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

Dungeon Survivors

Apropos of a discussion on G+ started by John Williams of starting a D&D campaign with the characters being the henchmen and hirelings of a high-level group of heroes and a suggestion by Ed Hackett that play begins after a TPK of the high-level heroes I think a scenario like that might be a fun 0-level DCC funnel if they were trapped far down in a dangerous dungeon. Even in straight D&D it might be interesting to run it as a survival horror-style game where the players started with 2-4 characters each so you don’t have to pull the punches to keep it from being a TPK in the first few minutes of the game.

I think they need to be stuck somewhere hostile, otherwise I’d expect them to just run and the whole thing becomes nothing more than the back-story of how they met.  If I did that, though, I’d probably bend over backward to make sure that it was designed so that every trap and every fight was avoidable if the players are careful enough. E.g. Random encounter would have a “tell” depending on the kind of monster, either something that would alert the players the monster was on the move, or that the area was infested with them and they need to seek another way around, or maybe the monster moves by a strict schedule.

Time, encumbrance and resources need to be a big thing since pretty much the whole point is that no fight is survivable (though no fight should be a one-round TPK either, unless that fact is telegraphed well in advance), but there need to be ways to replenish those so that it’s interesting pressure not an inexorable no-win scenario.  In fact, if you ever get to the point where given the current situation it’s impossible for the characters to survive and escape, you should probably just call it instead of playing it out ’til the last character drops.

I’d be sure to use all the rules like unintelligent monsters being distracted by food, intelligent ones by treasure, individual init plus whoever retreated last turn automatically wins init so that in a pursuit at least some of the party might get away if there’s a chase, monster reaction rolls so that they might not always be interested in a fight, factions the players can try to ally with, etc.  Basically everything that I can to give players a chance to retreat from a disastrous encounter without turning it into, no problem if we find something that’s too dangerous we’ll just run and repeat that until we’re free of the dungeon.  Each time they find themselves in over their heads should have a chance of a cost.

The dungeon would need multiple routes through it, and spaces that are definitely safe to hole up in and rest…at least at certain times and if precautions are taken.  And if possible, I’d probably try to make it so that all the “dungeon dressing” was meaningful: everything is a potential clue to survival, either providing information about the inhabitants of the dungeon, what’s in which direction, where resources and allies might be found, or something that could be used as a resource, like maybe you can use those charred bones to mark your way or as fodder to distract an ooze. The meaning of the info might not be readily apparent, but I think it would be good to avoid complete red herrings and bizarre random stuff that’s just to provide atmosphere.  In a normal dungeon that kind of thing is fine, and gives the players’ imaginations something to chew on besides fighting monsters, but the players can choose the balance they want between the risk of missing something and the tedium of investigating meaningless clues, since  the penalty for ignoring a clue is usually not very severe: a missed opportunity to find a short-cut or hidden treasure. In a dungeon where there’s a risk of TPK for any ignored clues, it strikes me as a real drag on play to make the players spend time sifting out the red herrings.

I don’t know if my home-group of players would be too into this, but it might be fun to try as a hangout game.


There Ain’t No Sanity Clause

So, I’m running my home group, The Rambling Bumblers through a Dungeon Crawl Classics 0-level funnel, a re-skinning of Sailors on the Starless Sea by Harley Stroh as a holiday-themed adventure.  Details below the cut, and if you’re one of my players don’t read it yet, since we stopped at about the 2/3’s point last night.
Continue reading “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”