A Rebuttal to The Worst Adventure of All Times by John Wick

The WORST Adventure of all Time?

Let me start off by acknowledging that I do not have the game design cred that John Wick does. However, his experience and cred in the world of game design doesn’t make him unassailable. As he questions the design of E. Gary Gygax, so do I feel the need to question his own design assumptions and theories.

Today I read an article he wrote for his blog John Wick Presents titled The Worst Adventure of All Times. In the article John goes about tearing down the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure module Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax, an adventure module that I have enjoyed since I first bought it 35 years ago. How could this adventure that brought me and my players so many memorable moments, so many “I was there when…” stories, and so many replays be the worst adventure of all time?

I, like one of the posters on Facebook discussing this blog and the adventure module,

“Never realized how (somewhat) divisive this module was until now. I just assumed all these years that it was universally heralded as one of the best/ most loved of all.” – Roger Bailey

Seriously, even reading John’s experience with Tomb of Horrors, I find it very hard to justify the vitriol he spews about this classic module by the father of the role playing game. I related some of my experience with Tomb of Horrors in my very first blog post “My AD&D Bucket List” but I feel a need to expand upon what I posted there.

Once Upon a Time in 1981

Adventuring Party

Spoiler Alert: Although I avoid specifics whenever possible, there are still quite a few possible spoilers below. Read on with that understanding.

I bought Tomb of Horrors in 1981 when the revised full-color cover version was released. At the time we had only been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a few years and our characters weren’t anywhere near 10th level, but because we all wanted to play the adventure, we added the needed experience points to our character sheets and leveled them up to 10-14th level. I, as Dungeon Master, provided a similar lead-in to what John describes and off they went to the Vast Swamp to kick some demi-lich ass (whatever that was/and assuming one had an ass to kick).

Yes we lost a thief in the entry hall to the sphere of annihilation/demon maw, but we had seven more characters and the players were confident that they were in great shape to continue. Besides, initially they weren’t sure they wouldn’t find the thief waiting patiently for them in some other part of the tomb. I never announce to a group that a vanished PC is dead, and the thief player was gracious enough not to tell the other players that his character was truly dead and gone. He played Atari 2600 Missile Command for the rest of the night. (I feel I should point out that he never complained, had a great time, and ran over to the table when things got exciting to see what was going on).

Chapel of Evil

The players weren’t gullible enough to send anyone else through the sphere, so they figured out the proper sequence to clear the arch and most stepped through on the path, those who didn’t ended up back at the entrance and when they got back to the arch stayed on the line through the arch.
The next time someone died in Tomb of Horrors was a bit later. They traversed THE THREE ARMED STATUE and GREAT HALL OF SPHERES to end up in the CHAPEL OF EVIL. It was here that one of the clerics touched the altar, not once, but twice! The bolt of lightning hit him and several others. He failed his save. Thinking that the change in color was significant (it was) and perhaps beneficial (it wasn’t) he touched it again. He failed his save again dying immediately, and the magic-user who was nearby (though safely out of the way of another lightning bolt) never stood a chance. Three down and five to go.

The other thief went through the Archway of Glowing Orange and, because he was neutral, only suffered a sex change. The thief player was okay with that, but no one else entered that arch. The party exited the chapel by way of the STONE GATE. A party member sacrificed a previously identified ring of contrariness only after coins and other items of every sort were “fed” to the stone.

Next up was the FALSE CRYPT. Not too surprisingly at that level, everyone saved versus the fear gas. Thinking the lich dead (that wasn’t so difficult) they continued to search and loot the tomb.They had already discounted the LOCKED OAKEN DOOR as an obvious trap, they navigated the LABORATORY AND MUMMY PREPARATION ROOM, HUGE PIT FILLED WITH 200 SPIKES, THE AGITATED CHAMBER, and THE CAVERN OF GOLD AND SILVER MISTS.


THE PILLARED THRONE ROOM took two more characters. The remaining thief succumbed to the temptation of the Orange Gem while off poking around without the rest of the party. And the Crown and Scepter killed the fighter. And then there were three.

At this point the remaining three characters; a paladin, a cleric and a magic-user were starting to think they needed to find a way out. However, not having found the way from encounter 10 to 13 to 3, they didn’t know how to leave.

After what amounted to at least another hour (real time) of searching and being extremely cautious the trio found THE CRYPT OF ACERERAK THE DEMI-LICH. Needless to say they all died, souls sucked into the gems of the demi-lich skull and devoured completely.

While we were shocked and a little confused by this outcome. Tomb of Horrors to this day remains one of my favorite adventures of all time. And while it doesn’t fall into My Top 5 Favorite 1st Edition Adventure Modules it is certainly in the Top 10. My players also have fond memories of the hours long harrowing experience of traversing and ultimately failing to survive Acererak’s Tomb of Horrors.

A Different Perspective on Design

So how can John and I hold such vastly different opinions of the same adventure module? It all boils down to preference and a differing perspective on what makes good game design.

I hold very firmly with the design perspective that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game is about exploration. The fun of the game comes largely from what a lot of contemporary gamers call “the boring stuff.” I can recall as a young man, of (then) 14 years old, how vividly I imagined the “boring stuff.” I imagined far off shrieks, or moans. The skittering of vermin just around the corner ahead, or an imagined sound of soft footsteps following the party just out of range of the torchlight. And given the way exploration was handled within the rules, far more in-game time was spent between encounters than encountering them.

Modern game design, for the most part, is about the encounters. Exploration is often secondary, if not entirely overlooked. I think this type of game design was born among those dissatisfied with Tomb of Horrors and its like. The second or third generations of game designers after Gary I think were often those who would call Tomb of Horrors,


So what we got were games that emphasized strictly prescribed balance to everything in the game. Sure there was still randomness in the form of a die roll, but everything else was so balanced, or in some cases so stacked in favor of the Player Characters that the die roll became something of a formality. The Player Characters were going to win, it was just a matter of time. This to me made these adventures cease to be a game.

During the decades since the end of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition run, many of the players at my own table shifted their preferences in favor of always winning. 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was a huge hit with these guys. I found myself wanting to vomit. 4e D&D is a fun game, don’t get me wrong. It is a great combat game, but not an exploration game…at all.

I believe that John comes from this new school of game design that makes imbalance a sin. This school of design overlooks a very simple fact in my opinion. This is not Clue or Monopoly. Role playing games need not use on the same kind of balance that simpler board games rely upon. With this philosophy no longer can there be easily accessible encounters that far out match the characters, requiring them to find a way around, or level up before encountering. Encounters are for right now, no matter in what order they are encountered. Ernie Gygax made a great point on this matter in the same Facebook thread discussing John’s blog post…

I learned to be cautious, map as if my life and treasure depended on it and learned to run away and wait for level progression and or well thought out plans for really tough encounters. – Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr.

This is the game to me, in a nutshell. This is what it’s all about. Too many people plow through everything in their way thinking, “my DM would never plan an encounter we can’t handle.” Often those players are very, very wrong.


Another big component to this, by John’s own admission, is his friends. They acted deplorably. I killed 8 characters of 6 players and no one physically assaulted me, no one complained, and we all sat down together to debrief from the experience. We all concluded that the result was to be expected based on the fearsome reputation of the tomb and Acererak. We also concluded that it was damn fun, even though no one survived!

John’s friends, if more level headed, should have come to the same conclusion (at least in terms of the expected outcome).

The wizard’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said. “Don’t take that! There’s nothing but death and doom for you there!”

My heroic adventurers inquired further and he warned them. “That map leads to an ancient place…a place where my friends all died horrible deaths.” – John Wick

The old wizard says “all of my friends died horrible deaths.” No joke! ALL OF THEM!

Now when my players played this adventure we didn’t even have the foreknowledge that this was the “deadliest dungeon of all time.” We just weren’t as connected to the larger gaming community. His players did! What did they expect? A cake walk?

Why did all of two completely separate parties, separated by decades, go into the sphere? Poor decision making there in both cases.

But It Was a Tournament Module!

I’ve noticed a lot of people on Facebook playing apologist for Tomb of Horrors by saying…

“Good lord. Tomb of Horrors was a tournament module![…]Your mistake (not Gary’s) was running it for your players in your campaign world.” – Dave Kristof

GenCon XI Tournament Module
GenCon XI Tournament Module

but that misses one really huge and important fact. Tomb of Horrors was sold and marketed as a commercial adventure module by the biggest role playing game company at the time.

Why would anyone buy an adventure module that was only intended for tournament play? Well they wouldn’t, of course. Tomb of Horrors was intended for campaign play as much as almost any other adventure published in monochrome or full cover colors up until about 1982 or 1983. Almost all of them from the entire A Series to C1 Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan were originally written for tournament play (and proudly proclaimed as much on the cover) and none of them are as deadly as Tomb of Horrors. Not to mention that using such an apologist argument concedes that the adventure is unfair.

No this is not the argument to use.

My Conclusions

Locked Oaken Door

Honestly, I can’t agree with anything that John writes in his blog post. Tomb of Horrors is exactly what I expect from a powerful lich attempting to protect himself. The adventure is not perfect, but it is not deserving of the bile John retches up for it. His party ignored the emotional warnings NPCs offered about the tomb. The players ignored the real world knowledge they had about the module. The DM (John) made a poor choice in describing the effect of the sphere of annihilation (the Dungeons Masters Guide text says this of a sphere, “Any matter which comes in contact with a sphere is instantly sucked into the void, gone, utterly destroyed, wishes and similar magicks notwithstanding!”) and the players made the exceedingly poor choice of following their comrade into the unknown without any further testing.

It seems sad to me that anyone would have such an awful time with a game, or that it would affect them so many years later, but I don’t think this was the fault of Gary Gygax, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I think it is the fault of those involved, and those involved only.

My group played Tomb of Horrors again a year later with campaign characters. The group did not survive intact, but they did get to the end and defeat Acererak. Their method involved the Crown and Scepter from THE PILLARED THRONE ROOM. They used its disintegrate ability to finish the demi-lich once and for all!

70 Responses

  1. JeremyR says:

    Eh. I think Wick is one of those guys that likes to troll. Especially older RPGs (and AD&D in particular).

    It’s worth reading EGG’s introduction to Return to the Tomb of Horrors (for 2e).

    • Morgan Hua says:

      This article is more balanced, but what I found amusing were the comments people left on John Wick’s blog. Dude, it’s a grown man’s memory from when he was 12 years old and he is very honest about what happened and his reactions to it. People seemed very angry about his recollections. Seems like he hit a sore spot.

      When I was 12, I was GMing dungeon crawls (and it’s a lot of fun when you’re 12 and we never questioned the ecology of a dungeon full of monsters and traps) and my friends never used raise dead and looted all the dead PC’s bodies. Our gaming ended when one PC hired an assassin to kill another PC to take his +5 ring of protection. Eventually, the other player found out and was sorely pissed and felt betrayed since the two PCs survived together for a very long time and thought the PCs were friends. This one incident ended that campaign world. As a GM, I allowed it to happen because that’s what one of the players wanted to do. It was cheaper to hire an assassin than to find/purchase a +5 ring — I ran a magic poor world and +5 was almost an artifact. It didn’t occur to me that it would terminate our gaming. In my game, PCs died all the time.

      I was also infamous for creating overkill monty haul adventures. My friends would bring their 500+ level Frost Giant with dancing, vorpal, devestation blades and aliens with black hole blades and loot from gods they had hunted down (using Gods & Demigods as a hit list / order catalog). They would pit their PCs against my overkill dungeon and hope to pick up even more exotic and dangerous loot. It’s a different mentality, where solving the dungeon and being clever was rewarding. My friends couldn’t wait to try out my next “killer” dungeon — and collect the loot from other dead PCs.

      So, after the assassination incident, the murdered player didn’t want to play in that world anymore. So, this incident mirrors John Wick’s experience where as a GM, I got an unexpected emotional response that affected our real friendships. I could tell my friend was still upset about being assassinated and couldn’t understand why his “buddy” didn’t come to his aid. And being even more upset when he found out that his “buddy” had set him up for a +5 ring. So, that soured him on continuing to play in that world (with that traitorous “buddy”).

      My solution was a new world where there was no restrictions as to the PC. As long as you came up with a plausible story, you can have any character and any equipment. So, it became less of a character advancement / loot collecting game because your character started off with whatever they wanted. It became more of an adventure / exploration game where they bought treasure maps and just explored dangerous places for the sake of adventuring.

      I’m now over 50 and I don’t run dungeon crawls anymore. I find endless combat a bit repetitive and boring, so I now lean towards investigative games with character interaction, dialog, and discovery — I love a good mystery. Pure indie storytelling games are a bit too loosy-goosy for me. I do enjoy them, but in collaborative storytelling games, the auto-success and lack of surprise leaves much to be desired.

      I think you’re right about the differences in the philosophy of game design. I don’t think John Wick was deliberately trolling; I think it was an honest article.

      • Kalex says:

        Thanks for commenting Morgan! Everyone had varying experiences as kids. When I was 12 I was playing with my best buddy Michael as he DMed Keep on the Borderlands. We had a weird dynamic in which he tried often to antagonize me, and I responded by getting angry. Our D&D together eventually ended and I began DMing another group (the one from my article above). I didn’t mention it in that article, but age probably had a lot to do with John’s experience too.

        12 was/is a strange age for most kids in America. There is a lot of transition going on. For many it is the first year of Middle School, and an awaking of a real interest in romantic relationships. I know 12 and 13 were really hard for me. My grades plummeted, my appearance became slovenly, and most of the girls I really had interest in couldn’t stand me. I had a great core of awesome friends though, and that made things a bit easier.

        Those friends sometimes got really angry at me during gaming sessions, but I was never physically assaulted. I think that was the biggest influence on John’s experience and perhaps the reason he is still so angry about it. He mentions it more than once in his article and I think his hurt is still showing.

        Ultimately he is entitled to his opinion and me mine, but I think I just wanted another narrative out there about how to handle Tomb of Horrors in particular, and these types of games in general.

        Failing doesn’t mean losing as long as it was fun!

      • Avi says:

        It wasn’t your fault man. Some players are too immature to take it when another player kills them. This just happened in my last game lol.

    • Kalex says:

      I have that Jeremy! I’ll have to take a look at it!

      I also considered that he was trolling, but it also seemed a little too angrily, deeply felt. I figured another perspective was needed regardless and wrote this. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

    • Gary Miles says:

      I have no respect for Wick, ever since I read his article about screwing over his Champions players. The guy is just a troll in human flesh.

  2. Sonny Calzone says:

    As a lifelong DM and 1E AD&D loyalist, I take umbrage with Wick’s usage of the term “GM” in his article.

    • Kalex says:

      I never really even noticed that, but it also is telling when it comes to his perspective.

    • Rodger Phillips says:

      I noticed the GM references.

    • Daniel E. Chapman II says:

      You have to give him leeway with that, at least. He’s currently in the middle of writing an RPG where that is the correct term.

    • John says:

      I got the “GM” position myself….. When I run D&D(1st ed) I am still a “DM” So many people were not there when D&D first came out …It was a totally new thing……Now there are hundreds of iterations of RPGs out there with some great concepts….but most are just there. D&D was there first and everything was about the adventure and the story being reveled….. I watch the new people playing RPGs and normally shake my head and walk away….. I see a bunch of old schoolers adventuring and find myself standing there sometimes for hours often with lots of younger kids having a blast or equally enthralled in watching. I think its really up to the people in the game…. but like expressed by one of the other posters most of the newer editions as well as games rely on combat being a far more significant part of the game….just a different flavor.
      I must have run Tomb of Horrors with 20-30 parties of characters from 1977-late 90s I always had emotional players…. from the first time I ran the game I kept notes as to where and how characters died…. I would leave bodies and equipment where they lie ….future parties make quick use of the ever increasing pile of goodies. I always suggested people play preformed characters first…. People that didn’t heed my advice often lost high level characters….Sorry

      • Kalex says:

        LOL, I always assumed (or maybe it might have been in the text) that the tomb reset after a party was completely defeated. I removed the bodies and equipment, and all the traps reset. I did once change the LOCKED OAKEN DOOR voices to sound like the voices of the lost adventurers the current party was looking for. That was the first time any party opened that door. LOL Whoops! TPK

  3. Frank says:

    I can see why he thought it was horrible there is almost no chance of surviving it. As stated above it was a tournament module to show a ‘last man standing’ concept. There are plenty of other bad modules/adventures out there but I think it was maligned unfairly in this case. Will anyone survive? Probably not, but again not meant for a campaign setting.

    • Kalex says:

      Of course it was meant for a campaign setting. The full color cover reprint gives several locations in the World of Greyhawk where it could be located for campaign play. I’ve had several ToH virgin groups survive with careful play. John’s group was perhaps too young to play with the kind of caution required, but his story is not a result of an unwinnable scenario.

  4. Stephen PAtterson says:

    I never had a character of high enough level to risk adventuring in S1. However, given the list of Spells available for, at minimum, a 10th level cleric, it’s theoretically quite possible to avoid 80% – 90% challenges presented in the module by simply using spells like “Find the Path”(7th level), “Augury”(2nd), and “Detect Trap(s) (~3rd)”. For the demi-lich, one need only use a “forget” spell [2nd level wizard spell], each and every time the demi-lich skull attempts to drain a (PC) soul. A limited wish / alter reality could quickly pin-point the key spells / method required to destroy the demi-lich, or a DM being generous with “Commune” or information gathering spells.

  5. Rodger Phillips says:

    I understand where Morgan is coming from in saying that John Wick is being honest as reporting his now memories of when he was 12, but to be equally honest, when I think back to my AD&D days I do not remember them with such venom, nor such adult perspective of a childhood experience, this to me says that either he is trolling for responses (which if so he has gotten them) or he never stopped bitching about the module… I have hated some modules, and some DM’s but for a guy who is clearly meant to be 49, (the module was released in 1978 and he says he was 12 when it came out) he holds far too much anger for a single module…

    • Daniel E. Chapman II says:

      I’d say his loss of friends has permanently etched this memory into his brain. That’s the sort of thing that makes an impact on a twelve year old.

      Secondly, read his other posts. Without being a troll, he’s got strong opinions. Read his “Play Dirty” book, or “Play Safe.”

  6. Purnacandra Sivarupa says:

    Great post! I was linked here by Jolly Blackburn and Ernie Gygax on Facebook and I’m glad I clicked!

    Your point about differences in game design philosophy is an important one in the RPG sphere. I work at Games Unlimited in Pittsburgh, PA, and while we don’t do much in the way of RPGs here anymore, we have a lot of crossover customers with the stores around who do sell a lot of RPG stuff (like Phantom of the Attic, where I shop for my own RPG materials) so I get to talk to a lot of people of all ages who are into roleplaying gaming about their approaches and experiences. It’s interesting to note that most people come from the “new school” and just want to Steven Segal their way through everything, but my own group (composed of people younger than me by at least two years and up to a decade) have really learned to enjoy the genuine adventure of exploration, of filling in gaps in their knowledge, and figuring out clever ways of dealing with overwhelming threats. I’m running the Dungeon Crawl Classics system, so the “old school” philosophy is very much in force AT BOTH ENDS of my table; my players love the feeling of taking care of a genuine challenge, and victory is all the more significant if there was a casualty on their end, or at least the feeling that there could easily have been a death or two.

    Anyway, thanks again for the perspective. I actually like a few of John Wick’s games, but was rather dismayed at his post. It’s a shame that he and his friends had such a bad experience when they were kids, but it’s also true that they acted pretty poorly; I ran deadly adventures back when I was a middle schooler, too, and guess what? We would always find ourselves back at the gaming table, laughing as we filled out new character sheets and talking about the recent tragedy as the big event it was.

    • Kalex says:

      Jolly and Ernie are sending folks this way? Cool!

      You’re welcome! I wanted to get a different view out, since John’s view was so one sided.

      I used to shop at Games Unlimited back in my college days (late 80s, early 90s). Loved that place!

  7. Jay Hassan says:

    Greetings, not trying to be combative or take sides, as I agree with the first part of your posting, but I think your description of John Wick as being part of some new school gamer type that focuses on the encounter is inaccurate. I mean he might be, who knows. But his complaint wasn’t about the encounters at all. He too sounded like an exploration focused gamer and his major complaint appeared to be about the inability to explore properly due to the sheer number of insta-kills. I don’t recall his article complaining about lack of combat, simply the inability to make saves on some of the traps like the Green Devil Face. That his players couldn’t explore anything, as there were just a bunch of instakills that hindered exploration.

    Clearly his writing was insulting to some people, understandably so, but he was writing from the experience of a 12 year old so honestly the assault shouldn’t be too unexpected as kids do throw temper tantrums when they lose things. My brother destroyed a handful of controllers over halo 2 back in the day.

    Like I said, I have no horse in the race, just thought I’d point that out as it seemed some what like we were reading different articles when I got to that point.

    Otherwise I enjoyed your perspective on running the module when compared to his, as I wasn’t gaming back then (age constraints) and had never played or ran this adventure.

    • Kalex says:

      Thanks for the comments Jay!

      I think if he’d researched the sphere of annihilation in the Dungeon Masters Guide and described the first character being sucked into the mouth against their will, no one else would have followed. Problem solved.

      • Daniel E. Chapman II says:

        That’s not entirely fair, you’re saying you want a twelve year old to anticipate a method to telegraph the danger of an item in order to lessen the deadliness of an adventure they’re all excited about as the deadliest adventure ever.

        I mean, the maker of the trap can avoid that indicator by having the tunnel go slightly inward, so that no one can see the hapless victim get sucked the rest of the way in.

        • Kalex says:

          Even for a 12 year old (or 14 in my case), prep-work should be involved. Not just reading the module (as they all suggested in the text), but becoming familiar with the contents. That means pulling out other books and reading the descriptions of the monsters, items and effects mentioned. Had John done that he would have read that as soon as any matter touched the “event horizon” of the sphere, it would be forcibly sucked in. How do you think my own players decided no one else was following the thief?

          • I disagree with you here again. A module should be able to be run “by the book”. It should explain and give advice to the DM on how to run the encounter, so novices as well as experienced DMs will know how to run it properly.

            Keep in mind that the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide was not printed until a * year after * this module came out… so there was ** no description outside of the module ** for a DM to reference.

            I wrote about this on my blog before (not about ToH, but about more recent adventure design):

            It’s not a good module for campaign play. It’s not a good module for a novice DM. It’s really not a good module in any sense unless you are expecting a sadistic, death-trap dungeon and play it going in with that expectation.

          • Kalex says:

            In 12 pages?!? Not likely! You’re setting a standard that simply didn’t exist in 1978, or 1981.

            Also his references all seem to point to him using the 1981 reprint which is two years after the DMG was published, so good try there. I don’t have a copy of the 1978 version, so I don’t know how the text varies, but I do know that revisions were made for the 1981 reprints. The monochrome version may have had more detail on the sphere and may have been the inspiration for the DMG entry.

            And we’re just coming at this from different perspectives. Your blog at first glance seems to be about 5th Edition, or at least newer versions of D&D. I suspect we’d never agree and would hate how the other runs their games.

          • I will agree to disagree… However, I still think it represents pretty poor design even by 1978 standards. T1 stands out as a classic. The G series stand out as classics. There were many, better examples from the time period. I have no idea why so many people love this crap fest intended to grind the players to dust. It’s just not fun… and it has nothing to do with 1st, 2nd, 3rd 4th or 5th edition “perspectives”, all of which I’ve played. It’s no fun for anyone to just kill the party in multiple ways just because the DM has the power to do that. The DM could do this at any time. It’s not entertaining, it’s just frustrating.

          • Kalex says:

            Saying “it’s just not fun” doesn’t make your statement true. I think it is fun, and my players ultimately decided it was fun. It’s not fun for you, from your perspective. Sorry, but you don’t get to be the arbiter of fun for everyone any more than John Wick.

      • The “Sphere Problem” is easily solved, as it is a trap [cf. cleric ‘detect traps’], and the simpler method I’ve used many times to defeat such semi-munchkin nonsense. A 10 pole ‘testing’ the opening will reveal the lethal nature of said trap, quite easily.

        • Kalex says:

          I don’t think it is a trap. It is a fixed (sphere of annihilation) magic item with highly destructive properties. Our thief was actually probing it with a 10′ pole when he was sucked in. I described the sudden pull, he said he was holding on to the pole trying to pull it back (the player was a fisherman, so perhaps understandable). He and the pole were sucked in. Evil and magic can be detected if those spells are cast.

  8. Michael Gross says:

    John Wick’s blog post smacks of what passes for today’s “journalism” AKA clickbait. One needs to merely write something provocative, skim over facts, rely on emotion rather than logic, & watch the numbers of page hits & comments increase. In a word, trolling.

    • Kalex says:

      Another reason I felt it necessary to write this blog post! Mischief, Inc. is a small company. I have considered providing click-bait to drawn people here, or to our forums in the hopes of creating a following. I even posted a few rants. My final decision is to simply promote the type of gaming prevalent in my gaming “glory days,” and try to get people to understand and maybe even like it without being too confrontational, or sensationalist.

  9. Robin says:

    Is it possible that Mr. Wick just has a problem with Mr. Gygax who might have insulted Mr. Wick just a little bit?

    • Kalex says:

      Well notice that we don’t get any indication of what John said to Gary initially, just Gary’s impatient response. I suspect there might have been a bit of disrespect toward Gary first, but unless John comes clean we’ll never know.

      The sad thing to me is that, should I ever get invited to be on a design panel with industry luminaries, Mr. Gygax will not be there. John wasted a great opportunity to perhaps get to know the man better, and maybe learn a thing or two from THE Dungeon Master. I’m not saying he should have been a stuttering, awestruck, fan boy, but he could have at least acknowledged being in the presence of a man without whom John might not have the career he does.

  10. Sean says:


    My reply in video form to John wick!

  11. Rob says:

    I find it interesting that Wick bases his attack around this story about playing Tomb of Horrors as a 12-year-old. In the past, Wick has repeatedly claimed that he first played RPGs in college, when he bought the Call of Cthulhu box set (and then moved on to Champions). Now he’s claiming he was playing AD&D back at the age of 12?

    Leads me to believe that this whole story about Tomb of Horrors is simply that: a story, spawned from his fertile imagination in order to facilitate his ongoing crusade against all things D&D.

    BTW, I bought Tomb of Horrors when I was 11 years old. I enjoyed reading it, but didn’t try running it since I knew my game group (all kids younger than I was) would not enjoy it.

    • Kalex says:

      I’m not familiar enough with John to know if this story is entirely made up or not. He could be using the story of someone else as a proxy, or it could be entirely made up.

  12. Ben says:

    I completely understand the origin of the module– a tournament piece for Origins I, but it had been revised and published as a campaign piece with the copy he’s showing. I own that copy, I’ve run that copy. I just went upstairs and looked at it. I pulled it and brought it here to look at while I type (there’s a note in it from 1993). The starting info actually does say that it “depends upon whether you are using the Tomb as an insertion into your own campaign, as a section of the the World of Greyhawk, or simply as a one-shot exercise for your players.” and prior to that, he states, in all caps, but I’ll spare the shouting, “This is a thinking person’s module, and if your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy!…It is this writer’s belief that brainwork is good for all players, and they will certainly benefit from playing this module, for individual levels of skill will be improved by reasoning and experience.”

    But then things like falling into the pits becomes a very high percentile chance, rather than a saving throw. Spells and abilities don’t function normally, like finding secret doors, knock, or see invisible. Traps at different points don’t allow saves or attack rolls, they simply hit or apply their effect. Altering the system so that it does not work like the system was designed to work for the last 10 levels of play is not good design. That’s not thinking, and there are easier ways to tell your players you hate them than running D&D for six months and then switching games on them for this delve.

    Huge parts of this adventure have become ingrained in the psyche of D&D players, but the adventure’s *design* is not something that would pass muster today. There is a warning on the last page– page 12! — that if the party isn’t equal to the band of *6-12* level 6 to 14 partially pregenerated PCs, they should get more gear. Conceptually, this thing has a pedigree; it is probably the heart of the Fourthcore designers, it epitomizes the trapsy-dungeon crawl, but later iterations, even in the same line, like Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, or White Plume Mountain, or Forgotten Temple of Tharzidun, or Lost Shrine of Tamoachan, they were all better designed than ToH. The Tomb is like a terrible hazing event which somehow gets remembered fondly.

  13. Ben says:

    I find this interesting. Page 92 of the 1E DMG:

    “Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the “killer-dungeon” concept. These campaigns are a travesty of the role-playing adventure game, for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae. In such campaigns, the sadistic referee takes unholy delight in slaughtering endless hordes of hapless player characters with unavoidable death traps and horrific monsters set to ambush participants as soon as they set foot outside the door of their safe house. Only a few of these “killer dungeons” survive to become infamous, however, as their participants usually tire of the idiocy after a few attempts at enjoyable gaming.”

    • Kalex says:

      Can I assume that you’ve also read EGGs Forward to that very same Dungeon Masters Guide? Try the first paragraph only.

      • Ben says:

        Do you mean the preface? Because Mike Carr has the foreward in my copy…

        “Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science? An interesting question!”

        But the second paragraph of the preface is better,

        “When you build your campaign you will tailor it to suit your personal tastes. In the heat of play it will slowly evolve into a compound of your personality and those of your better participants, a superior alloy. And as long as your campaign remains viable, it will continue a slow process of change and growth. In this lies a great danger, however. The systems and parameters contained in the whole of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS are based on a great deal of knowledge, experience gained through discussion, play, testing, questioning, and (hopefully) personal insight.”

        *shrug* I’m all for individual playstyles. ToH, however beloved, has a ridiculous amount of bad design. It’s from 1978, and it’s contemporaries in both the G1-3 series and the D1-3 series are much better by comparison, and EGG is the author on all of them.

  14. Marty says:

    I agree with your assessment that newer game design has moved away from the exploration aspects, but I do not believe ToH is a good example for an exploration adventure. ToH is designed to shaft the players. Constantly. It was written as a tournament module and that is the lens through which it should be judged. It is not at all intended for the casual D&D game.

    • Kalex says:

      The tournament excuse is an indictment, not a defense. And I address that in the blog. The module text also disagrees with you on campaign play. It is intended as both a campaign adventure and a one-off. There are several World of Greyhawk locales suggested for placement of the tomb.

      • I disagree that it’s any good for campaign play. It sucks and it will piss off your players unless they know going in that this specifically is a “killer dungeon” that is intended to kill you outright and without warning in some cases.

        • Kalex says:

          Well we can disagree then. I think it is fine for a campaign as long as the campaign isn’t character-centric (which by definition assumes that all Player Characters must survive for the campaign to continue), but is instead world-centric (where Player Characters can die, come-and-go, etc. and the campaign endures).

  15. Josh says:

    I think you’re both right. While I’ve never done Tomb of Horrors, I’ve played with both types of groups. I think it’s very dependent on the party on their previous experiences. When I was a teenager, I played with a pretty cut throat adventuring party. At one point, I ended up dueling to the death with one of my party members (over loot of course). More recently, I played with a group much more focused on the RPG elements and manageable encounters.
    There are groups that deal with extreme peril and have DM/GMs that are actively trying to kill them. ToH is their type of dungeon. Groups where it’s more about crafting a compelling story don’t stand a chance in that scenario.

  16. Raven says:

    So while I understand where you’re coming from, you’re way off in your assessment of Wick and where he’s coming from. He definitely isn’t a D&D4e guy insisting on perfect balance. His resume has games like L5R and 7th Sea, and he’s also the guy who wrote an essay claiming that 4e isn’t an RPG at all. And has had a chip on his shoulder about D&D in general forever, plus he likes to play provocateur, so he’s no doubt enjoying all this attention. Not everyone who isn’t into old-school D&D goes in the direction of 4e, and in fact quite a few have emphatically gone away from it. A lack of interest in having characters’ lives constantly in peril does not indicate a positive interest in playing powerful characters who stomp on every challenge in their path (not that that’s an accurate view of D&D4e in the first place; it just looks that way in contrast to earlier editions of D&D). It’s very frustrating how D&D’s dominance distorts conversations about RPGs around its highly specific assumptions about gameplay.

    The issue here is not really about power levels or exploration so much as the feeling that Gygax’s tournament modules come across as contrived, arbitrary, and unfair. I don’t think that’s actually true, but ToH does epitomize a pretty specific play style that not everyone was into even in the old days. If old-school D&D isn’t your central archetype for RPGs, it is a departure into a realm that feels downright contrived in how deadly it is.

    • Kalex says:

      I admit some of the 4e rambling is my own emotional baggage bleeding out in my prose. The bottom line though is that Wick is way out of line in his comments. I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things about him from game designers and gamers that I respect and trust. These are people who won’t speak ill of anybody, except John (and Ken Whitman of course!).

      • Jeff V says:

        I have to say that a while back I didn’t believe all of that stuff about Wick; but some of the things he did and said during a recent Kickstarter that I backed have made me much less interested in his work and backing future projects of his, simply because I don’t like the way he handled them. Not that he did a bad job on the game itself or anything, but I just had this feeling that he wasn’t someone I really had much respect for and I didn’t want to be involved with him in the future even as peripherally as being a Kickstarter backer involves you. I figured it was just me though (and I was just overreacting), until I started to find that other people feel the same way. After reading this (and some other comments out there on him), I’m beginning to think I can trust my instincts on this one…

  17. Gary Gygax was downright awesome at evocative settings and atmospherics. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, the cityscape in Descent into the Depths of the Earth, and even the introductory elements of Tomb of Horrors.

    As a scenario (exploration, narrative, or tournament) however The Tomb it is not exactly an example of good design.

    1) On average, It kills too many characters too quickly in the opening minutes of the scenario (the false entrances, the pit traps), which limits the exploratory and tournament value.

    2) It has too many deadly or just plain silly examples which are purely random and often immediate in their effects (The Forsaken Prison, the Complex of Secret Doors, the Great Hall of Spheres, the Agitated Chamber, the Siren, the False/True door, the Pillared Throne Room).

    3) It has too many examples where use of the game rules are either useless (not exactly great for the exploration style) or contradicted (Complex of Secret Doors (again), The Three Armed Statue, Chapel of Evil)

    It is possible to do ‘death-trap’ scenarios which are interesting from an explorative perspective and are good for tournament play & etc. Tomb of Horrors is not a good example of this sort of setting however.

    Although I will disagree with John Wick on one matter; it’s not as bad as The Forest Oracle. Now that really is the worst AD&D adventure of all time.

  18. Allan Grohe says:

    Two comments I shared with some friends on FB one of whom linked back here, too:

    To clear up a common misconception: many early D&D modules were run as tournaments, but prior to 1980, those adventures were generally extracted from campaigns rather than being written expressly for tournament/convention play, even if tournaments were their first public or published forms. All of the S modules, and C1 and C2—each originated from campaign play (although S2 wasn’t run prior to publication as a tourney, since Schick compiled it from the best of his home campaign’s dungeons’ encounters). Tomb of Horrors is no exception: Alan Lucien created the first version, and shared it with Gary. Gary modified it and ran it as part of the regular Lake Geneva Greyhawk campaign, where players encountered it as part of the high-level play. In the context of a campaign, ToH is a much more reasonable—though no more forgiving—adventure (see my next comment for further thought if you’re curious on that score).

    When run at Origins 1 in 1975 (and in later years at other conventions) scores of players went to their deaths in ToH just as Wick and his players did their first time through—each player following the leader, lemming-like, into spheres of annihilation, into deep pits, into death. The tourney resulted in many TPKs, unsurprisingly, and Wick’s opinion of the dungeon is echoed by similar contemporary reviews—see http://jasonzavoda-hallofthemountainking.blogspot.com/2011/05/origins-1-toh-review-from-4.html for Mark Swanson’s A&E#4 review. (I’m sure there’s at least one more I’m thinking of, but I’m not finding it atm).

    But if the audience of 1975 Origins was largely unprepared for ToH—players who were largely in college or working adults—is it any wonder that 12-year-olds weren’t ready to tackle the scenario, as players or DMs?


    Regardless of the experience that John Wick had playing the adventure, Tomb of Horrors is an excellent module when played—as it was originally designed—in the context of a campaign. That’s right, a campaign. Tomb of Horrors was not originally designed as a tournament adventure—it was designed by Alan Lucien, who shared the design with Gary Gygax, who modified it significantly before introducing it into the Greyhawk campaign in Lake Geneva.

    ToH is _the_ thinking player dungeon test, and as such, it doesn’t reward players or DMs who don’t think and plan effectively. From reading Wick’s blog, it sounds like his players (and their characters) didn’t prepare for the deadliest adventure of all time* (and, to put part of the blame where it belongs, it sounds like he didn’t offer them the chance to prepare _in character_ either). There’s actually quite a bit of guidance in the introduction to the module about how the PCs should research with sages, consult bards, commune with gods, etc. before entering the demi-lich’s tomb. The “Notes for the Dungeon Master” reads “THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE, AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY! In the latter case, it is better to skip the whole thing than come out and tell them that there are few monsters… If you regularly pose problems to be solved by brains and not brawn, your players will find this module immediately to their liking” (Tomb of Horrors, page 2).

    So, if you’re unprepared and dumb players (players with characters, and the DM player too), and all of the PCs die by walking blindly into a sphere of annihilation, the players and the DM deserve the PC deaths that they earned.

    * It’s not. Gygax’s Necropolis is much much worse 😉


    • Kalex says:

      I don’t think I can disagree with anything here. 😯

      That reminds me…I had Necropolis and got rid of it. May be time to get my hands on a copy again!

  19. Greg says:

    At the time I started playing tournament adventures, the focus was more on the dynamics of the pregenerated characters, with personalities and backgrounds, and the plot of the adventure that should be relevant to these characters.

    Anyone can be a killer DM, by throwing a tarrasque against a party of 5th level characters. With enough work, you can be a killer DM within challenge rating guidelines, by exploiting things that don’t scale well (blasphemy in 3rd edition, for example). That’s not a good thing.

    I can’t say for sure if I played the original Tomb of Horrors. We didn’t really know the rules well at that age. But I have played a couple of adaptations of the module, which played within the current rules set, and had a good time.

  20. Werekoala says:

    We played the 3.x update of TOH last year as part of a higher-level campaign we were running. While everyone survived (barely), the importance of whether or not to include things like this in a campaign, or use as a one-shot instead, came up sometime later.

    I have a fairly powerful Sorcerer who specializes in portals and such. In a later adventure, we were facing a VERY tough opponent who was almost impervious to our efforts. So, during a break in the action, I suddenly remembered the Sphere. An idea formed….

    I teleported to the Sphere’s chamber, and set up a portal facing it, as close as possible to the surface, then teleported back. After a quick huddle, we resumed our efforts to destroy our foe – by goading him into a rage where he charged us – and into another portal I cast in front of him, linked, of course, to the one in the TOH.

    The DM was flustered and tried every way he could think of within the rules to prevent it from working, but the plan was air-tight and the foe defeated. Of course we missed out on some Kewl Lewt, but the satisfaction of defeating a potential party-killer by using strategy (and knowledge of previous locations visited) was just as satisfying.

    Of course, we know that once something is used successfully in a campaign, it’s likely to be used again (against US), so we had to destroy the sphere.

    So, in short, if you want to put uber-powerful ANYTHING into a campaign world as a DM, be prepared for it to be used against you. 🙂

    • Kalex says:

      I think this is a reasonable response to Tomb of Horrors. Keep in mind though (not that it bears on your response in any way necessarily) that the version updates of the tomb are pretty commonly agreed upon to be far less deadly than the original AD&D version.

  21. Jeff V says:

    (Your links to the original article are busted.)

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that the dungeons was originally designed to kill off “Monty Haul” characters and players, primarily because EGG got sick and tired of people telling him about their “150 level characters who could beat anything.” So he used this module as a way to rock the “invincible” players back on their heels a bit. If that truly was the case, then I’d say the module is a near perfect design…for its intended purpose!

    But that doesn’t make it a bad module. Let’s face it, without reading the original article, and based solely on the comments here, I’d say Wick’s experience was much more colored by his player’s response than it was by the module itself. Based on that alone, his critique seems somewhat invalid — he’s not considering the module on its own merits, but rather on his memory of the way he was treated after playing it through. That would be sort of like me dissing a game because I got a traffic ticket driving back from the store where I bought it…

  22. It is so funny how this topic comes up every other month or so on the Facebook D&D groups.

  23. Alvaro Madrigal says:

    This is such an interesting topic seen from 2 perspectives.

    I first have to agree that John Wick’s perspective is totally marked by his experience with his friends. It makes sense. D&D and pretty much every single TTRPG is first and foremost a social experience. Your perspective is going to be completely molded by those social experiences. I can totally see John’s career as a game designer marked by that event with Tomb of Horrors.. In my house, for example, it is simply prohibited to play Monopoly, as we used to house rule the game to make it more intense up to a point when we fought over something so bad that we decided never again to play the game. You ask any member of my family and they will say that Monopoly sucks as a game and requires house rules to make it interesting, but those house rules are what got us into deciding not to play it any more. My point here is that our pespective of a game is completely biased by our own experience.

    But Alex makes also some pretty jarring assumptions here. I started playing AD&D when I was probably 20 years old. RPGs were not existant in my country and when I found them it was like such an underground culture. My first book was a 64 page pamphlet from D&D Basic and that’s how we played for a few weeks before I met a guy who owned the AD&D Playe’s handbook and lent it to me to make copies. I didn’t have acces to any monster manual or the DMG until a long time later. I used adventrues that my friend used in the past and I ran with it.

    That being said, if he had given me something in the vein of ToH, I would have probably used it in my games. The party would have died in the first 2 encounters and I would more then likely have hated the adventure in the same way John hates it. Internet was new here at the time, and there really was not much access, so it is not that I knew hwere to look for informaiton. That was me at age 20. So assuming that a 12 year old back probably in trhe 80s has access to all the information we have now, is kind of assuming too much.

    But I do agree that John has a very different approach to game design and he probably has gone that direction in part for his experience with ToH.

    Old adventures were really scripted. They actually worked really well in computer games as you had to enter a dungeon an while you could complete the dungeon in a certain way, there was a way that would maximize the use of items and resources to make things easier for the players. This is a design approach that exists up to this day and video games make extensive use of that.

    But in John’s perspective, he prefers more freeform approach to how players interact with the world. His 7th sea 2nd edition is directed completely towards that, allowing players a lot more freedom of choices and more importantly, not having death as an issue.

    So, I really don’t care much for the type of person John is, but even though I played a great amount of time under AD&D in my first 10 years as a gamer, I was extremely pleased to find other games more oriented to storytelling and not that “exploration/combat” that was more prevalent in the old days of D&D and other games.

    I don’t think either game design approach is necessarily better or worse than the other, and they both cather to different types of players and GMs (funny thing, I have played more D&D than any other game, but it’s been ages since I refer myself as DM). Even in my group we recently had a conversation of the type of games people like, and I have a couple of players who simply enjoy the old design of exploration a lot more. My bother, he was that type of player, and we recenly teested an adventure in 7th sea 2nd ed, and he loved the game system and asked if we could play it more in the future.

    So, there is space for both design approaches yet. And there is reason for John hating the adventure with his soul as there are also enough reasons for many people around the world to love ToH. Neither side of the story is better than the other.

  24. Meh2020 says:

    Didn’t 12-year-old Wick laugh in his players’ faces when he killed them all? Adolescents are not very even tempered and the reaction he received could almost be expected. His opinion of the Tomb of Horrors is still, to me, the case of an adult stuck in the past refusing to take responsibility for his actions, not the fault of the module.

  1. January 25, 2016

    […] Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) module, Tomb of Horrors, and Alex Karaczun rebutted here. Where Wick simply complains about the module based on his childhood experience running it, […]

  2. January 26, 2016

    […] (Mischief, Inc.) The WORST Adventure of all Time? — “Yes we lost a thief in the entry hall to the sphere of annihilation/demon maw, but […]

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