The legend of the Tomb is an old story, with many parts, some of which are merely groundless rumors. The most reliable accounts relate that centuries ago a human magic user known throughout the Nentir Vale for his surpassing evil took the steps necessary to preserve his life force beyond the long ages he had already lived, and this creature became the lich Acererak. Over the scores of years that followed, the lich dwelled deep in the Witchlight Fens with hordes of wretched slaves and ghastly servants. For reasons unknown, Acererak eventually destroyed all of his slaves and servitors and hid the entrance to his halls under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect.
Since then, countless adventurers have been drawn to their doom by tales of rich treasures, both precious and magical, which fill the mad lich’s crypt. Other heroes, warriors of virtue and champions of righteousness, have arrived at the Tomb seeking to vanquish a legendary evil. Of all those brave or foolhardy adventurers who have entered Acererak’s final haunt, only a few broken souls have ever returned to spread the tales of dread which make up the legend of the Tomb.
Therefore be warned. The passages and rooms of the Tomb are fraught with deadly traps, poison gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, the demi-lich has so well hidden his lair that even those who enter the Tomb and avoid the many pitfalls will likely fail to locate their true goal. So only the most skilled and courageous parties should dare enter. Fame and fortune will be yours if you succeed in defeating Acererak… but if you fail, you will be destroyed like those who came before you.
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Thursday night at Total Escape Games, five courageous (or foolhardy) players gathered to tackle the Tomb of Horrors. The original version of ToH was written by none other than Gary Gygax and first used as the official Dungeons & Dragons tournament adventure at Origins I in 1975. It used the original D&D rules, published just the year before the gaming convention. ToH has become a legend in gaming circles; its dark reputation built on the sense of ever-impending doom that dogs the footsteps of every adventurer who has ever braved the perils of Acererak’s crypt. In 2010 the classic dungeon crawl was faithfully recreated and updated for 4th Edition D&D rules by Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and then it was given out as part of the DM Rewards program. It’s the version that I’m using for our game.
One week before our game was set to begin, I emailed the adventure background you read at the beginning of this post to the five players who would be taking on the Tomb. Thursday night, however, at the beginning of our first session, I went old school and read them the famous introduction to ToH that was penned by Gary Gygax when the adventure was released to the public as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Module S1 in 1978. And with that, we were off to the Tomb of Horrors…
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The five 9th level PCs embarking upon the adventure were…
- Elric (drow warlock)
- Jack “Nobody” Owens (revenant human assassin)
- Marrak Sunhammer (dwarf warpriest)
- Zanfire (longtooth shifter warden)
- Zerbitt (human thief)
Knowing that it is all but impossible for outsiders to navigate through the Witchlight Fens (the vast and treacherous swamp at the confluence of the Nentir River and the White River), our heroes wisely hired a marsh guide to deliver them to the supposed location of the Tomb. The marsh guide and his cousin, quiet fellows but skilled boatmen, unerringly steered their craft through the swamp until the party arrived at a small, seasonal hunting camp just as darkness was falling. It was a miserable night filled with more mosquitoes than sleep, but when they did manage to drift off into a troubled slumber, they each had a troubling dream. In the dream, they were floating high above a lost and lonely hill surrounded by a great swamp which stretched for miles in every direction. From above, they could see that the hill’s distinctive black boulders formed the eyes, nose, and jagged teeth of a grinning human skull. When one-by-one they woke from this unsettling dream, they were loathe to fall back asleep and so they each lay awake, lost in their own thoughts, waiting for sunrise.
After spending a miserable night in those few ramshackle huts, the small expedition was back on its way as soon as it was light, and several more hours in the boats brought them to their destination.
It was a hot and humid morning when the boats deposited the adventurers and their equipment on a large patch of dry ground that is surrounded by perilous marshland. Dominating this piece of ground is a barren hill. With a start, each of adventurer recognized it as the very hill that was in the dream the night before. Despite the warmth of the new day, cold chills ran up their spines.
The marsh guide and his cousin quickly took their leave, promising to return in 48 hours and immediately thereafter depart— whether or not our heroes are there to climb aboard the boats.
The party had been left off on the southern edge of the large patch of dry ground. Before them was the low, flat-topped hill, measuring about 200 yards wide by 300 yards long. Only ugly weeds and nasty thorn bushes grew upon the steep sides and top of the 60 foot high mound. While Elric, Marrak, and Zerbitt set off to make a circuit around the base of the hill, Jack decided he wanted to take a closer look at the massive black boulders crowning the hilltop. Zanfire accompanied the assassin and together they scrambled up to the top of the hill. The two of them inspected the boulders, but there was nothing noteworthy about the stones except that they did indeed seem to have been placed around the hilltop in a deliberate pattern. Neither Jack nor Zanfire doubted that if the boulders were seen from a viewpoint high above the hill, they would form the features of a grinning death’s head skull.
Meanwhile, the other three adventurers had found that the north side of the hill had a 20 foot high, 300 foot wide crumbling cliff of sand and gravel. While Elric poked around with his handy 10 foot wooden pole, Zerbitt started to dig in the middle of the cliff with a shovel. Marrak thought all of that looked too much like work and so the dwarf wandered off, saying he was going to check and see what was going on atop the hill.
After just a few minutes of digging, Zerbitt found some stonework under the sand and gravel. Calling over Elric, the two of them quickly uncovered what they believed to be the upper corner of some kind of gate or entryway. Yelling excitedly for the others, they shared the news of their discovery. Jack, Marrak, and Zanfire quickly came down from the hilltop, and together the five adventurers discussed what to do next. It was obvious they could dig out a narrow crawlspace through the sand and gravel in fairly short order (10 minutes), but completely clearing the entrance would take much longer (1 hour). Thinking that a larger opening would facilitate a fast exit if they needed to retreat out of the dungeon, the party elected to spend the time needed to completely clear the entryway.
An hour later, our dirty, sweaty heroes had uncovered the entrance to a corridor that led southward into the heart of the hill. The first light brought to bear on the corridor revealed that it was an unusual tunnel. Bright, brilliant colors were to be seen everywhere. The floor of the corridor was a colorful mosaic of stone, with a distinct winding path of red tiles about 2 feet wide snaking its way south from the entryway.
After cautiously edging a few feet into the corridor, the characters could see that the walls and ceiling (20 feet overhead) were smooth plaster frescoes illustrated with interior and exterior scenes. Several of the scenes had been painted so skillfully that they almost appeared to be in 3-D: a library stood filled with many books and scrolls; a fiendish creature in a torture chamber lurked behind a barred door; and— closest to where the adventurers were standing there gawping— a wizard’s workroom was guarded by two jackal-headed humanoids.
From where they stood, the characters could see that the jackal-headed figures had been painted so as to appear to be holding a real bronze chest that was jutting out from the wall. Jack made his way over to the spot and closely examined the chest. He discovered a hidden catch on top of it. After discussing whether they ought to attempt to open the chest or continue to explore the rest of the corridor, the group decided to check out the rest of the corridor. So Zerbitt boldly started off down the red tile path…
Whereupon he almost immediately claimed the honor of taking the party’s first damage in the Tomb when a 10’x10’ section of floor suddenly collapsed beneath him to reveal a deadly spiked pit. Zerbitt dropped into the trap, taking 2d10+1 damage, ongoing 5 poison damage (save ends), and falling prone.
After Zerbitt clambered out of the pit trap, Elric proposed that he summon his devil lackey (Summon Warlock’s Ally) and that the party use poor Mr. Lackey as a scout/trap detector. Everyone agreed that this was an excellent idea. So it was that a sudden gust of wind, the smell of brimstone, and a flash of light heralded the arrival of a foul-tempered creature, pulled from the planes to serve the drow warlock.
Making his surly way down the corridor, Mr. Lackey tripped two more pit traps. Following him down the hallway, the PCs noticed that faint runes set into the mosaic floor spelled out a message. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what!” The message then went on to offer obscure clues about the PCs journey through the Tomb. I gave each of the players a copy of the message. It’s up to them to decide whether the clues provided by Acererak are meant to help them or harm them.
The red tile pathway split at the southern end of the corridor. To the east stood a mist-filled archway and on the southern wall was the face of a great green devil. Carved of sickly green stone, the very sight of the evil-appearing devil face was enough to keep the heroes from investigating it too closely. Oh, did I mention that its mouth (about 3 feet in diameter— plenty of room for those who wish to leap in) is an impenetrable black haze?!
The misty archway garnered more attention, especially when three of its stones began to glow (bright yellow at lower left; blue at top; and orange at the lower right) whenever anyone moved adjacent to it. However, the party decided to steer clear of the archway after Elric found that it was imbued with powerful teleportation magic.
Going back to the bronze chest on the wall, Elric commanded Mr. Lackey to open it. Mr. Lackey found out the hard way that the catch which Jack had discovered not only opened the chest, but it was also a poisoned needle trap. The small sting didn’t improve the devil’s disposition. After the lid swung downward, though, he did gain some spiteful joy from informing the party that the chest appeared to be absolutely empty. Elric ordered him to feel around in the chest. Mr. Lackey rolled his eyes at such nonsense, but then his eyes popped open in surprise when he found an invisible lever. When the warlock ordered him to pull the lever, he did… which caused the floor underneath to collapse, revealing a 30 foot deep pit trap. This was of little concern to Mr. Lackey since he could fly, but Marrak just happened to be standing behind the devil and the stout dwarf dropped like a stone into the pit. After taking an ouch-inducing 5d10+2 damage and 5 ongoing poison damage (save ends), the cleric was lying prone amidst the spikes when he noticed a pouch with some gems spilling out of it. Taking up the pouch, Marrak found that it contained 6 gems (50 gp each).
After helping Marrak up and out of the pit trap, everyone decided to follow up on a couple of clues in Acererak’s message. One clue said that “two pits along the way will be found to lead to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall.” The party decided to check the walls in all the pit traps, but found nothing. The second clue they decided to follow up was the one which said, “Go back to the tormentor or through the arch, and the second great hall you’ll discover.” Checking out the fresco of the torture chamber a bit more closely, they could see that it did indeed show an iron door, behind which a demon was tormenting shackled prisoners. They also noticed a few chips and gaps in the plaster through which the underlying stonework of the corridor could be seen. Zanfire used a shovel to start pulling away great chunks of the plaster. The shifter’s work uncovered an iron-banded oak door hidden behind the fresco!
Just to be safe, the party decided to have Zanfire pull away the plaster across the corridor that showed the library filled with many books and scrolls, but there was nothing behind that fresco. Turning back to the secret door which they’d found behind the tormentor, everyone looked to Mr. Lackey with expectant expressions. With a long-suffering sigh, the devil tried the handle on the door and found that it wasn’t locked. As he pushed open the door, the adventurers could see that it opened onto a short, 20 foot long corridor which led to another oak door. Mr. Lackey found that the second door was also unlocked and that it led into a larger chamber.
Entering the chamber, Mr. Lackey suddenly found himself taking damage from some rubble that was strewn across the floor. As he looked down at the Grasping Rubble which was doing 4d6+6 damage and slowing him, the devil heard a horrible shriek erupt from somewhere above. Mr. Lackey looked up just in time to see an enormous four-armed gargoyle swooping down from the chamber’s ceiling. The gargoyle viciously and utterly annihilated poor Mr. Lackey with four claw attacks (Mauling Claws: each attack +15 vs AC; 4d6+4 damage). The gargoyle then flew back up to the ceiling, disappearing from sight (Flying Strike).
The adventurers, who had been hanging back in the short corridor, letting poor Mr. Lackey scout ahead and do all the dirty work, barely had time to register the devil’s sudden demise and think “Oh crap!” before I told them to roll initiative.
The heroes found the Lesser Gargoyle Mauler (I’d hate to meet the Greater one, considering that the Lesser version which the party faced here had 428 hit points and an AC of 24) within the chamber to be a tough opponent, especially since its Flying Strike power recharged each of the first few turns and it was able to swoop down, wreak havoc, then fly back up to the ceiling where it was well out of their melee reach. The gargoyle’s Mauling Claws power was devastating and soon enough Zanfire gained the distinction of being the first character in the party to be cut down in the Tomb. The unconscious and dying warden didn’t stay down for long, though. It’s always nice to have a cleric along on an adventure, and Marrak quickly proved his worth in this first monster battle by healing Zanfire and getting him right back into the fight.
The party took a looong time to wear the gargoyle down to its bloodied value, but by that time they’d got him down on ground level and their attacks really started to dish out some serious damage. On one memorable round, Jack dealt the monster a whopping 54 points of damage. Elric got in the final blow that KIAd the gargoyle. As the drow stood gloating over the party’s fallen foe, he noticed that around the gargoyle’s neck was a collar studded with 3 blue gems (worth 250 gp). While examining his loot, he noticed that hidden within the leather bands of the collar was a message. The message read: “Look low and high for gold, to hear a tale untold. The archway at the end, and on your way you’ll wend. —A.”
In the calm after the end of the fight, the PCs also noticed that there were two doors (besides the one through which they’d entered) inside the gargoyle’s lair. Both doors, one in the east wall and one to the south, were of the (soon-to-be-all-too-familiar) iron-banded oak variety. While deciding what to do next, the adventurers took a short rest.
And it was there that our first Tomb of Horrors session ended.