Thursday, April 12, 2018

Thoughts on The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

I'm going to take a break from my ongoing delvings into the inner workings of the Giants, Drow, and Temple of Elemental Evil adventures to venture into new territory. I'm going to start picking apart the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, and see if there's anything that we might glean from a close examination.

I should begin by saying there's a lot more to this adventure than my recollection led me to believe. It's been years since I've done more than crack it open for a quick glance, and it's much denser than I remember.

In terms of physical and narrative structure, the most obvious aspect of the module is the fact that the really cool stuff is completely hidden and almost entirely cut off. In fact, it's entirely likely that a party will battle the humanoids on behalf of the gnomes, grab their treasure, and not even realize there's an Undertemple to be explored. the PCs would have to discover one of two secret doors in a very out of the way place to do so, and then more secret doors to get to the really good stuff.

This seems to be a recurring feature in Gygaxian dungeons. Very elaborate encounter areas filled with interesting stuff, but which could easily be ignored or which could go undiscovered entirely. The original Castle was like this, and we see it in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief with its secret third level and in S4 the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth with the underground river and lake, among many other examples.

[As an aside, I think my proposed hidden shrine to the Elder Elemental God as the lowest level of the Temple of Elemental Evil would fit into this category, and doing so would be tonally consistent with this aspect of Gygaxian design.]

This design philosophy speaks of a sort of "strategic patience" in dungeon design, which pays off in ongoing campaigns run over the course of years with many players, wherein areas once discounted as "cleared out" are re-explored for things that might possibly have been missed, or moved in since they were first mapped out. This is at odds with contemporary dungeon design, which regards such "one missed secret door check means you miss the good stuff" as a serious flaw. In modern games, which are much more plot-driven and which demand the PCs move on to the next location to advance the story, this would indeed be a problem.

In a location-based adventure, however, which is still there years later for the PCs to return to and see what they might have missed, it's a jackpot which the patient DM can wait for years to see discovered, and he (and his players) can gain all the more satisfaction therefrom. I think this is an aspect of Golden Age dungeon design that is little recognized, let alone appreciated, today.

For all its near-inaccessibility, it's exactly this hidden area of the dungeon that stands out in one's memory of the adventure. It's not the well-organized waves of humanoids who will swarm over adventurers who invade their lair. It's the cyst, and the needlerock altar, and the rest. In fact, there's very little in the humanoid areas that isn't completely prosaic and ultimately forgettable as nothing more than a well-organized humanoid lair complex, a la the Caves of Chaos from B1 Keep on the Borderlands. There are a few trappings in the Lower Temple area, such as the columns and the carvings in the aisle, but even those are pretty low-key bits of weirdness that only set up what is to come below. And so it is to the hidden area that I will now turn my attention.

It's important to note that the Temple itself was very significant in the cult of Tharizdun. This isn't just some random temple that was lost to the ages - it was a vital center of the cult, and thus should hold a properly important place in the campaign as a whole. Behold this passage from the introduction:
The Temple was built in a previous age, a secret place of worship to Tharizdun, He of Eternal Darkness. It drew the most wicked persons to it, and the cult flourished for generations, sending ot its minions from time to time to enact some horrible deed upon the lands around. However, a great battle eventually took place between Tharizdun and those opposed to his evil.  Unable to destroy him, they were strong enough to overcome his power and imprison him somewhere...
After a time his servants returned again to the Temple, deserted as it was of any manifestation of their deity. Amongst these wicked folk were many powerful magic-users and clerics. All sought with utmost endeavor to discern what had happened to Tharizdun, so that he could be freed and returned to rule over them once again. All attempts were in vain, although the divinations and seekings did reveal to these servants of Eternal Darkness that a "Black Cyst" existed below the temple. ... In the hemisphere of black needlerock (floating as if by manifestation) a huge form could be seen. Was this the physical manifestation of Tharizdun?
The rhetorical question at the end there is of course intended to lead the reader to the conclusion that it is Tharizdun in there, although there's no actual evidence to that effect whatsoever. All we have are intimations and suggestions. In the description of the Black Cyst itself, and the block of needle-rock, no definitive answer is given as to what is within, nor is there any way to determine it. The PCs are able to get to the treasure (using means doubtless used by the ancient priests - more on that in a minute), but the hemisphere of needlerock remains an enigma.

That leads us to the biggest enigma about this adventure. Why? What is the point of the PCs coming into the Undertemple and the Black Cyst? There's a treasure to be had, sure, but it's pretty meager; 333 gems, worth about 40,000 gp or so all told. Plus a wand of force, a cube of force, and a book worth 33,000 gp. That's a lot, but for a party of 5th - 10th level characters, it's really not that much of a payoff for enduring all the weirdness of the place.

Speaking of the book, we're left with this tantalizing description:
If anyone other than a cleric of Tharizdun opens and attempts to decipher it, he or she will, with the aid of a read magic spell, be able to understand that it is titled LAMENT FOR LOST THARIZDUN before their mind goes blank for 2-12 rounds and they take 3-30 points of damage. What this tome is, says, and does is the subject of some later revelation.
This module literally forces the PCs to dress up like
Tharizdun cultists or take damage
"Later revelation???" What the heck could that be? Was there to be some sort of follow-up to the Lost Temple at some point? It was published in 1982, so not right on the cusp of Gygax's removal from TSR, and to my knowledge there was never a hint as to what that later revelation was to have been. Alas.

What intrigues me with the whole thing is that it seems designed to force the PCs into taking on the role of worshipers of Tharizdun.

Think about it - in the Inset Area, there are robes for them to find, which are required down in the Octagonal Chamber of the Undertemple, or else they'll start taking damage. There they will also find balls of incense which are used in the Undertemple and are necessary to reach the Black Cyst. Once there, the incense is again needed to get the gems and book, and leave. The iron horn called the Wailer for Tharizdun must be blown in order to activate the idols of Tharizdun in the Dungeon Level. Recalling what is said in the introduction:
As generations passed, various other things necessary to survival in the Black Cyst were formalized into a paeon of lament and worship for Tharizdun, and endless services to awaken the being were conducted by rote. Then, as time continued to pass, even this ritual grew stale and meaningless. The clerics of Tharizdun began to pilfer the hoard of beautiful gems sacrificed to him by earlier servants -- 333 gems of utmost value, ranging in worth from 5,000 to 50,000 gold pieces each. Replacing these jewels with stones of much less value, the former servants of this deity slipped away with their great wealth to serve other gods and wreak evil elsewhere.
That's exactly the funnel the module demands the PCs move through; the very "various other things necessary to survival in the Black Cyst" are exactly what the PCs have to do. Sounding the Wailer. Donning the robes. Lighting the incense. Devoting themselves to Tharizdun in the Shrine, to get the benefit of the water. Touching the walls in the Aisle might cause one to subconsciously call on Tharizdun in a time of need. On and on and on. The module is designed to turn the PCs into worshipers of the Chained God.

This is done in a way that we don't see in other Gygaxian evil temples. Certainly the Elder Elemental God's shrines will only (!) cause madness. Tharizdun's temple seems designed to convert intruders to his dark service, whether through their own conscious actions, or purely through ignorance of the significance of their actions. It's downright subversive. I've got to say, that seems a bit more Kuntzian than Gygaxian in its own right, and let's not forget that Gygax gives "Special Thanks To" Rob Kuntz at the very end of the adventure.

And don't get me wrong - I think that's a Good Thing. That "if you keep going, you're going to be corrupted whether you want to or not" aspect is what I think makes this adventure unique, all said. Tomb of Horror will (almost certainly) kill you, but Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun will pollute you. It's as close to actual "character horror" as you can get. It certainly lends a much deeper and more layered aspect of horror to the second half of the adventure than one typically sees in the early TSR modules. I like it!


casey said...

That is a great deep dive, very interesting stuff.

Konsumterra said...

asa kid i thought it was lame

now i wanna run it as a LOTFP adventure
possibly ad some corrupting wishes to cement the subversion
then find out you cant enter holy places after
"do the devils work and do it well"

grodog said...

Kuntz's creation of Tharizdun, and the ties of Tharizdun to his Dark Druids and Garden of the Plantmaster adventures, lend this module significant depth and potential for expansion.

Scott Szczypiorski wrote an excellent series of (now-deleted) blog posts on RJK's Lord of the Green Dragons blog which examined WG4 in detail; the last remains at and they're worth digging up via the links in the final post via the Internet Archive:

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -
- Part 3 -
- Part 4 -
- Part 5 -
- Part 6 -
- Part 7 -
- Part 8 -
- Afterword -

I'll add these links to the my Greyhawk Links page (and eventually a WG4 page whenever I get around to creating one for that module).


Joseph Bloch said...

I remember those. Truth to tell, they're a bit *too* complete. I wonder why Rob deleted them off the blog?

Jon Mollison said...

Those really hard to find nooks and crannies also serve as a fantastic treasure in themselves. Drop a treasure map in a chest in dungeon B that basically says, "Go back to Dungeon A and check under that third rock from the left," and your players will go haring off to complete the work left undone the first time around. If they already found the secret, then the map will serve as a reminder of how clever they are.

Jared Milne said...

Great article. Mr. Bloch's points about "strategic patience" reminded me of something I noticed about these early Gygax modules, namely the possibility for all kinds of interesting story twists in them, and how they can lead to something well beyond what's just written in the text.

I had the same question Mr. Bloch did about why the players would want to go into the depths of the Temple and find Dread Tharizdun's paraphernalia. I asked this over at Canonfire, and several people answered by saying that their players wanted to keep the artifacts out of the wrong hands, or otherwise wanted to ensure the safety of the local population:

Aside from the corrupting influence that Mr. Bloch mentions in his original post, another possibility is that the Dark Lord's actual cultists get wind of Dread Tharizdun's artifacts being found, and proceed to stalk the PCs to try and get the items back.

More generally, though, I find it interesting how Gygax included the possibility of some very drastic changes to the direction of a campaign or even just individual characters. In the GDQ series, players might end up in the thrall of Blibdoolpoolp, or they might become stranded in one of the alternate worlds they can investigate in Q1. In the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, they might also be trapped in an alternate universe thanks to the dimensional gateway that sends victims to random places. And then there's everything Mr. Bloch has mentioned in tying the Temple of Elemental Evil with Eclavdra's machinations...

Nor was Gygax the only one to do this. Didn't White Plume Mountain allude to the possibility that Keraptis had actually returned in some form, or that someone was trying to take advantage of that, while leaving the truth ambiguous...?

Thomas Denmark said...

TFToT is one of my all time favorite adventure modules to read. Even the weird art adds a charm and unique flavor to it. Alas, I never got a chance to play it or run it and none of my other gaming friends were that interested in it. I thought I was the only one with weird taste since this module seems to, like its namesake, a forgotten gem.

Ryan said...

I admire how you dissect Gygax's adventures. TFToT definitely shows the influence of Howard and Lovecraft in Gary's work.