Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thoughts on the Elder Elemental God

Oh, what heady days they were.

Back in the late 1970's came one of the most amazing and, to this day, iconic series of modules ever released. G1-3, D1-3, and Q1; the Giants series, the Drow series, and the capstone of the epic,"Queen of the Demonweb Pits" (the last not having been written by Gary Gygax, and so not being a particularly good fit either in tone or detail with the rest, but a worthy effort in its own right). They were later collated into several collections, and then into a final expanded version called "Queen of Spiders". But I remember the monochrome versions, the 8-page modules (about $5 a pop back then), with relish. Hell, I remember being thrilled when "Shrine of the Kuo-Toa" finally showed up on the shelves of my FLGS, but that's perhaps for another post.

They present an incredibly rich tableau which is often overlooked by both players and DM's, who might see in them a particularly high-end shooting gallery. Able DM's will soon put the fear of Eclavdra into their players, with well-coordinated responses from the various giants and creatures of the Depths of Oerth. However, the superior DM will also give his or her PC's various clues and hints to the fractured nature of their opponents. There are schisms within the various giant strongholds, political divisions between the drow and their rivals in the underworld, and perhaps most decidedly strife within the various power centers of the drow realm itself. Without such hints, it is honestly unfair to expect the PC's to puzzle such a thing out on their own; one does not expect the ducks on the shooting gallery belt to be amiable to shooting the squirrels.

Eventually I would like to write at length about the multitudinous possibilities attendant to running the G/D/Q modules, both as a DM and a player. But for now I would like to concentrate on a single feature, sometimes overlooked.

The Elder Elemental God.

We are first introduced (albeit without any detail, and no name to attach to it, such as it is) to the EEG in G1, where we find area 17A, the "Weird Abandoned Temple". It is a place where bizarre carvings induce insanity, disturbing movements can be seen in the corner of one's eye, and nausea is induced. Most importantly, staring at a particular wall of the ruined temple brought forth the following apparition:
"...a writhing, amorphous form of sickly mauves and violets will be seen stretching forth its formless members toward the viewer."
Here we see in full bloom the Lovecraftian flavor that the early Greyhawk campaign is known to have employed to great effect, before it was tossed aside in favor of a more staid and mainstream "high fantasy" aesthetic. Rob Kuntz had a whole "temple of the elder gods" in the original Lake Geneva campaign, midway between Greyhawk's City and Castle, although the PC's were, apparently, too afraid to do much exploration of it (much as, we are told, they were afraid to plumb the depths of the Temple of Elemental Evil, and perhaps for much the same reasons).

Three things are significant about this appearance of the temple of what we will later know to be the EEG; the renegade orc slaves have blocked off the passage to it, there is apparently more to it which has been cut off by a (deliberate?) cave-in in area 18, and the fact that it has been abandoned in the first place.

The first is easy to explain; it is the hill giants, not the orcs, who were converted to the worship of the EEG, and thus they found the place disturbing enough to wall off once they occupied this section of the dungeon level. The second, I think, is deliberately vague, as we have no way of knowing what was or was not included in that caved-in section. Was it merely an extension of the temple, similar to what we eventually see in G3? Or does that caved-in section actually lead to a now-defunct passage into the Depths of the Oerth? If so, what caused its collapse? Such a connection is rank speculation, especially since the parallel temple complex in G3 does not, in fact, directly lead to the entrance to the Depths.

However, it does fit in with my own speculation that the whole campaign of the drow House Eilservs to use the giant clans in their war of conquest came from the burrowers below. That is, the unknowing hill giants were one day confronted with a newly-created tunnel to the Depths, whence came Eilservs ambassadors bearing gifts and promises of easy loot. One the hill giants were in their thrall, they moved on to the frost giants (there is a puzzlingly similar collapsed tunnel, sans the EEG paraphernalia, in area 4A of the lower level of "The Glacial Rift of the Front Giant Jarl"), abandoning the EEG temple beneath the Steading once they didn't need to directly control the hill giants, but could do so through their stronger cousins, the frost giants. And ditto for the Fire Giants.

Which brings us to said fire giants. In G3, "Hall of the Fire Giant King" (and note how the title progresses from "chief" to "jarl" (=earl) to "king"), we are treated to our fullest description and explanation of the whole Temple of the Eye (which, of course, is how the fane of the EEG is referred to). Areas 9-11 of the second level; the Temple of the Eye.

Here we have the temple from G1 writ large, and fully stocked. We now are given the keys to why the effects of the former temple were so weak; they are only fully formed in the presence of the various accouterments attendant to a fully functioning temple site (and as an aside, that should be an inspiration for every temple and shrine in Greyhawk; imagine a temple of St. Cuthbert or Heironeous that was similarly tricked out with magical effects and devices to bring about those effects!).

We are explicitly told that the giants worship here (area 9). That leads me to the conclusion that the fire giants are not unique in this, and a conversion to the worship of the EEG was part of the Eilserv's plot all along; that fits in perfectly with the presence of the EEG temple beneath the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but begs the question "what happened to the hill giants"??? (And, I might add, the frost giants.)

I'll get to the specifics of the temple in the fire giants hall in a moment, but this question deserves a bit of thought. We know there was a temple of the EEG beneath the hill giants' steading, with a collapsed area leading down. We know there was a collapsed tunnel in the frost giants' rift, which has no purpose in the context of the adventure unless it is seen as related in some vague way to the collapsed area in G1. If we make the leap of logic and say that the Eilservs drow were behind each, and subsequently destroyed them, it speaks much to the mindset of the Eilservs; to wit, they establish their base of operations with likely lackeys, and then abandon it when they find better lackeys up the chain. This is consistent with their ultimate aim of controlling the drow realm (they turned from the worship of Lolth to that of the EEG when the priests of Lolth did not back their bid for supremacy). It is consistent with a policy of tossing weaker tools aside as soon as they have served their purpose, and replacing them with better ones. It is, in fact, most consistent with Chaotic Evil.

To return to the specifics of the Temple of the Eye, which we find in areas 9-11 of the second level of the Hall of the Fire Giant King, we find here a fully functioning shrine to the Elder Elemental God, one of the images is quite striking, even given the Lovecraftian theme of the area:
...a scene of various creatures crawling, then creeping, up to huge, vaguely squid-like creatures with 10 hairy tentacles. In the forefront of this mass self-sacrifice are elves and men, but ehre are also dwarves, gnolls, orcs, trolls, halflings, ogres, goblins, etc. amongst the crowd. Those near the monsters are being torn apart and eaten as dainty morsels. There are 3 of these ghastly things, mottled in various shades and tints of purple and violet.
Three??? What might that portent? It's quite obviously something that hearkens back to the stories of Lovecraft, but why would there be three squid-like things, in a temple supposedly to the "Elder Elemental God" (note the singular)? Obvously it's not the EGG itself being depicted. Perhaps... just perhaps... they are priests or elder worshippers of the EEG, rather than a representation of the EEG itself. More HPL goodness (and maybe those things are still to be found in the Depths? Serving House Eilservs as advisors? Oh wouldn't THAT be interesting to show to a rival house in Erelhei-Cinlu)

The altar within this horrific place is special as well. It holds a special kind of trap; it is possible to summon some minor aspect of the EEG by using the implements found in the temple itself (the drum, chimes, and triangle). If such is done then the results are quite dire once the golden glowing eye appears in the middle of the altar (the titular "eye" of "The Temple of the Eye", one presumes); insanity, rage, magical aging, etc. However, if such is done in the presence of the tentacle rods (note the repeated use of the tentacle motif) then the harmful effects are not to be found, and indeed the sacrifice presumably chained atop the altar is taken by a tentacle and the ability to "attain the end or state they most desire" appears on the altar. And who has the tentacle rods? The Eilservs clerics. The implication is clear; power is concentrated in select hands, and if the fire giants ever got any aspirations to usurp the Eilservs drow, they would find themselves a tasty snack.

We are told that there exists a pretty-much-identical temple to the EEG close to the estates of the Eilservs in Erelhei-Cinlu. There's no real new insights there; much of the text is a straight copy of that found in G3.

What is left un-emphasized, and sometimes overlooked, is the struggle between the cult of the Elder Elemental God and that of the Demon Queen of Spiders, Lolth. Again, this is more a topic for a broader discussion of the best way to DM and play this series of modules, but in brief the PC's should be given the opportunity to play the one faction against the other, and thereby work weal in the world above. It should be noted that House Tormtor (allied with House Eilservs) has clerics amongst half of its leaders. It is not stated explicitly, but can be implied that these are clerics of the EEG, since we are also told of the anti-Eliservs faction as "the noble houses worshiping the demoness Lolth".

That the Elder Elemental God is a real deity in Oerth is beyond question; it has clerics of as high as level 10 (Eclavdra), which are capable of casting 5th level spells. Looking to p. 9 of "Deities and Demigods", we see that the EEG could be a demigod, based on that criterion (demigods can themselves grant 5th level spells). "Deities and Demigods" also tells us that:
Female Drow with wisdom of 18 can progress as high as the 14th level of clerical ability.
At least as regards the demoness (and lesser deity) Lolth. Can we assume that is a racial, rather than a divine, limitation? Perhaps, but it's not 100% certain. What is certain is that the EEG can grant mid-level spells and is thus not merely a ploy; there is some real divine power behind it. Given the predilection for things Lovecraftian in the earliest days of the Greyhawk campaign, I'm inclined to believe that Gary Gygax was inclined to treat the EEG as a real deity, albeit one which didn't make it into the printed material as a god or demigod itself.

In fact, Gygax himself stated as much himself:
...the Elder Elemental God I envisioned as an entity of vaguely Chronos-like sort, a deity of great power but of chaotic sort, and not always highly clever in thought and action. Eclavdra ... would prefer to have as "master" a powerful deity she might hope to influence, hence the EEG. (http://www.enworld.org/forums/showthread.php?t=22566&page=23&pp=30)
Gygax also stated explicitly that encountering the EEG would have been a possibility for his own players, but they skeedattled soon after reaching the Vault of the Drow.

I hope this has been informative, or at least entertaining. There are probably references that I've missed, and I do indeed don't consider this a definitive treatment of the subject so much as a survey, and hopefully I've sparked an idea or two.


grodog said...

You raise some good and insightful points, Joe!

The EEG is rich with explorative and DMing possibilities, which are largely untapped in either T1-4 or RttToEE, alas, while the greater depth of material in the G and D modules is left as largely unrealized potential....


Sham aka Dave said...

Wow! Excellent post, GG. I share much of your appreciation of that classic, epic G-D series. I have all the monochromes myself from the old days. I must admit I never put together the possibilities of the EEG theme. I haven't even read those modules in over 20 years. It's high time I did so again.

I never understood why Gygax didn't write Q1. I assume it was based on his notes, or at least he directed the plot and theme, but it always seemed anti-climatic to me that Gary himself didn't handle Q1 entirely.

Thanks for the great read!


Greyhawk Grognard said...

According to EGG, he had absolutely no creative input into Q1. More's the pity...

Max said...

re: EEG & Q1
Correct me if I'm wrong but I have the impression, from one of Gary's Q&A threads, that he was somewhat disappointed with the way Q1 turned out. Or at any rate acknowledged that it differed considerably from his own notes.

Myself, I've always loved Q1. Levels 1-3 of the Demonweb read like a tournament module with a focus on tough tactically challenging combats, the 4th level has the high weirdness of the various demi-planes, and the spider ship includes one of my all time favorite charts. What was it called, Random Unusual Occurences, or something? I'll bet the whole thing was a meatgrinder for PCs though. Never got far running it myself.

Great analysis. Surely one could fit the mind flayers somewhere in the intrigues you suggest -- the tentacle rods are a natural match for them, obviously.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Greyhawk Grognard, perhaps this is slightly off-topic but I'd like to read about your play experiences with these modules--what works, what doesn't, advice on running GDQ, etc. One of these days I hope to run an epic campaign for some friends, many of whom (surprising, but true) don't own and know nothing about these modules.

I played through the Giant series and D1-2 way "back in the day," but have never run them, and I'd be interested on any DMing tips you may have. Just a thought for a future post.

Greyhawk Grognard said...

Hi Brian. Perhaps not coincidentally, I've got about 1/3 of an article on DMing tips for D1-3 written up. I might well broaden it to include the Giants as well. I'll keep plugging away at it, be sure!

JimLotFP said...

Awesome post.

Ragnorakk said...

Seconded (a year later) - this is a really insightful post!

Druvas said...


Just reading this post for the first time. Nice! It gave me some ideas for further adventures after Q1. If the party manages to slay or reduce Lolth, the Eilserves and Tormtor will rise. I have a vision of a nasty civil war in the Vault with Lovecraftian home-brew creatures running rampant, perhaps out of the control of Eclavdra and allies- killing everyone is sight (including their summoners)... Enter the party...

yeoman said...

Hi Greyhawk Grognard. Fascinating post, and thought provoking.
I have tried to piece together an EEG backstory for a long while. I was particularly intrigued by the article in OJ 12 'Thus Spake Gary Gygax' where in answer to the relationship between the EEG and TOEE, Gary states ... "The EEG was indeed meant by me to have a place in the very nethermost recesses of the TOEE. An anomoly there allowed him to manifest a portion of himself, and by doing the wrong (right from the DM's point of view) thing the adventurers could release him also......"
Now this is interesting. Clearly Gygax's vision didn't make it into the Mentzer write up, but given the other stated intended inclusion in the unwritten version of Q1, was Gary presenting a story arc? If so what were we to make of this? Were the events at the start of G1 to culminate in the freeing of the EEG in the demonweb, only for it to later become trapped in the TOEE? Or was the release of the EEG a story that Gary at first considered for Q1, only to find it frustrated in the eventual writing of that module, and so transfer the idea to T1-4? Was it even possible that the time line worked the other way in principle, with the EEG being drawn in by PCs in the TOEE, only to set the wheels in motion for the rise of Eilserv with their new 'patron'. I find this unlikely, as the events in G/D/Q I seemed to remember predating the 579 date for T1-4.
Still, the conundrum intrigues me. Do you have thoughts on this?