Empiresque in terms of appearance (and the Abbey in X4 comes across as Nepalese more than anything).

    This is the music I plan to use when they first catch sight of the Temple itself:

  6. X4 and X5 are some of the better modules from that period. To me, they are especially interesting for their exoticism and imaginative adventure hooks (the Great Pass is probably the high point in that respect). They have obvious structural flaws, particularly in being railroady as written, but that is fairly easily remedied. The imaginative content is what matters, and as Anthony wrote, it is excellent raw material.

    Concerning the issue of pulp fantasy in early D&D, Desert Nomads and Temple of Death are both good contenders. In other modules, like Dwellers of the Forbidden City or even The Lost City, the sword&sorcery elements are often diluted or just one ingredient in the mixture. These two are more faithful to the genre (although not as much as some Judges Guild supplements).

    I did not notice the Khomeini connection before this post called my attention to it, but then I did not grow up in the 1980s USA where he was an iconic figure. Which is just as well: Hosadus works well as an antagonist without knowing he owes something to Khomeini, although, of course, being aware of the association can grant a DM better understanding to run him.

    Also, I wholeheartedly support social and political satire in gaming, as long as it is not done cheaply.

  7. I always preferred the old-old school AD&D (back when the TSR logo was the little wizard guy).

    I did, however, really like the Desert of Desolation from the newer era of TSR games. Very well written and original for the time (focusing on Egyptian adventuring as opposed to the standard/traditional European setting). I ran the dungeons, almost unaltered, in my campaign and really appreciated the alien feel to them (especially to the 'European' PCs who didn't know the customs, language, or culture of these lands). Made for some great RP.

    An aside: Of course, the low point of that era were the Conan and Red Sonja modules (with Ah-nahld on the cover). Should have been coded "T" series because they were total turds.

  8. I ran it as the capstone to my Willow Vale "BX meets 3.5" mash-up campaign, and ended up somewhat disappointed. I ran it as written, and an encounter in the forest with the Master's flying ship short-circuited the adventure - as written it took the PCs straight to him; they proceeded to slay him (twice) in short order; job done.