NewbieDM Review: Tomb of Annihilation

Posted on September 30, 2017 by

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I’m going to get it out of the way before I even begin the review… I love Tomb of Annihilation. I think it is the best big adventure Wizards of the Coast has put out in the last decade, and it sets a high bar for future 5e adventures and stories. It’s 5e firing on all cylinders, with a rich and diverse world hosting an epic storyline filled with classic D&D tropes, monsters, and big bad evil bad guys.

Yes, I recommend it. Lets get to the review.

DnD_TOA_FrontisImage

Tomb of Annihilation is WOTC’s latest hardcover, an epic 256 page pulp adventure set in the jungles of Chult, a mostly uncharted peninsula in the southern Forgotten Realms. It takes inspiration from classic D&D adventures like Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Isle of Dread, and the classic deathtrap Tomb of Horrors, which ties into this adventure in a big way. It also takes inspiration from classic stories like the Indiana Jones series and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

The hook of the adventure is that resurrection magic is failing, and anyone who has ever been brought back from the dead is withering away. The characters are asked to investigate with nothing but a vague idea of where the source of the troubles lie, and an empty map. The hook also means that the PCs better be careful–there’s no coming back from the dead here. If they die, they die. Thanks, Death Curse. Oh, and by the way, there’s a ticking clock component here too. Time is of the essence.

The story wastes little time in taking the characters into Chult’s Port Nyanzaru, the peninsula’s only point of civilization. They are teleported there immediately after accepting the job while hanging out in Baldur’s Gate.

DM Tip: Think about not teleporting your players in, and instead having them sail in. It’s more epic, and it’ll allow you to use the Dragon Turtle that hangs out on the Bay of Chult. If she takes all their gold, they’ll have to interact with all the fun things to do in Port Nyanzaru, like dinosaur races–yes, you can race dinosaurs for money in this adventure. After all, bug spray, a guide, and an exploration charter are expensive…

Dinosaur Race.jpg

Once in Port Nyanzaru, characters are greeted with a slew of NPCs, side quests, and tons of things to do before setting out into the jungle.  WOTC’s created a living, breathing, city in Port Nyanzaru, filled with interesting, diverse characters and situations. Here, the PCs meet the eventual guide that’ll lead them into the jungle and possibly into the namesake tomb.

DM TIP: Don’t ignore the Port Nyanzaru side quests. #10 in particular is very useful in giving your characters some direction. The story can be sprawling, and it’s easy for your players to get lost and not know where to go or how to start.

Once the adventure takes the PCs into the jungle, things get a little complicated for the DM, and for the players…

I’m going to venture into spoiler territory here… you’ve been warned!

A huge part of Tomb of Annihilation is a hex crawl (the story assumes that players will be wondering the jungle for about 5-6 levels). Similar to how Isle of Dread was back in the day, the players will be mapping out their hexes and charting the jungle as they explore and discover locations. It is sprawling, and while there are many places they can visit, there are also many possible random encounters, and I can see it becoming frustrating to players who haven’t really figured out which way to go.

DM TIP: Go through the random encounters and create a “one page per encounter” document of stat blocks. It’ll make your life easier, trust me.

DM TIP: It’s easy to gloss over the following line in the book, but it’s an important one: “If there’s a particular site that you want the characters to discover and explore, you can move the site so that it falls along their path, and give it a new name if necessary. ” If your players are lost, or getting frustrated with the hex crawl, have them discover a location that gets them closer to their goal. A gauntlet of random encounters can get boring, especially if the players don’t feel that they are making any progress. It’s important to connect dots, have one location provide clues to another, then another, until the players find what they are looking for. Yes, it’s railroady, but if your players need the push, don’t be afraid to give it to them.

The Adventure Summary section on Page 6 also gives DM’s a list of NPCs who can directly lead the PCs to their destination. Keep it handy! Use it!

There are lots of fun locations in the jungle, understandable given how Adventure Time’s creator Pendleton Ward had a hand in crafting the story. For example, there’s a goblin village that can be slingshotted away in case of danger! The good thing about this is that yes, exploring the jungle can be fun as the characters level up… the bad thing is that depending on who their guide is, they may never ever reach certain locations. It’s a big map, travel time is slow, and the clock is ticking…

DM TIP: Some of the locations in Chult are modular, meaning that they don’t directly impact the story much. If you find a fun locale that your players missed, save it for later. Use it in a home brew or just pick it up and move it on the map to where your players are headed. Nothing really needs to be locked into its place on the map!

Eventually, the players will make it to a hidden city, which leads to a Yuan-Ti temple and the Tomb of Annihilation itself, or rather, Tomb of the Nine Gods, the dungeon’s proper name. Here’s where the adventure meets it’s dungeon-crawly second half, and gets your players going toward the McGuffin of the story.

King of Feathers

Once the players reach the lost city that’ll lead them into the tomb, their wits will be tested by clever puzzles and pretty cool monsters, like the one in the picture above, The King of Feathers–a massive T-Rex meant to make an impression when he arrives!

The main goal in the city requires the players finding nine “puzzle cubes”, solved by logic puzzles found in shrines, and they can be challenging! But here’s where I think the adventure maybe stumbles a bit as far as pacing…

Again, SPOILERS ABOUND!

While the City of Omu is in itself a really interesting place to explore, providing a good mix of the three pillars of D&D: exploration, social interaction, and combat, I feel that the Yuan-Ti temple below is…. maybe…. unnecessary?  One of the puzzle cubes is found below Omu, in a Yuan-Ti temple, which yes, while I guess the Yuan-Ti do play a role in the story… is it really necessary? I don’t know. After so much jungle crawling and puzzle solving in Omu, players may be anxious to get on with it and face the namesake of the book, but no–let’s go explore a Yuan-Ti temple first, where you might get captured–or worse.

True Tomb Entrance

Once the players collect that last puzzle cube from the Yuan-Ti, and enter The Tomb of the Nine Gods, all bets are off. The dungeon itself is non-linear, allowing players to explore without the adventure crashing to a halt due to the players getting stuck in a hard room. And while, yes, it takes obvious inspirations from Tomb of Horrors, it never feels like it is cheap-shotting the players with gotchas! at every turn–although there is some of that (This is Acererak’s tomb after all), there are traps and puzzles that are also meant to challenge the players a bit, rewarding cleverness and thought, rather than just good die rolling.

The big bad is big, the final confrontation is epic in scale, and finishing the adventure should be satisfying and feel epic in scope.

So what did I like:

  • The world building!
  • Dinosaurs!
  • Cool monsters. Zombie T-rex is a really mean addition to the D&D monster pantheon!
  • Puzzles!
  • The artwork is amazing, evocative, and just kicks ass.
  • Mike Schley’s cartography is A+++
  • Introduction of 5e versions of old D&D monsters.
  • Nostalgia! Dragonbait? Ring of Winter? Devil Mouth? I’ll take it!

What concerns me?:

  • This may not be a good adventure for newbie DMs to try and run. Lots of moving parts.
  • Lack of direction at the beginning of the story, and hex crawling may not be for everyone…
  • Lots of possibly unexplored cool locations due to hex crawl nature
  • The included poster map makes zero usable sense, as it has the player’s version on one side and the DM’s on the other. What? No.

Anything new?

  • Yes! Two new backgrounds: Archeologist and Anthropologist. Indiana Jones in the house.
  • 7 magic items, 2 being artifacts.

Aremag the Dragon Turtle

On twitter I’ve called Tomb of Annihilation the best big adventure WOTC has put out in the last 10 years, and I’ll stick to that. As far as 5e goes, it’s the best, followed closely by Curse of Strahd, which came with its own set of expectations and baggage.

Final DM TIP: Speaking of baggage… sometimes in our games we skip over the tedious parts of the game, like encumbrance and ammo. I do it, you likely do it to. But in this particular adventure, given the nature of the story and how it makes it a point to make the jungle really challenging, it may be worth revisiting that stance. An exploration into the jungle is supposed to be really draining. Make it so. Make it a challenge. Make your players be resourceful and think about their situation.

Finally, what I like the most about this adventure is that it reads like it had one major design philosophy: FUN. From the moment players arrive in Port Nyanzaru, once they step into the jungle, and dive deep within the Tomb, there’s fun stuff going on.

Tomb of Annihilation is 5e hitting its stride, both mechanically and in terms of story.  And it reads fun, and so far in my game, it runs fun. And you know what? I can’t recommend fun enough. We need fun.

Price: $49.95 C$65.95
Release Date: 19 September, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

*Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast provided a review copy of the book. 

Green Devil Face


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