Tournament of Horrors

OK, time to talk about the Tomb of Horrors tournament module, and how it compares to the later publicly available module (S1). Let me be very clear up front – SPOILERS ABOUND. Turn back if you still hope to have this module crush your spirit as a player some day.

So, I was pretty surprised at just how similar the tournament module was to the published version. The map wasn’t really modified very much at all – a few rooms were added, but overall the two maps look remarkably similar:

The tournament map packs a bit more info into the map itself. Some areas in the final publication that are numbered with paragraphs of text (eg. 23) are just inlined notes on the map of the original tournament module. In general the text of the tournament module feels much briefer, and it likely is, though surprisingly it is only one page less than the published module. Still, Gygax probably got a lot more words out of his 2-column Souvenir font than the original which appears to have been typed on a monospaced typewriter.

As mentioned before, area 23 gets a revamp in the published module. It even gets a fancy picture of the “monolith” that will crush PCs, while in the tournament all we have is a note on the map that says “shambling mound”. Does this make the trap more deadly? I’m not sure, in both cases the sleeping gas gets no save, so it really just comes down to how long does the sleep last vs. when does the monster come out of its chamber?

The most maddening case though of something that exists only in the map in the tournament module is the false tomb. Does it even exist in the original tournament module? I’m not sure. The area where it should be exists on the map, but the scan is very faded there. I think there might be some words in that room. It might say “false tomb”, but I just can’t make it out. It’s definitely not a number as there’s no text about this area. If it’s not a false tomb, I have no idea what it is – a dead end or a way out?

Gygax also added room 11 to the published module – the room with the three armed statue that is a puzzle hiding a gem of seeing. Possibly Gygax put this in there just to have a source of a gem of seeing, as it’s referenced twice later in the module. It can be used to find the secret door past the false tomb (though a detect magic will also work), and it can be used to help rescue souls trapped in Acererak’s skull. The former in the tournament module is another case of no text, just a note on the map that says “detect magic to locate”, and there are no notes at all about how to free souls from the skull. Possibly it simply wasn’t important in the tournament, as it wasn’t like these characters were going to exist past this one game.

The final addition that jumps out on the published map is the Chamber of Hopelessness. Both versions include a small room full of animate weapons that one can be teleported to via a trap earlier in the dungeon, but the latter publication includes this additional embellishment. It is a small cell with fresh water and a mocking message written on the wall inviting the victim to die slowly of starvation, or proceed through the door for a quick death (via the aforementioned animated weapons). It’s kind of funny and I like the addition, but I wouldn’t say it has any major impact. I mean, come on, what player is ever going to choose the first option? I just like the little taunt from the main villain — it’s nice to see his presence in more rooms before the final encounter.

So the final thing worth mentioning here is the illustrations. A casual inspection would suggest that Gygax just wanted better quality artwork for the published module, and thus all of Tracy Lesch’s drawings are replaced by works by Trampier and Sutherland. However, there are definitely some implied gameplay changes here, and I think they’re a marked improvement. Specifically, many of the original illustrations feature the rooms after the trap has been sprung. For example, take a look at the illustration of the room of three chests:

This illustration is a dead give-away. In the later published module it has been replaced with four separate illustrations: in the first we see just three chests, the other three depict a close up of each chest as its trap is sprung. The three chests is the easiest illustration to pick on, but it happens many times. The original module is full of pictures of spiked pits, a fighter fighting the animated weapons, another falling down a pit, etc. The later publication has a lot less of this, and more wide pictures showing very detailed rooms, which players will surely pour over to find some hidden clues, whether they exist or not.

I think this is ultimately what makes this module so darn special. Sure, everyone talks about what a blood-bath the thing is, and they’re not wrong. That said many authors have since tried to create incredibly deadly modules, but I think far more rare is one that includes so many visuals for the players to examine for clues about the content.

The only other module I feel like I can compare this to is The Enemy Within, which has got to be the most jam-packed with player hand-outs of anything I’ve run. In that case though most of the hand-outs are text based, with clues revealed by what one NPC has written to another. I can’t think of any other case of an RPG module that is full of illustrations with hidden clues in them for the players to examine.

But I digress, the point here is, I think the published version of Tomb of Horrors is amazingly nothing more than a refined and improved version of the original tournament module. This is pretty shocking when you say compare it to the likes of the A-series, where the published modules include tons of added content. It really makes me wonder where on this spectrum things like the G-series lies, as we don’t have the original tournament text for those modules and the published material does not call out in any way how it is or is not different from the tournament.

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2 Comments

  1. In your livecast discussion of Tomb of Horrors, you and Dan wondered about other modules that had the pull-out illustration booklets (you mentioned Barrier Peaks). Another is The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, itself a previous tournament module (from the “C” or “Competition” series). It had beautiful illustrations, again depicting rooms/encounters PRIOR to traps being sprung.

    [Ghost Tower of Inverness, another “C” module, also included “visual aids” but nothing like S1, C1, and S3]

  2. Interesting. I’ll have to add C1 and S3 to my reading list. I feel certain that I read both of these at some point, but likely it’s just been such a long time that I’m not remembering the details very well.

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