Tomb of Annihilation review

If I was to be dismissive, I’d say that Tomb of Annihilation is what you get when your DM decides to chuck The Tomb of Horrors onto the back-end of 1981’s The Isle of Dread, whilst indulging a zombie fetish (possibly because they’ve got a skadload of zombie figures painted up and their partner says they’ve gotta use ’em or lose ’em so there’s gonna be zombies, ya dig?). But that would be a little unfair each way.

Tomb of Annihilation is a riveting adventure and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the book and its hidden nooks and crannies. Certainly I could have reviewed it quicker by swiftly checking out the big flashy attractions and obvious hotspots, but any tourist knows that you’ll never find true wonder and beauty that way. It’s only by going out of the way to the more obscure and humble parts of the book that you’ll find the most satisfying moments.

Now that I’m back from my journey, would I recommend you go there? Let me have a shower and put the kettle on before I get into that; I’m one of those people who needs a holiday to recover from their holiday.

The Basics

The core of the adventure boils down to three major segments; exploring the continent of Chult to find the lost city of Omu, ransacking Omu to gain entry to the Tomb of the Nine Gods, and finally being utterly minced by the funhouse dungeon-design of said tomb. Each is individually excellent and filled with brilliant moments, but the metaplot that links them weakens them all.

This classic adventure included the new monster “Native”

When I said that it was a little unfair each way to compare Tomb of Annihilation with those other classic modules, part of that comes down to this metaplot and your motivation. Both Isle of Dread and Tomb of Horrors brilliantly allowed your own sense of curiosity and greed to inspire you to explore them, and that’s fantastic. Tomb of Annihilation manufactures a global-scale disaster that railroads you into reluctant action. And at the heart of this reluctance is that the central tension (a plague that affects those resurrected from the dead) doesn’t inspire low-level characters.

After all, if this plague is affecting all these important people who can afford a Resurrection spell, shouldn’t they be dealing with the problem? And if there’s so many 13th level clerics around willing to cast it on any paying customer, why aren’t they picking up the slack? Hell, one of the first people you encounter in the adventure is a 14th level Lawful Good sorcerer who’s wasting his talents shuffling papers as a harbourmaster. Why not swap jobs with him?

Tomb of Annihilation falls for one of the simplest storytelling errors at its very onset, unveiling the mystery of the main villain and his scheme without even bothering to tease us with a slow-burn of clues and mounting dread. The very first interaction sets the stakes so high that they have no higher to go for the rest of the campaign. This gives the PCs no freedom or choice to act in any way contrary to countering this threat. That isn’t to say that the Spellplague isn’t an interesting idea, but it sets an artificial timer that prevents us from investing ourselves in the more exotic and interesting parts of the module. Worst of all, it’s simply unnecessary when there’s so many simpler hooks to get us to explore this intriguing setting.

And the setting is actually quite intriguing indeed.

 

Act 1: Exploring Chult (Chapters 1&2)

Player map of Chult from Tomb of Annihilation…

Chult is a vibrant and (dare I say it) exotic setting, which is kind of what you get when you want to include Amazonian rainforests, African culture, and Dinotopia in your gameworld all mashed together (apologies to Ed Greenwood.) It’s a pleasant departure from the standard Eurocentric fantasy, though the Forgotten Realms is constantly making an appearance just to remind us that it’s the base setting for 5th ed. The African-esque Chultan people are a fascinating culture and it is so nice to see people of colour as the main ethnic type of a setting. However, the assumption that your PCs will be teleporting in from another continent offers frustrating allusions; I wish there was more encouragement for playing local PCs.

At its heart, Chult is a dark and dangerous land full of lost cities and ancient horrors, and exploring it appeals in an almost primal way. It’s a savage and untamed continent filled with beauty, plunder, and peril. We are setting foot where no civilised person has been for centuries, if ever. We are-

Hang on! Are we just being Great White Hunters? It sometimes feels like it. Awkward questions about noble savages and primitive cannibals are sidestepped by turning such stereotypes into goblins and grungs. A jungle cult of Aztec-slash-thuggees becomes yuan-ti. The nameless menace of “the black man” becomes a horde of mindless zombies. And if you wanted to really go into depth, you could probably justify anything you wanted to infer from it. But that would be nasty. On the whole, Tomb of Annihilation does well to include a diverse setting and shows a great deal of respect in its intent.

… and player map of Tanaroa from The Isle of Dread.

The Isle of Dread influence isn’t mentioned in the credits, but there’s an undeniable familiarity to the map included at the back of the book. This map is immediately exciting and it alone is a fine hook to entice your party (why not simply be hired as a cartography team and learn about the Tomb along the way? Simple). I love the ma;, one side mostly blank for the players and the other clearly marking everything for the DM, and yet the more I look at it the more it shows its flaws. As a gaming tool it is fantastic, but it doesn’t feel like a realistic prop at all. I would have loved the player side to look hand-drawn, maybe with a parchment tone as a backdrop. It certainly doesn’t feel like a Forgotten Realms fantasy map.

But all of this is cosmetic. The simple fact is that Chult is filled with fascinating set-pieces. The major port-city is well fleshed out and filled with intrigue and entertainment, and the outside groups variously invading, exploring, or exploiting the continent offer their own distractions. Traveling in any direction will have you stumbling across some rare or bizarre wonder that you least expect, and the curious are always rewarded with some kind of weird and wonderful set-piece (the dragon turtle encounter is a memorable highlight). Given the freedom to explore, Chult is a wonderful experience and hearkens back to the glory days of D&D wilderness adventures.

However, you often won’t get to explore. After all, many such places remind you that you’re on a deadline, and you’re constantly feeling pressured to hurry along and find the real adventure. It’s a huge mistake, because exploring Chult is a real adventure, and not one that should be rushed.

 

Act 2: Ransacking Omu (Chapters 3&4)

The largest and most important set-piece in Chult is the lost city of Omu, which takes its cues less from Indiana Jones than it does The Legend of Zelda. Rather than show us the playground and let us loose, it gives us a list and sends us on a dreaded scavenger hunt for McGuffins through a series of mini-dungeons before opening up a final boss level. Just like Zelda, these mini-dungeons and so forth are well-designed and good fun, and the linking overworld of Hyrule – err, I mean Omu – is filled with great characters and wandering solo encounters. But unlike Zelda, such railroading is unnecessary and feels forced, even lazy, in a roleplay adventure.

Zombie tyrannosaurs who can spew out bellyloads of other zombies are your new favourite wandering monster

Despite the overarching metaplot, the Act itself makes for a good finale to a more casual exploration of Chult, and the yuan-ti make excellent antagonists as final bosses. But this isn’t the finale. Every step of the way loses its lustre when you realise that this is all just busywork to get us up enough levels so we can get to Tomb of Horrors the Sequel: Acererak’s Back! In this way, Omu and its fane of the night serpent is a microcosm of Chult, stripping the processes of Act 1 down into a more compact environment. It also falls for the same metaplot mistakes, where none of the set-pieces get to shine because that darn Soulplague plot keeps stealing the spotlight.

It’s in this second act where we see the last of the exotic flavour of Chult and begin to see the module become less of an exploration and more of a game. We see all of the jungle set dressing stripped away as the DM’s eyes start flicking from X1 toward the next book in their pile, S1.

If your players have been in from the start they may roll their eyes when they realise that the open world adventure is over and the rest is going to be a puzzle game. But though the metaplot may be a touch hamfisted, taken as it is Omu is a great place for adventure and the shrines give a good foreshadowing of what kinds of difficulties will await the party in the final act.

 

Act 3: The Tomb (Chapter 5)

Finally we get to the long-teased sequel to Tomb of Horrors, and that’s a tough sell. If your players have managed to build their characters up from level 1 all the way up to the recommended level 9, they may be unwilling to throw these characters into a meat-grinder inspired by the most notorious TPK dungeon of D&D history. I suppose it would be tempting to lessen the danger of the traps in the Tomb of the Nine Gods, but that would be an insult to the legacy of Horrors.

There are so many traps that you can buy a box set of them for your minis collection

At this point you’ve almost got to give up on any semblance of characterisation or motivation and simply go along for the ride with reckless abandon. This is a carnival of traps, puzzles, joke rooms and off-the-wall creativity, and nearly all of it designed to screw the players over for a snickering sense of schadenfreude. And in that regard it works wonderfully. But the PCs will no longer be in on the joke; the joke will be on them. The entire tone of the adventure has shifted over the three acts, and the humour is more cruel.

I can’t fault it for clever deathtraps and odd peculiarities, though. I really like the design of the dungeon and some of the ideas genuinely made me laugh aloud (using the Turn Undead ability as a means to open a door is ingenious, and the chest in room 12 is hilarious). Clues to help the PCs overcome the dungeon are littered throughout the tomb, and often are printed on classy handouts, and are entertaining enough that you forget to ask why the arch-liche would bother including them. But that’s all in the Tomb of Horrors spirit, so stop asking questions and keep delving.

The use of the nine Trickster Gods is likewise amusing. Each offers powerful advantages at the expense of gaining character Flaws, and a good DM will find them ripe for character interaction. But they also turn into yet another fetch quest/scavenger hunt, and the fact that you need them to “win” the dungeon may result in your triumph feeling a little hollow. (On another note, it’s kinda weird that there’s no notes about how the use of these Trickster Gods affects the bonds of clerics and warlocks, if at all. That could have been interesting.)

As a stand-alone dungeon and as an homage to the other famous Acererak jaunt, the Tomb of the Nine Gods is everything you could want from a multi-level “fungeon.” It just doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the book.

(The goodies in the Appendices are adventure-appropriate, with a vast selection of handouts, treasures, and creatures to play with. Some of these creatures have been reprinted from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which is a relief for those of us who don’t have it on the shelf. Every part of it exhibits the unbridled creativity shown throughout Tomb of Annihilation and nothing seems ordinary or predictable. And I’m very pleased that the writers haven’t felt the need to wedge more Classes or Races into this adventure, opting instead to allow a couple of Backgrounds, which are far more exciting additions in my opinion. Nevertheless, the Trickster Gods remain a missed opportunity to play with Cleric, Paladin, or Warlock options. As if we need more damn Warlocks…)

 

Curtain

At this stage you might be thinking that I have nothing but criticism about my journey through Tomb of Annihilation and that simply isn’t the case. I really had a blast. So much of it surprised me, and any time I considered skipping a paragraph or two I would be grateful that I chose not to; some of the book’s finest moments are in its simplest details.  It’s just that Tomb of Annihilation as written feels like a guided tour run by a company with an eye on the clock, hurrying you along to the next attraction on the list and not giving you time to properly enjoy yourself.

As an adventure book, it probably doesn’t reach the heights of Out of the Abyss or Curse of Strahd, but it does beat out the more pedestrian Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apocalypse, so that should give you a pretty fair indication of whether you’ll like it. It’s certainly a very different adventure to previous 5th ed forays, and that’s welcome.

Prepare for disappointment…

I think that maybe the problem lies with a concern I’ve had about the direction the D&D5 team have been taking the last year or so, and it’s one that I fear will become even more clear in the upcoming Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. My concern is that it seems that the team is at its best when it isn’t concerned about playing to the audience, but they often stifle their good work by offering too much fan service, and giving the playerbase “what they want” is a sure way to wind up with a string of overpowered or thematically ridiculous toys for powergaming players.

The beauty of the core books for D&D5 were that the designers listened to what we wanted and then gave us what we needed. Now they’re just spoiling us for fear that we’ll make a whining fuss if we don’t get ever-flashier toys, and that’s no way to foster respect. Nor is it good for the game.

Perhaps that’s what happened with Tomb of Annihilation. Perhaps they had this amazing wilderness campaign all plotted out but then got afraid because there was no overarching “save the world” storyline. After all, isn’t that what players want to do? Don’t players expect that a fantasy campaign needs to have an apocalyptic threat lest they say that there’s no point to it? Is the simple sword-and-sorcery glee of stepping into the unknown in search of adventure and plunder not enough to motivate the modern gamer? Is an empty space on a map not enough any more to defy the warning that “here be dragons?”

In the end, each of the three acts of Tomb of Annihilation are exemplary. They just show their flaws when they have to work together.

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