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Tabletop Game / Tomb of Horrors

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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.

In 1998, a sequel adventure written by Bruce R. Cordell - Return to the Tomb of Horrors - was released for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset.

Many years after the original module debuted, 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. This heavily reduced 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 Acererak 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.

These works contain examples of:

    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.
  • Beware the Skull Base: The Tomb lies beneath a blighted, rocky hill that looks like a large skull from the air. It's fitting for a place that's an infamous Temple of Doom, the lair of an Undead Abomination, and Schmuck Bait for overconfident adventurers.
  • 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.
  • 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 
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: A very downplayed example, but 4th Edition Acererak is more of a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds than the usual version, as he's had a miserable life due to being a cambion, with even his parents shunning him. It's explicitly stated that his whole reason for creating the Tomb is due his insecurities, and his whole reason for placing riddles is basically so he can say "I gave you a bunch of clues to make it easier, and you still failed!"
  • 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".