D&D 5E Tomb of Annihilation Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
Each time a campaign ends, I try to learn from it. This will be about my Tomb of Annihilation campaign. Unlike others in this series, I think this is a more positive experience, but that doesn't mean there aren't lessons to learn.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign
This group of players were assembled from all around, pretty much brought together for the purpose of playing a specific D&D campaign. One was a friend of mine from community theater, just getting back into D&D through Critical Role after having not played since 2e. He has the perspective of “this is cool, let’s do it - and if you have a cool idea, I’m going to help you do it.” (This is one of my favorite player personality types). His wife is new to RPGs but likes board games and is more of a casual player. My ex-girlfriend (don’t worry, we’re totally cool with each other), her then-boyfriend (not that weird of a dynamic in practice), and one of my ex-gf’s best friends. Another guy I randomly offered a seat since he was new to town, and I bumped into him on a Facebook group - and he totally ended up being a cool guy and a good friend.

Everyone was on board to play whatever campaign I wanted, so I picked the “new hotness” of the day, which was Tomb of Annihilation.

Preparation
As this was a new adventure, there hadn’t been a lot of suggestions written about how to run it. I did read that the Death Curse was a little over-punishing and that “Cellar of Death” on the DMs Guild was a good intro. I did prepare “Cellar of Death” as an intro adventure, but otherwise we jumped in.

Slow Start
After the Cellar of Death intro and some good roleplaying and build-up in Port Nyanzaru, we really hit a speed bump with the jungle hexcrawl. The party knew only a rough direction of where to go to find the Lost City of Omu, and unknown to them, they hired a guide who was leading them into a trap. They kept getting lost in the wilderness. Entire sessions were lost going in circles. Deadly random encounters (some assassin vines come to mind) killed off numerous NPCs. But worst of all, conflicting work schedules meant we’d get to play only around once a month.

Speeding Up Play
We’d been hexcrawling in the jungle for months of real world time. It really felt like a survival story, but it would be if the campaign was going to survive. I had to make a tough decision to move the session to a regular weeknight - which let us get around child care issues, work schedules, etc. Unfortunately, that meant we had to move on without one of the players.

[By this time the party realized the impetus for the quest - their patron who had hired them to stop the Death Curse - would be long dead by this point. Even under perfect timing I don’t think it’s possible for any party to stop the Death Curse.]

I then did a cutscene to describe the rest of the jungle hexcrawl and deposited them at the temple of the yuan-ti, where their guide’s treachery paid off perfectly with a dangerous ambush.

Out of the Jungle
In the temple of the yuan-ti, the party had an intense stealth mission and nail-biting roleplaying. The combats definitely took a backseat here - and it felt like a classic Conan story, sneaking into a palace of terrible sorcery to get what they needed and get out.

In Omu the party enjoyed exploring the lost city, gathering the keystones, solving puzzles, trying to thwart the Red Wizards. It certainly felt like a Raiders of the Lost Ark session. I even played up one of the Red Wizards to feel like Belloq.

Dungeon
The Tomb itself felt like a classic dungeon-crawling experience but done in a way that could suit modern players. There were some traps that stretched believability and some gonzo scenes, but everything fit well. One issue I had was a gender-switching curse trap. I had a player who is transgender at the game, and I didn’t feel comfortable potentially targeting her character and doing a gender flopping magical effect for something that is intended to be played off for laughs. So I cut that.

The climactic battle was epic. The party fled before the huge bad was able to appear. An overall satisfying

Lessons Learned
Strict adherence to random encounters isn’t necessary if it bogs down the game. Be ready to go off script to deliver the experience the players want. Sometimes players you don’t expect end up being the best ones you’ve gamed with.
Specific to ToA. Don’t use the Death Curse as written. It’s too quick and the party has no chance to stop it. I would suggest different motivations to go to Chult, perhaps something that would encourage them to spend more time exploring some of the great sites in the jungle. Then bring about the Death Curse as a later stage complication, maybe after visiting the yuan-ti. Also, I’d play them up as more of a faction because they’re too cool to be limited to just the temple. Ras-Nsi in particular could be set-up as a primary antagonist for most of the first half of the adventure.

What Came Next?
After the campaign came to a close, we tried Savage Rifts for a change of pace. Then Warhammer Fantasy RPG. After that, we changed to Pathfinder 2e, but that eventually fell apart too. Still, ToA was a solid campaign and a good time.
 

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Lyxen

Great Old One
Thanks for the feedback, I have a similar experience, overall a good adventure. We did a lot in Port Nyanzaru, as we love city adventures, so I buffed it quite a bit in particular with Yuan-ti intrigues, as they are favourite adversaries at our tables. After that, the hexcrawl is not necessarily what we prefer, but it was quite enjoyable, but the party certainly did not explore the whole map, possibly a bit less than half.

But Omu was great, tons of adventures around the Tomb, and tons of intrigue with the Yuan-ti and Red Wizards, including very touchy invasion of the Yuan-ti fortress, one player was captured and accepted to be turned, etc.

After that, some spoilers for the Tomb, but it was excellent.

The fact that there is the visible face for exploration, but also all the back passages for maintenance made it that the players really got into that and the logic, and could get through some areas frontally and around others, always tons of options. Also, the NPCs in there, the Slaad, Marid, etc. make for great roleplay and unlikely allies, and also good proxies to die in various situations.

And the final confrontation is no push-over, the players really enjoyed their victory.

Note that this was over Roll20 when I was living in Australia and Singapore with players in France, so it was good despite the conditions (I had to wake up at about 3 in the morning on Saturdays to run my group back in France on the Friday evening).
 

pukunui

Legend
I've run Tomb of Annihilation once all the way through and am running it a second time now.

The first time, I mostly ran it as written. My group chose Eku as their guide and went to Orolunga, then stopped at the Heart of Ubtao on their way to Kir Sabal. From there, they went to Nangalore to get the flower for the ritual. I changed the ritual to give them a wind walk spell because otherwise they wouldn't actually be able to fly all the way to Omu (the fly speed and duration aren't enough to get you all the way there as written).

Omu proved to be super-deadly. I think we lost more PCs there than at any other point in the adventure.

With the help of the Nine Gods, the PCs had little trouble beating Acererak.

For my second run-through, I didn't introduce the Death Curse straight away. Instead, I established the PCs as an Acq Inc franchise taking over from their ill-fated predecessors, the Company of the Yellow Banner. They've gotten to do all the fun little side quests my first group didn't get to do. I dropped references to Ras Nsi as often as I could. I even ran the Snout of Omgar exploration, and they talked with the sentient snakes in the Shrine of Fangs, where they learned that Ras Nsi is still alive. They're level 7 now, and they've just returned to Port Nyanzaru. I am now going to introduce the Death Curse, with Jessamine being their patron rather than Syndra.

I expect this group will also pick Eku as their guide. I'm planning on having Xandala ask to join them. If they don't hire Salida, I'll have her be Xandala's porter.

I wanted to play up the yuan-ti more, both in Port Nyanzaru and in the jungle, but I was never really sure how best to go about it. Instead, I think Ras Nsi has become something of a mystical bogeyman in my players' heads. At least, up until they learned he was still alive. Not sure how they think of him now.

The players adopted a wyrmling bronze dragon during their initial Acq Inc mission. They brought her along to Port Nyanzaru with them. Perhaps Ras Nsi's yuan-ti can kidnap the dragon, and they can rescue her from the fane later on.
 


Retreater

Legend
Gender switching trap is from the original ToH. Presumably there are other nods to it.
I haven't played the original ToH, but I recognized the green devil faces make an appearance.
In the case of the gender swap trap, it just didn't feel appropriate to do under the present circumstances with the particular group. No judgement at all for groups that want to include it.
We had a great time with the adventure overall. My wife is jealous she hasn't gotten to play it yet. We did try a solo run-through of it, with her character leading an NPC expedition of companions, but we took a lengthy break from it and haven't gotten back to it.
 

Retreater

Legend
After that, some spoilers for the Tomb, but it was excellent.
My group lucked out and went the exact right way through the dungeon with minimal backtracking.
We had a great time with the NPCs trapped in the mirror too.
Overall, there's lots of fun action, exploration, and roleplay. Great villains. Personal stakes. Memorable set pieces. It really connected to me in ways most 5e campaign adventures haven't.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Reading this I see that its a mash up of not two but three classic adventures: Dwellers in the Forbidden City, Isle of Dread, and Tomb of Horrors.

It better be good!
 

Li Shenron

Legend
That's VERY interesting thanks! It definitely made me want to check ToA out!

A couple of questions...

1) Does the written adventure force the hexcrawl being so long? In retrospective do you think it would have been easy to make it faster/shorter?

2) Is it really a problem for the death curse to be likely unbeatable? I wouldn't mind having something of a red herring every now and then, that the PCs can't truly solve but the point of which is for the PCs to realise they shouldn't spend resources on it and instead just live with it or mitigate at best. Is this death curse something completely out of their league? You suggest not to play it as written so what would you change about it, make it slower

3) ...and the obvious question is how many sessions did you spend in each chapter?
 

I own and have read ToA, and chose not to run it.
That's VERY interesting thanks! It definitely made me want to check ToA out!

A couple of questions...

1) Does the written adventure force the hexcrawl being so long? In retrospective do you think it would have been easy to make it faster/shorter?
It would depend on how you handled levelling. You could skip through it quite quickly, but you would either need to level the party very quickly or start at a higher level. And there is some random stuff scattered around in the jungle that you would miss out on. One thing I would never do it let the dice completely dictate the encounters - it would be quite easy for the PCs to encounter something of completely unsuitable level and get annihilated!

There are good guides and bad guides available in the starter city, and it sounds like the OP's group chose unwisely. Why they didn't go back to the city and get a better one I don't know.
2) Is it really a problem for the death curse to be likely unbeatable? I wouldn't mind having something of a red herring every now and then, that the PCs can't truly solve but the point of which is for the PCs to realise they shouldn't spend resources on it and instead just live with it or mitigate at best. Is this death curse something completely out of their league? You suggest not to play it as written so what would you change about it, make it slower
See my earlier comments on levelling. It also serves to discourage the players from exploring the jungle looking for those interesting encounters. So I would generally back up the advice to not use it or have it start later. Unless you where running the adventure with a higher starting level group and wanted the time pressure and higher stakes.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
For the Death Curse, it really depends on what your group likes. A lot of people at our tables are completionists, people who like to leave no stone unturned, and being forced to leave things aside due to time pressure is really hard on them and detracts from the fun, so there are alternate solutions as pointed out.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I own and have read ToA, and chose not to run it.

It would depend on how you handled levelling. You could skip through it quite quickly, but you would either need to level the party very quickly or start at a higher level. And there is some random stuff scattered around in the jungle that you would miss out on. One thing I would never do it let the dice completely dictate the encounters - it would be quite easy for the PCs to encounter something of completely unsuitable level and get annihilated!
Ok, that's interesting. Sounds like basically the main design purpose of the long jungle crawl is to level up characters, but I have an odd approach to levelling up and choosing adventures: since I don't like adventures designed to span many levels*, I usually start an adventure when the characters are already at mid-levels if not near the levels expected to finish such adventure. If I read it right, ToA is designed from level 1 to 11, which is way too long for my tastes (I am more used to older editions adventures spanning 2-3 levels), so I would be looking to start it with the characters at least of level 5. With my approach, obviously the first part of any adventure is always easy and the second part gets harder, but this is how I like them to be, rather than scaled up but mostly equally difficult start-to-finish. Maybe in ToA starting at higher level would also help moving faster through the boring jungle crawl, but not necessarily as even easy combats can be time-consuming, so it would be more a matter of avoiding them or being able to end them quickly. I would be more concerned about missing that good "random stuff", but perhaps the DM can just choose to make the PCs stumble upon the interesting one.

*technically, my utopic campaign is many adventures that run in parallel, in which case I wouldn't mind each of them to span lots of levels, but in reality I can only really afford to run serial adventures

Overall it sounds like ToA roadmap could be summarized as Jungle -> Temple -> Dungeon -> BBEG. From a story point of view that's something that by my personal tastes shouldn't even require to level up once, but of course at WotC they want to cover as many levels as possible so that the players are using a larger portion of the character material (and feel like they need to buy another book soon).
 

Ok, that's interesting. Sounds like basically the main design purpose of the long jungle crawl is to level up characters, but I have an odd approach to levelling up and choosing adventures: since I don't like adventures designed to span many levels*, I usually start an adventure when the characters are already at mid-levels if not near the levels expected to finish such adventure. If I read it right, ToA is designed from level 1 to 11, which is way too long for my tastes (I am more used to older editions adventures spanning 2-3 levels), so I would be looking to start it with the characters at least of level 5. With my approach, obviously the first part of any adventure is always easy and the second part gets harder, but this is how I like them to be, rather than scaled up but mostly equally difficult start-to-finish. Maybe in ToA starting at higher level would also help moving faster through the boring jungle crawl, but not necessarily as even easy combats can be time-consuming, so it would be more a matter of avoiding them or being able to end them quickly. I would be more concerned about missing that good "random stuff", but perhaps the DM can just choose to make the PCs stumble upon the interesting one.

*technically, my utopic campaign is many adventures that run in parallel, in which case I wouldn't mind each of them to span lots of levels, but in reality I can only really afford to run serial adventures

Overall it sounds like ToA roadmap could be summarized as Jungle -> Temple -> Dungeon -> BBEG. From a story point of view that's something that by my personal tastes shouldn't even require to level up once, but of course at WotC they want to cover as many levels as possible so that the players are using a larger portion of the character material (and feel like they need to buy another book soon).
Yes, the hexcrawl is for levelling up. It's good (without the Death Curse) for players who like sandbox play. Otherwise, start at level 4-8 with the Death Curse quest.
 

pukunui

Legend
Overall it sounds like ToA roadmap could be summarized as Jungle -> Temple -> Dungeon -> BBEG. From a story point of view that's something that by my personal tastes shouldn't even require to level up once, but of course at WotC they want to cover as many levels as possible so that the players are using a larger portion of the character material (and feel like they need to buy another book soon).
There is this:
Screenshot 2022-02-10 000653.jpg
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Overall it sounds like ToA roadmap could be summarized as Jungle -> Temple -> Dungeon -> BBEG.

For our group, it was more CITY (Lvls 1-5) - Jungle Hexcrawl (3-7) - CIty (8-9) - Dungeon (10-11).

Yes, the hexcrawl is for levelling up.

I really don't like this explanation. Nothing is for "levelling up". Either you give XPs, and every part gives XPs, or you use milestones (or, as we do, just decide at relevant points), and each section is played exactly at the level that you want to.

For us, it's been a very long time since we needed XPs as carrots or even cherry on the cake, we just play the adventures that we want to enjoy them at an appropriate level.
 

For our group, it was more CITY (Lvls 1-5) - Jungle Hexcrawl (3-7) - CIty (8-9) - Dungeon (10-11).



I really don't like this explanation. Nothing is for "levelling up". Either you give XPs, and every part gives XPs, or you use milestones (or, as we do, just decide at relevant points), and each section is played exactly at the level that you want to.

For us, it's been a very long time since we needed XPs as carrots or even cherry on the cake, we just play the adventures that we want to enjoy them at an appropriate level.
Or padding, if you prefer. So you don't go "okay, you arrive, gain four levels".
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Or padding, if you prefer. So you don't go "okay, you arrive, gain four levels".

The thing is, only play a section if your group enjoys it. And if they don't rather than jump 4 levels, just don't play the preceding sections, or raise their level (easy at low level anyway) so that there is a continuity. Players won't enjoy playing "padding".
 

The thing is, only play a section if your group enjoys it. And if they don't rather than jump 4 levels, just don't play the preceding sections, or raise their level (easy at low level anyway) so that there is a continuity. Players won't enjoy playing "padding".
Some players enjoy a series of randomised encounters.
 


UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
So! a question, given that this module has a lot of hexcrawling/exploration, are there any addition guidlines or rules for exploration in this over and above what is found in the PHB and the DMG?
For that matter does any D&D adventure expand on the basic travel/exploration rules?
 

Retreater

Legend
@Li Shenron, yes I think others beat me to it, but the book provides guidelines for starting at higher levels, at which point you could skip whatever sections you don't want to use.
I didn't think of the urban portion and the wilderness (which is levels 1-5) as just wasted time. We did enjoy it, it just went on too long (partially based on our real life schedule) and I didn't direct it enough. There are many great short adventure sites that could be used, but you mostly just "stumble into them."
If you were going to do high levels only, you could do the Lost City and the Tomb (two different areas) as a pretty solid mega-adventure (kind of like the old 64 page ones from back in the day). Or you could just run the Tomb as a high level single adventure.
Whether or not you're cool with buying a big hardcover book for 32 pages of adventure is up to you, though.
 

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