to the Tomb of Horrors Campaign
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 wed just
finished [editor and designer] John Rateliffs Night Below campaign.
decided to take Bruce Cordells
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
started out around 12th level.
Return to the Tomb of Horrors in a couple of significant ways.
First, I decided that Acereraks 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 Acereraks
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 Clerics Challenge, written by yours truly)
who had failed in his attempt to follow Acereraks instructions and
did not become a true lich.
version, Desatysso, the wizard who precedes the PC partys exploration
of the Tomb in Bruces adventure, was the books most recent
owner, but of course the thirteenth amulet had already been made when
Desatysso found the Book. So Desatysso searched out Nedrezars
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 amulets fate when Desatysso showed up on his doorstep.
started with a return to Clerics Challenge. I set the adventure
in a kingdom called Bretagne, modeled after Clark Ashton Smiths
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 kings 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 Henris corpse. They tracked
King Henri to the tomb of Nedrezar near Pommeville, and confronted him
in Nedrezars 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 Nedrezars tomb.
their victory over King Henris possessed corpse, the heroes learned
of the wizard Desatysso who had plundered Nedrezars crypt 20 years
ago. In their investigations they learned of Desatyssos 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.
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 Henris 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 Desatyssos 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.
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 its 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 Donovans first monk, who
fell to a finger of death.) But the heroes triumphed, killing their
City of Skulls
their encounter with the Black Hand and recovery of the Book of the
Devourer, the heroes knew they needed to find Acereraks crypt.
(Tanith also read the book, becoming even creepier than she already was.)
legend lore the heroes determined that Acereraks 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.
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 Acereraks 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.
finally found their way to the City of Skulls and launched an immediate
assault on the necromancer academy. Of course, Id 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 Donovans second
monk character in one memorable encounter.) They fought their way down
to the crypts where the academys mistress laired and defeated her,
despite her nefarious surprise attack.
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
Grimtooths 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.
boldly set out to find their way through the Tomb, encountering many perils
along the way. They wandered through several new traps Id 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.
Thats 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.
of course, Id planted two greater mummies (from the Ravenloft
setting), each 13th-level clerics. All the heroes had to do was walk by
and the mummies wouldnt have attacked, but instead the heroes started
throwing flame strikes from round one. So the mummies got up --
and thats 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.
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, Id
decided that Acererak had possessed the pseudolich and was waiting for
a chance to strike at the party. This time, because hed taken command
of a lich, he had the lichs powers.
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 Kierens word of recall spell and got the hell out
of there. Next came Chris Galvins 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.
Chris aside and told him what had happened. "Youre 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 hed seen Kieren, and
what was at the bottom of the stairs.
seen Kieren. Nothing down there," replied Acererak-Belvor. "Come
on, lets go."
from the bottom of the stairs, an undead voice croaked, "Wait! Help
me, please! Help me!"
that?" the other PCs asked.
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, Im
sure," he explained. "I refuse to be taken in. Now lets
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, Duanes character,
had dropped out by this point too.
the party chatted with their new ally, Chris told me secretly, "I
think Acereraks learned everything hes going to learn. Time
to act." I agreed, so Chris swung into action.
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 Acereraks
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.
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
I didnt kill them all, but I came real close.
Tough Act to Follow
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 Acereraks 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.
still lives, I figure, but Acereraks teachings have driven her insane.
Knowing the depths of evil that await her, what kind of courage would
it take to resume the quest?
the dwarf is now a fighter/cleric in the body of a corpse. Acererak abandoned
Belvors body somewhere, but where? A character driven to recover
his own body seems like a great hook for a dark horror game
if someone else, say the ghost of a psychotic murderer, is now
using Belvors body and leaving a trail of devastation across the
and Ashwillow retired from the game before the final confrontation. So
Duanes evoker and Mirandas 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.
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?
enough, I never talked any of the players into giving it a go.
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