To start the new year, D&D Classics offered a free download of the original 1st edition Temple of Elemental Evil. I forget if it was a “thank you” download for being a part of D&D Next or to commemorate the Dungeons & Dragons franchise being 40 years old. It also made me realize that some of my friends have been playing for nearly a decade now. To celebrate the occasion, I initially decided to run a few classic sessions starting with Temple of Elemental Evil. One of my players really likes it when I write up D&D campaign sessions for people to read, laugh, insult and make fun of the party and/or GM. While this won’t be a comprehensive overview, the details of the first sessions (and others) will be presented in the format of many paragraphs.
Our party for this session consisted of three 6th level PCs and 1 GM PC. Other people invited were busy but can always join in later. The three players and their characters are Steve (No Name Given; Human Swordsage 6), Gabe (Caerwyn Tyr; Drow Rogue 4) and Dustin (Dustin the Good; Human Cloistered Cleric of Pelor 6). My GM PC was a level 6 Human Wizard named Mornrandir. Steve and Gabe are veteran players while Dustin’s fairly irregular but when he plays, the session’s usually good (he was present for the infamous Robin Hood session).
The PCs had been invited (or forcefully conscripted, in Steve’s case) to partake in a magical experiment. In the world the PCs live in, all the ruins have been thoroughly pilfered…leaving adventurers few ways to seek their fortunes in the world. To give adventurers a means of exploration, a mole-rat mad scientist has constructed magical portals that lead to other dimensions of time and space across the multi-verse. Where the portals go, no one knows but there is great treasure to be found from the few who managed to survive.
The above idea was inspired by Guild Wars 2’s Fractals of the Mists, where each fractal has its own self-contained story allowing present-day adventurers to experience historical moments. It’s also a total excuse plot since I wasn’t familiar with the Greyhawk campaign setting and did not have access to many other modules. That has since changed and at one point in the next session, Gabe completely forgot about the home dimension (being too immersed in the Greyhawk setting) so this could be retconned later.
Since this was originally intended to be a short shot session and not something that could take the rest of the year, we skipped the majority of the packet and elected to focus on the Temple itself. Rather than spawn them directly outside the Temple, I decided to give them a home base according to the module. That base would be the village of Nulb, which bears similarities to Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean. Nulb is a very disreputable town where everyone’s looking out for themselves and engaging in constant barfights. Not five minutes into the session, the party splits up: Caerwyn and Steve decide to scout the village stealthily while Dustin beseeches Pelor for spells with Mornrandir offering advice (I had Dustin’s character pre-made and spells of interest according to the Cleric’s Handbook highlighted…but let him pick which ones he wanted).
Caerwyn and Steve scouted different sides of the street until reaching the Waterfront Tavern, where Steve joined in a barfight, attracting attention from the other tavern in town. A few dozen people involved in combat would have bogged the session down at the outset and since most of the villagers are level 0’s, they wouldn’t have done much of anything to Steve. So, we just ruled that Steve was the last man standing aside from the bouncer.
Dustin the Good had ranks in diplomacy so Mornrandir used him to sell a horse…that had been magically conjured and then had its magical aura removed. They managed to find an unlucky sap who had been on the receiving of Steve’s village-consuming bar fight and make a couple hundred gold. They then had to camp outside the Temple of Elemental Evil, for the mount would have magically vanished after a few hours and Dustin would have a bounty on him (since he handled the business transaction). Mornrandir hadn’t consulted Caerwyn for disguises (since he was off scouting) and hadn’t prepared Alter Self due it to being massive game-breaking cheese.
Steve’s fighting prowess makes him reputable around town. He gets free room and board (which Caerwyn also benefits from), as well as visits from devotees to the Temple of Elemental Evil. These visitors arrive at different times, providing the party with colored cloaks that can be used to disguise. The module has an interesting mechanic regarding the elemental factions but it never came into play due to the party skipping most of the temple’s top levels.
Temple of Elemental Evil emphasizes random encounter tables but I never really bothered with them here for several reasons. (1) We didn’t have enough players, having only three people plus the DM for a module designed for 5-7 people. (2) Gabe is very adamant of his dislike towards random encounters and I don’t much care for them either. Unless the table has special encounters, random monsters just showing up tend to bog down the game. While I wasn’t expecting the run to be completed in a single session, I didn’t want unnecessary fluff either. The only time I rolled for them was when the party split up, which was enough incentive to get them back together (more on that later).
The party rendezvoused at the Temple. Caerwyn scouted the perimeter and managed to do so without alerting the guards in the watch tower (which, incidentally, would have taken the party to the dungeon’s third level had they survived some tough bandits…). Not much of interest happened on the ground level, save for a decision to avoid the magical doors that sealed the demon Zuggtmoy. The players didn’t know the exact details but knew the doors were holding some great evil at bay. There was an initial interest to unlock those doors but unshackling the evil was soon realized to be a bad idea after discussion.
The Temple of Elemental Evil is made up of four levels, the top two being the only ones accessible at the start. The party found a variety of entrances but the well had two: a spiral staircase leading down to the second floor and a secret door to the first level. Steve used his ring of feather falling to jump 80 feet down the well while the rest of the party takes the stairs. Fortunately, he’s able to restrain from touching anything valuable from the chamber he lands in…which would have awakened an air elemental that could have made for a formidable challenge.
Having entirely bypassed the dungeon’s first level, the party splits off from this chamber. Steve starts exploring the northeast sections of the second level whilst Caerwyn stays in the main chamber. Mornrandir elected to stay with Caerwyn, as did Dustin. Steve persisted onwards, though, so I rolled out the random encounters. He was safe until he bungled into a room with two werewolves…who actually weren’t the main issue. Steve had no silver weapons but the werewolves couldn’t hit him due to his high defense. What happened was a prolonged stalemate until stone-laden hall begins to shake with the footsteps of two approaching trolls…
Meanwhile, Caerwyn nearly triggers the aforementioned air elemental encounter by entering the creature’s secret room. He’s fortunate not to, however, and even more lucky to find stairs leading to the third level. Drow can detect secret doors when they pass within 5 feet of them and rogues are the only class that can disable magical traps…so, despite being two levels lower than the party and not as proficient in combat, Caerwyn was a fairly valuable asset. The party decides to follow Steve but would have had difficulty finding him were it not for spotting two trolls.
Since the trolls were the first evidence of life we had spotted while in the dungeon, the party decides to follow them. Mornrandir makes Caerwyn, who takes point, invisible via magic. The party was fairly nervous about fighting werewolves and trolls but the situation was resolved fairly well…with the exception of a single troll escaping.
How the troll escaped: Steve was surrounded by werewolves on one side and trolls on the other. He got out of the encirclement thanks to one of his maneuvers (essentially a short range teleport). The trolls split up to search for him while the rest of the monsters engaged the party. The hallway was big enough for one of the trolls to block passage so the combat with the remaining creatures took a long while to resolve. Instead of circling back around, the troll reported to his chieftain. The chief put his forces on alert but the party avoided his domain so the encounter resolved in a beneficial manner.
Dustin could create food and water while Mornrandir provided ample shelter with an extended rope trick. A bag of holding allowed us to carry what loot we did find effortlessly, so the party stayed in the Temple until the end of the session. Events were more intense on the third level, although not initially despite an encounter with five trolls (all of whom were holding keys to different doors).
Side-note: Steve and Gabe had played Tomb of Horrors as part of our Star Wars campaign before so they were somewhat familiar with what a Gygaxian module could throw at them. Namely, encounters that initially seem unfair but require a bit of player ingenuity to solve them. So, the party was a bit nervous fighting trolls when really there was no need to be. Steve’s swordsage is an incredible a blink tank and Caerwyn’s mobile enough to make use of flanking for sneak attack. Mornrandir could buff or assist while Dustin could do the same.
We took the keys from the trolls and Mornrandir cast invisibility on each party member to get them by the ettin in the next room (which had multiple doors leading elsewhere). Dustin left the session at this point (it was around midnight) so now there’s 2 GM PCs in the party…not an ideal situation for a module designed for 5-7 people but this was a similar situation when we did Tomb of Horrors with Star Wars characters.
Gygax D&D modules also have some “gotcha” moments that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. The party was stumped for direction wondering the third level when Caerwyn noticed the scent of a dead body. Steve followed Caerwyn, who went to investigate. I figured investigating corpses was a bad idea and “Dustin” agreed. But the PCs persisted, so we followed. What happened was Caerwyn opened the door to see an elf banshee, failed the will save upon seeing her, immediately shut the door and ran the opposite direction as fast as he could.
Caerwyn didn’t tell Steve what was behind the door (because he was too scared) and no one else knew what was in there (other than a dead body) because they did not see in the room…so Steve opened the door and was subjected to the banshee’s wail, which killed him when he failed the fortitude save. “Dustin” and Mornrandir went after Caerwyn, only going back for Steve’s body when the drow shook off the fear.
The session derailed from here because of numerous factors: First, Gabe was getting tired. He works early in the morning (crack of dawn early) and hadn’t made his character (despite knowing ahead of time we were playing), so we didn’t start the session until a few hours after we had all arrived. Character creation for Gabe takes hours no matter what game it is so I should have planned for a contingency. Steve was pretty shell-shocked from getting killed, so he was rather subdued for the remaining session (he could have been tired as well but he was a lot more engaged than Gabe was). I wanted the players to inch on a bit further (since they were getting close to where I wanted them to go). I hand-waved Steve’s revival by allowing Dustin to do it (despite him being several levels too low to have access to resurrection) and kept the party in the dungeon. The decision felt right especially after they encountered a choker shortly afterwards…but the rest of the session was a lot less intense than what it could have been.
Alternatively, I would’ve enforced Steve’s death and turned the module into a nervous retreat out of the temple. The party would have to make good use of both Caerwyn and Mornrandir scouting patrols (invisibility would help) while getting out of the temple…and then finding someone willing (especially in a town as disreputable as Nulb) to resurrect Steve. Ah well.
With Steve shellshocked and Gabe tired, the rest of the session was fairly uneventful aside from the bugbear encounter. We did acquire the Orb of Golden Death following an anti-climatic battle with a wizard (the basilisk fake-out was pretty sweet, though). More on that in the next part…
Final Verdict: Not a terribly good session but that was the fault of the players (Gabe not being prepared, questionable decision-making) and myself (not having a contingency for Gabe, starting the session too late, not bothering with the prior content at all outside of handouts). Everyone was willing to give Temple of Elemental Evil a second trek, so it’s a win based on the fact the players wanted to keep playing the next weekend.
Next weekend: The epic conclusion to Temple of Elemental Evil! Featuring…a returning player who, for all intents and purposes, counts as a new one! Selling former party members into slavery! Surfing the Elemental Plane of Water on an animated tower shield! Anti-climatic dragon fights! The most morally ambiguous group of PCs getting the best ending to Temple of Elemental Evil before starting Scourge of the Slave Lords!