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.”
To 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.
Gary 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.
One 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.”
Even 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.
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.