Friday, December 4, 2020

Tomb of the Serpent Kings (Review)

The adventure I spent the most time with this year was Skerples’ Tomb of the Serpent Kings (TotSK), running it for a group of 5e players. I also made good use of Itai Assaf Raizman-Greif’s 5e conversion notes. There’s more of the dungeon to explore, but I’m reviewing what we’ve had the chance to play so far. Spoilers etc. below.

For the unacquainted, TotSK is a “learning” dungeon designed to ease new players into a classical, more lateral mode of dungeon exploration. It doesn’t have a gimmick, it’s not a full campaign, and it’s not a single-page blank slate. Instead it’s intended to be a mid-sized dungeon that’s simple to run and fun to play, and which is full of “lessons.” The lessons aren’t explicit, but they’re called out for the GM (for example, “valuables sometimes take unconventional forms” or “traps repeat”).

The plan for session one was simple: finish rolling characters and then play through the “false tomb” level to familiarize everyone with the rhythm of the game. The false tomb level works well for this: the players learned the patterns of the dungeon, exercised some creative problem solving, and won some small treasures. The draw of a low-level, “half-session,” discrete amount of dungeon motivated me to try the adventure in the first place.

We spent the better part of the year in the dungeon (and surrounds), and while we’re not done yet, we’re on hiatus for the moment. The players haven’t encountered Baltoplat or Xiximanter, but have met the goblins and explored most of the upper levels.

What Didn't Work

I’d read the hammer trap a dozen times and thought I’d figured it out. But as soon as I tried to run it, it escaped me, my descriptions were inadequate, and the players spent more time being frustrated than they should have. It really wants a rough diagram and just a couple clarifications (which way do the doors open, which side are the hinges on, that type of thing).

There’s a hidden room behind a statue, following the established pattern of hidden rooms behind statues. Two characters noticed that the statue was misaligned (they didn’t tell each other), but having only one other example to work from, and switching contexts, they left it alone. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not the clear-cut “lesson” the text suggests.

The 5e rules and playstyle also undermine some of the “lessons” in the dungeon, namely that combat isn’t always necessary. The players saw the Stone Cobra Guardian as a “boss fight” and proceeded to demolish it. The same thing happened to the basilisk. I hope they don’t try to kill the lich, but I'm not even sure they couldn’t.1

In the 5e stat block for the Stone Cobra Guardian, it’s easy to miss the AC bonus from the shield attack. I’d put a reminder in parens after it, but I don’t think it ultimately mattered much.

For all the logic of the dungeon, some of the traps still feel a little fun-house, which leaves me walking an awkward line between the hammer trap (traps will be signposted, avoidable, interactive, etc.) and the stair trap (trust nothing, everything is dangerous, search everything, etc.). I don’t think my players noticed any incongruity, but I wonder what “lessons” they’ve actually learned about exploring a dungeon.

I used the “strange dreams” hook to get the party together because I had no idea what kind of characters people would be bringing to the table.2 I’ve loosely worked out how the dreams work, but the players with the most elaborate backstories are dissatisfied that they’ve been delving so long and neither dreams nor backstory have been relevant yet. (I do have designs to tie it all together, but the characters just keep going the other direction.)

Part of the issue is that 5e combat is not only more likely, but also a bit of a slog. When the players fight the guardian, for example, that's going to take most of that session. So a lot of time is spent fighting, searching, detecting, and prodding which makes the dungeon feel less engaging than it might otherwise.

To help fix this, the 5e adaptation added “Smee,” a friendly goblin, who I ignored entirely. Eventually the players will meet other non-player characters and have the opportunity to roleplay (in the dungeon), but if I were to start again, I would give them that chance earlier.

What Worked

That said, it’s generally been fun,3 and a lot of things have worked really well:

  • The sarcophagus of Franbinzar containing both a foul shifting liquid and also the glint of treasure caused much confusion, as the players dropped the lid back in place before getting a better look.
  • The players have made full use of the unfinished room for stashing supplies and resting. It’s just a good feature.
  • The players do not like the abyss, and take winding paths to avoid it.
  • Killing the guardian means there are now wandering monsters throughout the dungeon, and it also affected the regional encounter table. I don’t know if the players will notice, but it’s satisfying to run.
  • Unlike the hammer trap, the blade hallway was very well received. “That felt very D&D,” to paraphrase our rogue.
  • As we left it, the goblins have just crowned their new king, and there are only three weeks to the next full moon. (The players know what happens then, but the goblins wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.)


After the players killed the Stone Cobra Guardian, the artificer wanted to search the remains for parts. Between sessions I took the opportunity to think of possible finds:

  1. Ornate gearbox. Runs perpetually, but ticks loudly, giving away your position.
  2. Glowing emerald golem-brain. Evil, but powerless to act.
  3. [Bulky] spur gear, a map etched into it.4
  4. Internal repair sub-golem. Repairs other structures, but rebuilds the original golem if left unattended.
  5. Incredibly articulated hand. Easily used as a prosthetic.
  6. Parabolic golem-eye. Focuses surrounding magical energy like a 4-D camera obscura.
  7. [Bulky] flywheel. Frictionless while spinning.

The characters ended up with the emerald golem-brain, discovered its nature, and proceeded to devise elaborate ways to dispose of it permanently. (They feared that destroying it would free the spirit in it, and that sending it too far away, for example into the abyss, would invite someone to recreate the golem.)

1 Part of the issue is that there’s six of them, and they’re going to be level three next time we start. I decided to start with the milestone XP option, with each “cleared” dungeon level counting as a character level. This worked really well for the first level-up at least, and quickly gave the new players a feel for advancement. I had some other thoughts on 5e here.back

2 It turns out sleeping is less universal than you think once there are elves and warforged in the mix.back

3 Going back to my revolutionary theory that “games are fun.”back

4 I’ve never cared to track encumbrance, but when I have to, I like Electric Bastionland’s system. Roughly, you can carry two [Bulky] items: one in your hands and one on your back.back


  1. I also ran (part of) TOSK with a 5e group, but I kept them lv 1 with an XP for gold system.
    They could choose to leave the dungeon and level, but stuff was happening in the dungeon at all times, so they didn't want to leave.
    At lv 1, the creatures are sufficiently nasty to keep the players scared to fight them. The stone cobra annihilated a rival adventuring party when they split from them, so they were too afraid to confront it. They dealth with the black pudding by keeping their distance, and I telegraphed the fact that xiximanter was a litch and emphasized that he is deranged, so they see him as something to use, not something to fight.
    Despite some already having experience with 5e, they were really good about coming up with plans because "everything is so much stronger than us, we could never face it head on", so for this group that worked as intended.
    Would love to hear how your group continious the dungeon!

  2. The issue with 5e I found, back in the day, is that death is never close. It's either far away, or you die immediately. Hence why they are probably saying away from the abyss, since if you fall in, you don't get the three saves, you just die.

    The Guardian needs to result in a retreat, a death, or a narrow victory in order to teach the lesson, otherwise the Basilisk and Xixi are an "unfair" shock.

    Hell, if I was running it with 5e, I'd make it flat and obviously immune to most weapons while upright, so you can knock it down and pry it open, or use magic, or have it charge into the abyss. "Hit it till it dies" is the best strategy in 5e *by default* and the worst strategy in most OSR systems *by default*. Such things aren't set in stone!

    1. For roughly those reasons, I'm hoping that the party encounters a skeleton jelly sooner than later. If I were to run it again I'd definitely introduce effects like you're suggesting.