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Return to Tamoachan: Revisiting the Classic D&D Adventure 40 Year Later

There are a few role-playing adventure modules that have stood the test of time and become things of legend. These are adventures that get re-imagined in newer editions, and played again and again by generations of gamers, creating memories that live on for decades.

One such adventure is the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, an adventure written for the 1979 Origins Game Exposition as a tournament game for TSR’s original Dungeons and Dragons. It was later packaged into a module and published for sale under the first edition of the game. Later it was re-written for other editions, with the adventure most recently appearing in the 5th edition book, Tales from the Yawning Portal.

Rarely, however, do we see a follow-up story for adventures like this. Now, 40 years later, we are finally getting one for the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan—Return to Tamoanchan. This is an adventure set 50 years after the original, where adventurers now delve into what’s left of the temple to discover the secrets lie within. Returning players finally have a chance to uncover the secrets and learn the back story of this legendary adventure.

Geeks a Gogo had the pleasure of sitting down with Harold Johnson of Epic Quest Productions discussing his upcoming release, Return to Tamoachan. Harold is the former Director of Game Design from TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, and author of the original module, and he spoke at length on his plans for the sequel. The following is an edited version of our interview.

Geeks A Gogo: What are the main changes we can expect to see?

Harold: Spelling. Back in '79, I had just graduated from college with a minor in ancient near-eastern religion, and had studied Meso-American mythology as well. I put the game together quickly-- I wrote the module in 2 weeks, and typed it in 48 hours. Originally, the adventure was named “The Lost Tribe of Tamoachan”. The actual name in mythology is Tamoanchan. It's a mythological city of the Olmec people, so Tamoanchan will be the new name with the “n” after the “oa”.

Also, we want familiarity with what came before, but we want it to be new for everyone. We re-drew the maps, and it's different from the original at Origins in 79.

Geeks A Gogo: Can we hear a bit more about the story behind the original adventure?

Harold: It was just 9 encounters for a tournament at Origins. TSR decided to publish it to pay for gas to get to the convention. I didn't get to go, of course. Back those days there were no computers, and I ended up staying behind doing a lot of the typing work. Originally, I wanted to place the game in my own setting, but Gary [Gygax] wanted to set it in the cities of the Greyhawk setting, so that’s what we ended up doing.

Geeks A Gogo: Will we find out more information about the back story of the shrine in Return to Tamoanchan?

Harold: This new adventure answers the question of why it's here. I have a purpose for everything in my adventures. Why was this temple built? Is it a random set of challenges because the DM thinks it's cool or is there a bigger purpose? We'll find that there is a big purpose.

We plan to take this farther with Beneath Tamoanchan, which is a 9-layer dungeon that answers the question of why it was built--in a deliciously evil way. It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly why all

these traps and monsters are here. Parties of 10th level characters can expect to loose one person per room, and even higher level characters are doomed in Beneath Tamoanchan.

There will be consequences for actions. Don't wake the sleeping vampire, and you'll be okay. You’ll probably be okay as long as you're not messing around in the places you shouldn't go--which is probably the temple…

Prior to adventure module C1, the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, most adventures were--you’d open a door, you’d confront a random monster or trap, and then once you’d done that, you’d get a reward and then do it again. I, from the very first decided that I needed story involved. I wanted to create emotional content.

Prior to that, the description of a room was: “It’s 10x10, there’s a door on the opposite wall, and it’s a bedroom”. I go beyond that, and I talk about what’s in the room. Other adventures would say, “there are three zombies in here that turn and attack”. I would say, “there are 3 shriveled corpses leaning against a wall”. I wouldn’t just say that they attack, I would say things like, “They will not animate until the players attempt to break the seal on this door”. So, up to that point, they’re just shriveled corpses until you do that triggering event.

Geeks A Gogo: So what inspired you to write Return to Tamoachan after all these years?

Harold: (laughs) Well, whenever I write something, I always try to impart a lesson to other referees. I have never done it just for the delight of screwing the players or showing how smart I am. I’m doing something to say, “hey, let me teach you something that may help you make the shared event entertaining to you and your players”. That’s why I do drama, that’s why I do the atmosphere descriptions of areas. That’s why I do tactics for the monsters, and why I started giving the monsters motives so that if the monster came and went, you’d have some sense of continuity, so that you could—as the referee—take this creature out of this room and put him elsewhere, and it made perfect sense as to what his actions and reactions would be.

One of the things we did when we came back to revist this was that exact thing. I asked myself how I can take this further, and what more I could teach. Each thing is a challenge, including a bunch of misdirects—I love misdirects. But a little bit of what we were doing was refining what we were doing before, so that players will say, “This is creepy, why is it here?”, and now you’ll find out why.

We have a tomb in one room at the lowest level with the terracota warriors, and the back wall is broken open, and the tomb is empty. But we’ve defined what’s happened and explained why it’s empty based on what you as an adventurer—exploring further—will discover. Obviously, the original adventure was a concept for a tournament and we wanted you to move quickly through it. So, you have not seen everything. You haven’t explored for secret doors, or hidden chambers, or sealed-off areas like we’re discovering in the Egyptian tombs now, where we thought we had everything that we needed to discover in Tutahnkamen’s tomb and, it turns out that there’s three more crypts that nobody knew about. That’s essentially what you’re going to find.

Geeks A Gogo: Is there anything in particular from the original adventure that you get to flesh out in more detail in the Return to Tamoanchan?

Harold: One of the things that I wanted to do was to take what’s there, that seemed random by nature, such as the fire beetles that were originally there as scavengers. But I found a note that suggested that a hive of fire beetles might have a higher conscience—a hive mind. Those possibilities encourage us to do something more. Those beetles might be an annoyance, a threat, or a foe, or much more in one of the seven stories that we’re doing in Return to Tamoanchan. We looked at what we had, and said “Oh, maybe this is what’s really going on”. We have another room that is falling apart, and we find a bodies crushed under stone, and there’s these baboons who are standing above at a gap in the ceiling looking in from the jungle wilderness outside the temple. They’ll trow things down at you and try to hit you—they’re the ones who have been crushing people. There is the question as to why that is, and I have a ready answer, and you’ll see that all these things relate. That’s how we look at it. In the original, we thought, “Oh, this is a neat idea!”, but now we answer why it’s really there.

Harold: Again the question is why is all this stuff here, and what purpose does it serve. When you look at it, things fall into two categories: one is traps against tomb raiders and the other appears to be traps for monsters that you might end up freeing. There is a coatl in the first one, who is invisible, and the question is, why would someone trap a coatl down here? Well, you’ll find out that there is a purpose in the madness here. We did take a little bit of an arcade game approach. My games all have a boss, they have minions, and they have a foe. The players are walking though a bigger story and their characters are getting involved in it. Everything ultimately links together nine layers below the temple.

Geeks A Gogo: Thank you, and we’re looking forward to seeing both Return to Tamoanchan and Beneath Tamoanchan when it’s released.

Hopefully, we’ll get the details on Beneath Tamoanchan before it comes out. For now you can pre-order Return to Tamoanchan for the Pathfinder role-playing game from the Epic Quest Productions’ on-line store.


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