Thursday, July 17, 2008

Memories of Games Past

Brian Murphy recently posted an excellent write up about S1, Tomb of Horrors, which posed some thought provoking questions regarding that classic AD&D module. Personally, I’m very opinionated about what I consider to be one of Mr. Gygax’s career highlights, that timeless adventure which, to this day, sends chills of fear down the spines of my players.

Brian mentioned to me that I should share one of my own experiences from running that very adventure back in the early 80’s, so I’ll take the time to set the table, try to reconstruct the sequence of events, and share my sordid tale with you here at Ye Auld Grog ‘n Blog.

Back when we were considered youngsters, we couldn’t rush out and buy every single D&D item being published. Why? Well, none of us had jobs, and we relied on our tight-fisted parents to buy such things for us. We were wet-behind-the-ears D&D novices in 1980, and most of us were lucky to own even a few TSR items. After all, one could play with no printed materials whatsoever, provided the DM had the basics and was willing to run a game for a bunch of greenhorn High School freshmen.

We played the game rabidly, and with minds like a sponge, many of us developed rapidly into excellent, logical players and DM’s. And so it was, a couple years later, we were truly D&D veterans after countless hours not only at the After School D&D Club, which is were this particular tale takes place, but also in friend’s basements or at the Rec Club on the weekends and evenings during our free time.

Still, most of us owned no more than a handful of TSR items, and what we couldn’t afford, we shared amongst one another. Amazingly enough, back then, only the DM’s bothered to actually shell out cash for those awesome monochrome modules. So, for the most part, the now very well known TSR classics, the G series, the D series, the C series, the S series, were mysteries waiting to be explored for most of the players. While Home Brew was the predominant gaming form, many young, enterprising DM’s were able to lure players to their table by promising to run one of the monochromes. Players had possibly heard tales and legends of these, and not owning them, jumped at the chance to finally run a character through one of these destined to be classic adventures.

Somewhere along the way during my first years in the club, I became a DM. I was one of the few that owned S1, Tomb of Horrors. While I’ve never actually entered the Tomb as a player, I consider myself very lucky to have been able to DM said module no less than three times for my fellow After School D&D Club members.

Not once did a single party come anywhere near the Demi-Lich, and after the first two times I ran this module, it’s reputation was cemented; it was an unfair, relentless death-trap of a place, and only the utterly masochistic might dare its treacherous halls. Certainly such an undertaking would NEVER be performed with one’s real character, the kind that had been created a few years earlier, and clawed and scraped it’s way through various DM’s adventures to become something of a local legend, right?

Well, one such character, who I’ll never forget due to this particular tale, had done this very thing. Brian was the player’s name, and I will simply call his Paladin Mr. Fancypants, because his name is lost to me now. Mr. Fancypants had become, through sheer grit and tenacity, a character who was well known amongst our little D&D club. It surely helped that even at age 15-16, Brian was one of the smartest guys and players I have ever known. I think he went on to become a Scientist of some sort, and last I heard was in Florida talking to dolphins.

Local legend spread, and one afternoon I was approached by Brian to allow him to run Mr. Fancypants through the Tomb of Horrors. Brian convinced a handful of other regulars to join him, but they all brought random pregenerated characters, just to experience S1 for the first time. So it was agreed, and the following week, after leaving me a few handwritten notes about preparations Mr. Fancypants was undertaking before the adventure, I opened up S1 to run it for Mr. Fancypants and Co. It would be the final time I would DM that module at the D&D Club.

Despite my out of game warnings that the Tomb of Horrors was a real meat-grinder, Brian enjoyed such challenges, and laughed off my ominous protestations. Mr. Fancypants would conquer this legendary crypt, and claim victory; snatching fame and fortune in the process.

Brian decided to take plenty of anti-Vampire precautions, including having a glass-blower craft an empty glass vessel, which I suppose he intended to use to capture a fleeing Vampire’s gaseous form. This was in his Portable Hole before departing for the tomb, along with the standard mallet, wooden stakes and garlic. Little did he know that he would not access any of these tools while in S1.

If I had to guess, I would say that these particular sessions took place in 1982. Here I sit 26 years later, and honestly only a few moments from that expedition into the Tomb of Horrors stand out. I know for a fact that the mutated, four-armed Gargoyle terror took out one of the characters; I also remember the false tomb really played havoc with this group (so much so that I even ‘rolled-to-hit’ with an illusory Magic Missile to give the players a hint). By the time the group had reached the false tomb, I remember that a handful of club members had gathered to watch the proceedings. I had made it known that this group, including the infamous Mr. Fancypants, had made it farther into the tomb than any band of delvers thus far.

By the time the next gaming session commenced, we had not only the actual players in attendance, but also everyone in attendance that afternoon gathered around the table to see exactly how Mr. Fancypants fared. There had been some character attrition along the way, not only actual deaths, but as per the norm in that club, some players just didn’t show up. If I recall correctly, the group was down to just three characters now. While the Paladin had not yet been subjected to the humility of being teleported nude back to the entrance, one of the other characters had been, and as a matter of fact, I’m fairly sure that one of the players who basically ‘gave up’ had been teleported to the Forsaken Prison and left to rot. Most bands would have given up at this point, but Mr. Fancypants was never one to give in, no matter the odds. Call it overconfidence, call it Paladin-like zeal, call it raw determination, in the end it was his own undoing.

One thing I know for sure, and recall as if it happened yesterday, is the exact moment which sealed the deal for S1, and whether or not I would ever DM it again at the D&D Club. It was a moment paramount in my own DM’ing development, as I nearly reneged on exactly HOW it was meant to play out. But in the spirit of S1, Tomb of Horrors, I ran it in the manner in which the module was written, with no apologies. The adventure ended right then and there, and, as instructed by the author, I showed everyone Graphic #23.

“No Saving Throw?”


There was a hush through the room, then nervous laughter.

Brian stood up, picked up his character sheet, and ripped it in half right then and there at the game table. Mr. Fancypants was no more. I folded everything up, and congratulated the players on making it farther than any of the prior expeditions. It was a hollow victory. Whether or not Brian ever ‘resurrected’ that Paladin is not known to me, but I can assure you that Mr. Fancypants was never seen again at any of the gaming tables in that old After School D&D Club.

Furthermore, no one ever asked me to allow them to take on S1 again. While wisdom might often be lost on youth, it was common knowledge that the Tomb of Horrors, as DM’ed by yours truly, was an impossible death-trap of a dungeon. And so that monochrome of diabolical design sat gathering dust in my gaming closet for a few years.

A veteran group of D&D regulars did end up defeating the Demi-Lich years after we had graduated from High School, but again, it was a hollow victory, as I know for a fact that some of them owned the module and were probably very familiar with it. Sure Acerak and his traps claimed a couple of the characters along the way, but it was the last time I actually allowed anyone to take on the module. I realized at that point that S1 would remain shelved for all time. It’s nearly impossible to conquer when refereed properly, by players unfamiliar with the design, and not very rewarding when completed by veteran players who are knowledgeable about the dangers that await them. If you’re ever going to bother to run this module, do it with no bias, and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. I can’t see how anyone can survive this Tomb without the ability to take numerous expeditions and survive character losses.

I could certainly open it up and run it for my own wet-behind-the-ears family of somewhat reluctant D&D players, but I already know what would happen, and unless I am willing to intercede and be a kinder, gentler DM, it would again be called an unfair death-trap, just as it was over 25 years ago in that humble little D&D Club which I was a member of when I was but 15 years old.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

PS: The scans above are taken from my own copy of S1, Tomb of Horrors. To this day it remains, for whatever macabre reasons, my favorite AD&D module. I credit Gary Gygax for my vast appreciation of iron levers and illusions.


Will Douglas said...

I ultimately "survived" the Tomb of Horrors, but I can't take any real credit for it.

First of all, it was the 3.5 version (so it really wasn't the 'real' tomb of horrors at all...)

Second of all, we were all up in the high teens for character levels, and had things like Raise Dead and Heroes Feast available at all times. Trust me, we used the Raise Dead. A Lot.

And so, we "completed" it. But it feels a hollow victory, since we should well have been completely blown away.

Come to think of it, had we been required to play it totally straight, in a First Edition AD&D sort of way, we wouldn't have lasted an hour of real time.

Such, I guess, are the differences between the Real Thing and 3.5.


Scott said...

I'm working (very) occasionally on my OD&D homage to the Tomb of Horrors, and will start dropping hints as to its existence when my current groups get around mid-level. It's a shame that it's nearly impossible to run the original for veteran players without the taint of "out-of-character knowledge."

Brian Murphy said...

Yes! I was waiting for this post. This, Sham, is the essence of old school D&D--a player who has made it to high levels, through years of perseverance and skill, daring to take on a deathtrap dungeon. And then, when he meets his doom, having the stones to actually rip his character sheet in half at the table. That's a man's game of D&D, folks. More importantly, it sounded like a hell of a lot of fun.

Nice work, Sham, both on the post and for running that module 20 years ago in the spirit in which it was intended. I'm not sure whether I could have done it.

Sham aka Dave said...

Will: I'm not familiar with all of the differences between 1e and modern D&D, but you get the gist of it; that under the rules it was written for, it's extremely difficult.

Scott: Sounds great! I've done homages to S1 myself, but none were as unforgiving. The Donjon was just such an adventure. That map can be found in a Junk From My Closet post.

Brian: Thanks! And also, thanks for suggesting this post. It was fun collecting those vague memories together again. People don't often talk about the particularly deadly trap that ended the adventure, but it is one of the most memorable to me, for obvious reasons.

Anonymous said...


I've been really enjoying your blog this morning, randomly surfing around. But what really caught my attention was this post.

See, I remember a friend running Tomb of Horrors for me. The first group I went through got butchered by a collapsing tunnel. I don't remember what killed off my second group of intrepid PCs, but I remember very distinctly saying, at the time...

Man, I hate this stupid game! I never want to play this stupid thing again.

It's a tribute to Tomb of Horrors' sheer Ypres-like casualty rate that that vow lasted for, I think, an entire month or more of summer vacation.