D&D Review: 5 DM Questions to Help Decide If Tomb of Annihilation Should Be Your Next Adventure
If you’re trying to work out which Dungeons & Dragons story to pick up next then you can’t have missed the release of Tomb of Annihilation. Following much hype, including a whole 24-hour stream dedicated to its launch, it’s finally here and players across the world are trying to work out if this is the book for them.
So how do you choose your next story? And which setting will best suit your players? After all, beginning a new campaign can be a mammoth undertaking, so it’s important to make sure you choose the right one.
I recently explored the previous five stories to try to assist in the decision-making process. I used a framework of 5 simple questions a DM might ask. I’ll do the same here, but I go into a bit more detail.
- Will I be interested in the story, and will my players have fun?
- How easy is it to DM with the material given?
- What’s the best bit?
- What’s the worst bit?
- What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
Naturally, this article will contain spoilers.
Will I be interested in the story, and will my players have fun?
For me, this is a firm “yes.” The Wizards team has really gone all out on making Tomb of Annihilation a fun, funny, and exciting adventure. The story drops the player characters (PCs) in the mysterious land of Chult, a tropical island complete with jungles, volcanoes, pirates, ancient monuments, and strange native inhabitants. Their mission is to find the source of a deadly Death Curse that is preventing adventures from being brought back from the dead. The main villain of the piece is the infamous Arch-Lich Acererak. (Seasoned D&D players will recognize the name and cower in fear.) But there is a whole lot more to Tomb of Annihilation that just him.
The narrative is split into five main sections. First, the players arrive in the port city of Port Nyanzaru and must investigate the town. Then they head off into the jungles of Chult and explore the fantastic, often deadly environment. This is followed by checking out the Forbidden City of Omu. And finally, the adventurers undertake two pretty decent dungeon crawls, culminating in the murderous Tomb of the Nine Gods. Each section requires a different approach from your players and each has its own stand out moments.
How easy is it to DM with the material given?
In short, it’s not easy. New DMs are likely to be a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content here–at 200 plus pages, this is a hefty tome. But saying that, this is not an insurmountable issue, and the book is very well put together. Therefore, with the right preparation, and when tackled in small chunks, Tomb of Annihilation shouldn’t be impossibly hard.
There is one additional challenge that this campaign presents DMs which will need to be managed very carefully: the Death Curse. If your players are prone to getting very attached to their PCs, they will need to be warned that character death in Tomb of Annihilation is final. The Death Curse that is the focus of the story means revivification or resurrection spells will fail. Some players will not like this, but it adds a feeling of desperation to the narrative and really helps to heighten the tension.
What’s the best bit?
Highlights of this book include encounters with a zombie-spewing undead tyrannosaurus rex, goblin “Batiri battle stack” warriors that ride into fights on each other’s shoulders, dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru, bargaining with Ras Nsi in the Yuan-ti temple, and interactions with the nine trickster gods of Omu. Players will also have the chance to meet some well-known names and faces from the Forgotten Realms, including Volo (of Volo’s Guide to Monsters), Artus Cimber with his Ring of Winter, and, of course, Acererak the infamous Arch-lich himself.
But by far and away the “best bit” of Tomb of Annihilation is the inclusion of some of the most fantastic and exotic locations seen in fifth edition so far. Most of these are stumbled upon as the party explores the thick jungles of Chult and they include the giant mud shrine at Dungrunglung, home of the frog-like grungs; the epic 300-foot-tall spire of Firefinger, patrolled by ferocious Pterafolk; the floating cave the Heart of Ubtao, complete with lich and zombie gorilla monsters; and the carnivorous garden of Nangalore.
What’s the worst bit?
The beginning of the story is the weakest part and seems a little forced. DMs will have to come up with imaginative ways to get their players’ buy-in into the story, and for a book that is brim full of interesting ideas and innovative encounters, this seems a little short-sighted. The main problem is that players have very little reason to help the wizened old lady asking them to go to Chult in the first place. What’s more, the campaign takes quite a bit of time to really get going. While there is a lot to do in Port Nyanzaru, it can be difficult to know how to set your party on the right track without railroading them.
What extras are there that I can use in future campaigns?
This book is so full of content that it could fill two or three campaigns with ease. There is no way your players will be able to explore every jungle location or meet every interesting NPC in one playthrough, so anything that doesn’t fit into one story can be transposed into another. With that in mind, this book seems more like a campaign setting than just a linear story, and it comes with a large pull-out hex map of the entire island of Chult.
There are also 59 monster stat blocks that are not found in the Monster Manual (although some are repeats from Volo’s Guide to Monsters). Particular favorites are the seven different varieties of carnivorous or sentient plants, lots of dinosaurs, the Pterafolk (Terror-folk), and the Kamadan (a jaguar with six snakes sprouting from its shoulders). As well as the additional monsters, there are a number of special and magical items for your players to get hold of, including Acererak’s Staff of the Forgotten One and Artus Cimber’s Ring of Winter.
Finally, this book also comes with additional, optional “Meat-Grinder mode,” where the Death Curse makes the difficulty class (DC) for rolling a death save a 15 on a D20 rather than a 10. This means way more characters deaths than players might be used to. While there is no reason why you couldn’t use this feature in other campaigns, there are lots why you shouldn’t.
If you favor a more linear, structured, and ready-to-play adventure, then perhaps Tomb of Annihilation isn’t quite what you’re looking for, but if you like dinosaurs, zombies, and even the prospect of zombie dinosaurs, then this is definitely the right campaign for you.
Tomb of Annihilation is a great addition to the fifth edition cannon, with both dungeons and (a) dragon present in Chult. Here, however, D&D stands more for “Dungeons & Dinosaurs” than Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s OK with me. After all, it’s just swapping one terrible lizard for another.