Tweets of Horror

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Rob Daviau ran an epic game of Tomb of Horrors.

Lest the names ring no bells: “Rob Daviau” was previously mentioned on this blog as designer of the excellent Risk: Legacy, while “Tomb of Horrors” is the legendary (and notoriously lethal) 1978 adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the playing of which was de rigueur for anyone who dabbled in the 1st edition of AD&D.

Throughout the month of May, Daviau sent a number of tweets about his preparations for the big game. Finally, over the Memorial Day weekend, he inflicted the dungeon on his friends, and kept his Twitter followers appraised of the carnage.

Here are his tweets, reprinted with permission:

Prologue

 
 
Day One

 
 
Day Two

 
 
Day Three

 
 
Epilogue

 
 
A Point of Clarification

Says Daviau:

The victory condition was “steal the demi-lich’s treasure and leave,” not “kill the demi-lich”. The first is possible; the second is not. Careful reading of the text shows that you can rob him blind in the final room as long as you don’t touch his skull. If you do that, you die. Once my players figured out “don’t touch the skull”, they won.

The things you need to do to kill the demi-lich are so obscure, non-intuitive, and bizarre that no one would think to do them. And the adventure doesn’t give any clues to it so you’d have to work it in to the campaign ahead of time.

 
 
Q&A

Matthew: Do you play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons?
Rob Daviau: I did as a middle school kid, then off and on since then. I play when I can, but finding a regular campaign has eluded me since about 1999. Either I don’t the time, or a group is too far away, or, as often is the case, the group just doesn’t feel right. Being in a D&D group is like being in a band. If the vibe is slightly off, it’s just not the same.

M: Why 1st edition Tomb of Horrors?
RD: I’m 42, so 1e is the way I’ve played 85%+ of my D&D experiences. As I got older, I didn’t have the time I did when I was 11-15. So there’s a certain fondness for it. I’ve also been playtesting the D&DNext rules for Wizards of the Coast since November and I wanted to go back and see how 1e rules felt as an adult–how much was nostalgia and how much still held together.

Playing Tomb of Horrors came after reading Ready Player One, where the 1e Tomb has a prominent role. After finishing the book I went back and read the module for the first time in 30 years. It seemed unfair, biased, and kind of crazy. My guess is that future editions make it more “fair”, so I wanted to go back to Gygax’s original vision.

I have to say that the experience, both the system and the module, were far better than I expected from the prep work. I scared the hell out of the players and they really did take their time to think things through, resulting in a far lower death rate than anticipated, and hoped for. Also 1e, for all its useless parts, really puts things in the hands of the DM. You only use about 5% of the rules since the rest don’t really make sense. What I discovered is that a lack of rules results a lack of rules lawyers. Its as simple as that.

M: I’ve never played Tomb of Horrors, but isn’t 20 PCs an insane number of players?
RD: It would be if that were a player count, but it was a character count. I was at a friend’s home convention, where there was going to be over 30 people, with perhaps 15 or so D&D players. But I didn’t want people to have to commit to the whole adventure (it took about 8-10 hours), nor be disappointed if they died in the first minute, so I recast the adventure as a sort of puzzle. Five players would play at once, using characters from the pre-gen pool; when a character died, a new one could be brought in. This way players could come and go, and also not feel bad if they character they were playing died suddenly.

M: At one point you mention Dwarven Forge. What is that?
RD: The company that makes the incredible 3D dungeon walls, floors, etc., that you see throughout my pictures. My friend has just enough money and just too little willpower, and ended up buying a tremendous amount of it about 10 years ago. We had a lot of fun building these rooms. Grown nerds just look for opportunities like this.

M: May I post your Jim Carroll “People Who Died” rewrite?
RD: Please do. I wrote it because there were people still at the convention who had spent the weekend actually jamming in the garage. I threw it at them as a challenge to learn and record it. The results are below.
 
 
All the PCs Who Died

Fodder the Fighter, he was 8 levels high
Gargoyle hit him, ripped out his spine
Aryk was next up on the gargoyle’s list
Threw him in a pit but Aryk can’t fly
Davin entered an arch of smoke and mist
Sprung out naked and started to cry
He was a friend of mine

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Karl was astonishing, a gnome of some reknown
Touched a lightning altar so they put him in the ground
Dravin got the shakes from a gas of fear and dread
Fled the tomb of horrors, with our gold but he’s not dead
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

The Mincer ran in fear and took a bad left turn
Slid down a polished slope and started to burn
No-name 12 was a wizard who the group agreed to kill
To find a secret door that was invisible
And No-name 12, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Howard Hughes the cleric had just found his groove
Ended up some jelly on the demi-lich roof
Cringar of West had been there longest
But someone knocked the skull and Acererak kills the strongest
But Cringar didn’t cry, Cringar died

Those are PCs who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

The rest grabbed the loot from the last little room
Made their way out of this filthy little tomb
They got some bitchin potions, a rod, and some gems
So the others didn’t die in vain,
And No-Name 12, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are PC who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

* * *

7 comments.

  1. Ah, good old ToH. Ran thru it back in the early 80’s. And by ran thru it, I mean I died. Well, we all died. Does any run thru that module not end in TPK?

  2. Ha this was fun, I only recently started playing 1ed again for the first time in 20 years.

  3. Serious flashbacks. I survived Tomb of Horrors. But left naked. All clothes destroyed. Spent several weeks afterward with my character in a makeshift diaper.

  4. Julian here (the guy butchering Jim Carroll).

    I didn’t get to play in the Tomb, but I watched maybe 1/3 of it, off and on over the weekend. My gut tells me that the depth of confusion in the rules forced the game to actually be almost a super rules-light system. While not a storytelling game, in the sense that the players were changing the world as it evolved, it felt more like a bunch of folks playing Old School Hack or something equally super light.

    So much fun.

  5. I’ll agree that 1e is deadly and fun. I’ll disagree that you ignore 95% of the rules. There are something most groups house rule out (armor v weapons being one) but overall the simplicity of the system is what makes it still a great game today. You don’t have to have a player read the rules to play. All they need to do is make up a character and in 1e that’s simple, newbie take 10 minutes with friend helping.

    Once they do that all they need to know is what dice to roll. The current version is far to complex for that and from what I see turns people away. They want to play, not read a book.

  6. I’m glad Rob mentioned Ready Player One. Have you read it yet, Matthew?

  7. I read this article first, then Ready Player One. The best part was I totally missed Rob’s reference to the book and found it separately a couple weeks later, so I’m reading it all “HOLY CRAP BALDWIN JUST WROTE ABOUT THIS MODULE SO WEIRD.”

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