Playing For Keeps – Tomb of Horrors

The passing of the Gary Gygax, the Master of All Dungeon Masters, this last week put me in a very introspective mood. Reading the web tributes and forum posts that popped up like candles at a remembrance ceremony, it got me to thinking. The thinking was like that old history/documentary show from the 70’s called “Connections” by James Burke. Each episode Mr. Burke followed a flow of historical/scientific events that were all linked in some fashion. The “connections” were some times a bit of a stretch but the show was always fascinating and often illuminating. Creating a game where your brain had to make those types of slightly “outside the box” connections would be a great idea. But I digress.

I’m going to offer some connected observations but they are no where near as elegant as Mr. Burke’s shows. Maybe that’s even a bad “connection” to make. This might end up more like a James Joyce novel.

The catalyst of course is the sense of loss that accompanies the news that Gary Gygax has passed from this universe and faced whatever awaits us all, that which we mortals must all someday face. Although I never met him, Gary Gygax had a huge influence on my life like he did on the lives of many others. He was as much an artist as any writer, poet or painter. I was 12 years old in 1977 when I first was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. It was like opening a door to another plane. I stepped in and never looked back.

Reading other peoples tributes on how Gary affected their lives, my thoughts shifted to the basements in which I spent a good part of my teens. The basement was a sanctuary. Not that my childhood was bad. It was actually the best that you could hope for but the teenage years are crucibles of human emotions. Most of the time spent in the basement was not even used up by sitting at the table rolling dice, shouting, eating Cheetos and Doritos and moving badly painted metal miniatures around the table top. No despite the halcyon memories, classic P&P playing was an infrequent (but great) thing. And when it did happen you found out that some key player had bailed for real life and often it was just 2 of you. Nope, most of the time was spent reading the books, scribbling on graph paper and dreaming about these other imaginary worlds.

These were make-believe worlds that drew from your imagination but making a dungeon/campaign is hard work. So there were modules that you bought that formed a canon of sorts. You could read them for hours. You could imagine the surprise on your friends faces when you sprung the hideous trap on them. I don’t know whether most kids really completed G1-3, D1-3 and Q1 but my fluctuating group never did. I was always the DM so I read every one cover to cover and dog-eared them all.

Thinking about traps and modules unfinished got me to thinking about S1……..the infamous “Tomb of Horrors.”

The Tomb of Horrors - Horrible Death Awaits with mean nasty sharp teeth

It is simply put the ultimate death trap dungeon. You can read about its history here. Thinking about the Tomb, I suddenly remembered an interesting blog piece by Brenda Brathwaite You’re Dead, or I Wish You were It’s a great observation about death and games and the progression in design from insta-permanent death to near immortality. Now S1 was a tournament challenge of skill and not meant originally to be something you ran your P&P group through in the course of a campaign…although it became that. But any game is a narrative arc and killing the protagonist usually ends the narrative unless you are The Nameless One. And yet the threat of death and playing for keeps heightens the enjoyment of the game. I’ve read that many combat soldiers never felt more alive than when they were in a fire fight and death was close and present. Insta-perma death however has to deal with the reality that the player stands up from table/computer and is still there…now frustrated and angry. Save, Reload and Learn is one way of dealing with this troubling problem of real life after death. There is a lot better discussion of this than I can provide but I just wanted to note that these thoughts passed through my transom.

It then occurred to me that as a game designer (or DM) you have to tread that fine line in the Tomb of Horrors. You have to make the players believe they can lose their character and hours and hours of work that went into it, but still guide them safely through the Tomb and ultimately to victory over the Lich. It’s a challenge that any narrative faces unless you are a character at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing (And even there you die but you have a chance that you destroyed your enemy as well). So like Soren Johnson recently expounded on at at the GDC, you the narrator/game designer must play to lose.

Playing to lose got me to thinking about what I have spent the last 6 weeks working intensively on. The Cults of the Wastelands free mini expansion pack has turned out in a small way to be a Tomb of Horrors. It’s become a challenge mode for players. I’m tweaking it right now but the worry is that it is too hard. And one cult requires that you basically lose the game to see some new content. Is that a good design choice? It just sort of happened that way. But I think Gary might approve.