No Artpunk Entry #12: Hells Own Temple

The harrowing of hell” van Hieronymus Bosch als poster | Posterlounge
The Harrowing of Hell, Hieronymous Bosch



Hells Own Temple
Jonathan Becker
10 pages
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.   

Temple of Elemental Evil ye ain’t


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.

The long road to hell. Somewhere someone can map this in 3D



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.


16 thoughts on “No Artpunk Entry #12: Hells Own Temple

  1. As my own groups entered their lower “teens” I am looking forward to reading that module! Sounds like that one assumes 6+ characters?

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    1. “…for 6 to 8 player characters of 10th to 14th level.”

      Of course, I assume PCs of that level will be bringing some trusted henchfolk to the party, as well as a ship of fools…er, sailors, mercs, and assorted hirelings. Though these latter NPCs will probably be eaten by the local fauna while the main party explores the under caverns.

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    1. Many corpses were, of course, incinerated in battle with diabolic forces, but the ruined town and watch tower might still be littered with the skeletons of the fallen. The background of the adventure is that the original expedition took place seven years prior, so many of the fallen have been carried off and devoured by the island’s predators (carnivorous apes and shaggy tigers).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s one hell of a hook, pun not intended but happily taken. It’s also a great scale for a hellgate, the Houska Castle that’s needed to be built around this one is a lot bigger than the real one.

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  3. Apologies for not responding sooner; yesterday, I was busy starting the Counter-Reformation.
    ; )

    Thanks for the review. Regarding the “shortness” of the adventure (some might call this “brevity,” O Prince), you’re seeing me trying to hold to the scale of the contest: a couple level dungeon of 20-30 encounters. The original concept was going to be the high level PCs actually BRINGING THE ASSAULT to a fully populated island, but as I started writing up the garrison town that surrounded the place, I realized it was just too big for the task that’d been given. So I cut it WAY back, and jumped it forward in time to be a salvage mission. If it weren’t for the contest rules, I’d probably elaborate more, and would certainly include at least a couple more variant monsters and treasures.

    Most of the writing was done over 2 or 3 days (I was really pressed for time this summer), so that also accounts for some of the mis-beats and disjointedness. I agree that the adventure seems to lack pressure (the wandering ghost was a last-minute add that was meant to help in this regard), but I really wanted to create an adventure that tested the limits and drained the resources of a high level party without “nerfing” their abilities.

    However, it’s also meant to punish the unwary. A water source within the caverns is (logistically) something to take advantage of…this one is a double threat (heat and disease) but one that’s potentially rewarding to clever players (a low level purify spell will allow PCs to save a high level spell slot that might be used for create water). The eternal flame provides a ready source of light, but also makes PCs reliant on torches (if they go that route) which can be dropped/lost, etc. There are logistical questions to be answered by the party, choices to be made…the sheer distance of the island from their home base should preclude easy answers.

    Still…probably not enough, given that PCs can rest and regain spells like cure disease, etc. The whole place probably needs to be haunted by wandering wraiths (one of the few Lawful Evil monsters I didn’t add to the adventure)…bound souls slain by violence and chained to the light of the Eternal Flame, or something.

    My maps are all based on actual, real world locations. The island is roughly the size of Orcas Island, but shaped a bit more like Easter Island (which is comparable)…I abandoned that map when I cut the adventure down. The ruined temple is based on the National Cathedral in D.C. The caverns are laid out nearly exactly like the Lewis & Clark Caverns that my family spent a day exploring; only the dimensions (and contents) of some caves have been altered. Yes, there is a real “Paradise Room” (and it is called such).

    [here’s an isometric map: https://www.flickr.com/photos/grabadonut/539151257%5D

    Much of the idea and inspiration for the island came from Yellowstone National Park whose gorgeous paint pots and prismatic springs resemble supernatural hellscapes in the middle of summer. The temple mound is the ridge that overlooks Old Faithful.

    RE: factions and dirt bags

    There was definitely more “faction play” when the adventure was an assault on a living, breathing temple (with a priesthood and town groups…the mercs, the slavers, the assassins, etc.). There are still NPCs to interact with (Hagar and Bronna don’t have to be a combat encounter…but if the PCs kill Hagar, Bronna becomes another applier of “pressure” as she will be hunting the party). Evil parties might decide to set-up shop…or at least barter/bargain with the denizens. The imp is his own faction, as is the dragon, and the ghost. But, yeah, it’s hard to get much conversation with the undead or a pit fiend (“foolish mortal worm!”).

    RE: bringing the hammer

    The size of the encounters are scaled to (roughly) the same level of difficulty. Roughly. Order of battle is (IMO) fairly self-explanatory, but I did run out of time with the final group of malebranche. But…really? You’re going to initiate combat with two dozen teleporting, flying greater devils in a cavern where they have room to maneuver? Hope everyone’s resistant to fire.

    Because of the nature of devils, there’s no real way to stealth encounters and if (God forbid) the imp ends up coordinating the devil groups the party is a bunch of dead ducks. Taken individually, each encounter is a hammer that will drain resources and require recovery. The idea of a need to “ramp up” in an adventure is a bit of a myth: parties generally get weaker the farther they push in to a dungeon (from attrition)…but smart players will, at least, find time (and ways) to recover between encounters. Or they’ll die. The trick is to keep tempting them to overextend themselves. Promises of rich treasure troves are good in this regard.

    With high level adventurers, you really have no reason to pull punches.

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  4. Are there any restrictions on passwall spells? That is a well known trick for avoiding doorway traps/dangerous chambers. Are there any encounters with souls in torment, repeating sins (to turn the Dante up to 11)?
    Sounds like a worthy submission, both for the material covered and having the courage to tackle high levels. D and D can handle combats with large numbers fairly well, and there is plenty of precedent for challenging high level PCs with large numbers of tough but not awesome creatures. You can get minced in the troll caves in G3 (having memorised very few fire spells) for example, with a group of similar power.

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    1. There are no restrictions on passwall spells. Bring ’em. How many 5th level spell slots are you going to spend?

      There are very few “souls” left on the island; almost all found will be bound to some cursed undead form, having been given the “blessing” of serving as half-living eternal slaves for their diabolic overlords. I suppose that’s a form of torment.

      Most of the island’s hell-worshipping inhabitants had their souls dragged off to their “final reward” after being put to the knife by Valkar’s crusaders. Space restrictions prevented me from detailing their current state of existence, but there is a gateway to hell in the adventure, and DMs are free to develop their own diabolic environments for PCs willing to brave it.
      ; )

      The encounters are rather grueling. Barbed devils are a tad more vicious than trolls. High level parties better bring their “A” game, and a lot of protection from fire.

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  5. Fair enough regarding Passwall. It is a high level spell, therefore if it is used wisely it should be bringing great benefit to the party.
    A thought regarding discouraging multiple small assaults by the PCs: the devils reorganise after each attack, it is all a bit different. Maybe barbed devils are supported by a pit fiend or two, walls of fire splitting the party up. And as well as needing to be fire resistant, if a fair number of PCs don’t have free action and have even a small chance of failing a save against spells, multiple hold person spells can prove troublesome.

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    1. Yeah, so…remember the part where I said, “don’t pull your punches” with high level characters? You don’t.

      Let the PCs take whatever precautions they want. Let them take rests (if they can get them) let them use passwall spells, “resistance to fire,” whatever. Let them bring their vorpal swords and small armies of henchmen.

      And then enforce the rules without mercy.

      Pit fiends get a psionic blast attack that’s going to happen at the speed of thought. Devils teleport without error…none should be in melee range unless they WANT to be. Devils use illusions at will…confuse and confound the party (are they going to spend their action for the round “disbelieving” they’re in a cage of thorns or whatever?). Barbed devils “cast [opponents] into one of the many cells to be tormented;” use the DMG grappling rules (barbed devils are naked, 7′ tall and built like Meyers Leonard…about 260#). That’s going to be a pretty rough go for most PCs (and there are plenty of lightless oubliettes for the BDs to cast their prisoners). All devils generate fear; all devils can animate dead. Most are immune to non-silver, non-magic weapons, so if a party makes the mistake of bringing a small army of men-at-arms, things could turn into a real shit-show.

      That’s without the devils gating in new devils.

      Each encounter in H.O.T. provides a different tactical challenge. The mummies may be the easiest, actually (though they have their own inbuilt trap for unwary victors). Each should prove difficult in their own way (those fire giants inflict CRUSHING BLOW saves with every THAC0 9 hit…see DMG p.80). Players will need to bring all the “juice” they can muster to survive each…and if they DO survive (because of good preparation and tactics or just good luck) they should feel GREAT about it.

      Until they get hit with the next encounter.
      ; )

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