Tomb of Horrors: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Small Combat

Below I finish my observations and lessons learned from running the Tomb of Horrors superadventure. SPOILER WARNING.  Don’t continue reading if you don’t want major plot points to be spoiled.

By the time we neared the finish of Chapter 3, I’d realized my mistake.  The recommended use of this adventure is as part of a larger campaign, with each Chapter used as an individual adventure within that campaign.

However, I wanted to play it right away, and straight through.  The problem though is that each Chapter of Tomb of Horrors is actually fairly similar to each other.  So when done one right after another, there just wasn’t a lot of variety.

The bottom line is that by this point I was starting to tire of the Tomb of Horrors and wanted to get it done.  But with 1.5 chapters still to go, I was still looking at several months worth of adventure to go through.

So I decided to really pare the rest of the Tomb of Horrors down to the essentials, plus try to learn some of the lessons that I’ve learned about encounter design to speed things up.

First off, I completely chopped most of the second half of Chapter 3 out of the adventure.  One of the issues I do have with the Tomb of Horrors superadventure is that there are several very linear sections with no opportunity to avoid encounters, or very little exploration.  These sections were the beginning of Chapter 2, the latter part of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4.

I decided I really didn’t want to deal with making up monsters that would act as duplicates of the PCs for the first encounter of getting into Moghadam’s vault.  In addition to being a bit of a pain, the PCs had already gone through something similar in Chapter 1.

The gargoyle mauler encounter was eliminated due to the Solo being one of those old style solo designs that really weren’t going to challenge the party and just take a really long time to deal with.  The encounter itself looks interesting, but I’d rather use it in a later adventure.

Finally, the skull shrine encounter was eliminated as mostly being a ‘gotcha’ trap.

I ran the final encounter against Moghadam pretty much as is, although I did boost his damage according to the new Monster Vault numbers.  After the epic battle from the previous session it was a bit of a let down though.

At this point, I’d decided that I really wanted to see what would happen if I ran 4e combats a lot like 1e.  That is, combats with only a few monsters.  Specifically, I was targeting approximately two Standard monsters for an encounter that wasn’t of dramatic nature.

The first two encounters from Chapter 4 I simply cut.  Again they were of the linear fight-fight encounters that I’ve started souring on.  They’ll make good encounters at some other point, but they felt more like timesinks now.

The Eldritch Storm Ambush I reduced to a War Devil and 12 Legion Devil Legionaires.  This encounter was over fairly quickly, in 3 rounds I think and only took 45 minutes.  I think had the players been more used to their newly 21st level characters it would have gone even quicker.  In addition I used one of Dave Chalker’s ‘outs’ where once the War Devil was killed, the Legionaires would surrender.  As it was I think the players quite enjoyed it (and it was amusing watching them decide whether to let the Devil’s go.  They did).

With the Hidden Temple encounter, I began using ChattyDM’s ‘Mouseburning’ method of skill resolution.  Instead of running a skill challenge to open the portals I simply went with a single Hard Arcana check…if they failed, a gargoyle would show up immediately.  If it succeded, no more rolls would be needed.  I much prefer this method.  As it turned out, the artificer made the roll so combat was avoided.

As a side note, one problem with Mouseburning in 4e is that it’s possible for one character to always be superior at a group of skills.  In this case, the artificer was the best at Arcana and Religion despite the fact that there was a Paladin in the party.  Since there were a lot of Arcana and Religion checks, the artificer player really was dominating that aspect.

One problem I really had with this adventure was forgetting about the effects of damaging terrain.  I think I really need to start highlighting the critical aspects of an encounter.

Onto Fallen Amoth.  I altered this encounter slightly, making it possible to avoid combat alltogether by tying up the Gem Key in the room with an arcane web that the artificer had to disentangle with an Arcana check (again, one only at Hard difficulty).  I directly pointed out that there was some connection between the entanglement and the tapestries but the artificer succeeded.  This is definitely one of the encounters that really need to have the damages adjusted though, as both monsters are Monster Manual 1 Elites.

Next up, the PCs fought the devils and vampire in the shrine to He Who Was.  This was the payoff for the thread that I drew through all four encounters featuring the evil sister of the fighter PC, who in this encounter was the vampire.

I did make one change to the encounter though.  First I decreased the vamapire’s level by 3.  I’m of the opinion that having a monster +5 levels above the party’s makes it too difficult to hit.  Otherwise I kept the encounter the same, as I wanted it to be one of the two dramatic encounters in this chapter.  The PCs prevailed unsurprisingly, although the paladin did almost die.

At this point the PCs decided to take an Extended Rest, which did annoy me a bit since they really only went through 1.5 encounters.  However, the adventure does take this into consideration.

After resting, the PCs then headed off to the Black Pool encounter.  In this encounter I cut out everything except for the Bone Collector.  This combat went fairly quickly, 30-40 minutes tops, did a bit of damage and we moved on.

Then the PCs hit the Reaper’s End encounter and used the portals to go to the planar encounters:  Liquid Night and Wild Game.

I made a couple of changes to the first encounter:  I reduced the number of ghosts to 2 and substantially changed the progression of the sludge.  Instead of taking many rounds to escalate, I turned up the heat on the PCs immediately.  By Round 2, the sludge covered the floor and did 5 Necrotic damage at the beginning of a player’s turn.  Round 3, it was difficult terrain and doing 10 damage.  Round 4, 20 damage.  Round 5, 30 damage.  The PCs got out by round 5 once they realized that they were in trouble.  This encounter was fast, furious and hit the PC’s hard.

After that, the PCs took on Hespotherad.  I wasn’t really happy with using a skill challenge for the game.  I think it would have been a lot better if there had actually been a subgame to play (and would recommend doing this).  Even then, I mouseburned trying to game Hespotherad and the PCs failed.  The combat went a few rounds  and once he was bloodied I had Hespotherad flee.

The PCs did one last Extended Rest and then took on Acererak.  Rather than have the PCs take on the God Golem and then Acererak, I combined the two encounters into one.  My feeling is that this is supposed to be the climax of the adventure and having to go after Acererak after dealing with the Dead God’s Tomb would be a let down.

So what I did was make this encounter like a battle against Lolth. I halved the hit points of the God Golem and Acererak and had the God Golem ‘transform’ into Acererak when it was destroyed.

Second, when I’d mentioned that the eldritch machine was sending energy to the God Golem, the PCs really focused on it, not just using skills but Daily Powers.  The PCs believed they just had to destroy the thing by brute force instead of using skills.  What I did though was treat a success as two successes if a Daily Power was used.  Just over a round later and the phylactery was destroyed, which ended up killing the God Golem and releasing Acererak.  The paladin came close to dying twice and I think the final combat was pretty fun.

How did I like using small combats?  The PCs weren’t really challenged but then again, they’re not usually challenged for full combats either.

The combats were done quickly, in 30-45 minutes tops, and that was with players who were unfamiliar with their characters (after jumping from 18th to 21st level).

Some drawbacks I could see though are that solo Elites are very vulnerable to Encounter or At Will based powers that immobilize and such.  The Artificer locked down the Bone Collector quite handily.  I think you still need to give an Elite some company, either some minions or a Standard monster.  The pair of Elites (the ancient ghosts), but that encounter featured the PCs trying to get the heck out of there quickly.  The encounter with the War Devil + 12 minions worked pretty well I think.

In conclusion, I don’t think people should be afraid of having some speedbumps to break up exploration and roleplaying encounters, much like older adventures were like.








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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