Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)
Bruce R. Cordell (TSR)
Levels 13 – 16
TSR headquarters, Renton, 1998. Lorraine Williams and Gary Gygax are distant memories. Wizards Executives and men with clipboards and lab coats watch through plate glass as Monte Cook demonstrates yet another high level spell proficiency subsystem, quotes Monty Python and tips his fedora hat while his players giggle and applaud enthusiastically. After they have created their characters, the players line up so they may thank him for his benevolence with a chaste kiss on the cheek and the session is then ended. After the room has emptied, Cordell comes in and mops the floor, staring forlornly at a chalkboard covered with ability score modifiers and a scribbled “Player Consent Form?” Every day he polishes Monte’s dice, for Monte has allowed him to demonstrate one round of combat every month to Wizards as a favor to an old friend. They are somewhat interested, but bemused at his antiquated notions of D&D. “Actual play is a thing of the past Cordell,” says one corporate fatcat as he pats him on the shoulder, blowing cigar smoke in his face. “You are a good kid, but playing games doesn’t make any sense from a business perspective. People buy this game so they can make character builds and then jerk off over them. I’ll tell you what; Monte’s next demonstration has only fifteen high level wizard spells. He should breeze through that in 6 hours. That leaves you with twenty minutes until the session is over. Why don’t you write a module and run it while the players are lining up to give him chaste kisses and discuss his witty and aptly timed movie quotes.”
Every night Cordell saunters home and dreamily plows Gary’s Wife, lost in fantasies of planar escapades and battle with demigods, but that night he breaks it off, frustrated. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “Aww shucks Miss Gygax I Just can’t do it,” he says. “I’ll never beat Monte. Nobody can come up with as many high level spells as he can, and people just don’t like to play actual modules no more. There’s no way I can come up with a great module all on my own to impress the corporate bigwigs.”
“Well maybe you won’t have to Brucey,” Gail gives a sly glance as she pulls a badly crumpled booklet from under her pillow. On the cover it says TOMB OF HORRORS FOR LEVELS 9-14. From behind a secret trapdoor under the bed, a bearded mouth that has known only hateful snarls since the time he quenched the flames in the eyes of an adolescent John Wick gives an approving smirk. “Maybe you won’t have to.”
When it comes to adventures, Bruce Cordell is probably one of the great unsung heroes of the 2e era. While Monty was busy writing masturbatory 100 page essays about metamagic feats and devising other means to ruin, once and for all, what few vestiges of oldschool DNA yet remained in poor, suffering 2e, Cordell manned the fortress and cranked out adventure after adventure, most of them high level world saving escapades, and some of them not entirely unpalatable. In general a vast improvement over the rail-roadery pretentious gibberish that infested commercial DnD for years, these modules arguably reintroduced many traditional Dungeon-crawlery elements not seen since the glory days of 1e, and trashy comic book premises be damned, some lovecraft alongside heaping portions of Tolkien. They had scope, they had ambition and they had oldschool elements. For better or for worse, the Cordell path of pulpy world-ending threats and Macguffin stones needing dash daring do-gooders to tackle came to dominate DnD’s vision of high level play, and Domain play became a distant memory. Of all the high level modules he would pen, Seas of Blood, Dawn of the Overmind, all fail to compare  against the grandeur of Return to the Tomb of Horrors.
The day has finally arrived. Like some monument out of a distant epoch it rears before me, archaic and decadent, vast amounts of illustrations, laced with references to fifteen different splatbooks, shrouded in impenetrable mists of two decades of self-referential mythology, Continual fucking light lamp-posts up the whazoo, Volumes worth of Boxed TEXT, voluminous room descriptions sprawling languidly over each page as they cover purposes of chambers long since passed outside of the realm of relevance, but buried under this thick patina of 2isms is all the potency of an Austro-Hungarian Artillery regiment. Packed with a million unfair death traps, countless 9000xp + undead, journeys into otherworldly realms, confrontations with the ultimate, Return to the Tomb of Horrors is a worthy successor to the ultra-lethal legacy of Tomb of Horrors and manages to expand the mythology of the original in a way akin to the Wrath of Khan or Terminator 2: Judgement Day, adding to the legend of the original. And like the aforementioned movie sequels, remaking Tomb would eventually grow into a tradition that was repeated every edition since the Edition That Must Not Be Named, expanding the mythology in increasingly retarded directions. Love it or hate it, RttToH stands out as one of the few high level adventures truly deserving the label Epic, and is every bit as mercilessly lethal as its predecessor, requiring a deep understanding of the game’s myriad possibilities to even dream of completing successfully.
Only its connection with the Tomb of Horrors, the most infamous module of all time, elevates the premise of this module slightly above that of a lunatic’s fancy. Since this module incorporates the original Tomb in its roster, and contains many references to events that happened therein, its full impact is only felt if YOUR PLAYERS PLAYED THE ORIGINAL MODULE. In fact it is probably at its most effective if the characters playing it are the original characters, 20 years later, uniting one last time to check an evil they had thought vanquished. Since it does not have any pre-made characters, I assume that the idea is thus that you either USE THE ORIGINAL PARTY THAT PLAYED THE MODULE YEARS AGO or that you power-level a select group of elite players all the way up to S1 before giving them a breather and then unleashing this beast of a module on the broken but affluent remnants.
So strap in, get some coffee, pour in some bourbon, throw out the coffee and just fucking drink bourbon straight from the bottle until you dry heave and you see double as the liquor pours over your freshly ironed shirts until you are baptized in it, a new man, then find an unused vein and shoot up. Then smoke an entire pack of Pall Malls until your heartbeat throbs in your ear like the Thunder of Zeus and you feel like you are back in your mothers womb. This is it boys. The real motherfucking deal.
Spoilers below. If you are a player, point your GM to this review.
Part I: Introduction
The backstory is admirably restrained to a page or so but each part has its own background and if one were to collate the whole you’d arrive at something somewhere between Tolstoy’s War & Peace and the Mahabaratha. The short version is that the tomb has been there for a long ass time, and eventually, after many adventurers, others were drawn to its location, seeking not gold but dark knowledge. A village of necromancers, complete with a necromancer hogwarts has formed around the original tomb and starts fucking up the country-side, increasingly sow as a stain of negative energy starts spreading from the tomb’s location, bringing with it spontaneously re-animating dead and all sorts of fucked up shit. Cordell calls this phenomenon The Dark Intrusion, after Monte’s nickname for Wizard’s diversity & inclusion policy. And like the aforementioned policy, the Intrusion increases in potency as time passes and the characters get closer to Acererak, going from minor nuisance to life-quenching all-pervasive menace that makes normal operation all but impossible when they reach the end.
The adventure starts off in Greyhawk, the city of Kalstrand, and immediately the adventure starts you off on the wrong foot by assuming that LEVEL 13-16 CHARACTERS WILL INVESTIGATE OMINOUS RUMORS BY THEMSELVES. FUCK YOU. I HAVE A TOWER TO BUILD AND SPELLS TO FUCK. WHAT DO I CARE IF SOME PEASANTS IN BUTTFUCK NYROND ARE SCARED OF SOME FOG. WAKE ME UP WHEN THE SLAAD LORDS ARE INVADING AGAIN. Ugh. Kallstad proper is given a lengthy description and has fucking continual light on a pole lighting (rare). Characters with domains with monthly upkeep costs in the tens of thousands of gold pieces are staying in a tavern near the dockside, presumably to catch pneumonia and lice. Maybe if the characters are like Conan they burn through baronies at the same rate as drinks or maybe its force of habit, fuck it.
The real hook is a subtle foreshadowing that this adventure does not fuck around, and should serve as a wake-up call to any late-bloomers or entry-ists who are really only there because the GM promised that they would play Dungeon World next. Thick fog that night. A tavern patron goes outside to investigate and screams. 10 drowned Sailors in the form of Wights in the fog. Did you run outside to investigate without any spells or preparation? Then now is a good time to learn a lesson the Hard Way. 10 Wight’s is RttToH’s version of a gentle wake-up call.
The downside is that it sinks in just how fucking verbose RttToH is. The wights are sailors, one of the sailors has a tattoo that reads ‘Payvin’s Pearl.’ It’s the name of a barge. The innkeeper knows it. This is described as follows;
After the party has quelled this uprising, they may elect to search the bodies and the surrounding area for clues as to this strange and unsettling event. The bodies of the destroyed wights are rotten and water-logged and give every indication of having been immersed in water for some time. Their clothes are unremarkable, but a successfull Wisdom check allows the investigating PC to find a tattoo on one of the rotting arms that reads ‘Pervin’s Pearl.’ A succesfull tracking proficiency roll reveals that there are multiple damp trails leading from the water’s edge to the tavern doorway, and thence to the location of the PC’s recent conflict. Nothing else is revealed in the search, even if the PCs can manage to search the riverbed below the waterline.
This continues in this vein for almost half a page to communicate to you that the innkeeper knows where the barge is. There is a whiff of hope, the constabulary doesn’t give a shit about 10 people dying since they are seasonal dockworkers, a perfectly acceptable attitude for a medieval town guard, where cities are generally crime-ridden nests of pestilence and violence.
Protip: Investigative GM’s. If your PCs absolutely need to find a clue to continue the adventure; Let. Them. Find. It. Don’t roll a gay dice roll, let them find it if they investigate the body.
This section is criminally long, with a half page of boxed text to get the captain to tell you his men all deserted after they saw some fucked up shit, and leaving you with nothing but a stray reference to The Devourer. This section is FURTHER DRAGGED OUT as it discusses possible use of Legend Lore (YES), then a local sage, WHO LEADS YOU TO ANOTHER SAGE, and charges 750 gp a day. This entire introductory section is a clumsy piece of shit. 3 days the old motherfucker spends but he does end up saddling you with a suitably apocalyptic prophecy and points you to a 20 years out of date reference to a wizard who was studying the topic of the Devourer. He lives…sigh…30 miles from Kallstad. FUCKING DISTANCE. DO YOU SPEAK IT. WIZARDS BUILD THEIR TOWERS IN REMOTE LOCATIONS. A WEEK. MAKE IT A WEEK’s TRAVEL AT MINIMUM. At least Desatysso the wizard took the trouble of building his fucking house atop the unfortunately named Glorioles. Still no incentive to follow up…besides…be a hero? What if my barony is next?
Though criminally long, this section does two things. It sets the mood, one of sinister dealings taking place behind veils of mystery, the lack of information is appropriate as it draws players in, leaving the initiative to learn more in their hands, and it gives the PCs an initial destination to set off too. The pacing and mundane trivia is an appropriate start since the adventure gets increasingly nuts as time goes on and ends up in absolute batshit land so well done.
The overland journey is alright, involving some random encounters that exist mostly as window dressing, 2d10 ogres, 1d6 wyverns, 14 HD MOUNTAIN GIANT PATROL NOTWITHSTANDING. AT A DAY’s TRAVEL FROM A MAJOR CITY. Cordell understands fantasy but he doesn’t understand versimilitude or he doesn’t give a shit. You aren’t going to run a bustling trade metropolis with wandering ogre tribes nearby, you are going to use that trade money to get some guys to bring you their fucking heads. Okay, rant over. Good part, the adventure gives your players a big fuckoff natural hazard that is actually quite deadly; a 900 feet rocky slope with some fuckoff Hill Giants on top. Trivial if you know what you are doing, deadly if your players are imbeciles.
Desatysso’s tower proper is the first dungeon of RttToH and is reminiscent more of the G series then S. It is also unique because it is the last time RttToH will allow you to fight it on even terms and the PCs will not be shitting themselves. There is no gimping in this section. PCs are welcome to fly around, scry the damn place, wander invisibly, use etherealness or deploy any number of monstrously overpowered magical abilities against the tower’s current inhabitants, which do happen to be a tribe of hill and mountain giants, 12 HD  and 14 HD respectively. All of the room descriptions are MUCH too fucking long, and carry redundancies (this room used to contain etc.) which makes running it straight from the tap a nightmare. The whole is, however, nonlinear, with multiple means of egress, allowance is made for a diplomatic option, there is the odd nasty trap (a certain tunnel involving a rolling boulder is a motherfucking classic) and the game is not shy about throwing a bound 16 HD Fire Elemental at the PCs or have the giants try to throw the PCs down a 1000 foot cliff as a tactic. Intelligent tactics by monsters. That’s what I like to see.
I don’t like some of the traps because they seem too…weird? A room that magically contracts to pulp the players for damage if they step on a pressure plate seems like fucking bullshit. I can take it if it is placed in a tomb filled with increasingly bizarre traps but this one seems out of place and nonsensical. At this point the PCs might want to keybind I SEARCH FOR TRAPS or cut out a giant paper hand, glue it on a stick and write that on there in sharpy since EVERYTHING is going to be searched for traps. There is no hint of resource management or light sources in RttToH since it probably assumes that at 13-16, you are going to be carrying magical items that render most such challenges trivial. How does one walk into Mordor? Very very slowly.
The whole is not the stuff of legends but is a good way to get the PCs to stretch their legs and will probably end with a lot of dead giants and a lot of very happy PCs. The first arbitrary fuckery rears its ugly head. A Knock proof, lockpicking proof cabinet (but not, oddly, a chime of opening proof cabinet) that can only be opened with a fucking key. Get bent Cordell. There’s a decent amount of mundane treasure like silver goblets or a gold chain clasping a ruby or a mirror framed in intricate wood and a stray magic item if looked for properly. It’s 2e, nobody gives a fuck about treasure anymore. An acid-eaten diary leads the PCs back to Kalstad to track down Desatysso’s associates. The first section is very verbose, and would be about average for a high level adventure even if this was not the case. By no means terrible, but one of the weakest sections of the whole.
On the way back, Cordell mentions some sort of Tomb Hill the PCs passed by having now unleashed a ghostly menace known only as The False Prince, which is outside the scope of the adventure, odd cryptic hints nonwithstanding. Its not a bad encounter and it reminds me of the tomb in Conan. The designer in me screams that superfluous encounters should be erased, but DnD as a living breathing thing is dotted with red herrings, hooks and other such drivel so why the fuck not? Cordell often places hooks or links to other things in his adventures, which in general should be applauded.
Total Number of INSTANT Death Traps: 2. 900 ft. Drop (possibly assisted) and a rolling Stone Ambush.
Tomb of Horrors Level: Warm-up round.
Part II: Black Academy
This is where it starts getting real, and Return to the Tomb of Horrors stop pulling its punches. One can argue some of RttTH’s perils are even more merciless and arbitrary then ToH’s but I will remind the jury of two things:
1) the Higher Level Range
2) It’s 2e, meaning EVEN MORE WIZARD AND CLERIC SPELLS.
The most lethal example is the Dim Triad , a trio of vampires that haunts the region of the Vast Swamp the PCs must cross (one week’s travel, very good Cordell) to find the Black Academy. BIG FUCKING DEAL. You shout. ONE TURN UNDEAD ATTEMPT. Excellent. They sneak up to the party’s camp in mist form, while surrounded by natural fog, take solid form in your tent and attempt to murder people in their sleep. Did you remember to cast Mordekainen’s Faithful Hound? Divinations? Alarm spells? Glyphs? Has the GM ever, in your long ass campaign from 1st to 16th level tried a full on night-time ambush? No? Then your characters are revealed for entry-ists and the morning will bring fucking death for up to 3.
Yet this encounter, while deadly, also betrays Cordell’s weakness as a designer, since the party cannot logically expect to stumble on the Dim Triad whilst blazing a trail through 300 square miles of Swamp. There is a caveat. “Unless the party has gone to extreme lengths to hide their campsite.” Cordell has a poor grasp on scale.
I get ahead of myself. The party returns to Kallstad and must now look into the party Desatysso hired to do his bidding. Turns out the guy they are looking for is fucking dead. He is still visited by a retarded fighter (no I mean literally a one-armed int 5 level 13 Fighter named Grunther) and the PCs learn that IT WAS THE TOMB OF HORRORS they were tasked with visiting. The party can team up with Grunther the retarded 13th level fighter with a belt of giant’s strength and travel to a nearby village to talk with an elf with PTSD to figure out its the tomb of horrors they are after. SUSPENSE.
The investigative parts of this adventure stand in mute contrast to the rest. On the one hand, despite their corny elements, they build up suspense and give the reveal of the Tomb of Horrors as a final location all the gravitas it should deserve. On the other hand, they are an investigative adventure in retarded mode, standing in stark contrast with the riddle that must be solved to progress later on.
There’s some random encounters and side treks as the party makes the journey into the Vast Swamp to the Tomb of Horrors proper, with the random encounters serving mostly as window dressing to lure the party into a false sense of complacency. The Black Academy is the real motherfucking deal.
I call this adventure an Epic and it deserves the appellation. The first section tested the character’s dungeon-bashing capabilities. The Black Academy is far too well guarded to be taken on head on. Hundreds of Necromancers. Walls filled with hundreds of Bone Nagas. Telepathic Greater Bone Golems. Necromancer Dumbledore and Necromancer Snaepe. Getting INTO Skull City alone requires trickery and the peril only increases from thereon. This section is likely to proceed as far more of an Ocean’s Eleven infiltration style adventure while it is also is simultaneously a mystery. You see, the Black Academy is built AROUND THE TOMB OF HORRORS, and the characters learn from Desatysso’s Journal that the Amulet of the Void SOMEHOW leads to Acererak’s REAL final resting place, the aptly named Fortress of Conclusion. It is up to the PCs to figure out how, how to reach the Tomb from the Black Academy (the entrance is naturally hidden), and somehow avoid getting fucking murdered or exposed as necromancers.
Desatysso’s Journal is naturally included and it is too fucking long, 10 pages of flavor text to dig through for clues. Everything in RttToH is a formidable challenge, and this flavor text will surely prove too formidable for all but the mapper. Why the fuck not at this point?
Necromancer’s collage, filled with powerful NPCs, unique undead, a mad prophet that tore his eyes out, the entrance to the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors proper is concealed, One part of the Amulet is in possession of the Headmistress (LVL 18 VAMPIRE SCION NECROMANCER who has somehow in decades not figured out she holds only HALF of the Amulet of the Void), one part is next to the fucking Demi-lich’s skull in the original Tomb of Horrors, which the PCs will have to play through with a fucking school full of necromancer’s behind them this part is insane.
It’s also the worst in terms of organization. Important information about NPCs is buried in room entries, those same NPCs show up in different rooms. Now add references to fucking Tome of Magic, Complete Book of Necromancers and Complete Wizard’s Handbook. I had to reread it just to figure out how to proceed to the third (and if possible even more lethal part). This entire part SCREAMS for meta-data. References. An overview page of the major NPCs, what they know, and where important clues are buried. Then an overview page of the Academy’s schedule WHICH EXISTS, ITS JUST NOT PRESENTED IN A NORMAL FASHION. Even you, the GM, must figure out new ways to actually run it, in much the same way that PCs must figure out new ways to play it.
Cloaks made of animated undead tissue. A living bone gate whose rattling laughter can cause instant death. The High Executor garbed in a Bone Exosuit. Hordes of Ghasts that break through the soft bog floor to drag their paralysed victims to a watery death below. A heart that is powered by life force from all who come near. Black flames that take as fuel the life-force of men. This section goes immediately to eleven and its not even full RttToH.
Another dirty trick is to have most of the necromancers wear magical apparel but make all that apparel really evil to use. I still haven’t figured out whether or not that is a legitimate trick in the GM’s arsenal.
In order to proceed, you must fulfill a mysterious condition, and CRAWL THROUGH THE MOUTH OF THE GREEN DEVIL FACE.
This section is fucking nuts. There’s prisoners to rescue too if you fucking feel like it, requiring at least a 2 week detour. There’s a tome that allows you to possibly turn into a free-willed Vampire and keep all of your shit. If you aren’t the right stuff for this level of pain you will notice and notice immediately. If run fairly, I don’t see 80% of all DnD groups even reach beyond this point.
Total number of Instant Death Traps: ~7. Vampiric vistors, Telepathic Granite Execution Skeleton, 3 Save or die poison traps, Room filling Petrification Gas and three high level necromancers with Save or die necromancy spells. Honorary mentions for a tomb laced with cursed luckstones, a phenomenon that causes permanent constitution loss, a spellbook that summons Minor Deaths to all who look upon it and a room that traps you inside with Incindiary Cloud. This does not include ALL THE DEATH TRAPS IN THE ORIGINAL TOMB OF HORRORS, WHICH MUST BE BYPASSED IN ORDER TO CONTINUE.
Tomb of Horrors level: About two ToH’s worth.
Join me next time, as the adventure goes to Twelve.
 Die! Vecna Die! is every bit as insane and every bit as ambitious.
 In 2e, Hill Giants received a considerable boost in HD, making them chunkier. It doesn’t matter. 12 HD giants or 8 HD giants, no spellcasting counter measures in the 13+ level range means there will be nothing left to bury
 Allegedly named after Monte Cook’s nickname for Skip Williams, Jeremy Crawford & Christopher Perkins