Borderlands: Tomb of Annihilation

The last six or seven sessions of my Borderlands homegame were subsumed with the Tomb of Annihilation. I last discussed my game here with the entry into the Tomb. This week, my group finally emerged victorious from the Tomb. Surprisingly, with no PC casualties, although there were numerous close calls.

There will be some spoilers…

The Tomb

As I mentioned in previous blogs, the Tomb of the Nine Gods was added to the campaign so the Swashbuckler character could complete a “grand quest” and legendary deed. And because I liked the dungeon.

The party was mostly level 8 when they entered with one level 7 character and one level 9. They emerged at level 10 with one at 9.

The Tomb itself is a fairly standard dungeon crawl, albeit one focused on traps and puzzles. There are several puzzles that are relatively obvious and many that require painful trial and error to solve. Progressing through the dungeon really requires paying attention to the table, and knowing when the players are growing frustrated and require a clue or some help to progress, or even a suggestion to take a step back and try another chamber.

I found the nine spirits of the trickster gods useful for offering suggestions or clues. One bit of advice for DMs considering running the adventure is to print out a cheat sheet for yourself with the names and personalities of the various gods, as well as the player currently inhabited by that spirit. Be sure to speak through the spirits when giving advice, making suggestions that fit their personality, and occasionally bad advice.

Honestly, the hardest part of the dungeon was dealing with Trap Anticlimax. In most instances, when you solve a trap successfully… nothing happens. Or nothing major happens. You solve the puzzle and “win” by not taking an assload of damage. It’s tempting for the players to keep poking and prodding at the trap to see what happens. Or to see if they missed some treasure of bonus puzzle. There are a few places where you can show what could have happened, such as the chamber with the blind painters. That can be used to highlight successfully bypassed traps that could have been lethal, and satisfy some curiosity.

The final subsection of the dungeon is neat, because the hallway with paths is a lovely callback to how the original dungeon started. Given I ran this chamber immediately after Acererak, I should have narrated the hall and reduced it to a cut scene. The players were exhausted and just wanted out, and the fight with Mr. Fox was just a drag (especially as he wouldn’t use any of his fire spells in the library). This chamber is works better as the start of an epilogue, the session following Acererak’s defeated, when the players have had a break (if not the PCs).

Acererak

The final fight was very climactic and challenging, but luck and skill aided my PCs. I chose to swap out a few of Acererak’s low level spells, as he had no good ones to cast at-will via legendary actions. As a dick move, I opted for thunderwave for one, which killed an NPC and almost launched another PC into lava. I also tried to play him smart, having him use timestop, drop a cloudkill spell at the edge of the party, and then animate a skeleton at the edge of the cloud that could be detected and serve as a decoy.

In the end, the grippli rogue killed him by quaffing a potion of frost giant strength and punting him off the balcony into the lava. Turns out Legendary Resistances don’t do much against an opposed ability check… This was actually kind of amusing, being an absurd end to an enemy as serious as Acererak. “Nooo!! Not like this… not a frog!”

The Atropal

Disappointingly, there is no miniature for the penultimate boss of the dungeon. Which shouldn’t be much of a surprise as I’m sure WizKids didn’t want to release a plastic mini of an undead fetus the size of an elephant.

As this was such a key opponent, I opted to make my own, using a dollar store doll and some two-part sculpting putty. I’d never used Green Stuff before, so this was a challenge.

I initially hoped for a ceramic figurine of a baby to serve as a base, but settled on a plastic doll.

It was a little less pretty after I cut off its hair. The head was squishy, so I covered it in extra putty to make that more firm. Then I used a couple different types of putty to sculpt and make the body deformed, adding a new nose and eyes as well as lumps and veins. I used a length of bendy metal wire for the umbilical cord, ramming that into the belly and covering the wire with putty.

I was initially unhappy with the result, as it didn’t look horrific enough and looked really uneven. But I hoped a layer of primer would improve the overall look.

Which it did.

I was reasonably happy with this result and how the various elements blended. I had been worried that the green stuff plastered on top would be too obviously “tacked on” and the seams too visible. The primer helped fill these gaps nicely and conceal the imperfections.

Sadly, at this point I realized the legs didn’t have nearly enough deformities and lumps. I had to paint those little details on.

I spent an entire episode of Critical Role painting away, tweaking and adding some extra details via colour, such as veins to the legs. Doing some shading and giving it a dark wash.

Seeing the final product made me much happier. It was relatively solid and the asymmetrical features popped. Adding a dash of colour to the veins along the umbilical cord also made that stand out.

Then I had to wait for well over a month to spring it on my players. Which went very well, as they loved the final product and were surprised by the revelation:

Onward

From here, my game returns to the land of homebrew.

One of the PCs had the goal of rebuilding their hometown. I plan on making that the focus for a session or two. Really, however long it takes before the PCs start making more quests or find something to distract themselves. Rather than just dumping gold on the town and narrating the reconstruction, I’m letting the PCs place houses and erect a wall, and potentially getting invested in the settlement with a sense of ownership.It’s something for them to spend their money on, and allows them the option to potentially build a keep or fortress. Or just house a bunch of people.

Another other reason is that building a town generally take a long period of time. One of my players aims to greatly reduce the cost via magic and liberal use of wall of stone, but even then rebuilding a small village will occupy several months. This advances the timeline, so the campaign spans several years rather than a couple months.

One of the themes and ideas I wanted to explore with this campaign was the life and career of a band of adventurers. It’s their entire lives until retirement, or until the group separates. Not just a single story based on ending a threat or stopping some foe, but something more akin to the Legend of Hercules, where he performs numerous fantastic deeds and overlaps with the story of other heroes. One of the ways I’m planning to reflect their growing fame is through songs and tavern tales. Having people whisper about their deeds, and folks recognize them by sight then ask questions about their deeds.

Tying the adventures to a town for a few months helps with the campaign’s goal: people in need will seek out the party based on their reputation. It’s one thing to hear rumours of a dragon attacking a village, it’s another for people to track you down based on your name.