Monday, December 13, 2010

Review of Classic DnD Modules 2: (S1) Tomb of Horrors

S1 Tomb of Horrors

Experiences and Reminisces: This was the second module I ever bought, after B2. I did not even have the AD+D rules yet, so I only had guideline for making characters through level 3. So suffice it to say that it blew my little adolescent mind away. Even the names of the spells seemed like forbidden knowledge: Power Word Kill, Holy Word, Shatter. I mean, with spells that badass, I knew I just had to move up to ADVANCED Dungeons and Dragons. The three core books made my Christmas list that year.

I ran Tomb of Horrors twice. The first time was with my regular group of players. We ended up with a TPK before the fifth room (the Sphere of Annihilation in the entry corridor took out two PCs. Brutal). The second time I ran it was at the height of D+D’s popularity in the early ‘80’s. Our normal group of six players grew into a mob of fifteen. They all wanted me to DM, so I pulled out Tomb of Horrors. Not the ideal entry into D+D. Many of those who played that day never came back to the game, I am certain. But at least the numbers of players was manageable after thirty minutes of play.

What Made it Popular? Well, there is nothing like ToH. Never has been, never will be again. This is the epitome of a gauntlet, a lethal dungeon environment that eats PCs alive. A player whose character survives this one has something to brag about. Or else they’re a big fat liar. No-one survives S1. Tomb of Horrors is about as far as you can get from the monster-slaughtering funhouse of the Keep on the Borderlands. While the introductory adventure pits characters against hordes of mundane monsters, Acerak’s tomb is one long series of puzzles and traps. There might be a half-dozen combats in the entire module, if characters go looking for them.

There has to be a reason beyond nostalgia that Tomb of Horrors has been published by TSR/Wizards for every single edition of D+D. No other module can claim that distinction. Perhaps gamers are masochists at heart. More likely, DM’s are probably sadists at heart. It is worth noting that every new edition of Tomb of Horrors is a little less lethal than the one that precedes it. For instance, the archway of orange mists that changes a character’s gender and alignment in the first edition version had the potential to destroy a party from within if a player was willing to play along. In the 4th edition version, the character still suffers a permanent gender switch (to keep the pervy hentai set happy, no doubt) but the alignment reversal has been mollified to a few rounds of berserk rage. After that, things go back to normal, with innies and outies reversed.

However, I think the reason that so many old timers like me feel nostalgic for the Tomb is that we, like Mr. Gygax, came out of a wargaming environment. Player characters int he old days were not so much alter-egos as they were units to be maneuvered on the board to win a tactical challenge. We were as likely to refer to characters as "the elf" and "the cleric" as we were to call them by their names. Sure, we identified with our characters, and it was hard to see them die, but when the character creation process consists of six rolls of 3d6, there's really nothing to creating a replacement for an old character. in the old days, we did not spend a lot of energy coming up with backgrounds and motivations for our characters. They existed to loot dungeons, and the Tomb of Horrors represented the ultimate challenge. It was the big game, and underdog players hoped to pull off a miracle upset. Things have changed since then, and though I get nostalgic sometimes, I would have to say for the better. Tomb of Horrors survives as a relic and a curiosity from the old days. These Fourth Edition kids can hold on to the newly-installed safety rails to get a taste of what it was like in the frontier days of D+D.

Test of Time. Would I play this today? Well, maybe. If the players involved knew what they were in for, and they had a pack of back-up characters prepped and ready to go to fill party losses. Or maybe I would add a “respawn” option, with some minor penalty accruing for each loss of life, to give the players a fair shot at finishing the dungeon. I often thought about running this game but allowing the players metagaming knowledge. They could not research the game while they were playing, but they would be free to use any information they remembered from playing the game in the past. Perhaps the characters are modern gamers sucked into a fantasy world. Perhaps they read diaries of other adventurers who attempted the tomb. Whatever. I would never, ever just send players in unprepared.

To me, Tomb of Horrors represents Gygax at his worst: a controlling, sadistic DM out to butcher his players and then laugh about it. I have known two gamers who have played with Gygax and they both recounted similar stories of frustration as he wiped out their players and then gloated about it. Interestingly, there is a note to beginning GM’s at the beginning of B2 to NOT behave in this way. I wonder if Mr. Gygax had a revelation, or if he just started to lose friends.

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