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Tomb of Annihilation Review Part 3: World Building

This has been one of the hardest posts I’ve written to date, largely because it kept opening up entirely new venues of examination and thought. In all seriousness, I’ve written something close to 8000+/- words in various drafts for this. This is the final installment of the Tomb of Annihilation (ToA) review, where I’m looking at the world building that went into the module, use of canon, its integration with other 5e products and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (FRCS), and how perceptions and anchoring acted to influence planning and writing in my estimation based on the resulting product. If you haven’t already, check out the first installments of this review! [1][2]

World Building

Chult has never been the recipient of serious world building effort, lagging heavily behind the other non-European inspired areas of the realms, such as Maztica, Kara-Tur, and Zahkara, which while problematic in of themselves for many, many reasons, at least amounted to two boxed sets and some game supplements between them. Unfortunately, in the effort to make ToA both an adventure and a regional sourcebook, the adventure won out over the regional development in almost every way possible.

The main issue is that, as covered in the first post of this review, the people of Chult are woefully underserved. The bulk of the readers and players of D&D do not have the cultural reference points for an African analogue in fantasy that they have for a European based one (or even in many cases these days, an East Asian based one, courtesy of the popularity of anime and manga). This discourages players from taking an interest in the people of the region as anything more than just background figures. It also missed an opportunity to develop the region into something equally vibrant to the Sword Coast or Lands of Intrigue (both of which have had disproportionate support in both novels and supplements to develop their cultures in the minds of players).

Credit where credit is due, the writers did greatly expand the region’s human history, adding Omu, Orolungo, and Mbala as nations that had once co-existed with Mezro and appear to have been very developed, even having a complex system for non-magical communications over long distances (the Fire Fingers). I say appear, because they’re all fallen. Not just fallen, but it is strongly implied within the ToA itself that they are past the possibility of recovery (also, apparently only one person in all of Chult cares about trying). The result is that Chult is not as attractive for long term, post-module adventure play; it’s lack of plot hooks, meta-plots, or even complex political or social situations renders it a bland, palette swapped place, interchangeable with any generic location on a frontier, literally anywhere, with the only work needing to be done is some name changes and climate appropriate monsters. History and locations matter, and when they’re empty, they lose their appeal.

Chult is an island, and as such, is not accessible by land. In D&D, this is actually issue, as the vast bulk of adventures are land based and geared around travel on land. Ships are an option, but not one well explored by the ToA, as the characters (if following the adventure), and teleported into location. In fantasy, much like in science fiction, teleportation acts to distance characters from their arrival location, and serves to enhance the otherness of it. This is more troubling since there are apparently no Chultean owned ships or vessels, and all ships are dispatched and controlled by Port Nyanzaru’s colonial masters trade partners to the north. This all serves to really divorce the location from being an organic part of the FRCS.

The final area of world building I’ll look at is the mapping. Cartography is near and dear to my heart, because I work as a GIS Technician. The maps provided were both amazing and infuriating. They were outstanding in the levels of detail provided, artistic style, and composition. That made me very happy. They were also incomplete, only showing the western 2/3 of the Island of Chult, which was absolutely frustrating. This is part of a much larger issue with the way 5e D&D, and by extension, the FRCS is having in my opinion. For some reason, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is hesitant to provide a complete map of anything, and is parcelling it out in dribs and drabs. For something as large as the main continent of Faerûn, this is at least a little understandable. For an island in a book that is nominally a sourcebook? No. That’s not on.

Use of Canon

ToA is a good example of how taking a weak canon approach can both add to, and detract from, a setting in the world building aspect. The weak canon approach to developing a product is done best when the writers and planners draw on the aspects of canon from the past that allow a feeling of general continuity, but work to allow for greater storytelling and options without being weighed down by the past. Chult has not had a lot of development, but there was a lot to draw on that could have made the region more diverse and attractive to a wider swath of players.

On the good side of this, I point again to the development of other human civilizations in Chult. Omu, Orolunga, and Mbala never existed prior to ToA, and their inclusion adds to the region, and could have been a move towards a more expansive and exciting setting. Ignoring that fumble, it’s a great example of writers and planners saying “hey, this isn’t canon, but I think it will enhance the place”. It does. It worked to create a more nuanced and vibrant, if only implied, history for the region that was lightyears ahead of previous edition’s depictions of the region.

On the bad side, we see the divestment of demihumans from the region. This is a massive blow to its attractiveness as a setting for long term campaigning or as an origin location for characters. Digging through books from 2e AD&D right op to the modern day, I found ten demihumn and non-human player races that have been associated with Chult as indigenous to the region. Of them, two were mentioned/appeared in ToA. These lucky survivors of the ten were Albino Dwarves and the Aarakocra; although the former were changed substantially to absorb aspects of Wild Dwarves (one of the groups who didn’t make the cut), and neither is presented as a player race. The losers in this were (including the edition their presence as native to Chult is confirmed in) Half -Elves (2e, described specifically as being Chultean), Wild Elves (3.5e), Gold Dwarves (3.5e), Wild Dwarves (2e), and Nagafolk (3.5e). There were three oddballs who were omitted despite having 5e entries, the Tortles (5e) who were released as a free supplement to ToA but not mentioned in it, Lizardfolk (3.5e) who are introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (VGtM) but not connected to Chult there or in ToA, and the regional badguys, the Yuan-ti (3.5e) who are also in VGtM but not connected to Chult there or directed to in the ToA. This is a bad use of the weak canon approach because it reduced, for no good reasons, the options and development of the region.

Integration with other Products

An aspect of WotC’s approach to 5e D&D products has been to tie them in with each other and with the larger FRCS campaign setting. Unfortunately, ToA carries on the tradition of Chult being disconnected from the larger FRCS and highlights the issues around planning and setting integration that are occuring for areas outside of the regions of the Sword Coast and The North.

There is no effective integration of Chult and the Tomb of Annihilation with the larger line of 5e adventure modules. The Storm King’s Thunder (SKT) includes a section that is there to tie it into the Princes of the Apocalypse and Tyranny of Dragons modules. Of the seven adventure module sreleased so far, one occurs in the Underdark and is effectively regionless (Rage of Demons), one occurs in Ravenloft (Curse of Strahd) which is a demiplane that can suck people in from anywhere, and four occur in, on, or around the Sword Coast or The North. The one weak connection to the bigger world is the Ring of Winter, an artefact in the possession of Artus Cimber, which drives the adventure in SKT, but Chult is never mentioned (despite it being his last known location, and an apparent steady stream of people trying to get the artefact). Given that he’s been in Chult since at least 1358 DR (based on the fact that Ubtao’s battle as a dinosaur avatar and the Time of Troubles, are not mentioned in The Ring of Winter), this comes off as both an oversight and a failed chance to actually tie in Chult to the larger world.

A point of failure brushed on when I discussed the lack of presented demihumans in the ToA is that it is not integrated well at all with other products. There is little to no direction from it to look in other books or source materials. In fact, there’s only one, and that was for the Tabaxi. In reality, the Aaracokra are presented in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (EECP, free online), Gold Dwarves are in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (SCAG), and Lizardfolk and Yuan-ti as player races are both in VGtM. This is a horribly missed opportunity not just from a setting and gaming perspective where it could have acted as a link to the broader world being presented, but also from a sales and web traffic perspective.

Perspective

Determining the perspective of writers and planners can sometimes be difficult. This is not the case here. Looking back over the pre release media coverage and the interview that Chris Perkins did, it becomes very clear very quickly that the adventure was the main focus of this module. Not just that, but many colonial perspectives and pulp fantasy influences were still well in effect. “Lost continent”, “undiscovered country”, and “blank slate” are used to describe Chult, none of which are even remotely accurate, unless you take a canon free approach. Dinosaurs and undead were the next largest focuses after the adventure itself. Despite the protestations that it was supposed to be a sourcebook as well as an adventure, it became painfully obvious that this was simply not the case.

Then, somehow, the perspective situation got worse after looking at the Tales from the Yawning Portal (TYP). Imagine for a moment that someone created an adventure set in a feudal Japan inspired fantasy setting, complete with Japanese castles, samurai, ninjas, a daimyo, and a selection of oni and supernatural monsters. Then in the description for where this could be used in an established campaign setting, said “Kara Tur, on the Kozakura islands; or on the Moonshae Islands off of the Sword Coast”. People would lose their collective shit about it. Apparently that’s how some at WotC feel about Chult and Maztica, probably because they’re both jungles. This comes to us from the TYP’s “The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan”, a generically Aztec-Mayan (ish) adventure that can apparently be in Maztica or Chult, your call, because who cares about maintaining any sort of continuity, and who cares about the non-white parts of the Realms.

Another issue with perspective I’m looking at most here, which ties into the “there’s only ruins in the jungle” issue in world building, is how anchoring affects the thought process. Anchoring is a psychological effect that cements the first encounter a person has with information as an “anchor” for future thought about it and to compare incoming information to. It can seriously skew perspective, and I think it was hard at work here. We, as a larger cultural group, have a very detailed and fairly nuanced set of anchors when it comes to European, and even East Asian, history and ideas about the middle ages and mythology. We know about knights, samurai, the mythology of the peoples, and “know”, via cultural cues and media reinforcement, how it’s all supposed to “work” within a fantasy context. We do not, as a large group, have that same level of quality anchoring for African, or pre-contact Americas, civilizations. We are not taught, or shown, those civilizations from before they were destroyed by colonial forces; and when we are, it’s frequently done through the lens of colonial power which seeks to rationalize its actions. Even places that have survived into the modern age, such as Timbuktu, don’t show up often enough to become part of the popular psyche.

What all of this means is that, perspective wise, WotC was not in a good place to approach Chult. Little research was done into its past (outside of 2e and 4e it seems). Little effort was expended to develop the location past a narrow colonial lens. No effort was expended to develop the people of Chult at all. Why? Well, in my opinion, because the perspective taken approaching this region by the planners and writers was skewed by a number of biases and assumptions based on poor anchoring and adherence to poor stereotyping of Africa.

Final Thoughts

This has been an extremely long review, the longest to date here at POCGamer in fact. WotC took a very large leap with this product, and did not achieve all of their goals. Chult, as presented, is a place to go for an adventure (specifically the one in ToA), where POC are background characters. There’s no impetus or effort expended to make it into a place that a non-POC player might want to make a character from (and very little to entice a POC player for that matter), and even less to make it and the larger Mhair Archipelago region a setting for a campaign base. Worsening the situation is the dearth of official (and therefore canon) material for the FRCS and that region, and a seeming increasing reliance on the DM Guild to produce material to fill gaps left by official materials. At the risk of beating a dead horse, this book was a terrible sourcebook, and a decent adventure.

So ends the Tomb of Annihilation review.

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