Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In Retrospect: Return to the Tomb of Horrors

There is a monster at the end of this book, and his name is Acererak!

Looking back to the late 1990s, I wish I had run Return to the Tomb of Horrors, by Bruce R. Cordell.  I tried to run it. Believe me, I did. Yet it was published in 1998, during the real Dark Age of my gaming career when Magic: The Gathering had lured everybody around me away from D&D. And, soon, of course, 3e would be on the horizon.

Still, this adventure/campaign remains my favorite written for AD&D 2e.

Like other boxed sets in the 1990s, this one came with lots of goodies:
--a 16 page book of maps and new monsters which includes a map of Moil "The City that Waits" which was mentioned in the Planescape module Dead Gods. And the Winter Wight, well... your players will remember its touch should they live.
--An illustration book, filled with creepy drawings by Arnie Swenkel and Glen Michael Angus.
--handouts, including a diary filled with clues.
--a facsimile of the original Tomb of Horrors module.
--and finally the 160 page adventure book.

The book itself marked a turning point in my mind. WotC was trying to make some amends for the grievances caused by TSR. Gary Gygax himself wrote the forward to the adventure, telling the tale of the conception of The Tomb of Horrors to thwart expert players in his own Greyhawk campaign and dash the hopes of boastful players at conventions who possessed characters with unearned levels and experience. Gygax was at least welcomed enough to write an occasional forward or a column in Dragon Magazine.

As for the rest of the adventure book, it makes for a good read. Here, even the reader is taken down a dark path of secrets within secrets. Some might not like the linear or investigative aspects of the adventure (this is, as far as I know, the only module I've read for 2e where the PCs actually have to consult a sage). Still, right from the start, Cordell weaves a tale of intrigue, mixed with both combat and problem solving, with always a hint of menace resonating in the background.

Illustrations treat the reader with a large group of adventurers, whose members get killed by monsters and traps throughout. At the end, only three survive.

The player-characters start off not knowing that they are entangling themselves in Acererak's web. Up to a certain point, the PCs can walk away, even after they discover that Acererak is behind it all. But then the players will never know the answers to the questions they encounter at the beginning of the adventure.

Return of the Tomb of Horrors is a tale about the quest to conquer death the and consequences for those who seek it. Even those who attempt to thwart the dark powers seeking immortality at the expense of others, may soon find their own lives cut short. An underlying theme is how power corrupts those who do not deserve it, often leading to an inhuman end.

Someday I'll run this adventure, and may my players forgive me afterwards...

Enhancing the Adventure
All published modules deserve some some tweaking to make them compatible with an individual DM's campaign. Here's what I would do:

1. DO. NOT. LET. THE. PLAYERS. SEE. THIS. MODULE.  Sequester the box in a different place, make sure to keep the Adventure Book hidden behind your screen. Don't even tell them you're running this adventure. It'd ruin it. The Tomb of Horrors is infamous enough as it is. You don't want to frighten the players away... or worse, tempt them to look it up on the Internet.

2. Give the PCs another reason to seek out the Black Academy/Skull city. Perhaps in a previous adventure one of their hated villains made a reference to it before he got away. Perhaps that's why their in Kalstrand to begin with. The undead encounters and the investigations at the beginning of the adventure might seem too railroady. But a third reason dealing with a known villain should bait them further into the adventure.

3. Skull City shouldn't just consist of a bunch of necromancers hiding out in a swamp. Add NPCs of other classes there. In fact, add some well-known rulers, powers behind thrones. And, they all were masks (if you've seen Eyes Wide Shut, you probably can guess where I'm going with this).

4. Recommended soundtracks: The Ninth Gate and "Masked Ball" from Eyes Wide Shut. 

"Opening Credits"

"Masked Ball" -- to be played in the Auditorium of the Black Academy (the music suddenly cuts off at 6:08, however).

And, what the heck, "Lux Aeterna" from 2001: A Space Odyssey for when the players come across the "Music of the Spheres" in the City that Waits, or for all those trapped souls at the end of the module...

Yeah, I'm a Stanley Kubrick fan...


  1. I enjoyed reading through Return when I first purchased it. I also have it handy on my bookshelf as a quick reference and I've incorporated a lot of the lore put forth in this box set in my campaigns.

    It's great for cherry picking ideas. ;]

    I do not believe I would ever attempt to run it as written or even try and make it work with changes. You can extract certain elements, but the adventure is a railroad. The best course of action, as you mentioned, is to walk away.

    If players genuinely took it upon themselves to unravel the mysterious presented, I do not believe anyone could complete it save from cheating.

    I would be suspicious of the players (and their DM) who claimed to have faced Acererak in Return.

    As an aside, some of the illustrations are cool, but what's with that dumpster in the vacant town?

    1. Well whaddya know? Illustration #7 shows a dumpster in the vacant town! I'd never noticed that before. And It looks like its missing one of its covers.

      Makes you wonder what other oddities there might be in the illustrations...

  2. That actually sounds pretty cool. I think my favorite module was actually the three-module Desert of Desolation series for AD&D. I was using Chivalry & Sorcery at the time and conversion was really an ordeal, especially since a lot of the undead were very different.


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