[Review] C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (AD&D 1e); Beautification

[Adventure]
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 [1] 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.

Look at that fucking beauty.

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.

Extremely awesome artwork


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.

No seriously look at it!
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!

Pardon me but this is clearly Dr. Strange trying to enchant a tiny Olmec Ziggurat guarded by an invisible GIANT Coatl.


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.

*****

[1] Olman


25 thoughts on “[Review] C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (AD&D 1e); Beautification

  1. A strong adventure well reviewed. It is one of those modules where the atmosphere seems genuine, a proper feel of Mesoamerican myth, not just a veneer of it. The pre-generated characters are well drawn. I agree treasure (measured in gp) is rather low; however I like some of the magical rewards, particularly the shadow that steps forward to receive your death blow.

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  2. I have mixed feelings about this one. One the one hand I respect its ambition and the care and attention that went into crafting it – it’s almost certainly TSR’s best tournament module and maybe the best TSR module not written by Gygax, and the contrast between it and the later more simplistic and formulaic/lazy tournament modules (S2, C2, the A series) is striking – but on the other hand I don’t really like it. I could totally see running this as a tournament-style one-off (though only having three PCs is a weird decision that limits its usefulness), but when I look at it from the perspective of dropping it into a campaign there are too many issues.

    A big part of it is that the Aztec stuff is too literal and directly lifted in a way that feels dissonant with D&D’s mostly-ahistorical high fantasy setting (to the extent that when this module was shoehorned into the World of Greyhawk they had to come up with a cheesy retcon story about how a group of actual earth-Aztecs were magically transported to Oerth) and also feels touristy or appropriative in a way that’s hard for me to explain (and that I took a lot of heat for when I brought it up when this module was being discussed at Dragonsfoot as part of their “module of the week reading club” few months back) but has always struck me, even as a kid – the idea that this setting reads as “weird” and “exotic” just because it’s out of context in a setting that’s mostly ahistorical but derived from European and near-Eastern culture, but in its proper context (i.e. as part of an entire Mesoamerican-flavored campaign) is actually pretty bog-standard off-the-shelf stuff (the same complaint that also applies to the southeast-Asian flavor patina of “Dwellers in the Forbidden City” and the entire concept of “Oriental Adventures” – that when we’re in “standard” Europe-derived D&D World it’s all about creativity and imagining unique new stuff, but once you’re doing something non-European it’s deemed sufficient (and praiseworthy) to just recycle Encyclopedia entries).

    Beyond that it also bugs me that some of the encounters don’t feel like they fit the theme and are just standard D&D tricks/traps that feel like they were lifted out of some other dungeon, I don’t like that there’s not much treasure and most of it is weird non-standard stuff of limited portability (e.g. sword +1, +4 vs gas spores) – which doesn’t matter in a tournament setting but is a big problem in a campaign game. I also find it hard to read with the very long paragraphs, extensive boxed text, and unwieldy Century Gothic font. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever actually managed to read all the way to the end.

    But, for all that, there is a ton of undeniably good stuff here. The art, as mentioned. Lots of good tricks and traps, and the way many of them involve a trade-off between doing something clever and doing something brute-forcy that uses up time and resources. The way it’s one of the few dungeons that actually incorporates the age and environment of the place – stale air, potions that have dried up, areas that are flooded and overgrown and have mold on the walls and slippery uneven floors, and so forth and that the design actually follows things through logically and provides spot-rules (usually too granular, but still) for dealing with all that stuff. It feels like a place that could actually exist, like an actual set of ancient jungle ruins, nothing at all like the “square gray hallways filled with orcs” cliche of old-school D&D. And it seems like a real shame and lost opportunity that TSR went so quickly from the ambition and meticulous craft of this (effectively TSR’s first non-Gygax attempt at AD&D) to the cheap “customer-facing” Potemkin Village laziness of pretty much everything else they ever produced.

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    1. I mean, if someone runs a Meso-american campaign I can only assume that they cheerfully loot all the standard modules for use as their exotic tombs of a forgotten culture.

      I know what you mean about it seeming a bit touristy, but at the same time I think they did handle it well. Among other things, they’re pretty up front about it being basically lifted Aztec/Olmec/Mayan. And I think doing that for a tomb is more-or-less fine – much harder to offensively stereotype about the long-dead. Possible, obviously, but I don’t think they did that here.

      Also, I think you point out enough stuff about it that is positive that makes it quite clear that this would still be an impressive module even if it were bog-standard Northern European.

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    2. @Trent

      This is a fine addition, knowledgeable, detail oriented and passing over some of the areas I could have touched but missed.

      I’d argue most of the stuff is alright for campaign purposes, and some of the rewards (like the 3 major ones from the Coatl) seem virtually designed for long term play. There is something about putting the alien, aztec-flavored tomb traps and mixing it with the standard fare that mixes very well, its like the standard components form a sort of framework for the weirdness of the other half.

      The creative liberties vis a vis the Aztecs are forgiveable imho. The Olmecs are clearly Aztecs in the same way that the Tecuhltli from Howard’s Red Nails were clearly Aztecs. I would argue it is within the tradition of the pulps and it helps that the Popol Vuh is nowhere near as popular as the Illiad.

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  3. I am currently running this module during campouts with my buddies. I wanted something we all had vague memories of from our youth and was relatively simple to haul around in a bag. (In truth, you don’t even need the three rule books to play this as all the attack matrices are outlined in the module itself.) It was a perfect match with the three pregens matching three players. So far we have played it on three campouts and the players have just got out of the poisonous gas zone, giving them a feeling of accomplishment. In order to do so they had to leave many areas of the lower tomb unexplored in their haste. (Delightfully, the room with the bronze axe stuck in the wall with a human arm shadow spooked them so much they simply fled immediately… to their benefit no doubt!) Some of the room descriptions are complex and take me a few minutes to absorb, but we are all hanging out smoking and drinking around the campfire, so nobody really gets bored waiting. I agree that all the encounters are very flavorful—much more so than I remembered as a kid—and the challenges are fun in that thoughtfulness is rewarded more than combat dice rolling. The pregens are also well designed with the right amount of gear to help the clever player get out of most scraps. All in all, perfect for a gaming night in the forest under the stars.

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  4. My first 1e module I ran was G1, the second was Tamoachan. Tamoachan really sold me on this whole 1e thing. I runs soooo good, plays sooooo well. A pleasure. Maester Trent shall enlighen us with his stance, as his own jeux-jitsu is not like the aztec one, and pulling guard like Tamoachan does, helps often, but not in a street fight.

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    1. I respect the take that for campaign setting purposes, it has some drawbacks, but why resort to ugly welds, clumsy fuel injector rigs and racing rims when you can have a perfectly good honda civic.

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  5. SO…*ahem*…just a point of clarification to the review and the comments:

    The Olmeca (or “Olmecs”) were an actual, real-world culture of Mesoamerica. The fictional culture described in C1 is the OLMAN people which is not (and never was) a nation.

    I’ve owned this adventure for decades and have run it multiple times over the years…both in its tournament form and as a campaign insert. I’ve found it to function better in its original tournament format, and it can be especially difficult in its “cave in” form with players not used to making use of the “slow poison” spell (an advantage the tournament cleric has is the spell being already listed on her sheet).

    My main gripe with the adventure, however, is it is a mostly LINEAR dungeon design…I believe Melan was (one of) the first to point this out. For the most part, it is a single track obstacle course to be navigated, and makes less sense (encounter wise) when ‘run in reverse’ as a top down, pyramid raid (though Tloques-Popolocas makes a nice little ‘end encounter’ for adventuring parties doing so, and having deeper levels of dungeons filled with poison gas is something every dungeon cobbler might consider…bring a canary for your coal mine!).

    Those quibbles aside, I am rather fond of C1, and feel like it can be run fine as non-appropriating, “generic fantasy:” just ignore references to “savage,” “primitive,” or “barbaric” othering, and make the Olman one more strange culture of your fantasy world. For me, it’s a high 4 stars, rather than 5, but it’s pretty close to perfect for its level range (assuming small parties…i.e. under six members).

    Just my two cents.

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    1. Amended, lol. Savage and barbaric sounds alright with me, particularly for a culture that habitually performed mass human sacrifice and practiced cannibalism.

      That being said: There is something about the linearity of the place that works. It’s linear…but! You get dead ends, you get secret doors, false doors, there’s a teleportation trap that loops back, there’s three different passageways in the end, there’s secret branching doorways, and you have a one or two playful loops. It IS linear but it doesn’t FEEL linear. I suspect it might be a bit hard if the PCs don’t use Slow Poison either, though I haven’t measured the precise amount of turns they would need to reach the exit if they took the most efficient path.

      TLDR: it’s at least 900 ft of movement for the bottom floor alone up to room 21, assuming standard 90ft./turn exploration speed, that’s at least 10d6 points of gas damage, quite a bit. Slow poison would seem like a must.

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      1. “Savage barbarism” can be applied to lots of cultures and subcultures when our worst aspects of humanity are considered (look at the Russian army in Ukraine). The folks being so labeled don’t usually see themselves in the same light.

        RE Slow Poison

        Yeah, I haven’t measured it out but 90′ per turn seems right (frustratingly, I’ve lost my copy of Myrrha’s character sheet, having detached them YEARS ago), but I don’t remember her having magic armor…probably chain.

        [on the other hand, Rhialle’s movement is listed as 12″ and he wears studded leather (movement 9″ per DMG) so perhaps, for TOURNAMENT purposes, they’re allowing the guys to move a little quicker]

        Regardless, that’s a lot of damage for PCs NOT using slow poison…especially if they spend a bunch of time screwing around, performing unnecessary searches, etc. Usually, each encounter adds one additional turn, regardless of movement…and parties are supposed to rest one turn out of six. Even at 12″ movement, I estimate 12 turns to get to area #25 at the quickest, maybe 20 turns by #30 (the Jaguar room). That’s an average of 70 points of damage withOUT the slow poison spell.

        It’s more than *I* would put into an adventure for mid-level characters…even in my HIGH level adventures (like the one I’m working on for NAP2), I’m not quite so fiendish. Though maybe I should be.
        ; )

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      2. Villains are often heroes or tragic victims in their own mind, yet a moral man has no problem proclaiming him to be a villain. Only the tired cynic, the cowardly equivocator and the guilty criminal have immense problems while doing so. I shall not press further as I do not wish to violate the laws of hospitality and I consider you an excellent commentator, good person and source of insight, but you will not convince me to purchase your morally relativistic magic beans, I have seen what dreadful stalks they sprout.

        I suspect the 1-6 per turn might actually make it almost impossible, yet people DO manage to finish Taomachan so there must be something I am missing. Even at 120 feet/turn you are looking at an easy 10d6, and that’s not including the damn amphisbaena and the apes at the end. Each character has about…50 hp. What if we include the healing? There’s no healing items in the treasure in the temple. But people assuredly finished this thing before. What am I missing Becker? Where did we go wrong?

        I wrote half an article on balance in the OSR and how the conception of it is completely fucked up because of trauma borne from the CR system that I guess will tie into the Fighting Gods essay war that I never finished (and most assuredly I did not violate my own precepts!) but I am thinking I shall have plenty of material to occupy my time with. I am excited for your first foray and hopefully the second competition will generate enough fodder for a properly endowed NAP companion.

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      3. Ha! I would definitely NOT consider myself to be morally relative! Perhaps I have a broader view (or, hmm, maybe a very specific view) of good and evil in terms of humanity. In general, I believe we ALL fuck up…and while some of us are worse than others, we all have planks to pull from our eyes before working on our neighbors.

        That being said: in the game of D&D, the absolutes of morality can certainly be on a different axis than my (or anyone’s) personal belief system. In fact, by default, I believe it IS…and that can be quite fun as well.
        ; )

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  6. Remember that in a tournament TPKs aren’t a problem, and are even desirable since they make it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff – if 7 out of 10 tables TPK then you only have to look at the other three to determine the winner. Also, my (vague and possibly incorrect) memory of the C1 tournament is that it doesn’t track time using the normal procedures but instead was based on real time at the table – that a turn passes (and spell durations expire and characters take damage from the poison) every 10 minutes that pass at the table, rather than every abstract game turn, and the players have 90 minutes real-time to make it out.

    All of which reinforces my opinion that although this module is near-ideal as a tournament (just add one or two more pre-gen characters) it shouldn’t just be dropped as-written into a campaign game (where near-guaranteed TPKs are generally acknowledged as being a bad thing).

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    1. You nailed it. Everything is measured in Real Time (p. 3). That means potions, spell duration, combat, everything. Time limit to completion is 2 hours, which in this thing is possible but you’d have to run it like a fucking demon and they’d better play like that too. Now it makes sense.

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  7. Is not using Slow Poison in this adventure the equivalent of accepting an invitation to dine at Castle Dracula without bringing garlic, continual light and dispel evil spells and crucifixes, and then making a jocular retort of “Bite me!” to the Count’s bon mots?

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    1. Yeah, in the tournament setup where the pregen cleric has a scroll with 3 Slow Poison spells (just enough for the 3 PCs) it’s pretty much a threshold test of competence to see if the players are paying attention and have any problem-solving instincts at all. This was common in early AD&D tournaments – especially those written or edited by Frank Mentzer – giving the pregen characters spells and magic items that are intended to be used in specific ways and counting on the players to recognize that and use them appropriately. It’s an OK (if overdone) idea in tournaments, and this one gets credit for originating the trope, but it’s (IMO) one of many “bad lessons” that impressionable young DMs took from tournament modules and inappropriately applied to campaign-style play, exacerbating the whole “the way to succeed is to read the DM’s mind and do what he expects you to” mindset. “It’s not a railroad – you’re free to not do the right thing; you’ll just probably die.”

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      1. That is certainly fair comment: making some (in)actions suicidal is OK, but don’t overdo it, and have plenty of challenges that can be tackled in multiple ways. And also the various remarks about tournament modules having attrition that would be too much for campaign play. If I remember correctly, the scoring system for A1-A3 counted how many PCs you had left alive have completed n rooms in the allocated time. (It makes you wonder how anyone survived A2, as there are a considerable number of extra encounters on top of the tournament gauntlets. The memorable nature of the NPCs pushes it up to second place in the A series for me.)
        There seems to be general agreement that C1 is well crafted, and achieves its aims. How you rate it will depend on what you think of those aims.

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  8. @GusB: thank you! I think the discussion after my short one nicely proved there is indeed a few tricks Tamoachan pulls off that cannot, and maybe should not, be easily repeated.
    The riddle room booklet images, though, why not more of those, everywhere! The Prince demands it, too!

    One of the things the Kenzer did well in the Dungeon Crawl Classics. Before he crowned himself “King in the North” *spits on the floor*… taking many good men & maesters away from the Host of Gary.

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