Dungeons & Dragons Online

A player’s perspective on DMing Tomb of Annihilation – problems and solutions in the module

Recently my playgroup completed the module Tomb of Annihilation, which sets a group of adventurers loose into the jungle of Chult in order to end the Death Curse, which is slowly killing those who have been resurrected, prevents resurrection magic, and prevents the souls of anyone who has died from passing on. Completing this module took us about 2 and a half years (we are all fairly busy), and all-in-all I'd say it is a fine module and I'd recommend DMs run their players through it. I felt that DMs might benefit from a player's perspective here on this module, as in my experience we usually get feedback from other DMs who are running/have run the module. The module is great, but it is not without its problems, for which I will provide prospective DMs solutions.

Problem: There is precious little to actually do in Port Nyanzaru. The city is described in wonderful detail, but there is actually fairly little here for players to do – only three of the listed side quests, “Collect a Debt”, “Help a Dyeing Man”, and “Save an Innocent Man” ostensibly occur in Port Nyanzaru, and they don’t really have much to do with the central premise of the module. The rest of the listed side quests are designed to get the party out into the jungle. I was shocked when our DM basically gave us one session in Port and then shoved us out the door into the jungle – I thought we would be spending much more time in this amazing city! It was a real let-down, given how big Port is, and how thoroughly described it is in the module.

Solution 1: use the listed factions to create intrigue in and around the city. A number of factions are listed (pgs. 28-31) that can be played off one another in unique and interesting ways. Having your players join or be a part of those organizations will foster some great RP and give you ideas for future storylines/encounters in Chult. For example:

  • The Emerald Enclave wants to destroy the undead because they upset the natural order of the jungle, but oppose all who would pillage Chult of its natural resources. They support The Order of the Gauntlet but oppose the Zhentarim.
  • The Order of the Gauntlet seeks to destroy all evildoers in Chult, but are uncompromising zealots who often act without regard for native Chultans. They support the Emerald Enclave, but oppose the Ytepka Society and the Red Wizards.
  • The Zhentarim hire out mercenaries to protect Port Nyanzaru and its logging and mining camps, but are secretly plundering the hinterlands of its natural resources and treasures. They oppose all factions, but their sellswords are indispensable to the city's prosperity and safety.
  • The Red Wizards of Thay are primarily looking to steal the Soulmonger for their master Szass Tam, but are also incidentally pilfering artifacts and magical lore from Chult. They oppose the Zhentarim, who compete with them for treasure.
  • The Ytepka Society seek to preserve the social order in Port Nyanzaru and remove foreign influence. They support the Emerald Enclave but oppose the Zhentarim and Order of the Gauntlet.
  • The Harpers operate secretly to prevent the abuse of power, magical or mundane. They support the Emerald Enclave, Order of the Gauntlet, and Ytepka Society, and oppose the Zhents and Red Wizards.
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Solution 2: give the players more to do in Port Nyanzaru, and provide reasons for them to return.

  • The city is occasionally attacked by undead, and half of the population lives in slums outside of the city walls proper. Have zombies shamble out of the jungle and force players to defend civilians.
  • Consider buying third-party material for questing in Port Nyanzaru.

Problem: The module is designed to kill your PCs. There is no resurrection magic at all, so death is effectively permanent. Once you are inside the actual Tomb of the Nine Gods, the traps are exceedingly lethal and there is a better-than-good chance that one or more of your PCs will die, full stop.

Solution: discuss how to deal with lethality at Session 0. Players who don't realize that this module is brutal may get upset if and when their characters die. To forestall character death, I recommend telling your players:

  • Powergame. Mechanically optimized PCs will stand a better chance of contributing to party survival. One of our PCs wasn't optimized and it showed. Non-optimized characters did and will drag down the rest of the party.
  • Never fight fair. PCs should focus their attacks on one enemy at a time, throw caltrops or ball bearings on the floor, throw monsters into traps – whatever it takes.
  • Have another character ready to go. This will keep the game going and have the player focused on their new character instead of fuming over how they died.

Problem: Some spells don’t work in the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Many divination spells will fail (augury, find traps, clairvoyance, commune, and divination), as will transmutation spells that alter stone (passwall, stoneshape). Teleportation spells beyond misty step also fail and will actually banish the caster alone to a room that may very well end up killing them. This is to keep players from “cheating” their way past the dungeon’s many traps and puzzles. This is probably for the best, but it does mean that characters relying on such spells are in for a bad time.

Solution: Tell your players ahead of time those spells won't be of use. This will allow them to select new spells or replace old spells that won't be of use in the Tomb. I would definitely not want to run a Diviner wizard in this module, so knowing what I won't be able to use later on will definitely help optimize a PC and maximize the party's potential.

Problem: Players won’t remember to play with the Trickster God flaw. The Trickster God flaw is an interesting and cool element, but we forgot about it most of the time. Our DM never brought it up, and never made it relevant.

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Solution: force the flaw to be relevant.

  • Ask players "What do you or Papazotl do?" to remind them that there's a Trickster God living rent-free inside their head, and that they should RP accordingly.
  • Some flaws may be very dangerous, like Wongo's or I'jin's. A player continuously RPing that flaw may very well kill themselves and others. Force those players to make a DC 13 Charisma saving throw on occasion and act like Wongo/I'jin would in their current predicament if they fail. This keeps the flaw relevant, but keeps it from being a constant threat to life and limb.

Problem: the traps in the Tomb are so lethal that they waste time. We spent 2 sessions entirely in one room, and there were multiple times where we entered a room, wasted an hour unsuccessfully trying to solve it without triggering anything, and then left to go check another room. I cannot stress to you how mind-numbingly boring an experience this is. Not every trap is instant death, but many will outright kill you, so the module encourages a slow, methodical playstyle that is not fun for some players. I played a fighter, and let me tell you, not being able to do what my class is good at really, really, really grated on me and bored me to tears. I had more fun exploring Omu and the jungle than I had in the Tomb itself, which is probably not what the designers want, nor should you.

Solution 1: lower trap damage, or spread it out over several rounds. The traps will still be dangerous even if they dealt 50% less damage because there are many traps throughout the dungeon. Lowering trap damage also encourages the players to explore the dungeon, and prevents them from having to waste time taking short/long rests to recover after every single death-trap. For example:

  • Queen Napaka's tomb can instead deal 3d12 necrotic damage every round for 3 rounds (DC 18 Con for half damage) and lock players inside the room while it happens.
  • Have the rollers in the Earth Cell deal 8d10 force damage every round a PC is stuck between them, instead of an immediate, one-and-done 24d10 damage.

Solution 2: throw more wandering monsters at the party. The wandering monsters will weaken the players and make even weakened traps deadly. It will also prevent them from getting bored – if players are focused too long on a room, throw some monsters at them and make something happen!

Problem: Some traps are poorly designed. If you mess with Queen Napaka’s body or steal her scepter, her corpse spits out black gas that fills the now-locked room and everyone must make Con saving throws or take necrotic damage….and that is it. If you fall into the rollers inside the Earth Cell, you take 24d10 damage…and that is it. Worse than killing you, some traps don't provide a means of further engagement – the player is essentially just a passive spectator to their character's suffering and death.

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Solution: incorporate monsters and skill challenges.

  • The fight against Queen Napaka would be far more engaging if she rose as a mummy with maxxed-out HP and coughed up two locust swarms every round.
  • If players could make a DC 18 Athletics check to pry themselves out from between the rollers (after the initial damage), and then make a DC 18 Acrobatics check to jog on top of it while it spins, you provide them with a reasonable means to survive AND time to think about how to get out of the situation they are in!

Problem: The Soulmonger+Atropal fight is insanely difficult. The atropal’s wail is an absolutely back-breaking ability that stands a good chance of TPK’ing your party. Failing the very high DC 19 Con saving throw bestows a level of exhaustion. Once a player hits level 3 exhaustion they have disadvantage on saving throws, all-but-guaranteeing failure when the Atropal wails again. I was actually pretty upset over dying this way because failure becomes nigh guaranteed at a certain point, and there actually isn’t anything that can be done about it. DM fiat saved us here – the Trickster Gods possessing us restored us to full vitality when we died at level 6 exhaustion.

Solution: incorporate the Trickster Gods into the Soulmonger+Atropal fight. Our DM's pity actually reveals a really good way help your players with this fight.

  • The Trickster Gods grant 50 temporary HP at the start of that player's turn.
  • If a PC fails their saving throw against the Atropal's wail, the Trickster God sacrifices part of tis essence to protect them, halving the number of temporary HP (rounded down) that that player would gain at the start of their turn. The atropal and Soulmonger both deal a lot of damage, so protection from the wail indirectly makes them both deadlier, and makes Acererak deadlier too when he shows up. The Soulmonger can also drop players into the lava, so this provides another level of protection.

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