The winning play for Tomb of Horrors is not to play Tomb of Horrors. Pardon the pun, but it’s horrible.
Let me be clear, the horribleness of Tomb of Horrors is not that is a badly written adventure (it’s quite clever, actually), nor is it because it doesn’t have an important place in D&D lore (it’s a considered a classic, and for good reason).
The horribleness of Tomb of Horrors rests solely on the fact that it’s punishing. And not in the ‘players need to feel real consequences’ kinda way; it’s in the ‘players will surely die’ kinda way.
What’s the deal with the Tomb of Horrors?
Since Tomb of Horrors is steeped in history, let’s take a moment to describe exactly what we are talking about with the Tomb of Horrors. Gary Gygax, fed up with D&D players who were always boasting about the prowess of their characters, wrote Tomb of Horrors for a debut at the 1975 Origins 1 convention.
Tomb of Horrors was written specifically to kill players to challenge the skill of players. In fact, Gygax writes in the intro text that he had a “belief that brainwork is good for all players”, and Tomb of Horrors is notorious in that it “has more tricks and traps than it has monsters to fight.”
Gygax sucked in players with the following flavor text:
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt.
Sounds adventurous, right? Flavor text like that will help you make a list of the best D&D modules of all time or be featured in a best-selling book like Ready Player One. But then it is only two steps into the adventure where you realize that Gygax never intended anyone to have a fighting chance!
You might be thinking: But we’re the group that will succeed where all others have failed!
Further, players might want to gain insight into what is an infamous part of D&D history. That, and the ability to say, “We actually did it!” should they somehow finish it, is certainly an incentive.
Why NOT to Run Tomb of Horrors
Reason #1: Your players will die.
Gygax added a handy and clever chart in the back of the module. The chart thoroughly outlined suggested party construction, including race, class, and level. He also had a list of suggested items (magical and otherwise) that an adventuring party should they possess if they hope to have any chance at all of surviving the Tomb of Horrors.
Use this table to roll burner characters should you want to run Tomb of Horrors. Certainly don’t use a character you have an investment in, because they will die.
Reason #2: Your gaming group will turn into a paranoid mess, destroying any momentum in all future campaigns.
Truly, after the Tomb of Horrors and its endless traps, your players will be paranoid for months to come. There is a reason that the 10 foot pole became such a ubiquitous D&D item. After the Tomb of Horrors, your gaming group will go back to carrying a 10 foot pole wherever they go, grinding your regular campaign into a slow as molasses slog as your players obsessively search for traps, convinced that danger lurks everywhere. I wouldn’t be shocked if the new kid develops a twitch.
Reason #3: Tomb of Horrors doesn’t translate well.
I’m sure an internet search will uncover the D&D faithful who have attempted to convert Tomb of Horrors to 5e (Dungeon Magazine #213 might be the best place to start for a Tomb of Horrors 5e conversion).
But Tomb of Horrors is so trap heavy that makes a clean translation to 5e a little tricky, and 5e is an edition that actually works really well in translating older modules. Not that it can’t be done, but a dungeon master will spend dozens of hours translating Tomb of Horrors to 5e and that’s just its traps. Add in the aforementioned character table, item list, plus the irksome fact that D&D is simply not played the same way today (again, no 10 foot poles!), and it’s simply not worth it for a DM.
Reason #4: The Tomb of Horrors will be the death of you.
It might be tempting to run Tomb of Horrors as a one-off adventure, perhaps around Halloween. Trouble is, it’s longer than you think and it’s an absurd slog. Gygax himself suggested that you should “be prepared to spend several sessions with [the] module.
That slow pace, combined with trap after trap of “each causing X hit points of damage, no saving throw“, simply is becomes the death of a modern gaming group. Of course, I’m suggesting your characters will die, but also the type of adventure simply doesn’t play well with gaming groups 40 years later. I’ll gladly grab a video game where I quickly respawn, given the option over a module that has a value mainly in nostalgia.
Reason #5: The Tomb of Horrors feels old.
I’m a cranky old coot, fond of always liking the old school stuff over anything new fangled the kids are throwing at us today. But even I have to admit that that Tomb of Horrors feel desperately out of touch in its approach. Modern RPGs simply aren’t played the same way.
Case in point: In order to even find the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors, it is suggested in the DM notes that players will need about an hour of “digging with swords and hands.” Listen, modern RPG audiences don’t want to spend an hour clearing brush. I know it’s cliché to accept a quest in a tavern, but I’ll take that 100 times out of 100 if the alternative is to roleplay digging a hole.
But there is no way you’ll find me ending on a down note when it comes to a classic! Are there any takeaways form the Tomb of Horrors? Absolutely!
- Don’t be afraid to challenge players.
- Brainwork is good for players. Tricks and traps can be fun and should be used.
- Appreciate where RPGs have brought us in 40 years, and don’t be afraid to delve into the dungeons of the classics for inspiration.