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Tales from the Yawning Portal: DMing the Tomb of Horrors

Tomb of Horrors has always been a favorite of mine to run as a session or two for fun. When Tales of the Yawning Portal popped up with a 5th edition version, I had to get it and run it. Luckily my group was totally on board for a different experience for a few sessions, so away we go.

I've run ToH in multiple systems and I have seen the ins and outs. I know all the tricks. I know what fun looks like and what frustration looks like. ToH is a great experience dating all the way back to Gary Gygax's original group. Let's take a look.

My game was run with 5 players, although we swapped out a couple of players along the way. It lasted about 3 sessions of about 4 hours each. All of the players started with multiple 14th level characters, so they could switch to new ones as characters died. My party ran no rogues, which was just weird.

This is all my opinion. Your game may go differently, your gaming group may have different problems and successes. I'm not going to argue that I am right about any of this in the context of your game. As always, do what works for you.

Here's my recap of the good and the bad at a generic spoiler-free level.

  • I set expectations that this is a PC-killer dungeon. Players were told to make several PCs and be prepared for them to die. If you don't set this expectation, your players will likely get upset.
  • I let all options from my list of playable content into the game.
  • I let the PCs have all the mundane equipment they can carry 3 uncommon and 1 rare magic item of choice, and one totally random magic item from all the tables in the DMG.
  • I relaxed the rules for spells -- no preparing, no selecting. You get your spell list. Spell slot limits still apply.
  • I had a banner map printed ( and covered all of the area with labeled cardstock stuck on with mounting squares. It was OK, but I would prefer a different approach that I give in the spoiler section. I oversized all of the squares and made them weird shapes to attempt to hide secret passages.
  • I explained that all skill checks require a complete description of what you are doing, what you are touching, where you are looking, etc.
  • I gave the party maximum HP at every level. This turned out to be too much. Average HP at every level would have been better.
  • I let them be level 14. This is great except there are too many "I win" spells for casters. If I had to do it again, I would stick with 10th level (or lower) characters, giving a maximum 5th level spell in play.
  • I think some players had seen the ToH before, so I should have modified it more. Having a preprinted map didn't allow for that. 
  • I never use a DM screen. For this one, I should have, and probably should have slipped a copy of the map with notes to it.

For here on down, we're talking specifics so SPOILER ALERT!!!


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