The review previous to this one is an in depth review of the adventure module S1 - Tomb of Horrors. Tomb of Horrors was written in 1975 as a tournament adventure for the first Origin's Conference of July 1975. It was not published until 1978, when S1 - Tomb of Horrors appeared. This means that Tomb of Horrors is not the first published piece of adventure content for tabletop roll playing. The first is likely to be "Temple of the Frog", included in the Second Supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) box set - Blackmoor by Dave Arneson. In the introduction to Blackmoor Gygax credits Arneson as the "innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept."
|Yup that's Blackmoor|
I happen to have a copy of Blackmoor, so I can suggest picking up a PDF (even if it's one of the simpler Little Brown Books to find) because the type is tiny (9 point maybe) and written densely to the margins in large blocks of text. The information design is not good...even by the standards of the OD&D box set.
Still this is apparently the first "Dungeon Adventure" which I take to mean a location based exploration adventure as opposed to a siege, battle or a campaign of sieges and battles. This is very interesting from a historical prospective, even if I don't really find much use in game history, and in thinking about writing this review I was somewhat excited to see what is in "Temple of the Frog" that one might style recognize as the ancestor for standards, mechanics and ways for playing and producing location based adventures today.
I read the thing, all 19 pages of confusing, poorly mapped, weirdness and while "Temple of the Frog" is 'interesting' and it really does appear to have set the standard for the way adventures are designed and written, it's a mess. "Temple of the Frog" is not the worst adventure ever written (it's not a linear combat based railroad for one), certainly it's not a good one - especially not today - but it's bad largely in the same way that a Model T Ford is bad compared to a Porsche 911 or a Prius. Most of the right parts are included and one can see that a game could be run from "Temple of the Frog", but it might be clunky and fairly uncomfortable. The pattern that Temple of the Frog creates invites comparison with Tomb of Horrors and a curiosity about what the original, pre-publication 1975 version of Tomb of Horrors looked like.It invites curiousity because while the adventures are practically compatriots they are so very different in mood, theme, scope and approach that they are entirely different species of adventure.
TYPES OF ADVENTURES
Comparing Temple of the Frog and other older published adventures I think there's a few common patterns and situations that table top roleplaying adventures set up, and I've tried to think of a way of categorizing this below - an adventure schema if you will, at least for the older variety of location based adventures.
Location based exploration (or 'Dungeon Adventures' to use Gygax's phrase) are the standard form of adventure, the party explores a space room by room, unravels its mysteries, plunders its treasures, and battles or tricks its varied and often passive inhabitants, B2 - Keep on the Borderlands is this kind of adventure in a fairly elemental form, but there are countless examples. To me the defining feature and the one that separates the Dungeon Adventure from the other two types is a variety of inhabitants/monsters/foes/NPCs, and with it both an ease of exploration (the denizens of the Dungeon aren't working together with an active defense plan) and an encouragement to play off the monsters against each other - encouraging role-playing and picaresque schemes. Alternatively there is the 'Fortress Adventure' or siege adventure, which is still location based but is less about exploration and more about defeating a specific organized foe by entering its fortress and destroying it as a military threat (often by defeating its leaders). More mission focused and with a far more organized enemy the Fortress Adventure is notable because it tends to have a fail option that is a potentially very war-game like as the party and whatever forces it might have in reserve face off against the whole of the fortress's defenders . G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is this sort of adventure. A third category is the 'Maze Adventure' or perhaps just the trap dungeon (trap house?) a location based adventure focused on puzzles and traps rather then foes as the primary obstacle to player success. Tomb of Horrors is of course the origin, and still a solid example, of this genre.
Form this short list of 'Dungeon' 'Fortress' and 'Maze' adventure two things are already likely clear - few adventures are wholly one thing and there's more patterns then these three, especially when scene based adventures get into the mix. Pure Fortress and Maze adventures are pretty rare (Though B12 - Queen's Harvest is an example of a hybrid Fortress and Dungeon adventure where the fortress is quite well done while the dungeons, despite interesting faction conflict, are pedestrian). Most adventures fall into the Dungeon category, but will have a few regions that are held by well organized factions or are stuffed with a series of traps and puzzles - indeed the Dungeon Adventure almost demands variety - variety defines it, meaning that the core 'faction' or element of Dungeon adventures is the dominant way to spot them - alternatively one has the negative version of the Dungeon Adventure, the 'monster zoo' where a huge variety of foes stay in their individual rooms, regardless of outside influence and wait for heroes to blunder in. The Zoo Adventure is however a bad form of the Dungeon adventure, in the same way Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy saw the the Tyranny as a bad form of the Monarchy.
"Temple of the Frog" might have been called the first Dungeon Adventure by Gary Gygax, but it's far more a Fortress Adventure then a real location based exploration effort - though it hints in that direction, and in a time when D&D was bursting forth from the skull of the war-game Chainmail, that just might be enough.
TEMPLE OF THE FROG
|The cover of DA2 - Temple of the Frog|
I always liked this cover
Except he doesn't really get to the point in "Temple of the Frog", we get about 1/10 of the entire length of the adventure devoted to the history of the temple and its priests. This isn't all foolish backstory though, as it does give one some idea about the character of the Temple, the region around it (Lake Gloomy and the Great Swamp of Mil), potential faction intrigue, and the town it's located in - The City of the Brothers of the Swamp. I like the names here - they are general and/or simple, names that are descriptive and clear are far better then strange fantasy names, because they are memorable and easy to use in a variety of settings.
The history itself is dense but largely helpful as the only context the adventure provides to flesh out the encounters within and explain the current situation in the temple. A weird apocalyptic frog cult grows from nature worshiping handicraft making religious order, begins using magic and/or super-science to breed giant man-eating frogs, starts human sacrifices, starts bringing in bandits to help capture more sacrifices, gets taken over by a wizard/space alien who puts down the growing power of the bandit lords. The cult grows stronger, weirder and has three factions within it: the strange frog keepers, a bandit army, and the priests and their extremely dour elite army. The Temple and its city are a slave trading port with a large standing army in addition to the irregulars that raid and plunders its neighbors.
The city is then described and a somewhat confusing map is provided. In the way of fantasy cities, it doesn't make much sense - with around 1,000 residents to support a fleet of warships, 1,500 soldiers/guards and 300 priests. I think the city needs a swarming population of 4,000 at least and there needs to be a farm amount of farming and food gathering (maybe 30,000 plus in toiling population inland?) That I am thinking this shows the inherent war-game roots of "Temple of the Frog" peeking through and making me think about the logistics of this cult garrison state. That's not bad and it appears to me that there's some fun to be had from this paranoid city, divided between its internal factions, half drunken bandit kingdom and half mind controlled garrison state. The whole set up reminds me of Jonestown - which given "Temple of the Frog" was written in 1975 either shows eerie perceptiveness or is pure coincidence as the "People's Temple Agricultural Project" was still barely started in 1975 and didn't develop its large population and cult enslavement thing until 1977.
There is a nice faction balance with potential between the disgruntled but cowed raiders, angry neighboring kingdoms (hinted at), temple guard and the hidden frog priests. I could see either a fun infiltration scenario or an outright siege/sack of the town played out as a war-game. This would present difficulties given the magical power of the temple to disappear (sliding sideways in time with an illusion making it appear as if the building turned into a frog and leaped off into the swamp), meaning that infiltration and subterfuge are the ideal means of invading the temple. The locations in the town itself are simple and the descriptions focused more on the culture of the Frog cult and town defenses then description, but enough is here to make for a flavorful location. The city of the Brothers of the Swamp (I will likely mangle this name to Frog Brothers repeatedly in this review) is a strange place, a muddy river town of twisting docks and shanties, a sort of mangrove Port Royal on one side of its great temple and a neatly ordered garden of military and religious asceticism on the other.
At the center of the town is the mystery of this dichotomy between a raider society that seems to host a highly organized religious order and growing disciplined army. Also at the center of town is a giant three level temple in the shape of a squatting frog. Before describing the frog temple a two page spread lays out the hierarchy of the temple and its fate at the hands of the space invaders. Again this partial order of battle, history and organizational map give context to the adventure and explain its single most important element - all of the temple guardians and priests are brainwashed and wearing mind control rings that allow access to various parts of the temple and dungeon beneath (everything is alarmed), allow anyone with a higher ranking ring to control them directly and act as a location beacon. The rings could potentially make the adventure easier, should the party manage to figure them out quickly, but they also offer considerable danger, both of having an intrusion countered and tracked and of having party members mind controlled by temple officials.
Inside the frog temple (which as mentioned, is likely to appear to magically animate and leap away if a war starts outside) there's some crazy frog cult things, a floating golden (and worth 100,000 GP or something) plug over a sacrificial pit leading to a lake of man-eating giant frogs (on level two of the dungeon, and upstairs weird machines that make fancy glass beads and plastic forks for trade. There's a famous library (not valued, but yeah at least another 100K GP) and a pipe organ worth even more in the temple - of course invading, rather then infiltrating it is going to be hard as these things all weigh tons and moreover the 1,000 soldiers of the Frog Temple will likely retreat here and the whole building is going to disappear, and reappear due to it's magical powers when threatened - allowing those 1,000 guard (or the 400 remaining after the siege) to be ready for intruders, stocked for siege.
Beneath the temple are two dungeon levels - the first is funny maze of barracks where each level of temple solider has a bizarre hidden meeting spot, a club, filled with naughty paintings, guards and treasure. These barracks contain enormous numbers of level 1 fighters (we assume, maybe they are level zero, no monsters are stated up very well in "Temple of the Frog"). Below the barracks level is a maze of dirt tunnels containing the order of the Keepers and their frogs, frogmen and caverns of somewhat unrelated monsters. I can't describe these areas in detail because they aren;t really described much, there are a few traps (mostly skeletons bursting from crypts - though in the torture chamber it's a secret door leading to a space filled with rats.
'Temple of the Frog' is Science Fantasy, it's a Sword's and Sorcery frog cult (or quoting 1986's "Conan the Barabarian" "Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult, now... they're everywhere") that has been taken over by an inter-dimensional alien traveler who reports to his superiors via an orbital satellite and has an 'autodoc' that can heal it and produce frogmen, space armor and a laser beam firing sword (though sadly these items are disguised as normal fantasy equipment). Don't ever think that the default setting of D&D was the dour high fantasy of Forgotten Realms, both Blackmoor and Greyhawk are full of time travel/dimension travel, crashed alien starships and ray guns.
This is enjoyable to me - it's an escape form the boiled in Tolkienism of Forgotten Realms that has come to dominate the fantasy genre. One of the complaints about 'weird', 'gonzo' or 'science fantasy' D&D is that it's somehow a departure from the game's origins, roots and traditions - a confusing and unappealing rejection of 'normal' fantasy. It's also totally untrue - "Temple of the Frog" and the inclusion of 'Tharks' and 'Red Martians' on the 'Desert(Mars)' random encounter table in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures prove it. The bathic seriousness of something like Forgotten Realms is an innovation of the 80's - offering a rigorous seriousness, and concept of canon that is not found in early D&D which pulls its motivations from disparate pulp sources, many of them science fantasy and planetary romance.
'Temple of the Frog' doesn't really provide a very exciting exploration based adventure, but it does encourage role playing and NPC interaction, because it has factions Factions among the preists and keepers of the temple, factions in the city that holds the temple, and even a faction of killer frogs, that are only barely held in check by the keeper's rings. This (and the ready availability of mind controlling rings) really sets "Temple of the Frog" up for a solution involving the destruction of the temple through carefully encouraged infighting. Really, other then a henchman army it seems like the only way to properly defeat the hundreds of enemies in the temple. Still this is good, there's a problem with multiple solutions something like this:
Problem: A well defended city and temple - later the tunnels beneath Frog Temple will be filled with mad fanatic soldiers, hundreds of them and also awful things.
Solution A: Besiege and storm it, fire, magic and mayhem - kill everything that moves. This is unlikely to work, but if you want a pitched battle with lots of moving parts followed by a war-game in some tight corridors have at it. Of course to do this the players will need to find an army - and likely a good one.
Solution B: Infiltrate and assassinate the leaders of the Frog Brothers - This seems to be the idea that Arneson endorsed, given that his rewrite of the adventure features a lot of speculation on what happens if the party tries various infiltration methods (and an NPC backup team - presumably replacement PCs who might rescue the party when they fail)? Of course the goal in DA 2 is the rescue of a high value prisoner, not the destruction of the Temple, but an investigation of the Frog cult's powers and leadership will make clear that killing the High Priest and other leaders will defang the cult.
Solution C: Infiltrate and co-opt. The combination of a hierarchy of mind control rings and distrust among various factions within the city make this the solution with the best chance of success and a truly picaresque option. Bandit raiders and or slaves raised up against the frog priests, the order of keepers turned against everyone else. 100's of killer frogs released to depopulate the temple and city. Legions of mind controlled guards clashing with each-other.
"Temple of the Frog" does what good 'sandbox' adventures do, it presents a situation that is ripe for intervention and asks the players how to solve it. While the 'dungeon' in "Temple of the Frog" is a series of rooms containing a small variety of foes the larger situation is poised on the edge of sliding into chaos - a chaos that a smart group of players can foster and move about in. The High Priest/alien con-artist is the obvious target for the party, though he is likely to escape, but depending on what else the players do and how successful they are at infiltration of or attack on the Temple the number of scenarios possible in "Temple of the Frog" are considerable. This doesn't even take into account the players teaming up with the sisterhood of medusa (snakes vs. frogs - it's fate) found in the tunnels beneath the Temple.
I should also add that for it's poor descriptions, "Temple of the Frog" does use non-standard monsters (well sometimes), even if giant frogs and frog men aren't novel these days, they were in 1975. Treasure is also sometimes well described, especially in the temple levels of the adventure where it consists of large, basically immobile, fixtures of enormous value. That is raiding the Temple might gain a bit of coin and some rings (not much gold really) but taking it over will provide treasure in the 100,000's GP range.
The layout, presentation and maps in "Temple of the Frog" is clumsy and amateurish - even for 1978. The maps, when one can decode them, aren't badly designed, being organic and indicating dungeon ecology that allows each level to have some coherence, but the keying is confusing and lends itself only to combat, and badly.
From the keys you only learn the locations of monsters and a minimal amount about their loyalties. Statistics are only provided for a few enemies, and the entire leadership of the Temple, including the alien High Priest, aren't stated up. Yes, any decent GM can resolve this - and the adventure does give a good run down of the High Priest's alien technology, but a real order of battle, describing how the various factions (guards, raiders, priests, keepers, leadership) would react to invasion, infiltration or what their daily routines are would be very useful - an almost necessary addition - to actually run "Temple of the Frog".
The keying is so minimal that there's no real description of the dungeon areas. We know that there are erotic paintings in the common soldiers club, as these decorations hide their treasure - but we learn nothing about most areas except what enemies wait there. I don't demand much, but I had to guess that that the lower tunnels of the Temple are dirt based on the terrible cross hatching (it makes the rooms hard to find) on the lower level map. The Temple itself is well enough described with strange machines to produce high-tech luxury goods (of the glass trade bead variety), and an intricate and functional map. A couple of extra lines are all that one needs, but in the tunnels (the actual 'dungeon') "Temple of the Frog" doesn't provide this.
In the end "Temple of the Frog" provides GM notes, it feels like it a transcription of Arneson's GM notes in fact, minimally edited and badly fleshed out. While it's more functional then some contemporary products (it doesn't conceal or omit necessary information for pages and pages of bland backstory nonsense and rules clarifications promoting antagonistic GMing or trying to force a specific course of player action) "Temple of the Frog" is messy and half finished. Arneson lays out a situation and set of problems well enough, and where there's detail it's functional and adds something but there is almost no evocative writing or structure to the adventure beyond the vaguest hints.
HOW I'D RUN TEMPLE OF THE FROG
Strangely DA2 - Temple of the Frog anticipates many of many suggestions. This is the module (also written by Arneson) in 1986 as a rephrasing and expansion of the original "Temple of the Frog". In addition to having some pretty sweet cover art, by Den Beauvais - perhaps one of the better 80's module covers really, and actually depicting events from the module, DA2 is a decent adventure that follows the original very closely - and while plagued by the boxed text, tendency to railroad, and over-explanation of mid 80's TSR is really quite playable looking. My own changes though would be:
First, this is more a campaign then a simple adventure. The basic idea of a frog cult in the swamps in a newly built giant frog shaped temple with a fiercely loyal army of slave soldiers that has arisen because of meddling by star-wizards is fun. You could just set this in Carcosa, though then the City of the Swamp Brothers would be a point of light, or well at least order and it's destruction/downfall a bit morally ambiguous. Otherwise I think you could slip the cult into ASE or even a far more standard fantasy world as a growing power in the jungle or swampy hinterlands. You'd need to commit to your frog cult early - put them on the map and make them an evil faction that has some wider world goals and interests. This is all set up in the adventure (slavers, traders, and a secret cult city in the jungle/swamp that sends out killer frogs to assassinate people at times) and seems a worthy addition to most campaigns.
Second, I'd have to stat out, remap and draft up an order of battle and list of likely plans for the Priest and thier army. I'd want to flesh out the NPCs as well - names, descriptions and fragments of personality for some of the guard officers, raider leaders, priests and keepers - because the players will likely spend a lot of time talking to them, trying to start some kind of internal conflict. "Temple of the Frog" may set the stage for this at a macro level, but a GM will need to know which guard captain and which keepers might be willing to sell out the High Priest, and what they need to do so.
Third, The tunnels need some evocative detail. Luckily the basic underground space of a giant flooded cavern filled with killer frogs and strange subterranean swamp plants surrounded by a maze of tunnels filled with things that prey on killer frogs is pretty easy to make interesting, but this is still work the GM must do, along with making the underground army base on the first level more interesting. That's exactly how I'd describe the first level - as a bunker complex like something out of the cold war or one of the underground factories of WWII (and indeed the map has some minor similarity to real WWII and cold war bunker complexes). All the supplies and facilities needed to command, equip and supply a small army in a series of dreary concrete tunnels, where the walls crack and leak moisture that molds and ruins the inhabitants' feeble efforts to make things more home like with bright amateurish murals, fake plants and frequent upbeat or cautionary signage. The officers of course would live in a series of tunnels around a large central bunker designed to mimic a suburban street, with artificial facades, plastic trees, murals of horizons and a poorly implemented night cycle provided by dimmer switch.
|What lies beneath the is a true horror... This is a paranoid's home from Las Vegas built in the 1970's|
WHY SHOULD I CARE, I PLAY 5E (or DCC)?
If (and I don't think there should be) there's a currently rising conflict between 'grognards' and 'hipsters' about the nature of the OSR, with the 'grognard' faction opposed to game writing that strays too far from the more classically fantastic dungeon crawls of early 80's or late 70's TSR modules - then I think it's important to note that there's always been a place for the weird, the science-fantasy and the pulp horror in Dungeons and Dragons - that the earliest attempts to publish adventures are not re-imaginings of the 'Mines of Moria' but "Temple of the Frog" and Tomb of Horrors both of which are aesthetically bizarre and far more Swords and Sorcery or Pulp Adventure then High Fantasy. This is just more evidence that there's no 'right way' to do tabletop games, and that anyone who tries to tell you there is, or that a particular type of game mechanic or setting conceit is the normal and so necessary way to play tabletop role playing games is making an appeal to an authority that never existed. Likely all they really mean is that they personally dislike a product, style of play or setting - and can't functionally articulate why.
As a product "Temple of the Frog" is not good. I don't recommend it (DA2 might be okay if you can deal with the acres of boxed text), but it does offer the skeleton of a good adventure and it gets the basic premise of location based exploration adventure right. "Temple of the Frog" gives the GM factions with goals and relationships to build conflict and player interaction from. More then a good looping map with many entrances and exits, more then novel monsters and treasure or well keyed areas that are designed for use at the table what's art the heart of good adventure design is interesting situations and NPCs/factions that encourage players to find unique solutions. What "Temple of the Frog" does right is it lays out a space where players have the elements they need to tell a variety of stories and find a variety of solutions without forcing any particular narrative and that is worth emulating even now.