An Ode to “The Temple of Elemental Evil”

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been doing #OldSchoolDungeonsAndDragons Twitter threads for several years now, but every once in a while I talk about an old product that is too significant to cover in a short tweet thread! Back in 2019, I did an ode to the Tomb of Horrors; now, it’s time to do an ode to The Temple of Elemental Evil, since I just reread it!

Just look at that amazing cover art, which tells you you’re in for a wild ride:

That amazing cover art is by the late great Keith Parkinson, and I can’t think of any other module cover art that is simultaneously very sinister and nevertheless inviting!

So what is The Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE)? It is arguably the first “supermodule” released for Dungeons & Dragons, a single product that can serve as an entire adventure campaign by itself. This distinguishes it from, for example, the sequence of modules that started with G1-3: Against the Giants, D1-3: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth and Vault of the Drow, and ended with Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which were written to be played as a combined adventure but were sold as separate products. Technically, ToEE is not the first “supermodule,” as Lankhmar: City of Adventure was the first book of supermodule size and format and came out just before ToEE the same year, but Lankhmar was a sourcebook, not a campaign adventure.

Temple of Elemental Evil is also particularly special because it was highly anticipated for years, and in fact we’re rather lucky it came out at all!

The story begins in 1979, with the publication of T1: The Village of Hommlet, by Gary Gygax. (I rely for some of my information on the excellent research of Shannon Appelcline, at DriveThruRPG.) Like many early TSR adventures, it was first released with a monochrome cover, and soon reprinted with a full color cover, which people are most familiar with:

Hommlet was groundbreaking as the first TSR adventure to feature an actual urban location for characters to wander around. The Village of Hommlet itself is a lovingly detailed setting, filled with interesting characters and intrigue: a number of evil spies lurk among its inhabitants. The adventure, designed for beginning characters, uses Hommlet as a launching off point for greater adventures, and includes a small dungeon with it, the Moathouse, an outpost of the Temple of Elemental Evil. The Temple gets its first mention in T1. The story as presented is that a temple to Elemental Evil was created years ago, which grew in power until it threatened all the surrounding lands. Eventually, heroes showed up in force to put down the temple’s villainy, but whispers of a resurgence have spread, leading penniless heroes to come to try their luck.

Hommlet was intended to be the start of a greater campaign, and in fact the cover states explicitly: “is a lead-in to Dungeon Module T2: The Temple of Elemental Evil.” But T2 was almost immediately delayed, due to at least two factors. The first is that Gygax had been running the Temple for his in-house game more as a testing ground of ideas, rather than a cohesive dungeon, and it needed a lot of work to match the expectations that the excellent Hommlet had set. The second factor is that Gygax had increasingly become involved in the business end of TSR, and didn’t have as much time for the creative side. This got worse when he was more or less banished to Hollywood in 1982 to develop TV shows and movies related to Dungeons and Dragons, such as the famed animated series.

In 1984, Gygax returned to Lake Geneva and found TSR in great financial trouble. He proposed a number of major new products to bring in revenue, and one of these was the famed Temple of Elemental Evil.

The final T1-4: Temple of Elemental Evil ended up wrapping up The Village of Hommlet in a slightly revised form with a mass of new material, including the sinister town of Nulb that lies close to the Temple, and the Temple itself: 4 dungeon levels, the surface level, and “elemental nodes” that can be traveled to in the course of the adventure. Gygax was still too busy to do all the writing, so he passed off hundreds of pages of notes to Frank Mentzer, who did the hard work of assembling it into a coherent story.

(Some spoilers follow for the overall story of the Temple of Elemental Evil.)

So what makes The Temple of Elemental Evil so special and meriting its own blog post? It is really just one of the most detailed, atmospheric, fun, and lived-in dungeon adventures of all time. When I say “lived-in,” I mean that the adventures were originally run by Gygax himself for his personal gaming group, and he took many of the characters that appeared in his private games and added them to the lore of the Temple and the area. Gygax describes this in the introduction to the Temple, and the description is so fun that it is worth sharing it in its entirety below.

I love the description of Robilar’s orc sidekick thoughtlessly turning his master’s carpet of flying into a poncho! This reminds me of the other appeal of the Temple of Elemental Evil: it is truly old school, and conforms to the original Dungeons & Dragons vision that heroes are made, not born.

This is worth explaining a bit more. In 5th edition D&D, even first level characters have a range of abilities that makes them more powerful than the average mortal and the rules are relatively forgiving about character death, giving lots of chances for characters to survive even if they fall in combat. First edition D&D was very different: characters started pretty much as nobodies, death was extremely likely at low levels, and survival of a character to higher levels was as much luck as skill.

There’s nothing wrong with 5th edition, which I enjoy very much, but it is definitely a different flavor from first edition, which presents more of a feeling of terror and “I could die at any moment” when entering a dungeon. And Gygax (and Mentzer) were very good at punishing recklessness. Consider this trap that appears in a lower level of the dungeon:

Taking anything out of the bottom of the box by hand will cause the loss of that hand — no saving throw. But along with terrible risk came great reward, as the treasure listed within the box indicates.

Another thing that sets apart The Temple of Elemental Evil from other adventures is the sheer amount of thought and detail that went into it. Sometimes, this detail goes to ludicrous extremes, such as the inclusion of all the stats for the miller in Hommlet, his servant, and his dog:

In other cases, however, the descriptions provide a magnificent amount of background on key non-player characters, describing their personalities, motivations, and rivalries. Below is one example; another important, though not key, NPC has a full page description!

This peek into the heads of NPCs often seems lacking in modern adventures, but it makes for really fun reading and shows the ridiculous amount of thought that Gygax and Mentzer put into their work. It also really makes the Temple feel like a living, breathing settlement, instead of just a sequence of static rooms to bully through.

Another great bit of detail sprinkled throughout the adventure is the politics of the Temple. There are no fewer than six (!) evil factions within, all of which have some rivalries with each other and can even be used against each other by clever and charismatic PCs. These factions include the four different elemental temples — air, water, fire, earth — who naturally fight against each other, a powerful demon named Zuggtmoy who founded the Temple, and the infamous demigod Iuz who aids the Temple for his own evil ends. These rivalries answer a common question in dungeon adventures: when the fighting starts, why don’t all the bad guys come running? In this case, they don’t in part because there’s always fighting amongst groups in the Temple.

Speaking of Iuz, it is entirely possible for the PCs to screw up so badly during the adventure that they bring the demigod over for a visit; stats are provided if that unfortunate event comes to pass.

The highlight of the Temple, of course, is its imaginative dungeon rooms and encounters. I could go on for ages about various rooms, but let me just share one: at one point, the PCs encounter a room with a deep pool that seems to imprison a friendly sea humanoid. Of course, this is a terrible trap, and anyone who jumps in the pool to aid the triton will meet a very horrible fate.

As I’ve said, the dungeon is simply massive. This was the biggest dungeon adventure published by TSR to that date, and it could fill many a gaming night. Just to give a sense of scale, here’s the map of the first dungeon level.

TSR really went all out with ToEE. All the maps were included in a separate map booklet for easy use, and this was the first time this was done.

The art is excellent throughout the book, and I particularly enjoy these portraits of NPCs that can be encountered in the elemental nodes:

As you might expect from what I said already, each of these NPCs is given a detailed backstory explaining who they are and how they ended up where they are.

I have a special fondness for ToEE because I actually ran my friends through this adventure as a DM back in high school! It was a long and brutal campaign, but a lot of fun. One encounter always sticks out in my mind, and I have to share it here.

The PCs were exploring the third level of the Temple, and already quite tough, but they were unprepared to face this chamber! Will-o-wisps have AC -8 in first edition AD&D, which means that they are nearly impossible to hit (AC -10 is the hardest AC to hit). Though the wisps do relatively little damage per hit, they kept hitting while the PCs kept missing, and eventually the encounter ended with the PCs running for their lives from four fuzzy glowing balls.

ToEE was so successful that TSR adopted the supermodule format for later rereleases. The “Slaver” series of modules, A1-4, was repurposed into Scourge of the Slavelords in 1986.

Then the D1-3 and Q1 modules were joined together into QDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders in that same year.

For those who were particularly dedicated, all three supermodules could be linked together into a super-supermodule, leading from ToEE to Scourge to Queen!

This was only part of the lasting influence that ToEE would have on Dungeons & Dragons. When Wizards of the Coast took over D&D, they began publishing a number of (generally very good) sequels to classic modules. Among these was Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, written by Monte Cook and published in 2001.

(Some spoilers for RToEE follow.)

RToEE is surprisingly clever. It takes place hypothetically years after the original ToEE adventure, and Hommlet has grown in size and expanded in the meantime. The premise of the adventure is that the Temple was actually being run the entire time by an even more powerful and sinister deity. Here’s my favorite part: in the new adventure, the PCs return to the Moathouse outside of Hommlet. In the original adventure, there is a relatively uninteresting room with a pool in it:

When PCs explore the Moathouse again in RToEE, they find that the pool has been drained, and there has been a massive secret chamber hidden beneath it all this time!

The sinister inverted obelisk is the first clue that the Temple was manipulated all along by the almost Lovecraftian god Tharizdun. I love the idea that earlier adventurers were walking right by (and over) the key to the whole mystery!

A good Temple of Elemental Evil clearly cannot be kept silent! As further evidence of this, Goodman Games secured the rights to publish a 5th edition D&D conversion of the module, which came out in 2021:

The Temple was also chosen to be the setting for perhaps the most faithful D&D videogame RPG ever made, also of course titled The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003).

A bit of interesting trivia that I learned from the Wikipedia article: this videogame version included the possibility of same-sex marriage in the game, probably one of the earliest computer RPGs to allow such an option. Of course, at the time, it became a major scandal, but today it is commonplace in games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. (I think I still have my original copy of the ToEE computer RPG.)

We are lucky that we got The Temple of Elemental Evil at all. As I have noted, it was significantly delayed, and if it had been delayed any further, it might not have been made before Gygax was forced out of TSR in 1986. Fortunately, the Temple stands as an eternal monument to the talent and passion of its creator.

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3 Responses to An Ode to “The Temple of Elemental Evil”

  1. talaraska says:

    I remember waiting for and wondering whether this would ever be released. As a kid in the 80s there wasn’t much available information on new releases. As it turned out, once it was released I didn’t have the funds to pick it up. Despite being such a classic, I’ve never run this. Have considered picking up the Goodman Games version and giving it a look.

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