Fiddleback vs. Tomb of Horrors

Ambitious adventurers hear stories of a secret tomb containing riches beyond belief and relics of exceptional power. Keen to prove themselves against those who have gone before and earn their place as the most powerful adventurers in the land, the party enters a known deathtrap where the rules of adventuring no longer apply.

Welcome to the final adventure in Tales From the Yawning Portal. First appearing to the public in 1975, but not officially published until 1978, Tomb of Horrors is the oldest adventure in this book and one of the oldest in D&D overall. It was written by Gary Gygax for a very specific purpose, which we will discuss in the course of this review.

By reputation, Tomb of Horrors, is among the best adventures ever written, a deep and fulfilling challenge to players and DMs alike. A crucible which, if survived, allowed players to brag about the superiority of their PC design skills and the cleverness of the players. It’s an enduring legend within the D&D community with older gamers telling newer gamers about how difficult and impressive it is. Such is the rumored difficulty of Tomb of Horrors, fueled by the stories told and the grim shaking of heads while telling them, that many players refuse to touch it with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

When considering Tomb of Horrors, it is important to realize that it is the first module in our old friend, the S-series. That’s right, it is a Special module. And that is the first warning that something isn’t right.

The second warning isn’t something that is obvious to spot. Yawning Portal barely mentions it in the most oblique way. In the About the Original sidebar, this is the only hint:

It was designed not for player characters of a certain level . . . but for players who enjoy a mental challenge….

Like Tamoachan, the intent is to challenge players and not characters. It isn’t until you dig into the history of Tomb that it becomes clear exactly what sort of player it is meant to challenge: It’s not for player who enjoy a mental challenge, not really. It’s for players who have gotten too big for their britches and annoyed the DM.

It’s right there. Gygax says it himself:

First, Gygax explains, "There were several very expert players in my campaign, and this was meant as yet another challenge to their skill—and the persistence of their theretofore-invincible characters. Specifically, I had in mind foiling Rob Kuntz's PC, Robilar, and Ernie Gygax's PC, Tenser." Second, so that he was "ready for those fans [players] who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game."

From Wikipedia contributors, "Tomb of Horrors," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed May 14, 2017). (emphasis mine)

Tomb of Horrors is meant to take players down a notch or two when they get too full of themselves.

It is a punishment. “Oh ho!” says the DM. “You think you’re so good, do you? Not enough challenge for you? Feeling invincible? Well, let me just teach you a thing or two and wipe that smile off your face while I’m at it.” And the threat behind that with Tomb is I will take your PC that you are so proud of away from you and make you think it was your fault.

It won’t be their fault though, will it? Because you, as the DM, know that the entire adventure is rigged in your favor, rigged as badly as any carnival booth offering three goes for a dollar. It is one DMs revenge on his players and braggadocios convention gamers passed down over the years as some sort of holy grail adventure. And it sucks. Gary Gygax wrote a sucky, ill-intended adventure full of the worst sorts of DM tomfoolery and it’s a shame that it has been held up as one of the best adventures ever and allowed to influence the design of the game for all these years.

Gamers, particularly DMs, like to complain about players meta-gaming — using knowledge not inherently part of the game world or their character’s own knowledge to achieve optimal decisions and success. Reams of paper and gigabytes of data have been used to alternately decry the practice or defend it. Is it fair that a character who has never encountered a troll before knows that fire is the best thing to use against it if that knowledge comes from the player’s experience of other adventures or a look through the Monster Manual? The debate rages and the arguments get incredibly heated.

But few people ever mention DM meta-gaming. Should the DM be designing adventures that, instead of exploiting character’s behaviors and patterns and weaknesses, exploit the player’s tendencies? Because this is what Tomb of Horrors does. Gygax sat down and thought about how his group of players worked adventures and the things they did to maximize their character’s chance of survival. He then deliberately designed traps and puzzles in the game world that used information from outside the game world in order to foil the in-game character’s players and not the characters themselves. If that isn’t the very definition of meta-gaming, I don’t know what is. And in order to survive the Tomb, players have to meta-game as well.

No room in the Tomb operates under the usual rules. Basic information gathering is as likely to kill a PC before they even have a chance to understand the situation they find themselves in as making a mistake or blowing a roll. Numerous middle-fingers are raised to players who are genuinely trying to get their PCs to the deepest areas of the tomb; several of which involve teleporting a character back to the very start of the Tomb without any of their gear except the skin they were born in. Doors stop behaving like doors because ‘magic’. Traps fire simply because they are in the room the PCs have to enter in order to proceed. Trap mechanisms are regularly listed as “impossible to find by any means.” And my favorite phrase in the whole adventure occurs in area 4 where a self-inflicted pit trap is listed as “technically not a trap” and therefore undetectable. The reason it is technically not a trap? PCs fall into it to proceed through the adventure.

The most egregious example of DM meta-gaming occurs in area 18a, labeled False Crypt. Now, there is nothing wrong per se with a false end to an adventure, but what happens here in the DM instructions is nearly inexcusable. The DM is explicitly told to lie to the players and given specific instructions on how to do so. Not lie to the characters, but to the players at the table. And there is nothing the players can do about it. As far as they are allowed to know and based on what the DM has told them, the adventure is over.

Is it impossible to survive Tomb of Horrors? No. But there is little a character itself can actually do to help ensure its own survival. Skills and abilities are regularly short-circuited via the descriptions, simply declared as 'not working here'. Later areas of the Tomb succumb to a ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ insta-kill design ethic with little chance of avoidance. The entire thing is, in ways far, far, worse than Tamoachan, ruinous to regular campaigns and ongoing PCs and has the added bonus of being destructive to the actual group of players.

At no point is this good game or adventure design. The only lesson to be learned from Tomb of Horrors is to never do these things in your dungeons.

There is a certain type of player who would much rather pit themselves directly against the DM in this manner. For those who view D&D as player vs. DM, this is, of course, the ideal adventure. At that point though, one has to ask: why even bother playing D&D? Why not play chess or checkers or some other game that more directly offers that sort of competitive spirit? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned? The DM would save time and effort preparing adventures only intended to frustrate player effort and kill PCs, and players wouldn’t have to roll up useless characters that have no bearing on the game actually being played. And it’s far easier to declare yourself the winner of D&D that way.

Just as certain kinds of players will enjoy it, certain kinds of DMs will enjoy it. Those who enjoy feeling superior to puny mortals, enjoy the sort of warmth provided by high levels of smugness, and get delight from punishing others for perceived transgressions; in short, those who feel players are a troublesome annoyance to the otherwise well-ordered running of an epic RPG campaign and gum up the works, will find unparalleled levels of enjoyment.

So, should you play Tomb of Horrors? Well, are you frustrated by successful PCs? Do you hate the players? Is it too difficult to challenge your group by regular means? Has DMing become too much of a burden for you? Is one of your players dancing about in front of you at this very moment taunting you with your inability to threaten his PC and singing about how great he is compared to your pathetic efforts? Are your feelings deeply and personally hurt?

If so, retire from gaming, burn your books, and melt down your dice. But don’t play Tomb of Horrors.

In the last article in this series, we’ll take our final look at Tales From the Yawning Portal.