In this article, I am going to try to help DMs figure out how to take all of the things in Tomb of Annihilation and actually line it up and turn it into a fun campaign.
You can get this and the guide in pdf form right here:
If You are a New DM
This book might feel a little bewildering when you first look at it. Some sections are a sort of "toolkit" for you to use or not use. You decide what happens when, and there is no "wrong" way to do it. The authors of this book expect you to change things and make it your own.
Please remember that you will make mistakes. We all do! Don't be too hard on yourself if things go wonky, just make little adjustments and roll with whatever is happening. No matter how long you've been running games, you'll make mistakes every single session, so it's no big deal. There's simply too many things you have to do at once to be a "perfect" DM. There is no such thing as a perfect DM! All you can do is perfect your style.
The most important thing is to make it fun. Fun for you, and for the players. You're not the enemy of the players. You're a referee. Don't fall into the trap of getting revenge on the group for ruining or circumventing one of your encounters.
The bottom line is that you can kill the characters any time you want. You can just say, "You have a heart attack and die." That's not your role, though.
Think of yourself as the director and the audience. The characters are the stars of your movie. You and the players write the script.
Here's the basic story:
- The heroes want to end the death curse.
- They learn that the source of the curse is in the lost city of Omu.
- They search the jungle for the lost city.
- They find the lost city.
- They go through the Tomb of the Nine Gods. The source of the death curse, the Soulmonger, is at the bottom.
One of the trickiest things in the whole book is figuring out how to involve the characters. The default option in the book is to use Syndra Silvane, a friend of the heroes. She's got the death curse and wants the adventurers to find the cure before it is too late.
The problem with this is that the players don't know this NPC at all. It's a little weird to hinge everything on some random person. You could tie her into the group's backstory, but she might not fit what the player had in mind.
Here are some ways to tie in the death curse:
- Relative is Dying: A hero's father/mother has the death curse.
- Kingdom in Peril: The king has the death curse, and the next in line to the throne is a real scoundrel/idiot.
- Hags: A character has a link to one of the sewn sisters (the hags on page 180). Maybe one of the hags has done something terrible and the hero wants revenge.
- The Atropal: You could do something with the atropal, just be careful - you don't want to spoil it! It's such a weird, shocking creature that I think you should keep it mysterious until the heroes get to area 77 in the dungeon. Maybe the character was part of an organization dedicated to keeping the atropal locked away. Then Acererak showed up and freed it/stole it, killing the guardians. The hero survived, and is determined to make things right.
- The Evil Patron: What might be really cool is for a warlock who is unaware that the atropal is their patron! It is calling the warlock to it so that when it rises as a god, the warlock can serve it and explain the mortal world to it.
- Item Quest: A hero might want to go to the tomb just to retrieve an item, either a story item (pg 189) or a magic item (pg 206).
- Other Heroes: Also, you might want to tie a character to the Company of the Yellow Banner. They are heroes who went to Omu a while back and haven't been heard from. They died in the tomb. I wrote up the group in my guide.
You might notice that Artus Cimber and his ring of winter are here, but he has no real relevance to the plot. Artus is in the jungle waiting for the city of Mezro to return from another plane - his girlfriend is there.
You can do whatever you want with Artus, just keep in mind that the ring is really, really powerful (pg 207) and might unbalance things.
So now, how do you start this thing? The group gets to Port Nyanzaru, and then what?
I would say you'll want to do a couple things, here:
- Adventure: A combat/encounter, to spice up the exposition.
- Dinosaur Race: In my opinion, this is one of the best things in the book.
- NPC: Meeting a guide and preparing for the exposition.
1. We're on a Boat: Does the group know each other? If not and they're arriving by boat, you could say that they all happen to be on the same boat. You could use the Brazen Pegasus, described in the "harbor ward" section on page 21.
2. Pirates! Their boat is attacked by pirates (pick from the three ships on pg 67). The pirates board and while the other passengers flee, the adventurers can do their thing, beat up the bad guys and show off their abilities.
You can have Aremag the dragon turtle (pg 42) pop up and demolish the pirates. That's his job, to defend Port Nyanzaru from pirates.
3. Arrival: The ship arrives at Port Nyanzaru, and Zindar (pg 238) lands on the ship. He learns of what happened and is impressed with the group. Maybe he gives them a document and tells them to go meet a merchant prince (whichever one you think is cool).
It might be a good idea to use Jessamine (pg 26). She has the death curse and by using her, you will reinforce that this curse is a big deal and that there isn't a lot of time.
4. Merchant Prince: When they meet the merchant prince, the prince rewards them for fending off the pirates and sees potential in them. The prince asks them to ride the prince's dinosaurs in the next dinosaur race. Winning will give them a nice sum of gold to fund their expedition.
5. Meet and Pick a Guide: The group can stay at the Thundering Lizard or Kaya's House of Repose (both described in "red bazaar" on page 23). You could have them be approached by a few of the guides that you think would be fun to use. They can hire whoever they want (or none at all).
6. Dinosaur Race: The next day, they have the race.
After the race, one dinosaur goes on a rampage. The group saves Grandfather Zitembe (pg 21) from the angry beast, and he is very grateful. When he learns of what the heroes want to do, he'll use his magic to tell them the stuff on page 21. That gives them a pretty solid idea of where to go.
7. Equip and Prepare: The group can stock up on equipment ("special items" on pg 31 and 32). The guide can help them, and make sure they get insect repellent and rain catchers.
OK! This is the most wide open part of the adventure. The heroes wander the jungle in search of Omu. The book says you should roll random encounters, but I think you will find that doing so slows the game to a crawl and leads to you running encounters you either don't like or aren't familiar with.
I suggest that you plan out travel days, generic ones that are not tied to a certain location that can be used in any part of the jungle. You should go through these 4 sections and pick out all of the things you want to use:
- Discoveries: pg 205
- Diseases: pg 40
- Encounters: pg 194
- Creatures: pg 209 Don't forget to work in the plants, like the tri-flower frond, the assassin vine, etc.
Let's make a bunch of travel days. These can be used when the group travels to a hex that doesn't have anything special on it.
All I'm doing is taking my favorite creatures, encounters and spreading them out. I made up a bunch of details to give it variety. Some groups are fine with having straight combats with monsters every day on an open field, but most people like it when there are all sorts of situations that can lead to cool moments.
Make sure not to make all of the encounters negative! Have good things happen, too. It's more fun that way, and the group won't feel like everything and everyone is out to get them.
The Guide: The guide will tell the group a few things:
- Entering a goblin village is very dangerous, because legend has it that the villages can actually soar through the air like a meteor.
- The dinosaurs aren't good or evil. They are the children of Ubtao and should be respected.
- The guide has heard of ryath roots and can identify them on sight. These roots make you strong! The more you eat, the better! They're quite rare and very useful (the guide is a bit misinformed. See pg 205)
Night: The group sets up camp. Establish that you will assume this is how they set up every night unless you hear differently.
Brontosaurii: The heroes come upon a herd of brontosauruses drinking from a lake. They are harmless. A baby brontosaurus plays with the group. The heroes notice that the brontosauruses are devouring wildroot (pg 205) until there's none left.
They group continues on, passing a lot more wildroot. They come upon a huge horde of zombies with blue triangles on their heads blocking their path. The zombies are eating a brontosaurus corpse. If the group thinks of it, they could lure the brontosaurus herd here by enticing them with the wildroot. The brontosauruses would trample all of the zombies.
Camp: Towards the end of the day, the adventurers find a hidden waterfall and lake, a perfect place to camp. There could be a cave behind the waterfall if you want. Colorful, friendly parrots are in the trees and are quite amused by the heroes. The point of this is to show the group that not everything in the jungle is out to kill them, and that Chult is a special place worth saving.
Magic Fruit: While foraging, the group finds some fruit that has juice in it (dancing monkey fruit, pg 205). If you want, after someone begins dancing, a pterafolk or two swoop down and attack.
Empty Camp: The group finds an abandoned camp with supplies (treasure cache, pg 196). Place evidence that they were abducted/slain by pterafolk or goblins, depending how near the group is to Yellyark or Firefinger.
Night: That night, zombies wander into the camp and try to eat sleeping heroes.
Food: Foraging isn't going so well. The only edible stuff they can find is bananas that taste like black licorice. They spot a few Al Miraj (pg 211) nearby, who are oblivious to the forager's presence. Will the group kill and eat these defenseless unicorn bunnies?
Ring of Winter: The heroes notice melting icicles on a number of trees, which is obviously very strange. They are attacked by goblins or pterafolk, and Artus Cimber and Dragonbait show up to help the group. Those icicles are from the ring of winter.
Ubtao Ruins: The group comes upon the ruins of a shrine to Ubtao. quite a few Yahcha (harmless beetles, pg 205) are here. Tracing the maze-rune on a wall reveals a secret underground chamber, a wondrous and safe place to rest!
Treasure in a Dinosaur: The adventurers spot a few zombies lingering around a dead and decaying t. rex. Through a hole in its stomach, the group can see the inert corpse of an adventurer with gleaming armor and perhaps a magic item (a treasure drop, pg 197). If the group decides to go get the stuff, they'll need to climb into the t.rex to get it. If a hero climbs inside it, the t.rex gets up! It's a tyrannosaurus zombie (pg 241)!
Have an Ice Day: Frost giants are searching for Artus Cimber ("frost giants" pg 200). Their winter wolf sniffs the group out. The giants ask the group if they've seen Artus Cimber. They warn the group that the ring of winter is evil and will corrupt anyone who wears it. The giants say that they want it because they alone can handle it. This is meant to make the heroes wary of Artus. Can he be trusted? Should they take the ring from him?
Let's Bee Friends: The heroes come upon a person, who is alive, tied to a post and covered in honey. Goblins did this to him! The group must decide whether or not to free this person. The person can explain that the goblins are having trouble with zombie attacks, and that he thought it was a good time to partake in a little thievery.
In Chult, Village Invade You: Later in the day, what looks to be a huge green meteor appears in the sky. It's heading right for the group! The goblins had to catapult their village and as fate would have it, it's about to land right on top of the group.
Chwinga: Late in the day, the group comes upon a gleaming section of forest with weird shimmering rocks. A chwinga lives in a central rock (pg 216). It will spy on the group and listen to their conversation. That night, a band of zombies are on their way. The chwinga will warn the group. Once the zombie situation is dealt with, the chwinga will reward the bravest of the heroes with a supernatural charm (DMG pg 228). Maybe the charm of animal summoning or the charm of restoration (which would be really handy for a group without a healer-type).
The Chase: It's quite rainy and windy. It is loud enough that it is hard to hear at certain times. A band of zombies pop up out of the ground (or whatever) and attack. 1 round later, Artus Cimber and Dragonbait come running. To help? No! They keep running and tell the group to forget the zombies. He's being chased by the tyrannosaurus zombie (if they killed it on day 5, then this could be a living t. rex).
That's Just Grape: It stops raining. Toward the end of the day, the group comes upon a hot spring. Nature's jacuzzi! And look, there;s a plant the is full of wild grapes! It's an assassin vine (pg 213).
Dead Guy: The group spots a dead explorer up on a precarious spot, perhaps up in a tree where a zorbo lurks? The explorer has some good loot (pg 197) and a useful journal.
Berry Good For You: The heroes spot some sinda berry bushes (pg 205). A stegosaurus shows up. It likes to eat these. If the group plays it cool, the stegosaurus will share the sinda berries with them.
Night: One of the sewn sisters (pg 180) tries to steal a lock of hair.
Tri, Tri Again: The group comes upon a triceratops trying to fend off a bunch of zombies. If the group helps it, it will travel with the group for a day or two, and can be used as a beast of burden.
Water You Waiting For: It is incredibly dry all day. No rain at all! They do come upon clear water at the end of the day (they risk getting throat leeches! pg 40)
Night: Zombies attack. A sewn sister is in the ethereal plane, watching. If blood is spilled, she materializes and carefully collects blood from the ground.
It's Your Time to Shrine: The heroes come upon a shrine of Ubtao guarded by a wereboar.
Night: The group is probably really wary of the hags, now. A sewn sister will actually try to attack and subdue (not kill) whoever is on watch, and then steal more hair or blood.
Running the Journey
Now that we have created a bunch of cool things to happen on the journey, we need to figure out how to handle all of the weird little rules on page 38. You have to try and make sure that it doesn't slow the game down and bore everybody to death. To avoid that, you just need to be a little organized.
At the start of each day:
1. Players Pick a Hex: Use the map on page 243.
2. Navigate: One character is the navigator. They must make a survival check. The DC is either a 10 (Coast/Lake) or a 15 (jungle/mountain/river/swamp/wasteland). Fail: The party is lost. They end up in one of the 6 hexes around them.
You might want to roll their navigation checks for them in secret. If a player rolls a 5, they know that they failed. Their character don't know that! By keeping the rolls a secret, you don't have to worry about metagaming.
3. Forage: As the heroes travel, they can forage for food. They roll a survival check, DC 10 (the jungle is abundant with food). Success: The forager finds d6 + their Wisdom modifier in pounds of food. Repeat the roll for gallons of water.
4. Encounters: Run any encounters that happen throughout the day. If there aren't any, just say to them: "You make your way through the jungle without incident." Give them a chance to do anything they want on that day. Players come up with the weirdest things.
5. Travel Time: Generally, the group will travel 1 hex per day.
- Travel via Canoe: 2 hexes per day.
- Walk at a Regular Pace: 1 hex per day.
- Hustle: Roll a d4. Result of 3 or 4 means they travel 2 hexes per day. -5 to perception checks.
- Flying: Check out "tracking miles" on pg 38. A character with a fly speed of 30 can travel 4 miles per hour.
7. Water: The water situation is a bit complicated. A waterskin holds 4 pints (aka half a gallon). Each character needs 2 gallons a day! So each character might want 4 waterskins, or maybe barrels full of water (which then requires a beast of burden). They can rely on the raincatchers and drink from them, but if it doesn't rain, they are in trouble.
Stuff to Know:
- Dehydration rules are on page 38.
- River water is not fit for drinking unless boiled.
- If a character doesn't drink 2 gallons of water in a day, they must make a DC 15 con save or suffer 1 lvl of exhaustion (PH pg 291). Those in medium or heavy armor make this check at disadvantage.
- Check out DMG page 111 for food and water rules. Each beast of burden is going to require probably 4 pounds of food and 4 gallons of water!
The group will probably end up at a number of locations listed in chapter 2 (pg 37). You can have them wander freely or you can direct them to places you want to run.
Bottom line, they can do whatever they want, but if you point them towards the coolest places, that makes your life easier and makes the game more fun because you're not scrambling for material.
I picked the places I liked best and linked them to each other. Here's a way for the group to get from Port Nyanzaru to Omu:
1.The group is in Port Nyzanzaru. An NPC tells them about the home of the "bird people", and how they are friendly and can help the group. They might even be able to fly the group to Omu! The group is given directions to their home of Kir Sabal.
2. If the group decides to try to find Kir Sabal, they travel south, possibly crossing river Tiryki, or canoeing down it.
3. Some pterafolk attack the group. An aarakocra swoops down from the sky to aid the group. He is friendly and his name is Nephyr. He'll chat for a bit then fly off, and (unbeknownst to the heroes) he is captured by the pterafolk.
4. The pterafolk from firefinger attack the group again. Later, the heroes meet a sickly person who claims that he and his friend had been abducted by the pterafolk. He mentions that an aarakocra (Nephyr) flew down to help them, but was subdued by the pterafolk and taken away.
5. The group goes to Firefinger and frees Nephyr. Nephyr can give them exact directions to Kir Sabal.
6. Following his directions, the heroes cross Ataaz Muhahaha.
7. They might spot the wreck of the Narwhal if you want to use that. They might come upon Needle's bones if you want to use that.
8. They arrive at Kir Sabal. They meet Princess Mwaxanare, and learn that the aarakocra can cast a ritual to give the heroes the power to fly! A special component is needed for the flight ritual to work. It is the black orchid (pg 79) found in the ruins of Nangalore.
9. The adventurers go to Nangalore and get the orchid.
10. The group returns to Kir Sabal and are granted the power of flight. They have a fly speed of 30, and the flight power lasts for 3 days. See "Tracking Miles" on page 38. A character with a flying speed of 30 feet can travel 4 miles per hour.
If the heroes want to push on past 8 hours, use the "forced march" rules on PH pg 181. They'll need to make a Con save or gain a level of exhaustion (PH pg 291)
The group can fly closer to Omu, but the magic will likely run out long before they get there and they'll have a number of days of wandering the jungle, which is thick with undead.
According to the book (pg 91), "The city is notoriously hard to find" and it "lies in a basin hidden in the depths of the rainforest."
11. In Omu, I don't like the yuan-ti dungeon and the grung and etc. I am going to simplify it so that the yuan-ti are in the city, as is the dinosaur and the tabaxi hunters. The hunters could tell the group about the shrines.
12. Then the group must get the 9 puzzle cubes while dealing with yuan-ti ambushes and sudden rampages.
13. Ras Nsi has the last puzzle cube.
14. The group uses the puzzle cubes to enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods, and boom that's the rest of the adventure.
That's it! Not so bad, right? You are a rare breed. Most people don't want to be a DM! A lot of the joy of DMing is in reading an encounter and wondering what the group will do. It's so hard to guess! Frequently, what they do is really clever and hilarious.
I hope your game goes well. Good luck!