Friday, March 24, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Instant Death

Back in my day, we just rolled up a new character and didn't complain!
Welcome back to Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. Today I'll be analyzing chapter 6, "Tomb of Acererak Level", and covering areas 20-24.

Tomb of Horrors: Tomb of Acererak Level

Well, boys and girls, this is the proverbial "it". On the entrance level Gary taught the players how to explore the Tomb with little danger. In the False Crypt level we tested those ideas and expanded the threat level a bit.

But now we are at the bottom level, the Tomb of Acererak himself, where any slip-up can result in lethal levels of damage, instant death, or worse. In fact, four of the first five areas are just that: incredibly deadly traps with little to no way to avoid them.
Won't happen in this dungeon

But is that really true?

Again, I still think there are lessons to be learned here. These traps require careful thought, thorough investigation, and utmost caution. But they aren't unbeatable.

20. Deadly Spikes

Here we see yet another example of Gary turning dungeon crawling conventions (which existed even in 1975!) on their head. Moving across the bottom of the pit seems to be the best method of travel, but even those poking ahead with a 10 ft pole will be affected by the spikes triggered at the end of the pit.
Use vertical stripes to make your dungeon appear slimmer!

Fortunately, this trap isn't terribly deadly, despite the name. Characters will take about 17 damage on average, even with a THAC0 of 10. I think this trap is another indicator of the change in difficulty, much like the door leading out of the laboratory.

The players are essentially getting a second warning that the traditional method of using their first idea on a trap won't work. This idea is a new one in the dungeon so far, but suffice to say it will affect every single trap in the rest of the dungeon.

21. Agitation

Here's where we get our first encounter with an instant death trap. If the players rip or burn these tapestries, they could be subjected to massive damage, or even death in three rounds. Let's go back to the trap breakdown from a couple weeks ago to see exactly how a trap of this difficulty is set up.

The Setup: We get two clues the tapestries are trapped. First, the read-aloud text says that while the room appears looted, the tapestries are untouched. Second, those who open the trunks and release the asps could observe that the snakes don't flee anywhere near the tapestries.

"Looted" in a dungeon that resets itself...
This isn't much to go on, and many groups could be told these facts and still be surprised by the tapestries. However, as Gary said, this is a "thinking person's" Dungeon. The rule from before remains that deadlier traps need more setup to be effective.

The Betrayal: This deadlier trap has a more complex betrayal. First, the PCs need to figure out the agitation mechanism. With the treasure to be found, the combat with the snakes, and searching the room, it is entirely reasonable that the PCs will be in motion most of the time they are here. But with a room-wide effect, it usually will cause the PCs to stop and wait, which will clue them into how the agitator works.

Alternatively, the PCs could be paranoid and burn the tapestries, setting up the second betrayal with the brown mold.

The Chance: Since this is a deadly trap, there's less of a chance to avoid the effect here. The brown mold in particular is nasty, not allowing any save for the damage it causes. The green slime is slightly better, because though a person caught in it only has three rounds to escape, most groups could easily deal 50 damage to the slime within that time.

Overall, this trap is difficult and could cause death, but it is still fairly easy compared to later traps.

22. Siren's Cavern

This area starts with little setup, but instead hampers the players and offers them the potential for a reprieve from that setback.
Hellooooooooooo hearse!

The PCs are likely to trigger the siren's song from outside the room, and at least one PC will fail both saves required to cause them to "become idiots". This could be considered comparable to a feeblemind spell in later editions.

Fortunately, the Siren herself can easily be obtained as an ally and undo this effect. But Gary is once again playing with the tropes of dungeon exploration.

There are two sacks of treasure here, and touching either one causes the siren (and the other sack) to disappear. It would be all too common for a group's rogue to tell the others to talk to the siren while they inspected the treasure.

This is a highly complex setup and betrayal. The sack that radiates magic is perfectly safe, except that it makes the siren disappear. The nonmagical sack could very well contain wool and be worthless, and also causes the Siren to disappear.

It's interesting to note that the text says the siren and the sack disappear forever. I believe this means that Gary intended this to be a one-time challenge. Additionally, if the players cause the Siren to vanish, they will have to get their idiot friends up to "breathe clean air under the warm sun", which means many of the traps would be reset. However, this trap wouldn't be, if Gary's instructions are followed exactly.

Again, this area is meant to challenge the group's ability to comprehend situations, not just their dungeon-barrelling prowess.

23. Secrets and Swords

This area is fairly simple. It just reinforces the idea of not giving up after your first attempt to inspect something.

Keep your eyes peeled!
I think it's important to have small areas like this that reinforce the theme of the dungeon. It doesn't have to be anything wild or crazy, just a single door or a room that says to your players: "Don't forget where you are."

And even though this area doesn't have any danger, if the players don't follow the lessons taught in this dungeon, they will have to face...

23. Sleeping Juggernaut

Possibly the most directly unfair area of the entire dungeon. Let's break it down.

Is... are you crying...?

The Setup: Hardly any. We get this clue: "The double doors in this area are unusual in that they swing open in either direction. When they open, they fit into depressions made for them in the corridor walls."

So, the players get a mild hint that likely won't make sense until it's too late. Then they get hit with the betrayal.

The Betrayal: There's little chance that all the PCs will be far enough away to avoid the sleep gas, which has no save. "Elves and those who hold their breath are not affected" which would be few and far between in any given party.

Then the juggernaut comes and crushes sleeping PCs, no save.

The Chance: There's only one way to avoid this trap: at least one elf in your party, who can wake the others up, then pure luck that the juggernaut doesn't crush you before then.

This trap seems to break the rule we established before, where deadly traps have more extensive setups. But I don't really see this as a trap.

Instead, I think it is a punishment for ignoring the lessons of the dungeon while the PCs passed through area 23. This might be a little harsh for modern groups, but the idea of an area that punishes those who don't follow the themes of the dungeon is completely usable.

In a modern game, though, I would recommend not making the punishment so deadly.
Sure, my friend's an idiot and the Siren who could fix him disappeared, but hey, free spell scrolls!
Next week, we'll travel into the largest area in the dungeon, and one that is chock-full of traps of extreme deadliness.

Thanks for reading!

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