Tomb of Horrors Chapter 1: A review
So, here it is as promised my review/commentary on Chapter 1 of 4th Ed’s Tomb of Horrors. As I will be examining it in some detail and refering to particular monsters and stats, I recommend you skip this one if you’re a player about to or currently doing it. This is not just for players who don’t want to be spoiled, but for the other group that I am running this adventure for online.
Feel free to skip this is you must, just tell you DM to run it as it’s awesome.
And now, without any further ado…
The Garden of the Graves
Chapter One takes place in the Feywild, rather a bonus for my players as none of us have been there in games before. It revolves around the effect the transformation of an Eladrin graveyard and the effect it has had on the surrounding wildlife, to the point where fey creatures are coming through into the natural world and attacking people.
And they don’t all die straight away, as my players found out very quickly.
Without giving too much away, what was going on in the graveyard was the channeling of energy to a central source. Not just to the fey engine in the centre of the graveyard, but on to somewhere else.
What I really loved about this module as a whole is that it combines quite a lot of the mythology of the Tomb of Horrors and puts a new spin on it while at the same time acknowledging the Tomb‘s legacy. The story also takes quite some time to develop, and the players don’t find out about Acererak’s involvement until later on. And by the time they find this out, they know where to go.
So lets take a look at the module in general, examining specific aspects of it in terms of mechanics and game play.
To be honest, I had a hard time bringing in the real life players into the story, as they destroyed their plot hook and I had to quickly craft another one. The online players were somewhat more obedient. But the problems didn’t really begin until the second session, with the encounter with the statues in the cave.
I don’t think I could have crafted a better encounter myself to put the fear of dying into my players without actually killing them. The wizard, for reasons known only to himself, decided to give the statue of the crone a high-five after deciding that there was some importance on her after reading the poem.
Problem is, that crone statue’s got a wicked backhand. She hit him back, hard,and to cut a long story short he was actually lying at her feet on her turn and unable to be move or be moved. He was ready to die, and I was ready for him to die.
But it seemed as if that night, Gary was on our side. I rolled for damage badly, cleaning through the temp hp the cleric had buffed him with and leaving him with a smidgen of health left. Then the rest of the party cleaned her up in the next round, and the party, not to mention the players, got a much-needed extended rest.
From then on, the players were more paranoid than Paranoia players. Touching the walls with their long spears bought just for the purpose, taking as much as ten minutes to make simple decisions whether to go left or to go right at the end of the passage way.
I think the tone was set for the remainder of the adventure back then, and that encounter is something I will long remember.
It’s too late…
After that harrowing moment, we ended the night after the encounter in the campground, which one of my players refused to believe I had not made up, owing to a D&D story of his own of a friend of his being knocked out by a tent. I really have to hand it to the writers for putting this encounter where it is, as it’s some welcome breathing space. Likely, they’re still a bit sore from the old lady’s backhand and the camp ground is rather fun. The tents are mere minions, as are the tools and the logs. The only real threat is that Will o’ the Wisp handing around the obelisk.
And with the animate constructs in the camp site, it fit in rather well. and it was much, much more fun to end the night with a not-so-easy but enjoyable encounter. Even if the statue was much more dramatic.
We are here to have fun, after all, a lesson I learnt early on in the third session…
In some sort of distress…
So session three, and here I encounter my first problem with the module. I explain to the players that there are alternate ways into the dungeon. Up the stairs and through some tunnels that one of the players knew about but was unable to pinpoint.
So they took the stairs, managed to solve the puzzle in the pool thanks to some boots that I had the foresight to gift the players with…and we went right into the middle of a quagmire.
I had already been warned about what to expect with this encounter, and the same sort of thing happened. The fact is, the Lamia and the scarabs had exactly the same vulnerabilities and advantages, and only players with close and ranged attacks had any chance of being effective. Which pretty much meant that everyone except the wizard and the monk sucked.
It wasn’t the fact that the players weren’t winning, they were, it was the fact it was a very hard slog as well as rather monotonous (with the possible exception of the Lamia). The scarabs didn’t have much of a choice for attacks, and anyone in melee combat with them copped the poison at the start of every round.
So I did something that I hadn’t done before: I fast forwarded the fight. Once it was well and truly apparent that the players were winning and were likely to continue that way, I ended it and gave them the XP and the treasure. They weren’t having fun, and I wasn’t having fun. There seemed to be little point in chipping away at them for what look liked to be hours.
Even though it does make sense to have an encounter with the scarabs and the Lamia, from a mechanical perspective it was poorly designed. Most of the players were based in melee and ranged attacks, which were ineffective in this encounter. And there’s nothing more frustrating than doing you best and not looking like you are getting results. This specialisation, while rather interesting in a way, doesn’t really fly well with the majority of players.
I just wish they had a sorcerer in the party.
Incidentally, one of the writers has acknowledged that the encounter needs tweaking which I will do when I run it for the online group. I’m putting in a flamejet trap, perhaps that will help if the players can work out to use it against the monsters.
So the rest of the night was spent avoiding encounters, the Lamia was the only combat fight they had all night. They managed to solve the sundial puzzle rather easily, and without triggering the wights which I had ready just in case. The game room came with some much appreciated XP and treasure, and the night entered with encountering the duplicates. Which, incidentally, is where another DM ended his session.
Death in the Dark
Now I must say, the encounter with the duplicates has to be one of the most interesting encounters I have run to date, and yet the players still managed to bamboozle me. Basically, they were illusory effects to make the monsters (and there were a variety of them) look like the players so that the encounter may not have been as effective as it might have been.
Particularly when I got to set the fire wizard on fire. And almost killed him, again, and the cleric.
Basically, the players all had to roll Insight checks before attacking anything, and if that failed their attack went to their ally instead. Added to this that whenever a melee or ranged attack was made, a trigger also made it go to an ally. Fortunately there was a way of overcoming this, by penetrating their disguises with a mid-range Arcana check.
The upshot was that under all this pressure, the players actually started working as a group. It has taken them I don’t know how many encounters, but they were planning, using their actions wisely and combining attacks to beat these guys back.
So this encounter gets a big tick from me, and thanks be only a moderate group showed up that night as all of them could be impersonated. Though you may wish to have doubles of your players minis when you do this.
That encounter took most of the night, and by the time they were done we were all a little tired and we were planning on finishing early to go to the pub.
Perhaps that could explain what happened next…
Bravely bold Sir Robin…
I said in an earlier post, this is the part when I got more than a little upset. Probably due to the fact that I bought special miniatures for one of the encounters months ago that I never got to use properly.
But I digress, as I think these encounters in the Hall of Planular Echoes are actually rather clever…except that I never got to really run them. What happened, was the players got scared by one of the angels doing 25 damage in one hit, and then were very, very clever at avoiding the encounters while working out exactly how the plane shifting worked in the chamber. As whenever you entered one of the doors, you were randomly transported to different planes.
Firstly, they sent the wizard’s imp scouting into the trap door to see what was up there. He didn’t return, so the wizard poked a te foot pole with a mouse on the end up there. That got sucked through as I decided you couldn’t just be half in or half out of the portal. Then, the wizard went up and by my magical power as DM I sent all three things, the wizard’s imp, the pole and the wizard himself, to three different locations.
One was in the mortal world, at a very definite location that I did not and will not reveal. Least to say there were no monsters there. But I did have some fun when the one of the players left the rope there and it was not there when the room was in a different location. There was nothing here but rubble and it was through this room the players left.
The second was in the Shadowfell, and there were undead in there so the players hightailed out of their pretty quick even though there was treasure. The skill challenge with restoring the graves to get rid of the undead I never got to do.
And the third location is in a place that I am not going to disclose, as finding out about it is almost an adventure in itself. It’s far beyond the ordinary adventurer’s History check, let me tell you. And this is where the angels were, and perhaps it was the encounter I was most looking forward to with the teleporting statues and the negative effects the room had on the players.
So, at the end of the that session they were outside, having found the bodies of other adventurers who had perished, and ready for the final encounter the following week.
Wild at Heart
Once we got underway and started, which I need to say took the better part of an hour, I was able to begin the encounter proper. To my annoyance, the players managed to disable the electric door before they got anywhere near it. Damn their cleverness! Incidentally, it meant that the fire mage could attempt to make an escape from the main encounter which I didn’t allow in the end…which was good as he was one of the factors that ended up turning the encounter in the favour of the players.
I really have to hand it to Ari Marmell, this encounter is fantastic. I am glad I made the decision to make this the focus of the last session and I strongly recommend other DMs to do this, that way your players are fresh and can actually enjoy this…as it is enjoyable.
However, I must confess that I tweaked the encounter very slightly. Not to make it easier, but to make it more accessible. The defences of the Ivy Heart are just a little too much for level 10-11 players, to the point where it would become more of a grind with so many failed rolls. So I lowered them and added more hitpoints. I did consider giving it vulnerability to fire, and almost did but I forgot it in the confusion and didn’t need to put it on anyway.
So, how did it go then?
I say it was three factors, to be honest. There was the fire wizard managing to isolate the Ivy Heart with his Wall of Fire, that managed to split the room in half and the Ivy Heart wasn’t nearly as effective. The second thing was the fact that rest of the players managed to get rid of the other three monsters rather quickly, even though the Firbolg Shell managed to almost kill the tanky Dragonborn Paladin. Rather successful rolls on their part, as well as a rather effective strategy.
And the third factor was the monk, who so far has been hard to hit became to most dangerous threat to the Ivy Heart when he ran through the Wall of Fire and did serious damage to it. He almost lost his life, and his soul, for his pains, had it not been for a natural 20 on the acrobatics check on one of the strikers (rather new player too, may I add) who was able to come in and effectively save his life. From then on it was pound, pound, pound even though I did try my darndest to have at least one player die that night. Didn’t work, and the PCs were triumphant.
So, what was it like? As a Level 1 GM, I have not much experience with running games, let alone modules as this is the first one that I have done. But I would recommend your run it, though it will need a little bit of tweaking as described above. The maps are very interesting, with their curves, but you will need to invest in some Blu-Tach or plasticine to depict them accurately, and maybe get the Arcane Towers map tiles set even if to just get the round rooms.
Incidentally, this also a good tester for DMs to pitch this module non-commitally to players, as from then on it’ll be more of the same, only worse. It’s a teaser almost, to see if players can be committed long term to this adventure. And even though there are options to have this stand-alone, I think the long haul is the best way to go.