On Modifying the Tomb of Horrors

Hey Mom!

How’s it going?

I am excited about this Dungeons and Dragons module I’m going to be running for our Halloween tabletop RPG session this year. It’s called “The Tomb of Horrors.” It’s an old, old D&D module — the first actually, written by Gygax himself! As such, it’s not exactly designed to be fair. Scratch that, it’s downright mean. I want to tell you about how I’m preparing to run it.

Don’t worry; I won’t mention any spoilers, since other people reading this letter may not have played yet (even though 35 years is usually long enough for Anti-Spoiler Social Contracts to no longer apply, this dungeon is special). The titular tomb is a creepy combination of an unholy temple and crypt that houses the remains of a demilich (an evil wizard who found a way to keep their soul from moving on to the afterlife after their body died) named Acererak, along with untold treasures and riches. Acererak was a nasty dude who didn’t want just anyone to access his mortal coil, so he trapped the crap out of his crypt. But, it seems that he did want a few cunning adventurers to succeed (for some reason), so he left some clues behind to help parties navigate the tomb’s treacherous depths.

“The Tomb of Horrors” was recently re-released for D&D 5th edition, which is the edition we’re using for the regular campaign Jonathan and I are running for our friends. That means all the numbers have been re-balanced for modern play. I read through that module first, trying to grok the basic structure of the dungeon.

One of Jonathan’s favorite bloggers, The Alexandrian, updated the Tomb of Horrors a few years ago for D&D 3.5 edition; The Alexandrian also added some extra clues to make the dungeon less like a punishment and more like a test of the players’ cleverness. I’m reading through that version right now; I’ll probably end up combining the 5e and The Alexandrian’s versions to create a modern module my players can enjoy more. Once I’ve made and played the module, I’ll let you know what I did and how it went!

This will be the first time I’ve been the solo Dungeon Master (DM) running a session. I’m a little nervous, but I’m also really looking forward to it. This module has a lot fewer characters and consequently a lot less acting than our regular campaign, so I won’t have to improvise as much; Jonathan’s so good at improvisation, acting, and voices. But this time, he’ll be playing and I’ll be DMing.

That doesn’t mean Jonathan and I can’t work on some of this project together; I’ve already been bouncing ideas off him, like what level the players should start at and how to address the convoluted and esoteric designs of the 3.5 era traps that the Alexandrian uses. We’re also going to generate about a dozen pre-rolled characters for our players to choose from. Since characters tend to die a lot in this module, we don’t want to have bored players who have nothing to do after their character got squashed by the first trap.

I know that none of this is your cup of tea, mom (undead evil wizards, nasty traps, flattened heroes). You’re more of a “pure-of-heart adventurer goes on a mighty quest, ultimate good wins, preferably with some sort of biblical overtones please” sort of gal. That’s why, when I talk to you in person, I’ll probably just say something like, “I’m running a D&D session for our Halloween game night all by myself! I’m enjoying planning it and I’m really looking forward to testing my solo DMing skills.”

Which is enough, I suppose.

But this means so much to me, mom. I’m excited to run my first session because it means I’m becoming a stronger, happier, more confident person; I would have been too anxious to do lead a group of people, even just a group of friends, through a module just a year ago. It also gets me closer to being comfortable with teaching. And running a session is outside the script — women and non-binary individuals tend to be underrepresented as players of RPG’s, much less as DM’s! But most importantly, this is something outside my comfort zone that I’ve pushed myself, to do. And I’m good at it! I’ve found the experience to be so rewarding so far.

I’m sad that I can’t share all this with you: my excitement at this newfound confidence, the strength and agency I’ve been developing on my own, and my sense of pride in making something my own and then sharing it with others.

I love you mom.





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