Hells Own Temple
AD&D (with a strong suggestion that the DM does not allow UA options)
Lvl 10 – 14
One of my pet peeves with much of the modern brand of fantasy (and this extends to 5e as well as Artpunk) is that there is often a lack of classical inspiration. Fantasy is spun from an incomprehensible mishmash of games, books and animu, itself often downstream from older, greater sources until the whole is stripped of weight and resonance. The Esteemed Dr Jonathan ‘I’ll tell you what I think of fucking Deities at low levels’ Becker, you know him from the interminable diatribes in your comments section, you love him for occasionally helpful lore dumps, has seen fit to grace us with something that uses Archtypal imagery to GREAT effect WHILE ALSO attempting to lift the dreaded Curse of Ye High Level Module that has struck down many would be pioneer of this still partially unexplored region of DnD.
The result puts to shame many of the previous attempts in Dungeon Magazine and even the Lair of Maldred the Mighty and certainly brings the fire and brimstone with appropriately Dante-esque intensity but might be a bit straightforward and, perplexingly, a bit too short.
Judging high level AD&D is a bit harder then your average 4-6 level module because of the myriad permutations and combinations of high level spells allow for some nightmarishly tricksy strategies, the sum of which are very difficult for even veteran GMs to foresee and negate, let alone counter. Quick resolution involves either the nullification of large swathes of abilities, or more often, a very large hammer, and JB has chosen an appropriately weighty solid black iron maul, to bludgeon us back into place if we get overconfident. I beg the reader to indulge my unfathomable stupidity should I fail to foresee some common stratagem at the 10-14 level, as this is mostly new ground for me.
Premise as a salespitch is spectacularly good. 3000 FUCKING CRUSADERS have laid siege to A TEMPLE OF HELL ON AN ISLAND AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. Only 200 return, laden with spoils, their leader dead and news of Victory on their lips. DARE YE FUCKING FOLLOW. YES. YES I WILL FUCKING TRAVEL TO THE RUINED CATHEDRAL OF HELL AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD WHAT ELSE DO I FUCKING DO AT LEVEL 10-14?!?
Rumor table is absent, but the hook, the suggestion to place an artifact of Good like the Cup & Talisman of Al’akbar in the damn thing, seems fitting for the place. The first challenge is the far sea journey, and here the module covers a plethora of interesting possibilities, from teleportation (risky if you have not seen its shores, but then again we can probably scry) to chartering a ship (last place of supply a mere 150 miles away) to the chad Astral travel. There is no nerfing, only an increased chance of running into Devils while doing so.
Speaking of which, getting to the island feels almost too easy compared to the tempo of the rest of the adventure. Normally the benevolent DM at the high levels will smilingly throw a Dragon turtle, Bi-polar Black Dragon, hurricane force storm or the SMS Bismarck at players that don’t take appropriate precautions.
The second omission is a rudimentary map of the island. Something to allow us to quickly glimpse the distance between the only fordable beach on the island, an entrance to a network of caverns filled with giant crabs and poisonous spiders (abstracted via random encounters, which I think might be a missed opportunity but it IS understandable as players are as likely to ignore it altogether and geographically it would have to be miles long to end up underneath the lower cathedral).
The island proper has one relevant encounter, but I think an opportunity is missed to set the stage and do some foreshadowing. You and your buddies just arrived in Mordor after Sauron has been narrowly curbstomped by the Greatest Host assembled in The Age, what does that look like? We get a factual description of the contents of the island, the smashed statuary, the burnt harbor, the plantations that are now overgrown but we don’t FEEL IT. This is the closest we get to it: Sitting atop a high hill of bare stone, its enormous structure of cyclopean blocks dominates the coastline, glowering down at the burned town over which it once presided. This is surprising because once you get into the dungeon proper the place becomes HELLA atmospheric.
One relevant overland encounter, and it’s a dirtbag one. A 3rd level LE ftr named Hagar posing as a crusader that’s been left behind, looking for a way back. Trick is, he has an 11th level Half-Orc Wife with arrows of slaying and a ring of invisiblity and boots of elvenkind “ made from the skins of dead elves.” Her charisma is 9 compared to Hagar’s 7, which means that Hagar overperformed even in the looks department and might be the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive. Uh digressions aside, a good dirtbag encounter to whet everyone’s appetite for the pain to follow.
Speaking of maps, the Cathedral proper, while appropriately large for a Temple to HELL (380 ft), is a mere 5 rooms, with 18 encounters spread across several interlocked caverns. The decision to move to 20 ft. squares for mapping purposes is a good one, but I am missing something of the dynamism of larger maps. There’s a second entrance via the Beach Cave, which is cool, and there’s great use of a natural feature (a 200 ft pit) to give you the impression of great depth. If you are going for something like a quest into hell this the map should reflect it. Huge natural features, obstacles, caverns. An attempt at a high level supernatural obstacle is done, the bizarre Paradise room with its formations and pillars of natural stone is noted as being IMPOSSIBLE to navigate unless the PCs have light, but is this a concern for 10-14 characters with access to light spells? This section is a bit puzzling, but interesting. I also don’t quite know how much having a pool of mineral water that causes cramps if you don’t purify it first will affect PCs of level 10-14.
So the first thing I love about Temple of Hell is that it understands how to set a mood. You enter the temple. No monsters. Idols and windows smashed. Debris everywhere. There’s 3000 gp worth of chandeliers and gemstones just lying in the rubble LEFT BEHIND. Stairway down, a similar story BUT ALSO GREAT DOORS HAVE BEEN SEALED WITH A SILVER CIRCLE. You already know the trope, the classic trope of an expedition setting out to slay great evil and they really only cleared out the upper levels and sealed off the entrance because it was the best they could do. YES. Also a Brass Bell that if touched, does this:
Touching the bell sounds a deep, reverberating knell. At the sound, spectral apparitions materialize from the darkened alcoves. These 19 SPECTRES (HD 7+3, HPs 40, MM89) are the hell-bound slaves of the Temple’s most devout followers. Their chief, wrapped in gloom and shadow, extends the bell-ringer the “peace of night” and asks how they can be of service. Answers that would seem to indicate a lack of diabolic devotion will, of course, result in battle.
There are a few ways to do High Level Encounters that do not involve into a sort of perpetual arms race of making up stronger creatures with even bigger hit points. You get the dirtbag way, which is a normal monster but used in an unbelievably assholish way that is difficult for the PCs even with almost limitless superpowers to counteract (i.e. the mind-flayer with silence and invisibility and an amulet of the sphere using the Sphere of Annihilation in a room with 5 ft corridors) or you rely on brute force and you just use a lot. Hell’s Own Temple is not afraid to throw LARGE GROUPS OF CREATURES at the players. I like this. The former method often feels like a cheap shot, even if bypassed, while the latter, even if somewhat blunted by adequate recoinnassance and hit-and-run tactics, at least has the feel of a great undertaking. There’s one later on where you confront the mummified 1st Highpriest and 38 Mummies crowned with cursed amulets, their tomb doors opening as soon as the Priest stands up from his throne. HOLY SHIT is the usual response. I suspect the defenders are a bit handicapped by a lack of organization or co-ordinated resistance, meaning they can expect to face the PCs while they are well rested, properly kitted out and fully engorged, which is not an enviable place to be if you are the badguys. I would recommend greater attrition, anything from a time-bound level drain, extreme cold, poisons, diseases, curses etc. to incentivize the PCs to not do that. You see occasional nods to that, tonnes of mummies and spectres, a brutal curse that causes perma con-loss, but most of them are just BIG, HARD encounters.
Their lack of co-ordination notwithstanding, the usual flaw of only having combat encounters is avoided. Dragons attempt trickery, devils are hidden behind illusions (I almost EXPECT illusions, very few mythical odysseys are without this sort of trickery), an imp attempts to join up with the party and get the fuck out. This breaks up the showdowns with Pit Fiends, an Ancient Dragon (that uses a VERY dirty trick of pointing the PCs in the wrong direction, then collapsing the tunnel behind them with lightning breath). Indeed, the last encounter is lightly to see at least a little negotiation, unless your PCs are the type to just jump into a melee with 26 Horned Devils (these should have had an order of battle I think).
Speaking of which, I should re-emphasize once more the atmospheric strength of the encounters. There is something of the archtypical in them. It really feels like you are walking into Hell. Great Vault doors guarded by a single Knight of Hell in burning armor. The eternally damned. Encounters reek of the opulence and infinite cruelty of Hell. Fire Giants, nourished by eternal flame, attended by starving hell-hounds. Oubliettes where no light shines. Pits of eternal flame.
2 FIRE GIANTS (HD 11+5, HPs 72, 62, M44) tend the Eternal Flame in silence; they are its priestly servants tasked with maintaining vigilance. Bare to the waist (except for their gold), each wields a brass-shod club of tree trunk proportions in defense of the Flame. They hope to have their devotion rewarded (in about three centuries) with transfiguration: both are meant to become pit fiends. They no longer use, nor remember, their names
Ridiculous amounts of treasure and powerful magic items. Level appropriate. Below is not the largest hoard. Hoards are liberally sprinkled with cursed items so you keep your guard up, but traps are very rare to non-existant.
Treasure: A chalk-dusted portable hole lies folded beneath one of the many loose stones (this particular one weighs 200#). Inside is 200,000cp, 270,000sp, 41,000ep, 149,000gp, 9,600pp, four gold bracelets shaped like coiled snakes (4 x250gp), five thin gold diadems set with emeralds (5×4,000gp), six jewel encrusted gold breastplates (6 x2,500gp), seven silver and lapis necklaces (7 x1,500gp), a diamond-studded platinum crown and matching scepter (50,000gp and 40,000gp, respectively), a necklace of platinum and turquoise set with a thumb-sized diamond (15,000gp), two matching girdles of cunningly forged gold and platinum ingots set with rubies (20,000gp each), and six ivory tusks (6 x500gp).
The ending has a strong archetypical feel but then falls a little short. You enter what is essentially a fucking forest of gemstones that forms the shores of A LAKE OF FIRE that is the Gateway to hell. The 26 devils cavorting in the lake seek to restore their Temple of hell. I suppose there are worse things to bargain with then several thousand gemstones. You probably want to avoid getting hit with 26 triple strength walls of fire in round 1. There is a frozen cave beyond the lake, with a shadowy figure wrapped in utter cold. A method is described of freeing the figure, but no further resolution takes place. Is it Leviticus? Geryon? Is it Lucifer himself? We are left with a cliffhanger.
This is dope, I’d be very interested to see how well it holds up in actual play. It’s a bit uneven in places, and could use some elaboration (I highly recommend a little island map to keep track of all the exits and entrances). I’m looking at either some higher organization, some faction play, or something that puts more sustained pressure on the players when they venture into Hell’s Own Temple. Still, if someone is going to do high level, you should at least bring the THUNDER, and Hell’s Own Temple does that.