(Be sure to read the counterpart piece: The Best Adventure of All Times)

This, right here, is a symbol. A personal symbol of mine. It represents all the wrong, backward thinking that people have about being a GM. I first encountered it in the early ’80’s when I was a player and not a GM. I didn’t have the actual adventure, rather, I heard about it from someone else.

“Have you heard about the Tomb of Horrors?” they asked me.

I shook my head. “No.”

“It’s supposed to be the deadliest dungeon ever made!”

Now, at the time, that sounded impressive to me. The deadliest dungeon ever made? Something I’d have to check out.

For those young kids out there reading my blog, you may not know this, but gaming stores didn’t exist back when I stared playing. No, we had to hit up hobby shops. Places with model trains, model planes and the like with the gaming stuff shoved in the back corner, away from the sight of god and man. That’s because Oprah Winfrey told all our parents that D&D was out to turn us all into Satanists.

You couldn’t ask them to order anything. You couldn’t ask the store owner anything really and expect an intelligent answer. Most of them didn’t know what they were ordering. But when a shipment of stuff came in, we gamers bought it all. We had no idea what anything was. It didn’t matter. You bought what you could get and that was it.

(Years later, I could head over to Uncle Hugos or The Source in Minneapolis. But that was way beyond the days we’re talking about now.)

So, when I heard about The Tomb of Horrors, my little 12 year old brain hit overdrive. The deadliest dungeon ever made! Oh, how I’d love to put my players through that kind of torture!

One day, I hit up the hobby shop to see what random pile of stuff the owner ordered. Flipping through the thin booklets, looking at the covers, reading the text on the front and back, figuring out what I would spend my $10 on this week, I stumbled across a pamphlet a little thicker than the rest. It had a deep green cover with a brilliant Jeff Dee illustration. (Jeff has always been my favorite D&D artist.) And there, in bold type across the top, I read the words…

Tomb of Horrors.

It said, “An Adventure for Character Levels 10-14.” I had players with characters level 10-14. What a coincidence! I grabbed it—knowing it wouldn’t be in the store for ten more minutes if I didn’t—and paid the guy at the front, ripped open the plastic and started reading it right away.

My twelve-year old brain started firing on all cylinders. The adventure came with a booklet of illustrations (damn fine ones, if I do say so) so I could show the players scenes from the tomb as they tried to find their way to the secret vault holding both a vast amount of treasure and the deadly lich lurking there. As I read through the pages, I soaked up the details of all the deadly traps, noting the lack of almost any monsters. And, to be honest, the monsters were pretty much push-overs. It was the traps that would make this little poison morsel so wonderful!

I couldn’t wait until Friday.

Friday came. My players sat down with their characters, unknowing of the unholy dangers waiting for them. I kept the adventure in my backpack, my usual notes on the table. And, I began the evening without even mentioning the tomb. No, they went along their usual adventuring ways, helping out villagers and farmers, tackling bandits and evil wizards. The standard fare.

But I knew the thief in the party was big on collecting maps. So, when they came across a small village with an old, retired wizard with scroll collection for sale, both my own wizard and thief were equally intrigued. Tucked among the scrolls was an old hand-drawn map. “What’s this?” the thief asked.

The wizard’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said. “Don’t take that! There’s nothing but death and doom for you there!”

My heroic adventurers inquired further and he warned them. “That map leads to an ancient place… a place where my friends all died horrible deaths.” (I emphasized Horror there, as foreshadowing.)

With that, I knew I had them. They bought the map, despite the warnings. The wizard said, “That place killed everyone I ever loved. I pray you do not meet the same fate.”

They ignored him. Of course they did.

They followed the map. I led them across a few awful places, ambushed them with a few awful monsters, led them to a mountain range covered in snow, and there, they discovered a single tunnel leading into the rock.

That’s when I took the Tomb of Horrors out of my bag. “And we’ll be playing this… next week,” I told them.

The reaction was better than I expected. A scream so loud, it invoked angry parents.

Yeah, I made them wait a week. And for those seven days, they bugged me. Prodded me with questions. I said nothing. I gave them nothing. They knew we were about to go through The Deadliest Dungeon Ever Made and they were ready for it.

Except, they weren’t.

That Fucking Mouth

A week later, my players sat down at our table and we began exploring the dungeon.

I use “began exploring” because didn’t finish. The entire session lasted… maybe twenty minutes.

My players were lucky enough to choose the long corridor in the middle. And they…

Oh, wait. I should say something here about spoilers. Yeah, there’s spoilers ahead. As in, I’m about to tell you how and why the dungeon works. And you know what?

YOU SHOULD KEEP ON READING.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve ever played the Tomb of Horrors, plan on playing the Tomb of Horrors or never intend on ever playing through the Tomb of Horrors, you should read every damn word. Every damn word. Because this entire essay is a WARNING.

THIS IS THE WORST, SHITTIEST, MOST DISGUSTING PIECE OF PIG VOMIT EVER PUBLISHED.  AND EVERY PLAYER AND GM SHOULD KNOW WHY SO SOMETHING LIKE THIS NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN. IN FACT, I’M PUTTING THE SPOILERS IN BOLD RED SO YOU CAN SEE THEM.

Anyway…

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.

Because that’s making sure your players are having fun.

They went down the long corridor, read the useless riddle on the floor, cautiously avoided all the pit traps and made it to the end of the corridor where they found a misty archway and a green devil’s face. The devil’s face has an open mouth just big enough for someone to fit inside. The booklet told me to say that. Told me to encourage players to climb in.

Problem is, that devil’s face is an instant kill. That’s right. No saving throw, no hit point loss, nothing. You’re character’s dead. You’re welcome.

Because, you know, that’s making sure your players are having fun.

One of my players had his character crawl into the mouth. The actual text from the adventure:

The mouth of the green devil’s face is the equivalent of a fixed sphere of annihilation. Anyone who passes through the devil’s mouth appears to simply vanish into the darkness but they are completely destroyed with no chance to resist.

After he went into the mouth, I said, “He vanishes.” That’s it. I said nothing else. Because that’s what the adventure encouraged me to do.

Then, one by one, my players each had their characters climb into the green devil’s face. And one by one, their characters were irrevocably killed.

By me. I did it. I killed their characters. No saving throw. Nothing.

And… forgive me, Discordia… I enjoyed it. I loved it. One by one, I killed each of their characters. My first TPK.

When the last character climbed in and was utterly destroyed, I jumped up and laughed at all of them. “YOU’RE ALL DEAD!” I shouted.

They looked at me confused. One of them asked, “What are you talking about?”

I read the text to them. They didn’t believe me. I showed the text to them, laughing.

“You guys didn’t even make it passed the first corridor!” I said, laughing in their faces.

It was at that point one of my friends—someone I had known for three years—punched me right in the face. Then, he jumped on me. Kicking me. My other friends had to pull him off.

This was the second week in a row we invoked the appearance of parents.

I should say that the next Monday at school was rough. As a geek, I had precious little friends. That Monday, I quickly discovered I had none.

Bashful and lacking any kind of the confidence I would find later in life, I was unable to summon the courage to apologize. I spent the rest of that year without any friends at all. They continued playing games. I spent the rest of the year just reading. Alone.

And the thing I read the most was the Tomb of Horrors. I kept going back to that adventure, wondering what I did wrong. Why did my friends hate me so much? They knew we were going into The Deadliest Dungeon Ever. They were prepared for the consequences. They knew their characters might die… why were they so pissed at me?

It was only later when my parents approached the parents of the boy who hit me that I was able to talk to my friends again. With all of them present, I finally apologized. My parents didn’t understand what was going on, why they all hated me. They barely understood was a roleplaying game was, let alone why we got so emotional about it. But after that apology, we talked a little while. And we all agreed we should try the adventure again with the same characters. We’d tackle this thing and defeat it.

They played through it. After four weeks of sessions, they defeated the lich as the center of the tomb and got away with all the treasure. And now I’m going to tell you a secret that I never told any of them.

I cheated the whole way through.

I did everything in my power to protect their characters from the tomb. I made up saving throws for stuff that was instant kills. I dropped them hints. I even made up a bit that isn’t in the adventure: writing on the walls from previous adventurers, telling my group, “This is how we beat this trap.”

I had never modified an adventure before. Tomb of Horrors was the one that showed me how. I even invented Luck Points for my players, allowing them to spend a point if they missed a roll so they could try again. Much later, I would see similar mechanics in other games and I smiled.

Someone else must have run Tomb of Horrors, too.

The adventure completely transformed me as a GM. It made me re-think my role with the players. Running the game with the intention of looking out for them was so much fun… much more fun than I’d ever had before.

As we look back at our lives, we see patterns and chapters. Tomb of Horrors was an important moment in my life, both as a GM, a game designer and as a friend.

And it took the Worst Adventure Ever Written to make me understand that.

Coda

Much later in life, I met the author of that adventure. Gary and I were on a game design panel together. I said something I don’t quite remember and he called me a “wanna be community theater actor.” I wanted to tell him how his adventure nearly lost me every friend I had when I was twelve. Didn’t seem appropriate at the time.

But I also learned that Gary’s intention in creating that adventure was to kill off powerful characters. To teach players a lesson and put them in their place.

And I remembered being twelve years old, seeing my role as the GM in that light. “This is my world,” I thought. “And I can take you out of it any time I want.”

Fast forward even more years. I’m at a convention, sitting alone in a room, having a quiet moment to myself. A guy walks in, asks me, “I’m sorry. Am I in the wrong room?”

“Nah,” I told him. “This room was empty so I was using it.” I started packing up my stuff. “You’re in the right place.”

He smiled and told me, “I’m running Tomb of Horrors.” He said it was a gleam in his eye. “I converted it to 5th Edition. Wanna play?”

“I really shouldn’t,” I told him. “I’ve run it before. I know all the traps and stuff.”

He said, “Oh, that’s okay!” Then, he told me, “If you don’t help them out at all, it should be fine.”

I paused. Ran my tongue over my teeth. It’s a habit I have when I’m thinking. Then, I said, “Okay. Here’s the deal. I play a thief. I’ll specialize in finding traps. I won’t say a word about anything unless I find a trap, then I’ll tell them how the trap works. How does that sound?”

He agreed. I made up my standard thief character (the kid from the tavern) and the other players joined us. The GM had characters ready for them and handed them out. He explained my unique position and gave each of them 70,000 gold pieces to buy magic items and equipment.

I said, “Wait a second. Seventy thousand?

The GM nodded. “That’s right.”

“One gold piece feeds a family of four for a year and each of us has seventy thousand gold pieces?

He nodded again. “Yup.”

I told the other players, “Fuck this dungeon. Let’s go home. Live like kings. We don’t need to go in there. We each have seventy thousand gold pieces. Let’s buy a tavern… fuck that… let’s buy a city and be done with it.”

To their credit, the players considered that notion for a moment… then agreed they wanted to play the adventure.

“Okay,” I said. And bought the one and only magic item I wanted.

The adventure began. We found the first entrance.

“I roll for traps,” I said. And succeeded. I then told the rest of the players this is a death trap. If we walk down the corridor, we’ll step on a click plate (TM Grimtooth) and set off the ceiling falling on us and killing us.”

The rest of the players agreed to not go down that corridor. We then approached the second corridor.

“I check for traps,” I said and succeeded. I then told the rest of the players this is a death trap. If we walk down that corridor and try to open one of the two doors, a stone wall drops down, trapping us in. The walls then collapse on us, crushing us. We shouldn’t go in there.”

The rest of the players agreed to not go down that corridor. We then approached the third corridor.

We started walking down the corridor with me checking for traps every ten feet. I didn’t tell them about the secret passage at the bottom of the pit at the very beginning that allows you to skip a third of the dungeon because it isn’t a trap, but it’s there anyway, and you should find it and save yourself the trouble of trudging through a third of this worthless, piece of shit adventure.

When we got to the end of the corridor, we encountered the green devil face. With a mouth just big enough to fit inside.

The GM looked at me. I said nothing. After all, it’s not a trap. The green demon face is just a sphere of annihilation. I can’t check for spheres of annihilation, I can only check for traps.

The players started debating whether or not to get in. That’s when I spoke up.

“If you do,” I said, “you should leave all your stuff behind. After all, if something happens to you, we’ll need it to get through the rest of the dungeon.”

The player agreed and dropped off his pack. Then, he climbed into the mouth and vanished.

The other players looked at me. I shrugged. I said nothing.

Another player said, “Maybe I should go after him.” I gave them the same warning. They agreed, left their stuff behind, got into the demon mouth and vanished.

The third player asked me, “Should I get in, too?” I shrugged and said nothing.

So, the third player just climbed in—without leaving behind their stuff—and vanished.

I looked at the GM and said, “Do you want to tell them or should I?”

The GM grinned and told them, “All your characters are dead.”

I nodded and said, “I pick up the stuff they left behind, throw it in my bag of holding (the only magic item I bought), go home, sell all their stuff and retire. Fuck this dungeon.”

I dropped my d20 like a mic and left the room.

Because I’m a wanna be community theater actor. And that’s how we fuckin’ roll.

(dedicated to jim pinto and Jesse Heinig)

___

PS: I’m adding this a few hours after I wrote it, but it’s important for you to know. If you do finish the adventure, to prove the whole thing is nothing more than a way for a sadistic prick to get his jollies off, as a final “FU” from Gary, the treasure in the lich’s tomb is cursed. Just thought you should know.

The Worst Adventure of All Times

149 thoughts on “The Worst Adventure of All Times

    1. One of the best RPG articles I’ve ever read. I only recently played TOH and I found it boring and frustrating as hell. And of course I died.

  • I love this article and mostly, because I have played for 38 years (nearly all of them as a Dungeon Master) and have concluded that the story is OUR story. The adventures are OUR adventures. I utterly despise DMs that make it a contest. Or go out of their way to limit what players want to do. It’s egotistical, arrogant and childish to push a group to do what YOU want them to do or to punish them for interacting in a way you didn’t predict.

    Granted, sometimes they need a little push, or a pull in the right direction to keep things moving. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve always tried to pull together a world, let the players explore it and together, create stories. And I enjoy the overarching story arc in RPG’ing. But I try to always leave holes that the players fill in with their own imaginations (or even paranoia). 🙂

    You’re welcome at my table anytime. And don’t worry… no pre-made, sadistic TPK bullshit played here.

    If you’re interested, you can check out my current campaign world here:

    http://www.edelrend.wordpress.com

    Cheers,

    Bart H.
    Columbia, MD

        1. You laughed at and taunted your friends when their characters died? Gee, I wonder why you got a punch in the face? It’s a real mystery alright…. Don’t blame the module, blame the 12-yo child jeering at his only friends in the world.

    1. Your not a good GM or player if you can’t add a little something to an obviously deathtrap of a game. I have had nothing but good GMs and am learning to GM AND have a mental problem and I still have more imagination in one cell of my brain than you will ever have in your entire thought process let alone your brain. As for all the swearing, that just proves that you are low class and can not articulate a thought.

  • What an incredible story, and a well writen highly entertain story! Thanks for sharing, brings back a lot of great, and not so great, memories. I also have a G.G. anecdote from when I asked him what he thought of Vampire, but best leave it for FfF, lol.

  • I might have bought a Talisman of the Sphere instead. It allows you to turn the Sphere of Annihilation into your own trap-disarmer, wall-demolisher, and “screw you dungeon, I go where I want”-inator.

  • “Fuck this dungeon”

    …that’s for goddamn sure.

    I ran this ala Paranoia style- each player got 6 “Clones” because I knew stupid shit would happen. I reckoned if they couldn’t figgure out how dangerous something was in 6 tries, they didn’t deserve to be 11th level.

  • I have a character that has been through this dungeon twice. A Kender Handler in 2nd edition. Lost a few fellow adventurers the first time and completed it through Kender luck, rogue skill, and because I was carrying a couple of cursed items that actually saved my life. We killed the lich
    But had no idea of the demi-lich. Sold the treasure, and I returned with a new group of adventurers(same DM) when we heard rumor of evil still lurking in the Tomb. Because I knew where everything was(and 15th level instead of 10th) we sailed through with nary an incident and this time killed the Demi-lich. Tarnick Rabbitsfoot still refers to the Tomb az Disneyland.

  • So much sentimental negativity over one module because of past transgressions? See it works both ways – as some of the older generations “love” something beyond logic – you are here expressing the exact opposite.
    I am sorry but no – there are almost no instant kill traps in a game where you can divine the future by communicating with your gods to ask them questions or summon cannon fodder and sent it forward to test the waters. There are many things that experienced players can and will do – no matter the edition mind you – to test for traps. So ti all comes back to players’ and DM’s experience and impartiality in this module.
    A tough unfair dungeon design to kill of boasters? Yes it is. Gary has pretty much said it plainly.
    But still careful thought and powerful characters can and will brave it and will probably come out in one piece….probably.

    1. This! Exactly. Even though I’ve been running 3.5/Pathfinder exclusively for the last fifteen years, I confess to a certain amount of disdain for a system so utterly bankrupt of consequences. If you choose to run a valued character in ToH, then you had better act like you value that character.

    2. As much as I still find John in the wrong in this article; it really pains me to read some replies of people who are expressing the eaxct opposite but equally wrong sentimentality (my word? gotta search up on it)

      For the love of gaming….Are people REALLY blaming a 12 year old DM or his friends for their behaviour!?!?!?!?!? Calling them morons??? Or attributing to John mistakes that I see DMs with decades experience still make?

      Or the drama!?!?! Man! As if friendships have not been temporarily broken over a game of footie or a girl or a wrong joke??!?!?

      Come on! We are better than this…

  • You are right – a good DM is all about brinksmanship. Take them to the edge, dangle them over, but only let them fall if they do it themselves. Kind of like pulling someone on an inner tube behind a boat – it is really easy to throw them off, but it takes skill to know how long they can hang on.

  • “You couldn’t ask them to order anything. You couldn’t ask the store owner anything really and expect an intelligent answer. Most of them didn’t know what they were ordering. But when a shipment of stuff came in, we gamers bought it all. We had no idea what anything was. It didn’t matter. You bought what you could get and that was it.” Still recovering from this paragraph!

  • Well, a few gaming stores did exist in odd corners, in the eighties; at least in Buffalo NY. I went to several, and my then boyfriend (who had been playing RPGs since the first ever D&D came out when he was about 12), haunted them constantly. Truth be told, they were mish-mash places with comics, posters and the like, but they did have games of all sorts, and miniatures and dice and free gaming tables. The game store owners were sort of gods providing our manna– it was like belonging to a cult, then, as you describe. I did hear about Tomb of Horrors once or twice– a rumor of an adventure no one wanted to play. Now I know why. Thanks for the entertaining story.

    1. I was thinking the very same thing about Buffalo. Clayton’s Toy Store carried D&D, and I remember a very long bus ride to a shop at Kenmore and Elmwood, to pick up Top Secret I believe. Didn’t realize it was a gaming mecca for the time.

  • In the end, the purpose of the game is to create a story in our minds, and the role of the GM is to make it a great story. True, the story of the TPK of all your top level characters is memorable, but not enjoyable.

  • Sorry to break this to you, but your players were morons.

    Seriously, what group of players goes into a dungeon which (according to your own account) they knew full well was known as “The Deadliest Dungeon Ever Made”, and decide that “Herp derp, let’s all crawl into this stone demon mouth one by one!” is a good idea?

    When my group went through it, we were likewise aware of its reputation, and that awareness enabled us to approach it with enough paranoia caution to get through it without anyone dying. And because the module’s focus on traps made it a battle of wits against the environment itself, rather than just another hack-and-slash dungeon crawl, we had a great time.

    But if your players didn’t even ask themselves, “Hey, is there anything good that could come out of crawling into a demon’s mouth in The Deadliest Dungeon Ever Made?”, it’s pretty obvious they were wholly unprepared for that sort of battle.

        1. If I pick a fight with guy who turns out to be a MMA fighter, it’s not his fault I get my butt kicked. It’s my fault. That is not victim blaming, that is common sense.

          Here, we need to blame the DM. @John: you were a POOR and UNPREPARED DM. You had a group of naïve players and you picked the wrong fight/adventure for your party.

          See, a good DM knows of his players’ habits. If they are impulsive and/or naïve such that they are likely to walk though the mouth, then they aren’t a good match for this dungeon. Did they cast detect magic? Did they try sending through inanimate objects first and scry them? My players got past the mouth without issue. But I have smart, seasoned players who know how to navigate a thinking-person’s dungeon. I didn’t have to cheat or protect them at all. (Oh, and they check for curses on magic items too before using them.)

          A DM’s goal is not to kill players, but to challenge them appropriately for their level and skill. YOU FAILED YOUR PLAYERS. And then you blame the dungeon??? Your fault for picking it. You won’t take RESPONSIBILITY

          So we established you were a POOR and UNPREPARED DM, who FAILED HIS PLAYERS and still will not take RESPONSBILITY for his error. But wait, you then laughed at them when they died? You’re a SADIST and JACKASS. The dungeon didn’t make you lose your friends, your attitude did.

          1. Game design 101: if you make something look fun and inviting, people will go for it. If you make two out of three paths into instakill, no save paths, two out of three adventurers are going to get killed. And the most likely scenario in a dungeon should be all players escaping unharmed, not all players getting their asses drilled by saveless, soulless, pointless death-traps. And the book *encouraged* GMs to present them in a misleading way.

            This is not fun. This is bullshit.

        2. Not that I disagree with you per se, but I really don’t see much of a difference between “Tomb of Horrors” and your GM-ing style as you described it in the “Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts” article. So… Pot, meet kettle?

          1. Sorry John, but you are definitely splitting hairs there. I like your books and have gotten lots of ideas from them, but from a player perspective there isn’t much difference between the dick DM who kills off a beloved character and the dick DM who gets me to quit a game because he’s “crushing the things” my character loves. You claim to hate the former, but relish your role in the latter.

          2. The Champions campaign was unique. Says so in the book. Also, you’re ignoring all the changes from when I was running games in 1988. 😉

      1. D&D is a shared storytelling experience. What happens during a session cannot be entirely credited to or blamed upon the DM. Players’ actions have consequences to the story too; and if the actions they choose to take have negative repercussions, who would you suggest should take the blame?

        (“Well, gosh, maybe casting Lightning Bolt at a monster while we were all up to our knees in water wasn’t a great idea, but I wouldn’t have done it if the DM hadn’t put the monster in a lake, so it’s his fault we all got shocked, not mine!”)

        1. When pointing out why people deserve their fate, try to include the clothes they were wearing. I see that a lot online too so I guess it works sometimes.

          1. Mm, yes. But, oddly, though you responded in order to associate me with rape apologists, you didn’t actually answer my question.

            If it’s wrong to point out the players’ accountability for their own actions, then who should be blamed when the players’ choices have negative repercussions?

  • “The GM looked at me. I said nothing. After all, it’s not a trap. The green demon face is just a sphere of annihilation. I can’t check for spheres of annihilation, I can only check for traps.

    The players started debating whether or not to get in. That’s when I spoke up.

    “If you do,” I said, “you should leave all your stuff behind. After all, if something happens to you, we’ll need it to get through the rest of the dungeon.”

    The player agreed and dropped off his pack. Then, he climbed into the mouth and vanished.

    The other players looked at me. I shrugged. I said nothing.

    Another player said, “Maybe I should go after him.” I gave them the same warning. They agreed, left their stuff behind, got into the demon mouth and vanished.”

    No one thought of casting augury? A simple 2nd level clerical spell? Stepping in a sphere of annihilation is a pretty clear case of woe.

  • We enjoyed the hell out of this module. And only one PC died, and one was maimed. They loved the challenge.

  • The Author is kind of a major A-hole.Sitting around like a smug jerk that already knew the answers. I’m sure that was a pretty important feeling to horde those precious secrets that the other players didn’t know. It take special kind of person to find that entertaining.

    Also, that part (playing it in 5th ed) didn’t happen at all. Complete fabrication. Extra sad that /that/ was best sense of closure the imagination could conjure.

  • I warned my players in advance what kind of dungeon this was going to be.

    One of them showed up with a cleric. It turns out the second level spell Find Traps is defined as “When a cleric casts a find traps spell, all traps – concealed normally or magically – of magical or mechanical nature become visible to him or her.”, is directional, and lasts three turns (30 minutes).

    I had to cheat as DM just so they didn’t cheese the entire dungeon with that one spell.

  • My son just started playing. He is 14. I have an original copy of this POS module, which I played in and died in 37 or 8 years ago. I was going through the old modules just a week ago trying to find an easy one just to get him started. It was like a tiptoe through fond memories. Until I found that one.

  • My players learned early on to be Leary of Teleports (or holes in mouths that make things disappear) — Because: they could well be Disintegrates. Smart informed players have ways of dealing with instant death options.., Including not doing them at all, and doubling back to look for Secret doors… again, and again. If a player got to 11-14th level without learning that, then perhaps that player got there too easy.

    However — I agree that ToH shouldn’t have been run by an uniformed 12 yr old… Some thought might have been put in to advertise it in such a way as to dissuade rather then ultimately encourage… Like text warning the GM that he is likely to lose his friends, and that this is NOT a fun Adventure, but rather an adventure truly designed to knock players back down from their high horses and deal.

    Now, to those who managed the Module easily, I say: Most likely your GM wimped out, much as I did when I was running it, and gave hints, or let little clues slip in. If ToH is done deadpan and to the hilt, with players devoid of foreknowledge, characters die. MOST GM’s are not as inclined to allow this to happen as much as they claim, or we think. Before you Brag TOO much, think hard on how your adventure truly went down. Was there that player who peeked at or knew the module and subtly helped you out? Did someone read the GM’s Tell, and decided not to go in the hole? Was it really all that easy?

    Lastly: I think the writer was clever and made GREAT points— TPK’s are pointless destructive if they aren’t deserved — showing a failure on the GM (Or the module designer in this argument) as much as on the Players, if not more. I do subscribe to the need for mortality to be part of the game. A heroic death is better then a Tasha Yar Death, but if Death doesn’t happen, surviving has no value.

    But the bottom line — it’s the GM who runs the Module. — and chooses what to use and how to use it.

  • I’m an older player, but I first ran this dungeon only a few years ago for some younger players using 1st edition rules so they could see what it was like. We used the pregenerated tournament characters included with the module. When the first character died the player asked me if she could respawn. I didn’t want her to be left out of the rest of the game and the module assumes that players will be controlling multiple characters, (which we used to do all the time in the old days) so I told her yes, but we would keep track of how many times everyone died so we could determine who “won.” (Remember this was originally designed for TOURNAMENT play.) Everyone loved it and had a great time dying. When I ran Return to the Tomb of Horrors a few months later using 2nd edition, we decided to have everyone ante up $1 and pay an additional $1 for each respawn. Whoever died the least got to keep the pot. Tomb of Horrors is one of my favorite adventures, but everyone need to understand what they are getting into and not take their favorite character in to die permanently. And of course most importantly, remember that it’s just a game.

    1. in really like your solutions here. sounds like a blast.

      w/$ on the line I bet everyone was suuuuper careful, ha!

  • I remember buying ToH. I read through the dungeon in preparation to have my friends run it. I quickly determined that I would have to “cheat” if I wanted them to make it through as a group. Rewriting portions of that Dungeon is what led me to writing almost all of their future campaigns. It really was a terrible Dungeon (albeit on purpose)

  • This is a fantastic article! I had my wife read it, friends read it, and made sure to share it it. I know I own this adventure from back in the day but never ran it. I have to say I love the pay off of your return to the tomb. *grinning*

  • Good story. I still like the dungeon. I read it over and over again but didn’t run it until after college. After everyone else was told to leave the room, the last player decided to toss a rope into the mouth, and found four feet missing and a slightly singed end. Who’s laughing now at the 10′ pole and the 50′ feet of rope?! After that I think he invented the term “NOPE”

    As an aside I’m not sure I agree with the game store comment. Since you specifically mention The Source and Uncle Hugo’s, implying that they were the only places to buy games, I have to speak up for my childhood store. The Little Tin Soldier on Lake street in South Minneapolis picked up RPG’s fairly quickly. (Next to WoodCraft Hobby and eventually became Phoenix Games) You may be speaking to a few years earlier but as far as I know I was able to buy modules and manuals there as soon as they came out. I probably shopped there from 1980 to 88′;and then whenever I visited during college.

  • I can see why many people agree with this perspective. I don’t. In my first few weeks of gaming, I went through more than a dozen characters before I had one live and that was long before I had ever experienced Tomb of Horrors. By the time I played Tomb, I had had only one character that had reached 12th level – either do to GMs finishing their campaigns, or character deaths. When I did finally play Tomb of Horrors, I was ready. Quite honestly, the harshness of the adventure it exactly WHY I loved it as a player. I enjoy what I heard a Paizo employee dubbed “Save or Suck” effects – Save or Die. For me, if a reasonable chance at failure, with death being included in that isn’t a part of the game experience, what’s the point of playing? As a player, the most fun I have as a player occur right up to the point Fireball becomes available, after that, playing isn’t fun anymore for me. So, I completely disagree with his opinion.

  • It sounds to me like the author is a bitter old man that can’t let go of a painful childhood memory – one that he shares a fair portion of the blame for having in the first place. But I can forgive a child for speaking like one. But Mr Wick isn’t a child anymore, but a foul-mouthed wannabe with an axe to grind. He seems to have a personal enmity towards Gary Gygax, who conveniently, isn’t alive to defend himself from Mr. Wick’s claim. He can remember a quip from Mr. Gygax from years ago, but even more conveniently, can’t recall what he said just prior to it. Of course you can’t, Mr. Wick, of course you can’t. This entire blog post is one long view into your inability to see your own faults – and it’s shameful.

    Honestly, the sad nature of this blog is such that I’d actually have MORE respect for you if it was just a click-bait post to get attention for your website – because the alternative is pathetic at best.

    I’ve run ToH several times, I’ve had players meet a similar end as described and I’ve had players be successful. What is a constant is the fun everyone’s had. While it clearly is meant to be, I do not usually run it in campaigns but as a one-shot. It is challenging, it is deadly and failure to be over-prepared is a recipe for disaster. This is the point of the adventure. If you have 10th-14th level characters, and you came by them honestly, then you should have already learned the lesson of having an abundance of caution. If you are/were a Monte Haul DM and send your players into the ToH, YOU have failed your friends.

    And, Mr. Wick, it’s DM, not GM.

  • Somehow I got my eyes on this article. I didn’t even knew that a Jon Wick existed beyond the awesome Keanu Reaves movie.

    Jonny, you got the dungeon feeling all wrong. You don’t go to Undermoutain thinking that it will be three rooms and a boss. No, you go to Undermountain and get lots of days of sessions, because its f***ing huge.

    Tomb of horrors was designed to be a player killer, and “she” does it well.

    Eleven years ago I run this adventure with my group, and I knew exactly what was going to happen. They died, all but one. So next week the sole survivor went back to town searching for help to retrieve her fallen friends, and the adventure started again.

    Eventually, after four tries, they finished, the souls of the fallens were freed, and revived by magic (something common in d&d), and all the players really enjoyed the adventure.

    Thing is, dont expect to taste Coca when you drink Pepsi.

  • A lot of harsh words over a simple stroll down memory lane. I too was usually DM in my group. Not because I was so good at, but I think more likely because no one else wanted to do it. Made a lot of mistakes on the way, and possed off a lot of friends in the almost 40 years I have been playing. One truism I have found is that survivabilty always makes my players happy. Any one who has played regularly with me knows that everything has a survivabilty factor, and if their character dies it’s because they didn’t look hard enough for the duex machina. It is a game after all; nothing more, nothing less. And, we all felt like the challenge of keeping a character alive after level 7 or 8 diminished somewhat. So, I ended up with notebooks full of such experienced characters.

    ToH specifically; never made it deeper than the first hall myself.

  • Augury. Send a length of rope through the mouth. Anything besides just climbing in. ToH does give you a chance if your brain working properly.

    I ran this module. It got very boring because people weren’t doing the obviously stupid shit to get themselves killed. Green devil face with a mouth void of light even when you shine a torch in it? Don’t climb in! Pile of skeletons sitting around a glowing orange orb? Don’t fucking touch it! Endlessly long hallway with voices at the other side? Walk very, very slow and get off the lever as soon as it starts to tilt.

    1. I’m totally on board with this train of thought. I have to say, it’s weird that so much of this is focused on the adventure. I mean, I know it’s a roleplaying site, but this is not a roleplaying issue. It’s an empathy issue.

      12 year old John Wick didn’t get punched in the face because he was a bad DM, or because the adventure sucked. 12 year old John got punched in the face because he acted like a jerk. He laughed in his friends’ faces. The adventure says where the sphere of annihilation is and how to describe it, but it doesn’t encourage you to taunt the players afterwords. He did that all on his own.

  • I feel I must disagree with the uninformed author’s description of this iconic work as “pig vomit.”

    Tomb of Horrors was originally created for Origins 1 as a kind of D&D tournament, with multiple sessions played with different parties to see who could get the farthest before the nigh-unavoidable TPK.

    At least in its “pure” form (less-lethal versions were released for later editions), it was NEVER MEANT TO BE BEATABLE. It is not a fun, heroic adventure where you and your friends weave a wonderful story together, it is a no-punches-pulled standard of measurement by which to compare your parties’ survival instincts to other parties. This is a dungeon you run for a bunch of pregen characters when you have nothing better to do; *nobody* should be running this with a longstanding campaign filled with veteran characters, unless they’re looking to end a few friendships.

    That said, I’ve always felt that the above explanation/warning of mine has been woefully absent from most versions of the module; instead, Mr. Gygax saw fit to describe it only as a “high risk” dungeon, or a “thinking man’s” adventure, which very much undersells its lethality.

    tl;dr – Saying that the Tomb of Horrors is “the worst adventure of all times” is rather like saying that the M2 Flamethrower is “the worst fire extinguisher of all times.” You are not using it as intended.

  • From the introduction to this module:

    “As clever players will gather from a reading of the Legend of the
    Tomb, this dungeon has more tricks and traps than it has monsters
    to fight. THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE. AND IF YOUR
    GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE
    UNHAPPY! In the latter case, it is better to skip the whole thing than
    come out and tell them that there are few monsters. It is this writer’s
    belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly
    benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be
    improved by reasoning and experience – if you regularly pose problems
    to be solved by brains and not brawl, your players will find this
    module immediately to their liking.”

    Yeah, blame the crappy DM who took a bunch of noob 12-year old children through an adventure that was designed for experienced Players.

  • TOH is a fun adventure which has the particular virtue that it is ideal, when using the pre-gens, for people who are new to roleplaying. I’ve run it a couple of times for such groups and they have had a great time because they were playing the roles of characters entering danger perfectly – something newbies are often good at in any context. The group dynamics were particularly good as there is a need for a lot of discussion, which again engenders role-play.

    The irony of this rant is that TOH is an exceptionally good story-generator; far beyond any tame story-telling game can achieve because it contains real threat and danger to the characters. So when you say

    “I did everything in my power to protect their characters from the tomb. I made up saving throws for stuff that was instant kills. I dropped them hints. I even made up a bit that isn’t in the adventure: writing on the walls from previous adventurers, telling my group, “This is how we beat this trap.””

    what you’re actually saying is “I broke the adventure and ruined it for everyone”.

    Your example of the 5e run-though is a great example of the fun of the TOH – because it was funny. Yeah, funny. The players played badly (no one had a stick to test it with?) and the PCs died. I’ve seen it happen and everyone had a good time laughing at themselves. That’s a classic story right there and all you could do was pout because you wanted pretending to be an elf to be serious business. That’s pretty sad.

    Anyway, it’s your loss.

  • So much vehmonence… No not John. I mean the comments. I think the problem here is that RPG means different things to different people. I personally relate to john’s ideas, and the success of his new Kickstarter shows there are plenty of others. If you are hard core and always play against an aggressive dm, have the biggest penis, and beat toh because it’s easy, then clearly this blog isn’t for you. Rather that criticizing the author for not doing it right at 12 on his own blog why don’t you go masturbate to your 1st edition toh on your own internets.

  • It feels to me that a lot of the commentators are missing the point John’s making here (granted it’s muddled by the vehemence lobbed at the module.) First of all, they were 12 with a hobby that made them essentially social outcasts and here you have John as DM…ooh the power, and you have this fabled adventure you hear whispers about – SO COOL! A module, which activelyy encourages you to make light of the traps to kill off the PCs.

    The real point of this article is the problem with the idea that it’s DM/GM vs Players. There’s a big difference between unwittingly dropping a TPK module just because you can and making a game out of it. When you’re going into ToH with the knowledge that it’s going to kill you, that you need to be crafty and whatnot, then the Players are in on it with the DM – that’s part of what makes it fun. It’s not DM vs PCs if the PCs know the DM is running them through a dungeon designed to kill them and is going to test them – that’s fun – it’s fun expecting to have to come up with something crafty and knowing anything could kill you and when you screw up going “Doh! You got me.” What’s not fun is dropping a death run on PCs with the intent of taking them down a peg or “put them in their place,” which John asserts (granted it’s heresy) GG said is the reason he created the module in the first place.

    1. The point of the article is so muddled by a desire to be entertaining rather than objective, that one wonders if John even knows WHY he thinks it such a bad module.

      And THAT is the point of many of the responses against him. Because after all his writing, after (presumably) 35-40 years, the author STILL hasn’t figured out that he got punched and was ostracized for most of a year WASN’T because of a module (however good or bad it was). It was because 12 year old John was a dick. A big dick. A big, fat, hairy dick.

      Now, all these years later, he still doesn’t seem to get it.

      This would have been a much better article if he had A. decided to stick to facts rather than relive an anecdotal story, B. actually gotten a hold of an original copy of the module so that his facts on the specifics of the module were straight, and C. laid out a clear framework that backed up his opinion.

      He is free to dislike the module. He is free to think it is the worst module ever written. But if he is going to base that opinion because of faded memories of a game he ran decades ago that resulted in a traumatic experience on him?

      Well….

      Seems to me like he hasn’t grown much since he was 12.

      1. Your criticism about being entertaining over objective is a fair one, and the only reason I can reasonably argue what (I suspect) was John’s point is because I’m familiar with his other writing.

        This is really 1/2 of a longer article (see the companion piece,) which is, imo, about John’s rejection of the idea that the PCs are the DM’s playthings, and that the DM’s role is an antagonist (or God?) to the PCs rather than the medium through which the PCs experience the world. I agree, there is clearly resentment over a bad experience that is probably unwarranted when you consider the module’s original intent (or not if GG’s intent was to take powerful PCs down a few pegs as John claims – again hearsay – and not just a unique tournament experience.) I mean, even without “lording” over them, if I killed all of my PCs’ beloved characters without so much as a warning they’d probably sock me too.

        My understanding is that John is pretty anti-random PC death. That if a PC is going to die, they should die in a satisfying and fulfilling way to forward the plot, not because a roll went bad and not because they leapt through a random portal and disappeared from existence. With that philosophy it makes sense to me why this module would represent everything he stands against.

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