Spoiler Free Review of Tomb of Horrors
At the time of writing this, the Roll with Advantage crew is in the middle of a brief break after finishing the first season’s recordings. So with this downtime came an opportunity to play a one-shot campaign through the fifth edition port of Tomb of Horrors found in Tales from the Yawning Portal. Before I get into my thoughts on Tomb of Horrors let me just say that Tales from the Yawning Portal is a fantastic addition to any fifth edition DM’s collection. The book is a “greatest hits collection” of adventures from almost all editions. It is great for supplementing a current campaign, great for if you don't have enough sessions to dedicate to a massive campaign, and can even be skillfully crafted into a massive campaign that runs through all of the adventures in the book. This book has fantastic adventures and is very versatile and I very much enjoy it.
A little about its history
Alright, so a little background on Tomb of Horrors. Tomb of Horrors is the epitome of Gygaxian Dungeon Design, and it is a fun way to travel back in time to the era where DM’s and players were not necessarily on the same team. The adventure is said to have originated in Gary Gygax’s home campaign, but its first public appearance was at the first Origins game convention in July of 1975. The adventure quickly gained renown as a particularly murderous and unforgiving dungeon, and it became a proving ground for players to show their skill. This is what has drawn me to the tomb, I have wanted to play through it for a few years now and was very excited to see it was getting ported to the fifth edition.
Tomb of Horrors from a DM’s perspective
As you read through Tomb of Horrors as a DM you will find yourself in a state somewhere between perpetual gasping and maniacal laughter at all the evil situations and traps that are laid before you. Don’t worry, it is ok and perfectly normal to feel bad for your players, that feeling will soon pass after you have read past feature four, that's where you learn that the first four features were actually built to give the characters a “dignified” death instead of the humiliation that could happen later. But then again, if the character doesn’t make it past feature four… well...I guess that is just as humiliating.
Now, I keep saying “feature” and not “room”. That is on purpose because this dungeon is different than many I have ran before. Most of the numbers that are on the map, are not rooms but are traps. Sometimes these overlap, but it is not uncommon for one room to have many traps. Don’t worry though, the book is well laid out to the point where it isn’t super cumbersome to navigate between all the feature, but be prepared to jump around. That being said, there is a feature or two in the dungeon that seems out of order, where as a DM I said “Why in the world is this feature be numbered before these other features.” To me, this seems more of a slip up in design than anything. The good news is that it isn’t too disturbing, it is just something that you as a DM will need to skip over and may come back to eventually.
Looking at the events and the some of the overall traps, you as a DM should have a good amount of fun describing this dungeon and its effects on the characters. Remember that this dungeon was built to be ruthless and to test players and their skills; not just their skill to play the game, but to play the characters as well. So don’t feel bad when you hit the first Total Party Kill or the loss of a unperceptive squishy. Instead, find joy in this, because it is very likely to happen, and if you can find some joy in it, you might just be able to describe the death in a way that the player or party enjoys as well.
Tomb of Horrors from a Player Perspective
Tomb of Horrors requires a specific type of player, and on top of that, explicit buy-in to the idea that is behind the tomb, i.e. your character is probably going to die. Now, if you are cool with your character being brought to a gruesome and terrible end, and you want to try to initiate yourself as one of the very few that have survived the dungeon, then you might be in the right place. One thing you will not find in this dungeon crawl is a target rich environment. By this, I mean that on average there are about .8 monsters per room. So if you are a hack and slash player, you will probably not find this adventure fun. This adventure is more about finding traps, solving riddles, and trying not to die. It is not a “slug it out” type of dungeon. Expect it to be a slow go and take at least 8-10 hours to get through, if the table is focused, and the DM knows the dungeon well.
I personally suggest a party that is well rounded. A group that has characters that are very proficient with arcana, religion, perception, and fighting/taking hits, and as long as everyone is aware of the previous paragraph’s warning, your party should have some fun. As a player, I highly recommend playing the character straight, with little to no metagame thinking. This will help your choices and help the party move through the dungeon smother. I recommend being slightly curious, and to not be too afraid. I think if this is role-played well, it will be highly satisfying to the party, and you might even make it through the dungeon.
Pitfalls and Traps that a DM may want to avoid
When I ran this adventure, there were few things that plagued my table, and I would like to lay a couple of those things out to maybe help other DM’s avoid some mistakes that I made and learned from. First off, if you are playing a deadly campaign, throw Tomb of Horrors in without telling your players, this is by far the easiest way of doing things. It will make sure that people are not paralyzed by fear of traps and will reduce the meta potential at the table, if they have heard of the adventure and its notoriety before.
Your players should be at the appropriate level, My players came in at level thirteen and I believe they were too strong, even though it is a level ten to sixteen adventure. Also, if you have someone with very high Passive Perception, make sure to reign in the details of the rooms. There are many things that rely on perception in the adventure and the group can quickly get into the “Too many quests in my journal” problem where they have no clue where to go next.
This dungeon also can require some slight railroading depending on the group. Because there is so much to do, it is a wise idea to call out special features that you want to draw their attentions to keep the party moving. Most important, come up with a good plan for if someone dies, and for when there is a Total Party Kill. My Total Party kill hook was that if everyone dies the player’s backup characters were hired to follow the characters into the tomb and get the same artifact the original characters were hired to get. This also created a cool situation wherein the second playthrough the players would get to see the damage they did on their way in, and I think about and play with how jammed or broken traps could act with someone following the party. And, like always, try and keep a pulse on the party’s fun level. If the dungeon isn’t working out, then try and figure out what you can do to make it better.
That is where I am going to leave it for this week. As always, thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Feel free to comment, I love to read constructive feedback and love discussing topics like these. Check back in next week to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates and to let me know what is on your mind, or what you might want to read about. Also, go check out Roll with Advantage! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that releases every Monday at 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading.
― The DM