S1: Tomb of Horrors

From 1d4chan
Oldschool.pngThis article or section is about something oldschool - and awesome.
Make sure your rose-tinted glasses are on nice and tight, and prepare for a lovely walk down nostalgia lane.
It's Sphere of Annihilation flavored.

The original "bust your ass and then hand it to you on a silver plate" dungeon itself, the Tomb of Horrors is an adventure module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that proved to be a legendary source of considerable rage. Gary Gygax authored this inspired by Alan Lucien's sketched-out "Tomb of Ra-Hotep", and set it before a tournament 25-7 July 1975.

The Tomb as officially published is used as the (literal) textbook example of a design to make players cry. Where most of the "intruders keep out" traps in D&D tombs are to tickle PCs without killing them because character death is Bad, the Tomb of Horrors's "intruders keep out" traps are designed to keep fucking intruders out by killing them as gruesomely as possible.

(If you kids had any grey in your neckbeards, you'd know the Tomb is nothing compared to Gygax's Isle of the Ape. Now get off my lawn!)

It was the first module to have an inset booklet with illustrations of key areas in the dungeon, so players could get a standard feel for what it looked like. Gygax had brought in fourteen-year-old Tracy Lesch to draw these in 1975; she who also drew the first roper. David Sutherland and Dave Trampier revised them for the published version, mainly adding 3-D perspective. The better for the party to picture how their avatars die. Besides "brutally".

The undead horror at the end was always a lich: the Egyptian Ra-Hotep for Lucien, unnamed "THE LICH" in 1975; until finally settling on Acererak in 1978.

How bad is it?[edit]

It's an old school module, so if you're not used to that play style, expect culture shock. The introduction also carries a warning that it is a module for thinking people, destined to frustrate kick-door-fight-orc gamers. If you prefer adventures that challenge your problem-solving abilities, then this will be a very difficult test and good fun.

Spoiler.gifThis article contains spoilers! You have been warned.

Just to get INTO the damn thing, you have to probe a marshy hillock with that 10' pole every character buys. When you find the entrance, there's a 2-in-3 chance it's one of the fake entrances, which have either a rigged cave-in for 5d10 damage or a 10' thick airtight stone crusher blocking off the exit. If your DM mentions a rumbling sound and starts counting at 1 1/2 second intervals, run out of there as fast as you can.

The real entrance has concealed pit traps with save vs. poison or DIE spikes. If you somehow lost that 10' pole you used to find the entrance and you do your probing for traps with your feet, you have about a 15% chance of getting spiked, not that the pole will be completely useful since there's a decent chance (1 in 3) that you don't trigger a pit while checking for them. A mosaic path will lead you around the pits, and has a poem engraved in it with clues for the tomb's traps you have to be reeeeal close to read, and the path goes over all the pit traps in the hallway... except one pit where the path leads you around it. What a dick move.

There's the glowing archway at the end of that path that you have to touch the archstones in the right order, otherwise it teleports you into an oubliette with a 100' pit trap if you guess incorrectly with the unmarked release levers. The path also leads into an engraved mouth large enough to enter; it's the exit point of a few teleport traps elsewhere in the Tomb. The mouth is actually a Sphere of Fucking Annihilation. Just in case the players think they can climb back in to return to the trap they triggered, the mouth helpfully detects as evil. Lastly, the main exit can be found by breaking away a relief of a door to find... a door.

There's a gargoyle statue with three arms that are carved to hold gems. It's likely that this will be encountered after fighting a four-armed gargoyle wearing a collar studded with ten gems. If you put expensive enough gems in the three hands (like the ones from the collar), they get destroyed, and nothing happens. If you use ten gems in this way, you get a gem of True Seeing, but the gem itself is invisible so you don't know it's there unless you cast a True Sight spell to detect it... or listen to the Magic Mouth that tells you where it is. Since so many illusions in this place are impenetrable without True Sight, you are doomed without this gem.

Many of the doors you see are actually fake, opening on a solid wall, and two of them conjure a spear that jabs the nearest person in the chest. Even if you went straight to the demi-lich's tomb, you'd have to successfully detect 11 secret doors, including one at the bottom of a pit trap (still with the save-or-die spikes) and another is a fake door that has a secret door in it AND a secret trapdoor in the floor on the other side.

Then there's the fake boss-fight room -- which is shown in the illustration on the outside of the module just to fuck with people who saw it in the game store. The description for the fake boss-fight actually instructs you how to be a dick by telling the DM to count to 10 while a Rocks Fall illusion is going on, and tells the DM to put the game away, after asking if the module was too hard.

The real end-boss monster is a floating wizard skull that steals someone's soul every time someone touches it -- NO SAVING THROW -- turning their body and equipment into dust. Fighters need +5 magic weapons to hit it; thieves can throw gems at it, causing 1 hp of damage for every 10,000gp of value in the gem; clerics can dispel evil for 5 HP of damage; and magic users have to be in the astral plane for any spells to affect it. After stealing eight souls, it teleports everyone else 100-600 miles in a random direction and curses them so that anyone that attacks you never misses (and you lose 2 points of charisma permanently if the curse is removed). Fighting him is entirely optional, since the skull only reacts if someone's stupid enough to touch it. The awesome treasure on the floor is protected by a phantasm that will threaten players, but can't actually do anything unless the players attack it enough, which gives it the juice to turn it into a ghost. If the players are still in 'touchy-touchy' and 'hack-and-slash' mode by the time they got this far, they get what they deserve.

Don't even think about jumping into the ethereal or astral planes at any time; there's a 1 in 6 chance that you'll run head first into a type I-IV demon every round you remain in them.

There are 20 pregen characters in the back, and it's recommended that players bring two characters each if there are less than six players.

The funny thing is that the module actually isn't really directly unfair as such; it just challenges the players' assumptions about how the game is played. While there are some obviously dickish parts, the problems you need to solve aren't shockingly abstract, you just need to be really really careful. Some of the traps and "gotcha" moments found in the dungeon are basically impossible to get around unless you poke around everything, and since poking around everything will inevitably lead to your death, it's essentially trial-and-error gameplay, I Wanna be the Guy style at some points (The fake Acererak being the prime example of a gigantic "Fuck You" where you are unable to figure the trick out unless you have played the module before or are somehow suicidal enough to stay in the dungeon when the tomb starts "collapsing" due to the illusion). Them again, Gygax did design the module from the ground-up to be a meatgrinder, so the idea of "throwing characters at the dungeon until you poke what works" was done on purpose. Maybe. And it's up to the jury whether there's entertainment to be found in this kind of gameplay or not.


homebrew variation on the original map; fewer dead-ends
  • the Tournament version (25-7 July 1975)
  • Adventure Module S1, Tomb of Horrors (1978)
  • Adventure Supermodule S1-S4, Realms of Horror (1987). Has several differences from the 1978 version, including the mouth turning you into a zombie.
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Tomes, Bruce Cordell's Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998): Actually gave a reason to go there other than graverobbing. Added a village of evil cultists outside the tomb, then you went through the Tomb itself (the original module was included in the box), but in the final room you found instead a portal to the demi-lich's fortress anchored in the motherfuckin' Negative Material Plane, yet another module designed for maximum TPK. Came with an even bigger book of illustrations to show the players.
  • novel, The Tomb of Horrors in the Greyhawk Classics line, by Keith Francis Strohm (2002) holy shit, it is bad.
  • 36-page pdf, Tomb of Horrors (Revised) (2005) : This is a re-edit for D&D 3.5. It was less deadly with "save or die" instead of instant death, made the end-boss a tiefling lich, and added an extra room with a brain-in-a-jar.
  • Tomb of Horrors 4e. This is actually a series of four tombs, designed to build a campaign around (although the tombs vary in difficulty from 9th to at least 25th level, so it'll be a looooong campaign): a Feywild graveyard, the wreckage of the 2e negative-material-plane module, the wreckage of the original tomb which now hosts a bunch of evil squatters, and a tomb to dead gods in the Astral Plane. The plot of the adventure concerns the demilich who built the original tomb coming up with a plan which will allow him to ascend to godhood by draining power from various planes It's been nerfed to match the 4rry attitude ("instant death" is now encounter powers with "fail three saving throws then die"), but it's still pretty deadly with encounters that have endless streaming monsters and boss monsters you're supposed to run away from instead of pwn outright. The fourth tomb has plenty of those 'Aspect of [God's name here]' monsters for extra fun. Players are supposed to return to the original tomb to fight the demilich final boss -- /tg/ highly recommends making them go through the full old school Tomb.
    • It should be noted that the intro to the module specifically says that if you're the old-school kind of DM, use Rule Zero to turn those "three saves" into "one save" or "no save". Remember, gaming is about fun for everyone!
  • There's also another 4th Ed version of the module, which is closer in spirit and content to the original O/ADnD Module (as in, you can actually die easily. In 4th Ed. What the Christ.)
  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Tales From The Yawning Portal (2018): Includes a conversion of the Tomb as the final adventure, for "high-level" characters. It's actually rather faithful to the original on paper, but 5e's carebear attitude to character death means that only the obvious instakill traps can really threaten your players' magical little snowflakes. And they didn't include the handouts from the original module. FUCK.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Tomb of Annihilation (2018): More of a spiritual successor than a remake. A mini-campaign balanced for organized play that focuses on one of Acererak's pet projects in the Forgotten Realms that threatens to create an undead god-abomination.
  • In Act I of Calendra's Legacy, a fan mission for Thief II, there's an easily missed mini-version of the Tomb.
  • A Neverwinter Nights version of the original Tomb is available if you want to see your savegame characters get killed repeatedly.
  • A Minecraft version of the original Tomb can be found. No monsters, no save-or-die, but it's a nifty first-person perspective on the Tomb.