Monday, April 6, 2020

My 5e Temple of Elemental Evil Adaptation

Six years ago, when Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition was new and fresh, and I still had time on my hands, I decided to put my gaming group of the time through the entire Temple of Elemental Evil experience. I was also, at the time, a regular at several mainstream D&D fora as Goon-for-Hire, and had a reputation for coming up with creative ways of resolving problems that other DMs were having. I wanted to share insights on the conversion of older D&D material to modern D&D.

I took a few weeks and carefully went through the module room by room, looking at each encounter, and painstakingly rebalancing them to use the modern CR system. I believed at the time that just using the module as is would never work given the significantly different hit point and action economies of D&D 5e.

Moreover, I made detailed notes about the hows and whys of the conversion choices that I made. This conversion was made as a road map for the conversion of AD&D / OD&D material to D&D 5e. It certainly has been popular, with on average over one thousand file accesses per month last year and several translations to other languages.

You can download it here.

(File location updated Sep. 25, 2021)

My players loved it, but they also stormed it.
  • The upper floor of the Moathouse was handled with sledgehammer tactics.
  • Below, in the Moathouse Dungeon, the Ogre nearly had them, but for a few lucky shots. Once he was defeated, however, they cleared the bugbears, gnolls and ghouls in a couple of days of hit-and-run.
  • They demolished Lareth and his warriors, despite being outnumbered, with a few tactically placed spells.
  • They used shock and awe tactics to cow the minions of the Earth and Air temples into surrender. 
  • After defeating the bandits' masters they turned the Orb of Golden Death over to the Archclerisy of Veluna to seal in a holy sanctum. 
  • Their assaults on the temple ground the Water and Fire cults into dust. 
  • They broke the giants of the lower temple by treating with Scorpp to get him to leave, and then slaying the others who stayed behind. 
  • They lost the life of one PC to a disintegrate spell to the back - a mistake on the Temple's part, as it drove them to strike at the temple one leader at a time.
  • They then quested for help to seal the Temple again and establish a holy order to guard it from rising again.

The Problem with the Conversion

The thing is, that it was a lot of labour based on some false assumptions and philosophical misapprehensions.

Challenge Ratings and the idea of a "balanced encounter" suck much of the danger out of a D&D game.  A DM who is stringent about conforming to CR creates a campaign where players can be sure that they can survive almost anything you throw at them, barring an unlucky break. Players who make 3rd or 4th level can pretty much fearlessly charge into a fight and be assured that they will come out on top.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is supposed to be dark and dangerous. Players in the AD&D version of the adventure often faced overwhelming odds. If it weren't for the fact that the dungeon is fractious an monsters who roam into the wrong part of the dungeon will be murdered by rivals, the creatures in it would easiy ambush and destroy the PCs.

Fighting the Temple of Elemental Evil was meant to be an exercise in subversion, guerilla warfare, stealth, and strategy. Pitting factions against each other and striking at the winners when they are weak was the AD&D Modus Operandi for defeating the Temple.

Once the encounters are "balanced" to 5e (even to mostly "Hard" encounters) players are capable of smashing humanoid hordes, going toe-to-toe with Hill Giants, and flat-out hammering on enemies with such terrifying force that surrender becomes the only sensible move. And if the players are smart and tactically-minded they can easily clear a dungeon floor in a day or two.

By the middle of the campaign, my players had become confident in their ability to crush their foes, and were boldly dashing into action. And they were rushing the game a bit, too. They had become impatient with dungeon crawling, because they were crushing it. They wanted big scenes where they cleared lots of enemies at once, and were itching for the showdown with Hedrack... because that was where the danger, and therefore the real fun, was going to be. The mooks at point B were just not interesting or scary enough to worry about on their way to point D.

It was fun and exciting, to be sure... but my PCs didn't feel challenged. The only time death took a PC was when Falrinth the evil wizard hit them from behind with the deadliest spell available in the entire dungeon.

This was not the same experience that The Temple of Elemental Evil was meant to create. And, I think, it was a less rewarding one.

If I had to do it over, I would likely keep my notes on Hommlet and Nulb, and the stats that I worked out for critical NPCs and unique creatures (like the living pool and giant crayfish), and then just use the game as written with modern Monster Manual 5 stats... nothing toned down.

Would it be a meat grinder? Probably.  But it would be a lot more engrossing and challenging.  I would probably run it in a different system that encouraged faster, dicier play, too, but that is another discussion.


  1. I can't believe no one has commented on this. I just wanted to express my appreciation for all the work you put in on this conversion since I had some old players ask for me to do exactly this. I'm happy that your experience lead you to the conclusion I went in with, that it is precisely the imbalance that gives old school adventures their charm. I have been converting on-the-fly but my PCs surprised me by finding the secret passage under the broken tower and I had to put an invisible wall since I realized I would not be able to fly convert Falrinth. Your work here will be an invaluable fallback reference for me where the calculations in my head fail me and I won't tell my players but it'll also help me cut down the numbers of +2 shields and rings of invisibility in circulation too. Thanks so much!

    1. I am really glad that you found it so helpful! It was a labor of love both for the classic adventure and the players I was DMing in 2015.

      Falrinth in particular is a real terror. He managed to kill a PC with disintegrate before they even knew he was there!

      For me, the hardest part, and my proudest work was the nodes. Turning them into a set of ready to play areas was time consuming... And my players never made it to them. They called it after killing Hedrack, and gave the orb to the Archclerisy of Veluna.

  2. Thanks so much for all the work you put in here. I shared your final conclusion from the beginning about imbalance being important but your converted high level NPCs will be great help where my mental calculations fall short and your low level NPC conversions will help me cut down on the number of +2 shields and rings of invisibility in circulation

  3. Thank you for this! I have been running this for the past year with the help of your conversion. We have had a blast! My group starts on level 4 tonight... should be an excellent challenge for them. They are a group of 5 at level 6 and as you describe have been romping throuh the dungeon. They have set their sights on using the Orb to destroy the temple completely. Thanks to some divination from Byrne they know the elemental gems are in the nodes... so the hook is set!

    Thanks again for all your work!

    1. That is amazing to hear! It makes me so happy to hear that I have given your group that much time and enjoyment!

      TOEE is still my all time favorite module, and I would run it again in a heartbeat.

      I hope you will come back and tell me how the nodes go. They were where I got to get creative, but my own group called it a day when they slew Hedrack, and gave the Orb to the authorities in Veluna.

    2. Despite it being very obvious that they were in too deep from me having to throw up an invisible wall until the next week, my players still were curious enough to venture far enough "down the well" to end up getting nearly wiped by Smigmal, My group persevered and has been thorough in their cleaning out thanks to having online mapping, something I never had in any of the previous times I've run this. They're scared of Falrinth and Smigmal though so they don't know anything about the dingus or the thingies and they've managed not to become trapped in the nodes. Alrrem & Co very nearly killed them last week and I must say I prefer your version of those guys to the source material. The party has started to feel the dungeon is safer to take long rests in than Nulb especially since they outed Otto as a part of killing Tolub - as a result of robbing him, one of the dangerous habits players develop when you give them loot XP. This week, Alrrem will probably have a proposition for them...

    3. Smigmal was disappointing as written: I definitely worked to make her way scarier.

      Well done on Nulb! If it doesn't feel like you are about to get your throat slit, you have missed an opportunity. My players became so paranoid about Rentsch and Company that they would schlep all the way to Hommlet, and eventually started sleeping in the wilderness outside the dungeon using Rope Trick rather than go back.

      Eliminating Rentsch and his sinister barmaids became as important to them as dealing with Falrinth or Hedrack.

  4. Love this. I have had much player experience, but little DM'ing. What would you say destroying the orb is worth in xp?

  5. Brian, amazing job. I both played and DM'ed this back in the early 80s. I wanted something special to do with my younger kids during these trying times, and playing DnD has been just the thing . I am attempting to do the whole series (G1-3, D1-3, Q1) and your efforts with this conversion have us off to a fantastic start. They are enjoying this as much as I did back in the day, and I can focus on the gameplay without having to juggle all the conversions in my head. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for letting me know! That sounds like a lot of fun. I ran a handful of classic adventures for my oldest recently: The Ruins under the Tower of Xenopus, the two demo adventures from the Mentzer res box, Castle Mistamere, and a few home brewed adventures. It is great way to spend some quality time with family!

  6. Throwing some more love and respect your way. I have been running this with a group of brand new players (myself having gotten back into D&D after being away from pen and paper RPGs for 30+ years), and your work has been an absolute pleasure to use.

    1. Thank you so much! I can only imagine how much fun this module would be with new players. Making it easy to run was mission #1 for me. I would love to hear about how your group has tackled the adventure.