The Tomb of Annihilation is D&D at the top of its game.
Alrighty. I am going to try to keep this as spoiler free as possible for the first part–there comes a point where I absolutely will spoil the heck out of this adventure, and if you’re going to be playing this, you might wanna wait and discover it for yourself. So be warned, but it’s safe for now.
Every now and then something comes along that reminds us why we love the things we do. You get your love letters to cinema, to video games, to theatre, to music–basically, something that captures the spirit of the thing so well it refreshes and excites and it catches you a little off guard.
The Tomb of Annihilation is a love letter to D&D in the best way. It is a story that sets out to show you what you can do with the medium of “A D&D Campaign.” It plays to its strengths and builds on a history of adventures like the Tomb of Horrors or the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, but it doesn’t ever fall into cloying self-indulgent nostalgia. It incorporates elements of those classic adventures, but builds its own path. It’s 5th Edition at its finest–this adventure gets it.
It gets what we love about D&D. It manages to breathe new life into the game–gives players a place to explore, hands them tools to do it with, and then shows them how to have fun in that world. There’s a sense of adventure that pervades each of the book’s 5 Chapters. Everywhere you turn, there’s a cool location or a unique NPC or some sequence of events that makes you excited to get out there and play.
It says a lot about the quality of the writing and design, that how these characters act–heck, how the world feels is immediately apparent just from reading the book. More than Volo’s Guide, more than any of the other big storyline adventures, this one is as fun to read as it is to play. It transports you to the jungles of Chult, to the rumbling, dinosaur-specked streets of Port Nyanzaru. As I was reading the book to work up this review, I kept laughing out loud. That’s how compelling it is.
A big part of why it feels so invigorating is that the Tomb of Annihilation isn’t afraid of a little imagination or risk. It isn’t worried about playing up how dire its threat is, or how exotic is locations are–it lets the rules do that for you. There’s a death curse, but the adventure never harps on this fact, it just lays out the information for the PCs to discover, then builds consequences into the mechanics. Same with the locations–it ensures that there’s something to do everywhere you go. I won’t go into spoilers yet, but, this book is ripe with activities that should appeal to even the most jaded adventurers.
From beginning to end, this is a masterclass in adventure building. Tomb of Annihilation takes players into the forgotten lands of Chult and really brings it to life. If I had to pick the one thing this book does best: it captures the character of the setting. As you read through the book, it gives you the tools you need to get out there and play–and it encourages you to use them. I can’t say enough about how much fun it is to read this book.
So if you’ve been on the fence, go pick it up today. I can’t recommend it hard enough. And so ends the spoiler free part of the review.
Alright, you’ve been warned. Scroll on at your own risk.
At the heart of the Tomb of Annihilation is the Lich, Acererak, who has concocted a soul-trapping artifact that captures the souls of the dead and stations away the life of those who’ve been brought back from the dead. It’s a uniquely D&D curse that acts as a constant pressure for the adventure. Earlier, I said the adventure is a masterclass in design and here’s a great example. The curse manifests as a ticking clock for characters affected by it. At the start of each day, your maximum hit points are reduced by one if you’ve ever been brought back from the dead. Typically, this will only ever affect higher level characters, so low level PCs who might be wiped out after a scant few days aren’t just ground into soul goo, but even high level characters with lots of hp might be weaker by the time the end of the adventure rolls around.
Because completing this adventure takes time. They factor in distance and travel times. Setting out into the jungle takes time and effort–and the adventure doesn’t handhold. Players will have to find the right peeps and talk to them to figure out where to go, and there’s every chance they mess it up and die anyway. But the game doesn’t care–it has this failure state accounted for in a couple of ways. There’s always the backup character route–but there’s also a magical ritual known by one of the NPCs, a green hag named Nanny Pu’Pu, who can raise fallen characters as zombies that retain their personalities and abilities–though even these will decay away after a time.
Tomb of Annihilation doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does it have any qualms about letting the characters be evil–or good–or suffer the consequences of their actions. One of my favorite side quests involves saving a man who may or may not be guilty of a crime from death by dinosaur, but if the party intervenes, the authorities and the public take a dim view of their meddling.
And that’s not even touching on how deadly the game gets in the second half of the adventure when characters actually enter the tomb.
But, before we get too carried away, let me Tallgrass about the amazingness that is the first half of this adventure. The Tomb of Annihilation is a secret location, so hidden that players will have to search for it. And, as the platitude goes, sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. And what a journey this book takes players on. Starting with Port Nyanzaru, which is this vibrant city full of dinosaurs and merchant process and thieves guilds and Zhentarim. You can feel the city breathing, practically. When characters encounter NPCs, it’s often in the middle of something, giving the appearance of a much bigger city existing even when the characters aren’t around.
Seriously, this is some of the best worldbuilding I can think of. Again, the book knows what it’s set out to do, and it spends time delivering. There are tons of NPC guides, sidequests, and interesting locations–there’s even a dinosaur racing minigame, all of which the book acknowledges your players may not be into. But it doesn’t care, it’s here to build a world to be evoked and explored.
Once they find a guide (easily some of the best characters I’ve seen in one of these) it’s off to the jungle–with no guarantee of success. And here’s another thing the book does well. It allows for failure. Picking the wrong guide might not get you where you need to go. You could end up being led into an ambush, or on an Ahab-like quest for vengeance against a monster that has basically nothing to do with the main storyline. There’s a dwarf whose arm has been bitten off by a dragon, who claims he’ll lead the characters where they want to go, but in fact will only take them to the dragon’s lair.
But even failure to get where you’re meant to go leads to something interesting. No matter what direction you head off in, there’s always something to do. And it might be deadly. It might be silly. At the best of times it’s both, like the goblin village that’s set up to be catapulted away when threatened.
At every turn there are characters with their own agendas and interesting things to do–but they never get in the way. They’re all there to gently guide players towards the Tomb, until there’s no escape.
As for the Tomb itself, well, it too is masterfully crafted. From the puzzles to the traps to the characters lurking within, this dungeon feels very much like the big threat of the game. It’s spiteful, but never so unfair that there’s no point in trying. But it is unfair at times. When it’s warranted–after all, this Tomb is the lair of Acererak.
Anyway, I could spend another thousand words singing the praises of this book. It’s full of “minor locations” that are each an adventure unto themselves. But it never feels overwhelming or overcrowded. There’s a clear path to navigate through whatever diversions your players take, bit there’s enough room to let them get distracted by something shiny for a little while.
Take the Grung village of Dungrunglung, whew players step into a village ruled by a mad king, and can potentially get caught up in a three way power struggle and might end up impersonating the grung goddess. Or the Pterafolk lair/mini-dungeon of the Firefinger. Each of these could easily be a session unto themselves, and certainly we’ll be seeing more to flesh out Chult from the DM’s Guild Adepts.
What I’m trying to get at is, this book is incredible, and players and gms alike will find something in it. It inspires and delights and excites. It makes you want to play D&D and have fun again. So what are you waiting around for, go pick it up right now.
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