During the final week of D&D camp I had a group of great kids. They knew the game well and I had DMed for all of them the week before. They were all friends from school who had been playing together for a number of years. They were the very best group of D&D kids you could find. There was the lifer, the child of two professional actors, the athletic competitive kid, the brain, and the kid who was in it just to make his friends laugh. They had all been to D&D camp in previous years and on the first day of this week (after a “D&D weekend” at the cottage) expressed an interested in playing through a campaign that was a little more involved than the typical “find sword, fight dragon” type game. Enter the Tomb of Horrors. I recently received my copy of the level 9 adventure in the mail and so proposed the Tomb to them by reading Gary Gygax’s original introduction and from there the tone was set. The week of play that followed was a brutal fight against oblivion which 13 adventurers would not survive.
After the level 9 characters were created the party descended into the very first chamber, a long hallway decorated with elaborate frescoes depicting agricultural scenes with a creepy air about them and alarmingly life like recreations of unholy creatures performing cruel tortures. These kids were real pros when it came to role-playing their characters and so when the thick skulled fighter trotted through the Misty Archway to be teleported to only god knows where the rest of the party was not so foolish enough to follow him. After being teleported into the forsaken prison, a 10 x 10 room with three sets of levers and no instructions, Thrack the Teifling warrior opted to pull all the levers down and thus plummeted 100 feet into the spike pit, taking enough damage to knock himself unconscious. Three turns later the Tomb had claimed its first life. Back in the Mosaic Hall the party grew weary of the pit traps, failed to discover the hidden passageway, and knowing that the green devil bust set into the wall affectionately dubbed “the devourer” was all kinds of bad headed through the portal even though the players knew that 10d10 was waiting for them.
The week went on and as soon things started looking grimmer than grim the group decided that when PCs died in the Tomb their soul’s escaped to tell their tail. This way everything the party learned could be passed on. Otherwise all the discovery would have to be done over again with fresh characters who had no idea what awaited them in the Tomb. Trips to the surface were constant and a thorough progress that was slow and steady. Though I didn’t get my second total party kill, I did manage to do something special to one character who had the misfortune of wandering into the gargoyle’s lair alone.
On a surprise attack the gargoyle mauler managed to take the Psion from full hit points to negative bloodied with a single attack. Later, when the party backtracked to find their lost companion, they discovered him eviscerate with pools of his blood seemingly pouring from under a solid wall which the remainder of the party elected to never open again. Though the character was brought back to life by way of resurrection the player ruled that the young Pison would have to live out the rest of his days in total insanity, having had his mind broken by his experience.
Throughout the week the party was teleported around the tomb, they had their genders changed by magic and had all their worldly passions teleported away. They choked to death on poisonous gas in their sleep and were forced to put their own teammates to death to stave of the effects of domination. The group dealt with the many false tombs, the difficult puzzles and the cruel traps. As the week drew to a close they finally made their way into the final standoff, the tomb of Acererack, the master of this twisted place and their aim was to settle the score.
Acererack was a fantastic final villain (unlike level 33 Orcus who can’t fight to save his life, no power creep in 4th edition my butt). It was only fitting that the master of such a place would be so unkind. Though the construction of the monster is simple at first read, with his drain soul power that kills outright after two failed saving throws is couple with two mean additions. The first power allows his to attack a creature who fails their save, dealing damage and imposing penalties to saving throws. The second power allows Acererak to consume the souls of those killed by his drain soul power to regain 150 hit points while destroying that character forever. When the kids finally scored the final blow on the lich cheers rang out across the table. When the other councilors complained about the level of noise I paid their words no heed, the boys and girls whose characters I had brutalized and murdered with every manner of misfortune for the past week deserved their moment of celebration.
One of the lessons I learned this past week is the importance of making failure exciting. As a DM I have no interest in playing with people who get all crampy as soon as their pretend man starts getting hurt, but despite this inclination in children (even though fully grown men and women display it) there’s a lot that you can do to make character death exciting for the players. Have your players describe their own death, if I give out bonus action points for cool descriptions of when they kill monsters, why shouldn’t I do the same when they get their organs handed to them in a soggy paper bag? To me the ultimate goal is to tell a good story which is improved by characters overcoming adverse conditions; the stories of victory for the PCs will feel that much greater if the players who control them also participated in the telling of their losses.
Breaking away from the discussion of D&D camp for a moment I want to praise the good design work of Scott Fitzgerald Gray, the person who adapted Gary Gygax’s iconic adventure for 4e. I was really pleased that this gem of old school D&D got the treatment it deserved given that I could write a series of nine articles about how much I hate LFR. The layout of the book was clean, well organized and easy to read which is a real accomplishment considering how knotted the various chambers were with secret doors, hidden tunnels and teleporters. While the adventure as presented was not nearly as lethal as the original (no instant kill traps) advice was provided in the opening pages for making the adventure more or less deadly as well as the useful information about knitting the dungeon into your ongoing campaign that many are accustomed to seeing.
The traps and encounters were dangerous enough to seriously threaten the party with a total party kill at every turn but were still designed with counter measures and work-arounds that meant that the thinking party could easily overcome. The combat encounters were few and those presented were concise. There were none of my reoccurring favorite combat tropes like “sack of hit points with attack scores that are too low” or bizarre the combinations of monsters like “the doppelganger assassin, the city guard and the electric scorpion.” There were no orcs in an empty room guarding a chest, but instead combats strung just out of the party’s view on a hairpin trigger.
So that was my summer as a D&D camp councilor. Unfortunately D&D camp can
only last a mouth as games like World of Wow-craft and Level Grinder 9000 eat into the game’s audience, but that’s life. If you think you have the secret to make D&D more popular than the sum of Blizzard’s ventures then you’re welcome to it. Until then I’ll roll up a gnome illusionist or an investigator to get eaten by Cthulhu and bide my time until next summer rolls around.
Bauxtehude is the creator of the Shattered Sea actual play podcast and campaign setting. Check out Shattered Sea on the web for recordings of D&D Encounters, the Shattered Sea Development Campaign and much more.