Archive for December 15th, 2010

A faithful aqaptation

Our group spent a month exploring the Tomb of Horrors and it was the first time for all of us. 7 characters of 8th level spent four game sessions, or about 14 hours total, inside the Tomb. Their characters spent two full days, with one extended rest, within the tomb. For the adventure, we used the DM Reward “Tomb of Horrors”, revised for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Scott Fitzgerald Gray. Also on hand was the original module by Gary Gygax, creator of the original Dungeons and Dragons and founder of modern role playing games – both for the awesome artwork, as well as to cross reference any inconsistencies or questions of conversion between systems.

It is also important to note that the party only went through the first half of the trap-filled dungeon, up to the point of contact with the false lich with the crown of fear, which led directly to the final confrontation. A few legendary encounters were thus missed, such as the three vats, the rolling juggernaut, the slime room, the mummy lord, and the animated weapons, to name a few. However, the party successfully navigated many of the truly renowned encounters before having the climactic two-part battle, first with the false lich then without pause they fought the demi-lich himself, awakened by the false liches demise. This was done for a variety of reasons, but mainly I wanted to finish the mini-arc of the campaign before the holiday break. What follows is my personal take on what worked, what didn’t, and how it all went down, through the lens of the 7 great players whose characters risked it all for the glory of storming the Tomb of Horrors. Of course I didnt really give them a choice in the matter. For a play-by-play recap, consult the four part session reports:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The Thrill of Frustration
It is no secret that this adventure is diabolically difficult, with deadly traps galore. The preface to the original warns us that this is a “thinking mans game” and that hack and slashers will be disappointed. The two main frustrations from the players came from the “unsolvable puzzles” for one – which included the three armed gargoyle and the slot; and that some of the traps were very unforgiving, especially the teleporter and the gender changer. I can commiserate with my players on these two points, and agree that the frustration and anger they felt was justified. Many of the traps and hazards are unfair. In the original, most of the traps would lead to instant death, with a single save-or-die roll of the dice determining the outcome (sometimes not even that. Make a wrong step, and your character is toast.)

This adventure in its original 1st edition, is not suitable for characters involved in a long term campaign, or a high fantasy campaign, as the case may be. It was widely known as a killer dungeon. This and the fact that my players never got to high enough levels prevented us from playing it in its original edition of the game. My games have always been of the high fantasy fellowship with a story to tell and a world to save. It never occurred to me to play with pregenerated characters, even though the original comes with 20, and besides, the players always wanted to continue the story arcs with their beloved characters, not play something evil and painful with throwaway characters. This trend is as true today as it was then, which led to many moments of serious pissed-offness.

The 4th edition adaptation ameliorates the save-or-die problem somewhat. In a rather brilliant way, it turns the dungeon into a sort of race against resource depletion. Being able to take extended rests can reduce the deadliness even more, both in this version, and in the original, though it might mean days of rest, rather than a single night. Even still, the risk of fatality is ever present.

For example, the first gargoyle they fought did an amazing 72 points of damage in a single turn. It would have instantly slain many of the characters, but the barbarian was able to soak it up.

The other issue, that of “unsolvable puzzles,” comes in two types: those that do not hinder the continuation of the adventure, such as the three armed gargoyle, and those that do, such as the slot in the chapel of good. In the first case, the addition of a difficult riddle can be a great challenge that many players will want to investigate and solve. They can keep coming back to it, and indeed they did, until they solve it or give up. Clues might appear or they might have an inspired moment of “ah-ha!” This is the height of riddle design.

The second type of puzzle however, creates a bottle neck, where the players as well as the characters are prevented from continuing the adventure until it is solved. This particular riddle, with the slot in the chapel of good led to a 2 hour stand-still in our game, where no one had any fun, no one was rolling dice, and one person even nodded off! There are other riddles and puzzles of this nature in the module, including puzzles which will cause a character to be trapped in a room with no way out until they starve to death. Joy.

The world continues to speed up, and people’s time is the currency they spend on adventuring, especially for adults with professions, kids, and numerous other worries and time constraints, who have very little time each week to devote to their favorite hobby. Game design has come a long way since Gygax penned this classic, and bottle necks, especially ones that rely on a particular insight from players, is a pathway to failure. And failure is no fun. I would much rather behead my player’s characters with a short sharp shock than have them stumped in front of a puzzle, scratching their heads and trying unsuccessfully to solve it. Wrong or right, my games are about fun. If it lessens the fun, it doesn’t belong.

To clarify, I am not saying everything needs to be rose colored and happy – death should await behind every corner, every closed door – just that the frustration of banging your head against an immovable wall is the opposite of fun. Puzzles should be optional, able to bypass, or have alternate possible solutions. This is game design 101, and it is humorous that one of the most highly regarded modules in the history of Dungeons and Dragons breaks pretty much every rule in the game design manual. It is humorous until the players find out what is happening to their characters, then the humor seems to melt away.

Which leads us to the next level of frustration, this one the “Gotcha!” trap. Like much of old school DnD, the original adventure is CHOCK full of save or die effects: that is, the player may get to roll one (if any) dice to hopefully survive the trouble he has gotten himself into. Sometimes there is not even that. For example, in the original, if you jumped into the green devil mouth, you were disintegrated, just like that. Roll a new character. In the new version, you take massive damage, but can be rescued by others willing to lend a hand, before being fully disintegrated. This shows a more recent game design, and goes back to resource depletion (of hit points and healing surges) rather than character depletion. In our game poor Hex, while alive, will never be able to forget his few harrowing moments in that green devils mouth, Im sure.

Another trap, and the one that perhaps caused the most frustration of all, even more so than the ring, despite being over in seconds, is the misty archway that teleports you back to the entrance – without your gear! Ouch! One of my players almost walked out after losing his stuff. Granted, I had used that trick on them once before, and so the sting was especially bad, but in this game gear is so important, that without it, one can hardly expect to go on. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as one player mentioned they should all just pile through. If the entire party had lost all their stuff, the campaign would have ended. That is not a good trap. In a side bar, Gray mentions that magic items above a certain level could make a saving throw to remain with the character. This small saving grace made all the difference and allowed the unlucky characters to continue on.

The Agony of Character Death
The Tomb of horrors was written at a time when adventurers, and the players who created and played them, were still developing the methods of adventuring we all use and abuse now, 30 years later. From 10 foot poles, to listening at doors, to a small army of “red shirt” henchmen, the things that we take for granted now were being worked out for the first time by those hearty lads that forged ahead through dungeons like this one. In other ways, times have changed and they left some of the common practices of the old days behind. Two of these depopularized factors are henchmen, and rampant character death.

It was a brutal first decade of gaming, and tales abound of meat factory adventures where players are expected to bring two or three characters to the table, anticipating character death. One way around this trouble of ‘save or die’ affects is to have a slave army of hirelings, also known as “cannon fodder” to send ahead to their deaths and clear the way for the real characters. There are stories of players sending in veritable armies of hirelings and henchmen, and at least one story of a player who led a herd of cattle into the tomb in an effort to lessen the impact of deadly traps. Another story circulates about a player who lost his character to the disintegrating mouth of the green devil face, and promptly made a new character and sent it to the same fate; and another and another until he had to be forced to stop jumping into that devil mouth. This module does weird things to people.

Styles of play differ, and this can have a huge impact on how the Tomb of Horrors is received by the players. When the game first came out, about the only differentiation of the characters within a given class came through the random rolling of character stats, or ability scores. Being random, this led to the quick rolling up of many characters, all of them nearly identical. Even the advantages and disadvantages given out through high or low ability scores was smaller then than now. In the intervening decades, game developers have come to realize that players crave customizability and want unique characters that match their imagined ideas, and who can blame them? – the game has become more and more focused on character development.

The simple fact that in 1980, you could make a character with little more than 6 dice rolls, compared to today, when it takes a computer program and a good hour at least to make an optimized character, has led to a greater importance on characters as individuals, as more important, and therefore as more painful to lose. If a 9th level hybrid Warlock-Swordmage jumps into the green devil mouth and gets disintegrated, it is going to take quite a lot longer to rebuild than Fred the Fighter or Lackey #7.

This focus on character customization has led to characters being much more valuable than ever before, and their loss is a blow like never before. This type of gaming has also led to a greater investment in the story-telling aspects of the game. Players want epic stories for their epic characters. And epic stories do not usually end in a total party kill. Or I should re-phrase that: a total party kill ends epic stories every time. That is not to say that death is absent, characters can and should face the inevitable, either through stupid mistakes, extreme risk, or very unlucky dice rolling. But to have a character that was lovingly crafted over months of play wind up dead because you chose left instead of right is an style of game play that has slowly receded with the henchmen, the sheaf of ready to play characters, and the herds of trap-springing cattle.

What was Awesome
The 4th Edition re-make of Tomb of Horrors went a long way to curtailing much that has become maligned in recent years, but its foundation, that of a “killer dungeon” was still very much in the minds of the players as they sent their characters through the tomb. The challenges were difficult. There were few fights, many traps, and plenty of riddles and puzzles to solve. The adventure is very open ended, even though it is almost a perfectly linear “rail road” adventure. Almost every puzzle must be solved before getting to the next, but at the same time there is a move at your own pace feel to the adventure that is less common in recent editions.

The monsters in the adventure are exciting and challenging. Almost every creature is epic, so many of the fights get drawn out longer than they should, but this is a factor of 4th edition game mechanics, and not the module itself. That said, I might consider lowering some of the monsters defenses and hit points, and raise the damage they do even higher – but not too high, as these monsters can hit HARD.

The final battle with the demilich is suitably epic, and I am glad to see that Gray, when updating the adventure, went for an epic final battle, rather than the “puzzle-fight” that Gygax envisioned. It was a satisfying finale for the players, an enjoyable, yet intensely challenging battle, that had very real risks. I would rate the final battle with the demi-lich as one of the best fights we as a group have had in 4th edition. On the other hand, I always had a fondness for the crazy, almost impervious to harm demilich of elder days. Heroic sacrifice seemed to be one of the few ways to get the demilich in the original, which is an excellent climactic event for everyone.

One of the best aspects of the adventure is the atmosphere of the place. From the sparse descriptions, to the artwork, the place drips with malevolence. Just wandering through the halls is a creepy experience. The details stand out, and every one of them will be picked over by astute players, or promptly missed/forgotten and end in a terrible death or dismemberment. Creeping through the halls, prodding the floors, poking things with mage hand – only by carefully observing the surroundings and acting accordingly (and with fingers crossed) can the party make any headway through the tomb.

The Tomb of Horrors can be a fun adventure to experience, but it requires a group of players willing to spend a lot of time and patience. Some of the challenges are extremely difficult, and after a long week of work, they can be too difficult to solve, appreciate, and enjoy. On the other hand, as I kept reminding my players, getting through the tomb is a real DnD feather in your cap. Being able to say “I survived the Tomb of Horrors” is almost worth all the pain and agony of suffering through it.

For a story driven campaign of highly developed characters, Tomb of Horrors is going to sting. It is unabashedly unfair, and the original intent of the tomb was to create an adventure nearly impossible to survive. The 4th edition version is toned down to the level of “possible to survive but still unlikely” without losing much in the way of of its spirit or its ambiance. This tomb is one tough nut to crack. Player beware.

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