Tuesday, 16 August 2011

P is for Poetry in the Tomb of Horrors (Spoiler Alert!)


Perhaps the most famous riddle in Dungeons & Dragons is Gary Gygax’s riddle poem in Area 3 of the Tomb of Horrors.  Yet it seems that some folks find this riddle a bit difficult to parse.

WARNING:  SPOILER ALERT for the TOMB OF HORRORS. 

If you don’t want to read spoilers, skip this post!

























Okay, then.  If you’re still with us…..I give you the riddle/poem:

Go back to the tormentor or through the arch,
and the second great hall you’ll discover.
Shun green if you can, but night’s good color
is for those of great valor.
If shades of red stand for blood the wise
will not need sacrifice aught but a loop of
magical metal - you’re well along your march.
Two pits along the way will be found to lead
to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall.
These keys and those are most important of all,
and beware of trembling hands and what will maul.
If you find the false you find the true
and into the columned hall you’ll come,
and there the throne that’s key and keyed.
The iron men of visage grim do more than
meets the viewer’s eye.
You’ve left and left and found my Tomb
and now your soul will die.

To get through the Tomb of Horrors, you need to proceed from Area 3, reach Area 10, and then reach the following Areas (in order):  14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 28, 30, 32, and 33.  It is useful to gain the gem of seeing from Area 11, and the gems in Area 8 help with that.  Note that no area which one does not need to traverse is actually described in the poem; it is not a key to all of the Tomb, but merely to the “correct” path.  Not only that, but the clues to the correct path are given in the order that they are likely to be needed.

Obviously, there will be even more spoilers in this post.  If you don’t want to read them, skip the post.

With this in mind, let us examine Mr. Gygax’s riddle.

Go back to the tormentor or through the arch,
and the second great hall you’ll discover.

This refers to the image of the torture chamber (‘the tormentor”) in Area 3A and the arch at Area 5.  The second great hall is Area 10. 

Shun green if you can, but night’s good color
is for those of great valor.

This refers to the Face of the Great Green Devil (Area 6) and the black sphere in Area 10, which leads to a crawlway that proceeds to Area 14.  [N]ight’s good color” is black, but it is not the dead black of the Green Devil, and the whole area of the Great Green Devil radiates evil.

In Area 3, characters must determine how to use the Arch to be successful.  As a character approaches the Arch, the base stones glow yellow on the left, orange on the right, and the keystone glows blue. 

According to the module text, “There is a misty veil across the archway, and nothing will cause the vapors to clear, nor will any sort of magic allow sight into the area, until the glowing stones are pressed in the proper sequence - YELLOW, BLUE, ORANGE.  If this sequence is pressed, the vapors disappear, and the path appears to go eastwards.”

If the archway is entered before the mist is cleared, characters doing so are instantly teleported to the Forsaken Prison (Area 7).  If the characters succeed in figuring out the sequence, they are teleported to Area 11 if on the path, and back to Area 3 if off the path.  (As a side note, it is suggested that it will require two characters to move the three levers at the same time, but a clever player can find ways around this.)

There are only six possible combinations of pressing stones (if the players think of this, and press each stone only once):  YBO, YOB, OYB, OBY, BYO, and BOY.  There is no clue to the order needed.  However, attempting such a minimal number of combinations makes this way more than possible.

However, given the difficulty of figuring out both the order needed, and realizing that the PCs need to walk on the path, many players are likely to try the Tormenter, and thus manage to gain passage to Area 8.  In Area 8, they gain ten gems (useful for Area 11) and gain another riddle:  Look low and high for gold, to hear a tale untold. The archway at the end, and on your way you’ll wend.

This riddle is somewhat nasty, but it serves to alert characters that pass through the Tormenter without using the Arch to examine the gold sphere that leads to Area 11.  In Area 11 there is a hidden gem of seeing, that can be gained by sacrificing the ten gems from Area 8.  It is difficult, but not impossible, to attain Area 14 and bypass Area 17 without acquiring this gem.

Moreover, the area immediately beyond is difficult enough to turn most parties back to the Arch.  In this case, characters move from one gargoyle (Area 8) to another (Area 11) in very short order.

Characters who pass through the Archway at Area 10A (The archway at the end, and on your way you’ll wend) find themselves back at the start, totally nude, with their goods and items teleported to Area 33.  on your way you’ll wend” means “you’ll be leaving” in this instance, and it seems very likely that characters will be leaving if they pass through this arch.  If a character passes through the arch while carrying the gem of seeing gained in Area 11, the entire group is in trouble.

On the other hand, there is no way to make the mists in this archway disappear…and characters that have experience with Area 5 are likely to look for another way.  This is nasty, but not unfair.  Nor is the character so dealt with slain.

The “tale left untold” may refer to Area 14 (which raises questions about the demi-lich in life) or it may be a clue that the gem of seeing is used to find “untold” information.  Or it may be both.  This is the only riddle in the Tomb that I personally find to be somewhat opaque.

On the other hand, “night’s good color/is for those of great valor” is very clear indeed!  In my experience, it takes quite a bit of courage for players to consign their PCs to the long crawlspace leading to Area 14.  However, this is the correct course of action, exactly as the opening riddle/poem describes.

The red sphere in Area 10 leads to Area 13, where characters can gain a magic ring (if they need one.  Thus the next lines:

If shades of red stand for blood the wise
will not need sacrifice aught but a loop of
magical metal - you’re well along your march.

Any characters who reach Area 14 have (hopefully) learned not to step through just any archway they discover.  On the other hand, they can find a small slot with an ornate letter “A” traced faintly above it.  A magic ring (a loop of magical metal) sacrificed here opens Area 15.  This “A” should be known to the characters as the sigil of Acererak.

At this point the characters really are well along their march!

Two pits along the way will be found to lead
to a fortuitous fall, so check the wall.

The next challenge the PCs face is to find a door at the bottom of a pit, and these lines give a (perhaps needed) clue.  There are two pits along the way because a pit in Area 3 also has a secret door.  It is also a clue to consider the Tomb in terms of three dimensions – necessary to find the secret trapdoor in Area 23.  By the time characters reach Area 23, though, the players should be well aware that they need to consider what might be above or below a particular floor.

Once you have passed the door after “a fortuitous fall”, you need to “check the wall” for Area 17, which leads to the demi-lich.  Characters who fail to do so pass to Area 18, the False Crypt…and probably end up fleeing the module with some modest treasure.

These keys and those are most important of all,

Refers to both the riddle, and the keys found in Areas 19 and 28 (as well as the scepter in Area 25D).  They are the most important of all because (1) it should be very difficult (if not impossible) to succeed without the keys, and (2) the next lines refer to what may be the two most difficult areas in the Tomb other than Acererak himself.

and beware of trembling hands and what will maul.

Refers to the Agitated Chamber (Area 21) and the Juggernaut (Area 23A).  Failing to pay attention to those keys will, indeed, kill you.

This is harder to parse than most of the poem because, while the players should determine that they might need “keys”, what the “trembling hands” are is not given, nor “what will maul”.  Clever players should be able to realize that their hands will be unsteady on the unsteady flooring of Area 21.  The real danger in this room is that the tapestries will be torn…and that danger can be eliminated by having steady hands resulting from dealing with the floor.  The characters will probably be aware of the floor’s motion before they have a chance to use their “trembling hands” on the tapestries.

On the other hand, characters that discover what “what will maul” is probably going to die, because they failed to fully solve Area 23.

If you find the false you find the true
and into the columned hall you’ll come,
and there the throne that’s key and keyed.

This refers to the False/True Door in Area 23, and is a clue to look for the true door where you find the false.  Of course, there is no direct clue to then look for a secret trap door, but a wary party should still have a charge or two left on the gem of seeing.  By this point, the group will have encountered two areas (the door to Area 14, and the secret door at Area 17) that require the gem, and a few areas where things are not as they seem.

The “columned hall” is Area 25 (as should be obvious to most players once they reach it), and there discover the throne that is both the key (via the scepter) and keyed (as the passage), leading them to Area 28 and 29.  The group should discover, at small cost, that the scepter is again the key, and thus into the False Treasure Room (Area 30).  Trying to remove the crown may have a greater cost, however.

The iron men of visage grim do more than
meets the viewer’s eye.

These lines tell the characters to examine the iron statues, which in turn leads them to Area 32.  It is likely that the players will first imagine them to be iron golems, but, when they do not attack, they are likely to be examined more carefully.

You’ve left and left and found my Tomb

Once you have left the room with the iron men, you look to the left, where you find a secret door (Area 32) leading directly to the actual Tomb (Area 33).  The alternative is to turn to the right and continue down the passage.

and now your soul will die.

Describes the demi-lich’s modus operandi to a T. 

It is not at all certain that Acererak is meant to be defeated.  Leaving him alone – both his shade and his skull – works, however.  Acererak has no interest in leaving you any particular clue as to how to defeat him, though.  He just wants tough, brave, and resourceful individuals to have their souls sucked by him, fuelling his undead life force as his soul explores strange planes.

Making use of the information provided in the poem, the gem of seeing, and the judicious use of divination magic, a thinking group should be able to successfully reach Area 33.  This doesn’t mean that they can defeat the demi-lich, of course, but a group that is both cautious and clever should be able to either discover the means to defeat Acererak, or, more probably, be wise enough to glean most of the treasure before leaving the demi-lich well alone.

Tomb of Horrors is described as a “thinking person’s module”, and it deserves this description.  Clever players will think of ways around the challenges that the module presents that are not included in the text.  The module is difficult, yes, but not unfairly so.  Failure to meet the Tomb’s challenges occurs, of course, but that should not be taken as a failure of the module to be fair.

Likewise, although the module has been much-maligned as being “unbeatable”, people have beaten it.  Likewise, I have heard complaints that the poem provides no clues until “after the fact” (or if one has the knowledge of the Game Master), but to the contrary people have parsed out the poem (as a whole or in part) and made use of the clues thus provided.

The poem is not quite a walk-through, but it is close enough that thinking persons can, indeed, do very well in the Tomb of Horrors.


7 comments:

  1. Not quite a walkthrough, but certainly a hint book.

    More generally WRT the Tome of Horrors, I am always puzzled when it is being held up as the ur-example of old-school D&D, which happens in both praise and condemnation. It is by its own admittance an outlier, a module to challenge players who think themselves hotshots at problem-solving (and squash those who are just pretending). It even says in the intro it shouldn't be run for groups that fixate on combat. So how did it become that "This is what D&D is like" adventure?

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  2. I suspect that the answer lies in examining who wants to make a point using the module, and what that point is.

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  3. I am really skeptical about anybody actually defeating the demi-lich (as opposed to looting the area behind it) without knowledge from other sources. Trial and error is murder. It's also non-obvious what what is actually going to be effective.

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  4. I would agree that defeating the demi-lich using the method suggested in the module is unlikely. But, that doesn't mean that it cannot be done using other methods. Nor is "trial and error" the only method that a party has available to it. A party that makes good use of divination spells, for example, can certainly do better than one which does not.

    I will certainly admit that, even with the ability to parse out the riddle, the module defeated my meagre intellect when I played it solo circa 1980. OTOH, I was also playing it during math class, so that might have had an effect!

    Later on, I had the opportunity of witnessing groups of players defeat the module fairly. Of course, I also had the opportunity to witness many gruesome deaths.

    When I used ToH as an RCFG playtest, I did a minimal rewrite...mostly, I added a clue as to the nature of the demi-lich, I changed (strengthened) the ethereal demons, added psionic parasites to the first great hall.

    There were 0 fatalities, but some characters had bad things happen to them that almost made death seem kinder. For instance, one character was a sorcerer who had a taboo requiring him to always have an item of dark clothing on his person, or he would lose a special ability. When he passed through the arch in the second great hall, he lost the special ability....luckily, he had passed the gem of seeing on to another PC first!

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  5. (It should be noted that RCFG characters are somewhat more powerful than their AD&D 1e counterparts.)

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  6. Tomb of Horrors is entirely fair--and the poem (which is only given if sufficient attention has already been paid, and hence is a reward in itself) certainly gives the characters enough clues to make it to Acerak's resting place. That, of course, is the point of the poem--since Acerak is confident enough that he can destroy parties that make it through. He seems to offer these clues to relieve some of the tedium of being a demi-lich, rewarding himself by leading truly worthy opponents to his tomb. Note that he gives NO clues as to how he can be defeated. But the methods provided in the end of the module I would regard merely as guidelines for the defeat of the demi-lich. Who's to say that clever players can't find other ways to defeat Acerak? And who's to say that defeating Acerak is necessary to successful completion of the adventure? The scenario is entirely fair!

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    1. Yup.

      And it is noteworthy that "only guidelines" was the general perspective on rules, let alone scenarios, when ToH came out.

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