This is a post mortem about my experience running the 5th edition D&D module Tomb of Annihilation.
If you’re a player who may experience this as a campaign, don’t read this post, since it will contain spoilers for the module.
If you are a DM who is considering running the module, you might find this post useful. If you have no interest in running or playing the module, you might still find it interesting, though not entirely comprehensible. If you’re one of my players, this is safe to read as this doesn’t contain any spoilers for anything you haven’t seen yet. It may also shed some light on things that might have been confusing during play. If you’ve already played or ran the module, this is (probably) also safe to read, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about how you did things differently or whether you think my critiques are off base or not.
First, some background: I ran the ToA with an advance copy provided by Wizards of the Coast. I had a slight head start on some players in running and prepping this, though it was officially released a few months after our campaign started live streaming it. My players are mixed: some very experienced, some only somewhat experienced. A couple have been playing D&D for a very long time. I have one player who playing in his first campaign, and another who is playing 5e for the first time but has previously played 3.5.
Fifth Edition has proven to be a great D&D edition for me and my group. Let me preface that by saying I was quite fond of 4th ed and did not like 3.5 very much. That puts me in a minority. A minority of very smart people with excellent taste, mind you, but a minority nonetheless, so when you read this, you might want to keep my tastes in mind.
Spoilers below the jump.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
The introductory hook to the ToA is kind of at odds with itself. As a DM, I don’t like it very much – I’ll go into why. I actually tried to change it, but my players didn’t go for the revised hook. This isn’t because my new hook was bad, in my humble opinion, but I miscalculated how urgent my players were to get to the meat of the story.
To explain in more detail: I originally thought it would be interesting to sail into Chult. This is how the official Adventurer’s League modules position this campaign. I like doing boat roleplay sometimes, and I felt that sailing in would give the players a little more time to explore the game’s “starting town,” Port Nyanzaru, before the hook of the Death Curse was established. However, the party dwarf in particular (who makes a lot of the party’s decisions) didn’t want to go on a boat, so I ended up retreating to the module’s original hook. In the original hook, the party gets a teleport to Chult, which cuts down on travel time. But the the NPC that provides the teleport also introduces the quest to Find the Soulmonger to the party right away, and this introduces a sense of urgency to the whole affair.
This hook introduces a number of problems that I had to work around. First of all, the quest to find a thing called the Soulmonger is meaningless to 99.9 percent of all NPCs that you’re going to encounter, who have no idea what such a thing even might be as far as I can tell. The party can’t really question Syndra, the mage who gives them the quest, about the nature of the Soulmonger. She has little information, other than “it’s a thing that is bad and is in the jungle somewhere.” The party doesn’t really know what a Soulmonger is or what it looks like. Also, Soulmonger is a stupid name, and if you’re anything like my players, eventually you’re going to either forget it or purposefully mangle it for humorous effect. This could’ve been fixed slightly by calling the damn thing what it actually is (it’s a Soulnado), or by making the hook something about finding the Lost City instead, which is where the players actually have to go. But that’s not the hook. So the party has to surmise first of all that they’re looking for a Lost City (which you can’t know up front) and that the Soulnado (be prepared for me to call this thing any number of other names from here on out, since that’s what my players did) is there for some reason.
When the party enters the port there’s a series of jungle guides they can choose from. Some guides offer some assistance in exchange for a side quest, and some guides are just kind of shady. I gave my party several of the guides to chat up. One guide, Azaka, says that she isn’t sure where the Soulmangler is, but she knows of a wise oracle she can take the party to if they’ll just do one favor for her…. But my PCs weren’t interested. After some debate, this sounded like too much work. So, they were presented with another option: Hew Hackinstone, who says he’s happy to lead the party where ever they want to go. You wanna find the Soultaker, sure, I know exactly where that is, he says. He’s lying, as he only intends to take the party to Wyrmheart Mine to kill the dragon there. But the party didn’t figure that out right away, until they were weeks out in the jungle and he finally fessed up he had no idea what this Saltmasher thing even was.
However, as convenience would have it, Omu is really not that far from Wyrmheart Mine. So it does not require that much course correction to find it if you are headed in the right direction.
The party made one detour, to the Heart, because they saw it in the swamp and it was on the way. (I am going to continue to use that NPC, so no more details there.) Otherwise they did not tarry much. They got into an altercation with the Knights Templar but refused to do favors for them or let them slow them down. The rest of the miscellany sidequests I’m going to save to bring out if I feel like it, though adjusted to be a proper challenge.
I have a habit of rolling any random encounters before the session, so I can plan for things to line up and make some logical sense. Sometimes I will also shuffle or combine encounters to increase the challenge or fun. For example, I combined an ankylosaur encounter with an assassin vine encounter, on the swamp, so there was a lot going on and the party almost capsized their canoe…. So there was a point where, pointed toward the mines in general, the party was no longer really sure where exactly they were headed. The encounters I rolled for the session involved a zombie ankylosaur, a dead wizard, and some cannibals. The dead wizard was a Red Wizard that gave them some clues about the Red Wizards’ involvement, and I ended up combining the ankylosaur and the cannibals into one encounter. I also dropped in some Yuan Ti since the party didn’t have much information yet about Ras Nsi and this seemed like a good enough time to introduce that hook.
I really anticipated the party was going to wipe this settlement out. But the party at this point wanted to discuss/negotiate rather than start a fight. It makes sense in retrospect. They were sort of low on supplies, and were not entirely sure what direction they were going. So they chatted up the Yuan Ti. At this point, yes, the Yuan Ti here know where their own base is, although they gave the party purposefully vague information about this. Their plan was to get reinforcements and ambush the party later in the jungle. If they captured the party, they would take them to Omu themselves and used them as sacrifices, so that would be an interesting outcome either way.
Is having the party find out about Omu this way the “by the book” way of doing it? No. But, I stream the game on Twitch, and it’s boring to me and the audience if the game gets bogged down with a lot of arguments and decision making. Plus, this resulted in an epic sequence where the group was running away from an army of Yuan Ti with blow darts and ended up base jumping off of the cliff-side into Omu, fighting gargoyles all the way down … so…. Rule of cool dictates that that was fucking cool.
Now… I want to talk about Ras Nsi. Ras Nsi is a shitty bad guy and I didn’t like him. I feel like he had the potential to be a character in the vein of Quan Chi, a bad guy I think is rad as hell. But at least in the version of the ToA book that I have, Ras Nsi’s character is really hard to piece together. Information about him is in a couple of different places. Sometimes the module dictates an if-then action for him, and sometimes it doesn’t. He wants to bring about the end of the world, but he’s also dying of a disease, but he’s also unwittingly serving the guy that made him sick in the first place… He knows about the puzzle cubes and how to get into the Tomb, but also he doesn’t? Sometimes he throws dudes into the Tomb on purpose, but also the Yuan Ti are on a quest for the cubes (a second time? Did they do this already?) on his behalf? Also, if you don’t hurry your way through the adventure, I guess Ras Nsi just kicks it spontaneously like The fucking End.
I dunno, man. I really don’t like the way I handled it, to be honest. I should’ve played things differently and had him just let the party go rather than fighting them. But fighting him was kind of a fun encounter, and he was pretty mad they killed his hydra. (Twice.)
In a video game or in a D&D module a good way to learn about the bad guy that you’re going to face is through environmental storytelling. The chances are great you won’t have a lot of opportunity to talk to the bad guy, so his dungeon has to speak for him. Based on this information, Ras Nsi likes blood and snakes a lot. The most interesting thing told about him from the environment, actually, is that he’s got a mixed-gender harem. But you can’t find out much more about his history from the environment. Acererak is cool though, and he kind of makes up for it. You learn a lot more about Acererak from his environments; he loves art, bright colors, and screwing with adventurers for its own sake.
What really, really could’ve benefitted me as DM is if all the critical information about Ras Nsi, who is a major part of this entire adventure, was on one page somewhere. Who he is, what his backstory is, what motivates him the most, some if-then statements about what he will and will not do, and how his personal goals are actually prioritized. As it is, you have to piece that together from a lot of different parts/chapters in the book and I just didn’t really grok the guy as written.
It doesn’t help that my players sequence-broke the entire city of Omu. Seeing that the walled area in the northeast of the valley looked like a high priority zone, they beelined straight for it. That meant they met the Yuan Ti there before they knew a damn thing about any puzzle cubes. And, they still didn’t have much information about what a Soulmonger was. Sooooo…. That whole thing kind of ended up being confusing as it was encountered “out of order,” but it’s certainly a possible way it could go down for someone else, too. The party ended up skipping a few segments of this area, but that area wasn’t all that interesting to me, anyways.
A lot of this next bit really won’t make sense unless you’ve played or read the thing, so this is a brain dump.
Sometimes, as a critic, I fall a little too deep down the auteur theory rabbit hole. This is a particular failing of mine, since one must recognize that objects such as games are made by many people who all play their part. Still I occasionally like to pride myself on an ability to discern the hand of a particular creator in a work. As a kid, I cut my teeth on guessing Looney Tunes directors (“this feels like a Chuck Jones; you can tell from Bugs’ cool attitude versus the more kinetic attitude of a Friz Freleng Bugs”). I think at this point I’ve seen enough Adventure Time to get a feel where Pendleton Ward is co-author in the ToA and where he is not. Whenever something weird happened that annoyed the party, we all cursed the name of Pendleton Ward regardless of whether I thought he was really to blame. But all up, I thought the parts of ToA that felt like Pendleton Ward were a lot more fun than the parts that didn’t, because I’m giving him credit for the bits that had a particular bit of whimsy. The Fane of the Night Serpent section doesn’t contain much whimsy. The three, colorful hags… the happy-sun trap that turns into an angry sun if you set it off… the weird magic mouth trap that insists that you feed it? Those felt like Pendleton Ward to me. (My players never encountered the Magic Mouth trap, which I actually got a kick out of, but never mind that.)
Whether or not I can give credit for the “dead gods possessing players” to Pendleton Ward or not, I thought this bit – where players who take possession of certain magic items are possessed by spirits with benefits and drawbacks – was actually fantastic. GMs like me love passing secret notes to players. The bad thing about this mechanic, however, was it was “fiddly,” as it required me to keep good track of who touched what magical item when, who was immune and couldn’t touch them again… etc. I admit that this mechanic did piss off my players a good deal, but only because the dwarf, who is also main tank for the party, was possessed early on by the god that caused him to be unwilling to take risks. This was a huge change to his personality, he played it to the hilt, and it caused the party to have to change their ongoing strategies a lot, much to their frustrations until they figured out the gimmick and came up with a way to remove it.
I didn’t have Hew join the party in the Tomb of Nine Gods. The party set free the dao in the bottle, however. Her name is Keshma, which was changed in short order to Kesha, because tik tok the party don’t stop. The dao tried to teleport out of the dungeon at first convenience, but could not, so joined up with the PCs later to help out in the lower levels.
I think the party ranger felt screwed over by a lot of the lower levels of the dungeon, because archery is pretty useless in the Tomb. Most enemies are invulnerable to anything but magical damage, so if you’ve specced a lot toward archery, you’re in trouble as the only magical weapons you can salvage are melee.
A couple traps really vexed me as a DM. The sequence with the elemental-themed death puzzles was okay as a standalone thing, but did not hold together at all with what came before or after it. Total non-sequitur.
The whole Beholder sequence was… dumb? I’m not sure what a Beholder, an actually intelligent creature, is supposed to be doing hiding behind an elaborately locked door waiting for adventurers to slay him. Going increasingly mad, I guess? Once the party cleric realized the mold and fungus he spreads throughout his level was something that could be damaged, she turned on Spirit Guardians and power-washed the entire dungeon floor, which was pretty funny.
I have no idea what method the designers intended for solving the gear puzzle in level 5. It seems as if it’s impossible to navigate this area without leaving a PC or NPC behind in the control room, to an uncertain fate. We used Kesha for this, since she could also walk through stone walls (my ruling was that the dungeon magic didn’t stop this as it’s her innate ability and not a spell). (She did need the party’s help because she could not walk through metal walls, which is why she got stuck on that level.) But what the heck do you do if you don’t have her? I still am not sure; would love to talk to a designer about the intended solution if there is one that doesn’t involve sacrificing someone.
The golden mammoth challenge was a really fun one for the group. They love that kind of random-weird-terrain challenge, and the way it was put together actually made them have to think and work for the win there. It lines up well with the kind of thing I typically design myself.
I didn’t use Artus Cimber. As a character, he held together a little better than Ras Nsi but he never showed up on the random encounter tables when I rolled, and to me he seemed like an albatross. This is the thing you add if you’re the kind of DM that likes to have a god-like character tag along with the party, and that’s never been my style. (If you’re one of my players, you’re like, “who?” Yeah, not important.)
The rest of this is about the last encounter series and our last session in the Tomb.
The party entirely sequence-broke the hag encounter. They knew of the existence of the hags from a conversation with Withers, but assumed the puppets (who are actually friendly, guys) were dangerous and immediately nuked them in a surprise round. So that was the end of that. From there, conversations with the clone proved interesting, though ultimately ended up with the death of the clone. The clone is also an extremely cool idea, by the way – not only does it give an out if a player does happen to die, but it’s also just an interesting situation in its own right.
The players then decided what they wanted to do was set up an ambush for the hags. In theory, the hags don’t show up until they’ve cleared all the puzzle doors in their lair. But I wanted to reward the players’ ingenuity so I let them do that and have a bit of roleplay trying to fool the hags. In the end, it meant the coven went down rather quickly, but they’re not the main event anyway.
The big boss encounter in this module is pretty great. You’re fighting an encounter well above what the party should be able to handle, but the mechanic of getting extra damage and HP from the possessing gods added some balance while making things feel suitably epic. The battle arena is fun too.
I did make one pretty major mistake, which is that the party ranger was possessed by Wongo at the time, and was able to use his stun-at-will power. It hit Acererak after several difficult tries, though I realized he technically should be immune to stun when I was re-reading his block later. It made the difference between him teleporting out versus being knocked out, and since he’s not really gone either way, it’s one of those blunders that was not a huge deal and was more interesting the way we rolled with it.
The dungeon has a denouement area. Those rooms were actually really interesting, but after the epic battle with the Saltboiler and Acererak, it’s not exactly what you’re in the mood for. So I sort of glossed over the last puzzle sequence in that area – as I wager a lot of DMs are going to do? Maybe I’m wrong there.
I’d seriously had a jungle-based, Yuan-ti heavy adventure as one of my bucket list adventures to run. So this module scratched an itch I’d had for a long time.
Because my party was urgent, and did a lot of things without stopping to research or gather information, they ran the whole module extremely quickly: to the tune of 44 in-character days. This is probably unusual. No deaths. I didn’t softball anything in the Tomb, but there’s a surprising amount of fail-safes to save players unless you are running it “meat grinder” style. A few of the traps are instantly lethal, but this isn’t always obvious unless you tell players later.
I’m also really excited to see what falls out now that the party is out of the Tomb, because I have some followup hooks plan that take advantage of what they have and have learned. There’s also tons of skipped sidequests that I can slightly repurpose. I think everyone had a lot of fun with this. Running pre-written content is not the usual way I write a campaign, but I have been a busy person lately in real life and it was lovely to have some solid content already prepared for me, especially early on. The GM still has to pre-read and prepare, but it cuts down on the design work a good deal.
Thanks to my players, and anyone who read this far! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. (Keep in mind I filter for spam, so new comments may not show up immediately. I’ll try to watch the space.)