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.