Friday, May 19, 2017

[D&D] Reclaiming the Temple of Elemental Evil (part 2)

OK, so when we left off we were talking about Frank Mentzer, Gary Gygax's 80s-era right hand man and Official AD&D Rules Guru who took Gary's 300 page Temple of Elemental Evil manuscript and turned it into the T1-4 module that was ultimately published in August 1985, six years after it was originally announced.

Frank, at least in that era, was a rules guy. In both the profile of him as winner of the "Best DM" title in Dragon #43 (Nov. 1980) and the preface to his module R1: To the Aid of Falx he touts how he runs a strictly "by the book" game that eschews rule variations or additions and feels that is the superior approach. That attitude can be seen in his other adventures, and in the two rules-oriented columns ("Dispel Confusion" and "Spelling Bee") that he regularly wrote for Polyhedron. To Frank the rules were a fixed system, and were effectively the physics of the imaginary game-world. This led him, in my opinion, to extend the "logic" of the game-engine beyond where it was intended to go and draw some rules-conclusions and extrapolations that I don't agree with and feel shift the tone of the game away from its fantasy roots into a more sci-fi-flavored direction. The key to success in Frank's adventures is often having sufficient mastery of the rules to recognize when to use a particular spell or magic item in a novel way in order to save the day. That sort of literal-minded, system-hacking approach feels, to me, like it diminishes and cheapens the spirit of the game.

Gary was certainly impressed with Frank's rules acumen. But my guess is that a big part of what he liked about Frank's rules-centric approach was that it was so different than, and he presumably felt complementary to, his own more situational, descriptive, and instinctive approach to rules-design. That's pretty much exactly what Gary says in his dedication to Frank in Unearthed Arcana: "To stalwart Frank Mentzer for always spurring me on and making me be more precise and logical."

And that, to finally circle back after a very long detour to the ostensible point of this post, is where most of the trouble lies for me in the published T1-4: that too much of it feels more to me like a Frank Mentzer adventure than a Gary Gygax one.

Now on the one hand, we know that Gary delivered approx. 300 manuscript pages to Frank, so there must be a lot of Gary in the final product. But we also know that Frank is credited as co-author on that product, which we can surmise means he did more than just edit and polish Gary's work. In an interview on the Random Wizard blog Frank describes his process on turning Gary's T2 manuscript into T1-4 like so:
[O]ne day he dropped off what he had typed (he didn't use a computer until the later NIPI days), and I rewrote it as I entered it into TSR's mainframe computer, thereby becoming proficient in High Gygaxian and able to finish the lower levels in his style.
This explains why it feels (at least to me) like there are "Mentzerisms" (places where the text feels more like Frank's authorial style than Gary's) scattered throughout almost the entire text, while also confirming that Frank actually wrote, not just edited, some parts. Based on my subjective gut feelings (based on the style of the encounters and also, for instance, the fact that those are the only two sections of the adventure that include content from Unearthed Arcana), the two sections I'm most confident were written by Frank are Falrinth's lair (rooms 335-338, pp. 86-90) and the entire Elemental Nodes section (pp. 107-119). This seems to suggest Frank likely also created the Orb of Golden Death (pp. 127-128) and the whole plot surrounding it, as summarized on pp. 29 and 44 (since the Orb is found in the former section and the keys to destroying it are found in the latter). The Orb is, of course, the linchpin that ties the entire adventure-as-published together. If Frank contributed the whole idea of the Orb of Golden Death and the Elemental Nodes then he absolutely deserved his co-writer credit because that's a very large and significant part of the published adventure - the difference between something TSR was able to release and something that probably never would have made it out of Gary's desk-drawer.

And yet, it's also the part of the adventure that I like least. Not just because the Nodes are unfinished and are a boring slog (both times I've run the adventure we've ended up severely shortening that phase), but because making everything center around the Orb - finding it, then destroying it - makes the whole thing feels very tidy and mundane. T1 hinted at a large scale conspiracy of layers-within-layers, and T1-4 doesn't really deliver on that - instead it just presents a grindy dungeon-crawl with way too many similar encounters (endless bugbears!) that becomes a formulaic macguffin-hunt.

Probably just about all of us have played this adventure, and probably just about all of us ended up being disappointed by it and felt it didn't live up to its initial promise. I'd like to think at this point we have the capability (experience and understanding of the game) to rectify that. I think the best route towards that is to remove Frank's additions, go back towards something like what Gary delivered to him in 1984, and devise an alternate resolution. So the Orb is gone and Falrinth is gone (possibly to resurface in an expanded S4). I'm not sure if Iuz's involvement was one of Frank's contributions or not, but either way it's so firmly entrenched in the canon by way of Artifact of Evil that it stays. In order to try to make this all hang together and not just seem like a random dungeon-crawl, we need a new (or at least modified) backstory. I propose this:

The cult of elemental evil was born on the shores of Nyr Dyv as worshipers of the sleeping Elder Elemental God - that very same mysterious deity venerated by the Eilservs in the Giant-Drow series. In one or more post-TSR interviews Gary mentioned how his original plans for both that series and the Temple of Elemental Evil centered around this eldritch figure and attempts to cause (or prevent) his awakening, which is why he mentioned in the introduction to module Q1 that he handed it off to David Sutherland because his own ideas for it were too similar to what he was doing with T2, but the irony is that he ended up eventually handing off T2 as well, so the idea was dropped from the published versions of both adventures. Gary never got to write his Elder Elemental God adventure, which means it's up to us to do it in his place.

So my version of the story is that instead of inventing the cult of elemental evil as a "false flag" cover for her true ambitions, Zuggtmoy instead co-opted the real existing cult, or at least this particular branch of it. Her initial reason for doing so was presumably the same as that of the Eilservs - as a check against her rival demoness, Lolth. But gradually Zuggtmoy fell under the spell of the Elder Elemental God, and dedicated herself to awakening it. In pursuit of that effort, she built the temple, and deep within its dungeons opened gates to isolated pocket areas within the four elemental planes where she learned that keys to awakening the Elder Elemental God were hidden. These are the iron pyramid representing earth, the silver sphere representing air, the bronze eight-pointed star representing fire, and the pale blue crystal cube representing water. However, to her chagrin, Zuggtmoy realized that these keys alone are not enough to accomplish her task and two more sets are required: one of which is in the possession of Lolth herself (see module D3) and the other of which is currently unknown (and will form the heart of an eventual remake of Q1 if I ever get around to it).

Iuz in this conception plays the same role as in the published adventure - he opportunistically attached himself to Zuggtmoy but shares none of her interest in the Elder Elemental God and is not privy to, or interested in, the secrets surrounding it. Because, with Zuggtmoy imprisoned, Iuz has been directing most of the cult's activities, they have mostly floundered since the kidnapping of Prince Thrommel. Lolth, however, takes a more active role. She has learned that the temple is connected to the same trouble she is facing among her drow followers and is thus desirous of obtaining the second set of keys for herself, to keep them out of the hands of the Eilservs. Therefore, since the original temple fell she has tried to infiltrate her own agents into its resurgent hierarchy, most successfully to date her protege Lareth the Beautiful.

The Elemental Nodes thus are not separate mini-sized demi-planes, but isolated pockets within the actual elemental planes. Theoretically they could be reached by other means, but the gates within the temple dungeons provide the easiest and most direct access. The gems of power are replaced with the key-tokens as described above. The gates on dungeon level four that send traffic to the Nodes (areas 421, 424, 427, and 431) send to these areas. The gates that previously sent traffic to the elemental planes (areas 422, 425, 428, and 432) instead become receiving portals: anyone in possession of the appropriate key can transport from the plane to the corresponding location at will, or a being from that plane (including, theoretically, a character) can be summoned by means of the cult's rituals.

When the temple was active, there was a place for each key in the altar of the respective temple (areas 145, 201, 212, and 213), which are now empty depressions of the corresponding shape. If the appropriate key is inserted into the altar it transports the party to area 339. None of the current temple hierarchy are aware of this function. The gates in area 339 also allow transport to the planes as in the published version. These depressions should be a sufficient lure to cause players to start searching for items of the appropriate size and shape. Once they find one (or more) of the keys and place it in the appropriate altar, they will be transported to Zuggtmoy's lair (assuming they haven't been there already).

And, of course, since rooms 335-338 have been deleted, the secret tunnel from the Broken Tower just leads straight to room 313.

It's entirely possible that a group of players might "defeat" the temple (by decimating the forces of the Greater Temple on dungeon level four) and leave the area without solving this mystery, leaving Zuggtmoy still bound and forgotten. Potentially that same group could later find the second set of keys within the Vault of the Drow and then return here to employ them. If so, they're likely to find the results a bit disappointing (since any party capable of reaching the Vault of the Drow and defeating Lolth isn't likely to have much trouble defeating Zuggtmoy too) - though perhaps if Zuggtmoy, once freed, summons her allies Iuz and Iggwilv things might become more interesting :)

And that, at long last, is my large-scale modification to Temple of Elemental Evil, to make it feel more "Gygaxian" and of a piece with his other adventures and the larger World of Greyhawk setting. I have further, smaller-scale thoughts on how to make the dungeons themselves feel more dynamic and less grindy (by reducing the number of humanoids milling about the dungeons and moving more of the human cultists out of the dungeons and into Nulb) that I'd intended to also cover, and which may still form an eventual part three of this series, but probably not anytime soon. This adventure is so oversized that even just writing about it is exhausting!


  1. Fantastic analysis of the ToEE, its shortcomings and its potential. I'd love to see this vision of these modules (the T and Q series) happen, and think it would tie everything together more neatly.

  2. So far pretty observant from my perspective as a hardcore fan. I've had the same notions, in a general way, that TOEE was never up to snuff and I always wanted to do something about it. I had two roads as I saw it. Rewrite the original modules or add to it and retcon it better. I'm going with the latter, a retcon for expansion and I'm marrying together material that I discussed with Gary in a lot of detail that is nearby. My biggest theory was deflated by Gary himself in person. THEORY: dungeon level four was the level that caused the conflict with the Gygax version of the demonweb because it was a Lolth level originally. FAIL. Completely bad theory on my part he said that there was no Lolth themed spider level AND that his demonweb was something that ultimately wasn't used for anything and it disappeared in the Lorraine Williams lockdown of his personal property (library, notes, personal effects, etc) in the paranoia of the hostile takeover of TSR(all of which was looted). The bitterness over his stuff being legally stolen really grinded on him but in the end he was more willing than ever to let the truth be known.

  3. Fascinating take & excellent analysis on a flawed classic.

  4. I don't know why I find this topic so fascinating. I've also enjoyed some of articles over at Greyhowk Grognardia on the topic as well. Trying to suss out the original Gygax intent for the Temple and its connecting with the G/Q series is like trying to find a lost artifact---although I believe he also struggled with the details of that final connection, which is why its so confusing.

    Rather than two sets of keys, it would be fun if there was just one. If Zuggtmoy could somehow trick a party into thinking she was a benevolent being, trapped by the evil forces of the temple, and convince them to free her by confronting Lolth ("the true power behind the Temple") and obtain her four keys so she could "destroy them and the Temple, forever preventing the release of the Elder Elemental God who would wreck untold havoc on Oerth". She could give material aid to the party (some sort of weapons/abilities that work against Lolth the drow, but not her?), maybe a one-shot artifact that could be used to force Lolth's retreat from the Great Fane (leaving behind the platinum egg containing the keys), and provide a means of transport or clues on how to get to the Vault of the Drow.

    That way, if the party succeeds (and maybe the whole D1-D3 series gets turned on its head---i.e. an escape back to the surface chased by the drow and covertly aided by the House Eilservs), there is a nice twist at the end when, thinking they've won, the party has accidentally freed a demon, who then tries to make further use of the keys to open a portal for the EEG's return.

    In this scenario Zuggtmoy snatches the retrieved keys and flees onto each of the elemental planes in order to super-energize them in order to open the way for the EEG's return. That sequence could lead to a compelling chase in which they need to thwart the Demon's attempts on each node in order to win the day. Perhaps on its home elemental plane, the particular key is also vulnerable to being destroyed/recreated, either permanently ending the EEG threat or exacerbating it. The planes themselves could be wonderfully alien set-pieces surround each key's original forge/foci, capable of challenging a high-level party. Maybe she only needs to succeed with super-charging one of the four, and just flees to the next elemental node if she fails in the first three attempts, or if she is defeated, the party continues onwards in order to eliminate the keys from existence.

    At any point in the cat-and-mouse game, Lolth herself could make a dramatic return (with a resurrected Lareth in tow!?) and attempt to reclaim her stolen property. She would obviously be hostile to the party, but could even become a temporary ally against Zuggtmoy---although not a very reliable one. It would present an opportunity to defeat Lolth as well, without ever having to rewrite Q1. Some plot mechanism would be needed to prevent Lolth from just destroying the keys on the elemental planes herself, because that begs the question of why she didn't just do that long ago.

    With this or similar expanded context, the adventure might live up to its original promise of "layers within layers", and also become a true Greyhawk-spanning epic.

    Whew! Got myself excited. Maybe I should go have a little lie down.

    Thank you for a pair of thought-provoking, imaginative, and scholarly articles. Love reading your blog.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. What you've described here is a very intriguing possibility, and might be a good option for a higher-level party (either higher-level characters drawn into the action, a la Robilar in Gary's original campaign, or a group that has had enough side adventures to attain ~9-10th level (because I don't see how a lower-level group wouldn't be eaten up and spit out in the Vault of the Drow, even with supernatural aid).

      I still think the second set of keys is needed to give shape and reason to the party's exploration (and to provide a means of encountering Zuggtmoy without sundering the gates and freeing her) but perhaps they're not identical - perhaps Lolth is holding the True/Greater keys and Zuggtmoy, unable to get ahold of them, created a set of False/Lesser keys as an attempted workaround.

      I definitely like the idea of the D-series in reverse and the chase across the planes and the party possibly finding themselves as uneasy allies with Lolth against Zuggtmoy and the EEG. Good stuff!

  5. I like the idea of Zuggtmoy creating her own duplicate, but flawed, set of keys. Nice!

    One other thought: wouldn't this topic make for a great series of panel discussions at one of the big convention? Folks like yourself, Joseph Bloch, and others theorists could sit on the panel and discuss the historical record. Frank Mentzer is even still around---he could be the keynote speaker.

    The goal would be to explore a handful of hypothesis regarding "original intent" and vote on "alternate endings". While I haven't attended a D&D con since GenCon in the late 80's, but I'd make the time for something like that in a heartbeat.

    1. If any of the big con organizers wants to comp my expenses I'd certainly consider it :)