Deep Trouble in Telthin

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 58: Deep Trouble in Telthin




The first planar release of 1999, “Deep Trouble in Telthin,” is a good example of the difference between Planescape content and planar content. Published in issue #72 of Dungeon, in January/February (at this point the magazine was still bi-monthly), “Trouble” has what sounds a bit like the makings of a Planescape release in that it ties heavily into one of the series’ recent supplements, in this case The Inner Planes, and even features art by Tony DiTerlizzi, including a glorious full-color cover drawing that’s the equal of anything we’ve seen from him elsewhere. But it’s definitely not a Planescape release, and is unfortunately a far more ordinary look at how planar content can be used in D&D.

Its scenario has the PCs (decently high level ones, as it’s designed for 5-8 characters of levels 10-12) making their way to a town that’s unexpectedly flooding despite a drought. The townsfolk of nearby Telthin suspect magic, as well they should. It turns out there’s a new portal between the nearby lake and the Elemental Plane of Water. Eventually, this will flood the entire world of this part of the Prime Material Plane, though given that the portal is just three feet in diameter this is going to take quite a while. In the meanwhile, the city of Telthin is quickly drowning, and many of its inhabitants are being attacked by visitors from the newly adjoining plane.


Once the PCs arrive, they’re told of a wizard who keeps a house nearby and occasionally visits the city. The citizens suspect he’s probably involved, perhaps because (though they may not know this) he’s crazily powerful. He’s in fact 30th level, and the adventure doesn’t do a great job of explaining how exactly he was subdued, but let’s assume that when he made his way back to his elemental home he was all out of spells and hit points. Whatever. His house has a portal to his abode in Water, which has been taken over by a marid caliph and his henchmen following the somewhat hilarious use of previous mortals to overcome its ward against elementals. All of this culminates in a fight against this frankly very powerful monster, after which the players get to free the local wizard from an Iron Flask. Why the marid didn’t just kill this wizard but instead imprisoned him is because, uhh, well… anyhow that’s the adventure. 

While it’s a pity Tony DiTerlizzi wasn’t brought back for more proper Planescape releases, at least we get more from him.

Ultimately, “Trouble” is a dungeon crawl, most of which happens to take place in the Elemental Plane of Water. But within that plane, players most likely stay within the dungeon the entire time, so they get some wonky physics and a few minuses to their magic items, but for the most part it’s just a watery-themed dungeon a la Zelda games. Most importantly, once the players finish things off they likely return to the Prime and continue on with their normal lives.


While I’m glad that this is a planar adventure and highlighted the use of The Inner Planes for maybe a few people, what keeps this from being Planescape isn’t so much its tone as it is its focus. The reason why Sigil is so important to Planescape is because locating the players’ base on the planes centers the multiverse. In “Trouble,” once players have their little vacation in the planes they head back to the Prime and its concerns. This is just a jaunt, and while “Trouble” includes a Well of Worlds as a small way for PCs to possibly look further into the planes, that’s not really what this is about. Rather, it’s about rescuing a city on the Prime, and those people are who matter most. 

He’s a 30th wizard with godlike powers, but only you the player can rescue him. D&D sometimes doesn’t make the most sense….

While it sounds like I’m mostly down on this module, I actually consider “Trouble” a perfectly fine dungeon crawl, filled with logical traps and design, plus a reasonable number of encounters of a correct difficulty level. Its centerpiece is a room that uses the Plane of Elemental Water’s lack of gravity in a bold way, requiring the players to switch orientations within it, which I particularly appreciate. Admittedly zero gravity combat in D&D is awkward as hell, but that’s not the designer’s fault here, and is something we saw surprisingly little of in actual Planescape releases (perhaps because of said awkwardness). Best of all, the wizard’s planar abode feels real, and as such is something I could see using in a campaign for reasons beyond this particular adventure. In all, the author John A. Heartshorne did a great job of ingesting planar content and with this creating a coherent adventure… just without adding in any of the Planescape touch to make for something truly interesting. 

Which, I suppose, is something we should begin getting used to. Despite the release of Planescape: Torment, 1999 was really the year where TSR/WotC transitioned to including plentiful planar content in its releases, but without putting it at the center of things the way Planescape did. As a template for how to use The Inner Planes and give players a quick vacation from the Prime, “Telthin” is excellent, if perhaps not the most inspired work of adventure design. But that’s really it, and as such it doesn’t do anything to expand our understanding of the planes and what’s possible there, aside from perhaps convincing me that marids look pretty hilarious. Despite the glorious art (and excellent cartography by Diesel), “Trouble in Telthin” can be skipped without any regrets. 

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