Monday, July 15, 2013

Module Review - C1 Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

Back in 1979 so folks wrote a nasty nasty tournament module titled Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, for the 1979 Origins Game Expo.  Apparently it got played and was later released (1981) as one of the more famous early modules.  Hidden Shrine is sometimes held up as a great module, and maybe it is, but frankly I wouldn't want to run it an I wouldn't want to play it.  There's some lovely stuff in it, and it has a great deal more "feel" and "nuance" then other early modules - but it's an obvious Gygax/early TSR thing (with his normal vices) and a terrible railroad. I've read it so you don't have to.  I'm not saying this is a bad product and frankly were I a more ambitious/unemployed man I might write up a new version of it as a homage. Because of this I want to talk distinctly about what's good first, and then bullet point the bad and the ugly as well - because there is a fair bit of both.

Properly Psychedelic - 2nd cover

The characters find a nominally Meso-Amercian shrine/tomb to plunder, or they fall into one and must escape.  It's a real puzzle dungeon, full of traps and set piece rooms.  As such it's good a lot of transportable content and the traps are not even the bad Gygax style, like in Castle Zagyg (The wizard did it - you can't escape!) but rather really reasonable and environmental.  Still the traps do have a Gygaxian level of deadly attached to them though.

  •  ARCHAEOLOGY - Yeah this whose place feels realish, there's an ancient culture behind this fun house, and the player and GM can get a feel for that.  There are a lot of things to discover that show the why and how of the place without really impacting play (except as delays for the dumb 1D6 turn poison gas mechanic). The best party of old style games is that they encourage exploration instead of combat, and by looking at things, interacting with stuff and pawing about the players (ideally) get a novelistic or even cinematographic sense of place and scene from their being some visual and environmental cues to hang thier imaginations on.  Hidden Shirne does this, with all sorts of neat room descriptions. The descriptions are even set off (albeit badly) in boxed text - not to read but more for the GM (this - see below- is the only nod to layout or useability.
  • ART - It's ridiculous, it's 70's, it's lovely.  More importantly Hidden Shrine is (I think?) the first module to use hand out art pieces for rooms.  This is an amazing idea - especially for a trap heavy, puzzle dungeon.  It might be argued that the pictures aren't the best at providing clues for the traps, but I am convinced that they're a better puzzle aide then a GM's descriptions.  The rest of the art (the covers and such) are classic early D&D strange and lovely for that reason.
  • WEIRD STUFF - There's some great weird stuff, a room a figurines that animate if disturbed. Random objects and strange things that hint at miniature elven space travelers, but exist only as a red herring.  What makes the weird stuff good is that it keeps with the archeological dig feeling of the dungeon, preserving discovery and wonder.
  • GREAT MONSTERS - The flavor from the archeology gets carried over into the monsters.  While I feel the creatures are under utilized, as most are hyper aggressive,they are thematically sound, and even better avoid being standard D&D fare.  Even the normal monsters (wights, vampires and zombies for example) are re-themed so that it's hard to know at first glance what to make of them. I find that monster theme and choice is a problem in a lot of TSR products, where monsters seem to have been picked more for difficulty level then with any reason as to how or why they are in the dungeon.  Tamoachan feels thematically solid. Monsters also have some neat mechanics - vampires that materialize over time and giant crabs with smart tactics which give a good idea of how to make the fights interesting.
A more restrained psychedelic - 1st cover

  • RIDING THE RAILS - It's likely the tournoment nature of this dungeon makes it such a linear puzzle fest, but the whole thing really feels like a railroad. This isn't helped by a few of the time pressure elements of the dungeon - specifically the poison gas that does damage every turn.  I understand the intrigue provided by a ticking clock time limit, and why one might want it in a puzzle dungeon based on an escape premise - but it's still arbitrary and boring - I much prefer something like LOTFP 'crawling god' that makes lingering dangerous, but not in a linear predictable manner. The linear map is somewhat understandable, and on of the difficulties with trap/puzzle dungeons.  Since the writer wants interaction with the puzzles, they need to be set as choke points, and since the things are really hard to think up and write out the temptation is to push the players from one to the next without opportunity for avoiding them. Hidden Shrine suffers from this, as the dungeon is eminently explorable but creates incentives not to explore or interact and instead to push through as hard as possible.  Worse than the gas is the "gotcha" aspect where the dungeon collapses from the use of lightning bolt and fireball.  Now I understand the annoyance that lightning bolt and fireball cause GMs, but using these spells in a tightly constrained dungeon is still enough of a challenge, and any module for PC's over 5th level has to take them into account with more than a global ban.
  • AGGRESIVE MONSTERS:  Maybe constantly murderous monsters are a way to provide relief from the tense tricks and traps? Still even the cool monsters (see above) that are open to/encourage discourse are really just fights. The text either notes: MONSTER X immediately attacks (despite it's name and back story - why give back story for an HP/AC bundle), or there is now way past the monster.  Sure maybe one could chat the giant hermit crab into letting one by - if the text gave any idea as to what it wanted!  Personally I really enjoy easily raised vampire in a hidden tomb (which no PC running from poison gas will ever find!) that has a great back story - but he just wants to rumble.  Shouldn't he be suave and sinister and offer the PCs a trade of "Let me drink a level or two, and not only will I let you go - but I'll give you advice!" Later he can be a big nasty baddy riling up the locals into a new savage empire or something.
  • LAYOUT: Damn that's a mess.  There's no internal art (though see above there's good art) to break up the cluttered two column style.  This is a lame complaint, except with the hugely detailed rooms hardly broken up, information, mechanics and description jumbled into a mad blend of things it's really very trying.  One would basically need to read this thing four or five times and rewrite it to run it well. LESSON: People will buy or use modules because they lack time to prepare - not because the module writers are genius creatives.  Every GM thinks well of their own creativity, other stuff will be liked if it lets people run evocative cool things easily. If I had 6 hours to plan a 3 session dungeon I'd write my own dungeon. Only fourteen year olds think anyone writing up anything in this hobby is a "professional" in the sense that they have special knowledge of it and that this knowledge makes their stuff "better" or "authentic".
  • INCONSISTENT MECHANICS: The layout crimes are compounded by the writers' tendency to invent new (usually fairly useless - e.g. 5% chance to slip every round with modifiers for Dex.  Better just say, slip in combat on a '1' or '2' hit roll unless Dex is over 13.) totally unsystematic (in another room slipping is done on 2d6 check) mechanics. LESSON: LAYOUT IS HELPFUL - In a PDF especially (where printing costs don't matter), but more important, don't just edit for typos, edit for your mechanics.  Keep a theme so that it's not a new different one each room - stick to a scheme for similar effects - percentages are cool, stat checks feel fun, saves have a lot to offer, roll on a random die even makes sense - but scrambling them all up just causes heartache. 
FINAL NOTE:  This module was written in 1979 -it still holds up.  Will anything I do, or you do hold up in 33 years? Not Likely.  I won't even hold up in 33 years as a corporeal being.  What this means is that Hidden Shrine is actually pretty cool.  Sure it's a LOTFP style dungeon without the slickness and sensibility that LOTFP brings, but I bet Raggi (and everyone else who publishes trap based dungeons) has read it, and stolen from it.  Again - as much of a pile of bad mojo as Hidden shrine would be to run, it provides a great resource and has value and merit! Us young folk should not ridicule old TSR and Tamoachamon, but it's still not worth running.


  1. Gygax didn't write this one...otherwise totally agree with your review.

    1. Thanks Rob - that's what I get for reading PDFs while drunk and then writing of the notes I took. Fixed my errors above.

  2. I think you probably have another 33 years in you, barring falling into a pseudo-Mesoamerican killer dungeon.

    1. Hmmm. Debatable. I certainly won't be playable in 33 years.

  3. I think you are missing the point of the module. Back then, D&D was sometimes run as a competitive game, especially at cons. This was one of those modules. By definition, they have to be linear, because you get scored on them.

    That's what the C series was - competition modules.

    Today, it's largely been replaced by fantasy sports. But at the time, it was actually a fairly popular thing, at least among nerds.

    And there is no interior art because that is in a separate booklet. Again, to show the players.

    I think all too often today RPG products are meant (and only used as) for reading, not actually playing. This was the opposite. And as a module that I ran back in the day, it worked just fine.

    1. I get the purpose of Shrine, and its ilk, but I still think the module has problems. The greatest of those is a lack of utility. "Meant to be played" vs. "Meant to be read" is fine - but the confusing product layout, bizarre inconsistent mechanics, and gotcha rules means Shrine is a better read than play aide. To play it I'd need several hours of prep - long to make my own adventure.

      As I suggest there's good stuff in shrine - but it could use a rewrite. For example: its mechanics push mission (escape) oriented play - but its best content is in side chambers or requires exploration.

  4. I can't agree with this analysis. I wrote a long post about the brilliance of Tamoachan at Dragonsfoot back in the day and I won't cross-post, but I can report that I took part in three expeditions into the step-pyramid as a player and that I've run it as a DM at least five times and it was a hit every single time.

    As with all the First Edition modules, it is brutal and TPKs are to be expected. In fact, the first two times I played that's precisely what happened (I have fond memories of our party getting killed by the vampire) and another where my PC, the sole survivor made it as far as the monks in stasis. Why did I wake them? Good question.

    As Jeremy has mentioned above, it's a Competition module and, therefore, railroad by nature. However, it's easily made into a simple, less railroad adventure, simply by keeping the fall in and removing the poisonous gas.

    The pleasure of Tamoachan now is no less than it was then and it is for this reason: it's brilliant. It is literally a product ahead of its time. 1979? The Monster manual was all of two years old, the DMG was celebrating its first birthday. Its contemporary module was Village of Hommlet. Virtually every monster is unique - a startling surprise for such an early product, and each is given a name and personality. The traps are detailed and cunning. In addition, the dungeon is literally dripping with rich detail and character. It's not a standard dungeon; it's not a funhouse. It is decidedly different. Players immediately learn that they are in a LOCATION. This dungeon has been thought out, it has internal consistency, a self-contained universe of Meso-American wonder and fear.

    I can't help but notice, as well, that it featured, perhaps, some of the earliest examples of game mechanics that went beyond mere saving throws. This module was literally a decade ahead of its time and, I respectfully offer, it surpasses everything since. I would suggest that Tamoachan may be perhaps the pinnacle of TSR's line of modules and one, if not the, gold standard of a module.

    I can honestly attest that Tamoachan plays even better than it reads, and it reads wonderfully. I think you should surprise your group and run it as a one-off as it and I daresay you will be surprised (that is, after all, one of the benefits of these early tournament modules: they were extensively play-tested. That's a value that later modules (including up to the present) sorely lack and are the worse for).

    I can only say, try it, you might like it. ;)

    1. @Gnarly - You'll note that I don't say this is a bad module. I really do enjoy many of the elements within. I'm glad you and your GMs have run it well and had fun with it. There's a reason I don't read many early TSR products, and I reviewed this one because of precisely the things you've pinpointed as great about it.

      My concerns boil down to two.
      1) A practical one about it's difficulty of set up -- why would I use Tamoachan when prepping it is just much work as writing up something of my own? Sure it has great stuff (monsters and traps and encounters) to steal, and I encourage that. At this point I am firmly critical of published products, the things you mention above (unique reskinned monsters and consistent ambiance for example) are basically required for a published product to be worthwhile to me. What makes it good is also a use value. Blogs and novels and history can supply plenty of cool ideas - playability is also necessary in a game product.

      Second, I don't disagree that the Hidden Shrine can be modded into a less railroady adventure. I like that it's deadly - I don't like the way it is written with gotcha mechanics, not only because of the gotcha (though the only fireball and lightning bolt collapse things is basically a "I hate 5th level wizards" issue), but because the way the module pushes for fast movement and against exploration knocks the feet out from under its best feature - the rich texture and interesting features. The monsters do the same - there is no point having a history and personality to a monster that attacks remorselessly, give me a statline and a basic description if the thing is just an obstacle.

  5. You can write a better module than C1 in a few hours? I call bullshit.

    1. It's not about me - I think that any GM can write up an adventure that is better for their game in six hours than C1. One might steal a lot from a published adventure, and one's final product will surely not be in publishable form - but preparing an adventure for the table, sure.

      Thing is a GM's own creations will always fit their world better then something someone else wrote up - especially a 33 year old tournament module.

      C1 is a pretty good module in a lot of ways, but it has a very distinct flavor that won't fit most games and some very adversarial play mechanics that haven't aged well.

  6. Actually in the process of adapting it for the original D & D Hollow World Azca setting. Looking forward to running a party through it. I've actually made it so that the sceptre towards the end is the artifact needed to banish an evil spirit back in Mystara.