After my buddy Mike and I went our separate ways, I gravitated into the orbit of a trio of geeky underclassmen — Scott, Christian, and Damian — I met while doing independent study for a “cool” English teacher. What began as dorky lunch table conversations about shared interests soon escalated into a consensus that we should start up a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with yours truly (again) taking on the role of dungeonmaster.
We picked a time (Saturday afternoon) and a place (Damian’s house), after which I began to feel the panic set in. These guys gave every impression of being veteran players, and insisted upon using their favorite characters from previous campaigns. I was still pretty new to the hobby, and Mike’s eager embrace of hack ‘n’ loot excess did nothing to hone my skills as an interactive storyteller or rules referee.
Whatever scenario I ran had to be rock solid and deadly serious. I needed to show these guys I was in absolute command of the situation by establishing a tough-but-fair set of ground rules. A homebrew adventure couldn’t cut it. Only an official module would do the trick.
Fortunately, I had just the thing at hand — the infamous Tomb Of Horrors….
…which was one of the extras Mike tossed in when he sold me his half of our shared Gamma World box set.
Originally designed for tournament play, the module featured a particularly punishing dungeon packed with extremely lethal deathtraps and cunning fake-outs overseen by a nigh indestructible “demilich.” It was the stuff of which Total Party Kills were made (and you have bought a copy of Death Saves already, right?) and the perfect way to show my new players they type of DM they would be dealing with.
It was a brilliant plan…or it would’ve been if the module’s notoriety didn’t precede it.
In the two hours we sat around Damian’s living room table, the party managed to progress all of ten yards from the tomb’s entrance. Every stone was triple checked for some nefarious device. Every protective spell in the players’ collective arsenal was cast in preparation. Every wall examined closely for hidden doors or other surprises.
None of the players had ever run or owned Tomb of Horrors, but they’d of its legendary lethality and opted to play things extremely safe. “But your character doesn’t know that” is a sound bit of role-playing wisdom, but one that can be difficult to put into practice. They might’ve technically breached that protocol, but their actions were impossible to argue against. Faced with an unknown and potentially dangerous environment, they used their smarts to, well, drag things out into a painfully unproductive slog.
(This is why I eventually stopped using published scenarios as anything but a resource for ideas and maps to repurpose. Homebrew adventures don’t run the risk of previous exposure, providing you aren’t shamelessly lifting stuff from other media products.)
Even though we accomplished next to nothing in terms of game progress, that first meet-up was a huge success in terms of turning classmates into actual friends. I walked home from Damian’s place with Scott, who I learned lived two streets over from me and whose house was a stop on my paper route. We talked about hanging out some more, with or without the other two guys, and thus set the stage for what would be the “Golden Summer” of 1987.