Fiddleback vs. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachin

At last the moment has come to step back in time and experience some of the early years of D&D. What sorts of adventures did old gamers have back then and were they any good? Is Tamoachan a gem from D&D’s past? What does it have to say about the way D&D and other RPGs were played back then?

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is the third adventure in Tales From the Yawning Portal for Dungeons and Dragons from Wizards of the Coast. Tamoachan is so different, and from such a different era of gaming, that this review will be an overview of the adventure as a whole with discussion of its place in D&D, and its best use at the modern gaming table.

First, some brief history, expanding somewhat on Yawning Portal’s treatment. As given in the book and other online resources, what is now The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was first played at Origins ’79 as a competitive dungeon. Many newer gamers may not be familiar with the concept of a competitive dungeon, but understanding the concept may go a long way towards explaining the adventure’s popularity and the way it is meant to work.

Tamoachan Score Sheet (Click to enlarge)

A competitive dungeon, and the reason Tamoachan first appeared at Origins, is meant to be played by multiple players under multiple DMs over the course of a convention or other gathering as a tournament-style event.  The competition comes in through a scoring chart, filled in by the DM, and a strict time limit. The chart adds or subtracts points to a party’s score based on their actions inside the dungeon as they race to finish it in the prescribed time limit. Note that this is a real-time limit, suited to the usual length of a convention time slot. In Tamoachan’s case, the original time slot at Origins ’79 was two hours. Parties were scored on the basis of what actions they took inside the dungeon, how long it took to complete the dungeon (or how far the party got), character deaths (including how early a character died), and the team of players overall performance. Generally speaking, a selection of pre-generated PCs were used in order to keep all the player teams on the same footing. The idea of Tamoachan was not to test the characters, but the players themselves. It was player performance that mattered and not the characters. Keep that in mind.

Eventually, Tamoachan left the tournament scene and became a regular product in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons line. Starting in 1980, it kicked off the C-line of adventures. The ‘C’ stood for Competition module, a series of modules with a similar lineage or intent as Tamoachan, each intended to be played competitively at a tournament.

On its face, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan presents itself as a straightforward dungeon crawl with a sort of Azteca, Mayan, Toltec, and more theme mashed together with all the usual features. There is a series of underground chambers, traps, combat encounters, treasure to acquire, and a goal for characters to achieve. And this is precisely what Tamoachan is not.

Instead, Tamoachan is one giant, trap with multiple moving parts. 54 rooms of mechanisms stand between the players putting characters in at room 1 and taking them out at room 54. This is designed to challenge the players and not the characters. What matters is not what the characters do, but how clever the players are and how quickly they achieve their goal: Reaching the end of Tamoachan with as many hit points left on their characters as possible. Players and DMs expecting a deep and story-driven adventure with interesting decisions and a variety of NPCs to interact with in the pursuit of some grand goal will be sorely disappointed. This is not that kind of adventure and is not intended for that kind of play.

Tamoachan is one of a few adventures in the D&D library that is designed and intended to reward meta-game thinking. Only by doing so will players minimize the amount of harm their characters come to and proceed at appropriate speed through the dungeon. There is no real room in it for players worried about their character’s motivation or how they would ‘really’ react in such a situation. Players who do so will find themselves the owner of a dead character in short order if the DM is running the adventure as intended.

Tamoachan starts killing characters the moment it begins. Rooms 1 through 39 are filled with poison gas that does damage to characters every in-game hour. And yes, DMs are advised to keep careful track of the time characters spend in the dungeon. There are few ways to mitigate this slow poisoning and it is important to know that a long rest inside the dungeon can be fatal, especially to characters already down on hit points.

Characters will be down on hit points. Tamoachan is the D&D equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. There are a few combat encounters inside which can and will dish out the damage by the plateful, but by far the biggest threat is the constant, ceaseless minor damage dished out time after time every time the characters mishandle, misuse, or simply fail to notice all of the many, many traps inside. With only a few exceptions, none of them really do much damage individually. A few points here, a few points there, nothing serious. Until players start adding things up and realize, somewhere around room 24, that their character has taken a total of 70 odd points of damage, healing magic and supplies are running low with no chance of replenishment, and there is a whole lot of dungeon left.

That all presumes the PCs haven’t been put into a 5,000 year long magical sleep, or been killed by one of the hourly wandering monster checks, or buried under falling sand, or kissed by a nereid, or stuck forever in a diorama — because all these things can happen to the PCs and probably will at some point. The giant trap that is Tamoachan kills slowly, but sometimes, every once in a while, there is a loud snap and a character squeaks and dies. There is little relief in sight until the PCs finally, after hours and hours and hours of slow progress through the shrine, emerge blinking into the light with a sigh that says, “Thank the gods that’s over.” Except it isn’t. Tamoachan can kill the character even after the players have stopped playing the dungeon and gone on to other adventures.

Your PCs aren’t good enough. Not the ones your group is running right now, anyway. They don’t have the right skills and the right equipment. They haven’t been built playing the right sorts of adventures to prepare for Tamoachan. They don’t even speak the right languages to get all the clues and warnings. They want to touch and collect things and explore thoroughly. Worst of all, your players are too attached to them; they’ve grown fond of their character’s quirks and motivations and the relationships they’ve built with the other characters in the party. They’ve adventured in a world that cares about them and reacts to their presence, they’ve acquired items and magic that means something and has a history behind the acquisition. They know NPCs that are more than just a plot device now. They’re tied to each other, the world, the players, and you. They shouldn’t go to Tamoachin. Don’t send them there.

Instead, let them make PCs purpose built to tackle The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachin. As the DM, read through the adventure and pick out things it would be useful for the party to have. Don’t give anything away, don’t make it too easy, but come up with a short list of recommend scores, builds, items, spells, and so on. Make sure someone speaks the language. Make sure the rogue knows their way around a trap. Make sure the cleric heals and turns. At least give them a fighting chance to be successful.

When you decide to run it, run it entirely as intended. The fun of Tamoachan comes from the time pressure and the brutal nature of the dungeon. Give them two hours to complete it, track in-game and out-of-game time. Let them know how much time they have in the real world to finish and keep counting it down. Search the internet, find the score card, and keep score. Roll your dice where everyone can see them so there’s no way you can fudge out of kindness and no way they can accuse you of tweaking things. Let Tamoachan do what it does best, challenge players and kill PCs.

This is definitely one of the “seven deadliest dungeons,” but it might be that for all the wrong reasons. It has little to do with the way modern D&D functions. It’s inarguably at the roots of D&D, helping to make the game what it is today. But, little about the way today’s adventures are written and played, with their greater focus on story, inclusion of something for everyone in the party, and character focused gameplay, bears any resemblance to Tamoachan.

Even in its own time it was off the beaten path of adventure design. The same year Tamoachan came out at Origins, Gygax’s own Keep on the Borderlands and the next adventure in this book, White Plume Mountain, were published. Just the year before, in 1978, the three modules that make up Against the Giants, also appearing later in this volume, were released. The year after Tamoachan released, 1980, saw Queen of the Demonweb Pits (the wrap up to both the D and G series of modules) released, along with Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Ultimately, this kind of challenge, specifically aimed at the players and ruinous to characters, is where Tamoachan seems to get its high regard. Heaped up with a generous helping of early-80s nostalgia, you can understand why it made #18 on Dragon’s 2004 list of Greatest Dungeons of All Time. It appeals to a certain style of gamer and a certain style of play. Both of which haven’t really been exercised in more recent editions of D&D until now.

For those who want to see what D&D was like, at least at conventions back in the day, there is a certain appeal as well. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is a curiosity piece. You drag it out and show it off to people to impress them with the ‘bad old days’ of D&D when character sheets came in pads of 50 and every character was an orphaned loner with a battle-axe. It can be fun in the right circumstances and with the right group of players; for those who want to experiment with the different ways Dungeons and Dragons can be played, it’s ideal. It can even be fun if used in its original format, as a tournament game among different groups.

The question I keep coming back to though is, does it belong in Tales of the Yawning Portal? It’s certainly deadly enough to qualify, which is how it gets its pass in, but I can’t recommend it be played as part of some ongoing campaign with characters you or your players care about. I wouldn’t even put it in a loose campaign with the other adventures in this book. It’s entirely different in style and tone from anything else currently out there for 5th Edition, including the other included adventures, and it seems unlikely to play well with others. It’s goals and purpose are different and its intent can wreck a whole campaign quite easily. Better to play it as a one off with bespoke characters and a select group of friends who are prepared to face it. Maybe bring it out every few years and compare your scores to last time.

Just don’t put anyone you love inside.

In the next Fiddleback vs. Tales From the Yawning Portal, we go to White Plume Mountain!