Why is the Tomb of Horrors so influential?

A look into why one of D&D most iconic and terrifying dungeons is still talked about almost 50 years later.

Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt. It is filled with terrible traps and not a few strange and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. It is filled with rich treasures both precious and magical, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, there is said to be a demi-lich who still wards his final haunt.

These are some of the first words used to describe the setting of The Tomb of Horrors, one of the most iconic adventures to ever grace kitchen tables, and strike fear into the hearts of unprepared adventurers.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that has become one of the core pieces of the gaming world. Whether or not you've played the game before, it's hard to not see the impact it's made on games since its release in 1974. Even today, the game has spread far and wide, with game designers bringing the experiences they had from playing at their kitchen tables to shape the games we play today.

For those who don't know, Dungeons & Dragons is a Tabletop Role-Playing Game. You, the player, would enter a high fantasy world filled with swords, sorcery, and treasure. Unlike video games, where the goal is laid out before you, instead, you are at the whims of your Dungeon Master, another player who drives the world around you. Through them, you grow your character and delve into dark dungeons, complex political situations, and even dealing with the gods themselves. If you've really never heard of it before, you really ought to check it out.

No, really. Go pick up a starter kit and some friends and play. It's a blast.

One of the most popular ways to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons is through pre-made adventures, which are published collections of supplies for Dungeon Masters to run their players through without needing to create their own worlds or encounters. These became popular immediately, with some of the most famous D&D settings today originally stemming from these "modules" (as they were called back then).

Gary Gygax, one of the original creators of the game, had been running a campaign for his friends and felt they had become "experts", and wanted to not only give his players a challenge but to make them face what all living beings fear most: death.

Enter: The Tomb of Horrors.

Originally created for the very first Origins convention in 1975, Gary wanted to bring a challenge for players who were interested in tournament play for Dungeons and Dragons.

Sidenote: Is tournament play a thing? I've played for over a decade and I've never heard of a D&D tournament in my life. Reach out to me on Twitter and tell me about your D&D Tournament stories.

Lawrence Schick would describe the Tomb of Horrors as "The dungeon of the demi-lich Acererak was, for Gary, a kind of thought experiment: If an undead sorcerer really wanted to keep his tomb from being plundered by greedy adventurers, how would he do it? The answer, of course, was to defend the crypt with tricks and traps designed not to challenge the intruders but to kill them dead. And furthermore, to do it in ways so horrific that all but the most determined party would give up and leave well enough alone."

And that's exactly what happened to players, as they adventured deep into the tomb of the undead wizard named Acererak. The module has a mind-boggling 33 encounters in total, starting with players having to search for the tomb itself by poking around the dirt with spears or poles until they can find a tunnel to get inside. And yes, it specifies that they have to use spears or poles. If the players try to be cheeky in any way and become astral or ethereal, they summon a demon. So they can't even phase through the tomb without causing trouble.

Once the players get in, they're greeted by not one but two false entrances before finally entering the Tomb itself. Once they finally make their way inside, they are greeted by a riddle puzzle before they progress forward.

Oh, and did I mention that this dungeon is filled with pit traps? Not just your regular run-of-the-mill pit traps either, ones that once again require players to poke and prod around with poles and spears, lest they fall into the pit. Plus, these pits have poisonous spikes at the bottom that, if you fail to evade the poison, it kills you. Immediately.

If they make it past the next few encounters, including the famous "Face of the Great Green Devil (which is literally just a face in the wall that if you jump in, destroys you immediately), they're presented with a room that has a false floor - if the floor opens, anyone inside is dropped into a 100ft pit that cannot be reopened unless someone else triggers the trapdoor, meaning a party can easily die right then and there in this room.

Naturally, once they've dodged the first ten encounters of the dungeon unscathed, they're presented with something neat: a Magical Archway. What does this do, you ask? Well, any living matter that steps in gets sent back to the entrance of the dungeon. But non-living matter? That gets sent far, far away into the depths of the dungeon. By that I mean it gets sent to the final room where Acererak is waiting.

Yup, if a player makes the mistake of stepping through the portal, they lose all their items.

If you haven't figured it out by now, this place is pretty miserable. I won't explain it room by room, but here are some other fun ways players can end up getting a candlelight vigil:

  • A false crypt that has an illusion of the crypt collapsing. If the players leave the dungeon, the Dungeon Master is instructed to ask them if the dungeon was too hard.

  • A room named "Huge Pit with 200 Spikes"

  • A door that leads to a fake wall that's actually a secret door, that leads to a room full of sleep gas that has a chance to awaken a Stone Juggernaut that will immediately crush the players to paste.

  • Another Devil Face that will send players back to the start, naked and without any items.

  • A different Devil Face that instead teleports them to a room full of the skeletons of people who had tried - and failed - to escape. Even if the players manage to open the hidden door in this area to free whoever is inside, all of the swords of the dead adventurers will attack the players until they leave the room

  • A door with a keyhole that, if you put the wrong keys into, shocks you. If you put the wrong item into its slot it can teleport you just like the devil faces, or if you attack the door it starts to bleed and can flood the room. Oh, and if you light the blood on fire it turns to fatal poison gas.

  • A false treasure room that, if the players loot the money and items, will all disappear once they travel far enough away from the Tomb.

Once they finally traverse the 32 encounters within the Tomb of Horrors, they are in the crypt of the demi-lich himself. And naturally, once they use the keys to unlock the door there's a chance anyone at the back of the room gets smushed as the floor shoots upwards to reveal the crypt of Acererak himself.

Or, what's left of him anyway. Since he's actually a demi-lich, aka a floating skull with jewels for eyes and diamond teeth. He can suck the souls out of players, killing them instantly and always starting with the strongest one. Even hitting the demi-lich is difficult, as you must know certain spells or have certain items to even harm him. And once you crush the skull, any souls trapped inside pose a risk of being gone forever.

And....that's it. There aren't any happy endings, or heroes coming back to the village as kings. The module ends there, thanking the players for playing.

Overall, it's a pretty crappy experience, right?

So why does the Tomb of Horrors matter enough to stick around? It wasn't a random one-off from that convention, it was fully published by TSR (the company that made D&D back then), as well as updated versions for every edition of Dungeons & Dragons since then. It clearly has some people out there who enjoy this hellscape dungeon of a module.

Many players consider this module to be a classic, something iconic and different from other adventures out there. In a world where most adventures are puzzle-light, combat-heavy scenarios where players get to have meaty action and combat sequences, Tomb of Horrors puts the entire game into a different perspective.

Acererak's tomb does have a few monsters, but there's only a handful of them and they're all singular enemies, no large groups. Instead, players are forced to use their brains to solve these complex, punishing puzzles that risk instant death if they provide the wrong solution, which is very uncommon for most D&D adventures. It also promotes players to stop and talk about What is going on, and to better plan their next more, because they might not live past the next room.

Puzzles are an essential part of Dungeons and Dragons, as they not only break up the monotony of combat and dialogue but also serve to add atmosphere to the world. If your party is exploring a dark cave searching for a bear, but instead you come across magical traps of some sort, now your perception of the rest of the cave is altered. And the Tomb of Horrors is no different.

Sure, you might be told that there's some great evil inside this tomb, but what adventurer hasn't heard that before? But when you get there, and you start to see how dangerous this place really is, the idea that there might actually be a great big evil that your heroic character can't defeat begins to set in. Death in D&D is permanent, there are no extra lives or respawn points like in Dark Souls. You can't learn from these deaths and move on, you have to avoid them, or you fail.

The very real threat of death is what I think makes this adventure truly unique. Playing the role of a Dungeon Master is a unique challenge of trying to keep your players motivated and engaged, as well as make them feel challenged by the tasks they need to perform. Player death is always a possibility, but in my experience, it is usually difficult to get there. Whether you as a DM soften up when players are close to dying, or a timely roll keeps them alive long enough to rest, a fatality in your party is usually rare but very impactful.

Because the Tomb of Annihilation is designed to kill players - and really KILL them, not just inconvenience them with minor poison and little wounds that add up over time - Players are forced to see the world with a different lens, one where death is imminent and they need to overcome it to advance or leave.

This plays greatly into the design of Dungeons and Dragons. The game we know now is a much different beast than it was back then, a game of hacking and slashing and combat. Most adventures and groups are focused around combat - because that's pretty much all the game was. The tools for players to explore the world and interact with it weren't there yet. Roleplay was light, and there weren't skills like "athletics" or "acrobatics" or "persuasion". It was stat checks or nothing.

As Dungeons and Dragons has evolved, We've seen a shift into a game that Better incorporates the ability to tackle different types of situations. Where previously Players were forced to have a flat roll to escape a trap or dodge an obstacle, modern editions have broken the game down into Subskills alongside Specific Stats. One character might be more dextrous than another, giving them an advantage. in the original DnD, you could only choose from one of three classes: Fighting men hit stuff, magic-users could use magic, and clerics could do a little of both. we wouldn't see a drastic change in chances diversity until Advanced Dungeons and Dragons' second edition in 1989, fifteen years after the game came out.

Because players were so accustomed to combat-centric games with the occasional puzzle, it made the Tomb of Horrors so much more challenging. It forced players to communicate and figure out a real solution to these puzzles, because one bad move could end your character - forever.

We've seen this sort of game design slowly shift into modern games, mostly with games like Dark Souls. Games where death may not be permanent, but the risk of dying could be devastating. Soulsborne games have mastered the art of learning from your deaths, figuring out how to overcome it, and becoming better at the game overall. While this is usually almost entirely combat, the genre of games is well known for having its own easter eggs that reward players for knowledge and exploration.

At the very beginning of the original Dark Souls, you are immediately faced with a massive Asylum Demon that blocks your path. You're given nothing- simply a broken sword and vague instructions. Players who attempt to fight the demon usually fail, hard.

But those who explore and learn will eventually realize there's an unlocked door to the left of the Demon, where you can escape and find a checkpoint. Eventually, you'll collect some basic gear and come face-to-face with the Demon again, but this time you are equipped and ready to face the challenge.

I, for one, am terrible at Soulsborne games. I don't have the patience to learn, I just want to hack and slash my way around. I've only beaten Dark Souls 3 to date, despite owning all three AND Sekiro. I'm horrible.

However, permanent death isn't something that's explored in modern games. Sure, some games may have higher difficulty tiers that include permadeath, but they aren't baked into the games themselves.

Modern Roguelikes come close, using death as a tool similar to Soulsborne games to help you advance. Unless you're incredibly skilled at a particular game, you're almost never going to complete the entire game in a single run. Instead, you'll progress as far as you can, die, and then use the resources and knowledge you gained from that run to progress even further in the next run.

Other games that use permanent death are still role-playing games, often inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. Fire Emblem and XCOM are great examples, where characters have a risk of dying in combat, which means they're gone. Forever.

Fire Emblem takes this a step further still, with the chance that important characters may die in combat and affect the future of the game. Some characters will become unobtainable, or side quests will be locked away. This forces players to really think, and plan their turns appropriately.

What we don't typically see, is how games can be flipped around entirely to be seen from a new perspective. Modern games rarely deviate from the norms, with genres being mixed up on occasion but seldom experimenting with the formula. While the Tomb of Horrors takes players out of the hacking-and-slashing of dungeon crawling into a heavy, life-or-death puzzle sequence, we don't really get an opportunity to see other games flip the script.

Could you imagine if next year's Call of Duty entry took away the split-second reaction style shooter style for a slow, methodical exploration map where squads have to carefully explore each doorway, hallway, and open area, fearing death is around every corner?

Or what about a visual novel slash-dating simulator about some book club in a Japanese high school that turns into a grim, psychological horror?

Trigger warning: Self-harm, violence, and suicide. If you aren't okay with this, skip the next three paragraphs.

Doki Doki Literature Club presents itself as a cutesy slice-of-life visual novel, blending in with the hundreds that are released every year. You play as the main protagonist, who begrudgingly joins his school's literature club to appease his childhood friend. After a time, and some chances for romance between the other girls in the club, the game abruptly ends with you discovering your childhood friend has hung herself.

Then, the game resets. You're back at the main menu with your previous game deleted, and you start the game again...

but it's different. Your childhood friend...doesn't exist. Strange glitches begin to appear, and some text becomes unreadable. And the three other girls in the book club seem...different.

I won't go any further into the rest of the game, but Doki Doki Literature Club was a huge change in the presentation of a traditional Visual Novel, adding real puzzles and intrigue to an otherwise simple, straightforward genre of "choose your own adventure" style games.

As Dungeons and Dragons has evolved, so too has the Tomb of Horrors. It's appeared in every edition of the game, with its most recent printing being included in Tales from the Yawning Portal, a compilation book of classic adventures. In its newest iteration, plenty of warnings are given to the Dungeon Master so they know the experience they're going to be putting their players through, and the difficulty of the dungeon hasn't decreased by much. There's no level recommendation either, so players of all kinds can wind up meeting their fates here.

But it's still pretty deadly.

Wizards of the Coast would eventually return us to Acererak's evil games, through a new adventure called the Tomb of Annihilation. With this, we were given a bigger look at the world Acererak calls home (known as Chult), as well as a thoroughly-vetted adventure to make sure it did not become the meat grinder its predecessor was known for. While the adventure has its own issues, overall it's been widely praised for being a pretty great module. Heck, it was one of the most playtested modules they've ever worked on, according to Wizards themselves. Also, Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, was one of the collaborators. Weird, right?

Whether or not you have had the unfortunate experience of delving into the Legendary Tomb of Horrors, it’s an experience that has shaped the Gaming world. The Demi-Lich's tomb Still finds its way into the eye of pop culture, inspiring the 2007 game "Icewind Dale, and a major part of the book " Ready Player One". I wouldn't be surprised to hear the module has also inspired countless RPG designers as well, taking it as a lesson in how to expertly craft a dungeon, or perhaps how to NOT Subject players to the Kind of torture you find in the depths of Acererak's lair.

Have you been brave enough to challenge the Tomb of Horrors? or perhaps you've mastered the art of running players through its corridors. Either way, I wanna hear about it. you can tag me on Twitter @_RKDnc.