I've been intrigued with S1 Tomb of Horrors for a long time, and this thread: http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/306672-tomb-horrors-example-many-one-kind.html has me thinking about it again.

In particular, this line of posts caught my attention:

The module gives you clues in the form of riddles, and those riddles are, essentially, a "walk through" for the entire module (if you can parse them out carefully). On the other hand, if you fail to notice the first riddle, or if you ignore the clues provided, well, the module can kill you pretty quickly.

I recall one post about a newbie gamer who had never played an rpg before with a first level pc making it to the end, grabbing some loot and fleeing for his life.

Unlike some modules, with traps that have no possible way of being decoded short of painful experience (iirc, Tsocjanth has several of these...there is no clue that one color is good and another bad, that one face on a pedestal is a boon and the other a curse, etc.), ToH presents players with a chance to figure things out.

I've heard this about the ToH before, (particularly the story about the 1st level thief who makes it through) but I've always been a little skeptical. Acererak's clues are pretty opaque, and the consequences for screwing up are permanent. I've tried to unravel the module before, but I couldn't do it by myself. So here we are.

I'm not interested in whether or not the module is "well-designed" "good" or even "fun." Some people love it, some people hate it, and that's fine. I don't want to talk about whether or not folks enjoy whatever playstyle is necessary to survive the ToH. I'm not interested in a long debate about challenging the player vs. challenging the character. I definitely don't want to start a discussion about the merits of old-school play in general. If you want to talk about that stuff, please do so in another thread.

I'm interested in this: What does it take to survive the ToH? Does the module provide enough clues to allow the players to navigate the Tomb safely? How much guesswork, dumb luck or divination magic is necessary to get through the Tomb? How much can be accomplished with caution and reason alone?

My plan is to go through the module room-by-room. I'll post a description of the room and any hints/clues it contains for the PC's. Then I'll give my thoughts about how a group of players might interpret those clues and apply them to Tomb.

There's no way to do this without spoiling the module. I don't plan on using spoiler tags, and I'd rather y'all not use them either. So consider yourself warned.

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Some Preliminaries

I don't have any actual play experience with ToH on either side of the screen. I'm just reading the thing and pondering the riddles. And I'm not real good at riddles.

I started playing (irregularly) in 1987 or '88, and I started DM'ing (regularly) in 1989 when 2E launched. I'm not fully versed in all the ins and outs of 1E AD&D. So I welcome comments and/or opinions about any rules issues that come up.

I'm going to limit how much text I cut and paste into the thread from the adventure. If you think I've left out an important detail, let me know.

The module comes with a lot of little pictures that the DM is supposed to show the PC's. WotC has posted them here: Tomb of Horrors Art Gallery.

The module contains more than a few ambiguities. How the DM chooses to resolve those ambiguities can significantly alter the outcome of the adventure. I'll note them when I see them.

I've got two versions of the module. One came packaged with the Return to the Tomb of Horrors boxed set, which I purchased as a .pdf back when you could do that. The other is a hardcopy that I picked up at a con a few years ago. The covers are different (the electronic one has a pinkish cover, the hardcopy is green). I'll try to keep an eye out for any differences between the two.

The module is designed for character levels 10 to 14. There are 20 "pregen" characters in the back of the module, each with suggested magic items. Players are supposed to roll their own hit points and pick their own spells. Players can take any mundane equipment they want, but they can't overburden themselves. They can also bring 1,000 gp in coins and 5,000 gp in gems. It is suggested that the DM give the players some extra magic and/or an extra level of experience if they are inexperienced and/or few in number. "Total novices" can also bring a man-at-arms each (no stats or suggested level is given for the men-at-arms).

It looks like the module can be run with as few as 4 and as many as 10 PC's.


Initial Clues

The module beings with the "Legend of the Tomb", a paragraph describing some legends about the place. Players can learn this stuff by consulting sages, casting Legend Lore, consulting arcane works, etc. etc. It appears to be up to the DM how much of this information the players can learn.

If they get it all they know:

1. The crypt is labyrinthine.

2. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters.

3. But it also "rich treasures both precious and magical". Yay!

4. The traps are "terrible". They include "poison gases and magical protections."

5. The tomb is haunted by a demi-lich named Acererak which possesses powers that make him nearly undefeatable.

6. It is quite unlikely that the adventurers will ever find the chamber where demi-lich dwells it it so well hidden that even those who avoid the pitfalls will not be likely to locate "their true goal."

7. Only large, well-prepared parties should assay the tomb. They should have magical protections and weapons. They should equip themselves with "every sort of device possible to insure their survival." They should be prepared to fail anyway.

IMO: These clues don't give the players much more info than they'd glean from looking at the cover of the module. What do you expect to find in a "Tomb of Horrors" except traps, monsters and treasure? Warnings about "poison gases" should encourage the clerics to prepare Slow and Neutralize Poison, if they didn't know to do that already. You know you're up against a Demi-Lich, so if it's after 1983 you can go and look him up on page 32 of the Monster Manual II (you dirty cheater you). You know the Demi-lich's name is Acererak, and there has to be some groovy truename magic somewhere you can try to use (maybe?). So there you go. It's good to know this stuff, but I don't know that it's worth the sacrifice required to cast Legend Lore.

There are no random encounters in the Tomb. The DM can choose to let the players rest outside without random encounters as well, but should not let the players know that's an option. (They'll figure it out).

Anybody poking around the Tomb in Astral or Ethereal form has a 1 in 6 chance of attracting a Type I - IV demon. For folks who played a lot of 1E, how rough will an encounter with a Type IV Demon be for a 10th to 14th level party? Is it worth going into the Border Ethereal for some quick scouting?


Outside the Tomb

Castle Ravenloft towers above the village of Barovia with its front door wide open. The Tomb of Horrors is a hell of a lot less welcoming. The PC's see a low, flat topped hill about 60 feet high, 300 yards wide and 200 yards long. Weeds, briars and thorns are the only things to be found.

A "thorough inspection" of the area reveals a crumbling cliff on the north side of the hill. The cliff is 340 feet long and 20 feet high. The only way to find the entrance to the Tomb is to poke at the cliff with longspears and 10 foot poles. It takes a turn to search one 10 foot section of cliff this way. Given how long they'll spend doing this, the players should figure out pretty quickly that there are no wandering monsters in the area.

The players find an entrance if they poke in the right place, but they have to spend some time digging to clear a way in. It takes an hour to thoroughly clear a passage, and one turn to clear a crawlspace. So you have to work if you want to die inside.

IMO: The biggest risk for players at this point is that they'll find one entrance and go on ahead without looking for the others. If they pick a false entrance, they'll pay. I don't see any clues in the module that would tip the players off to the fact that there are false entrances to the Tomb. I guess paranoia is their best hope.

I'm not sure I like making the players dig their way into the tomb. On one hand, it creates a cool, archealogical feel to the module and emphasizes that this is a place of traps and curses, not combat. On the other hand, all that digging right at the beginning is probably responsible for at least a few parties deciding to go on ahead and level the whole complex. Dig Spells and Earth Elementals Ahoy!

From the air, the tomb is supposed to look like a grinning skull, but I've always thought the illustration on the inside cover looked more like a happy Halloween pumpkin. Creepy!



Players who take their time will find three possible entrances to the Tomb.

The first is to the west. It is a plain stone tunnel 20 feet wide and thirty feet long. It is dark and filled with cobwebs. The roof is 20 feet above, hidden by the cobwebs. (http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/ToH_Gallery/ToHGraphic1.jpg)

The second is to the east. It is also a plain stone passage, but the ceiling is visible 10 feet above. This tunnel is 20 feet long and 60 feet long. ( http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/ToH_Gallery/ToHGraphic2.jpg)

The Third is in the middle. It is 20 feet wide and 130 feet long. Even a bit of daylight will show the players that this tunnel is different. Its walls and floor are covered with brightly covered murals and mosaics. (http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/ToH_Gallery/ToHGraphic3.jpg)

The first two tunnels are false entrances. The third is the right way to go. It swill take a couple of posts of its own, but let's talk about the other two first.

The first false entrance is an RBDM classic. If the roof is prodded with any force, or if the doors at the back of the tunnel are opened, the ceiling collapses. BOOM! Everybody in the tunnel takes 5d10 points of damage (no save). The only way to detect the trap safely is to burn the cobwebs off the ceiling, which will reveal that it is built from badly fitting stones.

On one hand, I don't see any clues per se that would point out trap. On the other hand, the trap is relatively innocuous. The tunnel is short, and it is likely that only a few PC's will be inside when it collapses. It does an average of 27.5 points of damage, and even the pregen Magic-User will have about 40 hit points (he's 14 level with a 15 Con).

The second false entrance is more complicated. According to the text, the floor will "shift" when "characters" get 50 feet down the hall. This contradicts the map, which has a "trigger" symbol at 30 feet, but it's pretty clear that the text is right. When the PC's hit the mark, they hear a rumbling, and a huge stone block starts to seal off the hall. The block will trap anybody in the last 30 feet of the corridor, and smoosh anybody stupid enough to stand in front of it. Only those in the 20 feet closest to the entrance are safe. The text doesn't say what triggers this trap, so the RBDM move is to say it's unavoidable and undetecable.

The mechanics of this trap are complicated. The DM is supposed to tell the players that they hear a rumble and then immediately count slowly to 10 (emphasis in original text). The stone moves about 2 feet into the hall for every number of the count, slamming shut at 10. Assuming that the players try to run to safety, they can move their movement rate in feet every count. The slowest PC is likely to have a move of 6". If that PC sets off the trap, he only needs to move for three counts to be safe. So, it shouldn't be too hard for the players to escape if they set off the sliding rock o'doom.

Nothing terrible happens to PC's who get trapped at the end of the tunnel. They're just stuck. The module says that only Disintegrate, Phasedoor, Stone to Flesh and Transmute Rock to Mud will allow escape (again, emphasis in original text). I don't know why Teleport or Dimension Door wouldn't work. I also don't know why you couldn't just dig through the stone block. It's 10 feet thick, but the PC's have plenty of time.


The tomb can be broadly divided into sections, each of which presents its own hazards.

1) Entering the tomb.
2) Reaching the Chapel.
3) Reaching the Pillared Hall.
4) Finding Acererak's Tomb
5) Getting Out Alive.

Entering the Tomb.
a) I wouldn't be too surprised to find some players completely unable to find an entrance to the tomb without clues. This is particularly true of the sort of players that rely on search checks and have no back up plan for obtaining further information from the DM. A true RBDM and a group of true novices may well stymy at the stage of, "How do I get in?"
b) There is one chance of a TPK in this section, and that's finding the left entrance (facing the hill) first, and over confidently moving forward and having no resources to get out again. The tournament rules for this section are if anything overly strict, even for Gygax, since they ignore certain possibilities in the PH that seem comparable to those listed. The really obvious example is "Why doesn't a stone shape spell work?" Played as written though, this is HARSH. The worst part of this side is that the double doors seem to present an interesting puzzle that provokes incaution to the point that the doors are reached. About 3% of parties will probably TPK here. It's by far the most unfair thing that a party may face for some time, mostly because they haven't at this point had time to acquiant themselves with how this module plays differently than others. Of course, the most like result is simply that the wizard will need to rememorize spells. This trap is much more deadly if the chamber seals air tight, but this is not indicated in the original text.
c) The right side entrance (facing the hill) is a much less worrisome trap. Unlike the left side entrance it's not tantalizing, and it has a clue (the ceiling is covered with cobwebs) which should generally get the characters worried about the ceiling. The cobwebs should be burned away as good dungeon hygeine, and this will allow inspection of the ceiling to get the second clue. Any force on the ceiling will cause the trap to activate, so simply standing back and hurling something at the ceiling should 'deactivate' the trap, as would poking it with a sufficiently long object from the entrance or any number of spells. Even if this test is failed and the trap activated, chances are it just forces one more day of camping outside the dungeon.
d) If I knew that I was facing a ToH like dungeon, my inclination would be to explore all these areas with an Unseen Servant, which with a little caution and the above suggestions should solve this whole section.

Reaching the Chapel
a) In my experience, the majority of people who don't like ToH give up before ever breaching the Chapel (area 14). This outer area is harsh, but its not nearly as deadly as the inner area. The outer area is a good warm up section, because it ramps the deadly up fairly slowly compared to the inner sections.
b) The pit traps should give no experienced party much difficulty at all. Anyone who dies to a pit trap at this level in this situation hasn't been playing much D&D. By far the best way out of the entrance is area #5. Area #6 is of course a notorious TPK route but any party that takes that route in spite of the obvious danger and warnings and the ease with which it can be tested for danger deserves what they get. The worst situation a party should reasonably fall in to in the entrance corridor is trying area #4 before solving the fairly simple puzzle in area #5. Areas #8 and #9 will get you there, but only at great cost. The warning to avoid #4 is slight and the clue to go back and look more closely is somewhat opaque, though "Go back to the arch" should clue many groups in. The worst part about bypassing exploration of area #5 and going to area #4 is that you'll miss the most important clue in the dungeon: "Acererak rewards your powers of observation...". The clue is easy to miss, but also easy to stumble in on so a mixture of lucky groups and skilled groups should get the text necessary to bypass most of the traps in the dungeon or solve its puzzles, and the clues within are pretty simple and helpful.
Obviously, area #7 is a punishment zone for being somewhat foolish. Most groups should and probably do avoid it.
c) Room #11 contains a very useful item and good clues how to get it. It's not entirely obvious that Acererak is playing fair at this point, so some groups may solve the puzzle and then give up on it before the reward but the item is very obtainable and highly useful if used judiciously. Area #10 should provide no real hazard, as its a straight foward room that could be in any dungeon.
d) Room #13 can and should be bypassed unless the party finds itself without a magic ring of any sort. Any skilled party should not primarily be trying to get treasure unless its stuck on how to progress.
e) The Chapel itself is very straightfoward if you have the clue from the entrance hall. If you don't and/or are inflicted with insatiable curiousity, it can be quite dangerous but most of the traps here are of the annoying sort.
f) The biggest danger of The Chapel is that on a practical level, once you go beyond it, it's a one way trip. Up until The Chapel, you aren't committed. You can hang around outside for as long as like. Once you go through the puzzle door, your group is committed - because getting through it each time requires another sacrifice. Exiting out this way is often the same as abandoning the module, so be sure to take lots of provisions with you through the door.

Reaching the Pillared Hall
a) If you can reach the Pillared Hall without a TPK, you probably won't have one. This is about the nastiest section of dungeon ever conceived, and Gygax really throws out the stops here. Fortunately, like the rest of the module, you are under no time pressure (see C1!) and have no proactive enemies to worry about (see I6!). Many other adventures with less lethal sections will prove more lethal in practice.
b) If you have the entrance hall clue, you are mostly golden. If you don't caution will still likely carry you through the section. Area #16 is easily avoided with cautious scouting which any party that has gotten this far has likely adopted. Area #17 is so well hidden that a party is likely to carry on to Area #18 even if they have the clue (unless they have a lucky elf), but on the whole this isn't that terrible as the jade coffer and small sack will replenish whatever resources are spent investigating it. Fortunately, the programmed illusion as written doesn't chase the players all the way back to the Chapel, or it would be far more annoying. As it is, even a group that falls for it is likely to only be chased back to roughly where they should have been carefully looking in the first place, and most groups will be suspicious especially if they know the modules reputation.
c) Area #19 has a must solve puzzle which if skipped will cause tremendous difficulty later. A good many groups may simply luck into the item required using normal looting techniques, and the clue from the entrance corridor only gives small help here. I pity the skilled group that decides its not worth investigating this room, but such a group is very likely to come back here immediately if stymied later so perhaps its not so bad.
d) Area #20 is a not particularly lethal trap that adds to the long catalog of traps in this dungeon completely negated if you can fly.
e) Area #21: OMG! This is second most lethal trap in the dungeon, justifiably notorious, and indeed the second most lethal trap I'm aware of in the game. Die no save, hello. Fortunately, flight again helps and good dugeon hygeine while it produces a dangerous result, does not produce a necessarily lethal one. So either good scouting with flight or good cautious dungeon hygiene gets through the room without incident, provided you have access to ice magic as well as fire. Lots of deaths here and even a few TPK's as even reasonable caution could fail.
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I'm interested in this: What does it take to survive the ToH? Does the module provide enough clues to allow the players to navigate the Tomb safely? How much guesswork, dumb luck or divination magic is necessary to get through the Tomb? How much can be accomplished with caution and reason alone?

A lot of the module can be completed by a simple, almost algorithmic procedure. I call it the "Penal battalion mine clearance technique".

1) Basic precaution: Before even setting out, everyone leaves a hank of hair or set of toenail clippings, and a very large amount of money, with a cleric capable of casting ressurection.
2) Arrive at tomb and find entrances.
3) Have your mage summon monsters.
4) Send summoned monsters ahead to explore.
5) From a safe distance, watch how they die.
6) Have your cleric or mage reanimate the summoned monsters. (You may need to sew them back together with a needle and thread before they make good scouts.)
7) Watch them die again.
8) Once the summoned monsters have touched, attempted to open, examined or perused everything, send thief forward to search.
9) If thief meets hostiles, he runs with them back to the party.
10) Once any hostiles are killed and the thief is satisfied that the area is safe to move into, the party moves forwards. Except, that is, for one cleric capable of casting raise dead, who stays right back outside the entrance.
11) Repeat steps 3 to 10.
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Papersandpaychecks: Your "Penal battalion mine clearance technique" is one example of thorough scouting and one of the common techniques I've heard parties evolve once the nature of the tomb is apparant. Thorough scouting is required for surviving several corridors, so you have to come up with some sort of solution prior to area #23A at the latest. That isn't the only one, but its reasonably effective. A Bag of Tricks works pretty well as well, and a low tech 'livestock technique' works reasonably well prior to the Chapel (beyond which its very hard to take a herd of livestock). Personally, I prefer the 'crouching party; flying thief'* technique to 'mine clearance' because it negotiates several rooms successfully (notably room #21) that 'mine clearance' would make a mess of.

*This technique is tying a rope around the waist of the thief, standing back 50' or so, and bestoying flight on the thief. The thief then determines the nature of the trap and advises the rest of the party how to bypass it safely. Most traps are harmless if you can defy gravity. For the few that aren't, such as sleeping gas traps with no saving throw or fear gas traps, the party uses the rope to haul the thief from danger or as an aid in subduing him.

However, these techniques help you bypass the death traps, but they do nothing to assist in solving puzzle rooms like area #5 (or area #9 if you end up going that way), area #14, area #19, area #24, area #25, or area #29.

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