This month, the designer of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil shares his memories of the original adventure and talks about the challenges of updating a classic. A novelist, Monte also offers his thoughts on the relationship between fiction and RPG design, and provides a glimpse into his new book, Of Aged Angels.
Wizards of the Coast: The Temple of Elemental Evil is a classic adventure -- an experience shared by countless D&D players. What was your reaction at being asked to design a product that brings players back there?
Monte Cook: Well, I wasn't asked. I begged for it. I loved this adventure when it came out. I got it for my birthday when I was in high school and read it from cover to cover immediately. It was the first adventure that really went in depth about the organization of the creatures that lived there. This wasn't just some old ruined dungeon with some orcs in one room and a beholder across the hall. Here, they all worked together, they had enemies and allies in the dungeon -- it was a microcosm. It introduced me to the idea that a "dungeon" can really have a sort of working ecology (at least in a fantasy world), a dynamic set of politics, and a pretty complex theme. It really was the next step in D&D adventure evolution. I think people will see that I tried to use that same sort of formula in my adventure, hopefully taking things to new directions as well.
Wizards: Were you daunted by the fact that so many people played the original and would have certain expectations about a new product based on it?
Monte: Yeah, in a way that's daunting, but in a way it's great. It's like there's already a whole bunch of customers on my side saying, "Yeah -- Temple of Elemental Evil -- we remember that. We know all about it, and we think it's just as great as you do, Monte. You're doing that with Hedrack? Cool."
When I write something brand new, there's sort of a feeling that I need to work to sell the reader, the Dungeon Master and/or the players that whatever it is, it's really cool. With Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, I feel like a lot of people -- even those who didn't play the old one but have just heard the name in a good context -- are already pretty much there with me.
Wizards: What memories can you share of your own experience with the original adventure?
Monte: I played through it twice, running it both times, although one group didn't make it all the way through. (They didn't die -- I think the campaign broke up when we all went off to college.) In college, the campaign that did finish the adventure really wiped it out. They destroyed the artifact at the end, collapsed the dungeon, everything. That was fun.
Years after both of these campaigns, I also was a player in the module. (The DM, Thomas Reid, knew that I'd run it before, but didn't mind.) I remembered everything, but I pretended I didn't. At one point, we picked up a gnome NPC thief who had been a prisoner, and he was helping us. However, we got into a big fight and the gnome didn't do anything. When my character asked him why, Thomas the harried DM (there were like 10 players, and it's a complicated adventure to run) had the gnome say, "I forgot I was here." I found this terribly, terribly funny.
Wizards: How did those memories influence this new product?
Monte: The adventure assumes that adventurers came in years before and totally wiped out the temple -- collapsing the dungeon levels and everything. (So, you ask, how can there even be an adventure? Well, that would be telling too much . . . ) The adventure also focuses heavily on the things I thought were great about the original when I ran it -- the organization, the intelligence of the adversaries, and the feeling of "ultimate evil."
Wizards: Tell us about your design process for Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. What were your goals at the outset?
Monte: Early on, I wanted to make this a time-travel adventure, where half of it would take place now, with the rise of the elemental evil cult again, and half in the past, in the original Temple of Elemental Evil -- long before the original adventure (before the Battle of Emridy Meadows, for those Greyhawk historians out there). Others really wanted me to make it into an adventure that dealt primarily with traveling to some other (probably elemental) plane. In the end, however, neither of those directions were really the best way to go.
Even as I was trying to figure out what to do, I knew a few things. I knew, for example, that I wanted to create something that captured the spirit of the old adventure and provided just as much, if not more, good solid playing material, but took things a step beyond what we'd already seen. The Temple of Elemental Evil was interesting but there were a few things that didn't quite seem to make sense. Why was the moathouse built in a wetland? Is there more to "elemental evil" than meets the eye? What ever happened to Zert? I ended up linking elements of The Temple of Elemental Evil with other older, first edition adventures, although telling you which ones would give too much away.
Wizards: How did the product evolve as you got into the writing process?
Monte: I playtested as I wrote, so playtesting results each week led to direct and immediate changes to the manuscript. My playtesters and I would get together on Fridays, a bunch of them would die, and I'd spend the weekend wondering whether or not to tone down the encounters. Sometimes, I actually would.
Seriously, we did playtest every Friday, starting long before I had finished writing the adventure. For a while, particularly at the beginning, I was barely ahead of the players. They provided a lot of valuable help.
It also became obvious pretty early on that the product would need its own map book -- not unlike the original Temple of Elemental Evil, because it was just such a vast adventure with so many different locations. For the most part, though, the adventure itself didn't change much from my vision at the beginning.
Wizards: Can someone who never experienced the original adventure enjoy playing Return?
Monte: Absolutely. While it's clearly a sequel, it's also its own adventure. This isn't just "once more into the Temple." It's got whole new locations and a its own plot. Further, enough of everything that came before is described so that newer players can get caught up.
Wizards: This month also sees the release of your second novel, Of Aged Angels.. Tell us a little about the experience of writing that book.
Monte: Painful and pleasant at the same time. It was a lot of work, but I got to write about things that I love -- modern day conspiracies, secret societies, and cutting-edge occult matters. It's got a character that uses his laptop computer to help him create chaos magick rituals, and investigations into the Knights Templar. And it's got Jim Morrison. So really, what's not to like? Plus, it's got fascinating locations in it that I have explored (Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland) and some that I hope to one day explore (Oak Island in Nova Scotia). If none of this makes any sense to you, it's okay. It's clearer in the novel. If the few things I've mentioned do all make sense when mashed into the same context, well, then, you're my kind of person.
Wizards: How has your development as a fiction writer influenced your game design?
Monte: I'm much more conscious of stylistic choices and readability. While I think it's a mistake to focus on eloquent prose in an adventure, I think good adventures have their own sorts of eloquence. I'd be just as happy to sit down and read a well-done adventure as I would a novel -- but I would never want to read an adventure that's actually a barely-disguised novel (and there are a lot of those out there), nor would I want to read a novel that's really just an RPG adventure (they're out there too, of course). They are completely different art forms, but art forms nonetheless.
Wizards: You recently left Wizards of the Coast to pursue a full-time freelance writing career. How difficult was that decision?
Monte: Tougher than I had thought it would be. I had built up a lot of experience and "worked my way up the ladder," so to speak. Plus, the new D&D game was my baby (and Jonathan's and Skip's, of course), and it's weird to have it be in the hands of others now.
Wizards: How has the transition been going?
Monte: TSR/Wizards was a 7-year hiatus that I took from freelancing. By that, I mean, freelancing was, is and always has been the life for me. I seem to resist a lot of structure in my life, so even the laid-back atmosphere of working for a game company was not always the most conducive for me. So being at home, working on my schedule, is great. I'm extremely happy and far more productive than ever. The drawback, of course, is that I had a ton of friends at Wizards, and now I don't get to see them all everyday the way I used to. I spend more time with my wife, Sue, though -- so that's great.
Wizards: Can you tell us about some of your current projects? What can we look for next from the pen of Monte Cook?
Monte: Well, I've created my own imprint, Malhavoc Press, for publishing on-line d20 products at my website. It's going very well -- it's a lot of fun to write something and then give it directly to the gaming audience, rather than go through a conventional publisher. I'm also writing as a freelancer for Wizards of the Coast, Atlas Games, Fiery Dragon Press, and probably Sword and Sorcery down the line a bit. I'm also designing a game for WizKids. When I'm not swamped with all that work, I add new stuff to my website, which I also find very enjoyable -- you can go there and read my rants, find my take on various gaming subjects, read about my D&D campaign, and get whatever new gaming content I've thrown together in a given week. I'm always posting new feats or spells or whatever there. You can also drop me a line in my message boards, which I participate in actively.