Friday, March 10, 2017

Delving into the Tomb of Horrors: Take me to Church

1 in 7 children grow up to be wizards. Parents, don't let this happen to your child!
Welcome back to Delving into the Tomb of Horrors. Today I'll be analyzing chapter 5, "False Crypt Level", and covering areas 14-16.

Tomb of Horrors: False Crypt Level

It might seem odd to call this the false crypt level. The ending is being spoiled! But remember that in these old dungeons, players didn't get a chance to see the module or hear the names of places before they barrelled through them.

In my Princes of the Apocalypse games, I often walked my players through areas with awesome names, like the Thunderhammer Brewery or the Plaza of Fallen Spires. And usually I would end up accidentally saying the name out loud, even though the characters would have no knowledge of what this particular area was called. Sometimes I would even have an item in the room or an NPC refer to the area, just to say the name.
The floor says "Entryway" for some reason
Now, I don't think there's too much to be lost by letting names slip, but in some cases it's vital to keep the name secret. A modern example would be the mini-adventure in Curse of Strahd  I covered a couple months ago, Death House. If you just call the building "Death House" your players will probably never enter. Find an alternate name, put it in all your notes, white out the real name if you have to.

If the players hear you say "False Crypt Level", you're going to miss out on a nice surprise Gary left for us on this level. But that's for next week.

14. Chapel of Evil
Before you say your vows, you better say your prayers
Here is what I would consider the first "real" traps of the game. As a side note, I think a good trap requires three things:
  1. The Setup: players need to be aware that an item might be trapped
  2. The Betrayal: players who are too greedy, move too quickly, or misinterpret information will fall prey to the trap
  3. The Chance: Every trap needs some way to avoid, mitigate, or reverse its effects. However, this can also act as a setup that leads to a second betrayal.
The most important part, and the part that isn't included in the DMG, is the setup. Making the players aware of a potential trap gives them a choice. And without the choice, you aren't really playing an RPG, you're just making your friends mad at you. So, let's go through the different traps here and see how they work in this framework.

First we have the pews. The setup here is a tricky one, since the players may not even think to open the pews. But if they do, they have a 2/3rds chance of opening one with treasure. Thus, greed is the betrayal here, or at least it is intended to be. It might happen that players open the front pews first. However, the chance to avoid the trap is fairly good, they get a saving throw and the effect only lasts 2 days if they fail.
Cool setup, but ain't nobody got time for that
The altar has a more complicated setup. It goes all the way back to the poem in the true entryway, when Acererak called this area "my temple." So not only can the players guess that this area might be evil, but it emanates evil as well. The betrayal here is failure to accept the clues of the dungeon, and the chance is proportionately dismal. Save for half is still a pretty bad situation.

The cursed portal has a great setup. Players should know by now that portals are bad business, but there is that skeleton pointing right at it, and no other obvious way out of the chapel. So a player might step into it, only to have their alignment and sex changed. Of course, the chance here is not avoiding the effect but rather the ability to reverse it. But this sets up the second betrayal: it was a teleporter all along!

Here's an important point about deadlier traps. Obviously, the chance at reversing or mitigating the effect of a deadly trap will be lowered, but the setup for such a trap should be made more apparent to counteract that! When that happens, the players can be given more choices, and their deaths will be in their own hands, rather than in the roll of the dice.
Gary Gygax vs player, restored from original, 1564
As for the exit to this area, here is why I would place a Ring of Protection inside the silver chest from area 13. If the players happen to not have a magic ring at their disposal, they are effectively blocked from the rest of the dungeon. This way, they have a chance to go forward, but it requires them to activate a trap earlier in the dungeon, and it reinforces the idea that the treasure within the Tomb of Horrors is not theirs to keep.

15. Pit Trio

Here is another area where the players could easily miss the way forward. However, the setup for this trap is really the entire first area of the dungeon. Players should be aware of false doors, pit traps, and secret doors at the bottom of pits. That is if they explored thoroughly and learned all the lessons from the first area of the dungeon.

Not only that, but we get another clue from the entyway riddle: "Skip thou two, leading to a fortuitous fall". Good foreshadowing, and further cementing the trust in the poem.
Tombo of Horrors 101: Follow the Fruit by the Foot
Notice the unusal nature of this secret door. Once you open the counterweighted trap door, you have a 5-in-6 chance to see the wood painted like stone door. This door was meant to be found! But opening the to of the pit is likely something that most parties won't fall for. Again, the chance to avoid the trap is becoming a second betrayal.

16. Slide to Doom

Here is another great way to use a setup.This door is difficult to get through for rogues, wizards, and clerics, exactly the type of characters most players would think to bring to an ancient temple of evil magic. Gary is giving the group one last chance to go back and check out area 15. The sounds eminating from the door give it another layer, hinting that this might be a trap. Who plays happy music in a lich's tomb?
If you don't turn on Yakety Sax for this scene, just quit running games
Of course, the betrayal and chance are pretty clear here. Interestingly, the module refers back to area 2 for directions on how to run this encounter. Again, Gary is trying to set a precident on how to deal with deadly but fair traps.

Hopefully this isn't the last areas the PCs see. But coming to a "dead end" like this can be frustrating. Remember that the PCs can easily retreat and rest, but all the traps will be reset when they do. Use that as an opportunity to re-teach the players about spike pits, secret doors, and looking for hidden things in obvious places.

Next week, we shall see exactly where that hidden door goes!

Onward! To certain death!
Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Amazingly, there IS a Ring of Protection in the chest at Area 13a in the original module, so your instincts are spot on here.
    No idea why is was left out of the 1987 Realm of Horror post-Gygax version - most likely an oversight.