The Tomb of Horrors and Player Mindset

Stuart Robertson talks about his group’s experience with the infamous Tomb of Horrors back in 1987 over on G+.  Spoilers abound, so don’t read that or this if you care.  The gist of it is that after the players lost a bunch of PCs in the initial false entrances, and the party got down to about half the original PCs they gave it up as a bad job.  Stuart then goes on to complain about The Tomb of Horrors being badly designed by the lights of this (perfectly reasonable) Gamasutra article.  The following is my reaction, which got a little long for a comment.

Honestly, if you lose any PCs to the fake entrances, your group isn’t nearly paranoid or prepared enough to have any chance with the Tomb of Horrors. I mean, in one case the group marches into a corridor with cobwebs thick enough to obscure the ceiling without a care in the world as to what might be lurking above, in the other not only don’t they send anything ahead capable of triggering the trap nor react quickly by retreating during the slow count to 10, but despite being 10th-14th level nobody has Rock to Mud, Disintegrate, or Stone to Flesh prepared or the equivalent in items.

A lot of the traps in the Tomb aren’t particularly lethal for a character of that high level (e.g. 1d4+1 d6 of damage), especially since the party should always be pretty close to full health: the Tomb has no wandering monsters, even in the area around it, or any time pressure from plot events, and characters of that level typically have access to a lot of healing. There are some nasty exceptions, but a 10th level Cleric can Raise Dead twice a day, so it’s not like most of the deaths in the Tomb need be irrevocable.

I have some quibbles about specifics of the Tomb (like I think preventing Passwall from being one of the spells that can get you out of the sealed fake corridor is kinda cheap), but I think if you see it as a series of uninformed choices you’re just not used to the style of play. Players have lots and lots of ways, mundane and magical, of gaining information to turn blind choices into informed choices…which is why some but by no means all of the tricks and traps specify certain divination/magic tricks that won’t work.  That’s not random: I think the clear presumption is that the players are going to be moving carefully through the tomb, casting various detect spells on anything that seems suspicious and poking and prodding everything from a safe distance. I dare say most of the decisions in the Tomb are actually dilemmas: how many resources to expend to turn it into an informed decision. Relatively few are “weighted” (in the Gamasutra sense of being balanced between pros and cons): if you can figure out a safe path, there’s usually no reason not to take it.

Obviously it’s not a style of play suitable for everyone, but that doesn’t make it badly designed. One of my favorite memories of dungeoneering when I was a lad was finally beating my step-brother’s death-trap dungeon (not Tomb of Horrors, but same basic idea, heavily inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark)… The character I had that finally beat it was pretty powerful and equipped with a ring of regeneration, but I was soloing it, so those kind of balanced out.   In role-playing terms there was a reason the forces of good needed the treasure the dungeon guarded, but at this date I can’t recall at all what the treasure was or its significance, while I clearly recall the feeling of getting it and getting out again and even the details of some of the ingenious traps. I’m not ordinarily a challenge-based player, and it’s not something I’d want to do every day, but the satisfaction of completing it and being the first of the various players who’d attempted it to succeed was a thrill like no other