How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Three years and a day ago, I asked if C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was overrated. While I enjoyed the dungeon’s flavor, I felt the adventure owed its classic reputation more to nostalgia than to quality.

But when I passed that judgement, I had never run the adventure. Recently, the Shrine’s conversion in Tales from the Yawning Portal convinced me to run it. I half expected a slog through a flooded museum filled with gotcha traps. Playing the adventure proved me wrong.

In this post, I revisit my old review and explain what playing the Shrine revealed.

The adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In the years to follow,
Wizards of the Coast released versions of the shine for 4th and 5th editions—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

As you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. Folks who played with  red-shirted, pregenerated characters and a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas tended to enjoy the adventure. So for the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

Some reviewers of the Shrine paint the dungeon as an deathtrap. That fit its origin as a tournament adventure intended to grind up characters and reveal a winner. In competition, parties consisted of just 3 characters, so the dungeon must have proved unforgiving. But at my table, the adventure posed a fair challenge to a group of 5, fifth-level characters. Nobody died. One character will sleep for the next 5000 years unless the party pays to lift his curse.

I started the adventure with characters trapped at the lowest level, racing to escape the poisonous red fog. The device worked brilliantly. The players felt  urgency and peril, but they could afford short rests, so they never saw their resources exhausted. 

Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Dora jokes aside, the creatures seemed exotic rather than silly. At a table filled with longtime players and kids who read the Monster Manual for kicks, the unique creatures created a dash of wonder. The players enjoyed the challenge of deducing each monster’s abilities and temperament.

As a dungeon master, I wished that the text explained more of some creatures’ motives. The adventure seemed to default to the outdated assumption that everything in a dungeon attacks on sight.

Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventure’s challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
I fretted that the Shine might turn into a tiresome slog, but play proved me wrong. The adventure’s text lavishes description on every room, including the mud and slime. Perhaps the chore of digesting all the verbiage fooled me into thinking that playing the adventure would also prove tiresome. 

Not every test of ingenuity requires a grand set-piece along the lines of a living chess room or frictionless hall. The Shrine mixes some grand tests with more mundane barriers. My players devised surprising and inventive solutions for obstacles big and small, and I loved watching their plans unfold.

Some reviewers joke that the secret to escaping the Shrine is don’t touch anything. Sure, if you don’t like treasure. Every corner of the Shrine includes includes items that inspire curiosity and lure characters into touching. The dungeon packs so many interesting features that my players’ exploration took more sessions than I expected. 

Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
The pictures still enrich the adventure. I wish the adventure had included illustrations for areas 42 and 45. I wish I had noticed that the original adventure included maps for areas 42 and 45. They would have helped me.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”
Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan earns its place as classic. Run it as a race to escape and enjoy the Shrine’s wealth of flavor and detail. Savor the Shrine’s ingenuity and the ideas it draws from your players.

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