Friday, February 10, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Introduction

A simpler time. A deadlier time.
In the olden days of 1975, a mere year after Dungeons and Dragons was published by TSR, Gary Gygax wrote the now-infamous adventure module "Tomb of Horrors". He was preparing for the first Origins convention in Baltimore, and he wanted to write an adventure that would take those overconfident players down a peg. He even admitted to "chuckling evilly" while he wrote it, in an issue of Dragon magazine.

Since then, the dungeon has gain a reputation as the most difficult of all D&D adventures, with deadly traps, instant-kill effects without saving throws, and a dungeon that is nearly impossible to navigate unless you know exactly how to do it.

Surely you can trust a face like that
Suffice to say, Gary succeeded in his endeavor.

However, modern gaming has moved away from the wargames of old. D&D let's plays are becoming increasingly popular, focused on characters and story as opposed to the cleverness and skill of the players. Character death isn't a bump in the road but a major plot twist. Deadly traps are rare, and even traps altogether have begun to fade from the modern playstyle. The times have changed.

Of course, this module was written over 40 years ago. And modern games tend to test differnet skills than the ones in the Tomb of Horrors. But that doesn't mean there isn't something we can learn from Tomb of Horrors. The basics of encounter design, interesting combat, and creating challenging puzzles are all present.

For that reason (and also because Tales from the Yawning Portal was recently announced), I'd like to start a new series, Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. I'll be using the original S1 adventure for my analysis, since many recreations and revisits to the module have diluted the intent of the adventure. I'm hoping to discuss the various rooms of the dungeon, a few at a time, and distill some lessons I can use in my own, less deadly games.

I don't know if I'll have this journey completed by the time Wizards releases Tales From the Yawning Portal, but at the very least we can explore some of the themes of the dungeon before the official 5th edition conversion comes out.

Hey you! Yeah, you! If you're a player who wants to explore the Tomb of Horrors, I'd suggest you read no further. This series will be a literal walkthrough of the module, discussing design choices, dungeon construction, and tips for running the quest. You've been warned!

Today, I'll be going over the introduction to the module. If you're following along in the book, this will be chapter 2 "Adventure Judging Notes"

Tomb of Horrors: Adventure Judging Notes
Are you a bad enough dude to get your picture on the front of the Dungeon Master's Guide?
Right off the bat, we get Gary's warning to the dungeon master. Tomb of Horrors is a "thinking person's adventure", and groups that prefer killing things "will be unhappy!" I think it's thoughtful of him to lay out the tone of the adventure in the first paragraph. Many modern modules are broad enough to cater to many types of tone and playstyle, but if you are running Curse of Strahd, you better have players who buy into gothic horror. Putting this up front is a good practice that many 3rd-party modules could utilize, particularly in one-shot adventures that emphasize a certain tone.

General Judging Notes

Gary specifically notes to avoid "facial expressions and voice tones that might give helpful hints or mislead players." This is advice that is actually extremely applicable to modern gaming. Oftentimes, you may have an NPC that is lying to the players, or should be seen as innocent for some reason. Pausing in your speech, looking up information in the middle of speaking, and hinting a smile or faltering in your voice can completely derail your players. I've definitely had NPC encounters go off the rails because the group suddenly became suspicious of a nonthreatening farmer.

A good solution to this is to write out key dialogue points in advance, or make sure you have your plot-relevant material on hand when you initiate the encounter. For minor NPCs, I have also resorted to skipping the character voice and plainly telling my players the information they need, rather than having it possibly misconstrued. The break in reality is a small problem, players deciding to murder farmers is a bigger issue.

Remember kids, don't take soul-crushing magic from strangers!
Aside from rules about passage of time and the ethereal demons within the Tomb, this section also notes that the players won't have any random encounters outside the tomb, and they could supposedly make camp and be indefinitely safe. The book warns:
If you choose this to be the case, do not inform your players of this, and make random dice rolls to throw them off the track.
I have spoken to many DMs who use this technique with perception rolls, wisdom checks, and even without any reason whatsoever. Dungeon masters get a feeling of control when they decide to roll some dice without reason and instill fear in their players. However, I think there's a bigger reason behind this.

D&D is a game of action and consequence. What you do is not nearly as fun as how your actions reshape the world. And to construct a realistic world, you have to have consequences both good and bad. Now, players who have looked ahead in the module may "know" there are no wandering monsters outside the Tomb of Horrors, but their characters should feel just as apprehensive about camping here as they would anywhere else in the wilderness. This "false roll" is not to give the DM a power trip, but rather to impose a feeling on the players that their characters would surely feel.

Perhaps DMs who have their players roll unnecessary perception checks shouldn't just sit back and smile evilly while their players sweat, but rather support the feelings of the players: "You get a chill down your spine, and you remind yourself that anything could jump out at any point in an abandoned dungeon." That sounds like a good moment that could build tension or emphasize a character's traits.

But really, you don't look like this guy and not make horrifying death traps
Gary ends this section with a discussion of two common traps in the Tomb of Horrors: Pit Traps and Trapped False Doors. I won't dig into the details here, but this is the first taste of the insanity that fills the Tomb of Horrors.

However, there is still a lesson to be learned here. Without going into too much later detail, these are the two most common traps in the entire module. The players encounter the pit traps first, then the false doors, then different combinations and iterations of each. After the traps are established, players must then begin to think further about the nature of the traps and how to bypass them.

For example, the false door trap is detectable by "the faint magic that operates the [magic] spears" in the trap. Near the beginning of the dungeon, the players encounter a hallway full of doors, some which are trapped, some which are not. This is a great way to teach the players how to find the trap. But then later, we get magic doors that aren't trapped, doors that are trapped by nonmagical means, and even doors that are undetectable unless magic is used.

This, in my opinion, is how to make traps interesting. First, have your players encounter the trap in a way that they can easily learn about it. Give them some minor successes in avoid the trap. Then, begin to mix things up. give them clues, keep them guessing. If they bypass the later traps, it will feel good. Their cleverness will have paid off.

If you just shoot them with a magic spear, well, that's not really fun at all.

Maps, Illustrations, and Inscriptions
An image that no player in your group will ever see.
This section is short, and mostly covers the map booklet and illustration booklet that accompanied the adventure. Gary gives his best advice for only giving the players exactly the information their characters know, but I want to take a different point away from this section.

How many modern adventures have illustrations or maps that are separate from the adventure itself? This doesn't mean that every module should come with a second or third booklet, but if I purchase the adventure, couldn't they include an access code to a database of character images, setting pictures, and maps? I would love to be able to send a player an image of a faded map or NPC without having to google it for five minutes. In Storm King's Thunder, they give you a map specifically drawn by an NPC to give to your players. Except, it's printed in the book itself. Do I hand over the book to my players? Do I photocopy the pages? Is that even legal?

Sorry to get a little ranting there, but I really think this could help out some modern modules. players love having maps in their hands and seeing well-painted portraits of the people they are talking to.

Character Roster
Walking tombstones, the lot of 'em
Another excellent section, this covers how to set up the party for the adventure. It advises "no more that two PCs per player, and if you have six or more players, each should have but a single character." Controlling multiple characters is a foreign concept to modern gamers, being firmly in the domain of OSR-style games. However, I think my players would literally murder me if we played this adventure in a system like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Swords and Wizardry.

It also notes that the Big Bad of the adventure, Acererak, can only be defeated by certain types of magic and magic items. It explicitly tells you not to mention to your players what those items and spells might be, but says to make sure at least one of them is in the group's magical roster. If necessary, it tells you to give them one, but "make it cost something they value." That's pretty harsh, Gary.

Finally, it tells you how to adjust the adventure for less-powerful characters. Wait, no. It tells you how to adjust the adventure for less-competent players. Note that this doesn't involve making the adventure less deadly in any way, just giving the players a lackey or a couple extra items. Again, these items are for the end of the adventure, when the players actually fight Acererak, so they will still die in countless horrible ways on every square of the dungeon.
Something only a true frenemy would say
Now, we haven't even gotten into the meat of the dungeon yet, I know, but there is another chapter coming before the actual delving begins. However, this one is less theoretical and more interesting: Chapter 3, "Setting the Stage". This will cover the background of the Tomb itself, and some pre-dungeon material the players can use to help them navigate the adventure.

Thanks for reading!

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