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.
The 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.