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Gabe: I ran the Tomb of Horrors last night.
Tycho: And?
Gabe: Somebody lost their arm in the first room. After that, it was four hours of poking things with sticks and throwing shit through portals! They left the table haunted and demoralized.
Tycho: Mission accomplished, then, for the Tomb of Horrors.


Tomb of Horrors is a module released for the original Dungeons & Dragons, written by the game's creator, Gary Gygax. 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 original module is, of course, long since out of print, but an updated version for use with the D&D 3.5 ruleset is available as a free download from the Wizards of the Coast Web site. 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 Acererak encountered at the dungeon's end is actually a CR12 "fake demilich construct". This is because there is absolutely no way in 3.5 a true demilich could possibly be beaten by 9th level character without resorting to an obvious plot device that would itself destroy the challenge of the 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 merely a conversion of the old tomb (Your Mileage May Vary on how deadly it still is) and the other a rather long campaign that is a sequel to Cordell's Return to the Tomb of Horrors. In the Fifth Edition, it is reprinted in the Tales from the Yawning Portal.

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

Tropes used in Tomb of Horrors include:
  • Author Avatar: In a way, Acererak is a villainous version of Gygax himself, the lich's sick sense of humor an exaggeration of Gygax's. His original goal was for the players to match wits with the Dungeon Master himself, the only true way to succeed.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For/Take That: Gygax created the module in response to complaints his earlier modules were too easy.
  • 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.
  • Complete Monster: As a "private" joke, Acererak kidnapped a kind and beautiful Siren, placed her under an enchantment, and trapped her in a cavern inside the Tomb of Horrors. Most players would assume that the Siren was just a trap or monster, and would try to slay her instead of rescuing her. Acererak is a twisted person indeed.
    • Subverted in later editions of the quest; the Siren is swapped out for a common mook to fool veterans who had played the original quest.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: Gary Gygax, in the introduction to Return of the Tomb of Horrors tells the story of how at one GenCon, one team actually succeeded in the adventure by using one of the no-saving-throw instant death traps against Acererak. "I put the crown on the demilich's head while my buddy taps it with the wrong end of the scepter." Made doubly awesome by the fact that the tournament's DM called in Gary Gygax himself for backup, and Gary admitted that it would work, and ruled that Acererak instantly died. First prize!
  • Crowning Moment of Heartwarming: Asking the Siren trapped in the Gold and Silver misted cave to join you would free her from the enchantment trapping her in the cave and make her the players' friend for life. Heartwarming indeed.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Acererak, apparently, since he clearly understands the value of Schmuck Bait and even thought to make a decoy version of himself, complete with illusion of a Collapsing Lair and a bag of (crappy) loot containing a fake map to another dungeon.
  • Defeat by Modesty: The notorious portals often steal the PCs equipment and clothes, leaving the victim naked and helpless. Did we mention Gygax was known for his sadistic streak? This Trope appears a lot in his works.
  • Embedded Precursor: In the follow-up adventure, Return to the Tomb of Horrors.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Up to and including Gary Gygax.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Acererak
  • Excuse Plot: The original module gives no clear reason why the PCs want to explore the Tomb (let alone why they would keep exploring it, should they survive the first room, rather than run for their lives). Most of this is for the DM to add.
  • For the Evulz: Acererak doesn't have any reason to put all the horrible stuff he does in the tomb. It doesn't even contain remotely the amount of treasure that would make those defenses worthwhile, and they clearly cost more than anything it contains. He's just that much of a Jerkass.
  • 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, it instead teleports you outside the dungeon—without your clothes or equipment.
  • 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: The kind of person needed to run this.
    • To be fair, Gygax himself developed this module for his own players, for the purpose of seeing how they'd do against a completely non-biased referee. The dungeon as written is winnable, so long as players use their heads and not their impulses. Players who take the "hack and slash" approach will be flattened quickly.
  • Jackass Genie: In the form of a cursed gem that purports to grant wishes.
  • Hand in the Hole: One of the more infamous Death Traps used.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Don't go ethereal. Ever.
  • 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.
  • Malevolent Architecture: The entire tomb.
  • Mythology Gag: Acererak appears in the 3.5 Tome of Magic as one possible use for a Powers Via Possession based class.
  • 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. See the above entry for Crowning Moment of Awesome.
  • Party Scattering: Acererak had the ability to teleport the PCs attacking him 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.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: Likely to be the first thing that happens, since it's triggered when you open the [1] door to enter the tomb. You thought we were kidding about the sadism, didn't you? There are multiple entrances though, and this is not the worst trap by a wide margin.
  • 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.
  • 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 that the original module of Tomb of Horrors isn't particularly rewarding in GP, Magic items, or (since there are very few combats) XP. Also A Fighter needs a +5 Vorpal Sword to damage the lich. There isn't any of those in all the whole tomb: The poor fighter needs to bring his own Infinity+1 Sword if he wants just one chance against the demilich
    • Another example can be Acererak's treasure: A incredible set of magic items. All of those double 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-Imposed Challenge: The very act of attempting to play this thing at all.
  • Spikes of Doom: All over the place. Also, they're all poisoned. And some of them fire up at you.
  • Super Prototype: Acererak is sort of a meta-example. He was the first demilich to appear in the game as whole, the module introducing the concept, and remains one of the most nefarious villains in D&D.
  • The Woobie: The Siren in the original version of the Tomb of Horrors. Trapped inside the tomb as an personal joke by Acererak. She is cursed so she can't leave the cavern she is trapped in, and neither can she say how to lift the curse, she can only hope the players ask her to join them to lift her curse. Of course, most players would suspect the Siren to be just one of many traps, a Schmuck Bait, just a monster, or simply take one of the bags of holding resting beside her, resulting in her being erased from existence. Of course, saving her would make her the players' friend for life.
  • Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do In An RPG: The author has had lots of experience with this module. Both beating it and avoiding it.

16. I will not beat Tomb of Horrors in less than 10 minutes from memory.
114. The Demilich only falls for getting stuffed in the bag of holding once.
722. Can't intentionally fail all my secret door checks so I don't have to play Tomb of Horrors again.

  • Total Party Kill: Would be the whole point, if killing just one PC at a time wasn't just as common.
  • Trap Master: Acererak is a villain who could have given Jigsaw pointers on Death Trap construction (and keep in mind, Jigsaw's victims had no access to magic). What makes the Tomb unique is that, while it has the standard pit traps, blade traps, and the like many of the more nefarious traps are actually hazards placed in plain sight, and thus not detectable by a mere detect trap spell. For instance, the misty doorways are portals, and do exactly what you'd expect them to do; in hindsight, a player might realize that it wasn't a good idea to enter a portal without knowing where it led. The room with the three vats - one filled with water, one with acid, another with an orche jelly - again, the danger is there in plain sight. The scary demon's head statue with a sphere of annihilation in its mouth? Maybe sticking your hand in such a device isn't a good idea. Again, this is a module where a PC's high Intelligence Score means nothing unless the players think the situation through.
  • Trial and Error Gameplay: Parties will need to do a lot of this to get through the maze.
  • You Have to Burn the Web
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: When the players gt about halfway through, they will be challenged by an undead sorcerer whom they might assume is Acererak. Nope, this is Actually a Doombot. (To make this even crueler, this confrontation is illustrated on the cover, making it look important.) If the players aren't fooled and press on, they'll eventually find what seems to be the treasure vault, unguarded. Victory! Uh, no, this treasure is all fake. Foiled again! Only if they press on even further will they have the chance of finding the true vault and the real Acererak, but even then, if a DM plans to use the sequel, this Trope applies one more time.
  • 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 also contains examples of

  • 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.
  • Doppelganger: 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 manages to corrupt two angels, and they're hard to beat.
  • Man-Eating Plant: Or rather, the plant will eat your soul.
  • Never Mess with Granny: The Crone statue.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Acererak is still around because the heroes that destroyed him in Return to the Tomb of Horrors didn't completely destroy his phylactery as that would damn the souls trapped inside. Acererak was able to use these souls to once again continue his plans.
    • In one of the other 4E Superadventures, Revenge of the Giants, PCs can travel back in time as part of a fetch-quest where they encounter and kill a still-human Acererak. He rises 1d10 days later as a lich, "starting his path to ultimate darkness and evil".
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