Friday 17 March 2023

Thoughts on D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

“I was nearly unnerved at my proximity to a nameless thing at the bottom of a pit.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror

D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa
What did we learn in D1 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth? That the caverns and crawlspaces under the spine of the world are not empty. And that they are vast, a veritable underdark world.
Using a map which depicts hundreds, of miles of passageways, the bold expedition delved into this underground labyrinth. Within a day‘s journey they had to fight first an outpost of the Dark Elves, then a pair of the dreaded “lllithids” of Drow speech – creatures called mind flayers, with a dozen wererat allies. Wending ever deeper into this weird underworld, the party overcame various and sundry obstacles only to enter a great cavern filled with hostile creatures. By clever tactics and hard fighting a conglomerate force of servants of the evil elves, bugbears, trogs, and trolls, along with various and sundry other monsters-were overcome. Valuable additional information and possibly useful items were also gained, and the expedition now presses on ever deeper, hot on the track of the Drow, bent on bringing a reckoning to these hateful foes. [D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa – 2]
We learned that bugbears abound beneath the surface, that troglodytes and trolls are as common as wererats, and that puddings and fungi of every colour under the sun slither and shriek in the dark. Mostly, we learned that the Drow are masters of their subterranean world. Although their mastery is not uncontested.
This fact will become even more apparent in D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa! Though liches treat with the dark elves, and Illithids plot against them, there are other races in the deep dark who neither bow nor kowtow to their supremacy; in fact, they thrive in spite of them; and in some cases, vie against them. You’d expect as much, wouldn’t you? No nation reigns supreme under the sun; why then would you expect otherwise in the depthless dark?

Who are these races? One such is hinted at in the title: The eponymous Kuo-Toa.
5e Kuo-Toa
The ancient Kuo-Toa People once inhabited the shores and islands of the upper world. As the race of mankind and its associate species grew more and more numerous and powerful, the men-fish were slowly driven to remote regions.
[D2 – 13]
Ancient, they are also evil.
ALIGNMENT: Neutral evil (chaotic tendencies) [D2 – 13]

Description: A Kuo-Toan presents a cold and horrid appearance. A typical specimen looks much as if a human body, albeit a paunchy one, had been covered with scales and topped with a fish's head squarely atop the shoulders. The huge fish eyes of the head tend to swivel in different directions when observing an area or creature. Hands and feet are very long, with three fingers and opposing digit, partially webbed. Legs and arms are short for the body size. Coloration is pale gray, with undertones of tan or yellow in males only, and the whole skin has a sheen from its slime covering. Color darkens when the individual is angry, or pales when the creature is badly frightened. [D2 – 15]

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s almost like I’ve read similar descriptions before.
The Deep Ones
I think their predominant color was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked ... They were the blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design—living and horrible.
[The Shadow Over Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft]

I think that these things were supposed to depict men—at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall. Curiously enough, they seemed to have been chiselled badly out of proportion with their scenic background; for one of the creatures was shewn in the act of killing a whale represented as but little larger than himself. [Dagon – H.P. Lovecraft]

Gary Gygax’s Kuo-Toa are most assuredly an au mage to Lovecraft’s Deep Ones (even if he declared otherwise). Sinister, evil beings long ago defeated and displaced by the creatures of Good and Weal.
1e Fiend Folio Kuo-Toa
Continual warfare upon these evil, human-sacrificing creatures threatened to totally exterminate the species, for a number of powerful beings were aiding their sworn enemies, mankind. Some [Kuo]-Toans sought refuge in sea caverns and secret subterranean waters, and while their fellows above were being slaughtered, these few prospered and developed new characteristics to match their lightless habitats.
[D2 – 13]
None of this is known, of course; or ought not to be. The Kuo-Toa had long ago eschewed the bright world above, never to return, it is surmised. They’ve adapted to their subterranean world.
Now the Kuo-Toa People are haters of sunlight and are almost never encountered on the surface of the earth. [D2 – 13]
Why might they? To gather slaves, of course. Why else?
Kuo-toan War Party: These creatures will occasionally go forth to capture slaves or raid a group that is hostile to their kind or has given offense to Sea Mother. [D2 – 5]

It goes without saying that the heroes will come face to face with these ancient fish-men, but Gary would never be so cruel as to throw the PCs into the deep end, so to speak, without their having tested the waters first. As he did in G3 with the Drow. This is not to say that said encounter would be easy. “Not without peril” could easily be attributed to any of Gary’s adventure modules. This one is no different.
Introduction to that initial encounter is familiar enough: A deep, dark, dank tunnel, an obstacle that requires crossing.
The surface [of the Svartjet River,
ENCOUNTER AREA W27] is very smooth here, as the channel is over 80’ deep. On the far bank, in the cove shown, is moored an 8’x 14’ barge with a sculling oar. This barge is operated by a Kuo-Toon of great size and strength [.] [D2 – 6]
The noise of the river will mask normal sounds from the hearing of the Kuo-Toan, but bright light in the cavern will certainly attract his attention. He will come forth and offer in the common speech of the underworld to take the party across for the proper fee each. [D2 – 6]
The PCs encounter an unfamiliar creature. Will it be “friendly”? It might be.
The solitary Kuo-Toan does not care who or what he transports. [D2 – 6]
The creature is just going about its business, after all. Coin in coin. But communication with this hitherto unknown creature will be an obstacle, in its own right, without some sort of aid or intervention. Failure has its price, as they say.
Each time he repeats this offer (and it will not be understood by the party without magical aid or an interpreter), he has a 10% cumulative chance of going berserk and attacking. [D2 – 6]
Will this deranged Kuo-Toa fight fair? Not likely.
Thoopshib may be unbalanced, but he is very sly. [D2 – 6]
He will use terrain and the river to his advantage. And “allies.”
If the barge is threatened or attacked, he will leap into the Svartjet and summon his only companion, a giant gar over 30’ long with AC 2 and 65 hit points. [D2 – 6]
Our heroes will have to make up their minds concerning this new species based on their encounter with Thoopshib. I expect that first impression will not be good, regardless how communication went. Thoopshib will presumably give off a creepy negative vibe. Which will also colour their reaction later, while crossing the Kuo-Toan shrine, I imagine.

The other race introduced in D2 is the Deep Gnomes, the Svirfnebli.
Far beneath the surface of the earth dwell the Svirfnebli, the Deep Gnomes, a race related to the gnomes of the bright world. [D2 – 16]
This first contact should be more benign.
ALIGNMENT Neutral (good tendencies) [D2 – 16]

If the party stops and searches the area – or calls out in friendly terms – the Svitfnebli leader will show himself and offer the peace sign, recognizing the party as creatures from the upper world. He will converse in sign language, or speak normally if some magical means of communication/understanding is available. If the adventurers offer fewer than 1 100 g.p. gem per Deep Gnome, and agree to going "halfies" on any others taken, the Svirfnebli will certainly agree to accompany the party to the shrine cavern. [D2 – 7]
This will be the best stroke of luck the PCs could hope for.
The Deep Gnomes hate the Kuo-Tuo People as much as they despise the Drow, and this group has spied upon the shrine, for they are prospecting in the area. [D2 – 7]
Unexpected Allies
If the party does not have some help, I expect crossing the Kuo-Toan shrine could turn into a bit of a battle-royale. Or not, depending on the players’ style of play. Bright players ought to have learned through hard experience that hack-and-slash was a fast track to rolling up a new character in 1st edition. They ought to have learned that stealth, guile, and negotiation was a quicker, and less painful path to success. One could find “common ground” with orcs and hobgobins if one played one’s cards right and spoke with the tribal leaders and greased a palm of two for safe passage through their demesne; or one could try to clear out their cavern complex and suffer the consequences of having to rest up for days recovering lost hitpoints, if their survived the ordeal. Their call, but one imagines that players learned through experience, much as their characters were supposed to.

Much like D1 before it, this is a short module. D2 consists of two short encounters and a main encounter area. And in that regard, it may well feel exactly like the prior, like a tournament module. It may not repeat, but it certainly does rhyme.
Indeed, the Wandering Monster table are identical, except for a few swap-outs: Illithids and bugbears and Jermaine for Kuo-Toa.
The Shrine of Blibdoolpoolp
Aside from that, despite their near identical natures, D1 and D2 could not be more different. The Deep Gnomes, although Neutral, tend towards good, and could offer succour to the party – something I doubt the Drow merchant of D1 is inclined to, regardless his life being spared by their intervention. And however nerve-wracking crossing the bugbear and troglodyte exclave might have felt in D1, I suspect that might feel like a walk in the park when compared with that of the Kuo-Toan shrine. There was likely little fidelity between the amassed bugbears and trogs, aside from the hegemony of the Drow; where here, the Kuo-Toa share common cause and religious fanaticism.
The party is met by a chilling scene when first they step far enough northwest to view the dimly lit space ahead. Greenish phosphorescence from lichens, coupled with a grayish luminosity from slug-like creatures as large as a man's fist which crawl everywhere (walls, ceilings, floors) give the area an undersea appearance, and a strange salt tang is in the air to enhance this impression. Directly to the north the adventurers will see a huge dark green creature, rather like a giant lobster-headed woman, with one pincer raised and the right extended ahead and open. […] The walls and pavement of this place are well-made, but very worn. Obviously, this area is old. It feels alien and foreboding. [D2 – 7]
I expect the description is meant to be as unnerving as was the Weird Abandoned Temple in G1, and it is, albeit in a different way: Where the former writhed with Elder Evil magnificence, here, the phosphorescence evokes a murky seabed. As is should, seeing that their goddess is a humanoid lobster woman.
IDOL OF BLIBDOOLPOOLP, SEA MOTHER: Upon the summit of the ziggurat stands a malachite statue 20' tall. It appears to be a nude human female body, with articulated shell covering the shoulders, and a lobster head and claws in place of the expected human head and arms. The right claw is open and raised, the left is open and held out about 8' above the floor of the tier. […] Blibdoolpoolp's name is carved into the base of the statue in Kuo-Toan characters. [D2 – 8]

On to the Vault of the Drow
The task at hand, if would seem, is simply to get through the shrine unscathed. That will be difficult without a guide who is already experienced with this bottleneck encounter area, but it is possible. That said, there a number of metaphorical “trip wires” in doing so, likely not avoided without said guide. I might mention that negotiating this bottleneck encounter area without their tripping a wire or two will be dull indeed. And what would be the fun in that? AD&D combat might have been perilous, but it was also a big part of what the game was designed around. I expect that the PCs will have to duke it out, though.
Can the party go around? They can, but it is a lengthy, and likely even more perilous, roundabout route. And that will probably expose them to as much combat as the shrine is sure to treat them to. Best not, knowing what they will soon be knee-deep in a den of decadence and evil intrigue!

“We shall dive down through black abysses...and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.”
― H.P. Lovecraft

One must always give credit where credit is due. This post is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.

The Art:
D2 cover, by David C. Sutherland III, from D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, 1979
Kuo-Toa, from Monster Manual 5e, 2014
Kuo-Toa, by Alan Hunter, from Fiend Folio 1e, 1981
Thoopshib, from D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, 1979
Svirfneblin, by Russ Nicholson, from Fiend Folio 1e, 1981
Svirfneblin Meeting, by David C. Sutherland III, from D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, 1979
D1-2 cover, by Jim Roslov, from D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, 1980
Underdark, by Erol Otus, from D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, 1980

9025 World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
2009 Monster Manual 1e, 1977, 1978
2011 Players Handbook 1e, 1978
2011A Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Ed., 1979
9018 G3 Hall of the Fire Mountain King, 1978
9019 D1 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, 1978
9058 G123 Against the Giants, 1978, 1981

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