Back to the Classics: Returning to the Temple of Elemental Evil
When I realized the 5th Edition was built with a mind to accommodate classic concepts, I started thinking what I do when any edition of D&D comes out…. TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL.
I love this module, LOVE IT. When I was a kid I played it three times, read it cover to cover, and played it a few more times over the intervening years. I ran it for a group in college, and some variation of those characters and that group for 15 years. It, like the other classics of D&D (Slave Lords, Giants, and Demonweb Pits, to name a few) are amazing, iconic stories that are world defining. When I realized that quite a number of our local grognards had somehow missed the opportunity to play this classic, I knew it was time to see what 5th Edition Temple looked like.
Conversion to a new system is always a crap shoot. There is always a temptation to convert straight over from the original, without considering the change in difficulty from older editions of the game to the new. Right now I’m in the early conversion stages (having converted over the Village of Homlett) with a tentative readiness to recalibrate everything after the first TPK. The problem for me is that 5th Edition is so new, and my experience with it so limited (Beginner Box and a couple of Adventurer’s League mods) that am not sure how powerful I can anticipate the players will be. I know that in the Beginner Box, they took on and defeated a monster or two that I would never have thought possible at that level in any other edition. 5th Edition has a way of letting half the party get knocked to negatives in any combat but suddenly be all up and triumphant by the end. It’s really confusing to plan around for a conversion and CR’s seem almost irrelevant. So far, I’m doing a straight conversion to what’s in the monster manual and waiting to see what happens. I anticipate things are going to become unhinged when they walk into their first room full of bugbears, as apparently 5E thinks very highly of bugbears. Very highly. But Temple was tough, and characters died. And that’s something that’s been missing from games for me lately… I’m a little worried death won’t even be a concern in 5th edition, but the Temple always seems to come through in that department, so for now I’m relaxing and seeing what happens.
There are a number of encounters that I look forward to running that genuinely kicked the crap out of my characters every time we went through them, and I’m sure the first encounter most people remember from this series is the most deadly. I remember our cleric casting his two healing spells and limping back to town and sleeping for three days . Strange though it may sound, it’s exactly that kind of experience I want my players to have… Not the hopeless slaughter but the challenge and the peril and the overcoming of incredible obstacles. I want them to never think about a giant tick as being something to sneeze at. I want them to start carving up the bellies of each monster they find in the hope that there is hidden loot inside. I want the citizens of Homlett to come alive and become single name icons for a type of character or personality trait (‘Stop being such an Elmo’). Some of the oddball characters that can rise to the fore in a game like this can be surprising. A few bad guys became good guys in our campaign, and a few good guys became bad guys in others. Some nobodies became demi-gods (Gwyneth Lilburne, the Silver Stitch; Black Jay, the Patron Saint of Gnollish worship of St. Cuthbert….. yeah, that). I want it to breathe for them the way it breathes for me.
The thing about Temple of Elemental Evil is it is largely a sandbox. After playing Paizo’s adventure paths for years, it’s refreshing to play a sandbox game where you can really open up options to the players. I was surprised and amused when one player expressed slight concern that it was ‘too sandboxy’. I was puzzled that it could be a downside, but I think that kind of freedom can be a little daunting when you’re not used to it. I think after getting a taste of it, people are going to wonder why they ever did it any other way.
However, I will say that I have a few fears and reservations. Going back over the module and reading the campy box text about seeking fame and fortune, I noticed that a lot of the memories that were in this mod were placed there by great GM’s and great players. Many towns folk are just named ‘Farmer’ and ‘Wainright’. Much of the rich story has been added in my brain, and the justifications elaborated on to the point where memory greatly surpasses the actual published text. What if you can’t go home again? What if you can’t go back to Homlett? There’s a legitimate fear there, that maybe this module doesn’t stand up to the test of time, that others might not appreciate it for what it is. Maybe my low standards and youthful enthusiasm made up for a lot of shortcomings that my older self won’t enjoy. My feeling is it will prove itself, but there is that fear.
Wizard’s announcement that the Temple of Elemental Evil was going to be a feature of this season’s campaign theme strikes me both as a sign of the merits of this series and also as a maybe an unwelcome travelling companion on this journey. If they redo it, what will it be like? Will it distract from, enhance, mitigate or overdevelop elements of my story, the old module, the known universe? Will it be set in my beloved Greyhawk? What will it do?
Temple has been a known quantity for over 20 years. Changing the mythos tempts fate. Maybe they do it right, maybe not. My understanding is that the new material is different than the Temple itelf Maybe that falls in line… complimenting, not changing.
While this blog post is about the why of starting up Temple, future ones will be the how. Look back for conversion tips from the Village of Homlett under the category Elemental Evil. I’d post more now but Wednesday, we head for the Moathouse!