Tuesday, December 14, 2021

In Defense of the Green Devil Face

Even more than four decades since its publication in 1978, I think it's fair to say that Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors is a controversial module, with a sizable chorus of detractors. That's perfectly understandable in my opinion, given its difficulty and the seeming cruelty with which it was designed. I say "seeming," because, by most accounts, Gygax created the scenario as a challenge for very experienced players rather than as an exercise in mere sadism. Of course, this fact didn't stop many a Dungeon Master from taking vicious glee while inflicting it on player characters in his campaign. I suspect that much of the bad feeling toward the module stems in part to bad personal experiences with it and I cannot fault anyone for thus having reservations about it.

Nevertheless, as I've stated on numerous occasions, I rate Tomb of Horrors very highly and indeed consider it one of the greatest D&D modules ever written. A big reason why is that, as Gygax states in his prefatory "Notes for the Dungeon Master," the dungeon "has more tricks and traps than it has monsters to fight." That makes it quite unusual among TSR's published adventures and something Gygax obviously considered important.

It is this writer's belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience. If you regularly pose problems to be solved by brains and not brawn, your players will find this module immediately to their liking.

This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. A common criticism leveled at Tomb of Horrors is that, despite Gygax's statement – in capital letters, no less – that "THIS IS A THINKING PERSON'S MODULE," its tricks and traps are, in the main, unavoidable and nonsensical. Exhibit A in this line of thinking is the infamous "green devil face," more properly called "the face of the great green devil."

The green devil face occurs very early in the dungeon, at the end of the first corridor of the true tomb. The trap has the potential to kill a character instantly, without recourse to a saving throw, which is probably why it is so often mentioned as being emblematic of the fundamental unfairness of  Tomb of Horrors. While I'm genuinely sympathetic to such a criticism, I don't think it's warranted. Take a look at the short description of the trap from the module:

THE FACE OF THE GREAT GREEN DEVIL: The other fork of the path leads right up to an evil-appearing devil face set in mosaic at the corridor's end. (SHOW YOUR PLAYERS GRAPHIC #6). The face has a huge O of a mouth; it is dead black. The whole area radiates evil and magic if detected for. The mouth opening is similar to a (fixed) sphere of annihilation, but it is about 3' in diameter – plenty of room for those who wish to leap in and be completely and forever destroyed.  

For the benefit of those who might have forgotten, here's Graphic #6 referenced in the text.

Perhaps this speaks poorly of my trust, but the only thing that could possibly make this illustration more suspicious is if the words "Free Candy" appeared somewhere in the darkness of its gaping maw. The text makes clear that the devil face is "evil-appearing," as does a mere visual examination of the face. The text likewise emphasizes the dead blackness of the mouth area and that it radiates evil if a character detects for it. I don't know how much more clear the threat posed by the green devil face could be.

I wonder how many characters truly died by leaping into the face's mouth. I've never witnessed it myself, but I'm sure it must have happened in some groups. Be that as it may, I don't think the green devil face is at all unfair. There are numerous clues that it's nothing to be trifled with; I expect even the most reckless of players would know better than to leap before they looked when it came to something so obviously sinister. In fact, I would like to suggest that the obviousness of this trap is the point. The green devil face is "Baby's First Death Trap." Gygax intended it as a clear signal of what was to come, a reminder to players to pay attention, lest their characters meet a terrible fate. Rather than being cruel, I think Gygax is being kind in starting things off with such a blatant trap.

The Arch of Mist, on the other hand …

28 comments:

  1. Some players simply cannot resist an urge to find out what happens when the button is pushed, regardless of warning and clear evidence of evil outcome. The apple-tree becons eternally.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gabor Lux and Bryce Lynch have pointed out to me that at the levels Tomb takes place, players would have ready access to spells like Augury, Commune and a whole host of other divinations that would allow them to anticipate or infer even of the many non-obvious traps that take place in the later section of the dungeon.

    Tomb of Horrors is brilliantly made. I dream of one day training a group to be worthy of its fierceness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Once you realize that it should be handled as a archeological dig it becomes doable. We used monster summonings for test subjects, gobs of auguries, and lots of animated dead to slog through it.

      And even then our goram party thief could not resist the gems in the demi lich...especially when it was obvi it was eating the powerful characters and he would be left with all the treasure.

      Delete
  3. Oh, I can recall a fighter making the "plunge." The DM stated to the players "You feel a profound sense of loss." And we all knew what had happened.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Tomb of Horrors has long been one of my favorite modules, and it is primarily because of the mystery, danger, and also the thought that needs to occur to survive the dungeon. I have never considered it a way to punish or be malicious to players, although I don't deny that others have. Tomb of Horrors is exactly what I would want and expect if I was a high level character - something that ratchets up the challenges, with a high risk - reward. On that dynamic, players will become increasingly protective of their players as they become higher level, because of the amount of personal investment. This is why actual adventurers are rather rare in the world, as it is by nature a risky venture.

    James, I know that you have said you haven't read Return to the Tomb of Horrors. I have read it and found it to be very interesting, along the same lines of what I said above. As Gygax says in the foreword: "Here is a very different, multi-environment adventure of great scope. It offers more by far than did the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly, too. If you must seek to relive the glories of eld, then even your hands will discover that the new funerary site has different and more hair-raising challenges, sufficiently so as to make it worth more than the price of admission. When treated as a whole, this module is as demanding and thrilling as can be asked."

    ReplyDelete
  5. My dislike of this module has nothing to do with fairness or lack thereof. It comes from the fact that, for me, an enjoyable D&D session has three pillars - noncombat NPC interactions, exploration (including puzzle solving and dealing with traps), and deciding when to fight or when to try other options. The mix of those three doesn't need to be even but if you short one or two too heavily it ruins my night.

    Tomb is almost all exploration, with no memorable NPCs and virtually no combat (and minimal choice involved in what little there is). It's no more interesting to me than a mandatory combat that last all session would be, or a whole night of NPC chat in a single location with no option to draw you swords if things come to an impasse.

    It's not impossible to get a good experience out of a single-pillar D&D session, but it's sure not easy and I don't think Gygax pulled it off here.

    ReplyDelete
  6. As much as I hate ToH, I think the green devil face is a perfectly fair trap, because it is both detectable and solvable. Anyone foolish enough to climb into such a thing without first poking around with a ten-foot pole deserves whatever he gets.

    I've always wondered what the rest of the party sees, though. Does the victim get sucked into the thing as if the demon face inhaled him? Or does he simply dematerialize all at once?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've wondered about these questions as well. The text gives no answers, unfortunately.

      Delete
    2. Well, the mouth is supposed to act like a sphere of annihilation, and the description of that item in the DMG says that whatever touches it "is instantly sucked into the void," so I'd say the unhappy individual is sucked in.

      Delete
    3. I think the critical word here is "similar." Especially when you consider the next line "plenty of room for those to leap in and be destroyed forever."

      Personally I prefer a blank void that doesn't suck, but I've seen gamemasters use both. But I think having it suck in anything that touches it destroys the player agency of the act, and if there was one thing Gary liked to do, it was hoist players on their own petard.

      However that also raise the question of what happens when someone uses the ubiquitous 10' pole to probe the mouth, which doesn't apply if anyone touching the mouth.

      Besides Tomb of Horrors predates the DMG by about a year, which may explain the split between those who have the Green Devil face suck and those that don't.

      [Mine own preferred version is that there is a timeless infinite void on the far side of the mouth, and anyone who jumps in is trapped there for eternity. So even ressurection or reincarnation cannot return the character (or anything on the character). Only a wish will suffice.
      But that is purely a personal variation on the theme.]

      Of course the interesting effect is when you try to duplicate the effect. Is the Green Devil Face required? Perhaps it's actually a votive offering to the Green Devil and it is this entity that actually consumes things placed in its mouth!

      Delete
  7. Having just finished a run-through of the Tomb with my players, I definitely concur with your assessment.

    I wrote about my experiences here: https://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=87656

    Two points that I'd like to make:

    1. Many roleplayers who just reads through the adventure module today might find it horribly unfair if they are not used to high level AD&D. For, as PrinceOfNothing correctly points out above, characters of those levels have access to very, very powerful and game-altering spells (True Seeing, anyone?).

    2. I think it makes a world of difference if you play this as a one-shot with pre-generated characters or if you play it as a part of an on-going campaign with the regular player characters (like we did). My players didn't lose a single one of their characters until the fight with the demi-lich at the end (and only one of their slave-hirelings died, but was subsequently resurrected), precisely because they were very anxious not to lose their characters. Thus, they treated every room and every inch of corridor with a high level of paranoia and general distrust, leaving as little to chance as possible. It would never have entered their minds to just jump into the devil's mouth hoping for the best.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I generally agree with your point in 2. above, but I have also had fun running the module sort of Rogue Moon style with pregens and seeing how many resets it took for the players to get through.

      Delete
  8. I watched an actual play video of a group playing Tomb in 5e I think it was. All but one jumped into a Sphere of annihilation. Wish I could find the link to the video. The DM played it totally poker-faced, just saying "he disappears" and asking what the other players did next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amazing. If you find the link again, I'd love to see it.

      Delete
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PVZkfxH4dY&ab_channel=Swindler%27sDen

      Delete
    3. That does not seem to be the video that joehbright is refering to.

      Delete
    4. That video you posted does have someone just recklessly jump in, only having tried throwing pebbles up to that point. But then the DM immediately and completely gave it away. In the other one I saw, it was similar but almost all the rest of the party followed suit because the DM played it cool.

      Delete
    5. Everyone jumping into an obviously deadly maw and then being mad their characters died without a saving roll might be the most 5E thing I've ever heard.

      Delete
    6. I could have been that DM back in the day, because it played out exactly like that. After briefly checking it out, the whole party jumped in, one after another; please roll new characters. In our excuse, we weren't very old. The group was mad as hell and never played Tomb of Horror again. It's not really my thing either.

      In a later experience at Uni, we had another shot at ToH with an invited friend from another U as a player. It turned out he had actually memorized the whole thing so the party quickly walked through it to face the demi-lich. Well. If I had thought of it, I would have rotated the map 90 degrees to see if he still could keep up.

      For the main part, we played homebrew worlds, campaigns and scenarios though, which was great. Oh right, one shot at Dragonlance, which I really couldn't get into.

      Delete
  9. With no time limit it's a very doable module. One that's made for the 15 minute adventuring day. Slow and stead.

    ReplyDelete
  10. For me, this module is iconic in the sense that it was the very first one I ever played in. The cruel DM (my friend's older brother) had me play a 1st level character because I was brand-new to the game, and I chose to play a Magic-User. Having little to spend my money on, I asked if I could hire people to help, and so collected a couple dozen mercenaries in exchange for my starting gold. By this means, and probably also the DM's inexperience with the idea of "morale" or "loyalty" checks, I was one of a few characters to make it out alive.

    Anyway, my point is that one character, out of curiosity, stuck his hand in the open mouth of the green devil face, vanishing before our eyes. Thinking that he might have been teleported away, another character voluntarily followed suit in order to reinforce the first. Good times.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think the most unfair thing in ToH is probably the demi-lich itself.
    The traps? Not so much, and the Green Devil face is not the worst offender at all, imho.
    But then I've only read it and I never played nor DMed it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I never played or ran it, it was simply too high level for our games, our campaigns broke up too early. I mostly left it out to make my players nervous ;)

    Michael Curtis, now of Goodman Games, posted a brilliant take as ToH as a caper to prepare for:

    https://poleandrope.blogspot.com/2011/02/acererak-caper.html

    and I loved it, and wished I had thought of it...

    ReplyDelete
  13. We this module first appeared, my friends and I were too young and inexperienced at playing to handle it. Nowadays I know my players would creep through it in uber-cautious mode, which is pretty much how they approach everything that's underground.

    It's not a beginner's adventure. Don't ignore the warning label!

    ReplyDelete
  14. It's a high fantasy vs. low fantasy issue for me.

    First of all, I think that a lich's tomb should be about as deadly as it comes, and that deadlyness should come from traps and undead. It should never be any sort of walk in the park.

    But, for me at least, D&D is a high fantasy game at heart. There is a reason that god's have hit points, and that is because at heart a first level character should be able to kill them. Totally unlikely, I will agree with. But the idea is there. And if there is no saving throw, it defeats that specific purpose. In my eyes, at least.

    I will also say that I have never played this, nor dm'd it. I heard tell of it from older players, and I started in probably '82. But, in the same vein, I have the same issue with the black cyst in The Forgotten Temple... And I love that module.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I've been playing OD&D since it existed as a commercial game entity and BITD I never heard of any controversy surrounding the module. It had a reputation of being tough, certainly, but there was no controversy about it.

    ReplyDelete