The adventure in Temple of Death is the second and final part of the Desert Nomads series.
I mentioned in my review of the first part, Master of the Desert Nomads, how that adventure felt very much like a classic Swords & Sorcery tale. This adventure continues in that vein. However, whilst Master was primarily set in a barren desert, much of this adventure is set in a foreign land.
In many D&D adventures, the fact that the adventure is in a foreign land isn’t that important. The actual culture of the land? It’s just the same as where you come from, or you get a few “weird place” touches, but it rarely feels like it’s a culture that could exist. Hule, the homeland of the Master, is a place that could exist.
The adventure makes great use of the fact that, at the time, the Known World was new and unknown. The players are exploring new territory, and not going somewhere they’ve read about in a supplement. It creates an entirely different feeling for the adventure. This is enhanced by the structure of Temple of Death, as Cook uses encounters that happen no matter where the players travel. This allows him to reveal key information to the players. This is avoiding the “Sunken City of Pazar” trap from Pharaoh.
The chief example of this is the town of Magden. Which town is it on the map? It’s the first one the players come to. This saves a lot of time and effort; Cook doesn’t need to detail all the villages the party might pass through. It’s a great narrative trick.
The point of the encounters in Magden is not really to capture the players, although that possibility exists. It’s far more about showing the party some of the culture of the land. Secret police? Hagiarchial society? Yes, we get that here.
My favourite encounter is one where the adventures witness a puppet show showing a hero of the land defeating – and enslaving – a giant. There’s a similar sequence in the Doctor Who story Snakedance, and it’s a technique I very much admire. It shows the sort of entertainments the people of Hule enjoy, while also revealing some important information for the story. Interestingly, although the easy interpretation is mostly true (the Master has an enslaved giant), it’s some of the other details that may prove more important to the party, such as the fact that the “Temple of Death” is not called that by the general population – an important point that will help keep the party out of the eyes of the secret police!
Adding to the challenges the party face is that magic-users in this culture are considered “wrong thinkers”, and so could be declared criminals. The adventure doesn’t dwell too much on how the party need to conceal themselves, but there is enough material there for the DM to build this into a major hassle for the party if desired.
The travel through Hule takes up the second part of the adventure. The first part details the Great Pass that forms the link between the desert lands and the actual land of Hule. The encounters in this section are of the “weird, lost tribe” sort, and show great inventiveness. Indeed, some of the invention here is almost thrown away. A magical well that creates a ladder of moonbeams that allow you to climb to the moon? “It leads to the Kingdom of the Moon. You must create this kingdom. If you do not want the players to go to the moon, you may ignore this power.” Yes, you won’t find that in every adventure. It is still very much of the sword and sorcery tradition that the module is written in.
The third part has the group entering the Dark Wood, either due to clues found in Magden or due to the Hand of God – that is, the DM needs to have a prophet tell them to go in. It’s one of the more heavy-handed sequences here and one of the few instances of out-and-out railroading. The Dark Wood only takes a couple of pages to describe, and has no encounters keyed to the map at all – only four suggested encounters, once again of a mostly inventive fashion.
All of this has taken up the first half of the adventure. The second half of the adventure deals with the stronghold of the Master – the Temple of Death itself.
It’s also at this point that the adventure wanders into being seriously difficult to run well. You’ve got a temple which has acolytes, priests, high priests and the Master himself. Are the players meant to kill them all? Well, not really – it’s not part of the swords and sorcery tradition this adventure comes from. Instead, stealth and trickery are expected. A few potential methods of gaining access are discussed, as well as information the party can learn by actually studying the temple for a few days rather than charging straight in, so the DM isn’t completely in the dark as to how it might be approached.
Still, there’s a lot of DMing to be done to turn the description of the Temple into a good adventure.
The Temple has some very good touches and unusual encounters, although, for the most part, it stays within the borders of “realistic” fantasy. There’s a real current of that through the adventure: “realistic” fantasy where people live, “fantastical” fantasy in the wilderness and distant places seldom visited. It’s an effective approach.
Art in the adventure is by Timothy Truman and is excellent. The maps are good.
I find Temple of Death a hard adventure to rate properly. Initial reading of the Temple itself was not that favourable, but that’s often the case with adventures where the actions of the players will have a large effect on the play – it’s not a standard dungeon where each encounter is almost closed in to itself. It’s the cumulative effect of the entire Temple that is important. Can the party get to the Master without being discovered?
Strangely, the fact that Hule is at war with the homeland of the players is hardly mentioned at all. The section on Hule has the populace so scared by the secret police that they don’t want to speak out against the war, and that’s about the only reference to the war at all, except in the final couple of rooms where a scroll detailing the plans of the Master can be found, and will end the war if it can be delivered back home. It feels like a misstep that it isn’t referenced more.
Ultimately, the success of Temple of Death will depend very much on how it is played by the DM and players. There are some excellent encounters here, and the structure is pretty good, but the final section will require more thought than the regular hack’n’slash that Dungeons & Dragons can devolve into. David Cook did an excellent job of writing a big sword & sorcery adventure, but it will be up to the players to bring it to life.