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Blast from the Past: Dungeons & Dragons Tomb of Horrors

blast from the past tomb of horrors dungeons & dragons
1978’s Tomb of Horrors
blast from the past tomb of horrors dungeons & dragons
1981’s Tomb of Horrors

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.

blast from the past tomb of horrors dungeons & dragons
1987’s Realms of Horror

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.

blast from the past tomb of horrors dungeons & dragons
1998’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors

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.

blast from the past tomb of horrors dungeons & dragons
2013’s Dungeons of Dread

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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Blast from the Past: Dungeons & Dragons Tomb of Horrors
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Blast from the Past: Star Frontiers

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My original Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn books and maps.

A little history

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The original Star Frontiers Referee’s Screen.

In the early 1980s, the world seemed suddenly crazed for everything science fiction, especially space opera. Star Wars had been around for a few years at that point, kicking off the madness, The Empire Strikes Back had come to theaters, Star Trek had been revived in film, and even Dr. Who was making its way to the U.S. in limited markets.

TSR, the company which published Dungeons & Dragons products at the time, obviously wanted to get in on the science fiction fun. TSR had already introduced sci-fi games with Metamorphosis Alpha in 1976 and Gamma World in 1978, but neither of those were truly space opera, which seemed to have fueled much of the love for science fiction.

Besides, Game Designers’ Workshop had published Traveler to success in 1977, and that game featured space opera elements. In other words, there was money to be made for TSR.

Thus the company introduced Star Frontiers in 1982.

Originally the game came out in a boxed set which included fantastic cover art by Larry Elmore, two 10-sided die, a Basic Game Rules book, an Expanded Game Rules book, a game module, several maps, and cardboard counters which could be punched out. Soon, however, the game was released again with slightly different packaging and a slightly different name, Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn.

Why this occurred soon became apparent when a second boxed set was released, this one titled Star Frontier: Knight Hawks, and it included full rules for star ships, space travel, and combat between the stars.

Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space would be the last official Star Frontiers product.

During the next few years, a referee’s screen, miniatures, and a healthy number of game modules were released, including modules for the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two. Then in 1985 came Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space.

Unfortunately, Zebulon’s Guide seemed to be the death knell for Star Frontiers. The guide introduced some new races as well as plenty of new weapons and equipment, all of which was interesting, but it also brought major changes to game mechanics. Whereas before in Star Frontiers all character actions were resolved with percentile dice, now there was a chart. Perhaps Zebulon’s Guide had nothing to do with Star Frontiers disappearing from gaming and book stores, but it seems more than coincidental. In all fairness, TSR had a lot going on in 1985, including a new Marvel Super Heroes game, the original Oriental Adventures book for AD&D, and the rising popularity of Dragonlance products, so maybe the folks at TSR simply decided to focus on those projects.

Still, though there were no official products after Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space, Star Frontiers has kind of lived on. When Wizards of the Coast, the current publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, released its d20Future supplement to its d20Modern system in 2004, the supplement included a campaign model called Star Law which was basically the old Star Frontiers universe with the appropriate races, weapons, etc.

Mechanics

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Pew! Pew! Pew! The gyrojet pistol from Star Frontiers.

Star Frontiers characters had eight ability scores, each of which was in a pair. Thus each character had Strength with Stamina, Dexterity with Reaction Speed, Intuition with Logic, and Personality with Leadership. Stamina determined how much damage a character could take, while other ability scores affected combat, initiative, skills, etc.

Skills came in three broad categories: Military Skills, Technological Skills, and Biosocial Skills. Within each of those categories were various skills such as Robotics Skill, Medical Skill, Computer Skill, etc. The Knight Hawks boxed set would expand upon this somewhat, allowing for different types of space travel and combat skills. The Zebulon’s Guide changed skills somewhat, but most notably added the Mentalist, which was sort of a skill that allowed for psionic abilities within the game.

Skills and combat, and many other actions, were determined by a percentile dice roll. The better a character was with a weapon or skill, the higher percentage chance they would have in being successful.

Background

knight hawks
Want to know how to fly a space combat ship? Then you need the Knight Hawks box set for Star Frontiers.

Besides its own unique game mechanics, Star Frontiers also brought its own unique setting centered around a region called the Frontier in the middle of a galaxy, all with 17 inhabited star systems, 23 colonized planets and 21 unexplored systems.

Originally there were four races for characters. Humans, of course, but there were also the insect-like Vrusk, the animal-like Yazirians with wings that allowed them to glide, and then there were the Dralasites, sort of intelligent blobs which could grow multiple appendages. The Zebulon’s Guide later added a dwarf-like race known as the Ifshnit, the kangaroo-looking race called the Humma, a race with four legs known as the Osakar, and then there was a race of intelligent robots known as the Mechanons. A handful of other races were known, but they were considered rare and not available for play, including the evil Sathar, snake-like creatures bent on the destruction of all things in the Frontier.

With a huge variety of different governments and corporations available, there was no lack of potential for adventurers looking to hire out their services, though other forms of play were possible.

Star Frontiers and me

Star Frontiers was actually the first role-playing game I ever owned. It was not the first I played, which would have been Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t get my own AD&D books until soon after my dad bought me the Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn box set.

My poor dad. I was 12 and I made him sit through adventures of Star Frontiers, him playing a character and me as the game master, or Referee (as it was called in Star Frontiers). I could tell he wasn’t much into it, but at least he kept it up for my sake.

Eventually I also ended up with the Referee’s Screen and about a half dozen adventure modules.

I got to play Star Frontiers with a group of friends from school for about a year, but since then I’ve never had the opportunity. The game hasn’t aged all that well, I suppose, at least not compared to more modern RPGs. Still, it does have some fans who remain true, and they can be found out there on the Web. I’ve still got that boxed set, so maybe I’ll be able to play again some day, or perhaps I’ll even run a session or three.

And when that happens, I hope, like you, to Stay Nerdy!

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South Jersey Geek Fest Discussion, Gaming Announcement, and Weekly Wrap 3-27-2016

RPGsHello and well met travelers of the internet,

Nerdarchist Dave here with another week of Nerdarchy and we are kicking it off with a fan pic. What’s not to love about cats and RPGs? Be warned send us your pics and we might just share them with the rest of the community. To be fair this one was shared publicly on Facebook so that makes this one open season for sure. Continue reading South Jersey Geek Fest Discussion, Gaming Announcement, and Weekly Wrap 3-27-2016

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Blast from the Past: Revolt on Antares, a TSR minigame

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Cover of the Revolt on Antares rules book, a minigame by TSR, original publishers of D&D.

TSR will always be remembered as the company that created Dungeons & Dragons and kicked off role playing games, but it’s sometimes forgotten as the publisher of other types of games besides D&D, such as Revolt on Antares.

For a period in the early 1980s, microgames (also known as minigames) were all the rage, no doubt started by the success of Steve Jackson Games’ Car Wars and Ogre. What were microgames? Smaller, relatively simple games that usually came packaged with all necessaries, such as dice and maps. Usually these games were not role playing games, but war games or some other tabletop board game.

Jumping on the bandwagon, TSR released a number of its own microgames, such as Vampyre, They’ve Invaded Pleasantville!, Saga and more. Revolt on Antares is one of these games.

Revolt on Antares, the game

Released in 1981, Revolt on Antares is a simple war game for two to four players that takes place on Imirrhos (also known as Antares 9), the ninth planet of the Antares solar system. Three scenarios are available for play, the main one allowing a player to act as leader of a rebel force against another player who is the leader of the Terran empire. The other two scenarios involve fighting back against an alien invasion, or a war between multiple royal houses of Imirrhos. Continue reading Blast from the Past: Revolt on Antares, a TSR minigame

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Remembering all my D&D and gaming pals at Thanksgiving

Here in the U.S. we are celebrating Thanksgiving this week, a holiday in which we go shopping, watch football and eat way too much. Oh yeah, and we give thanks for the good things in our lives.

As part of the Thanksgiving holiday, this year I would like to give thanks for the many people who have influenced my role play gaming over the years, mostly D&D but also other games. Here they are below:

Thanksgiving: Those in the biz

English: Image of Dave Arneson, based on Portr...
Image of Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson: Without these two gentlemen, I and millions of others would not have known the joys of not only the game of Dungeons & Dragons, but the whole role playing game phenomena. Many of us should be thankful for these two, the creators of D&D and tabletop rpgs.

Eric Goldberg, Gerald C. Klug, David James Ritchie, Edward J. Woods, Redmond A. Simonsen, Robert J. Ryer, and Brad E. Hessel: This group of fellows are responsible for one of my favorite role-playing games, DragonQuest, originally published in 1980 by SPI and later taken over by TSR. If you’re interested in some old-school fantasy gaming that is quite different from D&D, I suggest looking for an old DragonQuest rule book, second or third edition being worth your while.

We Can Be Heroes, by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
We Can Be Heroes, by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Scott Fitzgerald Gray: Writer, editor, all around good guy. He’s helped in ways of which I know he’s not aware. Check out his books for some great fantasy and science fiction reading. Honestly, I could have listed Scott below with my gaming buddies, as he has influenced me professionally and personally, but it didn’t seem right not to draw attention to his literary achievements.

The late, great Tom Moldvay: For all he did, from D&D to Star Frontiers to Lords of Creation and beyond. I miss this man’s work.

Thanksgiving: My gaming buddies

The Dice & Decks crew: Specifically the founders, Brennan Nau and Joe Roti Roti, but also a number of the crew who were part of this online gaming group, including Nathan Thurston, Owen Mergen, Dan R. Selaja, and David Pelayo. Anybody I’ve forgotten, my apologies.

The Unnamed Adventurer’s Guild: Charles Cole is really top dog here, but I can’t forget the other great dungeon masters and players from this online group. So here’s to Dan Harsh, Da Bill, Konrad Kopacz, Jonathan Sharpling, and the many others I’ve had the pleasure to game with during the last year.

The Mohican Orc Gnashers: My northern Ohio gaming group. We’ve had plenty of great DragonQuest adventures together. Off the top of my head, I offer thanks for Steve Goble, Gere Goble, Tom Williams, Cindy Carpenter, and Greg Moore. Sorry, gang, for not mentioning everybody else, but I’ve not had the pleasure of gaming with them since I’m no longer in Ohio.

The Group Who Shall Not Be Named: This is my southern Ohio gaming group. We spent loads of time playing D&D before I moved away, but I still get to Skype in the occasional adventure. I can never forget these folks: Greg Moore (yes, he’s in both the northern and southern group), Becky Lovins, Melvin Grasswipe, Rich Shultz, Jay S. Willis, Amy Barnhart, and Dave Gibson.

Nerdarchy: Last but far from least, I can’t thank enough the Nerdarchy crew. As some of you know, the last couple of years have been tough ones for me, but the Nerdarchy gang have been a big help by allowing me to take a small role in their online gaming community. The games, the videos, the articles, it has all meant so much. This Thanksgiving I’ll be lifting an ale to Dave Friant, Ted Adams, Nate Riggins, and Ryan Friant.

Nerdarchy at the table: L to R, Dave, Nate, Ted, and Ryan
Nerdarchy at the table: L to R, Dave, Nate, Ted, and Ryan

Until next time, give thanks and roll those dice, all you Nerdarchists!

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Afraid you’re a bad Dungeon Master? Do it anyway

Dungeons and Dragons

dungeon mastersSo, you’ve run a couple of Dungeons & Dragons games as dungeon master, but you’re not feeling great about it. The sessions seemed to drag. You felt like you were always flipping through the Player’s Handbook.

A couple of characters bickered and you couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe there were even technical issues if you gamed online, or if you were at a table, maybe the chips tasted stale and the soft drinks flat. Maybe, dread of all dreads, a total-party-kill took place. Against flumphs.

In other words, the games sucked, and you feel like you’re to blame for all of it. Continue reading Afraid you’re a bad Dungeon Master? Do it anyway

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Inspire your Role-Playing Games With Nerdarchy’s Recommended Reading For Playing RPG’s

Nerdarchy was asked about recommended reading from one of our YouTube subscribers a little while back. If you didn’t know you can find Nerdarchy on YouTube- Here So of course decided to compile a list of some our favorites and shoot a little video on the subject. All Nerdarchy is avid readers and have been playing role-playing games for quite sometime now.

Recommended Reading for RPG’s Video

Amazon List Here

Between the five us I’m sure we have over 100 years of combined RPG’s experience!

Continue reading Inspire your Role-Playing Games With Nerdarchy’s Recommended Reading For Playing RPG’s