Tuesday, May 16, 2017

[D&D] Reclaiming the Temple of Elemental Evil (part 1)

AD&D module T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil, released in the summer of 1985, is one of the most famous of all D&D modules, for several reasons: (1) it was the largest module published by TSR up to that time (128 pages + a 16 page map booklet at a time when most modules were still 32 pages); (2) it was (mostly) written by Gary Gygax, who created the AD&D game and wrote the rulebooks and most of the early modules (including all of the best ones) but had been mostly-absent for a couple of years in Hollywood running Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp., producing the D&D cartoon and trying to get a movie made; (3) it was the first/only starter-level adventure written by Gary for AD&D (all of his other AD&D modules were for mid- to high-level characters, and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands was for the Basic version of the game (though of course almost all of us ran it for AD&D anyway)); (4) it was the closest any TSR module had yet come to the "megadungeon" paradigm that defined the original game and was still implicit even in the AD&D rulebooks; and (5) last but not least because TSR had been promising it since the release of T1: The Village of Hommlet in 1979 - six years earlier. This was, by pretty much any measure, a major release for AD&D and of course it sold very well and went through many printings (stretching well into the 90s) and is, along with Unearthed Arcana, one of the products that provided enough cash-flow to get TSR out of debt and save the company. It was so popular and legendary that even in the 21st century Wizards of the Coast has released a novelization (2001), a sequel adventure (2001), a computer game (2003), and a boardgame (2015) all based on it.

And yet, for all of that, the adventure has always been very problematic because, frankly, it was a huge disappointment to almost everybody (especially people who'd been waiting since the 70s, who by and large seem to have a harsher opinion of it than I do - after all, I'd only been waiting a year) and in many ways actually kind of sucks.

In order to get into why that is, a short history lesson is first in order. Gary first set up the area c. 1975 as a place to introduce new characters (and players) to the Greyhawk Campaign, away from the more established environs of Greyhawk Castle. It's likely he also intended this area to serve as a testing place for new concepts he'd developed since the game had been published and was gradually solidifying into the shape of what would eventually become AD&D. Per the historical notes in the El Raja Key Archive the main players in that game were Ernie Gygax (Burne the magic-user), Cindy Gygax (Y'dey the cleric), Heidi Gygax (Murfles the elf fighter/thief), Luke Gygax (Otis the ranger), Skip Williams (Rufus the fighter), Tim Kask (Jaroo the druid), and Tim Jones (Terjon the cleric).

This group played for several months, but eventually their progress began to stagnate. One story I've heard is that the players found so much interesting stuff to do in Nulb that it distracted them from exploration of the dungeon. So, in an attempt to shake things up, Gary allowed his Greyhawk co-DM Rob Kuntz to take his high level PC Robilar into the dungeons. Over a long weekend of play (I can't remember if I read that Rob stayed over that weekend at Gary's house because they were snowed in or if I just imagined it) Robilar single-handedly decimated the inhabitants of the dungeon, freed the powerful demoness trapped within, and then fled the scene. In reaction, the other players sought out the aid of high-level good PCs (specifically Ernie Gygax's high-level character, Tenser) whose forces mobilized to mop up the remains and pursue Robilar back to his castle, and the sub-campaign was effectively over. At least some of the players and characters from it went on to further adventures battling against giants and the legendary drow,

Fast-forward a few years to 1978-79. AD&D has been released, and TSR has entered the business of publishing pre-written adventure modules (after, in the original D&D era, only publishing DM tools like the Dungeon Geomorph map sets and pre-rolled Monster and Treasure Assortments - they assumed no one would be interested in buying "someone else's dungeon," and it was only the success of Judges Guild's products that showed them there was an untapped market for such things). Their first module releases had been the aforementioned giant and drow campaign, as well as an expanded tournament dungeon from 1975, the infamous Tomb of Horrors. Simultaneous with that, Gary was busy expanding and polishing the setting of the Greyhawk Campaign for publication by TSR as The World of Greyhawk - a large-scale setting in which DMs could place their campaigns, and which would also be the setting for all of TSR's modules. Combining all of that, Gary went back to revisit the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign notes, and the result was the remarkable T1: The Village of Hommlet.

While the earlier modules had all been self-contained environments, The Village of Hommlet takes obvious inspiration from Gary's parallel work on The World of Greyhawk and is loaded to the gills with references to the larger campaign-world and feels completely different and much more ambitious than what had come before. The adventuring content of the module is actually pretty thin - a small village with only a handful of adventuring-relevant characters and locations, and a small, unspectacular mini-dungeon - but it's presented in such detail, with so much flavor in the descriptions and so many hints at what lies just outside the frame, that it was addictive. Hommlet felt not all that different than Tolkien's Shire (perhaps a more midwestern American version: Tolkien meets Norman Rockwell) - someplace you could vividly picture and imagine going to and living in. Surely the gorgeously detailed illustrations by David Trampier helped greatly to set that mood.

Anyhow, this module was released, and proved very popular among the fans, and Gary found himself in something of a bind. The module billed itself as a prelude to T2: The Temple of Elemental Evil, which people became very eager to see. However, several factors worked against that happening anytime soon. One was that the Temple dungeons had been created in Gary's usual quasi-improvisational style (and apparently made heavy use of a random dungeon generation system - presumably the same tables that later appeared as DMG Appendix A, and eventually formed the basis of the Dungeon Robber game) which Gary didn't feel was up to publishable standard and needed to be revised. Another is that, because of the way the playtest campaign had abruptly ended, the dungeons were unfinished, with lots of unresolved loose-ends that would need to be fleshed out and tied up for publication. A third is that T1 had been so popular and set expectations so high that Gary realized he couldn't put out some weak or half-hearted effort - that T2 needed to meet or exceed the standard set by its predecessor. And lastly, and I suspect most crucially, T1 was released almost simultaneously with D&D's explosion in popularity and Gary's need to take on many more business duties that cut severely into his time for creative writing - something he was already lamenting (and using as an excuse for the delayed completion of T2) in an editorial in the March 1980 issue of The Dragon magazine.

Promises that T2 would finally be completed and released as soon as possible were a regular feature of Gary's magazine column over the next couple of years, until in mid-1983 he disappeared from its pages altogether (because, we would later learn, he had been sent off to Hollywood). When he eventually re-appeared (in the October 1984 issue), as part of a long laundry-list of status updates on various TSR projects he mentioned that the T2 manuscript - approximately 300 pages in length - had been handed over to Frank Mentzer "to keep him amused during odd moments and fill in his spare time." And sure enough, when T2 (renamed T1-4, presumably to reflect both that it included the entire text of T1, but also that it was four times the length of a standard AD&D module) finally appeared the next summer it was credited to "Gary Gygax with Frank Mentzer."

Frank Mentzer is an interesting figure in the history of 80s-D&D. He was hired as an editor by TSR around the end of 1979, in their second big wave of personnel expansion. A few months later he won TSR's invitational "Best DM" contest, and a couple years after that became Gary Gygax's official right hand man and AD&D Rules Guru. He founded the RPGA, edited its newsletter Polyhedron, and completely reshaped how D&D tournaments were run. He was involved in the development of TSR's Endless Quest line of choose-your-own-adventure books for young readers. Presumably on the basis of that line's success was given the job of re-editing the D&D Basic Set to make it more approachable to younger audiences and people with no prior knowledge of fantasy or wargaming at all.

That set (along with a corresponding revision of the D&D Expert Set) was released in the summer of 1983 and was a huge seller - some credit for which I suspect also goes to the striking cover art by Larry Elmore (which is so iconic that Wizards of the Coast reused it exactly for their D&D Starter Set in 2010) and the fact that, at the height of the D&D fad-boom, the game was ubiquitous - it was sold in toy stores and drug stores, was featured in the Sears catalog, and was translated into something like a dozen different languages (and, of course, there was a D&D-branded cartoon and line of toys supporting it). Frank did a fine job of making the game understandable to young readers (personal note: it's actually the version I started with, at age 9) which is to his credit, but he was also very much in the right place at the right time. With its art and its huge marketing push and the great amount of public interest (which was beginning to wane, but was still near its peak), it's a fair bet this set was going to fly off the shelves no matter who the editor was.

Burnished by that success, Frank went on to extend the D&D line with several more boxed sets filled with his own ideas and rule expansions (the Companion (1984), Master (1985), and Immortals (1986) Sets), and in addition to being trusted with the T2 manuscript by Gary was also reportedly in line to edit the revision of the AD&D rules before Gary left the company and TSR's new management changed directions. He had Gary's total confidence and trust on matters of the AD&D rules. It was a common occurrence in Dragon magazine of the era that a rules addition would appear under Gary's byline that raised questions or complaints among the readership and then Frank would appear an issue or two later on Gary's behalf with an essay explaining and justifying the reasoning behind it.

All of that is well and good - it's understandable that Gary felt the need to delegate a lot of his former design-oriented duties once he took on other corporate responsibilities, and it's good that he found someone he was willing to trust and work closely with. If it wasn't for Frank's involvement, it seems likely that most if not all of Gary's 80s-era AD&D output would have remained unfinished and unpublished. He needed an editor/partner/assistant - somebody who could speak for him, who he could bounce ideas off of, and who could take his rough ideas and flesh them out and help get them into publishable shape - and Frank filled that role. The problem for me is that while Frank claimed that he and Gary were on the same stylistic and game-philosophical wavelength and spoke with a single voice (Gary's), a closer look at Frank's work and pronouncements shows that wasn't necessarily true.

Hmm, this is already really, really long and I'm still in the introduction. I'm going to insert a break here and continue - get into my actual specific critiques of the published module and suggestions to improve it - in a separate post.


  1. I did get a chance to speak about Temple of Elemental Evil many times with Gary and I wish that I had recorded it all. We spoke about the specifics of Rob Kuntz' actions in that campaign and in Tomb of Horrors. He said that Greyhawk castle regular players were too played out and he wanted to get a feel from a different perspective on players. He mentioned that it was sort of a rustic Greyhawk city/castle variant as well. Sort of a different perspective on the Greyhawk campaign while what would be intended for the City just snowballed in the opposite direction. As an aside, I've been working on an expansion of the T1-4 series with all the crap that he talked about in mind but don't expect it soon.

    1. I look forward to seeing that stuff when you get to it. Except for the Hommlet encounter table that I posted a couple weeks back I haven't done much expansion work - it's mostly still just vague ideas. My more detailed creative work recently has all been focused around Narwell (or, according to the map legend in Artifact of Evil, Warwell) to the southeast and is only tangentially connected to T1-4 proper.

  2. T 1-4 is a good example of the importance of capturing the moment. What is put off until tomorrow is not the same as what would be done today. This isn't always bad (sometimes slowing down is worth it), but I think creative postponement results in disjointedness and difference.

    1. That's true, but in the full context of the circumstances I don't think he really had much choice. Gary spent pretty much all of 1980 dealing with business stuff (that's also the period when he lost control to the Blumes) and by the time he was able to get back to creative work in 81, he was apparently already out of that zone. We can second-guess his decision but I think in the long term we're better off that he focused his creative efforts on other things that were more inspiring to him in the moment - like the Greyhawk deities, S4 & WG4, and the rules additions that became Unearthed Arcana - than trying to force himself to finish T2 when he wasn't feeling it.

      Also, it's worth remembering that even though in this post and the follow-up (which I've already written and have queued up) I mostly dwell on what I see as flaws and shortcomings, T1-4 was nonetheless one of the most popular AD&D adventures - TSR continued reprinting it well into the 90s (the only 1st edition module that happened with) and it's always included on lists of the all-time best adventures. We analyze and grouse about it because it doesn't live up to what we think it could and should have been, but many (probably most) D&D fans had no such reservations. (A corollary is that the fact that this module was so popular when it was released in 1985, and sold through 1992, and remains such a fixture of the D&D brand identity that Wizards of the Coast is still exploiting it drives a stake firmly through the heart of the notion that by 1985 Gary Gygax had "lost it" and was out of touch and the game had passed him by. That was a line created by jealous TSR folks who wished there was as much of an audience appetite for their stuff as there demonstrably still was for his.)

  3. This article is fantastic and scholarly. Please finish it!

  4. Following with great interest!

  5. The lesson to be learned: megadungeons are boring! I do not how any could miss that lesson if they ever offered players more interesting fare as alternative, or just allowed them to "sandbox away" from a megadungeon. Gary's experience has been my own. Thanks for the great, insightful & knowledgeable breakdown & history!