Once upon a time, I caught some forgotten comedian’s bit about men and heist films. His contention was that, deep down inside, men want to participate in a heist. There is some primal, masculine allure to the idea of hanging upside-down in an air vent, spraying aerosol to detect invisible trip beams while another guy sits in a van three blocks away screaming “They changed the code!” into his headset mike. The challenge of defeating the undefeatable and walking away with a fortune is tempting no matter how law-abiding one is in everyday life, which is why the heist remains a popular crime genre in both fiction and film.
As I was out walking yesterday, The Tomb of Horrors burbled up to the surface of my thoughts for some reason. As my readers undoubtedly know, that module is largely considered to be the most challenging dungeon ever written. In fact, the Tomb of Horrors is so notorious that I’ve had younger gamers, ones who’ve never even seen the module in the figurative flesh, tell me with complete and utter sincerity that it is unbeatable and that everyone who enters the Tomb dies. They don’t believe me when I tell them otherwise.
Personally, I’m of the school of thought that there are no truly unbeatable dungeons or deathtraps—provided one has a fair referee and enough time and money to spend. I maintain that the Tomb can be navigated with greatly reduced risk if a) the referee is neutral, and b) you’re willing to take a financial and magical loss on the venture. Again, when I mention this, these younger gamers assume I’m talking about buying every last sheep in town and driving them ahead of the party to serve as mine detectors when they explore the tomb. Not so, my friends.
The key to defeating the tomb is patience, money, and research, not livestock. One of the great things about the Tomb is that, when inserted into a campaign setting rather than used as a one-shot, there is no time limit present when confronting the lich’s crypt. This gives the smart and cautious player all the time in the world to plan his foray before he gets within sight of that skull motif hill.
In a world where sages can be paid vast sums to dedicate all their time to researching the past and unearth forgotten scraps of information, why not do so? When priests quite literally have access to the knowledge of the gods, who wouldn’t consult them to inquire what lays beyond the entrance to the Tomb? Genius mages can cast spells that access other planes of existence or delve into legend to retrieve scraps of knowledge, so it would be foolish to not hire their services. And in a milieu where magic items exist that can detect traps, contain spells of augury or divination, see through illusions, detect poison, magic, and evil, reveal secret passages, and otherwise access the unknown and unseen, why wouldn’t you take as long as was necessary to buy, beg, borrow, and steal those items to take with you?
It then occurred to me that all this prep work was the fantasy equivalent to putting a crew together in a heist film. Why not make the entire campaign one big heist job with the Tomb of Horrors as the once-in-a-lifetime score?
The set-up would be simple enough. First, figure out what treasure makes the players drool and stash it in the Tomb. Staff of the Magi? It’s in there. Hammer of Thunderbolts? Acererak stole it. A diamond the size of a baby’s head? The lich has six of them.
Then start the players off at first level and let them know exactly what’s in the Tomb. Give them a scrap of information to get them started and then let them figure out how to get it. They’ve got 10-14 levels to plan their heist.
The result would be a sandbox-style campaign with a definite end game. The players would have to determine what information, equipment, magic items, favors, assistants, etc. they would need to breach the tomb and then figure out how to get access to that material. This would lead them to tracking down the possible resting places of a gem of true seeing or a wand of secret door and trap location. They might have to do a few favors for the Great Oracle in order to gain her favor so she will contact the gods to see within the tomb. A council of mages might need pacification before they’d agree to use their crystal balls and legend lore spells to peer beyond the veil. And, of course, the Thieves Guild is going to want in on a heist like this…
To make it true to the heist genre, you could even start the campaign with a single PC and have him decide who to recruit. As he puts his list of needed accomplices together, the other players come in as possible candidates, leaving it up to the first PC and his player to best determine how to go about recruiting them to participate in the caper. Now would also be the time to slip in a mole or secret rival too.
Like any sandbox, this would require a lot of prep work for the referee, but with a predetermined campaign goal to consider, he could concentrate his efforts on people, places, and things related to the ultimate heist. No need to design a ten-level megadungeon, just lots of little dungeons that hold secrets and heist-related magical items, for example. You could even use James Raggi’s The Grinding Gear as a low-level dry run to give the PCs an idea of what sort of challenges lie ahead.
One thing that would be required of the referee is complete 100% fairness. The Tomb’s a tough nut, and with it as the focus of the campaign, he might even want to make it 25%-50% more deadly ahead of time. Although, once that’s done, he can’t toughen it up again later on down the line if the PCs become better prepared than anticipated. If the players are smart and take steps to learn and overcome the Tomb’s dangers, they should be rewarded for doing so and not have to face a Tomb “adjusted for their challenge level.” On the other hand, if they fail to make the correct preparations, there’s nothing wrong with the campaign ending with the death of everyone.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I have the concept for the next Labyrinth Lord campaign I run.