HelgaCon: Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Continuing the Helgacon wrap-up this year. For the first time I also ran:

The Lost Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Originally written by Mr. Alan Lucien, this is the precursor and inspiration for Gygax's infamous Tomb of Horrors, and was recently published (for the first time to my knowledge) as a small part of the Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana product. Small spoiler: it has the first invention/appearance of the sphere of annihilation and stuff like that.I did an OED-style conversion of the very sketchy original text (4 handwritten notebook pages) and ran it like that.

Part of my desire for running this is that I ran Tomb of Horrors itself over the first two Helgacons (one, two) and felt in retrospect that I didn't do a very great job with it (actually: only got to about 2/3 of it over two very-late-night running sessions). Major lesson in retrospect: GIVE THE RIDDLE from the first area no matter what (that totally shift the PCs from just blundering into trap after trap, to actively engaging the dungeon and giving them the tools to try and outwit each succeeding area). Also, I was still trying to run with actual 1E AD&D rules at the time, and a pretty strict reading of each encounter area as given in the text (so: achingly slow progress) -- so I wanted to see if my OED rules a decade on, and a hopefully more looser/flexible DM'ing philosophy, would make things run more successfully. 

This seemed to be my biggest hit of the convention. We had 9 players at the table (would've been 10 but for illness) with approximately 10th level PCs each (250K XP, to be precise). I think I initially estimated that I might have about 5 players, so the night before the game I decided to double all of the monsters and traps on the fly, and this seemed just about right in-game (of course I'd estimated danger levels in advance with my Equivalent Hit Dice system; also, I'd made sure to supply some magic weapons that could hit the invulnerable-to-everything-but-+2-weapons monsters involved).

I think it moved along pretty well and I gave players lots of chances to find ways to succeed (e.g., using passwall on the starting entrance to avoid technically opening the door and summoning extradimensional monsters). At a particular point in the game, I arbitrarily sealed off a side-wing to force the PCs more towards the climactic fight(s) at the end. Even so, the huge embarrassment for me is that I went over the allocated convention time (4 hours) by an entire hour, a tremendous faux pas (and surely anathema at a real convention, if I weren't playing at a table where everyone was friends). That said, I was immensely curious at how the last two encounters were going to play out (I really didn't know if they'd be total TPK's or not), so as a gaming scientist I couldn't stop myself from running them. I actually completely forgot about the problem of opening the final doors, even. I suppose I'm at least getting closer to "good" than when Tomb of Horrors was taking us 3 years and around 20 hours of play to get through (actually it hurts me to even write that).

One weird thing that came into play is that my friend Paul loaned me the piece of Art & Arcana to see this dungeon myself for the first time. Then his (brilliantly resourceful) automatic convention scheduler actually put him in the game, and neither of us noticed this until a single day before the convention. We quickly cycled an idea to have him run a "ringer" character, a lost reincarnated soul of Ra-Hotep in the world, with dim memories of the dungeon and a compulsion to be reunited with the master creature -- such that Paul could play the Adversary at the end like I did for him recently. When we reached the final area, a black beam annihilated his PC, I handed him a sheet for Ra-Hotep, and he studied that while I was rolling out a big battlemap for the climactic fight. (Note that these few minutes were the entirety of the study time for the monster that Paul had; I didn't give him anything at all prior to that time.)

Among the most beautiful pieces of play from this was that one of our friends (expert hobbit thief player) had been loudly trash-talking Ra-Hotep all through the adventure, using that to aggravate monsters into attacking them, etc., and at some point had turned to Paul and said, "Geez, I hope Ra-Hotep can't actually hear any of this!". (I was too busy to hear that myself.) So when Paul was revealed as actually Ra-Hotep himself, he pointed an outstretched finger at that player, and shrieked in the most evil voice possible, "You shall be the one to die first, in the most painful manner imaginable!". That was simply priceless.

Pretty compelling fight at the end. Arguably I should have also given Paul control of the mob of Ra-Hotep's evil minions. Having the PCs summon an earth elemental and cast haste on the whole party turned out to be critical in the enormous final tomb area. (Note that I give only double moves, no extra attacks or other side benefits from haste, and it was still a key to victory in 2 of my 4 games that weekend.) On the other hand, Ra-Hotep using his sphere and casting charm monster to turn the lead fighter to his side, and attack a PC wizard, was quite the nail-biter. In the end, he was beaten down by a crush of hasted PC fighters and thieves.

Also, Jon again fought all the way to the end here and then actually got disintegrated by Ra-Hotep in the final encounter.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Punching Mummies".


  1. Great choice, glad to see someone taking advantage of the publication of this! Had you heard that T. Foster reported that Gygax's Necropolis adventure seems to incorporate parts of Ra-Hotep?

    1. Wow, that is a pretty danged good point. The top-down map in Necropolis is sufficiently extra-decorated as to mask that. But it's the side-views that are startlingly the same!

      (On content I felt it was sufficiently uniform through Lucien-S1-Necropolis to not think that the first and last were notably extra-similar.)

  2. I first heard of Ra-Hotep from your video cast re Tomb of Horrors (I also listened to your Helga Con re-cap video). I've been fascinated with it ever since, and would really like to run it myself.

    20 hours for Tomb of Horrors seems like an awful lot. I've run S1 at least four or five times over the years, usually using AD&D, and I don't recall it ever taking so long.

    Most recently (2011) I converted it to B/X and ran it for a party of new, 1st and 2nd level characters. They made it as far as the chapel before getting TPK'd...but game play was less than three hours. Six-ish hours (max) seems about right to complete the thing.

    Yes, it is essential the party has the riddle, else they're left bumbling around in the dark. And in addition to giving valuable clues, the riddle helps create a sense of conflict between Acerak and the party (like they're matching wits with the demi-lich), which heightens the tension of the adventure.

    It may not be the best adventure (it's a bit linear), but Tomb of Horrors is definitely a classic. I'd love to run Ra-Hotep sometime and see how it compares...especially given the Sphere of Annihilation showdown at the end!
    : )

    1. Yeah, my prior experience with S1 is definitely one of my more embarrassing confessions as a DM. If I hadn't accidentally stumbled into the difference having the riddle makes I might be one of the people who write off the whole adventure.

      Lucien's Ra-Hotep could probably not be played with low-level PCs because it actually has numerous top-level monsters (unless radically altered, of course). I customized some rules for the sphere at the end... in particular, the final chamber is gigantic and the sphere is painfully slow, so I upped the speed a bit to be more of a threat.