Why Tomb of Horrors is My Favorite Module

To call Tomb of Horrors a “favorite” seems absurd on the face of it. It’s certainly the most famous and notorious module, but it’s impossibly unfair, and if you play it honestly you won’t be playing long. Gary Gygax only designed it to shut up complainers that D&D was getting too easy. He may have gone overboard by way of response, but it turned out to be just what the game needed in 1978. The tomb made an impact not only as a dungeon, but by the mentality it fostered. It’s my favorite module because it’s the most reliable gauge of one’s affinities for the old-school. In effect, its a Platonic ideal. All killer dungeons walked in its shadow, unable to repeat the artistically perfect nihilism. The more we hated it, the more we loved it. Today’s generation will never understand why.

One thing I need to clear up, however, is Gary Gygax’s disingenuous preface. He states that this is a “thinking person’s module” — in other words, one that challenges player skill more than character ability. In theory this is true, but in practice it’s obviously bullshit. No one beats the tomb, no matter how smart they are; everyone dies, usually in the first few rooms. Player skill is as meaningless as character level when you’re talking about instant death with no saving throws every step of the way, and the only means of sidestepping annihilation are non-sequiturs. The demi-lich is an instant soul-stealer, and can only be harmed by things you’d never dream of trying: expensive gems thrown by a thief; a low-level shatter spell (go figure); a power word kill, but only if thrown by an astral or ethereal spellcaster; etc. It’s as if Gygax was playing Russian Roulette with the Player’s Handbook, and pulling random spells and gimmicks from his ass to serve as get-out-of-hell free cards.

One of my favorite encounter areas are the killer doors that gush blood:

“The doors are 14′ wide and 28′ tall, made of solid mithril, 3′ thick, and impregnated with great magicks in order to make them absolutely spell and magic proof. Where the halves meet, at about waist height, is a cup-like depression, a hemispherical concavity, with a central hole. The latter appears to be the keyhole for the second key, but if this is inserted, the character so doing will receive 1-10 points of electrical damage, while the first key will cause double that amount of damage to any so foolish as to insert it. The real key to these gates is the scepter from the throne room behind. If the scepter’s gold ball is inserted into the depression, the mithril valves will swing silently open. But if the scepter’s silver sphere is touched to the hemispherical cup the holder of the instrument will be teleported instantly and spat out at the devil’s mouth at 6. [the tomb’s entrance], nude, while all his or her non-living materials go to 33. [the demi-lich’s crypt], and the scepter flashes back to the throne.”

Then come the gallons of cascading blood — keep in mind that Gygax wrote this before Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — if the doors are cut by a sharp weapon. It’s the blood of all victims who have died in the tomb, and once again, you’d never guess what it takes to stop it from drowning everyone: a levitate spell coagulates the blood (but turns it into a massive ochre jelly) a purify water turns it to gas (but unfortunately poisonous), raise dead or resurrection destroys it (this solution being one of the few without any lethal side effects), etc.

I don’t believe for a moment that any group of players ever honestly beat this module (a) on first entry, knowing nothing about the tomb’s design in advance, and/or (b) without the DM toning at least parts of it way down. It’s just not possible. But that’s the point. The tomb gave DMs a license to be punishing off the scales, and players the okay to be masochistically thrilled by impossible challenges. It brought nihilism to the game, and while I doubt I knew the word as a young teen, the concept was slowly dawning on me. In some ways Tomb of Horrors messed with my psyche like The Exorcist (I was exposed to both around the same time). It disturbed and upset me, but rooted me in a framework that took fantasy very seriously. Thanks to it I would become receptive to important ideas (like the long defeat in Tolkien) and the amoral heroism of tomb robbing.

And even if it can’t be called a “thinking person’s module” without winking too broadly, the principle is there, and was soon applied to modules that gave players an actual chance; Ghost Tower of Inverness and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun to name a couple. It also goes without saying that you can tone down the module, which some DMs did, though that rather defeats the purpose. The unforgiving nature of the tomb is its point. Grognards thrill to it the same way videogamers thrive on those high levels they can never win. Today’s D&D crowd is another story; for them it’s too cruel. But if it’s cruel it also repays strategic planning — and knowing when the hell to run. You could possibly stand a slim chance of beating this thing with enough retreats and follow-up expeditions.

Tomb of Horrors torpedoed my sensibilities like no other gaming product, and I rose from the ash anew. It taught me there were no limits to punishment, and that nihilism has its place in fantasy. It changed my view of gaming, even my view of life. That’s why it’s my favorite module.

Next up: The Lost City.

5 thoughts on “Why Tomb of Horrors is My Favorite Module

  1. Very cool. I kept expecting you to reference survival horror or Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I know a lot of people who went from D&D to Call of Cthulhu. What do you think of Lovecraft?

  2. I never played Call of Cthulhu but I'm sure I would have loved it. One of my library colleagues is a Cthulhu-gamer, and has brought home to me how much I missed out.

    Lovecraft of course is great, though I say that more on the basis of his influence on classic D&D than his actual works. (I read only two short stories, Rats in the Walls and Color Out of Space.) And speaking of that influence, there's some in tomorrow's module…

  3. Ciao Loren,

    it is a couple of days I have shared the news on my blog: an integral translation of 1978 Tomb of Horror is now available in Italian. In fact, it was some time I had the intention to do something in order to celebrate the 40th anniversary of D&D and my choice fell on the no. 1 ranked on your personal list. Obviously I will not distribute it, as that would be illegal, however this is now done.
    None of the latter adaptions (for 3.5 and 4th edition) were, for different reasons, made available in Italian (up to my knowledge, Italian market is small even for standard books, imagine for rpg!)

    I wish to share this small achievement with you as your blog has inspired me a lot, renewing my attention for good old modules of the past. It was not a big burden anyway, I enjoyed the reading and I smiled many times while I was translating it.
    I will probably try the scenario by the 5 /6th of April , this is when the biggest Con takes place in Italy (http://play-modena.it/). Obviously this is anything big, but I guess it might be a reward also for the commitment you demonstrated writing this good reviews.

    Thanks again and regards,

  4. Old school D&D player here too. This may be an old thread, but I would have to agree; The Tomb of Horrors by far the ultimate module ever created. I played it for the first time in 1980 and now here we are 35 years later, having just played it again with some of the same people. Still love it. And like you, it had an effect on my developing mind as young teenager.
    There is just something compelling about this module that you just can’t say no to. Is it the artwork? The mystery? The oppressive atmosphere? Something else altogether? One thing I can surely say about The Tomb of Horrors, this is the only module where I honestly felt fear while playing it.

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