Friday, April 21, 2017

Review S1 - Tomb of Horrors - Gygax at his most Gygaxian


Tomb of Horrors is a high level (8th -14th) AD&D adventure written in 1975 (published in 1978) by Gary Gygax.  In the past several years gotten a bit of press, being the D&D dungeon cited in Ernest Cline's novel "Ready Player One" and a while back the subject of a highly critical blog post over at John Wick Presents. The Alexandrian strongly disagrees with the Wick assessment, pointing out inaccuracies in the initial review.  Even more recently Tomb Of Horrors is one of the old adventures adapted (apparently without much change) to Fifth Edition. For me the question remains...

That's the first Tomb of Horrors cover.
"Is Tomb of Horrors useful and how?"

I want to address the standard complaint about Tomb of Horrors - the mythology that it is the most terrible and unfair killer of characters ever written. I don't think this is true, I'm sure plenty an antagonistic GM has made worse, but complaints aren't in a vacuum, and in general they are likely based on experience with the adventure.  Complaints about what some GM's will do to their players and how well Tomb of Horrors allows them to do it. Imagine one played Tomb of Horrors in some retro-nostalgic 80's suburban rec room, eating pizza combos and drinking grape Shasta soda into the nights of a long summer weekend - and the game went wrong ... that beloved dwarf fighter you'd raised from level one to twelve dies to some stupid trap that the GM totally encouraged you to test, even withholding key description. Then the rest of the party dies as well, picked off by traps and ultimately the lich thing at the end that they can't seem to harm. Some punches might have been thrown and the latent sadism and martinet pettifoggery of that kid who always wanted GM was to blame.  Now imagine how your 80's rec room child GM likely ran things, it was likely antagonistic, and more then normal on those particular nights - because you were playing Tomb of Horrors, the baddest dungeon penned by Gary Gygax, the game's inventor, designed for tournament play.   Imagine this with the gullibilty of an early 80's youth, with a conviction that one's hobbies have heights of virtuosity and heroes - that tabletop games aren't quite a game but an entire world of imagination.  This sort of scenario seems to me less justification for a loathing of Tomb of Horrors then a cautionary tale with the moral that playing games in a mean manner tends to annoy one's friends and that 12 year-olds are cruel.  There still remains a more objective question about the module however, does Tomb of Horrors encourage antagonistic GMing, and even if it doesn't is it interesting?

Tomb of Horrors is of course an early D&D module, written by Gary Gygax for characters levels 9-14 (there are some lower leveled demi-human characters provided as well, but they are dual, or even triple classed).  With 33 keyed areas it's not a huge adventure by old school standards, and the areas are generally more carefully described then in many modules of its era, likely due to the number of traps within.  Originally designed as a tournament module in 1975 it seems clearly targeted as a 'one-shot' adventure.

The upshot of all this?  Tomb of Horrors can be run as a terrible adventure lacking in fun.  The  real question is can it be run in some other way or is there something inherently badly designed about the adventure?


Tomb of Horrors comes from a different age of tabletop games and a different play-style (not necessarily a bad one - but not popular today outside some corners of the OSR) and it's not really something one should spring on a raw group of players who have been traipsing through more contemporary adventures or even mid-80's stuff like Horror on the Hill. It's designed for a group of players who have great powers in the form of spells (with a willingness to memorize something besides fireball), magic items and abilities - but who are also cautious to the point of paranoia and well versed in classic game tricks like filling an area with flour to find invisible things or driving herd of pigs down hallways.  It's a module designed to be played by the father of the Hill Canton's writer.

This is not really my style of game, and again it's not one that's especially popular these days, but back in 1975, when there weren't any preexisting assumptions about fantasy "dungeons" unless one wanted to look at the Mine of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring for guidance, this was the style that Gygax embraced.  From all reports he was an even-handed GM, with merciless game worlds, but who would allow his players' schemes to succeed if they seemed like they should succeed and who expected his player to ask questions and become involved in setting details or suffer the deadly fate of fools who wander into haunted places without sufficient care.  Respecting its age and style, I want to review Tomb of Horrors in my typical way, looking at what I like, and what's wrong with it and then presenting how I'd use it in my own games.


Like most Gygax modules the first page of Tomb of Horrors is Dungeon Mastering advice.  There's less of it here then in many Gygax adventures, but what's here is about presenting the adventure in a fair way and not encouraging missteps or providing solutions to the traps within.  It's not bad advice.   Beyond that there are a few words about where to set the adventure.  The keyed rooms start almost immediately after this general advice with only a few bit of history about the tomb - including the name of Acererak the sorcerer king who is entombed within and that the tomb is a maze of deadly traps.  It's a personal shibboleth of mine, but I hate the absurd fantasy name - call him something juicy with means - something like "Hated Pretender" or "Despot of Nine Lands".


There is little extraneous nonsense in the Tomb of Horrors, and the dungeon's purpose is almost elemental in it's simplicity - it's a tomb ... for a lich thing ... filled with traps.  This is all readily available information and gives players sufficient notice about what they are getting into.  Tomb of Horrors can be easily reskinned and dropped into any campaign, despite it's fantasy by way of Sword's and Sorcery dressing, most of the traps and puzzles are very easy to reimagine in a variety of genres.

The traps are largely sensible and described so that in addition to their effects the GM will know what the result of typical attempts to circumvent them will be.  Contrary to some popular conceptions about the tomb there is nothing unfair about the majority of these traps, though they range from mildly annoying to deadly they aren't hard to detect and for a cautious group the traps don't present terrible sudden death. 

The "Green Devil Face" for instance is often called entirely unfair and something to amuse only a killer GM, but let's look at it. 

We have the bas-relief of a terrible devil with absolute black void in its gaping maw which is found at the end of a dead end corridor filled with pit traps (entirely reasonable pit traps, dodged by the nimble and easily probed for with a pole).  Does this seem like something to step into willy-nilly?  Any testing of the mouth will reveal it for void that annihilates anything that passes its plane.  A 10' pole is suddenly a 9's pole, a sword a short-sword (maybe it sucks in items, this is debated, but a rope should clarify things).  Heck throw a chicken on a rope through and get back a short rope.  If one is using augury magic (like detect spells or just being a paladin) the entire thing detects as magical and evil.  There is nothing about this trap that encourages any but the most foolish adventurer to step into it.  That it provides instant annihilation without recourse to a saving throw or some rules lawyering is entirely fair - it's an obvious, easily testable trap that gives clear warning.  Any player that finds it unfair or whines when their PC dies to it is an entitled jerk in the context of playing high lethality early D&D.

That's a map. 
A linear map despite it's apparent variety.
All of the traps in Tomb of Horrors are similar, they advertise themselves (well everything in Tomb of Horrors is a trap, so that might be moot), have internal rules and logic beyond mechanical effects, and most won't actually outright kill a high level PC.  The few exception (discussed below) are mere annoyances for 14th level characters.  The adventure definitely favors cautions and careful testing, but it's not arbitrary or unfair and provides clues in the form of hidden poems, murals and following the logic that one is exploring a trap ridden tomb of a sinister sorcerer who wants to eat your character's soul.  Traps are a specific type of challenge in early editions of D&D, and the elaborate puzzle traps which occur in almost every room of Tomb of Horrors are especially designed with 'player skill' in mind - there are specific notes on some that they cannot be discovered through search or skill use, combined with notes on how they may be detected and circumvented, usually through common sense.  Many of the ideas in Tomb of Horrors - hidden entrances, passages to and from pits and secret doors (almost a theme in the adventure) with specific descriptions about their workings these should be far more common now, forty years later.  It's amazing the number of secret doors one finds in contemporary products that are simply a mark on a map of a 'secret door (DC 15)' - reducing something that should be part of the joy of exploration and problem solving which tabletop games can uniquely deliver to a single roll of a die.  If nothing else reading Tomb of Horrors should give a GM an appreciation for puzzles and some ideas about how to design them.

If the puzzles are flavorful, the dungeon itself, while not exactly evocative, is has enough variance and interesting dressing to elevate itself from being a simple meander through stone corridors. Most of this is in the form of murals, but there's some interesting and unsettling ones - a room where the walls show happy workers at daily tasks - with faces rotten with death for example.  This is more detail then I'd expect in a module of this era, and it certainly makes the puzzles more interesting with description providing clues or simply red herrings and some sense of the tomb as more then an abstract arena to test player ingenuity.  Likewise the few monsters in Tomb of Horrors are unique and individual - most are fairly simple, generic fantasy guardians intended for defeat, but it's nice to see that some effort was put into making them thematic.  Gygax was good at short punchy bits of detail to pile on top of his bare bone descriptions and Tomb of Horrors has more of this then something like B2 - Keep on the Borderlands


Gygax loved his clunky unique mini mechanics - everything with percentage dice and 12% or 23% chances.  Heck there's a door with a 6 in 6 opening chance, but a 2 in6 chance to open too easily and drop the opener into a pit beyond.  These mini-rules are both more interesting then contemporary skill based rules in that they encourage player problem solving rather then simply the declaration of using a character's appropriate skill, but they could be streamlined and systematized to a fair degree.  Challenges of a strange nature are great to allow player problem solving and luck (in the form of die rolls).  Deciding how to deal with unexpected challenges or the inevitable risky player plans is aided by consistency in presenting similar difficulties within one's products.  This isn't as bad in Tomb of Horrors as in some Gygax adventures, but consistency could be improved.  A few of the last traps in the tomb are harsh and a bit arbitrary, but they aren't unavoidable and if not read unimaginatively they might be very easy to conquer.

Gygax also seems to have enjoyed clunky pacing. There are pacing problems for Tomb of Horrors - many of its rooms, have complex puzzles that prevent further exploration and serve as roadblocks.  This may be responsible for some of the sentiment that the module is murderous, it's certainly written to be frustrating, and when there's no way forward players start doing dumb things, and doing dumb things in the Tomb of Horrors is lethal.  This sort of roadblock design makes a minimal amount of sense in a tournament module where it can provide an easy metric for teams winning or losing.  However in something played as part of a campaign or without the added competition outside the game this these sorts of puzzle roadblocks, especially one after another, are frustrating, even infuriating and would make Tomb of Horrors hard to play.  This isn't aided by the tomb's linear design.  When players are presented with a roadblock, and alternate path (even if it leads to an alternate roadblock) allows play to continue even if the hazard stumps the players. Tomb of Horrors doesn't really provide that - it provides some punitive side effects that have a 'chutes and ladders' sort of effect, returning bad guessers to the initial puzzle after another deadly puzzle or two, and in some areas (the first hall for example) offers several puzzles to solve that will advance the party (at least two, a secret door and a mystic portal).  Much of the adventure though consists of puzzle rooms with a single meaningful exit that requires the puzzle's solution to pass.  This only increases the inherent frustration of a roadblock strewn dungeon as there's no break for players from staring at a single problem.  This is a grave problem, and it would require a serious rewrite of the Tomb of Horrors to fix it.

Tomb of Horrors is from 1975, it is not written to provide evocative detail with high quality writing. The whole thing is written in that thesaurus lover with a somewhat lacking education style that seemed were scholarly to the nine year old me, but now is somewhat tiresome.  Characters aren't dropped or deposited on floors by trapdoors, they are 'precipitated' for example.  It's 'High Gygaxian; and it can grate after a while, but it's also somewhat charming.  More of an issue for me is the way that it depends on genre set pieces to do its work. These are boring and at times absurd - 12 vipers (which attack as three hit dice monsters) rest in a chest.  They have rested, neatly coiled for eons.  Snakes springing from a chest is a classic, they even make gag cans of nuts that reference it (or maybe the reverse?) but in this context, it and similar bizarre genre cliches are jarring - in 2017 they don't amuse.  Still this sort of dressing, while it gives one a sense that Gygax was using a personal construction set of genre tropes and situations culled from pulp fantasy, is easy to circumvent and re-imagine in a far more consistent way.  This writing style is also confusing, with information design that requires multiple re-reads to grasp.  It's not atypical for its time, but with complex rooms and so much detail its quite frustrating
Ah the Green Devil Face - A legend in itself.

These are not the classic failures ascribed to Tomb of Horrors, those are murderous lethality and unfairness in applying it.  There are several traps within the tomb that automatically do damage without any saving throw or means of avoidance.  this is explicit advice and it's stupid.  It's also unnecessary as they traps are never dangerous enough to kill the high level characters that will be exploring the tomb - but with stakes of 1D6 or 2D8 HP against a 13th level ranger with at least a 39 bonus HP for an absurdly high Constitution there's no need to make these hazard automatic, especially in an adventure location that has no time pressure or wandering monsters.  These sorts of traps are off-putting and more then anything a waste of player and GM time - which will already be in short order given the complexity of its puzzles.  Furthermore without wandering monsters or anything else that limits characters from coming and going from the tomb there's no reason to deplete character resources, after a bit of exploration players will realize they must be extremely cautious will want to be rested for each new puzzle or test.  A smart group will treat the tomb like an archeological expedition, excavating slowly, cataloguing the tomb and always setting up their escape routes first.

Another popular complaint surrounds the final encounter with the jeweled skull of the demilich.  It's nasty, and it instantly kills party members, trapping their souls when touched. There are some silly ways to kill it that seem to mot likely just wipe  out the party.  I don't really have much problem with this encounter.  It seems like a very difficult task to reach the final tomb, and one can loot it without significant difficulty.  Only players that insist on destroying the demilich will face its wrath, and frankly it's just another trap - one widely telegraphed that the party will have to repeatedly, intentionally trigger to  suffer more then one loss.


A better 'Acererak' - let's call her the "Ever Hierophant" or something...
Art of course is T. Lempicka.
If I wanted to run Tomb of Horrors I'd need to make both mechanical and cosmetic changes.  The
mechanical changes would be harder to implement, and it's current setting - swords and sorcery Greyhawk - is not particularly bad, just not to my personal taste.

Mechanically I'd want a less linear dungeon - the first hallway with its multiple solutions is great, but beyond there's only one solution to every problem, a new puzzle past each secret door, and that can't be.  This would take careful rethink of the traps, and the likely elimination of more than one of them. This is especially important in eliminating dead ends,  that sleep gas trap described above leads nowhere, it's likely players will be directed to it because the true path forward is hidden by a secret door, but overcoming it gains nothing.  I would also want to adjust trap mechanics so that nothing was without a saving throw, nothing automatic. There are so many traps within the tomb that the sense of danger could be maintained without constantly inflicting small amounts of damage.  Adding wandering monsters, at least to the later part of the tomb, both prevents the party from resting after each encounter, and provides an alternative type of encounter for the players beyond endless traps.  Judging from the maps out their and available by google search others have already done this - simplifying, reordering and redesigning the tomb to overcome its design flaws weaknesses.  Unfortunately many of these maps miss my favorite tomb features - exists and passages that lead from inside pit traps and create a sort of secret network within the tomb.

To me the tomb's various glowing gems and transportation portals has a strong science fantasy or science fiction feel, and my first impulse would be to reskin it with robots or an archano-technological gloss.  Snakes are removed from the various chests, and replaced with mechanical guardians of slick ceramic, sharp anodized aluminum and leering diode eyes.  The walls and murals stay, themes changed slightly, and done in a social realist or perhaps deco style like that of a creepy Tamara Lempicka.  An entire set of twisting conduits and passages darting with strange energies would form a maze beneath the trapped rooms of the tomb, often leading in and out of pit traps.  Alternatively the tomb could be bio-mechanical, the heart of a dead god or a H.R. Geiger vessel from somewhere else with walls of pulsing flesh, though I am less enamored with this idea then making it a gleaming deco space wizard tomb or the protected deep bunker for some kind of cosmic computer. 

Really there isn't much to do with the tomb aesthetically except apply ones own gloss to it, and I suspect for best effect that should be the strangest gloss one's setting can muster because the tomb is a departure from the  normal world of any setting.


Back to my initial question... Really I don't think Tomb of Horrors encourages bad play styles, more specifically bad GMing.  It's a trap dungeon, which is a hard thing to spring on one's players - puzzle after puzzle.  Yet besides a few dumb automatically effective traps, there's no arbitrariness to these puzzles and traps, whatever their lethality, though the number of traps that automatically kill those that run afoul of them seems high if one isn't willing to depart from the simple declarative instructions provided in the text. 

The worst of such traps, such as a corridor of unavoidable sleep gas that hides a stone juggernaut which threatens to crush those collapsed in the hallway, aren't without clear flaws and are less lethal then they appear at first.  Effects such as "everyone in that passage will instantly collapse In slumber for 2-8 turns" are imperative and seem unavoidable - but one could quite reasonably argue that the sleep won't effect elves who are immune, and that various mechanisms could be used to save those who are asleep, before the slowly creeping juggernaut crushes them. Even if the GM doesn't find the players efforts to mitigate the trap convincing, there's also a good random chance that this most arbitrary seeming of traps won't kill anyone...sleepers collapse anywhere from 70' - 50' feet from the juggernaut door, and are asleep for an average of five turns.  Each turn the thing has a one in four chance of advancing 1D6 x10' towards them a turn.  So there's a fairly good chance that it will never reach even the closest sleepers, even if no one rescues them. In the hands of a malicious GM, especially one who wanted to kill characters this trap's mechanics (and all of the them in the tomb) could easily be abused.  Indeed even a relatively inexperienced GM who wanted to follow the rules without exception or without making rulings might be stymied by player schemes and questions on things like when does the gas dissipate? Does it effect elves? Can holding one's breath allow one to run into the corridor and drag back sleepers?

Tomb of Horrors is itself a trap for inexperienced GMs or those who want to show their power over their players through arbitrariness.  It's lethal traps and cautious assumed play-style allow an antagonistic GM to withhold information (I think the picture book of all the rooms is an attempt to mitigate this) and doesn't conform to the contemporary expectations about how even location based exploration games work.  It's an artifact of a particular play-style, and an extreme example of it, but it's not designed to encourage unfairness or maliciously capricious GMing.  It needs reworking, some streamlining and the right group to run as anything but a curios one-shot, but I'd encourage aspiring old-school GM's to read it (with the map in hand or open in another tab - the layout is hard to fathom at times) if only for ideas about how magical puzzles and traps can work.  There's still good variety in the Tomb when it comes to puzzle design and that's not especially common in modern published adventures.


  1. How do you feel a 23% chance roll or a 2 in 6 roll encourage "player skill" more than the roll of a d20? Either way the challenge is being decided by a die roll.

    1. I don't I think there's multiple mechanics at play in Tomb of Horrors, most of the micro rules determine how the world reacts to player action, not how the playets act. I.E. a stuck door that has a two in six chance of dropping anyone forcing it into a pit beyond. Its more of a saving throw for an particular negative consequence of action then a roll to determine success. Where some skill based systems would require a roll (finding a hidden poem in the floor decoration), tomb just gives it to a character that examines the floor.

      This does open the way for greater GM dickery (what's an examination after all?) but encourages players to decide what to do when stumped beyond searching the room with a skill.

  2. I've found parties that make use of numbers have the most success in the Tomb of Horrors. A band of 8-14th level PCs should have plenty of extra muscle in the form of henchmen, hirelings, charmed minions, and summoned monsters to run afoul of traps before PCs themselves need risk doom

  3. I would quibble that G1 is the ur-Gygaxian module. However, I found this an enjoyable read. ToH is often maligned not for its actual content, but rather for its remembered content, which more often than not is incorrect. Moreover, I often also feel that the later ToH imitators paved the way for a collective memory that ToH was an unfair death trap.

    It isn't. Virtually all of the traps can be avoided, and all of the certain death traps can be. A cautious party using the second-level cleric spell find traps can make it quite far, and there have been several amusing recounts over at Dragonsfoot about successful forays, including the now-famous, "We throw the bag of holding over the bejeweled skull." (Effective!)

    Indeed, I think the perfect coda to this module is that Gygax wrote it with a specific player, Rob Kuntz, in mind. Yet, Kuntz, playing Sir Robilar, went "outside of the box" and neatly frustrated all of Gygax's clever designs by sending in wave after wave of orc minions ahead of him.

    In my own play, I was simply too inexperienced as a player in my first two forays. In my third, we were cautious to the point of paranoia, but ran afoul of green slime if memory serves. As a DM, I've only run it once and I recall that the party retreated after defeating the fale demi-lich and called it a day.

    1. I don't think you are wrong about G1 or perhaps even B2 being a contender for 'Most Gygaxian' - of course this raises the question 'which Gygax?' Having only a passing familiarity with Castle Zagyag (that's the Gygax magnum opus right?) Tomb feels pretty similar - traps moving the party to more dangerous areas and similar punishments for a lack of caution. G1 is something different it's more of a 'seige adventure' - almost wargamey with the players needing to determine how to defeat an organized enemy force. This is a totally legitimate adventure style - but it's not Tomb of Horrors.

      Tomb of Horrors specifically creates a type of adventure - I call it the 'trap dungeon', a location based exploration game, but with a singular focus on puzzles and traps (even the monsters are largely traps in Tomb). It's a pretty hard form to do right both because puzzles/traps are hard to think up and make good and they can create a lot of player frustration.

      B2 is also it's own sort of adventure form - it's a hybrid of G1's seige and S1's puzzles - a location based exploration that requires faction play (a social/rp puzzle) to get the most out of, includes some puzzles and traps, but isn't mostly about them.

      B2 of course sets the standards for future adventures - or actually maybe that's Temple of the Frog in the Blackmoor Supplement from 1975? IS Arneson (or Kask perhaps) actually the father of the D&D module? Damn now I need to review Temple of the Frog...

    2. Well... B1 is probably the prototypical dungeon. Temple of the Frog is a setting, not an adventure per se, and other than some light editing, Kask had nothing to do with it. There's an interesting write up here by DM David:
      If you read that please take note of my response in the comment section.

      Shifting gears - really detailed and thought provoking review Gus, thanks for that. I'm sure this is one I will re-read more than once in years to come. However I too found the "Gygax at his most Gygaxian" title somewhat odd, but I chalked it up to a bit of hyperbole perhaps referencing Gygax's writing style. As a design though, Tomb of Horrors stands out as pretty unique among Gygax's adventures. I suppose that is largely due to the fact that it's not actually a Gygax design from the ground up. The core scenario was created by Alan Lucien and Gygax ran with it. I suppose in design terms Temple of Elemental Evil or Tsojcanth are about as "Gygaxian" as it gets.

      By the by, if you do redesign the map for ToH, I'm sure we'd love to see it and hear about what you did. ;)

    3. B1 - Search for the Unknown is a later creation (also not Gygax of course). In the intro to the Little Brown Book Supplement Blackmoor, where the crude version of "Temple of the Frog" lurks Gyga heaps praise on Arneson as the inventor of the "Dungeon Adventure" and while indeed, "Temple of the Frog" is a strange combination of location based exploration adventure and large scale military operation/siege I think in some ways it is closer to the prototypical dungeon crawl of today then G1 or S1.

      I'm currently reviewing it, and yeah, it's basically Arneson's table notes as confusing, badly mapped and jumbled as one would expect. Still it's got heart, and space aliens. The updated version DA2 is fairly close to the original, and I think on quick glance other then its typical 1986 TSR failings (box text everywhere) and Arneson wordiness a pretty decent adventure.

  4. Temple of the Frog? Beware that rabbit hole. There's less than you remember and it's a gateway drug to the "lost module archaeology" that has been the demise of many an intrepid completist.

    1. Well I have it sitting on my shelf and I ran it once in Jr. High (the Blackmoor version) so I know it pretty well. I like Arnesonism generally, having played a couple games with him as a kid and finding his 'you really shouldn't try to kill everything' fairly positive.

  5. I ran the 3.5 version of this not too long ago and the players managed to get through relatively unscathed. The gargoyle in one of the early rooms proved the greatest threat closely followed by the first, fusillade of arrow trapped door. If I'd chosen, I could've made that encounter a TPK but wisely decided not too.