Why the Temple of the Frog, Dungeons & Dragons’ first printed dungeon, seemed unplayable

In the winter of 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons basic set introduced me to the game. Hooked, I sought everything I could find for the game. The new Monster Manual delivered a treasury of creatures—with pictures! The white box gave spells to 6th level, and then Supplement I Greyhawk raised spells to 9th level.

But Supplement II Blackmoor disappointed me. My dungeon had no room for aquatic monsters. Monks broke my notion of fantasy. Assassins invited trouble. A strange dungeon obsessed with frogs stole half the pages. Anthropomorphic frogs belonged in children’s books; not in this daring new game.

I resolved to overcome my bias against monstrous frogs. As far as I knew, no other dungeons were in print, and Temple of the Frog came from the creators of the game. Surely the temple showcased the best of my new passion, and I decided to run it for my friends.

Temple of the Frog begins with pages of backstory. Eager for a peek at an dungeon from D&D’s creators, I skipped past the dense history to the underground’s room key.

So my trouble started on that first level, where the party could easily stumble into an encounter with 200 soldiers, part of an army housed in connected barracks. On the next level, the breeding pool contains over a 1000 killer frogs. Few of these rooms include interesting content, just hordes of soldiers, frogs, and coinage. Even if my players could handle the threats, I saw no way to make it fun.

I kept setting the temple aside and then returning to it, hoping to unlock whatever secrets enabled D&D’s designers to play this adventure. I never cracked it. I did not realize you couldn’t play the temple as a D&D adventure, because it still fit the style of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and the Chainmail mass-combat rules that spawned it. Even some of its terminology reached back to Chainmail, with creatures who “take 3 hits” rather than “have 3 hit points,” and trolls who “fight as” ogres.

The temple vexed me, but I had skipped the introduction, so I never even saw the strangest parts. The high priest, Stephen the Rock comes from a sci-fi version of our world. His +3 flying battle armor and +3 shield combine to grant 18(00) strength, 18 dexterity, invisibility, and protection from any magical, mental, or energy attacks. His +3 sword shoots lightning. He enjoys instant communication with 179 ring-bearing henchmen. Blackmoor’s version of Kang the Conqueror has a medical kit that heals any damage short of an anatomical jigsaw puzzle and a communication module that teleports to anywhere on the planet or to an orbital scout ship.

Blofeldpleasance67The high priest is a super villain. The Temple of the Frog exists as a lair fit for plotting world conquest. Like any villain’s lair, this one comes with a messy way of disposing of Mr. Bond and the henchmen who fail to kill him. Rather than piranha, alligators, or laser sharks, the temple’s trap door leads to killer frogs. Add a monorail and Blofeld could move in.

Between his wish-fulfilling gear and ordinary name, Stephen the Rock shows his origin as a villainous Mary Sue.

Dave Arneson’s campaign started as miniature battles with the players taking all the sides, hero and villain. In 1973, he collaborated with Stephen Rocheford to create a nefarious persona for the game. Pronounced Rockford, Stephen’s last name gained him the nicknames Rocky and the Rock, which led to a name for his baddie. Stephen recalls, “Dave approached me to invent an evil character that would be different from the norm in this world. Ergo, I thought and settled on a character that was not of this world of Blackmoor. My inspiration eventually was from an old episode of the original Star Trek television series. In it, Captain Kirk found a planet of Nazi’s and found the earthling, an historian, who founded it in the hope eliminating it’s excesses and organizing this society for the betterment of all in the name of efficiency. I told Dave Arneson and he was delighted.

My character was a soldier (I was an Army Officer) who crash landed in Blackmoor with several others from a spaceship. He found a village organized around a group of monks. They and the villagers thought the stranger was a very powerful wizard; in fact he was a man who used a phaser and so overawed the indigenous people that he was proclaimed the High Priest of the Monks of the Swamp.

Dave Arneson’s friend from the era, Jeff Berry, thinks H. P. Lovecraft inspired the frog theme. “You just had to have frogmen and other servants of the Old Ones infesting the [swamp],” he writes. “It gave the players something to do when they weren’t exploring the dungeons.” Dave’s exact inspiration may be the frog-like deity Tsathoggua, as described by Clark Ashton Smith in his story “The Seven Geases.” Plus, legend says that Dave used a ceramic frog from his mother’s garden as a game prop.

As Stephen’s account continues, he seems like someone playing a character in a one-on-one role-playing session. “I set about to organize a theocracy based on the worship of frogs, which were in great supply in the swamp. These frogs were bred and genetically improved over time until some special breeds grew to enormous size. A temple was erected and an Order of Monks reorganized around this hall of worship.” Stephen’s Roman Catholic upbringing led to the temple’s Catholic flavor, complete with a pipe organ and papal robes.

Eventually, rumors of a secret society in the swamp led the heroes of Blackmoor to investigate, but they came unprepared for a confrontation with the “weird guy in the robes who shot an immensely powerful lightning bolt.” They woke later in the swamp with gaps in their memory.

Blackmoor’s heroes probably never returned to the temple, but if they had, the rules would have changed—literally—to Chainmail and its mass-combat scale. D&D historian Jon Peterson explains, “How could a party of adventurers be expected to assault a temple with twenty men at its gate tower, thirty at its main gate, ten men per corner tower and a thousand guards in reserve in case of trouble? Or to deal with the first level of the dungeon, where a given barracks room might contain hundreds of men? The answer of course is to bring an army, and stage a wargame rather than a dungeon crawl.

To unlock Temple of the Frog, players needed to treat it as a James-Bond villain’s lair to be infiltrated. And after their spying ran its course, they would need follow Bond’s playbook and call in the commandos, ninjas, or their men at arms. Players needed Chainmail for that endgame.

No wonder this adventure vexed a generation of players.

Next: How did an adventure that did not work as a dungeon crawl—or even work with D&D’s rules—become the first D&D adventure in print?

13 thoughts on “Why the Temple of the Frog, Dungeons & Dragons’ first printed dungeon, seemed unplayable

  1. Alphastream

    I ran this back when I knew about 5E but couldn’t tell my gaming group. I decided to run them through all of the editions instead. I simply could not believe Temple of the Frog. It was such an absolute failure as an adventure. I don’t really understand what it was trying to do, because it is so inaccessible. Did they really think the PCs would amass troops and use Chainmail rules? Or act as super heroes vs common troops using Chainmail? You are clearly meant to somehow get into the areas with 100 killer frogs (otherwise, why bother describing it?), but you had to get past hundreds of soldiers first. It was a surreal read and I just had to handwave tons of these aspects when we played. I did blog about it here. http://wp.me/p6TzVY-4r

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Alphastream,
      Your summation of Temple of the Frog made me laugh. I’m awed that you had still found the fortitude to run the thing and then managed to hand-wave enough to see it through.

      For others looking for a somewhat more playable trip back to D&D’s origins, skip the temple. The first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen, includes enough background to weave a save-the-princess story. The first widely available dungeon, Tegel Manor, features some evocative room descriptions. Both give a pretty good idea of how folks played circa 1975.


  2. Michael

    @Alphastream: ” It was such an absolute failure as an adventure. I don’t really understand what it was trying to do, because it is so inaccessible. Did they really think the PCs would amass troops and use Chainmail rules? Or act as super heroes vs common troops using Chainmail? ”

    To answer your questions – YES and YES!

    Look at when OD&D and Supplement 4 came out **AND** look at how D&D/wargames were played **AND** look at who wrote it.

    1. 1974-1976.

    2. D&D was played as a wargame, D&D started as a fantasy side quest to a wargame.

    3. The author of Supplement 4 was David Arneson, who was one of the first to play & write about fantasy wargames (which became RPGs). Blackmoor was meant as mainly a wargames campaign, with some fantasy and some character RPG bolted on. It only shifted in later years. David took this adventure from his campaign and presented it much as people would expect to see something from Blackmoor. A wargame scenario with some elements of fantasy, sci-fi and wargaming.

    Before labeling it as a “an absolute failure as an adventure” and “inaccessible”, look at it from that perspective, and from the perspective of how much D&D has shifted away from being a wargame to being a character-focused RPG. Back then, people would know what to do with such an adventure, because that is how they played it.


    PS. The Temple was later recast in DA2 – Temple of the Frog for the Expert level of the D&D Basic rules. http://archive.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/oa/20070223a – this might be more to how you’ve learned and see D&D.

  3. Daniel Boggs

    As the person who had the correspondence with Mr. Rocheford you sighted (unattributed unfortunately but at least you linked to my post), I have to say I find the mischaracterizations in this otherwise interesting ‘blogpost to be very disappointing.

    I can’t for the life of me even begin to understand this statement “couldn’t play the temple as a D&D adventure, because it still fit the style of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and the Chainmail mass-combat rules that spawned it.”

    Firstly, I’m puzzled about what Dave Arneson’s style has to do with anything. Dave was one of the best storytellers and adventures out there. I can only assume you mean that he didn’t spoonfeed a bunch of adventure scenarios to be used with the temple. Well, it was 1975 after all. Everyone assumed referees wanted to invent their own scenarios.

    Secondly your emphasis on CHAINMAIL “mass combat” is completely misplaced and counterfactual. The character driven Braunstein spawned Blackmoor, and CHAINMAIL’s fantasy rules, not the mass combat rules, were the initial rules used in play before Arneson increasingly created his own. Further, by 1973, the D&D rules were already written and being played by Arneson. Certainly portions of TotF could be turned into a mass combat game, as could portions of the giant series or portions of the Temple of Elemental Evil etc. etc., but Arneson Never Ever ran ToTF as a wargame, not once. The setting allows that to happen, yes, but it certainly does not require or expect it.

    The Temple of the Frog merely describes a place. No objectives are given. It is up to the Referee to create a reason for players going there, and that is exactly what Arneson did when he ran it. He ran TotF as a mystery adventure with a few tantalizing clues for the players to investigate. You even cite an example of real play in Blackmoor as run by Arneson, and yet you seem to insist that Arneson didn’t know how to run his own adventure and really meant for his players to bring armies with them!?!

    The numbers of soldiers and frogs are hardly remarkable. Of course there are thousands of soldiers there (1440 exactly see this post http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2016/04/sergeants-officers-and-temple-of-frog.html ) and this is NO DIFFERENT than Blackmoor Dungeon, where we see rooms with 200 ghouls, 250 dwarves, 33 trolls, 150 orcs, 12 Rocs and so forth. Surely you are not going to argue that Blackmoor Dungeon was designed for CHAINMAIL mass combat?
    Dave Arneson wrote and ran TotF without ever once resorting to a miniatures battle. I regularly run TotF at a local convention and I’ve never seen it devolve into a set battle. Players always find ways to avoid what they can’t handle and loot what they can. This notion that TotF must devolve into a CHAINMAIL scenerio is an insult to both player and referee creativity, and a subtle dig at Dave Arneson, implying among other things, that his games were mere CHAINMAIL scenerios and not “real” role playing D&D.

    This part of you post however is completely correct “To unlock Temple of the Frog, players needed to treat it as a James-Bond villain’s lair to be infiltrated.” Isn’t that true of any powerful place in D&D? OD&D isn’t about “challenge levels” it is about risk management and clever play in dangerous places. The second level of TotF dungeon is actually one of the great dungeon adventures in my opinion, as are the upper levels of the temple. Characters have to stealthily avoid or confuse the guards on the temple walls and in the barracks to get there, but that’s just part of the fun.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for taking the time to balance my perspective. I did write that the Temple *seemed* unplayable. I didn’t know that Dave Arneson ran the Temple many times. Obviously, he knew how to make the temple succeed. Forget Chainmail. Dave invented the style of play that makes D&D such a blast.


  4. Britton Sukys

    I grew up in Fontana WI, just around the lake from Gygax’s home of Lake Geneva in Walworth county. Walworth was the “setting” for Gary and Dave Arneson’s first world, including Blackmoor. Although I was a serious D&D gamer in the 80’s and 90’s, and interned (pestered) in the art department at TSR in high school. I had never heard of this module until recently.

    In reading it, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the Temple of the Frog, and the well-known local landmark, the giant ‘Fontana Frog’.

    The Fontana Frog was a walk-in firework stand made out of fiberglass and plaster nestled in a swampy-wet-land fen by the side of highway 67. This was in my no-fooling backyard growing up, (the neighborhood was dubbed “Froggy Hallow”). The descriptions of the fens also ring true as just up the hill from the frog, through a wooded swampy creek, is a rare wetland designated now as the Fontana Fen.

    Dave was a frequent visitor to the area, and I’m betting this landmark is the kind of weirdo thing that could spark a story when you would drive past.

    The descriptions of the setting make me wonder if this wasn’t the real inspiration behind the dreaded Temple of the Frog? As kids we certainly imagined it as such! I wish Dave were alive to ask for certain!


    Search for ‘Fontana Frog’ to see more.

    1. Daniel Boggs

      That’s really cool. Unfortunately, it is not true to say that Arneson was a frequent visitor to the area at that time. He lived 350 miles away, didn’t have much money, and was only in his mid 20’s when he wrote ToTF. He did make a few trips to Lake Geneva for to attend GenCon, so I guess it is possible he could have made a side trip around the lake to Fontana. I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem very likely to me. The story Arneson and Co. tell about the temple and the cult being all about frogs, is supposed to be because of the giant ceramic garden frog Arneson’s mother had in the lawn. Whether that was the true inspiration or not, Arneson did take that ceremic frog and put it on the gaming table when running the adventure.

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