Modern-day pen and paper RPGs generally stick to the ethic that ‘telling a good story’ is the overriding priority on game night. The Game Master is there to referee the proceedings and ensure everyone plays by the rules, but by and large, the GM’s job is to facilitate an enjoyable experience for all. There are exceptions–Paranoia, for example, gives players six clone lives apiece because the GM is expected to slaughter them for the slightest infraction. But Paranoia’s played for laughs, while Dungeons & Dragons is serious business. Players invest years building 1st-level peons into paragon powerhouses. In light of that investment, capriciously slaying characters is seen as the hallmark of a poor GM, ideally avoided unless the a character does something stupid and/or provocative. There’s only one fitting punishment for the idiot who confuses a sacred idol of Wotan with an outhouse, after all. This wasn’t always the case though: old school grognards often felt adventures weren’t stories to be shared so much as corpse grinders into which characters should be fed feet first to maximize the agony. I’m excluding Gary Gygax’s original “Tomb of Horrors” because that one’s just too obvious, but if you want to earn the unrepentant ire of your gaming group, pop one of these bad boys into your campaign. Just don’t be surprised if, in the aftermath, your players suddenly have better things to do on Friday nights.
6) “Jacob’s Well” by Randy Maxwell (Dungeon Magazine #43)
Jacob’s Well is a first-edition D&D adventure I’ve used numerous times when there were only 1-2 players available, and to introduce new players to the game. It’s a short one, meant to be completed in a single session, for one GM and one (maybe two, but no more) low-level characters. This one isn’t for group night, and it isn’t for high-level parties–it’s for scaring the effluvia out of one first- or second-level PC while making the player feel like they’re simultaneously living “Alien” and “John Carpenter’s The Thing”.
Spoiler-Free Summary: ‘Jacob’s Well’ is a small fortified trading post in the middle of the wilderness, named for its half-orc proprietor and the source of the post’s drinking water. While scouting ahead for their party, travelling alone, or otherwise separated from the herd, the player arrives at the Well just ahead of a terrible blizzard. Seeing no other option, the player checks in to wait out the storm. In the middle of the night, terrible screams ring out, a window shatters, and one of the inn’s clients is found horribly butchered in his room. With the storm making travel impossible, the occupants are left to face the fact a killer now stalks Jacob’s Well. The longer it takes to root out the problem, the harder that problem becomes to deal with, and the chance of the player surviving dwindles toward zero.
Maxwell’s adventure requires a considerable amount of prep on the part of the GM, who will need to be extremely familiar with the layout of the small fort, all its inhabitants, and the timeline of events in order to run it smoothly. You’ll want lots of photocopies of different pages so you can organize them yourself, as the way they’re presented in the magazine is inefficient and not conducive to off-the-cuff play. The kicker is, Jacob’s Well is only as hard as the player makes it on himself. Well-organized characters who cooperate with the rest of the inhabitants and come up with solid plans to survive can end the encounter in a matter of in-game hours, assuming they’re both smart and thorough. The NPCs represent a decent, if low-level, cross-section of skills: a young mage, a novice ranger, two barbarians, an Orc chieftain and his two bodyguards, a halfling, a number of guardsmen, some human fur trappers, and Jacob himself are among those who will lend support to any halfway decent plan. Inventive players will convince Jacob to open his stores and lend out weapons and armor to those in need. Those who decide to wait out the nightmare or don’t take an active role in directing the inhabitants’ energies face a threat that grows nastier as the howling blizzard shows no sign of abatement, areas of the fort become uninhabitable, and friendly faces become monster chow.
Best Sprung On: Does anyone in your gaming group decry the decisions made by people in horror films? Jacob’s Well is their chance to shine. See if they’ve got what it takes to be R.J. MacReady or Ellen Ripley as the star of their own nightmare scenario. It’s the perfect way to set the tone early in a campaign that you want players who are more Batman and less Balboa. And hey, you’re dealing with a first-level character so don’t hold back. Find inspiration in the words of the philosopher Drago: “If he dies…he dies.”
5) “Temple, Tower & Tomb” by Steve Winter & Laura Craig
Temple, Tower & Tomb is really three different mini-adventures in one, but this 32-page booklet houses them all between the same covers, and they’re meant to be tackled in order. This 2nd-edition adventure is designed for four to eight characters between 7th and 12th level, and at this point I’m laughing because I’ve read this adventure and assume the editors had partaken of potent pipe weed when they proposed that level range.
Spoiler-Free Summary: A kingdom on the brink of war, three powerful artifacts that could turn the tide of battle, and one ruler rich (and desperate) enough to try anything to acquire them. Each artifact is housed in a separate area (hence the temple, tower, and tomb referred to in the module’s title), far enough away that the only means of access is through the magic of the royal viziers. The chance of success is… Well, let’s just say the PCs all have to sign waivers agreeing to hold their employer harmless in the event that anything goes wrong. When was the last time you had to legally dissolve your right to sue prior to an excursion into unknown territory? ‘Strictly boilerplate stuff’ my ass.
Make no mistake, Temple, Tower & Tomb is not for novice players. While each of the three scenarios is short, suitable for 1-2 evenings of play apiece, they are by no means simple. Progress is made through equal measures of skill and luck, and even full parties of 12th-level characters loaded down with magical equipment will be hard-pressed to emerge unscathed. Traps abound, with one in the ‘Tomb’ portion of the module that virtually guarantees a TPK (Total Party Kill) if the players don’t handle it with extreme caution. The monsters are no picnic either, with the nastiest being the ultra-powerful badass waiting at the conclusion of the ‘Tower’ segment. Your players will be ready to kill the asshole who invented ‘Rot Grubs’ before the module’s over too, I guarantee it. Beating the monsters and finding the artifact in each area is only the first part of each adventure though. The second half involves getting back home. You still have the little glass teleport sphere securely packed away somewhere, don’t you? You remembered it can only be used outside before you smashed it, right? Right…?
Best Sprung On: Players who have taken everything ‘Tomb of Horrors’ could dish out and laughed. One of the things that put this adventure on the list is the large number of people who simply don’t know about it. While many classic D&D modules are well-known to even casual players either though previous experience or seeing them updated for new editions, Temple, Tower & Tomb came out in 1994 as a generic module adaptable to any campaign setting. So while it’s possible your players may know about the green face with the open mouth from ‘Tomb of Horrors’, it’s far less likely they’ll have advanced knowledge of what will happen if they start messing around with those statues.
4) “Tomb of the Lizard King” by Mark Acres
First-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules bearing the “I” designation were meant for an ‘Intermediate’ level range, roughly 4 through 12 or thereabouts. These adventures are meant for characters who have been around the block and acquired some magical goodies, but aren’t ready to lead the charge into the Nine Hells just yet. The “I” line launched in 1980 with I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and was followed in 1982 with I2: Tomb of the Lizard King. The former was a campaign tournament module, set in the World of Greyhawk, and was designed differently from most standard adventures, but Tomb of the Lizard King can be run in just about any setting. Any setting, that is, where you want to ensure your players’ everlasting hatred.
Spoiler-Free Summary: The Count of Eor has received troubling reports of brigand activity along his territory’s southern border. Merchant caravans are ambushed, travelling pilgrims accosted, and even heavily-guarded traders overrun by the thieves. Survivors are few and far between, but they describe large groups of raiders and some kind of hellish flying creature participating in the attacks. The Count has dispatched an entire contingent of soldiers to investigate the matter, but so far none have returned. Whoever is harassing the southern border is growing more brazen by the day, and supplies are growing scarce as shopkeepers cannot restock their wares. It falls to the PCs to investigate the thieves, explore the wilderness, and put a stop to the powerful Lizard King before he can grow his ambitions any greater.
I’m convinced Mark Acres thought the “I” designation must have stood for something else when he penned this adventure. Insane, insidious, impossible? I don’t know, but “intermediate” is the last word I would choose to describe this ruthless monstrosity. The module claims it’s written for a party of 7-9 characters of fifth to seventh level, but then goes on to warn the GM about how hazardous the whole thing is and suggests players may want to use the eight pre-generated characters provided instead of risking their own. Warnings like this can come off hyperbolic but “Tomb of the Lizard King” is not screwing around. There are plenty of instant-death traps (including a collapsing stairway that dumps characters into a 60′ deep flaming pit, set into an area that must be traversed in order to proceed with the adventure), but the two largest threats even a well-armed and well-prepared party will face (beyond the titular Lizard King) are an all-out assault from a 400-year old Black Dragon with plenty of room to maneuver, and an unavoidable encounter with sixteen Wights (mid-level undead creatures that drain a full experience level every time they hit a living being) that happens during the third and final stage of the adventure. Parties who have lost their Clerics or suffer bad luck here may as well just slit their own throats, because this is a potentially game-ending encounter even if most of the players survive. Mark Acres wins. Fatality.
Best Sprung On: I can’t imagine dropping this on anyone out of the blue, mainly because I would like to keep the few friends I have. As written it contains too many distractions (the journey through the swamp comes to mind, especially if the only guide the PCs might find dies before reaching their destination) to be used as a tournament module, which is honestly where it’s best presented using the pre-gen PCs. Much like Temple, Tower & Tomb, you could throw this at players who shrugged off everything Tomb of Horrors dished out, but Tomb of the Lizard King is far more combat-heavy than ToH even if the Lizard King himself isn’t as dire as a demilich. No group I have ever run this adventure for has survived, whether they were using the pre-generated group, their own characters, or a mixture of the two. Ultimately this module shares a trait with TT&T, being nowhere near as iconic or well-known as Tomb of Horrors, and thus fewer players will have meta-gaming knowledge that might help them avoid or dismantle the nastier encounters. Have your escape route from behind the screen mapped in advance if you plan on running this one.
3) Die, Vecna, Die! by Bruce Cordell & Steve Miller
The words “Written by Bruce R. Cordell” should be perceived less as author credit and more as warning label, because nearly everything this guy wrote cranks the difficulty knob to “Devastating”. Die, Vecna, Die! was the final adventure published for Dungeons & Dragons under 2nd Edition rules. Management gave Miller and Cordell a license to go apeshit, so the pair high-fived, put on some heavy metal, and set out to see just how far that license would stretch. According to their measurements, it reached the ends of Oerth and beyond. Die, Vecna, Die! is to D&D modules what “Aliens vs. Predator” was to comic books: the kind of thing every fanboy dreams of writing, but can’t figure out how to without destroying the world. When Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR and transitioned to 3rd Edition, what happened to the 2E property stopped mattering–if that meant an epic-level brawl between a demigod of Greyhawk and a lich-form lesser deity of Ravenloft was only the opening act for this 160-page behemoth, then so be it.
Spoiler-Free Summary: Writing a spoiler-free summary for Die, Vecna, Die! is like running a sweat-free marathon in the Gobi desert, but here goes nothing. Greyhawk demigod Iuz is on the warpath towards full godhood. In order to do this, he needs to engage a similarly-powered being in combat. His target of choice is his old rival Vecna, currently exiled to Ravenloft. Iuz becoming an even more powerful asshole is something your group of 4-6 PCs of levels ten to thirteen absolutely should not tolerate without a fight. Said fight is a journey that will take them from a besieged temple on Greyhawk to Vecna’s citadel in Ravenloft, and from there to the city of Sigil at the center of the multiverse itself, where the winner of the ultimate Hell in a Cell match could reshape the entire universe to his whim. Not cool, man.
DVD! was much-maligned upon its release in 2000 for breaking a number of rules the campaign settings for Planescape and Ravenloft established, but as pointed out earlier, this adventure wasn’t meant just to capstone a campaign, it was intended to end an entire product line, much like the 1986 animated Transformers movie. At that point the rules were there to be broken like limbs in a Tony Jaa film, and whether Vecna or Iuz emerged victorious, everybody everywhere would have the worst day imaginable.
Best Sprung On: A campaign that has gone on way too long for your liking, when you and your players no longer truly care if they live or die. While a full group of six 13th-level PCs are nothing to sneeze at, Cordell and Miller deliver shock and awe enough to obliterate a party ten times that size. If the phrase “wandering Spheres of Annihilation” doesn’t make you shiver, then you don’t understand D&D. There’s enough level-draining, spell-erasing, memory-stripping and proficiency-destroying effects littered throughout to give even the hardiest adventurer pause. If you ever wanted to be the referee for a supernatural grudge match, Die, Vecna, Die! is your chance to live out that fantasy several times over.
2) The Apocalypse Stone by Jason Carl and Chris Pramas
If Die, Vecna, Die! is a campaign-ending shitstorm of all that is awesome in the D&D world, how do you top that? Leave it to Carl and Pramas to design a scenario that looks like the greatest epic-level quest in the world but leaves the players on the hook for consigning everyone to oblivion. Designed to be campaign-agnostic unlike Die, Vecna, Die!, The Apocalypse Stone is basically the ultimate unwinnable adventure. There’s about a 1% chance your players will do everything needed to keep the Multiverse intact, with any deviation resulting in a second Big Bang. In this case, you really can judge a module by its cover.
Spoiler-Free Summary: A sage recounts some long-forgotten lore about fabulous treasure and a divine trial of some sort which, if overcome, ensures those who complete it go down in history as the greatest heroes of all time. This sends the group to seek out Castle Pescheour, a monster-infested stronghold ruled by its gibbering and insane king that teleports from remote location to remote location across the world, never remaining in the same place for more than a week or two, wherein is located the treasure sought by the players. Upon return, the players present the treasure to the avatar of a divine being and cement their status as true heroes of the ages. Then the world begins falling apart. Now the heroes have to not only figure out what’s causing the problems, they have to live with the fact something they did might lie at the root of the matter. Another divine avatar appears before them, this time not to offer wealth or favor, but to give them one chance to fix what is broken. The only question is, can they actually undo the damage, or is the world doomed to expire no matter what?
The Apocalypse Stone holds nothing back from either the GM or the PCs. Players who survive the initial foray to retrieve the treasure of Castle Pescheour live only to face the nightmare of a world going horribly wrong, the machinations of a pissed off demon, a potential fight with the deadliest non-deity creature in the Monster Manual, and the slaughter of everyone they hold dear. What’s worse, the module tells the GM to flat-out lie to the players and suggests running a number of adventures after the expedition to Pescheour to keep them from immediately figuring out what’s causing the calamity. The Apocalypse Stone is not nice, not kind, and absolutely not recommended for people lacking strong stomachs. Make sure you get seconds on the pork buns though–they really are out of this world!
Best Sprung Upon: Players who think their characters are so perfect they can do no wrong. Following the standard RPG script on this one is a recipe for a literal disaster, and both players and their characters will have to do an awful lot of outside-the-box thinking and playing against trope to have a ghost of a chance at fixing stuff. The good news is, whether they succeed or fail, the campaign’s shot to hell anyway. When you’re ready to start telling new stories, when you need an excuse to switch to a new rule set, when you want to expose the players for the desensitized little munchkin power-gamers they truly are, it’s time to break out The Apocalypse Stone. It eliminates even the toughest campaign stains in just one cycle.
1) Return to the Tomb of Horrors by Bruce R. Cordell
Oh, man. I know what you’re thinking: “The title says no ‘Tomb of Horrors’. Why are you lying to me, on the internet of all places?!” Well, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, what I told you was true…from a certain point of view.
Gary Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors itself does not appear in any of the entries on this list. On the other hand, when I read Bruce “My Name Heralds The Apocalypse” Cordell’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors, I realized there was no way in hell I could leave it off a list like this. Apocalypse Stone and Die, Vecna, Die! might be world-ending super-modules, and Jacob’s Well might be a great way to terrorize a player, but Return exists solely to do both to high-level parties. No one but the most phenomenally prepared group ever assembled is finishing this adventure without multiple TPK’s. Cordell wrote RttToH for the D&D equivalent of Navy SEALs and Green Berets–weekend warriors need not apply. I have never run a scarier, more difficult adventure for my players than this one.
Spoiler-Free Summary: Everyone knows the Tomb of Horrors, and the stories of the demilich Acererak who resides within. Anyone with common sense knows to stay the hell away from it, especially after a powerful group of adventurers known as The Band of the Hand entered the Tomb and returned with nothing but tales of death, woe, and shattered sanity. Unfortunately leaving the Tomb alone is no longer an option. A school of Necromancers, devoted to the worship of Acererak and guided in their studies to elevate him to godhood, has sprung up around the nightmarish dungeon. If Acererak succeeds in his diabolical scheme, it will mean utter ruin to the Prime Material Plane as we know it. If he is to be stopped, it will take a group of high-level adventurers willing to gamble their very souls to do so. Taking on the demilich means a return trip to the Tomb, but that’s only the beginning. The ending is much, much worse.
Return to the Tomb of Horrors is an absolute nightmare, no two ways about it. It’s meant to be a full-fledged campaign, designed to take months or possibly even years of game time, as the PCs gather intel, follow up on leads, investigate new mysteries, and travel across Greyhawk in search of not just the Tomb but a way to combat the vile mastermind behind it. They’ll fight giants, infiltrate an academy of Necromancers, face down legions of undead, and bear witness to some of the most unspeakable atrocities ever put to print in an official D&D product. PCs reaching the final encounter will likely find themselves in a position where defeating Acererak means consigning thousands of innocent souls to annihilation at the expense of slowing down the demilich’s play for power for a few centuries.
Best Sprung Upon: There is absolutely no way to spring something like this boxed set on smart players. Any PC worth her intelligence stat knows to give the Tomb of Horrors as wide a berth as you would give to flesh-eating bacteria. You could start the campaign with players who are in the dark, but as soon as the name Acererak pops up, everyone with any common sense is going to agree, “Nah, we’re good. Someone else can take over from here.” Return is written for a group of 4-8 characters of thirteenth-to-sixteenth levels, but even the most perfectly-balanced team will be hard-pressed to navigate very far in this one without taking some fearsome risks (the opening encounter with 10 Wights being a perfect example of tone-setting that will cost unwary characters valuable experience levels). You will only ever run this adventure for players with teeth set and loins girded to take on the worst the world has to offer. Their PCs should be the sort who would get bounced from the Marine Corps for unnecessary roughness. Just reading the adventure made me feel dirty. GMing this monstrosity is not for the faint-of-heart, and can only end in one of two ways: you’ll have players ready to slit your throat for mincing their PCs into hearty salsa, or the campaign will go down in history as one of the greatest tales of role-playing heroism ever experienced by your group. So…are you game?