(9/20/03 4:10 pm)
My review has been posted on enworld.org, but i'll post it here too.
Well, it's been a little over a year and three months since my party started Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. We've got about one more session to go, but it's all wrap up, the main parts of the adventure are over. I have to say it's been a good year and three months for the most part.
My party started the module as 4th level characters and ended around 14th-15th, with about 9 party deaths (mostly the rogues, my players have terrible luck with rogues). My players thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, and were quite proud of their accomplishments when everything was said and done.
Production: Standard WoTC production quality here; soft back, fairly large borders, decent art. I have to say I was pretty impressed with the durability of the book, as it got pretty heavy use for over a year and stayed in good shape. It was a week ago when I finally used tape to reinforce the cover and binding, I was expecting to have to do that far sooner. The book also came with a full color map booklet, which was excellent quality. My players really enjoyed looking at the maps of the different dungeons they had already explored. The Temple of All Consumption was especially well done.
An adventure of this size could have really used an index of some kind, however, or some way to organize the dozens of different NPC's. There are a few parts of the book that are frustratingly disorganized, and it's difficult to find the evil cult's plans or strategies sometimes.
Content: While at first I was very intimidated by the gargantuan size of this adventure, I found that after a bit of adjustment, it was surprisingly easy to handle most of what was going on. The pace moves slow enough that it's fairly simple to keep track of both the immediate future and the big picture. One challenge, however, is the denizens of the dungeons themselves. Most are intelligent (albeit insane) humanoids, and it can be rather difficult to calculate the cascading chain of events that results when the party makes an assault on a base.
For example, if the party attacks the main gate of the Crater Ridge Mines (and they most likely will) the DM has to take into consideration the reactions of more than 6 different groups of guards and minor NPC's. Each will have their armor donned in a different amount of time, will take up different positions, defend certain areas, try to set up flanks, support certain officers, so on and so forth. It is absolutely mandatory that the DM spend a significant amount of time before the session planning this out, or the encounter is far too easy and not very believable. If done right, however, it's a very entertaining and memorable fight.
This can be a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it. Almost every location in the adventure is a living, breathing place: people move around, react to what the party does, and in some cases certain members of the cult actually fight each other. On more than one occasion I had to role-play out some events that the players weren't even there for: one faction of the cult launching an assault on another, NPC's sending spies or assassins after the PC's or even other NPC's, lots of crazy things are going on in the background. Depending on how much work you're willing to put into it (and I know some that put a lot more into it than I did) this adventure can be a fantastic example of a dynamic dungeon.
Fortunately for those of you who may be intimidated by the amount of work that has to go into this module, there is help out there. I really must say that my campaign would not have been nearly as entertaining without all the fantastic help from the Return to the Temple of Evil Message board found at www.montecook.com. (pub102.ezboard.com/fokayyourturnfrm17) The DM's there are always willing to answer questions, discuss strategies, and brainstorm new and terrible ways to harry the players (silenced Invisible Stalkers attacking while the party sleeps...<shudder>).
If the workload doesn't put you off, then your players are in for quite a ride. Make no bones about it, this isn't much more than a huge and rather complicated dungeon crawl. Dynamic or no, it still pretty much boils down to a very long hack-and-slash adventure. If that's what your players are looking for, there are some very rewarding fights to be had with a wide variety of creative and nasty creatures. Particularly memorable is the half-demon ogre mage (acid and fire resistance 20 plus regeneration? aiiieeeee!) and the half-dragon T-Rexes. On more than one occasion my players had to really pull out all the stops to survive some of the encounters. At the end of the day, when the dust settled, they were all terribly pleased with themselves and eager for more.
There are a few problems with Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil however. First off, an adventure of this size is draining on the DM and Players. Especially the area called the Crater Ridge Mines, which is so large it eventually becomes quite tedious. My players only explored half of it before they decided to move on to the next part. Also, there is a predominance of evil clerics in the party. During the lower level portions of the module, the clerics are effectively worthless as enemies, with little in the way of offensive melee or spell casting abilities. Later on of course they become terrifying, but by then my players were sick of fighting clerics. It got so bad during the Crater Ridge Mines that we actually put things on hold and did an entirely different adventure (The Heart of Nightfang Spire) for a change of pace. Not surprisingly, there's not a single cleric in the adventure we chose.
Also, the "main" town of the adventure, Hommlet is essentially useless to the party. This is unfortunate, too, because Monte Cook spends a fantastic amount of time detailing the people and places of the sleepy village, and lots of great opportunities for role-playing can be had there. But the town has a gold piece limit of 800. When the starting level of the characters is 4th level for the adventure, you can see how this becomes a problem. A major city lies only 20 leagues away, and I found that my players quickly opted to ignore Hommlet all together and set up base at the major city where they could buy and sell all their equipment. At the end of the adventure there is supposed to be this grand, dramatic meeting of all the leaders of Hommlet and the players as they try to decide what to do about this horrible threat nearby, but my players skipped it entirely. In fact, they haven't set foot in the village since they were 7th level.
Overall, I have to say I really enjoyed Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. It's a lot of work and a long haul, but in the end your players feel like they really accomplished something grand and epic. It's full of interesting villains and some great encounters. With hard work and a lot of time (expect no less than a year of play time, assuming once-a-week games) it can turn into one of the most memorable and enjoyable portions of any campaign, if not becoming a full campaign unto itself.
I just want to thank everyone here for all their help. It's been a great year, and i think with your help my first real attempt at DMing is going fantasticly well. I've already had more than one player comment this is the most enjoyable campaign they've ever been in.
I'll probably lurk around and contribute where i can, but you won't see me posting too many questions on here anymore. Next stop for my players:
They've raised Thrommell, cast atonement upon him, and now it's of to Furyundy to have him claim his throne before it's too late, and then off to Veluna for his reuniting with the drasticly changed Joline...
Should be fun!