Friday, April 13, 2012

Rumours of Its Deadliness Were Greatly Exaggerated...

Yesterday me and my IRL gaming group decided to play Tomb of Horrors. It was the first time they had ever played AD&D, and the first time I had run it for that matter, but we had some experience of killer dungeons from playing Fourthcore. Somewhat disappointingly, though, the Tomb hasn't so far lived up to its fearsome reputation. After 4 hours of play, I've only managed to kill off one measly hireling. (Compare this to Fourthcore's Crucible of the Gods, where we had two TPKs in the first four rooms.) The following is a play report on the various traps of the dungeon and how they failed to prove deadly.

(Spoilers for Tomb of Horrors after the jump, obviously. If any of my players happen to be reading this, don't go any further until after we've finished the module.)

 I tried to run the module unedited, but there was one point on which I did make modifications to the original text. Wherever Gygax had written that some spell or ability would arbitrarily not work, even though by all logic it should have, I ruled that it would. For example, I ignored the sentence saying that the pit traps would only be detected 4 in 6 times by prodding; also things like the giant skeleton which isn't affected by Turn Undead, or the invisible item which can't be detected using Detect Invisibility. I felt that these parts ran counter to the 'MacGyver' mentality that I love so much about OSR games. These changes did have an effect on the dungeon's deadliness, as outlined below.

1. The collapsing ceiling: this was the first area that the players visited and the first trap to hit them. Ian (playing as Tyreese the Halfling Thief) jabbed all around the walls and floor with his pole, but sadly forgot about the ceiling. However, the rest of the party had wisely stayed outside. Tyreese took enough damage to bring him down to 1hp. This was hardly a major setback, since the Cleric could just cure him and then rest for a day to regain all his spells. The fact that there are no wandering monsters in the area means that the players can rest up more or less whenever they feel like it.

2. The sliding block: After that first trap, they were even more alert. As soon as the block began sliding shut and I started counting to 10, Ian said "I run back outside," so he had ample time to escape.

3. The trapped box: I thought this was pretty devilish, putting two traps in succession on the same object. The players didn't fall for it though - they pressed the catch with a 10-foot pole and then pulled the lever with a rope from 30 feet away. I still enjoyed their expressions when they realised there wasn't even any reward for doing all that.

4. The pit trap corridor: This was where I could have gotten some kills if I'd played by the 4-in-6 chance, but that just seemed totally arbitrary to me. It wouldn't have been a measure of player skill, just luck. However, without that rule the pit traps were pretty toothless. Ian just said "I'll walk down the corridor, prodding the floor, walls and ceiling 10' ahead of me." It took him hours and hours of in-game time to get to the end, but since there aren't any wandering monsters the timing didn't really matter.

5. The green devil face: Nobody jumped into it. Turns out that players aren't really interested in blundering into a pitch-black hole that radiates evil magic!

6. The forsaken prison: Everybody jumped through the misty portal. This was probably because I told them what the first player saw on the other side; if I'd drawn him into another room and not told the other players if he'd survived, then they probably would have been more cautious. Meanwhile he (Shaun, playing Grumpy the Dwarf) was messing around with the three levers. I could have gotten a kill here if he'd just pulled them all down before he pushed them all up. But after he opened the trapdoor in the ceiling, Shaun wisely deduced that putting all the levers down would open a pit trap below him.

7. The three chests: For the chest with the darts, Ian pulled off an Indiana Jones, swapping the crystal box for a lump of rock without triggering the pressure plate. If he'd failed his DEX roll, then maybe I could have gotten him...
The chest with the snakes he opened just a crack, so I told him that a snake popped out and bit him. But he argued convincingly that a snake wouldn't be able to fit through such a small crack. So instead he just slammed the lid shut again.
The chest with the skeleton they opened fully. Bam! Skeleton attack! I ruled that it could be turned, but it would turn as a... *searches table* Wight! A Wight is pretty strong, right? Er, but Shaun's 14th level Cleric could auto-destroy Wights. So the skeleton didn't last very long.

8. The nude portal: Tyreese the Halfling jumped through the portal and lost all his clothes and gear, including magic boots, weapons and two rings of protection. However, he was able to run quickly back through the dungeon and warn the other characters not to follow him. Not quite a kill, but better than nothing.

8. The evil altar: The altar was, indirectly, responsible for my only kill of the session. The players began speculating about whether they had to sacrifice someone on the altar, and someone suggested the torch-bearer Carlton. Overhearing this, he ran away through the dungeon and eventually fell into a pit trap. Hirelings, man! What can you do?
Meanwhile, the players were dripping blood from various demi-human races on the altar to no effect. The text states that the trap is triggered if 'living matter' touches the altar - I decided that blood isn't living matter once it leaves the body. Next, they retrieved Carlton's corpse and decided to put that on the altar! That didn't work either? OK, let's slit his throat! Let's chop off his arm! Let's cut out his heart! (Julius the Paladin: "Uh, I look the other way while this is going on.")
When Tyreese put down the heart on the altar, I made him a take a DEX check and he failed, so I ruled that his fingers had brushed the altar. A huge lightning bolt shot down the aisle of the chapel and blasted Tyreese!
Me: "Ok, so where are your other characters at this point?"
Everyone: "Well, not in the aisle, obviously."
The lightning bolt reduced Tyreese to 2hp. That is one lucky Halfling.
Also, somewhere along the way he got turned into a woman.

The players are now about halfway through the tomb and well on their way to the fake lich encounter. I don't know how they will go in the deeper tomb, but in general I think the difficulty of the module could be increased - and not just increased, improved - by the addition of wandering monsters. As it stands, a lot of the most devious traps can be evaded by some variation on "I tap everything with my 10-foot pole" and when a trap does trigger, it only ever hits the point man. Wandering monsters would keep the party moving quickly and sticking together for safety. It would become more a matter of risk management - "Do we check this area thoroughly and risk monsters, or move ahead quickly and risk traps?"

I also can't resist pointing out that these players have hardly played anything except D&D4E, the game that certain people have claimed is "nothing but combat", "rollplaying not roleplaying", whose players are "like rats in a Skinner box" and are "WoW players" etc. yet they're tearing through this dungeon that is supposed to be holy grail of 'player skill'.

Ian did used to play WoW, though.


  1. Haven't read the module since I was a kid and never played it, still it seems strange that there's no penalty for spending as much time as you want resting, that would seem to be a pretty obvious thing to include...

  2. I got the impression that maybe Gygax would only allow the players to rest between sessions. But how am I supposed to enforce that? It seems so weird to tell them "No, you can't sleep, you have to keep delving into the dungeon even if you're on the brink of death."