Few words raise the ire of long-time Dungeons & Dragons aficionados more than “Tomb of Horrors.” The words “Fourth edition” come to mind, but that’s fairly recent and probably somewhat unfair as that version of D&D does have its loyalists.
Tomb of Horrors got its start as a gaming adventure back in 1975 when Gary Gygax decided to create a truly deadly and terrifying tournament session for the very first Origins gaming convention. Then later in 1978, Tomb of Horrors was released as a gaming module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
That first module featured a monochrome color scheme of a light magenta hue as well as cover artwork by David C. Sutherland III of a mummy-like monster rising up with its arms waving in spooky fashion while a grinning gargoyle and bird-like beastie looked on.
Tomb of Horrors instantly became a classic. D&D gamers either loved it or hated it. Why? In the immortal words of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in the novel Heart of Darkness, “The horror. The horror.”
Immediately, Tomb of Horrors was known as the deadliest, most difficult D&D gaming module to exist. Many players and Dungeon Masters still to this day believe it so. Noticeably, over the decades this adventure has made many an article’s list of top or best gaming modules, D&D or otherwise.
And why not?
There are traps without savings throws that slay instantly, misdirections all over the place, teleportations to doomsville, a handful of cheating beasties, and a boss that is practically indestructible. Just opening the front door could easily wipe out an entire party. And all that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Imagine, this death and destruction falls within a map that takes up only one page. One! And though this adventure is allegedly built for character levels of 10 to 14, it would be a challenge for characters of even a higher level. A Wish spell, even, doesn’t do you much good when some monsters always strike first and simply walking into a room can get you teleported (naked without any of your gear, no less) into instant death.
See why some people love this module and others hate it? Tomb of Horrors has been called a “character killer” by more than one disgruntled gamer, and sometimes by a gleeful one.
But Tomb of Horrors didn’t end with 1978’s edition. No, siree. In 1981, TSR Hobbies Inc. (then the publisher of all things D&D) released the module again, this time with full color on the outside cover, though much of the inside matter was the same as the 1978 version.
For this article I broke out my copy of the Tomb of Horrors, which is the 1981 edition, and I was surprised just how small it is. The actual adventure is only 12 pages, but there is an additional booklet of illustrations which is 20 pages, with the actual map being on the inside of the back cover. Compared to the heavy hardback gaming modules of today, this thing is miniscule, yet it packs a lot of punch.
Still, 1981’s edition was not the last time Tomb of Horrors would rear its head.
In 1987, the module appeared along with three others in the AD&D collection titled Realms of Horror. I had this at one time, and I have to admit it was quite handy to have four famous modules all in one publication. Those modules were Tomb of Horrors, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, White Plume Mountain, and The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.
In 1998, Second Edition AD&D finally got into the swing of things when Return to the Tomb of Horrors was released. This was actually a boxed set and a sequel to the original Tomb of Horrors, expanding upon the story and the main villain, basically creating enough material for a full campaign.
2002 brought around a Tomb of Horrors novel, written by Keith Francis Strohm, and 2005 hosted a Halloween treat from Wizards of the Coast of a free pdf that was the Tomb of Horrors reworked for D&D 3.5 rules.
Fourth Edition D&D was not left out in 2010 as Ari Marmell and Scott Fitzgerald Gray penned for Wizards of the Coast a hardback adventure titled Tomb of Horrors which included some of the original’s material plus expanded material based on the 1998 boxed set. That same year, Gray also penned a new version of Tomb of Horrors updated for Fourth Edition.
Most recently, in 2013, the Tomb of Horrors was kept alive when it was released in a hardcover titled Dungeons of Dread, again with Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, White Plume Mountain, and The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.
So, it seems the Tomb of Horrors just won’t die. Every few years a reprint or new version pops up. This longevity alone should be enough to prove the importance of the module to the D&D game, but even if it didn’t, there are plenty of articles and blogs and social media postings which keep bringing it up.
Again, some players love it, some hate it, but whatever your opinion, Tomb of Horrors doesn’t seem to be going away.
I have never had the pleasure to actually play a character in the module, but back in the ’80s I did get to steer a party through the Tomb of Horrors as Dungeon Master. Pretty much every room wiped out the party, but I always let them start over, not out of sympathy but more for the sake of curiosity. Eventually the group did make it to the big, bad guy, but they couldn’t vanquish him after multiple attempts.
If you decide to delve into this most fiendish of adventurers, try to do so with a smile, and Stay Nerdy!
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