Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tomb of Horrors: A D&D classic, or an unplayable deathtrap?

The iron men of visage grim do more than
meets the viewers eye
You've left and left and found my Tomb
and now your soul will die.

It's the module whose name sends chills down the spine of any serious D&D player. Chock full of spiked pits and other assorted death traps, dead-ends and false finishes, and a final encounter against a nearly invulnerable creature that can kill a PC every round, it's notorious as a character-destroying meat grinder, and the epitome of old school D&D. Those who (claim) to have played and survived it wear their experience like a Purple Heart.

I'm writing of course about S1: The Tomb of Horrors, as penned by the late, great Gary Gygax. What I'd like to know is whether anyone has ever legitimately played through this module and lived. I just don't see how it's possible.

My own experience with this module is non-existent. In the interest of full disclosure I've never played or DM'd the Tomb, and for most of my life I didn't even own a copy. But the information I gleaned about it online over the years simultaneously intrigued and scared the crap out of me. I knew I had to eventually get my own copy.

A couple years ago I had the fortune to find and purchase a used copy of the legendary S1 at a local gamestore. My reaction upon reading it was: Holy Shit, you can never play this, straight up and legit, make it through the tomb, and come out alive. By legit I mean playing without any foreknowledge of the killer, no saving throw, instant death traps that litter the tomb of the demi-lich. That's very hard to do nowadays: It seems like everyone at least has a passing familarity with the module, due to the internet and the fact it's been around for 30 years.

S1 strikes me as the ultimate stand-alone scenario. Even though Gygax placed it in the World of Greyhawk and provided a backstory, The Tomb of Horrors really cannot be part of any long-running campaign. Unless your players are the type who don't mind watching their carefully-crafted 13th level fighter--built up through years of hard-fighting and treasure gathering in memorable campaigns--slid into a molten lava pit to die screaming with no save, they're probably going to end up angry. In the Tomb you can be sucked into Acererak's eye (annihilated with no save), crushed flat beneath the roller of a massive stone juggnernaut (death, no save), turned into green slime (no save!), and generally snuffed out of existence in a million other ways.

This leads me to believe that S1 is not intended as a serious module, but rather a strange and amusing artifact to be read and put back on the shelf. Or perhaps it was written as a means to punish cocky players.

Despite its propensity for killing PCs, I do think The Tomb of Horrors has plenty of merit and deserves a place of honor in any serious D&D player's collection. The reasons include:

It's amazingly well-written and illustrated. It oozes flavor. Gygax was on top of his game here. Here's a good example:

The mists are silvery and shot through with delicate streamers of golden color. Vision extends only 6'. There is a dim aura of good if detected for. Those who step into the mist must save versus poison or become idiots until they can breathe the clean air above ground under the warm sun.

In addition, the Tomb of Horrors comes with a beautiful 20-page illustration booklet, containing 32 illustrations showing various features of the Tomb. If you're a fan of old-school art this alone is worth the purchase.

It's a marvel of economy. Outside of the illustration booklet the module itself is a dense, compact 12 pages, which includes pre-rolled PCs! Pretty amazing.

It's hard-core and the essence of old-school. Gygax writes at the outset what could be a treatise of old-school gaming. He states the following: This is a thinking person's module, and if your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy .... it is this writer's belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience.

Later on, he adds as a tip for running the module: Read aloud appropriate sections, but never give any additional information which player characters would have no way of knowing, and avoid facial expressions or voice tones which might give helpful hints or mislead players. The real enjoyment of this module is managing to cope, and those players who manage to do so even semi-successfully will appreciate your refereeing properly and allowing them to "live or die" on their own.

In other words, S1 challenges the skill of the players, and not the abilities of the PCs.

And what a challenge it is. So again I'll ask: Has anyone played through S1 and lived? Or is the Tomb of Horrors widely regarded as simply not a "serious" module?

One other interesting sidenote to the Tomb of Horrors: Inside it says that it was originally used as a tournament module at Origins I (which is probably the ideal way to play it). Me, I would kill to enter a time machine and watch a few sessions of that.


Max said...

I DM'd a bit of it as a callow youth but I was probably more easygoing than I should have been. Even so I believe the game ended with the players stuck in a web spell the M-U had casted to catch them when they triggered the pit trap in the Forsaken Prison. Played a bit fast and loose with casting time and concentration but wotthehell, it was an inspired idea, and doomed them just about as certainly.

Have you read Delta's play reports on his S1 session? They're an awesome example of how a smart and careful group made pretty good headway in the Tomb.

As far as it being a "rather a strange and amusing artifact to be read and put back on the shelf," you got that right! I re-read it at least once a year.

JimLotFP said...

I think it's seen as a meat grinder mainly because it's used as a one-shot. I think very, very few people legitimately play a character from level one to level 10-14, and fewer still in a really tough campaign. Doing that sort of thing creates player skill, and I think the Tomb wouldn't be so unusually deadly for those people.

In fact, the Tomb might be seen as a representative dungeon for characters that high a level. Is it really more deadly than the Hall of the Fire Giant King, the Shrine of the Kuo-Tuo, or the Vault of the Drow if you have unclever players?

However, with casual players that have just been given some high level characters to run through a dungeon? DOGMEAT.

I was going to test this theory with my last serious campaign, but it ended after about a year with people in the level 6-7 range.

Rich said...

My understanding is that its origin as a tournament module is key. This is a point I've seem Mike Mornard ('s "Old Geezer", who played in Gary's and Dave's campaigns) make more than once.

In a tournament, you have to have clear winners and losers. In a game as open-ended as D&D, how do you get this kind of clarity? One way is to make the dungeon really, really difficult. The team that makes it the farthest with the most remaining resources wins.

When you publish it as a module, that sort of context gets lost, and people are left wondering whether it's supposed to be (as you note) just an interesting thing to read or some kind of object lesson for players.

Once you know the context, though, I think it's actually a rather sensible design solution for a specific problem -- how to run a fair tournament in an open-ended game.

Sham aka Dave said...

Excellent post! I hold S1 in very high esteem, for many of the reasons you related. Well written, compact, challenging, a masterpiece in my opinion.

I can tell you that I've had the pleasure of running it three times with players who had not (or so they claimed) read it. This was in the early 80's at the after school D&D club. They ALL died. Not a single party even got CLOSE to the demi-lich.

Years later I ran it again, with a party who I knew had some familiarity with the module. These were veteran guys, and made it farther than any prior group, all the way to the demi-lich. They managed to claim victory, albeit with some casualties. For me it was a hollow victory, and I vowed that if I ever ran S1 again, I'd either make major changes to add surprises, or only do so with a group of newbies.

That's the problem with S1. It's often too hard for people unfamiliar with the module, and not as satisfying when the players own or have read it.

Don't underestimate the after school guys, though. We played fanatically for years, often three times a week. Some of the players and their characters were highly skilled. One particular player, named Brian, was just such an excellent player. Brian's Paladin was somewhat famous at the club. He begged and pleaded to allow me to let him run his Paladin through S1. Brian took a ton of Vampire precautions prior to entering, and was truly crestfallen when he lost that character. I can recall we actually had spectators for that session, and people couldn't believe that Brian lost his Paladin that afternoon way back when.

Good times indeed.

Falze said...

What a bunch of whiners, grab your lead sword, fill your belt with pudding, your packpack with equitmints, and hack your way to victory!!

Seriously, though - if D&D's supposed to be fun, what's the point of a module designed to slaughter everyone (traps with no saving throws? What's the point of saving throws?)? The only thing that makes sense is, as noted, it was meant to kill everyone in a tournament setting so that you could be judged by who got the furthest with little chance for a 'tie'. Kill 'em all and let the DM sort 'em out.

Brian Murphy said...


Thanks for heads-up on Delta's reports. I hadn't seen them but I'll be very interested to read how his players fared--and how deep they made it into the Tomb.


I think you raise a good point, and it stands to reason that seasoned, veteran players who have developed characters over the long haul would fare better than someone handed a pre-rolled NPC. But I do think that the Tomb is more deadly than the other modules you have mentioned, mainly because of the no-save death traps. You can get completely overwhelmed by the giants or drow easy enough, but there's always the opportunity for retreat if the combat is going poorly. Some of the TOH traps will kill you outright, and require much, much greater care and player skill (to detect them), at least in my opinion.

Brian Murphy said...


That seems to make the most sense. Of course, I also wonder why TSR chose not to tweak TOH for a wider (and non-tournament) audience. Or perhaps Gygax did so, and the published version is (gulp) less deadly than the one run at Origins?


Wait a minute... you ran a D&D game with spectators? That is too cool and needs to be recounted in a blog post.

And did that crazy bastard with the paladin attempt the TOH with a single PC? I hope that he at least had an army of hirelings trooping along with him for cannon (and trap) fodder.


Believe it or not, some folks like to see their characters die and find it all part of the fun. The problem with TOH is its for characters level 10-14, so you're talking long-term, detailed PCs with a lot of investment. But I would imagine if they all had lead swords there's no way they could fail :)

Edsan said...

I might be totally wrong about this. But I have read on the nets that Gygax originally designed this "killer module" because people where complaining the available modules where too easy.

Sham aka Dave said...

What a bunch of whiners, grab your lead sword, fill your belt with pudding, your packpack with equitmints, and hack your way to victory!!

This is the funniest thing I've read in a while.

Wait a minute... you ran a D&D game with spectators?

It didn't start out that way, but as word got around that Brian's Paladin was daring ToH, sure enough people began hanging out and watching. IIRC, there were quite a few present when the Paladin was slain. As I mentioned, that character was somewhat famous in our club.

It probably is blog worthy. My memory is somewhat hazy all these years later, though. I only remember a few particulars.

Sham aka Dave said...

Ooops left out this bit:

And did that crazy bastard with the paladin attempt the TOH with a single PC?

No, he entered with a handful of other PC's, but the others were pre-gens, IIRC. To Brian's credit, he tore his character sheet in half right at the table.

Falze said...

I wouldn't mind seeing a pre-rolled character die in neat fashion - but an advanced character you've been playing a long time? No thanks.

James Maliszewski said...

I might be totally wrong about this. But I have read on the nets that Gygax originally designed this "killer module" because people where complaining the available modules where too easy.

This is correct -- or at least that is what Gary had been saying for some years before his death. As with many of his reminiscences, you need to take it with a grain of salt.

That said, I have run ToH a number of times and as part of a regular campaign rather than as a one-shot. It is indeed brutal, but it's also a module that repays old school play styles, which is to say, through strategic planning, exploration, and knowing when to run. It took many, many expeditions into the Tomb (with several groups of PCs, as well as some returned from the dead) before it was beaten. Along the way, much gold was spent in preparations and many henchmen and hirelings -- not to mention PCs -- died in the effort. I have incredibly fond memories of those sessions, played out over weeks in the summer of 1981.

It's a great module, extremely well designed, but it's not for the timid or gamers so thoroughly steeped in the new ways that they can't stomach the thought of a PC dying because they made a mistake. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by, James. Just like Sham, I'd definitely enjoy reading a recap of those old TOH games, if you ever get around to blogging about them.

I love the idea of a small army of adventurers and their henchmen taking on the Tomb, suffering horrendeous casualties but pushing on through sheer numbers.

Jape said...

Brian, found your post while googling for Tomb of Horrors, and thought you might find this report interesting. We just happened to play the epic module yesterday in a rare marathon event. (None of the gamers in this group play regularly anymore, but we still try and get together once a year "for old times' sake")

We had a perfect session for your experiment. Everyone in the group had heard of the Tomb, but no one had ever played it or knew much about it, except for its deadly reputation. (I had read it when it first came out, but seeing as that was almost 30 years ago (!) there was honestly almost nothing I remembered about it except the illustration of that --hilarious?---deadly sliding passage and something about a skull. That was it.)

To further amp up the challenge, I dusted off my two oldest surviving characters, a fighter and thief I had created in Middle School waaay back in 1977. In fact, the fighter was my very first character so I was clearly willing to put my hardest earned characters on the line. Everyone else created new high-level PCs for this adventure -- but don't think they were throwaways. The DM spent a session with each player before hand establishing their back stories, and we actually got and painted figures just for this game.

Everyone was an experienced D&D gamer and fired up to crack this nut of evil or die trying.

We actually beat the damn thing -- barely -- and only, it turned out, through sheer dumb luck. We nearly lost half the party before the evening was over, 1/3 of whom were wiped out in the final battle. (And, quite honestly, we came a single die roll away from all perishing, the DM later told us.)

Part of the reason we did so well is that we didn't touch anything without checking it out 10 ways 'til Tuesday -- not because we the players had read the module but because our characters knew they were walking into something called THE TOMB OF HORRORS. However the turning point came when we all -- yes, all 12 characters in the expedition -- ran thru one of the portals and were teleported naked back to the entrance. Suddenly all of our magical weapons and armor and devices of protection were gone gone gone. Unwilling to give up, we went back to town and returned outfitted with nothing but mundane gear and a few spells.

The DM said our change in play was remarkable -- suddenly, stripped of our powerful items, we began to rely on our wits and played smart and careful. Most importantly, we all became obsessed with "getting our stuff back". One of the clerics cast a spell (Find the Path?) pointing us toward our missing gear, and by focusing solely on that, we managed to bypass most of the deadly, misleading traps set out to snare us, and inadvertently stumbled across the big bad lich.

The DM only gave us one break, and as that was when we were back in town buying supplies and not in the dungeon itself, so we feel we took on the Tomb in all its Horror. Both my characters lived (though the hobbit thief is now, *ehem,* suddenly worried about her dress size), though I would have proudly torn up their sheets if they had gone out in a blaze of glory.

This module can be fun, even in a campaign but only if you go in with the right attitude.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jape, thanks for stopping by and for sharing that great story. You gather together once a year and play for old time's sake with an old group of friends? That sounds great.

As for surviving the Tomb, congratulations. I have a few questions: Did you avoid the juggernaut and lava pit death traps? And did you actually destroy the demilich, or merely grab his loot and run?

Jape said...

Brian, to answer your questions in reverse order:

Yes, we were able to avoid all of the instant-death traps, mostly thru dumb luck. Like I said, once we focused on 'getting our stuff back' we were obsessed and forwent exploring every corner of the tomb. The Find spell one of the clerics cast kept giving us the general direction, and we ignored any hallway that didn't get us closer to that goal.

We did manage to kill the demilich, though he picked off 1/3 of the party during the fight. We had one, maybe two weapons that could hit it, and one of the clerics managed to Gate in a servant of his deity who did some damage before getting sucked into a tooth.

As for the gaming group, they are relatively new friends but old gamers ... I had been missing my old gaming pals and they had been missing their old gaming pals, so this event has been working out well.

While I am still in touch with my original D&D friends, we now are scattered around the world with families and careers (same old story sadly enough, and not surprisingly). For a number of years -- when the LoTR movies were coming out -- we did all made an effort to return home over the holidays for a movie/game day, which was truly great.

Jape said...

A final thought on the Tomb as a viable adventure...

After playing through it, and then taking a gander at the whole module when we were done, I have to say I was impressed by it for one big reason. Everyone knows of Gygax's predilection for all-things Egyptian, and here he clearly took inspiration from the historical tombs of ancient Egypt and ramped them up to the nth degree.

From the multiple false entrances, dry holes, and fake burial chambers, to the actual lair of the lich being a small and unassuming room, the Tomb was Gygax's Great Pyramid.

This wasn't an adventure splayed out to entertain players -- this was the final resting place of a great and power figure, designed to foil grave robbers and tomb raiders by any and all means necessary. Characters, enter at your own risk.

Of course it was unfair -- that's the point.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jape, you've just described some classic dungeon-crawling, which is what made the old games great, in my opinion. AD&D 1E and older versions were as much about testing the abilities of the players as much as that of the characters. Removing your magical equipment seems to have raised your creativity and thought-processes, which appears to be why you survived this notorious meat-grinder.

Very true (and perceptive) comment regarding the Tomb of Horrors as Egyptian pyramid, albeit with a lot of unique Gygaxian flair.

Dr. Indus Malhari said...

I just rekindled my old obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, and find myself asking questions about the years I spent playing it in high school. Absolutely, one of the most memorable experiences was Tomb of Horrors. I nearly always was the DM, rarely playing, but my friend Rolf and I ran a sloppy campaign, where the NPCs in one adventure were the DM's PCs. Even sloppier, since there were only two of us, we would play six or eight characters each. In short, I was a lousy gamer, but since I played so much, I had some super-high level characters I had brought up from first level.
It is possible that Rolf wanted to be a total bastard to me that day...he was that sort of guy, or it could be my memory of things. He had owned the module for a long time, and was spoiling for a chance to have me play it. Things get hazy from then. I tromped in with about six or eight high level PCs, including a 16th level cleric and some sort of were-rat assassin, and an evil wizard of some sort. I remember all of us being crushed by the collapsing ceiling of the false entrance. Funny, we had enough hit points and healing spells, we survived it somehow. I remember falling into every single spiked pit in the main after the other. I remember being talked into having a character crawl through the devil mouth that was a sphere of annihilation, it was not my inclination, but the DM violated the poker face dictum and suggested that it might be a good idea, perhaps because he was infuriated at my random pushings of the colored blocks at the first gate of mist. The stone golem, the only real fight in the module, went down quickly, I remember that, but things get blurry after that point. I remember materializing, nude, at the beginning of the tunnel, and returning with new gear, including an army of zombies. I was not expecting this kind of adventure and my conflict with the module became a conflict with my friend, who was becoming increasingly smug. After that, instead of crawling through a tunnel, we would disintegrate it. Zomies always went forward. We used the ressurection spell several times, heal, and cure serious woulds repeatedly. My memory of the end of the module is fuzzy, so it is possible that he just skipped me to the end at some point between zombies sliding into the lava trap and the false lair of the demi-lich. The monster at the end took out two or three PCs before we retreated. I remember casting an earthquake spell repeatedly on the burial mound. Acerak won. I don't think Rolf and I ever played again. Looking back on it, it was one of the best D and D sessions ever, a contest of wills between DM and player.
The PCs deserved their fate, the whole evil-high powered lot of them.
There is absolutely no way I would have gotten to the end if, either Rolf had not fudged, AND ALSO, I had the advantage of knowing what happened to one character when the others had no means of sensing its fate. When the were-rat skuttled into the sphere of annihilation, the others did not follow.
In comparison, all of the Against the Giants modules are easy. They are just hack and slash. Even the Demonweb, with all of its cleverness, is easier. The real problem with the module is actually a was not written to be played like an ordinary adventure-the characters are doomed as long as they persist. This is not generally a fun session unless the players know what they are getting into. Reading it years later, it irritates me that players who do the thing that is usually SMART (like taking a chance) are punished for it, and so many traps are meant to be completely unescapable. The art is incredible, however, and Gary Gygax put some love into that one.
For my money, the best module that offers a combination between clever elements and playability is The Ghost Tower of Inverness. That particular one rewards good play, but does not destroy friendships.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Dr. Indus, thanks for stopping by. I can't get enough of hearing about people's play experiences with The Tomb of Horrors, and yours was great, too. This module seems to be one of those adventures that's a bitch to play and sometimes not much fun, but generates damn good, memorable stories in hindsight.

Melf said...

ToH is a great module and it was developed to challenge a particularly good player at that time, Rob "Robilar" Kuntz and to be a tournament module. You defitely need to be wearing your big boy pants to play this scenario. If you are a whiny rules lawyer- don't even open S1 to read. You'll start crying. I played this module twice with a legit 10th level Ranger (Otis). Once I went with a large adventuring party and once solo. The party did quite well and made it to the demi-lich's chamber. I don't remember if we killed him or not (I was 7 years old. I played it again solo a few years later and did notmake it very far! Fortunately I made it out- naked but I escaped.

The module tests the players ability to reason and their strategy. Old school D&D was much more detail oriented in how you adventured in the dungeons or wherever. My standard was to kick open doors and look up, check down and look all around before entering. I carried bags of flour to help reveal invisible foes/objects, clay marbles to id slanting hallways, 10' pole for prodding floors, spikes to hold doors open or stabilize covered pit traps, etc. 2E,3E and 4E have evolved inot progressively different games. I personally don't care for the rules straight jacket of 3E or the superhero FRPG called D&D 4E. I relish the faster, simpler and more flexible style of AD&D- and ToH is a great module for that style to test the skills of the players.

Hope you all get a chance to play it if you haven't already. I am planning on running it at Gary Con in a couple weeks :)

Mar said...

As I'm typing this comment, I'm playing Tomb of Horrors with my friends...currently stuck near the very end.

The only way that we've been able to get this far is a party full of non-fighters (two monks, a sorccer, a rogue, and a cleric-fighter) and some 'help' from a previous party (the first group the DM ran through ToH) that 'gave a map' that helped us through the first part...

JB said...

I've owned a couple copies of this game for years (like back to pre-Unearthed Arcana days). Up until 2nd edition (about when I stopped playing D&D regularly) I ran this module at least half a dozen times, sometimes with regular players, sometimes with newbies.

Almost always, players used pre-generated characters, though I had more than a few players take their favorite high level character through. The thing is, when you have a high level character (or two) you’ve been around the block a few times, and you jump at the chance at a high level challenge (usually it means high level treasure!). In the old days, AD&D was long on challenge and short on “plot,” “story,” or “character.” Besides, most high level characters had a buddy or contact somewhere that could raise ‘em or wish ‘em back to life.

Only a couple groups ever made it to the end of the module (literally two that I can remember), but I don’t think Acerak was ever defeated. I think *I* got more of a reputation as a killer DM (for running it “fair and square”) than the module got a reputation as a killer dungeon.

Ben said...

This is the great classic dungeon, for sure, and so fun that it's a shared gem in that regard for so many of us. To a degree I feel that a lot of the crawl along the way is not that bad for those being careful. That said, there are a few things which - I don't care how experienced and clever the players may be - are just plain unfair. The height of this is the demi-lich himself. If you don't know what a demi-lich is coming into the thing (and of course no one did when it was first run) it's supremely unlikely you're just going to happen to be prepared with something from the small list of things that actually affect it, and even if you were, it's not experience or cleverness that would lead you know to use them, but massive shot-in-the-dark dumb luck.

Vorpal_Spork said...

I read recently about someone running TOH in Gamma World as an interesting twist on the module. He wrote about overcoming the difficulty by having a "cloning" machine at the start of the module; each time a PC dies, they can "respawn" at the entrance, albeit at the most of increased mutations.

I'm thinking about taking this idea and running with it, changing the entrance a bit and adding a slight chrome and tech veneer to the module. My hopes is that they won't realize they're in the TOH until it's too late and they're stuck in the middle of a high-powered death-trap. The lich could easily be an android's head or a malicious AI trying to rebuild his body or influencing the world via technology. I think I'll add some basic combat encounters to keep the pace and atmosphere high. Just a thought!