Tomb of Annihilation chapter 3

Module review

gaming dungeon modules 5e dnd

At the time of this writing, I'm running Tomb of Annihilation for the first time. As I read through the book, I've decided to post about my impressions. Although I started this review before the campaign started, I'm now running this module (using Pathfinder 2, incidentally) for my weekly session, but this review is focused on what I'm reading. I don't intend for this to be a report on how my game is going. This review contains lots of spoilers.

Chapter 3 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a real relief after the first two chapters. After reading Chapters 1 and 2, I was steadily growing more and more anxious about the intent of this module, especially the part that involves getting the player characters to the place where the plot is. What's the intended failsafe when players just don't know what to do or where to go? I guess you just assign them an NPC guide and hold their hand through the jungle, but to me that feels like lazy game design. I'd been hoping for a Paizo-style adventure, where (at the very least!) players get pointed in the direction of some significant location, which can then lead to another significant location, and so on. I'd settle for a Rappan Athuk-style adventure, too, where there are plenty of entries, and knowledgeable NPCs, pointing to the main plot scattered around the map so that even the most aimless player characters end up in the dungeon. But Tomb of Annihilation is a source book for Chult, and it happens to have a chapter describing a dungeon.

Well, everybody's a critic so of course I have Big Ideas about how I'd (in retrospect, and only after the authors have done all the actual work, of course) restructure the book.

My Tomb of Annihilation fix

Lots of spoilers here.

First of all, accept that there's nothing wrong with this module. People have run it, they've had fun. It's fine.

Move Chapter 3 to the front of the book. The epicenter of the adventure is the Forbidden City of Omu. That's literally where the plot takes place. Everything around Omu is optional. There's really no reason for players to ever leave Omu, and the book provides no real guidance on how the players are supposed to locate Omu. Even if you hand the players the Game Master's map at the start of the game and declare that the real adventure is reaching Omu, you'll find there are no scripted adventures between Port Nyanzaru and Omu, so have fun with 20 game sessions of random dinosaur encounters or making up your own adventures (which is fine, but then honestly you don't need this book).

So, start the adventure in Omu. As it turns out, there are lots of factions in Omu. There's a group of yuan-ti with plans for world dominiation, a Kobold clan aspiring toward dragonhood, Red Wizards of Thay hunting for the Soulmonger, also the Soulmonger and Acererak, some Tabaxi hunters, and tribes of Vegepygmies.

Some of the factions are closer than others to understanding A) that the dungeon even exists B) how to get into the dungeon using the secret "keys" C) finding the "keys". Players can form alliances, play one faction off of another, and so on, and in the interest of leveling up they can run some errands for the factions that requires them to travel out from Omu into the surrounding jungles of Chult.

In other words, make Omu the headquarters of the adventure, not Port Nyanzaru, which realistically most characters are never going to return to once they've left. It's too far removed from anything important, and once players have ventured a hundred miles into a dangerous jungle, Port Nyanzaru stops becoming a valid safe haven due to the treacherous journey to get there.

Why hex crawls are great

The jungle outside of Omu is treated as character level-up opportunities in the book as it was published. That's wrong. It's an opportunity for players to get bored, confused, and annoyed.

Hex crawls are amazing because they imply exploration. You get to wander around a map, stumble into adventures, and discover the wonders of a fantasy world.

Tomb of Annihilation inexplicably slaps a ticking clock onto that, and dares players to endure that aimless wandering while every famous adventure in the Realms drop perma-dead from the Death Plague. The fantastic becomes the monotonous, because if it ain't Omu (or more specifically, the Soulmonger) then it's not relevant.

I think if you play Tomb of Annihilation as a hex crawl, you're in for frustration. If you want to play it as a hex crawl, drop the pretense of the Death Plague and the ticking clock, and just let it be a hex crawl. There's no goal, just some rumours about a lost city that may contain an evil dungeon, but it's not an essential stop on the tour. It's just one of many. (But then, I'd like for the book to contain more adventure opportunities than it does. One chapter on a forgotten city does not a hex crawl make.)

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is, in short, the start of the actual book. Chapter 1 could be a fun quest, maybe (visit Port Nyanzaru and obtain a minor MacGuffin from a Merchant Prince, either by persuasion or theft or purchase). Chapter 2 is an Appendix. The Death Plague thing is a false pretense, I wish I hadn't even mentioned it when starting to run the adventure.

Chapter 3 describes Omu, the lost city that's almost hidden by overgrowth, the home of the Nine Trickster Gods, and a heck of a lot of plot. In fact, there's so much plot here that I've almost convinced myself that the original draft of this module was just Chapter 3 and 4 and 5 (that's Omu, the Fane of the Night Serpert, and the Temple of the Nine Gods). Surely Chapter 1 and 2, and the nonsense about the Death Plague, were added later as a quick and dirty way of making it a hardback book and not just a Dragon Magazine article (which had ceased to exist by the time of publication).

I'm seriously considering starting a second campaign of Tomb of Annihilation just so I can start the adventure in Omu with a group of players.

If this book had been a free download from, I'd be entirely uncritical of it. Sure, it doesn't know whether it's a source book or an adventure, but the Game Master can sort that out. Obviously this wasn't a $0 download from, though, and I have to admit that I was getting disappointed. But Chapter 3 righted all wrongs. It's a chapter with actual plot in it, and I feel like this is why (aside from the trust I still had, in those innocent pre-Spelljammer and pre-dismantling-the-OGL times, in the D&D team) I bought the book.

Next up

Next is Chapter 4, which covers the Fane of the Night Serpent. If that's doesn't sound like a classic D&D module, I don't know what does!

Photo by Agent J on Unsplash

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