Tomb of Annihilation Review Part 2: The Adventure

The Tomb of Annihilation is probably one of the most complex reviews I’ve approached to date, because it intersects with a number of topics all at once. These being world building, diversity in gaming, and of course, the adventure itself. This book represents the first major move by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) to expand the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (FRCS) in a deliberate manner in the form of a book that acts both as a source book for the base world of 5e D&D, and as the next installment in their ongoing semi-annual adventure publication schedule. Last post was the baseline establishment, this post will look at the adventure itself. If you missed it, check out part one before proceeding. [1]

Spoilers Ahead!

Style of Adventure

The Tomb of Annihilation is about 60% wilderness adventure, and 40% conventional dungeon crawl. In keeping with the setting, a lot of this adventure is focused on having the characters “experience” Chult. As such, lavish detail has been put into the descriptions of the various locations and possible events. This should be stressed though, if your players are used to dungeon crawls, that the bulk of this adventure is going to be surviving the wilds and not trudging down hallways.

Difficulty Level

Moderate. The adventure itself is along the lines of a mini campaign, designed to move characters from level one to eleven over its course. I describe it as a mini-campaign because the setting and nature of the adventure lacks the complexity of a full campaign, even though it has a worldwide influence. If this adventure weren’t set in Chult, I’d give it a Low-Moderate rating, but the environmental hazards bump it up. This is a very nice blending of hazard types by the writers and planners, and I must stress that to get the best out of this adventure, you need to include the full suite of challenges.

Challenges

The main challenge of this adventure is the Jungle of Chult itself. Unlike “conventional” fantasy settings (generally warm temperate to cool temperate type biomes) which generally get a pass when it comes to not dying from drinking from a stream, Chult is very much a conventional fantasy lost world jungle. There are a number of checks and saving throws involved in just surviving from day-to-day. Fevers, weird infections, and just getting insanely lost once you leave Port Nyanzaru are just par for the course.

Monster challenges run fairly tame, which is a bit of a disappointment. The Yuan-ti, the traditional foe in the region from previous editions make an appearance, but aren’t the main focus, or foe. That goes mostly to the Batiri Goblins, various dinosaurs, Grungs, and various undead. There was a lot of potential to draw from to really flesh out the region, particularly from previous editions as far as inspiration goes, but it didn’t happen to the extent it needed to.

Aside from monsters, there are also competing interests (always good to add a competitive vibe), and of course, the standard dungeon crawl set. That being puzzles, riddles, and traps. There isn’t a whole lot of new direction here; if you’ve played a few modules, you know what to expect once the players hit the dungeon area. That said, there are a very nice selection of handouts and DM aids in the books, which works nicely help the DM describe each challenge.

Setting

The whole adventure occurs within the confines of the western half of the Island of Chult. It stages out of Port Nyanzaru, one of the few enclaves of civilization on the island. The jungle itself is full of ruins, undead, monsters, and a variety of horrible maladies to inflict on players. The terrain consists of jungle (surprise!), mountainous areas, volcanic areas, ash wastes, beaches, swamps, lakes, rivers, and ocean. The players will spend most of the adventure in the jungle.

Once players exit Port Nyanzaru, they’re pretty much on their own. That cannot be stressed enough. The way that Chult has been set up in 5e makes it an extremely hostile setting, because there are virtually no safe havens for players to take refuge in. No villages, no settlements, no castles; only a few forts and a port, none of which are anywhere near where they’ll be going.

Plot

Basic. This is a very straight forward plot with no nuance whatsoever. People can’t be resurrected anymore, and those who have been are rotting away. Your contacts have pinpointed Chult as the source of the problems, and you get teleported into Port Nyanzaru to gear up, hire a guide, maybe catch a dinosaur race, then push into the jungle to save the world. There’s nothing else really, and the few subplots in the adventure are entirely superfluous to the actual adventure itself. The plot can be summed up as go to Chult, survive the trip to the ruins, fight a series of mini-bosses, then fight the final boss. Acererak is unlikely to allow himself to die though, so he can be recycled at the DM’s discretion.

The adventure itself is a modified version of the Tomb of Horrors, transported and translated from the world of Greyhawk where it originally was set, featuring everyone’s favourite super-lich, Acererak. He’s using FRCS as a petridish, trying to grow a dead god fetus (an Atropal) using souls to do it. Now, this is a bit of a plothole in itself, since the flow of souls dropping off would immediately attract the interest, and anger, of Kelemvor, the god of the dead; not to mention the many other gods of the Realms. Turning a blind eye to that though, the adventure is a link to the past in many ways, a retreading of old ground in a way that both new and old players will enjoy.

Speaking of links to the older material, only two characters from previous Chult associated material make a return. Artus Cimber, a former Harper agent in possession of the Ring of Winter artefact who is searching for a way to Mezro (it’s in a “paradise dimension”, intact), and Ras Nsi, a former Bara of Ubtao who has become corrupt and evil, and who has joined forces with the Yuan-ti. Artus Cimber can be encountered as a potential NPC (only in Chult though, he won’t leave the island), and Ras Nsi is at least 75% likely to get killed by the players, 100% if they aren’t into parlaying with Yuan-ti.

Final Thoughts

This is a pretty straight forward operation, from start to finish as far as the adventure goes. There’s nothing unexpected, no sudden plot twists, and no real connection to anything else, which is a shame. Probably my biggest complaint about this adventure is that it lacks coordination with the previously published adventures, and was, as a sub-setting, not well-integrated into the larger FRCS through the adventure. There’s a lot on this book, and its world building, that are separate from the adventure though, so I’ll cover that in the next post. As an adventure, I give this a solid 3.5 out of 5. The adventure is straightforward, but not particularly creative or engaging for lack of nuance and good subplots. I think a core part of the problem is that the book is trying to be two things at once, and as a result, is only doing “okay” at both of them.

My next post in this series reviewing the Tomb of Annihilation will be on the world building aspect for FRCS’s premier Black region. It’s going to get gritty. Read Part 3 here.

5 comments

  • dropowlbear

    Very good review! On Acererak’s machinations not earning the wrath of the gods, correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t one of the meta-developments in Forgotten Realms lore at some point around 4e that it got harder for the gods to directly intervene in the prime material plane in some vague, nebulous way? Isn’t that why the cultists in the Rise of Tiamat adventure need to go through all that trouble with the masks in order to enable Tiamat to manifest physically?

    • Good point. One of the meta elements is that the gods have gotten “quieter”, but they are still active, and still tied to followers to exist. Suddenly seeing all the dead souls stop showing up would start ringing alarm bells that something was up; so that even with the reduced direct action on the prime material plane, you’d think there’d at least be some dreams or something to nudge followers to solve the problem.

  • It looks like a good opportunity for someone to build a Jungle-based campaign setting that could then be used as a substitute for sketchy or unpopulated areas in an existing campaign. Other than what you’ve mentioned here, I don’t even think I’ve read any books related to jungle settings and fantasy. It also looks like a missed opportunity to flesh out Chult on Wizard’s part, but it does give plenty of room for creative DMs to flesh it out I suppose. Very interesting.

  • Pingback: Tomb of Annihilation Review Part 3: World Building | POCGamer

  • Pingback: Tomb of Annihilation Review Part 1: Chult in 5e | POCGamer

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