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Friday, September 29, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons - Tomb of Annihilation Review

You can buy Tomb of Annihilation right here

Now that I have read through the entire book and made a massive guide to it, I'm ready to review it. I'm going to go over the good stuff, and then the bad.

Short Version: I think that this is the best 5e adventure by far, though I imagine that some people will prefer Curse of Strahd.

The Good

Improvements

Every time they release a new adventure, they fix some things that I didn't like in the last one. This time around, they actually put some page numbers in the book! They only give page numbers for stuff actually in the tomb book, not the core books. Hey, I'll take it.

In Storm King, they had that massive chapter that gave two paragraphs of information on something like 100 locations. I felt that it was too little material on too many places.

This time around, they spent more time detailing less areas, and farmed out the rest to DM Guild creators, which I think is a tremendous idea.

Port Nyanzaru

I love the city of Port Nyanzaru (a city where dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden). I especially love the dinosaur races. Who doesn't? It's a great idea and gets the adventure off on a really high note.

I really like the merchant princes, or at least, the idea of them. Old City is really cool, as is Malar's Throat.

The Jungle

I really love the massive pile of random encounters in the back of the book. Seeing how there is so much travel involved, this is extremely helpful. I wish they had made a really massive, epic jungle set piece involving the zombie-barfing tyrannosaurus rex, but I guess that's something we can do on our own.

Some of the locations in the jungle are stellar. The bridge with the monkeys and the statue springs to mind. I love Princess Mwaxanare and can't wait to use her. Nangalore is a real standout locale - it's a weird, beautiful ruin that really leaps off the page.

There's a ton of good ideas all over the place. A village that can be flung across the jungle! The thorn maze! The crashed airship! The trapped shrine in the ruined camp! So many great ideas.

The Tomb of the Nine Gods

There is a lot to love about the Tomb of the Nine Gods. There are very few "filler" rooms. It feels like they had a whole bunch of people come up with the coolest rooms they could imagine, and then a bunch of other people refined them and put them all together.

One of the things I most appreciate about 5e is how they take classic tropes and make them feel fresh. Someone sat down and went, "what's a good way to present a trap that ages you?" and their answer was: a magic clock. Then they added in other elements and made a neat little room that makes sense in its own weird way.

Another great thing is the skeleton keys. I love them. They're alive! Little skeletons that run around the dungeon. You need all five to get to the final room. Again, they took a cliche but presented it in an unexpected, fun way. That's what I like the best about this adventure. It's all about fun.

I love all the little links to the Tomb of Horrors. There are rooms, statues and traps (the juggernaut) that are variants of stuff from the original tomb. I think anyone who played tomb of horrors will light up when they notice the similarities.

Let's see if I can pick my favorite room from each level:

(pg 136) 12. Trapped Chest: The chest hanging from two chains! This one stuck with me long after I read it. The authors took mundane things - a chest, a pool, and some chains, and they came up with a really deadly trap that makes sense in its own way. This book has a number of things that really shocked me, and this was the first.

(pg 141) 20. False Tomb: A room that fills up with wine! Wine weirds! Just a slight variation on the classic water-fills-the-room trap and a nice twist on the phrase, "Drown your sorrows". That is really clever! The one thing I feel weird (pun not necessarily intended) about in this room is that water breathing magic doesn't work. I can see that causing problems at the table, especially if you haven't set this precedent before.

(pg 156) 44. The Vault of the Beholder: There are a number of traps and hazards involving magnetism in this adventure. It's an under-used gimmick and I really like what they did with it. This room uses it big time as part of a really crazy, dangerous battle with a beholder. Very memorable!

(pg 160) 48. Shagambi's Tomb: Level four has a lot of cool rooms, but this is my favorite. A room full of terracotta warriors that hate noise, teleportation circles, you name it. Chaotic and deadly, but most of all, really fun.

(pg 174) 66. Door of Devouring: I really look forward to doing a goofy voice for this hungry door. I love the shark cages and the powers they grant. I don't like the instant death aspect of this, but that is easily changed. This has a bit of a "Labyrinth" feel to it, which for me is always a good thing.

(pg 184) Area 77: I don't even want to say the name of this place because I really don't want it spoiled. This is the final battle, which is beyond epic! Destroy the soulmonger, defeat one bad guy, and then defeat another bad guy. The tricksters give you absolutely awesome boosts of power above and beyond what they did already. This is a fantastic climax to the adventure!

The NPCs

Some of the villains and potential allies really stick out. Nanny Pu'pu has a very cool scenario, and I love that she killed everyone who lived in the village that is now her home.

The Sewn sisters are tremendous and very freaky. Each of them has a very vivid description. I really wish that there was art of them.

Artus Cimber jumps out at me, just because he looks like Nicholas Cage. I get to do a really bad Nicholas Cage impression?! I've been watching youtube videos of him to prepare. I want to call out "The bees, not the bees!" with laser-sharp accuracy.

The Company of the Yellow Banner. I really enjoyed piecing together the story of this doomed band of adventurers and thinking of ways to use them in my game. They had all sorts of things going on. They had a talking lizard, they were infiltrated by a shapechanger, and they have some fun magic items on top of that.

Trickster Gods

I think these entities are really fun. I love their shrines and I love the powers they grant.

The Art

The art gets better in every book. Up until now, I have maintained that it is all very good, but nothing is spectacular. In this one, a couple of pieces of art crossed the threshold from good to great. Not Elmore-great, but we're getting closer.

The cover is good, but again the colors are muddy and it is too abstract for me. I want a scene! I want to see the stuff you can do in this adventure.

My favorite art:
  • The Dinosaur Racers (pg 15). The more dino racing art, the better!
  • Aremag and the Sailing Ship (pg 43). This has the trait that I think too much D&D 5e art is lacking - badass-ness. Badass-osity? This is probably my favorite piece of 5e art out of everything so far. Absolutely tremendous.
  • Zaroum Al-Saryam (pg 65). This pirate is so unique and cool-looking that I want to expand his role just because of the way he looks.
  • Ras Nsi (pg 111) This is another really great piece of D&D art. This one is definitely one of the best pieces of 5e art so far.
  • Fenthaza (pg 117) I really don't like yuan-ti, but she is very striking. This one is really sharp. Simple, yet finely detailed.
  • The Soulmonger (pg 185). That thing is freaky! A very appropriate choice for a final encounter. When I heard about the Soulmonger, I imagined some kind of altar with howling faces on it. When I saw this crystal tube-thing, I immediately thought of Empire Strikes Back, when Luke healed inside that big tube of water. To me, the soulmonger looks way too sci-fi. That said, I love this piece of art~ It shows me everything I need to see and it's very vivid.
  • The Chwingas (pg 216) I love the style of this one. It has a bit of a watercolor feel to it, a little bit of DiTerlizzi. I don't know who the artist is, but I hope they get a lot more work!
  • The Kamadan (pg 225). A leopard and some snakes. Normally, that's pretty boring to me. But I have to say that this is an utterly fantastic piece of art. It's really sharp without being photo-real.
  • Full Page Spread (pg 242). I really appreciate that they give us full page art, even if it's just one or two pieces per book. I guess most people don't care, but I really like it. The more art, the better. Art helps me imagine scenes and gives me ideas.
  • The Handouts (pg 255) There are a few rooms that are very complicated to describe. These handouts made both rooms crystal clear to me! I honestly don't think I'd have been able to run that control room if I didn't have handout 24. I just could not picture it.
The Maps

An entire book of maps by Mike Schley! This thing is a tour de force. To me, he is the best 5e artist and the best map guy, ever. I feel like he needs to be properly recognized in some way, but I'm not sure how one goes about doing that.

On pages 98 and 99, he has a massive map of Omu and a map of every single shrine. Nine shrines all neatly collected on one page! All of them right there, so you don't have to flip all over the book.

The Heart of Ubtao is a really tremendous map. It is so good that I want to add stuff to the location just because it looks so interesting.

Nangalore also really pops out. I think if you lay down a players version of this map on the table, the players will really get into it. It's just a cool place, a really interesting location that you can imagine your character creeping through.

The Bad
This is just my goofy opinion so please, don't take this too seriously. This is a good adventure! But there's always something to warble about, and I want to point out some things that might be important for those of you trying to decide if you want to buy this book.

Sandbox

Like most of the other 5e adventures, it's up to you to figure out how to get things moving and connect the dots. How exactly do you get your group in a dinosaur race? How does it connect to the quest for the death curse?

I want that dinosaur race to happen. I need that race to happen! But when the death curse is killing people off daily, time is of the essence! Why would the heroes waste time on this? We're on the clock, here, right? Syndra Silvane is going to croak while we're over here betting on Banana Candy.

The jungle is so wide open. It can be scary to let the group chart their course. You have to prepare so much stuff and be ready to run it either today or two months from now.

You can move locations around so that wherever your players go, they go through the stuff you want them to, but that's the kind of thing that will deflate enthusiasm if the group figures out what you are doing (and they usually catch on).

Some of the locations are cooler than others. That brings me to the next thing...

Weird Monsters


I just don't like yuan-ti, aarakocra and especially the grung. When I was first learning about this adventure, I was pretty dismayed when it was revealed that it is full of weird, fiend folio-y monsters like killer koalas and nazi storks.

Dungrunglung is a very cool location, but for me it feels wasted on a redundant race of frog people. There's already bullywugs and kuo-toa. Do we really need these guys?

It just feels way too early in the edition to focus on these fringe, April Fool's issue of Dragon Magazine monsters. We haven't really had adventures that dig into cool creatures like mind flayers, githyanki, demons and devils yet. We get one adventure every 6 months, and the last one was a reprint of old stuff! So this is it for the whole year. Unicorn rabbits.

The Art

Two things stick out to me:

I really hate the way 5e goblins look. I don't even want to use them. Pathfinder goblins are so cool, and now they look 30 times cooler in comparison.

The clothing in 5e art is so drab. You know how in comic books, the characters wear these bright costumes and then in the comic book movie the costumes are really dark and brown, and nobody wears their mask? Some of the art in this book feels like sketches from the set of a Tomb of Annihilation movie. A bit too close to John Leguizamo in Luigi's coveralls for my liking.

Omu

I love the shrines. LOVE them. Love the t. rex. I guess the feathers on the t. rex is a scientific thing. I think it looks stupid, but if it has been proven that they had feathers, then that makes this a fun inclusion.

This place is too busy for me. There's grungs, red wizards, yuan-ti, kobolds (don't get me started), and vegepygmies. To me, that feels like a recipe for filler encounters that are going to bog things down, and then if the yuan-ti dungeon comes off bad (which I think it would in my game) you might kill your own campaign before you finally get to the really good stuff.

The Yuan-ti Dungeon

This place just doesn't work for me. We're all ready to get into the super-awesome Tomb of the Nine Gods, but first we have to navigate this rather large yuan-ti place? A location where there's a good chance the group will be captured and will need to negotiate their way out of?

Ras Nsi, the cool-looking bad guy, has a somewhat minor role. There's a fair chance that the group won't even fight him. He was featured in the promotional art! It's shocking to see how little he actually does in this book.

This dungeon feels like a buzzkill. It's like if GG Allin opened for Taylor Swift. The crowd might go home before she even takes the stage.

Death Traps

This is my main concern about the entire book. During the many years I ran D&D at home and in the game store, I ran into a slew of players who absolutely hated death traps. I actually had a group intentionally ruin a session when I tried to run the Lost City of Gaxmoor, just because they didn't want to play in a game lethal enough that they needed a back-up character.

In the game store, it was very much the same. 25% of my players were people who couldn't control their anger when bad things happened, especially when rolling low on a d20. I've written about this before. People throwing dice, punching walls, lashing out at other people at the table. The "it's not fair" mentality.

If that has not changed in the past two years, then a lot of DMs are in for some horrible nights. This dungeon has many "unfair" traps, some of which don't even roll to hit! You just die! And when you die in this dungeon, you're dead for good.

You NEED to know your players before you run this. Tell them up front that they should expect to die, and if that doesn't sound fun for them, then they shouldn't play.

Overall

So, where does Tomb of Annihilation rank among the other 5e adventures? I'd say it is the best out of all of them, and it is not even close. There's a lot of fun packed into this thing, and that's what is most important to me.

I can see some people claiming that Curse of Strahd is better than this adventure. I guess the best way to put it is that Curse of Strahd is Psycho, and Tomb of Annihilation is Jurassic Park. Both will endure, but Tomb will have more appeal because Curse of Strahd is of a genre that some people have to be in the right mood for. Everyone loves dinosaurs.

8 comments:

Terry Herc said...

Not having ever run an exploration campaign, the parts that I felt the most affinity with are Nyanzaru, Omu and the Tomb. Ultimately I can see both myself and my group having trouble with the jungle portion because it is essentially a stitched together series of delays.

Sure, there's lots to explore, I get it. But as you mentioned, time is of the essence, and I can see them getting impatient and wanting to rush through the jungle to "get to the end". The jungle is the accordion part of the story, to be shrunk or expanded. I can see a style conflict with my players, myself and the plot of the story itself.

NewbieDM said...

"It's like if GG Allin opened for Taylor Swift. The crowd might go home before she even takes the stage."

Haha.

I love Tomb of Annihilation, I think it isnt just the best 5e adventure out there right now, it's the best adventure WOTC has published over the last decade.

I think it will be a modern classic.

Fabsi said...

Hey Sean,

really helpful to read your review. Probably I'm gonna buy this book since I still have a blast with Curse of Strahd which your guide did helped me tremendously and still is. I've changed a lot, so we have played nearly each chapter of the book, since it felt thrown away for me, not to include most parts of the book. Currently Lady Wachter overthrown the burgomaster of Vallaki and the SCs returned to Vallaki to be shocked, that all their friends there were locked up for treason. Tomorrow they probably will overthrow Lady Wachter and bring the wedding dress to the abbot. The only thing left will be the sun blade which is in the amber temple and afterwards they will confront Strahd himself. I'm currios to see how that plays out :).

Regarding the Tomb of Annihilation and the mentioned death traps: My players really love their characters, so probably it won't be a wise idea to play ToA with the same characters soon time after CoS or what are your thoughts on this?
My plans for the moment are, to have like one year of a time skip (like Mercer did in Critical Role), when the characters returned to Faerun. I have a sorcerer with the dragon origin which had some kind of foreshadowing vision about faerun laying in chaos due to dragon attacks. I plan on continuing with the Rise of Tiamt adventure after the time skip. ToA reads pretty interesting so maybe, if the characters stop the cult of dragons Chult will be the next destination, but I don't want to kill them of easily (regardless that RoT and ToA needs heavy adaptions since my characters will be of a much higher level).

The Eye of Horus said...

Curse of Strahd used to be my absolute favorite adventure.

Tomb of Annihilation knocks it right out the park.

I love this crazy jungle adventure, and agree with your entire review.
(Except the unicorn-rabbit comment, I love unicorn-rabbits.)

I feel like there is so much cool stuff you can do, and my players are really going to love this adventure.

Anonymous said...

The "e" in "etc." already stands for "and".

Sean said...

Terry Herc: Agreed. It could become a real drag. And it's huge!

NewbieDM: I like it, too. More than Curse of Strahd, definitely. I'm just wondering if player will like the death traps. They're very nasty!

Fabsi: Well... you could just lower the damage in the tomb. Instead of 66, they do 33, stuff like that. Sounds like your strahd campaign is awesome! I couldn't wrap my head around Vallaki, looks like you are running it really well. Thanks!

The Eye of Horus: Yeah! You know.. maybe those unicorn horns have some magical use or something. That might lead to something cool. Thanks!

Anonymous: I'm going to stealth-edit it, and no one will be the wiser. Thanks!

Jason R said...

As soon as I heard "Lost City in the jungle" I immediately thought of the Serpent's Skull AP from Piazo. I think combining these two products could very well yield a pretty epic setting and probably address any shortcomings either of them have. Serpent's Skull has a huge sandboxy type lost city (two actually-- one on the surface and another far below) but lacks a fleshed out Port Nyanzaru type place. The serpent folk in Serpent's Skull could mesh in with whatever yuan-ti plot there is (perhaps replacing the one in ToA completely). Keep all the cool stuff from both of course. I don't think I'll ever get to it myself, but I'd love to hear how somebody else wove them together.

Todd Crow said...

I quite like the Yuan-Ti dungeon because it's NOT a dungeon. It's a functional palace they live in, with a few traps for defense. It's not meant for players to move linearly from point A to point B and clear out everything.

Tomb of the Nine Gods is enormous! If you play Ras-Ni's place like a dungeon, the players are going to burn out on the dungeon crawl because it comes DIRECTLY before another dungeon. It's just a place where they may explore a bit while they try and get the new puzzle cube and add a bit of political intrigue. (Get in, get out, don't clear every room.)