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S1: Tomb of Horrors» Forums » Reviews

Subject: So, you think you know how to play AD&D, do you? rss

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Merric Blackman
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The Devourer by Dave Trampier
Have you heard of S1: Tomb of Horrors? Designed by Gary Gygax for the D&D system (and based on an idea by Alan Lucien), it is infamous as a character and party-killer. It was designed to test the skills of D&D players everywhere, and was the D&D tournament module at Origins I in 1975 - that's only a year after Dungeons & Dragons itself was released. Eventually it was released in 1978 as one of the first AD&D adventure modules, along with the G and D series of adventures.

The most striking feature of Tomb of Horrors is its presentation: a 12 page adventure and a 20 page illustration booklet. It's the illustration booklet that is most innovative, as it provides 32 illustrations of various features in the Tomb. An illustration booklet would be included in only two other modules of the classic era (Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks). I suspect reasons of cost caused the practice to be discontinued. The illustrations vary in quality, with Dave Trampier's work generally superior to that of David Sutherland III. However, all are evocative and they really add a lot to the adventure.

So, what is the adventure? Basically, the characters have heard rumours of a treasure-filled tomb of traps and other horrors, and so have decided to find the tomb and loot it. It's a very AD&D reason, and S1 plays to that. It really doesn't need more of a reason; it's quite acceptable as is.

The legends of the tomb are true: it's a trap-filled dungeon. There are treasures to be found, but the path through is not easy by any shot. Nor can it be described as "fair" in a game sense. Indeed, it is most decidedly unfair. S1 isn't designed for puzzle-solvers; it's designed for players looking for the ultimate test of their abilities. Rob Kuntz managed to get through the dungeon by sending lots of orcs to their doom first: it's that sort of thinking that is the best way of overcoming the traps of the Tomb.

There's no doubt that Gary Gygax's fiendish adventure-writing tendencies were in full flight for this adventure. Consider this entry:

Charred Remains: Cinders, ashes, charred bones and skulls, the crisped and blackened remains of clothing and gear, arms and armor - a thoroughly awful and frightening sight - encircle a huge glowing orange gem. If evil/magic is/are detected for, the gem will send out pulses of wickedness and a strong aura of dweomer - so strong that the detecting character will get the vague feeling that the magic is wish connected. The gem is a cursed wish magic item, and no matter what is desired by the character daring to touch it and wish, a reverse or perversion will bring doom to that character and all named in the wish. Immediately after causing the evil wish to transpire, the gem begins to pulse with reddish lights, growing progressively stronger, brighter and hotter. Count to 10 as usual. The stone then explodes, absolutely killing any character within a 15' radius with a wave of searing radiations and flames. The gem remains as a noisome mass of stinking purplish mold which bubbles and chuckles. In 1 week, the mass will reform as a glowing orange gem...

The writing is of this high, inventive quality throughout, and it makes great reading for the DM. For the players, the experience will certainly be evocative, if not particularly survivable - at least not for the average player.

The adventure reaches its conclusion in the final resting place of the demilich, Acererak. Here, the best solution is likely to just grab as much treasure as you can and run, for the demi-lich itself is almost impossible to destroy. (For instance, a fighter needs to have a vorpal blade to even hurt it!) The demi-lich, with its soul-sucking power, is one of the deadliest D&D monsters.

Tomb of Horrors would be revisited in the late-2E product Return to the Tomb of Horrors, converted to 3E in a free online pdf, and both converted to 4E and revisited with a new sequel in the 4E adventure confusingly titled Tomb of Horrors. This is proof positive of the impact the original had on the D&D game and its designers.

I think there's little doubt that Tomb of Horrors can't be approached as a normal adventure. It's designed for a singular purpose: to be as difficult as possible. Both Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz were able to successfully navigate the adventure - with Ernie "Tenser" Gygax actually slaying the demilich - and so were other groups that Gary Gygax DMed. However, it's slain many more PCs than have successfully completed it.

What Tomb of Horrors does well is provide the "ultimate" adventure within the D&D world: if a lich could populate their final resting place with deathtraps, you'd get this. It's not meant to be survivable: it's meant to keep the lich safe. The rewards for successfully completing the adventure are great, but the likelihood of that occurring is small. It's there for the bravest and most skilled players. However, the Tomb exists in a design space that is outside of the regular play of D&D. It enriches the D&D game by existing, but most groups will have no need to adventure within it.

I really like Tomb of Horrors, having adventured (and had my character die) within it during my early AD&D adventuring days. I own the sequels, which have a lot of fun with some of the concepts in ToH without quite having the same devastating impact of the original. As I write this, one of my groups has been adventuring through the 4E sequel to the Tomb, and that's been very enjoyable. However, this doesn't blind me to the fact that Tomb of Horrors would likely be a very bad fit for most of my current adventuring friends. It exists at the edge of acceptable D&D design space, and is truly a "special" module, which should have a warning on it along the lines of "Handle With Care".
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Freelance Police
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Link to 3.5 PDF:
http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/oa/20051031a
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Mark Mellott
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I've only played this once. Our entire party jumped in that mouth with the Sphere of Annihilation! That was quick
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Eric M. Aldrich I
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Yes, a group of us got through this in a cake walk using a lot of low-level summoned monsters. We did not fight Acerak at the end (we did not have the necessary spells/weapons and we pretty much knew it).

The key to defeating this dungeon is realizing you have no time pressure whatsoever. In a tournament setting I would hate to try to get through this place, which is how it was originally run.
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Troy
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This overtext is far more interesting than I am.
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Tomb of Horrors is great for a DM who no longer likes his party and wants to never be asked to DM again.

Nice review of a classic!
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Rod Batten
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I DMed this years ago in high school. I was moving away from the town and group I'd been running during middle school. A great send-off for a group of characters. Two of six survived.

Ahh, memories ...
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Tinky Winky
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The charred remains of my Human Cleric lie within the Tomb. He lost his arm, his clothes, and his life, but he died doing what he loved.

As always, an excellent review MerricB.
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I am going to be running the original version of this for a group next week, thanks for the post.
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Don Squires
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Great write up!

My own experience with the Tomb was quite different from everyone elses. A friend of mine and myself showed up at the local game store running the adventure. We were handed 10 prewritten characters and told to choose one each. Along the way through the tomb I lost my first character. I was told to choose another and that character was magically teleported in to the tomb to accompany my friend's character. We completed the tomb from there. Total deaths 1. I was not impressed with the tomb, after hearing so much about it.
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