Every now and then I like to throw a one-shot at my regular Dungeons and Dragons group.
The best time I've found for these sorts of distractions is the end of the year, that period of time when people are starting to wind down anyway. It's a good opportunity to do something different before taking a bit of a break.
Usually these one-shots have a distinct Christmas theme, and I've written and executed at least three such adventures to that end. In fact, that's where a certain sentient hat idea originated.
Last holiday season I went for something a little less-Chrismassy and instead just attempted to murder all of my players characters in the infamous Tomb of Horrors module.
If you're planning on ever playing through the Tomb of Horrors and want to go in blind, this blog post is going to spoil the general vibe of it and some minor bits and pieces.
You have been warned.
False Entrances Abound
The Tomb of Horrors was the brainchild of one of the original creators of D&D, Gary Gygax. Created in 1978 using one of the very first rulesets available for the game, Gary wanted to make something a bit different from the other adventures available at the time.
As far as introductions go, it's pretty vanilla: you learn the location of a tomb belonging to the evil-wizard Acererak and your aim is to breach it and loot everything inside.
It is not your standard combat focused dungeon delve though. Instead, it focuses heavily on exploration and surmounting the many traps and puzzles that lie inside. There are combat encounters sure, but not many.
It's also ferociously difficult, possibly even verging on the side of unfair.
Anecdotally, Gary was tired of his experienced and well-geared players surmounting everything that he threw at them, so he created the Tomb specifically to knock them down a peg.
Considering all of the above, I figured it would make a good holiday one-shot. An opportunity for me to run one of the most famous adventures ever written and for my players to experience it first-hand.
Also, someone might die! Of fun!
Secret Doors Too
One of the things that I like the most when running D&D sessions is to create internally consistent worlds that make sense. I don't like the theme-park dungeon experience where each room is an independent and disconnected encounter. I much prefer things to weave together into a cohesive picture.
This extends to any holiday one-shots that I put together. I want them to fit into the world that I've built, even if they are meant to be a bit of a palatte cleanser.
Undermountain, the large dungeon-complex under the city of Waterdeep, where my campaign is set, is owned and operated by the mad-mage Halaster. He's a pretty dangerous character; not outright hostile, but very unpredictable.
In a previous session, one of my players sent a message to Halaster inviting him up to the city above Undermountain for a drink. That's a pretty good hook if I've ever seen one, so I jumped at the chance and had Halaster accept their invitation, arrive dramatically at the inn they frequent (the Yawning Portal) and invite them to play a game with him.
Being a powerful wizard, Halaster had crafted a table for the players to sit at (with an appropriately imposing throne for himself) and created small magical copies of them that could be moved around in a simulation of sorts.
Yup, an in-universe game of Dungeons and Dragons. Possibly the most meta thing I've ever done.
Behind the scenes, I'd let the players know that they would be participating in a high-level adventure and allowed them to make copies of their existing characters and level them up appropriately.
To keep things grounded and to motivate my players to take the one-shot seriously, I did two things.
First, I wanted to inspire a feeling of danger. I told them that if the magical copy of their character died, so would their main character. It was a lie, but part of the fun of the Tomb of Horrors is its ability to kill characters, so I wanted them to think they were in real danger.
Stick firmly established, it was time for the carrot.
Second, I established a reward system connected to their main characters. I told them that they could use the total gold value of the loot that they recovered from the tomb to purchase either honest answers to questions or unspecified boons from Halaster himself.
And with the stage set, the game was afoot.
Plenty of Spike Filled Pits
It went okay, but I found the Tomb of Horrors itself to be a pretty clunky adventure, even upgraded to the most recently publish ruleset for D&D.
For one, some of the traps don't really work for modern D&D players who aren't used to specifying exactly what they are doing. In our normal sessions, I get people to specify an intent, like "I move cautiously down the hallway" or "I investigate the room, focusing on the suspicious chest" as opposed to something extremely specific and precise. Then we roll some dice and I narrate an appropriate outcome.
This fluid intent based approach makes some of the traps and puzzles in the Tomb pretty hard to trigger or solve, so I had to mutate them to make everything flow a bit better.
A concrete example is that there is a series of doors that hurt the players if they don't interact with them in a very specific way (i.e. some doors must be pulled toward the player, some must be slid upwards, etc). I had to rework that puzzle significantly, providing a clear hint as to the correct order of operations and even then it was still quite an ordeal to get through.
The second thing I noticed, which is a common point of feedback from other people on the internet, is the binary nature of a lot of the encounters in the adventure.
That is, they are often a hard pass/fail sort of situation: either the player succeeds and escapes or they die instantly.
That's not a lot of fun for anyone, especially when combined with the point above. I much prefer to work with situations that have degrees of failure, so I twisted them towards that end as much as I could. Instead of having players instantly die because they touched the wrong thing, they accumulated disadvantages and injuries that made subsequent challenges harder.
And Then The Crypt Itself
Given all of the above, I'm not actually sure if it was a fun one-shot for my players, or even for me as a Game Master.
It wasn't bad per se, but I wouldn't say it was good either.
There is a certain sort of macabre pleasure in watching your players suffer and struggle, but it's nowhere near as good as the satisfaction of watching them have fun and get immersed in the game and I don't think this adventure allowed for a lot of that.
Still, you never know unless you try, and now I've tried and am wiser as a result.
That's a good outcome in itself.