In defense of the Tomb of Horrors

Posted by on May 16, 2017

It’s become fashionable to decry the Tomb of Horrors as a paragon of bad design. It’s got things that will kill characters outright. It’s got things that will kill them without a saving throw, even. Surely that’s a sign of bad dungeon design, right?

No, it’s not, given the module’s parameters.

I’m going to give you two reasons why Tomb of Horrors is a usable dungeon. Not necessarily the kind of dungeon you want to run, but a viable one.

  1. This is the resting place of a demi-lich. It’s his Holy of Holies. If someone makes it far enough, they can destroy Acererak. He doesn’t want that to happen, so of course he’s going to make it deadly. But he’s crazy, so it’s a winnable dungeon. Acererak enjoys teasing adventurers with the realization that the Tomb is solvable.
  2. The module explicitly warns you that it’s deadly, and that if your adventurers are hack-and-slashers, you shouldn’t even run the module.

I suspect that much of the online complaints about the Tomb of Horrors comes from groups where the DM didn’t properly prepare the players for the Tomb. If you just spring the Tomb on your players, especially if they’re running beloved characters central to a long-running campaign, you’re not running it effectively.

Again, to be clear, you don’t have to run the Tomb of Horrors. But it can be run in a way that’s fun for all involved.

How best to run it? I’m writing a separate post about that, which also explains what my players learned. Here’s a hint: Use pre-gens.

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