Lessons from the Tomb of Horrors (Part 1)

A few months ago, after a fun afternoon 4e Delve session, a friend and I were discussing D&D, adventures, and the spectrum of challenges from pure role-play to skill encounters to tactical miniature combat. Ultimately, the infamous Tomb of Horrors came up, I ended up volunteering to DM a crawl through the infamous dungeon. In no time, my friends were assembling a rag tag team of mercenaries and meeting up in my living room, while I cackled from behind my screen as they began to uncover its secrets.

The whole point of the affair, aside from giving people a chance to play one of the most well known dungeons in D&D, was to explore how "old school" adventures played, and add some perspective to my experience of having been weaned on 3rd Edition and onward. Thus, I've been making some notes on things I've observed from running ToH, either in how it compares to "modern" 4e adventures, or just observations about the adventure design itself. I'm going to try and do a post after each session with any points I thought were interesting. I will strive to keep it spoiler-free, but fair warning to anyone who might want to delve the Tomb that parts might end up being ruined by implication.

Anyways, we had our first play session this weekend (which climaxed with the party running head-long into of one of the most infamous traps in the dungeon) -- what follows are some of my observations so far:

Sometimes it's Fun to be Tied Down
Lesson: Plan broader rather than deeper for a session, and stick to your guns; they players will find a way to make it work.

I've always run either wholly custom adventures/encounters, or heavy adaptations various adventures (either 4e, or updates from older editions), and often there's a concern in the back of my mind as to whether what I produced is "balanced", or whether the appearance of imbalance or the DM going out of his way to make things hard is hurting my players fun. Thus, I'm sometimes tempted to change the encounters or dungeon layout on the fly, or buff/debuff some skill check DCs, etc. This is not always the case (and its great when things go as planned) but DMing "reactively" can simultaneously be very difficult, and yet also remove some of the excitement because I am not able to respond to unexpected players actions as well (since I don't have a huge set of alternative consequences planned out).

Running a very fleshed out dungeon, where I'm free from worrying about players dead-ending or getting frustrated because I *know* there's a solution somewhere, is a huge relief in this sense. I don't usually "fake it" as a DM, but having a set if interactions and consequences set in stone really lets me be a lot braver in challenging the players and in doing horrible things to them if they make mistakes in judgment. This also ties into my next point.

Failure is Always an Option
Lesson: Feel free to allow (and in fact, plan on) players to fail, a lot.

This might not seem immediately obvious, but after some thought it makes perfect sense. D&D is really about two things: Characters, and Dice. If players are always expected to succeed at certain challenges (or if the adventure falls apart if they thoroughly fail) then neither of those really matter, and you are just wasting their time with the dice rolls. The tomb gives the player plenty of opportunities to fail -- some of which are damaging, some of which are severely disabling, a few of which are outright deadly, and a bunch that simply mean the players have to keep exploring.

It's very easy as a DM to fall into the trap of "railroading" your players. First, you design a few encounters that are meant to warm your players up. They roll through them because the DCs are laughably low, and everyone just yawns their way through the first half of the dungeon. Your rogue is checking his Facebook, your ranger and cleric are chatting about work, and no one is paying any attention to the Crypt of Ultimate Annoyance you've painstakingly crafted. So, you design a new set of challenges,  enough to make your players sweat but still well within their means. Then, sadly, everything goes wrong -- they miss a door somewhere, can't manage to solve a puzzle you spent hours creating, roll four critical misses in an encounter, and now they're either stuck, lost, or about to die to a rat swarm.

You've got to leave statistical room for failure; however, doing so means that you have to expect they're going to fail eventually. Instead of letting that jam up your session plan ahead -- account for the fact that players might fail a challenge in a specific area, and decide what failure means. Do they dead end? Do they make it through, but with some negative effect? Do they have to complete a second, harder challenge (or combat)?

Two Paths Diverged in a Yellowing Dungeon...
Lesson: Always make sure players have multiple, distinct options.

D&D is nothing if not about choices, the core manifestation of which is the path players choose to take in a dungeon. Tomb of Horrors has several rooms where a few paths seem immediately apparent and where, after a little investigation, even more are revealed. In my game, every fork in the road became a painful and debated decision point, causing everyone to become more invested into the entire experience. What the Tomb does, which is key, is present a variety of distinct options. It's not just that the players have the option of going through doors A, B, and C -- the tomb asks them if they want to climb through the statue in the wall, go through the mysterious glowing portal, or explore one of the two secret passages they found (each with their own sets of ominous markings). Even though mechanically they may just be links between adventure areas, their nature gives each of them a psychology that makes them more or less appealing to a given player's approach to the dungeon.

A Little Menace Goes a Long Way
Lesson: Use various traps, hazards, and encounters to control the pace for a room.

The Tomb has, obviously, a bit of a reputation as what the Germans would call ein Todesfalle -- not the kind of place you want to take casually. In fact, I was rather amused when my players actively refused to enter the very first room without spending about 5 minutes trying to explore it from outside the front door. I'll admit, it's a lot easier to DM when the dungeon does all the work of setting the tone for you. To my players' credit, the first vault did turn out to be a trap-ridden gauntlet (although the dangers were nothing compared to what lay deeper within). However, it's interesting to note that, despite its reputation, the Tomb is not just one long chain of perception checks as the party advances through the dungeon 5ft at a time. In rooms where it wants players to slow down and take a chance to inspect the murals and portals and whatnot, it throws a lot of "lurker" traps. The first blundering step puts the players on their guard, and causes them to pay attention to their environment. It then mixes up the pace, from slow and careful to fast, with either a combat encounter, or a sudden and lethal hazard, or some sort of time/round-based challenge that has the players focus on solving a specific problem rather than searching.

So, like any good game, the Tomb does an excellent job of story telling by varying the pace from room to room. I've found some of the "modern" 4e adventures are a series of combat encounters, strung together by skill challanges and maybe incorporating a puzzle or two. The new edition has been criticized for being a bit too "action movie" oriented and, while I don't know that I agree with that criticism, I do think there's something to be said for older-style adventures and their pacing.

Ur Dungen Haz a Flava
Lesson: Get your players to interact with the environment by having the environment interact with them.

Speaking of traps and hazards, the Tomb also does a good job of getting players to explore and manipulate the world by providing some great flavor descriptions, and then having the features described matter. Anyone can describe a fresco painted on the wall of a hallway, and sure while the gruesome scene of human sacrifice depicted may give the PCs the willies, it be forgotten by the next room unless the players have a reason to remember it. Maybe there is a clue to how to navigate the dungeon hidden in the figures poses that the players can find, or maybe there's a warning about a trap -- or bait to lure the players into one...

At any rate, the Tomb does a good job of making its flavor matter, while at the same time not making it obvious or a one-off trap/feature. There are a lot of repeated themes in the dungeon, and a lot of thought seems to be paid not only to designing interesting rooms, but playing off the psychology of the players based on how they may have arrived at that room. Are they going to be thinking twice about running through that portal/opening that secret door now? Should they be rewarded for bravery, or punished for hubris?

I could probably go on for a little while longer, but I might as well save some ideas and see how they mature when we enter the Tomb's second act. This has been a pretty punishing adventure so far, but I take it as a good sign that my players are already eager about dusting themselves off and diving back into it!


  1. As one of those players I can tell you I had a great time. Jokes about "saving vs. frustration damage" aside (while navigating what seemed to be an endless set of small rooms with secret doors in them), I really enjoyed it.

    It's fun to experience a very different sort of adventure design than I'm used to. Not only in terms of the mechanics of it or the traps, or even layout, but also in terms of narrative. I know there are some "old school" role players that really hate the sort of story oriented adventures that adventures like the original Castle Ravenloft and the Dragonlance modules ushered in. Which is to say a module/adventure that was designed to tell a specific story, in which the players might almost mostly just be witnesses, or actors with somewhat predetermined parts to play. I'm not nearly so critical of this sort of design as some, I often enjoy the sort of "grand narrative" that a good adventure or DM can put together (though obviously I'd like there to be some middle ground where that story is adjusted based on what the players do, so they're more than witnesses) but it's interesting to look run through an adventure with a much different philosophy.

    The Tomb is just sort of there. There may be some story to how it was created, or why it's there or even what Acererak was thinking when he designed and built it, but that's mostly all backstory. The tomb itself is very "sandbox-y." The story of the adventure is going to be the story of our characters trying to find our way through the tomb. Whatever we decide to try to do, whatever we think of and execute is going to be the "story." And that's pretty cool.

    Anyway, can't wait to see what happens next!

  2. Oof, as usual I should really compose these longer comments in some sort of word processing program and read through them for typos before posting. Especially after I make several passes at writing and re-writing.

  3. I think the great thing about The Tomb is that, while it's very sandbox-y as you say, it still has an excellent sense of place. Anyone can design a gauntlet of challenges (although even there The Tomb is an exceptional example) but Tomb of Horrors feels like a living, breathing dungeon where the players are free to explore. I think these types of modules are not so much harder to write than deep, narrative-designed arcs, but that most people really aren't used to those kinds of stories. A DM can write a story based on their comfort with narrative media like novels or film, toss in a few branch points, and have their players run through it. But creating a world that is compelling, and yet free enough for players to shape their own storyline requires a very different set of skills.