Let me start off by acknowledging that I do not have the game design cred that John Wick does. However, his experience and cred in the world of game design doesn’t make him unassailable. As he questions the design of E. Gary Gygax, so do I feel the need to question his own design assumptions and theories.
Today I read an article he wrote for his blog John Wick Presents titled The Worst Adventure of All Times. In the article John goes about tearing down the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure module Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax, an adventure module that I have enjoyed since I first bought it 35 years ago. How could this adventure that brought me and my players so many memorable moments, so many “I was there when…” stories, and so many replays be the worst adventure of all time?
I, like one of the posters on Facebook discussing this blog and the adventure module,
“Never realized how (somewhat) divisive this module was until now. I just assumed all these years that it was universally heralded as one of the best/ most loved of all.” – Roger Bailey
Seriously, even reading John’s experience with Tomb of Horrors, I find it very hard to justify the vitriol he spews about this classic module by the father of the role playing game. I related some of my experience with Tomb of Horrors in my very first blog post “My AD&D Bucket List” but I feel a need to expand upon what I posted there.
Once Upon a Time in 1981
Spoiler Alert: Although I avoid specifics whenever possible, there are still quite a few possible spoilers below. Read on with that understanding.
I bought Tomb of Horrors in 1981 when the revised full-color cover version was released. At the time we had only been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a few years and our characters weren’t anywhere near 10th level, but because we all wanted to play the adventure, we added the needed experience points to our character sheets and leveled them up to 10-14th level. I, as Dungeon Master, provided a similar lead-in to what John describes and off they went to the Vast Swamp to kick some demi-lich ass (whatever that was/and assuming one had an ass to kick).
Yes we lost a thief in the entry hall to the sphere of annihilation/demon maw, but we had seven more characters and the players were confident that they were in great shape to continue. Besides, initially they weren’t sure they wouldn’t find the thief waiting patiently for them in some other part of the tomb. I never announce to a group that a vanished PC is dead, and the thief player was gracious enough not to tell the other players that his character was truly dead and gone. He played Atari 2600 Missile Command for the rest of the night. (I feel I should point out that he never complained, had a great time, and ran over to the table when things got exciting to see what was going on).
The players weren’t gullible enough to send anyone else through the sphere, so they figured out the proper sequence to clear the arch and most stepped through on the path, those who didn’t ended up back at the entrance and when they got back to the arch stayed on the line through the arch.
The next time someone died in Tomb of Horrors was a bit later. They traversed THE THREE ARMED STATUE and GREAT HALL OF SPHERES to end up in the CHAPEL OF EVIL. It was here that one of the clerics touched the altar, not once, but twice! The bolt of lightning hit him and several others. He failed his save. Thinking that the change in color was significant (it was) and perhaps beneficial (it wasn’t) he touched it again. He failed his save again dying immediately, and the magic-user who was nearby (though safely out of the way of another lightning bolt) never stood a chance. Three down and five to go.
The other thief went through the Archway of Glowing Orange and, because he was neutral, only suffered a sex change. The thief player was okay with that, but no one else entered that arch. The party exited the chapel by way of the STONE GATE. A party member sacrificed a previously identified ring of contrariness only after coins and other items of every sort were “fed” to the stone.
Next up was the FALSE CRYPT. Not too surprisingly at that level, everyone saved versus the fear gas. Thinking the lich dead (that wasn’t so difficult) they continued to search and loot the tomb.They had already discounted the LOCKED OAKEN DOOR as an obvious trap, they navigated the LABORATORY AND MUMMY PREPARATION ROOM, HUGE PIT FILLED WITH 200 SPIKES, THE AGITATED CHAMBER, and THE CAVERN OF GOLD AND SILVER MISTS.
THE PILLARED THRONE ROOM took two more characters. The remaining thief succumbed to the temptation of the Orange Gem while off poking around without the rest of the party. And the Crown and Scepter killed the fighter. And then there were three.
At this point the remaining three characters; a paladin, a cleric and a magic-user were starting to think they needed to find a way out. However, not having found the way from encounter 10 to 13 to 3, they didn’t know how to leave.
After what amounted to at least another hour (real time) of searching and being extremely cautious the trio found THE CRYPT OF ACERERAK THE DEMI-LICH. Needless to say they all died, souls sucked into the gems of the demi-lich skull and devoured completely.
While we were shocked and a little confused by this outcome. Tomb of Horrors to this day remains one of my favorite adventures of all time. And while it doesn’t fall into My Top 5 Favorite 1st Edition Adventure Modules it is certainly in the Top 10. My players also have fond memories of the hours long harrowing experience of traversing and ultimately failing to survive Acererak’s Tomb of Horrors.
A Different Perspective on Design
So how can John and I hold such vastly different opinions of the same adventure module? It all boils down to preference and a differing perspective on what makes good game design.
I hold very firmly with the design perspective that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game is about exploration. The fun of the game comes largely from what a lot of contemporary gamers call “the boring stuff.” I can recall as a young man, of (then) 14 years old, how vividly I imagined the “boring stuff.” I imagined far off shrieks, or moans. The skittering of vermin just around the corner ahead, or an imagined sound of soft footsteps following the party just out of range of the torchlight. And given the way exploration was handled within the rules, far more in-game time was spent between encounters than encountering them.
Modern game design, for the most part, is about the encounters. Exploration is often secondary, if not entirely overlooked. I think this type of game design was born among those dissatisfied with Tomb of Horrors and its like. The second or third generations of game designers after Gary I think were often those who would call Tomb of Horrors,
[…]THE WORST, SHITTIEST, MOST DISGUSTING PIECE OF PIG VOMIT EVER PUBLISHED. – John Wick
So what we got were games that emphasized strictly prescribed balance to everything in the game. Sure there was still randomness in the form of a die roll, but everything else was so balanced, or in some cases so stacked in favor of the Player Characters that the die roll became something of a formality. The Player Characters were going to win, it was just a matter of time. This to me made these adventures cease to be a game.
During the decades since the end of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition run, many of the players at my own table shifted their preferences in favor of always winning. 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was a huge hit with these guys. I found myself wanting to vomit. 4e D&D is a fun game, don’t get me wrong. It is a great combat game, but not an exploration game…at all.
I believe that John comes from this new school of game design that makes imbalance a sin. This school of design overlooks a very simple fact in my opinion. This is not Clue or Monopoly. Role playing games need not use on the same kind of balance that simpler board games rely upon. With this philosophy no longer can there be easily accessible encounters that far out match the characters, requiring them to find a way around, or level up before encountering. Encounters are for right now, no matter in what order they are encountered. Ernie Gygax made a great point on this matter in the same Facebook thread discussing John’s blog post…
I learned to be cautious, map as if my life and treasure depended on it and learned to run away and wait for level progression and or well thought out plans for really tough encounters. – Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr.
This is the game to me, in a nutshell. This is what it’s all about. Too many people plow through everything in their way thinking, “my DM would never plan an encounter we can’t handle.” Often those players are very, very wrong.
Another big component to this, by John’s own admission, is his friends. They acted deplorably. I killed 8 characters of 6 players and no one physically assaulted me, no one complained, and we all sat down together to debrief from the experience. We all concluded that the result was to be expected based on the fearsome reputation of the tomb and Acererak. We also concluded that it was damn fun, even though no one survived!
John’s friends, if more level headed, should have come to the same conclusion (at least in terms of the expected outcome).
The wizard’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said. “Don’t take that! There’s nothing but death and doom for you there!”
My heroic adventurers inquired further and he warned them. “That map leads to an ancient place…a place where my friends all died horrible deaths.” – John Wick
The old wizard says “all of my friends died horrible deaths.” No joke! ALL OF THEM!
Now when my players played this adventure we didn’t even have the foreknowledge that this was the “deadliest dungeon of all time.” We just weren’t as connected to the larger gaming community. His players did! What did they expect? A cake walk?
Why did all of two completely separate parties, separated by decades, go into the sphere? Poor decision making there in both cases.
But It Was a Tournament Module!
I’ve noticed a lot of people on Facebook playing apologist for Tomb of Horrors by saying…
“Good lord. Tomb of Horrors was a tournament module![…]Your mistake (not Gary’s) was running it for your players in your campaign world.” – Dave Kristof
but that misses one really huge and important fact. Tomb of Horrors was sold and marketed as a commercial adventure module by the biggest role playing game company at the time.
Why would anyone buy an adventure module that was only intended for tournament play? Well they wouldn’t, of course. Tomb of Horrors was intended for campaign play as much as almost any other adventure published in monochrome or full cover colors up until about 1982 or 1983. Almost all of them from the entire A Series to C1 Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan were originally written for tournament play (and proudly proclaimed as much on the cover) and none of them are as deadly as Tomb of Horrors. Not to mention that using such an apologist argument concedes that the adventure is unfair.
No this is not the argument to use.
Honestly, I can’t agree with anything that John writes in his blog post. Tomb of Horrors is exactly what I expect from a powerful lich attempting to protect himself. The adventure is not perfect, but it is not deserving of the bile John retches up for it. His party ignored the emotional warnings NPCs offered about the tomb. The players ignored the real world knowledge they had about the module. The DM (John) made a poor choice in describing the effect of the sphere of annihilation (the Dungeons Masters Guide text says this of a sphere, “Any matter which comes in contact with a sphere is instantly sucked into the void, gone, utterly destroyed, wishes and similar magicks notwithstanding!”) and the players made the exceedingly poor choice of following their comrade into the unknown without any further testing.
It seems sad to me that anyone would have such an awful time with a game, or that it would affect them so many years later, but I don’t think this was the fault of Gary Gygax, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I think it is the fault of those involved, and those involved only.
My group played Tomb of Horrors again a year later with campaign characters. The group did not survive intact, but they did get to the end and defeat Acererak. Their method involved the Crown and Scepter from THE PILLARED THRONE ROOM. They used its disintegrate ability to finish the demi-lich once and for all!