(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?


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.



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.


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

  • I’ve never played the Tomb of Horrors, but I want to print this brilliant and well written article out, take it to my usual GM/DM/etc and smack him about the head and neck with it til he gets the goddamned point that players ARE NOT THE ENEMY and the game should be fucking FUN. He’s a good dude, and an excellent player, but man, he runs a game like he’s Josef Stalin and we’re filthy goddamned wreckers. I’ve tried a dozen times, but he just doesn’t get it, but he LOVES playing my games, wherein FUN is number one and STORY a solid second, with those pesky RULES and whatnot coming a distant third. Maybe I will print this out and give it to him, but with less of that beating bit. Still some! Just… less.
    Also, 7th Sea was and is awesome, and the setting for the best game I ever GMed/played. So thanks for that, and this awesome piece as well!

  • I had no idea good DM’s were so hard to find until I started running a game years ago. I thought for sure that people would be fighting to take turns DM’ing. Couple decades later and I’m still running a game that’s essentially SRO, and still, nobody wants to DM. And the DM’s that I’ve heard horror stories about are so prevalent that I understand why, now. Either they suck at storytelling, or they’re rules lawyers, or both. …of course that goes both ways. You have to have players that want to have fun, not rules lawyers. I guess I got lucky. Once you stop taking the game personally, ie, the DM trying to “win”, you actually start having games that you talk about YEARS later, either laughing, or in awe. Or both.

  • “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.”

    To be fair, you present that as if Gary was basically that gleefully-childish kid jumping up and laughing at his players while yelling, “YOU’RE ALL DEAD!” He wasn’t. He didn’t sit down and think, “I want to make an adventure that will kill all players! Mu-ha-ha-ha!” while twirling his mustachios. He wrote this for his own gaming group, including Rob Kuntz’s Robilar and his son, Ernie’s Tenser. These were characters well on their way to being the archetypes of Greyhawk. And, frankly, they were players who were already literally boasting that their characters could handle ANYTHING Gary could throw at them. He intended to teach very specific players a lesson and put very specific, overly-confident-and-mouthy-about-it players in their place.

    I get that your meeting him was clearly pretty off-putting. I didn’t know the man especially well, but he was certainly, at times, gruff and rude, but he was also funny and kind and quite nice at times, too – much like pretty much everyone on the planet.

    He wrote ToH to show what it would be like for a group of adventurers to try to get at the treasure of a demi-lich who did not merely want to make adventurers feel unwelcome but to make sure anyone who had the temerity of entering the tomb would be killed… which, frankly, if you genuinely want to imagine a world of demi-liches and adventurers, is what a demi-lich would do. As an actor, think of it this way – most adventures are “The Tempest”. He wanted to show what it would be like to have an adventure more like “Hamlet”.

    The adventures that Gary developed, when he was just plain developing his adventures and not trying to make the point that no character or player can boast that they’re ready for (and can beat) anything, were, for example, “Keep on the Borderlands”, “Temple of Elemental Evil” the Giants series, the Underdark series, “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”, even stuff that got goofy and surreal, like the Carroll-inspired “Dungeonland” and “The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror”.

    The adventures he genuinely liked creating were genuinely challenging. If the bad guys planned a meeting at 5 PM, and you didn’t get there in time you overhear them or stop them, you were out of luck, and it could be a real set-back… which, frankly, is how stopping villains works in a real life sort of scenario. But all of his adventures (well, okay, almost all) gave you multiple chances to win and multiple ways to get to that victory. He did not think of his players – or any players – as the enemy, nor did he actively try to kill them.

    ToH, on the other hand, is definitely not for everyone. It pretty much said that on the cover. If a GM’s not a pretty savvy GM, and if players aren’t both confident and deserving that confidence, it wasn’t one to even try. It wasn’t meant to be.

    1. I get where you’re coming from because I used to let players get ultimately powerful and then not know how to handle them…not know how to challenge them. But in order for a game to matter…for it to not be a 12 year old jumping up and down and laughing, the players have to have a chance…even if it’s a slim one. No saving throws? No HP damage? Insta-kills are ludicrous. They suck the life out of a game and they suck the justice out of any GM statement and they suck…period.

      So while Gary may not have jumped up and down and laughed (though I kind of think he did), and while he was trying to kill players who he felt had gotten too powerful, he could have made his point better without the Tomb of Horrors. Players would be more likely to accept character death if they have even the smallest chance of survival, and the Tomb of Horrors had so MANY traps that it was highly unlikely that characters would have made it through even with saving throws and HP. Instead of proving to his players that even powerful characters can’t pass EVERY saving throw and that the GM can absolutely stack the odds, he just insta-killed them, he was a dick.

      Or maybe he let the players continue to use their characters after and pretended that horseshit game never happened which is something akin to saying, “I know what I just did was total horseshit and I’d like to move on like that petty lesson was a dream so you don’t all hate me forever.”

      1. Well, I guess I only alluded to this in my first post, but, to clarify, the players and characters from his gaming group when he wrote it DID keep going. The first ever running of ToH included the character Tenser, created and played by Gary’s son Ernie, and Tenser is still, to this day, running around the World of Greyhawk. Same thing with Rob Kuntz’s Robilar – part of the first running of ToH, still running around Greyhawk.

        And when I wrote, “I didn’t know the man especially well”, I meant just that – I did know him, though not especially well. I was lucky enough to take part in a few game sessions he ran at his house. Contrary to what a lot of the posters (and OP) here have written, he was not a dick, he was not an adversarial DM, he didn’t enjoy killing his PCs, and he didn’t go out of his way to do so. He genuinely liked making challenging adventures that were grounded in the reality of the worlds where they were set. He genuinely wanted his players to have fun figuring them out and getting through them.

        His games are obviously not what everyone wants in their gaming, but the arguments here are mostly, “He didn’t foresee what I would want in a gaming experience and write games accordingly, therefore, he’s wrong and/or the worst.”

  • Thanks for this. I’ve always thought it strange that DnD is probably the worst example of a roleplaying game (and now I see one of its creators has no clue of what the hobby he hlped create is all about). In fact, I don’t even really consider DnD to be a roleplaying game. It’s a wargame sim that you *can* roleplay along with if you want. Just like Monopoly can be a roleplaying game, if I stay in character as “the rich property owner” the whole time and say funny phrases in character when buying Park Place or collecting rent. Same thing. The roleplaying games that exist today owe their hobby’s existence to DnD, but DnD isn’t really part of it.

    1. Funny you should mention Monopoly…my group and I got bored and decided to do something different one night. We combined D&D and Monopoly. We used our miniatures as tokens and replaced HP with Monopoly money. If you landed on another PC’s property, the Banker/DM ran a round of combat between the two characters. Loser paid the rent as declared on the board. Last character standing won.

      The point: a good GM regardless of the system is flexible and creative. The whole idea after all is to have a good time. OTOH I’ve known players who send in deliberately overpowered characters just so they can dominate an adventure and act like total D-bags for having done so. *These* are the players for whom ToH is intended.

    2. “(and now I see one of its creators has no clue of what the hobby he hlped create is all about)”

      What a condesending bunch of dribble. Here’s a hint- the “hobby” as you refer to it differs from person to person. What you consider “the hobby” is not what Gary may have considered, or what I have or what half the folks here consider the hobby. What its about is different for every person.

    3. What I see here is a petty jealous boy who never got to play, it is unfortunate you HAD to GM for all your friends, and it is unfortunate that you don’t have the balls to apologise for being the little shit that could murder his friends characters off because they were to pompous to understand there is always something bigger than you. Your parents had to do the deal for you to get back with your friends? Your sad, I wish I had met Gary before he died, not all of us had the chance, you did. And all you thought about was what a shitty module he wrote in tomb of Horrors. never mind 90% of the game system, never mind the dozens of modules, never mind all the business deals. He made millions of dollars and you have done what exactly? oh yeah killed your friends characters off because you were too young to understand the meaning and design of the module you were running.
      Keep whining, those of us with comprehensive abilities and the patience to learn our trade over years know what you are.

  • I hve never played or ur this dungeon, but I did read it through. And in reading it I got an idea about making it playable and possible fun. You play it as “Groundhog Day”. You send in the characters and every time they die they come back (add magic reason here) and they cant leave until they finish it. But every time they die they keep getting more experience and get to know all all rhe traps. By the end they should manage to finish it and come out as badasses.

    1. I played it as GroundHog day as well. Of course I’d been DMing for about 15 years at the time and Dave Arenson had explained WHY Gary created this dungeon so I had a little inside info before I tackled it. However, before or since, I rarely ever play a module exactly as written. Everything should be flexible, including the DM. 🙂

  • Love this article. I came upon Tomb of Horrors as a player at one of TSR’s UK GamesFairs in Reading, having been warned that it was full of party killers. Was playing an “illegal” 15th/16th Cleric / MU at the time, and the DM’s eyes sparkled as he anticipated killing such an over-powered character. I sat down outside the tomb, popped out my crystal ball, and did the whole thing as a projected image. Crestfallen was one way of describing how the DM looked. 😀

    1. I had bought the boxed set “Return to the Tomb of Horrors” having missed the original printing. I ignored the new adventure (maybe I should ready that after all) and got the gang together with their mighty characters and settled down for this terror of an adventure.
      Most of the details of the adventure have blurred. The biggest event that happened was at the beginning one of my players had a number of wishes from a deck of many things… And had wished for the map of the dungeon. The look I gave him could have killed a tarrasque. It took me an hour to draw it on graph paper. It got them to the end, but they weren’t happy with the ending, nor was it easy. Ah, memories 🙂

  • I’ve played in a two-year-long rpg (a whole day every weekend, college is great for that) where the DM *wanted* us to reach top level and defeat a set of gods. Yes, gods, plural. He didn’t out-and-out cheat for us, but he definitely rounded some corners and added some extra encounter rewards. It became really apparent at about L15 (of 20), and we players started to feel a bit cheated because things were easier than we knew they should be, but we played anyway because the story was good enough, and the DM was having a great time. I’ve also played a certain other, ‘magical’ collectible card game where the fun was completely sucked out of it because *at least* one other person playing had stacked their deck to do a total game kill in three rounds. THREE ROUNDS, people! I can appreciate the amount of time and logistical planning that went into tweaking a deck to make sure one gets the right cards into play *despite* having to shuffle before playing, and watching it happen the first time is an awesome experience. It would definitely be an asset in a tournament. But for friendly pick-up games, when they gleefully do it over and over, its not friendly. It’s rude and obnoxious and drives people away. Guess which game I stopped playing. Hint: I still have my L20 prophetess-cleric of Mishkal character sheet in the binder on my bookshelf, and I graduated from college in 1994.

    Moral o’my story: the DM is just as much a player as the adventuring party, and the playing with the right personalities makes the whole game worthwhile no matter what game you’re playing.

  • You forgot to point out that, if you make it to the final fight, the only way of defeating the lich is using spells that no-one in his right mind would ever even learn and it insta-kills the most powerful player character in the party every time it’s interacted with.

  • I like D&D a lot but one of the fixes, artificial and forced though it may seem is Numenera and/or the Cypher System. Judges never roll the dice. Granted a GM/DM can still throw so much at you that it’s just overwhelming odds, but for the most part the system is designed to prevent that conflict-based environment.
    When a player gets ‘hosed’ it’s because he rolled the Natural 1 and it happened to himself.
    Just a tangential aside.

  • There is a practical point where you have to say “That doesn’t work”. Tomb of Horrors is it.

    One time, I had the classic scenario of the characters crossing a rope bridge, entering a hostile town and comically running back across the bridge. Except the players were tired and didn’t think it through. The session ended with a magic user flying ahead and cutting the bridge to the cheers of the other players.

    By next session, the players had figured out that something was horribly wrong with “the end”. They were on the wrong side of the bridge. I simply handed out towels and detailed how dangerous the swim was.

    Lesson learned.

  • Sounds like your problem is with a sphere of annihilation. If characters do not want to poke a stick I to something first, maybe stupid should be painful. Love ToH first time I ran it years and years ago. Love Return to the Tomb of Horrors box set. Ran ToH last year at our library event with the kids.

    1. One of my first characters died because he poked at something unknown that then exploded blasting him into ashes.
      The “logic” behind basic D&D aficionados works only when they have an adversarial stance toward the GM and viceversa. That’s not exactly my idea of “fun”.

  • I ran this adventure and tried my best to warn players and give them a chance to maybe survive. The leader of the party actually stuck his head into the demon’s mouth. Nothing I could do. I always considered this a “revenge” adventure for all the times players out thought their DM’s. In the end I ran it as a fun alternate “this is just a dream” adventure so that players wouldn’t think I was a total dick.

  • When Tomb of horrors came out, I was 10. I was the DM for all of the games also.

    I wouldn’t run the Tomb module because it was so overkill.

    However, I did have some players who showed up for the game with a magical ability to roll all 18’s on every stat, and the shiny new sheet of paper with their “experienced” character at level 20 with every good magical item in the DM Guide.

    I parsed the traps out of the Tomb of Horrors to present a useful challenge to the cheating player, to kill his character off, and afford him an opportunity to roll a,new character in front of us.

    As an “experienced” player and GM (read lots of grey hair) I now play with other experienced players who revel in the fun of role play, not in killing everything with +5 vorpal blades of unlimited chain lightening.

    I found a great group where we trade off GM’ing, and every player brings the game we want to play, Call of Cthulhu, Gurps, Savage Worlds, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Pathfinder, 5e

  • This is a funny article and all. But the real issue here is that you changed play styles without getting the consent of the players. It sounds like you were throwing them underhand pitches, then you beaned them with a fastball.

    There are groups that enjoy high lethality play. Think DCC funnels, LotFP negadungeons, etc. With informed buy-in from the group, any level of lethality is fine.

  • Great article. Very funny.

    My take on ToH was always that it was meant to be read rather than played. It is an art piece or, rather, an argument.

    The “dungeon” conceit in RPGs is pretty phony. What are these subterranean labyrinths where monsters hide their loot? If you were trying to set one up to actually keep adventurers out, or better yet, kill them then you’d set up something like the entrance to tomb of horrors. Yes there’s a way through, that the creator of the dungeon knows about and can navigate. All other paths lead to death.

    Early AD&D had a very different tone than what it came to become. It was more hardcore and character death was more common. I played for years and never got a character above 5th level. Tomb of Horrors is part of the body that sets that tone.

    Its also a bullshit detector. People who say they completed tomb of horrors are liars, straight up. Or their campaign is crap. In the early days of D&D this was actually more of a problem where players had more of an expectation of migrating their character from one DM’s campaign to another. You’d look at their character sheet, see a wealth of magic items and know that this player had come from the world of Monty Hall. I think what is brilliant about the mouth is that it doesn’t matter how high level you are, what your saving throws are, what your magic items are. If you go in the mouth, you die. And worse, you did it to yourself for no good reason.

    I would also argue that Tomb of Horrors was an important step in your evolution as a GM, John. Sounds like 12 year-old John Wick laughing at a total party wipe was no fair arbiter or judge. And then when you ran it again, you over-corrected towards placing your thumb on the scale for the players, which is just a different kind of bullshit.

    So in the end, ToH: love the art. I loved reading it. I love the dark, hardcore tone it sets. If it is meant to be played, it is meant to signal that not all dungeons are meant to be beaten and that sometimes the right choice is to just turn around…that real, permanent, arbitrary death lurks in the shadows…

  • If I remember correctly, the introductory information for the DM recommended not taking regular characters into that module. It was published to be played as a one shot dungeon. Letting players know how deadly it is by having them roll up characters just for the module or using pregenerated characters sets the right tone and removes the risk of losing a valued character that has taken months or years to develop.

    For any DM who doesn’t know this yet, character deaths should always be treated as tragedies rather than victories. NPC friends and henchmen as well as surviving PC’s should mourn the loss rather than just shrugging their shoulders and looking for more treasure.

  • Just about every point made in the original article is wrong or off-base.

    The two false entrances aren’t instant TPKs; it takes ten rounds (ten minutes!) for the blocks to lower in the first one, and a 10th-14th level party is going to be able to deal with the slab when it’s in place. The second false entrance triggers a cave-in which in no way can deal enough damage to kill characters that high-level.

    The Devil Face is an instant-kill, yes. But you know what? All it takes is, say, a Paladin using Detect Evil (or even someone casting the spell Detect Evil), and the trap RADIATES both magic and evil.

    The passage at the bottom of the pit-trap – so what? Big deal, it lets you skip some encounters by going through it. Is what you find in the latter third of the dungeon easier? Does it let you skip the harder encounters? It does not.

    The treasure in the lich’s tomb is cursed you say?! Oh my gosh, your high-level cleric or magic user might have to cast detect magic and remove curse! Oh no, whatever will they do?!

    Regarding the spiked pit traps in the real starting corridor, all of them are laced with poison. Take the average 12th-14th level character and think of how easy it is to save v. poison coupled with the inevitable ring of protection +(whatever). Also consider the fact that a 10th-11th level cleric will probably have a couple of raise dead spells handy, and if a party is in it to win it they won’t mind pulling back and resting while that poor soul naturally heals back up. Oh that’s presuming the party cleric didn’t have a Heal spell memorized.

    Here’s what Gary told me about Tomb of Horrors:

    “Wait ‘til they try Necropolis! Well we just needed a good tough module for some of the better players. There are places that Mordenkainen has decided he wouldn’t go to…well, Robilar actually got in there, and when the skull of the demi-lich, Acecerak was beginning to rise, he scooped everything he could in to his bag of holding and ran away. Another team went through and got through only losing two of five [characters]…when they got to the lich they got rid of him with tremendous ease by putting the crown on his skull and then touching it with the wrong end of the scepter, poof, he was destroyed and went in to dust!”

    But, hey, you got your click out of me for the day, right?

  • Tomb of Horrors was sold as a tournament module, and as a competition. In that situation, you’re there for adversarial DMing, and you brag afterwards about how far you made it before you died.

    I never ran it, I did think the idea of the demi lich was unfair. Without cheating how would you ever know the right spells too cast? Well, that’s when I remembered that it came with premade characters with those specific spells. It still seemed unfair because you may have cast it earlier to solve a different problem.

    The middle corridor thing, by the way, it’s because there were arguments about how to survive Gygaxian adventures, whether it was always go left or always go right. People passed that info like it was some cheat code to his modules. That day it was neither.

    I still 100% agree with you in essence, though, this is not a dungeon for friends, this is a dungeon to pretend to be sick the day the DM runs it. Since everyone else won’t play it a second session.

  • So, I get why you think ToH is a crappy adventure. In many ways, it is. All the “insta-death” with no chance of saves goes against the grain of AD&D. Additionally, module itself is written in a way which encourages the DM to not tell PCs anything until AFTER the insta-death event has occurred. But here’s the rub: by taking this route the DM is taking away from the gritty realism that ToH COULD present a party with.

    You touch on it in how you ran the adventure the second time. You added things to the module that gave it a little life of its own…messages scrawled on the walls from previous adventurers who passed a test. This is a good start. One of the big problems with (and simultaneously the great advantage of) the early modules is that they were bare-bones adventures with little extra information given. The encounter is spelled out, a description of the immediate area was given (or not in the earliest adventures), and it was up to the DM to fill in the details.

    So, given your setup (Wizard who pleads with the characters NOT to go there and says he lost all of his friends who attempted to explore the Tomb), it would be appropriate to assume that there would have been evidence of previous adventurers. So, maybe one of the “insta death” entrances had already been sprung, giving the PCs a clue as to the lethality of the traps. You could even go so far as to imagine (or if you have lots of time, do a single player run-through) of the module, noting where each person died who entered the Tomb before the current party of PCs. Add bloodstains where appropriate. Skeletal remains where a person fell. Small things which could give the party a clue as to what is going on. This adds to the suspense while giving an observant party a little nudge in the right direction.

    Which brings me to the dreaded devil’s face. First, let me say, yes, this encounter is poorly written. Yes, it is even written in a way where the DM is ENCOURAGED to say nothing to the PCs as one after another crawl into the mouth. But the problem with this encounter is that the DMs had a massive lack of imagination on how to describe or run the encounter. 12 year old you as well as the DM who ran it at a convention recently both fell into the trap of not expanding on obvious information that SHOULD have been available to the party.

    And what I mean by this is: if this is a static sphere of annihilation, the why don’t the PCs have a chance to do *anything* at the point where they are being annihilated? Imagine: there is a face of a devil in front of you with a mouth “just big enough for you to crawl into.” Unbeknownst to the PCs, there is a sphere of annihilation in there. They begin to crawl in,

    DM: Please show me how you crawl in.
    PC: What?
    DM: Just show me.
    PC: (gets down on all fours and reaches forward with his hand…DM notes that it was with his right hand).
    DM: “As you enter the devil’s mouth, your right hand passes a barrier and you scream in pain as your hand dissolves before your eyes.”

    When encountering a trap like this, where the sphere is a “static” effect, it is much more likely that they would slowly enter the area and the static sphere would constantly be in effect. The module says nothing about the sphere not activating until after the ENTIRE PC has gone though the area. So, even if we assume that the devil’s mouth does an insta-kill rather than just maiming a PC, the insta-kill would occur when the head has passed through the sphere barrier; thus the 2nd person who attempts to crawl through runs into the lifeless legs and torso of the first person who went forward.

    So, this was one of the problems of early modules. They provided a framework for the adventure, but too many DMs were lazy and didn’t work their way through the modules to fill in the details and work out how all the traps would effect the PCs.

    Personally, I’d be much more horrified playing a ToH where my fighter just lost a hand to that trap, or maybe we pull out the decaputated corpse of the thief who wanted to check out that devil’s mouth than to be just told “Joe crawls into the mouth. Do you follow? Yes. OK…the whole party is dead.”

    1. Very good points about the way to DM the sphere! I think John is right that it is intended to be a completely unfair trap and that the module represents a certain DM point-of-view that is unforgiving and not entirely fair.

      You sound like a good DM!

      1. “Very good points about the way to DM the sphere! I think John is right that it is intended to be a completely unfair trap and that the module represents a certain DM point-of-view that is unforgiving and not entirely fair.

        You sound like a good DM!”

        I think all good DMs start as bad DMs. Like 12 year-old John, I had my share of poorly run adventures and lost friends (although I can say I never got punched in the face.) I fell into the lazy trap more than once; not always having the time or inclination to prepare properly.

        The problem I have with this article (and I will say that I have taken more than a few ideas from John’s books/columns) is that it presents Tomb of Horrors as the example of a bad adventure rather than seeing that he ran it as a bad DM (and more recently if he were honest, ran it as a bad player).

        The adventure itself is good. It has a good storyline, it encourages brains over brawn, it ends with an epic battle that, if the players survive, would be the stuff of legend. Or it could be…with the right DM and the right party playing.

        He also doesn’t recognize the simple problem with just about ALL modules published at this time. The modules were frameworks. They were the beginning of the DM’s job, not the end. He ran the module as is with no (or little) personal modifications, no adding flavor for his own party, etc. Things that I understand he does NOW with games/adventures he runs, but didn’t do with a module in an era where good DMS were pretty much told, “you gotta fill in the details.”

        And then he blames the failure on the module.

        “Worst adventure of all time?” While the question is subjective and John is certainly allowed his opinion, his tale only illustrates that this adventure was bad not (only) because it wasn’t written very well, but because he flat out ran it poorly. And was a dick in the process.

        But he learned a valuable lesson and now is an actual Master at running games.

        In part because he played “The Worst Adventure of all Time.”

        Sounds to me like some part of him realizes that it wasn’t all that bad after all.

  • Great post John, contratulations!
    Last week I wrote an article about RPGs and authoritarianism, where I try to delve on the things that support thoughts like the ones we found when you say that this adventure was meant to “teach players a lesson and put them in their place.” I mean: Why we condemn authoritarian attitudes in other fields (such as politics), but we accept them on our table games?
    If you are interested, you can find it here: http://www.runasexplosivas.com/2016/01/rolerosofia-autoritarismo-y-juegos-de.html
    (It’s in Spanish, so you’ll have to use Gogle Translate)

  • The first time I tackled this dungeon was in 3.5. As the resident rogue I was the one that found almost all of the traps. We had a standard party so we did a lot with what we had, but towards the end it came down to Myself and our all mighty Sorcerer to finish the game.

    Before tackling the dungeon I made sure I had a few items with me to make sure I could get what i wanted out of the adventure. A wish spell, for anything i would need which turned out for the cursed treasure to take the curse off of it, a Deck of All (name might be wrong, but it’s the deck that has death in it.) because I’m a dick and I wanted to fight Death inside this hell hole. A portable black hole, and a bag of holding.

    It was fun and hard to control myself whenever I saw something I wanted to do, but I definitely don’t want to deal with dungeons like this in the future unless i have a few “Intelligent” players in my group.

  • John you’re a tool. ToH was then and will always be for thinking players and smart DM’s. (emphasis on “D” as they are Dungeon Masters not Game Masters. That is why you fail) The entire point of this module is for players to think creatively through a dungeon not to hack and slash their way through. Your experience with this brilliant adventure, as regrettable as it was, is because you were 12 and obviously not bright enough to realize what was in your hands. You lost your friends because quite frankly, you were a “D”. Alot of the gameplay within this module requires an innovative DM that properly guides his or her players through it NOT to let them blindly stumble through. Proper background and introduction to it are vital so the players actually have a chance to survive it. The real reason this module sucked isn’t the game itself, but the one who ran it. Period.

      1. Stop being twelve then… I assume you are a grown man now… perhaps you might think upon the whole laughing in their faces part; that might have been an important reason as to why you lost your friends.

          1. Indeed! If I don’t feed them, they’ll either starve to death or figure a way to get out and leave the dungeon.

  • John Wick seems like a tiny little D-bad cause Gary G called him for what he is. Today it seems real popular to take a contrarian tone in an “article” and just fill it with unsubstantiated/weak opinions and a heavy dose of vitriol that is not writing, that is being a crybaby bitch.

    Many of the classic modules were meat grinders especially if the PC’s did not use their brains, good resource management and be willing to use some old school means (Hirelings, retainers, etc.). Now, this will come off as overwhelmingly old-school but the best gamers i know came up in the 1e era, those who have transitioned to different editions have the fundamental tools to ensure their success in even the most “brutal” of the newer adventures because they understand things like party make up, resource management, reasoning and a non “Insert skill name and roll for it” means of accomplishing goals.

    John Wick is butt hurt about losing friends because of the module which is bullshit, he lost his friends because he laughed in their faces after TPK’ing them that is dick move (one if memory serves is not printed in the module). This guy needs to try to take some responsibility for his part in it.

    1. Sorry, but even if he would have not laughed at them, losing their high level characters in such a stupid way would have been reason enough to be angry at him and at least stop playing with him for a LOT of “normal” players.
      Granted, D&D fanboys would say no and that they like a challenge etc., but if I face you with a challenge you can’t resolve with your normal knowledges (and is VERY simple, since D&D players are used to obvious things…touch that thing with a pole and it expands for 10 seconds annihilating anything in the room, seems a more deadly trap to set up for a Lich and probably no group would survive) and kill your high-level char, and you would call me a moron in no wait.

      You just remained 12 when the author has grown up.

  • Sorry, but I don’t have much sympathy for you here. One by one your players crawled into a carving of a demon’s mouth and vanished and they just kept on doing it? They were maroons, they deserved to die if they belonged in that adventure. They did not THINK, therefore they DIED. My job is to DM, not to babysit. The module TELLS YOU UP FRONT it is deadly. If you KNOW your PLAYERS are MAROONS, and you send them through the module anyway, don’t blame Gygax because your friends were mad. YOU gave them an adventure they were unsuited for, and YOU killed them. If you have a hack and slash group, give them hack and slash. If you have a puzzle solving group, give them puzzles. But don’t give a hack and slash group a puzzle solving dungeon and expect them to thank you when they fail miserably. At 12 I can understand this, but you are no longer 12. It is time you understood WHY your players died and why they were mad at YOU.

    1. “One by one your players crawled into a carving of a demon’s mouth and vanished and they just kept on doing it?”

      I would assume they thought it was some kind of teleportation deeper into another part of the dungeon. Since there seems to be no feedback whatsoever as to whether or not it is such to the other PCs, them following suit to avoid splitting the party does seem like a somewhat logical choice in-game. It doesn’t sound to me like the module (therefore the DM describing it to the players) describes the trap well enough to discern whether it’s teleporting or annihilating its victims, only saying that they “vanish”

    2. “MAROONS”

      You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

      Unless you mean that John’s players were a dark brownish red. Which is possible, but would be odd.

  • So, in fact what you’re saying is that Tomb of Horrors was the module that taught you HOW to be a good GM, and also taught you an important lesson about friendship. I’d say that makes it the best adventure, ever.
    Also, Oprah didn’t hit the screen until 1986. By that time, the Compleat Strategist had three locations in New York. In 1981, the clerk at the “hobby shop” I patronized was knowledgeable enough to train me in the use of percentile dice. The whole world is not Minnesota.

  • Actually, it was Modules like Tomb of Horrors that drove me away from D&D to Call of Cthulhu, Palladium, Runequest, Traveller, and other non TSR games. The people I gamed with in middle school and high school wanted a non Gygax influence.

    I have to credit ToH for making me look for other games.

    We were the “cool” nerds, just ask us… We played non TSR RPG’s. 😉

    1. Rob,

      You don’t realize that the Tomb of Horrors and many of the classic Call of Cthulhu adventures share something, right? An unkillable horror that will defeat you completely if fought head on.

      There’s some valid critique in this review, but it is full of the author’s sense of superiority which is pig shit.

  • It was Rona Jaffee’s book Mazes and Monsters in 1981 (and the later TV movie in 1082starring a young Tom Hanks) that stirred up the parents. That and the rumor of a student getting lost in college steam tunnels and dying. Not to mention the Group Bothered By Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), that had sprung up a year before to alert parents to the scourge of D&D.

    Hell to this very day, my Mom gets all worked up if I talk about getting into LARP.

  • Our gaming groups really embrassed that “Killer GMing” style. Where the GM’s best friends got all of the goodies and everyone else got the graveyard. As you can see from the comments there are plenty of GM’s that love this style of gaming. They think it’s “Hardcore” which I imagine is something that is mixed in with masculinity or some such. Honestly I don’t enjoy losing characters because I missed a single roll.

    Our group got lucky, we had a new GM come into our game club that was a bit older than us. Many of us were already tired of D&D and had been trying to hack it into something that made better sense. He brought Champions with him. He first ran combat heavy events, but eventually settled into a group. When that happened he started to run very character oriented stories punctuated with a rip roaring combat. Eventually all of us fell in love this this style of gaming. He changed the way I look at the hobby and the way I play games.

  • Nicely written but so wrong. Tomb is a great adventure. Plenty of the other old D&D adventures, that are just room after room full of monsters waiting to fight you, are bad adventures. Tomb is a really clever dungeon with lots of interesting traps that– here’s the cool point– require cleverness & caution, not high HPs, to beat. (Because, it’s all insta-kills! HPs are useless! -_-) It’s obviously more suited for a horror oneshot with pregen characters than a long running ‘heroic’ campaign, and of course the childhood trauma must still burn, but Tomb is actually a brilliant little adventure. Also, obviously you shoulda had the first PC to go through the Sphere of Annihilation just have his head annihilated and the rest of his body splatter back on the floor spraying blood and alert the surviving PCs what was going on, regardless of whatever is written in the module, duh. 😉


    I believe these are the words of the first troll to have entered this discussion and they say much.

    What your 12 year old brain experienced was the same as countless others and for one driving reason: it was new. Just like you, kids everywhere were excited for anything new. They lacked the diverse pool of genres and rules sets that we find to be just a click away now.

    Let’s not forget the year of publication was 1975. The era of roleplaying was quite different. Frankly, it was unrecognizable when compared to today save that there were creators and there were fans. It was new, just an infant, and was exploding in popularity. This new ground was being explored by a handful of writers and artists who had latched their creativity onto a wild tiger. And their fans were hungry for anything. I find it sad that the creative minds from that era, both writers and artists, are often so crassly judged decades later after the transpiring of so much creative progress.

    Any meaningful review of it will show that Tomb of Horrors is not a top shelf adventure by any means. It is cruel in its way; raw and brutal and reflective of a DM-Centric, adversarial environment that was often the way of things in those early days. It was also an anomaly and distinctly unique. The fact it is written about with such passion over 40 years later speaks to the lasting nature of its impact. It is, inarguably, a classic. I think of it as a pit trap along the way to where we are today – somewhat fitting I’d say. But it is worth noting the writer of Tomb of Horrors brought so much more to all of us. It is a statement that has been thrown about by many at cons and game tables over the years, but he changed the creative course of many lives to the better for all of us as a community.

    There is a personal edge in this article, as if someone was personally slighted by a publication of fiction dispersed to a fan base hungry for new ideas. Clearly, this article was written with deep and profound passion. Yet, it is as shallow as it is angry and it lacks any measure of appreciation for an expression of creativity, despite close attention to the formatting of copied and pasted details. And those details…they read like evidence presented to a jury weighing facts related to a crime.

    Gary Gygax…guilty as charged…he had ideas and put them on paper to share with others…the villain that he was.

    Not all ideas worked. Not all ideas were good. Not all ideas lacked bias. But they were ideas – new and fresh. Like a machete, they cut into the depths of a jungle that grew to vast proportions and is still growing today. We owe thanks to those explorers and those who followed along gobbling up their products – waiting in anticipation to experience them with their friends. Together, they cut a trail from which others some 10, 20, 30 and 40 years later would still be cutting new paths. The exploration of ideas in the world of RPGs has not ceased and likely never will, though they did have a beginning.

    This article lacks vision. It lacks any measure or respect for what the inception of RPGs was. How that inception led to an explosion of ideas. How others would pick up the core concepts and apply them in different ways and to different genres. Almost immediately, some of those who did not like the experiences they were offered didn’t bemoan or disparage them with useless vitriol, but would simply turn from them and use them as fuel for the new. And maybe some were just inspired by these first forays and rose to new heights on their own. We see games such as RuneQuest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu among many others that were discovered at the end of new trails cut by new explorers. These stories are better topics for discussion.

    The vitriol in this article selectively and viciously disparages what was just a small building block of the foundation of RPGs from which many ideas, such as the article writer’s own, could later be launched. The body of work that is the RPG industry is massive and filled with ideas (both good and bad) which would not have existed if not for the exploration of ideas (both good and bad) such as Tomb of Horrors. Interestingly, there’s a strong sense of arrogance in this article, just as there was in Tomb of Horrors.

    In the end, it is enough to observe what is obvious to those who are capable of measured thought:

    Tomb of Horrors is not the worst adventure ever written, for no such thing exists.

    1. It seems you claim that the entire groth of the adventure-making part of the hobby is dependent on ToH. I doubt it.
      The question to consider is this: would the hobby and the community have benefited from the removal of ToH from our timeline or suffered from it. I can see the case for both sides.

  • What about Little Tin Soldier in Minneapolis (later Phoenix Games)? Sure, there were D&D modules in hobby shops – but Little Tin was around at the same time and actually where I bought Tomb of Horrors. If you’re in Minneapolis, and were gaming in the ’80s, not sure how you could look past that. And, besides, the Hennepin County library system had tons of D&D modules (at least Edina did), so the whole “everyone thought it was for Satanists” thing was a bit overblown.

  • You would be hard pressed to find a way to more completely miss the point of ToH.

    It was meant to be a tournament module. It was never intended for regular party play. It says right in the module that players should use disposable pre-generated characters.

    The problem wasn’t the module. The module did EXACTLY what it was supposed to do. In a tournament you ant to weed out the weak, the careless, the unfortunate, and the stupid fast and hard. That’s what ToH does.

    Your problem wasn’t the module. Your problem was the juvenile DM that took his friends beloved, hard earned characters and ran them through “the deadliest dungeon ever made” without, obviously, even bothering to read it first. That was just cruel.

    Tomb of Horrors was one of the best modules ever made. I have never had so much fun getting TPK’d in my life (We were roasted alive chasing an audible glamour spell). Of course, my DM wasn’t a complete jackass. He actually read the module first and didn’t let us bring in our mains.

    1. ToH is horrible. The fact that it was a tournament module makes the Gygax sentence just an idiocy. At a tournament you should have fun, not laughing at killing the party. I read it, I dmed it (3.x conversion, and erasing a lot of traps). Just the fact the your dm dmed ToH without using your main characters should tell you a lot about this module. I’m totally agree with John: this is just a module made for the amusement of the dm and to make him laugh while he tpk the party. No dm must think this way when he make or run an adventure.

      1. Ugh. Kids today. Everything is about fun.

        Tournaments can be fun, but they are NOT about having fun. Tournaments are competitive. They are about picking a winner.

        Some incompetent prepubescent DM got his rocks off TPKing his friends’ mains? That says a lot more about the DM than it does about the module. There is nothing mean or vindictive about the design. It’s just meant to eliminate contenders quickly. That’s how a tournament works.

        “You’re all dead. Next.”

        No. You shouldn’t play with your mains. It says so right in the module. Yes, you are probably all going to die. That’s how the tournament was scored. Whomever got in the furthest was the winner.

        No, it was not designed to be beaten. Everybody dies in the ToH.

        Kids today just don’t get old-school D&D. D&D came out of wargaming. Spending a few nights on a stand-alone one-off gaming experience was SOP for us. We did it all the time.

        ToH was that kind of game.

        That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun,

        Look, if you’re some kind of dilettante who thinks an RPG should revolve around making your main rich and powerful than ToH is not for you. Munchkins and power gamers are not going to have fun in this module.

        Aficionados of the old game, however, can all tell you how far they got in ToH. It’s the best time you’ll ever has getting TPK’d.

  • I reviewed Tomb of Horrors several years ago.


    In some aspects it’s quite a good module; nice background, some good atmospherics.

    But mostly it’s terrible. The traps are essentially random and deadly, designed as death-traps (NO SAVING THROW). Even as a tournament module it was awful. Early random death traps are do not invoke a good tournament experience. Deliberately punishing characters who had knowledge of the game system does not invoke a good tournament experience.

  • Good lord. Tomb of Horrors was a tournament module! Given a limited time to play at a convention, and knowing that many groups would be playing the same adventure in competition, the last you want is 50 teams all completing the module! How do you determine a winner?

    Your mistake (not Gary’s) was running it for your players in your campaign world.

  • Didn’t that come with characters to play, because it was assumed you wouldn’t play your regular characters because everybody would die?

    1. Yes. The module included not just pre-rolled characters but pre-generated teams of characters balanced to allow different sized groups to compete. Choosing spells and equipping is left to the player. Pre-rolled characters include magic items, but the module also recommends giving cheat items to even experienced players. The tournament teams are balanced for expert players only.

  • The Tomb of Horrors was originally a game designed to be played as a tournament module. Yes, it will probably kill your character, that was what it was designed to do. The module is designed to be played outside of a campaign. The challenge for the player at the gaming convention was to survive.

  • Interesting that you should bring this old module up. It sounds like you came up through the gaming industry about the same time I did, but I was a bit older. For the longest time, the games that were available to play very limited, and all sort of revolved around the D&D model. As much as I hate the system, and a great many of the players, I have to give White Wolf and Vampire the Masquerade credit for actually making RPGs about the Roleplaying and the Fun.

    One of my biggest pet peeves with this module and this time was that I watched the game that I barely understood when I started but I enjoyed the storytelling aspects of, slowly morph into a chess game between the players and the DMs. It wasn’t about the roleplaying, it was about having the right abilities, and right equipment and knowing when and how to use them. It was a strategy game, not a roleplaying game. Tomb of Horrors is the perfect reflection of that attitude. It’s not about the roleplaying it’s about the strategy.

    As for the community actor wanna-be, take that as a compliment. Gygax took a miniatures war game and made it something more, but it never TRULY became a roleplaying game. None of them did until White Wolf forced them too. Now there’s some great games out there, and they’re centered on role playing and not strategy and doing the right things at the right time. (I just wish I could get my players to switch over our Scions game to a system that I actually LIKE.)

    In closing, I would point out something about my playing style. My wife and I met in 1990, and began roleplaying together then. We tended to throw the rules out the window and just play the story. The rules became a framework for defining what characters could do, but not for much of anything else. We had some great adventures and eventually married fifteen years after that. (Have been married 10 years now). Most of our games tended to be off the cuff and “make it up as we went along.” Now lately, my players have come to me and told me, “Stop writing up adventures for us. Just make it up as you go along, we enjoy it more that way.” *Smile* got fifteen published novels out of that concept.

  • Only issue I had with this whole article was that I lived in OKC, the buckle of the Bible Belt, and there were at least three gaming stores I went to on a regular basis once I discovered D&D in 1978.

  • I now have the best idea for your kid thief PC… he recruits adventurers with the call to glory for the Tomb, convinces them to leave their stuff and go in the mouth. Then takes it all home and sells it for a tidy profit. Rinse, repeat. You have a lifelong career there. If anyone doesn’t fall for it, the kid has a good lead at getting through the tomb with a semi-competent group!

  • I started gaming in the late 70’s and was fortunate to have great gaming resources where I grew up. There were multiple stores that carried rpg products and many of the people working there were happy to tell you about them. Toh is a decent tournament module for the right mindset, but usually a tpk for the cocky gamer, and that’s as it should be. Most dm’s start off being either too adversarial or too monty haul. The good ones learn and adapt to their players, the great ones attract great players. Just my .02

  • Excellent commentary and I feel the same way about several of Gary G.’s works. He completely missed the point of having people having fun. I know a GM who had this same problem, he seemed to enjoy screwing over the players.

  • I ran a Tomb of Horrors crossover with Paranoia at a convention a couple of years ago. I named it Tomb of Paranoia. The players cleared the dungeon in 6 hrs. It was a lot of fun. I think some players were up to their 6th clone. I gave them a slurpie/clone dispenser that dropped a clone when a character died. One PC secretly rigged it to only dispense his clones, so after a while, all the PCs were the same character. There were a lot of dead bodies in pit traps, etc. Since it was Paranoia, they had no magic. It was the most hilarious game ever. p.s. This was the only time I’ve run Tomb of Horrors and nobody punched me in the face. 🙂

  • Just learning to be a GM, never done it before and reading this has helped me endlessly with understanding my role better as previously I had read and thought my role as the GM/DM was to stop the players wether it be by a wall or by death. Thank you for publishing the article.

  • The Tomb of Horrors isn’t the WORST adventure ever. It’s great fun if you come prepared. I had my players each roll up 3-5 characters of appropreate level and treasure and we had a contest to see who lost the least number of characters. It’s almost more of a board game than an RPG module, but it can be fun in the right context.

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