Tomb of Horrors is quite possibly the most infamous D&D module of all time. It’s an adventure that has been credited with annihilating campaigns, and is claimed to be the most broken and unfair adventure ever put out by TSR. However… I think this reputation might be because people are approaching the scenario the wrong way.
So, to set the correct approach, we kind of need to go back to the 1970s, when nobody really knew how to run a RPG campaign in the first place, and metagaming was pretty common. Monty Haul campaigns are nothing new now, and they were certainly common then. What was also incredibly common then – but less common now outside of regulated organized play structures – was taking characters from your home campaign, and taking it into someone else’s campaign, or playing with them in tournaments at conventions.
This meant it was not unheard of for someone from a Monty Haul home game to take their character to a convention, and speed through a tournament module like crap through a goose. And one of the ways this manifested was for players from such Monty Haul campaigns to come up to Gary Gygax himself, ask him to run a game for them, and then to rip through the module in record time, followed up by smack talking Gary behind his back.
If, after reading that, your thought is “Boy, Gary must have gotten sick and tired of that crap real quick,” you would be right. So, he designed an adventure that could not be powered through, that tested the experience of the players rather than the experience and equipment of their characters. That adventure was the Tomb of Horrors – and after running it at a few conventions, it was polished up and published.
To bring up the video game comparisons I made earlier with my review of G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief – if that module is a Hitman playset, this is Shadowgate – the original Shadowgate, not one of the remakes. It’s an a module that depends a lot on having you gone through a lot of modules playing with a particular play style, and is based – strongly – around you dying a lot, and learning from how you die. This is, in part, why the module has over 12 pregens (who are not named) in the back of the module – you’re probably going to go through all of them over the course of the scenario.
Indeed, even the climax of the module isn’t based around a big combat encounter – it’s based around pattern recognition, puzzle solving, and creative uses of spells. You don’t succeed in this adventure by being a combat monster, you succeed by being clever, creative, but cautious.
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