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!
I debate the owners of our FLGS, The Wyvern’s Tale, as to what is valuable in gaming as a player all the time. I believe that gaming is best experienced when it comes in the context of a shared experience with as large of a group of people as possible. That doesn’t mean that you have a table with 15 players, but I appreciate published material, and completing published material. Declan, the Shop owner, has the opposite opinion: that material generated by the GM has the capability of addressing the players more individually and is therefore more enjoyable and valuable to the player and GM.
You probably have an immediate feeling about this debate and where you stand on the issue. Let me justify my point of view, and I’ll play devil’s advocate and take Declan’s side too.
The Published Scenario (or Modules, as us Grognards would call them): The Shared Human Experience
Everyone who has gamed for any period of time has at least one or two crazy stories regarding how things went down in a game. When I went to my first GenCon, I remember talking with different people about Temple of Elemental Evil and how their character handled this or that challenge, and comparing notes. It was fascinating to me how our experiences were diverse, but also held commonalities. Gamers could relate to those shared experiences, with little additional explanation, and find them personally relevant It was back then that I realized that there was a lot of value to the published scenarios my group had played over the vast amount of homespun that we had undertaken.
Additionally, there was a certain sense of accomplishment in completing a published scenario — like reading a book or finishing a TV series or the like. Knowing that you have “done” the module or adventure path is checking something off a list and closing a door on it, but in a way that provides a sense of completion rather than like losing a friend. We’ve started printing up patches in our group when we finish Paizo’s Adventure Paths, suitable for stitching on your game bag, like a passport or luggage sticker.
And of course, there is some minimal level of quality that goes into a module or scenario that at least ensures that a story is being told, and hopefully makes enough sense for someone to publish it. While many a wiseass is warming up his keyboard at this statement with choice examples of shite publishing, you have never played ‘homespun’ games with my buddies from high school, where a whole afternoon may have been wasted with what was, in essence, gibberings of madmen. If it’s published, someone took a few minutes to write it down, which is at the very least an advantage over the things pouring out of someone’s head that may or may not make any sense. And less cynically, there are some great stories that change and develop published game worlds and illuminate the reader and player as to mysteries of that game world (Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk is a real eye-opener, explaining many of Greyhawk’s mysteries and being a fine adventure revisiting the original Greyhawk Ruins Module, if you get the chance).
Shared experiences in known worlds, telling stories that can be related to friends and gaming colleagues, providing a sense of accomplishment. This is the merit of playing published material.
The Original Home Game: The Personal Touch
For years I only played games out of my head, with very little published material. I hated published worlds like Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, in fact, not liking to have to conform to their ideas of what D&D was (note, I am a big fan, nowadays, but back then, wouldn’t touch them). My own world was a soup of the deities listed in the Deities and Demigods book, coupled with a few of my own. While sort of a mess, everyone seemed to love what we were doing (though we were much younger then and may have had lower expectations). Still, the merits behind the Homespun game remain.
Complete Freedom to create, and complete ability to adapt are the primary advantages of the homemade game. From single scenario to long running Campaign, the GM can craft a story that embraces each players viewpoint and storyline, and build a story around that character and what the character and player want to see happen. The story can be played out in any which way they prefer, and the unpredictability of player and character can be fully expressed without fear of ‘walking off the map’ or the GM’s overzealous railroading. Ideally, anyway.
Making a game personal and relevant is one of the best ways to make that game memorable. While the details may not be something that can be shared with outsiders, sharing is overrated. How many times have you been cornered by a guy in a game story who wants to tell you about his character for 20 minutes? See? Not so great, is it? What matters is that the player experience is meaningful to them while playing. The camaraderie at the table is given higher value under this approach, as it should be.
Published Scenarios often tend to be repetitive, lackluster or just endlessly ponderous. The limitations of forcing someone back on track rather than letting them explore the world freely takes away one of the greatest aspects of table top gaming which is the ability to improvise and make decisions that fall outside of the preconfigured parameters of the game. It’s the primary advantage RPG’s have over a video game — Go anywhere, do anything.
Invention, improvisation, and personalized story telling are the greatest assets of the Homespun Game.
The Truth of it?
Surely, somewhere in between is where we have to find the middle ground that exemplifies the sweet spot in gaming. A published module or adventure path, without personalization, can become dull and drag on (especially since it often takes a year to finish one). A great GM takes published material and adapts it to his own use. He inserts side quests and adds in NPC’s that make the story personal, and acknowledges each players desire to see their story told and their needs addressed so that they are made whole and come to life. Great GM’s are not afraid to go off script, to turn the game on it’s ear, or even to walk away from the plot line entirely if players want to go in a different direction. Guiding them back into the story or adapting the story to make it work with their new chosen path is where the GM’s craft really comes in.
It’s a fine art. And even after playing and running for nearly 30 years, it’s one I still struggle to find. But we have a lot of fun trying, and in the end, that’s the only thing that matters.
I’d like to hear your opinions… What do you think? And what shared experiences have you had with other gamers that showed you a new approach to the same problem?
With the re-release of so much classic material from Wizards of the Coast like Dungeons of Dread S1-S4 and Against the Slave Lords A0-A4, as well as all the PDFs on DnDclassics.com it has never been easier to try your hand at classic adventures that helped establish the game and the hobby. My one issue with playing the classics is having to deal with all the quirks of 1e AD&D. I’d rather not have to deal with separate saves for Petrification, Spells, Wands, etc., descending AC, THAC0, and the like. It is no secret I’m a big fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I feel combines the best of old school style with the benefit of picking and choosing the best mechanics of all the versions of D&D from the past 40 years.
My current mission is to convert S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for DCC levels 4-5. I listened to the recent Spellburn Podcast (which you should definitely check out if you like DCC) and they mentioned that roughly 1 DCC level equals about 2 AD&D levels. Thus, with the original adventure for character levels 6-10, I think it should be a good match. My plan is to have the players start at 4th level, then level up to 5th when (if?) they reach the lower caverns. I also plan on having them start out with one +1 and one +2 item. Whether that item is a weapon/staff or armor is up to the player.
I can’t wait to use the very cool magic item creation tables in DCC for both wizard staffs and magic swords. To quote from the DCC RPG book for those unfamiliar, “There is no such thing as a ‘generic’ magic item. All magic items are unique.” When creating a magic item, you roll on a bunch of tables to determine its intelligence, alignment, motivations, banes, and special powers! I’ll also encourage the players to name their weapons and either create or roll back-stories (yes, there is a table for that) as to how they were created and previous owners, etc.
Here is a sample sword: Neutral Long Sword +2, Int 11, Empathic, 3 banes (Serpent – festering wound +1d6 dmg, +1d4 dmg next round, Undead – +1 Crit threat range, Giant – Unerring throw, can be thrown 60′, returns to hand, regular melee dmg) , Special purposes – bring balance to a specific place – Live alone as a warrior-hermit, sheds light 20′ at-will, detects gems within 30′. Now THAT is a magic sword!
I think most monster and save conversion will be fairly easy. For converting descending ACs to ascending, I plan on subtracting 20 from the current AC and making the result positive, i.e. AC 4 becomes AC 16 (4-20= -16). Most saves seem somewhat arbitrary in AD&D (Ah yes, a rockslide. Save vs…..SPELL!?!) So for those I’ll just use what has become common practice in 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e: Poison vs. Fortitude, Charm/Sleep vs. Will, Lightening/Fire vs. Reflex.
I can’t imagine how this was a tournament module, as the scope just seems daunting to try and accomplish in even an all-day session. For publication, Gary added a very detailed and sprawling wilderness section that was not included at the original Con version, but even still, he does advise this will “likely take several gaming sessions.” It will be a few weeks before we gather our band of treasure seekers and take a delve. Be sure and check back to see how it went!
Here are some notable Kickstarter projects that I have found or pledged to that look like they might be worth a look at. These look to be really fun and offer many different platforms, themes and challenges that will keep you busy for quite some time:
The World’s Worst Dungeon Crawl! (http://kck.st/17NKgRS) – The name says it all! Drag your minions into the depths of a dungeon that is sure to be terrible, but terrible in a comedic way.
Robotech RPG Tactics (http://kck.st/10kBVaN) – I am excited about this one. One of the first RPGs I owned when I was a pre-teen was the Robotech RPG from Palladium Games. There was an absence of affordable figurines at the time and now they come out with this! This may be the game that gets me more interested in wargaming styled RPGs.
Golden Sky Stories: Heartwarming Role-Playing (http://kck.st/11lNSZ8) – This one is billed to be kid-friendly. I have been looking for one such as this to get my daughter more interested in RPGs and this one may be the one.
Sovereign Stone: Pathfinder Edition (http://kck.st/17cgjfQ) – Larry Elmore! That is all. Well, and that I think the setting may be awesome!
Torchbearer (http://kck.st/ZVr5q9) – Another dungeon crawling masterpiece; I just like this one.
Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3 (http://kck.st/13SgiM5) – As a child of the 80s, I grew up on Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats and the like. With a generous amount of dungeon crawling themed offerings on Kickstarter, this is a refreshing change of pace that heavily appeals to my nostalgia.
Deluxe Exalted: 3rd Edition (http://kck.st/15OgwZr) – This one will be very good. I am very interested in looking more into the system and the world of Exalted.
OVA: The Anime Role-Playing Game (http://kck.st/13hF9u0) – Another ‘refreshing, change of pace’ offering, this one visually looks stunning and makes me want to color my hair blue, or maybe just watch some anime.