DM Blog 12: Tomb of Horrors


Go on, jump in, what’s the worst that could happen?

Before I go on to make fun of this adventure, know that I fondly remember it and prefer the D&D gameplay style of that time generally, no matter what the flaws of the early versions.

Tomb of Horrors is a ready made adventure published for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by TSR in 1978. When I started playing around ’83-’84, it was already legendary. To get D&D stuff we had to go to specialist stores that got infrequent deliveries. We’d thumb through the books like you might go through records in a vinyl store. The pre-written adventures were called modules and Tomb of Horrors was module S-1, the S standing for ‘special.’ The attraction was that it was written for high level adventures, which were generally neglected in the ready to play material. The adventure came from ideas by Alan Lucien for a tournament called Origins and was written up and adapted for sale by Gary Gygax.

The best part of the book is the introduction text. It struck me as unintentionally funny when I was 12, perhaps one of my earliest experiences of that, and it’s hilarious now. I have not added the CAPS, I swear:

“As clever players will gather from a reading of the Legend of the Tomb, this dungeon has more tricks and traps than it has monsters to fight. THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE. AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY! In the latter case, it is better to skip the whole thing than come out and tell them that there are few monsters. It is this writer’s belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience – if you regularly pose problems to be solved by brains and not brawl, your players will find this module immediately to their liking.”

Yes, that’s part of the intro for a professionally published adventure. Mind you, it sticks with me more than the committee polished, ‘on brand copy’ we get these days.

Anyway, the real problem is that despite the writer’s chiding, and championing of brainwork – this is not a thinking person’s module. It’s the classic random dungeon. It has thirty-three rooms on a single floor, and it’s full of pits, secret doors and instant death traps. The goal is hidden behind a secret door at a random part of a random corridor. There’s no architectural theme, no motivation to the design, no learning curve, no story, no real reward for figuring out patterns, little room for creative play. This dungeon teaches players to do what we now call pixel bashing. Go into every room anew, use sticks to hit the floor, check every wall several times for secret doors, cast detect spells, and so on. Once a group is doing that, you know your adventures and game style are broken.

One thing it does have going for it is atmosphere. All the old modules have that hard to define element that makes them cool or evocative. And the latest ones certainly don’t have that. If you have time, do what the game was made for – develop your own.

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