Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Way Back Machine - Blackmoor (Supplement II) - Part 3

NOTE: Spoilers to Follow!  In the highly unlikely event that you're planning on running your PC's through Temple of the Frog, don't allow them to read any further.

In prior installments of the Way Back Machine, I took a look at Greyhawk (OD&D Supplement I) and much of Blackmoor (Supplement II).  Today I complete my look at Blackmoor by discussing Temple of the Frog (TOTF) by Dave Arneson, which I believe is the first ever published RPG module.

TOTF is in Section 3 of Blackmoor - Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.  It's just kind of "there," with no instructions or explanation of how to use it.  It's grand, wonderful, gonzo - and at the same time maddeningly frustrating.  If I was a new DM back in the 1970's and I decided to run my players through this adventure, I think it would be a difficult task indeed.  Has anyone out there successfully used the module as written?  Just curious.

A full 21 pages in length, TOTF contains no less than six maps and several illustrations.  There are a couple of overland maps (city map, for one) and 4 "dungeon" or "temple" maps.  In my opinion, the maps are quite well done and really give the early D&D player a sense of what a dungeon should look like.  The illustrations peppered throughout TOTF have NOTHING to do with the content of the module, but they are nice pictures.

The basic theme of TOTF is explained in the Background section.  A weird, scientific cult called "The Brothers of the Swamp" has apparently done genetic experimentation to launch animals to the top of the food chain and supplant man.  Nasty!  Specifically, the cultists developed a ferocious Killer Frog.  These frogs even had a sacrificial temple where screaming victims were fed to them.  Another order called the "Keepers of the Frogs" tended to the beasts over the years - herding them and feeding them in vast underground catacombs.  The Brothers send out secret traders to buy human slaves in exchange for fabrics and medicines.  However, trade has been slow due to the swampy location of the Temple and the fact that no lawful merchants would sell slaves to evil amphibian-frog-temply guys.  They eventually had to "sell out" by allowing evil bandits to trade for them.  Unfortunately, the evil bandits and other riff-raff now dominate the temple.

Then along came Stephen the Rock, a weird magician who wanted to restore the temple to its original frog-worshipping purpose.  Anyone who disagreed with him was "cast into the breeding pools" or "struck down by lightning."  A great power struggle ensued and many people were slain on both sides, but eventually the bandits were driven off or enslaved.  The temple has now been refortified, and anyone with knowledge of its whereabouts has been slain.  Thus, it is now SECRET again!  And the Temple denizens are once again up to their nefarious, no-good, frog-worshipping activities again.  Stephen the Rock is now High Priest.

So presumably the PC's will need to find the temple, sneak up to it without being eaten by killer frogs or captured, and loot it or destroy it.  What is their motivation for doing so?  We're not really sure, so the DM must come up with a hook.

As for the room contents, these are both fun and frustrating.  First of all, the rooms vary so much in sheer power of the inhabitants that it's really hard to figure out what level of party should adventure in TOTF.  It really throws any concepts of "balance" out the window.  I guess in the "old days," you would just march in with your party of 15 adventurers and systematically reave the place.  When the old PC's died, replace them with new ones.  :) 

And this place is no joke.  There are literally THOUSANDS of guards and warriors at the Temple and the surrounding city.  It kind of reminds me of "D3 - the Vault of the Drow" in terms of this vast, evil city.  How do you infiltrate it?  You can't possibly hope to slay 2,000 guards and 5,000 killer frogs.  So you need a plan.  You need some kind of strategy and stealthy approach.

Second, the DM must do a LOT of work to make this module playable.  For example, there are a number of Living Quarters for the Brothers.  But listen to this description of potential treasure: "Although sparsely furnished, each wooden item is made from the finest mahogany, the sleeping mattresses are of down feathers, the rugs of the finest furs, and all the smaller items are without question made of durable and exquisite semi-precious metal."  So that means you as the DM need to go through and assign value to these items, particularly the rare furs and the small, semi-precious items.  And believe me - there are LOTS of rooms like this.

Monster descriptions are equally vague: "This barracks holds 40 men.  There is a light light dart thrower on the roof."  Again, there are many room descriptions like this.  Who are these men?  How powerful are they?  What is their purpose?

Ladies and gentlemen, nothing in this adventure is statted out.  As the DM, you must be nimble and creative and willing to put some time into it.

Despite these frustrating descriptions, it is still a wonderful read.  Some examples of the fun & gonzo aspects of TOTF:
  • The High Priest, Stephen the Rock, is "an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension."  Once per year, he must report information to a "hovering satellite station" - sort of like Mork from Ork.  If he fails to turn over any interesting artifacts to his overlords, he will certainly face "recall/trial/extinction."
  • Stephen's treasure consists of "a complete set of battle armour, a mobile medical kit, and a communications module."  Stephen has continued with the genetic modification of frogs into "Frog Men."
  • Should a player win Stephen's Battle Armour and don it, they get +3 on A/C, +3 on saving throws, a 12" move, 18(00) strength, 18 dex, and complete protection against all energy weapons including fireballs, lighting, cold, etc.  It also protects fully against charm, hypnosis and other mind-affecting spells and level draining.  The wearer can also fly, walk and breathe underwater.  Jesus!
  • There is a sacrificial temple where scores of slaves are thrown screaming to the teeming frogs below.  The pulpit above the pit is made of precious metal and gemstones and is worth 100,000 gp!  It depicts scenes of the eventual doom of man.
  • There is a library containing books and scrolls with a value "beyond reckoning."  It supposedly contains 10% of all the world's known books.  But good luck in stealing this shit!  There is "one guard at each door".  ;-p   This is what I mean!  Some rooms might contain a million gp of treasure value and be guarded by 2 guys.  The next room over won't have any treasure and be guarded by 400 soldiers. 
  • One cool room has several treasure maps.  The maps aren't shown, so the DM must create them, but they sound really cool: "Leads to a giant's den somewhere in the swamp.  Treasure is: 58,000 gold buried amongst some rubble."
  • There is a pipe organ worth 300,000 gp, but it weighs ten tons and will fill a cargo ship!  And good luck putting it back together again.  :)
  • There are row upon row of machines that "turn out special devices and goods of high value, these machines having the ability to take worthless material and transform it into valuable goods."  Only those "involved in manufacturing" are allowed in to run the machines.
Anyway, those are examples of the wildness that is TOTF.  The treasure is big and spectacular, the rooms are filled with wild beasts and hordes of soldiers.  I don't think I would ever run it as written, but it was fun to read.

8 comments:

  1. I'll be honest, when I sat to read Temple of the Frog I just stared at it blankly... Bits are useful to rip out and it was interesting to browse, but totally and utterly insane. I would never try to run it without putting a lot of time into making it workable for my style of game first.

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    1. Brendan - agreed. I certainly woulnd't run it. To me it's an interesting piece of D&D history.

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  2. I've always wondered about this adventure. Nice information in your post. It sounds too insane to run as is.

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  3. I planned to use this in an AD&D game, but events turned the game elsewhere so I never did get to use it. I liked how it read like a real place - of course there are like two guards on the library but the dozens of other brothers have nothing work taking. You don't run an evil cult by handing out treasure proportionate to the power of your underlings.
    I don't recall if I was ready to hand out the artifact-grade power armour or not. I do know I had Battlesystem stats written up for the guards, because that's the only way I expected to run it. D&D grew out of wargaming, and I bet the Temple was sacked in a very wargame-like way.

    I eventually used the ruined temple as a setting my last GURPS game. The upper works had fallen into ruin, but a froghemoth and swarms of piranha-like killer frogs guarded a treasure stolen ages ago by the temple. The players had to penetrate the ruins (easily done), find the froghemoth (easily done, it found them), and then search out the treasure. It was pretty entertaining, and made for a good ruined complex.

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  4. Peter - that's awesome that you used the temple for an adventure. Sounds like fun.

    Nice observations about how the sacking of the temple could have been done in a wargaming fashion. That would be a fun minis session. :)

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  5. The maps were drawn by Arneson. He was a bit of an artist. When DA ran this adventure for his own group, one of the characters dies and the others were stunned, had thier memories erased and were deposited outside the swamp.

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    1. Nice history there. It sounds like DA was merciful at least. Those PC's could have been Frog Chow.

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