Friday, March 17, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Son of a Lich

Just two buds hanging out
Welcome back to Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. Today I'll be analyzing chapter 5, "False Crypt Level", and covering areas 17-19.

Tomb of Horrors: False Crypt Level

Last week, the players found a secret door at the bottom of a pit, and now we get to see where it goes! The answer, of course, is nowhere safe.

17. Corridor of Fear

This area features essentially one trap, a fear gas that is nearly invisible (1 in 6 chance of seeing). Gary has been building up this area as dangerous, and this gas trap definitely counts. If the PCs even see the gas, they still might need to make multiple forays into the vapors to even find the way forward.

This area is fairly straightforward, but the interesting thing to note is that Gary lays out exactly what actions a PC affected by the gas will take. I think this is a good move, since many modern interpretations of "fear" don't specify the direct changes in a character's actions when they are affected by such a fear.

Even in modern D&D, the descriptions of Fear and Charm are much more mechanical than describing the outcomes of those conditions. It wouldn't be difficult to add a sentence or two describing how magical fear varies from normal fear, or what makes a magical charm different than simply liking a person.

Obviously, a lot of these can be fudged in social encounters, but in a dangerous dungeon such as this, it's good that Gary specified exactly what dangers a character might face.

18. False Crypt
It's the encounter on the cover! Exciting!
We are finally at the eponymous False Crypt of the false crypt level. This entire level has been a build-up to this deception, so let's look at how Gary builds this up, and how a group of adventurers might realize the angle that's being played here.

First off, there are a lot of signs that this is indeed the final battle of this dungeon.
  • The Corridor of Fear beforehand
  • The webs that can specifically only be burned away by magic
  • The solid gold couch and lavish treasure in the room
  • The booming voice
  • The ability to turn spells
  • And, of course, the programmed illusion after the false lich's death

But as always, Gary has given out a lot of hints that this is a falsehood. The best hint still comes from the poem at the beginning of the crypt:
Then no lower thou goest / If thou checkest the wall 
The mace is also a big clue. Many parties might reasonably think that it was left by a former adventurer, but if that were true then where are all the other weapons? Also, those groups that have learned that the dungeon resets itself might wonder why this item is always spared the reset.

Woah, who walks in without knocking??
The last big clue comes from the lore surrounding the Tomb itself. An experienced player should know the difference between a Lich and a Demilich, and this "zombie lich" is clearly meant to imitate the former.

This gives some good insight on how to build a "false" area into a dungeon. Many dungeons are built with areas that lead to a dead end, but imply that their path is correct. what can we take away from this area in the Tomb of Horrors to help build such a trick?

First, use genre conventions to your advantage. Dungeons tend to become more dangerous the further they go, so including the corridor of fear and the magic webbing makes the players feel like they are fighting towards the right path.

Also, the lavish treasure in the room (and the subsequent destruction of that treasure) signals that the players have stumbled onto an important area. Of course, this isn't true, but normal dungeon-building conventions support this idea.

Second, make the threats in the area convincing. This false lich doesn't do much damage, but parties are likely to start throwing spells at the monster quickly and infer that anything able to resist high-level spells is indeed extremely dangerous. Giving the false lich a booming voice also assists in this illusion.

Finally, you want to include a tip-off or two. Something that could go along with genre conventions or present a credible threat, but if the players think about it a bit they will realize that something is fishy. Or something in the lore of the dungeon that doesn't add up. You want to reward players who think about their situations instead of just rushing in.

Of course, just making a situation where the players decide to turn around and go back towards the correct path isn't terribly compelling. That's where we get to the programmed illusion.
Rocks die, everyone falls
Essentially, the players will likely have an idea that this isn't the final tomb of Acererak. But rather than just asking them to turn back, Gary asks them to make a bet. The players have to bet on whether or not this is the real tomb, the real treasure, and a real earthquake. The stakes are a room full of treasure, or their lives.

This is an awesome choice, and one that has a lot of depth to it. It isn't just run or stay. The players must consider if the lich will return and the earthquake will happen again if they leave and return. Note that there is actually a loss in this: a large amount of the treasure in this room isn't there upon their return. They also have to consider going back through all the other traps from earlier. At this point it is unlikely that they have discovered the shortcuts yet, so this adds another layer to the choice.

The only unfortunate thing about this type of encounter is that you really do have to use it sparingly. Otherwise the players will never trust you with plot or story items again.

19. Laboratory

If your players reach this area, technically they are out of the danger of accidentally going to the False Crypt. However, I believe this was included on the False crypt level for two reasons:
  1. It's still physically above the rest of the dungeon. In old school dungeons, "levels" of the dungeon were taken quite literally.
  2. It's nowhere near as dangerous as what's coming next.
There are a few hints to be gained here, like the presence of mummies later on and a small hint to confirm the nature of the false crypt. Overall, however, this area is all about getting the first key of the dungeon.
They did the monster vat

This room accomplishes this by reinforcing the idea that everything should be inspected. There are three vats, and half of the key is in two of them. If the players happen to inspect the first vat and find it only to contain dirty water, they might miss the other two vats if they haven't learned to inspect everything.

The vats themselves are fairly straightforward, but I do want to put a note forward on the door out of this room.

Basically, you need to look at the door with the Gem of Seeing or something else that allows truesight. Only then will dispel magic or remove curse affect the perfectly impervious seal on the door.

This may seem extremely difficult and convoluted, and the players will likely protest. But I think this door is an effective crossroads into the final layer of the dungeon, where traps require multiple layers of dissection in order to solve. This presents the idea of greater, less forgiving difficulty in a relatively forgiving situation.

And next week, we'll discover some of the horrifying ways that Gary plans to use these complicated traps.
He's coming, he's coming, he's coming
Thanks for reading!

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