Game Day: One Shot Death Trap

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is an Old School death trap of a dungeon. Originally released as a tournament module at Origins in 1979, the adventure was subsequently published as a module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In 2017 it was updated to D&D 5th Edition and released as part of the Tales from the Yawning Portal compilation (Amazon) by Wizards of the Coast.

I’d heard of the Aztec/Mayan inspired module before its re-release but never owned it or played it. My interest in it grew after hearing about it on a gaming podcast, and its inclusion in Yawning Portal sealed the deal: I’d need to run this … some day.

Enter Labor Day Weekend 2017. Half the gaming group can’t make it and none of the alternate game masters have anything ready to run. Itching to roll some dice, I volunteered to run the Hidden Shrine … and we were off to the death trap.

For the last decade or we’ve had an informal throwback campaign called Blade of Stars. It takes place in the World of Greyhawk in the early 570s, years before our gaming group’s signature Blackrazor Guild was founded. It follows the adventures of Brant Bladescream, the infamous Blackrazor Guild founder as he and his companions traveled the world looking for dungeons to plunder. For several years that was the campaign we played on Gygax Day and as part of it we ran through White Plume Mountain, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Nowadays it’s the time period we turn to when we want to run something old school … and you can’t get much more old school than the Hidden Shrine

A Glorious Death Trap

Three adventurers battle a quasi-Meso-American god.
The cover art for the original The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Credit: TSR

Reading through the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan before the game, I was struck by how beautifully lethal the dungeon is. The dungeon doesn’t make the mistake of being predictable; some of its traps are triggered by interaction, some are fired by inaction. Alien creatures inspired by Aztec and Mayan legends populate the dungeon, providing it with a self-contained mythos that’s sure to bewilder (and hopefully amuse) players used to more straightforward European-style gods like St. Cuthbert or Helm.

Our ad hoc adventuring party for The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan consisted of:

  • Zoravar: 5th level fighter (battlemaster), expedition leader, dungeon delver (thanks to the feat of the same name), and expert in the Olman language. Also: the guy with the map.
  • Kwen: 5th level fighter (champion) and unlucky rogue stand-in because he owned a pair of Gloves of Thievery
  • Bill: 5th level fighter (champion). He hit stuff.

Three fighters taking on a trap-filled Olman ruin? Sure, why not? The guys purposefully avoided anything like party balance because damn it, we were going to roll Old School.

Who needs magic and divine healing when you have a 10′ pole?

The party explored a good chunk of the first tier of the dungeon, making good progress despite taking steady damage from poisonous gas and not having a dedicated rogue in the group. They were able to bypass a few doors and traps mechanically, but they were much more likely to smash their way through a door or follow the Ragnar School of Trap Finding (set off the traps, soak the damage, named for our old barbarian Ragnar Blackmane). Ultimately, that did them in — they found the crypt of a slumbering vampire that was protected by a powerful sleep poison. They managed to shrug off the poison on their way into the room and then woke, fought, and defeated defeating the bat-worshipping undead. They retrieved a nifty magical axe, then went to flee the room … and then Kwen and Bill fell victim to the poison. That left Zoravar to pull their bodies to safety.

The gas was a particularly nasty poison; anyone who succumbed to it would sleep for 5,000 years. A neutralize poison spell could alleviate this for an hour … but the adventurers didn’t have an hour. Although the sleeping characters seemed strangely immune to the strangling gas that had been slowly killing them since they entered the dungeon, Zoravar continued to take damage. It was only the timely discovery of the magical axe’s passwall ability that allowed him to retreat from the dungeon with his companions.

He had 11 hit points left when he made it to the surface.

One Shot, Second Chance?

We had a lot of fun with the adventure, and it was exactly the sort of one-shot filler we were looking for. I have a few quibbles about the module’s occasional lack of detail () but it’s nothing the dungeon master can’t work around. I fully expect these characters will return to the dungeon — perhaps with a cleric in tow? — at some point in the future.

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