At the time of this writing, I'm preparing to run Tomb of Annihilation for the first time. It's been out for a good 5 years, and I've played scenarios from it, but I've yet to run it. As I read through the book to prepare for the game, I've decided to post about my impressions. This review contains lots of spoilers.
I love a good city as a setting, and Port Nyanzaru feels like it could be a fun place to explore. It doesn't feel as easy to digest as Red Larch from Princes of the Apocalypse but then again it's a lot bigger. There's not much to do in Chult, but there's some expectation that the player characters may venture out into the jungles of Chult for a little reconnaissance, and then return to Port Nyanzaru. There are 23 locations described, along with vendors, activities, several residents, and the structure of its government.
Oddly, the book doesn't provide much guidance as to what players are meant to do in Port Nyanzaru. With the ticking time bomb of the rapidly declining health of everyone on the planet who's ever been resurrected, I'd be surprised if most players meander around in the city for long. The one clear task they're given is to find a guide, and even that's optional. I personally dislike running henchmen, so there's no way I'm signing up as an NPC escort for most or all of the campaign, especially an NPC who's meant to have a bunch of answers that players ought to have to figure out for themselves. There's no way I'm playing that role. I have two theoretical fixes, neither of which I've actually tried yet:
There's a dozen "side quests" provided in this chapter. These are less side quests as they are addendum quests, because they usually involve goals the players can just keep in mind while pursuing their main goal. I love this idea in theory. In practice, I know my game group and how rubbish they are at taking notes and remembering plot points from one week to the next. A side quest would only muddle the story, and there will be plenty of additional goals as they venture into the jungle. With any other group, though, I think these side quests would be great.
Chult is ruled by Merchant Princes, which for some reason get several pages and a map. I don't understand how these Merchant Princes are meant to fit into any story or side quest. I'm not sure why they're mentioned, I don't know why anyone would interact with one, or end up in one's house (one of which is mapped).
Well, I guess it's data about the city, and if you use the city as a homebase then you never know what'll happen. Fair play, could be useful.
One of the coolest things about Chult is that it's a pulp fantasy jungle setting. It's like journeying to the center of the Earth, or to the land that time forgot. There are all kinds of terrible beasts, which is pretty typical of a D&D setting, so what oddly makes Chult unique in a world of horrific threats is the presence of dinosaurs. Whether you consider yourself a fan of dinosaurs or not, they feel suddenly significant when they appear in an isolated corner of your game world. As a player, you may have seen aboleths, basilisks, and chimera, but have you ever faced a dinosaur? Quite possibly, you haven't. As a Dungeon Master, I don't usually stop at the dinosaur section of the Monster Manual when looking for a random encounter. But I will in Chult!
The first possible encounter with dinosaurs is here, in Port Nyanzaru. Some dinosaurs are tenuously domesticated, and so player characters are likely to see them being used as beasts of burden around the city.
There are also rules for a dinosaur race, which seems like a mildly fun minigame. Each player in the race makes an Animal Handling check. Upon success, their dinosaur advances according to the dinosaur's speed (listed in a table on page 32). A player has the option to spur their dinosaur to go faster, but if the Animal Handling check fails by 5, then the dinosaur goes berserk. I'm eager to try this.
I love a good rumour table. Frog God Games has the best rumour tables, because they contain both true and false information (marked appropriately for the DM). The rumour table at the end of this chapter is all true, so if you have to provide your own false leads if you want them. Even so, this is a useful table and it's useful throughout the book. In a way, a good rumour table is one of the answers to the "problem" of exploration. Need rewards for players interacting with their environment? Roll on the rumour table.
The next chapter is one of the longest in the book, because it's all about the peninsula of Chult.