Why Is the Tomb of Horrors So Influential?
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt.
These are some of the first words used to describe the setting of The Tomb of Horrors. One of the most iconic adventures to ever grace kitchen tables and strike fear into the hearts of unprepared adventurers.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game that has become one of the core pieces of the gaming world. Whether or not you’ve played the game before, it’s hard not to see its impact on games since its release in 1974. The game remains popular, with game designers bringing the experiences they had to shape the games we play today.
Start The Dungeon Crawling
Dungeons & Dragons is a Tabletop Role-Playing Game for those who don’t know. You, the player, would enter a high fantasy world filled with swords, sorcery, and treasure. Unlike video games, where the goal is laid out before you, you are at the whims of your Dungeon Master. This is another player who drives the world around you.
Through them, you grow your character and delve into dark dungeons, complex political situations, and even dealing with the gods themselves. If you’ve never heard of it before, you ought to check it out.
No, really. Go pick up a starter kit and some friends and play. It’s a blast.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons is through pre-made adventures. These are published resources for Dungeon Masters to run their players through without heavy lifting. These became popular immediately, with some of the most famous D&D settings today stemming from these “modules” (as they were called back then).
One of the game’s original creators, Gary Gygax, had been running a campaign for his friends. He felt they had become “experts” and wanted to not only give his players a challenge but to make them face what all living beings fear most: death.
Enter: The Tomb of Horrors.
Initially created for the very first Origins convention in 1975, Gary wanted to bring a challenge for players interested in tournament play for Dungeons and Dragons.
Sidenote: Is tournament play a thing? I’ve played for over a decade, and I’ve never heard of a D&D tournament in my life. Reach out to me on Twitter and tell me about your D&D Tournament stories.
Lawrence Schick would describe the Tomb of Horrors as “The dungeon of the demi-lich Acererak was, for Gary, a kind of thought experiment: If an undead sorcerer really wanted to keep his tomb from being plundered by greedy adventurers, how would he do it? The answer, of course, was to defend the crypt with tricks and traps designed not to challenge the intruders but to kill them dead. And furthermore, to do it in ways so horrific that all but the most determined party would give up and leave well enough alone.”
And that’s precisely what happened to players as they adventured deep into the tomb of the undead wizard named Acererak. The module has a mind-boggling 33 encounters in total, starting with players having to search for the tomb itself by poking around the dirt with spears or poles until they can find a tunnel to get inside. And yes, it specifies that they have to use spears or poles. They summon a demon if the players try to be cheeky and become astral or ethereal. So they can’t even phase through the tomb without causing trouble.
Once the players get in, they’re greeted by not one but two false entrances before finally entering the Tomb itself. Once they finally make their way inside, they are greeted by a riddle puzzle before moving forward.
Oh, and did I mention that this dungeon is filled with pit traps? Not just your regular run-of-the-mill pit traps either, ones that once again force players to poke and prod around with poles and spears, lest they fall into the pit. Plus, these pits have poisonous spikes at the bottom that kill you if you fail to evade the poison. Immediately.
Suppose they make it past the subsequent few encounters, including the famous “Face of the Great Green Devil. This is just a face in the wall that destroys you immediately if you jump in.
They’re presented with a room that has a false floor. If the floor opens, anyone inside is dropped into a 100ft pit that cannot be reopened unless someone else triggers the trapdoor. Meaning a party can quickly die right then and there in this room.
Naturally, once they’ve dodged the first ten encounters of the dungeon unscathed, they’re presented with something neat: a Magical Archway.
What does this do, you ask?
Any living matter that steps in gets sent back to the dungeon entrance. But non-living matter? That gets sent far, far away into the depths of the dungeon. It gets sent to the final room where Acererak is waiting.
Yup, if a player makes the mistake of stepping through the portal, they lose all their items.
Misery In The Depths
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this place is pretty miserable. I won’t explain it room by room, but here are some other fun ways players can end up getting a candlelight vigil:
- A false crypt that has an illusion of the tomb collapsing. If the players leave the dungeon, the Dungeon Master is instructed to ask them if the dungeon was too hard.
- A room named “Huge Pit with 200 Spikes.”
- A door that leads to a fake wall that’s actually a secret door. It leads to a room full of sleep gas that has a chance to awaken a Stone Juggernaut that will immediately crush the players to paste.
- Another Devil Face that will send players back to the start, naked and without any items.
- A different Devil Face that instead teleports them to a room full of the skeletons of people who had tried – and failed – to escape. Even if the players manage to open the hidden door in this area to free whoever is inside, the swords of the dead adventurers will attack the players.
- A door with a keyhole that shocks you if you put the wrong keys into it. If you put the wrong item into its slot, it can teleport you like the devil faces, or if you attack the door, it starts to bleed and can flood the room. Oh, and if you light the blood on fire, it turns to fatal poison gas.
- A false treasure room that, if the players loot the money and items, will all disappear once they travel far enough away from the Tomb.
Once they finally traverse the 32 encounters within the Tomb of Horrors, they are in the crypt of the demi-lich himself. And naturally, once they use the keys to unlock the door, there’s a chance anyone at the back of the room gets smushed as the floor shoots upwards to reveal the crypt of Acererak himself.
Or what’s left of him anyway. Since he’s actually a demi-lich, aka a floating skull with jewels for eyes and diamond teeth. He can suck the souls out of players, killing them instantly and always starting with the strongest one. Even hitting the demi-lich is difficult, as you must know certain spells or have specific items even to harm him. And once you crush the skull, any souls trapped inside pose a risk of being gone forever.
And….that’s it. There aren’t any happy endings or heroes coming back to the village as kings. The module ends there, thanking the players for playing.
Overall, it’s a pretty crappy experience, right?
The Impact On D&D
So why does the Tomb of Horrors matter enough to stick around? It wasn’t a random one-off from that convention. It was fully published by TSR (the company that made D&D back then). Since then, it’s received updated versions for every edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It has some people out there who enjoy this hellscape dungeon of a module.
Many players consider this module to be a classic, something iconic and different from other adventures. In a world where most adventures are puzzle-light, combat-heavy scenarios where players get to have meaty action and combat sequences, Tomb of Horrors puts the entire game into a different perspective.
Acererak’s tomb does have a few monsters, but there’s only a handful of them, and they’re all singular enemies, no large groups. Instead, players are forced to use their brains to solve these complex, punishing puzzles that risk instant death if they provide the wrong solution, which is very uncommon for most D&D adventures. It also encourages players to stop and talk about what is going on and better plan their next move because they might not live past the next room.
Puzzles are an essential part of Dungeons and Dragons, as they not only break up the monotony of combat and dialogue but also serve to add atmosphere to the world. If your party is exploring a dark cave searching for a bear, but instead, you come across magical traps, your perception of the rest of the cave is altered. And the Tomb of Horrors is no different.
Sure, you might be told that there’s some great evil inside this tomb, but what adventurer hasn’t heard that before? But when you get there, and you start to see how dangerous this place is, the idea that there might actually be a great big evil that your heroic character can’t defeat begins to set in. Death in D&D is permanent. There are no extra lives or respawn points like in Dark Souls. You can’t learn from these deaths and move on, you have to avoid them, or you will fail.
How Does It Affect the Table?
The genuine threat of death is what I think makes this adventure truly unique. Playing the role of a Dungeon Master is a unique challenge of trying to keep your players motivated and engaged and make them feel challenged by the tasks they need to perform. Player death is always a possibility, but in my experience, it is usually challenging to get there.
Whether you, as a DM, soften up when players are close to dying or a timely roll keeps them alive long enough to rest, a fatality in your party is usually rare but very impactful.
Because the Tomb of Annihilation is designed to kill players – and really KILL them, not just inconvenience them with minor poison and little wounds that add up over time – Players are forced to see the world with a different lens where death is imminent. They need to overcome it to advance or leave.
This plays significantly into the design of Dungeons and Dragons. The game we know now is a much different beast than it was back then, a game of hacking and slashing and combat. Most adventures and groups are focused around combat – because that’s pretty much all the game was. The tools for players to explore the world and interact with it weren’t there yet. Roleplay was light, and there weren’t skills like “athletics” or “acrobatics” or “persuasion.” It was stat checks or nothing.
As D&D has evolved, We’ve seen a shift into a game that Better incorporates the ability to tackle different types of situations. Where previously, Players were forced to have a flat roll to escape a trap or dodge an obstacle, modern editions have broken the game down into Subskills alongside Specific Stats. One character might be more dextrous than another, giving them an advantage.
In the original D&D, you could only choose from one of three classes: Fighting men hit stuff, magic-users could use magic, and clerics could do a little of both. We wouldn’t see a drastic change in diversity until Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ second edition in 1989, fifteen years later.
Because players were so accustomed to combat-centric games with the occasional puzzle, it made the Tomb of Horrors much more challenging. It forced players to communicate and figure out a real solution to these puzzles because one wrong move could end your character – forever.
How Does It Impact Modern Games?
We’ve seen this sort of game design slowly shift into modern games, mostly with games like Dark Souls. Games where death may not be permanent, but the risk of dying could be devastating. Soulsborne games have mastered the art of learning from your deaths, figuring out how to overcome it, and becoming better at the game overall.
At the beginning of the original Dark Souls, you are immediately faced with a massive Asylum Demon that blocks your path. You’re given nothing- simply a broken sword and vague instructions. Players who attempt to fight the demon usually fail hard.
But those who explore and learn will eventually realize there’s an unlocked door to the left of the Demon, where you can escape and find a checkpoint. You’ll collect some basic gear and come face-to-face with the Demon again, but you are equipped and ready to face the challenge this time.
I, for one, am terrible at Soulsborne games. I don’t have the patience to learn. I want to hack and slash my way around. I’ve only beaten Dark Souls 3 to date, despite owning all three AND Sekiro. I’m horrible.
However, permanent death isn’t something that’s explored in modern games. Sure, some games may have higher difficulty tiers, including permadeath, but they aren’t baked into the games themselves.
Modern Roguelikes come close, using death as a tool similar to Soulsborne games to help you advance. Unless you’re incredibly skilled at a particular game, you’re seldom going to complete the entire game in a single run. Instead, you’ll progress as far as you can, die, and then use the resources and knowledge you gained from that run to progress even further in the next run.
Other games that use permanent death are still roleplaying games, often inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. Fire Emblem and XCOM are great examples where characters risk dying in combat, which means they’re gone. Forever.
Fire Emblem takes this a step further still, with the chance that essential characters may die in combat and affect the game’s future. Some characters will become unobtainable, or side quests will be locked away. This forces players to think and plan their turns appropriately.
We don’t typically see how games can be flipped around entirely to be seen from a new perspective. Modern games rarely deviate from the norms, with genres mixed up occasionally but seldom experimenting with the formula. While the Tomb of Horrors takes players out of dungeon crawling into a heavy, life-or-death puzzle sequence, we rarely get an opportunity to see other games flip the script.
Could you imagine if next year’s Call of Duty entry took away the split-second reaction style shooter style for a slow, methodical exploration map? Squads have to carefully explore each doorway, hallway, and open area, fearing death is around every corner?
Or what about a visual novel/dating simulator about some book club in a Japanese high school that turns into a grim, psychological horror?
Waifus and Horror
Trigger warning: Self-harm, violence, and suicide. If you aren’t okay with this, skip the following few paragraphs.
Doki Doki Literature Club presents itself as a cutesy slice-of-life visual novel, blending in with the hundreds released every year. You play the protagonist, who begrudgingly joins his school’s literature club to appease his childhood friend after a time and some chances for romance with the other girls in the club.
The game suddenly ends with you discovering your childhood friend has hung herself. Then, the game resets. You’re back at the main menu with your previous game deleted, and you start the game again…
But it’s different. Your childhood friend doesn’t exist. Strange glitches begin to appear, and some text becomes unreadable. And the three other girls in the book club seem…different.
I won’t go any further into the rest of the game, but Doki Doki Literature Club was a massive change in the presentation of a traditional Visual Novel. It added real puzzles and intrigue to an otherwise simple, straightforward genre of “choose your own adventure” style games.
Returning to The Tomb
As Dungeons and Dragons has evolved, the Tomb of Horrors has also evolved. It’s appeared in every edition of the game, with its most recent printing being included in Tales from the Yawning Portal, a compilation book. In its newest iteration, plenty of warnings are given to the Dungeon Master, so they know the experience they will be putting their players through.
Wizards of the Coast would eventually return us to Acererak’s evil games through a new adventure called the Tomb of Annihilation. With this, we were given a more comprehensive look at the world Acererak calls home (known as Chult) and a thoroughly-vetted adventure to ensure it did not become the meat grinder its predecessor was known for.
While the adventure has its issues, it’s been widely praised for being a great module. Heck, it was one of the most playtested modules they’ve ever worked on, according to Wizards themselves. Also, Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, was one of the collaborators. Weird, right?
Finally Out Of The Dungeon
Whether or not you have had the unfortunate experience of delving into the Legendary Tomb of Horrors, it’s an experience that has shaped the Gaming world. The Demi-Lich’s tomb Still finds its way into the eye of pop culture, inspiring the 2007 game “Icewind Dale and a major part of the book ” Ready Player One.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the module has also inspired countless RPG designers as well, taking it as a lesson in how to expertly craft a dungeon. Or perhaps how to NOT Subject players to the kind of torture you find in the depths of Acererak’s lair.
Have you been brave enough to challenge the Tomb of Horrors? or perhaps you’ve mastered the art of running players through its corridors. Either way, I want to hear about it. Tell us all about it on our Discord!