Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Adversarial modules in D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative game. That is not only true for the players, but includes the Dungeon Master, who just like the players should strive to move the story forward, even if he controls the monsters and villains. The DM is not the enemy of the players! However, this design philosophy took some time to be established. In the earlier days of D&D, some people did play the game differently, and there was an idea floating around that D&D could be played competitively, with the DM's job being to provide a great challenge to the players. Usually those competitive games happened at conventions, so for the first Origins convention in 1975 Gary Gygax wrote a "tournament play" module called Tomb of Horrors, "ready for those fans [players] who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game".

45 years later, competitive D&D clearly isn't what players want, despite the occasional attempts to revive it. The fundamental reason for that is that a player vs. DM game is clearly unwinnable if the DM is bound only by his imagination. A DM can modify stats of monsters until they are unbeatable, or can use an unlimited number of them. Even worse, a DM can present traps, where the imperfect information the players have makes it highly unlikely for the players to figure out. In the early 80's we had books like Grimtooth's Traps for D&D, with the traps specifically designed to counteract the typical actions players employ to overcome traps. But as traps could employ "magic" to function, it is impossible for players to foresee what could happen, and the only way to find out how the trap works is often to trigger it. There are whole RPG systems, like Paranoia, built around the "fun" of player characters dying all the time due to impossible odds or stabbing each other in the back, but Dungeons & Dragons isn't really that sort of game.

Unfortunately, history has a tendency to repeat itself, and even bad ideas of the past can come back due to nostalgia for "old school" ways of playing. And so the Tomb of Horrors got reincarnated as the final chapter of the 5E module Tomb of Annihilation. I am currently a player in that campaign, and although the DM isn't all that adversarial, the module clearly is. I am on my 3rd character in the campaign, and nobody from the starting group of adventurers is still alive. My last character died because simply examining the fresco of a maze teleported me inside the maze, while summoning a bunch of monsters attacking the other players. The maze being "magic", standard methods to escape the maze didn't work, and in fact we were told the maze didn't have a conventional exit. The only thing to do was to "explore" by doing random d100 rolls. Guess what, I rolled badly, and encountered a minotaur. I had some spells that could incapacitate a monster, but the minotaur always rolled very high, and then cleaved me with his axe. And then of course I rolled badly for my death saving throws. All that while my group was unable to join me and help. The encounter before that was a permanently invisible and flying beholder, that couldn't be reached by any melee attacks, and not be targeted by any spells or ranged attacks. Having been there, I could feel the adversarial design philosophy of the 80's, but I wasn't feeling nostalgic, more like nauseous. This is the sort of content that should have remained in the archives.

This is really a pity, because I quite liked the first chapters of the Tomb of Annihilation module. The "hex crawl" exploration of the junge of Chult is quite well done. It feels dangerous, but not unfair. Also the lost city of Omu is a nice adventure. It is only when you enter the final dungeon that suddenly the game design is jerked 40 years into the past, and you are presented with several levels worth of dungeon full of mostly unfair traps, no exit, and not much sense of story progress other than "we need to reach the lowest level and kill the end boss". Note to self: If I ever run the Tomb of Annihilation module, I will rewrite the final dungeon to make it less unfair, less deadly, and shorter.


Things like Tomb of Horrors are only fun if you are playing it the same way as the original convention module: A one-shot game with temporary characters (or temporary copies of favorite characters). Once in a great while you can just relax and let suspension of disbelief accept that you're all going to die, so you might as well enjoy the ride and build some fun memories along the way.

Then you get back to a 'real' campaign later.
Agreed! Which is why it doesn't really work all that well at the end of a 256-page long campaign module. At the end of a 20-session campaign your whole group dies a stupid death? Not much fun!
Everything you just said x 100. I remember those "good" old days and I quite agree.
I suppose you could work it in as a "it was all a dream" if they party wiped? Maybe Acererack was just mind f-ing them to delay them while the atropal gets stronger or something.

Or even better, if they die in the dream, they face the same (easier) version when they get there in real - because the gods gave them a vision of what was to pass.

Otherwise yeah. Just change it so they find an elevator to skip most of the floors and get right to the boss. They sort of do it that way in Neverwinter Online. :P
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