This weekend, some buddies of mine came into town for a marathon game session of Tomb of Horrors, the original module-of-death by Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax. My buddy Byron had never played it, and so we set ourselves to the task of patching this hole in his RPG literacy.
It went rather well. These guys are expert players, and hardly missed a beat. They squeaked past dangers, risked only what they needed to in order to get what they needed (in most cases), and fought very effectively against the overbuffed foes I sent against them. I only managed to kill off two characters. One of those was in an encounter that I added with an undead Illithid that plane shifted him into oblivion somewhere. The other got disintegrated by the encounter with the lich at the end of the hall of spheres. Personally, I don't think these are the faults of the players, since they're pretty much cheap shots by the game universe, IMHO, because it takes a healthy, prepared character all the way to death with a single action that leaves everything to a single die roll - face enough of those, and eventually you go down, no matter how skilled a player you are.
Throughout the adventure, I didn't really pull any punches, although I admit that I decided to be generous in the final battle with Acererak. They won legitimately, but if I were a nasty DM, the outcome may not have been so rosy. Two of their number went down during the battle - the two fighters who were the ones who could do damage; the spellcasters really didn't have much that could damage the lich. They both made their consumption checks, though, and were returned to life at the battle's conclusion.
First, the paladin went down after rolling dismally on a saving throw to avoid getting his soul sucked. I suspect that this was in large part due to the fact that he succumbed to the urge to start trash-talking to Acererak (calling him "Ass-Crack") in the demilich's own tomb, which caused an irony distortion field to practically ensure he'd roll low. Still, it's pretty awesome to watch a paladin trash-talk a lich. It would have been cooler if he'd have lived.
Then, the bugbear fighter went down after dealing about 90% of the damage. He was really the hero of the fight because he shook off several soul suck attempts, and dealing mighty damage, before falling.
But in the end, it was the wizard who dealt the final blow by picking up a Shatter scroll off the floor (why the lich would leave this stuff lying around is anyone's guess), casting read magic, and blasting the demilich into chopsticks and craps. This was entirely satisfying to me, considering there had been much discussion leading up to the game about some decisions I had made about generating mages. Some people claimed that I had "nerfed" the wizard class, and there were dire predictions that such a character would die horribly and quickly. But instead, he was the one who dealt the final blow. I think he did okay.
I was also impressed by two other things. Byron was the only character who managed to survive from the very beginning until the ultimate defeat of Ass-Crack, and about a third of the way through the tomb, he was stripped of all his equipment (along with most of the party), and so was working with only his natural gifts and no item buffs. Not bad. I thought for sure that was a death sentence, but apparently not.
The other thing that impressed me was the fact that the ridiculous "oozemaster" class actually worked pretty damn well in a dungeon crawl. Kurt made one for this one-shot just to see how it worked, and I have to say that it's pretty handy to have a character that can ooze under a door to see what is beyond. Too bad it's mainly for spellcaster-types, because an oozemaster rogue would be a formidable combination.
In the end, the Tomb of Horrors was no match for this bunch. In order to kill off the party, I would have had to boost the DC checks for threats throughout the tomb by about 10, because people were exceeding their DC's by such large margins, they'd only fail at something on a natural 1. As it was, I made the dungeon more difficult, adding some nasty little suprises to the canonical tomb, but still, they knocked back challenges almost as fast as I could throw them.
Part of this was due to the fact that they were able to design their characters specifically to survive the Tomb of Horrors, though. It would be a huge difference to actually drop it into an existing campaign, where people have not been at liberty to pick and choose the item buffs they want. So DM beware - Tomb of Horrors is a deadly place, and it most likely will claim several lives, so use it with caution. But you might be surprised at the skill level of your players if you decide to give it a spin.