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Alumni: Save or Die!
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll

"Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strong and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt. (Be warned that tales told have it that this being possesses powers which make him nearly undefeatable!)"
--Tomb of Horrors

Tomb of Horrors

When Open Grave hit shelves, we looked back at the history of liches, including the vaunted Vecna and Acererak. Although Vecna’s Hand and Eye immediately returned to the game, it seemed merely a question of when, not if, we’d revisit the Tomb of Horrors. This month, the wait is over for adventuring parties willing to risk all to explore the game’s (arguably) most famous dungeon.

I say most famous though not most iconic—the original Tomb of Horrors, a tournament module at the 1975 Origins convention, didn’t play as a dungeon that adventuring parties ever conquered or hoped to clear; rather, they tried to survive as long as they could. In some ways, the adventure played through more like a game of Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia, where death seemed—again—a question of when and not if.


Whereas in Paranoia, characters had a number of clones to fall back on when they invariably died (often at the hands of their fellow players), Dungeons & Dragons once had its own safety layer: henchmen.

More on Saving Throws

One of the many hidden gems of miscellany in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide:

"There are exceptions to the death (or damage) rule for poison. Any creature with a thick layer of fat (where blood vessels and nerves are virtually non-existent) will be totally immune to poison from creatures which are not able to penetrate this fat layer when injecting their poison. All swine, wereboars included, will be in this protected class.

Similarly, very large creatures poisoned by very small ones are not likely to be affected. Even the poison of the deadly coral snake would not be likely to harm an apatosaurus. Giants would simply smash giant centipedes without fear of their poison—which would cause a swelling and rash, perhaps, at worst. Whenever a situation arises where poison is involved, consider both of these cases in reaching a decision."

Described as a "... more or less devoted follower of a character," henchmen offered their talents and service in exchange for a modest stipend or share of treasure. "Henchmen," as elaborated upon in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, "... are greatly desired by the discerning players, for they usually spell the difference between failure and success in the long term view. They are useful in individual adventures as a safety measure against the machinations of rival player characters, provide strength to the character and his or her stronghold, and lastly serve as a means of adventuring when the player character is unable to."

Yet although one devoted henchmen might have been as irreplaceable as Alfred, Kato, or even Sancho Panza, a character with average Charisma could hire four to five henchmen—and an 18 Charisma allowed fifteen! Beyond that, even a low Charisma score “. . . does not affect the number of mercenary soldiers, men-at-arms, servitors, and similar persons in the pay of the character.”

So a foray into the most dangerous of dungeons could have meant a veritable train of henchmen and other employees would take their turn testing doorways and arches, draining off some of the tomb’s deadly traps—or at least allowing a greater number of test subjects to help solve them.

Save or die effects were certainly the norm of earlier editions, and we saw them everywhere from the beholder’s death ray, the catoblepas’s death gaze, the petrifying gaze of medusas and breath of gorgons—in so very many ways, death’s sting came quickly. As stated in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a certain expectation for death seemed built into the game itself: "The character faces death in many forms. The most common, death due to combat, is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell or an alter reality or wish."

Later on the Dungeon Master’s Guide states that "... because the player character is all-important, he or she must always—or nearly always—have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction." This referred to the granting of at least a saving throw against death magic, petrifaction, even dragon fire and the like—and that brings us to the reputation for deadliness in Tomb of Horrors. In many cases, a wrong decision and simple experimentation (often times necessary to complete the adventure) led to instant death or misfortune, frequently without even a token saving throw.

After all, here was a dungeon whose very entrance couldn’t be crossed without the heroes risking their lives. Two false entrances meant that if you picked the tunnel on the left, you faced a collapsing ceiling (5d10 damage, and no saving throw). Pick the tunnel on the right, and you’d be sealed shut forever within a false corridor.

Pick the correct entrance in the middle, and you still might encounter the following within the tomb (with the original language):

  • The Face of the Great Green Devil: An evil-appearing devil face set in mosaic at the corridor’s end. The mouth opening is similar to a (fixed) sphere of annihilation, but it is about 3 feet in diameter—plenty of room for those who wish to leap in and be completely and forever destroyed.

  • The Magic Archway: Characters stepping through will appear at the start totally nude, while everything else with them will go to the crypt of the demi-lich. (Cruel, but most entertaining for the DM...)

  • Archway of Glowing Orange: Any character passing through the portal will enter a 10-foot by 10-foot room where their sex and alignment are reversed by a terrible curse.

  • Locked Oaken Door: Thereafter they are plunged into a pit of flames and molten lava that will absolutely snuff them out.

  • The Agitated Chamber: If (the tapestries) are torn, they instantly turn into green slime and cover each and every player character standing before them. Covered characters are turned to green slime and are gone, with no recourse possible due to the amount of slime.

  • The Cavern of Gold and Silver Mists: Those who step into the mist must make a saving throw versus poison or become idiots until they can breathe the clean air above ground under the warm sun.

  • False/True Door: A stone juggernaut (rather like a steam roller) comes out of the 20-foot by 20-foot room to the north and rolls 1–6 spaces (10 feet to 60 feet). Everything it rolls over is squashed to a pulp. There is no appeal.

  • The Pillared Throne Room: The stone then explodes, absolutely killing any character within a 15-foot radius with a wave of searing radiations and flames... If the silver end (of the scepter) is touched to the crown, the wearer is instantly snuffed out, turning to a fetid powder that cannot be brought back to life no matter what (wishes notwithstanding).

  • The Crypt of Acererak the Demi-Lich: Any character upon the south 15 feet of the floor at the end of the count has risen upward with the ascending vault and has been squashed to jelly against the arched roof!

As the designers stated in their interview, they’ve expanded the adventure to encompass far more of Acererak’s legend, locations, and wider machinations. Returning to the tomb means visiting a distinctive location from the annals of the game (just look at its map), but—as with 1998’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors—the adventure has expanded beyond its walls.

Of course, some players will be most intensely curious about the original tomb, so an included sidebar explains how DMs who wish can run their players through this section as a stand-alone adventure. Here, "... the necromancers of Skull City actively encouraged new generations of would-be heroes to seek out the tomb. Many of these adventurers foolishly believed that the demilich’s downfall meant easy pickings of his remaining wealth. The hundreds that died screaming in that darkness gave Acererak the strength he needed to restore himself to physical form."

More on this in a moment.

Magic Missile

If Tomb of Horrors is the most famous of dungeons, magic missile might well be the most famous of spells (even featured in Summoner Geeks, and recently covered in Grognardia.).

Looking back at its description throughout the years, you’ll of course notice something in common.

From the 1983 Red Box

A magic missile is a glowing arrow, created and shot by magic, which inflicts 2–7 (ld6 + 1) points of damage to any creature it strikes. After the spell is cast, the arrow appears next to the magic-user and hovers there until the magic-user causes it to shoot. When shot, it will automatically hit any visible target. It will move with the magic-user until shot or until the duration ends. The magic missile actually has no solid form, and cannot be touched. A magic missile never misses its target and the target is not allowed a Saving Throw.

1st Edition Player’s Handbook

Use of the magic missile spell creates one or more magical missiles which dart forth from the magic-user’s fingertip and unerringly strike their target. Each missile does 2 to 5 hit points (d4 + 1) of damage. If the magic-user has multiple missile capability, he or she can have them strike a single target creature or several creatures, as desired.

2nd Edition Player’s Handbook

Use of the magic missile spell creates up to 5 missiles of magical energy that dart forth from the wizard’s fingertip and unerringly strike their target. This includes enemy creatures in a melee. The target creature must be seen or otherwise detected to be hit, however, so near-total concealment, such as that offered by arrow slits, can render the spell ineffective. Likewise, the caster must be able to identify the target. He cannot direct a magic missile to “Strike the commander of the enemy legion,” unless he can single out the commander from the rest of the soldiers. Specific parts of a creature cannot be singled out. Inanimate objects (locks, etc.) cannot be damaged by the spell, and any attempt to do so wastes the missiles to no effect. Against creatures, each missile inflicts 1d4 + 1 damage.

3rd Edition Player’s Handbook

A missile of magical energy darts forth from your fingertip and strikes its target, dealing 1d4 + 1 points of force damage. The missile strikes unerringly, even if the target is in melee combat or has less than total cover or total concealment. Specific parts of a creature can’t be singled out. Inanimate objects are not damaged by the spell.

What are the similarities here? That would be the words "automatic" and "unerringly." With the July rules updates, we say welcome back magic missile!

Combining the Two

Players returning to the abandoned Tomb of Horrors might find many of the encounters not as they remember (if they survived the original) and many of the traps set off by countless waves of previous explorers. If you like, and if you plan to concentrate on this section of the adventure, you might want to reinstall some of these old traps in the search for the magic Ruinblade.

Consider Area 4: Doors to Nowhere. Originally 9: Complex of Secret Doors (for good reason), seven secret doors stood between the party and the rest of the dungeon:

Each of these portals must be opened by hand, and each requires a different method of opening. Meanwhile, each round that there are characters in a shaded room, a number of bolts will be fired into the area from hidden devices in the walls and ceilings, and 1 character, randomly determined, in each such area, will be hit for 1–6 points of damage unless he or she makes a saving throw versus magic. There is absolutely no way to prevent the bolts from being triggered and from hitting, and armor and spells will not have any effect either.

This sounds like a perfect means to reintroduce magic missile to your game. In the current dungeon, "... each secret door requires a DC 24 Perception check to locate, but the characters can open one they locate without further checks." As an added element of danger, you might decide that each failure to locate a secret door results in a magic missile unerringly fired at one of the heroes at random.

Alternatively, the latest DM Rewards included an ingeniously updated version of the original tomb and its layout (by Tomb of Horrors fellow designer, Scott Fitzgerald Gray). Here, the Doors to Nowhere have become the Gauntlet of Doors; and each secret room fires a number of magic bolt traps. In this version:

Gauntlet of Doors

Setup: Each room contains a secret door that requires a minimum of three standard actions to detect and open. Each of the rooms that make up this gauntlet of secret doors is protected by a magical bolt trap (see the statistics block). Characters who take too long to open a door are targeted by the trap.

Level: 9 (XP 2,000).

Complexity: 5 (special).

Primary Skills: Athletics, Thievery.

Athletics, Thievery (DC 17, standard action): By testing or investigating the physical setup of the door, the character intuits the operation of one of its two mechanisms (see the table).

Perception (DC 12, standard action): The character detects the location of the secret door, after which characters can attempt to determine the workings of its two mechanisms.

Secondary Skills: Insight.

Insight (DC 17, standard action): The character gains a hint of the operation of the secret door by second-guessing its design. With a successful check, the next Athletics or Thievery check made in the challenge gains a +2 bonus.

Success and Failure: This skill challenge has no overall success or failure. Instead, the challenge ends when the characters successfully identify, open, and pass through all the secret doors within the area. Failure in the challenge is marked by the number of attacks the magic trap gets against the characters.

It takes two primary skill checks to locate a secret door, followed by two primary checks to identify both of the door’s opening mechanisms. When the characters identity the second mechanism, they open the door, after which the characters can use move actions to move into the next area. The trap attacks on initiative count 0, but it ignores a room whose door has been opened for the first time during that round. The characters can avoid the trap if they move into a new room in the gauntlet each round.

Special: If the characters gain only one successful primary checks for a door, they determine its initial mechanism (see below). With this knowledge, a character can attempt to guess the door’s second mechanism as a standard action. If a character guesses successfully, the door opens.

The door in area G of the gauntlet is also a trap. If the characters accidentally drop the door on themselves, it stays open. However the magical bolt trap attacks as normal.

Magical Bolt Trap
Level 10 Blaster
With a pulse of white light, bolts of arcane force lance out from the walls and ceiling.
Trap: Each round on initiative count 0, the trap fires a barrage of magical force missiles that attack one target.
This trap cannot be detected with Perception.
Additional Skill: Arcana
DC 25 (trained only): The character detects a pulse of arcane energy building in the walls of the room.
The trap activates when a creature enters any room in the gauntlet, then attacks each round on initiative count 0.
Standard Action Ranged special
Target: One creature in any part of the gauntlet. The trap ignores creatures in a room whose door has been opened for the first time during that round.
Attack: +15 vs. Will
Hit: 4d8 + 2 force damage.

Door Mechanism 1 Mechanism 2
A. Hidden catch at top Pulls down
B. Thin handholds at edges Pivots centrally
C. Hidden catch at bottom Pull inward and up
D. Faint ridge at bottom Slides up
E. Faint seam down the middle Double panels pull inward
F. Hidden catch at right Slides left
G. 7 hidden studs Press all and door opens; press 1 and 7, door falling inward, dealing 3d6 damage to all creatures in the room and knocking them prone

Between the two versions, you might restock the Tomb of Horrors with the above complication (altering the difficulty; the DM Rewards version is set at a lower level than the Tomb of Horrors). Further, you might decide that the magical bolt trap, while damaging, is not deadly enough—and replace the bolts with unerring magic missiles!

And with that, we bid you good luck in the dungeon where, it was once said, "... only large and well-prepared parties of the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the Tomb, they must be prepared to fail."

(5.0 Mbs ZIP)

About the Author

A handsome head and torso sit atop Bart's snaky trunk. This author has no legs, but travels in a snakelike mode along the ground. He has huge bat wings. His tail is barbed and drips poison. Bart's arms are strong and hairy, ending in paw-like hands.

About the Artist

Jared von Hindman is an artist and sometime comedian who "dug too deep" while researching Stupid Monsters of Dungeons & Dragons. He awoke something Dire and horrible (perhaps Fiendish, even) and now he spends his days playing with plastic elves and illustrating new and creative ways to kill goblins. Currently he resides in Berlin with an older woman and a snake named Slinky. He’s not sure why his pet needs to be included in his bio, but all the cool kids seem to be doing it and Jared's a sucker for peer pressure.

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