In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill, lies the sinister Tomb of Horrors. This labyrinthine crypt is filled with terrible traps, strange and ferocious monsters, rich and magical treasures, and somewhere within rests the evil Demi-Lich.
This adventure was originally used for the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tournament at the FIRST Origins Convention. Included herein are background information, the Legend of the Tomb, and possible locations for the tomb on the World of Greyhawk map. Also included are DM notes, characters specially designed for the module, and numerous illustrations to be shown to the players.
For characters levels 10-14.
S1: "Tomb of Horrors" (1978), by Gary Gygax, is the first "Special" adventure for AD&D. It was likely published in fall 1978.
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.
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.