Save Your Campaign with the Tomb of Horror

You look over your Dungeon Master’s screen at the anxious and upset faces of your players as they furtively look over their character sheets, triple checking spells and magic items. They know what’s happening. You know what’s happening. It’s a wipe. A TPK. You just killed everyone and brought the campaign to a messy end. But you had stories to tell. Whole adventures planned. A world to save.

How do you recover?

Simple: the Tomb of Horrors.

Yes, *this* Tomb of Horrors.

The infamous Player Character meatgrinder. The unfair dungeon of deadly traps and weird Gygaxian puzzles. The tournament module that just surviving – let alone defeating – is a badge of honour. 

The adventure was created in 1975 to humble Gary Gygax’s high level players and then used at the first Origins convention as a tournament, to see who was the “best” table of players. It has been horribly killing players for over forty years now and has inspired every adventure who enters to suddenly see the value of multiple ten-foot poles.

Tombing the Tables

Here’s the hook: after the wipe, the players wake up – seemingly resurrected – only to discover it’s morning of the same day… again. They’re caught in a time loop, as seen in Groundhog Day or Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. It’s a pretty common TV Trope that most sci-fi and fantasy TV shows eventually employ. (Aside: my personal favourite instance was the unique twist done by The Librarians)

In this situation, the party is caught in a time loop being caused Acererak’s shenanigans, and the only way to escape the loop and get on with their lives is to find and stop the demilich. Possibly by killing him. More likely by just disrupting his “dreaming”. 

Conveniently, the Tomb just happens to be an hour or two away. The party now has the opportunity to retry combats and encounters in the Tomb again and again until they achieve the optimal result, experiencing the full offerings of the Tomb. Much like Dark Souls, where you die… repeatedly and often… but get a little farther each time.

The party can now freely search for the entrance of the Tomb. And die. But because they’re caught in a time loop, they start again. They can experiment and jump into the leering devil’s mouth. And then resume right where they left off. Poke and prod every surface. Get crushed, dropped into fire, be horrible killed by a monster, and still make it to the end where Acererak awaits.

Looped Benefits

The most obvious check in the “pro” column is once the party destroys Acererak (or disrupts his ritual), you can resume your campaign without the TPK. A quick reset. However, even if you don’t use the Tomb of Horrors as a “get out of TPK free card”, there are benefits and advantages to this approach.

First, because the players are no longer worried about constant death, they are permitted to be experimental and actually enjoy the Tomb, rather than playing ridiculously safe and dragging play to a crawl. Discovering and falling for one of the horrible death traps becomes as fun for the players as the DM, as they can now laugh (in a friendly manner) when an ally is reduced to a fine powder or dramatically describe the current death of their hero as they fall to their death with a resigned look on their face.

The Tomb is also seldom played as part of a campaign. It’s often relegated to a one-shot games, often with a stack of hastily made pregenerated characters (such as template for 20 characters provided at the back of the module), which reduces the options for roleplaying or attachment to the characters. As the characters are restored at the start of each day, the players are not bringing a string of flat expendable characters (or players running three or four characters at the same time). And during the second or third attempt to enter the Tomb, there’s no inexplicably knowledge of the entrance or previously encountered traps. The hook of the time loop removes the requirement for managing metadata or separating player and character knowledge.

All the while you, the Dungeon Master, get to experience the masochistic joys of running the Tomb of Horrors with full, unbridled lethality without making your players hate you. In fact, the hook doesn’t work if they characters live! Killing is encouraged, so even the not 100% lethal traps can be made *more* lethal.  After all, part of the achievement of the Tomb is just surviving: if the Tomb is easy – if you run it with kid’s gloves on and spare the PCs an embarrassing death or two – then the achievement is diminished. It’s going to climb Mount Everest and finding someone installed an escalator. But just getting killed in the entrance doesn’t give you the opportunity to really experience the Tomb.

Another interesting potential of this kind of story occurs when something bad happens and only half the party dies. But things don’t reset until everyone is dead. Which forces the survivors to either find a way to kill themselves or delve farther ahead, potentially being needlessly reckless because it doesn’t matter. That and the fun potential of “Well, it doesn’t matter if we die. Let’s try X just to see what happens.” It’s a licence to get creative. Which might sometimes be more useful and beneficial than caution.

Replaying and Rerun

Now, as the party is restored at the start of each day, they have to repeat their journey through the Tomb. This doesn’t mean the players should have to fully play through each chambers again. Provided they can describe their passage they should be able to skip over problems previously overcome.

Each time they get past a room, have your players track their expended resources. That becomes the new default for when they reset and reach the next chamber. If they reach a room with three expended spells and down 15 hit points then the next time they reach that point they’re also down those same spell slots and hp… unless they can think of a better way. If the party wants to replay a combat or puzzle to try and overcome that threat with fewer expended resources they should be permitted to.

Effectively, each time the party reaches a new safe are they “save” their game, but without the meta aspect of actually having a hard restore point. Respawning back at town also provides the players the opportunity to resupply, buying tools and items prior to returned to the Tomb, rather than having to proceed without a 10-foot pole or return to town. This encourages some creative thought, while also not penalising players for forgetting an item or two.
While replaying scenes, it makes some sense to re-do the combats or any challenges that depends on chance, because different dice rolls can yield different outcomes. But, in practice, that would take a lot of time for few gains, as success will often be a foregone conclusion. With that in mind, most combats should be run twice: once when it’s a surprise and a second time when the players know it’s coming and can prepare. Providing there’s no deaths or horrible injuries, after things “reset”, the combat just occurs narratively with the party automatically succeeding, taking as much damage and using as many resources as their second time.

Optionally, the players can opt to run a combat encounter a third time if they believe they can do it better or devise a more efficient strategy. In this instance, they should potentially gain advantage on all rolls to reflect their knowledge of when and where to strike and when to dodge. This reflects the tropes of the story: in time loop fiction the protagonists become almost inhumanly skilled at solving known problems. There’s no longer any random chance.

Overly Experienced

One of the complications on this form of story is experience and other rewards. As the player character remember the events of each prior time look they should receive some experience. The first time they succeed at a combat encounter, the party should be rewarded with full experience. And the second time as well, provided that encounter is different enough.

A third attempt at an encounter should net half experience. This reflects the characters having less to learn from that situation, while also preventing the players from “grinding” combats for more experience as well as the fact the rewards of repeating the encounter is reflected in more hit points and other resources in future encounters rather than experience. After the third attempt, encounters should award no further experience.

The characters should also not be able to gain levels. In-world this is reflected by the fact the player characters’ bodies reset at the start of each day, so newly learned abilities are not refreshed: they can’t take the long rest needed to gain usage of new earned abilities, and can’t develop the muscle memory to employ newly learned techniques. But, also, limiting levels discourages creative players from wandering the countryside picking fights without consequence or repercussions in order to gain experience. The players should be encouraged and incentivized to try and escape the time loop, not exploit it for their benefit.  

Tomb vs Tailor Made

There’s a subtle advantage to time looping through the Tomb of Horrors rather than a dungeon created specifically for repetition. Crafting an original dungeon would be interesting and certainly has opportunities for an interesting story and complex puzzles or nonlinear layout that rewards repeated entrances.

However, the Tomb of Horrors is a cultural touchstone for tabletop gamers. It gives gamers a shared dialogue. We can all sit down and share how far our tables made it into the Tomb before dying or how we reacted to iconic elements. Sadly, the Tomb is less commonly seen in modern years. Neither 3e nor 4e sold an updated version of the Tomb. Recent editions have increased the survivability of player characters and reduced the chances of death, especially at the mid-to-high levels expected by the Tomb, which makes the Tomb less compatible with the assumptions of the editions. Also, many gamers just don’t find the Tomb of Horrors fun. Which defeats the whole damn purpose of playing the game. It involves an adversarial style of play where the DM is out to “get” the players that is simply less common. The module strives to challenge the player and not the player character, encouraging metagaming and punishing the players of low Intelligence characters for doing what their character might do. The adventure feels less relevant, and this blog provides one method of running the Tomb and making it accessible.

This is particularly useful now, when the days of Gygaxian deathtrap dungeons are three or more decades in the past. Adventure design has come a long way since those early days; after all, Gygax wrote the dungeon in 1975, only a year or two after the creation of D&D. The types of puzzle in the dungeon are very opaque compare to those modern gamers are now familiar with, both in modern adventures or in video games. Really, traps in general have been rare in the last couple editions, so a dungeon that relies this heavily on them (and lethally so) is unusual.

More than any time in the past generation, there are new players are coming into the game. These new players might easily be unfamiliar with the potential lethality of Dungeons & Dragons, let alone the tropes of old school dungeoneering. Introducing them to the Tomb of Horrors seems like a fun idea, as they can experience it fresh, without spoilers or knowledge of some of the twists. But it needs to be done without turning them off the game or eroding the fragile trust between the Dungeon Masters and the players. Or just giving up after a couple chambers…

Risk Vs Reward

The problem with a time loop scenario is the lack of risk. There’s no hard penalty for failure. Death loses its sting. But, as a counterpoint, if running the Tomb of Horrors with a small stack of pregens, death doesn’t have much sting either. Bob III the Fighter is just as expendable as Bob jr. and Bob the 4th.

Instead, there is the added motivation of trying to break the time loop. There’s a narrative penalty for failure: the story and campaign can’t progress until the Tomb is completed. Which also means the party can’t give up and leave Acererak alone. They have to find a solution for each of the Tomb’s puzzles and traps. This provides something the Tomb of Horrors is often lacking: a reason to keep going into the damn Tomb. Ostensibly, there is treasure. But after a few deaths, even the bravest adventurers would admit that no amount of gold is worth that trouble, leave, and retire to an inn somewhere. But that’s not an option if you’re stuck in a time loop. The only way to win is to keep playing. And, eventually, the only way to keep the loot you’ve earned is to keep going.

Final Thoughts

This idea isn’t for everyone. To many the concept of being stuck in a time loop is just too gimmicky. Others like the Tomb of Horrors just the way it is. That’s fine too. It’d be a boring world if we all like the exact same things. This blog is just an idea, not a mandate. It’s an option for those who don’t otherwise see the appeal of the Tomb, but feel like they’re missing out on what is otherwise a well known conversational piece of D&D history. An alternative to skipping the module altogether.

This concept is something to consider when Tales from the Yawning Portal comes out in a few weeks. If you dig this idea and simply cannot wait until then, you can get a PDF or Print copy of the Tomb of Horrors from the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It requires some conversion, but 5e updates 1st Edition content fairly easily.


Shameless Plug

giants cover

If you liked this blog, you can support me and encourage future content.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website including the 5 Minute Workday Presents line, with such products as Giant Killer’s Companion, Traps, Diseases, Legendary Monsters, and Variant Rules.

Additionally, my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is available for purchase on DriveThurRPG or Print on Demand through Amazon. The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, and all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.