Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Tomb of Horrors

A few weeks ago I had a crazy idea to run my kids through a classic AD&D module known as S1: Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax. Written in 1975, this adventure has the reputation of being perhaps the most difficult commercially available dungeon ever created for the game. I advise players against risking their most cherished characters in the Tomb, as death comes swiftly and often. Better to create throwaway characters for use exclusively in the Tomb, and avoid becoming too attached to the doomed delvers.

I chose this dungeon for several reasons. First, I never had a chance to play it when I was younger. I was never really that alert to the RPG scene, especially back then as a kid, and so when I heard about this killer module and went to buy it, I picked up the wrong one (pretty sure I snagged this one). Oh well. I have it now, years later, but I made sure to grab a copy of the original version, rather than one of the adaptations for later editions. I didn't want the imminent threat of death to get watered down. Later editions of the game are soft on characters. Characters nowadays are heroes destined for greatness. Back then, characters were just as likely to end up as monster food. "Destiny" was a term awarded to characters only after they survived long enough to both accomplish heroic feats and retire in one piece, but I digress.

The second reason I chose this dungeon is because the way it is written, it is all about the players vs. the dungeon, not the characters vs. the dungeon. Tomb of Horrors is a series of puzzles, maps, and traps, and it is up to the players to solve these challenges rather than for the dice to do so. No passive perception checks with a d20 to see if the characters notice anything fishy, for example. Nope. The players have to announce where they look, where they step, what they touch, etc. If they want to find traps, they have a percentage chance to succeed, but they have to say exactly where they're checking and what kinds of things they're looking for. You get through the ordeal by using your brain and taking extraordinary precautions, or you get through it by having your characters die, rolling up new ones, entering the tomb again, and remembering what you did wrong last time so you can avoid death the next time around. Obviously this latter approach is very "meta" (because new characters shouldn't really have access to knowledge that the player gained from a totally different character). Normally I do not permit actions based on meta knowledge, but in this adventure I make an exception. The dungeon was created by an adult to challenge expert, adult players. I'm running kids ages 7 to 12 here. They'll need all the meta knowledge they can get.

So we were playing today during Hurricane Irene, via candlelight. Kind of creepy. Also kind of difficult. I couldn't see the map and room descriptions, and the kids couldn't read their character sheets. We used a flashlight to solve this problem.

There were six kids: my three, two from next door, and a new player from two doors down. Five girls and one boy. The new girl is 7 years old, and a real stitch. Great little role player and keeps us all laughing. This was our second session in the Tomb: last time it took us 4 hours just to find a way in and deal with the first encounter. Much of that time was lost shopping for farm animals followed by a tactical discussion around elimination in the wild. The kids' game is definitely a different experience than the sessions I run with my peers.

Today, things started out rough: kids bickering over trivial matters, goofing off, talking out of turn, etc. You know, like kids do. This irritates me to no end. After all, I was taking a peaceful nap, enjoying the hurricane. I had the sounds of wind, rain, and the oscillating fan, all at once. It was the perfect storm (pun unintended but enjoyed nonetheless). And they came and got me, not the other way around, and for what? To listen to them bicker and yell? I almost got up and left the table. Instead, I told them to roll initiative.

Nothing gets their attention like those two words: "roll initiative." Initiative usually means combat, and combat is serious stuff that commands respect. They were instantly rapt. But I wasn't thinking combat. I had something else in mind.

Based on the initiative order, I asked each one in turn what they were doing next. If anyone spoke out of turn, I politely cut them off and returned attention to the person whose turn it was. If the player used her turn to speak to another player, I allowed that conversation to occur in character. I only answered questions asked in turn, though I would have respected any that were asked politely. This approach got things going smoothly for two whole rounds! The game was finally progressing, and before long the halfling fell into a pit of spikes but narrowly avoided death.

Speaking of avoiding things narrowly, it was precisely at that moment when we heard a huge whoosh! outside. Everyone got very excited and anxious and ran to the window to see what had happened. My wife had been watching out the window and saw the whole thing: a tree fell into our neighbor's driveway, just a few feet from my Honda CRV. That was it for the kids: they grabbed the flashlight and headed to the basement. Our descent into the Tomb of Horrors would be postponed.

Click to embiggen

Lights flickering around me again right now, so I'm signing off.