Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

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12 Responses to Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

  1. Jon says:

    Ready player one

  2. Alphastream says:

    Nice review, David! Like you, I both really admire and really hate the adventure. I am amazed that it is so revered, because at times it seems so trivial as to what works in a particular trap/encounter that it isn’t about fun – it’s about random luck. But, in other ways I do think fondly on both playing and running this back in the ’80s. It was in many ways fun to try to out-think the dungeon, even when it wasn’t fair.

    And maybe that’s its best legacy: as something we can hold over our heads as a banner, but we don’t want to really go there too often or ever try to best (worsen?) it. Instead, we borrow very small elements and uses those in a more fun way.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,
      Thanks for sharing your take on the Tomb. I think your perspective matches mine, although I never knew anyone who actually ran it! Before writing this post, I read a 70-something page thread on enworld dissecting the tomb. The big take away: the same strategies that succeed in some rooms get you killed in others. I aimed to laud the tomb for the inspiration it offers while giving a reality check to folks tempted to play the granddaddy of deathtrap dungeons.

      Dave

  3. Matty says:

    “Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.” Great way to put it.

    Loved this article. I agree with Alpha, can’t revisit ToH too often, but it very much reinforces the arbitrary nature of death in the game. I also enjoyed Return to the Tomb of Horrors very much, despite the fact that it TPK’d us in the end. It was in that late-90s era when we seemed to be getting some terrific throwback stuff to the early days of D&D.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Matty,
      I’m pleased that you liked the post. Someday, I intend to take Return to the Tomb of Horrors off the shelf and read it. I want to see how much it captures the flavor and style of the tomb.

      Dave

      • Matty says:

        I’ll say this, it isn’t so much an extension or expansion of the original Tomb as it is an epic campaign which, over its entirety, successfully captures the horrific experience of the original. Even for an experienced, well-equipped party with fairly good judgement, there is sometimes no right answer…you just keep trying to cut your losses. Glad to hear you have a copy, I am sure you will dig it.

  4. jeff says:

    My brother ran this for my friends and I in the 80’s. At the time we had never heard of it as this was pre internet and we did read Dragon or other trade magazines. I remember it as frustrating but not deadly. We were super careful and slow and just finding secret doors took forever. This module has no time crunch early on so the 15 minute adventuring day becomes the norm. Explore 30 feet, burn your spells, rest repeat.

    Green Face was never an issue.

    We never solved it we would just get tired and give up.

  5. Cynidician says:

    Like a terrible game of Monopoly, can the Lich ever truly win if everyone else just goes home?

    “Screw you, Tomb! This stopped being fun two hours ago!”

    😉

    I’ve never played or run this one. (I had never seen the original cover before either.) It seemed unplayable. Thanks for putting it into proper context. I’m going to take another look at it to see what I can glean from the imaginings within!

  6. Zelofcad says:

    I loved the post, but I think that the Tomb’s playability depends on the group of adventurers you have.
    I ran the Tomb (the 3.5 version) a bit more than a year ago for my players, as a part of our campaign, and they enjoyed every bit of it, even if it proved deadly (twice or thrice, for some of them). I think they enjoyed this dungeon so much because it is really “just” a dungeon crawl, and the story I created to insert it in my campaign was in a way useless once you’ve entered the Tomb: that was something different compared to what they were used to until then (intrigue, investigation and interaction with NPCs along with the fightings)
    And now that around 15 months have passed since the battle with Acererak, they sometimes still quote the initial poem and gladly remember some episodes.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Zelofcad,
      Thanks for the perspective from actual play. I wonder If the author of the 3.5 version adjusted the adventure to make it more fun. I suspect you can credit your DM skills for some of the adventure’s success.

      Dave

  7. Darren says:

    Excellent review. I am a noob to the world of D&D but I am very intrigued by the tomb of horrors.

    I have recently picked up Dungeon Magazine #213 with the 5e conversion of The Tomb.

    After some more sessions to hone our skills I hope to take my group through this classic dungeon.

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