Monday, October 23, 2017

TOMB OF ANNIHILATION - A Review

WIZARDS CAN STILL SURPRISE ME - TOMB OF ANNIHILATION REVIEW

Another 203 page behemoth from Wizards of the Coast.  I’ve read Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, even Hoard of the Dragon Queen and more, and everything from WotC these days is over 200 pages.  They aren’t all entirely bad, but they all contain the same grievous failings, failings that one can guess from the fact that the teams writing them often appear to have little experience doing professional writing for editions of Dungeons & Dragons prior to 3.5. Even with 5E adventures that have stronger open world elements, such as Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd (both also headed by Chris Perkins) have a devotion to scene based adventure design, excessive backstory, muddled text lacking evocative detail, a focus on set-piece combat as the default solution/climax of any scenario, a disdain for both player critical thinking ability and GM choice.  You end up with a huge volume that’s so optimized for a GM to read it like a novel that it is almost unusable at the table, and when used, focused on dragging the players along a specific story and campaign arc in a largely predetermined way.
This and all other art appears to be promotional imagery for the adventure or related (videogames, boardgames) products.

A first sign of hope is that the writing team wasn’t entirely the same with Tomb of AnnihilationSteve Winter was involved and has a long history with earlier games: Star Frontiers, early Dragon and as the writer of Ruins of Adventure (The basis for Pool of Radiance).  Even Chris Perkins who has been a lead writer for Wizard’s later editions and 5E products provided an adventure to Dungeon Magazine Issue #11, that Bryce of 10-Foot Pole describes as “A tournament module, with scoring. It revolves around a four-level keep/castle with about fifty rooms in it. The party has to make their through it to the end. The two major occupants are betting on the parties outcome and if they’ll make it, with the adventure eventually ending with the party fighting both of them. It’s not terrible for a tournament adventure: it’s self-contained and there’s a decent amount of variety in the encounters as well as options available to the players in navigating the keep.”  Pretty high praise from him for anything published in Dungeon.  WIll Doyle and Adam Lee are newer game writers who seem to mostly have worked on 5e product.

Despite having some writers who might understand how location based adventure design works, and presumably have run games where the most important use of a written product was providing a skeleton and overview of a location or set of locations for players to adventure in rather than providing pages of boxed text to read aloud as justification for moving from complex tactical combat to complex tactical combat, Tomb of Annihilation doesn’t start with much promise.

Like every other Wizard’s product Tomb of Annihilation promises epic adventure that will raise a party from low level (1st) to high level (11th). Using 5th Edition’s default experience points for bloody handed killing this means a lot of dead monsters. The book that follows includes its share of the rest of WotC’s big design flaws (copious read aloud text, promise to adhere to larger underlying story, dense writing that conceals important location aspects/elements, requirements for the Monster Manual to determine enemy strength and assumptions of PC morality).  More hopefully Tomb of Annihilation is a throwback and an intentional re-framing of Tomb of Horrors (It includes the infamous Acererak) and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Like the unofficial marketing for Tomb of Horrors, Tomb of Annihilation claims to be exceptionally deadly to characters - with the suggestion of an optional “meat grinder” mode (which amounts to a harder death save), and a story mechanic that makes character death more or less permanent.  There are even a few words on providing replacement characters for the dead. 

Despite my initial foreboding Tomb of Annihilation won me over - it's by no means a great adventure, but it's solid, interesting and usable in a way that prior 5th edition products haven't been.

A Note on Orientalism.
The adventure itself is set in a pseudo-African jungle region - Chult.  With the ugly stupidity typical of Forgotten Realms, in the past Chult has pretty much been the early 20th century ‘Jungle-Africa’ with primitive bands of savages and a lack of geographic variation - the repetition of pulp fiction cliches about dark and savage jungle as opposed to anything more nuanced. Tomb of Annihilation goes some way to redress this past characterization

Orientalism, exotification, and eurocentric cultural views plague fictional works - even D&D adventures.  The treatment of ‘jungle adventures’ and ‘Egypt adventurers’ by older editions of D&D suffer from this - though the classic critique of Siad’s Orientalism - that Western artists portray the ‘Orient’ (specifically North Africa and the Middle East) as static outsider cultures in line with the propaganda of colonial empire [I simplify] are perhaps less serious in that all D&D cultures are static and cartoonish. Still, the approach to designing adventures in exotic locales is too often to use the dressings of the pulp fiction versions of Africa, Araby or the Orient - and one that is almost a century old.  In much the same way that the vanilla fantasy of popularized Tolkien blended with vague memories of King Arthur is terribly boring compared to either real medieval culture/history, the complex mythology of Tolkien, or the alien morality of Le Morte d'Arthur - pulling one’s version of fantasy Africa from 1930's Tarzan movies will lead to a flatly one dimensional setting that is far less interesting than even taking a few minutes to study the wikipedia pages on a specific region of Africa - real history, culture, lifestyles, legends and politics forming a far more fascinating basis for fantasy then the lazily imagined version.  There is no need for lazy fantasy Africa either - since the 1970’s there’s been plenty of genre fiction that focuses on Africa and its landscape and culture.  A quick read of some of Charles R. Saunders “Imaro” would have been a good place to start and it dates back to the same era as white-box D&D.

Chult in Tomb of Annihilation is more in keeping with modern sensibilities about portraying non-Western lands and peoples, and while it plays on some of the standards and cliches of the jungle adventure, it isn’t terrible when it comes to imagining a sort of fantasy Horn of Africa.  The art of local styles and people are less skins and loincloths and more the clothing of the East African coast with fantasy embellishments. Port Nyanzaru has a mechanically useful politics of faction and trade, and at least one interesting activity (dinosaur racing) that doesn’t feel entirely exotified.  Of course the depictions suffer from the same failures that most WotC products suffer from - a lack of evocative detail in favor of mumbly generalities. Port Nyanzaru is “bastion of civilization and commerce in a savage land” though there’s no real examples of this that would inspire a GM or give the players the feel of a commercial city state at the edge of the wilderness (though one encounter with a dyer who is in danger of execution because of his use of black market dye is a fairly decent move in the right direction).  One wishes that rather than the occasional nod in the direction of description (and the box text about ropes, tar and gulls in the port, and streets of flowering vines growing from baskets beyond is also acceptable) tables had been used to provide evocative detail.

Chult itself though often sinks into the bland sort of Fantasy Africa of Tarzan.  Endless Jungles without significant variation (though the map shows some, the text provides nothing to help with this and the Hex Crawl encounters assume a uniform jungle environment), and locations that are sometimes interesting, but rarely move beyond the monumental stone ruin, primitive village (sometimes with requisite giant cooking pot on display) or rough frontier bastion/ruin.  It’s still fairly uninspired and uninspiring if only rarely offering potential offense.

Not the Whole Map
A Note on Art and Maps

Art and maps in WotC products are always interesting - there’s a uniform high quality to the maps, in the WotC house style, but often they are small, poorly designed, linear and busy. Tomb of Annihilation is no different.  While some maps (such as that of Port Nyanzaru) are rather delightful and even useful, others fail in a variety of ways.

A) The overland map of Chult, at 10 miles per hex is enormous - it’s far bigger than England in terms of land area and about the same distance from top to bottom (but much wider) - in other words it’s a huge hex map with tiny hexes offering slow movement through trackless, disease and monster infested jungles that the party will be expected to cross over and over again.  It’s also so large as to be rather busy and hard to read (not in the literal sense, but hard to track anything on).  Given that sea travel is going to be the only survivable (either for the characters or the players given the monotonous nature of the hex-crawl provided) way across the continent more information on anchorages, ports and seaborne encounters would be great.
B) Most adventure locales are very small - 5-6 keyed areas, and almost always extremely linear.  The maps might be pretty, but they are so simple that they sometimes feel entirely unnecessary.  Even the large ‘dungeons’ only have around 25 locations, and while less linear, are set up to encourage moving through obstacles to a specific climactic scene rather than exploration.

C) The last and largest locale - the Tomb itself is mapped over seven levels with each level being 5-15 rooms or so.  This is the closest I’ve seen 5E to providing a classic dungeon, and the maps are decent with alternate routes, verticality and some looping.

Otherwise art in Tomb of Annihilation is workman-like, a bit sparse and rarely goes beyond depicting a specific NPC or item.  It’s fine, feels locked into the WotC house style but some of the monster illustrations in particular add something to the adventure (partially because written description is rare and when used rather poor).  I wish more of the art showed interesting adventure locations.

AN INAUSPICIOUS START
Several pages at the start of Tomb of Annihilation are wasted with a dull plot hook - something about the Harpers, a powerful archmage as patron (why a dying arch mage would hire 1st level adventurers - even after hiring other more powerful groups who failed - and teleport them rather then either hiring more experienced adventurers or resolving the issue herself is not well explained).  It is a silly fetch quest as a hook and the use of dumb magic to transport the party.  All this is annoying as none of it is needed.  The Death Curse (which would affect almost no one in any game I was running - as raise dead is more a miracle then anything commonplace) is described as an apocalyptic situation, and could easily be something more if one wanted a more epic game (the sun is dimming) - though again low level adventurers seem a poor choice to resolve that problem.  To me the best solution to this fumbling hook is simply to place the characters in Chult and let them explain their reasons without the use of a hackneyed archmage.  Additionally if one archmage is negatively impacted, certainly other great and powerful entities (dragons, immortal wizards, demi-gods, kings etc.) are going to be affected by this curse.  Where are their invading armies and powerful agents?  I get that 5E wants to make every campaign or adventure a heroic save the world sort of epic - but here it feels especially clumsy and bizarre.  Almost every bit of railroading and forced morality in Tomb of Annihilation can be traced to the need to have in move towards the exploration of the Tomb itself and the silly death curse.

Otherwise 5e’s efforts to bake character background into character generation works well enough and the new backgrounds are used as additional individual hooks that function well enough, even if the use of pre-generated background specifics runs afoul of my personal taste for character development through play.  

FANTASY AFRICA WITHOUT EVOCATIVE DETAIL
The art here is better then the writing
Port Nyanzaru is the first location in Chult that the players will encounter, and it’s detailed exhaustively, for 15 pages. Most of the steps that Tomb of Annihilation takes to make Port Nyanzaru an interesting location are well done: local leaders are individually described, the city itself is keyed by region, small jobs and difficulties are listed,.there’s a nice long table of rumors, information about guides to hire  and a mansion is keyed and  mapped.  It’s excessive and boring, even if some of the details are decent enough Port Nyanzaru to feel almost evocative: an ancient pair of ziggurats covered in shanties, or a warehouse district full of canals.  The problem is that most of the detail are not remotely interesting, the writing is uninspiring and there’s enough wasted space that it becomes hard to find anything you might want within a morass of useless description like “The western half of the city is called the Merchants’ Ward because it’s the site of the Grand Souk and because many of the merchant princes’ villas are there. In general, this is the upper-class section of the city.”  The name “Mechants’ Ward” and the map showing souk, mansions and broad boulevards pretty much covers that description - tell us something about the way it smells and bustles - the tinkling of fountains in the courtyards, the competition among homeowners to provide valuable and elaborate tiled sidewalks in front of their homes.  Any detail really that a GM can pull out to offer the players more than a vague misty sense of a bazaar scene from some bit of standard, well-chewed Orientalist fantasy.

There is no need to tell  the reader that the Grand Souk is in the Merchant Quarter (where shockingly there are merchants!) while spending an entire column immediately afterwards under the same regional subheading telling us about the Grand Souk.  Likewise, there’s no reason to key every location over several pages of a general ‘Merchant Prince’s Villa’ with keys that tell us things about how the guard room contains guards, but that the nature and character of said guards depends on the specific merchant prince involved.  A keyed location is specific - it is for adventuring in and to give the GM an easy way to refer to specific locations and keep track of the highly granular information of what’s going on in a location - not give general information about a general house.  This mansion could be useful - but either condense it by putting in a map that labels the areas or key a specific mansion (how about the one for the evil demon worshipping merchant prince?  Seems likely that one will have interesting stuff in it…) “Kitchen” can be written across the kitchen on the map, and below you can give me a table for servants and NPC personalities encountered in a Merchant Prince’s house or another for valuables one might steal (or simply that the Gm can remark on as decor).  This will provide much more playability than a general key of a Mansion that’s some sort of exemplar mansion and so is entirely lacking in useful specifics.  There is a random encounter table for Port Nyanazu - and it’s useful enough - but it’s well hidden in an appendix.

Yet despite its flaws Port Nyanzaru manages to be an interesting enough city with sufficient factions, rumors and intrigue to make for a good start at an expedition while still conjuring up some sense of a real place (that real place apparently being Port Mogadishu).  Plus it gives the players dinosaurs to interact with right away, and a key to any adventure with dinosaurs is never hide the dinosaurs.

A VAST EMPTINESS OF VIOLENCE
As mentioned in the map section Chult is huge.  It’s land is at least 500 miles across by 500 wide - 250,000 square miles.  By comparison Texas is 260,000 square miles, and the United Kingdom 94,000.  This size is imparted by a hex map on a minute scale - with items of interest hundreds of miles (at 10 miles a day) from each other.  Chult seems to be a real hex-crawl, but Tomb of Annihilation doesn’t provide many tools to run it.  A vague set of ideas about moving slow or fast, a list of some diseases without mechanics for catching and avoiding them (except on the random encounter table) and an extensive random encounter table (with 3 chances of a 20% encounter per day of travel).  While it’s nice to see wilderness encounters on a random table in a WotC product, these encounters are almost all more or less combat encounters and will lead to at least one encounter every couple of hexes - with 50 hexes of travel between Port Nyanzaru and the Tomb itself there will be a lot of time spent wandering about and encountering things.  So long that I suspect the encounters will become forced and boring quite quickly - with each monster type having only one activity listed and no means of generating anything more.  There are a few non-combat encounters, but not many, certainly not enough to provide variation among the dinosaur, zombie and gorrillion attacks.

Better to use nesting tables - providing interesting spots for encounters to occur in (meadow, shell field, maze of termite mounds etc) by biome, what the creatures encountered might be doing, distance, and some way of manufacturing reaction.  Additionally weather effects, strange occurrences, landmarks, trail events/obstacles and some sort of actual descriptions for the biomes and regions in Chult (a table of 6 details about a Chultian Beach say) would go a long way to making the hex crawl feel less an excuse for endless wandering encounters and more a journey.  

As it is this is the sort of hex crawl that has given hex crawls a reputation for being boring and unpleasant.

SMALL LOCATIONS
The jungles of Chult have many small locations, designed for a variety of levels.  Some are fairly strong, but all suffer from the problems of 5E - a dependence on skill checks to do mundane things.  A crocodile temple for example has a trick to avoid its numerous traps that is clever and hinted at in descriptions - but everything within is still a set of DC checks against various stats and skills.  5e may allow for player skill at puzzle solving, but it doesn’t seem to accept the idea that it should be sufficient - there’s always a need to roll saving throws - endlessly, for everything (even climbing stairs).  My main issue with this, besides skills checks being fairly boring, is the desire to reward player creativity. Dependence on skill check limits solutions, by laying out a correct solution to every puzzle (think up the solution and then succeed on the often very easy checks) and so disfavoring other player solutions.  While I approve mentioning the results of common solutions to puzzles - the efforts in Tomb of Annihilation often try to remove other potential solutions with notes about impossibility.

Other small locations - a fort in the control of a mad commander, a village of very superstitious frog people, a bridge with a guardian golem, a spire of murderous pterodactyl men, a fort of colonialist mercenaries, a floating lair of a friendly lich, a pirate island, a dwarf hold seized by salamanders (the largest of these locations), a friendly birdman village,a cursed garden ruin that is home to a medusa, a broken skyship, another dwarf mine - with a dragon, and a goblin village.  There are many other small locations that get a paragraph of description and feel more like landmarks than adventure locales (though one is the bay that is home to a dragon turtle).

While these locales suffer from the over reliance on stat and skill checks mentioned above, especially at the cost of smart puzzle solutions, and are usually quite small, most are somewhat evocative in appearance (monumental statues, spires of old stone and such) and those controlled by intelligent creatures often allow for their use as part of a faction game.  Sadly there’s little talk about how these factions interact, though occasionally there’s an alliance or an animosity that can be exploited by players and GMs to create a story, which is a real positive in a WotC product. The adventure would benefit if some of its flabby language were trimmed and a page showing the relations and goals of each fraction were included instead.  Many of the more dangerous monsters factions (the red dragon or medusa for example) are limited  somewhat poorly designed encounters that defeat the stated purpose of allowing multiple ways to resolve the encounters.  The medusa for example wants to talk, and has a reasonable enough social agenda/encounter that it is a rarity in a WotC product - but if talk devolves into combat the adventure makes this combat punitive with a auto-hitting, very damaging ghost that attacks anyone who strikes the medusa after she is injured. Likewise the red dragon (dragons are always interesting factions) is willing to talk, but seems to have no goals or desires - even though a colony of aggressive salamanders (immune to her breath) lives nearby in a much nicer lair. Just as Tomb of Annihilation pushed the medusa encounter away from combat and then tries to take corrective steps to make combat a worse idea, it pushes the dragon encounter towards combat.  Again a better understanding of inter-faction conflict and each faction leaders desires would be a fine addition, and make the vastness of Chult less happenstance.


General detail is also fairly pedestrian in these adventure locales, treasure tends to be in the form of coins or ‘100 GP gems”, though there is some variation, while monsters are rarely described with anything more than a reference to the Monster Manual or appendix.  Monster tactics and relationships are sometimes mentioned, which is good, and usually these tactics are simple, but it is still an improvement over every monster simply rushing to attack.    

FORBIDDEN CITY
The Dwellers of the Forbidden City I4 is a Zeb Cook (and others) written module from 1981 that among other things introduces the Yaun-Ti (D&D’s proprietary snakemen).  As a tournament module trap maze with a less detailed open world addition the original I4 was a bit unfocused, and its decent setting and monster creation gets lost a bit in the awkward juxtaposition between its parts.  The Forbidden City of Omu gets some things right that I4 got wrong, while taking many of the evocative monsters from it and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks(Veggiepygmies and Froghemoths) for a spin.  It also does a lot of things rather clumsily for a small sandbox with several areas and an overarching theme.  Like much of Tomb of Annihilation it fails to trust the GM and players to solve open ended problems and tries to fit a single solution and single path forward onto a perfectly nice chaotic social puzzle.

The parties’ goal in Omu, if they want to enter the Tomb of Horrors (err… Tomb of the Nine Gods) is to acquire nine magic key cubes from the shrine of these dead gods and Tomb of Annihilation starts out right, by making it part of a multi-faction squabble within the ruined city.

Within the Forbidden city are several factions - a trap repairing kobold cult (why can’t these be humans - the last fallen remnants of the ancient Omu - it makes more sense - unless they are somehow related to the kobolds in the nearby red dragon lair), Yaun-Ti death worshippers, swarming veggiepygmy bands, a group of evil wizard adventurers, debased frogmen, and a few alpha predators (skilled cat-people hunters, holy beasts of power, and a t-rex).  Many of these factions are presented as more than simple foes - the wizards, one cat-person, might be allies - even the Yaun-Ti may be potential allies. What Tomb gets wrong about factions is its desire to wrap everything up neatly and gives the GM to little insight into the motivation of the factions.  The wizards, one of the cat hunters, and Yaun-ti will betray almost any deal they have agreed to, and while we know that each faction ‘might’ cooperate in some way (even the veggiepygmies who can be tricked into fighting other factions) most of this cooperation can only be obtained after a fight to test the party and amounts to very little.  There is little guidance about how the faction conflict can be managed or how an allied faction can be encouraged to actually aid the party - will the Grungs fight the wizards - and under what circumstances?  Will the kobolds infiltrate the Yaun-Ti stronghold and map it for the party - and for how much wealth?  There’s a base assumption that the party will seek to collect all of the magic cubes - fighting their way past traps and guardians that always attack, while any factional allies remain static and uninvolved (the wizards collect cubes until discovered and the Yaun-Ti will magically grab any remaining after a while to require moving onto their stronghold as an adventure).  An order of battle for each faction, their wants, needs, preferred tactics and fears would be a great addition here, but instead the authors just decide to pile up the combat encounters and make vague gestures towards non-combat solutions.

Like all 5e products, and many other areas in Tomb of Annihilation, Omu has elements that reek of railroading and a forced combat focused scene-based adventure path - entirely unnecessary elements for the kind of adventure it wants to be.  Anti-flight gargoyles are the first irksome brute force bit of design  in OMU.  The cliff ringed valley where the city hides can’t be flown into and can’t be scouted from the air (if the players have the ability to fly, let them use it). “Quantum Ogre” style GMing and encounter logic (encounters that move through a specific set of events regardless of player decisions) also appear more than once.  The kobold cellar can only be found by making several DC checks to spot their traps, and the GM is advised to use the T-Rex to disrupt boring combats or one's going badly for the party.  The puzzles in the several trapped shrines ask for player skill to solve, but also insist on various skill check based challenges (even to spot clues).  All of these are bad habits in exploratory adventure writing and speak of a lack of trust in the GM to fairly adjudicate or  and players to understand puzzles or social conflicts and find a solution without hand holding or safety from the consequences of a poor solution.  Another core 5e problem that Tomb of Annihilation fails to resolve is its need to create climactic moments and advance a plot.  

As the party explores more and more of the lost city this underpinning anxiety about trusting the players to motivate their own exploration, the GM to run factions and the adventure to proceed without a single thread pulling the party from location to location becomes increasingly aggravating.  While T
omb of Annihilation does not force the party to be captured and enslaved by the Yuan-Ti, it makes every effort to do so and also has the Yaun-ti automatically steal the last part of the key.  While the distinction between having parts of the key already in the Yaun-Ti’s hands or forcing its theft later may seem a silly convention to get annoyed by it’s precisely the sort of railroading and scene based foolishness that creates problems.  

The adventure writers want the players to explore the Yaun-Ti temple palace, and they want them to search out these keys to open the Tomb, but for narrative reasons also want to create the false impression that there’s a race to collect the keys between various factions.  Because of the danger that the players will outthink the adventure and GM and “win” the race, removing the necessity of visiting the Yaun-Ti temple there’s an automatic failure point built in for the party.  What happens if the party anticipates this, posting guards or setting traps and allies to protect the unclaimed key parts?  The adventure would have the Yaun-Ti succeed without a chance of failure and disregard the players’ intelligence and efforts?  To what end - simply to create a narrative that the writers feel is more exciting.  Personally if I was a player and outsmarted the other factions with careful use of resources, splitting the party, allying with other factions and generally spent my game time trying to engage with the idea of a contest to obtain key parts that the adventure is pushing, I’d be far more excited by succeeding at the difficult task then by a fait defeat at the last minute forcing the adventure on a predictable course.

SNAKES, WHY IS IT ALWAYS SNAKES



I jest, the Yaun-Ti are a fairly cool foe, varied, mutated and strange, and better, the “Fane of the Night Serpent” is a well built infiltration/siege/escape dungeon.  Someone at WotC has been listening to more modern OSR design principles (or remembers them from the old days) and rather than create another monster zoo to battle through room by room, encounter after encounter.  Instead the Fane has an order of battle and reinforcements list as well as descriptions of the internal conflicts within the Yaun-Ti, daily activities and how the Yaun-Ti leaders will interact with the party (including a positive reaction that prevents the need to explore the Fane - making the entire issue with the key puzzle even more pointless).  Of course as is typical of WotC, despite having these useful (perhaps necessary in a siege adventure) elements Tomb of Annihilation seems to go out of its way to make the adventure hard to use at the table.  The individual keys are a bit the mess, broken up on multiple pages, with details about an area’s dangers following mundane description.  This is of course standard for WotC products, and running any location written by their team will require a fair bit of note taking, redrafting and re-reading - a problem that becomes more obvious and likely more irksome the larger the locations become.

The Fane if the first location of real size in Tomb of Annihilation, and overall it’s a solid fortress style dungeon filled with Yuan-Ti.  There’s enough information provided to set up the internal conflict and defense plan of the temple, and it has enough interesting details: carved pillars with snake church theology, enchanted skulls that offer protective prayers, swampy prisoner pits, blood bathing snake men and a hydra.  With twenty three locations it fills only fourteen pages, making it brief and concise by WotC standards.  There’s nothing especially novel about the Fane of the Night Serpent and it’s lacking in a few places (treasure while interesting enough seems sparse).

TOMB OF GREEN DEVIL FACES
After dealing with the little spurline that is the Fane of the Night Serpent, Tomb of Annihilation finally gets to the titular Tomb itself.  In this case the recreation and reimagining of Tomb of Horrors.  THe classic hardly needs introduction, but I’ve always thought of it as the first “trap dungeon” (and one of the first published dungeons).  Tomb of Annihilation however takes many of the ideas of Tomb of Horrors and attempts to normalize them: Undead Dwarf Maintenance team, plenty of monsters, and absurd 5e-ism such as this “Despite being the dungeon’s creator, Acererak doesn’t count the Tomb of the Nine Gods as his lair. Consequently, no lair actions or regional effects are ascribed to the archlich in this adventure.”  Tomb of Horrors doesn’t bother with this kind of mechanically explanatory minutia, or justifying why an ancient tomb filled with unfathomable evil work the way it does.

Indeed this sort of min-maxing rules lawyer nonsense and the need to focus on it rather than evocative detail, interesting NPCs and rising above genre cliche is precisely the problem with 5th edition, a sort of obsession with mechanical minutia at the cost of creative content.  It is something that is aggravating, but hardly unique to Tomb of Annihilation and while it may expand the size of the book to a degree it’s hardly an issue in a 300 page tome.

This new Tomb of Horrors still has that ‘fun house’ element that marked the 1975-1978 tomb, but it's broken up into six levels on fifty plus pages with 81 keyed locations and emphasis on less dangerous traps, more combat, and a plot running through the dungeon where the characters become possessed by the spirits of Omu’s dead animal gods. In general the story gloss added to the original is a positive element, even if the overarching “Soulmonger/Death Curse” plot leaves me a bit cold.  Symbolism and clues are consistent, and follow from the lost city above.  The tomb also has some strong elements, each level is somewhat distinct and seems fairly lightly themed: the first level has an ‘overgrown ruin’ feel to it, the second a carved stone tomb, the third infected with strange alien growth, the fourth a charnel house, fifth machines and cogs, and sixth a dreamscape lair of hags and smoke.
As a dungeon the tomb has four level built around a central stairway, and various sealed gates and puzzles that impede progress to the fifth and sixth levels, allowing a degree of open exploration but forcing the party to hunt for keys.  There are numerous ways between levels and generally the Tomb is a well constructed map with plenty of interesting content and a variety of exciting puzzles. It feels a bit artificially strung together and haphazard due to the number of disparate set piece traps, but a bit more evocative detail and repeated decorating themes (why are the gargoyles within always simply ‘gargoyles’ - why don’t they have a shared, plot significant description?) would go a fair ways to rectifying this.

The primary feature of Tomb of Horrors are its traps, and Tomb of Annihilation tries to retain the central focus on traps and puzzles that made the original a different sort of module.  It both succeeds and fails. The general approach to traps in Tomb of Annihilation isn’t terrible, it focuses on traps that are largely puzzles and tend to be very survivable, though Tomb of Horrors’ traps were also rather survivable, except for the ones with clear puzzle components.  Tomb of Annihilation has far more combat than Tomb of Horrors making it less the cerebral trap dungeon designed to test players wits and more a large balanced dungeon crawl with a large number of traps and puzzles. Additionally, in keeping with 5e’s preferences most Tomb of Annihilation traps test the character sheet via DC checks as much as the player puzzle solving skills.  This is somewhat unfortunate, though it’s not absolute and there are still pure puzzles in Tomb of Annihilation.


A trap for sure
Many of the classic traps return - the stone juggernaut (deep in the tomb and a monster), the green devil face (the first neutered into a trapped shadow demon and one of the later faces containing the traditional sphere of annihilation), the hidden entrance and dangerous false entrances (with puzzle traps instead of themselves being the environmental puzzle).  The traps (changed, classic and new) are generally decent, though there’s nothing really new, and at times there’s a ‘Grimtooth’s traps’ element of silly complexity. Still with plenty of traps and novel description, the Tomb is a well made fun-house and contains some interesting and varied encounters.  I rather enjoy the blinded undead artists that paint recent tragedies on the tomb walls for example.  Likewise the effort made by the designers to make the tomb feel like it has been constantly plundered or explored, but never bested is well executed.  In general it’s a thoroughly enjoyable dungeon of very significant size - especially for 5E.

One of the better elements of the tomb is that is contains several significant artifacts or treasures, providing very good reasons for exploring it beyond the silly Death Curse premise.  This of course makes the curse and hook to Tomb of Annihilation all the more puzzling - almost as if the writers had to graft some kind of overall narrative with ‘epic’ consequence atop a solid setting book with a complex tentpole dungeon.

Despite being of high quality overall, there a few annoying aspects of the tomb: many of the magic items within ‘turn to dust’ upon exiting, presumably to avoid giving too many benefits to characters that survive.  This feels pointlessly punitive and somewhat silly.  Likewise the protections that prevent many spells from working within the tomb.  While this is a classic Gygax trick, and it may be justified by the nature of the tomb, I always find it frustrating.  The party also ends up trapped in the tomb and there doesn’t appear to be an easy way out.  Given the admirable way the Tomb suggest episodic exploration with its open map, numerous artifact/treasures and varied complex challenges this is a shame, and it’s compounded by requirement that party must reacquire the key each time one enters.  Episodic exploration (retreat, requipping and recovery) is also suggested by the fact that the Tomb does reset it’s traps and has wandering monsters (though like most 5E products actual tables and any comprehension of the purpose of wandering monsters as a time constraint and resource drain is lacking - with instructions to use them as a goad by the GM instead).  I don’t understand these design decisions, but they are easy enough to remedy - the tomb’s front door stays open for several days say, and the keys don’t vanish from the lock during this time.

A STEP FORWARD
I’ve griped a fair bit above, but Tomb of Annihilation is a good product from WotC - you’ll note things I didn’t say:

A) There’s no serious overarching railroad in Tomb of Annihilation, it is a location based sandbox with various types of content and many threads of rumor and discovery leading to the eventual discovery of the Tomb.
B) Resists forced morality and contains moral grey.  There are obviously better and worse factions and NPCs within Chult, but while the writers generally expect the party will work with the less evil of them and try to do good it’s not assumed.  Content doesn’t follow an assumption of player behavior.
C) While some encounters are forced, many allow for non-combat possibilities.  Combat is still a focus for Tomb of Annihilation and perhaps even the de-facto solution to problems, but it’s not the only solution.  Enough NPCs will attack immediately to make an exploration game fan like myself a bit cynical, but it’s an enormous step form the set piece tactical battles that the adventure path structure of design seems to favor.
D) Provides a setting book or gazetteers’ worth of content.  Chult might be a bit dull by my standards and in relation to the best independently published content, but it’s a solid and expansive setting filled with possibility. Looking through it I can foresee a WotC that produces adventure tomes not as linear slogs through 15 levels of content, but as regional sub-settings with a variety of plots, locations and factions that players and GMs can interact with as they choose over a variety of levels.

All in all Tomb of Annihilation is a decent and solidly realized adventure/setting/campaign that while it may suffer the enduring design issues of WotC products, and fall back into bad adventure path habits upon occasion is something far more usable and interesting then previous WotC adventures.

HOW I WOULD MODIFY TOMB OF ANNIHILATION

Some time ago I started writing a jungle based adventure for my Fallen Empire setting - the key to me for creating exotic fantasy locations (and jungles are exotic in any pseudo medieval fantasy - as are tundra, steppe, tropical shallow seas - anything but farmland, alps and dense forest really) is to make them exotic as possible.  We’ve come a long way from when James Bond movies once acted both as adventure stories and advertisement for the travel possibilities of the jet age - nature television and cheap travel to previously unknown places mean that the adult citizens of advanced states have seen and are likely to have been to places as exotic as the WotC version of the jungles of Chult.

My own jungle tried to get weird fast, and I think rather than aping renaissance Port Mogadishu WotC would be better doing something similar - or more specifically, if they are going to ape Renaissance Port Mogadishu they need to do it with greater willingness to depart from the historical source material - or perhaps a greater willingness to find the undoubtedly unique elements of Mogadishu’s history, architecture and culture (rather than just pouring in some dinosaurs).

Beyond the fecund waste of the Sea of Grass, past the square peaks of the Ravening Mountains and the great demon corrupted sink of the ever burning Heart Provinces is the Jungle of Midnight.  The crumbling spires of the Undefended Citadel of Ib erupt from the headwaters of a long nameless river on the Hook Shore beyond the Inner Sea, where the ghost herons hunt in the shallows waiting for fish to swim between the transparent shears of their glassy beaks. A few traders sail there each year, spending months on the tossing salt waves with the haunted shores of the Old Empire to the North, enduring in anticipation of the wealth a hold full of dangerous foreign cargo will bring.

The town of Undefended Ib is a small port on ancient slime covered pilings of black alchemical iron. No man is allowed to bring weapons into Ib’s streets for fear of calling a tide of spirits down from the citadel above.  The few ancient nobility, their ancestors exiled here to rot happily among the tropical breezes and narcotic blue mango of the jungle, keep a languid peace by employing enormous wrestlers and pugilists or resolve disputes by contests at drunken poetry.  The common people trade in goods from the jungle, bought from the lantern eyed men of the interior.  Black jaguar skins, glowing cockatrice feathers and potent drugs are exchanged for bronze spear heads and glass beads.

The town itself consists of nine crumbling late Successor Empire mansions, stone block and riveted arcane steel wedding cakes eight to ten stories high, dwarfing the riverstone and thatch huts, warehouses and market of the trade town below, but equally dingy and small in the shadow of the massive black spires of the Undefended Citadel of Ib.  Like four of the mansions, and the top five or so floors of the five others, the citadel is utterly abandoned.”   

To me an exotic jungle filled with ancient treasures is enough of a hook (alternatively a place to hide from the law on the far side of the world often seems to catch a party’s eye as well), and with the size of Chult (Tomb of Annihilation is more a setting book then an adventure) means that no forced general plotline is necessary or desirable.  The tomb provides a series of great treasures that should attract adventurers fairly easily, and would be better hooks than the Death Curse, especially if rumors about them were strewn throughout the setting.  The treasures of Dead Gods in a lost jungle tomb or temple city has a pretty solid appeal without bringing additional forced NPC narratives.

The most important part of Tomb of Annihilation is the jungle hex crawl, and this to me is the part that it failed most egregiously at.  The adventure locales and larger dungeons are generally good, and the dull uninspired plotting of the hook is easy to ignore - but where Tomb of Annihilation fails for me is its unwillingness to really embrace the possibilities of a tropical subcontinent worth of encounters.  Perhaps they try and simply fall back on the basics - a single encounter table and a map that’s universally jungle.

I’d start by breaking the map of Chult down by biome, give good descriptions of each with strange detail as something to hopefully give the GM some starting points for her own imagination.  Here’s the description of the Jungle of Midnight (apologies to Herzog):

Dense foreboding jungle the color of a bone bruise, but vibrant with squalling life, spices and bursts of strange color.  Its dangers leak from the body of a fallen god, decaying at its heart.

The Jungle of Midnight is a unfinished country, prehistoric, where a tall, many layered canopy combines with heat and damp to create a steaming, shaded pit, full of obscenity - violent and base.  All nature in the jungle is fighting for survival, choking, asphyxiating, writhing, fornicating and rotting away. Despite the startling blues and jewel greens of feathers and leaves, the jungle it is a place of misery, the trees live in misery, the birds live in misery - they do not sing only scream with misery.  With an overwhelming misery, overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and an overwhelming lack of order, there is no real harmony as a human could conceive it in the Jungle of Midnight, only the natural harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.

Perhaps that’s just a paragraph long Fitzcarraldo reference/joke - but the idea would be to provide the Gm short sets of description about each biome that emphasize the weird/memorable aspects that separate the setting biome from the player and GM’s basic received impression of that biome.  One need not really focus on the sand and shore of a ‘beach’ but letting players know that huge colonies of tiny yellow shelled crabs build spit bubble and spires (some 30’ tall) from the red sand along that shore provides a memorable image and gives life to the biome.  This brings me to the second part of wilderness crawling - providing more than just a hex map and monsters.  A way (multiple tables works for me) to provide landmarks, strange occurrences, incidental positive events (treasures, game, peaceful travelers) and compelling weather events in addition to dinosaur attacks bring a lot more interest to the hex-crawl.

The Locations, City and Tomb are the best part of Tomb of Annihilation and other then better organization (though the keying itself is decent in places) including items such as a way of helping the GM run complex environments by noting on a map what doors need what keys and such, they don’t demand a lot of rewriting.  Some minor changes and a better access to the tomb itself (as noted above) as well as a better idea of how the various Chult factions interact would be good - but aren’t a necessity. 

The first steps to making these changes would be to read up on African expedition diaries - from various cultures, as well as a wide variety of African myth and legend. A long session of nature documentaries that showed the various climes and environments in Africa would be a great next step.  With ones head full of interesting facts and myths drafting the tables above along with notes on each major biome and location that covered odd details, sense impressions and specific repeated themes.


FINAL THOUGHTS
For once I’m encouraged by a WOTC product.  Shocking I know. Tomb of Annihilation is sprawling and at times frustratingly messy, but it’s not the linear sort of overwritten mess I expect from WotC and that’s a great achievement.

15 comments:

  1. I roll to disbelieve.

    ... Well poopy, after that review there's nothing left for me to say. Nicely done.

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    1. Oh the book is 253 pages or so - I think there's plenty more to say. I for example have a far greater tolerance for usability issues then you, and ToA is a masterclass in barely flipping around in a giant book unable to find stuff.

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  2. I like the part where you take a dozen pages about the city and give virtually the same information in three paragraphs.

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    1. Well the book also offers some rather nice maps and quasi random encounter that aren't bad.

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  3. (bookmarks blog, steals jungle of midnight paragraph for home game) great review sir.

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  4. I feel like—trying to solve some of the deficiencies in the product which intrigued me (some thoughts and literary throw ins: sorry for a long first ever comment on your esteemed blog):

    Steal liberally from the Vorrh: have time in the forest gradually eat willpower; the longer you are in the closer one comes to becoming a living zombie & add a rotting yet decadent colonial outpost that extracts resources by ghouling individuals (and is trying and failing to push back the forest)—allow player travel via differentiating “deep forest” ( 24 hours in save or be dazed, with increasing penalties and severity and the effects are non reversible and cumulative). The effect can be open to interpretation (the rare and valuable goods and fucked up forest is the garden of paradise—or at least the fringe of it—or the bodies of gargantuan dead Gods or some scientific explanation that apes those “zombie” parasites but use pollen).

    Use history: there are outposts and trade empires linked by trails and boats on the coast and the Interior is foreboding and dangerous yet full of wonder (every city is multifaction and wants to monopolize trade)

    Steal from apocalypse now: travel mostly involves that party—even outside of the Vorrh like forest—getting increasingly bugged out (and dealing with the stress and logistics of travel)

    Steal from the heart of darkness/Belgian history: a small empire that separates two growing powerhouses runs a surface benevolent but ultimately cruel and genocidal outpost that is also the core of their economy: end it and spark a very large scale war as two neighbors rush in to feast on the wreckage. The citizens of that nation are unaware about how all their wealth is built on enslavement, death & dismemberment.

    Fill the area with NPCs who are mad, on the run, money hungry, scientifically curious or otherwise *here* for a discernible purpose, available for faction play and trade and—if they are low on food while traveling—prone to butchering the PCs and taking their shit. Also some low level opportunistic scavengers—the party clears the Yun-Ti temple and comes back to it being looted and camped by low level mercenaries who are converting it to a foreword operating base for one of the factions?

    Idk I love the idea of like: Super wondrous jungle with many distinct biomes filled with intrigue and deadly nature? But it seems like this WotC product would need some reskinning for my purposes?

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    1. Yes, I too love jungle adventure based on real histories of jungle exploration, the scramble for Africa and the literature of colonialism. I too agree WotC is not the publisher to provide it. Your ideas sound good.

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  5. Wow Gus, that took me three days to read, but what a rewarding read it was. You've basically covered everything I might be curious about regrading Wotc's 5e releases. Thanks for that! It's clear that "Chult" holds zero interest for me. It would be easier and better to simply expand upon something like Drums on Fire Mountain or JG's Jungle of Lost Souls. However I'm really intrigued by the lost city and the Tomb (and how ironic that Wotc merged a Gygax product with a Cook product, considering the animosity between those two). Both tomb and city sound like they have some real potential. I'm tempted to buy the pdf, cut those two out, and transplant them into something much more interesting. At six levels the Tomb of Annihilation actually sounds as if it qualifies as a megadungeon - imagine that!

    I never ran the Tomb of Horrors, but back in the day, I used to merge The Lost City with Slave Pits of the Undercity - that worked really well.

    There's a blog it might be useful to mention https://fireinthejungle.wordpress.com/ that has a terrific amount of RPG jungle material - most of it from 2012-2013 and he has a couple related booklets.

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    1. I agree that the Dungeons are the strongest part of ToA. The city itself has too much of the cutesy forced narrative and a very limited set of locations that modern WotC products are fond of, but lost jungle cities are inherently great settings so it does okay.

      The Tomb itself is decent - if one got rid of the constant DC checks...but for me ToA, while the best WotC product to date is still a unusable disorganized mess, something that really shows when WotC's house style tries to stop designing scene based railroads and into keyed adventures - total anarchy.

      I like ToA because it means that some GMs and players out there are going to get to play a real dungeon crawl rather then get railroaded through another scene based 'epic' of 'exciting' set-piece combats and character sheet based skill checks, but I wouldn't play it myself either simply because the work of prepping for it would be the same as writing up one's own mega-dungeon and jungle crawl. It's a step in the right direction, but WotC has a lot of ground to make up in the race to play catch up with even mediocre indie content.

      Thanks for the recommendation.

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  6. Huh. You wrote:

    "Despite my initial foreboding Tomb of Annihilation won me over - it's by no means a great adventure, but it's solid, interesting and usable in a way that prior 5th edition products haven't been."

    I kept waiting for the part of the review in which I'd read how ToA "won you over." I don't really see that. I see another massive tome with bits that you might purloin, but otherwise a mammoth waste of time and money. I see a lot of parts in which you expound on ways in which the book is the opposite of "interesting" and "usable."

    I guess I don't get it.

    But thanks for the in-depth review. It reaffirms to me that I'm not missing anything by staying the hell away from 5E and WotC's offerings for their latest edition.

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    1. The last two dungeons are quite good and make up 1/2 the tome. Perhaps, rekindled the sodden ashes of hope that WotC will get it together sometime rather then won over?

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    2. We can always hold out hope (I use the term "we" rather loosely to represent the community in general).

      [sorry to be a negative nelly...my football team is struggling a bit this season]

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