Tomb of Annihilation is the latest module released by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th edition, for characters of level 1-11. The module takes place in Chult and introduces Acecerak as a villain in Forgotten Realms.
I admit freely that I’m the kind of D&D fan I buy every sourcebook and module WotC release for the game. Yeah, I’m that kind of guy. I like D&D, simple as that, and I like all edition of D&D. I think they all have their merits, but first and foremost, I like playing in the many different D&D worlds and to me the system isn’t as important as the stories.
Many of the most iconic roleplaying modules published are D&D modules. Sure, there are many great Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire or Pathfinder modules, but I think it’s safe to say that D&D modules reign supreme. This has however nothing to do with the quality of modules. I don’t think that many would argue that Tomb of Horrors is a well constructed narrative or even that well written. In fact, as most older D&D fans probably know the module was designed to be extremely nasty, a real character killer, and even excelled at that first and foremost.
Still, it’s one of those iconic modules that almost all roleplayer have heard off or even played through. In it the PCs hear that the evil lich Acecerak lingers in his tomb. Of course, every good and able hero would charge forth and rush the tomb, right? Anyway, in short, the PCs face not only dangerous adversaries but also deadly traps and artifacts, not to mention Acecerak who is not a lich, but a demi-lich, a more powerful form of undead. Needless to say, Tomb of Horrors has probably claimed more TPKs through the years than any other published module.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Enter the Tomb of Annihilation
Acecerak has found a way to enter the Realms. And the undead decided to announce his visit in a way only an evil wizard mastermind would do. Acecerak has built a powerful necromantic artifact, the Soulmonger, that syphons the souls of the dead and drains the life from those who have been resurrected, raised or in any other way returned from the dead. This effect, called the Death Curse, does not only affect the people of Chult, where the tomb of Acecerak and the Soulmonger is, but its effect is felt everywhere on the planet!
In game terms the Death Curse prevents any humanoid from being resurrected, raised or be in any way returned from dead. The curse also drains away the hps of those who have ever been resurrected or raised, and it lowers the hit point maximum of humanoids who have been brought back from the dead. And to add insult to injury, it also steals the souls of the dead and prevents them from joining their specific deity in the afterlife.
Enter the PCs. A friend of theirs, an archmage, is affected by the curse and asks the PCs to investigate the matter and solve it. The archmage knows that the curse emanates from Chult and the archmage teleports the party to Chult.
The PCs explore and investigate the forest in search of leads. The PCs can make friends and allies, just as well as bitter enemies. Some of their friends might help them, like Artus and Dragonbait, while others might simply try to outright murder them.
Their exploration leads them to the city of Omu, where they can form alliances and make enemies of five other factions in the city. There they need to find nine keys to enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods (or rather Temple of the Nine Rather Annoyed Spirits), where Acecerak resides along with the Soulmonger.
Also beneath the streets of Omu is the Fane of the Night Serpent, where the evil Ras Nsi, a former barae, once a mighty paladin of Ubtao, rules. Ras Nsi might sound familiar to you if you’ve read through Jungles of Chult, but I guess for most players this villain is something quite new and interesting.
After discovering the Tomb of the Nine Gods the PCs enter it and discover that it is, just as the Tomb of Horrors, laid with traps, riddles, horrible monsters and is no less deadly than the tomb the lich built on Oerth. To make matters worse, Acecerak is no longer a demi-lich, but as progressed into an arch-lich.
Welcome to the Jungle
I think what I like most about the new modules released by Wizards is their sandbox approach. Tomb of Annihilation has great information on Chult and exploring through the jungle not only brings you into contact with dinosaurs, zombies and zombie dinosaurs, but you can also investigate many different locations in the forest, many of whom are detailed and can easily be adapted, used and dropped into any other narrative.
Obviously, again, if you own the old AD&D Jungles of Chult supplement there isn’t much that deviates from that publication. Mezro however lies in ruins, laid to waste by the Spellplague. But Tomb of Annihilation adds many locations to the peninsula, making it even more spectacular than before.
To make the exploration even more fun a two-sided map comes with the book. On one side you have a full color player map of Chult, for them to mark their trail. The other side has a real map of Chult, showing where to find the many different locations described in the book. The fact however that this is a two sided map… well, if you’ve game mastered a few games you understand why that wasn’t perhaps that best of ideas.
Included in the book is a short chapter on exploring Chult. The peninsula is huge, about the size of Texas and mostly covered with thick jungle, with all the complications such a quests have, diseases, dehydration etc. However, I would’ve loved to see this chapter being more detailed, especially I miss information on foraging, creating camps, tracking inventory, health of gear and equipment and such things. Making the exploration part even more deadly and real, I recommend adding these, since it can be quite devastating for someone to have their waterskin destroyed or being forced to sleep in trees due to ants or other vermin.
Much as I like the detailed descriptions of locations, I’m not a huge fan of the module’s narrative. I don’t think it’s bad, I just think it have used more thought. There are some things that I find rather strange.
First, the Death Curse is a planet-affecting necromantic effect. One would think that almost all political factions would be interested in it. At least some of the good-aligned churches, like the servants of the suffering god, Ilmater or the Doomguides of Kelemvor, should’ve taken notice and sent their best to investigate. Nope, it seems that only a handful of 1st level adventurers, chosen by an archmage afflicted by the curse, along with a few Red Wizards of Thay are interested. In fact, if this is a planet-affecting thing, why hasn’t it had more effect in Port Nyanzaru or Chult?
When the adventure hook is weak or doesn’t make much sense, the chance of players starting asking questions and foregoing the suspension of disbelief gets higher. I think that to make sure that the players follow through and feel invested in the story perhaps you need to find an alternative hook.
Second, much as I like exploration and discovery modules, I feel that much of the exploration part is just running around gathering xp. The characters need to have leveled at least to level 5 before heading to Omu. This further strengthens the feeling that the PCs are way too underpowered in the start to take on a quest like this. And to be honest, wandering about for 5-6 levels, needs a lot of work from the DM in order to make sure that it doesn’t get boring quite fast.
Still, the narrative is not without its merits. It doesn’t compel you to always choose good over evil, in fact you could say that the narrative is true neutral in that sense, something that I quite like. The setup is more or less a sandbox and you very seldom hear the train go choo-choo in the distance. The narrative doesn’t compel you to work things out this or that way, and you are free to do things the way you like, or suits your group’s playing style.
The Tomb of Annihilation is for most parts a certain kind of a module. One like Tomb of Horrors. The Tomb of Nine Gods is a great tomb and one that could easily fit into the TPK category, like Acecerak’s old abode on Oerth, Icelia’s Nightmare Keep and the Labyrinth of Madness.
While Tomb of Horrors had only 22 rooms, if memory serves me correctly, Tomb of the Nine Gods has over 80. And what’s more, Acecerak’s new home is better written and actually offers the characters many leads to solve the problems posed.
The final battle, if the characters make it that far, is quite deadly. Using the Staff of the Forgotten One to curse a character followed by powerful necromancy spell Acecerak simply ensures a character death or two. Besides, he has the Sphere of Annihilation as well and a score of powerful spells to throw at the PCs. The final battle is not an easy one and to be honest I think that the PCs will be hard pressed to make it out alive.
I love the appendices of the new WotC modules, for they often hold information that are just as interesting and usable as the module itself. In Tomb of Annihilation you have over 50 pages of new character backgrounds, random encounter tables, new magical items and other goodies.
There are also a score of new and cool monsters, not to mention the great handouts. This, along with the location description for Chult really make the book worth every dime.
Despite its flaws I like Tomb of Annihilation. The book is beautifully laid out and contains more than enough information to last you good 10 levels of adventuring in Chult, even more. And though the narrative itself isn’t the strongest part of the book, I think it’s still worth buying.
If you like modules with a strong narrative, clear focus the whole time and your characters are not likely to be eaten alive by huge friggin’ dinosaurs, perhaps you should choose another module.
If you like exploration, life-threatening jungles and deadly dungeons, this is the one for you.