Few villains throughout the history of the Dungeons & Dragons
game have a legacy as daunting as that of Acererak the demilich. From the earliest days of the game, tales of his lair have spread throughout populations of bold characters and fascinated players alike. It was a short adventure that first introduced Acererak and his penchant for fiendish traps, but that adventure’s name has lived on throughout every incarnation of the game. You know it, of course, as Gary Gygax’s original Tomb of Horrors
It’s time to bring Acererak’s legacy to today’s gamers.
This month sees the release of 4th Edition's Tomb of Horrors—and so we spoke with the adventure's designers, Ari Marmell and Scott Fitzgerald Gray, about their contributions to Acererak's legacy.
Wizards of the Coast: Can we ask about your own experiences playing through the Tomb of Horrors—have you ever dared enter the tomb in any of its earlier incarnations, either as a player or DM? How did those expeditions fare?
Ari Marmell: Unfortunately, the first and only time I ever actually attempted to play through Tomb of Horrors was when I was far too young to appreciate it for what it is, or to really pay attention to the clues regarding how to make one's way through. Under those circumstances, as I'm sure you can imagine, the delve didn't last very long. (It was a long time ago, and I don't remember many details, but I'm not sure we even reached the infamous green devil face...)
I desperately wanted to play through Return to the Tomb of Horrors, in 2nd Edition, but alas, I never had the opportunity to do so. I've read the whole thing through several times in the years since, and I'm still amazed at what Bruce Cordell was able to do with it.
Scott Fitzgerald Gray: Oh, yeah. It was a Saturday night in 12th grade. We had, like, nine PCs and half as many henchmen all maxed to the gills with experience, magic, and a remarkable sense of invincibility that didn't last long. The body count was staggering that first excursion, but after the surviving characters bankrupted themselves paying for group-rate resurrections, the Tomb became a campaign touchstone and the site of a couple of extremely memorable follow-up visits. With the help of an extraordinary run of luck, the last of those featured the destruction of the demilich, but I won't bore you with the details.
Return to the Tomb of Horrors I never had a chance to run or play, unfortunately, but I've read it voraciously more than once. I've described it in the past as the best second-person novel ever written, and I think that assessment still stands. For me, Return to was the best thing to come out of 2nd Edition, and it was an incredible experience being able to cherry-pick some of Bruce's remarkable ideas to update for Moil and the Shadow Tomb.
Wizards of the Coast: Considering the history and reputation of the original Tomb of Horrors, what do you think set it apart from other dungeons? While the forthcoming release certainly includes tricks, traps, and plenty of villainous foes—what did you look to bring to the adventure to make it distinctively "Tomb of Horrors"?
AM: Well, what everyone remembers about Tomb of Horrors is how deadly it was. It's that lethality on which the bulk of the module's reputation is built. But I really feel that the true "signature" of the adventure isn't just in the deadliness of its challenges, but in their style. It was one of the first dungeons, if not the first, to make hidden clues and problem-solving an integral part of the delve; the first dungeon that couldn't be solved primarily via sword and spell; and, in a sense, one of the first to challenge the players, not just the characters, to really think their way through the hazards.
In order for 4E Tomb of Horrors to make any rightful claim to following in the footsteps of the original Tomb and Return to, it had to capture some of that same feel. It had to be dangerous, sure, but in a very specific way, and with the necessary clues to circumvent at least some of those dangers. The original Tomb of Horrors had a few traps that were fairly arbitrary, but most of them made some sort of internally consistent sense, and so, too, do many of the dangers of any adventure that would aspire to the name. Anyone can throw out some completely random hazards: "The door has three buttons on it. Pushing the purple one causes the door to open. Pushing the white one inflicts 3d12 cold damage. Pushing the mauve one transforms the character into a Corinthian leather ottoman." That's not adventure design, and that's not challenging the players, it's taunting them.
That doesn't mean that every encounter is a puzzle; as with Return to the Tomb of Horrors, there are plenty of combats, and there are plenty of skill challenges as well. But a great many of the encounters are, indeed, puzzles that the heroes can more effectively overcome if they're paying attention, and if they use their heads—just as in the original.
SFG: Full agreement with Ari. The reputation of the original Tomb was built on its legendary lethality, but that in and of itself isn't what kept successive generations of players coming back for more. If the adventure had simply been the death trap that many people write it off as, no one would have cared. But in every important way, the Tomb is about challenging the players as much or more so than challenging their characters. Sure, magic and hit points can help, but back in the days before skill checks, the puzzles and traps of the Tomb were about assessing your problem-solving ability, not your character's modifiers.
I'm very happy with how the 4E Tomb manages to marry the much more advanced skill systems of 4th Edition with that old-style Gygaxian love of sheer ingenuity on the players' part. There are plenty of challenges of both kinds throughout the adventure, and I think we found a good point of balance between straight-up character-based encounters and the deeper, more subtle player challenges that made the original Tomb memorable.
Wizards of the Coast: Do you think it's even possible to have a true “Tomb of Horrors” these days—insofar as design has moved away from the instant death-trap mentality of the original? How did you balance the deadliest of the original with playability? And what advice might you have for DMs looking to run the 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors with a possibly greater 1st Edition deadliness?
AM: It was definitely a fine line to walk. The design philosophy behind 4th Edition simply doesn't allow for the "instant death" effects that occasionally reared their heads in 1st Edition (and for which Tomb of Horrors was well known). But on the other hand, it is possible to make the consequences of failure more deadly in 4E than their often are, and we did that with some—not all, certainly, but some—of the challenges in 4E Tomb of Horrors. I won't pretend for a moment that everyone will be happy with the balance we found, but I think it'll work for most people.
And, of course, there's what I said above: The feel of the traps, and their problems-solving nature, is at least as important to the Tomb of Horrors mood as the lethality. And that, certainly, is something that can be done across any edition of the game.
In terms of advice for DMs who want a more lethal experience, there are several possibilities, and we actually discuss them a bit in the book itself. The simplest is, of course, to run the adventures for a party that's slightly lower level than recommended. If you really want something as lethal as the original, you can easily increase the consequences of failed efforts: make damage higher, drain healing surges, even add some instant-death—but be aware that, at that point, you're veering away from what the game is built to support. Nothing wrong with that at all, but you're on your own when it comes to dealing with the results.
I do recommend, though, that you think carefully before doing so. This adventure was written to be challenging; you may find that the consequences as written are sufficient, even if you initially don't feel that they look to be.
SFG: Certainly, a lot of sweeping changes have worked their way into each subsequent edition of D&D since the days of the original Tomb. However, I personally think there are still enough common elements to recreate the experience of the Tomb even though the mechanic of "save-or-die" (or, in some cases, just "die") is long gone.
Chief among those is my own sense that it's less the dying than the expectation of dying that made the original Tomb memorable. It's called the Tomb of *Horrors* for a reason, and that sense of dread and foreboding is something that any good adventure can and should make use of. Even though the players of the adventure will have the meta-understanding that instant death isn't a part of the game anymore, there are plenty of things to be afraid of in the new Tomb—including the idea that death isn't actually the worst thing that can happen to your PC...
Wizards of the Coast: Looking at the 4E Tomb of Horrors, were there elements from the original, the Return to, or other sources that you knew you wanted to include? (Such as, is the trap in the G4: Perilous Pool encounter appears a clever homage to the Endless Quest's Dungeon of Dread?)
AM: Heh. Actually, while I played through many of the EQ books, Dungeon of Dread wasn't one of them. It was actually based on an encounter from the original Tomb of Horrors (and makes a reference to that original encounter in the text.)
But yes, there were quite a few things we wanted to include. A lot of it was purely stylistic, as I mentioned above, but some of it was more specific. We tied in a great deal of Acererak's personality and backstory, from the Tomb of Horrors and Return to. Several locations in the 4E Tomb of Horrors are modeled on areas of the original Tomb, and several other locations are actually revisits, taking PCs to areas from the original or from Return to. And indeed, several characters appearing or mentioned in Return to (and in several related Dragon articles from back in the day) are part of the ongoing plot here as well. Players and DMs running 4E Tomb of Horrors need not have any experience with the original or with Return to, but those who do should realize swiftly enough that this adventure could, if they wanted it to, serve as a direct sequel—the third part in the Tomb of Horrors trilogy, as it were.
We also knew that we wanted to work in some of the myth/history/cosmology of 4th Edition. Return to played a lot with other planes (particularly the Negative Material Plane), and involved the machinations of Orcus as well as Acererak himself. It "grounded" the adventure, if you will, in the reality of the game setting. We wanted to do the same. We also wanted Acererak's current scheme to make sense based on his prior efforts; his ultimate objectives haven't changed, after all.
SFG: Absolutely, and on both a mechanical and conceptual level. The fingerprints of Messrs. Gygax and Cordell are all over the 4th Edition Tomb, and without giving too much away, there are a number of sections of this adventure that will see the heroes retreading old ground—but in ways that are likely to surprise players who know the originals (and not necessarily in a good way). In terms of the bigger picture, as Ari says, it was important for the scope of this adventure to be defined in relationship to everything that had come before. In the process, we created a loose timeline into which the original Tomb and Return to can fit as proper backstory prequels to this adventure.
Wizards of the Coast: This Tomb of Horrors offers a rather far-reaching plot across multiple worlds; that said, there's still a visit to the original Tomb. What draws a party there story-wise, and what changes might they encounter (compared to the original) once inside? What informed your decision not to simply recreate the original tomb in its entirety as a mechanical update?
AM: Oh, it's definitely part of the ongoing story. By the time that chapter rolls around, the heroes should be well aware that they're dealing with Acererak. There are a few different ways the heroes might wind up in Skull City and the original Tomb. They may have tracked the place down in hopes of learning more about what Acererak is up to, and how to stop him, or they may have found themselves there involuntarily after the events of the prior chapter.
I'd rather not say specifically what's changed, or to what extent, because I'd rather players discover it in the process of play. But I will say that, yes, there are changes.
As to why we didn't recreate the original in its entirety? There are a few steps to that.
One is that, well, it's been done. Tomb of Horrors appeared in all three prior editions; there wasn't a burning need to redo it yet again, when we could instead do something new with the underlying ideas.
Part of it is an issue of space. The 4th Edition (and late 3E) format for adventures makes individual encounters a breeze to run—but the trade-off is that individual encounters take up more room. A conversion to 4th Edition of an older adventure requires a more page count than they original, and that's page count that we couldn't then use for something new.
Mainly, though... remember what I said earlier, about Tomb of Horrors-inspired material for 4th Edition being a fine line to walk? It's even more so for direct translation. While I believe, as I said before, that the primary draw of the original Tomb of Horrors was the style and feel of the encounters, not the lethality, that lethality is a major part of the adventure's reputation. But it's also a tough fit for the design philosophies behind 4th Edition (and, to a lesser extent, 3E).
When it comes to something very broad-based, like a campaign setting, it's okay to tweak details to fit the design of a new edition. Same is true when designing materials inspired by an original adventure. But to convert the adventure itself? Not so much. In an adventure, particularly a short and heavily thematic one, the individual details are the whole point. Change them too much, and you might as well not be using the original adventure at all.
If we'd tried to directly translate the original, we might have found ourselves having to sacrifice either the feel of 4th Edition or of the original adventure. And even if we didn't, even if we'd managed to walk that narrowest of lines, it would have overshadowed everything else. Discussion and debate as to whether we'd gotten the original exactly right would have distracted everyone from the rest of the book—and all the new material and new story/adventure opportunities that were the whole point of the book. By instead building new material based off and inspired by the original—as Bruce Cordell did with Return to—we've got the best of both worlds, and can provide new material that should satisfy most fans of both.
SFG: I'd also add that Return to made it necessary to push beyond what the original Tomb once represented. The world that Bruce created around the Tomb is simply too rich to ignore, and the story of Return to raised the bar far above what even the best dungeon crawl can do.
As to what draws a party to the 4E Tomb, one of the things that I loved about Ari's conceptual setup for the adventure was its separation into different sections across different parts of the adventuring tiers. Unlike many longer adventures (which can tend to get a little railroady despite the best efforts of all involved), the 4E Tomb leaves it entirely to the individual DM how to stitch the various sections together—and in doing so, make sure that the PCs are involved for reasons of their own making, not reasons that the adventure simply enforces upon them.
Wizards of the Coast: That said, what elements of the original Tomb might players come across (either within the abandoned tomb, or beyond)—does that four-armed gargoyle make a return in one fashion or another, for example?
AM: I would, again, prefer not to go into too much detail on this one. I want people to discover returning elements in the course of play. But I will say that, yes, there are definitely aspects—story elements, characters, monsters, themes, and even a couple of specific locations—that reappear, in some form or another, throughout the various chapters of the 4E Tomb.
SFG: Nope. Nothing at all. That mist-filled archway? I wouldn't worry about it...
Wizards of the Coast: In the afterward, Bruce Cordell writes that as soon as he read "god golem" he knew he was going to love the newest take on Tomb of Horrors. What can you tell us about facing Acererak this time around; while a demilich is never an easy fight, what has Acererak been up to lately? Any new tricks up his… that is, in his skull?
AM: Oh, he's got quite a few new tricks to try out. He's been working hard since his near destruction at the hands of the last group of adventurers—those players familiar with Return to will recognize bits of his tale—and his plans are already in motion by the time the heroes stumble onto them. He has quite a few new minions, puppets, and tools to throw at anyone foolish enough to stand in his way—and even if the PCs survive long enough to face him directly, they'll find that there's more to him than meets the eye. (Yes, even as compared to a "normal" demilich.)
Of course, he's still up to his old tricks as well. Watch for more of his infamous—and not necessarily talented—poetry. And pay close attention to it, since the heroes' lives may depend on it.
Like Return to, there are different levels of victory. It's entirely possible that the heroes may thwart Acererak's plans, but fail to finally destroy him, in which case they can probably expect to hear from him again. And if they should fail to stop those plans, well, they get to enjoy the world-altering repercussions.
SFG: As is the case with all the best villains, each setback only expands the scope and madness of Acererak's ambition. Again, one of the most fun things with this adventure was consciously building on and connecting to what had come before. In the original Tomb, Acererak destroyed hapless adventurers simply so that he could "survive more centuries". Return to upped the ante by revealing that Acererak had been saving those souls, and that his master plan was to undergo an apotheosis that would have granted him "godlike power". This time out, "godlike" doesn't quite cut it anymore...
Wizards of the Coast: Considering adventure design, especially for an adventure like Tomb of Horrors, how do you go about creating an encounter that shows players its deadliness without railroading them into automatically setting things off? Conversely, how would you create a trap that's interactive (that players can try and solve), but are not so easily bypassed with a simple skill check?
AM: There are a few options there. The first is, of course, to have an encounter where things start going badly immediately, and slowly (or not so slowly) get worse if the players fail to circumvent whatever trap or challenge lies at the center of it. But of course, that's only sometimes appropriate.
Sometimes, you play with expectations. If the party comes across a room that clearly doesn't belong where it is, such as an ornate dining room in the middle of a rundown dungeon (not saying that this precise example is in the adventure, mind you), there's obviously something very wrong—but they don't necessarily know what's about to happen.
And sometimes, you set up a challenge where only players who have really been paying attention are going to keep from blundering into it. You don't want to railroad, as you point out, and you have to accept that a few parties will manage to avoid it entirely, never learning just how deadly it was—but that's the trade-off for playing fair with the majority of parties who are going to blunder right into it.
As for your other question... Well, that's partly up to how the DM and the players want to play. There are quite a few instances in 4E Tomb of Horrors where the players have to figure out how to move forward; they have to figure out how to interpret the hints and clues they've seen in order to continue on. (For instance, the challenge in one room can only be circumvented via a clue that was found in an earlier chamber.)
One gaming group might require that the players come up with the answers, and if they fail, they've lost; other gaming groups might try to figure things out on their own, but resort to attribute/skill checks to gain hints from the DM if they're truly stuck; and others might just resort entirely to said checks. I don't personally recommend the last option, just because it's not really appropriate to the feel of the Tomb of Horrors. (And I find it less fun than trying to puzzle through things myself.) But all three options are there, just as they are in any D&D adventure. That said, the book's introduction does strongly recommend that groups at least try puzzling things out on their own, since—again—that's more in keeping with the spirit of the original.
SFG: For me, one of the hallmarks of the original Tomb (though I know this point is debated by those who don't care for the adventure) is that there are always options. With 4th Edition's much more focused encounter design, "options" was a constant touchstone, because options are what bring encounters to life. There are plenty of places in the 4E Tomb where the PCs can and will find themselves in serious danger, but that danger should never be a simple pass/fail scenario. Although there are plenty of straight-up combat and skill challenges in the Tomb, the adventure as a whole—like the original—is a deadly and elaborate puzzle. A skill check might bestow a necessary piece of information, but how that piece fits into the larger puzzle—which is to say, what options that piece introduces—is something that the players will have to work out.
Wizards of the Coast: Finally, with an absolute wealth of material to play through in the new Tomb of Horrors, do you have a favorite encounter? Or one you suspect players will soon be on the message boards about, mentioning their resulting character death?
AM: That's a tough one. I think the deadliest encounters fall in the last couple of chapters (and I'd rather not offer details of those). As far as a personal favorite? Well, at least one of them would have to be the sundial puzzle.
But I'm really very happy with all of them.
SFG: As Ari says, it's tough to pick a favorite without giving too much away. However, I can say that the encounters I enjoyed working on the most are those that have some connection or hearken back to the original Tomb and Return to—because players who know the Tomb might actually find themselves at a disadvantage compared to those for whom the 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors will be their first real experience of Acererak's madness. The Tomb is a part of gaming history, and while history often repeats itself, it rarely does so the same way...
About the Designers
Ari Marmell currently works as both an RPG designer, on products such as Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons, The Plane Below, and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog; and as a novelist, on titles such as Agents of Artifice (a Magic: the Gathering novel) and The Conqueror’s Shadow. Ari currently lives in an apartment that’s almost as cluttered as his subconscious, which he shares (the apartment, not the subconscious) with his wife, George, and two cats.
Scott Fitzgerald Gray started gaming in high school and has worked as a writer and editor much of the time since then. After belatedly realizing he could combine both vocations in 2004, he’s been making up for lost time as a freelance RPG editor and designer, primarily for Wizards of the Coast. Scott’s memories of the original Tomb of Horrors are so traumatic he rarely talks about them, but reworking this classic adventure has been excellent therapy. He lives in the Canadian hinterland with a schoolteacher, two daughters, and a large number of animal companions.