Friday, February 17, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Setting the Stage

Meet Acererak, with his sidekicks Turkey-Kenku and Uni-Orc!
Welcome back to Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. Today I'll be covering chapter 3, "Setting the Scene", which goes into the background of the adventure and give the players some hints about what to expect.

Before we dig in, I just wanted to point out how nice it is to see not one but two chapters dedicated to events and preparation to be done before the adventure. This is another thing that modern modules need to do better. Curse of Strahd and Storm King's Thunder show that Wizards of the Coast is in the loop, but the 3rd party modules (I'm looking at you, Out of The Abyss) have a long way to go. Gary gives a great example here, and it would be wise to follow in his footsteps.

Tomb of Horrors: Setting the Stage
I want YOU! die horribly for my amusement
This section starts with a short paragraph describing where the setting could be placed in the world of Greyhawk, Gary Gygax's original campaign setting. Surprisingly, even in his home world the Tomb doesn't have a single set location. He offers six choices, and gives guidelines on placing the dungeon in other settings.

This is very nice to me as a DM, because if I was running a game in Greyhawk, I could run a game in the Bright Desert (option 3) and not have to worry about my level-2 PCs stumbling upon this location. Good stuff.

Backgrounds, Legends, and Rumors

Now, here's the real meat of the adventure. Gary lays out who Acererak is, how he made the Tomb, and the reasoning behind some of the traps and puzzles within it. He also provides a fantastic narrative that learned scholars would relay as the "Legend of the Tomb", and rumors and riddles that could help the players.
Though he be little, he is fierce...
We start with the background section. This reads more like information that the DM would need to know, not the players. I would use some of this if the players rolled high on a Legend Lore spell or if they were somehow able to view back in time to the creation of the tomb.

However, I think some of the background information, like Acererak's soul roaming the planes and the magical effects of the keys within the tomb, is simply placed here because there wasn't anywhere else to put it. Now, I would be very cautious to hand out such information to the players, but in this context I think it's important to include here at the beginning.

For a example of the effects of the opposite approach, I'd like to use what I consider a great plot within the Curse of Strahd module. Without spoiling too much, there is a site of ancient evil that the characters can travel to. Of course, it is far out of the way of civilization, so how do the players get there? How do they even hear about it? To find the plot, the DM must read a character description in a completely different area, and connect that information with a short bio in the back of the book. Essentially, unless the Dungeon master realizes that this NPC is a quest-giver, they could miss an entire plotline. They could even tell their players there is cool treasure in the site of ancient evil and miss out on they NPC who gives them a role-playing reason to go there. If that plot had been laid out in the front of the book, along with the main storyline, perhaps people could more easily see how the threads of the adventure tie together. I've read quite a few reviews that complain about "buried plotlines" in that particular module.
Acererak is an "All Dungeons, no Dragons" type of guy
The "Legend of the Tomb" section is great, and I'm actually going to print it here, just because it sets the tone of the adventure so well. This is how legends of ancient evil should sound.
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine
crypt. To slay the unwary and uninvited, it is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters. They guard rich treasures, both precious and magical.

Be warned that the tomb was built by the demi-lich Acererak, who still wards his final

haunt. This being is said to be possessed of powers that make him nearly undefeatable. By all accounts, it is quite unlikely that any adventurers ever find the chamber where his

bones lie, for the passages and rooms of the Tomb are fraught with terrible traps, poison
gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, Acererak has so well hidden his crypt that even those who avoid the pitfalls are not likely to locate it.
Parties large and well-prepared have boasted that they would relieve his tomb of its treasure, but these have not been heard of since they set off. Thus, only the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the Tomb, they must be prepared to fail.

Note that even here, Gary is giving out hints. Breaking it down, the players know:
  • They should expect traps
  • The final boss is a Demi-Lich
  • They should expect poison gas, magical traps, and pitfalls (literally)
  • The final room will require careful searching to find
  • It's going to be a very difficult adventure
This goes even further in the "Rumors and Riddles" section. Some of them continue to set the tone, but there are a lot of good hints to help the players avoid instant death as well.
  1. "Look not into the eyes of the Tomb of Acererak" can obviously refer to the eyes of the Demi-Lich himself, but also provides hints to the true entrance to the tomb. The "Eyes" are on either side of the real tomb, and they are both death traps.
  2. "The wise use wits / All others die / In Lich's Tomb / Beneath the sky" This riddle again sets the tone to emphasize the "brains over brawn approach needed for the tomb.
  3. "Acererak still wanders the passages of his tomb, setting traps to kill the unwary." Though technically not true, this reveals a key part of the Tomb: the traps reset if you leave the tomb.
  4. "The Keys you need / They you must use / Unlock the Door / Surprise you lose" Keys are important to this dungeon, both for the players and for Acererak. The keys cause Acererak's spirit to return to the treasure chamber, setting up the final encounter.
  5. "A vorpal blade or sharpness carry / If against the lich you venture / Forget or shatter by the wary / Holy spells for this adventure" is a good way to let the players know what sort of magic they will need to use on Acererak. Note that this riddle contradicts Gary's advice to withhold this information from your players. I think he meant for these riddles to be found in order, increasing in difficulty, so only the most savvy of heroes would know exactly what items they needed to bring.
  6. "Her call your ship to rock walls break. / Your call her help your fortune make." This riddle hints at one of the best brain-teasers in the adventure, a Siren that Acererak has captured and uses to torment the adventurers. Again, I think this was only meant to be available to the heroes who deeply investigated the Tomb before entering.
But nothing about this guy, HUH, GARY?
I really enjoyed this section, and in a modern game I would even email or message the "Legend of the Tomb" to my players before the game. It's a great addition.

Starting Play

Interestingly, it tells where Gary himself set the Dungeon at Origins I. It was in a swamp that was only accessible by barges.
Actual art for this area. Slightly off-color, much like Gary's sense of humor
We get the first boxed text of the adventure, describing a medium-sized plateau with skull-like rocks planted in the top. Perhaps this is hitting the nail on the head a bit hard, but this is old school D&D, when that sort of obvious imagery hadn't been played out as much. If I ran this, I might keep the obvious metaphoric imagery just to invoke the Old-School feel, when every dungeon had a monster-mouth shaped entrance and you could reasonably expect to fight and kill every creature in an entire dungeon.

Now that the stage is set, we can finally start delving into the Tomb itself! Next week, we'll take a look at the entrance(s) to the dungeon, and how you can make a group of players consider deicide within an hour of starting your game.

Thanks for reading!


  1. What is the origin of the “Rumors & Riddles” section?
    It’s not in any of the versions I posses, which is the original 1975 Origins I version (from Art & Arcana), S1 (1979 mono cover), S1 (1981 green cover) and S1-4 Dungeons of Dread (WotC 2012 deluxe hardcover).

    1. Ah, I found it in the 1987 Realms of Horror compilation!

    2. Which means these rumors weren’t penned by Gygax, who was out of TSR by 1985.