Review: Tomb of Annihilation

The seventh large storyline adventure for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the Tomb of Annihilation. Advertised as an reimagining of the “classic” deathtrap dungeon, the Tomb of Horrors, the adventure features the return of the infamous D&D villain Acererak (formerly a demilich but now an “archlich” for… reasons). The book also draws inspiration from Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, featuring hexploration through a steaming tropical jungle while searching for ruined cities and confronting the undead, dinosaurs, and undead dinosaurs.

This is not the first update or expansion of the Tomb of Horrors. A sequel was published for 2nd Edition and a mini-campaign was released for 4th Edition. There was an additional follow-up written for Dungeon Magazine (but damned if I can find which issue).

As the summer release, Tomb of Annihilation has a lot of cross-media products. The Tomb and Chult are in the Neverwinter MMO, there’s a board game, there’s dice, and more. Plus WotC has partnered with a bunch of authors on the Dungeon Master’s Guild to product tie-in products with the Tomb of Annihilation, with the new “Adept” program. 

What Its Is

The Tomb of Annihilation is a 256-page hardcover adventure. As one expects from Wizards of the Coast, it features full-colour illustrations and well-drawn maps (all of which are done by Mike Schley, who sells high-resolution copies on his website). The adventure is also available in digital formats, including Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and the new platform D&D Beyond.

The book features 79 pages detailing the jungle peninsula of Chult, 20 pages on a ruined “forbidden city” and its various denizens, 14 pages on a large yuan-ti temple, and a little over 70-pages on the new “Tomb of Horrors”. The book ends with 7 magic items (including a couple Name items from Forgotten Realms lore) and 59 monsters – including several NPCs. (17 or so monsters in this book are reprinted from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, so that book is a nice accessory to own but not required). Also included in the book are two new backgrounds: the anthropologist and the archeologist (the latter background, of course, making no less than six references to Indiana Jones).

The Good

I really like the story of this adventure: the hook of the Death Curse is just excellent. And what Acererak’s final intentions with the stolen souls feels appropriately epic (and is a pretty neat and unexpected throwback to a fun and disgusting monster that was introduced in 3e, which I never expected to see again).

For those unaware, the hook is that resurrection magic is failing: the dead cannot be brought back to life and those already raised from the dead are beginning to decay and rot away. It’s a “Realms-Shaking Event” that has zero impact on the geography, politics, or lives of everyday people. It’s a lovely evil scheme, because it doesn’t overtly threaten “the world” but imperils adventurers old and new.  The story literally puts the heroes of previous campaigns in danger! (Plus iconic characters in the Realms, like Volo, Elminster, Wulfgar, and so many others that have died and come back.) It’s also a dangerous shift in the expectations of D&D, as there’s no coming back from the dead during the adventure.

The plot also means there’s a strong motivation to go into the Tomb beyond just “fortune and glory”, which was always a sticking point of the original module: there was so little motivation to push forward rather than calling it a day after half the party wiped. Acererak’s plan is also nicely passive, not requiring the lich to do anything active beyond sit around and let people die, which feels very much like the Acererak’s modus operandi. Acererak isn’t an active figure in the adventure like Strahd is in Curse of Strahd or omnipresent threat like the elemental cults or demons like in Princes of the Apocalypse or Out of the Abyss. Just like Acererak the demilich didn’t wander around his Tomb causing problems and instead just let adventurers walk to their doom, Acererak the archlich just sets things in motion and lets souls accumulate in his Soulmonger.

The adventure also jumps right into the story. There’s no mini-adventure in Waterdeep setting up the Death Curse, or ocean going precursor scene. Half the story isn’t finding out where in the world the problem is originating. (If this were a Paizo Adventure Path, I would fully expect the first adventure to just set-up the main story, while also getting the PCs to a level they can survive in the jungle.) The adventure just assumes the DM can make-up those scenes or describe that set-up in an opening crawl/ monologue, and the book instead just throws the party right into Port Nyanzaru. Heck, the adventure even includes some advice for starting at level 5 or 9, making this easy to add after Lost Mine of Phandelver or some homebrew adventuring.

The climactic centrepiece dungeon feels appropriately deadly. There are a lot more monsters than the original, and combat plays a much more central role, but there are still a lot of traps. As well as a few puzzles and hidden areas to be discovered. Despite being full of deadly traps, it doesn’t seem as cheap as the original Tomb of Horrors: there aren’t as many “gotcha!” traps that attack you for just opening a door or walking down a hallway (although, there are a few) – and I didn’t see any areas where the dungeon penalizes you for not falling for a trap – and instead the traps are tied to obvious items or places. Which also means exploring the tomb doesn’t descend into poking each square of the floor with a 10-foot pole.  Many of the traps aren’t the 3e/4e style traps that can be defeated through a quick skill check: you can’t just throw dice at the problems to solve every trap. Some thought or problem solving is often required. And the adventure seldom mandates the solution, allowing clever players to think of their own way of bypassing the trap rather than explicitly requiring a particular spell.

There are fewer instant kill effects, and instead more traps that just cause significant injury. In place of the instant kill, many traps simply kill PC outright when they reduce a character to 0 hit points, so they only insta-kill injured characters (or ones with low hit points). It’s a nice compromise and makes the dungeon deadly while also not having a single poor decision or bad roll result in death.

There’s also several nods to the original; players experienced with the original tomb who know what to do when confronted with a Green Devil Face full of blackness or a four-armed stone gargoyle might find themselves either rewarded or caught by a dirty trick for assuming things work the same. These homages feel unintrusive, as if they really were signature elements done by a common craftsmen rather than nostalgia driven throwbacks.

I quite like the design of dungeon, with its large central staircase that lets delvers freely move up and down between the levels, adding a slight element of non-linear exploration. While you cannot leave the dungeon after you enter, moving throughout the dungeon and between floors is not hard. There’s a nice freedom to the exploration, and you’re able to skip a room that is perplexing you and move onward (and downward), coming back to it later, rather than becoming stuck and unable to make any progress through the adventure. And in the (likely) event the party needs to backtrack, the DM doesn’t need to struggle to figure out how they manage to navigate through the entire dungeon again.

There’s even an undead maintenance crew in the dungeon, that moves around resetting traps each day. This is a pretty cool idea, and solves the “problem” of how the famous dungeon that has been explored multiple times still seems pristine. And might result in an ugly surprise when the players encounter a trap they disarmed, only to find it repaired and fully operational.

(Really, in general, the new Tomb solves a lot of problems and complaints I had with the original Tomb. It’s what I hoped they would have done with Tales from the Yawning Portal rather than a straight reprint.)

The adventure retains the list of key NPCs at the start, last seen at the beginning of Storm King’s Thunder. And the Fane of the Night Serpent chapter has a roster of all the occupants of that temple: a summary of who is where, which is pretty damn useful. Sadly, this roster is only done here, and there’s not a matching roster for the other large dungeons. I quite like this “dungeon statblock” approach.

The adventure is very steeped in Realmslore. It’s really feels like a Forgotten Realms adventure and not just a generic adventure that happens to be set in the Realms (or one forced into the Realms). I’ve commented before that Tyranny of Dragons made more changes and retcons to the Realms than it actually used canon,  Princes of the Apocalypse pretty much used the Realms as a source of proper names, while Storm King’s Thunder used a lot of established locations (and a few characters) the plot and events didn’t really tie into the Realms. In contrast, Tomb of Annihilation is a “best of” tour of Chult, including a few characters and locations from past novels and adventures, while also giving several key characters an NPC write-up, including the surial paladin, Dragonbait.

(Shout-out here to the DMsGuild product Surials of the Lost Vale).

Despite the heavy Realmslore, I don’t think moving Tomb of Annihilation to another setting is an unreasonable amount of work. And the main story (the Death Curse) and the Tomb itself could probably be lifted wholesale from this module and dropped into any homebrew world with very minimal effort. Alternatively, if you hate the Death Curse and Acererak, this could also work as a Chult jungle crawl to the city of Omu to defeat the yuan-ti and stop the release of Dendar the Night Serpent, ending with  Fane of the Night Serpent as the “climax”. Heck, the inclusion of “fabled treasure” in the Tomb also means you could just run this as an old school treasure run, dropping the Death Curse and jungle entirely and just having the party start at the dungeon entrance.

The Bad

Spinning off the above, the adventure is Realms-ian. Yes, this is a feature/bug. For those hoping to use this adventure not in the Realms, a little more work is needed than previous adventures. So be warned. And while a brief mention is given about placing this adventure in other worlds, this is very brief and not very detailed.

Similarly, because Acererak is not present throughout 99% of this adventure, much of the adventure is unrelated to the actual Tomb. There could potentially be a lot of wandering and exploration throughout the jungle. Which would be fine if not for the ticking clock of the Death Curse causing people to waste away a little each day. There’s a paradoxical disconnect between the urgency of the main story and the desire to wander in the big sandbox.

The Isle of Dread-style hexcrawl feels like an afterthought. The scale feels too large: one or two hexes each day feels slow for exploring the jungle and means even a direct route to the ruined city might take several weeks. There’s also no method given for determining the terrain of neighbouring hexes: you can’t choose to walk around a swamp until you’ve spend a day trudging through it. However, the rate or travel and frequency of random encounters doesn’t change regardless of the terrain being crossed, so there’s little reason for avoiding swampland or wastes. With the scale, it also means larger sites of interested with be separated by several days in the jungle (and easily missed, again because there’s no way of “seeing” something in an adjacent hex) so there will likely be a lot of filler random encounters. There are quite a number of fun random encounters in the back of the book (which is good, because your players might end up seeing them all) but with a day or two between most encounters, player characters will be at full strength for every encounter and able to very effectively nova: using all their powers that recharge after a long rest in a single encounter.

The centrepiece dungeon is fun but is lacking some of the wild and wacky creativity of older dungeons. There’s a few inventive and original traps and puzzles, but it just lacks the complete gonzo creativity of 1st Edition modules for some ineffable reason. (A subtle constraint on imagination by tighter rules?)

The dungeon has a heavy reliance on poison damage, which is one of the more common immunities heroes can gain. Thankfully, the adventure should end before the adventures hit level 11 and gain heroes’ feast. But druids and monks with have a nice advantage in this dungeon. (Monks especially. Kill monks before they reach the Tomb.)

I didn’t see any obvious locations for “resting” inside the Tomb, or mention of what happens while resting. Given the party cannot teleport out of the Tomb, and cannot leave through the sealed doors, they’re going to be spending their last level or two exclusively in the Tomb, and constant healing might be required.

At the back of the book are a number of handouts that contain clues, riddles, and puzzles as well as spirit granted boons and hireling guides. This is slick, and a nice throwback to the picture booklet from the original Tomb of Horrors. While photocopying these is an option (or “scanning” via a smartphone app), it’s not desirable and PDF copies of these would be nice. However, PDFs of the handouts are currently absent from the website. Hopefully these will be added shortly, like the appendix of NPCs from Storm King’s Thunder. So this complaint might be negated. But people playing the adventure at the time of this writing are out of luck.

The Ugly

There’s no reference to Acererak being a demilich. Instead Acererak is an “archlich”. However, archliches are not to liches like archangels and archenemies are to regular angels and enemies. Archliches are *technically* a rare good lich and not a super lich. Lore fail. I don’t desire much: just a throw away line about his original body becoming a demilich or something. Or a reference to the Dungeon adventure where he became a lich again. Preferably something where it explains how he stopped being a vestige as seen in the 3e book Tome of Magic. This not only feels lazy (like they couldn’t even be bothered to make a halfhearted attempt at continuity), but also deprives the DM of some story. And means Dungeon Masters pressed with the question will have to come up with an answer on their own. But complaining about lore/ continuity problems and massive backstory plot holes in 5e is pretty much unending: for an edition so built upon nostalgia and the past it sure likes to play fast and loose with what came before…

Reiterating my Volo’s Guide to Monsters whine: grungs instead of grippli… booooo! Grungs are also a Greyhawk monster – originating in products from that setting.

Like Storm King’s Thunder before it, Tomb of Annihilation features a sprawling sandbox full of interesting locations, but the average party is likely to only encounter two or three by chance, maybe gaining hooks for a couple more in Port Nyanzaru. A large chunk of the sandbox chapter will be skipped.

Curiously, this adventure also makes use of experienced based levelling rather than milestones, like the previous adventures. (I like this, as DMs can always choose to ignore the xp if they want to use milestones, but adding encounters if they want to use xp rather than milestones is annoying.) However, I’m not sure if there are enough encounters to reach the 5th/6th level expected before characters begin exploring Omu.

Seeing the hexes on the map in the book is a pain in the ass. They’re very light in the jungle sections. While there is the larger poster map, this isn’t useful if the players are using said map.

The Awesome

The adventure justifies the existence of the original Tomb of Horrors, implying it was designed to attract and kill adventurers, trapping their souls so Acererak could “feed” on their deaths to sustain himself. (I believe this was also an element of 2e’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors.) I love this because it fixes the ridiculous trolling nature of the original Tomb, as a tomb actually designed to safeguard an immortal being and its treasure wouldn’t include clues or riddles. Or breathable air for that matter… It justifies why Acererak would allow adventures into his tomb at all.

In addition to Acererak, the big villains behind the story are a coven of hags, each of which is given a unique and fantastically creepy description. There’s some great imagery associated with them, not the least being the trio of messed up and horrific dolls that I just adore. To me, the Sewn Sisters are almost worth the price of admission.

There are quite a few obscure and deep cut monsters. Like the almiraj, lobsterfolk, kamadan, su-monster, yellow musk creeper, and zorbo. Despite the relatively few monster books, there’s a surprising number of “bad” monsters that have been updated for 5e. Plus there’s a wealth of new dinosaurs, which is excellent (especially for wild shaping druids and ranger looking for a different beast companion). This includes both the deinonychus and velociraptor, with the former being Medium and the latter being Tiny: the book eschews the Jurassic Park mis-naming trope! And there is a T-rex with feathers! Who is also legendary! That’s pretty awesome.

As mentioned, the book includes advice for starting the adventure at levels other than just 1st, including suggestions for 5th and 9th levels. I like this, as Tomb of Annihilation really feels like it would work nicely as a faster paced 5th to 10th level adventure. Or employing a “best of” approach and running it for 9th level PCs who are much more likely to have a character suffering under the Death Curse. I’m tempted to do the latter… Or even run it at level 12 or 13, with fewer rests permitted in the final Tomb.

The book includes a list of adventure hooks for various backgrounds from the Player’s Handbook and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. There are fifteen hooks in all, so not every background is hooked, but the average party should have a couple PCs given an additional motivation to push them on this adventure. I like this much more than generic hooks, and they really feel much more tied to the characters. It’s a great idea.

As mentioned earlier, there is a poster map. It’s a little tricky to remove without tearing (like all perforated poster maps) but it doesn’t have the discoloured spots caused by the removable adhesive they’d otherwise use. Go slow, be careful, and a ruler can be very helpful.

Like most of the FR adventures, this book has a small section on the five Organized Play factions, all of which seem to operate as far away as Chult. Meh. But this subsection is also put to creative use by detailing three other factions that have a role in the adventure and can be found in the jungle. It’s cool but also useful, since that information is all in one place, and it’s not just trying to force that role onto an existing faction.

An appendix in the back is crammed with random encounters. Crammed! Often, these can be either combat or roleplaying encounters, but also included are small discoveries (such as useful plants or caches of goods) but there is also a random treasure table. Nice! I like the idea of adventure specific treasure. And there’s also a random table of dead explorers that can be discovered in the jungle! So rather than being told again and again that the jungles can be deadly, the players can be shown how deadly the jungle is!

As the adventure is fairly lethal (and prevents you from resurrecting fallen characters) there are suggestions for replacement characters. There are a few locations in the titular tomb were you can get slip in a replacement PC, and there is even advice for doing so. But my favourite is in the jungle, where the witch doctor/ Voodoo priestess stereotype Nanny Pu’pu can “resurrect” a dead characters as thinking zombies. That’s just cool. (Part of me wishes there was a few more options for either offsetting the Death Curse for those players who really don’t want to start a new character, or a means to resurrect multiple characters after the end of the module, but I imagine the finality of death is part of this adventure’s appeal.)

Final Thoughts

The Tomb of Annihilation adventure is not for everyone. It’s an update of the very old school killer dungeon crawl, applying modern design standards to the deathtrap dungeon while retaining much of the lethality. If you’re a player who *likes* your character it’s not an adventure to play in, and if you’re a DM that hates killing characters it’s not the best adventure to run. Similarly, if you hate the idea of a big sandbox or exploring an unmapped wilderness hex by hex, it’s also not a good adventure.

Except… if you hate deathtrap dungeons, there’s still a lot of pulpy lost world goodness in the first half. And if you hate hexploration, there’s a lot of standard dungeon crawling in the second half. While the product aimed at fans of both styles of play, you’re not required to use the entire adventure. If you skip half the adventure, there’s still a decent amount of content to be found. That is, if you’re okay with buying content that might not see use at the game table.

The adventure isn’t perfect, but it has a lot going for it: it’s taking three classic modules and reimagining and integrating them seamlessly while also telling an original tale with a unique hook that is very tied to the tropes of D&D and almost perfectly involving a classic villain. It’s a really great adventure that should easily become a modern classic. It’s challenging and deadly without being unfair or taking cheap shots, while encouraging clever solutions and careful play without requiring checking every square in a dungeon. It even manages to have a deadly grinder that still includes a few interesting NPCs while also providing an opportunity to learn much of the backstory without an NPC descending into a prolonged monologue.

 

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