Friday, July 3, 2009

Summertime Gaming

It's July 3rd, I am off work (since the 4th is on a Saturday) and I am enjoying a caffeinated beverage at the Neptune in Greenwood while my wife gets a pedicure with her buddy downtown and outside people are enjoying the beautiful summer weather. Nevermind the drought, a quarter of the people in Seattle are transplants these days, and they are grateful for the break from the gray.

For me, it reminds me of my youth (what doesn't, really?) when I'd be out of school with no responsibilities besides taking the occasional family road trip and mowing the lawn weekly. The rest of my time was spent lazing around, riding my bike, reading books, and playing D&D with my friends and family.

So right now I'm thinking of my old S1: Tomb of Horrors module. I've been reading other folks posts around the internet and to me it feels like part of the Rite of Passage of an RPG blogger to share one's experiences with this fabled module. Guess it's my turn.

Originally, I was going to title this post "I Was A Killer DM," which would have been accurate if not literally truthful. I was, in point of fact, a real asshole at times, but I didn't collect deceased PC's character sheets for a "trophy folder," nor did I force players to rip them up (truth be told, I was always unhappy when someone crumpled a character me, D&D is a game and characters could always "come back" from the dead. Maybe I read too many Marvel comics).

Tomb of Horrors is one of those problematic modules that have so many love-hate issues for so many people. I'm one of 'em, I guess. I've owned this module pretty much since its issue with the Green cover, and I actually own TWO of them (one came in a four-pack back in the day...imagine my disappointment with only getting 3 "new" modules). There were a couple things that really attracted me to it.

#1 It had a cool cover (which leads to disappointment #1...where the hell is the big lich-like monster? Argh!).

#2 It was the highest level module available at the time (levels 10-14).

The reputation for this module as a "meat grinder" was completely unknown to me. If it has that reputation with me now, it is only because it did grind so many characters. As one of my oldest modules, I must have run it at least four times, and perhaps as many as six. I can clearly remember running it for some players on the living room floor of my parent's house one sunny, summer afternoon like today, and another time running it on a dark evening in Port Angeles for some cousins (around Christmas time). I know that at least two different groups made it to the end, but I don't remember any single group slaying Acerak...though, I may have mis-placed a memory or two (we'll get to that).

The thing is, as a self-taught DM, I used these modules as models for games. I had never played D&D with high level characters before; now I found my players HAD high level characters, and how was I going to challenge them appropriately. I, of course, figured that published modules should be the yardstick to use for these things...can you believe Tomb of Horrors as an example of a 10-14 level dungeon? But for me it seemed appropriate.

And my players, back in the day, were fairly saavy. I take umbrage with the idea that it is an "impossible" or "unbeatable" (mostly, see below). A party that sticks to the task and follows the clues in the demi-lich's poem is going to be able to find his tomb...perhaps with a little luck. As I said, at least two groups I know made it that far.

Ha! I remember the first pair to do it...

Generally, players did NOT use their own "spoon fed from level one" characters for the game. Although I was a "killer DM" after the first couple practice runs, I decided that informed consent was appropriate: it's pretty hard, and the treasure take is a bit paltry for the challenge level. The module has pre-gen characters in the back, and many players (especially for one-off runs like with my Port Angeles cousins) would use these characters...often without even bothering to pick names. Hey, they were some level 14 characters in there! Right on!

Anyway, one of the first groups DID include a regular player...Bladehawk (I've mentioned her before) a high level fighter that had been able to thwart (or at least survive) all the modules and dungeons I had thrown at her. My brother was riding shotgun with one of the level 14 NPCs (a cleric, I think?), and together they were able to make it to the end.

Not without some set-backs. Early on they got the "naked teleportation treatment;" pretty low-down considering the amount of gear that high level characters possess. However, BH and company (I believe my friend Jason was also playing, but he ended up leaving either shortly before or after his character perished) decided to head back into the tomb. No way the 'Hawk was leaving her dancing defender sword behind! They found the false tomb, exited, figured out their mistake and went back a third time, this time making it all the way to the true tomb.

Pretty bedraggled by this point, my brother's character turned the key the wrong way and blew himself 10' into the air. Nearly dead, they finally found Acerak...and had no way to kill the bastard.

This leads to Disappointment #2 with the adventure (and it is the most prominent disappointment). The methods for killing a demi-lich are simply too obscure. Unless you've owned the module, or read the description in the Monster Manual II, there's no way for a player to know any of the creature's vulnerabilities. It's not like a vampire, based on folklore. It's not simple enough to be slain with a magic weapon or fire like some undead. It is immune to turning. And there's nothing in Acerak's riddle that provides a clue as to how the thing can be destroyed.

Maybe an especially kind DM would allow a legend lore, commune, or contact other plane spell to provide the info. But the high level players in my games made it through most of their adventuring careers without resorting to these mechanical "give me a hint" spells, and they didn't think to use them now. When running the module, I usually encourage the players to take a paladin in the party (at least as an NPC) if only to give them a fighting chance at the end, but it's never worked out that I remember.

With Bladehawk and her companion...well, her companion ended up getting his soul sucked out (whadya' know), BH decided discretion was the better part of valor, she grabbed her sword and left the dungeon and the demi-lich behind. She was the only party member to survive.

I've seen party members crushed by the juggernaut, burned to death in the sliding corridor, and lose members to poison and annihilation. I had at least one guy (or pair of guys) squashed to jelly against the roof of the dungeon. I don't remember anyone getting incinerated in a fiery explosion, but I know at least one guy snuffed it with the crown and scepter (I think that was Jason's thief character).

So has anyone actually succeeded? I think Alejandro may have with the help of the magic-user Arioch. But this doesn't really count...after all Arioch was an NPC magic-user, so having him cast contact other plane and stocking the correct spells for the demi-lich is basically handing the players a giant crutch. I don't remember if I did this or not, but it sounds like something I would have. I certainly WAS a killer DM, but towards the end of my DMing career, I know I was getting tired of the Tomb of Horrors being un-defeated, grinning like an old skull from my shelf of gaming products. I'll have to ask my brother if he remembers.


  1. >>Maybe an especially kind DM would allow a legend lore, commune, or contact other plane spell to provide the info. But the high level players in my games made it through most of their adventuring careers without resorting to these mechanical "give me a hint" spells

    You big ol' softie, you! The existence of these spells means that after they reach a certain level, you don't have to give the players anything in the way of a clue or reasonable solutions to problems. :D

  2. Hmmm...I see your point. I WAS too easy on 'em...even the ones that died....

    : )