Celebrity Game Table Archive
Chris Pramas: The D&D Chainmail World
Andy Collins: Spelling is Everything
Peter Adkison's Ilboria Campaign
Operation: Deepfreeze - A Montecon Adventure
Thomas M. Reid: The Lunchtime Dungeon Crawl
Daneen McDermott: The Sumberton Campaign
Ed Stark: The Campaign Kick-Off
Rich Baker: Return to the Tomb of Horrors Campaign
Peter Adkison: Random NPC Generator
Philip Athans: The Tegel Campaign
Sean Reynolds: The Praemal Campaign


Celebrity Game Table
Return to the Tomb of Horrors Campaign
By Rich Baker

Campaign Blow-By-Blow

In January of 1998, I began work on the new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game along with Skip Williams and Monte Cook. (Jonathan Tweet joined our team a few months later.) I worked full-time on D&D for about eight months before switching to my current job as a Creative Director in the Roleplaying Research & Development department here at Wizards. About the time I switched jobs, I decided that work on 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons had proceeded to the point where I could (and should) start up a serious weekly game to test how it played. Besides, I was itching for a regular game again, since we’d just finished [editor and designer] John Rateliff’s Night Below campaign.

So, I decided to take Bruce Cordell’s excellent adventure Return to the Tomb of Horrors and update it for the new edition. I also wanted to throw in a few of my own twists and complications, since most of the folks in my game were longtime TSR types, and I knew they were pretty familiar with the module. The players were:

  • RPGA local activities coordinator Scott Magner (Georg the Blunt, a fighter);
  • Game editor and designer John Rateliff (Tanith the necromancer illusionist, also known as "Creepy Death Chick");
  • Organized Play "databoy" Shaun Horner (Marcus the paladin);
  • Game editor and Wizards web producer Miranda Horner (Ashwillow the bard);
  • Organized Play events organizer Chris Galvin (Belvor the dwarf fighter/cleric);
  • Game designer Andy Collins (Kieren the real cleric);
  • Game editor Duane Maxwell (Wellyn the mage);
  • RPGA publications coordinator Erik Mona (Fenwick the rogue); and
  • RPG associate managing editor Dale Donovan (Duncan the druid, and two monks I whacked along the way).

The heroes started out around 12th level.

Getting Ready

I modified Return to the Tomb of Horrors in a couple of significant ways. First, I decided that Acererak’s apotheosis was partially complete, so that he could possess undead forms from time to time in order to interact more with the party as they went along. Second, I decided that Acererak had a circle of dark disciples, lesser liches busy serving his ends. The lesser liches were wizards who had, over the centuries, stumbled across the Book of the Devourer and learned the secret of crafting Amulets of the Void, the magical devices necessary to reach Acererak’s extraplanar stronghold. There were 13 possible names for the amulets, and as each wizard in turn made his own, one of the names disappeared. The last amulet was crafted by the evil cleric Nedrezar (the ancient evil of the adventure Cleric’s Challenge, written by yours truly) who had failed in his attempt to follow Acererak’s instructions and did not become a true lich.

In my version, Desatysso, the wizard who precedes the PC party’s exploration of the Tomb in Bruce’s adventure, was the book’s most recent owner, but of course the thirteenth amulet had already been made when Desatysso found the Book. So Desatysso searched out Nedrezar’s stronghold and removed the amulet, setting off in pursuit of the Devourer, and unleashing Nedrezar on Pommeville in the process. Acererak learned of the last amulet’s fate when Desatysso showed up on his doorstep.

The Dead King

My campaign started with a return to Cleric’s Challenge. I set the adventure in a kingdom called Bretagne, modeled after Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne. Acererak possessed the body of King Henri, lying in the royal crypts of Caeroigne, the capital. He marched to Pommeville to plunder the tomb and recover the last amulet. The seneschal of Bretagne called in the PCs to recover the king’s body quietly, since the folk of Bretagne might panic if it became widely known that the revered and popular King Henri was now an undead monster murdering his way across the countryside. So the heroes pursued King Henri without even realizing that their true foe was the evil spirit that possessed Henri’s corpse. They tracked King Henri to the tomb of Nedrezar near Pommeville, and confronted him in Nedrezar’s crypt. In this form, Acererak was roughly the equivalent of a skeleton warrior with the powers of a zombie lord. The heroes beat him in a furious fight, and then got to wondering what would make a dead king hew his way out of the royal crypt and march across miles of Bretagne to reach Nedrezar’s tomb.

Following their victory over King Henri’s possessed corpse, the heroes learned of the wizard Desatysso who had plundered Nedrezar’s crypt 20 years ago. In their investigations they learned of Desatysso’s search for the Book of the Devourer, and determined that it resided in an extraplanar library known as Prism Keep. Of course, this was described in a slightly different form in a Dungeon magazine adventure, again by yours truly.

The Black Hand

The party set sail for the island of Voitaine, where a gate to Prism Keep was rumored to exist. Although they had defeated his first manifestation in King Henri’s body, Acererak dogged their steps by means of a faithful agent -- the vile necromancer known only as the Black Hand. Acererak had promised the Black Hand lichhood if the necromancer succeeded in locating and recovering Desatysso’s amulet and the Book of the Devourer before the party did the same. The heroes fought through a couple of vicious skirmishes with the necromancer and his greater flesh golem ally, Master Dark. Driving off the Black Hand, they reached the old stone circle known as Los Viejos and passed through the gate to an island of proto-matter in the Ethereal Plane, where Prism Keep stood.

The heroes cleansed the devils from Prism Keep and won their way to the Book. Upon their return to the Prime Material plane they decided it was time to deal with the Black Hand once and for all, and summoned an aerial servant to capture the Black Hand and bring him before them at Los Viejos. Figuring this might take days, the heroes set camp and went to sleep. Unfortunately, the aerial servant returned with the Black Hand and deposited him before the sleeping cleric. The Black Hand had had several hours to think about what he was going to do when the aerial servant finally released him, and the results were great fun for all. In this way the heroes learned that it’s no fun to be stuck in an acid fog spell, especially when the hostile wizard drops a couple of horrid wiltings into the fog to complicate matters. (This encounter got a couple of ‘em, including Dale Donovan’s first monk, who fell to a finger of death.) But the heroes triumphed, killing their rival.

The City of Skulls

After their encounter with the Black Hand and recovery of the Book of the Devourer, the heroes knew they needed to find Acererak’s crypt. (Tanith also read the book, becoming even creepier than she already was.)

Through legend lore the heroes determined that Acererak’s crypt lay somewhere in the Great Dismal Swamp of Dercassia, a land south of Bretagne, and they deduced that Desatysso must have traveled there with the thirteenth amulet. So, they sailed to the desolate land of Dercassia and set off into the swamp.

As they neared the City of Skulls, they were approached by a lich calling himself the Magnate, a treacherous lieutenant of Acererak. The Magnate offered to help the heroes, since he wanted Acererak’s master plan to fail. The aid he provided was the head of the Black Hand, animated as a flying undead guide. Few of the party members wanted anything to do with their old foe by this point, and the flying head underwent numerous abuses at the hands of the player characters as they strove to show their disdain for the Black Hand and all he stood for. The PCs chose to tackle the adventure without the insight of the now-somewhat-misnamed-Black Hand.

The heroes finally found their way to the City of Skulls and launched an immediate assault on the necromancer academy. Of course, I’d improvised a bit here, too. I added a second floor to the skull-shaped building, which was in fact a temple devoted to the Devourer, crawling with green-robed priests of a death cult who worshiped Acererak. But the heroes handled most of the academy pretty easily, thrashing necromancers left and right and leaving a trail of blasted and hacked priests in their wake. (Although Master Ngise managed to disintegrate Dale Donovan’s second monk character in one memorable encounter.) They fought their way down to the crypts where the academy’s mistress laired and defeated her, despite her nefarious surprise attack.

The Tomb

With the academy destroyed and the city itself in chaos, the heroes then turned their attention to the most dangerous part of the adventure yet -- the exploration of the original Tomb, hidden behind the academy. Here, too, I embellished and expanded on the original design, borrowing heavily from Grimtooth’s Traps and my own fevered imagination. You should have seen the looks on the players’ faces when they examined the mouth of the Tomb of Horrors, and I told them there were four tunnels to choose from -- not three. Right then they knew they were in for it.

The heroes boldly set out to find their way through the Tomb, encountering many perils along the way. They wandered through several new traps I’d placed in the adventure, and finally came to my masterpiece, a series of four identical trapped corridors with horrible doom waiting at the end of each. That’s when Andy Collins wised up and had his darned cleric cast find the path. So the party neatly sidestepped several hours worth of fiendish preparation on my part and moved on to the next part of the adventure, the mummy preparation room.

Here, of course, I’d planted two greater mummies (from the Ravenloft setting), each 13th-level clerics. All the heroes had to do was walk by and the mummies wouldn’t have attacked, but instead the heroes started throwing flame strikes from round one. So the mummies got up -- and that’s when I noticed that greater mummies possessed a truly wicked fear aura. I had the PCs roll their Will saves, and 5/8ths of the party failed. Fleeing in a blind panic, they stampeded right back into the four Corridors of Doom, but now they were under a magical fear effect and forced to take random turns as they fled screaming through the dungeon. One by one each of my fiendish traps was set off, not by a party carefully exploring and ready to pull out at the first sign of trouble, but by a character stumbling through the darkness in blind, unreasoning panic.

That was fun.

Meanwhile, the three non-feared characters dealt with the greater mummies, although Marcus the paladin was lost to a destruction spell on round two. Back in the hallways outside, one character blundered into a pit of molten lead, another was hacked horribly by two iron golems, one was trapped in pit filling with water, and two others blundered down a web-choked staircase that led to the lair of the pseudolich. Except, of course, I’d decided that Acererak had possessed the pseudolich and was waiting for a chance to strike at the party. This time, because he’d taken command of a lich, he had the lich’s powers.

Kieren, the party cleric, was the first caught in the webs. A cold voice spoke to him from the darkness below: "Welcome to my parlor, little fly." Right then and there, with no other inkling of what he faced, Andy Collins burned Kieren’s word of recall spell and got the hell out of there. Next came Chris Galvin’s dwarf, Belvor. Looking for Kieren, who had gone down the web-choked staircase, he found himself standing toe-to-toe with Acererak, who promptly used a nasty little spell from the Complete Book of Necromancers called life force exchange. Now Acererak was in the body of Belvor the dwarf, while Belvor was in the moldering undead corpse in the pseudolich lair.

I took Chris aside and told him what had happened. "You’re playing Acererak now," I said. "Here are your abilities. You want to humiliate these intruders and teach them a lesson." Chris, who apparently has a heart blacker than the darkest night, agreed with a glint of evil glee in his eye. When the rest of the party arrived on the scene, battered, scorched, and humbled, they asked Belvor if he’d seen Kieren, and what was at the bottom of the stairs.

"Haven’t seen Kieren. Nothing down there," replied Acererak-Belvor. "Come on, let’s go."

Meanwhile, from the bottom of the stairs, an undead voice croaked, "Wait! Help me, please! Help me!"

"What’s that?" the other PCs asked.

"Nothing. Never mind. Forget about it," Acererak-Belvor told them. And then he threw a silence spell down the stairs, and covered up the entrance with a wall of stone. "Some perfidious lich trick, I’m sure," he explained. "I refuse to be taken in. Now let’s go."

Disaster

The party, now diminished in number, continued on their way, while Acererak-Belvor carefully studied their condition and questioned them subtly about how much they knew. Kieren the cleric returned, fetched by Tanith from his temple by means of a couple of teleport spells. The party composition was Georg, Fenwick, Duncan, Marcus, Kieren, Belvor, Tanith, and -- new this session -- a rogue/sorcerer Miranda Horner created to replace Ashwillow. As Miranda figured it, the bard had had enough of the Tomb of Horrors and was going away someplace safe. Wellyn the mage, Duane’s character, had dropped out by this point too.

While the party chatted with their new ally, Chris told me secretly, "I think Acererak’s learned everything he’s going to learn. Time to act." I agreed, so Chris swung into action.

First came time stop. Then wail of the banshee, and domination or feeblemind or some such thing on Tanith, the party wizard. Everybody rolled their Fortitude saves vs. a 9th-level death spell cast by a demigod arch-lich. And, with only one exception, THEY ALL FAILED. In the space of one melee round, every character on the field of play was dead, dead, dead -- except for Tanith, who was now Acererak’s thrall. Acererak looked around, said something to the effect of, "Guess my work here is done," and teleported away with Tanith, returning to his Fortress of Conclusion.

Out of eight characters in the party, six were dead; one was enslaved by Acererak; and one was entombed in the Tomb of Horrors, his soul trapped in an undead corpse.

OK, so I didn’t kill them all, but I came real close.

A Tough Act to Follow

After the carnage, I gave a lot of thought to what might come next. It occurred to me that we could set up an even cooler, darker, and more deadly game under the premise that Acererak’s already won. Somehow the heroes have to pick up the pieces and continue the fight, bouncing back from the near-complete victory of the demilich.

Tanith still lives, I figure, but Acererak’s teachings have driven her insane. Knowing the depths of evil that await her, what kind of courage would it take to resume the quest?

Belvor the dwarf is now a fighter/cleric in the body of a corpse. Acererak abandoned Belvor’s body somewhere, but where? A character driven to recover his own body seems like a great hook for a dark horror game… especially if someone else, say the ghost of a psychotic murderer, is now using Belvor’s body and leaving a trail of devastation across the land.

Wellyn and Ashwillow retired from the game before the final confrontation. So Duane’s evoker and Miranda’s bard might be part of a new party, too -- albeit racked with guilt at the notion that they abandoned dear friends who later died alone in the dark.

Just think of what evil Acererak might be capable of, now that his plan is complete. What dreadful new powers might he have mastered? How could the party possibly defeat him now?

Strangely enough, I never talked any of the players into giving it a go.

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