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Why Tomb of Horrors is the Best Module Ever

Over on Story Games, JBR made some very pointed observations about Tomb of Horrors. So I feel compelled to explain why I consider Tomb of Horrors to be one of the greatest D&D modules every written. Everything I need to make this defense is contained in the first hallway of the dungeon.


First of all, any given party is either going to examine everything carefully or they’re not. If they’re not, then this isn’t the right adventure for them. They’re going to die horribly and not have any fun doing it. The assumption of Tomb of Horrors is unmitigated complex deadliness. This is part of what makes it awesome, but only if that's what the players are up for.

If they are going to examine everything carefully, they’ll quickly find the hidden path and the poem that are the key to the entire dungeon and absolutely necessary to surviving it.

The path leads the party, first safely, then not so safely down the hall. The message is obvious. Careful observation will get your part way there, but not all the way. This dungeon actively seeks to mislead you. In the dungeon as in the hall, a careful party will get some distance on care alone, but only so far. Near the middle point, things will start to go horribly wrong. The poem, like the path, provides a step-by-step guide to several of the nastier perils of the dungeon and must not be ignored.

At the end of the hall, the party is given a choice between two unattractive options. The first is the demon face. While it’s conceivable that completing the tomb might involve a leap of faith into a dark abyss, it’s not an attractive option. It should not be chosen unless no other option is available.

The second choice is also unattractive, but perhaps not quite so unattractive. A party may be tempted to try it out (and most often at least one character gets separated here). Ultimately, however, the correct conclusion is that they ought to seek a better solution before they continue. Some heavy divination could be employed here, but it would be a dangerous waste of resources.

The instant that this conclusion is reached, the fiction of the game gives the players the correct answer. There is a big freaking door painted on the wall. If the players engage the fiction at this point, they will find the correct solution. If they don’t engage the fiction, but instead engage the mechanics, by looking for secret doors and so on, they will also eventually find the correct path.

This one room gives the players all the information they need to complete (or at least come close to completing) the Tomb of Horrors. It gives them the poem. It warns them that it will try to purposely mislead them. And it tells them that there are choices within choices. It engages them on the level of fiction and on the level of mechanics.

Tomb of Horrors isn’t for everyone. I fondly remember the all-nighter in which we defeated the tomb to be one of the best RPG experiences I’ve ever had, though I’ve also seen if flop. It is my brother’s all-time least favorite module. Your mileage may vary.

I have to agree. Best. Module. EVER.

Oh, for the glory days of D&D when it was the DM's job to CHALLENGE the players, with character death an ever-present possibility.

Sadly in 4E, the DM simply acts as a human server, providing a "World of Warcraft" style play experience for characters that can regain hit-points at will, and hardly ever risk death.

"Sadly in 4E, the DM simply acts as a human server, providing a "World of Warcraft" style play experience for characters that can regain hit-points at will, and hardly ever risk death."

Is this an observation made after playtesting the game? I hope not. I have high hopes for 4E.

It's hard to find a really good DM these days. One to challenge you every second, speak in demon voice or goblin voice. I had a friend doing this.

We asked him every day to be DM, he was very busy, but we had some great nights enjoying DnD.

Tomb of horrors is one of my all time favourites too, although (not to sound to cocky) once you get how to play this tournament style it is not near as deadly as most people believe. I ran a group of players through it as an adult a few years ago, and they totally slaughtered it. They anticipated and fully expected a very challenging dungeon and so were totally geared up for it. They did have great fun. I loved designing tournament style dungeons with cryptic poems and puzzles as a kid and tomb of horrors was the shining example that I tride to emulate. (although I think the Hidden Tamoachan is almost on par with Tomb of horrors).

Thanks for reminding me of this great old style dungeon

My apologies, that last anonymous was me

That's my experience too, Roger. When we played with those assumptions, we beat the tomb too, though there were some dicey/lucky moments. Tomachan is also a great tournament module, though I've never played it, and I've only read it once.

To be fair, when Tony ran this for us and we trashed the place, we were using D&D 3.0 characters with all kinds of crazy feats and abilities never dreamed of by the original creators of the module. I wonder how the updated version of the module compares to the original.

Hate to say but I tend to fall into the same camp as your brother. :) I've played it (the original, not the newly-revamped 3.5 one) on both sides of the table, player then DM, and my view never changed. Basically its reputation as an unfair meat-grinder is deserved, exponentially true when taking into account the ridiculously low suggested-party reqs. Felt too much like a module designer getting off on pulling players' strings, or like a weird module practical joke, rewriting D&D reality rules when it saw fit. I loathe it as a true playable module, but respect it as a reading and D&D-historical curiosity.

Oha. This actually sounds good, the way you describe it, but I have a feeling - without having actually played "Tomb of Horrors" - that what you describe is at the same time the solution and the problem.

Giving hints and diving into the fiction, accepting the story as reality rather than using the rules of the game (no - that does not have to rule each other out) leads to: What, if the players misinterprete and misunderstand hints?

There are player abilities and character abilities and they quite often don't match. So, in order to get the message across you maybe need more than the hints given, especially if there are misleading hints, too.

Now, as I said: I don't know Tomb of Horrors but I know the "Age of Worms" adventure "A gathering of Winds" and we had some nastly traps there. And there wasn't always a way of telling you were being mislead. (and it happened to our groups several times) And such things I do not consider great design...

The tomb killed no less than 3 of my favorite D&D chars,1e, and I'm getting ready to put my group through this hell. I have read through the 3.5 version that I will be using this time, and while it seems a touch more survivable, its still a meat grinder. I don't know anyone who has gotten through it with an intact party, but as the late great Master Gygax said in his intro: "This is a thinking person's module, and if your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy .... it is this writer's belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience. "
I'm using it to give some good RPG experience, and to help the players develop themselves. Also, I have a player who needs a healthy dose of paranoia in his diet :-)

I have never met anyone who has survived the Tomb of Horrors. I have never played the module myself but did run it for two groups. The first was actually doing ok, they made it to the second hallway but was nearly wiped out by the 4-armed gargoyle thing on the way there. They must have hit every trap on the way though. My second group was a group of 9 players and they all died. (it was a TPK)
I think the only way you can brag about beating the tomb of horrors is to beat the module on your first try without any pre-knowledge of the tomb.
I had the privelage of playing in a new module "The Tomb of Horrors Rebooted" at Origins this year. It's an 18th level adventure for 4-6 players.
We made it to the last room after several resurrections. but we all died at the hands of Accerak (sp?) I expected nothing less. Great adventure!

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