Twice today (and many times past) I have run across people begging the question that Tomb of Horrors is a typical example of the Gygaxian GMing style. It seems to be "common knowledge" that Gygax was an adversarial GM who forced his players to learn a dungeon's tricks through lethal trial-and-error which killed countless characters, and who placed little-to-no emphasis on story or role-play.

And every time I ask for details, Tomb of Horrors is the example given.

I've also heard--from much less vocal sources--that Tomb of Horrors is pretty far afield from Gygax's typical approach. They say it was especially designed for exceptional players who requested exceptional challenges for their exceptional characters, but the details always vary: he wrote ToH to challenge a particular group of friends who felt invincible, or he wrote it to refute an accusation that he ran "fluffy" adventures because he couldn't do anything harder, and so forth.

So, what's the truth? Is the Tomb of Horrors adventure typical of a session with Gygax, or is it significantly unlike his normal DMing style? If it's different, why and how? This confusion started because of apocrypha and pilgrims' notes, so please provide solid quotes and sources to back up your answers!


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Tomb of Horrors appears to be the odd one out in terms of published adventures, originally designed very specifically as a challenge to his own group.

Gary Gygax himself said "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" The cover of the original ToH also states it was designed for tournament play, which indicates a far more competitive requirement than a normal adventure module.

I'd very much suggest comparing ToH to the style of, say, Temple of Elemental Evil which has much more of a balance with narrative and roleplay aspects when you read through it.

One thing to bear in mind is that his "style" was likely that of any good DM - to constantly adapt his style to fit the situation at hand. Given players that defeated everything he placed in their way with relative ease, he ramped up the difficulty. That doesn't mean he'd necessarily throw that level of difficulty at a different group. Any good adventure should be designed with a specific aim in mind, and a good author will tailor their work to that aim, rather than their personal gaming style.

This kind of approach can be seen in passages from the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master's Guide, such as "The testing grounds for novice adventurers must be kept to a difficulty factor which encourages rather than discourages players", and "If things are too easy, then there is no challenge, and boredom sets in after one or two games" - to me, that pretty much reads as "be a tough DM when your group needs one" and it seems he felt his group needed one. On the RP side, he clearly states "Place regular people, some 'different' and unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each" and "When they arrive, you will be ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of each individual therein" so I'm pretty certain he didn't feel RP was something to be ignored.

Any quotes from players in his games should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they're undoubtedly going to apply to how he played with that particular group.

tl;dr: His style appears to have been to present the game that would best entertain and engage his players, rather than to play the game "his way".

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    \$\begingroup\$ He wrote a book titled "The Master of the Game". The book makes it pretty clear that there was a sort of 'his way' the game was supposed to be played (e.g. monty haul campaigns are bad and wrong, not signalling things properly to your players is bad and wrong, not using appropriate tactics with your monsters is bad and wrong, one-sided die fudging is bad and wrong, etc). It's true that he claims this is because the game is best for the players that way, ala 'different qualities of pleasure' utilitarianism, but I'm not sure that it's true-to-life to paint him as quite this progressive. \$\endgroup\$ May 3, 2017 at 22:09

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