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Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Design & Development
Stephen Radney-MacFarland

Last week, D&D Alumni looked back at the upcoming DM Rewards adventure: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. This week, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, designer of the adventure’s conversion, discusses his take on the pyramid—and just how deadly it might be for today’s dungeon explorers.


When I was a kid, two adventures got us trembling in our sneakers. The first was, of course, Tomb of Horrors. I had an old duotone copy of that adventure before I even had any of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, and would run it, aping the rules I remembered from the one “real” session I played, for anyone who would ask. Eventually they stopped asking, and it wasn’t because I was getting the rules wrong... that thing was just deadly.

The second most infamous adventure was The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.

The Deadly Adventure

By the time Tamoachan started popping up in my gaming circle’s collections, the word was already out. Tomb of Horrors was fool-me-once, but I had since become cautious in my module choices. Then word came in that Tamoachan was a grinder, where poison gas sapped your strength while frustrating traps challenged the edge of your wits and strange creatures gnawed out your insides. By this time, I was already learning the hard lesson of the early DM: Killing characters with head-spinning frequency only results in a dearth of players. DMing... it’s always the struggle between what you want to do and what you ought to do.

Back in my 1st and 2nd Edition days, I never ran The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan in its entirety, but boy did I steal from it. I must have used every trap and dirty trick in that thing; reskinning it to whatever campaign I happened to be running at the time. Bits of Tamoachan showed up in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, and Planescape; all properly disguised but still very deadly. I think I killed no less than three characters within the course of a year recycling the horrors of Tamoachan. So, needless to say, when I was offered the chance to write the 4E conversion of this classic, I jumped at it.

My chief goal for this conversion: Have it fit squarely with the 4E rules and cosmology, but make it as scary, deadly, and challenging as the original.

My first step was to re-read the adventure. Memory is a fuzzy mistress. After that, I ran it using the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. I wanted to experience it in its natural state. I wanted to find the fun at its source.

It was an eye-opening experience. There was a lot more freeform exploration and stress over the circumstances of the adventure. Tamoachan is a mix of outrageous and the mundane. It’s the rabbit hole and Indiana Jones all at once. Throughout the first part of the adventure, there’s a lot of stress on the players to be careful but quick. The poison gas that fills the lower halls is a deadly timer and a thing of deadly beauty (speaking as a DM who loves things that gnaw and gnash on characters); as the characters start running low on their most vital resources—hit points and healing magic—they begin to make critical mistakes. The thing you have to understand is that Tamoachan was built to be a tournament adventure—a thing that tested the mettle and resourcefulness of players.

Of course, in 4E hit points are more numerous than they were in AD&D, but lucky for me there’s still a resource that talks directly to the resource management side of hit points and healing: the healing surge. The gas that fills the lower hall now requires a saving throw roughly every five minutes of exploration—and on a failed saving throw, you start to perish oh so slowly by losing healing surges. What happens if you take an extended rest? You die. Pure. Simple. Deadly. Just like the original. This is not something you can slow-play through.

Encounters within in the Pyramid

It’s not only the gas that wears you down. There are also encounters; encounters with truly bizarre creatures. Tamoachan’s pyramid serves as prison, tomb, or both. In my early edition play, I found that the encounters were often quick, dangerous, and often offered some means of bypassing them with minimal violence—especially in the lower gas-filled ruins. Wherever possible I wanted to retain that danger and mystery. Each room reminded me of some evil things I did (and stole) back in my own days of yore, but I never stole some of the subtle ways out of each predicament. I’m a bad man.

Does that mean that—given my own admittedly fanboy tendencies about this adventure—you’re going to get what amounts to basically a reprint of the classic adventure? Not quite. When necessary I updated the background and cosmology to the newest rules set. I had to make some subtle tweaks to monsters, giving them slightly different abilities here and there, and I did add some curveballs—subtle but important changes to challenge those who may have already played the adventure with some earlier edition of the game. You’re not getting off easy.

In the end, my goal was not to recreate the adventure, but to recreate the experience of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. What that means is that you’ll find an adventure to challenge wit and fortitude, and maybe a smidgeon of your own personal sanity.

I will not lie to you. Your character may die. There will be TPKs.

But, just think of the bragging rights if you survive to delve another day.

About the Author

Stephen Radney-MacFarland is a game designer living large in the Seattle area. He was a developer for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a content developer for 3rd Edition organized play, and he has taught game design for the past three years. Stephen currently works at Paizo Publishing as a designer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, writes "Save My Game," and works on the occasional D&D product. He also runs more games than his wife would prefer.

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