Greyhawk Module Machete Order

A few weeks ago, I puzzled through the chronological sequence of some of the iconic adventure modules of early D&D and the Greyhawk setting; the Giants/Drow/Queen of Spiders series, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and the Slave Lords adventures.

Now, looking at the suggested levels for those modules, that sequence doesn’t seem to work, even though it is how the chronology of the Greyhawk campaign records things:

  • G1-3: 8th – 12th
  • D1-2: 9th – 14th
  • D3: 10th – 14th
  • Q1: 10th – 14th
  • T1: 1st – 3rd
  • T1-4: 1st – 8th
  • A1: 4th – 7th
  • A2: 4th – 7th
  • A3: 4th – 7th
  • A4: 4th – 7th

There are a few things to point out, here.

First, the suggested character levels for T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil never made a lick of sense to me. There’s simply no way the PCs can get enough experience points in the Moat House to get powerful enough to take on the Temple.

Second, the Giants/Drow adventures and the Temple are linked thematically. That is, no matter which you put before the other, one of the keys is recognizing the imagery of the Elder Elemental God (the elder elemental eye, etc.) in both. If you want to push the envelope beyond the written text, there’s a whole implied and planned-but-never-executed sub-plot where the PCs can free or completely imprison the EEG while fighting Lolth at the same time.

Point two-A: If we keep the above chronology, and include the new sub-plot where the EEG is locked away for good, it adds something entirely new to the mix, because the PCs will know that the Elder Elemental God is no longer able to enter the Material Plane! Since there are plenty of clerics in the Temple of Elemental Evil still casting spells beyond 2nd level, that should be an immediate tip-off that there’s something fraudulent going on there!

Point two-B: If we keep the above chronology, and it turns out the PCs accidentally free the Elder Elemental God from its prison (which Gygax mentioned was a distinct possibility in his original conception) then it still has a profound impact on T1-4, as it could very well be that the EEG is able to exert a great deal of influence within the Temple and might even be on its way to pushing out Iuz and Zuggtmoy!

So either way, in terms of plot and theme, putting the intended encounter with Lolth and the EEG (which I call Q2) before the Temple of Elemental Evil adds entirely new dimensions to that latter adventure, depending on whether or not the PCs were successful or failed in their attempts to deal with the EEG.

Third, the transition between the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Slave Lords is the easiest. If, as noted above, the PCs don’t make it up to the maximum level, they should be in prime shape to take on the Slave Lords.

Fourth, I should point out that it’s entirely workable to do what most people do and move the Giants/Drow modules three years later to 581, and have them take place after the Slave Lords. This is the standard play; Temple, Slave Lords, Giants, Drow. It certainly works, and it still includes the EEG payoff, but it seems a bit… jejune to me. Not to mention the fact that it requires bending the time-line. But there’s nothing wrong with the idea, and it still has the necessary EEG theme on either end.

Switching the order, so the Giants/Drow modules come first, is akin to the “Machete Order” for watching the Star Wars films. It’s counterintuitive, but it does have advantages.

Now, going with this Machete Order (Giants/Drow, Elemental Evil, Slave Lords) still leaves us with the following conundrum:

  1. The encounter with Lolth (and possibly the EEG) comes before the Temple of Elemental Evil
  2. The PCs are way too high level to go to Hommlet after going through the Drow modules
  3. The same characters need to go through both to give a real payoff on the shared EEG iconography
So here’s my brilliant idea.
The PCs that go to Hommlet aren’t the main characters who went through the Giants/Drow adventures. They’re the hirelings and henchmen of those characters.
This can be done very elegantly, if the DM could arrange everything with the players ahead of time, and turn the Giants/Drow modules into a version of a DCC-type “character funnel” for their low-level hirelings, which will form the party that will go on from there. So, each player starts with an 8th or higher level main PC, plus 2-4 1st and 2nd level characters as henchmen. Win, lose, or draw, the players all know their high-level guys are going to retire (at best) after the climax with Lolth (and possibly the EEG). The Giants/Drow adventure almost becomes an extended prologue to the rest of the campaign.
I think this works really, really well. Not only does it give new players a taste of playing relatively high-level characters, but it gives their future PCs the necessary knowledge of the EEG to make the Temple of Elemental Evil really pay off (especially if you take my advice on that adventure, and put a real shrine to the EEG below the Iuz/Zuggtmoy sham temple). If the “parent” PCs shut the door on the EEG, then their henchmen (the new PCs) will know that the EEG can’t possibly be granting spells to the clerics in the Temple. If the EEG was fully loosed, then there could be a new faction in the Temple, which is seeking to purify it from the adulterations introduced by Zuggtmoy and Iuz.
Then, once the Temple has been dealt with, they can move on to the Slave Lords, at a (hopefully) appropriate level.
Loving this!

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “Greyhawk Module Machete Order

  1. I like your prologue idea, henchmen are always a great tool, and Gary's EGG plot deserves development…

    BUT, Greyhawkers need to stop obsessing over TSR's clumsy supermodule anthologies. Greyhawk is about freedom of choice, sandboxes, non-linear adventures, and PC's running amok freeing demons, riding dragons, and traveling to Mars because they want to, not because the DM planned it.

    The new crop of collector/DM's spend way too much time deciding which pre-made adventure path they're going to run next and contriving start-to-finish, 1st-20th-level fiction before their players even get to roll characters. We need to stop supporting this mindset and finding ways to work these bad ideas into canon. There's no reason one set of characters, related characters, or even players should grind through all of these modules.

    I'll also argue that this proposal isn't really a machete order, it's simply the order the modules were printed and gamers played them bitd (although the T series wasn't finished until after the A series).

    Finally, the A series really has no place in all of this, other than late-80's TSR marketing. A better approach, if one really wants to force an adventure path on their players, is the all-Gary-Gygax series. B2 is the natural way to level up PC's between the Moathouse and Temple. Then how do we link WG3 & 4 into T1-4 & GDQ? Then how to we move the party west to the Necropolis?

    Or, more off beat and interesting, what about using some UK or I series modules between ToEE and GDQ?

    Good blog like always. I may be arguing some points, but don't take any of this as personal criticism 🙂

  2. I was thinking, maybe something that you could do…

    After Q1, you could give the players a tower to settle down in… the guard tower (Rufus & Burne's) from T1, The Village of Hommlet.

    Then you could either make the original PCs into NPCs, or just start adventuring with both. Either way the remaining series, T1 & A1-4, get completed by the henchmen of the PCs as you say.

  3. An idea . . . expand the Moathouse Dungeon Level . . . Rooms 1-8 are part of level 1, and Rooms 9-15 are part of level 2. There is a stairway in between these sections. Transplant these sections of rooms into separate maps, and then expand . . .

  4. I have to admit I agree with Cody Bourdot on trying to create a mega-campaign out of all these modules not being an especially good idea. I don't particularly like the idea of tying too many things together, especially considering how complicated things can get (does Eclavdra get tied into Iuz and Zuggtmoy's machinations? Is the Elder Elemental God really the Dark Lord, Dread Tharizdun, as RttToEE implies?) We also have to consider whether all the canon applies-are the pregens from the Slave Lords and Giants series considered canon, with the former maybe being the henchmen of the latter? (Hopefully not, with those facepalmingly-stupid names Gary Gygax gave the GDQ pregens-Gleep Wurp? Fonkin Hoddypeak? Gag me!)

    Canon can become so unwieldy that it ends up collapsing under its own weight, especially in light of all the retcons that have been done over the years. Each of these module series has plenty of room for intrigue and interplay between villains…but tied together they risk becoming too much even before the player start rolling up characters, as Cody said.

  5. I think you're getting hung up on the references to the Slave Lords modules, which is really pretty peripheral to my main point, which is running the Giants/Drow module before ToEE, in order to take advantage of the thematic references to the Elder Elemental God. That's really the main thrust I'm trying to get at here.

    Just ignore the few Slavers' references, and I think you'll get a lot more out of the idea.

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