Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 9

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game goes on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter

NPCs
Oceanus, Sea Elf Ambassador
Hergis Sutter, Tiefling Transmuter (Wizard)


Our heroes met with the queen of the lizard folk. She heard their concerns, but was unsure if she could trust them, particularly without the trust of her people. She made a deal with them: she’d honor a truce agreement with Saltmarsh if the heroes could convince enough of her people of their intentions.

They spent the next day or so visiting various groups of lizardfolk in the lair, introducing themselves, telling stories, learning about the lizardfolk and, in turn, sharing knowledge about themselves. In the end, they convinced the lizardfolk Saltmarsh was no threat and together, they could oppose the sahaugin more effective than either of them could alone.


Those two short paragraphs are about it for “Danger at Dunwater” segment of Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Back in the day, it didn’t occur to a lot of groups that they could just TALK to the lizardfolk and secure a proper alliance (although the adventure makes allowances for that). As a result, a lot of groups approached the lizardfolk lair as a simple dungeon crawl and slaughtered their way from room to room. Obviously, that takes a lot longer in terms of game play than negotiating with the queen, then going around the lair to talk to various groups. So, the entire thing was less than one session.

I slacked off on this because I hit my nadir during these last two sessions where I felt like nothing mattered and there was no hope; everything was awful, so why should I bother. After this sessions, I essentially cancelled the game. My heart isn’t into it, my mind can’t focus on it, and I’m finding certain elements of Roll20 to be detrimental to my fun. Perhaps it’s a temporary thing; I deal with COVID-19-related things almost every week at work, so I never get a break from hearing about it and it hit the point where I just didn’t want to play because it wasn’t enough of an escape for me.

One of the other GMs in the group is going to run some Deadlands for us for a bit. I don’t know when I’ll be back to DMing Ghosts of Saltmarsh. It may not happen until it’s safe to meet face-to-face again. Or, after a couple of months off, several sessions as a player, I’ll be ready to go again. Who knows?Tom Baker as The Curator in

Regardless, we stopped at the end of “Danger at Dunwater,” so, it was a good stopping point and gives me a lot of flexibility when we start up again. If it’s online, I’ll just stick to what’s there, in the materials I purchased for Roll20. If it’s face-to-face, I can incorporate all the stuff I originally wanted to.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 8

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game goes on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter

NPCs
Oceanus, Sea Elf Ambassador
Hergis Sutter, Tiefling Transmuter (Wizard)


While the group recovered from their adventure at sea, Grothsoron set about recruiting a crew for the Sea Ghost, rechristened as Thunderfury. Fortunately for them, the crew of a recently sunk ship, all tortles from the Amedio jungle, was looking for work in town. They hired the tortles and set sail after consulting the various maps and clues they’d found in the Haunted House and the Sea Ghost.

According to the information they had, the lizardfolk lair was on the coast, just a few hours away by sea. The anchored off the coast near the location where they believed the lizardfolk lair to be and the officers left Hergis in charge while they took the dinghy ashore. Inanna and Persaadi scouted the area and discovered several potential entrances to an underground complex that the lizardfolk could use as a lair. They decided to enter a cave that housed several giant lizards. Persaadi used her rangery connection to nature to convince the beasts they were no threat and they entered a complex of passageways and rooms that was far too large and developed to be a natural system of caves.

Despite an unfortunate encounter that resulted in combat, they managed to locate a shaman willing to talk and convinced him to take them to the their queen. He led them to the throne room where they awaited their audience with the queen…


With the civil unrest occurring, our government’s unacceptably aggressive and, frankly, terroristic response to it, and all of that bullshit piled on top of COVID-19 and my mother’s racism, I was NOT feelin’ it tonight. We persevered and after an extremely slow start, got some gaming in. We did not get as far as I would have liked, but it was a good start for Danger at Dunwater. Back in the day, i.e. when Danger at Dunwater was a brand new adventure for AD&D, there are stories about how players would proceed through the lizardfolk (called lizardmen then) lair, slaying methodically room-by-room as though it were a standard dungeon crawl. I’m glad this didn’t happen here, though there are still plenty of opportunities for things to go pear-shaped (though my players tend to be a little more thoughtful than hack ‘n slashers if they’re given an opening to do something other than be stabby-stabby.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 7

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game goes on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter


As they contemplated their next move after clearing the main deck, more smugglers made their decision for them, coming up from below decks to attack. Despite not having an opportunity to lick their wounds, our heroes successful fended off the second wave. Once they felt confident no more surprises were coming from the lower decks, they explored the cabins and hold. They found silks and casks of brandy stolen from local merchants and passing caravans as well as a couple of prisoners: a slave called Hergis Sutter, who revealed himself to be a tiefling disguised as an emaciated man to mitigate the smuggler’s abuse and a Sea Elf called Oceanus.

The also found passengers: a group of lizardfolk who’d been buying weapons from the smugglers. Unable to determine why the lizardfolk wanted the weapons, other than talk of some nebulous threat, and unwilling to simply kill a group who neither attacked them nor aided the smugglers, Lord Darius allowed the lizardfolk to loot the dead smugglers’ weapons and go on their way.

They sailed the Sea Ghost into Saltmarsh. Lord Darius invoked his rights as a noble to claim the ship and they returned the silks and brandy to their rightful owners. After a chance to rest and recover from their ordeal, they were summoned before the town council again, given their reward and tasked with finding the lizardfolk lair and determine why they were buying vast quantities of weapons.


And here endeth The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. We’re getting more comfortable with Roll20 now and apart from technical issues, the game moves pretty smoothly. We do miss getting together face-to-face, though. Hopefully it will be possible to do so safely soon.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 6

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game goes on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter


Speaking to the town guard and Eliander (captain of said guard) brought forth no revelations as to the existence of any possible cult activity in Saltmarsh. Keledek the wizard was similarly of little help, though he did agree to research undersea eldritch entities for a magical price. He resisted the idea that the book that brought forth dreams of undersea tentacled menaces had any connection to the arboreal grapplers in Silverstand Forest, however. Further investigation was cut short; the town council summoned the group for a meeting.

The council had reason to believe that while the “haunted” house was a base of operations for the smugglers, they still had one key component to their operation that needed dealt with: the ship that was using the underground dock at the house. The council bade the group to work with the town guard to board the ship and deal with the smugglers once and for all. After negotiating their fee for such a feat, our intrepid heroes put a plan into motion whereby they would impersonate the smugglers from the house and board the ship. They found the Sea Ghost after a few days and put their plan in motion.

They were able to bluff their way onto the ship, but the bluff fell apart when the shipboard smugglers began to question their mix-ups with the signalling system. It was not long before the battle was joined. Our heroes prevailed against all those who came to the main deck to challenge them, but paused to consider their options when it was time to head below deck to search the rest of the Sea Ghost.


This session went even better than the last, though I suspect the dynamic lighting was causing problems with folks seeing the map, so I may turn that off and just use fog of war to manually reveal what I want the PCs to see. It’s not really much trouble to do that and it’s less time consuming than troubleshooting a system I’m not entirely familiar with during a session. I’m pleased with the way things are going, thus far, and the structure of this hardcover has been much easier to work with than either of the two previous hardcover adventures I’ve used from WotC, thus far. I suspect because it’s design to be a compilation of linked, though stand-alone, adventures, rather than one, super-long adventure But you, maybe making long adventures paths more episodic and breaking the segments up more would make them easier and prevent problems like I had with Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Tomb of Annihilation and have written about at length. Time will tell.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 5

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game goes on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter


After a night of carousing, the group decided to check in with Saltmarsh’s resident melancholy druid, Ferrin Kastilar, to make sure he still needed assistance with the situation in Silverstand forest. Ferrin confirmed he still needed help. They left immediately and traveled northwest toward Silverstand. After an uneventful journey, they arrived the next day at a fort on the edge of the forest, Burle. The soldiers there knew little about the goings on in the forest, so the office in charge, Lt. Noname referred them to the ambassador from Dreadwood, a treant called Wander Root.

Wander Root agreed that whatever abominations were in Silverstand needed dealt with, as they were not a natural part of the forest. Before they departed, Grothsorn remarking the ambassador seemed to have resting birch face and there were groans all around. They followed the trail into the Silverstand forest and Persaadi picked up humanoid tracks to follow. The tracks led them to a campsite where they found two mauled bodies. Before they could examine the bodies, arboreal grapplers attacked them from the trees.

The battle was hard-fought, but eventually, they defeated the abominations. They found a few salvageable valuables on the bodies, along with a journal and a burned book in the smoldering embers of the fire. The journal spoke of disturbing dreams, dreams of tentacles beneath oceans that had started when a book mysteriously appeared in one of their packs and a third member of their group. The deceased travelers eventually burned the mysterious tome, but one member of their party had already disappeared. After resting our heroes continued exploring the forest and finally found the third member of the travelers’ group and the final arboreal grappler.

They returned to Burle, but neither the captain of the garrison nor Wander Root knew anything about the mysterious book of which the travelers spoke, so our heroes returned to Saltmarsh. They returned to Ferrin Kastilar for their reward and asked him about the tome. He also was ignorant of its meaning or purpose and suggested they check with Eliander, the captain of the guard who also collected books or Keledek, the town wizard. The group decided to split their investigation: Persaadi, Grothsoron, and Biri would check with Eliander and the town guard, Lord Darius would pay a visit to Keledek along with Inanna, and when there was time, Inanna would see what the more unsavory folk around town knew about it.

The group was determined to discover if this mysterious tome was tied in to any cult activity in the area and how it related to the abominations in Silverstand, and what, if any threat, they posed to Saltmarsh.


Apart from a few hiccups with Roll20’s layers (it’s important to set up your tokens on the correct layer so they’re invisible (if they’re not supposed to be seen when the PCs enter an area) at first and then can be revealed at a dramatically appropriate moment. Otherwise, you disrupt the flow of the game and eventually just give up and drag new copies onto the map only to discover how to fix the problem after the fact. I trust this will not be as big of a problem with the official Ghosts of Saltmarsh content since it’s already set up for me.

The visual effects of the premium features definitely added some ooh and ahhh to the game, even though, bafflingly, there is no lightning VFX. Lightning Bolt is a classic, staple spell. At least, it was. I think a few more sessions of Roll20 will iron out the kinks and things will move along quite smoothly.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 4

Since we’re all living under stay-at-home orders from the governor during the coronavirus outbreak, we switched our game to Roll20! Life may have ground to a halt, but the game must go on!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Monster Slayer Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Battlemaster Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Swashbuckler Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord (Tempest domain)
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Champion Fighter


A curious fellow encouraged the players to just go with it for this session; it was a learning experience for us all.

After recovering from their explorations of the “haunted” house, our heroes headed back to Saltmarsh. En route, one of the villagers ran up to them, clearly upset. He said a great beast had washed ashore, a fish bigger than a long house and his brother was trapped inside. Proceeding with caution, they entered the maw of the great, deceased beast.

Inside, they found a dank, drippy, squishy environment. Midway down its gullet, they were beset by giant gut worms. Despite slipping repeatedly on the still-moist organic tissues, our heroes sliced and diced the worms until their foes were dead from it. They called out for the villager’s brother and heard muffled cries from deeper within. They proceeded deeper into the beast until the reached a large chamber in which they saw several dead lizardfolk surrounding a massive, still beating heart. The muffled cries grew louder.

As they entered the chamber to inspect the monstrous heart, the leviathan’s very blood came alive to attack them. Though the blood slimes proved more challenging than expected, they were once again victorious. Lord Darius noticed the heart, though beating, did not seem to be connected to anything and he surmised the muffled cries came from beneath it. He flexed and used his swol strength (granted to him by Kord) to roll the organ aside, revealing the villager’s brother. The half-naked man introduced himself as Zale. He and his brother Daryl were simple farmers who happened upon the beached leviathan.

Our heroes dragged him out of the belly of the beast and returned him to his brother. They returned to town to meeting with the council regarding the “haunted” house and to apprise them of the beached leviathan. Councilman Anders Solmor, pleased to hear of their success rooting out the smugglers from the haunted house, gave them their 200 GP reward and promised would dipose of the levithan’s corpse in a way that best made use of the resources it had to offer and give the group a cut of the profits to be had.

Once their meeting with Anders concluded, they went to The Wicker Goat for an evening of carousing. The next day, they planned to leave town and journey to the Silverstrand Forest to help the druid Ferrin Kastilar with his disturbances there….


The Cake is a Lie

The majority of this session, i.e. the leviathan on the beach, I created in a slap-dash manner to test out Roll20’s tools and features with the group and make sure we all felt we could continue our game in this fashion. It was just a side-trek, if you will, to the main story of Ghosts of Saltmarsh and other than some experience points, has no bearing on the overall arc of that story. I used as many free resources as I could.

Things progressed slowly at first; a lot of time was spent getting everyone familiar with the interface. I’m sure there will be more growing pains in future sessions, but I know I’m a lot more comfortable with Roll20 now. I don’t know that I’d want to set up an entire adventure from scratch in it, say for a virtual con game, but two weeks ago I looked at it like WTF??? and now I’m more like Ohhh… I kind of get this.

So, we will continue our regular schedule and game every other Friday night on Roll20. I invested in some resources that should make this almost as fun as sitting around our gaming table, though, we won’t have fresh baked goodies for the group every game now.

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Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Sessions 2-3

I got slammed at work and wasn’t able to put up a synopsis for Session 2. So, I’m combining the two.


Passing through the secret door next to the wine cellar’s fireplace, they found themselves in a large room that apparently served as a dining room and barracks of sorts. The ruckus caused by the rot grub-infested body had alerted smugglers, who lay in wait for the group and attacked as they passed through the secret door. Despite taking some fire, they made short work of the smugglers. They found themselves in a combination barracks/dining hall. Stairs led to a trap door in the ceiling, presumably leading back into the house. They rigged an alarm to the trap door to alert them if anyone tried to descend while they explored the rest of the basement.

Our heroes found an alchemist’s bedroom and lab and dealt with several animated skeletons, along with a skeletal spellcaster. Feeling the pain of the encounter, they secured themselves and rested. After resting, they prepared to return to the manor, but an archer appeared from a hithertofore undiscovered secret door in the barracks and fired upon them. They attacked and follow him through into caverns under the cliffs. Within the caverns, the found a den of smugglers. After a particularly brutal fight, our heroes retreated back to the barracks to heal up and rest.

After regaining their strength, they returned to the caverns. The smugglers had taken advantage of the heroes’ absence, however, and evacuated the caverns. Finding little else of interest, our heroes returned to the manor and explored the rest of the first floor and the second floor. Apart from some deadly mold and stirges in the attic, they found little else of interest. It appeared that someone had been held prisoner in one of the bedrooms recently, but they uncovered no evidence as to who it was or why they were held captive.

Satisfied they’d determined the smugglers were the cause of the “haunting,” they prepared to return to Saltmarsh to give their report to the town council and collect their reward…


As a group with several members who have high-risk factors for complications from a COVID-19 infection, we decided to take a hiatus. For one, our next regularly scheduled game conflicted with Gary Con anyway, so we’re going to skip that session, despite the con being canceled (and moving online). Hopefully, by the week of the April 10th session, we’ll have enough information to know whether or not it’s safe to meet up again. Several players aren’t comfortable playing remotely, so for now, we’re going to hope four weeks will be enough time for the government to get a handle on things*.

* The way things have been going in the United States of America, I believe this is a fool’s hope, but a lot can change in four weeks.

Categories: D&D | Tags: , , , ,

Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Session 1

After a few sessions of testing one of my adventures for GaryCon, we embarked upon our next D&D campaign: Ghosts of Saltmarsh!

Characters
Persaadi Norixius, Dragonborn Ranger
Grothsoron DeNalia, High Elf Artificer
Inanna Bes, Halfing Rogue
Lord Darius Thornwell, Half-Elf Cleric of Kord
Biri Esstyrlynn, Dragonborn Fighter


Captain Xendros of the Faithful Quartermasters of Iuz

While walking through Saltmarsh, our group gathered at the town’s bounty board. People in town went about their business, including the representative of the Faithful Quartermasters of Iuz, Captain Xendros. Her presence caused Lord Darius to huff in disgust, but she paid them no mind and went about her business. As he grumbled about the presence of representatives of Iuz in Saltmarsh, one of the town council members, Anders Solmor approached them. Having done business with Grothsoron in the past, he was familiar with the group regarding the bounty board.

The exchanged pleasantries with the councilor and he bemoaned folks harassing him about the “haunted house” down the coast. Everyone in town knew about it, of course, but whether or not it was truly haunted was a matter of debate. After a brief conversation, he informed them the town council had money set aside as a reward for anyone who investigated the house and got to the bottom of the so-called haunting. They agreed to check it out after they visited Ferrin Kastilar in the nearby Sea Grove of Obad-Hai about a monster hunt for which he was hiring.

Ferrin, the town druid, met them at the grove. He wanted them to investigate reports of arboreal grapplers in Silverstand, a forest several leagues to the northwest. Ferrin confirmed there were conflicting rumors about the nature of the haunted house, as well. Since Silverstand was essentially the opposite direction from the house, and significantly further, they chose to go there instead. A pair of children followed them out of town, bombarding them with question, especially once they learned the group traveled to the haunted house.

The grounds around the house were overgrown, choked with weeds, evidence of decades of neglect. All the windows were broken, allowing the wind to blow freely through the mansion. A quick investigation of the grounds revealed fresh tracks leading into the house. They followed the tracks through the dining room, withdrawing room, kitchen, and scullery, dealing with disgusting swarms of oversized vermin along the way. In the scullery, they saw the track led down the stairs toward the wine cellar.

In the wine cellar, they found the corpse of a knight. Their vigilance served them well when rot grubs exploded out of their corpse, and no one became infected as they dealt with the vile terrors. After cleansing the body, they noticed doors leading out of the wine cellar. Something more than wine was below the house….


And we’re off and running with Ghosts of Saltmarsh. In a way, this brings this blog full-circle. When I started it, back in 2011, the idea was to play a set of adventures under one edition of D&D, then play the same adventures with the next edition, then the next, and so on, comparing on contrasting the various editions. Well, that fell apart pretty quickly. Before it fell apart, however, we started a game of Basic D&D (defined in this blog as the Moldvay B/X, the Mentzer BECMI, and the Rules Encyclopedia variants I first started playing RPGs with; while there are differences between those three “editions,” you can pretty much mix & match stuff from them like you’re on a salad bar and it just won’t matter that much especially at low levels). The adventure: U1 – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. We played the first session on February 10, 2012 and the first blog post covering the session went live February 14, 2012. We played the first session of Ghosts of Saltmarsh on February 14, 2020. Two players have been with the group that entire time: my wife and Grothsoron’s player.

The last time, Sinister Secret ended when the group burned down the entire house right after the rot grubs. They’d explored more of the house itself by then, but hadn’t explored enough to know anything other than it was an old, vermin-infested house (if there was, indeed, anything else to learn ;)). Had I been more committed to the blog’s concept, I would have rolled that back instead of allowing it to derail the entire “experiment,” or ruled that stuff in the dank cellar was just too wet to start that type of conflagration. I’ve never been really good at ad-libbing. But, had I done that, it would have affected everything we played after that point, and I had too much fun with the Star Wars games and my Spelljammer campaign to want to casually wipe those away. Also, this time, I asked them ahead of time “Please, do not burn down the house,” even though the player who was responsible for that was the first to leave the group and essentially ghosted on us… heh maybe her character’s ghost will appear in Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

Next time, we go into unexplored territory as the PCs pressed forward into parts of the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh no one in the group has played, hopefully.

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Tomb of Annihilation Session 24 & Wrap Up

I’m not going to do a room by room breakdown of the exploration, but there will still be spoilers for the Tomb of Nine Gods section of Tomb of Annihilation. I also don’t want to spoil some of the details of the final dungeon, so like Innigo Montoya, I will sum up.

The Sewn Sisters had little interest in negotiating with our heroes, particularly since their delicious souls would be a delectable meal for the infant god they served and the sisters had already watched the group destroy their constructs. Despite their efforts however, the hags were no match for the intrepid band of explorers. As soon as the last of the Sewn Sisters fell, they heard an unearthly wailing from the adjoining chamber.

With no time to waste, they charged into the next room, where a giant embryonic creature floating above a pit of lava, connected to eldritch machinery. They knew they faced the Atropal and the Soulmonger at last. The battle was challenging, but they were up to the task. The vorpal axe wielded by the Paladin didn’t hurt, either. Naturally, once they defeated the god-thing, its creator, Acererak showed up to obliterate his foes.

They destroyed him, as well, though they knew it was only his physical body they destroyed. Acererak endured, his spirit fleeing to a phylactery on another plane.

The Death Curse was ended.

The final battles would have been more challenging if I hadn’t had a brain fart and gotten Legendary Actions and Lair Actions confused (though Acererak couldn’t take Lair Actions, he could still use his Legendary Actions). Oh well, it was still pretty epic, and it would have been massively uncool for me to say “Oops, we have to do that last fight over again.” Besides, we were running late and I wanted to finished ToA in 2019.

Next up is our annual Doctor Who game, in which I play time-traveling scientician Dr. Cornelius Constance, along with his companion, Jenny, the Doctor’s Daughter (I’m sure she sees it the other way ’round). There are other character, too, of course, but I don’t remember their names from year-to-year (sorry). After that, we start Ghosts of Saltmarsh. And with that, this blog will have come full circle. The first RPG session I wrote about in this blog was the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh which I ran using BECMI D&D some 7+ years ago under my original DoctorStrangeRoll concept (in which I would run the same classic adventure under each edition for comparison). Well, that didn’t work out quite like I intended, but the game goes on nonetheless.

This is it for my Tomb of Annihilation write-up, but keep reading for a summary of my thoughts. Not really a review, not really a rant, but some unholy amalgamation of the two.


This has been the second longest campaign I’ve run in my modern era of gaming* (which I define since I started gaming with my wife and blogging about it, going back to 2012). Prior to this, the only 5E “mega-campaign” or event book (however you want to refer to these big adventures Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is publishing) I’d run was Hoard of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ).

I dismissed organizational and structural problems with HotDQ as the result of it being the first tent-pole adventure for a new edition written by a third party publisher who had to work with incomplete versions of the rules. I’d skimmed subsequent adventures, but didn’t do anything with them. I realized while running Tomb of Annihilation (ToA), my problem was, in fact, with the way the adventures are structured and organized. I’ve written about this in past blog posts.

The way adventures like ToA are structured, elements that don’t come into play until later in the adventure need to be foreshadowed at the beginning of the adventure. This isn’t always made clear to the DM in the sections where it’s relevant. Instead, they’re expected to remember that later in the book, there is a reference to something that needs to be foreshadowed earlier. It’s one thing to ask DMs to read and familiarize themselves with an entire 32 page adventure before running it. 260 pages is something else entirely. Asking people to reading, absorbing, and remember details of an adventure that complex is unreasonable without better organization and cross-referencing. When you have a job, family obligations, other hobbies, etc., it becomes a nigh-impossible task. Publishers on DM’s Guild have released supplements that alleviated some of these problems, even providing flow charts so a DM can see at a glance what the structure of the adventure is supposed to be. However, I resent having to rely on third parties to provide me with information that should have been in the main book to begin with. I hold up Monte Cook’s Ptolus as an example of how to make a huge book usable. Granted, it’s a city campaign setting more than an adventure, but many adventures would benefit from its structure. It’s much larger than ToA, but when an NPC or location is referenced in a section where it’s not obvious how they might fit it or it’s not immediately evident why they’re relevant, a side bar contains a cross-reference to other parts of the book with corresponding information. An opposite example occurs in HotDQ. There is an early encounter with one of the Big Bad’s minions. The stat block in the back of the book for that minion indicates they possess a particular artifact. The encounter at the beginning doesn’t mention it, but does point you to the stat block. Later in the book, they can find that particular NPC’s main lair (at a point after which they likely have defeated that NPC). It is in THAT description that you learn the the NPC does NOT carry the artifact with them so if they defeated the NPC early, you might think the PCs now have the opportunity to acquire that artifact (as I did) when, in fact, the NPC shouldn’t have had it in that encounter at all. This information isn’t presented in the same section or given any cross-referencing, but is spread throughout three different sections of the book and a group could go MONTHS between exploring the two locations.

It’s a huge problem. Even if I had absorbed the entirety of HotDQ prior to running it, the chances are slim of me remembering a one-sentence piece of trivia late in the book saying “So-and-so keeps [The Artifact] here for safe keeping. They do not carry it with them” at the point MUCH earlier in the adventure when the NPC is encountered. This is part of the reason why I found prepping games for Tomb of Annihilation (and HotDQ to some extent), was, in fact, MORE work than I did when I ran my 28-session long 5E Spelljammer game. If I buy something that’s being advertised as an adventure I can use in my game, but it makes more work for me, then I question whether or not it’s a good investment. Perhaps if I had run Princes of the Apocalypse or Out of the Abyss right after HotDQ, I would have realized this problem earlier.

Tales from the Yawning Portal, being a compilation of unrelated adventures, doesn’t have this problem. A DM can just run the adventure they want and not have to worry about forgetting about an important piece of trivia on page 120 when they’re only on page 20. I’m hoping Ghosts of Saltmarsh (GoS), which is a compilation of adventures, some of which are related to each other and others that have a more tenuous relationship, will be similarly useful. Of course, the open nature of the sea means that once the characters get a ship, they could go completely off the rails and never return to the material in the book.

If I had to start ToA over again, I’d change the premise. I’d ditch the benefactor in the beginning who tells the PCs of the Death Curse and the time limit and find a way to incorporate it organically, so they can explore the jungle at their leisure. As it was presented, my players took the time limit and ran with it in a “No time for love, Dr. Jones, we have to save the world!” attitude. They left the city in the first session and headed into the jungle, never to return. Since one of the characters (Sobek, the outlander lizardfolk Gloomwalker Ranger) was built to trivialize overland travel, keeping track of provisions and whether or not they got lost was pointless. Sobek would never fail to find food and could never get lost. At that point, keeping track of weather was about all I could do, and it quickly became tedious busywork that added nothing to the adventure.

ToA wants to be a sandbox of exploration, but also wants a sense of urgency for the main quest, and these are mutually exclusive. The major sites in the jungle are weeks of travel away from each other, so, doing anything other than making a straight bee-line for the place you think holds the solution (once you find it, which could take a while; I had to actually ask other DMs where it was in the book so I’d be sure to direct my players there), is pretty stupid. My players are never going to see some of the more interesting content because it lay in the opposite direct of where the quest led them.

As a DM, I found the last part, the big dungeon crawl in the Tomb of Nine Gods, to be pretty uninspiring. There are some clever puzzles and encounters (along with a bunch of really obtuse puzzles that frustrated my players and one that requires them to split the party) , but I spent the sessions since we started gaming again after the cancer hiatus just being a rule arbiter, rather than doing any role playing. They shot the one NPC (Withers, who was going to attack them eventually anyway) who would actually talk to them in the face mid-sentence. The cursed skull following them around was fun, but I lack the ability to inflict a constant stream of annoying insults at a player (and NO DM I know can keep it up constantly as that skull was supposed it). So, I spent nine months wishing I could play, then immediately picked up with a game where there were no real NPCs to speak of for me to use to interact with my players.

I think it would be more accurate for WotC to advertise big adventures like HotDQ and ToA as campaign supplements rather than adventure. They cannot be run out of the book as DECADES of adventures before them could be. It’s unreasonable to expect DMs to memorize 260-page books before running them. Hopefully, the more episodic nature of GoS will alleviate some of my issues with WotC’s adventures. I skimmed through the new one, Descent to Avernus the other day, and I noticed it had a flowchart in the beginning showing the expected adventure progression. Maybe they’re learning. It’s also possible that their products just aren’t for me. If that’s the case, it’s fine. I have plenty of materials I can use to create my own adventures. I could probably play 5E for the rest of my life using only what I have right now and never repeat myself.

* I had a break in my gaming after my first wife died in 2008, almost four years without a group to speak of. I’ve been gaming since 1982, though, so don’t think I’m some neophyte who’s only been playing since D&D 5E came out.

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Tomb of Annihilation – Session 23


I’m not going to do a room by room breakdown of the exploration, but there will still be spoilers for the Tomb of Nine Gods section of Tomb of Annihilation. I also don’t want to spoil some of the details of the final dungeon, so like Innigo Montoya, I will sum up.

After taking a rest to recover from recent challenges, our heroes descended to yet another level of the Tomb of Nine Gods (the 6th level, if you’re keeping track). They entered a large room with a bubble cauldron filling the room with a thick green smoke. Stairs on either side lead up to an elevated walkway along the sides of the room. They saw several doors on either side, along with a giant carved stone door blocking further progress. Three animated dolls approached the group after the placed the lid on the cauldron and warned the group that the Sewn Sisters wouldn’t like it if they caught them there.

At first, they ignored the dolls and explored the room. They found a misshapen twin of Baersora in a cage. Thinking her  to be a doppelgänger at first, they interrogated the naked dwarf only to discover she knew everything “their” Baersora knew. The dolls repeated their warning and our heroes took a moment to talk to them. They were created by the Sewn Sisters, but weren’t allowed to leave this room, so they didn’t know anything about what lay beyond, except that the surrounding rooms contained tests.

They also noticed the giant door had covered keyholes that matched the skeleton keys they had collected as they explored the tomb. Having had enough of the dolls pestering, they destroyed them, then decided to take the tests.

One by one the group defeated the challenges of the tests, each one uncovering a skeleton key lock. They prepared to unlock the giant door when the Sewn Sisters appeared around their cauldron, having watched the whole time from the Ethereal Plane….

I didn’t have a lot of time to foreshadow the Sewn Sisters, since they sped through the jungle exploration (and since the book does a piss-poor job of mentioning them much before you get deep into the Tomb of Nine Gods). This is an excellent example of something that could have been mentioned in myriad sidebars at appropriate times throughout the text saying something like “This is a good place to foreshadow the Sewn Sisters (then give examples), but that would make this adventure more DM-friendly and Tomb of Annihilation is from the era of assuming the DM has studied this very lengthy, sandboxy adventure extensively before running it and remembers everything that is supposed to happen months ahead of time.

I went ahead and drew out the rest of the dungeon on Gaming Paper. It’s too hard to create in Dwarven Forge and I didn’t want to draw it on the fly; that bogs things down and I hope to finish ToA next session. We’ll see.

There’s only two more scheduled games this year. Our last game of the year will be another Doctor Who Christmas Special (or maybe New Year’s, depending on what the GM comes up with). It’ll be nice to play Doctor Who again.

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