Friday, 25 November 2022

Thoughts on S1 Tomb of Horrors

“We’ll never survive!”
“Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

S1 Tomb of Horrors
In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill, lies the sinister TOMB OF HORRORS. The labyrinthine crypt is filled with terrible traps, strange and ferocious monsters, rich and magical treasures, and somewhere within rests the evil demi-lich.
[S1 Tomb of Horrors – 1]

That’s evocative, isn’t it? A labyrinthine crypt, terrible traps, ferocious monsters. All those things scream early D&D play, making this adventure module reputedly most iconic and fabled adventure of all times. Everyone who has ever played D&D has heard of it, even if they’ve never actually played it, or even peered within its covers. I wonder how many have, played through it, that is? Fewer than those who ventured into the Caves of Chaos, surely. I suspect that far few survived the ordeal. It’s not a hack and slash adventure. Indeed, there’s precious little combat to be had at all in it. But there is a fair bit of misdirection, and just as many traps. It’s a tomb, after all – Acererak’s tomb – not an invitation to the bold to come-one, come-all and take what’s presumed deservedly theirs for having ventured in. Acererak desires his resting place left alone, even forgotten, and he went to great lengths to ensure just that. He has been successful in regard to his first desire, thus far, if not in the second. The location of his tomb remains a mystery, no matter how many wizards and sages may have tried to divine its whereabouts; but he and it have certainly not been forgotten.

The legend of the tomb is an old story with many parts, some of which may be lost or obscured. [S – 2]
Possible locale of the Tomb
1) The highest hill on the Plains of Iuz
2) An island (unmapped) in the Nyr Dyv
3) In the Bright Desert
4) At the western border of the Duchy of Geoff
5) Somewhere in the Vast Swamp south of Sundi [sp]
6) On an island beyond the realm of the Sea Barons
[S – 2]

Acererak is something of a mystery – a legend, in fact. What’s known depends on what side of the DM screen you happen to be sitting on; PCs should know little, players less, and DMs a fair bit, depending on how many resources they have at their disposal.
Little is known concerning the being called Acererak, for the name was ancient when eastern Oerik was still ruled by the Flan peoples, and the frightening tales of the Tome of Horrors had long been a part of the folklore throughout the Flanaess when the Kingdom of Aerdy was but an idea posed by an Oeridian chieftain. [Dragon # 225 – 53]
Acererak is ancient, then. And his name still raises the hackles of those who hear it uttered. Deservedly so, as he appears to have been a sadistic tyrant in his time.
While alive, Acererak built an unholy temple in the name of a now deceased power. When the project neared completion, he slew every worker, excavator, and consecrating priest who had assisted in the temple’s construction. The murderer instructed his few remaining servants to place the dead and their effects into the lower catacomb level of the temple, which was sealed off and paved over, consigning the mass grave to memory. Eventually, Acererak succumbed to the lure of lichdom, refusing to allow age and infirmity to end his existence. [Dragon # 249 – 38]
He was also reputedly as dangerous dead as he was alive. Liches tend to be, aren’t they?
What can be said, however, is that if Vecna was the most powerful lich ever to walk the face of Oerth, Acererak was a close second, for only a being of great might could strike so much fear into the hearts of men yet remain mostly absent from the eyes of history. [Dragon # 225 – 53]

How ancient was Acererak, anyway? Truly, apparently, if he lived at the dawn of Flan civilisation. His longevity as a lich is what one might call impressive, as well, if he was still out and about thousands of years after having risen to his undeath.
45 CY (5516 SD)
Rumours of a powerful lich, Acererak, building a stronghold in the Vast Swamp caused some alarm, as the Brotherhood feared another magical war with possible cataclysmic consequences – especially as the undead mage was presumably unconcerned about any damage to the local ecology.
[SB – 4]
That he was of concern to the Kingdom of Shar is as impressive, to my mind. I wonder, though, why there is no mention of Acererak’s demesnes in the annals of the Kingdom of Aerdy? Then again, perhaps there is. Aerdy never did venture into the Vast Swamp, or not deeply into it, as far as we know.
There are many tales and legends concerning this area, but the most likely is that of the lost burial place of the demi-lich, Acererak, who once ruled the morass and beyond into the cockscomb of Tilvanot. [WoGA – 51]
There are many tales and legends concerning this area, especially in old times before the wild swamp was as extensive as it is now. The most oft-told one is that of the demilich Acererak, who is said to have ruled the swamp in the distant past and now has his burial place somewhere within its confines. [FtAA – 60,61]
Perhaps the Kingdom of Aerdy knew more than they cared to admit, preferring to extoll their successes, their greatness, rather than their failures and humiliations.

There’s a great deal more backstory, if you’re privy to Bruce Cordell’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors, but that lengthy boxed set is another creature altogether. It’s 2nd Edition, and bares little resemblance to its progenitor, to my mind.
Is the Return as celebrated as the first? I believe not. The Return does not spark the same level of interest or discussion, either, I believe.
Why’s that, I wonder? Might that be because the sequel is meant to be an epic adventure, while the original challenges players and not PCs?
The original Tomb is daunting in its introduction.
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still words his final haunt. (Be warned that tales told have it that this being possesses powers which make him nearly undefeatable!) Accounts relate that it is quite unlikely that any adventurers will ever find the chamber where the demi-lich Acererak lingers, for the passages and rooms of the Tomb are fraught with terrible traps, poison gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, the demi-lich has so well hidden his lair, that even those who avoid the pitfalls will not be likely to locate their true goal. So only large and well-prepared parties of the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the Tomb, they must be prepared to fail. Any expedition must be composed of characters of high level and varied class. They must have magical protections and weapons, and equip themselves with every sort of device possible to insure their survival. [S – 2]
This was written for the DM, obviously. Little of this information (none, actually) could possibly be known by the PCs, because no one has discovered the location of the tomb, to date. It is still sealed when they first arrive, and no one has tampered with it in any way since Acererak laid his weary head to rest.
And no wonder: Weeks, if not months have been spent in investigating each of those widely placed possibilities, and trekking through the hellish morass to stand at the foot of his barrow.
The Vast Swamp
The party has arrived at the site of the demi-lich’s last haunt. Before them is a low, flat topped hill, about 200 yards wide and 300 yards long. Only ugly weeds, thorns, and briars grow upon the steep sides and bald top of the 60 high mound. There are black rocks upon the top of the hill, and if these are viewed from a height of about 200’ or so above the mound, it will be seen that the whole is shaped like a human skull, with the piles of rock appearing as eye holes, nose hole, and the jagged teeth of a grinning death’s head. A thorough inspection and search of the entire area will reveal only that the north side of the hill has a crumbling cliff of sand and gravel about 20’ high in about the middle of the whole. […] A low stone ledge overhangs this eroded area, and shrubs and bushes obscure it from observation at a distance.
[S – 2]
Is Acererak’s tomb in the Vast Swamp? We all declare it to be so, now, but that was not the case, originally. That list of potential locations was just that, then, when published. It did not need to even be in Greyhawk at all; and to a great many games, it very likely wasn’t – such was the way of plug-and-play. So long as there a swamp, a marsh, a bog, a wetland nearby, you were good to go, so long as it was vast and mysterious, uncharted and dangerous. But that was then; this is now. It’s widely accepted that Acererak’s tomb is in the Vast Swamp (unless you don’t want it to be, that is).

Acererak's Tomb
What follows is what divides players.
As clever players will gather from a reading of the Legend of the Tomb, this dungeon has more tricks and traps than it has monsters to fight. THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE, AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY! In the latter case, it is better to skip the whole thing than come out and tell them that there are few monsters. It is this writer‘s belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience. If you regularly pose problems to be solved by brains and not brawn, your players will find this module immediately to their liking. [S – 2]
Is the module unfair? Capricious in intent? Is it purposely lethal? Was Gary Gygax out to kill your players’ characters? Of course not. He was out to challenge HIS players, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz, specifically.
There were several very expert players in my campaign, and this was meant as yet another challenge to their skill – and the persistence of their therefore-invincible characters. Specially I had in mind foiling Rob Kuntz’s PC, Robilar, and Ernie Gygax’s PC, Tenser. [RttToH – 3]
Must I mention that they survived? And that others who’ve played through it have, as well?

You will too if you’re cautious. If you’re attentive.
There are clues everywhere, some disguised as taunts:
Entering Acererak's Tomb
Go back to the tormentor or through the arch,
and the second great hall you'll discover.
Shun green if you can, but night's good color
is for those of great valor.
If shades of red stand for blood the wise
will not need sacrifice aught but a loop of
magical metal – you're well along your march.

Two pits along the way will be found to lead
to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall.
These keys and those are most important of all,
and beware of trembling hands and what will maul.
If you find the false you find the true
and into the columned hall you'll come,
and there the throne that's key and keyed.

The iron men of visage grim do more than
meets the viewers eye.
You've left and left and found my Tomb
and now your soul will die."
[S1 – 3]

Shall I disclose what lies within? No. Good Lord, why would or should I? It’s not that I haven’t done as much with other classic modules. But this one is different. There are no plot elements to unravel or piece together.  No complex web of NPCs and encounters. It’s a collection of tricks and traps and death magic. To deluge them is to ruin the experience. If you’ve played through this you know what’s in store; if you haven’t, I wouldn’t wish to spoil your fun, or relieve you of the tension that is sure to twist your guts into knots throughout your delve. Besides, more than many have waxed upon this adventure already, probably to great effect than I might. Moreover, it’s been updated and expanded upon over the years. 
  • In 1987 it was included as part of the abridged super-module Realms of Horror.
  • In 1998, as mentioned above, it was treated to a substantial expansion and sequel in 2nd edition’s Return to the Tomb of Horror.
  • It was re-released in 2005 as a free download by WotC, updated for 3.5e.
  • It was realised as the novel Tomb of Horror in 2002.
  • In 2010, two Tomb of Horrors were created for 4e.
  • The original was published again in 2013 along with all four “S” modules in Dungeons of Dread.
  • Recently, in 2017, it was updated yet again for 5e in Tales from the Yawning Portal; and it was adapted as part of the Tomb of Annihilation campaign.
  • If that were not enough, it was included in the 2018 special edition of Art and Arcana and was “included” in 2019’s Infernal Machine Build, insofar as characters could travel back in time to its construction.
That’s a lot of love over the years. That’s a lot of spoilers over the years, too.
So why should I not, too? I prefer to leave well enough alone, lest those few people who are not familiar with the original might enjoy it as it was intended.

Do I like it? I do. Of course I do. I love it. I didn’t risk a character in it, though, preferring a pregen instead. Good thing, too: I, we, did not see its end. In my, our, defence that might be because it designed for a specific style of play, one quite dissimilar to ours when attempted. You’d think then that I would not have fond memories of it; but I do, and I still do reminisce on it, picking it up on occasion to leaf through its scant pages and its exemplary art booklet (a practice fallen into disuse, sadly), to thrill at how imaginative it was, how it reflected the style of play of its day, and how it inspired what was to come. I marvel at how obviously beloved it still is, considering how many times it’s been revisited. And how reviled it is by some.  Maybe that’s why it’s ranked 3rd greatest adventure of all time in Dungeon magazine: because it’s so polarizing.
The Green Devil Face
It’s worth the read, if you’ve never, if only to learn how a tomb should be, or could be, designed. It’s not a dungeon, insofar as others are. No one lived there, worshipped there in secret, plotted there, sallied out from it, or did what others have done in innumerable others. Someone, some thing, was secreted there, and it wanted to safeguard its possessions, its relics, its secrets.
Is the tomb realistic? Not really. It bares no resemblance to any of the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, nor Saqqara, nor Celtic burial barrows. It’s like no other in the real world. Those barrows and tombs are true crypts, religious in nature, not puzzles to be puzzled over, mazes to be mapped, death traps to survive. I might mention, though, that very few of them, if any, have green devil faces, teleportation portals, or orbs of disintegration.

“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”
― Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems

One must always give credit where credit is due. This post is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.

The Art:
Cover Art, by Jeff Dee, from S1 Tomb of Horrors, 1981
Interior cover art detail (originally Monochrome cover art), by David Sutherland III, from S1 Tomb of Horrors, 1981 (1979)
Jungle, from pg. 9, Tomb of Annihilation, 2017
Tomb corridor, by David A. Trampier, from S1 Tomb of Horrors, 1979,1981
Acererak, from pg. 145, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, 1998
Back Cover Art, by Erol Otus, from S1 Tomb of Horrors, 1981

1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
1162 Return to the Tomb of Horrors, 1998
2011A Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Ed., 1979
1064 From the Ashes Boxed Set, 1992
9022 S1 Tomb of Horrors, Monochrome edition, 1978
9022 S1 Tomb of Horrors, Green cover, 1978,1981
11374 Scarlet Brotherhood, 1999
Dragon magazine, #225, 249
Greyhawkania. by Jason Zavoda
The Map of Anna B. Meyer

1 comment:

  1. The version of Tomb of Horrors from the Art & Arcana special edition includes both the 1975 Origins I tournament version and the original version from Alan Lucien that inspired Gary to create the Origins I version.