Lessons Learned in the Tomb of Horrors

So, I've had some time to mull over the Tomb of Horror's (ToH) weekender, and drawn some conclusions as to how I can improve my normal D&D 4e games. And, being a nice kinda' guy, I thought I would share them with you...

  1. If used correctly, the threat of instant death is a good thing: When 4e first came out, I missed my “save or die” effects. However, after seeing the death mechanic in play, and the panic that a player experiences as their character is slowly petrified, disintegrated or dissolved (rather than instantly), I changed my mind. I actually found that more dread and loathing was generated by the creeping advance of doom than the “zap, you're gone” kind, and consider myself an advocate for that kind of effect.
    Having said that, there are several bits in the ToH that are insta kills, and I left them in, and they worked really well, and whilst I don't intend to place a ton of instantly lethal traps and attacks in my regular games, I do think that under certain circumstances, they do add a delicious moment of bowel-liquefying horror to the game.
    By “certain circumstances” I mean situations like the crushing ceiling from Area 2; The group had four rounds to somehow get the trapped Warforged Swordmage out, or, at the start of round five, he was a squishy mess. They managed to punch through the wall, and came up with a great plan to do it more quickly (listen to the recording if you are interested – group two). They pulled him out one round before he was mangled, and knew, for a fact, that he had beaten death by a gnats whisker! 

  2. Longer duration afflictions rule: Team two were deaf for most of the game (-10 Perception) and this changed their whole approach to many things, and I realised how much I missed effects that lasted longer than “until the end of the encounter”. I intend to bring a LOT of lingering effects that last until removed, or until the next short / extended rest into play. I know this means a bit more housekeeping, but it brings some lovely changes to how the players navigate the adventures, and serves as a reminder of the price of inattentiveness.
    In a similar vein, I am (as you may have noticed) experimenting with some slightly more potent, old school style magic items, including those that bestow longer lasting effects, and / or have charges. This again, reaches back to giving characters a wider pool of tricks and utilities outside of the arena of combat.

  3. Even hack and slashers can enjoy a “fun house” dungeon: A number of my players enjoy a good fight, which is why I include a lot of combat in my games. I must admit, I was a little concerned that they might get a bit bored with the ToH, seeing as it is mostly opaque puzzles and arbitrary death traps. However, to my surprise, they loved the creeping along, checking everything, and really started to use their imaginations to solve problems, which brings me to...

  4. Let the players deduce their own solutions / make them describe actions: As you know, DnD Next is a big turn off for me and mine. However, one facet of it – the removal of skills per se, in place of ability checks – actually makes a lot of sense to me now in light of the ToH game.
    I ran it like I was back in the 80's; no help, no mercy, and when someone said something like “I'm doing a perception check”, I made them tell me
    exactly where they were checking and how. By doing this, it became less about allowing the skill to do all the work, and more about the player really having to think about what their character was doing, and it lead to some awesome ideas (including using a Tenser's Floating Disc as an anti-pit trap mechanism). I intend to be a little less generous when it comes to allowing skills to solve problems in future (and this started with 3e really, when there was a skill for everything), and will work to introduce puzzles and situations where a skill check by itself just won't cut it.

  5. Dungeons Rule!: Most of my games seem to take place in cities, the wilderness or bizarre settings, and it's not very often that I get to run a dungeon. ToH (admittedly along with my third return to Dungeons and Dragons Online) brought back to me just how frickin' cool dungeons are, with their lowering entrances, their winding, trap and trick filled corridors, and death soaked, suffocating chambers.
    I fell in love with dungeons at the very start of my gaming experience (and had it cemented by video games like Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back and the original Bard's Tales games – TARJAN), and used to pretty much run games that were set entirely within them. Somewhere along the line my games changed, and became a lot more about the wider world, the larger picture and the ongoing story – which believe me is cool – but it kinda' crowded out those classic, trap laden horror pits that my earlier games revolved around, and I missed that.
    I'm going to work to bring classic style dungeons back into my games, either as part of the main campaign arc or as side quests. I miss characters gingerly poking the floor with a 10' pole, in order to prevent getting a face full of poisoned darts that turn into rot grubs on impact...I want to see characters dying in those kinds of places once more...

  6. And finally; One shots are cool: I work shifts, and my mates all have families and busy work lives. This means that we have to fight for every minute we get to sling dice together, which tends to see us focus purely on the “main” campaigns (or Magic the Gathering). However, the simple joy of running a bunch of pre-gens (I made 20 characters for this game, and hope to never roll another character up again as long as I live) through a dungeon without having to worry about the impact of death on a long standing campaign, or the loss of hard earned items, made for a great, fun, and relatively light hearted time. I fully intend to run more events like these (already had requests to do either a self-written module, or to run a one shot Call of Cthulhu game), and hope that my players will still be up for getting together, and tearing the module to shreds!
So yes, I agree, the old school style of gaming is fun. I really enjoyed reverting to my 15-year-old self for a couple of days, gleefully cackling as player characters got mangled, and loving the puzzled looks on people's faces as they tried to work out the (almost useless) poetic clues from the crimson path. I intend to bring a slightly more old school feel to my regular games, but can see how this is easily accomplished with 4e, and doesn't require a change of games or editions.


  1. Those six comments could be totally taken away from the context of ToH, and still be perfectly relevant. Number four in particular is advice I give every new GM who worries about the game bogging down as the players struggle to get through the plot and starts offering solutions to them (done it myself in fact, many years ago).

    It's grand to nudge their memories - the player won't have the recall that the character has on its own past actions - but play it very close to the chest. When they do figure a way out, it's going to be worth it. Especially if it's a way the never occurred to the GM.


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