Alright, some people might be wondering, what is this all about?
Some other people might be thinking “Oh yeah, this is awesome!”
The Forgotten Temple
The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is an old module for AD&D that was written in 1982 by Gary Gygax. It’s somewhat famous for its strange and alien atmosphere, but never really became a huge hit as it is considered by many to be somewhat disappointing. The setup for the adventure is that the heroes have been asked by a clan of friendly gnomes to help them with a group of norkers that has been raiding their land for a while. As far as I understand it, norkers are the same thing as hobgoblins but different in that they have a different name. The first part of the module is a search for the base of the goblins and their ogre and gnoll allies, which turns out to be a plain looking ziggurat in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There is only a single entrance which the monsters will defend with absolutely everything they have, which quite likely will lead to one of the biggest and longest battles the players will ever fight. It’s quite likely that it will take several assaults over many days or even weeks to take the entry hall, depending on how long it takes the players to patch themselves up after each battle. Once the main goblin force is finally destroyed, the heroes descend from the entry hall on top of the ziggurat into the temple halls below. And this is where things get weird.
Depending on how the battle for the first hall ended, the temple will quite likely be mostly deserted as all the inhabitants have been slain at the gate. The second level has walls and floors made from polished obsidian that in many places seems to have strange swirling purple lights inside them or are carved with unidentifiable patterns resembling worms or tentacles. It’s the Temple of Tharizdun, some forgotten god or ancient being about which pretty much nothing is known at the point when the module was made. But it seems to be strongly associated with darkness and cold, and many of the black carvings found within the temple have various strange effects on the minds of anyone who touches them.
The infamy of the module comes primarily from a hidden room behind several secret doors. This secret room contains a whole in the floor with a 100 meter ladder leading deep beneath the earth, where the really strange things are to be found. The problem is that there isn’t really anything in the temple to indicate that such a hidden area exist and if the players have made an accurate map of the area there won’t be any suspicious blanks spots left that could potentially hint at the presence of a secret room. So the chance that they never become aware of anything going on and just leave is pretty high. Sadly, even if the hidden room and the ladder are found, there is very little to actually do at the bottom. The secret area looks even more strange and alien and leads to a final room that contains a strange big unnatural thing on an altar, but it’s really all just window dressing for a few more moderately interesting pieces of treasure. And then all the players really can do is grab the loot and leave. I don’t know if Gygax intended this to be simply another optional hidden treasure cache, but clearly it could have been so much more.
Updating the Temple
Since the module was originally written, almost a quarter of a century has passed and today we have so much more inspirational material to draw from which we can use to get a lot more bang out of this simple but very intriguing premise. One old in-depth review of the module that I once read described the deep shaft with the ladder as making the entire temple look like an oil rig when watched from the side, and also associating it with climbing down into a nuclear reactor. In fact, the lowest chamber at the very bottom is filled with a supernatural cold that can only be protected against with special purple robes found in the old rooms of the priests, which cover the entire body. The strange room at the bottom is indeed very much like a reactor, but instead of producing heat and light, it produces darkness and cold. There is also a somewhat hidden treasure compartment which requires the use of two keys that have to be inserted into locks on opposite sides of the altar. Which reminds me a lot of launching a nuclear missile. I like this idea and started to think how this could be expanded on.
The temple is made from black shiny material and the hidden undertemple area is also filled with a supernatural darkness that makes it almost impossible to see. My first association was with the videogame Dead Space, which takes place on a huge disabled space ship on which an alien artifact has driven everyone insane and turned into monsters. Dead Space had been heavily influenced by the movie Event Horizon, which is also about a disabled space ship. The main engine room of the ship consists of a huge black sphere in the center of a circular room with walls covered in spikes, as seen in the picture above. The bottom chamber in the Lost Temple also happens to be a half-sphere with walls described as black needle stone that shreds everything that touches it. I wouldn’t rule it out that one of the concept artists had played or read this module.
Also shown above is the dark energy reactor of the Citadel from the game Half-Life 2. Again, the citadel is made from a shiny black material and the reactor room contains a huge swirling sphere of blackness. It’s not dark, but filled with an agressively bright white light that makes it look very cold. And while I was thinking about cold and descending into seemingly empty places, I also had to think of the LotFP adventure Death Frost Doom.
Now here is my idea how to expand the original module into something much more fleshed out with more story to discover:
- The second level of the temple is described as a very weird and alien environment with obsidian walls that shimmer and twist with hazy purple reflections and various other bizare decorations and optical effects. And the goblins, gnolls, and giants chose this as the place where they sleep, only avoiding the central chappel area where several things cause forms of seeming insanity when touched. It just doesn’t seem right to me that normal goblins and ogres would make this their home. Instead, I would move the central chappel area to a new third level and make the walls on the second level simply smoth and shiny black with nothing explicitly weird going on. It’s a dungeon that looks unlike anything the players have probably seen before, but it’s simply odd; nothing supernatural or alien going on there. In addition to seeming more plausible to me as the monsters are concerned, I think it also helps with establishing a more clear progression of increasing strangeness. The first level is made from dull black stone, the second level from shiny black stone, and the third level from slightly translucent dark purple crystal. When the players reach the hole with the ladder reaching far below the third level, I think there will be a much higher expectation of something even stranger at the bottom.
- The goblins, gnolls, and ogres are led by a giant of exceptional Intelligence and Wisdom. This guy has the potential to be some sort of mastermind, but all he really does is being the biggest bully in a large gang of bullies. He clearly has the potential to see the temple as much more than just a convenient roof over the head and recognize it as a place that holds some kind of ancient great power beneath it. And he might also have the capability to make use of it. He should have come to the temple with a goal, and being too large to climb down the shaft with the ladder, he had to make an alliance with the goblin shamans.
- Below the temple levels is an additional dungeon level. I think this part of the module is pretty lame and serves little purpse. Some considerable reworking is in order, but I don’t have any clear ideas for this yet.
- If the undertemble deep below the surface is the main attraction of the temple, then it makes little sense to make it secret. There should be at least one obvious door to enter the room with the hole, but it could be made quite difficult for the players to open it. The crypts in the dungeon level might be a good place to put a spare key, or the giant or one of the goblin shamans might have one. Probably best to have more than just one option. The other doors leading to the hole can still be secret doors. If the players find them, they won’t have to hunt for a key.
- In the module, the undertemple is a very small area with barely anything in it. I think this needs to be greatly expanded. All light is very weak down there and it’s very hard to see anything. This calls for a small claustrophobic labyrinth. And a very good suggestion someone made is to populate it with the remaining goblins that have been send down by the giant but when completely insane by what they discovered. I first thought of just adding a few frozen corpses to indicate someone had already been down here, but corpses that clearly show the goblins killed each other or themselves are much more better. Plus a couple of raving mad lunatics hiding in the darkness. I probably would remove the shadow demon as it only makes things more complicated than it needs to be, and it’s also the only clearly supernatural creature in the whole dungeon associated with darkness and cold. I like the idea that the threat of this dungeon is more a phenomenon than creatures, and a shadow demon would muddle this up.
- As by the module, the passage to the bottom chamber is opened by using a horn. I think this is a great place to use the idea of the two keys, which are completely underused by just making them unlock a treasure chest. Or better yet, make it three keys, as the whole temple seems to have a thing with the number three. Maybe put two keys somewhere nearby in the undertemple and give the third key to the witch doctor up in the second level. He made it back up with his key after things went bad while his two companions didn’t make it. Once all three keys are turned, the portal opens just as described and a blast of cold air comes up from below.
- And now we finally get to the bottom chamber with the black… thing. The module never really makes it clear what it is, but I think the most common assumption by later writers is that it’s a magic cage that holds Tharizdun. But thinking of Tharizdun as just another god of evil is severely underusing him. I would think of him as a cosmic force of annihilation or something like that. And somehow, in this chamber, it hovers as a big black sphere of dark mist above an altar. Is it a piece of Tharidzun? Is it a portal to Tharidzun? Doesn’t really matter and it’s probably better to not actually say. Somehow the altar contains the destructive power of Tharidzun and keeps it from spreading. The giant send the goblin shamans down to study ways of tapping into that power for some kind of dark sorcery, but without the protective robes used by the ancient priests they were killed by the anti-radiation and the cold and radiation went up the magic passage into the undertemple where it drove their acolytes and guards mad. Instead of going down into the chamber to grab some more loot, the heroes have to go down and close the locks that reactivate the protective runes.
If the players don’t complete the task and leave the temple, the cold and darkness will creep up the hole, fill the temple, and eventually spread out into the valley and throughout the mountains. Any second attempt to reach the temple will require heavy protection against cold and dealing with all kinds of ice monsters that come into existance.
At first I thought making the module into a reactor repair mission would be rather technical and lessen the weirdness. But I think if you give the undertemple a healthy dose of Dead Space, Event Horizon, and Stalker, it can be a damn scary nightmare scenario. You just really have to crank up the darkness and the madness.
6 thoughts on “A Return to the Temple of Tharizdun”
Your timeline is way off. FToT was released in 1982, not 1992, making it 34 years old, not “almost a quarter century”, and 15 years removed from the 1997 film Event Horizon.
*wipes nonexisting glasses*
I also didn’t think that the lower levels of The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun fitted with the upper building, but I came up with quite a different modification. I simply dispensed with the upper sections – which, as you say, is mostly just a drawn-out battle with lots of humanoid monsters – and relocated the rest to be the interior of the Doomgrinder. The occasional movements of the Doomgrinder thus indicate Tharizdun slowly breaking free of his prison – which, if he succeeds, would spell doom! The previous guardian of the place had died without passing his duty on to another, and so the ritual that needs to be regularly enacted to keep Tharizdun imprisoned was no longer being carried out…
I actually quite like the upper level of the temple. I think it makes for a very good contrast when you go down to the lower levels, to make you realize how strange it really is.
I’m currently running FToT set in a Shadowfell version of Greyhawk. (The party figured out they weren’t in the Bandit Kingdoms any more, and made some allies who suggested they might find a way back “home” through what they called the “Obsidian Halls” — my way of disguising my use of the module since my gaming group was playing D&D in 1982 and some may remember this original module by name alone.)
I was surfing/googling for possible images of the various clerical items in the temple and ran across your site. I LOVE your re-imagining of FToT, especially the story of the giant sending down goblins into the lower areas. I never noticed the similarities to a reactor core — great insight! — and I really like the way you suggest that the deeper you go the weirder it gets.
Back in 1982, players were expected to use their own insights and imaginations to “figure out” how to solve puzzles and to avoid the 1-shot death traps that were still a staple of dungeon crawling at that time. 1st edition didn’t have the notion of ability checks and “smart” spellcasters were expected to use a lot of “detect” spells. Also, putting loot like a Cube of Force in a deadly place was simply the style. (No one at that time had been weaned on computer gaming/MMO tropes of abundant and random loot, so most rewards were of the high risk/high reward type.)
That said, I’ve found your re-imagining a breath of fresh air. It may be too late for me to adopt everything you described (players are still knee deep in entry hall combat after three sessions, and they’re loving it) , but you’ve given me a lot of idea “sparks”. Thanks!
I rediscovered a copy of the examination of the module from which I got the idea to treat the Undertemple as a magical reactor. Long winded and needlessly dramaticized, but lots of interesting ideas. Very much worth giving a look while it’s still available.
(Who deletes a site like that just because it’s no longer updated?)