Follow TV Tropes


Tabletop Game / Tomb of Horrors

Go To
33 Years before Dark Souls, and MORE deadly

Tomb of Horrors is one of the all-time classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. It is, in the true sense of the word, infamous for being one of the most devious and impossibly difficult adventures ever written. Anyone who has ever played this adventure has had characters die horribly in the Tomb.

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 adventure's reputation is due primarily to its use in an early Dungeons & Dragons (now referred to as 'Original D&D') tournament, in which players were competing against other teams... not to beat the dungeon, but to see who could solve the most traps and puzzles before the (virtually certain) Total Party Kill. A few years later, it was published as one of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (what is now called 'first edition AD&D') premade adventure 'modules' (albeit an adventure with a 'very high risk' disclaimer), S1: The Tomb of Horrors. Out of print for many years, it has been made available again as a PDF.


Twenty years later, 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. (A mirror, here, was subsequently pulled from access for download from the Wayback Machine/Internet Archive for no clear reason.) 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 Acecerak encountered at the dungeon's end is actually a CR12 "fake demilich construct" - the 'Demilich' monster had not undergone the same Adaptation Decay as the adventure itself, and the new designers felt gamers would not appreciate a Failure Is the Only Option 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 is merely a conversion of the old tomb. The other a rather long campaign that is a sequel to Cordell's Return to the Tomb of Horrors, taking place over the course of four separate "tombs" (a Feywild graveyard, the city of Moil within the Shadowfell, a city built around the ruins of the original Tomb, and finally Nerull's tomb within the plane of Pluton) as Acererak works to ascend to godhood and beyond.

A Fifth Edition version was released on April 4, 2017 in the Tales from the Yawning Portal adventure collection, alongside 5th Edition versions of the classic adventures Against the Giants, Dead in Thay, Forge of Fury, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Sunless Citadel, and White Plume Mountain. While not as lethal as the original, owing to rule changes, it's still quite deadly, and the Acererak at the end is a proper demilich again with all the terrifying powers you'd expect him to have.note 

One of the storyline adventure modules to be released for 5th Edition concerns a version of the Tomb that Acererak constructed in the Forgotten Realms, called the Tomb of Annihilation, and concerns a strange curse: those who have been resurrected before slowly waste away to die again, while attempts to resurrect people completely fail. Consultation for the story of this particular module was done by Pendleton Ward.

Completely unrelated to the similar sounding Tome of Horrors, a series of Monster Manual-type books from Frog God Games which are dedicated to introducing new monsters and select old monsters from 1st and 2nd Edition D&D to 3.x Edition D&D, Pathfinder, and Swords & Wizardry.

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

    Tomb of Horrors 

  • Actually a Doombot: There is an earlier encounter that some players will think is Acererak but isn't. And later games and versions reveal that what the party fights at the end of the first game was a Demilich construct, not the real one.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: 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.
    • Within the dungeon, there is an orange gem that purportedly has the ability to grant wishes. Unfortunately, any wish made upon it will be corrupted. Then, just for shits and giggles, the gem explodes, potentially killing everyone in the blast radius.
  • 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.
  • Embedded Precursor: In the follow-up adventure, Return to the Tomb of Horrors.
  • 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, your alignment is changed back to normal, but not your gender, and you take minor damage. Passing through a third time will change your gender back to normal, and also teleports you outside the dungeon — without your clothes or equipment.
  • Glowing Gem: The Player Characters can encounter a huge glowing orange gem which is a cursed Gem of Wishing.
  • 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, he ceases to exist. (This is implied to be the canon ending, not that it stops Acererak from Staying Alive, at least a millennium later.)
  • Hand in the Hole: One of the more infamous Death Traps used. The hole in question contains a Sphere of Annihilation.
  • 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.
  • Hopeless Boss Fight: You are not supposed to be able to beat the Tortured Vestige. You are supposed to run.
  • Jackass Genie
    • There's a cursed gem that purports to grant wishes. It gives you the opposite of what you wished for... and then it explodes.
    • There's also an efreeti in an urn who will grant wishes. If you tried to bargain with him before opening the urn, he perverts the party's wishes. If you roughly handled the urn, he just outright attacks you. If you free him without asking for anything in return, however, he grants the wishes without any malice.
  • 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: Acererak created the tomb of horrors filled with deadly pitfalls and Death Trap's and started rumors of its many lure countless thousands of adventurers in to die within the Tomb so that he can absorb their souls and increase his powers.
  • 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.
  • Loophole Abuse: A group of adventurers managed to kill Acererak by using one of the dungeon's traps (the crown) against him. Gary Gygax approved of this method - and then made it impossible for the crown to be removed from its chamber.
  • 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. The entry on him states that the Tomb of Horrors was purposely set up to kill as many adventurers as possible as part of a scheme by Acererak to achieve godhood.
  • 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. This prevents players from weaponizing it.
    • 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.
  • Rivers of Blood: If the valves of mithril are cut by a sharp weapon they will gush forth a river of blood - the blood of all of the creatures that have died within the Tomb. If not stopped, it will fill the room to the ceiling.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: Likely to be the first thing that happens, since of the three possible entrances of the Tomb, one is this and another is The Walls Are Closing In. You thought we were kidding about the sadism, didn't you?
  • 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 3.5 module has two likely 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 monetary treasure or magic items, and since there are very few combats, it isn't particularly rewarding in Experience Points 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. Subverted in the original module for players savvy enough to steal the valuable metals used to construct the tomb instead of focusing on the magic items. Hence the Obvious Rule Patch in the 3.5 version.
    • Another example is 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 orange Glowing 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.
  • Soul Jar: Acererak's, of course; one fueled by thousands of souls.
  • 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.
    • The 5e module Tomb of Annihilation (see bellow) is a more obvious sequel to Tomb of Horrors, being set in a tomb (this time it belongs to a bunch of gods), having the Big Bad plan to steal souls, and, of course, featuring Acererak as said Big Bad.
  • Took a Level in Badass: After being replaced by a fake demilich construct in 3.5, Acererak is back to being a proper demilich in fifth edition, and with a whole host of new abilities.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    The 4th edition superadventure 

  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: In one of the other 4E super adventures, Revenge of the Giants, PCs can travel back in time as part of a fetch-quest where they encounter and kill (unless they convince the arrogant wizard to give up the goods peacefully by passing a laundry list of tough skill checks) a still-human Acererak. He rises 1d10 days later as a lich, "starting his path to ultimate darkness and evil".

    Tomb of Annihilation (5th edition) 

  • Apocalyptic Log: When the party first enters the empty city where the tomb is, they'll find a journal entry from an adventuring party which came through before them which gives some insight on how to enter the tomb and describes some of the enemies in the city. Later on inside the tomb, the party can find the corpses of this same party, one of whom has a diary which finally reveals to the player characters who the tomb was constructed by.
  • Artifact of Doom: We get two big ones, though the players may never know about the second.
    • The Soulmonger most obviously, a massive artifact that collects the souls of everyone who has ever died and been resurrected across Faerûn, maybe even entire Toril, and feeds them to a god-to-be.
    • The Ring of Winter is a sentient ring used by the npc Artus Cimber. It protects its wearer from both age and cold, can cause cold, create ice constructs and cast a number of spells. If the ice giants are to be believed, it can also coat the world in everlasting winter.
    • On a lesser note, Acererak's staff, the Staff of the forgotten one, which contains the soul of an archmage that has gone insane over the centuries. If someone other than Acererak picks it up, the archmage will attempt to possess them, and use their body to destroy the staff. Which will cause a massive explosion, likely more than enough to kill players that just got done fighting Acererak.
  • Best Served Cold: If the party slays Acererak in the climatic battle, he goes back to his personal demiplane to regenerate. He won't come back for revenge, since he'll outlive the characters anyway, and decides to let time do the job for him.
  • Boss Arena Idiocy: Downplayed and justified. Acererak is certainly a dangerous enemy, and while he'd be a lot more dangerous if he weren't fought on a very narrow platform right next to a pit of lava,the players themselves will have a hard time dealing with it due to the Sphere of Annihilation he's controlling. Acererak never planned to fight anybody in that particular room, and he only teleports in furiously after the players thwart his plans. The only danger he faces is losing his staff, which is a only a minor inconvenience for him.
  • Boss Rush: The final level of the Tomb contains a coven of night hags, the Soulmonger, the Atropal AND Acererak, all fought in quick succession (though you can probably get a break after the hags). If the players are careless, or the DM cruel, they might have to fight an arcanaloth as well. And just in case they're feeling overconfident, Acererak's staff has a small chance of dealing between 12 and 240 damage to anyone who picked it up and those around them.
  • Breath Weapon:
    • Within a jungle ruin, players can fight an intelligent Tyrannosaurus Rex that can exhale swarms of wasps.
    • Out in the jungle, and in the tomb itself, there are zombie t-rexes that spew out normal zombies.
  • The Cassandra: In Nyanzaru, the players might encounter a beggar who screams that "The Ancient Onenote  beneath the Forbidden City gives birth to a terrible new god! The snake men know, they know!". Passersby advise the players to ignore him, since his predictions are always wrong.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: The Yuan Ti warlord Ras Nsi acts as the main antagonist of the adventure prior to actually entering the tomb. He also acts as The Dragon to Acererak, but will give you the key needed to get inside the tomb should you reveal that the death curse afflicting him is being caused by whatever is inside the tomb.
  • 11th-Hour Superpower: Any character that has one of the Nine Gods while fighting Acererak gains a huge number of temporary hit points every turn, and deals extra damage on each attack. If the entire party is possessed by one of the Nine Gods, the battle with Acererak arguably becomes a victory lap, as there is very little he can do to mitigate the temporary hit points they'll be gaining.
  • Enemy Mine
    • Valindra Shadowmantle, an elf lich and agent of Szass Tam can be encountered. She'd prefer to capture the Soulmonger, but she's more than willing to collaborate with the players, and will even point them in the right direction.
    • Can also apply to Ras Nsi. He's afflicted by the death curse, and if the characters can convince him of this and that whatever is causing it is in the Tomb of the Nine Gods, Ras Nsi will cooperate with them.
  • Escort Mission: Played with, played straight, and subverted. You are heavily encouraged to hire a guide to take you through the jungle. Some of them, despite their knowledge, will be a liability in combat, while others will be able to single handedly carry the party through combat, especially while the party is low level. Most of the guides have their own unique knowledge and agendas.
  • Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: The jungles of Chult are home to various sorts of dinosaurs, up to and including Zombie T. Rexes. Port Nyanzaru is home to people with Domesticated Dinosaurs and there's even dinosaur racing as an event.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: The Tomb is bad enough. Now the entire landmass around it, Chult, is filled with so many dinosaurs, monstrosities, undead, hostile natives, pirates, and native Chultan beasts that all look like chimeric lab experiments that just getting around to learn about the Tomb might end up killing you.
  • Evil Versus Oblivion: The Red Wizards of Thay are also in Chult searching for the Soulmonger (the artifact causing the death curse), but them getting a hold of it wouldn't be as devastating as Acererak's plans. The Flaming Fist is another example, being a mercenary company from Baldur's Gate that wants to plunder/conquer Chult but having no knowledge of what is really going on.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Tomb of the Nine Gods is exactly what it sounds like.
  • Eyes Do Not Belong There: The entire third floor of the dungeon is covered in purple fungi filled with eyes that a beholder can use to spy on the party. Attempting to remove any of the fungi will result in the beholder firing an eye ray at the one foolish enough to try it.
  • Killer Gorilla: Chult is populated by, among others, Girallons, large, white gorillas with four arms. Acererak has also conjured up some undead ones, for added fun.
  • Kill the God: What Acererak did to the local pantheon. And what players will have to do to the nascent god at the bottom of the Tomb.
  • Lost Orphaned Royalty: Mwaxanaré and Nu, descendants of the royal family of Omu, are being raised in secret by the aarakocra of the Kir Sabal monastery.
  • My Rules Are Not Your Rules: To keep things balanced, 5th edition D&D usually assigns each spell caster enemy a class (even if their magic come from other sources), and follow the rules of that class when assigning them spells and spellslotsExample . Acererak is described as a 20th level wizard, but the amount of spells he has, including two lv. 9 spellslots and unlimited lv. 1-through-3, would seemingly put him somewhere closer to level 30. Which does not exist.
  • Only Mostly Dead: Acererak has discovered how to siphon the Life Energy of anyone ever brought back by a resurrection spell, causing them to weaken and die.
  • Power Of Hate: When Acererak appears on the final level, any players possessed by the nine trickster gods will gain a massive power boost, solely because the spirits hate the lich that much. Any character without this boost is unlikely to survive long.
  • Powers via Possession: The official name of the tomb in universe is the Tomb of the Nine Gods, which is exactly what it sounds like, and players can be "inhabited" by one of these spirits to gain a useful power and a new character flaw. They still retain their free will, however.
  • Religion of Evil: At one point, the party will have to get the final key to the front entrance of the tomb from a temple to an Elder Evil called Dendar the Night Serpent, a being created from the first time anyone had a nightmare, whose goal is to devour the sun... Again.
  • Reverse Escort Mission: One of the guides is a Couatl, a celestial serpent who is immune to nonmagical weapons, has Truesight which is incredibly useful in the Tomb and in detecting Acererak's coven of hags, and can cast a number of useful spells, including creating food and water, healing, and Greater Restoration, which removes some of the nastier effects in the game.
  • Royal Brat: Mwaxanaré. She's not stupid, but the aarakocra raised her to believe herself the rightful ruler of Chult. The rest of the world just doesn't know it.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Again, Mwaxanaré. Her upbringing has made her so sure of her right to rule that she believes she just has to reveal herself, and the merchant princes of Nyanzaru will simply hand over their power. She also believes states like Waterdeep (a city state of over 2 000 000 citizens) and Amn (nearly 3 million in 1372, 120 years ago) to be small principalities and holdings, negligible compared to (the mostly uninhabited) Chult.
  • Sidequest
    • The entire campaign up to finding the tomb is full of them, as the party is not given solid details on where to go, merely hints on where they might find leads.
    • It can be argued that a large part of the Tomb itself is this. You only need the Skeleton Keys. You can pretty much skip everything before the Gears of Hate if you remember to pick up those.
  • Split Personality: The aboleth in the depths of the tomb is... Not quite there, flipping between a child like innocence, and a demonic being awaiting the end of the world, seemingly with each personality unaware of the other.
  • Spoiler Cover: Acererak being the main villain isn't a particularly shocking twist, but it's not made clear to the characters until the Fane of the Night Serpent, at least. Despite this, he's pretty obviously depicted on the cover.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: