Friday, February 24, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Entrances (of Horror!)

One of my favorite comics from one of the most NSFW fantasy blogs around
Welcome back to Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. Today I'll be analyzing chapter 4, "Entrance Level", and covering areas 1-7.

Tomb of Horrors: Cliff Face Encounter Area Descriptions

The chapter begins with a description of the cliff face on the North side of the hill. The book tells you to be very particular when asking the players where and how they are searching, as they can only open an entrance when they "prod high in order to collapse sufficient material to expose a portion of a tunnel entrance. Low probing, or probing with short implements [will] not reveal anything."

So, essentially, the adventure is hinting already at the importance of a "long probing implement". Those of you who have been gaming for a while know what this is: the mighty 10' pole. Now, as written, I'd say that an area could be discovered otherwise, but there's another important lesson here: equipping your players.
More powerful than a vorpal sword, more useful than a bag of holding
When it comes to putting cool hidden items/plots in your game, you have to make sure the players have a decent chance of finding it. If you put an invisible gem into your dungeon, and the wizard doesn't have See Invisibility in their spellbook, you're just making extra work for yourself. Why put something in the game nobody will find? In my experience, it either ends up being a waste of prep time, or I feel bad for the players and give them the item anyway. Either way, there's no challenge, no choice, and no fun.

Tomb of Horrors: Tomb Entrance Level Area

1. Western False Entrance Tunnel

Let's start with the best part of this area: the illustration.
Not much to look at, but Gary had tricking players down to an art. If you are going to put a fake entrance in somewhere, make it detailed. Give it a picture and read-aloud text. Make the players feel like they have a valid option presented to them. We'll discuss this more later, in another great room in the dungeon, but for now area 1 and 2 get a gold star for detail.

Now, in the original module, trying to open those doors caused a rock slide with no saving throw that dealt 5d10 damage. That an average of 55 damage, just for finding the wrong entrance. Yikes.

Since HP calculation hasn't changed much since the days of AD&D, we can guess at how much damage this would have done to a party of 10th-14th level adventurers. The answer is: not terribly much. A wizard, with their 1d4 Hit Dice, might be in trouble. But most other classes with decent Con would be fine.

However, all those lackeys and hirelings that the DM was supposed to give to less-experienced players have just died. So much for helping out the novices.

2. Eastern False Entrance Tunnel

We're not into the main dungeon yet, but here comes our first trap with the potential to instantly kill characters. When they venture down this longer (but still nicely detailed) hallway, a large stone block can slide into place, trapping them inside.
The Tomb of Horrors: perfect for couples
Gary gives weirdly detailed instructions for running this encounter. You have to count down from 10 to 1, not moving anything or any of the characters, and at the end of it you determine what happened based on what the players said during the count. Essentially, Unless a character stayed behind or specifically started running as soon as the count starts (and they hear rumbling), they are likely to be trapped by the stone block.

I think the intent of this session was to provide a way to recreate the feeling of not knowing what was happening, rather than just going into the wall closing immediately. The players know this is going to be a dangerous encounter, they should approach cautiously and use any opportunity given to them to save their skins.

But this section also addresses a concept that was still developing in 1975: how do you act fairly as a dungeon master? What is the difference between "Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies" and a deadly but well-thought out trap?

This is Gary's presentation of proper DM behavior. "Break down the action into small, individualized tasks." "Assure them you understood their intentions." "[Take] into account their stated actions and [allow] them to respond." A popular opinion of Gary Gygax is that he is a tough old DM who would kill players easily and without hesitation, but I'm getting a different vibe here.
It's ok to still hate him, though
The real question is this: If he ran this trap with such careful consideration, how did he run the rest of the Tomb of Horrors? The Tomb gets a reputation of deadly difficulty, but maybe a lot of that is from Dungeon Masters who didn't play as fairly as Gary.

3. True Entrance Corridor

Finally! The real entrance. This is probably the most iconic area of the dungeon, probably because it's the only one most people see.
Pictured: a freaking graveyard
This area has a few entrances and exits, and several pit traps. We'll be covering them over the next few areas. However, I want to point out the trap in this particular area: the trapped chest.

This seems to be a trap that breaks the rule I stated last week: that the pit traps are introduced, taught, and then expanded upon. But I don't think that checking out the chest was meant to be the first thing players did. More than likely, they were meant to walk around the area, learn about the other pit traps, and then come back and try the chest, maybe after a couple of them died at the end of the hallway.

The actual door to the rest of the dungeon is behind a plaster carving of... a door. The module gives no way to figure out that the plaster has to be torn away, but again, I don't think players are supposed to find this right away, or even easily. They literally need to be tapping the walls, at wit's end, to figure it out.
Shut your eyes, Marion!
The last thing in this room is a clue that helps the players find where to go. A poem has been inscribed on the floor. The first line tells players to "Enter the Prison", which references the plaster carving of the door (it has a monster in a prison on it). The rest of the poem provides more hints:
  • The mists are also a valid passageway
  • There is a temple, which Acererak calls "His" temple
  • There are lots of colors to avoid
  • A magic ring is needed to continue on
  • "Skip two" and find a "Fortuitous fall", then "No lower goest"
  • The keys are important
  • beware "trembling hands" and "that which maul"
  • Follow a false door to find a true door
  • There is a key in the columned hall
  • "Iron men" are hiding "More than meet viewer's eye"
  • Then, turn left twice
A lot of this is babbled up in nonsense. The official reason Acererak would give all this information is because he's insane, and wants heroes to find him so he can steal their souls, but again Gary is giving out good hints and information. Even in the "Deadliest D&D Module of All Time" he places foreshadowing and clues.

This is a really vital point, so I'm going to repeat it. If Gary Gygax put hints and clues in the Tomb of Horrors to help his players, you should put them in your adventures too. There's really no excuse.

4. Perforated Fit

Yes, it's probably a typo, but it's in the module
This area is another that likely won't be fully explored by players on their first pass through, and for good reason. After players have spent a few characters dying in this dungeon, it becomes a secret passage that can bypass several dangerous areas. It also will not likely be found until the idea of doors at the bottom of pits is explored.

This definitely goes on the list of "Cool things most players will never find". I think it's important to have at least a few of those in every dungeon. If players feel like their exploration has yeilded them an advantage, they will be more likely to engage in the dungeon. Just make sure to balance it - when you say "you don't find anything" in a room, you want your players to trust you instead of poking every inch of the walls. Make the secrets found via unusual uses of obvious things. Perhaps the treasure is only found when the treasure chest is lifted up, not in the chest itself. That sort of thing.

5. Fork in the Road
The face that launched a thousand rage quits
Well, here it is. The infamous Green Devil Face. I was surprised to read that the devil face wasn't a Sphere of Annihilation in the first iteration of the Tomb of Horror. Instead, it was just a "lethal teleportation device" that killed the target and turned them into a zombie before moving them to another part of the dungeon. This actually sits better with me. Later in the dungeon, we find more devil faces, and they are actually teleporters in a (slightly) kinder sense. This sort of logical consistency sits better with me than creating a new magic item to account for an old trap.

The other thing to note is Gary is still giving hints out: "This whole area radiates evil and magic, both of which may be detected using appropriate spells, abilities, or devices." Gary has already made it clear that this dungeon is for a large group of characters, one of them dying to this trap wouldn't be terrible. But in a modern setting, such a trap wouldn't be as viable. And I think that is where the Tomb of Horrors gets some of its vile reputation.

Modern players might struggle to understand where to go in this first corridor. The doors are hidden. Every other way leads to death, spikey pit death, or insane lever trap death (see next section). One of them is going to brave the devil's mouth. They will declare their player crawls into it. And some DMs will let them. The emphasis on character and interaction rather than dungeon crawling becomes their downfall.
Here come dat lich
However, I think this scene can be run in a modern game. This is where you can teach the players to detect evil and magic before they do things. And for Pelor's sake, don't let someone just crawl in. Their hand would come off first. And then you can put a crawling claw in the teleportation destination rather than cruelly killing a player. Nothing wrong with that!

So, with that in mind, I think this trap, properly signaled and prepared for, can work, and actually teach the players more about Gygax's dungeon. I would keep it, and if I ran a super-dangerous lair of a Big Bad Ultraboss, I might even use it as a template for my own "If you're stupid enough to go in you deserve to die" trap.

7. Forsaken Prison

This is the last area in what I would call the "Entrance", in that it can be teleported to via the misty arch before player find the concealed door.
A puzzle without hints: another theme of this dungeon
This "prison" presents an interesting puzzle. The puzzle itself isn't too challenging, except that it could trap you in a pit after taking (on average) about 50 damage. The book also explicitly states: "If the victim can hold onto the levers for one turn, he might be able to escape falling." So I don't think this was really meant to be a deadly trap.

Instead, this room simply gives players something to do after they are teleported, while their friends are scratching their heads and starting to consider the devil's mouth. It also gave players an opportunity (though, a small one) to find a shortcut forward in the dungeon.

Now, finding the shortcut would require a very specific search in a very normal-looking area, but that also clues players into another theme of this dungeon: normal-looking things can hide secrets. And if you think that isn't something every adventurer should know, you need to go re-watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now, this particular shortcut isn't too difficult to get around, and players might well miss it with little consequence. But it's there. And this is how DMs can rewards clever players or intelligent adventurers. Give them shortcuts. Give them treasure. Let them escape and come back even more prepared.
Daaaaaaal Canto Miiiiioooooooo
I think that about wraps it up for the entrances to the Tomb of Horrors. Next week, we'll go over the next big area: The Hall of Spheres. That will actually wrap up Chapter 4: Entrance Level.

The players still have a few more hints to gain and lessons to learn before they really start delving into the deep parts of the dungeon. Believe it or not, Gary is still holding back a bit.

But not for long!
An accurate representation of role-playing games
Thanks for reading!

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