C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980)
Harold Johnson & Jeff R. Leason (TSR)
Lvl 5 – 7
The most famous tomb adventure ever to grace the hobby is unquestionably Tomb of Horrors. Though it is in quality sublime and supremely fit for its unique purpose, the legions of imitators it would inspire were ultimately detrimental to the hobby, pushing all manner of wretched design principles such as heavy-handed curtailment of spells, gruesomely lethal and untelegraphed death traps, and generally dull and stilted tomb design. But for the would be masons of today there is hope. For in the hallowed halls of ancient TSR, another Tomb was forged.
C1 Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is based on a tournament module released the year before at Origins and concerns the exploration of an ancient pseudo-Aztec  tomb complex located in the impenetrable jungles of the southern continent. While evading pursuit, the characters trigger a cave-in and find themselves immured in the sunken catacombs beneath the Ziggurat proper. Even worse, the air in the Catacomb is poisonous, meaning the characters must either swiftly find an exit, or perish in the attempt! What follows is an exotic and frenetic obstacle course, where the characters encounter all manner of traps, creatures and puzzles in their bid to reach the exit.
The dungeon proper has been expanded somewhat from its tournament origins, featuring an additional 3 levels (each considerably smaller then the 38 locations of the 1st!) devoid of the killing gas, a random encounter table, as well as the option of starting at a different location and exploring the place in a more organic fashion, although in the opinion of the reviewer doing so would do great violence to the strength of the initial premise and arguably ruin much of its intricate design. W.r.t. the lethality of the gas and the hit points of the characters (40-50 max), 1-6 damage per turn might be on the harsh side when it is combined with possible damage from fights and the complete lack of healing potions among the treasure, but to the module’s credit one of the premades is a high level cleric and clever use of slow poison mitigates some of the worst effects. A list of random encounters is furnished for use if the Tournament variant is not employed, along with some suggestions for increasing or decreasing the difficulty, and an elaborate score-chart.
When examined on its own merits, C1 is a virtuoso display of oldschool game design, emphasizing broadly applicable problem solving and dealing with unknown situations over system mastery. It is difficult but at the same time accessible in that best of ways. You get the idea that the player must use his wits and finely honed instinct of danger to survive. The option of tinkering with the premade character spell selection if one is running it as a one-shot as well as the real time limit seems fitting. C1 can be harsh, but it is fair, and nowhere near the power of Tomb of Horrors.
Tombs are about as quintessentially D&D as one can get but at the same time they suffer from something of a bad reputation because they are often essentially static environments; disjointed rooms populated with undead, constructs and traps with the odd puzzle thrown in for variety’s sake, a far cry from the better organized, more dynamic humanoid or cult lair assaults. While C1 is still essentially a set of disconnected rooms, it compensates for this with the strength of its individual encounters and the aforementioned atmosphere. Boxed text, an OSR bete noir, is herein used effectively to convey these otherwise very complex rooms, to the point that I am hereby advocating for its return. OSR WRITERS? BRING BACK GOOD BOXED TEXT.
Forget the almost funhouse starkness of Tomb of Horrors. C1 is a fantastic case study for the idea that atmosphere and gameplay can be welded together into a seamless whole. A mythical atmosphere saturates the entire work. Jewelry of jade, obsidian, gold and silver. Unique monsters drawn from south-american mythology are combined with well-curated selections from the monster manual with some mild twists, making the whole feel delightfully exotic. The usual over-reliance on undead is avoided (though they certainly make their appearance), and instead we face a talking cray-fish guardian, a were-jaguar guardian with a statue spell, two evil monks that have been kept in suspended animation for 5000 years, a talking Giant slug that will boast of the dooms he will inflict on the characters while he fights them and a beautiful but evil nereid. Xipe Totec re-imagined as an ogre mage. Many of these guardians can be bypassed, avoided, cowed into submission or otherwise dealt with without resorting to combat, which in the tournament version is almost always a bad option given the time limit. Interaction is frequent. Combat as failure state is more then a poorly understood meme here.
So too the treasure, an ornate cornucopia of beads, opal, jade discs, crystal and gold death masks. Everything is couched in this ornate, almost baroque atmosphere, often based on mesoamerican myth, nothing feels generic. A tomb room filled with maquettes of a tiny city, walls lavishly decorated with carvings, sculptures of eagles, jaguars and idols of bat gods. All of it artfully concealed, or warded with myriad traps, curses, magic guardians or bizarre tricks. Absolute classical tomb traps, like the room slowly filling with sand, or a trigger that will cause a panel to close off a room trapping all within, are all present, but they are transposed to a milieu that is alien even decades later. A pit spanning the hallway, with bronze rods above it, and plants that fire darts at anyone trying to leap across. Every room is a new challenge, potentially deadly. Sometimes it really is better to simply avoid them or find an alternate route. There is an artful cruelty to some of the encounters too. Picture this: A wall of fire leaps up behind the first character to enter, burning all who stand on the opposite side. At the same time, a Doppelganger tries to kill the character, and if he succeeds, take his place. There is a perfect balance between rewarding players who are thorough and search in the right places, and punishing players that are too slow. The amounts are low but parsed out frequently, a steady dripfeed. For characters of levels 5-7 the totals are even a bit on the low side.
By modern standards the boxed text is quite long, as are the room entries. Speedreading in the middle of an adventure might require some practice and study beforehand is required. Yet at the same time, when we compare rooms from Taomachan to contemporary entries, we discover there is perhaps a reason for this inordinate length. There is simply a lower limit to the amount of complexity that can be fitted into one room and in an effort to fulfill a demand for increasing simplicity this complexity was eventually sacrificed. Take room 42. There’s a mirror in front of the room that will trap anyone looking into it into a fugue state while they fight their illusory doppelganger in a dream realm until they die, are victorious, or are rescued. Then there are several other treasures with several other traps. Then there is the invisible coatl on a cross-shaped dais with 4 sets of stairs, speaking in a ghostly voice, informing the characters they have been poisoned, and that only the jar under the crystal dome on the dais holds the antidote, but he also poses them a three part riddle. The prize for beating the challenge are three unique ‘items’, the Balance of Harmony, The Mirror of the Past and a Death’s Servant, that follows the character around and absorbs one otherwise fatal blow or spell. Rooms are rich and have multiple, often layered elements.
There are even, some might baulk, a rare few riddles and simple puzzles, very unobtrusive in a way that it feels natural, though for the most part C1’s obstacles fall on the organic part of the spectrum. Having to find a key embedded in a bas relief that opens a great door (that can also be bashed open, or its hinges removed, but this either takes longer or will cause damage) is a great example of the sort of sophistication that goes into it. Secret doors are almost always telegraphed too. It is a refined machine, elaborate and rich to the point of being overwhelming, but ultimately simply a set of excellent encounters that must be understood individually but that do not have a great amount of interconnectedness. Keying is placed so the GM starts reading before characters blunder into a door or encounter, a problem I have run into before.
Presentation, a factor often disdained on this blog because it is so often used as a substitute for good quality writing, is here used to propel an already exemplary work into the stratosphere. Lavish full page illustrations, the one thing still missing from the OSR, convey the at times baroque room descriptions in gorgeous linework that can be instantly absorbed. Just fucking look at it.
There is not much to criticize about C1, it is exactly what it wants to be, an exotic sojourn into the twilight realm of the Olmec afterlife. A blend of the archetypal and the exotic. The concluding fight at the end of the first section is perhaps a bit underwhelming when compared to the ancient wights, monks, giant slugs or weretiger, but at the same time it feels like a last stretch, the final threat before one can go home, and the fight is likely to take place against severely depleted characters. An Amphisbaena and 4 baboons. Pity the fool who dies to the Baboons!
The 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors, while still quite good, lack a bit of the tightness of the first part, and their geometry is constrained. The secret tombs on these parts are also telegraphed less well to the point the characters might need to rely on the Wand of Secret Door detection that is carried by one of the Pre-mades, or perhaps if they find the desiccated remnants of the potion of Treasure finding and mix it with wine they might find their way to one of the more obscure tombs.
The thing that struck me with C1, as I went over its occasional smart use of verticality, read every lovingly decorated, perfectly playable encounter and get immersed in its strange mixture of the exotic and the archetypal, is how much we can still learn from the best of efforts of those that have gone before us. Flavor and playability need not be at odds (something I hope is carried over to my own humble effort), but are instead companions, serving to enrich an experience that is already intense. An adventure that tests the primary dungeon crawling muscles, and tests them in ways that are as varied and countless as the stars in the sky. Try to swat an animated rubber ball into a goal barely a foot wide. Sneak past countless fire-beetles, only to almost be squashed by a rolling millstone. Dive away in fear as stepping on a pressure plate reveals a hidden hatch with a dragon inside, or is it but a statue?
Though by no means easy, C1 is one of those modules that I would feel comfortable running for both interested novices and veterans of roleplaying games. Although its extensive girth means it will require some preparation before it can be run, it is absolutely worth it. A certified classic, well worth playing and replaying.