One of the complaints I’ve often heard from people is that old-school or classical dungeons are just too danged lethal. OK, so Tomb of Horrors isn’t the most novice-friendly module ever created. But the lethality of many dungeons may be greatly reduced, assuming you’re in the right mindset.
Let’s look at approaching a dungeon through the personalities of two ancient Greek heroes, Achilles and Odysseus. There’s a good reason why these two are seen as the antithesis of one another in The Iliad.
Being an Achilles won’t work, if you want to survive many old school creations. Achilles represents battle fury, untempered passion, one who came to his doom drawn by emotion into another fight. Achilles is guided by these emotions, which always seemed to dictate when he would and would not fight.
In an old-school dungeon, you don’t pick your battles by emotion.
You want to be an Odysseus. The legendary king of Ithaca was nowhere near the warrior the other famed participants of the Trojan War were, but he was a clever bastard. You want to talk about fighting an enemy on your terms? This is the guy behind the Trojan Horse. He took everything the gods could throw at him, and made it home. Every challenge he had, he approached with forethought, wit, and cunning (and not a bit of deceit, I suppose, one of the reasons the Romans didn’t care much for him). He blinded a friggin’ Giant Cyclops, for crying out loud, and you can bet that wasn’t a stand-up fight.
Sometimes, the gods send you into unfair situations. You don’t survive the whims and petty fancies of the gods by bellowing rage and charging in to certain, defiant doom. You survive by assessing each challenge, working on a solution, knowing when to retreat, avoiding combat where practicable, and ensuring any combat that does happen happens on your terms.
There’s no glory in dying to a kobold spike trap on the 2nd level of a dungeon because you only knew how to press forward. Getting the loot and getting out with minimal bloodshed is how heroes are made—heroes that live and get to go home.
So the next time you want to try your hand at some classic-style dungeon crawling, ask yourself if your approach lines up as an Achilles or an Odysseus. Dice are still dice, fate is still fate, but ask yourself: which of those two would be more likely to survive the Tomb of Horrors?