Get ready for some classic adventuring in the Tomb of Horrors by downloading this v.3.5 revision of the classic Tomb of Horrors adventure by Gary Gygax, and see how well your PCs survive!
The legend of the tomb is an old story with many parts, some of which may be lost or obscured. Characters attempting to glean special information by consulting sages or through legend lore spells may still have difficulty obtaining as much background as they desire, for the scraps of information are often minimal and mystical.
These bits of information are available as clues, and characters can make of them what they wish: Ancient Burial Places; Ancient Tombs; Sorcerous Kings; Challenges, Surpassing (Certain Death); Soul Eaters; Treasure, Great . . .
The other parts of the legend can be furnished by the Dungeon Master from the description that follows.
The Legend of the Tomb of Horrors
Somewhere under a lost and lonely hill of grim and foreboding aspect lies a labyrinthine crypt filled with terrible traps and not a few strong and ferocious monsters to slay the unwary. Rich treasures both precious and magical fill the crypt, but in addition to the aforementioned guardians, some say a demilich still wards his final haunt. (Be warned that tales told have it that this being possesses powers that make him nearly undefeatable!) Accounts relate that adventurers have an extremely low probability of ever finding the chamber where the demilich Acererak lingers, for the passages and rooms of the tomb are fraught with terrible traps, poison gases, and magical protections. Furthermore, the demilich has hidden his lair so well, that even those who avoid the pitfalls likely will not locate their true goal. So only large and well-prepared parties of the bravest and strongest should even consider the attempt, and if they do locate the tomb, they must be prepared to fail. Any expedition must be composed of characters of high level and varied class. They must have magical protections and weapons, and they should equip themselves with every sort of device possible to ensure their survival.
Possible Locale of the Tomb
1) In the Bright Desert
2) Somewhere in the Vast Swamp south of Sundi
3) In the Vast Swamp of Cormyr
4) On a small islet, one of many of the Nethlanther Isles
5) In the Crawling Swamp in the Shadow Marches
6) Submerged in the Basura Swamp of Q'Barra
What about Return to the Tomb of Horrors?
It is an utterly viable option to use this update with the information provided in theReturn to the Tomb of Horrors. In that adventure, the passage of time saw the lonely hill become the foci interest for the necromantically inclined. Those drawn to the area had less interest in exploring the depths of the tomb. Instead, the legend of Acererak himself drew them, and by all accounts Acererak was a being of surpassing power, holding secrets over Death itself. As time wore on, a community of the like-minded grew up around the mound of the tomb. This was neither a city of pure-hearted seekers of knowledge nor a collection of mere tomb robbers. Instead, those who gathered in this new city of grim aspect sought to understand the forbidden arts of unlife. They were, in fact, almost all practitioners of the foul dark arts: necromancy. Thus was Skull City born.
The inhabitants of Skull City were obsessed with the power that the dark arts can bring them. Following this philosophy, their reverence for Acererak and his achievements developed into a nearly theological worship of the powerful lich in his aspect as "The Devourer." They have built a massive academy into the no-longer lonely hill over Acererak's tomb and engage in weekly ceremonies to garner the attention and favor of the demilich below. However, for all their evil rituals and dark knowledge, and in spite of their professions of communion with the spirit of the demilich, not a single resident of Skull City possesses a glimmer of the truth. Acererak's true guise, the location of his final stronghold, and his ultimate sinister goal remain utterly unknown -- a black mystery to all.
As in Return to the Tomb of Horrors, the original tomb remains sacrosanct -- those who built up Skull City and the Academy around it revere the tomb. Thus, the information in this update can be used as is, whether or not the DM has access to Return to the Tomb of Horrors or prefers not to use it (especially since that product is not updated to 3rd edition rules, but yet lingers in 2nd edition status).
"Tomb of Horrors" (2005), by Gary Gygax & updated by Bruce R. Cordell, is a 3.5e iteration of the classic AD&D dungeon. It was published as part of Wizards' online Adventure Archive on October 31, 2005.
Origins (I): It Came from California. The story of "Tomb of Horrors" begins with Alan Lucien, a D&D player from Orangevale, California, near Sacramento. He's a minor luminary of early D&D days who received special thanks for "suggestions" in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975); one source suggests he might have contributed spells. In The Dragon #22 (February 1979), Lucien was lauded as a "D&D Contributor" when he was listed as one of the invitees to the first D&D Masters tournament, held at Winter Fantasy 3 (1979) in Lake Geneva. (He did not attend.)
However, Lucien's biggest contribution to the D&D game can almost certainly be found in "Tomb of Horrors". Sometime around 1975, Lucien sent Gygax an adventure set in a tomb that reportedly featured a lich as the final monster. This encouraged Gygax to create his own "Tomb of Horrors". He credited Lucien with "inspiration" for the idea.
Origins (II): Mr. Suitcase. Gygax's main purpose in creating "Tomb of Horrors" was to take his players down a peg. He was most intent on creating a challenge for Rob Kuntz's PC, Robilar, and for his son Ernie Gygax's PC, Tenser.
Gygax's "expert players" were both able to survive the tomb. Robilar famously brought in a squad of orc hirelings as trap-finders; they died in the first hallway, but Robilar still made it to the finale with Acererak and managed to stuff piles of loot into his bag of holding before escaping with his boots of speed. Although one report incorrectly claims that Tenser killed Acererak, the truth is that "when Tenser saw the nature of the tomb he simply retired from it not caring to risk life and limb for whatever treasure it might hold." He still did get some treasure: a ring of telekinesis and an auto-death poison. Terry Kuntz's Terik is also reported to have taken the better part of valor!
"Tomb of Horrors" wasn't Gygax's only adventure of this sort. He had "a lot of equally difficult places in the Greyhawk Castle". But, those were many levels down, while "Tomb of Horrors" was the adventure that characters could walk into … and be obliterated moments later.
That's probably why "Tomb of Horrors" was the adventure that Gygax used to carry around in his briefcase, ready for "fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge".
Origins (III): Origins. The wider public saw "Tomb of Horrors" for the first time on July 25, 1975 when it was run as the D&D tournament at Origins 1 (1975) in Baltimore, Maryland. Groups of 15 players came together to play random characters that were assigned to them in alphabetic order. They ranged from a 4th-level fighter to a 12th-level magic-user.
The scoring system was very simplistic in this primordial tournament: each party was judged based solely on how much loot they managed to take out of the "Tomb". Afterward, Gygax picked the most valuable player out of the most successful group. The winner was Barry Eynon, another minor luminary of D&D's young days. He was a member of the large Michigan gaming group whose adventures were chronicled in John Van de Graaf's Ryth Chronicle (1975-1977) 'zine. Probably due to his success in "Tomb of Horrors", Eynon was also another invitee to that first D&D Masters tournament. (He didn't attend either.)
Beginning the D&D Adventures. In 1978, Gygax decided to turn the original "Tomb of Horrors" into an AD&D module. It was given a new "S" code for special adventures — which probably just means it was a one-off. It was part of the first wave of seven D&D adventures, all of which were adapted from tournaments and all of which were published under the AD&D rules. The other six were the three "G" Giants adventures (1978) and the three "D" descent adventures (1978), which were released in July and August respectively, at Origins 4 (1978) and Gen Con XI (1978).
With that said, the exact publication date of "Tomb of Horrors" is somewhat problematic. The product lists on the back covers of those first seven adventure and their stock numbers all suggest that "Tomb of Horrors" was the seventh adventure, probably released in Fall 1978. However, some sources prefer a June date for "Tomb of Horrors", while Gygax in 1998 noted it as "first of the adventure 'modules'". This historian prefers a fall date for "Tomb of Horrors", based both on the trade dress and the fact that The Dragon #19 (October 1978) advertises the three Giants adventures and calls them "the first three releases in a new series of playing aids" without mentioning "Tomb of Horrors" at all.
Like all of the original D&D adventures, "Tomb of Horrors" was originally presented with a monochrome cover. It was reddish in color. The adventure was then reprinted in a second edition with a full-color cover (1981), with the new edition having a green border.
Continuing the Adventure Archive. From 2000-2005, the D&D Adventures Archive, which was freely downloadable at wizards.com, was the source of numerous free adventures for D&D 3e. However by 2005, the program was showing its first signs of fading away. Production was reduced in 2005, then would disappear in the next couple of years.
Before the end, Wizards tried something new: updating of classic adventures to the 3.5e game. The first of these was "Tomb of Horrors". The new 3.5e version returned to the classic adventure of S1: "Tomb of Horrors", updating it to a new rules system for the first time! Although the new "Tomb" mostly cleaves to the classic, it references the later Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998) and also includes lore connecting it to Libris Mortis (2004).
Adventure Tropes. "Tomb of Horrors" was TSR's first "killer dungeon". As Lawrence Schick says, it was intended "not to challenge the intruders but to kill them dead". This clearly reveals Gygax's intention to provide problems that nigh-invulnerable characters might not be able to deal with it; it was probably also a terrific model for a tournament adventure. Other than these unique situations, killer dungeons had somewhat limited utility, even in those early days of roleplaying. Today, the killer dungeon trope probably seems more important than it really was primarily because of its publication of one of TSR's earliest adventures.
"Tomb of Horrors" also reveals a few other tropes of early D&D gaming:
It was the GM vs. the players. This wasn't cooperative storytelling, it was competitive play; the GM worked to offer the players a challenge that was fair, but still daunting. There was the possibility that the players would succeed, and there was the chance they would fail.
It was about players, not characters. The number of monsters in "Tomb of Horrors" is actually quite low. And of course there was no skill system in these early days of D&D. So where was the challenge in "Tomb of Horrors"? Most of the puzzles, tricks, and traps in the adventure require the players to figure out the best course of action themselves, rather than just rolling dice.
Both of these tropes were quite iconic of the early days of D&D gaming.
"Tomb of Horrors" is also notable because it's quite high-level, at 10-14. That matched D3: "Vault of the Drow" (1978) as the highest adventure to date for AD&D. It wouldn't be surpassed until the publication of the Bloodstone Pass Saga (1985-1988), which upped AD&D play from the 10th-14th level range which marked its ceiling for the first several years of play.
Accessories: The Handouts. "Tomb of Horrors" is the first D&D adventure to contain player handouts. 20 of the 32 pages in the original adventure are taken up with an "illustration booklet" that contained pictures that showed players what was present in various rooms. Given its early date, this may also have been the first professional handout in the industry.
Exploring Greyhawk. This adventure is very lightly set in Greyhawk. Actually, it gives six different potential locations in Greyhawk for the Tomb — from the plains of Iuz to an off-shore island. The Origins run of the adventure used the Vast Swamp as its setting, which was also the location settled on by the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting (1983).
The Tomb only became truly integrated into the Greyhawk setting in later supplements, particularly, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, which created a whole society around the Tomb.
NPCs of Note. "Tomb of Horrors" introduces the demi-lich Acererak — the second great villain of Greyhawk, after Vecna. However, much like the Tomb itself, Acererak didn't become a major part of Greyhawk lore until the release of Return to the Tomb of Horrors.
Acererak was also the first example of the demilich monster.
About the Creators. Gygax was of course the co-creator of the D&D game. His six Descent and Giants adventures were also published in 1978, but "Tomb of Horrors" was of an earlier pedigree given its 1975 origins — and is thus one of the earliest existing example of Gygax's adventure design.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.