In the Tomb of Horrors hardcover from the Tales of the Yawning Portal, most of the time, when there’s a puzzle, either clues will be given to adventurers, or there will be an available check to solve/ease the puzzle, or they’ll be able to proceed without solving the puzzle (getting consequences because of it).

But in Area 9 (Complex of Secret Doors), for this particular door puzzle, there’s no check, nor any apparent way of proceeding other than doing the extremely arbitrary and precise combo of hand movements (for which no clue was given beforehand) that is almost impossible to figure out by chance (as there is no indication of success or failure for each step required, and there are seven of them just for one door). It seems odd to me that all 7 doors have the same 7-step procedure to open, but the difficulty of the first door is what matters here.

As a DM, this upsets me greatly, because I don’t want my players to be eternally blocked from proceeding due to this seemingly very unfair puzzle.

So, is there something I missed? Is there a way for clever players to solve this puzzle other than lottery-like luck?

Note : as it will be an Adventurers League game, all players will be Tier 3, if that info is at all useful.


2 Answers 2


Each of the seven doors is opened by one method, not all seven.

The text in the 5th edition is ambigious, and may be interpreted that each door requires a seven-step process to open. However, if you look at the map, each door is lettered, making it clearer that, for example, step "A" is the method for opening the door "A", step "B" the second door, and so on.

This is made much clearer in the original AD&D module:

Each of these portals must be opened by hand, and each requires a different method of opening.

The D&D 3.5 version concurs:

However, each secret door is marked on the map by a letter indicating the unique method whereby the door is opened. Each method differs from that of the previous door.

Further, it makes this note, defending the use of trial-and-error rather than skill checks:

Note: Contemporary D&D rules don't normally support the minutia involved in how a particular secret door is opened; however, the essence of this secret door complex requires this level of attention to avoid making the navigation of this area nothing more than a mathematical exercise.


Tomb of Horrors is an Old School Adventure

Tomb of Horrors has a long and storied history. It was originally developed by Gary Gygax the co-creator of D&D specifically to kill high-level PCs:

First, Gygax explains, "There were several very expert players in my campaign, and this was meant as yet another challenge to their skill—and the persistence of their theretofore-invincible characters. Specifically, I had in mind foiling Rob Kuntz's PC, Robilar, and Ernie Gygax's PC, Tenser." Second, so that he was "ready for those fans [players] who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game."

This was an adversarial style of play: the DM was actively playing against the other players.

Modern methods of play assume that the DM is working for the players (except, possibly, during combat) with a focus on enabling them to over come the challenges but not destroying them. This was not an assumption inherent in the early days of D&D.

It was expected by everyone around the table that exploring dungeons was dangerous and that you needed to do it carefully and be ready to run from anything you weren't sure you could beat. 1st level characters bumping into an ancient blue dragon? Must be a Tuesday. Hell, we never even gave our PCs a name till they reached third level and you wouldn't pay to raise anyone less than 6th level or so.

Tomb of Horrors is not unique in this, most early modules contained "save or die" situations, however, the Tomb turned this up to 11 - in fact, its its own trope. The most important part of any PC's inventory was the 10-foot pole for poking at things from a (relatively) safe distance - of course, dungeon designers (DMs) know about 10-foot poles so they would put the trigger over there while the trap was actually right here.

Further, concepts like mechanically implementing skills like Perception or Investigation did not exist. These were not PC skills, they were player skills. If you wanted your PC to see something you damn well told the DM what you were looking at, what you were looking for and that you did it with both eyes open, right eye closed, then left eye closed then with your head on the right side, then left side etc.

Old school play involved being very specific about what you would do: "I open the door", DM says "How" and so begins the sequence - "I push the door", "I pull the door", "I slide the door left", "I slide the door right" etc. For an old school player, the sequence you describe is nothing unusual - most would breeze through each of these rooms pretty rapidly. The whole purpose of the doors was not be a challenge in themselves but to lull the players into a false sense of security that they might forget to keep checking for traps and so get give the DM their "gotcha" which is what all DMs lived for. Of course, experienced players would never be so foolish.

This is, to modern players, an alien and disturbing mindset.

As to "how to give your players a chance"?

You have the wrong mindset to be playing Tomb of Horrors - players have and deserve no chance: that's what makes it fun.

I believe Matthew Coleville's quote captures it nicely:

I think it's a mistake to think of the Tomb as anything other than what it was intended. Gary's answer to players who came up to him saying "My character is unkillable. I've already killed the Tarrasque and Tiamat and Orcus and all the gods."

It's mostly a bunch of unsolvable "fuck yous" each of which is designed to kill your character without a roll.

If you're having the problem Gary had, then it sort of makes sense. Though I suspect there's about a million better ways to deal with that. Otherwise, pass.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 30, 2019 at 22:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ It should be noted that both Robilar and Tenser did survive ToH. Robilar made it all the way to the innermost vault, scooped the treasure, and ran before Acererak could get the drop on him. Also, ToH was intended for play at conventions, which was very different from his ongoing campaign. You can read on his thoughts re DM vs Players here: while he enjoyed playing the game as a competition of wits, his portrayal as adversarial is not doing him justice. \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2022 at 6:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Gygyx on ToH/Convention modules: "Oh yah! I forgot you said it was a con adventue. Those are quite different, and offing PCs is de rigeur for most participants. Otherwise they seem to feel they didn't receive the GMs full attention" (EN World Q&A) \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2022 at 6:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I’m cautious about retroactive rationalisation many years after the event. I don’t remember my younger self being the total prick I probably was. I played 1e D&D and PCs regularly died in our home campaigns. Read modules written at the time (all available on Drive thru RPG) and remember that the game mechanics were 0hp = dead, failed save = dead (not always but for poison, death rays etc.). ToH was that to 11. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    May 13, 2022 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM, yes you certainly can not always take what Gary later said at face value, and there surely was a competitive strain. At the same time, there are lots of directives from him to referee fairly and neutrally, and I think in his home campaign, while people died, he was not out after the players or trying to kill them off. The game was deadly, and death was normal, and swift if you made mistakes. Still I think it is too simple to paint him in that way. \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2022 at 7:11

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