Thoughts on D&D’s Tomb of Annihilation
Full disclosure: My copy of Tomb of Annihilation and the ToA: Dice Set were provided by Wizards of the Coast prior to release for review.
Oh man am I excited about Tomb of Annihilation!
For those who might not know, ToA is D&D’s latest adventure book set in the jungle peninsula of Chult. It takes heavy inspiration from Tomb of Horrors, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Jungles of Chult, and a variety of other D&D adventures of old. Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time also consulted on it (and it shows!).
Much of the press coming out about this book focusses on the adventure’s exoticism and its lethality in equal measure; “A death curse lies upon Faerun where characters can’t be brought back from the dead! All clues lead to a colourful dinosaur-filled jungle crawl with deadly traps everywhere! Expect to be killed, over and over again!”
Now that I have the book, have read through it, and have run parts of it, is it worth your time and money?
“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor…”
There is a ton going on in this adventure.
With the exception of Curse of Strahd, this is the D&D’s strongest entry in their series of hardcover adventure books. It has more good ideas per page than any other entry, and despite the clear inspiration it takes from old AD&D books, it features the most original content.
A Killer Hook. The inciting incident of a ‘Death Curse’ that prevents raise dead spells from working, and causes resurrected characters to slowly waste away, is great. It provides a weighty reason to travel across the world to Chult, and it remains a constant threat in the game because player character death is a very real possibility.
The Best of Old and New. ToA is a very old school style of adventure. Not only is it a gonzo wilderness hexcrawl where survival skills and mapping are big components of play, but it also features several trap and puzzle filled dungeons that require (and encourage!) player skill and clever thinking in order to solve. On top of this, a new “Meatgrinder Mode” is introduced that raises the Death Save DC from 10 to 15, making for a much more lethal adventure that feels at home with OSR adventures.
To balance this out, a variety of options have been made available to more narrative focused groups to take advantage of: unique and weird ways around permadeath, loads of interesting and challenging NPC’s, and a variety of story-filled side quests to keep RP loving players happy amid all the dungeon crawling. ToA really does provide the best of both worlds with this. To those worried that this adventure will be too ‘old school’ for them, rest assured.
Thoughtful, Self-Contained Design. ToA is one of D&D’s better organized fifth edition books. Like Curse of Strahd it’s an adventure isolated to a single region. It’s a big region, but not having to worry about or rely on the rest of the Forgotten Realms’ world and tropes makes things much simpler and more direct. This extends to the book itself. The hex map of Chult has been provided both filled in with all the locations, and also blank for players to fill in as they play. Best of all, both these versions are provided as a poster map!
All the important random tables and encounter tables are easily accessible in the back of the book, and a helpful table of all the major NPC’s (with name pronunciation guides) are available at the front of the book. This is a fantastic design decision and is very helpful.
(EDIT) New Player Options. Two new backgrounds are provided in ToA: The Anthropologist and the Archeologist. The former allows a PC to examine a foreign culture/species’ language and customs, allowing them to adopt them for a time to make communication possible. The latter has a lot of Indiana Jones flavour and grants the PC a special dungeon exploring tool or item.
All the Best Monsters. ToA has dinosaurs. A lot of them. It has tribal goblins with stacking powers. It has flying monkeys, unicorn bunnies, evil drop bears, an entire race of catpeople, man-eating plants, microscopic leeches, clouds of flesh-eating insects, and more! Plus, almost all of them can appear as undead as well. ToA provides more interesting monsters and creatures in a handful of pages than most bestiaries/monster manuals have in their entirety! Plus, the important monster stats from existing sources (Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide, etc) are provided in the back of the book as well, which means less switching between books!
“The horror…the horror…”
Not everything about the book is great though.
My usual gripes with WotC D&D books are still present. Dungeon maps aren’t labelled with their room names or contents, dungeon text still runs a little long, and the hex-map encounters could stand to be organized to a single page for easy reference.
What sucks is that what is otherwise an exemplary and interesting adventure is hurt by this lack of organization. The dungeons themselves are fantastic, relying on interesting and novel traps. Having them be laid out and presented with a greater emphasis on ‘ease of use’ would have made them much more accessible, in what is otherwise a book made with an eye towards DM accessibility.
“…if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me”
Folks, Tomb of Annihilation is really freakin’ cool.
I feel like I say “No, really, this time this is the new D&D book you should get” a lot. With each new D&D release my initial impressions are positive, and they sour as time goes on.
I’ll say that Tomb of Annihilation does a lot of things right by me and by my taste in adventures.
It’s weird and gross and different and it doesn’t fall back on medieval fantasy tropes and cliches like a lot of Forgotten Realms stuff does. It’s better organized and more useful than most D&D adventure books, and you definitely get your money’s worth in terms of how much adventure content you get.
If you’re at all curious about this book, buy it!