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.