Elemental Evil makes a big return this year, building on its long history as part of the Dungeons & Dragons game.
Appearing in the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure and a new Temple of Elemental Evil board game (not to mention our most recent walkthrough map), Elemental Evil is the heart of D&D’s newest storyline. Its origins go back to some of the earliest D&D lore—most of it focusing on a ruined temple and a small village that had the misfortune to lie near it.
The Origins of the Temple: 1979–1986
At GenCon XII in 1979, TSR released a 16-page Greyhawk adventure called The Village of Hommlet. Written by Gary Gygax, the adventure was a milestone for D&D, marking TSR’s first in-depth depiction of a fully stocked village that adventurers could explore and use as a base of operations. However, Hommlet wasn’t all about talking to farmers and weavers. There was also adventure to be found in a moathouse at the edge of town—and hints of even greater challenges to come.
The moathouse was an outpost for a nearby Temple of Elemental Evil—a “walled fortress” that had long before been sealed by the forces of good fighting the machinations of a “terrible demon.” Many of the nonplayer characters in The Village of Hommlet had their own interests in the temple—for good or ill—and the adventure’s status as a lead-in to further adventures at the temple can be seen in its module code of T1. For more information, DMs were directed to a soon-to-appear follow-up module coded T2, The Temple of Elemental Evil.
As one of the earliest D&D adventures, The Village of Hommlet was published with a monochrome cover. Two years later in 1981, TSR showed its continued commitment to the series by upgrading the original to a full-color cover. However, the follow-up adventure still hadn’t appeared. The problem had previously been discussed in Dragon 35 (March 1980). There, Gygax talked about how his administrative duties at TSR were keeping him from game design. Over the next few years, he would report on more than one occasion that work on T2 was beginning again, but the long-awaited temple adventure never appeared.
In Dragon 90 (October 1984), Gygax finally admitted that he was too busy to finish the adventure. He had thus turned over his three hundred manuscript pages to Frank Mentzer. The result appeared the following August under the module code T1–4. Credited to “Gary Gygax with Frank Mentzer,” The Temple of Elemental Evil was more than just a 16- or 32-page supplement to The Village of Hommlet. Instead, it was a 128-page super-adventure split into four parts. These depicted the original village of Hommlet and its moathouse (a reprint of the original T1 adventure); the nearby village of Nulb and the ruins of the Temple of Elemental Evil; the dungeons beneath the temple; and a series of elemental demiplanes called the “nodes of elemental evil.” Six years after it was first mentioned, the Temple of Elemental Evil was finally complete and available for play.
In the following year, TSR published two more Greyhawk super-adventures: Scourge of the Slave Lords (reprinting the four adventures of the slaver-themed A-series of adventures, and branded as A1–4) and Queen of the Spiders (combining the classic G-series giant adventures, the D-series drow adventures, and the Queen of the Demonweb Pits adventure to be branded GDQ1–7). The three Greyhawk super-adventures were arranged to make it possible to play one after the other—allowing heroes who began their adventuring careers in the village of Hommlet to eventually end up in the Demonweb Pits of the Abyss. Though the origin story of Elemental Evil began small in the village of Hommlet, it ended big as part of one of D&D’s first great adventure paths (the other being the Dragonlance adventures, which also concluded in 1986).
Return to the Temple: 1999–2013
For many years, it seemed as if the stories of Elemental Evil and its temple were done. Though Temple of Elemental Evil was fondly remembered as one of the classic D&D adventures, the game moved on to other tales and other worlds.
That changed in 1999, when Wizards of the Coast started publishing nostalgic returns to the past as part of D&D’s silver anniversary. Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff (1999) and Slavers (2000) revisited the classic giants and slavers adventures, as part of a series of a half-dozen adventures that returned to D&D’s old stomping grounds. From 1999 to 2002, a complementary series of Greyhawk Classics novels also appeared.
Elemental Evil finally got its own moment in the nostalgic spotlight in 2001. The Greyhawk Classic novel The Temple of Elemental Evil provided a narrative interpretation of the original adventure, something that was mirrored two years later by the Atari video game The Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure. In addition, between these two publications, the temple enjoyed something new: a full sequel to the 1985 adventure.
Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil by Monte Cook appeared in 2001, following up on the events in Gygax and Mentzer’s super-adventure fifteen years later. New players had a chance to visit Hommlet (grown to a large town) and the now-deserted ruins of Nulb. In the process, they learned that evil forces had once more come to haunt the area. Eventually, characters would delve through the ruined remains of the original Temple of Elemental Evil, as well as the new Temple of All-Consumption. In both those ancient lairs, the adventurers learned of even deeper secrets than the ones uncovered by other adventurers a generation before. Like its predecessor, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is a classic-style dungeon crawl—and one deeply steeped in Greyhawk lore.
After the publication of Cook’s new megadungeon, Elemental Evil was once more lost to nostalgia. It made some brief returns during the days of fourth edition D&D, but only on a small scale. The Village of Hommlet was updated to fourth edition rules in 2009 by Andy Collins, and released through the RPGA DM Rewards program. Meanwhile, fans of the elements could play The Elder Elemental Eye as the eighth season of D&D Encounters in 2012. It wasn’t exactly Elemental Evil, but it focused on one of the many gods associated with the temple, and tied in with the Heroes of the Elemental Chaos supplement.
Fans of Elemental Evil during the 4e era were probably most interested in Dragon 425 (July 2013). That issue included an extensive historical look at the temple, as well as some discussion of what exactly Elemental Evil was. This was, in fact, a longstanding question, since Elemental Evil had been presented in some confusing ways during its earliest incarnations.
The Gods of the Temple
The story of the Temple of Elemental Evil changed a lot over the years, and those changes have been reflected through the many different gods who have been associated with the temple at different times.
When Gary Gygax first sketched out plans for the temple in The Village of Hommlet, he intended that the spider goddess Lolth would be the temple’s main villain. However, when Lolth became the antagonist of David C. Sutherland III’s Queen of the Demonweb Pits, she was removed from consideration for the temple. Gygax thus considered the single Lolth reference in The Village of Hommlet to be a mistake, and the spider goddess probably should have been expunged from the completed Temple of Elemental Evil. Instead, she remains as a very weak (almost nonexistent) faction within the temple.
Gygax also intended to hide a secret shrine to the Elder Elemental God deep beneath the modern temple—with the god’s power being used and abused by Lolth. This would have more fully explained the presence of Elemental Evil within the temple, but the idea was dropped when Frank Mentzer took over the design of the super-adventure. Ironically, the Elder Elemental God also disappeared from the GDQ series after passing mentions in the giants and drow adventures, when David Sutherland completed that extended series with Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
By the time Mentzer was given Gygax’s notes, the fungus goddess Zuggtmoy had taken over the role of temple villain. Her connection to the elements seemed spurious, but Mentzer explained it as a ruse on the goddess’s part, saying that “Elemental Evil would have more appeal than a cult dedicated to her beloved fungi.” Mentzer also added the cambion Iuz to the mix as another god who contributed to the creation of the temple. Though they didn’t have elemental connections, Iuz and Zuggtmoy did have one advantage over Lolth and the Elder Elemental God: they were more deeply ingrained into the Greyhawk setting.
Over the years, many players found Zuggtmoy at the heart of the Temple of Elemental Evil and were somewhat puzzled by her fungoid presence. Monte Cook finally offered a new explanation a decade and a half later in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. He did so by bringing in Tharizdun, a nihilistic god of entropy that Gygax had created for The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982). Cook explained that Tharizdun had always been the true core of the temple, and that he’d manipulated Zuggtmoy and Iuz into doing his bidding. He also revealed that Tharizdun had another aspect: he was sometimes known as the Elder Elemental Eye.
The revelation that the Elder Elemental God was an aspect of Tharizdun met with mixed reactions among Greyhawk fans. However, that result was actually quite close to Gygax’s first conception of the temple. Originally, an aspect of the Elder Elemental God had been another layer of secrecy hidden beneath Zuggtmoy’s power, providing a more solid association with Elemental Evil.
Cook also introduced another god to his revamped temple: Imix, the Prince of Evil Fire Elementals. He was one of the Elemental Princes of Evil, first published in the Fiend Folio (1981). The inclusion of one of their number in the temple was another nice tie to D&D’s elemental heritage.
Fourteen years after the game’s last major incursion into Gygax’s fabled temple, Elemental Evil is back. What new secrets will be revealed? DMs and players delving into Princes of the Apocalypse will know the answers soon enough.
About the Author
Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.