Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Revisiting the Tomb of Horrors

Geez, did anyone beat this thing? I was looking Something Awful's very funny article on the Tomb of Horrors, and immediately hearkened back to my own experiences with this module. I've played in it twice, and DM'd it twice. In that time, I've seen two--two--characters make it to Acererak. Both died, near-instantly.

We had one kid who was in our games off-and-on boast that he had beaten it, but he had played with a total Monty Haul DM--the kind that allowed players the power to clean out the Planes on a regular basis for fun. When he ran it with us, his Fighter died along with my Cleric in the initial stone block trap.

As best I can remember, here's the accounting on 4 forays into the Tomb of Horrors. I believe the lowest character level was 8, the highest around 16.

Session 1
2 Fighters, 1 Wizard, 1 Thief, and a Cleric (me): Total Party Kill
-All within the first few traps, I believe. We had been playing less than an hour when the last of us fell.

Session 2

1 Cleric (me again), 1 Wizard, 2 Thieves, 1 Fighter, and a Paladin: Total Party Kill
-One of thieves died at the three hidden treasure chests. The remaining Thief and Wizard reached Acererak, but died very quickly. The Thief was higher-level than the Wizard, and so was slain by the right-eye jewel. The Wizard got off a couple of spells that did damage (Shatter?), but met the same fate as the Thief from the left-eye jewel or one of the teeth a few rounds later. My friend Rich had nursed that Wizard over 8 months of continual weekend gameplay up to his lofty perch, and he was pissed.

Session 3 (I DM'd this one)
1 Wizard, 1 Cleric, 1 Thief, 1 Fighter, 1 Anti-Paladin: Wizard alone survives
-Another false-entrance trap slays another Cleric (I was sympathetic). Wizard teleported out, leaving our group's (homebrew) Anti-Paladin to die (pit of 200 spikes). It was a vendetta killing of sorts, the Anti-Paladin having (predictably) angered the group by acting like an, well, Anti-Paladin.

Session 4 (I DM'd this one, same basic group)

1 Wizard, 1 Paladin, 1 Bard, 1 Fighter, 1 Cleric, 1 Thief: Thief alone survives
-The Thief didn't stick around long on this one. I believe he used a magic item to egress after seeing the Fighter go down at the Face of the Great Green Devil.

I've never found a module as lethal as this. I remember I once thought The Doomgrinder had potential by the sound of its name, but that ended up being a bit of a disappointment.

So, did anyone out there actually trash the Tomb of Horrors and give Acererak what he had coming? I want to know if you did, and more importantly, how?


ravenconspiracy said...

I played in a 2nd edition campaing that featured nothing but modules. It culminated in the "return to the tomb of horrors". The 2nd edition spell list gives a number of huge advatages for dealing with the tombs. The party I was in was something like 3 clerics and 1 wizard or 2 clerics, 2 wizards, with a theif and a fighter. I was playing the thief and was probably 15th level, the others were lower.

Anyway, what got us through were spells like detect traps, divinations, orison (or whatever), contact outer plane (or whatever), and a ring of wishes.

The detect traps spell is self explanatory, the others were used almost solely for asking "what if we..." questions to find out if we'd die by doing something. With so many clerics, we had plenty of these spells but it was slow going and also we burned up the 3 wishes simply NOT doing things.

I consider the above spells a must for a flawless victory, but also you will need at least 1 elf in the party (sleep gas trap + Juggernaught), and someone who can cast stone shape a-plenty or at least rock to mud (to halt the juggernaught in the corridor).

We also got extremely lucky with the discovery that the safest way through the tombs is by the tunnels between the pit traps. The other thing is that, in general, anything that looks valuable in the tombs ISN'T and is also probably trapped. Touch nothing that doesn't need to be touched and never touch anything just to see what happens.

Because of these discoveries we got through without anyone dying. However, like I said, we were playing with 2e spells and characters and we did not tangle with Acerak in his floaty gem-skull form at all. We "ignored the spirit and avoided the skull...." Which is really the only logical choice when completing the module. Once you divine what it takes to kill him, seasoned player's jaws will drop clean off. The downside of 2e is that not every cleric gets access to holy word!

R. Lawrence Blake said...

This, along with the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, was one of the first modules I bought. Although I have never met anyone who has beaten this dungeon, it is not impossible. In the intro to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gygax gave some rather entertaining examples of players overcoming the dreaded demi-lich.

Gleichman said...

We played this back when it was first released, and did it successfully as I recall.

Way too long ago for me to remember the details, but I will say it was likely done with vastly overpowered characters (both in level and magic items) and it was still a major pain in the neck.

We nickedname such modules "opps- your dead" adventures. And it ended and widespread use of traps in our campaigns. Not by decree, but simply because we lost any interest in them.

Brunomac said...

I had it as a kid, and it was one of the few modules I owned that I didn't run. At the time to me it seemed "unrunable" for some reason. As old school as I am, I just was not a "trap DM."

I'd love to take a look at it now for a fresh perspective.

I always wondered - is it possible to tone this thing down for lower levels, without losing the "integrity" of it?

Christopher B said...

I'd love to get a chance to play this, but unfortunately that will never happen. (Since I've read it and several campaign journals.)

I have to say, though, I wonder if a lot of ToH deaths weren't the result of players "thinking with their swords" (something I often warn my fiancee about while playing). I've known a lot of players, but very few of them took full creative advantage of their abilities and resources. (Clerics and M-U's at the levels required for this dungeon have a lot of awesome powers. And even simple things, like creating a wall of iron to walk across possibly trapped floors, seem to never occur to a lot of people. Personally, I've always wanted to try using magic jar and simulacrum in tandem...)

Dead Orcs said...

I high school, I played this as a bard (who died three times, almost always of poison). Fortunately, we had 3 clerics (NPCs) in the party, with plenty of Raise Dead and Resurrection spells (the DM was pretty liberal with these). We eventually destroyed the demi-lich, but it took the whole party (and 4 of us (most of them NPCs) were sucked up by the soul gems.

Much later in life, I DM'd this module (a 3.5 version) for my own game group. They got as far as the Chapel. One of the characters lost a hand (she was an archer) in the Mask.

To this day, I intend my retirement project to be to reconstruct the Tomb of Horrors to scale with Hirst Blocks. We'll see what happens.

David Nett said...

I played TOH once, and ran it under 1E and 2E, both with total party kill, though one group did reach Acerak mostly intact.

I also ran it, with some modification, as a "tomb raider" type adventure for Palladium's Ninja Turtles game maybe 12 or 13 years ago. That was a lot of fun. The party escaped without facing Acerak, but it was a rollicking modern take on an adventure I still love.

-David Nett
creator, GOLD the Series
can you take the hits?

Scott said...

I've run it twice, but never as-is. The first time, it was a replica of the Tomb of Horrors a lich (Acererak's queen) wished into existence. I killed every PC that had ever played in my campaign, then had her resurrect them all at the END of the tomb. Their goal was to escape the tomb instead of explore it (all in a misguided attempt to win back Acererak's affection). This turned out to be easier than I thought it would be -- in a group of over a dozen 1st to 9th level PCs, there were only two fatalities.

The second time, I'm doing right now, is for a group of 1st-2nd level superheroes in my Hideouts & Hoodlums campaign. The layout of the tomb is the same, but all the traps have been watered down. It's still proving awful challenging for them, though, with two characters down already in the entry tunnel.

Mike said...

I played this again not too long ago with a group of friends. An accounting of the experience can be found here:

It was pretty amazing how our collective recollections of the adventure were very different than the real thing. But going through the Tomb again was great fun.

tRANIS said...

Just finished this again for epic levels 3.75. Having done it twice with different parties, one that had to fight the whole way and the new one who used lots of magic and their own deductive reasoning with the help of the Journal(from Return to the Tomb of Horrors, because to me now I have to include it because its so awesome)they navigated the tomb quite easily with Find the Path, since there is nothing with alters divination spells at least on the Prime. Find the Path and Detect Secret Doors rule this module, of course the traps and the monsters but...of course that changes now that they move on to The City That Waits demiplane where I am locking it all down to one ways in or out unless you want to walk out!
Nice ol blog btw lol