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Tabletop Game: Tomb of Horrors

Gabe: I ran the Tomb of Horrors last night.
Tycho: And?
Gabe: Somebody lost their arm in the first room. After that, it was four hours of poking things with sticks and throwing shit through portals! They left the table haunted and demoralized.
Tycho: Mission accomplished, then, for the Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Horrors is a module released for the original Dungeons & Dragons. In it, a group of adventurers travel to the titular tomb to fight the demilich Acererak and recover any loot found along the way. The only problem? The tomb is filled with dozens of deathtraps. Ridiculously hard to figure out and frustrating, Tomb of Horrors is one of the most infamous adventures for any campaign, and is called a "meat grinder" by many gamers for good reason.

The original module is, of course, long since out of print, but an updated version for use with the D&D 3.5 ruleset was available as a free download from the Wizards of the Coast Web site.note  This version has elicited strong controversy due to heavy reduction in the lethality, partly due to the differences in edition rules, primarily due to general Adaptation Decay; rather than a perfect replication under the 3.5 ruleset of the original super-lethal module, the official update is actually a standard, mostly-balanced dungeon crawl, aimed for level 9 characters. Not only are there few of the classic traps from the original left in, the Acerak encountered at the dungeon's end is actually a CR12 "fake demilich construct". This is because there is absolutely no way in 3.5 a true demilich could possibly be beaten by 9th level character without resorting to an obvious plot device that would itself destroy the challenge of the dungeon.

The Tomb of Horrors is located in the Greyhawk setting, but can be adapted to almost any other setting with minimum fuss.

There are two versions in Fourth Edition, one merely a conversion of the old tomb and the other a rather long campaign that is a sequel to Cordell's Return to the Tomb of Horrors.

Since Everything Is Trying to Kill You inside the tomb, many of the tropes below will spoil its traps.


Tomb of Horrors provide examples of:

  • Be Careful What You Wish For / Take That: Gygax created the module in response to members of his original group (mainly Rob Kuntz and Luke Gygax) rampaging with abandon through the toughest dungeons Gygax had to offer.
  • Boring, but Practical: At least one group of adventurers has made it through without a single casualty by having a team of dwarves dig around the traps and obstacles with non-magical mining equipment over the course of several weeks. The writers planned for ethereal travel, melding into stone, magical defenses, teleportation, etc. but never expected an ordinary pickaxe and a group of patient, careful adventurers.
  • Collapsing Lair: Subverted. It's an illusion.
  • Crowning Moment Of Awesome: Gary Gygax, in the introduction to Return of the Tomb of Horrors tells the story of invoked how at one GenCon, one team actually succeeded in the adventure by using one of the no-saving-throw instant death traps against Acererak. "I put the crown on the demilich's head while my buddy taps it with the wrong end of the scepter." Made doubly awesome by the fact that the tournament's DM called in Gary Gygax himself for backup, and Gary admitted that it would work, and ruled that Acererak instantly died. First prize!
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Acererak, apparently, since he clearly understands the value of Schmuck Bait and even thought to make a decoy version of himself, complete with illusion of a Collapsing Lair and a bag of (crappy) loot containing a fake map to another dungeon.
  • Embedded Precursor: In the follow-up adventure, Return to the Tomb of Horrors.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Up to and including Gary Gygax.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Acererak
  • Fighting a Shadow:
    • Even if you kill the Tortured Vestige, it reforms a day later as long as Moil exists.
    • Acererak himself is a lich who cannot die unless you destroy his phylactery and the undead body he inhabits...and in Return, he can possess any undead in the Fortress of Conclusion.
  • Gender Bender: There is a hallway filled with mist that reverses gender and alignment when you pass through. If you try to step back through it to reverse the effect, it instead teleports you outside the dungeon — without your clothes or equipment.
  • Golden Ending: In Return to the Tomb of Horrors it is possible to save the souls and destroy Acererak ; but this requires killing every single undead in the Fortress of Conclusion; including one he specifically set up near an escape pod; and then dissolving his phylactery. Since he has nowhere to go but his phylactery; he is dissolved. (This is also implied to be the canon ending), it took him centuries to reform.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: There's a trap that involves a crown and a staff in which if you touch the staff to the crown in a specific way, will instantly kill its wearer, no save. One tournament had some ingenious players use this crown on Acererack himself.
  • Hopeless Boss Fight: You are not supposed to be able to beat the Tortured Vestige. You are supposed to run.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: The remake has to explain, in great detail, how all the adamant and mithril gates and doors are just magically hardened to resemble these mythical metals; and if removed would lose this enchantment. This is because in the original version, savvy players would find ways to detach and steal them, as these metals are very valuable.
  • Killer Game Master: The kind of person needed to run this.
  • Jackass Genie: In the form of a cursed gem that purports to grant wishes. It really does...and then it explodes.
  • Hand in the Hole: One of the more infamous Death Traps used.
  • Homage: One Nodwick strip had the heroes go through the Tomb of Horrors. Naturally, Nodwick was killed a lot (being used as a shield and bait by his teammates even in ordinary dungeons), and claimed he died more times here in one day than any other, but amazingly, the other three heroes avoided death. (Although Yeagar did fall victim to the first part - but not second part - of the Gender Bender trap mentioned above.)
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Do not go astral or ethereal while in the Tomb. Ever. Doing this is a very good way to get set upon and most likely flayed alive by Type I-IV demons.
  • Lava Pit: One hallway tilts to dump you in.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: After you kill Acererak, you have to run out of a collapsing dungeon. Only if you go back, you find out the tunnel collapse was an illusion and the Acererak you killed was fake. He has a twisted sense of humor, and so does Gary.
  • Malevolent Architecture: The entire tomb.
  • Monster Shaped Mountain: The entrance to the infamous tomb is through one of the openings in a skull-shaped cliff.
  • Mythology Gag: Acererak appears in the 3.5 Tome of Magic as one possible use for a Powers via Possession based class.
  • Nintendo Hard: As I Wanna Be the Guy is to video games, this module is to dungeon crawls.
  • The Nudifier: There are several traps which teleport the target to the entrance and all their clothes and equipment to the demilich's lair.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: In the 3.5 update, the crown cannot be removed from the chamber it's in. See the above entry for Crowning Moment Of Awesome.
    • All adamantium doors in 3.5 are made of magical "adamantium-like" material that loses its power if the door is removed. (Because adventurers will find ways to loot things even if they are nailed down; previous groups would get rich by stealing and selling the doors made of super-hard super-rare metal.)
  • Party Scattering: The demilich Acererak had the ability to teleport the PCs attacking it up to 600 miles away in random directions.
  • Press Start To Game Over: Your party has a high chance of dying before even entering the actual tomb.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: Likely to be the first thing that happens, since it's triggered when you open the note  door to enter the tomb. You thought we were kidding about the sadism, didn't you? There are multiple entrances though, and this is not the worst trap by a wide margin.
  • Rule of Three: Exploited. There's one hallway behind a secret door which has three doors in it, each of which has a spike-filled pit behind it. The idea is that after the first two, the party will mostly ignore the third, and will continue on their way, where they'll run right into another horrible trap. The real way to continue is via a hidden door in the third pit.
  • Sadistic Choice: The ending usually has two endings; one where Acererak escapes to a different world but you've released thousands of souls trapped in his phylactery; (and it would take years for him to regain his power); or you destroy the phylactery with Acererak in it; and condemn thousands of innocents to a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Schmuck Bait: The entire thing. Both in-universe and out. The Big Bad built the dungeon in order to attract, and then kill, adventurers. Why go out searching for powerful magic items when you can just get their owners to bring them to you? And in real life, there's a certain kind of player that can't resist the idea of challenging the world's hardest D&D module...
    • Truth is, the original module of Tomb of Horrors isn't particularly rewarding in GP or Magic items, and since there are very few combats, it isn't particularly rewarding in XP either. Also, a Fighter would need a+5 Vorpal Sword to damage the lich. There aren't any of those in the whole tomb; the poor fighter needs to bring his own Infinity+1 Sword if he wants just one chance against the demilich.
    • Another example can be Acererak's treasure: An incredible set of magic items. All of which doubles as Acererak's phylactery. So: You have to destroy the better part of the loot, or the lich will regenerate itself. Inside your new magic toy
  • Self Healing Phlebotinum: The PCs can encounter a huge glowing orange gem which is a cursed Gem of Wishing. If one of them dares to touch the gem and make a Wish the gem will explode, leaving a mass of stinking purplish mold which bubbles and chuckles. In 1 week the mass will reform as the glowing orange gem.
  • Self-Imposed Challenge: The very act of attempting to play this thing at all.
  • Spikes Of Doom: All over the place. Also, they're all poisoned. And some of them fire up at you.
  • Spiritual Successor: Fourth Core, a series of modules intended to replicate the difficulty of the original Tomb. Like with Paranoia, players are supposed to roll up several backup characters since they are expected to go through them like a cold-sufferer goes through tissues.
  • Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG: The author has had lots of experience with this module. Both beating it and avoiding it.
    16. I will not beat Tomb of Horrors in less than 10 minutes from memory.
    114. The Demilich only falls for getting stuffed in the bag of holding once.
    722. Can't intentionally fail all my secret door checks so I don't have to play Tomb of Horrors again.
  • Total Party Kill: Would be the whole point, if killing just one PC at a time wasn't just as common.
  • Trial-and-Error Gameplay: Parties will need to do a lot of this to get through the maze.
  • You Have to Burn the Web
  • Your Soul Is Mine: One of the most dreaded powers of Acererak. It's also the whole point of building the dungeon, to lure adventurers and steal the souls of the hardiest.
  • Soul Jar: Acererak's, of course; one fueled by thousands of souls.


The 4th Edition superadventure also contains examples of:

  • Deadly Upgrade: Towards the end of the campaign, when the PCs find and destroy Acererak's phylactery, the final battle has him making a last-ditch effort to keep hold of the power he has gained until he can create a new phylactery — and he does this by using the Eye Of Vecna.
  • Doppelgänger: One encounter has the players facing themselves, and they have to roll to make sure there isn't any Friendly Fire.
  • Evil Plan: Acererak's plan in the 4E version of Tomb of Horrors is to harness the power of dead gods, up to and including the one murdered by Asmodeus.
  • Fallen Angel: Acererak managed to corrupt two angels, and they're hard to beat.
  • Man-Eating Plant: Or rather, the plant will eat your soul.
  • Never Mess with Granny: The Crone statue
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In one of the other 4E Superadventures, Revenge of the Giants, PCs can travel back in time as part of a fetch-quest where they encounter and kill a still-human Acererak. He rises 1d10 days later as a lich, "starting his path to ultimate darkness and evil".


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alternative title(s): Tomb Of Horrors
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