Lost Caverns of Tjocanth (1982)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 6 – 10
The famous S module series stood for ‘Special’, denoting a departure from the usual procedure of adventuring and the ambition to do things differently. Of the original four module run, three of which were written by Gary Gygax, and among them was numbered the legendary Tomb of Horrors, as well as Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the fun-house module White Plume Mountain, and this one. Of the four, Tsojcanth is the most enigmatic, for all its tournament module trappings its conclusion has far reaching implications whose impact is only fully felt in a full-fledged, long-term campaign, and despite some truly imaginative flourishes it somehow ends up feeling the most grounded and normal of the bunch.
The premise is solid S&S. For 10 years the Marches of Perrenland, near the borders of Ket, were held under the evil sway of the Archmage Iggwilv. The source of her boundless might was found in the Lost caverns of Tsojcanth. Eventually her experiments unleashed a demon prince who forever broke her might, and she was vanquished, never to return. It was thought all of her wealth was taken in the chaos, but rumors of a great vault of treasure in the lost caverns remain. Enter le PCs.
The module has both its feet firmly planted in Greyhawk lore and is arguably stronger for it. The scattered allusions, references and hints give the work greater solidity, a context of being embedded into a larger framework. It might require momentary decryption for those seeking to adapt it to their own homebrew campaigns but the end result is surely more effective than having everything be self-contained, wrapped up and as a result, far more artificial?
S4 is perhaps Gygax most ‘normal’ adventure? A crawl through a wilderness area followed by a two floor cavern filled with various monstrosities, the huge number of new monsters notwithstanding. No fancy underworld exploration, complicated faction mechanics and only mild environmental complications.
The overland component is surprisingly good, a partial map of the area is provided, based on previous reconnaissance, and all of the bullshit of assembling the expedition is largely relegated to individual GM fiat, with the Pcs being equipped with some sturdy mountain horses and some simple procedures for grazing, hunting and movement speed. An appreciable amount of effort is spent on ensuring ample starting characters are available, a likely carry-over from its tournament origins.
Overland map is a webwork of trails, branching out into disparate valleys, the final destination of the expedition hidden. The meat and bones of the thing is the random encounters. I mentioned expedition earlier and the term is apt. You face fully equipped patrols of the rivalling kingdoms of the vaguely middle-eastern Ket and the vaguely european Perrenland, entire humanoid tribes, rockslides and avalanches that can kill or block off passageways, and more exotic fare like Wolfweres masquerading as minstrels, a psionic hermit and stone giants playing rock throw. There is an immaculate spread of encounter types, benevolent, hostile, mistrustful, treacherous, indifferent, seemingly belligerent but potentially useful or friendly, it runs through the whole gamut. The result is excitement and continual uncertainty. I feel this spread, more so then the strength of individual encounters, is something that has largely been lost in contemporary OSR work and requires re-affirmation. The theming is centre-of-mass DnD, dwarves and goblins and hill-men. The execution is what counts.
Additional elements worth noting are the recurring use of hard-to-reach or hidden in lair treasure, which is always appreciated, the existence of a friendly but completely statted out stronghold of mountain gnomes that can serve as a potential site for R&R and a vale of hippogriffs being plagued by a group of unscrupulous bandit/trappers led by a half-orc fighter assassin. It seems very hardcore, and can end (but, again, not easily or straightforwardly) with the PCs walking away with several hippogriff mounts. This concept of making the PCs work for their rewards as opposed to dropping it in their laps after they have concluded whatever set piece battle the GM has concocted is another quitessentially Gygaxian element to DnD, one feels. You can coax, via friendliness or speak-with-animals, some of tamed hippogriffs to stay, but even then they must be taken care of, and after that period they must be stowed somewhere until they are full grown in another year. Long-term rewards. Patience. Underutilized.
Description is not threadbare but Gygax is not firing on all cylinders like in GD either. You get the feeling he was more comfortable with relegating a lot of surface details to the individual GM, and was content with giving you bare bones and telling you how it they interacted. The latter, the Gygaxian Naturalism, is also a recurring element. Creatures co-exist within an area and they have relationships. The hill men are vassals to the gnomes. The dwarves want revenge on the tribe of hobgoblins. The trolls in the cave subsist on cave crickets in the next cave. It sounds trite or basic but it cements the notion of a living world, with components that interact and exist independent of player perception.
The meat and bones of Tsojcanth are in the caverns proper, however. As far as mapping goes, both levels of the Cave are admirably non-linear, with an award going to the first level, with its underground river intersecting a third of the map. It comes complete with a current, hostile but slumbering underwater denizens and a 400 ft. waterfall in case you are a moron. This is the sort of stuff that I don’t see enough of in modern DnD. The idea of dungeons incorporating perilous natural hazards. 10 ft. deep water, what the fuck do you do? Build a raft? In a cave? There’s no swimming in armor either, even leather gives you a chance of drowning. Loincloth and dagger in your mouth. That’s interesting. A magic fucking boat somewhere that can sail against the current. Great. Did you catch the subtle detail later in the caverns that allows you to maybe figure out you can shrink the boat and thus carry it back and now you have a shrinking magic boat? Or subtle touches like slippery stone giving you a 1 in 6 of tripping if you run. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
There is also liberal use of tunnels or passageways leading off to optional areas for the GM to explore. I think this might be a good thing? The assumption is that module players are lazy (true!) but you never know when circumstances might change and you might want to re-use something you have made earlier. I think it would be objectionable if Gygax would tease something really wonderous and exciting, possibly more exciting than the caves proper, and then leaves it up the GM to do the heavy lifting. Later on there is the potential for players to get trapped in a strange dimension ruled by some sort of magiocracy that one supposes could quality. Regardless, the open-endedness works, by and large.
Great set piece at the beginning too, immediately sets a mood. Six Stone Faces next to six caverns that all tell the PCs that they are going the wrong way when they are approached. There are gemstones in their mouths, but if the PCs try to reach for them they bite. Immediately engaging. That being said, the Cavern proper suffers a little from ‘monster-in-a-cave’ syndrome. It is individual encounter after individual encounter. Somehow Gygax never managed to inject his caverns with the same higher organization as he did with dungeons (unless you count the D series, which I suppose is a rather sweeping solution to the problem). The most puzzling omission is the lack of random encounters. Did this owe to the tournament module format, or would the combination of these with the labyrinthine geometry of the Caverns slow down progress to an absolute deadstop.
There’s nothing wrong with the encounters proper even if they are on the combat heavy side. Unlike the many imitators there, it’s almost never straightforward combat. Enemies are hidden, attack from unexpected corners, use natural hazards like water or bats and will on occasion interact in a friendly fashion. A band of Pech trying to cut a tunnel to the surface screams at you to put out your lights, what do you do? You have just freed a trapped Marid, he is grateful but also extremely arrogant and impatient. There is a sort of balance to a lot of the noncombat encounters, a way in which even ambiguous characters require fairly delicate interaction or else combat happens as a failure state. Or little ecosystems; the Cave crickets themselves are fairly harmless but alarming them will cause their chirping to attract more potent enemies down the line. The point is that even when designing a dungeon that is essentially PUT ALL DIFFERENT MONSTERS INTO EVERY CAVE AND MAKE MOST OF THEM ATTACK there are flourishes and variations that you can employ to keep everything from getting stale. Liberal use of illusions for misdirection too, nice job. The only drawback is that since the adventure can’t rely on wearing the players down through sequential (random) encounters or the threat of alarm, it relies mostly on brute force. And what fine brute force it is!
This module has more new monsters in it then anything I have seen in a long fucking time. Real fucking asshole monsters too. The infamous Behir, the Dracolisk, the Gorchimera, the Bodak, a band of hostile Dao. Monsters combined with other monsters. Minotaurs riding bulls. Chasmes and Bar-Lurgas. Gas Spores. A lurker above and a Trapper. Extra strength poison Ropers. Brutal encounter after brutal encounter.
The second level is slightly stronger than the first one. There are the obligatory assholish curveballs here too, but there is an excellent set piece cavern that transports the characters to some weird outer plane, requiring them to survive a gauntlet of foes or solve a puzzle. It has the potential to strand them in some other reality and it feels very weird, properly Sword & Sorcery. The other great set piece is the inner sanctum of Igglwiv and its six doors, each of which must be opened before it can be penetrated (which requires 4 people or so, great detail!), and each of which teleports you to a certain room in the Greater Caverns. This creates a real sense of foreboding, build-up, dis-orientation, although the lack of random encounters and the available resting place removes the sting somewhat. Coupled with fairly effective use of riddles throughout the adventure, some of which are hard to find, the adventure sets a mood.
I mentioned S4 is a bit of an odd duck and the ending is no exception. The confrontation with Igglwiv’s Vampiric daughter is all well and good, lethal, wholesome stuff, and the follow up of not one but two guardian monsters (the bizarre Xag-yi and Xeg-Ya) is all good stuff, but the true meat and potatoes is the treasure trove that is discovered in the ancient sanctum. No less then three (3!) major artifacts are among the considerable treasure trove, with enough spells to introduce what is in essence a whole sub-system for the summoning, binding, bargaining and punishing of outer planar denizens in the form of at least half- a dozen high level cleric and wizard spells, most of which would subsequently make it into Unearthed Arcana. The plentiful hooks that are generated by both the Igglwiv’s Demonomicon and the Incomplete but still immensely potent Daoud’s Wondrous Lanthorn and the research involved in discovering all of its powers might end up being more memorable then the adventure proper.
S4 is no slouch when it comes to either challenge or fantasy, and its boast of providing plenty of opportunity for inexperienced players to die is no hollow one, but at the same time it does not quite reach the soaring heights of GD, and it is probably telling that most of its most interesting content (the artifacts, the demology sub-system, the expansive demoic bestiary that goes all the way into the Demon Princes Grazzt, Fraz-Ubluu and Kotchenchie) is material that is introduced only when the adventure is over, or becomes accessible only at much higher levels. Gary is in full form but you don’t get the feeling he is putting the pedal to the medal. Is this because this is an expanded version of a tournament module written 8 years prior? Compared to most things today its very well crafted but a bit…scattershot? on the encounters.There seems little in the way of overarching design. Good to great individual bits strung together with haphazard connectivity. The overland portion is strong but a bit vanilla, and solving the riddle allowing you to expedite the search for the Caverns proper is a classic bit.
Not his strongest, but no slouch either. It comes across like Gygax was in great shape but the idea behind the adventure has not fully cohered. Slightly short of classic territory but still very good.