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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Thoughts on Running the Tomb of Annihilation

Poor WebDM Jim!

I've been running a ton of D&D on youtube and twitch! Here's my rough schedule:

Tuesdays 9 - 11 PM EST: Waffle Talk! Discussing the newest episode of Dice, Camera, Action.

Thursdays 7 - 9 PM EST D&D, usually the Mezro group.

Saturdays: 6:30 - 8:30 PM EST Either the main tomb of annihilation group or the lizard king group.

Some Sundays 6:30 - 8:30 PM EST: The adventurers league group. That's DMs Guild Adept Lysa Chen, the WebDM fellers, and RPG author Craig Campbell.

Running a D&D "Shared Universe"

It is really great to get to run games that you, the reader, can check out. Back in 2008-2015, I was running 2-3 games per week at a game store. Sometimes I'd have characters from the different groups "cross over", but since I was the only 'audience', nobody cared but me!

I actually had seven level 30 heroes from three different 4e campaigns team up and go through a conversion of the Expedition to the Demonweb Pits. For me, it was like seeing Batman meet Spiderman. For them, it was just D&D with new people.

I hope that, now, someone out there can feel the same thrill that I do when this kind of thing happens.

Running the First Half of ToA

For me, running the Tomb of Annihilation has been filled with a "let's hurry up and get to the actual tomb" feeling. That jungle section will KILL your campaign if you don't keep it light and snappy. I think any sandbox/long journey section in these 5e adventures has that particular pitfall.

Exploring the city of Omu was better. The trickster god shrines didn't come off as well as I'd have liked. I didn't feel like I was able to wrap my head around most of them, except for the Unkh shrine.

The King of Feathers
I am very picky when it comes to using monsters. I'm not a fan of most of the creatures in the city - kobolds, yuan-ti, grung and vegepygmies. I tried not to use them unless it was necessary.

Instead, I focused on the unique t. rex known as the King of Feathers.

I feel like I kind of blew it with that monster. I set it up so that the King of Feathers ate a dude who had a puzzle cube. The group would have to steal the cube from the King's ruined amphitheater while the dinosaur slept!

Pretty interesting, right?

Well, I didn't put enough thought into it. This whole scenario boiled down to two stealth checks. The stealthy character rolled two successes. Puzzle cube stolen, King still asleep. Fart.

When planning an encounter, I think it's always a good idea for a DM to think, "what if they succeed on every roll?"

That's tough, because you don't want to punish the group for succeeding, but you also don't want an anticlimax. Something exciting should come out of it, right?

In this instance, I think I should have foreshadowed a bunch of annoying flying monkeys or an oncoming storm. So then, when the character puts their hands on the puzzle cube and begins to creep away, the monkeys do something loud or lightning strikes - either way, this wakes up the King. Run!

Using the Tomb Maps

I really love running the actual tomb. If you are running this online, you really should consider dropping the $25 to get the tomb maps by Mike Schley. They enhance my online games big time. Each dungeon level is $2 on its own.

You can get some of those maps for free from Dragon+! They might not be there forever, so you should nab them as soon as you can.

Actually Running the Tomb

I absolutely love running this dungeon. As a DM, it is so thrilling to watch the heroes go into a death trap. Will they die? Will they figure it out? Will they do something you never thought of (yes, they will)?

That said, it's so tough to keep everything in your mind at once. Here are things that feel very easy to forget.

The Ceilings are Low: Check out page 126. Ceilings are twelve feet high! The heroes won't be flying out of the reach of earthbound villains.

Know Room 57: You must remember that list of altered spells on page 129! Most of them transport you to room 57 (page 168). I had a single character get sucked into room 57 and the poor guy got murdered by the beast in there. Remember.. this room is full of corpses 6 feet deep and the ceiling is only 12 feet high total, so it's quite cramped in there! Also.. the corpses are difficult terrain. That might be important.

Don't Forget the Grate: In area 5 on level 1, there's an intersection with a lot of stuff in it. One thing that I feel like I didn't portray well enough is the grate in the floor that leads to the underground waterway. It's something the group would definitely be aware of - rushing water noise and the danger of stepping on it. Those who go through that grate can find one really cool room, and I feel like I robbed my players of that experience (though ultimately, I think they'd be happy to skip it).

BE DETACHED: Thank the sweet Lord that I've learned this over the years. When running a trappy dungeon like this, you might find yourself being too excited to have a trap go off. If a group circumvents that trap, you may feel the urge to force them into the trap anyway, just because you think the trap is cool and you really, really want to have it go off.

Don't do it! Follow this credo: "Let the dice fall where they may." My cautious players melted that statue in area 8. Hey, they were careful! They were smart. Let the dungeon be the dungeon, don't let your enjoyment of the game hinge on triggering the death traps.

Also, keep in mind that the aftermath of DM blood lust isn't pretty. On some level, the players can sense when you're going at them hard and resentment can build.

On the flip side, if you're fair and they overcome an obstacle through clever play, they are very happy and they enjoy the session immensely. Even though you might feel that it was a flop because there was no threat to them, they don't feel that way at all.

The Stairs: Those stairs in area 7.. they go down four levels! Each flight of stairs has a plaque or a tomb dwarf or something. It's a real pain in the nuts to run (for me, anyway).

Be ready for the group to want to get a gander at that room all the way at the bottom of the stairs (room 45, with the pit and the gargoyles). You should definitely know that room. It's not too complicated, but if you aren't expecting the group to check it out, you might stumble a bit or bring the game to a screeching halt.

Withers: Running Withers is tricky. He's got that amulet that lets him teleport away like a true villain. But he's only got 45 hit points! My Withers almost died right away.

I find myself in a quandary: The heroes have trashed his office. Where does he go? What does he do now? And.. how many other tomb guardians are in the tomb?

The book leaves it open, noting that "one or two tomb guardians should appear whenever you feel the need for combat." Where do they come from? The group trashed room 27, where the guardians are made.

Don't forget that the tomb guardians are medium-sized. For some reason, I had it in my head that they are large. They're not. The hallways in the tomb are only five feet wide, which means that large creatures can't be marching through the tomb willy nilly.

The Magnet: Running room 8 is deceptively difficult. There's a magnetic suit of armor that affects people who step into the room. How do you get the group to tell you who walks into the room without meta-game tipping them off by asking, "DO YOU GO IN THE ROOM? ALL OF YOU?!" As soon as you ask that, the players will flinch and say, "Uh... no."

The cure to this requires planning. You need to ask that question in rooms where it doesn't matter if the group steps in or not. Make a habit of asking things like: "Do you touch the door with your bare hands?", "Who's first in line?" and, "Are the rest of you right behind him, or is there space between you?". Red herrings!

Another issue with this room is the question of how much metal is enough? What counts? Everyone has a belt buckle, right? Does that drag them in? What about the studs on studded leather?

Players will naturally be inclined to declare that their belt buckles are not metal. If possible, quietly clarify that prior to entry. Just a simple comment while exploring Omu such as, "It is so quiet in the city that you are aware of the clanking of every little metal piece of your gear" goes a long way.


Despite all of my preparing, I make so many mistakes. It drives me nuts. 

Tonight, the group caught me off guard. They went all the way down to the fifth level of the tomb! This stuff was not at all fresh in my head, and now, looking back, I see that I screwed it up really bad.

Lots of little things in this area.
  • Small Dock: There's a small dock here that's just 15 feet long and 5 feet wide. I ran it as if it was a lot bigger.
  • Hungry Door: The door they come out of demands food and won't open again until it is fed. If the group feeds it anything other than a crab, it devours one of the heroes (no roll to hit or anything). I had this thing swallow an adventurer even though nobody tried to feed it anything!
  • Shark Cage: There's a shark cage. If you go underwater in it, an aboleth swims over and tries to enthrall the group. I FORGOT THE SHARK CAGE. It's right there on the map! Yargh.
  • Aboleth Limits: If a fight breaks out, the aboleth does NOT get lair actions. I gave it lair actions!
  • Magic Boats: There's two rowboats. Each has a magic, beneficial effect if you get in it. I forgot this, too.
They Killed It?! The group fought the aboleth, and they actually killed it! It was a very lethal battle, but the group rolled really well. They repeatedly made their saves against the "enslave" power.

In this situation, I'd tend to think that I screwed up the aboleth fight. Four 7th level heroes killed an aboleth? Seems fishy (sorry, couldn't resist).

Looking back, I feel like I ran it fairly competently. I probably should have had it mess with the environment more, like coming up underwater and smashing through the dock from beneath.

The fact that I misrepresented the size of the dock was key. Only three heroes should have been able to stand on it! That changes the entire encounter.

But even then, two members of the group went in the water right away. This group is very water-friendly.

I just wanted to update you. The tomb is really fun! You should definitely check it out if you haven't already, even just to pull out some cool encounters.


jk said...

Great post Sean.

Have you played or seen anything about Rodney Thompson's game Dusk City Outlaws? The High Rollers guys had some great streams of it last year.

The game is all about creating cinematic, heist movie moments. Your discussion of the T-Rex encounter made me think of it. Using challenge and boon dice and some of the mechanics from that game might make those encounters more fun in your D&D game. It's what I'm doing for social encounters and plot moving montages.

Silver Hood said...

Sean, it is okay to make mistakes as a DM. It happens, and even though the DM runs the world, it is really hard to keep the flow going when the players throw you off the course you expected them to take.That dungeon is HUGE and I had a feeling that area was not going to be exactly the same as the book due to our idea to keep going down. The important part was that you kept the game rolling even after we went into uncharted territory. I don't think any of us would've been the wiser of any of these "mistakes" because this whole dungeon is so out to kill you that everything that did happen seemed reasonable with what we had already encountered.

Those mistakes you made sums up my campaigns whenever I DM at my home game. I got one player who always plays that big, tough barbarian/fighter character but he somehow always does the unexpected. (*CURSE OF STRAHD SPOILERS*) When I ran Curse of Strahd, this player was a white dragonborn barbarian. They got to a hallway in the Amber Temple with a 10ft. diameter hole built into it with one of the amber sarcophagi at the bottom. Before the party did anything else, he jumped right in! After taking the fall damage, the four flameskulls woke up and starting attacking. The entire encounter threw me off my game, the party barely survived, and only realized after it was all over that I never stated there was a door OR a sarcophagi down there! Those players did a lot of crazy things in that campaign that threw the module into a loop (like the greedy cleric taking all the sarcophagi powers she could), but that is what made it so entertaining.

If you're curious, Zebediah was thinking that we should go down as far as possible and look for the Soul Monger and destroy it as quickly and carefully as possible. Why go through all the death traps if they can go around (most of) them? Without spoiling too much, our party didn't know anything about the skeleton keys needed to get to the Monger.

I look forward to seeing where this "D&D Infinity Wars" Tomb of Annihilation campaign goes. They better destroy the Soul Monger!

Anonymous said...

Tomb is really tough to DM. I like the adventure, although I think it's bloated and could haven been a lot shorter. The adventures are so long, complicated and are packed with so much stuff it's hard to zero in on what to use and not use.

Totally agree on jungle parts, I used sections / NPC's that I really liked and even then felt like it went on way too long. The group got wings from monks at kir sabal and boom! welcome to Omu.

The PC's are only 6 and are wandering around level 2 of tomb! Part of it was me wanting to get the real adventure rolling, part of it is them just doing whatever is right in front of them oy vey!

I don't like that they can go all the way down and am going to change it so they need each skeleton key to get to the next level, rather than all 5 at the bottom. They need to get some XP and explore not just take stairs down and get killed!

Made lots of little mistakes too just wing it as best I can. They missed King of Feathers but going to think of a way to fit it in.

Ellie A. said...

The tomb looks like it would be hard to DM for sure. I am really enjoying your videos, although I need to get caught up on some of them! Right now I'm prepping to run an "open table" style campaign and I want to say that, having been a regular reader of your blog for a long time, actually seeing how you do things on video has helped me out with how I want to do pacing in my games. I would always read your session recaps and think "how could he get that much done in just one fairly short session?" I'm getting a better idea now of how you push your players to move on to new things or how you get through exposition quickly. I think you move faster than most DMs, which is nice and makes your videos easier to watch (I am easily distracted, lol.) I know that's not really what this post is about but it definitely helped me a lot.

Everyone makes mistakes as a DM... I think the important thing is to keep things moving and not get confused. When I first started DMing if I screwed something up I'd go back or tell the players "Hey, I messed up, it's actually supposed to be this." But I did it so often and for so many unimportant things that my players ended up getting confused and I felt like I was always backtracking.

How does someone get into one of your games? Do you still need a roster of possible players for the future? Or is it just people you already know or people who are already d&d famous (lol)