In which our intrepid hero’s microwave oven comes perilously close to death.

You stand only days from taking down the most formidable organisation of deranged cultists the world has ever seen. You’ve wiped out about 98% of their army, one member of their ruling triumvirate and almost ruined their plans to free their insane god from his extraplanar prison. Only one major ally of the cult remains, and a single tower is all that stands between you and your final victory. What do you do?

Shop, apparently.

That’s right. With the end of your epic quest in sight, you settle down to squander two-and-a-half hours of play time, leafing through manuals to purchase your PC’s new übertoys.

And your GM goes slowly mad.

Firstly, the campaign is about to end anyway; if you haven’t got all your goodies by now, then there’s probably not much point.

Secondly, rather than queue up to grab the GM’s manuals as he’s reading them, it’d actually be quicker to nut out a new magic item from scratch, using the rules in the back of the DMG, than to umm and aah over the multiplicity of items across a scad of books and try to nut out which is the coolest item which your PC can afford.

Thirdly, this is D&D, not Single-Entry Accounting: the Roleplaying Game. You’re here to adventure, not to keep up with the Joneses.

Now, I acknowledge that part of this is my own damn fault. You see, the PCs were getting their butts kicked. Nobody wanted to play a cleric (surprise, there), and their wounds were piling up. However, they’d accumulated a large number of magic items, which they hadn’t bothered to get them identified; amongst these items were a significant number of healing potions.

Normally, there’s a rule that you only get half price if you sell used magic items. In an effort to stimulate interest in the party’s unidentified magic items, I decided to waive it. And stimulate, it did.

The players’ capitalistic urge remained under control for quite some time, because the player responsible for slowing everyone down was more interested in doing so by looking up monsters to summon. From my copy of the Monster Manual. As I was trying to use it. Despite my protests. And pleas that he get his own fucking manuals, because I had to GM from mine.

Recently, however, he and another player decided that since I’d been hinting that the adventure was coming to a close, they wanted to prepare for their final encounters. This isn’t normally a problem—unless you’re dealing with an obsession with contigency and an almost complete lack of short-term memory.

Anyway, as this pointless exercise in plot redundancy continued, I decided to disappear onto the balcony for a cigarette. One of the other players, who I’ve known for years and is one of my best friends, decided to join me for a chat; as often happens, I was there for a while, chain-smoking and deeply engrossed in conversation. Every so often, I poked my head around the corner to ascertain whether the shopaholics had finished putting dirty thumbprints over my books.

When I finally returned inside, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up immediately. The air was tinged with smoke, and it wasn’t from tobacco. It smelled like burning wood.

Repeat after me, in your best Dianne Sawyer voice:

What is it that drives a man to dry-roast pistachios in his GM’s microwave? What can be the cause of such a heinous act?

I shit you not. When asked about it, the guilty player calmly replied, "I only set the power to Zero Point One."

When you operate my microwave, you have the following choices:

  • Low
  • Medium-Low
  • Medium
  • Medium-High
  • High

Please note that not one of these options even vaguely resembles Zero Point One. Please also note that this is blatantly obvious.

Several weeks earlier, we’d all agreed to start at 10.30am sharp, but a couple of players had made it obvious that they refused get there until noon, and didn’t care what anyone else thought of this. I conceded, and so we agreed on a 12 o’clock start time.

Three of the five players turned up at 12.30pm, and had spent the intervening two-and-a-half hours browsing manuals and attempting to set fires in my whitegoods. It was therefore 3pm by the time we got started actually playing.

The other two players didn’t show at all. The cleric’s player was so pissed off at last week’s antics (and the behaviour of the wizard’s and rogue’s players towards her) that the party might never have a cleric again. The ranger’s player, well, disappeared.

Back to the game.

The PCs knew that they had to enter the Black Cyst, an extradimensional bolthole, to retrieve an artifact they needed to prevent the cult from summoning their god. They had two prisoners—high-level cult members—whom they interrogated as to how to enter this bolthole.

One of the items that they needed to do this was a Master Key, which they didn’t yet have. Diligent questioning, however, revealed that such a device could be formed by the fusion of two Greater Keys, which they had in their possession, and for which they already knew the ritual.

A couple of sessions earlier, however, they’d discovered an altar to the evil god, which would produce a magic item if the appropriate ceremony was performed. They’d witnessed this, and noted that it required the sacrifice of a sentient being.

Any Cthulhu player should be able to tell you immediately what the precisely wrong course of action is here. My PCs walked away with a Master Key. And one less cohort.

They returned to the site at which to enter the Black Cyst. As the portal to the Cyst appeared, they realised that whilst they knew how to get in, they weren’t entirely certain that they could get out. This attempt at forethought, however, didn’t prevent the wizard from leaping straight through, and finding himself trapped. The rogue soon followed, drawn in as she tried to rescue him.

The monk merely sighed.

Throughout Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, I’ve refrained from making specifically cult-related items easily identify-able; part of my rationale is to emphasise just how alien these devices are, and part to encourage the players to discover their function through roleplaying. This strategy had been quite successful. Through hard work, the PCs only had two items for which they did not know their function: the black thurible (a black iron, egg-shaped incense burner) and the little balls of incense that fuelled it.

The PCs had guessed that the two were connected (the latter fit inside the former), but not what they did. They knew that there was some intimate relationship between the thurible and the plot. Which was close to resolution. And the thurible hadn’t yet seemed to perform any other activity.

So, after plane shifting failed, they’d discovered no secret doors, and all the traditional means of leaving the Black Cyst had been exhausted, it would seem to me that the thurible was a blatantly obvious thing to try. (There’s that phrase, again—blatantly obvious.)

After dropping a legend lore and a limited wish (masquerading as commune)—not to mention receiving a number of additional hints from their GM, who was about to pull out what remained of his hair—the penny finally dropped. Two hours of real time after they entered the Cyst.

And there, the session ended; I could take no more. I really want this thing over.