X: The Temple of Elemental Evil ~ Part I (1976)

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Hello, and welcome to the castleoldskull.com blog. For our next TSR and Dungeons & Dragons history series, we’re going to be taking a look at one of Gary Gygax’s most famous and beloved creative campaign showcases, the (Lost) Temple of Elemental Evil. The way is sure to be perilous and awash with unholy revelation. So come along into the Underworld, fearless heroes, swords high and enjoy your stay!

The Foundation of the Temple:

January to April 1976

A chronicle of the year 1976 as it pertains to the history of Tactical Studies Rules, fantasy role-playing games, E. Gary Gygax, and David Lance Arneson.

Disclaimer: This is an historical essay, developed for knowledge and research endeavors, and is freely shared to the public for nonprofit educational purposes as a matter of fair use. All mentioned copyrighted entities remain copyrighted by their respective holders, being corporate for-profit organizations which castleoldskull.com (Kent David Kelly) is neither partnered nor affiliated with. No challenge to such copyrights is intended by specific entity mention in this open historical record.

“We were under tremendous pressure to feed the monster that we had created; dealers, distributors and store owners wanted new product. The players kept clamoring for more and more. It became imperative that we have at least one new product for every convention season.”

Tim Kask

We go now to early 1976. For those who require context for early TSR or are not familiar with the 1973 history of the company and its founding, please see my ’73 blog series, beginning here.

And for those who do not know the TSR events for 1974 and 1975, suffice it to say that Dungeons & Dragons was released in early 1974, and the game faltered out of the gate before it became a hit. In 1975, supplement booklets began to appear beginning with Greyhawk and then Blackmoor. The fans in 1976 were clamoring for even more, and so Gary called upon his colleagues – Brian Blume and Tim Kask most especially, with co-starring remote appearances from Dennis Sustare, Steve Marsh, and Jim Ward – to create even more advanced options for the game. This material in total would be published in the spring of 1976, entitled Eldritch Wizardry. There are chapters of Eldritch that would directly inform the upcoming Temple campaign, particularly in the realm of demonology.

Our chronology continues …

January 1976: At this time Gary is working on expanding the simple tripartite alignment system for the Dungeons & Dragons game. As such, he is thinking about extra-planar creatures, clerics, cults, summoning, temples, and the cosmic vs. terrestrial nature of the eternal battle between Law and Chaos.

January 1976: Invited earlier to join the TSR crew in Lake Geneva, Dave Arneson finally moves from the Twin Cities.

January 1976: Gary and Brian begin working on Eldritch Wizardry. Brian will be designing artifacts, and then it appears that Gary would add his own iconic treasures to the mix as well.

Mid-January 1976: Dave Arneson arrives and begins working as TSR’s Research Director.

(Dave’s stay at TSR would be sadly brief and filled with drama, some of his own making, and some decidedly not so much. But these office arguments are tales which do not belong to the saga of the Temple proper. Therefore, we will consider this topic at another time. If you need to know the messy details now, you might be interested in Dave Arneson’s True Genius by Rob Kuntz, as well as The Game Wizards by Jon Peterson.)

c. January-February 1976: Designing new monsters for the game, Gary would dig into the tome entitled A Fantastic Bestiary by Ernst and Johanna Lehner for exotic entities such as the couatl, ki-rin, shedu, and su-monster.

“The colour of the creature was variegated: its head, hands, and legs were purple; but its skin, which hung loosely upon it, even as clothes might do, was a phosphorescent grey. And it stood there, blinded by the light. At last this unknown creature of the abyss blinked its eyes open, and, shading them with its disengaged hand, opened its mouth and gave vent to a shouting noise, articulate almost as speech might be …”

H. G. Wells

February 1 1976: This is the release date for The Strategic Review, issue #6, Volume 2, Number 1. Therein, Gary publishes his article “The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons and Their Relationships to Good and Evil”, which gives us our first glimpse of demons at the apex of Chaos and Evil, in an unknown planar realm known as the Abyss.

Gary’s fully differentiated alignment system – incorporating not just Law and Chaos, but also Good and Evil – was still very much a work in progress.

As a piece of trivia, in this newsletter we also find a tiny snippet of Gary’s numeric stats for demons in David Megarry’s Dungeon! game (formerly Pasha Cada prior to publication), which means – if you want to get technical about it – that demons were actually published in a snippet for Dungeon! before they were deeply typified in published D&D.

February 1976: At this time, Dave Arneson is still awkwardly settling in. Soon, to welcome his old gaming friends (TSR’s new employees) Gary will devise a new fantasy campaign to be set in the Great Kingdom, the shared milieu which includes Gygax’s Greyhawk and Arneson’s Blackmoor.

March 1976: David Megarry begins working for TSR. With the Twin Cities and Lake Geneva groups now united at TSR, Gary might at this time decide that he wants to bring everyone together with an office-based D&D campaign.

This optimistic timeframe is a bit fragile from a gamer and friendship perspective, because Gary’s protectiveness toward Lake Geneva game designs – perhaps tinged with a bit of envy toward Twin Cities innovations and designers – would begin to split TSR’s employees into “us” vs. “them”. March and April were the good times that would be looked back on fondly later and the Temple campaign encapsulated that brief era.

“You must realize that the bulk of the creative Minnesota people were working for TSR in 1976: Arneson (D&D, Adventures in Fantasy, First Fantasy Campaign), Megarry (Guerrilla War, Dungeon!, Pentastar) and Carr (Don’t Give Up The Ship, Fight in The Skies, 24 Hours of Le Mans); the only people not represented were David Wesely (Strategos N, Braunstein, Source of the Nile, Valley Forge), Ross Maker (Source of the Nile), the Snider Brothers (Richard: Adventures in Fantasy, Mutant; John: Star Probe and Star Empires) and Professor Barker (Empire of the Petal Throne).”

David Megarry

c. March-April 1976: More material is devised for the upcoming Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Tim Kask, for example, is working on the psionics and psychics system using design materials such as the Mystic class concept from Steve Marsh.

Gary is working on designing demons and demon lords. We can catch an intriguing look at his initial worksheet in the Art & Arcana book.

Gary’s initial demon planning worksheet is interesting because it shows that he was drawing from occultic demonology for the names of demon lords, but otherwise he was classifying demons according to a grid with seemingly random animal attributes (vulture, toad, hound, serpent, boar, and so forth). Perhaps this was his way to exemplify the nature of Chaos in the abyss, manifesting demonic forms in seemingly random twisted combinations of flesh.

c. Early April 1976: Gary begins working on his new D&D campaign, perhaps in secret.

The setting will be the temple of an evil cult, with unholy men doing blasphemous things and harassing the nearby realms in their quest for power. We will be graceful and leave the question of whether Gary was inspired, in part, by Arneson’s Temple of the Frog design as a matter for idle speculation. (Mostly.)

Nevertheless I cannot resist pointing out a few interesting similarities:

  • [1] A grim chaotic Temple is situated in the wilderness, near to a swamp, devoted to forbidden evil.
  • [2] The cult of darkness builds a Temple and digs out caves beneath it to fulfill nefarious purposes.
  • [3] These caves are used to house evil monsters, controlled by the cult.
  • [4] Innocent people are abducted and sacrificed to a monstrous deity and the creature below as blood offerings. The evil power of the priesthood grows.
  • [5] The priesthood of the Temple grows divided and factionalized, leading to open violence between sub-cults in the Temple and its underworld.
  • [6] The priests ally with brigands (“men outside the law”) to assist in aiding the temple’s interests, and raiding the surrounding lands.
  • [7] The high priesthood includes a clerical commander who is assisted by monster keepers. A powerful outsider from beyond – feared by many – holds sway as well.
  • [8] Human guards rub shoulders with fiends. Trolls and other vile monsters serve the priesthood as guardians down in the dungeon.
  • [9] The bottom of the Temple features a nearly unbeatable evil, protected in the deepest sanctuary by the cult. Can the heroes destroy this subterranean stronghold of abominable evil?
  • (etc.)

These are broad similarities, but the echoes between the Temples of Arneson (1975) and Gygax (1976, after Arneson’s arrival at TSR) are rather interesting I would think. Especially when we consider the timing of Arneson’s arrival and Gary’s admiration of Arneson’s separate City of the Gods scenario, which Gary would also draw significant inspiration from.

(For Rob Kuntz’s tale of Sir Robilar in the City of the Gods, be sure to check out Oerth Journal #6.)

c. Early April 1976: Working to differentiate his new campaign, Gary decides to craft the new setting to be quite different from Castle Greyhawk and its vast city.

According to one account, it seems that Gary’s thought behind starting a new campaign is that the veteran players are a bit drained – perhaps due to Dungeon Hobby Shop activities and related matters – and Gary wants to get a different perspective on things. So he decides to make a more rustic variant, featuring a quiet village and a more remote dungeon off in the wilderness.

Apparently he hoped that everyone who had participated in his prior Castle Greyhawk campaign would start over with new characters, so that newly-arrived characters (to be run by Arneson, Megarry, etc.) would be able to compete in this newly-envisioned corner of the Great Kingdom.

Gary would again use Nyr Dyv, the Lake of the Unknown Depths (earlier also known as Nir Div, “near dive”) as the regional center of his campaign. Instead of the Free City of Greyhawk region, this hinterland game would focus on the farther shores of the great dark lake.

David Megarry’s copy of the Great Kingdom map is interesting to ponder over as we wonder where the Temple campaign might be situated more precisely. It helps to remember that in the Great Kingdom, Walworth County (or Earldom) appears on the northern shore of the lake, that being also the name of the real-world county where Lake Geneva exists.

Considering the relative position of Verbobonc in the later refined Flanaess setting (1980), it seems that the 1976 version of the Temple campaign might have been set on the western shores of the lake, beyond Walworth and toward the Kingdom of Faraz. This is a guess on my part.

c. Early to Mid-April 1976: Gary writes up an introduction to his campaign. You can read this single typed sheet of lore for yourself in Book I (of two) of the Goodman Games Temple of Elemental Evil, Original Adventures Reincarnated, Volume 6.

A few points for consideration:

  • [1] The name of the dungeon ruin is the Lost Temple of Elemental Evil. It was razed by other kingdoms in the past to wipe out the cult of Chaos there.
  • [2] The cult worshipped Elemental Evil (the violent aspects of the four elements, such as storms and deluges) as well as the Demonic Abyss.
  • [3] As the cult flourished and gathered slaves into a work force, dungeons were dug under the Temple to house chaotic evil monsters and servitors, including goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, and orcs. In time, a (male) demon lord “took up abode” on the deepest dungeon level to feed on the sacrifices.
  • [4] After an age of terror, the realms of chaotic and lawful good united to wipe out the Temple forces and to raze the site. It is implied that the surface works were purged, and the dungeons to a lesser degree, which would leave the greatest evil lurking underground.
  • [5] At this time, Gary probably did not know the full identity of the newly-conceived demon lord. But we can assume that if it was Orcus or Demogorgon he would have mentioned this, because these were the two unique demons he had created by this time to be featured in Eldritch Wizardry.

c. Early to Mid-April 1976: Gary devises several maps to prepare for the campaign. We can catch glimpses of these materials, again, in Original Adventures Reincarnated.

There are two maps that are most importantly featured, one of the village of Hommlet (then spell “Homlett”) and another of the Lost Temple proper, which lies to the north(east) of the village surrounded by woods and marsh.

And so the design of the Temple campaign began. Now that we have taken a survey of the foundations of the Temple and its conception, we will take a closer look at these maps – and other hidden clues – in Part II of this series which is soon to come.

Stay tuned …

2 responses to “X: The Temple of Elemental Evil ~ Part I (1976)”

  1. Great Job here as always Kent. It took me a while to realize the articles were click-able so I was delighted that these were more than just teasers. Lol

    I think you are spot on with the C&C placement of Hommlet. I find that map and the C&C campaign-space endlessly fascinating for its significance in informing the later WOG. I have put that map to a hex grid and in overlaying a zoomed-in version of the Northwestern Nir Div area atop the WOG Gnarleywood area something very striking caught my eye. By rotating the C&C map counterclockwise 60degrees (if flat “side” of the hex is down – rotating counterclockwise until the next flat side is down) the river course of the Northwestern river emptying into (the C&C) Nir Div almost matches exactly with the Velverdyva WOG river course; right down to the Att tributary and “bend”. The further west you go the resemblance drifts slightly but it cannot be ignored after seeing it. I find it interesting that in both the 1976 & 1979 maps the road leading east out of Homlett is labeled “To Nyr Dyv and to the Temple“, in that order, implying a closer spatial relationship of Hommlet to the lake and the temple being further afield(?). Perhaps the road skirts the shore then a branch turns “northward”(?) possibly past Nulb and then the temple? The road exiting the temple area does go south then bends southwest, but only Hommlet is noted on that map so not exactly sure where Nulb fits in. The “Notes For The Dungeon Master” section (T1-4 p.28) offers an intriguing look at what the C&C local are may have looked like. I have yet to try and mesh the two (my next project), but I find it quite interesting in its inclusion in the published module with two already fairly detailed wilderness maps presented. Probably an enticing 1976 element holdover left in the published manuscript.

    The comparisons to the Temple of the Frog are very interesting and something I had not considered.

    Given the heavy Druidic themes presented, the newly published Druid class, a major Druid NPC played by an important employee; my thought is that the main strife-point of the campaign was between “Nature vs destructive forces against Nature.” The main antagonist against nature being the “elemental” destructive forces (as in mainly primal, but also conveniently “fire, water, and antimatter [air + earth = abyss]” — note presented as “three” not “four” in the Lost Temple one-page), with fungus also being against the natural growing process; and to a lesser degree the “new faith” as a later addition to the strife. Tsuggtmoy being a perfect “fiend” to summon in aiding the subjugation of the nearby farming community where fungus destroys crops, livestock, infecting vermin and causing pestilence. All of which I believe were mentioned in the T1 background.

    Anyway, exciting start looking forward to reading more as I now know they are ready to be read!!


    1. Hi Rich, glad you enjoyed it. I agree that Gary was probably looking for thematic differences that would not just be good vs. evil. There’s an interesting tension in T1 with the old ways vs. the newfound church of St. Cuthbert, and then the elemental factions under the Temple too. I think he liked to put in as many mini-factions as possible to see what the players would latch onto. Another big example (later) would be the drowic noble houses.

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