Game Name: Tomb of Annihilation
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Designers: Christopher Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter
Artists: Ben Oliver, Mark Behm , Eric Belisle, Zoltan Boros, Christopher Bradley, Jedd Chevrier, Daarken, Chris Dien, Olga Drebas, Leesha Hannigan, Victor Maury, Chris Seaman, Cory Trego -Erdner, Richard Wnitters, Eva Widerman, and Shawn Wood
Players: It’s an RPG corebook, so two or more
Ages: 12+ (My opinion)
Playing Time: Ongoing
Genre: Roleplaying adventure for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons
Pages: 256 pages
Retail Price: $49.99 for the physical hardcover book; $24.99 as a digital download for Fantasy Grounds
As some may claim Dungeons & Dragons as “the world’s greatest roleplaying game,” while others roll their eyes and snicker at such high fa-lootin’ words, it’s hard to argue the venerable RPG hasn’t left an indelible mark upon the gaming landscape over the past forty plus years. Even though I haven’t run a full fledged D&D campaign in decades, and my roleplaying tastes veer more into the realm of horror, I always love to see what’s cooking with the system and always rooting for the folks behind the game. Sure, I might not run a bunch of adventures but I can still have a great time reading through them.
I made it no secret I thought Wizards of the Coast did an excellent job putting together the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The new direction the designers took to bring the storytelling aspect of roleplaying back into focus, as opposed to diving even further into the minutia of tactical combat, gelled with my sort of GMing style. I was also very vocal when I felt Wizards fumbled the ball when, hot on the heels of releasing a brand spanking new and well received system, the first adventure books to hit shelves were the immensely lackluster Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat.
Thankfully, word on the street (from non-shills that is) was Wizards had upped their game with Storm King’s Thunder and early buzz for Tomb of Annihilation was extremely positive too. I thought, what the hell, I’m going to check this latest adventure out. Keep in mind I did not receive a review copy from Wizards of the Coast (I don’t think they like me anymore following my Dragon Queen review) and purchased the hard copy book. I’ve got to say I’m really glad I did!
One of the challenges of reviewing an RPG adventure or campaign is how to present the good, bad, and/or indifferent of the release without providing spoilers. This can be tricky because, while you can always toss up a ***Spoiler Alert*** disclaimer, nine times out of ten the prospective players of that adventure are still going to continue reading. Trust me, nothing is worse than attempting to run a published adventure only to learn your players have already read a Wikipedia entry’s worth of info about the tale. Okay… If the players have already gone out and bought their own copies of the adventure, that’s worse, but you see what I’m getting at here. So in the interest of keeping the Tomb of Annihilation (mainly refered to as ToA from here on out) surprises intact for Dungeon Masters and players alike, I will keep this review as spoiler free as humanly possible.
I’m not ruining anything by mentioning the player characters are tasked with getting to the bottom of a curse which is sweeping the land. This death curse is causing those who have previously been resurrected to slowly waste away and there’s no dodging the grim reaper’s scythe this time around. The characters will travel to the remote and mysterious land of Chult as they attempt find the answers to a deadly and puzzling dilemma. Of course, all of this info is available to anyone who reads the back of the book…
ToA is designed for four to six level one adventurers with the aim of the characters reaching about level eleven by the time the campaign concludes. The book clocks in at 256 pages and is filled with some very impressive artwork throughout. I appreciate the far less “cartoony” look of the art compared to some of the earlier 5th edition adventures Wizards released. All the information to run the adventure is clearly and logically presented with sidebars and appendices easily at hand. The physical book also includes a fold out map of Chult. Interestingly enough, the map is hex based and many of the hexes on the players’ copy are left blank as the party will be exploring uncharted territory.
The adventure’s writers have taken a page from the presentation style of other companies releases (most Call of Cthulhu tales jumped immediately to my mind) by opening the book with a high level synopsis of the entire campaign. I always appreciate getting the lowdown before beginning to read all the nitty gritty because it gives me a better feel for how all the pieces will eventually fit together. Sometimes when I read an RPG adventure, which doesn’t give me that initial outline, I find myself scratching my head halfway through as I wonder what the hell any of it means.
Plenty of hooks are included for a number of character backgrounds in order to draw players into the adventure. Two new backgrounds make their first appearances as well: the anthropologist and the archaeologist. These backgrounds are extremely helpful for Tomb of Annihilation as the anthropologist makes for a great front person for the party, as they’re capable of communicating with others regardless if they speak the language or not, while the archaeologist can determine the purpose a dungeon may have served as well as appraise the value of many items older than one hundred years in age.
Another nice aspect of the book is the amount of information included which isn’t only tied specifically to the adventure. Sure, there are new monsters as we’d expect to find in a new supplement as well as previously unseen races (unplayable sadly) but there’s loads of background about Chult which can be used for further adventures set in the jungle land. In fact, there are also two small supplements which are generating a lot of buzz on the DM’s Guild, Beasts of the Jungle Rot and Encounters in Port Nyanzaru, which can really beef up your players’ time in Chult.
Tomb of Annihilation is broken down into five chapters as the players find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the jungles of Chult as they learn more about the source of the mysterious death curse. There’s loads to love here as not only do we get to see the stakes get higher as time is working against the characters but also plenty of goodies which haven’t yet been tackled in 5th edition. All in all, ToA provides for a rollicking tale which is sure to please players of all stripes. Even though the overall vibe is dark and full of dire consequences there’s actually good moments of humor and levity in the mix to lighten the mood on occasion. I will mention the big bad does spend most of the adventure off stage and long time D&D players will be excited to eventually learn their real enemy is one returning from a classic tale of yesteryear. Oh, and there’s dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs!
It’s important to note ToA is a rather unforgiving adventure if run as presented. There’s even an option, which I’m not overly keen about, to make character survival even more difficult. I’m the sort of game master who focuses on story and action over everything else – I find hour long tactical combat dicefests to be rather boring – so I would probably tone down the lethality of a few set pieces but that’s just my style. I know many folks love very detailed battles and they surely won’t be disappointed. I do want to mention the ToA authors have also included a bit of a disclaimer of their own for Dungeon Masters:
“This adventure will make your players hate you — the kind of simmering hatred that eats away at their souls until all that remains are dark little spheres of annihilation where their hearts used to be. P.S. Don’t forget to tear up their character sheets.”
Hmmm… Isn’t that just swell? Based on my experience, DMs out there may want to be a bit careful using that sort of approach as presented as the designers. As someone who has run Call of Cthulhu (an RPG notorious for high player character body counts) for decades, rampantly frequent PC kills are not conducive to entertaining evenings around the gaming table. My introduction into Dungeons & Dragons was back in the day when most adventures effectively boiled down to the players versus the Dungeon Master. That wasn’t my sort of bag of tricks though. Sure, some folks who got their jollies ego tripping their way to wiping out the PCs may have enjoyed that style of play but many of us did not.
I’d personally recommend DMs aiming to run Tomb of Annihilation steal a page from the Call of Cthulhu playbook; create a few coolly unique NPCs to aid the characters (you’ll have to anyway if you don’t have four to six players) and let them be the cannon fodder on occasion. Do your best to thoroughly incorporate these PCs into the party so if one of them bites the dust the players don’t look at it as simply another red shirt buying the farm. If a PC does have to die make sure it’s a memorable event and that character’s death means something in the greater scheme of the story. A friend won’t mind having to roll up a new character so much if the last one took a dirt nap by way of a pitched battle or struggling to save the rest of the party. On the other hand, unless your gaming gang is chock full of masochists, most players will throw their pencils and dice away in disgust if the group is forced to devote another couple of hours to creating new characters for a third time because you felt like dropping the hammer on them again. If the PCs keep getting bumped off don’t be shocked if our group never completes ToA.
Obviously, I’m not advising would be DMs to let the players slip through every challenge like a hot knife through butter; facing enemies with the targeting skills of Imperial Stormtroopers or seeing every player concocted plan come off as if it were devised by the A-Team can make for a boring evening. The best roleplaying adventures take place when players feel that they had every opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own actions decisions as opposed to the whims of a game master. ToA contains a cornucopia of rip roaring jungle action, with twists and turns we normally don’t encounter in standard D&D tales, so it would be a shame if players missed out on the fun simply because a DM kept knocking off characters.
All in all I think ToA is an excellent adventure even though I would tweak a few things to suit my game mastering style. I honestly have to say I’ve looked over all the previous releases in some capacity, be it casually perusing or reading cover to cover, and Tomb of Annihilation is the best WotC adventure for 5th edition to date. Players are certainly going to be challenged bringing the death curse to an end and they’ll enjoy a tale which isn’t the same old cut and paste, dungeon delves as we sometimes see. Of course, those who are looking for that traditional medieval fantasy sort dungeon crawl could be disappointed. For myself, there’s enough that’s new and exciting in Tomb of Annihilation to make it not only well worth adding to your collection but also plenty which may even tempt first timers to dip their toes into the world of Dungeons & Dragons itself.