Celebrating 39 Years of a Classic Gygax Adventure
By Joe Bingaman
Depending on how you look at it, you either love it or hate it. Tomb of Horrors, the Gary Gygax classic adventure from the First Edition days, is experiencing a renewed interest, thanks to Wizards of the Coast releasing a version of it for Fifth Edition in their current release Tales from the Yawning Portal. This won’t be the first reissue, as each edition of the game since the initial release in 1978 has visited the Tomb of Acererak, first in the Second Edition Return to the Tomb of Horrors, then in the Third Edition era in the form of a free pdf adventure on the Wizards of the Coast website, and in Fourth Edition in two versions: a hardcover super adventure that uses the canon of Return to build upon the original, and a direct conversion of the original as a DM Reward.
Tomb of Horrors made its debut initially at Origins I in 1975. Two years later, TSR and Gygax started to develop it for the new advanced version of Dungeons & Dragons. The end result was released in early 1978, with the classic two-tone, monochrome cover depicting Acererak.
This adventure became the last stop for many adventurers, both by their own dungeon master’s hand and by Gygax at conventions. Word has it he tore up the sheets of characters that succumbed to his masterpiece (outside of the rarely-seen Castle Greyhawk), though the author cannot confirm this with verified accounts. Many call it unfair, but many hold it dear, like an old friend.
For those not familiar, a short review is warranted to truly appreciate this great work. For those of you familiar, it will be a trip down memory lane – whether those memories are good or bad lie in how you look at it. Interspersed will be the author’s own brief memories of this, as I have run this several times as a dungeon master (but never as a player, go figure), in multiple editions. There are many stories to tell of Acererak’s Tomb, and I’m certain many more will be told in the comments.
The adventure starts with the entrance, plain and simple. How the players find themselves at Acererak’s Tomb is entirely left on the dungeon master. The flat-topped hill is stone-shaped, and has three entrances. Two of these entrances are false and trapped, potentially fatal ones at that, even for the recommended character levels of ten to fourteen. The first is a set of false doors that trigger a collapsing tunnel that, while not causing a lot of damage to hardy fighters, it could kill a wizard, also trapping the party in rubble. The second involves a long hallway that will have a large stone block slowly grind across, blocking the characters inside a dead end. While not impossible to escape, it is difficult to do, and can cause the loss of players from being trapped inside.
The real entrance has several traps inside, including several pit traps with poisoned spikes at the bottom. The failure of a save against this poison results in death, so once again, a character may die before even really entering the tomb proper. At the end of this hallway is THE GREEN FACE OF DOOM, as some of my players have called it (we once had a character insert an important appendage into the open mouth…). This large face has an open mouth of blackness large enough for one to crawl though, however, it is a sphere of annihilation. Another trap, and this is the easy part. There is also an archway of mist nearby. This will lead characters into a prison of sorts, and once the way out is discovered, the players will find themselves back at the start.
Back down the hall towards the entrance, there was a secret door, which means the face could be avoided – though most players do not avoid exploring an area fully and will come to the face eventually. This leads into the tomb itself, and right to a room with two doors and a four-armed gargoyle mutant. This creature can kill, so if the characters flee, they must choose wisely. Opening one door shows another door, while the other shows a wall; the wall is the correct path, as it is a series of hidden doors. The path that shows a door is really a series of doors leading to a dead end (the last run I did, the Janni in the party teleported the near-dead party out of the Tomb at this point, never to return).
In the next area, players will see many different colored figures and spheres, marking doors and false doors. One of these is an archway most evil, as if one passes through, they are returned to the beginning (again), but all their non-living possessions go to Acererak’s crypt. In other words, the game just switched from Dungeons & Dragons to Naked & Afraid, if the tone is set right. If the players avoid that, because of the last misty archway, they will find themselves in a room that has a statue of the four-armed gargoyle, with one arm broken off. They will notice a 100 gold piece gem will fit into indents in the remaining hands. Placing one in each will cause the statue to crush the gems, and most players will leave it as that – another trick…except it is not a trick. Doing this three more times will cause a gem of seeing to be found, a very useful item in this forsaken place. However, it is invisible, and will take some careful searching to find it.
Along the way towards the final confrontation, the players will encounter numerous false doors which contain spear traps, some chests that contain deadly monsters inside, and a strange chapel. The chapel contains another mind-boggling trap, as an archway (yes, another one) that glows orange will change their gender and alignment. Two subsequent trips through will restore them, but with a small hit point loss, as well as teleporting them back to the beginning again, once again naked and sans equipment.
If you have never run this adventure, by now you can see why it is either loved or hated by those who have. I really don’t want to give away much more, but you can see the theme here, as death is the theme overall. While there is quite a bit of treasure to be found, at what cost will it be worth? As it says in the Notes for the Dungeon Master, “THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE, AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY!” There are more tricks and traps here than creatures, as almost every room and passage contains something that could cause the death of a character, or at the least, a very permanent change.
I had the pleasure of briefly speaking with Ernie Gygax on his experience and Rob Kuntz’s experience in the Tomb. Ernie, as Tenser, “did not finish the module, but used a teleport to escape after about one third of the module.” Kuntz, as Robilar, “brought eight orcs and all them died in pits, Rob finding each one as he changed patterns thinking to avoid Dad’s traps.” I also discovered through this conversation an interesting fact: they both initially entered the Tomb solo, with lackeys, which is something that is quite daring at the least. However, Gary Gygax himself once said, “There were several very expert players in my campaign, and this was meant as yet another challenge to their skill—and the persistence of their theretofore-invincible characters. Specifically, I had in mind foiling Rob Kuntz’s PC, Robilar, and Ernie Gygax’s PC, Tenser.” So in essence, he designed this with the idea of taking them on solo.
Tomb of Horrors has been a classic adventure for around 40 years (39 since its release as a module, 42 since it first debuted). Whether you like it or not, it has been critically acclaimed, being ranked as the 3rd greatest adventure of all-time by Dungeon Magazine in 2004, and netting a ten-of-ten rating by Don Turnbull in White Dwarf #13. Its legacy as THE classic dungeon crawl is cemented in the history of role-playing, and will most likely only be imitated, but never surpassed. You can find each edition’s version of the Tomb (except for the Fourth Edition DM Rewards version) on dmsguild.com, ranging in price from $0.99 to $14.99, and you can even purchase a Print-On-Demand version of the classic First Edition for $9.99. The Fifth Edition version, found in Tales from the Yawning Portal, is available now at your LGS and other fine retailers.