Rebooting Tomb of Horrors, Gary Gygax's incredibly hard D&D module for "invincible characters"

Yet it was a go-to for DM’s in at-home gaming to take that neighborhood conceited player down a notch.



It should have really stayed purely as a tournament adventure, because it doesn’t really make sense as a module. It’s the kind of work that created the idea that the role of the DM was to hate players and kill their characters.

My recollection was that it was designed, to some degree, to confound genre expectations. The kinds of things that players normally did to figure situations out were arbitrarily rendered lethal. Still screwed!

What I remember, more than anything, was how arbitrary things were - you couldn’t puzzle them out, because there was no information and no logic that would bring you to the proper conclusion. E.g. the “boss” being invulnerable, except to small number of spells and attacks, one of them being a Thief of a certain level using a sling to pelt it with gemstones of a minimum value, found in the dungeon. Now maybe various spells could be used to divine the correct answer (presumably cast during the fight itself, as it systematically killed a character each turn), I don’t know - I never had a group of players who played the game long enough to get to that level, so I don’t know how well that would work or how natural using spells like that would be to players. It doesn’t really feel like clever play, though. I recollect also that the lethality was absolute - characters were often destroyed utterly, not to be revived by any means. Arbitrary and sadistic.

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Mar-a-Lago is a nice sounding name, but you can’t believe a name.


@Glaurung is right (although the Basic/Expert/etc. in some edition/version had THAC0, too), it’s a 2nd edition thing:

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(From Rich Burlew’s D&D-themed Order of the Stick comic, #536.)

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Without spoiling things that wouldn’t work in Tomb of Horrors.


Also, 5e not only has a reprint of the original with updates for a party of 4-5 10th level 5e characters instead of a con crowd of 20; they made an entire adventure based on the same premise that seems really fun in one of the better Forgotten Realms lands: Chult.


You tell them! I was going to go look for my second edition DM manual so I could find that info

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One of my players sets would purposely ask to be hyper leveled so I could put them through Tomb of Horrors and Temple of Elemental Evil. I do not believe they ever survived a full attempt.

It was one of those things we used to do…had normal play characters and then these side characters that were basically used as cannon fodder for the creative deathtraps I they loved and I really enjoyed creating.


Not arbitrary at all, just filled to the gills with tricks and traps instead of monsters.

Again, you are applying new school thinking to an old school dungeon. New school dungeons have boss monsters you’re supposed to defeat. Old school, half the time you’re better off running away from the monsters, or trying to find a way to trick them. New school dungeons, it’s considered a crime to encounter a monster that’s too tough for the party to defeat. Old school, you find encounters that range from easy combats to ones that are pretty much guaranteed to be lethal, and the players are supposed to be smart enough to know when discretion is the better part of valour.

The demilitch encounter is very much one you’re supposed to either not attempt, or else one you’re going to need to cast a ton of commune/legend lore/etc spells to figure out the best approach to fighting it. The text of the module specifically calls touching the skull (which wakes it up) a stupid thing to do. The introduction to the module explicitly states that players will need multiple sessions to complete it, and that resting in or near the dungeon is safe since there are no wandering monsters. So there’s nothing to prevent the players from casting as many divination spells as they need to determine how to proceed.

Also, you’re misremembering the demilitch encounter - you touch it, it rises up, eats the strongest character, and then sinks back down until such time as it is touched again. Even the stupidest group of players are supposed to get the hint and give up (or realize that straightforward combat is not the answer) after losing a couple characters to it. What would be arbitrary and sadistic would be if the demilitch attacked every round of combat, instead of attacking once and then going back to sleep.

Also, there’s nothing to stop the characters from ignoring the skull, taking all its treasure, and going home with a boatload of experience.

Again, par for the course old school, especially for dungeons written by Gygax. Stupid, thoughtless play is punishable by your character dying early and often.

Since you might not have access to the original dungeon, here’s a writeup that I thought was pretty fair:


I’m a little surprised nobody here has reverse engineered the calculus used to generate those tables.

These were up here on Boingboing some years back, but these illustrated walk-throughs of classic dungeons are just awesome, not least Tomb of Horrors.

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Huh, I had forgotten that only touching it made it active. Ah, but I do remember it had a bunch of gems in it, which is why anyone would touch it. Another trap for greedy players, basically.
I think the whole thing was just a totally alien approach to gaming for me - I recollect there were published materials full of “fiendish traps” to put in scenarios, and I didn’t get those, either.

Don’t beat yourself up. Anyone with 5 INT would have known this, but pointing it out was a Lawful Good thing to do. Maybe Doctorow crit-failed on his Lore ability check, or maybe he’s been victimized by a stupefy spell, but either way it needed to be said. Otherwise his hirelings and vassals would have been affected too, in proportion to his CHA and (inversely) their WIS.

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I haven’t played P&P D&D since the early 80s (I currently play DDO), but I wonder if putting the skull in a bag and carrying the bag out of the tomb without touching the skull would have sufficed?


Actually 1st Edition AD&D did have THAC0. It uses the full name though, ‘To Hit AC 0’, as found in Appendix E of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Not for PCs, as your table shows. The quote in the article I was responding to was re: PC THAC0s… that wasn’t a 1st edition thing.

True. I missed the PC aspect of your original post. :wink:

Drop a portable hole over the skull, then drop a bag of holding into it? You really don’t want those gems.


This is the only dungeon module that I ever owned. It is completely ridiculous. You can die just trying to enter it. If you somehow make it to the end, you’re probably going to die anyway.


I wonder if, at the tournament when the dungeon was originally played, the characters the players were given had spell lists that enabled them to beat the lich.

Also I wonder if you could toss the skull into the sphere of annihilation.