The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Playthrough (Spoilers)

This article containĀ spoilers for The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan from the sourcebook ‘Tales From The Yawning Portal’.

We’re three hours into 1980’s Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan when the bard realises he’s in serious trouble. The penny has finally dropped as I’ve reached for the Player’s Handbook and started reviewing the rules on character death.

“Hey,” he whispers to the other players, “can I actually die here?”

They nod.

“Oh… I didn’t think that this would be that dangerous…”

The cleric finally snaps. “You walked into a deep pond in full metal armour because some strange singing lady in the water beckoned you in with promising kisses. What did you think was gonna happen?”

I try not to laugh. The cleric’s right; the bard (now paralysed underwater with a mere three Hit Points) totally walked into an obvious death-trap with no nudging on my behalf and he’s regretting it.

And I have no sympathy at all, because I’m playing this module by the book. No deus ex machina, no miraculous recoveries from danger, no guidance on finding secret doors or hidden traps. They’re relying on their wits alone against the nastiness of 1st edition dungeon design, and I don’t envy them their task.

Because I’ve been there before myself. I cut my teeth on these kinds of dungeons and they were never forgiving of foolishness. That was well over twenty years ago, and these guys are the archetypal 5th edition style of player (experienced in other forms of gaming, new to tabletop roleplaying, and born naturals) so they don’t have the experience with old modules like I do.

But they’re learning quickly that Old School Roleplaying dungeons are of a different breed to newer ones, and the lessons are sink or swim.

Lesson 1: The Gloves Are Off

Many DMs use screens to hide their rolls from the players, “fudging” them to put the party in danger or save them from certain defeat. I dislike separating myself so physically from the players and prefer rolling my dice in the open, sometimes even getting them to roll dice that only I know the purpose of (if any). It adds the sense that I’m being fair; I’m as subject to the whim of the dice as they are. If they get into a position where a die is rolled, they have a very real chance of affecting the world (or of the world completely screwing them over).

Nowhere is this approach more appropriate than when running a module written by someone else. A dungeon like the Hidden Tomb of Tamoachan has been designed by a person with no interest in the history of those adventurers who would plunder it, nor in their character arcs and destinies, so a DM gets to act dispassionately. If you put your character in peril, it isn’t my fault. I couldn’t save you; the book told me to do that.

This can be a shock for players such as our bard, who has just learned that he isn’t bulletproof. Until now he has been happy to fling his character into ridiculous situations without terrible consequence, but suddenly his character has been properly threatened for the first time and he realises that he doesn’t want it to die. He likes his character, and he’s afraid for it.

Now he’s nervous, begging the other players to save him, and the dice just might not work out in his favour. It’s the kind of experience that only tabletop roleplaying can provide and it’s glorious!

Lesson 2: Conserve Your Resources

Our bard is now taking death saves. The rogue leaps in and grabs him while the barbarian grabs the rogue. The wizard blasts the creatures of the pool with a lightning-based spell, which isn’t fun for anyone. The barbarian hauls out his companions and the cleric feverishly starts healing the ravaged bard, while the wizard continues to zap the bad guys with the heavier duty contents of his catalogue.

The cleric’s spells do their job and our bard is back in action, furiously decrying coming down into this dungeon in the first pace and refusing to any longer wear the armour that nearly drowned him. The cleric and thief each point out that this will lower his Armour Class, but he refuses to listen to reason.

“Anyways,” he says, “I’m back up to full Hit Points anyway, so we’re all good.”

“Excuse me,” says the cleric, “why are you on full Hit Points?”

The thief is already ahead on this, “We’re pretty low on spells.”

They are. The wizard has been able to destroy the enemies in this room single-handedly, but at the cost of both his highest ranking spell slots. He now feels like he’s a burnt-out drain on the party, which is exactly what it was like playing a wizard back in 1st ed (I had 1 spellĀ and 4 hit points for aaaages). The cleric has likewise had to use a good portion of her healing supplies.

“If we get hit like that again,” she says, “I can’t pull us out of it so easy.”

It’s a sobering thought. They have a finite set of abilities available and that’s what they’ve relied on in shorter or simpler adventures in the past. Now they’re committed to a longer haul and they’ve got to be real clever. After all, they can’t rest…

Lesson 3: Expect the Rules to Change

Normally what the party would do in this situation would be to have a rest. An hour to get back a heap of abilities, eight hours to get back to peak. That’s pretty standard. You can get away with that a lot; 5th edition is largely built around that. There are of course ways to counter that, with time limits being used to pressure the party.

This dungeon is slightly nastier. The air is poisonous, dealing 1d6 damage to the party every hour, meaning it is impossible to rest and foolish to waste time. Having effectively teleported in, there is no way of going back and no way of knowing what lies ahead. They simply must press on, as quickly as they can until they find fresh air.

This affects the party’s behaviour in so many ways. They’re trying to avoid combat if they can help it. They’re not spending long to check for secret doors or traps unless there’s something clearly amiss. If they do spot something puzzling but not immediately harmful they’ll avoid it and try a different route. They’re pressing ahead as cautiously as they can, but at the expense of not completing every square inch as is their wont.

And it’s wise that they play like this, because these OSR dungeons didn’t play by the rules. To be more precise, they made their own rules. Every trap is explicitly detailed and incredibly creative. Secret doors have very specific triggers; you’ll need to give me more than saying “I search for secret doors”. Strange minigames appear simply because the designers had a cool idea. Even monsters tend toward the unusual; the centaur mummy is a thematic strongpoint, but the god of slugs is simply wonderful.

Lesson 4: Abandon Narrative Expectations

I’m a child of the narrative era. I expect characters in a roleplaying game to be developed, and the story I help create as GM will be built with them at the centre. Events should progress in an escalating process, with information revealed to slowly build a picture. We fight through minor challenges, moving onto greater ones, and eventually conquer the Final Boss. That’s how we tell a story, that’s how we run our modules, that’s how D&D operates.

OSR don’t buy into that. The formula wasn’t as established or entrenched as it was back in 1980, so older modules show a bizarre creativity that modern games tend to lack (I give a pass to the brilliant Goodman Games, who absolutely shine in their OSR modules).

Already the players are missing out on encountering several fascinating areas of the dungeon filled with peril and treasure, and it’s entirely likely that they’ll never venture into them. That’s almost unheard of in a world of 100% completion trophies. The actual Final Boss isn’t even at the end of the dungeon; it’s about halfway in, if you even bother to encounter it at all.

Because, again, this has been built by a mind with no invested interest in the party nor their experience. It is built by a force from outside of your gaming group, which adds to the sensation that they are invaders into dangerous territory. Indeed, this tomb was built to keep people out, not in, and certain traps and features can be exploited with this knowledge.

The history of the dungeon can be found littered throughout it, but sometimes something will make no sense whatsoever. What’s with the mirror room? Or the football game? Or the beach with the water nymph? The only reason offered is that they’re fun; I can live with fun.

Lesson 5: No Pain, No Gain

The party’s caution leads them on through the dungeon and through a secret door. They traverse one path, then another. They narrowly avoid being caught in a devious trap where a corridor filled with sand now blocks their way back. They suffer another d6 damage from the poisonous air. They press on.

The game has slid to a sluggish crawl. By avoiding suspicious paths and keeping to the shadows, they’re progressing quite well, but they’re missing out on the more visceral excitement. They’re not experiencing any major threats, but they’re not experiencing major rewards either. They’re being whittled away a few HP at a time and can really do with a victory.

I can do with a change of pace myself; an hour of detailed corridor descriptions becomes tiresome for everyone. And it just so happens that the next room has a bunch of giant beetles to smash, which is perfect. The party vents their frustration on these weenies and slay them mercilessly. It’s cathartic, but they get very little out of it other than a hollow satisfaction.

They want the excitement, but they’re afraid of reaching for it, and I can’t blame them. The world literally isn’t built around them any more and the only way they’ll ever get anything is to take it! It shows the sword and sorcery influences of the game, and it can be frightening. But imagine how frightening it was back when we rolled 3d6 for our stats. (Seriously, it took me months to hit second level with that mage back in the day, and by that time the thief was hitting third. And what did I get for it? Another d4 HP and the ability to cast my crappy spell twice instead of once. You’ve no idea!)


And on they plod. We end the session soon after (to be continued) and crack open a beer. I’ve enjoyed reading Tales From The Yawning Portal, and running from a module takes some weight off a DM’s shoulders. But I want to know what the players think of it.

“There’s a lot of corridors,” says the bard.

“We’re taking our time on them.” says the wizard, “Like, they’re filled with traps.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t as interesting as the rooms.”

“We all agree on that.” says the cleric, “Dragging you out of that water was real interesting.”

“It was fun though.” says the thief, and the barbarian nods along, “It was my favourite part when he nearly killed himself.”

“We need to get out of this noxious air.” says the wizard.

“We’re trying.” says the cleric, “We’re not fooling around.”

The tension is oppressive. They record their lost spells and HP. They attach their crude maps to their character sheets with paper clips. They look at their meagre haul so far and take some solace in the magic sword that was practically given to them. They have no idea what lies in store for them.

And to a certain degree, neither do I.

A huge thank you to Let’s Play Games Distribution for providing us with a copy of Tales from the Yawning Portal.

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