The Alexandrian

The Tomb of Horrors - Gary GygaxJohn Wick has written an article describing the Tomb of Horrors as the Worst Adventure of All Times. Personally, I disagree. Although back in 1999 I wrote a review of the Tomb which was critical of its many flaws and shortcomings (particularly by modern standards), even then I wrote that the module tantalized me “because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do”. My interest in the module eventually culminated in 2005 when I wrote a 3.5 adaptation which sought to make the module more usable by presenting it in a format easier for DMs to use (while also clearing up some of the design flaws). The result has been a really great one-shot scenario that has provided nearly a dozen different groups with some incredibly memorable experiences.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, and if John Wick considers it to be the “Worst Adventure of All Times”, that’s certainly a thing he’s allowed to think. I can’t object to that.

But you know what you’re NOT entitled to? Your own facts.

So what I do object to is the fact that Wick’s article is filled with the most ridiculous lies about the Tomb of Horrors.

SPOILERS FOR THE TOMB OF HORRORS

My players picked the entrance with the long corridor rather than the two other entrances which are instant kills.

No they’re not. Lots of things in the Tomb that will instantly kill you, these two things explicitly are not that.

The devil’s face has an open mouth just big enough for someone to fit inside. The booklet told me to say that.

It does not tell you to say that.

Told me to encourage players to climb in.

Bullshit. In fact, the module tells you to do exactly the opposite. It tells the DM specifically NOT to give helpful hints or mislead players into taking certain courses of action.

The actual text from the adventure:

The mouth of the green devil’s face is the equivalent of a fixed sphere of annihilation. Anyone who passes through the devil’s mouth appears to simply vanish into the darkness but they are completely destroyed with no chance to resist.

That is not actual text from the adventure. I actually made a point of going through every version of the Tomb of Horrors that I own (and I’m pretty sure I own all of them) to make sure that Wick hadn’t just accidentally grabbed a quote from the wrong version of the adventure. This text doesn’t appear in any of them. As far as I (or Google) can tell, Wick just made this up out of whole cloth.

(This is also where I went from scratching my head about Wick getting his facts wrong to deciding that I was going to write this exposé. Because there’s no way that you just accidentally make up an imaginary quote. That signals that you’re deliberately lying.)

If we walk down that corridor and try to open one of the two doors, a stone wall drops down, trapping us in. The walls then collapse on us, crushing us.

The fact that the stone wall doesn’t drop down but instead comes in from the side of the passage is a largely inconsequential inaccuracy. But the entire second sentence is a lie.

I didn’t tell them about the secret passage at the bottom of the pit at the very beginning that allows you to skip a third of the dungeon because it isn’t a trap, but it’s there anyway, and you should find it and save yourself the trouble of trudging through a third of this worthless, piece of shit adventure.

Taking that secret passage doesn’t “skip a third of the dungeon”. It actually leads you into a dangerous combat and then a series of painful traps before dumping you out in the exact same location that you’ll end up if you puzzle out the correct exit from that room.

If you do finish the adventure, to prove the whole thing is nothing more than a way for a sadistic prick to get his jollies off, as a final “FU” from Gary, the treasure in the lich’s tomb is cursed.

Sort of true, but not really. While the final treasure does include three cursed weapons, the vast majority of the treasure is not cursed.

After repeatedly telling bafflingly unnecessary lies about what the text of the module actually says, Wick then tells us a couple of stories about his experiences with the module: The first is about how he ran the module for friends in grade school, one of them beat him up for killing them, and then they ostracized him for an entire year. The second is about how he joined a convention game of the scenario many decades later, watched the other players kill themselves, and then had his character take their stuff, leave the dungeon, and retire on the proceeds from selling it.

Those stories could be true. Unlike all the bizarre lies he chooses to tell about easily verifiable facts, I have no way of fact-checking his personal anecdotes.

But you know what?

I don’t believe him.

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39 Responses to “Thought of the Day – John Wick Lies About the Tomb of Horrors”

  1. Will says:

    I thought this was about John Wick (Keanu Reeves) the retired hitman, lying about the tomb of horrors. Maybe using it to kill his targets for him.

    I am sad on two levels when I discover the truth

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    I feel like John Wick 2: The Tomb of Horrors absolutely needs to be a thing. Someone go steal his puppy and hide it in the demi-lich’s crypt.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I thought this was going to be about Keanu Reeves in character as John Wick mischievously GMing a Tomb of Horrors session.

  4. Vicente says:

    I don’t have the adventure, but if the mouth is really a sphere of annihilation it’s impossible that the thing kills more than 1 PC (or the GM is a sadist). Any matter that touches a sphere is automatically destroyed, so if you enter head first, well, dead (or severely injured), and the rest of the body just drops there. If you enter feet/hands first, well, destroyed too and that hurts a lot so you will probably stop. Unless the player is jumping or something else headfirst (because even if you are jumping feet first you would probably have time to scream in pain).

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Looks like John’s post is a total click-bait circle jerk unfortunately. Thanks for shining a light on his inaccuracies.

  6. Confanity says:

    It might be at least as important to note that, even if the guy is simply relying entirely on a faulty memory rather than deliberately lying, my main takeaway is that he’s a jerk.

    First, he DMs like an a-hole, and then instead of taking responsibility for his professed glee at murdering his friends’ characters out of hand, he chooses to blame the module for his own poor DMing. This might be a natural reaction for a 12-year-old, but continuing to displace the blame decades later strikes me as… a glaring lack of self-examination.

    The “coda” is even worse, though. I was expecting his one special chosen magic item to be… maybe a ring of wishes? Perhaps even something genuinely clever that would allow him to lead the party through the dungeon and win, thus showing that he is able to defeat the terrible dungeon? The choice of thief for his class and the trap-checking implied that that was where things were going at least. For that matter, the claim that the most fun he had as a DM was in cheating to help his party win is in the same vein.

    …But no. He chose a Bag of Holding, which means his intent all along was to murder the rest of the party by omission and take their stuff. The entire argument that the Tomb is a “the worst module ever” is based entirely on its supposed sadistic glee in defeating everyone else at the table, but in his convention playthrough, he is guilty of deliberately doing exactly that. He justifies misleading the other players with a slimy technicality (it’s a “Sphere of Annihiliation,” not a “trap”…?!), but the Bag of Holding tells us that he wanted them to die, and he did everything he could to ensure that they died in a specific way while leaving their stuff behind.

    He may or may not be a liar, but he works really hard to give the impression that he is a sociopath, and I wouldn’t want him at my gaming table in any role.

  7. Noah Stevens says:

    I thought the same. Why does Keanu hate Acererak?

    Why?

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Quick update: I got an angry e-mail from someone claiming that they’re seeing a Google hit on the “actual text” quote from Wick’s article leading to a PDF labeled the “Unofficial Ultimate Revised Edition”.

    Google still can’t find that for me when I search for the quote, but when I searched directly for the PDF I was able to track it down. The quote does appear there. So we now know that he didn’t make it up out of whole cloth, he just… got it from a fan rewrite of the adventure and then claimed it was from the original?

    Out of curiosity, I then checked his other claims about what the module says against the “Unofficial Ultimate Revised Edition” to see if all of his factual errors were the result of consulting a fan remix. No such luck, I’m afraid: The UURE still directly contradicts everything else that Wick claimed.

    So what Wick apparently did here was:

    (1) Decide he wanted to quote the original module.

    (2) Couldn’t find it.

    (3) Decided that quoting somebody else entirely while claiming he was quoting the original module was a good idea.

    (4) Still didn’t bother fact checking any of his other erroneous claims, despite having the PDF open in front of him.

    I honestly can’t decide if that’s better or worse than just making the quote up.

  9. Aaron S. says:

    Faulty memory or refusal to admit weak DMing skills aside, Tomb of Horrors ain’t even a thousandth as bad as he claimed. It’s probably one of my favorite modules to play or run. Sucks that someone has to bash it like that when it’s entire existence is due to Gygax’s old modules being too easy according to complaining DM’s of the era.

  10. MichelletheScot says:

    Honestly and truly, is something wrong with this author, John Wick? His sociopathy seems to go beyond merely trolling; the narcissism of that write-up approaches Donald Trump levels. Is that even his real name or did he grab it from the Keanu Reeves movie? (Not snarking; genuinely want to know.)

  11. Arnold K. says:

    Thanks for writing this. Trolls should not be fed, but even more than that, liars should be exposed as such.

    How many versions of ToH do you have?

  12. Jan says:

    Regardless of the fact of being right or wrong about what John Wick wrote, I strongly object to the title and other statements (see “steal his puppy”) doing nothing else but digging out the trenches for another warfare. Why? I hope this will not be the future style of this blog. I hate seeing such stuff elsewhere on the internet already, why on this blog, which was very good up to this point.

  13. Ruben says:

    I have a PDF copy of the original red cover of this adventure, in the introduction it clearly states “THIS IS A THINKING PERSON’S MODULE. AND IF YOUR GROUP IS A HACK AND SLAY GATHERING, THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY!” So right off at the beginning it tells the DM that this module was designed to make players use their brains before using their weapons.
    Second the Green Devil as it’s shown in the modules reads as follows:
    6. THE FACE OF THE GREAT GREEN DEVIL: The other fork of
    the path leads right up to an evil-appearing devil face set in mosaic
    at the corridor’s end. (SHOW YOUR PLAYERS GRAPHIC #6).
    The face has a huge 0 of a mouth; it is dead black. The whole
    area radiates evil and magic if detected for. The mouth opening is
    similar to a (fixed) sphere of annihilation, but it is about 3′ in
    diameter – plenty of room for those who wish to leap in and be
    completely and forever destroyed.
    Clearly it tells the DM that if the players choose to cast Detect Evil or Detect Magic they will discover that there is evil radiating from the mouth of the green devil. A good DM would have given his/her players a hint or some type of warning before allowing the players to jump in.
    The Tomb of Horrors is really a challenging module but it can be solved with a little bit of thinking and a lot of work. I remember DMing this module and it took my players about a semester of the school year to finish it, but my players had a lot of fun. Even today when we get together and trade stories of our D&D past adventures we can tell great stories of playing this module.

  14. Marty (Raging Owlbear) says:

    I’m not sure it matters if he’s telling a true story or spinning a wild tale to make a point… It doesn’t make ToH a good adventure. It’s terrible, really. Even by 1978 game design standards, it’s not good.

    The AD&D DMG even points out in its own text that “the killer-dungeon concept is the nadir of D&D”… Arg… I can’t find the page reference now, but I just read it the other day.

  15. Kersnurgburgler says:

    I like the part in the article where he refers to Gary Gygax like he’s some random scrub who wrote an adventure he really hates.

  16. Justin Alexander says:

    @Jan: Your concern that I am actually going to go steal the puppy of a fictional character is charming, but misplaced. I assure that I have no intention of using the magical movie ticket from Last Action Hero, leaping into Keanu Reeves’ next film, stealing his puppy, and then leaping into Ready Player One in order to deposit it in what I’m assuming is the only forthcoming cinematic representation of the Tomb of Horrors.

    @Marty: It’s on pg. 92. “Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the ‘killer-dungeon’ concept.” Notably Gygax would have been writing that passage at basically the exact same time he was designing the Tomb.

    It’s really important, IMO, to look at what the Tomb of Horrors was actually designed for: It’s a convention scenario that’s designed to be played as an unusual and challenging one-shot. And when played on those terms, it is a towering achievement that is completely, utterly, and indisputably successful at what it does.

    Ironically, John Wick’s anecdotes actually prove just how successful the adventure is at what it does. I’m guessing he’d struggle to tell you what specifically happened at any other random session he ran in 1981. But apparently he can recount the exploits of what happened in the Tomb decades later. And I’m guessing that, if they’re real, the other players in his recent convention game will be telling the story of how they died in the Tomb and John Wick stole all their stuff for years to come.

    The only regrettable thing about the Tomb is that, for some inexplicable reason, the ignorant have somehow come to assume that it’s a typical example of how early D&D was played or how Gary Gygax ran his game. But that, of course, isn’t true. The Tomb is infamous specifically because it is so completely and utterly atypical.

    On a similar note, I’m surprised by how many people have no idea who John Wick is. Check out my reviews of Legend of the 5 Rings and Orkworld.

  17. Wyvern says:

    @ Michelle: To give a more direct answer to your question, John Wick has been in the RPG publishing business since the mid-90’s, long before the movie was made. (In fact, at the top of the Wikipedia page for the movie, it says “For the game designer, see John Wick (game designer).”) IIRC, the first time I heard of him was when I read secondhand about how he’d gotten into a high dudgeon because someone wrote a negative review of 7th Sea, another of his games. Needless to say, he didn’t make a good first impression on me.

  18. Jan says:

    Justin: I would have preferred a reaction on my main point instead instead of concentrating on a minor point in a mocking kind of way that I actually got wrong. I did not insult you in any way, it was just fair criticism, I think. So I expected either a fair answer our none at all, but is just mocking fair criticism the way to handle it?

  19. Justin Alexander says:

    All right, Jan.

    (1) You object to the title. What do you object to about it, exactly?

    (2) You object to me saying that someone should go steal the puppy of a fictional character. I assumed you were joking, but apparently you were deadly serious about it. So what, exactly, do you find objectionable about that?

    (3) You say that this is “digging out the trenches for another warfare”. What war are you talking about?

  20. Matt says:

    No comments about his lie about Oprah Winfrey? Or maybe that was supposed to be humorous. Hard to tell as it wasn’t remotely funny.

  21. MichelletheScot says:

    Thanks for the 411 Wyvern. It never occurred to me to check Wikipedia. And for the record, his… for the sake of a laugh, we’ll call it an “article,” left a similarly negative impression on me.

  22. Katie says:

    Copyright law allows you to publish excerpts for purposes of critical review. Any reason you chose not to do so for purposes of refuting the John Wick article?

  23. Jan says:

    @Justin:

    Regarding (2), I mistunderstood it.

    Regarding (1) and (3): I know it’s not actually insulting, but your wording is helping fuling any fire that’s buring on the matter out there and if none is burning yet it might as well start one. That is what I object to. I haven’t checked that facts, but assuming you are right on all the facts, there are different ways on how to write that. You can do it in a neutral style, leaving out negative emtions and still make a point. Or you do it the way you did it and thus accept any emotional and negative reactions to it, which may lead to another internet storm. My term about “digging out the trenches” was referreing to the possibility of that storm happening.

    I hope I wrote that correctly, as not being a native speaker makes it difficult on such a matter. Again, I’m not talking about you being wrong or anything. It’s just the style.

  24. Yahzi says:

    I hated Tomb of Horrors because of that stupid adamantium door. A 10 x 10 x 10 cube of adamantinum is worth more than all the rest of the treasure combined.
    But no, it’s just an obstacle to get past, with the dumbest possible puzzle (insert 3 swords into 3 slots?)

    Full disclosure: totally going by memory here. 😀

  25. Dan says:

    Add me to the list of, “Had no idea who John Wick was until this very moment.” Hell, I’ll one up the rest of them by not even knowing that was also the title of a movie until today. Funny thing is, I actually have the L5R book, I just couldn’t name a single one of the writers off the top of my head. Realistically, that’s true for me for almost ANY game other than classic editions of D&D (2nd and earlier), 4th Edition (because Mike Mearls is so prolific on Twitter), or the varied category of “Things by Steve Jackson.”

    @Jan
    Ich fand diesen Post nicht besonders aufhetzerich; „Lügner” ist im Vergleich zu Alltagsinternetbeleidigungen ganz mild. Wenn John Wick nicht kritikfähig ist, ist er selbst schuld, m.E.

  26. Jeff says:

    Looks like Wick’s review is gone. I clicked the link and got nothing.

  27. Bobbyziltch says:

    Well I for one actually really like John Wick’s 7th Sea and the sort of weird swashbuckling adventures that make for great memories despite the system being kind of broken.

    That said even I knew that John Wick himself is kind of a weirdo.

    The guy dresses like a pirate for daily wear.

  28. Jan says:

    Dan: Da hat jeder halt so seine eigene Grenze. Ich fand das und den ganzen Unterton etwas zu viel.

  29. Bill says:

    Wyvern:
    He didn’t make a good impression on me either. The first time he came to my attention was his article about basically abusing Champions players with their character’s disadvantages. I hoped that article was tongue-in-cheek, and maybe it was, but he sure gave me an impression as a titanic jerk. And now this Tomb of Horrors article is doing little to disabuse me of that impression.

  30. Dan says:

    Jan: Na dann, OK, es ist Ansichtssache. Ich finde es komisch, Justin so zu bemängeln, weil millionen andere sehr schlimmere Dinge jeden Tag schreiben; das ist aber nur meine Meinung.

  31. Jan says:

    Die bemängel ich genauso, wenn das in meinem Umfeld geschieht.

  32. kittenfarce says:

    I’m glad somebody bothered to come to its defense. Honestly, it doesn’t live up to its own hype as a module. But i’ve made ToH into a tradition since i started running D&D a couple years back. It’s fun, unique, and very inspiring. Whether they make it through all but three rooms, or don’t make it past the first hallway. It has always been a memorable experience.

  33. Eliot Hochberg says:

    Here’s a link to the updated module:

    http://eecomics.net/orderofmagnitude/tomb%20of%20horrors.PDF

    The criticisms of John’s memory seem fair. The two trapped entrances aren’t automatically death, although they come close. One may or may not kill you, the other may or may not entomb you, and being observant is the key to survival.

    As for the green demon mouth? It doesn’t appear that you are told to make it appealing to climb in. But I can see how memory might make it seem like you should.

    I think, however, there’s a more positive takeaway from this: through running this module in a GM v Players way, our young GM learned the hard way what it means to be a good GM. And this post fails to point out that once they made up, Mr. Wick ran the adventure differently, in a way that led to a better experience which colored his entire career in RPG writing.

    Are there other ways besides “cheating” as a GM to run this? Certainly. The easiest of which is to make the death a false death, giving the players their characters back unscathed after a TPK. Or running with session built characters (making them relatives or ancestors if continuity were important).

    But the bottom line is that ToH CAN be the worst adventure, and very easily so, if you don’t know how to run it. Which 12 year old Mr. Wick did not know how to do.

    A lesson we can all learn from.

  34. Ilbranteloth says:

    I’ve always loved ToH, and have run it a number of times. The reason I really like it is simple – if you live in a time where magic, monsters, and adventurers exist and you want to protect your treasure-filled tomb from being robbed, you’d fill it with deadly traps. Period. None of this – “Oh, we don’t want a TPK, and this is for levels 7-14 (or whatever the original was)”. Nope.

    “I don’t want you to take my treasure, and if you try, a lot of you will die.”

    Not to mention the fact that an endless number of dungeons have featured “legendary treasure where hundreds, if not thousands, have tried to plunder, and all who have tried never came back.”

    It should be tough. It should be tough enough that the adventurers who finally do survive should be legendary.

    Not to mention, it was one of the first (if not THE first) that wasn’t full of monsters just because it was a dungeon. The monsters that are in the adventure make sense for being entombed for thousands of years. You may not like all of the specific traps and puzzles, but overall I think it’s a very well done adventure, particularly for the time. Not to mention it specifically goes against the idea that dungeons and tombs are there solely for the purpose of adventurers exploring and plundering them. This tomb is made to hold the treasure of the deceased, and will go to great lengths to ensure that it stays that way. Looking back it was just a point on the journey, but to me it seems like it was a real evolution from a bunch of random caves with goblins here, orcs there, and such.

    I’m pretty sure this module single-handedly inspired the entire Grimtooth’s Traps series of books. At least it seems that way. We went through great pleasure at the time in designing traps that were not only imaginative and (usually overly) deadly, but that theoretically could work. Or at least in our minds they mechanically worked.

  35. Erik says:

    I tried getting back into gaming last year after about two decades away. It was very disappointing. Is it a necessary component of being a nerd that everyone is so contentious? Is it so hard to get along or are we all still pissed about how we were treated in our youth. Disturbing to see so much effort putting into burning someone down over a personal anecdote that you “disagree” with.

  36. Justin Alexander says:

    I find it disturbing that you find it disturbing that I spent 15 minutes fact-checking this.

    I’m frequently baffled by people who try to shame others for putting forth even a minimal amount of effort to uphold truth and accuracy in discourse. Or, for some reason, find fact-checking some sort of horrible faux pas. That sort of aggressive defense of intellectual laziness just doesn’t sit right with me.

  37. Tasos says:

    We don’t need John Wick to tell us, that adventure was utter crap like most d&d adventures anyway. Thank god we had Chaosium back in the day they wrote some amazing stuff.

  38. Randy G says:

    Those criticizing the DM skill of a 12-year-old need to rent a sense of humour. I noticed the inaccuracies in the article as well as I re-read ToH recently but the post seems to be more based on memory and tongue in cheek than others are treating it. ToH can be fun but it is full of cheap DM fiat rulings (secret doors that can’t be detected except by magic, darts that hit you know matter what, etc) that severely weaken it if it was ran as written.

  39. rjschwarz says:

    A friend of mine DM’s Tomb of Horrors and naturally my character died. Funny thing is not long after I became the groups DM and I can’t help but think the experience with Tomb of Horrors from the player side helped my game a lot.

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