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.

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