April 25, 2008

Running the Tomb, Part 2

As mentioned previously, this past Sunday I had the pleasure to DM an old-style Tomb of Horrors session with friends (including two active members of the Goodman Games clan). The player–character breakdown:

Mike F.
Ceralt, 14th-level Fighter
Phelan, 9th-level Magic-user

Ken H.
Dendyr, 14th-level Cleric
Valdamane, 10th-level Paladin

Steve C.
Rath, 7th/8th-level Dwarf Fighter/Thief
Forethal, 9th-level Cleric

Will W.
Quint, 12th-level Ranger
Brandice, 4th/6th-level Drow M-U/Thief

What follows is Spoiler City. Don’t read if you intend to enter the ToH as a player!

Play began with the arrival of the party at the burial mound of Acererak, deep in the Vast Swamp.* The paladin quickly organized the party and they began a sweep of the mound, paying extra attention to the massive stones of blue-grey rock that made up the ‘face’ on the huge cairn mound. No sooner did they approach the stones when a sea of undead surged up from burrows beneath the stones and attacked, surrounding most of our heroes (save the cautious wizard)!

Ceralt and Valdamane charged forth and cut a swath through the foul juju zombies and risen zombie-bugbears, but the other PCs were less fortunate and were wounded by the zombies ragged claws. Phelan assisted from a distance, lobbing magic missiles from his trusty wand, as the undead moved to surround him. Before things got too dire, the clerics Dendyr and Forethal used their turning ability to reduce half the remaining undead to bone shards and the last of the undead were then dispatched in quick order.

The party soon circumnavigated the burial mound and began digging on the distressed northern side. Several hours of work later the party unearthed a tunnel entrance. The party marched into the corridor, Dendyr using his magic to detect for traps. The thieves approached a set of two doors at the end of the corridor, and each began an attempt to disarm the trapped doors. Brandice blew his attempt badly, and soon a 10-foot thick slab of stone was rumbling across the corridor, threatening to entomb the PCs!

I, as DM, began my first—but not last—ominous countdown of the evening. As soon as the count began, the party bolted for the entrance (thieves heading out last just as the lead-covered slab loudly sealed off the corridor behind them).

Undetered, the party resumed digging. They discovered two more entrance corridors, and to my delight as DM choose the second false entrance to try first. More cautious this time, Rath soon disarmed a devious trap at the southern false door that would have sent the ceiling raining down on their heads! They promptly departed for the last remaining tunnel.

The party spent a good deal of time examining the many gruesome drawings and features in the true entrance shaft. Dendyr discovered Acererak’s mocking, clue-filled message hidden in the floor runes, while Phelan discovered a concealed door sealed behind the illustrated wall mortar. The PCs paced out the corridor and soon discovered the huge demon face and misty archway at the tunnel end. Brandice meanwhile busied himself with a mysterious box that projected from a wall illustration … and landed in a 30’ pit with poisoned spikes for his trouble (he luckily missed the spikes)!

Dendyr the cleric and Valdamane the paladin approached the great face with its mouth of dead black. Wisely, Dendyr used an augury to seek his god’s counsel. The spell rules gave him a 84% chance to receive correct information, and he simply asked if the face bode weal or woe. I had Ken roll the dice over my screen … a 97. Uh oh. Weal, the DM stated with certainty. Demonstrating a paladin’s classic bravery, Valdamane crawled into the demon's mouth—and was promptly disintegrated by the fixed sphere of annihilation therein.

Dendyr and Phelan, working together, eventually found the means to dispel the archway mists. Ceralt strode confidently into the archway … and was teleported straight back to the other end of the entrance tunnel. The party then entered the archway, taking care to stay on the red tile path, and they found themselves transported away by stomach-churning magic to parts unknown…

*DMs using the Known Realms (I used Greyhawk in this instance to fit with the old-style theme) could easily locate the Tomb in the Great Swamp or the Gloom Marshes of Tashgar.

See my next installment for the 2nd half of our session report!

April 21, 2008

Running the Tomb

The Tomb of Horrors and I go way back.

My first roleplaying experience as a player, with an actual DM, was traveling through the dangerous underground halls of the Tomb of Horrors (ToH) … solo. Talk about avoiding the frying pan, missing the fire, and landing straight in the lava! (I don’t remember how far I got, but my PC—a fighter, I believe— made it at least as far as the evil chapel.)

Years ago I used to use the ToH as an introductory adventure for groups of new players. You heard that right. This was no deep desire to exterminate as many PCs as possible, rather I would tamp down the threat level of the Tomb, removing poison and dialing down damage as needed. It wasn’t all that hard actually; many of the ToH’s traps kill because of actions completely unrelated to level. A 1st-level character can survive a good third of the rooms if the player is very sharp (and very cautious); likewise a 15th-level PC can easily bite the dust if the player lets his guard down at the wrong moment.

In Dungeon # 116 a judging group of select RPG designers named the ToH one of the 30 best adventures ever, and the editors gave the adventure the cover shot. It’s a tough module, no doubt, and it’s often arbitrary and player-screwing attitude has led many to point to the module and cry foul, but I’ve run it enough to know that it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Players generally like dangerous situations and a touch of “Wait! Do I even dare touch that door?” I never ran a group though it that had a bad time when all was said and done.

Recently I had the chance to run the ToH for the first time in, what, 12 years? I don’t know, but it’s been a while. The passing of Gygax seemed to be an event worth honoring by DMing this granddaddy of modules, the first stand-alone adventure I ever purchased. I was able to collect a group of truly adventurous souls for the outing: Mike (Goodman Games author), Ken (GG editor/author), my friend Steve, and last but not least my old friend Willie. Equipped with two fairly powerful characters apiece, they embarked across the Vast Swamp for that most deadly of locations.

In my recent review/prep of the ToH—the original 1st Edition one, not the watered-down Realms of Horror, or Return, or 3.5e version (although I own them as well out of loyalty to the brand)—I found some problems, mainly with the list of pre-gens in the rear of the module.
At least one PC starts with +3 Plate, +3 Shield, and a Dexterity of at least 17. Oh my … that’s an AC of what, –7? Some of the creatures (the few there are) in the module have a mere 6 hit dice, and some are lower than that. Can they even hit the PC, barring a natural 20?
And here’s another pre-gen, a straight fighter. He cannot hurt the demi-lich with his given equipment, or his teammates equipment, and most anything found in the Tomb itself. What if he is the last standing member of his party (something quite possible herein)? What does he do if he finally makes it to Acererak’s final haunt, whistle dixie?

I put hand to keyboard and began to set things straight. Soon I had a reasonably powerful group of pre-gens that had a fighting chance against the terrors of the Tomb, and vice-versa. Time to, as they say, rock and roll.

But wait, you say. How did the recent group fare?

That is a tale for the next installment. Stay tuned, Gentle Reader.

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