[Review] Return to the Tomb of Horrors Pt. II (AD&D 2e); Touch the Sun

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

Pt. III: Moil, the City that Waits.

In the previous outing we covered the introduction to Return of the Tomb of Horrors, a deadly but fairly standard high level outing, and followed this up with the Black Academy, an excellent infiltration-under-pressure scenario culminating appropriately in the Tomb of Horrors proper. While formidable, all these challenges are as nothing compared to what awaits.

As the heroes pass through the Green Devil Face’s mouth in one of the most epic transitions ever put to module, they enter the demi-plane of Moil, The City That Waits, where they will most likely die infamous, their quest undone. Moil, place of infinite weirdness, infinite deadliness, a thousand tombs of horrors could not match your sophisticated cruelty. Great towers sticking out of formless black mist, narrow bridges suspended over a long drop into the Negative Energy Plane, everything in this section screams that it is a place of the Beyond, where all that is known has been left behind, and players are contesting with forces ultramontane. Scope, style, content and difficulty, this section is in all ways transcendent. While theoretically possible to complete, I don’t know if the type of players that go through this section without some serious attrition are even still technically playing DnD.

The premise behind this section is that Moil was once a city of vaguely Melniboneán magitech Orcus-worshippers that eventually abandoned him in favor of less fickle patrons. Orcus took it poorly, and pronounced his curse, that all would slumber until they would see the sun, before taking the whole fucking city and dumping it in a lightless demi-plane on the Edge of the Negative Energy plane. Cue centuries later, when Acererak stumbles on the place, and figures this is the perfect Anchor for the construction of his Stronghold hugging the Negative Energy plane. Lots of next-level super-necromancy later, and the City of Moil now serves as the gateway to the Fortress of Conclusion.
Notice a lot of planar blather; if you are not well versed in the elaborate cosmology of AD&D, rest assured that by the end of this module you will be able to curb stomp many a neckbeard in lonely, akward, fire-ball whiskey drenched DnD-themed pub quizzes where nought is heard but awkward high-pitched giggles and the ritualistic incantation of Monty Python quotes and members of the fairer sex fear to thread.

Let us begin with a gripe. The backstory that is rife throughout Tomb of Horrors meta-stasizes in the City of Moil until it all but overwhelms it. Every tower in Moil is described in terms of what it once was, what cultural significance it had, what the culture once looked like, what the NPCs once were, what rooms once did, what items were made by what guy, whether Monte likes his eggs sunny side up, that one time Monte Cook stole Cordell’s girlfriend with an anecdote about an all wizard 14th level adventuring party etc. etc. This is essentially a death sentence for any normal GM, but since you are adamant on running Return to the Tomb of Horrors, I suspect you are hardcore enough to wade through the haphazardly placed exposition and cohere it into one of the most atmospheric, bizarre and creative locations for DnD ever put to paper.

A big fucking gripe. PLANE TRAVELLING. HIGH LEVEL CLERICS IN 2E WITH ACCESS TO THE ASTRAL SPHERE HAVE ACCESS TO PLANE SHIFT. I don’t recall whether plane shifting allows you to arrive in any particular location, but Plane shift would probably allow you to leave Moil. That’s not game breaking, in fact, RttToH is pretty robust but the fact that it never addresses these forms of planar travel in this and the following section is a weakness. We start to see that even with well written adventures the problem inherent in high level DnD, that there are so many spells and abilities to take into account that designing challenging encounters without blanket immunities [1] is a fairly challenging ordeal. Moil succeeds very well in this regard.

Moil works BECAUSE it is not a reference to classic mythology. The arts and crafts of the Moilians are clearly vastly beyond that of the PCs native civilizations. Vast esoteric knowledge of drugs and magical healing, magic androids, transportation portals, sophisticated gambling devices, advanced necromancy, inhuman architecture, all of it steeped in cruel, hedonistic arbitrary evil. A frozen hell of giant towers, connected by crumbling bridges spanning a lightless abyss, haunted by the re-animated corpses of its former inhabitants and horrors from the darkest crags of the planes. A farcry from the limp-wristed hackfests of high level Dungeon Magazine articles, Moil is a gauntlet of truly fiendish traps that test the players to their absolute limit.

The key to Moil is intricate, seemingly insurmountable problems that require sophisticated strategy to solve against a backdrop of relentless, unabating attrition that makes it all but impossible to take the time to formulate sophisticated strategy. Tomb of Horrors was deadly but provided you all but infinite time. Like an irate russian ballet-instructor, Moil gives you no time and demands absolute excellence at the risk of severe retribution.
Once you enter you are essentially stuck (barring serious gate-magick likely to be unavailable) until you find the Fortress of Conclusion. The Dark Intrusion becomes a serious hindrance, diminishing the effectiveness of healing magic, making everything even more harder to turn (I mean at this point everything is turned as Special Undead) and shrouding everything in severe cold (hope you brought winter clothing). Every couple of hours, the characters risk encountering the Vestige, a slow monster composed of the dreams of all the Moilians, all but invincible for even 16th level characters, and true safety virtually nonexistent. Towers are connected by bridges, some of them VERY unsafe, across the Void, with few entrances. You are always one fall away from immersion into the Negative Energy Plane. The most frequent antagonist is the Moilian Zombie, 9 HD, which regenerates by draining the hit points from all who come within 20 feet (can only be healed magically), has a paralyzing frost wave attack and is very difficult to destroy permanently (immersion in acid, fire etc. etc.). Not deadly for a level 13+ party, but time-consuming, irritating, and very costly. A cryptic riddle provides the only clue; In 14 towers there are hidden 3 puzzles and 1 key that are needed to continue.

There is a bit of understandable abstraction going on with the giant towers in that generally, only two levels are accessible, and the rest are described as dust-clogged ruin. I am actually fine with this, Moil is a place of such strangeness that I doubt it will do any damage to your suspension of disbelief. The inclusion of an artifact that can seriously aid you against Acererak in the section following this one is by far the most jarring, but Acererak’s designs are so vast and occasionally nebulous it should be easy to obfuscate.
That being said, the whole is a thing of such breathtaking creativity and variety that I stand in awe of this section.

Rather then curtailing the vast array of mobility and defensive options high level characters have at their disposal, Moil is built around them. Puzzles suspended from Wraith Spider webs above a bottomless abyss, keys located in caverns of ice in reservoirs of sub-zero salt water, entrances via ceiling, the whole place SCREAMS fly spell or slippers of spider climb. There are sections within certain towers that put a ban on the use of mobility magic, but overall the module mostly encourages, if not outright demands thinking outside of the box. Cordell considering the possibility of players blasting a hole in the reservoir for example shows playtesting or an admirable insight into player ingenuity. Breaking some of the puzzles, which is easy when you have a bottomless pit leading into absolute nothing, does not lock the game into a no-win state, but rather consumes several weeks whilst Acererak’s demon servants repair the damn traps, most likely dooming the players in this desolation without heat or food.

The approximately nine thousand five hundred twenty opportunities to plummit into the life-draining omega-void of the Negative Energy Plane are handled with admirable clemency. RttToH always gives players a last chance to grab a railing or last handhold, only to then introduce some sort of hideous peril to besiege the players when they are at their most vulnerable. This OH COME ON method of encounter design is vastly more satisfying then boring save or die trash and adds to the module’s reputation for next level dickery. The Winter Wight, a nightmarish form of hyper-evolved undead with 2 5d4 damage talons and constitution draining fire that can spread to other characters is already a pants-shitting experience, but to introduce it at the bottom of an ice-slide that ends abruptly over a bottomless pit while the players most likely dangle from their finger-tips is a stroke of sadistic genius. Hats off to Cordell, this is exactly what you signed up for, and it does not disappoint.

Monster design is fantastic, obscure monsters are combined with natural hazards to allow them to get full use out of their abilities unless you short-circuit them. A Dark-weaver in a labyrinthine maze, a Brine Dragon in frozen salt-water, a maddened android surgeon cyborg thing, a headsman zombie with a vorpal axe and hood that can compel people to put their heads on a chopping block, some sort of exalted champion zombie that is only faced after a series of tests…the challenges are a multifaceted horror show that never ceases to cause pants-shitting terror wherever they are encountered.

The Vestige thing that the characters encounter and mostly need to run away from (seriously how the fuck do you kill this thing?)? One of the puzzles is in its lair, and its an hourglas…you need to stay an hour next to it in order to complete it. HAHAAAAH. GOOD LUCK IDIOTS.

Moil is set up to be relentless and have few places of genuine safety. Most sources of apparent succor are false, the Tower of Healing is a misnomer and in fact represents deadly peril. Its little remnants of previous visitors, the occasional friendly (or less friendly) NPC and weird encounters like a severed animated hand that follows the PCs around like a grotesque pet keep surprising you.

Treasure is not forgotten though a bit sparse in the gold-piece department, not surprising considering the focus that is demanded of the players. A Rod of Ressurection with 7 charges found somewhere among the treasure is a nice symbolic peace offering, but considering so many of the perils in this section bring complete annihilation, and any dead bodies have a 60% chance of animating as a zombie.

Do I go into the almost Lovecraftian transition where the PCs must ride atop the back of a hideous Phantom Flyer to the nightmarish Fortress of Conclusion perched at the edge of the Negative Energy Plane. Do I cover in meticulous detail each cunning, sadistic, fiendishly clever death trap? Dispel traps in underwater ice-caverns? A trap that teleports you 50 ft. outside the walls of the fortress? An enchanted roulette that can give you 21 on your primary ability score but can also age you, cripple you, drain your soul etc. etc. Possibly poisonous hallucinogens that allow you to gain hints for the, admittedly formidable, challenges that must be completed to exit this nightmarish circus of the damned? A Moilian zombie armed with what appears to be the fucking Witchblade?

Do I gripe that a native Moilian found in a mirror of life-trapping that can very well be recruited knows nothing about the contents of any towers since she “came from a time centuries before that”? These are all minor admonishments, tiny smudges on a vast, brazen gateway leading into realms beyond mortal reckoning.

And it has not yet concluded.

Total number of Death Traps: ~n Poisoned Satchel. Cursed Archway (eternal slumber). Cursed Cabinet (teleportation above bottomless abyss),  Defective teleportation portal leading into Plane of Vacuum, Symbols of dispelling underwater, dozens of pitfalls or crumbling pathways, poison gas spraying statue, lever that plunges entire content of tower into Negative Energy Plane, etc. etc. etc.

Tomb of Horrors Level: Over 9000

Part IV; Fortress of Conclusion

The phantom flyer takes our characters into the boundless void, wherein a tiny speck of light is discovered in the absolute void. A fortress in the shape of a great devil face, suspended over nothing. The Fortress of Conclusion. While the transition is, again, fantastic, showcasing Cordell’s flair for the dramatic, and this section is alright, it has the drawback of having to follow up the superb City of Moil.

For a few brief sessions you got to touch the infinite, vast, sprawling levels, nigh insurmountable challenges, complex levels, NPCs to befriend, weirdness to explore etc. and in comparison, the Fortress of Conclusion with its cramped corridors, secret doors, room by room straight-up fights with all the monsters in the upper echelons of the monstrous compendia and countermeasure against passwall (thin walls with negative energy plane behind it) feels like a step down. It’s like we had discovered electricity and we are now moving back to steam. This section also feels very D20, with its plethora of demons with dozens of at will spellike abilities, fights with undead possessed by the spirit of Acererak throwing high level spells willy nilly, and occasionally formidable obstacles.

The pressure is once again, increased and if the rules are upheld properly this could potentially render the fortress virtually unbeatable. The Dark intrusion is at its highest. Anyone killed has an 95% chance to animate as a zombie within a round. Healing is at 50% effectiveness. Items are at -1 plus because of planar shit, and no ethereal travel because the negative energy plane is too far away. Anyone not magically shielded takes 1 cold damage per hour. All undead regenerate and are turned as 5 HD higher. Since you can’t rest while taking damage, that means if you haven’t figured out your logistics or brought a ring of warmth then you might have to marathon the Fortress without rest possible, which is a death sentence. A design heuristic for high level DnD emerges; A variable amount of spell slots must be dedicated in order to render normal operation at all possible. If the Giant fight in the introduction was an illustration of the sheer firepower of unimpeded high level characters, Fortress of Conclusion introduces copious hindrances that must be accounted for even before the actual fuckoff dungeon can be tackled at all.

I get the urge to write a scaled up fan-fic about the most lethal dungeon ever devised and there are some nasty traps here; A Green Devil Face with a Blackball in it with the only exit in the mouth, meaning the characters have to MOVE PAST IT is great, a genuinely terrifying, clever encounter, but so many of these fucking rooms are fake out traps, or fights with high level demons, or a nightshade, or skeletons that Acererak can channel his willpower through and throw fingers of death from. The traps often lack the elaborate, convoluted lethality of the original tomb, dealing straight up damage. And then there is the You have Found A Trap but There Is A Trap Behind The Trap that works once and then adds a Detect Trap tax to all of your future adventures forever more. The comparison with the original tomb is unavoidable because PCs have already played through it in order to get here.

If all you have are lethal traps and deadly combats, at least there is some room for originality here. The monsters are among those generally whispered of in frightful legend by DnD players with some welcome additions and any survivors of this insane hackfest can add to their tally just about all Demon types, a Nightshade, Bone Weirds, Negative Energy Elementals, The Mother of 4-Armed Gargoyles, Winter Wights and whathaveyou. There’s some junior high dickishness with a Hezrou and a portal, which seems like arbitrary fucking bullshit to me. A momentary flareup of potential, the ability to ally with Acererak’s imprisoned Balor father, is snuffed out by more railroading and dickishness.

The implied backstory and look into Acererak’s resources is cute, 38.000 volumes on spell research and the rooms full of spell components sort of help set up the final cataclysmic showdown with Acererak. The planar technobabble goes a bit far in places, but the gist of Acererak’s Thanos-esque plan is this; lure powerful heroes, use traps to weed out the shitty ones, and use their souls as components to launch himself into the negative energy plane. The end result is a DnD bossfight Cliche, you must face Acererak but the key is not to target him but the giant glowing phylactery of souls that is placed next to a precariously deep bottomless pit. Granted, there are different means to go about it and the module introduces a moral quandry AT THE EXACT WORST TIME, PERFECT. The phylactery contains thousands of stolen spirits and destroying it will destroy them also. OOF. Ultimately, the final showdown is every bit as brutal and merciless as the one in ToH but it all feels a bit forced. Somewhere along the way, DnD went from big emergent levels with factions and schemes and ruses to giant staged fights with flashing lights and bells and whistles. It got…dumber?

Points if you allow edgy evil necromancer players to try facing Acererak with an army of their undead minions and get curbstomped as ole Ace- transports his spirit into each new undead body upon death, a true dick move.

I make this section sound like a huge piece of shit. It isn’t, the climax is suitably epic, there’s a plethora of different resolutions and it wouldn’t be a Gygax-inspired module if the villain didn’t have an escape door prepared somewhere. I cannot help but feel that this section needed innovation, not a respectable knockoff with more fuck you combat. There are several save or fate worse then death traps (get incorporated into murals, wish to get free etc.) that simply cannot be predicted. It doesn’t feel like its firing on all cylinders. On the other hand, if it were, I’d go all out and pronounce RttToH impossible.

The treasure at the end is quite something, with Cordell going all out with custom, very strong, semi-cursed bullshit items like The Mask of the Devourer or the awesome Brooch of Trespassing but it does beg the question WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO USE THESE CHARACTERS FOR NEXT?!? You literally saved the multiverse. What is going to top that?

I give here a suggestion for improvement. What this needed to be was a vast, sprawling, open area, with guard routines, wards, traps, tricks and whathaveyou. Give the PCs ample time to make a battle-plan with preparations, and all the armaments at their disposal. AND THEN BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THEM. Instead the return of the ToH format seems arbitrary and restrictive, and the fights repetitive and constricted. A shame.

Total number of Death Traps: 8. Deadly murals. Bullshit I-Have-No-Mouth-And-I-Must-Scream Stitches, Assholish Spelling Tiles of Death, Blackball, One-sided Deathward, Time-accelerating Scrolls of Death, Dim-Forge, Acererak (asshole Demilich Form)

Tomb of Horrors level: .5 Tomb of Horrors.

Return to the Tomb of Horrors is a fascinating specimen of late era TSR; decadent, lavish, hugely ambitious, with entire booklets full of new creatures, spells and items. It stretches great wings and seeks to cover territory that few have dared grasp. Isle of the Ape, Throne of Bloodstone, the M series, lone beacons in a vast and desolate expanse. When it is good it is great, possessed of all the fiendish cruelty of its predecessor, expanding the original to include elements of infiltration, exploration, combat and riddle solving on a scale that is almost unprecedented. It is a pity that in the beginning and in the end, Cordell cannot bear the blinding glare of the sun, and must take that doleful plummet back to terrestrial spheres, trailing molten wax and flapping tattered wings. A grand, operatic odyssey that starts from humble beginnings and brings the heroes face to face with a legendary sorcerer, seeking to merge his spirit with the Negative Energy Plane itself!

Level means something. There should be a reason you are making something for levels 13+ and not 3. The challenge, rewards and stakes should be appropriate to that. This FEELS grand and epic, a true proof of mastery, and manages to challenge players on nearly all facets of DnD, roleplaying, logistics, knowledge of fucking spellcasting, thinking outside the box, combat etc. etc. High level DnD is already a niche and this is a niche of a niche, but in that niche, for the majority of its running time, it stands head and toe above its peers.

Return to the Tomb of Horrors is not without its flaws. The treatment of high level characters as low level adventurers with bigger numbers is a bit jarring. There is enough arbitrary shitfuckery in this brobdignagian beast of a campaign to kill dozens and dozens of characters. The final section is a slog. The entries are criminally large. Backstory pours from Cordell’s mouth like the wellspring of the River Styx. Sometimes the writing veers into gimmicky comic book logic and the premise, already threadbare, is barely upheld. The myriad permutations of high level Dungeons and Dragons and all that it implies are juggled but I can’t help but feel some players will be too ingenious, given considerable time and preparation, even for the inhabitants of Moil. Considering the size and scope of the module, these are understandable flaws.

There are in the canon of all of DnD, few modules that deserve the appellation of Worth-running, and fewer still of Must-Run. Caverns of Thracia. Keep on the Borderlands. Night’s Dark Terror. Tomb of Horrors. I don’t think Return to the Tomb of Horrors quite reaches to exalted heights, but it comes damn close at times. A grand feat of arms by a talented author, at the height of his creative prowess, with a mind not yet deadened by page long statt blocks and the sibillant hissings of Monte’s admonishments. The City that Waits is a legendary feat of high level douche-baggery that deserves preservation in the annals. If the Fortress of Conclusion had been as brazenly inventive, this module would have been legend. As it is, despite its manifold flaws and comparative weakness of its final act, it is a worthy successor to the legacy of ToH.

****

[1]
That is to say, defenses that work against everything BUT specific exceptions, generally a bad and inflexible way of writing, occasionally very interesting if utilized according to mythological precedents (i.e. a demon that can only be hurt in the hours of twilight).


6 thoughts on “[Review] Return to the Tomb of Horrors Pt. II (AD&D 2e); Touch the Sun

  1. Damn!!! This is great. The kind of high-level D&D we dream of playing and almost never get the chance.

    Although I did, perhaps I missed a few sessions of our old game for some teenage reasons because I hardly remember any of this. I do recall dungeon-crawling through the Fortress of Conclusion and slamming the door on a few terrifying combat encounters, Mariliths coming out of the woodwork, shit like that. I don’t think we made it all the way to Acererak, though whether that was due to a TPK or the game dissolving, I cannot now recall.

    Oh, wait… was I the one who ruined that group by dating one of the girls in it? Ended in tears three months later of course. Whoops! At least I never gate-kept the hobby, right?

    Anyway, if you seek more maximum-dosage high level modules, why not check out some of Anthony Huso’s work? Fabled City of Brass is especially unrelenting, but they’re all fucking savage and he’s such a cool guy that I never tire of evangelizing his work. http://www.thebluebard.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha DnD and love don’t mix.

      I edited my conclusion a little, almost busting it down to a high ***. Its a difficult one to judge. I think at its best its amazing, the cryptic parts really elevate it but its weaknesses are manifold and much as I wanted it to rock the payoff doesn’t quite meet the orbit-level expectations set by the Black Academy and Moil.

      I can’t imagine playing DnD with anyone I date, it seems a recipe for embaressment and disaster, but since you were a teenager I will let this slide.

      I will put Anthony Huso on my inevitable Pilgrimage of High Level Adventures that seems destined to happen before the year is up. I swear it on Thor’s Hammer.

      Like

  2. Excellent review and breakdown as always. I played through this adventure and it was an ass kicker and a soul crusher in every way. I would love to see your review of another high level 2d edition adventure that I loved, A Paladin in Hell. APiH isn’t as deadly and merciless as RttToH, but it is filled with some awesome monsters, unique locations, and scenery and atmosphere that I think make it stand apart. Hopefully you’ll be able to get to it sometime. Thanks!

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    1. Any memories of RttToH play? Did you find the light wand in Moil, and somehow avoid the Vestige? Did you get as far as the final encounter, and if so, how was it resolved? Body count?

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  3. Better to adventure in Moil than serve in the Seven Heavens. Splendid review. Slogging through freezing water: no problem, I have free action, water breathing and resist cold running. And a Dispel Magic trap at that point? Burial was at sea.
    Still, easier than dealing with the Vestige. I think four stars is right: it revisits the Tomb of Horrors, but with nice twists (get a move on before the Black Academy catch up with you), and at its best, exciting new directions. Of the direct “Return to something popular” modules that 2e and 3e spawned, I think this was the best. The likes of “Against the Giants: the Liberation of Geoff” not only overturned what happened in peoples’ campaigns, it just illustrated how much better Gary Gygax was at writing this stuff than Sean Reynolds. A boxed set of the same theme as
    G1-3D1-3Q1, Night Below, was a quality product. It addresses “passwall” against enemy buildings. High level parties are playing like puddings if they waltz in by the front door; passwall works well in the lesser Kuo-Toan city, but faces resistance in the tougher Aboleth city, and the party need to use their (now) greater resources to develop new tricks.
    Any snippets about Palace of Unquiet Repose would be welcome.

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