Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tomb of Horrors an Analysis Part Two: Classic or Unplayable Meat Grinder?

Part 1 of the series was definitely a fluff piece. I will apologize tomorrow.

Time to look at the Tomb of Horrors in detail.  For my own (questionable) amusement I created a 6 page flowchart chronicling the entire dungeon path:

Here is a link to a PDF of entire 6 page document:

Relive the horror! I thought at first it would be pretty easy to plot out. Huh! After several pages of scribbling I realized how complex the module really is. You must be excruciatingly familiar with the area descriptions and how they all interconnect. Otherwise when you run this beast it's going to be a mess. TOH is not something you can run “off the cuff”.

Yes, I asked myself why I have done this. One must be wary of the word “classic”. My goal was to strip away the fond memories and descriptive nonsense. Once denuded, I would then be able to objectively scrutinise the design using “player agency” and see how it holds up. I was very surprised by what I discovered. “Horrors” is not exactly how I remembered it. In the intervening decades I conveniently forgot the tedious parts (of which there are many) and remembered only the exciting stuff. Just like real life. “Horrors” has the good stuff, but there is a lot of being kicked around and getting bitch slapped too. Time to rip this baby apart.

Lets begin.

Stats: The text is svelte at 9 pages.  There are 36 descriptive areas, which comes down to about four per page.  A Quarter of a page clocked in around 350 words or 15 very long sentences.  E. Gary’s sentences tend toward the lovecraftian.  Let's not forget the 20 page book of illustrations. They are the coolest thing ever and the artwork perfectly sets the tone.   I especially love the green devil facades and the hand drawn title on the cover. Wikipedia says Gary wrote the adventure to “challenge some of his more expert players”.  This makes sense, in going through it I couldn’t figure out why things had to be solved in very specific (and peculiar) ways.  But now, I realise these are artifacts of how his group played.  Lots of hardcore mapping, pits with mechanical trap doors, the constant smacking stonework with poles and the DM rolling d6’s to see if your stupid elf found anything.  It’s a an anal play style that I am glad is long forgotten.  Gary expresses his thanks to a “Mr. Alan Lucien” who was kind enough to submit the idea for this dungeon.  Is the Siren room his?  I'd love to see the original tournament key as run at Origins I.  (If anyone has access to this original version I would much like to see it).  The module gives no clear indication what level it is or how many players should attempt it.  Looking at the Pre-Gen character list is no help either.  Typical.

Now that TOH is firmly lodged in my brain it’s time to reread C. Campbell’s Hack & Slash blog series “Slaying the Quantum Ogre”. When he discusses “Player agency” it is more often wrapped around sandbox play and macro decisions players would make in that context. TOH is as opposite a sandbox as you can get. Surprisingly, even with Horror’s narrow, no saving throw allowed mentality, it has lots of player agency. Specifically:

“This is the key to player agency, since it informs the players choice. Without information, they cannot make a choice with intent.” Courtney Campbell, On Slaying The Quantum Ogre

Horrors has lot’s of information. The main chunk is the 8 line riddle hidden in the mosaic tiles on the floor in room 3. Only part of one line doesn’t seem to relate to anything (“...and beware the trembling hands and what will maul”). But if you've taken the bait and decided to stick it out and score the big treasure, this verse gives you most everything you need to know. It also clues players in on the trap theme (I counted 84 traps) and that the big “A” is going to try and trip you up by faking you out. Sounds like a challenge. You can choose not to go in. If you're a chicken. Bwak….bwak...bak! I have designed a number of crypts that use the riddle format to inform the players. It’s a great device and encourages a lot of social interaction. (Shameless plug: The Towering Inferno of Death has a riddle).

There are other bits of information given out, some lines on a scrap of paper, several magic mouths that taunt you. Let’s not forget the illustrations. Not only do they further immerse the players in the experience of the Tomb itself, they also provide a way not normally used for the players to interact with the situation. Half the illustrations must be studied carefully for clues. They also provide a different way for players to ask the DM questions. I remember we spent as much time looking at them as rereading the riddle. “Wait...does that box stick out of the wall?”

“There is an appropriate way to run a crushing ceiling. This is the one area of the game where you can have a gotcha moment... First, you must make it very, very, clear that they are in an area where something like this can happen”. Courtney Campbell, On Slaying The Quantum Ogre 

This part of Player Agency fits Horrors to a “T”. Once inside, it doesn’t take long to sink in that this place is infested with deadly traps. Undisturbed rooms with broken furniture. Misty hallways leading off to other dimensions. A pit filled with 200 spikes. Locked chests, urns and boxes. Poisonous asps. Dead end corridors with sounds of people laughing that dump you into lava. Right. The place is riddled with secret doors hidden in secret places. Only one trap in particular bugs me. In room 21 (the Agitated Chamber) are two tapestries, which when torn turn instantly into Green Slime, fall on you and turn you into Green Slime, no save. WTF? Oh wait a minute, if you burn them they turn into Brown Mold and give off poisonous gas. x2WTF? There are no clues to warn the players that these tapestries “are specially anti-magic creations of green slime and brown mold”. Fortunately, this trap is an exception in Horrors. 

“Trick/Trap Agency is designed to avoid the gotcha. It doesn't mean you have to dumb anything down. The general idea is that players must make the choice to engage with the trap and there must be some way for them to become aware of it.” Courtney Campbell, On Slaying The Quantum Ogre

So this gem is just lying there. Sure, it’s surrounded by carnage. Looks like a bomb went off. Look how shiny. Probably cursed. We should leave it alone. Right? This is a perfect example of players making a choice to engage with the trap. They know it’s a trap. That’s the point. Same with false entrance #2. “You hear a rumbling sound….slowly count to 10…” Again two big fat clues to act fast before the stone slab seals you in. Another: “The face has a huge “O” of a mouth; it is dead black. The whole area radiates evil…” I mean, come on. I employ the counting method, although I prefer a 30 second sand timer. When I whip that baby out you should see how everyone suddenly starts talking fast and loud. Sometimes they know what’s up, sometimes they don’t. Doesn’t matter, something bad is going down and it’s time to hustle.

“This is ironic, but in order to encourage freedom, you have to limit options. You have to say, here are five tasks, so they can make a meaningful choice between the five - or reject them and forge on their own. If you were to tell them “do anything they want” the excessive freedom limits their agency by making their choices meaningless”. Courtney Campbell, On Slaying The Quantum Ogre

Yet another bizarre way this 35+ year old dungeon still works. It’s pretty obvious from looking at the dungeon flow chart how interconnected the areas of the dungeon are and in multiple ways. Connected by corridors, tunnels and inter-dungeon TP zones. There is no one path. Some paths are better than others, but if you can just get to the end, isn’t that all that matters? To be fair, once you're past the Pillared Throne Room (area 25), there is just one route to the big pay off at the end. Here is something interesting: I read that at least one group at Origins grabbed the crown, put it on Acereraks’s head, touched the silver end to it and “snuffed” out the Demi-Lich. As the legend goes, Gary was present and was asked to make a ruling on the matter. He congratulated the players on their clever solution. Bravo! (Note, in later versions of the module the powers that be rewrote the area so that the crown cannot be removed from the pillared hall). Most of the chambers offer up several obvious choices for the players. Players also learn however that these obvious choices will not be enough to crack the tomb. There is always the implicit understanding that the players can do anything…”freedom”. Playing through the tomb is as painful as it can be rewarding. I highly recommend it. Some advice: when you do finally get to the last room, if you can just resist the urge to pry those shiny, candy-like gems out of the motionless skull sitting there you’ll be in good shape. 

Good luck!

You're going to need it.

In conclusion, Tomb of Horrors holds up remarkably well. It is definitely tough love. I would call it a classic in my book. Every DM should locate it somewhere in their campaign so players may test their mettle against Acererak the Demi-Lich.

BTW, here are some very interesting links pertaining to the TOH. Enjoy:

This one is a nice discussion thread:

This one examines the riddle:

Here is a cool 3D map of the complex:

And of course the Wiki page:

Lets not forget Hack & Slash.  (Many thanks to C. Campbell for his kind permission to use text from On Slaying the Quantum Ogre):

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