Game Day: Tomb of Horrors

Inspired by the novel Ready Player One, I offered to run my friends through the legendary module Tomb of Horrors. Converted to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition as part of Tales from the Yawning Portal (Amazon), the module promises a lethal challenge for players both new and old.

My gaming group last took a run at Tomb of Horrors in the late 1990s under Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. The heroes were slaughtered in their final fight with Acererak, the demi-lich who lurks at the heart of the dungeon, mostly because they didn’t have the specific spells the module said were needed to defeat the undead horror. At the time there was much spirited debate about whether more modern spells should have been allowed to work against the demi-lich, but back then I kept the adventure truly old school.

This time around we built one-shot 14th level characters for D&D 5th Edition. They’re led by Zorovar, the leader and sole survivor of several doomed expeditions to the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (also part of Tales from the Yawning Portal). As such, he’s the one exception to the “one-shot” rule.

The party consists of:

  • Jack, a male human rogue
  • Caw!, a male kenko rogue
  • Kalahuan, a male halfling bard
  • Zoravar, male human battlemaster

As a party, they’re remarkably short on arcane and divine firepower, but are overflowing with trap-finding prowess. They’ve stayed alive in large because of that ability to deftly avoid traps and 5th Edition’s “short rest” mechanic which let them quickly recover hit points. They’re about halfway into the dungeon though, and the difficulty’s about to ramp up considerably.

A Legendary Encounter

Of the group, two people (myself and one player) have run through Tomb of Horrors before; the rest have heard of it (how could they not?) but never played. As such, some of the module’s more lethal threats — like a certain gaping demon mouth — aren’t as dangerous as they might have once been simply because they’ve become common geek knowledge. Long experience crawling other dungeons caused my players to shy away from the Tomb’s various glowing portals; while the portals were tempting, the heroes preferred to look for more conventional secret doors.

The lack of arcane and divine spellcasting hasn’t proven to be a major hinderance yet and it’s possible that our heroes will be able to make it pretty far into the dungeon without such specialists. Whether they can best Acererak remains to be seen.

The module is a faithful translation of the original module but in places it may be too faithful. For example, one of the encounters features a gargoyle. That might have been a challenge back in the 1st Edition days (it’s been so long that I can’t really say) but under 5th Edition they are significantly underpowered. The same goes for other mundane and magical threats (e.g. a swarm of vipers, a giant skeleton) that pop up in the dungeon. None of them are a significant challenge to 14th level characters, and I suspect they were somewhat more lethal in the 1e days.

We’ve certainly been having a lot of fun with the dungeon, especially with the role-playing elements as our heroes continually question Zoravar’s preparation (or lack there of) for the quest and try to understand what their avian companion Kaw!’s mimicry is attempting to convey. The module likely remains lethal for people who are less familiar with it — I’d love to run my son and his friends through it in a few years and see what happens — but veteran players may find it less dangerous than its legend suggests.

Of course, we’ve still got the other half of the dungeon to go, so my impressions of it may change. There’s plenty of time to kill off the entire party and some of the most dangerous challenges lie ahead.

Time for a new Tomb?

Our experiences in the Tomb of Horrors make me wonder if it’s a time for a new Tomb of Horrors, one that takes 40 years worth of Dungeons & Dragons tropes and uses them to defeat the players at their own game. Veteran players — even those who’ve never played the Tomb — can’t help but make educated guesses about how the dungeon plays out. An adventure that plays with those guesses — while simultaneously incorporating the malicious, sudden-death aspects of the original Tomb — could make for hell of a session.

Of course, everyone would have to go into the dungeon knowing that death was on the line — this can’t be a kinder, gentler Tomb of Horrors where death is merely temporary. Playing for high stakes — preferably with a tournament-style timer — would make for one hell of an Old School adventure. It’s entirely possible that Wizards of the Coast’s recent Tomb of Annihilation adventure book does exactly this; I purchased it back in the fall, but haven’t gotten any further than the first chapter. It’s a lower-level book (it tops out at around 10th level) who’s central hook prevents resurrection and reincarnation, making it a more lethal challenge than your typical D&D or Pathfinder adventure path.

If Tomb of Annihilation doesn’t scratch that itch, well, there’s always Return to the Tomb of Horrors, the 2nd Edition boxed set that was part of TSR’s “Return to…” series of adventures. As I recall, the original setup was an extraplanar dungeon that continued the adventure begun in the original module. It’s been years since I read through it, but I’ve been surprisingly nostalgic for our 2nd Edition days; it might just be worth cracking open the old adventure to see what terrors it holds.

If all else fails, I’ve got some ideas for a new level of the Obsidian Maze, my gaming group’s own homegrown megadungeon. Maybe it’s time to pit the Blackrazor Guild against something truly dangerous again…

Featured Image Meta

A collection of Tomb of Horrors-related books from across D&D’s long history. From left-to-right: the reprint of the original Tomb of Horrors, the core adventure book from the Return to the Tomb of Horrors boxed set, and Tomb of Annihilation, a D&D 5th Edition adventure book inspired by the original module. Credit: Ken Newquist.

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