Tomb of Annihilation Additions: Adventurers League

Last year I embarked on the most in-depth, detailed series of posts for this blog to date, as I dug into the Tomb of Annihilation campaign and sourcebook for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Thousands of words in, and with dozens of research hours burned, the end result was a three-part series which can be found here. At the end of it, a reader pointed out that in their experience with Adventurers League (AL) material, that some of the issues I had taken up were expanded on. While I stand fast on my DM Guild works position (they are not canon), AL is canon, and deserved a full examination with the same critical eye.

For those not tracking, Adventurers League is the official organized play apparatus of WotC. For ToA, the AL material is still being produced, and for the purposes of this review and analysis I read DDAL07-01 to DDAL07-08. These being A City on the Edge, Over the Edge, A Day at the Races, A Walk in the Park, Whispers in the Dark, Fester and Burn, Rotting Roots, and Putting the Dead to Rest. More has been released, but we have a new baby so gaming funds are limited.

What Went Well

Not that much. The eight adventures I read didn’t significantly improve or add to the sub-setting of Chult. The only thing I was impressed by was the dinosaur racing adventure, mostly because it broke from the mini dungeon-crawl pattern happening elsewhere. It was fun to read, and I imagine, would be crazy fun to play.

What Went Okay

Monster Use. In ToA, the classic (if underutilized) foes of the region, the Yuan-ti and undead, finally get some love in these adventures. Likewise, the Grung get a decent amount of attention. The reason this didn’t get bumped up into the “What Went Well” was twofold. There’s no real sense of threat from the Yuan-ti, and there’s oddball things, like Hobgoblin monks, tossed in seemingly at random and out of sync with the established setting standards.

Another area of monster use that went okay but could have gone better was the addition of a set of monster NPCs, specifically a Grung, a team of Weretigers, and a village of good Yuan-ti. The use of these monsters was creative and, within the context of the game, a bit groundbreaking. However, no stats or directions for Grung  or Weretiger player characters, and no direction to Volo’s Guide to Monsters for the Yuan-ti stat info. There was also no explanation for why any of the monsters being “good” or why they were being accepted, especially given the violent histories of all of them with, well, everyone.

What Went Poorly

Names. Names have rhyme and reason, and follow patterns, rules, and so on. You know, because they’re part of a language and how a people speaking it shape the world around them. Naming conventions in fantasy tend to get treated a little loosely because “fantasy”; be there’s a limit before you shake your head and look sideways at what you’re reading. The “Chultan” names in this were awful. It was like someone said “This sounds African, use it.” with the same cavalier, colonial attitude and point of view that amalgamated Africa’s hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and cultures into one. This was a chance to do culture construction, and it was flubbed. Badly. This falls heavily on what I discussed in the earlier reviews about how “African” is not a single, monolithic culture, and how WotC would have been better served by picking something specific to pattern off of.

Chultans and Chultans. Who is a Chultan? Is it a person from one of the ethnic groups formerly known as the Eshowe, Tabaxi, and Thinguth; or is it anyone born in Chult? This cropped up in a description for an NPC (Pozzana), who is of Amnian descent, but was born and raised in Chult. She’s described as a “Chultan mercenary”, then given a non-ethnic Chultan description, and then this racism laiden gem follows: “Pozzanna’s family was originally from Amn, but she was born and raised in Chult. As a result, her personality and demeanor exhibit those dual influences: the civilized calculation of an Amnite mixed with the wild savagery of a Chultan.” (Over the Edge, 2017) Because heaven forbid a Black culture 4000+ years old who once had one of the most advanced and peaceful cities on the continent be described as “civilized”. So, who is a Chultan in this world? Because other regions maintain a difference between ethnic/cultural origin and nationality. This is more noticeable since “Chult” is a region, not a people, culture, or nation.

Lore use. Lore about Chult and its peoples and the old faith of Ubtao is not well established in the minds of the player base, and much of it harks back to 2e AD&D’s “Jungles of Chult”. None of it was referenced, or explained in the ToA book itself either. So things like “Spiritlords of Ubtao” were just thrown out casually like everyone was supposed to know what it meant. Likewise, Ubtao was referenced a lot too, with no explanations as to his current status, where he fits into the current culture, or anything else.

Politics. The politics of Chult, and more specifically Port Nyanzaru (because it’s the only city of note), are still underdeveloped and make little sense. Port Nyanzaru has a non-functional system of governance, that runs at odds with both the background of the Chultan people and is maladapted to the situation Port Nyanzaru is in. There’s no standing military (an issue given they are literally surrounded by undead, dinosaurs, undead dinosaurs, pirates, batiri goblins, pterafolk, Yuan-ti, lizardfolk, and have foreign powers deploying in their area of influence), and no, mercenary companies beholden to individual merchant princes do not make up for it. There’s no constabulary or judiciary; so that’s a fairly serious problem in a large, geospatially confined population. And finally, the existing power structures are unstable in the extreme, not something that bodes well in the extremely hazardous environment Port Nyanzaru is in.

Accents. Very few things can add character to something as fast as writing dialogue in an accent. Building on that, very few things can go from “adding ambiance” to “how racist do we want to go with this” as fast as writing out accents. These works trended towards the latter. Also, I had been under the impression that Chult was an African inspired operation. Based on the written accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing in Faerûn’s equivalent of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Port Royal. Bad pirate accents, offensively grinding patois are all present, and doing nothing to build the setting up as anything distinct.

More Ruins. One of the big gripes I had in the original ToA review was that everything outside of Port Nyanzaru was either a colonial enclave or a ruin. The AL material I read added two new cities to the roster of the expanded history of Chult, Bulobo and Matolo. And, true to form from ToA, they’re ruins. The region already has a dearth of opportunities outside of Port Nyanzaru, so piling more ruins on the situation doesn’t do anything new or interesting.

Factions. Factions are a big thing in 5e D&D, and get used to drive subplots and extra components of adventures and campaigns. These AL modules went sideways in two ways with factions. For the traditional factions of the main continent, every single one of their agents in these adventures is a non-Chultan. Apparently the Harpers, Zhentarim, Order of the Guantlet, The Emerald Enclave, and the Lord’s Alliance can’t be bothered to recruit anyone local. The other way this went wrong it the Ytepka Society, which gets its own entry.

Ytepka Society. The Ytepka Society has roots back to 2e AD&D, where they were a secret society that did a half-assed job of monitoring and dealing with foreign arrivals in Chult. They were a joke then, and remain a joke in 5e. Credited with, somehow, with aiding the current merchant prince oligarchy in overthrowing the Amn based colonial powers in Port Nyanzaru, they now do… Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In any sort of sane world, they would be a cool, power behind the curtains kind of operation. But they aren’t. The Ytepka Society could have been an awesome regional faction, but as it stands, they’re just another lost opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m not impressed by what I saw in the eight modules I read for the AL expansion to ToA. There was still no connection to other supporting material, and still more missed opportunities than good worldbuilding. There was also a lot of regressive material that worked more to cement negative, racist stereotypes than to build the people of Chult into something that players would want to play as. I came into this with high hopes, and they just weren’t realized.

In my original review, I expressed that Chult, unlike the North and Sword Coast, has had very little time put into it to create an effective footprint in the minds of the players. Where assumptions of knowledge can be made in relative safety in the more well-trod parts of the Realms, the same can’t be done in areas that have been neglected. I appreciate that WotC is making the effort to normalize diversity in 5e D&D, I do; it’s just that it’s being done from a position that assumes that these places (like Chult, Turmish, Samarach, Thindol, The Mhair Peninsula, Elf-Harrow, Halruaa, Rethild, Dambrath etc…) have the same benefits of decades of regular use and literature. This isn’t a good way to move forwards, because it fails to build the foundations for good storytelling, or lay out a compelling reason to play in the region as a main location similar to how the North or Sword Coast are.

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  • Hi Graeme: I think it would be great to get Graeme’s Guide to Chult and/or Graeme’s Guide to Running ToA Better. I would love to see all of your thoughtful analysis condensed into a practical guide that a DM could use at the table to overlay the existing adventure.

    • I’ll second Scott’s comment. I’d love to see that as well!

      On my own, I have also been toying around with a re-imaging of ToA from the Chultan’s perspective. It doesn’t really change the adventure dramatically, but has completely different story hook(s) and then brings certain buried potential subplots more to the front (like the contested rulership of Omu between the Yuan-Ti, Ras Nsi, Mwaxanaré, and Zalkoré), doing more with Ras Nsi and his complicated background than just a making him a pitiful villain that even his own followers want to be rid of, investigating Ubtao’s silence, etc. Perhaps cap it off with the PCs having the opportunity to become new barae and/or visit Hidden Mezro.

      The pieces are all there, but mainly it needs new connective tissue. In fact, it could potentially even connect things together more thematically. In standard ToA, Acererak just picks Chult because it’s “remote” and foreigners drop in, fight through some dungeons they have no personal stake in to defeat the bad guy at the end. However, re-imaging it from the perspective of the people who live there – not only has their land been devastated with their greatest city gone, but their god has fallen silent, foreigners see them as just a land to colonize (possibly not even worth that effort), and then Acererak shows up as the most egregious colonizer – both further ruining the land with spreading undead as well as twisting the Nine Gods to his purpose as cultural appropriation taken to it’s most awful extreme. Foreigners want to stop this because of reincarnation or whatever, but for the people of Chult, this is their home that is under attack!

      ToA could be about people saving their home and reclaiming what’s theirs after devastating events. With Ubtao’s silence, they are being forced to walk the maze back to him rather than relying on his guidance. It’s about going from the being the children of Ubtao to the (far from poetically worded) grown adult workers of Ubtao in the world. Thematically, it could be about self-rule and autonomy and rebirth rather than a generic Allan Quartermain/Indiana Jones and the Lost Temple of Interchangeable-Threat. (Speaking of interchangeable – something else that bugged me is that if you replaced what’s in the finale with some other big evil monster that must be stopped, does ANY of the other encounters or locations need to change? ToA has some interesting stuff in it, but the connective tissue REALLY needs help for a variety of reasons. That monster at the finale could have A LOT of story potential tying into the overall plot rather than just being a vacuum cleaner of souls.)

  • All right, I think is the only other post I’m going to “necro” today.

    Thanks for writing all this up. While I’m not familiar with ToA, the things you point out here (and in your earlier reviews of the setting) are definitely cringe-worthy, and especially helpful food-for-thought (for me, a white game designer) to consider going forward.

    I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Forgotten Realms, Adventurer’s League, or late edition D&D, so I’m not particularly disposed to defending them anyway. But it’s hard to look at these reviews and not see these issues as both thoughtless and insensitive. Dungeons & Dragons is a pretty fun game, and should be enjoyable to everyone; it’s sad (though not particularly surprising) that it continues to be laced with the same institutionalized racism that permeates our society. Designers need to have more awareness…hell, we all do.

    Thanks again.

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  • Not only all of that, but also the authors of A Day at the Races thought it was a good idea to co-opt the Maori ‘haka’ and turn it into a Chultan thing.