Unearthing the Tomb of Horrors

by Steampunked on September 29, 2010

Welcome to a new series for Dungeon’s Master where I’ll be talking about encounter design, emergent storytelling, setting the tone of your game, finding ways to challenge your players, and revitalizing the classic dungeon crawl for a new generation of gamers – all through the lens of the classic Tomb of Horrors adventure as I run it as a mini-campaign for group of veteran gamers. The players will provide their perspective as well, as they talk about their preconceptions of the Tomb of Horrors and their character creation process for this iconic adventure. We’ll also have real-play podcasts of our entire Tomb of Horrors experiences hosted at the Shattered Sea in the coming weeks.

Today the Dungeon’s Master team welcomes Steampunked, our newest contributor. He brings a wealth of gaming experience to our blog and a unique perspective on D&D. He’s played and DMed many games with Ameron and Bauxtehude including LFR adventures, D&D Encounters and the Shattered Sea campaign.

Each of my articles will unpack my process as I go about redeveloping, re-imagining, and running the Tomb of Horrors. I’m going to do my best at first to keep these articles as spoiler-free as possible, and I’m going to give fair warning when I do break into spoiler-mode. Be warned that foreknowledge of the Tomb of Horrors can damage the experience of a player, although one of my own players turns out to be the exception.

If you’ve never heard of the fearsome Tomb of Horrors, power-up your Google-fu and get ready to find a slew of horror stories and tales of sweet victory about one of the greatest and deadliest dungeons ever designed. The stories of survival and conquest of the Tomb are as legendary as its creator, Gary Gygax. The Tomb of Horrors is among the oldest published adventures for a role-playing game, having made its debut at Origins as a tournament module in the mid-1970s. According to legend, Gygax designed the adventure to test the mettle of cocksure players with seemingly undefeatable characters. He pit them against deadly traps and puzzles for the ultimate “thinking person’s adventure… if your players are a hack-and-slay gathering, they will be unhappy!” The Tomb’s reputation as a death-trap is well-deserved: the original adventure is packed with instant-death with no-save situations, undetectable traps, confusing riddles, and devious tricks that have since become the tried-and-true tropes of the dungeon crawl genre.

Though I have a love-hate relationship with the traditional dungeon crawl, I always find myself coming back to it for inspiration and enlightenment. This classic format is the laboratory from which all other modes of the game are invented, developed, and tested against, whether it is a wilderness exploration game, urban political intrigue, or a battlefield apocalypse. At its worst, the dungeon crawl is predictable, unrealistic, overdone, and boring. At its best it offers an experience which touches the core of what this game is really about: exploration of the fantastic realms of our imagination where adventure, horror, mystery, and heart-pumping action blend together seamlessly into a great story.

Since it exemplifies all of these qualities so well, I have wanted to run the Tomb of Horrors for many years. Wizards of the Coast’s recent release of an updated version of the original adventure through the RPGA Rewards Program made for the perfect opportunity to play the Tomb of Horrors under the 4e rule set. Updated by Scott Fitzgerald Gray for the 4e, this incarnation of the Tomb serves as a companion piece to the hardcover super adventure of the same name. However, one does not need to play one to play the other, and the hardcover super-adventure is best through of as a sequel or spin-off of Gygax’s original.

Renovations and Homework

Before jumping into the campaign, I did what I do with any published adventure: break it open and see how it works, then change everything I don’t like about it. I wanted to preserve as much of the original as possible, and to aid me in this, I tracked down copies of Gygax’s original adventure, as well as Bruce Cordell’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors and his 3.5e update of the original adventure. With materials spanning all four editions of the game, I set about making a kit-bash of featuring the best of each. Some of the traps remained as deadly as the day Gygax wrote them, and others have been revised to uphold their original spirit while eschewing the “instant death, no save” tendencies of the original. Drawing upon the collective wisdom of others who had written about their experiences with the Tomb was also immensely helpful. This is a great thing to do whenever you’re running a published adventure or looking for new ideas. Remember, good artists copy, but the greatest artists steal.

Building a Dream Team

The group of players taking on the Tomb and its fearsome master, the demi-lich Acererak, defines the game more than anything I could ever do in adding my own flair to the adventure. A year in the big city introduced me to an elite cadre of gamers who I’d met through various channels. I had the rare advantage to hand-pick my players for this game, giving a full table of that extraordinary self-starting gamer who loves a good story, a well-made character, and plenty of action and adventure (with a side of beer and pretzels and a dash of lewd humor). In other words, a group of players a lot like me.

Setting the Tone

One of the most important and defining characteristics of any D&D campaign, beyond the setting, characters, and even the rules of the game, is the tone and attitude taken towards the game. A campaign might be a lighthearted, beer-and-pretzel dungeon delve, an intense and dramatic epic tale, a gritty survival horror, or any combination in between and beyond. The game might be all about telling a story, or it might just be about friends getting together for some fun. These are all adjustable levers that can be altered: a game can be serious or silly, the world noble and bright or grim and dark. The gathering may want intrigue, adventure, humor, or horror.

As a DM, the first thing I like to do with my players before I even lay the groundwork of the campaign is talk a little bit about the tone. The tone of a campaign determines just what kind of play experience you’re going to have, so it’s worthwhile giving it a bit of through before you jump in and see what happens. Even with people I’ve played with for years, appetites and attitudes can vary widely from campaign to campaign as players grow bored of the old and yearn for something new. I usually approach my players with a concept, like “Romans versus Samurai” or “lots of undead and plagues” or in this case “the Tomb of Horrors” and we start a dialogue about what everyone is interested in doing with that concept, and how they’d like to see that game played out. Starting this dialogue helps to engage the players from the get-go, and lets everyone contribute into creating the type of game everyone can enjoy.

With a single exception, none of my players had any direct knowledge about the Tomb of Horrors, only its deadly reputation. We discussed running the game in one of two ways: either as a lighthearted game or making a deeper investment by running a grittier game.

The Funhouse of Horrors

This style would take a very relaxed attitude towards the game as a whole. Players would only need to be themselves at the table, and bring along a slew of character sheets in expectation for a high fatality rate. Bring out your super-optimized gimmick builds and get ready to see them torn to shreds as they fall to the nefarious demilich’s devious traps. No worries, however – a replacement character would simply pop into existence. We wouldn’t worry too much about role-playing, character development, and the nitty-gritty details of resources and instead focus on the fun of rolling dice, dying in ridiculous situations, and just having a good old-fashioned nerd-man night. From the research I had done around other gaming blogs and Tomb of Horrors stories, this is the typical way the Tomb is played today – as a one-shot death-trap diversion similar in practice to a Living Forgotten Realms session or D&D Encounters. Something about this option, however, wasn’t what anyone wanted, so we turned to an alternative…

The Gritty Campaign

Ultimately, the unanimous decision was for a gritty game. This would be a campaign! I asked each member of the group to come up with a short reason why their character is headed to the Tomb. Characters would be forged in the depths of the most horrible dungeon ever devised, and there would be bitter losses of beloved, if short-lived, characters. Death would be a “problem” as the players would have to spend time and resources either raising a fallen party member or making the trek back to town to recruit. Resources, rests, supplies, and would be tracked, and the nearest town for re-supply would be a week away. The players would have a small caravan and a small cadre of minions to guard their camp and act as porters (these characters would never venture into the Tomb, however). On my end of things, I would be making liberal use of some of the hidden details of the Tomb to confound the party if they tried to take an extended rest after every encounter.

The result, thus far, has been a bit of a hybrid – we have a lot of fun, crack a lot of jokes, and have seen some stunning and deep character development and role-playing come out of the characters, and possibly the best sessions of D&D I have ever run.

In the next installment of this Tomb of Horrors series I’ll talk about emergent game play and how storytelling manifests within the Tomb of Horrors in a unique and unprecedented way, and touch a little more on genre and tone within the game.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Neuroglyph September 29, 2010 at 11:18 am

Congrats on your joining the Dungeon’s Master crew! I had avoided purchasing the ToH, mainly because I ran it so many times in my old AD&D days, I didn’t want to re-do the experience with the new 4E version. But one of my D&D campaigns has never experienced ToH in any format, and your blog gave me some second thoughts about “denying” them the pleasure of a death-trap dungeon. Great post, and welcome to our community of bloggers!

2 Etherrider September 30, 2010 at 12:33 am

@Steampunked – Wonderful! I remember running my crew in it shortly after its original release back at the end of the 70’s. It is a classic and will look forward to seeing your take on this and running it in the style your players have picked. I am waiting for the next episode!!!!!

@Neuroglyph BTW, he is talking about the D&D rewards ToH not the 4e big campaign book released at about the same time. I don’t even think that one is much more than a campaign based on the archlich’s machinations (I have it but have not cracked it yet for a read-though I would point out). I did get the 4e revision as well and enjoyed seeing the 4e take on a great old classic!

3 david schwarm October 1, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Great post–looking foreward to listening to the podcast and reading more of this. I love how the entire focus of this group seems to be fun–I do not get the feeling from a lot of blogs I read that the name of the game is fun, but in this I really see that you and the players are working to have a good time!

Can you post pdf’s of the character sheets, examples of how you have modifed traps and/or monsters, etc–more specific game crunch would be awesome.

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