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Wednesday, 14th July, 2010, 01:03 AM #1
Orcus on an Off-Day (Lvl 22)
Review of the RPGA Reward "Tomb of Horrors"
Once upon a time, in the earliest days of the Dungeons & Dragons game, there were adventurers who counted themselves the bravest of the brave. They had done it all: slain monsters and demons, gained great treasures both mundane and magical, and otherwise ascended the heights of D&D play.
However, the Great Gygax spoke, and these were his words: "You are powerful adventurers indeed, but can you think?" And waving his hand, he caused to come into being a dungeon with great treasure that only the greatest adventurers could attain.
"Indeed we can!" affirmed the adventurers, and taking up the challenge, they descended into the dread tomb of the lich Acererak, where they faced many terrible foes, tricks and traps... and none returned alive.
"Guess not!" chortled the Great Gygax, and he disappeared away to test another band of would-be great adventurers with one of the most challenging adventures of all: Tomb of Horrors
From then to now
Tomb of Horrors has had a long legacy since its first publication in 1978 (and it was debuted as a tournament module in 1975 at Origins I!) It is infamous as a "Killer Dungeon", but as one of the earliest of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, it has achieved true classic status. It would be incorrect to say that character level is immaterial in the adventure, for the few foes that are fought do require a certain level of experience to defeat, but the adventure certainly put the abilities of the players to plan, think and act cautiously as the most valuable features of those who delve within.
Tomb of Horrors was revisited by Bruce Cordell by the late 1990s as part of the 2nd edition Return to the Tomb of Horrors product. This campaign adventure contained the original adventure (in duplicate) within, but the setting of the adventure was quite changed: originally the Tomb was legendary and lost. In Return, an academy of necromancers had grown up around the Tomb, and its servants performed many tasks for Acererak, who was now more fearsome than the original demi-lich faced in the original.
Third Edition D&D also provided a "Tomb of Horrors" adventure as a free download. This version was an update of the original to the 3E rules, again by Bruce Cordell.
Now, as part of the free D&D Rewards that Wizards send out to people who register as DMs with them through the DCI, the newest version of the Tomb of Horrors has been produced: the Fourth Edition version, adapted by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.
(The previous timeline omits its reprinting in the compilation Realms of Horror (1987) on the basis that the compilation isn't that good.)
Two Tombs of Horror?
Unusually, in the same month that I've received my free copy of the Tomb of Horrors, Wizards are printing a second Tomb of Horrors, this time for retail sale. The two products are not identical; the one I'm discussing here is a conversion and the retail product is a campaign adventure inspired by the original adventure, of which I know little at present. It covers levels 10-22 and is modular; that's about it!
The free version of Tomb of Horrors is a 34-page black & white adventure for 9th level characters who should reach 11th level by its conclusion. As such, it makes a good capstone adventure for the Heroic tier. In addition to the booklet, it also contains a poster showing the entire map of the dungeon (although not in D&D-miniature scale), and a cardboard cover which has another copy of the map on its interior. I suspect the cover's map was added late in production, as the adventure's text refers to an image of the first corridor of the adventure that should appear there. For those who want the picture, it can thankfully be found in the Tomb of Horrors art gallery on Wizards' site. The rest of the adventure is liberally illustrated with pictures that appeared in the original adventure.
Scott Fitzgerald Gray notes that the adventure draws upon Robert Schwalb's article in Dragon #371, "The Legacy of Acererak" for its location, which in turn draws upon Cordell's "Return to the Tomb of Horrors": the Tomb is now part of the Bleak Academy, and the wardens of the Tomb welcome adventurers who attempt to conquer it; the adventurer's failure will give the Academy's dread master Acererak more power!
He has further posted on EN World: "The RPGA Tomb of Horrors update/remix can be thought of as taking place "before" the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure. However, it was wholly inspired by the super-adventure; not the other way round. It's not a necessary preamble in any way to the super-adventure, but there is some continuity between the two for DMs who want to make use of it...
"One other big, big difference between the two projects. The RPGA update was done mostly just for the sake of doing it, and to show how one old-schooler (me) would take on the task of updating one of the most legendary AD&D dungeon crawls for 4e. I think people will enjoy it (both those who know the original adventure and those for whom this might be their first real experience of the Tomb), but in the end, it's kind of a one-off bit of fun."
The Adventure within the Tomb
Scott Fitzgerald Gray has adhered very closely to the original Tomb of Horrors adventure in his update: almost all of the challenges of the original adventure are present in this one. Those that are omitted are generally of a minor nature: for instance, given that the Tomb has been discovered and opened by the Bleak Academy, the two false trapped entrances are now gone. However, traps and tricks such as the Archway of Mists, the Green Devil Mouth and the Gem of Wishing remain in the adventure, as does the monstrous four-armed gargoyle.
Readers who received the previous D&D Rewards adventure, the update of The Village of Hommlet will be pleased to know that in this case, the dimensions of the map are pretty much identical: there is no shrinkage or expansion here!
I'll not go into great detail of what you can find within here, save to say that the Tomb is a place where there are more traps than monsters, and where the obvious route is not often the way to go: indeed, it can lead to your death. Caution is the watchword here, and getting someone else to go first might be a good idea. Pity the poor thieves who accompany a party within!
Notes on the Conversion
One thing that does not survive into this conversion is the idea of the instant death trap. If you dive into the special "sphere of annihilation", you're not instantly gone. Of course, Dungeon Masters could always restore the original adventures deadliness, but this adventure is more gentle with those players who make mistakes.
Being more gentle does not mean that the threat of danger is gone, however: the sphere of annihilation now is a trap that holds you in place, dealing damage every turn until you are disintegrated. You can get free - or a friend might pull you free - but that is by no means assured. So it is with many of the deadly traps of the original. They don't kill you immediately, but they still have the strong potential to do so. The traps also become deadlier as you move through the dungeon; when you finally fight Acererak at the end, a couple of failed saving throws will see your soul captured and your body reduced to dust - and your soul isn't far behind. Sadly, "destroying the soul" in this adventure still permits the character to be raised. I almost wonder if there's a misprint somewhere.
Where many of the traps in the original just required the ingenuity of the players to operate, the 4E version adds in skill checks and skill challenges aplenty. Some of the Perception checks seem somewhat low - a DC 16 Perception check to determine if a pit trap exists is something that anyone trained in the skill at this level should automatically succeed at... as well as anyone with a 14 Wisdom! I wonder if the designers and developers at Wizards are fully aware of how effective passive Perception is?
However, in deference to the original adventure, not everything can be solved with a skill check. Many of the skill checks only give pointers to the ultimate solution, not the solution itself. This is not always true: some skill checks will allow the challenge to be solved. I personally feel that the balance is fairly right here, especially for fairly uninteresting "roadblock" traps where you still need very high skill rolls to bypass them. However, I must stress that I haven't yet run this version of the adventure, and reading the adventure is no substitute for the actual play experience.
The adventure does read well, however. Part of this is due to preservation of quite a number of sections of Gary Gygax's original text, but also because the adventure does not use the strict "delve" style we've seen in all previous Wizards adventures. Instead, the adventure just flows: one encounter after another. At times, two or three encounters are described on the same page! There are two encounters that break on a page turn, but this is a minor complaint: all the primary stats are on the first page, and the second page merely lists tactics and features of the area; the stat blocks do not break over the page (something that I detest in the Paizo adventures). I applaud the formatting of this adventure, and I hope that future Wizards adventures follow its example.
You may have noted that I said that the map retains the same dimensions as the original. Well, then, how does the adventure handle the final fight which is in exceedingly small room, for doesn't 4e play rather badly in small enclosed space? Rest assured that the adventure does take this into account, and the final battle seems quite entertaining, even if the strict requirements of the original adventure for damaging Acererak are lost.
I'm of two minds about this change: I rather enjoyed the nearly indestructible demilich of the original with its arbitrary vulnerabilities, but the options for the game have expanded far beyond those of the game of 1975, and so the original solutions don't really work in the modern age. So, instead you have just another monster to slay, albeit an exceptionally deadly one.
Ultimately, it is hard to rate any remake of a classic adventure when the original engenders such fond memories; even more so when the style of play of the game it is written for has changed so much! With that in mind, this remake of Tomb of Horrors is a worthy successor to its illustrious forebear. Despite Scott Fitzgerald Gray's efforts, it doesn't quite raise the same dread in my mind as the original.
Even so, I am very impressed by my read-through of the adventure. It does retain a lot of the original's attraction and uses the new mechanics to good effect: making parts of the old more approachable and playable. As a reward for DM's who are registered with the DCI, it is of fantastic value. It reads well, and it looks like it should play well.
It might not be quite the original classic, but it is one of the best adventures I've seen from Wizards in the current era of D&D.
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