Is TOMB OF HORRORS the Worst Adventure Of All Time?

Prevailing opinion here in the EN World community has traditionally held that the worst adventure module of all time is 1984's The Forest Oracle. 7th Sea designer John Wick (whose upcoming edition of 7th Sea is the third most anticipated tabletop RPG of 2016) vehemently disagrees; he nominates the classic adventure Tomb of Horrors for that position, contending that it "represents all the wrong, backward thinking that people have about being a GM." In an article on his blog (warning: this uses a lot of strong language), he goes into great detail as to why he hold this opinion, stating that the adventure is the "worst, &#@&$&@est, most disgusting piece of pig vomit ever published".


[lQ]"My players picked the entrance with the long corridor rather than the two other entrances which are instant kills. That’s right, out of the three ways to enter the tomb, two of them are designed to give the GM the authority for a TPK."[/lQ]

Very strong words, and you can read them all here. As I mentioned before, there's lots of NSFW language there.

The article also includes an anecdote about a convention game in which he participated. In that game, being already familiar with the adventure and its traps (and having advised the DM of this), he played a thief and attempted to discover or deactivate the traps, up until a near TPK occurred and he left the game.

Wick is, of course, no stranger to controversy. A couple of years ago, he created widespread internet arguments when he stated that "The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games."

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I find John's complaints to be ill-considered. Almost every trap in the dungeon can be defeated with a 10 ft pole. Especially the ever-cited dragon mouth. A simple 1 copper piece pole for goshsakes! If you are going into a death trap dungeon (and Wick told his players they were) and don't prod EVERYTHING with a deserve a TPK.

In the 70's, players were expected to be paranoid...of everything. They listened at every door, tapped every wall and floor and ceiling with a pole, spiked open every door. That's just the way it was.

And that doesn't count spells like Contact Other Plane and Commune.

Tomb of Horrors is fairly survivable if you are a LITTLE lucky and a lot cautious. It was designed to take arrogant players down a peg.

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Lord of the Hidden Layer
_Tomb of Horrors_ says all over the covers and the intro "This module is designed to kill PCs". I own a copy but I've never played it: I don't have any obnoxious players or characters I want to drive out of my life for keeps.


After reading Ready Player 1 and getting interested in the module I used it in my long-running 4e Dark Sun campaign. As many have noted it has some issues in a real campaign with real role playing, but I got around all that by making it the equivalent of a 'lost in the holodeck' Star Trek episode. Players are roped into a virtual experience (complete with short, red robed Dungeon Master) run by a coven of mind flayers to test applicants who thought they were trying to join an underground mages guild but were actually being sorted into food/thralls/agents based on their performance. There were hints here and there that it was fake and I blunted some of the more obvious instant death stuff so as to not tip my hand when they had to roll up 'new' characters. Had some fun when the rogue lost his arm in the demon's mouth and experienced 'phantom pains' occasionally afterwards due to damaging his real world, still existing hand. They were not too pissed when they eventually broke out of the dream.

Anyway, it all turned out well. As much as we want to make it easy to be a DM, in the end even a perfectly written adventure takes some interpretation and massaging to fit into a campaign. This one takes much more than usual, but in return it offers some very memorable and unique experiences.


I crit!
True story. I ran it for one of the 5e betas and a player rolled a vorpal sword as his starting weapon, his favorite weapon. First combat he rolled a twenty, then a second to decapitate a demon.

He said he could have his character die happy. Which was convenient cause he did soon after.

I'm A Banana

I think this is a topic to dig into for one of my favorite whipping boy topics of game design: the goals of play. Seems like John Wick has a very different set of goals today than Gygax did at the time. There's a lot of meat in exploring how those goals are different and why they result in different play experience for different players.

I think calling the Tomb of Horrors the worst adventure ever is shortsighted and a bit narrow-midned. It is bad for certain goals. It's great at others.


First Post
I will run it with my players in the next few weeks.

They are playing "Roots of Evil" and they have to enter Azalin's lair.

They have read the blog post of this guy, and started screaming about bad dungeon design and save or die mechanics.

So, just to test them, I will use the tomb of horror and substitute Azalin for Acerak.
They don't know that I will play this trick.

I don't want to end the campaign abruptly, so a B plan is necessary. Even if they fail, Azalin will revive them to know where they hid his phylactery.

I want to se their faces when they will discover the truth in the end...

You are not a D&D player if you don't try it. That tomb is a legend, it deserves a try.


First Post
Our Dm in a 3.5 game had the 3rd edition version: it added saving throws which helped. We ended up stuck at the tomb due to some mystical fields and had to 'Solve it' to escape. It messed us up good an proper and killed two of the party.

This is the bit where I don't get annoyed because we had raise dead prepped. It meant that those who died got to roleplay doubt and uncomfortableness of being brought back. (One charater hated us for it). So all in all in was a great dungeon.


Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
I think calling the Tomb of Horrors the worst adventure ever is shortsighted and a bit narrow-midned. It is bad for certain goals. It's great at others.

Exactly. There are times when I want a very challenging and engaging hardcore dungeon crawl. And then there are other times when I want to participate in crafting an epic story with characters who stand a reasonable chance of surviving long enough to become three-dimensional.

If I were playing Tomb of Horrors, I would certainly grab a pre-gen. And I wouldn't get attached.


David Jose
I've played through the Tomb of Horrors twice. The first time we tried playing through "seriously." Two of the players had played through before and had at least a little bit of shaky knowledge of some of the traps and pitfalls. We meta-gamed, used player knowledge, and played characters only meant to survive the tomb intact and I think we lasted at most two sessions.

Several years later, with a slightly different group, we tried a second time but we approached things very differently. Magic the Gathering's Legends expansion had just come out and each of us drew a random legendary character from the set. We'd create the characters based solely off of our interpretations of the cards and their flavor text, gave optimization a passing glance at best, and focused on nothing but hammily role playing our way through the module. I don't remember how far we got (or how many characters ended up shuffling off their mortal coils in the process) , but the game lasted the span of a sleep deprived 4 day weekend and our group still has a handful of in jokes and references that we make to that game 22 years later.


Much as I love the game I largely agree with John Wick.

Plenty of early d&d was roleplaying lite and problem solving heavy. ToH is a prime example - all the story stuff is meant to come from the DM not the players then they cast find the path, find traps, augury, commune, detect magic etc play send in the sheep, poke with 10' pole. If you do all this you should come out ok. If you don't and the DM plays the way the dungeon is written you die. My memory is that the tournament characters at the back of the dungeon can't defeat the final antagonist - so it's not about winning its about surviving longer than another party. It's all about the dungeon nothing for the characters to interact with.

Designing a dungeon to kill the players is child's play, not clever.

I dislike trap dungeons as I don't find continuous trap finding interesting, or particularly challenging (btw surely as soon as you touch to start to climb into a sphere of annihilation you are sucked in and annihilated - so that trap is typically bogus)

Gygax had some fantastic design skills, but from what I have read of his stuff and stories of his game play he made all the usual Gm mistakes - Gm v player, designing stuff which has as its purpose to "get arrogant players", playing favourites, being dismissive of others play styles etc.

ToH deserves its place in history as both a piece of fantastic design (mostly the artwork) and a cautionary tale (for DM's about design as much as for players).


Gygax had some fantastic design skills, but from what I have read of his stuff and stories of his game play he made all the usual Gm mistakes - Gm v player, designing stuff which has as its purpose to "get arrogant players", playing favourites, being dismissive of others play styles etc.




I pretty much disagree with all of what Mr.Wick wrote. I think there are some key points he isn't considering...

First...yeah, what everyone else in this thread said; it's a module designed to kill PC's, and, more importantly, it is designed as a tournament module.

Second, "old skool" (or "a regular AD&D game in 1980's") had the assumption that the players were the ones making the life-or-death decisions. It was the players who came up with how to detect a trap and defeat it. It was the players who were the prime determining factor of how successful a character was. Back in those days, I didn't say "Make a Spot Trap check, DC 22", I said "You see a wooden door, with iron bands...but the iron bands don't look nearly as rusty as the others you've seen. Almost like someone is trying to keep them clean". That's when the players start to use their own brains to detect and overcome any traps. The Key Thing Wick seems to be missing is this. His players obviously were either not up to the task, or were used to some other form of play style. As a player, when you see something in a deadly dungeon, you don't just jump in and hope you can roll good if you need to. The Tomb of Horrors was specifically designed to prey on that kind of "Freelick Maneuver" (re: "Freelick, the Fernetic of Glossamere jumps into the pit to gather up all the treasure! How much does Freelick get?"...kudos to any who know what movie I'm quoting that from). Throw things at it (iron spikes, water, oil, a rat/lizard/snake/small-animal, etc). Cast knowledge-type spells like Divination, Commune with Other Plane, or even Speak with Dead if one of your companions goes through and doesn't come back or scream or give any other indication. A party of 7 or 8 (that was the 'average' party size in those days), the clerics, druids, magic-users and illusionists should have a sack full of spell scrolls between them...they are all 10th to 14th level, after all! No small feat in 1e AD&D! That's one to two years of 8-hour weekly sessions...surely the players have learned how deadly stuff can be at those levels.

Third, and I think this is the MOST TELLING reason why he lost friends... he stood up and laughed at them. The module didn't do that...he did. He gloated. He was a world-class 12 year old a-hole in that moment. His fiends just lost all their hard-earned (I'm assuming here...) characters because they didn't think it was a trap, or at least a trap that would kill them if they were stupid enough to let it. And he, in his 12 year old wisdom, felt it was appropriate to jump up from the table, point his finger and laugh heartily at his 'friends', straight in the face. THAT is why he lost friends...not the module.

Anyway, thats my 2¢. I've also killed PC's...TPK's...with that module. Usually at the mouth, but I've also killed a "25th level paladin with 25 in all stats, with a two-handed holy avenger vorpal sword and a huge ancient gold dragon as his mount"...I think he made it in 20 or 30'. Followed the red path, fell in pit, failed save...died. That was rather funny to me...but I didn't jump up, point my finger at him, and laugh.


Paul L. Ming


Stuck in the 90s
This adventure was designed to challenge high level characters that had become arrogant in their supremacy (in Mr. Gygax's home campaign, prior to being formally written for tournament play in 75) - this fact alone gives me quite a large profile of those who do, and do not, like the content therein. Those with whom I game, and myself, absolutely love this adventure and consider it beyond criticism.


I think its a great article and I see his point. When run as written, Tomb of Horrors is basically a giant middle finger from the DM to the players. When modified to give the party a chance, it works. Thematically, I personally really enjoy it... but would never run it strictly as written.

I enjoyed the article and his anecdote about his thief character was pretty great.


ToH was written with the specific intent to kill off PCs of players who thought they were God's gift to gaming. The fact that John hasn't figured that out context after 35ish years to what? Sound edgy? Speaks volumes. IMO anyway. And I've no desire to ever play it myself, FWIW.


It's neither poorly written nor unplayable.

And may I refer you to the 'Return to the Tomb of Horrors' story?!

I suspect many groups have in fact actually incorporated the Tomb into long running epic fantasy tales successfully.

I made my point poorly. I was saying it is not poorly written or unplayable, thus not meeting my definition of "worst." I do still think it is better suited for disposable PCs vs a long term campaign, due to its use of quick TPK events.


One of my favorite adventures of all time. I've run it many times.

The reason I like it has nothing to do with the style of play. It has to do with the setting. In my opinion, if a powerful magical creature is going to build a crypt to secure their stuff, it will be deadly. That's all. No pulling punches. I don't necessarily agree with every single encounter, or all of the specific design elements.

But the idea that the only thing keeping tomb-robbers from succeeding is the design of your tomb and the traps that protect it (plus some potential undead, contracts, or bound guardians), just makes sense to me.

The overall concept is the standard for most crypts that I make.


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