Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tomb of Horrors!

So this past weekend my friends and had a sometimes-annual gaming retreat in New England. As part of the festivities, I ran a "Gygax Memorial Gaming Session" wherein I ran the infamous AD&D Module S1: Tomb of Horrors using 1E rules. This was the first time I'd run a 1E session in about 16 years by my count. It was the first time ever I'd gotten to DM Tomb of Horrors, so it basically fulfilled a something I'd been dreaming of since I was at least in high school.

I was actually a little bit worried about the game going in -- in fact, I brought Gary's "Land Beyond the Magic Mirror" module and sort of recommended that instead, but popular opinion was for S1 instead. I was worried that the buzz-saw series of deathtraps would be a bit of a bummer (and that I might not DM it right, having DM'd no game whatsoever in a few years now). But actually, we had an enormous blast! We made characters on the fly using DMG Appendix P, even rolling randomly for level (d4+10). Everyone really got into the right mind frame, accepting the challenge with gusto, and it really exceeded my highest expectations.

I think the main thing is that I had players who really played at a high level of skill. In the time we had, they got about 1/2 way through the tomb (just to the entrance to area #14 for DMs that know what that is). They were using thief skills, ropes, spikes, and multiple 10' poles to the utmost. There were challenges that I really didn't expect anyone to puzzle out, that they totally keyed into, which was absolutely thrilling to me on my side of the screen (like the critical hidden door, or the series of nonstop magic missile-like rooms). Here's some of the highlights (and you MUST read the last one):

SCENE: ENTRYWAY. There's a red tile path snaking left and right down the hallway. Players start to debate about whether they should proceed on the path, or off. Tamsina the elven thief announces "I completely ignore the red path, and give it no regard one way or the other. Searching for traps..." At which point I think, wow! That's exactly the right mindset, they definitely have a chance!

SCENE: ENTRY HALL. Wizard announces he's very carefully looking for patterns all the way down the hall on the painted walls and ceilings. He finds no detectable pattern. (DM thought: Damn! So close! If he'd just said "...and floor" he'd have a giant payoff!)

SCENE: DEVIL FACE. They first prod it with a 10' pole, thereby avoiding losing anyone to that particular challenge. There's an archway there, and the thief decides to search the bare wall opposite the archway. (DM thought: Awesome. Nothing here, but there's another place later on where that's exactly what they have to do.)

SCENE: COMPLEX OF PORTALS. The party is getting shot at incessantly, every round, by unstoppable magic bolts as Grant the fighter tries to push, pull, slide, unhinge a series of stone portals. They've figured out that bunching together reduces the number of separate shots. They're rolling scores of saving throws and damage rolls (I'm counting off 5 at a time and have everyone save one time.) They get in a rhythm and hit the last door -- dammit, this one is different, it has a whole row of buttons to press! The fighter starts pressing sequences of buttons. Someone says "Try pushing all of them." DM asks, "Raise your hand if you're helping press all the buttons at once." Everyone raises their hand and shouts in unison "I am!!". Door swings open, and they spill into the next room. (DM thought: I seriously expected that would be the most aggravating unplayable encounter ever. Somehow it turned into this exciting, yell-out-loud team exercise. Amazing!)

SCENE: TINY CRAWLWAY (or, "THE PERFECT STORM, 1E STYLE"). They get past the second great hall by detecting the hidden crawlspace. (DM thought: Didn't realize in advance how unnerving it would be that it looks just like a sphere of annihilation.) Everyone squeezes into the tiny winding tunnel, fighters in plate armor with shields on their back barely able to wiggle through. They crawl, twisting and turning, for over an hour. The tunnel dead-ends in a blank stone wall. Thief in lead fails to find any secret door. Now what? (So we're laughing at this scene of the party stuck face-to-feet in the tiny crawlspace, unable to move. What if a monster came up behind them, like perhaps a "gelatinous tube"? Don't want to hear from the back: "Uh, guys, I can't feel me feet anymore...")

Remember, we made up characters from DMG Appendix P. The party got to pick a number of miscellaneous magic items from a list when they started. One of the items that they picked was -- yep, a wand of wonder. Having depleted quite a few spells, and with the wizard out of position to cast at the dead-end, the party hits upon trying this wand at the face of the wall. Thief pulls it out, points at the wall, and says the command word. I have the player roll percentile dice. Result: 56%. Darkness falls over the entire party, extinguishing all their lights, leaving them sightless in a pitch-black stone tube deep in the Tomb of Horrors. (A lot more laughter around the table. Now they can't see anything, and are just faceless voices debating what to do next. How could it get worse?) Well, they decide to use the wand of wonder again. Maybe it can reverse the prior effect? In any case, out it comes. Player rolls again. Result: 76%.

So you see, that's a fireball that goes off against the stone wall inches from the face of the lead character. And if you recall, one of the most infamous things about the entire 1E spell system is that fireballs they take the shape of whatever space they're in, up to a fairly sizable volume. And the players have managed to wedge themselves into the very smallest area they could possibly fit their bodies! (Very brief flash of intense light. The entire crawlspace roars with flame, spitting back out into the main hallway hundreds of feet back.) Some make their saves, others have lots of hit points. But recall again that 1E fireballs do affect all their material items. All their clothes and capes get burned to cinders. The map gets incinerated! (I gleefully yank it from the player.) The bag of holding has to save or lose everything within it (it succeeds.)

Massive gales of laughter all around the table. at 2AM, after about 6 hours of play, we're laughing so hard we're almost crying. We can't continue for about 15 minutes or so, play-acting the yelping voices of what the players have managed to do to themselves. They're playing 1E AD&D -- in the Tomb of Horrors -- using a wand of wonder -- and hit themselves with a fireball in the smallest space humanly possible. What could be more perfect? It could only happen in this particular game, with those particular die-rolls that probably no one has ever recreated. In 30 years of playing D&D, I've never seen anything so perfectly, hilariously catastrophic in my gaming life. (Somewhere Acererak looks down and says, "Wow, that's really good! Why'd I never think of that?")

Having just barely survived, the party does manage to crawl backwards into the last hallway over the course of another 2 hours or so in-game. They try to secure a resting space and conjure a demon instead. At the end of a long night, they desperately leap through an archway that yanks all their gear to the lich's crypt, and leaves them stark naked back at the entryway. Thankful to be alive at least, they turn and face the task of fighting bare-fisted through a hundred leagues of evil tropical swamp back to civilization. The sun sets and the credits roll.

Thanks, Gary! You were the best!

[Photo by tj.blackwell under CC2.]


  1. Once, long ago, we played through nearly the entire module, only to have the party killed by the cursed wishing gem in the great pillar room. They died to fire, which set off someone's Helm of Brilliance. We calculated out the volume of the remaining fireballs and discovered that fire actually came out the mouth of the tomb. It was awesome.

  2. Oh man, THAT is priceless! Probably the best pure D&D experience story I've heard to date.


  3. Thanks for sharing. What a great night of gaming! I think I will look up Appendix P tonight.

  4. Still working my way through the blog bit by bit and came to this. What a story!

    1. I'm so glad you read this!

      It's funny, because I don't play with volume-expanding fireballs anymore, but every time it comes up I think back to this night and a little wistfully miss it. :-)