Meet The Tomb of Horrors (A.K.A. The Most Hilariously Brutal D&D Dungeon)
Over the decades almost everything about Dungeons and Dragons has changed. New classes, new skills ... even the snacks are unrecognizable (we weren’t ready for Takis in the '90s). All these changes eventually meant that the dungeons of yesteryear are unplayable for most newer player characters.
You see, modern dungeons are designed to be worked through and fully vanquished to forward the plot of the campaign. But old-school dungeons were completely different beasts, and they were jerk beasts. Parties could expect to lose a character or two in a dungeon and they’d be lucky to carry off any treasure for their troubles. Besting a dungeon was rare, and retreating was common and often wise. Dungeons from the early days of Dungeons and Dragons weren’t meant to test fledgling characters. They were meant to weed them out.
Even in that far more brutal old-school environment, one dungeon became legendary for its difficulty: The Tomb of Horrors, the demilich Acererak’s hilariously booby-trapped resting place. As beloved as it is feared, Tomb of Horrors has been recreated in every major version of Dungeons and Dragons since it was written in the mid-'70s, and no matter how much the rules of the game change, the Tomb remains infuriatingly difficult and completely lethal.
The most sadistic obstacles in the Tomb are sure to make your players reassess their life choices and form a bowling team instead. If you’re planning on playing through the Tomb now or ever, then you'll want to come back to this article later, since spoilers. (And if you’re just coming from playing the Tomb, then I’m sorry about your level 12 Monk. Drowning in blood is a terrible way to go.)
Getting Into The Tomb Is A Huge Pain
If you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons before, then you know all about entering a new dungeon: you barge right up to the door and kick it down. Traps aside, most of the time, entering a dungeon is as simple as walking in -- usually you’re not worried about the door itself. But The Tomb of Horrors is an endless Escher painting of pain, and the front door is no exception.
The first thing adventurers see is a 200-foot-long wall completely overgrown by thick vines and brambles. The entrance could be anywhere along the wall, but checking even a small portion of it takes 10 minutes. But don’t worry! Finding the entrance isn’t as tedious as all that because there are actually three entrances! Wow! What a gift! Maybe this place isn’t so bad after all.
I suppose it’s more accurate to say there are three openings on the wall -- one a true entrance to the tomb, and the others are deadly traps: one a sealing trap that keeps players locked in the dark and the other a ceiling trap that crushes party members who venture too far. Either one of these can maim most party members, and risk instantly killing players who are a bit too slow on the uptake. In older versions it was absolutely possible to have your whole party killed before you’ve even wiped your boots on the welcome mat.
But look at it this way: There’s still a one-in-three chance you’re allowed to walk into the dungeon without complication. So congratulations! You've just started the dungeon!
Face Of The Great Green Devil
Exploration plays a huge role in Dungeons and Dragons, with the core rules of fifth edition going so far as to call exploration one of the three pillars of a successful adventure. DMs encourage players to keep a curious mind. Leave no stone unturned. Stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. After all, it’s your fantasy land -- indulge your inner child!
If other adventures are playgrounds for your inner child, then Tomb of Horrors is the Wonka Factory Tour. Sure, it looks cool and you were excited to get in, but now you’re being led around the place by a madman and if you touch absolutely anything you will die.
One earlier feature of the Tomb of Horrors is the Face of the Great Green Devil. It’s an enormous relief of a devil prominently displayed on the wall, with a gaping mouth that’s completely dark inside. If it seems like a familiar visage that’s probably because you’ve seen it before and didn’t realize what you were looking at. Veteran Dungeon Master Dan Collins of Wandering DMs calls the Great Green Devil, “iconic … the image of DnD. It’s emblematic of the whole tomb.”
If you’re a Dungeons and Dragons player, then your inner child is absolutely bursting to play with this cool dark mouth. Maybe you throw a rock in! Maybe you poke at it with your sword! If you’re trying to show your friends what a goofball you are, maybe you just touch it!
If you do that you can kiss your friends goodbye, because the mouth isn’t just a round dark space—it’s a sphere of annihilation hanging on the wall. That means it “obliterates ... all matter that passes through it.” No saves, no damage, no nothing -- just gone. Sorry about your face, Veruca Salt.
The Face of the Great Green Devil is emblematic of the Tomb not only because of its image, but because the nature of the trap is at the heart of the Tomb’s design. Dungeons and Dragons often boils down to a game of risk and reward -- you choose when to take a risk and roll the dice, and if you get lucky then there’s some treasure in it for you. Tomb of Horrors works in a completely different way: There is often no luck at all, no saves, and, most amazingly, no rewards! You thought putting a sword into this hole would open up a secret passage? Sorry, you must be thinking of a different dungeon. Like many of the more intriguing parts of the Tomb, the Great Green Devil is a red herring -- the only winning move is to walk right past it.
Altar Of Evil
The Chapel of Evil is a major set piece of Tomb of Horrors, and a milestone for those venturing through it. Reaching the Chapel takes skill, insight, fortitude and five straight hours of telling your friend Matt to stop touching things. The Chapel is a rare moment of quiet in Acererak’s abode -- nothing immediately threatens the party, although a few things may catch their eye.
Most eye-catching of all though must be the Altar of Evil. At the front of the Chapel, the center of attention, the Altar glows with an opalescent blue light and is made of an unusual material. Its prominent display and unusual coloring may make players think twice before touching it, but as the Chapel has no obvious exits most parties will eventually begin to experiment with the altar.
Of course, this is another red herring and a huge mistake. The second any living being touches the altar it will shoot lightning down the center aisle on its first touch.
Max Haarhaus of Ten Dead Rats had a particularly difficult time with this room. Upon entering the chapel, some of Max’s companions wanted to investigate the chapel’s pews, but Max’s eye was immediately drawn to the altar. Already mentally worn down by the tomb’s deluge of tricks and puzzles, Max gave in to temptation. “I said what the hell and just touched the altar ... which of course shoots bolts of lightning in all cardinal directions and killed myself and anyone in the party who wasn't in the rows of pews,” Max remembers.
The DM generously allowed dead players to roll up new characters and Max kept using his new characters to “solve” the altar. “So,” Max grimaces, “my next character very cleverly realized that a nearby slot in the wall must have something to do with it.”
It does not.
“I put a coin into the slot and touched the altar again ... which of course just shot out more lightning and killed a bunch of people. But we could not be stopped, and we just kept putting coins into that ****ing slot and touching the goddamn altar, and accidentally killing people.” Max continues, “I feel like we put something like 100 coins in there. We refused to believe that wasn't the trick.” If you see Max, take it easy and don’t break it to him that the trick is, well, there is no trick.
Locked Oaken Door
About halfway through the Tomb, players will come across an oaken door that seems to block their path. Eavesdroppers who press an ear to the door may faintly hear sounds of revelry on the other side -- although if you’ve made it this far, you’re likely very suspicious.
Players who manage to break down the door will hear the sounds of revelry turn to cries of despair from down the hallway. Noble players may rush to save these innocents, and even the more cautious PCs will likely have their interest piqued. As they move down the corridor, the DM will let them know that they detect a slight slant to the floor. Then that slant will become more severe—and the hapless victims will be asked to roll initiative.
The floor here is not actually a floor -- it’s a long beam, the end of which hangs perilously over a pit of molten lava. Once players pass 30 or more feet beyond the door they’ll overbalance and start to slide down the beam. Players who slide too far will start taking fire damage, until finally they slide into the lava, “which will absolutely snuff them out.”
The Oaken Door trap is amazing for so many reasons -- first of all, it’s another dangerous encounter with absolutely no upside. You’re just breaking down a door to slip into a nice warm lava bath. But the real genius is the illusory voices. Players who hear revelry in a place as deadly as the tomb may worry they’re hearing foes, but that won’t stop them from having FOeMO! And leaning even further into that kind of social engineering, the cries of despair remind the players that they are, at the end of the day, heroes. And do heroes wait around for someone else to save the innocent? No! They charge directly into molten lava and die … heroically!
Acererak’s final resting place is as much a test of endurance as skill, and by the time players reach the knockout corridor they’ll be ready for a break. Which is perfect, because at the end of this featureless winding hallway is a cloud of sleeping gas. The gas knocks out weary players for up to 80 minutes. A much deserved bit of DnD RnR.
And what better way to tuck them in than with a bulldozer? Every 10 minutes after the gas is released the knockout corridor has a chance to release “a stone juggernaut (rather like a steam roller)” which moves 10-60 feet per turn, squashing everything in its path. It is a thoughtful service that the knockout chamber provides absolutely free of charge.
The Cursed Gem
A full list of things that could kill you in this Demilich’s den would be almost endless -- I’ve heard stories of players starving to death, being consumed by molds, and accidentally blowing up their own party when they were just trying to fit through a doorway. We simply don’t have the time or the space to get into every last attractive nuisance in this liability nightmare.
But I’d be stripped of my Dungeon Master’s Guide if I didn’t tell you about the Cursed Gem.
Towards the very end of this grain thresher of a mausoleum, there is a throne room. The throne room is littered with trinkets, but in one corner, amidst a sea of charred remains, there sits a glowing orange gem. If you’ve made it this far in the tomb then you’re not just touching a gem willy-nilly. You’ve seen what happens to people who do that. But if one of your more arcanely inclined party members casts detect magic on the stone they’ll see it has a strong magical aura -- so strong that you’ll get the vague feeling this gem has something to do with the most powerful spell in all of D&D: Wish.
Wish is, for the uninitiated, the purest form of magic. You wish for something and that thing happens. Whatever you want, no questions asked. There’s a reason it’s the ultimate spell. So hearing that maybe this gem has some Wish in it is no small deal.
If someone were to try to cast Wish with the Cursed Gem, however, they’re signing up for a world of hurt. See, not only can you not cast Wish with the Gem, but a reversed or distorted version of your Wish will come to pass. You’re not getting Wish, you’re getting Monkey Pawed. And then, because this is Tomb of Horrors, the Gem will explode and instantly kill anyone in a 15 foot radius, no refunds.
By now I’m sure you won’t be surprised that while Tomb of Horrors is one of the most famous Dungeons and Dragons adventures ever made, it’s not very, uh … nice. Players who are used to watching their level 15 Paladin smash through hordes of goblins may not find this particular module very, hmmmm, how do I say this…. fun. Gygax said that Tomb of Horrors is “a thinking person’s adventure.” And if the person thinking is a dungeon master, what they’re thinking is, “How can I ruin my friends' lives?”
Despite these impressions, Tomb of Horrors isn’t made to mindlessly destroy players. As Dan Collins pointed out to me when we talked, Tomb of Horrors was originally made to be run as a tournament dungeon. Hundreds of groups would play through the dungeon at the same time to see who could get farthest, and at the end, a winner had to be declared. With this in mind, the Tomb goes from looking comically lethal to intelligently made. It’s solvable enough that you can make progress from almost any point with just a little insight and caution, but hard enough that you’re very unlikely to have several teams beat the dungeon and create a “tie.” In many ways, Tomb of Horrors is not really a D&D adventure so much as a completely independent puzzle game that happens to interact well with D&D rules.
At this point, most people won’t play the dungeon in a tournament setting. Now it’s for bringing out when your Bard starts getting cocky. Whatever the reason, if you’re running the Tomb, have a good time! If you’re playing in it … well, let your friends enter the next room first.