Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Retrospective: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

I've always been fond of the kuo-toa, the titular antagonists of 1978's Shrine of the Kuo-Toa by Gary Gygax. I suspect my affection for them comes from the fact that H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" made a strong impression on me and I read it not long before first encountering this module. Thus, for me, the kuo-toa are inextricably bound up with HPL's deep ones. But, as is so often the case with Gygax's pastiches, he alters the original in ways that make it accessible and satisfying outside its original context. In short, with the kuo-toa, Gygax transformed the deep ones into more -- or, less, depending on one's point of view -- than avatars of Lovecraft's fear of miscegenation. Call the kuo-toa "deep ones lite," if you will, though I would argue that it is that lightness that makes them more suitable as opponents in your average D&D campaign than deep ones.

In some respects, module D2 is very similar to its predecessor, lacking in an explicit plot and filled with a lot of random tables for generating encounters with the denizens of the subterranean world as the PCs continue their quest to find the city of the drow. Where it differs is that Shrine of the Kuo-Toa describes in detail a single eponymous locale, which is intended to be the focus of play. Module D1 had the Caverns and Warrens of the Troglodytes, of course, and they certainly qualify as adventuring locales, but they lack the coherence of the Shrine in my opinion. Players remember the Caverns and Warrens as "just a bunch of caves" populated by a wide variety of monsters, whereas the Shrine is not only held by a single type of monster -- the kuo-toa -- but is clearly important to them, so important that they will mount an organized and determined defense of it against the PCs and their allies.

These allies are another important part of what differentiates modules D1 and D2. The deep gnomes (or svirfneblin) of D2 are presented as determined foes of the kuo-toa and thus potential aids to the player characters in their own efforts. Their motivation is primarily greed, as they've played out all the veins of gems that can be obtained easily and wish to gain more from the area of the Shrine, either by prospecting or, if possible, theft. The deep gnomes are potent enemies, some of whom can summon earth elementals to do their bidding, but they're also suspicious of outsiders. Convincing them to help the PCs is thus an important means of achieving success in this adventure, though it's worth noting that Gygax devotes very little verbiage to it.

The Shrine itself is terrific: a ziggurat-like structure filled with kuo-toa, including many clerical spellcasters (which only makes sense, as it's a religious location). It's here that we first catch glimpses of the awesomely-named Blibdoolpoolp, the Sea Mother of the kuo-toa. Again, Gygax displays his appreciation of the power of names. Blibdoolpoolp is not just a memorably absurd name; it's also one that sounds like it could be uttered by alien lips immersed in water. And the appearance of a nude statuesque woman with the head and claws of a lobster is an inspired way to portray this deity -- alluring and repellant at the same time. I'm not ashamed to admit that, as a kid, I found Blibdoolpoolp quite disturbing and, on some level, I still do.

Shrine of the Kuo-Toa isn't as good as Vault of the Drow, but it's still very good. It presents a well-realized locale that inspires as much as it describes. There can be little question why, like the drow, the kuo-toa are remembered as among the most interesting antagonists AD&D ever placed in the path of adventurers. I am frankly grateful that, more than three decades later, this module remains one of the only places where the kuo-toa are discussed at any length. Unlike the drow, there's still mystery associated with them and I'm sure that contributes greatly to my liking of D2, one of Gary Gygax's finest creations.


  1. I agree that this is one of the best of the early modules, for many of the same reasons you mention. I'm especially fond of the Kuo-Toa: there's something horrifying about the concept of "fish-men." (Maybe it's the way my tropical fish look at me at feeding time...) They're redolent of an "age before man," much like the Serpent People. Under Lovecraft's influence, in my game worlds they're usually worshiped by degenerate human cults.They make a great long-term enemy. (If your campaign isn't in a desert. ;) )

  2. Thanks for the post. I remember reading this module sometime back in the early 80's and really enjoying the presentation of the Kuo-Toa. Sadly I rarely used them in my Dragonquest campaigns and tended to default more to sahuagins.

  3. @Padre

    I'd forgotten about Sahuagin. Even though they fit within the genre of "hideous fish men," I was never that fond of them. Perhaps because of the way TSR/WotC presented them, they lacked that sense of horror and ancient mystery, becoming "just another foe." For me, at least.

    Security word: "bilbasup" A minor Kuo-Tuan demon.

  4. Kuo-Toa, Sahuagin, Locathah--it's clear that a fish-man hybrid exerted a strong influence over Gygax and Co. in the early days, but Trampier's illustration of the spawning pools in the Shrine are what cemented the Kuo-Toa as the icky icthyoids in my mind.

  5. I think that part of what made the kuo-toa creepy is that in the illustrations, they actually looked fishlike--round, blubbery, squishy, slimy, and with facial features that make it impossible to read their emotions, if they have any at all. It's unfortunate that later artists felt a need to make all D&D monsters muscular and angry. They lost a lot of personality in the transition.

  6. I'd heard, I forget where, that Blibdoolploop was and onomatopoeia for a drop of water falling into a subterranean pool.

  7. The City of the Glass Pool portion of the Night Below (for 1st ed) campaign I did for two years recently is an even better setting for these guys. It incorporates all the stuff from the Fiend Folio on them so well it is really just outstanding. A truly frightening and challenging city.

    Although I had Shrine back in the day, I just don't recall many details.

  8. D2 is a classic adventure. The layout is nice and sensible, the foes are dangerous and interesting, and it's actually possible to negotiate your way through it. Just pay the toll and keep on going.

    Not that anyone ever did in my games, but still.

    I hope to use this one again in my upcoming GURPS game - Koa-Toa are just fun, and don't have as much accumulated crud on them like the drow do now. They never got that "cool PC outcast" treatment. :)

  9. Awesome module, a personal fave of mine as well, thanks for the great retrospective.

  10. Excellent module. My favorite element was the semi-berserk monitor ferryman with a giant gar ally.

    On a more interesting note, I thought G1-G3 and D1-D3 were amongst the best modules TSR had to offer (only S1 - Tomb of Horrors being superior and more challenging). However, I thought 'Queen of the Demonweb Pits' was awful. Truly awful. Such an unworthy successor to G1-D3 and is very out of place in both content and style (probably because Gygax didn't write the module - pity).

  11. There's a certain pathos to the Kuo-Toa as presented in D2 — vestigial rag-tags of a doomed race, fighting fin and claw for their awful deity's sanctuary — that raises them above mere HPL pastiche, I think.

    This module is one of Gary's crowning achievements.

  12. Going simply by the 1E illustrations, I could see Sahuagin (the most humanoid) being shallow-water dwellers, Kuo-toa being mid-depth dwellers, and Locathah being deep-water dwellers.

    Unfortunately the canonical descriptions put Locathah in the shallows and Sahuagin deeper, with Kuo-toa being subterranean and in sea caves.

    Come to think of it, there ought to be man-fish versions of those weird deep-sea fish, with the spiky teeth and the luminescent bait organs like deep-sea anglerfish or fangtooth fish.