I really wanted to hate Tomb of Annihilation. It’s a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign book advertised as a module full of super-hard challenges and vicious traps. “You will die,” said the advertising and interviews. I wanted to write a scathing, vicious review deriding the Killer Dungeon and all the malicious, antisocial behavior it fosters among roleplaying game players. Rail against the kind of toxic players who would use this adventure as an excuse to spring uncomfortable, unwanted, confrontational play styles on their erstwhile friends and, worse, random strangers in organized play.
Unfortunately that review has been put on indefinite hold while I write this review. Because Tomb of Annihilation is good, actually.
Tomb is an adventure module that blends three kinds of classic D&D gaming into a pretty satisfying whole, despite a few sore spots. It’s metaplot-driven campaign arc set in an exploration sandbox that gives way to a big dungeon crawl for the finale. It’s an improvement on the classic formulas it’s drawing on, that of the classic Tomb of Horrors or Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Instead of a single hell dungeon or sandbox with no greater context, it builds up over time to the climactic delve into the eponymous tomb. Conversely, as a sandbox game it has a real point at the end, a climactic focus and narrative arc that keep it from fizzling out like many exploration-driven campaigns.
In Tomb of Annihilation the heroes are tasked with going deep into the jungles of the Forgotten Realms’ Chult, a pan-African cultural pastiche, in order to stop a necromantic plot to steal all the world’s souls away. Problem is, the artifact responsible is located in a lost city. The adventure is on a timer, too – everyone who has ever been raised from the dead has had their soul reclaimed and is wasting away. Notable people, including the adventurers’ patron, are on a ticking clock to death. Strong locales and stronger characters anchor the setting, letting DMs pick and choose appropriate elements to customize their group’s experience.
That experience will be dangerous, don’t get me wrong. D&D’s design team weren’t lying about the challenge they put into this adventure. The average fight or trap isn’t designed to be tackled head-on, and requires the kind of planning endemic to older D&D modules and old-school playstyles to overcome. The adventure as a whole emphasizes the resource management aspect of Dungeons & Dragons. Fights are to be overcome wisely, spells used sparingly, and traps approached cautiously. If players do die, they’re subject to the same death curse as the NPCs are, losing maximum hit points every day until they hit zero and die for good. The saving grace of this dangerous campaign, what lets me forgive its adversarial nature, is that the book wisely includes measures throughout to tone down or ramp up the punitive nature of the campaign to suit the tastes of the play group. And it suggests you use these scaling options consistently. It reminds DMs that the game is not a competition, but a collaboration of equals. Those looking for a death-filled meat grinder can get just that, while those looking to introduce their group to a more dangerous than average campaign can tweak it for that. It is not something that was an easy design feat. I’ll happily place Tomb of Annihilation in direct competition with Curse of Strahd for the best Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition published adventure module.
The module itself has neat worldbuilding, though it succeeds more in its specifics. Tyrannosaurus zombies that vomit up smaller zombies, or goblins that stack up on each others’ shoulders to battle, are superb touches for a D&D game. There are a variety of strange and interesting characters too, like Chult’s merchant princes and the for-hire guides that litter the port. Port Nyanzaru feels like it’s straight out of a swords & sorcery novel, the kind of place that default adventurers are total fish out of water – but that exoticism sometimes comes off as exploitative or insensitive when you look below the surface. So, as an attempt at a robust pan-African fantasy setting, the new Chult falls pretty short. That’s been covered in greater detail by voices more qualified than my own, but suffice to say that having more African people or experts on the writing may have given better results.
Stronger than the world are the individual places you go to as you traverse it. Set up with clear hooks and obvious terrain funnels, the expanse of Chult’s interior makes a good hex map traversing exploration experience. That said, it’s rather sparsely filled, and there’s not much of a reward for driven players who want to explore off the obvious and beaten paths. Dynamic locations and monster lairs, long a staple of exploration adventures and embraced by the current generation of sandbox adventure designers, have been forgotten as far as ToA is concerned.
There are other odd mechanical or storytelling moments in the module as a whole. Random encounters while exploring are, by default, quite common – a greater than half chance of having one every day. 5th Edition’s lackadaisical approach to magic items is a sticking point for this module, with the adventure as a whole barely distributing anything like what the default treasure tables give. It even goes so far as to insultingly take away a healthy portion of recovered magic items at the end of the tomb itself. Most DMs will need to do some tweaking to give their players a fighting chance. Finally, there’s one odd subplot buried in the adventure that simply doesn’t fit: An elaborate story seemingly adapted from an early 90s Forgotten Realms novel involving Chult which introduces a powerful NPC with a potent magical artifact – precisely the kind of stories and characters that alienate players from the Realms in the first place. It’s the kind of character that could easily become an annoying DMPC, and adds insult to injury by carrying a neat artifact unlike anything the adventure is going to let the players get their hands on.
But like much of the adventure, frankly, it’s something you can ignore if you don’t like it. What you can’t ignore, however, are the final two acts of the adventure: The forbidden city of Omu and the Tomb of the Nine Gods itself. These are more old school, less obviously designed dungeons and environments than much of 5th Edition’s published content. Careful thinking, genuine puzzle-solving skills, and thorough trial-and-error exploration is something players will need to get through it all. The dungeon beneath the city is a living environment with awesome links between areas requiring strategy and tactics from the players to overcome. The Tomb itself is a classic killer dungeon, with whole optional areas designed entirely to get the players killed and expend their resources. That said, it doesn’t have the kind of design pitfalls that many dungeons of this type have, with clearly signposted traps and areas designed to allow players to recover when necessary. It is, however, not going to jive with lots of play styles – it’s more about interesting traps and puzzles than cool combat encounters. Very few of the fights are going to be very memorable, and the high volume of puzzles means indecisive groups are going to take a long time to proceed. It is, overall, very deadly. There are lots of ways to just die. Do not go into this final dungeon expecting to walk out unscathed, or walk out at all – there is a very real possibility that, as written, your campaign will end with the death of every single party member.
But, for once, the whole of the thing is written well enough that I’m comfortable with that.