Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Temple of Elemental Evil

The Temple of Elemental Evil is one of the first games I bought from GOG back in 2010, and my initial attempt at playing it determined that I was not yet ready for such an excellent, hardcore game. 

I found this game extremely confusing when I first tried to play it about 2 years ago.  First of all, I was more or less unfamiliar with the D&D 3.x ruleset.  In the intervening time, I've played both Neverwinter Nights games and pen and paper Pathfinder, so now I have a much better idea of what I'm doing.

Another stumbling block was that I had no idea where I should go or what I should do first.  I made the mistake of heading straight for the moat house after delivering news to the head priest at the local temple, since it seemed like that's where I was supposed to go next.  When the head priest told me about this moat house quest, the dialogue included an option to head out to the moat house immediately, and so naturally I thought that it would be designed for a level 1 party.

In this first attempt, on the way to the moat house, my party was ambushed by two giant frogs.  Aside from the opening vignette, this was my first taste of combat in ToEE.  I did my best with the unfamiliar controls and the inadequate gear, but things clearly weren't going well, and I knew we were doomed when I saw two more giant frogs join the fray.  I couldn't do anything but watch helplessly as, one by one, the whole party was grappled by the tongues of the giant frogs and then swallowed.  TPK.

Let me tell you, this party was in no position to be going to the moat house.  After trying a few in-town quests instead, I learned just how pathetic and vulnerable we were.  There's a quest to find out who's poisoning a farmer's sheep.  I found the person doing it (he was just standing around out there for hours all night, so it wasn't hard), but I couldn't get any information out of him, so I tried pickpocketing him to see if I could get some evidence that way.  Apparently that doesn't work at all, because I was successful multiple times, but never found anything new in my inventory, but when he spotted me and entered combat, this somehow aggroed the sheep on the farm, and they attacked.  My party was then wiped by sheep.

I checked online for some advice on where to begin, and a couple of places recommended going to Deklo Grove (which required finding someone in town to give me the quest, which I don't think I ever would have found) and just grinding on random spawns there until level 2.  Not very fun.  I did get to level 2 that way, but it took a while.  When I did, I ended up taking the Toughness feat on several of my characters, which in retrospect was an unwise choice.  It grants you a meagre 3 extra hit points, which seemed like a lot at the time, when the health of all of us could be measured in single digits, but after just a few more levels, 3 HP is rather insignificant, as I discovered when I hit level 2, and saw my HP nearly double!  Really, when I made this first attempt about 2 years ago, I didn't even understand that each level added another die's worth of HP.

Anyway, I checked the Circle of Eight site, and saw that they had released a new version of their mod since I last checked.  It wasn't compatible with the previous one, but it had some new content that I wanted, so I had to start over.  But maybe that wasn't so unfortunate, because with my new understanding of the D&D rules, I could now understand that some of the pregenerated characters I was using were not very well suited to their roles.  For instance, I had a wizard whose intelligence was rather average, but who had very high dexterity, which wasn't doing her any good.  I had just assumed that the pregenerated characters that came with the game would have been ideal characters, but now I believe they were made with intentionally random ability scores, just to make it that much more hardcore.

So I started again with a new party of six members (the mod pack allows party sizes up to 7), some of whom were custom made, to use in the Co8 mod pack version 7.0, which includes several new areas, including one designed for level 1 characters.  Perfect!  I went through the process of obtaining the quest, which was rather verbose but well-written, and ironically played up as something extremely dangerous, when it was in fact the most level-appropriate thing I could be doing, unless you count the social quests in town.  When I got to the new place, Welkwood Bog, the first creatures I encountered were...kobolds!  Whew!  After giant frogs and giant spiders, I found the kobolds quite reassuring.

The Welkwood quest was fairly short, but gave my party a much-needed level increase and gave me some spell scrolls and some better starting gear.  It had an interesting story behind it, too.  Ordinarily I like social quests, but I think the awkward interface in this game, as well as the dull, low-saturation art design contributes to the lack of fun in that regard.  I was happy to take this alternate route.

Interface and game information

The Temple of Elemental Evil has the most detailed, in-depth set of options for a player's actions in any computer RPG I've ever seen.  Stances, grappling, trips, attacks of opportunity and more!  Unfortunately, these are arranged inside a horrible radial menu with layers within layers of flyout "spokes".  Remember me complaining about the inscrutable icons in the NWN radial menu, and how I wished for a simple text menu?  This has text, but it rotates it to match the angle of the item on the menu, making it unnecessarily awkward.  Please, please, give me my spells in a nice simple list where I can get to them without having to delve through multiple levels of flyouts on a radial menu!  I liked the way NWN2 did this, with all of my spells available at a glance, with descriptions, grouped by spell level, with the touch of a single key.  I did eventually get used to the interface, but I would never call it a "good design", and I really wish I could change it.

One thing that partially mitigates the awkwardness of the radial menu is the ability to assign shortcut keys to individual commands (for instance, I assigned keys for Coup de Grace, 5-foot Step, and Charge Attack), though many of the keys I wanted to use were reserved.

The font they chose for all of the in-game text is a boldfaced sans-serif font like Helvetica or Arial, and is rather small.  Sans-serif is not as readable at small sizes as serif fonts, because the serifs aid the eye in interpreting the letters.  (Likewise, mixed-case is easier to read than all-caps, due to the relative distinctiveness of the letterforms, but fortunately this game used mixed-case.)  The font cannot be changed, nor increased in size -- at least not easily.  I saw a hack out there somewhere that was supposed to increase it, but I think it said I'd have to start the game over again, and I wasn't ready for that.  Instead, I settled on playing at a lower resolution than I prefer, since the text doesn't scale.  This means poor-quality screenshots, I'm afraid.

The game contains a wealth of information on game rules, rolls and modifiers, and what things do.  If you open the combat log, it describes the actions of each turn, with highlighted words that can be clicked on for more detail.  There, you can see exactly what number you rolled for your attack/save, what items, effects, or feats may be modifying that roll and by how much, and what number you had to beat in order to succeed.

I used this information screen in one of the few instances I've come across where picking a lock was necessary: in this case it was a chest added by the Circle of 8 mod.  Of course, my wizard knows the Knock spell, but this chest turned out to be spell resistant.  I no longer had a rogue in my party, and my ranger wasn't able to pick a lock even though she had some points in the open lock skill.  (Due to the level caps on skill point distribution, I sometimes had extra points left over, and spent them on cross-class skills.)  So I temporarily hired Furnok, a rogue NPC staying at the nearby tavern, and had him try to pick the lock.  He failed several times, so I checked the log, and saw that even though it was awarding him rolls of 20 (the maximum), the modifiers weren't high enough for him ever to succeed.  So I lent him the Gloves of Dexterity I had crafted, which I saw added a little to his modifiers, but still not enough.  I had my druid cast Cat's Grace on him, and tried again.  Almost there, but 1 point shy!  Finally, I had one of my clerics cast Prayer on the party, which added 1 more point, and he was then able to pick the lock. 

By comparison, Neverwinter Nights 2 shows the rolls right in the main window, and tells you if success is possible, but doesn't break down exactly where your modifiers are coming from like ToEE does.

Similar to these skill check reports, you can also get a detailed breakdown of your character's attack bonus or armour bonus, which is immensely helpful in intelligently building and outfitting a character, so that you know which feats, enhancements, and other bonuses are in effect, and which don't stack, and why.

Other aspects of the game and interface are quite unhelpful by comparison.  There are signs outside the buildings, but they're just decoration, and aren't readable like in other games, where you might hover the mouse over them to see what they are.  At least the map screen allows you to place notes on it.  Also, there's a key to highlight usable objects on screen like in Baldur's Gate, but most of the time it doesn't highlight anything!  I couldn't find anything highlighted in Hommlet, and only a few things (dead bodies with loot and doors) highlighted in one of the interiors.  The quest journal is also extremely terse and lacking in detail, and it doesn't change to reflect new information, so you may need to take your own notes.

Spell descriptions are likewise laconic, including none of the flavour text from the sourcebooks which the other D&D CRPGs included.  They also occasionally omit very relevant information.  For instance, near the end of the game, I had been using the Raise Dead spell several times, but at some point it told me that I couldn't use it, because I didn't have enough gold.  I checked, and sure enough, it had drained my party funds dry!  I checked the spell description again, and it said nothing about costing gold to cast it, whereas other spells like stoneskin and identify did mention that.  I checked the manual, and in the manual it mentions that Raise Dead requires 5000 gp's worth of diamonds as material components.  That's something that it really should have mentioned in the game itself.  I shouldn't have to consult the manual before casting a spell to see if it has requirements not listed in the game itself.

This is not a complaint about the spell being expensive, though.  I really like that some spells, especially powerful ones like this, require expensive material components.  It raises the stakes in fights, unlike in other D&D-based games, where raising the dead is free or even automatic.  The only complaint is that I wasn't warned about the expense in-game.

Other nice inclusions are such things as a druid's Reincarnation spell being mentioned as not being guaranteed to bring the character back as their original race, and the fact that paladins can fall from grace due to their actions.  Fallen paladins must seek atonement, which is prohibitively expensive to discourage casual out-of-character behaviour.  However, my paladin fell from grace unexpectedly when I spared the drow priest when he begged for mercy, and accepted his offer to escort me to a back entrance of the Temple of Elemental Evil.  It was not adequately telegraphed that this would entail the chaotic evil drow joining my party.  My solution was to kick the paladin out of the party and roll up a dwarven fighter.

Also nice is the inclusion of nonlethal damage in addition to the normal sort.  Things like fistfights and drinking contests involve nonlethal damage on a separate health bar.  When your nonlethal hit points run out, you fall unconscious.  This provides an alternate way of dealing with trolls, incidentally, who can normally only be hurt with fire or acid damage.  Everything else deals nonlethal damage for them, but the interesting thing is that once they fall unconscious, you can choose a coup de grace attack which kills them instantly.

I also appreciated the pop-up boxes of DM-text that appear when you enter significant new areas, describing the area to set the mood, much as a dungeon master would do in a pen & paper game.

The crafting menu has its pros and cons.  On the pro side, it gives you a full list of crafting recipes, and shows you what is required to craft them, such as level, spell, items, gold, and XP cost for Craft Wondrous Items.  You can easily add effects to items with Craft Magic Arms and Armour, and rename your items.  On the minus side, it's sometimes unclear why some of the effects can't be added (it doesn't tell you which condition isn't met), and many of the wondrous items are missing descriptions, or have inadequate descriptions, so I can't tell what they're supposed to do!  The game manual is excellent and extensive, but doesn't include descriptions of these wondrous items either.  I have to look them up in the online d20 System Reference Document to find out.

Speaking of recipes, this is the second Troika game I've seen that includes an actual food recipe in the manual, at the end.  Arcanum has "Grandma Cookhill's Three Bowl Bread", a halfling's banana bread.  This one has a recipe for "Chocolate Chip Cookies of the Gods", whose description indicates it also probably came from a halfling, though it was stolen by an orc.  I especially like the bit where it stresses the importance of waiting for the dough to chill thoroughly, saying "If you cannot wait, do not expect cookies of the gods."


I've heard that the game was very buggy when it was released, as per usual for a Troika game.  The Circle of 8 mod pack appears to have fixed most of those bugs, and provided workarounds for most of the few that remained.  I only encountered three, myself.

One was when one of my characters walked across the Spike Growth I had cast, and acquired it as a permanent effect.  Even after resting more than 24 hours and performing heals on her, she still had the debuff, and the timer countdown never changed.  Periodically she would get hit as if she were still walking across the spikes.  I found this addressed in the Co8 guide, which said to go to the druid Jaroo in Hommlet, and ask to be healed of permanent spell effects.  This fixed the problem.

Another bug was inside the moathouse dungeon.  When fighting the big crowd of fighters, I ran into a game-breaking problem where there were two foes that didn't seem to actually exist, but they were in the queue for combat turns.  The game paused for a while when reaching one of them, and moved on to the next one, but it just never recovered from the second one, leaving me stuck in combat forever.  I tried fixing it with some console commands, which seemed like it might help at first, but just led to more problems.  I reloaded to a save before fighting the group, and tried again, and this time there was no trouble.

Lastly, there was a game-breaking bug on exiting the Welcome Wench tavern in South Hommlet, in which the party (and all NPCs) would be frozen once we got outside.  Effects like smoke from chimneys still functioned, and I could toggle in and out of combat, but none of us could move.  This bug occured twice from that saved game (when I did the same thing both times).  I evaded it somehow when I instead did a tavern brawl quest and then rested some more before leaving the tavern.  The Co8 guide says that freezes like this become more common in South Hommlet as the game progresses, and that players should avoid that area when possible.  I got through the rest of the game without any more such freezes, though, although there were other, unrelated freezes that were fortunately temporary in some places.

Storm of Zehir inspiration

I noticed that there were some elements in this game that I also noticed in the later-released Storm of Zehir, the NWN2 expansion.  One was the use of the Survival skill allowing the party to detect and avoid random encounters on the overland map.

Sometimes there were friendly encounters, such as when I encountered messengers who wanted to reward me for rescuing some of the people I found in the titular Temple of Elemental Evil, and sometimes there were encounters which were ambiguous.  One of them listed the encounter participants as "a party of adventurers", with their names and portraits in the list, so I was curious enough to hail them.  Sure enough, it was just a party of adventurers like mine, who at first mistook us for "another bandit encounter", to comedic effect.

There were some others like that, and it's nice when a game that includes random encounters takes the care to make them diverse, and not all about combat.

Speaking of which, it was interesting how sociable the denizens of the temple were.  Although the majority of monsters attacked us on sight, there was a significant number of characters who were willing to negotiate, join up with me, or allow to join up with their factions.  Some even offered quests!  There were numerous factions within the temple, working against each other even as they seemed to be working toward a common goal.

End game

The game got much, much easier as I gained levels and added enchantments to my weapons and armour with crafting.  I noticed that my dwarven fighter tended to score a lot more hits than my human barbarian, who missed against higher level enemies much more frequently, despite having near-identical enchantments and appropriate weapon focuses.  Encounters were almost always of the "tank & spank" variety, except that in this case, this tank was also the one dishing out the most damage.

There were two really tough fights, though.  Well, only one was really tough (others, like the group of beholder-kin on the ice plane and the group of fireball-flinging noble salamanders on the fire plane were tough, but not really tough), and that was the Balor on the fire plane (the D&D equivalent of the Balrog from LotR).  I had to retry that fight maybe 10 times, and most of the fights ended with the Balor having taken no damage at all.  By contrast, Zuggtmoy was only average!

I even sought tips online for beating the Balor, but they mostly didn't work with the Co8 mod.  Several posts recommended using Cloudkill against him, but when I tried it, it said "Target is immune!" so I guess the Co8 team figured the Balor wasn't hard enough.

Summoning the bosses from the other elemental nodes didn't seem to help either, aside from providing more targets to distract the boss.  More often than not, these summons cast AoE effects that resulted in friendly fire, dispelling my buffs, sickening my fighters, causing my party members to flee in terror, etc.

The fear was the biggest problem.  I read that "circle of protection against evil" is supposed to make party members immune to fear, but it didn't.  They were all within the protective circle, and they all ran away.  I had a bit better luck with the individual (non-circle) "protection from evil" spell, though, and I think that was instrumental to my eventual victory.  My fighter resisted fear the entire time, though my barbarian succumbed a couple of times, and had a problem with missing the enemy.  Regardless, the rest of my party (who were mostly useless against the Balor except to help cast buffs) dealt with the trash spawns while my dwarven fighter steadily whittled down the Balor's HP until finally, finally, it was dead.  After that, I went to face Zuggtmoy.

As stated, Zuggtmoy was much easier than the Balor, though I thought the rendering of her character was beautiful, as was the surrounding area of the lower temple.  Again, it was mainly my fighter who beat her up, while the others dealt with buffs and summons (and fear).  Great Cleave and weapons of Mighty Cleaving were a great help against these spawns.  Hasted, my fighter dealt four attacks each turn, at around 25 HP each, when she didn't miss.

Zuggy interrupted the fight at some point to try to make a deal, and I took my time in answering, but while I was considering it, I was surprised when one of the spawns started moving again, and the dialogue box disappeared before I had a chance to choose anything!  I wasn't going to make any deal, but I still wanted to see what she had to say about it.

This level of the temple has many rooms, but is empty except for one room of mushrooms.  Word has it that Troika ran out of time and couldn't put any of the encounters in that location that they had planned.  I haven't seen the original P&P module, so I don't know what was supposed to be there.  I'm surprised the Co8 pack didn't put anything in there.

Co8 does hold off the game from ending with the death of Zuggtmoy, so that you can go on to play some higher-level content in a new town.  I haven't done that yet, but I will eventually.  To end the game with the Co8 mod, you have to choose it specifically from the dialogue of Brother Smyth, so I went and did that to see the ending slides that I would have seen after killing Zuggtmoy originally.  The ending slides were better done than the ones in the NWN2 OC -- I can say that much.


The game is intimidating to a new player, and very tough and unforgiving at low levels.  It also includes many pre-generated characters with poorly-assigned ability scores for their classes, which can cripple a player unfamiliar with the rules.  Its art design is adequate, but bland, at least until you get to the Temple, and also very dark, requiring me to turn up the gamma to see.  It could have been improved with a larger number of interesting characters and interactions, because the ones that were there were quite fun.

Despite this, once I got through the first few levels, I found it to be an extremely fun game with rewarding challenges, plenty of quests, and a variety of environment styles.  Once I started playing it, I didn't play any other games until I finished it.  I think it's the best turn-based RPG engine available, despite the non-optimal interface.

Extra screenshot gallery