Dungeon Builder's Handbook & Return to the Tomb of Horrors

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 51.5: Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook & Return to the Tomb of Horrors




Remember how I mentioned that A Guide to the Ethereal Plane had a whole list of sources for its material at the beginning of the book? Well, a thorough and logical person would’ve gone through all of these well before writing that entry, thereby having a better understanding of their relationship with the book at hand. I am not that person. Relatedly, when my wife saw that I had a document open for the 52nd of these entries, she said, “Wow, 52?! That’s so many!” and I just laughed because the numbering of this series is almost intentionally a joke at this point. All of which is to say that just a couple months before the publication of A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, Bruce Cordell had two other works published by TSR that would greatly inform that work, the Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook and Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and both of them feature planar content I don’t want to completely skip.

Admittedly, there are plenty of other books I could have dipped into as well if this series was going to be truly completist (such as, say, the entirety of the Ravenloft series, considering it all takes place within its own weird demiplane). Dragon’s Rest by Rick Swan was a strong contender, considering that practically the entire adventure takes place in a demiplane called Eborium, which weirdly doesn’t get mentioned in the Ethereal Plane despite its weirdo inhabitants the gk’lok-lok’s getting an entry. However, that adventure was such a slog to read that I couldn’t force myself to get through the entire thing, plus its effects on the planes were pretty much limited to that and one other monster entry. I also considered covering the Desert of Desolation trilogy by Tracy Hickman, but given its pre-D&D origins it didn’t have much lasting effect. This is where The Black Abyss demiplane comes from, though here it’s described as “a gash that bridges the prime material plane and the 666 layers of the Abyss.” This was at least a better read, but still felt peripheral enough to the overall multiverse that it didn’t warrant its own entry. And also mentioned here is Greyhawk Ruins by Blake Mobley and Timothy B. Brown, which tries to approximate Gary Gygax’s original Greyhawk castle adventure. The gingwatzim creatures are from there, though as far as I can tell they’re only mentioned once, obliquely, and everything else about them Cordell made up. Anyhow, none of these books really warrant an entry, but if you’re even more obsessive about the planes than I am, then feel free to go nuts and seek them out. If you’re that into this sort of thing, ultimately you soon end up having to read everything TSR/WotC ever published, which is a road I refuse to go down.

It’s the generic-brand Neth geomorph.

But Cordell’s use of his own sources is much more interesting. First came the Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook in May of 1998. This is a strange book, largely focused on the use of provided geomorphs (map segments) to put together dungeons. It’s an intentionally old school way of doing things, and is an obscure work even by this series’ usual standards. In the book’s ninth, ummm… fart—ok, part, but come on guys, that’s quite a misprint—it covers the creation of planar dungeons. 

That being said, this inclusion in the book feels more or less like an excuse for Cordell to create some neat things for himself to play around with. Unlike the rest of the chapters, you can’t really toss these geomorphs together wily nily and make anything approximating sense, which he even notes at the beginning of the section. “Unlike many of the other dungeon types, the lettered interdimensional geomorphs are each given an individual entry. Significantly, these interdimensional geomorphs differ in scale and shape. Due to the strange nature of an interdimensional dungeon, you must link them carefully to create a coherent adventure.” In other words, they’re all unique locations you can feel free to use for your adventure, but don’t just slap them down and call it a day. 


Every single one of these interdimensional geomorphs is interesting in its own way, but there are a couple with particular importance. The first of these concerns the demiplane called the Semblance. This is mentioned briefly in Ethereal, but is given much more detail here, which also helps explain why such a neat location is given a more-or-less throwaway entry. As a reminder to those of you who didn’t just read that book, the Semblance is the artificially made demiplane put together by a bunch of wizards throwing together stacks of protomatter. It got big enough that there’s a city there, and not only that, the entry here is given enough space to detail some interesting sites and NPCs within it that might be visited.

The book refuses to just call things by their names, but this is the Semblance.

Other geomorphs also show Cordell thinking about the Ethereal. Geomorph E is within an alive being, and “could make up a portion of a normal dungeon, exist within a discrete creature, or possibly make up the interior of an entire living demiplane!” Maybe he just hadn’t gotten around to naming Neth yet, but this is clearly what he’s getting at.

The final geomorph is in fact the most important one included in the book, as it allows Cordell to write up a new layer of the Abyss, Noisome Vale, here listed as the 986th layer, though later retconned into being layer 489. As to why this was done, I have no idea. It’s linked with the Semblance from earlier through a wormhole, but more importantly, until recently it was the realm of a Balor named Tarnhem, as well as the location of a River of Worms, which ties into the demiplane of worms from Ethereal (I’ve mentioned this before, but Cordell absolutely loves him some bugs). However, the realm is currently in the midst of even more chaos than usual, as despite appearances Tarnhem is currently gone, leaving his hellish realm of acidic misery to whoever’s currently the strongest. Oh, did I forget to mention that this layer’s atmosphere is made up of sulfur dioxide except for right next to the worms? Yeah, the Abyss is great like that. All in all, a wonderful Abyssal layer, and fortunately Cordell didn’t make us wait long before revealing what was going on with Tarnhem.

No layer of the Abyss is complete without a river of worms.

Two months later, in July of 1998, TSR published Bruce Cordell’s truly epic adventure Return to the Tomb of Horrors, the second entry in the Tomes series of adventures, and a far, far better book than the first, The Rod of Seven Parts. Admittedly, like with Rod, I can’t imagine myself actually running Return to the Tomb of Horrors, or playing in a campaign of it as a PC, but that’s really a matter of taste, and not a question of the module’s quality. Suffice to say, Return might not be the most difficult adventure ever made, but it’s certainly the most difficult one I’ve ever read, and I say this having reviewed The Throne of Bloodstone. Admittedly, pretty much everything Cordell wrote for second edition AD&D is nutso difficult, but this particular adventure is beyond even his usual standard. If I were to run it, I would require every player to have at least two backup PCs already rolled and ready to use, because even with a fully decked out group this is going to be a miserable gauntlet. 


You’ve probably heard of Gary Gygax’s original Tomb of Horrors before. It’s a notorious dungeon filled to the brim with instant deaths and cheap tricks, originally designed to mess with players who thought they were too good to be killed. Presumably they were wrong, because beating this adventure with no foreknowledge about it seems undoable to me. It was also used as the first tournament module at the original Origins convention, the basic competition being to see how far different people could get before inevitably dying a horribly gruesome death. A facsimile of the module version was printed with the boxed set of Return, and it served as the middle portion of an adventure that ramps up in difficulty pretty linearly up until its conclusion. That’s right, as far as Return is concerned, Tomb of Horrors is just a warmup for the real challenge. 

A totally normal bedroom.

I feel a little bit dirty for quoting an article at length that doesn’t have a byline (seriously, who prints something without one? That’s just rude), but I don’t think I could do a better job of summarizing what Return is like than to quote the article “Six Absurdly Difficult D&D Adventures (That Are Not ‘Tomb Of Horrors’)” by Retro Gaming Magazine.


Apocalypse Stone and Die, Vecna, Die! [Ed. note: also by Cordell, and later to be covered by this series] might be world-ending super-modules, and “Jacob’s Well” might be a great way to terrorize a player, but Return exists solely to do both to high level parties. No one but the most phenomenally prepared group ever assembled is finishing this adventure without multiple TPKs.

In short, it’s difficult to find any blurb about the original Tomb that doesn’t include the phrase “meat grinder,” and Return is its much more difficult, much lengthier descendant. 

Both halves of Amulet of the Void, reunited and it feels so good.

One of the things Return does so well is giving some actual context to the original Tomb. We learn a lot more about the weirdo demilich Acerak and why he likes making death traps so much. There’s even an explanation for why the Tomb functions so well despite being, well, a tomb, which is that he’s literally enslaved demons for the sole purpose of resetting his traps and, on occasion, killing players who try to cheat by slipping through in the Border Ethereal. By now, the fame of his tomb has even spread such that he’s developed a cult of necromancers near its entrance, who’ve developed a Hogwarts-esque school of evil necromancy that will have to be infiltrated if players are to even get to the tomb. 

Everything in Return after the original Tomb is completed, which is to say the back half of the adventure, is actually planar content, much of which ties in with Ethereal and, more surprisingly, also to Dead Gods. Once players make their way out of the Tomb, they find themselves on the demiplane Moil, which you might remember from Ethereal (or you might not, if you were reading things in their real sequential publication order, but I mean it’s 2022 now, so whatever). It turns out that this demiplane ties more into the history of Orcus than previously thought. Moil was a portion of Ranais, the plane visited in Dead Gods where they worshiped Orcus, but became a demiplane as punishment for heresy amongst its inhabitants. While Orcus was out of commission, Acerak found the plane and used it to connect, ironically enough, with the Negative Energy Plane. Honestly, it’s a development Orcus would probably be thrilled about, given that he’s a big fan of that place too, and ultimately these are the only two adventures I know of that actually visit that miserable place, which means it’s not quite as unpopular as you might think. 

That’s one buff marilith.

The actual demiplane is largely just an even more hellishly difficult dungeon than the tomb before it, consisting almost entirely of miserable towers filled with wights and spiders and, well, more wights—special ice ones with black fire, just for good measure. What’s more, falling off the side of Moil doesn’t lead you to the Ethereal Plane, even though it is still located there, but rather to the Negative Energy Plane because, well, fuck you, that’s why. The write-up in Ethereal feels like it’s drawn straight from here, which is good because for once it means that TSR’s sources actually match up with each other. 


Once in the Negative Energy Plane, players find themselves within Acerak’s other tomb, filled with little tricks reminiscent of the original, but with enough changes to really mess people up once again. It’s our second visit to an evil fortress here, and frankly Acerak’s version is a lot more miserable than Orcus’. Visitors also get the chance to meet that balor from the Noisome Vale, Tarnhem. It turns out Tarnhem’s in fact Acerak’s dad, and is stuck here imprisoned by his son due to Acerak’s knowledge of the demon’s true name. All of those demons hanging out and fixing traps were Tarnhem’s lackeys, thus connecting all of these releases together and giving them a nice logic.

I can’t say that either of these releases are necessary purchases for a big Planescape fan, and don’t particularly recommend the Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook in any case because it hasn’t aged great in the era of, well, the internet. However, they’re a neat look into Bruce Cordell’s mind as of 1998, and do add some information for any fans of A Guide to the Ethereal Plane. Plus, Return to the Tomb of Horrors is legitimately wonderful to read, even if playing this sort of thing has really gone out of style in the era of Critical Role and its imitators (I’m not complaining, as this is really the type of player I am). They’re also a good example of how Cordell seemed to enjoy adding planar content to pretty much whatever he was up to at this time, which is particularly fortunate because during this period he was insanely prolific, with more than a dozen releases in just 1997-1998 alone(!), all of which that I’ve read also being of an extremely high quality. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing a lot more from Cordell in the near future, and the writing will remain just as good, even if the difficulty level never really let’s up. 

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