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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