Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Retrospective: Tomb of Horrors

While it might be an exaggeration to say that 1978's Tomb of Horrors is the greatest D&D module of all time -- though the case could certainly be made -- I think it is fair to say that no other module is a better Rorschach Test of one's gaming sensibilities. By the time I first encountered module S1 in 1980, it was already legendary as the ultimate "killer dungeon." That alone ensured that I would buy and inflict it on my players, both because I wanted in on the excitement and also because I knew my players would love a good challenge. As it turns out, they liked it well enough that they threw multiple waves of their characters against it until, after weeks of attempts, they succeeded in making it to the end.

But I get ahead of myself.

It's true that Tomb of Horrors might rightly be called a "killer dungeon" or, as one of my friends once put it, "the ultimate screw-job dungeon." The place is filled with all manner of nearly-unavoidable traps, unpleasant tricks, and, of course, the demilich, an undead being so powerful that it's immune to all but a handful of spells. Of course, you have to remember why the module exists at all. The story goes that the diehard core of D&D fans regularly complained to TSR that the modules produced to date had been "too easy." Some people who don't remember those days might have a hard time understanding this, because of the shift that's occurred in the way gamers look at modules. Back then, a dungeon was something to be "beaten." Gamers looked at modules sort of like the way video game players look at new releases -- they wanted to get as many hours of gameplay out of them as possible. So Gary Gygax took this as a challenge to his design skills and the result was Tomb of Horrors.

In short order, gamers began to complain that the module was "too hard" and "unfair" and, on some level, both complaints ring true. Module S1 is too hard for many players and it's almost certainly unfair, but neither complaint makes it a bad or indeed unfun module -- quite the contrary. I could probably speak a lot about this and perhaps I will someday, but it's my contention that one of the things early D&D borrowed most heavily from wargaming was the notion that one could "win" a module, which was conceived of in much the same way a wargamer might look at a scenario. Certainly, you can't "win" a D&D campaign the same way you could win a wargames campaign, but, in a sense, you can "win" a module and this mindset was commonplace in the old days. To be able to say you'd "beaten" this module or that was a point of pride and Tomb of Horrors stacked the deck so thoroughly that many D&D players simply could not beat it, especially if the referee got into the spirit of the thing and was as malicious as possible.

I know I did and, as I am sure I mentioned before, my players loved me for it. They tended to see a dungeon as a test of wills against me and savored every time they bested me. And best me they almost always did, even if it came at great cost. Tomb of Horrors, though, proved different. My players all had heard the same stories I had about how terrible a place it was and how likely it was that their characters would meet certain death within its walls, so they treated the place with respect -- and more than a little fear. They planned and plotted and eventually decided to use some of their "lesser" characters as scouts and canaries in the coal mine. Through the deft use of magic, they made sure that what these poor unfortunate lesser characters learned was relayed back to their other characters, meaning that the next group to enter the Tomb would have a leg up on their predecessors. It was incredibly methodical and elaborate and motivated both by fear and a desire to beat the module -- and me.

Despite all their planning, no one managed to make it all the way through to the end of the Tomb. That is, no one until Morgan Just. Morgan was the biggest badass of my old campaign, a 16th-level Lawful Neutral human Fighter with a goodly selection of magic items played by my cleverest player. He was rarely played, because he'd been formally retired, but my friend Shawn would bring him out for "special occasions." Tomb of Horrors was one such occasion and he didn't fail to disappoint. Building on what he'd learned through the characters who'd somehow managed to escape the Tomb -- often without their clothes and possessions -- he entered it alone, armed with the best "special" adventuring gear he could muster, like sealed clay pots filled with green slime, various items with continual light cast upon them, and an entire bag of holding filled with iron spikes.

Morgan made his way to the lair of Acererak the demilich and only escaped by the sheerest of luck. He had acquired a ring of spellstoring sometime previously and it contained (I believe) the spell command, which caused the demilich's skull to sink back down onto its resting place. This gave Morgan enough time to realize that he didn't really want to face the undead fiend alone and expended the last wish from his luck blade to return to his stronghold far from the Tomb. He did eventually mount another expedition to go back and destroy Acererak -- and reclaim the possessions of the other characters, some of them long deceased -- but it was a hollow victory and everyone knew it. Shawn showed good gamesmanship and took the defeat well, acknowledging that Tomb of Horrors was indeed a tough dungeon, though he never complained about it so much as kicked himself for not being a "better" player.

I really feel the urge to run Module S1 again, but I doubt there's a gamer now who isn't familiar with all its tricks and traps. Perhaps the solution is to write a new adventure in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors and see if I can scratch the same itch. The sad thing is that I've mellowed a lot in my old age and I'm not certain I have the same killer instincts I had when I was a younger person. Still, creating a Tomb of Horrors for the 21st century would be a valuable exercise in my exploration of the old school, so it might be worth adding to my ever-growing list of projects I'd like to do when time permits.

22 comments:

  1. I'd love to see what a "re-imagined" S1 might look like...

    Truth be told, I've never adventured through S1 nor have I read it. Due to its legacy though I have heard a few of its nastiest surprises and of course I know who and what Acererak was. I certainly am in the minority in that I've been playing this game since '77 and yet...No S1. Hrmph...

    As an aside, I do remember a module that was published called 'Labyrinth of Madness' by Monte Cook. That was a fair modern representation of S1 I would think. I wasn't hugely keen on the module, after running it over a three day period, but I can say that it was by far one of the most difficult adventures I'd ever seen.

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  2. Great analysis as always.

    it's my contention that one of the things early D&D borrowed most heavily from wargaming was the notion that one could "win" a module, which was conceived of in much the same way a wargamer might look at a scenario. Certainly, you can't "win" a D&D campaign the same way you could win a wargames campaign, but, in a sense, you can "win" a module and this mindset was commonplace in the old days.

    Remember too that even the ultimate dungeon-crawl, the original Castle Greyhawk, had a way for the players to "win". Reaching the bottom level, and facing Zagyg, the PCs would be rewarded with a hearty "well done!" and promptly put into a chute to the other side of the world. I'd say that's as close to "winning" as you can get in a dungeon specifically designed to be a "perpetual adventure".

    Plus, you could say that the rules about getting followers and building a stronghold, clearing land, etc. could be seen as a way for PCs to "win" by going into (semi-)retirement. Not a specific dungeon module, of course, but the campaign as a whole.

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  3. I'm among what I would like to believe a large contingent of younger gamers who are just now getting involved and into history of D&D and its older incarnations.

    I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I have little to no experience with most published modules--having spent most of my time with creations of local DM's design.

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  4. The way I see it, ToH is a tournament mod, so it's best enjoyed as such. Just grab some pre-gens and go to town much like you would at a con. Who cares if you lose 'em? Enjoy the ride (and the hilariously grisly deaths).

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  5. if you dig back through the printed 3.5 Dungeon Magazine, there is an ode to Tomb of Horrors.

    In Living Greyhawk there is a Return to the Tomb of Horrors.

    More recently the 4e Pyramid of Shadows plays a lot like White Plume Mountain. It is in essence a tournament-style adventure not unlike Tomb of Horrors.

    The trend seems to be a return to the roots of D&D -at least with the H-series and P-series of adventures. The plot hooks are there, but it's up to the DM to build up the role-play.

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  6. The trend seems to be a return to the roots of D&D -at least with the H-series and P-series of adventures. The plot hooks are there, but it's up to the DM to build up the role-play.

    Color me skeptical that there's much of D&D's roots in 4e adventures, but, if true, that's a welcome development. It's still a pity the game itself didn't learn more lessons from the game's beginnings.

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  7. I was taught D&D in the late 80's by an old schooler. In his games the test of wills was a common theme, as was the idea that some adventures were especially hard, and that likely as not, we would not be able to win them. Of course the choice was always ours to try or not. But if we won it was always because of our skill as players, and it felt great. But by the time I was DMing myself and playing with other kids who learned D&D in the late eighties and early nineties, NO ONE played like this. No one had the idea of it. This way of thinking had disappeared. I don't know that I would have thought even realized this if it wasn't for this blog.

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  8. This way of thinking had disappeared. I don't know that I would have thought even realized this if it wasn't for this blog.

    There are more old schoolers out there than you might think and, nowadays, it's a lot easier for us to get in touch with one another and exchange our ideas than it was in the past.

    Welcome aboard!

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  9. I have a theory. When you come across something as polarizing as S1 seems to be, the people who hate it have likely misunderstood it, and you should listen and question those who love it, for there is likely something to be learned from them.

    <sarcasm>I’m sorry, but I can’t believe your story about Morgan Just. It has been carefully explained to me that fighters in AD&D were boring, cookie-cutter, and could do nothing but trade attack rolls with monsters until they ran out of hit points.</sarcasm>

    (^_^)

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  10. When you come across something as polarizing as S1 seems to be, the people who hate it have likely misunderstood it, and you should listen and question those who love it, for there is likely something to be learned from them.

    I agree with your sentiments here, but I suspect most people who hate the module would argue that they have in fact understood and that is precisely why they hate it.

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  11. I agree with your sentiments here, but I suspect most people who hate the module would argue that they have in fact understood and that is precisely why they hate it.

    Exactly. I know that there have been times when I’ve been on the hate side I thought I understood the thing, only later to realize I didn’t really get it.

    Now, one certainly can understand something and hate it. But the safe bet is to listen more to the people who love the thing.

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  12. I think the whole mood/atmosphere of dread created by Tomb of Horrors would never be surpassed. It really was like a horror movie, like trying to survive a trip into the worst nightmarish deathtrap designed by the sickest mind you can imagine. In fact I remember having nightmares about the Tomb when I was a kid.

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  13. I'm sorry... but to hold this module in such high esteem surely identifies you as a TPK dungeonmaster... as one who revels in the death of PCs as a personal "score" against players... as much as the players can and sometimes do revel in experience points resulting from monster battles.

    Despite being a die hard oldskool player, I only recently got my hands on this module...after being slaughtered in the first few areas as a humble player back in the day. My impression then was that it was supertough... so tough that our party concluded that it didn't even merit the attempt...

    My conclusion now? Gygax was having a laugh.

    Anyone... ANYONE who could beat this module with a well developed, actually played and progressive character (rather than some minmaxed uberfreak, purpose built to take out the module after surreptitiously sneaking a peek at the contents, or potentially obtaining their own copy on the sly) is lucky enough to win the lottery. Ten times.

    Every single area leads to some excruciating and unavoidable (and, unforgivably for an RPG : not negotiable) deathtrap, from such small moves as opening the wrong door, not searching the third pit trap in a sequence (after about 10 that would normally lead to massive damage... there happens to be a door at the bottom of one of them), or even picking up any regular objects in a fairly simple "empty" room. Death, death, death. Return to GO. Do not collect 200 gp.

    This module is a combine harvester, or more accurately, a shredder to put your players' character sheets through. There is no skill involved... just trial and error with characters that in any normal campaign would've taken 6 months or more of playing time to develop.

    You may as well have a module where you ask each player "Blue or black?" ... roll dice behind the screen... and then slaughter each character unto the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.

    Gygax may have been having a laugh... but we can still say "bollocks!"

    Either he foresaw the idea of respawning save characters computer game stylee (unlikely), or maybe it was just some machismo uberdungeon that both players and DM's alike could boast about... "Have you done Tomb of Horrors?" "Aw, yeah, absolutely... cast that 'forget' spell that my MU always has memorised. *snort*"

    Anyone know if the original tournament crew finished it?

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  14. There is no skill involved... just trial and error with characters that in any normal campaign would've taken 6 months or more of playing time to develop.

    I don't think this is true at all. Run properly, Tomb of Horrors does reward skill. Careful, observant players, who've prepared themselves for its dangers tend to do much better than incautious, inattentive players who think they can brute force every problem in the dungeon. By Gary's own account, Rob Kuntz beat this module and many others have as well. It's hard and unforgiving but not impossible and players who are experienced delvers tend to do better than those who aren't. If that doesn't qualify as "skill," I'm not sure what does.

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  15. I remember reading a story of the people who won the ORIGINS I tournament, but I have failed to turn it up again.

    I’m in a very neutral position with this module. I—unfortunately—read it before I ever got a chance to play it. It is fascinating to me how so many people claim it can’t be survived without blind luck while so many others disagree.

    As usual in such situations, I am forced to assume—absent further data—that the people who like the module are probably correct and that the people who don’t like it are probably overlooking something.

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  16. Oh, and my recollection is that, yes, the demilich was defeated in the tournament. And in an imaginative way.

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  17. In my search, I did come across this page in which it is said that Ernie (as Tenser) defeated the demilich. If so, the fact that both Rob and Ernie survived (while playing their most famous PCs, no less) suggests to me that there is more than blind luck to it.

    Of course, there is the fact that Gary was the DM and that they were all used to playing the game in the same way. But then, that’s what Grognardia is all about, right? The ways in which the hobby has lost touch with its origins.

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  18. Oh, and my recollection is that, yes, the demilich was defeated in the tournament. And in an imaginative way.

    I have the same recollection. I know the adventure was used at Origins I in, I think, 1975, so it's a very old module. I just wish I could remember where I read about it.

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  19. Robert Fisher said...
    Oh, and my recollection is that, yes, the demilich was defeated in the tournament. And in an imaginative way.

    From the TV Tropes entry on Tomb of Horrors:

    At one GenCon, one team actually succeeded in the adventure by using one of the no-saving-throw instant death traps against Acererak. "I put the crown on the demilich's head while my buddy taps it with the wrong end of the scepter." Made doubly awesome by the fact that the tournament's DM called in Gary Gygax himself for backup, and Gary admitted that it would work, and ruled that Acererak instantly died. First prize! *Source: Gary Gygax, as told in the introduction to Return of the Tomb of Horrors.

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  20. This is truly a spectacular review and, while I am not old enough to remember the original tomb, I managed to get my hands on it. I intend to... combine it with the 3.5 module and use this monstrosity on my players. Even if they are familiar with its tricks, I will run the campaign like a hybrid 3.5 and AD&D game.

    This will pose a challenge in that the players nowadays are more focused on the mechanics of the game rather than the adventure itself. I look forward to seeing how my players go through this, and if they decide to quit or not. I hope I do frustrate my players too much.

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  21. On this thread I'm hoping for some insight into decrypting Acererack's poetry...

    viewtopic.php?f=1&t=47991&p=1033846#p1033846

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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  22. An embarrassing vanity piece filled with ad hoc rules to gimp powerful characters.

    Perhaps the most common phrase (other than "killed with no saving throw") is: cannot be detected or affected by any magical or physical means whatsoever, other than _insert arbitrary physical act here_.

    "I dangle from a ten-foot pole while twirling my left index finger next to my ear."

    ...

    I had lots of fun playing through this module and also DMing it. But I wouldn't call it one of the "greatest" modules of all time. Many of the module's challenges are obtained by overwhelming rules fiat rather than by clever dungeon design.

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