So I finally got a chance the other day to read through The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in Tales from the Yawning Portal, and I must say I was thoroughly satisfied with the self-imposed wait.
Over the years I’ve seen the evocative cover of the legendary AD&D mod, but never got a chance to flip through it’s pages. Well I was lucky enough to get this chance recently and I must say that as great as its 5e update is, the original is a module masterpiece. (To be fair there are plenty of online commentators and past reviewers who deride some of the less satisfactory mechanics of the mod)
The original module, like many of the 1st & 2nd edition adventures is a well-written and tense ride. Its hand-drawn art is perfectly nostalgic, even for someone whose entrance to the game came long after its origins. Its also the source of a good deal of iconic D&D canon. For instance, the module features, a fact I was both shocked and delighted to learn, the first appearance of one of my personal favorite monsters in the D&D-universe: the gibbering mouther.
But aside from all these points, where the original Hidden Shrine for me personally shines is its ‘fairly’ well-researched incorporation of and amalgamation of meso-American culture in a meaningful and pertinent way. From a historical perspective, it shows how far-back the game drew upon non-Medieval cultures as sources of inspiration and appreciation for unique dungeon experiences.
The original Hidden Shrine module also reminds me how most of D&D’s worlds and characteristics, both then and now, are based on a blend of historical fact and poetic license. Both Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason, the original AD&D module authors did an excellent job of incorporating just such a blend of cultures to formulate the temple, those being Aztec, Mayan and Olmec. In this way, the Shrine follows in the footsteps of D&D’s creators like Gygax and Arenson themselves in the modules tendency to rely more on epic ‘coolness’ over factual imagery to model its scenery. For example, take original D&D priests and their inability to use bladed weapons in the first version as Gygax’s nod to ‘B’-movie vampire hunting characters.
As an amateur enthusiast of meso-American culture one easily discernible historical hiccup came in the modules very first scene in the original Hidden Shrine module, depicting Olman (the modules stand-in for the real-life Olmec civilization) warriors hunting a deer with dogs, which was glaringly out-of-place and down-right Topsy-turvey in terms of history (see Drow being dark-skinned).
While there were dogs in the ancient Americas, these were generally small, petite animals, much like modern Chihuahua’s that were actually a source of food for meso-American peoples. It wasn’t until the Conquistadors brought their Mastiff attack dogs, replete with their own armor, to terrify the native populations that such ‘hunting’ dogs would have been found in the subtropical central and south American landscape. And, perversely enough, those dogs would have probably been more accustomed, thanks to their European trainers, to the taste of human flesh rather than that of deer flesh.
But putting aside a few inconsistencies in the original module, the adventure itself is written beautifully and full of rich and detailed flavor. It’s a testament in my mind to the creative and story-telling aspect of D&D’s potential, even though it is baked into a ‘dungeon-crawl’. The 5e counterpart, while maintaining a great deal of the individual aspects of each room, largely drops many of the historical specifics (most likely to avoid the chance of any similar aforementioned inconsistencies in historical accounting).
After reading both the original and its update, it was especially gratifying to see how much of the original wording in regards to the actual room descriptions the 5e counterpart copies practically verbatim. Dropping the historical references did not deprive the module from its rich immersive feel. From the boastful Tecuziztecatl lord of snails, to beeswax urns, to a poisonous sleep gas that causes individuals to fall asleep for 5,000 years, the touches were all so incredibly memorable and unique: exactly how a great adventure should resonate.
I immediately began thinking up ways in how players might stumble upon this lost world. While Yawning Portal gives amiable hooks, after reading the original module I thought going back to the source might provide some better options to engage players, such as:
- An ancient thief wakes up after being asleep for 5,000 years in an outlying temple chamber, starving, and staggers to a nearby village, speaking a lost dialect and is met by the party en route.
- A solar eclipse occurs, and simply doesn’t abate. According to prophecy, only brave adventurers who journey into an ancient temple and participate in games are able to ‘bring back the sun’.
- After clearing out a neighboring nest of yuant-ti they were tasked to dispatch, the group is accosted and their supplies are stolen by a marauding group of apes who flee back into an ancient temple structure.
Additionally, while I might not in the near future get a chance to run the entire 5e adventure, there were many rooms in the temple that I knew for certain I could easily drop into any dungeon that had a great flavor of the mod with little tie-ins beyond the room itself. My two favorite rooms were:
- Room 30.The Guardian Beast where a cat-like statute turns into a were-tiger with a missing heart who battles players if its altar is molested.
- Room 17.The Hall of the Great Spirits where a nice statute trap seems sure to hamper a groups fidgety rogue. It features sculpted animal heads, one of which just so happens to be a coyote.
If you want to pick up a PDF version of the original mod, you’re in luck, DMSGuild has a scanned version of Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan for only a few bucks! I highly recommend it, simply for a good read. If you’re looking for a longer campaign setting, a campaign setting I did actually read once long ago, there’s also Maztica for 2e. And if you’re looking to support an indie creator on the guild, there’s Leonaru’s Maztican Bestiary – Monsters of the True World a great supplement for either of the above options.
Game on. Peace.
Check out a live play of the 5e adventure online!