Lessons from the Tomb of Horrors (Part 3)

My group just finished their third session in the Tomb of Horrors and (without giving anything away) has completed a rather significant milestone. Sadly, the party seems to lack the common decency to suffer horrible casualties at the hands of the Tomb's fiendish traps -- although there have been some encouragingly close calls. Given this, I wanted to take an opportunity to look back at the path the party has taken through the Tomb and examine at a high level the overall pacing and difficulty of their exploration.

Impeccably Paced
As I mentioned in my first post about the Tomb, the dungeon has a large number of branching elements. To some extent, the tomb is a set of small hubs that are very densely connected to one another through multiple paths of varying difficulty and presenting a variety of different challenges to the players (not all of which are immediately obvious). I've discussed why this is a good approach, but it also presents its own challenges to the designer. It can be a little hard to control the pacing of the dungeon when the players have so many options open to them.

I was thus surprised when I traced my player's path through the corridors, and found that they really had a very classic pace to them. Each of the three sessions involved precisely one major combat encounter, involved deciphering/defeating one multi-stage puzzle / hazard of some sort, and handful of minor traps and interactions to kind of pad out the exploration and maintain the tension, but not have the dungeon just be back-to-back set-piece encounters. The result is that each 6-hour session we played had a good deal of exploration and puzzle-solving, some under-pressure skill challenges that forced the players to think creatively, and a fair bit of combat that remained important, but didn't dominate the whole player story. Every session was well-varied, and while the players were doubly cautious about opening then next door after a tough fight, I don't think they ever ran into anything that made them roll their eyes and say "Oh great, more of this" (unless that was the intended effect...).

I'm not certain if this is brilliant design or just my luck, as the players had a lot of options at any given point. However, the dungeon makes it a point to include a variety of challenges and not to pack them too densely with one another such that the average experience is going to have a great ebb and flow of tension.

Carrot and Stick
Interestingly, the Tomb is structured such that if they had chosen the absolute optimal path they could have theoretically proceeded straight to the end facing almost none of the dangerous challenges along the way, avoiding roughly half of the dungeon they actually explored. Instead, however, they have hit almost all of the tricks the Tomb had in store for them.

This part I know for a fact isn't an accident. You can tell from the design that from the beginning, the Tomb is an early "art project" intended to subvert a lot of the tropes that players had come to expect even when the genre was at that young age. There are a few challenges that are unavoidable, or at least very hard to avoid; but in many cases the dungeon is built to funnel the characters towards them and away from their objective. It's not always the case that the obvious path is the wrong one, but it does happen often enough that players begin to question which path is actually the "obvious" one and which is the one that leads around danger. The Tomb fakes the players out, and then punishes them, and then (using their accumulated self-doubt or hubris) tries to trick them again. It provides trapped treasure as often as actual rewards, and likewise offers rewards players weren't aware of should they overcome some challenge they had every reason to avoid. The Tomb is clearly about Player skill and problem solving as much as it is about the characters abilities, but more to the point it involves a lot of player psychology that can make even the most mundane room of particular interest.


Lessons from the Tomb of Horrors (Part 2)

I know, I know, D&D Next has been announced, 4e is dead, and no one wants to read another personal trip report when there are new editions to design! But I'd been meaning to do a write-up inspired by my party's second session in the Tomb of Horrors and some recent posts by Robert J Schwalb touched on the topics enough that I felt like I should actually write them out.

So to recap, I'm taking a group of five intrepid adventurers trough the 4th Edition re-release of the classic Tomb of Horrors. The party has made it through some rather insidious hazards by this point (which I won't spoil) and are in the depths of the dungeon. This session there was a little bit of combat, but for the most part skill checks and scene interaction dominated. Here are some observations:

Close Can be Good Enough
If a player wants to do the right thing with the wrong skill in a believable way, let them.

Listed skill checks in dungeon descriptions ("Detectable with an Arcana/Perception Check" etc.) serve as a great hook for the DM to let the player interact with the environment; however, they shouldn't be taken as the upper bound of what players can do. Instead, these sort of details should be treated a kind of high level approximation of the scene from which the DM can extrapolate. Keep in mind that the skill system in D&D is very loose, and when it comes to ad-libbing interaction there can be a fair amount of overlap and vagueness in what is covered by one skill versus another. Detecting a vast unholy aura on an alter might be a clear Religion check, but maybe an Arcana check looking for the same thing would work as well. Or perhaps a Nature check would work as well as a Dungeoneering check for detecting a secret door in a cave wall (or maybe even a Perception check, to notice a faint breeze blowing strangely into the dungeon).

Feel free to adjust DCs here (widely, even) if a skill is related but not exactly right. Achieving something through an indirect means is going to be harder than looking for exactly the right thing. However, so long as a player provides a reasonable justification for what they want to do, you should let them try. And if they try something that seems like a stretch, but succeed exceptionally, maybe they deserve at least a clue to the right approach if not an outright success.

Specific is Better than General
Make DCs easier if the players are looking for something exactly the right thing, and make it more challenging if they're just "fishing"

Finding a secret door in a large room is going to be a lot harder than seeing if there is a secret passage underneath the Alter of Unmistakable Evil. Whenever possible, I never let my players say "I want to make a Perception check" -- I always try to coax them on a little by saying "what are you looking for?" or "where do you want to focus your attention?" This is important from a story-telling sense because it helps the players build the illusion that they're exploring this imaginary space and using the game as just a framework, instead of just playing with dice. It's also helpful for the DM because it lets them flesh out an environment and keep the player more engaged by revealing details in response to their interactions, instead of just reading off a big monologue at the start of every room.

Of course, if you're not careful this can result in your players wandering around in frustration looking for the right widget to manipulate. This leads into the next point...

Fail, but Fail Interestingly
Try not to let players fail skill checks that keep the adventure from moving forward.

This comes back to a point I made in my old post about Skill Challenges, where every check has to have some kind of viable consequence for either passing or failing. Sometimes a little bit of frustration and befuddlement is desirable, but players get bored fast and you need to move the story forward at some point.

To this end, consider dropping hints to guide players along. If they fail a check, give them options for how to give themselves a modifier to trying again, or a second related approach that might be successful. Or, if they try something that doesn't fit what's listed in the adventure and succeed, give them hints on what the areas of interest actually are.

Again, you don't need to railroad characters one way or the other; however you should always try and reward them trying new things whenever possible. Sometimes even walking into traps can reveal a bittersweet benefit.

A Natural 20 Always Succeeds
Always. Just make it work.

Personal preference, of course, but d20 is inherently a swingy game, and sometimes that means unlikely successes in the face of ridiculous chance. If the barbarian tries to bash the dimensional portal with his hammer and he rolls a critical hit, perhaps he collapses the pillar supporting the arch. Or at Paragon/Epic level, perhaps the force of his hammer smashes the tear in space closed. I dunno, just do it. Your players will love it, and everyone will remember the scene.