Tomb of Horrors, Part 1
Four adventurers (and a host of backup adventurers) set out on a quest to conquer the most notorious dungeon ever constructed. How did we fare? This is our tale...
After a morning of pushing your barges through the stagnant waters of the Vast Swamp, you arrive at the presumed site of the demi-lich Acererak’s last haunt. Before you is a low, flat-topped hill, about 200 yards wide and 300 yards long. Only ugly weeds, thorns, and briars grow upon the steep sides and bald top of the sixty-foot-high mound.
You cautiously approach and circumnavigate the hill, but see no obvious markers or entrances. One of the group, a half-elf with skills as a cleric, magic-user, and ranger, uses his boots of levitation to rise above the hill for a better view. After soaring up nearly one hundred yards and surveying the landscape, he descends to the ground, looking shaken.
He reports that there are large black rocks upon the top of the hill, and when viewed from high above, they form the shape of a human skull, with the piles of rock appearing as the eye holes, nose, and jagged teeth of a grinning death's head.
[Queue: Malignant Laughter]
- 1st Edition, Dungeons & Dragons
- Released for the first Origins in 1975
- Known as the deadliest dungeon, ever
I won't regale you with all the details of the our dungeon crawl yet, since further horror remains. But, I did want to share with you the current status of our party members and reflect upon how we'd managed to outwit the Gygaxian deathtrap with such minimal loss so far.
Our PCs were poking around in the 'throne room' of the lich Acererak and we were in midst of debating our next move. No path forward presented itself. Our decision making skills were degraded. It was a dangerous impasse.
Ok, so our PCs remain alive, mostly. How then did we get this far in a dungeon that is notorious for party wipeouts? After some reflection, here's what I came up with: Providence, Paranoia, and (some) Patience. Period. Insightful tactics that may serve your dungeon delving designs well:
Providence. From fortuitous guesses to friendly dice, there were numerous instances where luck saved our collective bacon. Gaylord did not get teleported anyplace too inopportune, when I stepped him through the foreboding mists. A completely random casting of find traps revealed one of the dungeon’s most killer pit traps – directly in front of the cleric. Rolls of 18 and 19 came up when the Paladin and Cleric attempted to turn the evil lich doppelganger. Of course, Fortuna (or Tymora) can be a fickle goddess, as our poor Halfling thief/fighter learned. After scaling the walls of the ‘ransacked’ tapestry room in order to avoid the suspicious floor, he yanked down the seemingly benign curtain to maneuver further into the room. The curtain melted him. The rest of us (luckily) were standing in the doorway watching.
Paranoia. All players were respectfully mistrustful of the dungeon. We literally believed every square inch of the dungeon was trapped. We poked and prodded with our 10’ foot poles. We opened doors cautiously or (even better) from afar. We used and reused pitons to climb around suspicious flooring. We tied off our Halfling thief in case he fell into a trap, which he did on occasion. Once, though, the fighter holding the rope fell in when the thief failed to notice a trap which he was too light to trigger himself. I can’t recall if the fighter pulled the thief in with him. We smashed down spikes in every spiked pit trap we uncovered. Although, again, one of the traps was trapped for such a tactic. And we scoured the dungeon for items of use, like the urns we used to siphon off the corrosive fluid from the cauldrons. Every little bit of paranoia helped... mostly; some tactics only get you so far.
Patience. I think our PCs have been in the tomb now for a couple weeks, resting after every encounter. However, you don't always know if there's a dastardly dungeon timer. Like with the mists, I want to press on without a lot of divination. Sometimes when answers don’t present themselves immediately, trying every permutation is not always fruitful. An evil alter can explode. A false door, hiding a secret door, can lead to a trap. And after 8-hours of stressful play, we began to cut corners. What respectful paladin would put the crown of an evil lich on his head? What pious cleric would consider picking up an evil gem? Thus, we decided to finish module S1 at a later date rather than risk total failure in a rush to complete it. Of course, there could still be a timer…
In summary, our 5 heroes, 4 original and 1 replacement, remain in the columned room awaiting the final quarter of the Tomb of Horrors. Will Acererak kill us? If so, I don’t really blame the corrupt demi-lich. I blame the evil genius of Gary Gygax, after all, Acererak was only written that way… Stay tuned for Part 2!