Tomb of Annihilation Review Part 1: Chult in 5e

This entire blog was initiated because of the gross injustice done to Chult in the 4e D&D Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. [1] With 5e D&D, a lot of “fixit” work was done to the setting, a bid to reverse almost universally disliked changes. To date, Chult has been a relatively ignored or abused since 2e AD&D; when James Lowder cracked the area open with his Ring of Winter novel and as a co-writer on the Jungles Of Chult Module. So its selection as the location for the redone Tomb of Annihilation module came as a surprise. Given past experience, I approached it with caution. Time to review The Tomb of Annihilation.

This is a hard review to write, because there is a lot of context to it that has to be established for it to make any sense, and it has to be compared to other recent regionalized adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, to really drive home some of the points I’m going to make. So to start, there needs to be a baseline, which means this is going to be a multipart post.

A Brief History of Chult and its Retcons

Chult, like many regions not occupied by European inspired peoples, has never had its own book to detail its history, peoples, or uniqueness. It has been, in order from its first appearance in 1e AD&D:

1e AD&D: a jungle area marked “Chult” on the bottom of the map with the campaign setting, the were no mentions of its peoples or really anything, just one mention of it as a jungle in the campaign setting boxed set. “…the  tall, ebony skinned traders of Chult” are mentioned but not significantly expanded on in the Empires of the Sands book as being present in Calimshan, and it is implied they have some power as a local trading group/nation. There is also mention of a “Chultan Pantheon” in the Faiths & Avatars book, consisting of two unknown gods, ancestor worship, and animism.

2e AD&D: a paragraph in the boxed set established Chult’s new status as a conventional fantasy jungle. An adventure module, patterned heavily on Lowder’s “Ring of Winter” novel has three (!) pages detailing Tabaxi (the main Human tribe) and about five and a half on Mezro (which is mentioned in the timeline of the boxed set). It wasn’t particularly well written or creative, and relies heavily assumptions about culture/race etc… This edition offered limited support for the region, but it was very much a “visit’n’go” location, for one shot adventure(s), it certainly was not geared to be a sub-setting within the campaign. This edition ignores almost all the minimal efforts of 1e concerning Chult, and lays the foundation of Calimshan colonizing Chult in addition to trading with it. In an odd throw-away, Chult is mentioned as raiding Halruaa.

3/3.5e D&D: Almost back to being a spot on the map at first glance. In reality, this edition, through mentions, timelines, and details about other nearby nations, greatly expanded the history of Chult and its peoples. The problem is that you need to read The Serpent Kingdoms, Races of Faerun, The Grand History of the Realms, and the Player’s Guide, all while looking specifically for Chult related details to get it. If you collected all the information, it was almost enough to make the region into a sub-setting for long term campaigns; it is let down by a dearth of information regarding the peoples of the area, or effective adventure/campaign hooks.

4e D&D: The effective destruction of the Black cultures of Chult and the surrounding areas; no mentions of them past loaded, racism laden descriptions of “noble savages” or “depraved cannibals”. There was literally no reason to go to Chult in this edition unless you were either trying to replay the colonial process (because the non-Black colonial enclaves came through unscathed), or wanted to hunt dinosaurs.

5e D&D: Partial restoration, with heavy retcons. Chult was selected to be the regional adventure setting for the Tomb of Annihilation. The adventure module does expand the region’s history and historical political sophistication, but you’d only realize that if you had knowledge from the 3/3.5e D&D era. While well built for an adventure, the region is once again left without sufficient local impetus for a campaign; there is literally more reason to be from one of the European derived lands to the north in Chult than there is to be Chultean, and there are limited hooks for non-Chultean adventurers to come there.

Retcons: Surprisingly, Chult had a pretty contiguous history and plot, for lack of a better term, from 1e AD&D to 4e D&D. It runs along these lines: Ubtao (a primordial who sided with Ao and the gods) was given control of Chult, there were conflicts with serpent-men and their gods, Ubtao brings Black humans to Chult from Katashaka (an undescribed continent south of Maztica), wars, Ubtao founds Mezro, Ubtao withdraws from active “godding”, Tabaxi-Eshowe Genocidal War (no reasons given), Mezro declines a bit, Mezro “disappears”, Mezro “reappears”, Mezro is destroyed, Ubtao is completely absent. Not too creative, disappointing as far as world building goes, but it was internally consistant.

The Tomb of Annihilation retcons a lot by additions and changes. Omu, Mbala, and Orolunga are added as fallen kingdoms/civilizations (in that order from most recent to oldest). This changes the level of political sophistication in the region from disparate bands of humans in small villages to multiple city-states and possibly nation states in the same region contemporary to, but not under the influence of, Mezro. Ubtao is removed from his position as sole deity over Chult, with Savras being added as a god worshipped “long before the Spellplague”, which places him in Chult during a time where, in previous editions, Ubtao ruled with absolute power (a serious issue in the event of death). Ubtao is also absent completely from the setting now, but Mezro is revealed to have been transported to the “paradise dimension”, leaving behind the ruins of 4e D&D as a distraction to ward off pursuers. All Black humans in Chult are now “Chulteans”, possibly to avoid confusion with the Tabaxi cat-man race that, in a short period of time, has eclipsed the older human association with the name “Tabaxi”.

Regional Comparison

As a sub-setting within the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Chult has forever gotten the short end of the stick. During an interview about the Tomb of Annihilation (ToA) with Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio, it was revealed that in the writing of this adventure, there were no POC involved, and when time came to determine if they should go into detail about Chultean culture and history, the decision was “no”, because it would be “boring”. Which is why this adventure needs to be juxaposed against another region specific adventure module, Storm King’s Thunder (SKT).

In SKT, the region is given as “The Savage Frontier”, stretching from Daggerford to Icewind Dale. Much like in ToA, some quality time is spent describing the environmental conditions and landscape, to build up a sense of “where” in the readers. It’s important at this point to realize that this area of Faerun has been well described and used by numerous authors, most notably R.A.Salvatore, as a setting for many, many novels, and was a well established and described location in the popular imagination of Forgotten Realms fans prior to this adventure module. This matters because it means that the area has a well described cultural background and history, prior to the adventure module. What follows is an effective historical update, and a five page cultural brief on the giants of the region, their ways, politics, and so on. It’s fantastic.

In contrast, ToA offers no Chultean equivalent. This is particularly distressing since the setting has never had significant literature produced for it either in game or novel form. James Lowder drew on very limited resources, and exercised very little creativity in building the basis of Chultean culture. For all intents and purposes, Chulteans were (until 5e), transplanted Zulu stereotypes in a lost civilization/lost world trope setting. In effect, they were still very much a blank slate on which WotC could have developed some serious game material on. Instead, there is a text box on Ubtao, and literally more cultural information on the Batiri Goblins. Even more troubling is that the Chulteans are literally without agency, and have been stripped of their history and accomplishments.

The reason for this juxtaposition, and notes about the extent of material produced for the area are important is because it speaks to the assumptions the writers had moving into each region. In SKT, they didn’t have to write a lot about the human and demihuman cultures around the place, because there is a plethora of material already available. Not just that, but it’s also well established knowledge in the community. So instead they spent about five pages laying out some giant related history, internal politics, and key figures. Chult was not, and still is not, in the same position. It does not have a plethora of writing by high profile authors. It has not been the setting for numerous official adventures. It does not have the same sets of safe cultural assumptions that can be made. ToA fails to fill those much needed gaps, and in doing so, continues to set up Chult as a one time adventure location instead of as a potential location for long term adventure.

What are Chulteans in 5e?

Palette swapped merchant princes with no history, agency, or interests that aren’t cash related.

For what was added in ToA, Chulteans have been further reduced to caricatures of Africans based on colonial perceptions. They never developed trade or trade abilities, and had to learn it from the Amnian and Tethyrian profiteers and merchants. They aren’t permitted to have a long history, their history starts (for all intentions) with when whites arrived in Chult. There is no drive to find Mezro, reclaim lost lands, defeat the undead, re-establish kingdoms, find out why Ubtao abandoned the place, or do anything else that would indicate independence from the white driven economic powers that dominate the political and economic situation in Chult. Sure Chultean merchants “took over” Port Nyanzaru, but in reality, the loss meant nothing to Amn, because the port is still utterly dependent on them, and their trade, to survive.

Culturally, there is nothing to set Chult apart from other parts of the realms aside from skin colour, a perishingly small amount of flavour text, and that the art depicting them actually went out of its way to portray them as looking distinctive (credit due where credit is due, the art is gorgeous). However, there’s nothing to distinguish the area, despite 4000+ years of history, from the Near East or European lands north of it. The things I’m talking about, and what I wished I’d seen, are:

  • Armour: Chult is a jungle, and a wet one at that; what kinds of armour were developed by the Chulteans to protect themselves? A few sets of light and medium armour, unique to the region.
  • Weapons: a handful of Chultean regional simple, martial, and exotic weapons, then some art of what their local equivalents to “standard” weapons out of the PHB look like.
  • Magic Items: extreme climates spawn a need for specific items, potions, and charms. Toss a dozen or so items in that make sense to the area.
  • Day in the life of a Chultean:
    What gods have really taken root in the area? My money would be on Valkur (sea trade), Savras (in ToA), Nobanion (royalty, good beasts), Shaundakul (travel, exploration), Malar (evil beasts), Lurue (intelligent beasts), Denier (glyphs), Umberlee (evil ocean), Waukeen (merchants),Gond (in ToA), Ubtao (remnant cult), Sune (in ToA), Shar (ate Eshowdow, an aspect of Ubtao), Eldath (good water), and the four Elemental Gods.
  • Foods and eating customs
  • Family structures and naming conventions
  • Rites of passage through phases of life
  • Philosophy towards life
  • Social hierarchies
  • Where do they get what they need to live from?
  • Chultean Politics: “Merchant Princes” is a dime a dozen dodge, and the last royals of Omu were scripted into being in impossible circumstances. None of that works. Chult, and the Chulteans, need a complex political situation the likes of which is the standard in the rest of Faerun. At one point, there were at least four kingdoms/city states in Chult, with impressive reach and the means to be self sufficient. Add some hooks about groups trying to re-establish some, with real chances of success. Have Mezro try to influence stuff.
  • Local Agency: Chulteans are portrayed as being “lazy Africans” in many ways. They’re dependent entirely on foreign peoples and organizations for everything. Clear the jungles of undead? White people. Build cities and major urban areas? White people. Investigate ruins of Mezro, find out what happened to it? White people. Weird magical plague striking down the resurrected and preventing resurrection? White people. The Black Chultean is just a background character in the 5e Chult setting, where white people are literally doing everything. They have no agency, and apparently, no drive to improve things.

So, that’s the baseline from which I’m working with as I go into the next part of the review, where I actually look specifically at the Tomb of Annihilation. Read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

EDIT:

Added information in the 1e AD&D section and modified the 2e AD&D section to reflect information found since the initial release of this post.

18 comments

  • mistermonkeyman

    Hi! Just letting you know that you have a new reader. I found my way here from Kotaku’s review on Tomb of Annihilation and have started to read through your articles.

    Thanks for providing some insightful reviews.

    D&D has been my hobby for many, many years now, but I have never paid much attention to the published settings. It’s sad that, for many gamers and especially for POC, you have to eschew almost all the published material to get something that’s more representative of the experience you want.

  • At first, I was hesitant about this topic because of the source I heard it from: It’s Kotaku, one of the sites on my $#!* list. However, this site here, an RPG blog from a Person of Color, has a bit more promise for me. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with to flesh out Chult, a setting that, understandingly for me, Wizards of the Coast hasn’t devoted too much time on.

    What I hope to see you do is to understand one thing: Faerunian Culture is _not_ Earth Culture. A Person of Color in Faerun should not have the same history or experiences of life story as, say, a POC youth in an American Inner City. That’s what I fear some folks going, and I can bet that in some microblog sites like Tumblr and Twitter, that’s already happening. If you refrain from doing that, we can get along just fine.

    I haven’t started on ToA yet, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you suggest to flesh out Chult so I can add it to my own campaign. In fact, if it’s workable enough, I might even translate your suggestions to my own homebrew setting; a classic fantasy world set in a Post-Apocalyptic earth. Let me know if you’re interested.

  • WotC has done a crappy job in general in detailing the 5e Forgotten Realms in general, its the greatest weakness of the Edition.

    I will admit Chultan culture could have been explored much better, but to do it justice argueably means exploring Katashaka, because otherwise that would be like exploring Canadian History without knowing what Europe is.

    I see a huge opportunity in exploring Katashaka, but because of WotC’s lack of ambition it will go to waste, just like Maztica, Mulhorand, Unther, Kara Tur, Zakhara, Durpur, Osse, and Abeir.

    Actually what could have been cool is showing us what Chults Feywild is like.

    Still personally for “Black Civilizations” I find Turmish more interesting then Chult has ever been, its a Democracy, the only major one in Faerun, it the home turf of the Emerald Enclave, a major enviromental group in FR.

    I recommend the novel The Reaver, for a look at Turmish.

    Still even though Culturally African, the names sound more Italian.

    • Good point on Turmish, but I find it suffers from a lot of the same issues that Chult does; poor support and description being the largest. I think that region is supposed to be a Moorish-Spain sort of operation, but with Venetian influences, which might explain the names.

      I disagree about Katashaka needing exploration to really explore Chultean culture though. Given the time scales involved since the migration, ~4000 years, your argument is more like saying that you couldn’t understand Canadian culture and history without exploring Proto-Indo European culture. There may be some core carryovers and cultural artifacts that would still be somewhat recognizable, but culturally and linguistically, they’d be very different from what their ancestors were like.

      I concur about the poor job in detailing the FRCS for 5e, it’s a serious failing that is only getting worse as time is passing.

  • I also found my way here from the Kotaku article.

    Thank you for reviewing the setting information — I wasn’t expecting the cultural information in ToA to be particularly compelling, but the lack of environmental writing is bizarre to say the least.

    I’d love to know whether you think the book is worthwhile as a fun hexcrawl, assuming a DM disregarded the canon, avoided the trap of humanoid-as-ethnicity, and made the peoples of Chult less passive.

  • Alden Edward

    I am very interested in Part 2 of this article. I am about to run a homebrewed adaption of Tomb of Annihilation, and before reading your articles I had no idea that Chult had such a fraught history. I plan on making some alterations to the key factions and editing some historical details to make the overall setting into a more empowering narrative, and I think your take on the subject will be invaluable to my efforts to do that.

  • Eric Dittert

    You say “During an interview about the Tomb of Annihilation (ToA) with Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio, it was revealed that in the writing of this adventure, there were no POC involved, and when time came to determine if they should go into detail about Chultean culture and history, the decision was “no”, because it would be “boring”. ”

    In her article on Kotaku, Ms. D’Anastasio mentioned the “no PoC involved” answer from Chris Perkins, but not the “Chultean culture and history would be boring” part. In fact, although his other comments don’t contradict that, it seems, at least to me, like a surprising contrast.

    I am curious to know – is this something that Ms D’Anastatio communicated to you privately or is there some other source I am missing?

    • Eric Dittert

      “contrast”, meaning “contrast with what he was reported in the article to have said”

      • This was something communicated during the interview. I responded that it wasn’t a surprise to me, because POC dominated regions tend to get the short end of the stick in world building and creative efforts, because they’re largely used as one shot locations and backdrops for characters from “conventional” fantasy regions to be in; not as much a place to be from.

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  • I always had the same issues with Chult and the Pathfinder equivalent of the Garundi and Mwangi peoples. I’ll never forget the the Golarion Inner Sea bits that went into great detail about every peoples of that world, and had half-a-page detailing jungle ‘folk’. A peoples history, as can a regions, can be just as rich, complex and narratively interesting without a long history of warfare and strife. Or better yet, it may be even more interesting.

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  • Thank you for both the series on ToA, and your blog. I’ll be reading here regularly (came here from Google while trying to find more Chultean history). I was disappointed that all of the story hooks came from outside Chult, as two and maybe three of my four players are from Chult. I also appreciate the ideas on things I can do with the party after ToA, as at least one of them will respond favorably to the idea of reviving the royal bloodlines. Thank you!

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