Running the Tomb of Horrors Supermodule (SPOILERS!)

Over the past 8 months I’ve been running the 4e Tomb of Horrors supermodule as a campaign, jumping character levels between each chapter.

In a thread on, I have been posting my thoughts and experiences of running this adventure. I did alter the adventure slightly in the first three chapters, but really hacked Chapter 4 after a lot of the discussion regarding combat length and pacing had occurred recently.

Here, I republish my collected posts regarding the first three chapters and will follow it tomorrow with my final post about the adventure, specifically observations about cutting down the size of Encounters (not just trying to speed them up).

I have made additional edits discussing more observations that I’ve made about those sections of the adventure after posting the original text.

Warning!  SPOILERS BELOW!!!!  Do not read if you may be a player in this adventure.

September 21, 2010

Well, after finishing the first chapter, here are some of my observations regarding it:

1. Drop the level of the plant monster in the final encounter. 5 levels above the party is a bit much to deal with.  As it was, the party had killed the other monsters, leaving the plant monster alone, and were going to have a heck of time trying to even hit it.  Time was running out so I pretty much minionized it.

2. The fighting area when you’re dealing with the copies of yourselves is a bit small…choke points made it very difficult for the monsters to coordinate.

3. The Lamia + Swarms encounter is horrible if your party doesn’t have much in the way of Area or Blast powers.

4. Prepare for the PCs to take a long time to figure out the sundial puzzle, and even then, focus too much on certain stanzas of the poem. I actually introduced the Emerald Claw to this puzzle (by having them also choose the wrong number to stand in front of). I wanted to have some reason for the secondary bad guys in chapter 4 to be around (instead of Vecna, it’s Vol as I’m running an Eberron campaign).

October 21, 2010

I’m now into running Chapter 2.

The first encounter was fine, but I completely skipped the big skill challenge through the Tower of Test and the Dark Barrow. The reason I skipped the Tower of Test was that it’s MUCH too big to properly sketch out on a battlemap. It was going to be a huge hassle, so I just skipped it.  (Edit:  If I was to do this now, I’d probably ‘Mouseburn‘ this encounter)

The Dark Barrow I skipped because it really didn’t add anything to the adventure, beyond just being a monster to fight. It wasn’t blocking anything, there really isn’t anything important going on.  (Edit:  This was unfortunately fairly common in this adventure as you’ll see later.)

The fight with the Tortured Vestige took FOREVER. Mind you, this is because my players decided to completely ignore trying to break the wards on the gate, and just try to fight the Vestige. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that they were supposed to be scared of it (the big glowing picture didn’t scare them). It’s actually quite winnable…but only after 2+ hours of fighting due to the Level +6 solo hp. I thought that the ‘new’ monsters in ToH were more appropriately scaled for damage, but not in this case.   (Edit:  There were others, especially later in the adventure.  I’d recommend taking a look at each monster in later chapters to make sure they still provide a challenge.) It confirmed my feeling that in order to really scare a player you need to do a massive amount of damage in one blow. As it was, the Vestige was more annoying than anything else.

I’d almost consider removing the Wraiths from the Perilous Archways encounter in the Shadow Tomb. The key to the encounter really is the portals and the Devourer, not the Wraiths, who are pretty much a speed bump.  (Edit:  Actually, this encounter probably was what provided the seed to my opinion that small combats are okay.)

November 13, 2010

Below I will summarize our last two sessions of Tomb of Horrors, specifically chapter 2.

Simply put, I think these last two sessions were the best ones we’ve had since 4e came out. It really felt old school. Traps, exploration, and the like. We probably had more ritual use in the last two sessions than the last two years combined, largely because of ’empty rooms’ between encounters and puzzles to be solved.

So the PCs jumped into the Shadow Tomb after dealing with the Vestige. They were promptly attacked by the Sword Wraiths and didn’t have too much trouble defeating them. To be honest, I’m not sure they were necessary to the encounter. You could skip them and wouldn’t miss the meat of the entry room, which is dealing with the Devourer and the Alcoves.  (Edit:  Like I said earlier, I think I was wrong on this now.)

Unfortunately, there seem to be several editorial issues in this chapter. First, the footprints mentioned in the text really don’t match up to the rationale to where they are. I didn’t worry too much about it, and the PCs didn’t really deal with them. They did however use Hand of Fate to figure out which portals to go through. This did allow them to avoid the really nasty results, but three of the PCs went into the donkey-head portal all at once. Heh heh heh…

Another thing that wasn’t clear was why the bodies in this chamber were ‘beyond a Speak with Dead’ since Speak with Dead doesn’t have a time limit. So I allowed it, which gave the PCs the hint on how to deal with the Devourer…and I also gave them the hint about avoiding the tapestries in the next room. This was a mistake, as they were able to destroy all the tapestries as they moved through the next room until they reached the centre when the Nighthaunts attacked. As it turned out, they never were impacted by the tapestries at all.

Another editorial issue: the text kept mentioning pit traps…which weren’t on the map. So I ignored them. Then they dealt with the chamber with the necrotic rain. They used a rope to make something akin to a zip line to the trapdoors in the center of the room. Then set off the acid trap…twice. Needless to say this messed up their rope…and vastly increased their paranoia the rest of the way. I also wrote on a piece of paper “Please don’t kill me.” when they discovered that the trapdoors were false. They eventually found the hidden passage way and used some ladder ritual to get up there.

The PCs made their way to the ‘planar rooms’ but turned back before going through the arches. Originally I was glad about this because I wasn’t sure about the purpose of those rooms. Turns out that they have the keys that are needed to open the final room. (Edit:  This is one of those things that really needs to be highlighted somehow.  As it was it was kinda buried in the text).

They kept going north, found all the magic loot (which I’m changing but waiting for the CB to be updated next week so I can add some Rare items).  (Edit:  I really wish WotC would publish some of that material from Mordenkainen’s Magic Emporium Soon.  As it is I made a couple of Rare items myself). They made fairly quick work of the Tormentors and Phantoms though they completely missed the thing about possibly dealing with this without fighting as much. I probably should have roleplayed the Tormentors to really supply the back story to the PCs. As it turned out, the PCs kept being able to make their saves to fall off the bridges, except once near the end where the paladin fell over. The bones at the bottom really didn’t come into it, though it still was a characterful encounter.

They did some more exploring, got paranoid with the ‘trapdoors’ that really weren’t trapped or false, found the shadar-kai (reskinned as members of the Emerald Claw), and got to the locked door. They headed back, used Hand of Fate to figure out which arches to go through and ended the session being attacked by bodaks. I’m looking forward to that encounter. Can’t wait to see the expression on their face when I say: You drop to 0 hp.  (Edit:  It was awesome). Assuming of course the PCs can get weakened. They do a have a fair bit of radiant damage.

December 30, 2010

Here’s a summary of some observations regarding my last two sessions of running Tomb of Horrors.

So, faced with the two keyholes, the PCs went to look for the keys. I’d tried to start early due to the fact that I’d planned to have the final combat of this chapter for the end of the session…but it didn’t really work out and so I ended up skipping the Feywild Ruin encounter. The PCs handled the Dark Laboratory encounter fairly handily, but were surprised by the Bodak’s ability to knock someone to 0 hp with one blow. The planar vats were an interesting diversion, but something I’ve realized with my players is that they’re very brute force…they’ll handle the monsters first and _then_ deal with traps or hazards. I think I need to make the hazards more dangerous.  (Edit:  They’ve gotten a bit better at this, especially in the final combat against Acererak). Also, the Force Bridge just served to be more of an annoyance than anything else, as it doesn’t really form part of the encounter. It’s much more like a ‘classic’ trap between encounters. I’m not really sure those work at all in 4e.

So the PCs then went onto the Shadow Engine encounter. Instead of a demilich construct, I decided to take advantage of the new Monster Vault and replace it with a modified Beholder. The reason being that the PCs would eventually fight Acererak himself, as a demilich, and I didn’t want this encounter to be similar to that one. This turned out ‘okay’.

Unfortunately, even with the new math, Beholders just don’t do enough damage to really challenge the PCs by themselves. They only get two attacks normally on their turn…and although they do get a random eye ray attack as a free action at the beginning of a PC’s turn (but only if the PC is in range…which 2 of them pretty much weren’t most of the combat), something like 4/10 of the eye rays don’t do enough damage (or any damage at all). This makes it very tough to concentrate fire on any given PC and I think I only bloodied a PC once. Beholders really aren’t Artillery…they’re Controllers. (Edit:  It’s been pointed out to me that the fact that the PCs were Paragon level had a big effect on this combat.  A 9th level Beholder really is supposed to be a foe for Heroic PCs, who aren’t as capable as Paragon level PCs). I replaced the Beholder’s ‘antimagic ray’ with the demilich’s soul drain power though…didn’t do anything. Again, the PCs ignored the possibility of dealing with the Shadow Engine…I think its worthwhile to describe some sort of energy beam pointing at the demilich construct (or Beholder in my case) to indicate that it’s somehow getting power from it. Make it blatant, and make it important. Perhaps make it so that whatever is guarding the shadow engine can’t be destroyed UNTIL the shadow engine is destroyed or something.  (Edit:  I did exactly this for the final combat last night, and the PCs definitely dealt with it.  Surprisingly quickly in fact).

The following session, I skipped over the Skull City stuff entirely. I’m doing this adventure straight through, and nobody had played either the original or the Return to the Tomb of Horrors adventure. Instead, I brought back a character I’ve been interweaving between the adventures (she was behind the scenes in the Garden of Graves…tried to kill the PCs before the Shadow Tomb, and now tried again before the Abandoned Tomb). This time, she was mounted on an Elder White Dragon…and promptly got killed like a minion (intentionally…she then was teleported back to her mistress, Vol, and will come back as a vampire in the final chapter). The new Elder White Dragon was pretty nasty (especially the bite), but got locked down pretty badly, so it wasn’t able to take full advantage of it’s powers. Can’t do a rampage if it can’t move!

Then the PCs entered the tomb and were amused by all the secret doors. Eventually they fought the Chorus of the Dead.

A couple of points about this encounter. It’s very cramped, although the Callers in Darkness are able to phase through the walls. Also, they simply don’t do enought damage. These monsters were obviously created before the new math came around, and it shows. I did the suggested ‘double the static bonus’ and it worked out well. However, there is one thing that I’d do to improve this encounter. Don’t have the Callers attack the party when they enter this room the first time…do it the SECOND time…when they’re looking for the door after getting the keys. Better yet, have them enter the room through the new secret door…it’ll give the PCs something to key off of. This encounter as written also has the problem of “what does this really add to the adventure, other than just being a fight?” Perhaps have the encounter end when the secret door is opened.

Anyways, there’s the summary of my recommendations and experiences from the last two sessions. Looking ahead with three solo monsters coming up, I know I’m going to have to do some adjusting…especially with the Gargoyle. They simply don’t meet the MV/MM3 standards for Solos and need adjusting.

January 8, 2011

Last night’s session was EPIC.

First, the PCs entered the room with the mummy lying on the floor. Rapidly they were thrust into combat. Another mummy joined the combat the next round. Despite the fact that they’d figured out that by completing the mummification ritual, they would prevent any other mummies from rising, they decided to fight, which was tough considering how many hps the mummies did have. Fortunately for them, I rolled lousy the rest of the combat, going something like 5-6 rounds before another mummy would rise. In the meantime they did beat up the two that had risen, and were working on preventing the others from rising, but couldn’t finish off the rituals before the third rose. It was a bit of a slog, though the rounds did go pretty quickly (though there were a lot of rounds…probably 10-12 in all).

Then the PCs fought the Eladrin in the mist. To say that this combat went down differently than I was expecting would be an understatement. On on the first round of combat, the gnoll assassin moved into the room (with Oceanstrider boots so he walked on water), then used the Guileful Swipe power to attack, then pick the key off the Eladrin with a successful Thievery check, attacked again and then shifted away. He then spent an AP to invoke his Stalker’s Action PP feature and gained phasing and headed through the wall into the corridor. The rest of the PCs then followed him. Needless to say, that was a shock. But then I turned the tables on them. The Eladrin used her teleport ability which in this case did not require LOS to block off the assassin’s escape, and then immobilized him.

At that point it got a bit clogged down with her stuck in the corridor between two groups of PCs. Eventually she did blast the fighter into the misty grotto (right after he had bloodied her), and he became briefly dominated. But since the combat was primarily fought in the hallway, that trap didn’t really come into any effect. However, meanwhile the Eladrin spent all her attacks on the assassin, giving him dirt naps two or three times I think, nearly killing him, and searching his belongings looking for the key (which he’d pocketed with his Fast Hands ability). The rest of the party pulled out all the stops to try to save the assassin, especially after she started throwing 5 attacks at him.

I was almost certain he was going to die, but he didn’t, because of a set of very fortunate circumstances. First, the fighter used his Vortex Mask to pull her down the corridor, over the prone assassin (if he hadn’t been prone this wouldn’t have worked). Then he managed to barely hit her with his attack (courtesy of a house-rule where if they miss by 1 they can spend a healing surge to make it a hit). This pulled her out of melee range of the assassin, where she was putting the smack down on him by attacking his Fort (which was at -2 to boot). Instead, she had to attack at range…and with the -2 from being marked, -2 for attacking a prone target at range, and the fact she was now attacking his much better Reflex defense…she didn’t hit any of her 5 attacks. Then she was killed a round later.

Lessons learned? The PCs can have surprises, but boy the monsters can have them too. Also, I did boost the damage amounts though, to MM3 values, and it definitely had an impact. These guys were much more scared of her than any other Solo of that high of level in the past. One other thing… I would give the Eladrin a Trait that allows her to shake off any dazed, stunned or dominated statuses at the end of her turn. Didn’t matter for my group (no controller) but she’s still behind the curve as far as Solo design goes. But her attacks are fine (though I did boost the damage).

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd

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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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