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RPG Codex Retrospective: Roguey dismantles white privilege in Tim Cain's Temple of Elemental Evil
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 8 August 2014, 01:28:57Tags: Temple of Elemental Evil; Troika Games
[Written by Roguey]
Business as usual
Near the beginning of 2002, Atari asked Troika's Tim Cain if he wanted to create an adaptation of a Greyhawk pen and paper module; this was non-negotiable. Moreover, they wanted it completed in 16 months; this ultimately became slightly negotiable by three additional months. Fueled by optimism, desperation, or most likely some mix of both, Cain agreed and went with The Temple of Elemental Evil, a 128-page supermodule by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer. It became Troika's fastest-selling game* by virtue of being D&D; doubtfully because of any other aspect other than perhaps art.
Fundamentally Dumb Systems and their Dumb Adaptations into Different Media
Part of ToEE's claim to fame is its faithful adaptation of 3.5 edition D&D rules. It makes a few concessions for the sake of gameplay, but not enough. An example of a problem they created for themselves: all potions you find start out as unidentified. There is no knowledge skill that lets you identify them, and you can't taste a drop and recognize a familiar potion like you can in P&P. The only way you can find out what they are is to cast an identify spell or go to a shop keeper to identify them one by one, and both options cost 100 gp each time (individual potions cost significantly less of course). The Circle of Eight mod alleviates the cost by allowing characters to use the read magic spell instead, but it doesn't remove the sheer tedium of having to cast it so many times. This pointlessly routine nonsense doesn't exist in any other D&D game of which I'm aware.
Naturally, it does retain many of the problems featured in other D&D-based crpgs. The pseudo-simulationist ability scores result in outright-dump, less-important, and must-have stats for certain classes, making the process of assigning those scores a rigid, uninteresting routine. There are outright statistically-inferior weapon and armor choices (and exclusive to ToEE are wearable items that don't actually do anything but still add weight). Ultra-specialized feats like weapon focus and favored enemy are a blind guess without metaknowledge. Since this is 3.5, clerics can become better fighters than fighters through the use of self-buffs. Hard counter spells that make certain status effects completely negligible are present, though the times when they're useful to have are few and far between. The array of degenerate, go-to tactics are also here: HP mechanics can be bypassed entirely through coups de grace and the slay living spell, you can summon up to five summons at a time to soak and deal damage, and there are plenty of buffs you can cast before combat, such as the ever-overpowered haste, a spell that gives you an extra attack with the full base attack bonus and +1 to your attack and armor class scores. Par for the course, nothing stops you from resting after every fight by either demolishing any random encounters that interrupt you or backtracking to a safer place.
As far as class balance goes, I believe pretty much any balanced party can complete all challenges, and no one class is necessarily essential. Of course, since this is D&D, caster-heavy parties will have a much easier time, though the level cap of 10 keeps them from becoming absurdly more powerful than the mundanes. Skills exist; considering this is primarily a dungeon crawl, the ones that provide a systematic benefit are generally preferable to those that require scripted support. There are a few trap feats, including toughness, the Monte Cook classic that gives you a paltry extra three hit points. Loot is a sparse gamble, and the store selection is terrible, so I recommend getting the magic arms and armor and wondrous item crafting feats. The prerequisite spells for those items aren't documented until you've actually bought the feats, so you should look those up too.
The documentation is a mixed bag. The help files and roll history with breakdowns are great; the not-quite-comprehensive nature of the help files (Want to know the statistics of druid summons? Too bad) and the barebones item descriptions aren't. Additionally, the pointlessly-difficult-to-read radial menu was and always will be a bad idea.
Troika had significant problems with scope control. The aforementioned help files and roll history weren't included in the original milestone schedule; neither were the opening vignettes, the tutorial, and 141 of the 223 spells.* The 3.5 rules weren't part of the original design as well, but that change resulted in a much-needed two-month extension. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to make up for the consequences of their slapdash, short-sighted management, resulting in an inevitably buggy game.
Obligatory Cosmetic Fluff
The prerendered backgrounds remain gorgeous. The portraits aren't great, but they're not terrible for the most part. The character models are fine, given their size, and they're well animated. I do hate the time-consuming turning animation and would prefer a quick snap.
Though not every track is a winner, ToEE has my favorite soundtrack of all the traditional fantasy RPGs I've played: it's eerie, has a prominent rhythm section in the combat tracks, and doesn't sound like a generic mess of strings like nearly everything else. I just wish there was even more of it. I know Troika did what it could with their budget, but there's a combat track that only plays if you rest and get an encounter while outside or on the top floor of the temple, and a moathouse combat track that doesn't play at all; an utter waste. I understand the later Circle of Eight mods do address this to some extent.
Troika has acknowledged and given reasons for the poor voice acting*, so I'll leave this aspect at that.
The writing is Excuse Plot in quality, and I avoided as much of it as I could for this article. I hope no one was expecting an interesting exploration of themes or well-written characters from an adaptation of a straightforward dungeon crawl that takes place in a setting where cartoonish villains worship the concept of evil itself. Sadly, it can't even hit the low standard of having entertaining dialogue, aside from the so-bad-it's-good variety:
You are the worst liar! You lied to me!
Unfortunately, Troika also added some ethnocentric racism that didn't exist in the p&p module by describing a Greyhawk-equivalent-of-Asian woman as "exotic":
Troika's boorish behavior doesn't stop there of course. A description of Zuggtmoy, the demoness lady of fungi, from the original module:
Troika's interpretation of that description:
Zuggtmoy's natural form is bulbous. She resembles a puffball mushroom with a toadstool growing on top. Four elephantine legs with suckered bottom support the spherical body. The globular torso is flattened at the bottom and bulges at its equator, so that the legs reach to a bit over 3-foot height, the body another 30 inches higher, but with a horizontal diameter of nearly five feet. The mushroom-stem neck is two feet long, capped by a head which appears to have squashed humanoid features. The eyes are round, black, and blank-looking.
Zuggtmoy can extrude a pair of three-foot long pseudopodial arms from either hemisphere of her body, at will. These growths can extend opposing digits if desired.
The body coloration is variable, as Zuggtmoy is able to change it to suit her surroundings, though she is typically of a pale grayish-white or brownish-white color, the head slightly darker. Color can be moss green, dull brown, red-orange, mottled purple, etc., ranging the whole spectrum of colors possible to fungi growths. Body texture and odor are likewise obviously fungoid. In all, Zuggtmoy is revolting to behold and disgusting to smell; blotchy patches of mold, smut, and blight cover her body. Her strength is great (19), and her gross weight is quite high, despite her fungoid nature over 2,000 pounds.
I don't know from where they got "shapely humanoid woman with nipple-less breasts and exposed vagina." It didn't come from Wizards of the Coast, though they certainly approved, lechers that they are*:
Zuggtmoy's Appearance: As statted out in this article, the woman upper torso/tentacle lower torso is her true appearance. I stand by my decision to make this her true form; it's a lot cooler and more demonic than the picture from the 1E ToEE. As for her old crone form, she can cast shapechange at will, so that explains that. I just didn't see her "old crone" form as being unique or interesting enough to warrent much mention, especially in the limited space I had to talk about everything else Zuggtmoy-related.
As for retconning to match up a computer game—I've got no problem with that whatsoever, especially when the new design is so much more distinctive and interesting. The incarnation of Demogorgon that appeared in the Baldur's Gate expansion helped inspire the cover to Dungeon #120 in the same way, although in this case the change in appearance was MUCH less dramatic (and pretty much just ended up giving him those cool holes in his biceps).
Bloodlines was even worse about these matters. Someone could write mountains of text about the problematic aspects in all of Troika's games; fortunately for all of us, that's not what this article is about.
What it's about: Combat! Combat! Combat! Aack!
For this playthrough I used the 3.0.4 co8 patch because the later patches add too many subjective non-Troika aspects.* Bugwise, it was good-enough with two notable exceptions: my bard's spells would occasionally fizzle despite the class's ability to cast spells while wearing light armor, and there's a funny crash story I'll get to later.
First, on the subject of vignettes*:
Another thing that comes to mind that we added were the opening vignettes. These came together very early in the development process, but required wholly new maps to be made for all nine alignments, plus dialogues and such to be written for them, none of which were in the original schedule. The vignettes basically give your party, based upon the alignment you have chosen, your reason for coming to Hommlet and an opening quest to get you started in the game.
All nine put together only add up to minutes of gameplay (I played all of them back to back); what a waste of time and resources, and what a serious case of overthinking on Troika's part. The neutral evil and chaotic evil vignettes particularly annoy me because there's practically no difference between them: in the CE vignette you're attacking a caravan, which makes sense enough given your alignment, yet the NE vignette has your party burning down a church for no particular reason. I'd have less of a problem if the two were switched, but that doesn't fix the stupidity of the NE plot: after entering the church in Hommlet with the intention of killing everyone inside, you either piss off the head guy and run away (or get killed in a currently unwinnable fight), or accept his quest to clear out the moathouse as a form of "redemption." I decided to go with the lawful evil path, which just involves some evil religious people telling you to find and destroy a good sword.
I skipped all the daisy-chain fetching nonsense in the opening town of Hommlet, aside from the spider-killing quest and exposing the cheat to get free resting in the inn. It's bad enough that they expect you to run a bunch of utterly boring errands for utterly boring people, but who thought it was a good idea to link almost all of them together so that completing one requires completing them all? Your reward for this tedium, in addition to some extra money and items you do without, is an extra level of experience. You can get that same level of experience from clearing the first map of the first dungeon and actually have fun doing it. Though they botched the town, at least Troika avoided one thing Icewind Dale's early game was criticized for: your party comes equipped with class-appropriate equipment without having to purchase those items first.
Those tongue-grappling frogs were a great welcoming committee to the moathouse, the first dungeon of the game. I had problems with them in the past, but this time around I trounced them with the use of buffs and summons. It's pretty much dullsville from there. I guess Lubash, the hard-hitting, damage-soaking ogre, could cause problems to those who aren't prepared. The gnolls whom you can bribe to go away are pretty tough (like an optional encounter should be) because you're fighting a bunch of them in an enclosed space and they have 19 AC, which is really high for level 2 D&D.
When I got to the fights that made a certain notorious Codex poster cry like a baby and beat them on my first attempt, I realized that one of the later co8 patches gave those enemies the ability to wake each other up. In my playthrough, sleep was the equivalent of an instant death spell. Even if that wasn't the case, I doubt I'd have even a fraction of the trouble he had.
With the moathouse cleared, I took a side trip to clear out Emridy Meadows. It's a bunch of boring undead punctuated by an adequate encounter with a hill giant and a brown bear who both have lots of health and hit for a lot of damage.
I spent just as much time in the village of Nulb as I did in Hommlet. I did make a quick trip to Imeryds Run and enjoyed killing the sea hag on account of her high spell resistance and poison-on-hit damage. When it came to the big tower fight with all the men, archers, witches and wizard, I was level 4 and completed it on my first attempt with my mage being the only one to even suffer any damage. That's the power of pre-buffing (and some good rolls I guess).
The first level of the temple was a giant bore for the most part. I enjoyed an encounter with an ogre chief (high damage, high health; detecting a pattern here) and a large group of gnolls with damage resistance countered by blunt weapons (apparently this was a mistake, but oh well, it'd be less interesting without it). The second level fared a bit better: the large room full of bugbears was fun because of the numbers involved. There were two werewolves (hd, hh) who had 10/silver DR in a hidden room. To get one of the best greatswords in the game I had to kill a bunch of flamebrothers and a few salamanders with a fire shield equivalent. Finally, the juggernaut in the water temple was yet another hd/hh enemy with a lot of resistances.
I haven't mentioned any of the temple priests because they're all terrible. Spellcasters in this game are few and far-between and those you do run into are a disappointment for the most part. Take Falrinth, the wizard on level three: yeah he has regeneration and a poisoning quasit, but he wasted his first two turns ineffectually casting stoneskin and invisibility, and then I knocked him unconscious and finished him off with a coup de grace.
Elsewhere on level three there's a lamia with high ac, mirror image and frequent castings of charm person, but my level was high enough from wiping out the first two floors that it wasn't much of a threat. Same deal with the jackalweres with the silver/DR. The two leucrottas with their hold person spells were marginally better, if only because one of them hit one of my characters with a ray of enfeeblement. The room with yellow molds and their area-of-effect poison attack was a nice-if-brief change of pace. I loved that room where you just see goblins and think "aw yeah, this is going to be a mindless slaughter" and then bam, two hill giants (and this was actually a Troika original too). Since I was playing a LE party I had to kill Prince Thrommel for his sword; I decided to go with holding him so I wouldn't get too damaged from his sword-that-always-hits-and-always-counter-attacks-if-you-hit-him-in-melee. I was still counter-attacked after the coup-de-grace.
The trash mobs on the fourth floor are better on account of being full of hd/hhs. The massive group of bugbears, ogres, and the ogre shaman were the best of these. The wizard Senshock had an elemental-summoning gimmick that had the potential to get pretty crazy had I not killed him quickly. Hedrack and his big group of gargoyles, ettins, and two mirror-imaged wizards-who-do-fuck-all were definitely weaker without his aid, and no I didn't leave Hedrack alive long enough for him to summon Iuz. I'm not going to pretend to be bad at playing games just to get an optional challenge.
If anything, the elemental nodes finally delivered some new backgrounds and combat music (I've also never played them until now). It's clear they had the least amount of time spent on them, considering I have a PC that's 8-9 years newer than a top-of-the-line PC from 2003 and yet there are times where the game freezes for seconds/sometimes even minutes. Troika's engine can't keep up with their vision. They're also significantly different from their tabletop counterparts: smaller and with different/missing enemies. Notably, the two dragons per node have been replaced with a demon guardian. This is understandable, considering that dragons are a Big Deal to implement, which is why they don't exist in Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale either (but do in Pool of Radiance where everything is so much more abstract that it isn't much of a Big Deal).
The Glabrezu in the earth node served as the introduction to the hd/hh node guardians and it came with two elementals, quasit-summoning, at-will-mirror-imaging, and a lot of spell and holy negating-damage resistance. It's one of the more demanding battles, though it's a bit of a shame how all the other node guardians are just slightly-modified reskins. The earth node was also home to Galeb Durhs, the most annoying enemy to exist by far. They move excessively slow, have a lot of health (but don't hit often or do much damage), and have 15 dr and sr that can't be negated. There are 17 of these fuckers and all you can do is slowly chip away at their health. The worst aspect is that Galeb Duhrs don't even have this bullshit damage resistance in either first or third edition (they do have DR in third, but it's negated by magic). This inept design is all on Troika's shoulders.
Moving on, the only thing of note in the air node was the Vrock and it was just an easier Glabrezu with different elementals. My feeblemind spell actually worked at putting a stop to his at-will mirror-imaging which pissed him off enough to go after my wizard, which I thought was funny, considering all the attacks of opportunity he had to go through to get closer.
Now the Balor in the fire node is the most demanding fight by far. No mirror image (thankfully), but he doesn't need it because he has an armor class so high that even a character with the maximum possible attack bonus will only have a roughly 60% chance of hitting him (unless that character also has a level of wizard or enough points in use magic device to use a wand of true strike to make it guaranteed). He also loves dispelling buffs, and casting death spells and fear. I beat him on my first attempt, which means I'm better at playing turn-based-tactical role playing video games than a certain Codex mod.
I could have killed him somewhat faster had I crafted some items, but I wanted to see if I could do it with the tools given to me by Troika as opposed to the systems they gave me to make my own tools.
The Hezrou in the water node was a weaker reskin of the Balor, only with chaos hammering. He died in about half the time in spite of having more health because of his lower AC. The Eyes of the Deep below him were somewhat disappointing because all they did was attack my characters in melee instead of casting spells they should have had (Bug? Oversight? I dunno). The bandit encounter at the south would always crash on the first enemy's turn; after researching the issue, I found out it's because three of them start off by drinking potions of super-heroism, a spell that doesn't even exist. To get past it, I had to use invisibility to get my cleric closer, cast greater command to halt them for ten rounds, and then stinking cloud for good measure, followed by aoe bombardment.
With all that out of the way, I spent nearly all my gold on crafting and took on Zuggtmoy, having previously beaten her with Troika-provided equipment. She summoned acid arrow-shooting fungi, a couple of demons, dispelled a few spells, and cast displacement on herself. I summoned a few demons of my own (the hezrou was a mistake, considering he'd cast chaos hammer regardless of friendly fire; however, this is Working as Designed according to the original module) and used true sight to counter the displacement. Since I was playing an evil party, I decided it'd be fun to bend an evil goddess to my will.
Next stop: the bedchamber. Yeast infections for everybody!
In total I killed 758+ things, 117 of them bugbears (15-16% of the total). Aside from the high temple leaders, I only killed those who directly attacked me and never bothered with random encounters, so that number could be slightly higher. It took me a month to complete, which puts it on par with Icewind Dale I and II lengthwise, and I'm not surprised it took the same amount of time with fewer enemies to kill on account of turn-based being slower.
Overall, the biggest problem with ToEE's encounter design is how nearly every enemy is something that attacks your AC, and if it's extra-special, it'll have some resistances and/or some on-hit status effect. Troika can't be fully blamed for this: I checked out the original module and the adaptation of the encounter design is very nearly 1:1, bugbears and all (excepting the elemental nodes as I've already mentioned). However, Troika can be blamed (and occasionally credited) for the lackluster enemy spellcasters (several who were added specifically by Troika), as well as the opponents in Emridy Fields, Imeryds Run, and the elemental nodes.
In comparison to its peers, ToEE's combat content is only marginally better than the original Icewind Dale without the expansion. Icewind Dale II and Baldur's Gate II trounce it pretty fiercely. This is funny considering how Tim Cain slammed the Infinity Engine games before release ("D&D is a turn-based game...The sheer amount of effort to convert it to real-time would effectively invent a new game system, and what is the point of using D&D rules if you are just going to change its basic tenets?").* And now, ever so appropriately, he's working for someone who lead designed a better D&D game than he did. This is for the best, considering he still believes that the only problem with ToEE is the writing.*
I think it would have been better for everyone involved (Troika, Atari, and end-users) if Troika had used their 16-turned-19 month schedule to adapt two 32-page modules instead of a massive 128-page supermodule. I would have rather seen The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (funny walkthrough comic here which I admit is more entertaining than a crpg adaptation would ever be on account of tabletop flexibility) and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. They'd still meet Atari's demands of a Greyhawk module adaptation, they're still Gygaxian, and they have the bonus of being pure dungeon crawls without any tedious village errands getting in the way (excepting the gnome vale). Perhaps having a more-polished (and thus likely more successful) game under their belts would have encouraged Atari to greenlight Tim Cain's precious GDQ supermodule adaptation. No matter; onward to Eternity.