[Review] S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (AD&D); Enigma

[Adventure]
Lost Caverns of Tjocanth (1982)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 6 – 10

The Lost Caverns Of Tsojcanth (advanced Dungeons & Dragons Module S4): Gary  Gygax: 9780935696721: Books - Amazon.ca



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.

****


31 thoughts on “[Review] S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (AD&D); Enigma

  1. Okay, I think I’m asking a dopey question, but “GD”? Is that Good King Despot? What, probably real simple, acronym am I missing? Thanks for the review!

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  2. Another strong review of a classic that manages to do something more than just rehash what everyone else has already said. I like this one more than you do, mostly for the outdoor section. That part was added by Gygax when the original tournament dungeon was expanded and is something we hadn’t really seen from him before (the outdoor section of B2 is too small to count IMO) and really brings an added level of depth and makes it feel more like part of a campaign and less like a one-off tournament gimmick. I like the dungeon too for its flavor and the strength of some of the individual encounters but agree that it doesn’t hang together as well as Gary’s best dungeons and betrays a little too much of its mid-70s tournament origins (it’s half naturalistic but still half-funhouse).

    I assume you’re also going to review the quasi-sequel, WG4? As much as I like this one, that one is even better (and also represents Gygax’s most mature module design work for TSR, as everything published later – EX1&2, WG5&6, and T1-4) were all reworkings of earlier material while WG4 was freshly created in 1981 as part of the playtest run of the S4 expansion).

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    1. The first thing I think of with Gygaxian classics is what fun they are in play, and S4 might be the ultimate thrill ride. Combining this with almost a whole new monster manual, Greyhawk lore, and a huge expansion of spells and things demonic. I’d push this up to five stars.

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    2. I get the veneration for it, and encounter-wise it’s really strong but there is some nagging feeling that it’s missing something. Perhaps I don’t get it? The overland section is very good. I will absolutely be checking out the quasi-sequel!

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  3. Ran this back in the day when I was a dick DM, which is perfect as it’s the apex of my group’s definition of Minster Hotel, with absolutely no fucking reasonable ecology whatsoever. Almost every new monster was lethal and frankly I’d have hated to be on the other side of the screen. Now I have the urge to read it again with, hopefully, a more mature eye.

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    1. It is well worth another look. I have seen three criticisms of this module: (i) too many new deadly monsters; (ii) no way the monsters can logically co-exist; (iii) not enough traces of Iggwilv. Your recollections seem to be (ii) with a bit of (i). This is a forgotten place steeped in ancient magic, so I absolve the module of (i); as Prince notes, there are dungeon vermin and empty spaces, therefore monster ecology is reasonably well explained. Perhaps (iii) is more justified, although there is the magnificent final encounter. With a couple more well crafted “layers of history” areas, I think S4 could approach the atmosphere/sense of foreboding of the hidden areas in WG4.

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    2. Monster Hotel was the word I was missing, thank you.

      I should probably note that since I started reviewing Gygax regularly my standards have increased once more so I don’t actually think B5 is better then, say, G2 or S4. I’ll try to figure out some sort of multi-tiered rating system or convert to a Hagiography once I have enough material for a (more or less) complete picture.

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      1. May I recommend that you review the Greyhawk whimsy trilogy of Child’s Play, Puppets and Gargoyles next? I guarantee that the item you review after that will appear to be a work of genius, even if you picked up a restaurant menu by mistake.
        The Gygaxian classics were a platinum seam that hasn’t been bettered; I wouldn’t worry about throwing around the five star ratings.

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    1. Isle is absolutely coming. I should note the overland portion doesn’t have the same problem as the caves proper and all of the individual encounters in Cave are VERY good, but yeah, it doesn’t hang together as well.

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  4. Another fine review. For those wanting more interaction, you might introduce rival adventuring parties sponsored by Ket or Perrenland. I can remember a couple of plays: in the first, someone’s beloved elven fighter/magic-user got a clobbering from the clay golem; in the second the bodak picked off a PC; in both the finale was a bloodbath, with the few survivors very rich indeed. I think this is the module that has the silver layer on a bag of platinum trick; one set of players shovelled it all into bag of holding, and got an agreeable surprise later. It almost came to blows with the treasure tax collectors; there was a very swift departure from Bissel.
    Grodog has a very informative Greyhawk site with much S4 lore. The only summoning spell not in the new spells list is the high level and dangerous “Summon the Alehouse”, but as Trent is here already, he will protect us?

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  5. You failed to mention that S4 was the first use of Jeff Easley as an illustrator. His pen and inks in this module are fantastic and perhaps the best artwork a D&D module has ever seen before or after. (Too bad Easley’s style would slowly devolve over the years into a muddy mash of orange and red smears.)

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  6. A good review, Prince…though I’d probably also bump this up to 5* myself. The module is an excellent example for its level range, and while it’s probably uber-deadly for your average 5th level party, it’s definitely challenging (and plenty rewarding!) for PCs in the 7-10 range. The long-term campaign consequences (especially for folks who don’t use UA) are amazing.

    I’ve owned this one probably since when it was first published (waaaay back in the day…); however, I can only ever remember running it once. As a kid at the time, my DM chops weren’t fantastic and I skipped almost the entirety of the wilderness section: we used our own campaign world (not Greyhawk) so the background material meant little to us and our skills of “adaptation” were poor. Even so, the adventure itself was solid enough. The party was reduced to two PCs who abandoned the caves for easier fare without ever making it to the lower caverns.

    Reading this post definitely puts me in the mood to dust it off and give it another go…though I’ll wait for my home group to get a couple-three more levels.
    ; )

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    1. Man I wished I played something like this back when I started, although teenage us probably would have found a way to screw it up. I remember everyone got super snobbish about modules at around the early 2000s, perhaps this was a common thing?

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      1. RE module snobbery

        I think there was a bit of a “D&D diaspora” that occurred circa 1990, and not just because 2E was published with a bunch of…mmm…less-than-quality adventures. Kids that started with Basic books (Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer) had grown old enough to move on to more “adult” things (college, dating, jobs, whatever) that occupied time once devoted to gaming but ALSO new types of RPGs saw a rise in popularity: White Wolf and all its ilk.

        [in my time at university…1991-95…I hung out with MANY gamers who’d cut their teeth on D&D. However, NONE of us played it, after 1989, instead doing the Rifts, Vampire, Ars Magica, Call of Cthulhu circle ’round]

        When you consider that there were very few “new” AD&D modules published during 1E’s largest point of popularity (1979-1986) and the decline in general quality post-Gygax, is it any wonder that the same modules were played by EVERYONE of the time, creating a common touchstone of nostalgia for long-timers? Tomb of Horrors was on the shelf CONTINUOUSLY (with the same trade dress) up till the release of 2E. The later Dragonlance modules (and even later 1E adventures…like Bloodstone) appear to have been done in much smaller print runs and much more limited release; same with the 2E stuff. Die Vecna Die was on the table at my local game shop for a month or two and then never seen again…same holds true for a LOT of late adventure modules once TSR went hardcore with the paperback novel push.

        So it may not just be “snobbery” so much as a lack of familiarity. Gamers can debate the relative merits (and flaws) of ToH or White Plume Mountain or Tsojcanth because so many of us have EXPERIENCED them…either as DMs, players, and/or collectors/consumers. The same can’t be said of most published adventures post-1988 unless they had a strong marketing presence (like WotC’s Forge of Fury, or Mines of Phandelver which was published WITHIN the 5E introductory set and thus coincided with the most recent D&D resurgence).

        That being said…there are certainly reasons to criticize (and lambast) many of the later modules. And I think that comes with a deeper understanding of the whats and whys of how D&D functions. Many of the early adventures (like Tsojcanth) provide a blueprint for better adventure writing, even if they themselves lack “perfection.”
        ; )

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      2. Your reviews are, of course, your own. However, I can’t help but notice (since I just read it again at 4am this morning) that you gave 4* to Ravenloft (and a chef’s kiss!). Clearly there appears to be some incredible douchebaggery going on because there is really no way I6 compares to S4…my mind all but explodes when I compare the two side-by-side.

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      3. Picture the **** bracket as a broad scale containing everything from the 4.0 to the 4.9 and the 5 as the narrow tip, permitting only the platonic, the absolutely sublime, the transcendent. Clearly S4 is superior to I6, but do I then downgrade I6 to the level of -gasp- EX 1 (come to think of it this might not be so unjust as it first appears)? What do I do about the older reviews that I did when my mind had not yet been uplifted to such new and soaring heights? I guess I can do some sort of end of year synchronization and see if anything deserves to get kicked down or up or whathaveyou. I’m going to at least downgrade Mines Claws & Princesses and Horror on the Hill to a 4 and Winter’s Daughter to a ***. Maybe Lichway to a 5? Thulian Echoes and Swordthrust get to stay.

        One must keep in mind the Bene Gesserit Axiom, that truth suffers from too much analysis.

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      4. I appreciate this and won’t belabor the point overmuch. Just to be clear, I felt you were far too generous with the Ravenloft rating, not (necessarily) too stingy with Tsojcanth, especially considering what you get in the former (and leaving aside its legacy, good and bad).

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  7. Nice review. Makes me want to take out my old copy. Thanks and keep it up. The point above is correct: these original modules teach how to create solid adventures.

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