Friday, February 10, 2017

Why the Tomb of Horrors is a Great Module

This article is in direct response to several posts I've seen lately critical of the classic AD&D adventure module the "Tomb of Horrors". Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and as they say, 'opinions are like a...holes, everyone has one.' But, they also say, "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." So, with that in mind, I'm going to do my best to answer some of the criticisms, and inform as to why the 'Tomb of Horrors' is a great module.

Lets talk about the criticisms, point by point to get started:

1) The module's traps are too deadly

Deadly in relation to whom? The module was designed to foil exceptionally skilled characters, specifically those in Gygax's own campaign, Rob Kutz's character Robilar and Ernie Gygax's character Tenser. YOUR group may not be up to the same skill level as these players. This is an old school module, and one of the hallmarks of old school play is that many of the puzzles and traps were designed to challenge the PLAYER not the character. The solution to many of the module's traps and puzzles are not on the character sheet.

However, if you are running this module, and you think that many of the traps are too deadly for YOUR GROUP then, by all means change them! That's right. Go ahead. Where it says, "no saving throw" in the module, as DM you are fully authorized to alter it to say, "Make a save versus 'fill in the blank'. If you run this module as is, and your group is not up to the tasks as presented and something bad happens, that's YOUR fault as the DM, not the module's. Own it.

2) Character Death isn't Fun

That's a matter of opinion. Once again, it comes down to style of play, and in old school modules character death was a rather common thing. The specter of death was considered (and is still considered by many) one of the more enticing aspects of the game. The 'Tomb of Horrors' is about a creature who has designed their final resting place to lure souls to their doom. Its SUPPOSE to be horrible (its even in the title). Its okay if that's not your cup of tea, and not the style of your group. Don't play it. That doesn't make the module itself 'bad.'

3) That Fucking Mouth

Yes, John Wick, I'm calling you out. Spoiler Alert! I'm going to talk about this:
First, its important that the DM reads the description, and describe it to the players correctly. Players can only make informed decisions based on what the DM tells them.  In the description is reads:

 "...The face has a huge 0 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".

At this point, it might behoove a DM to look up 'sphere of annihilation', in the 1E DMG, page 154 to get an idea of what this thing is, as that might prove insightful in its description. When one does so the first few sentences read:

"A sphere of annihilation is a globe of absolute blackness, a ball of nothingness 2' in diameter. A sphere is actually a hole in the continuity of the multiverse, a void. Any matter which comes in contact with a sphere is instantly sucked into the void, gone, utterly destroyed."

Now, picture that in your head for a moment. Matter touches it and is "IMMEDIATELY SUCKED into the void...". Clearly, this would not be a subtle effect. No 'crawling into blackness' and disappearing. As soon as one iota of a person's body touches it, they are sucked into the thing. This would look rather violent, and unpleasant to the observer. "Woooosh!" then the person is gone. After witnessing such a thing, if someone, or an entire party decides to follow the unfortunate fool's example, then they get what they deserve.

Furthermore, this entire sequence can easily be avoided by simply prodding the thing with a 10 foot pole, which would immediately be violently wrenched from the character's hands as soon as it touched the sphere.

What? You're 14th level and no one in your party has a 10 foot pole? Have you learned nothing in the previous 13 levels? Perhaps its best if you try something safer, clearly this module is beyond your ken. I hear the palace of the 'Bubble Princess' is a challenge. *cough, cough*

Wait... what? You as DM didn't describe it this way either? Well, that's YOUR fault, not the module's. Own it.

Now, lets take a brief look at the map *big spoiler alert*

The place is not haphazardly drawn. I'm not going to go over every place, but point out that Gygax spaced things out carefully to reflect the various challenges provided. The map MEANS SOMETHING. You couldn't just find some random map someone drew online and plug the encounters in, as they wouldn't make any sense. The text, the traps and the actual drawing all come together as a cohesive whole, each complementing the other. Pits have secret passages, one hallway stretches overly long, a clue on its own, so that it ultimately 'tilts' into a fire pit, and so on. Clearly, this place was designed by a mad man, a genius or both!

Next, lets look at the nature of the traps themselves. Most of them show the characters what's going to get them. The players think, "Oh, that's a trap, its not going to get me", and then it gets them. Or it distracts in some way to lure the characters to their doom. In most cases, the traps can be avoided by simply ignoring them, and moving on. However, admittedly, some are pretty brutal. A tapestry of fungus in front of a door, that when touched collapses on the character, emulsifying them immediately, no saving throw. Its cruel, yes, but touching it with a 10 foot pole avoids it as well. As DM you might be kind and give them a Dex save, or something. Either way, the trap is avoidable if proper caution and care is taken.

And that's the key. Ingenuity, and caution will get most people through the tomb with only minor injury. These are 10th - 14th level characters after all. That is, until the encounter Acererack himself, and then all bets are off.

Lastly, we get to the Demi-Lich himself. Acererack is one tough BBEG, and probably something that no party can reasonably be prepared to encounter. That said, Acererak can be defeated in a single round, the solution of which I will not divulge here, but needless to say that Gygax himself was surprised by it at a convention... and that highlights my final point.

Player ingenuity knows no bounds, and there is no upper limit. The Tomb of Horrors is definitely a very tough challenge for any group. Most players and their characters will simply not be up to the challenge. Does that make it a bad module? Does that mean you shouldn't attempt it? I think not. Setting one's standards to accommodate the lowest common denominator is a recipe for boredom and stagnation. D&D is an amazing game, and the only limits on it are imagination. The Tomb of Horrors is a master class in trap and dungeon construction, and demonstrates the upper limits of D&D challenges. Even if you never run it, combing through these 14 pages of module lore will benefit any DM with an open mind.

For a further analysis and evaluation of this module I would invite you to also take a look at a video I made for my Youtube channel. Game on!

RPG Retro Review: Tomb of Horrors 


StevenWarble said...

Tomb of Horrors is designed for a play style from 4 decades ago, a play style that many D&D players have never experienced and have no clue how to handle. (Also, a play style that was far from universal once the hobby started expanding) Honestly, it is a play style that I find tedious and boring in the extreme. As a tournament dungeon, or a killer dungeon within a campaign, it is a brilliant design. As a way to run your game every Friday... I'ld rather play Yahtzee.

captcorajus said...

In this article I am only speaking in regards to the module itself, and I agree, NOT the way to run your game every week.

As a one off challenge, definitely something worth looking at, even if you don't run as is.

StevenWarble said...

Sure, but you make several references to things like 10 foot poles, which are essential dungeon gear in Gygax-dungen-crawling and unheard of in Howardian-Sword-and-Sorcery. This module is great if you play it in the style it was made to be played in. Otherwise, not-so-great.

captcorajus said...

Right, but would running it even be a consideration in a Howardian-Sword-and-Sorcery?

In that type of setting one might expect traps of the dexterity and running speed style in the vein of 'Indiana Jones'. :)

StevenWarble said...

No, you probably wouldn't run it in a Howardian-Sword-and-Sorcery campaign. You would pick up the module because a reviewer told you it was great, you would read it, and you would say "well that sounds terrible, I don't want to run that"

Tomb of Horrors is great if you embrace the play style it was intended for. Most criticisms of the module I have read have come from people who did not.

That's my point.

captcorajus said...

Sorry, Steve, but I will simply have to disagree with your assessment... vehmently in every respect. You could TOTALLY adapt Tomb of Horrors for a Hyborian style game.


What makes TOH great is that it melds dungeon construction with the descriptive narrative, which is a point you seem to be missing here. Gygax shows how to mingle the map with monsters and traps to effect.

The three tiered entrance, the main long hall with paths both around and over pits. The way the wall is PAINTED to make a VISIBLE door blend into the scheme, the way a secret passage branches off from a stair well, so that it will likely be missed, and on and on. The architecture of the tomb is purposeful, and even if you never use it in play you can LEARN a lot from it. The same goes for the traps. A look at how they lure players to them, even when players KNOW there are traps is a diagram on how to make creative traps for your dungeons. THAT makes it great.

Now, scale back the deadliness of the traps, add in a few more interesting monster encounters, and change up the demi-lich so its more of a brute force type encounter rather than cerebral one, then you could absolutely adapt TOH for a Hyborean style campaign.