A DM’s Guide to Tomb of Annihilation: Intro and Chapter One
As far as the Dungeons and Dragons hardcovers by Wizards of the Coast go, Tomb of Annihilation is probably the most sandboxy of them all. Players have literally the entire continent of Chult to explore and adventure in, and a very large chunk of the campaign actually consists entirely of doing just that: going wherever they want and seeing what they find there. This creates some interesting situations for Dungeon Masters who want to run this adventure. On this edition of Here There Be Spoilers, I’ll go over the introductory material and give some general commentary. Then we’ll get into Chapter One, and talk about how to make the most out of the sole bastion of civilization in Chult: Port Nyanzaru.
There’s plenty to cover in the introduction to Tomb of Annihilation, including some fairly heavy-duty decisions to be made about how the players are going to interact with the land of Chult. Of course, part of the premise of Chult is that it’s essentially a big unknown: a whole continent of unexplored jungle, full of who knows what dangers and treasures. Well, I’ll tell you who knows: the DM, and that’s you. Let’s hit some of the high points of how to get your adventure off to a good start.
The People of Chult
Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further, because it needs to be said, and you need to say it to your players, and I’m just going to say it now and then get to the explanations: most of the people your PC’s will meet in Chult are black.
Please understand, I’m not using “black” as an ethnic description to be offensive, although I can see how some people might feel that way about it. You just can’t use more diplomatic terminology like “African American” in D&D because there’s no Africa there, nor yet any America. I suppose if you want to circumlocute your way around the issue, you could make some convoluted statement such as “Chultan Waterdavians in D&D would be like African Americans in real life.” If you like that better, run with it.
However, people have been calling me “white” all my life, and I’ve never found it offensive, only descriptive. So, I’m fine with saying that Chultans are black. And you need to get this across to your players, because we all see the D&D world in our imaginations, and players need to know what the NPC’s they’ll be meeting and interacting with look like. Simple as that; just come out and say it, once. Isn’t that much better than having to add “oh and also he’s black” whenever you talk about some NPC that they meet? Besides, you only have to tell your own players, who are basically four or five of your friends, whereas I just said it to the whole internet. Your players can be adults about this, and I just hope the people who read my site can be adults about it too. If they can’t, I guess I’ll just get crucified in the comments section.
And that’s all I need to say about that.
Artus Cimber: a Recurring Problem
Artus Cimber is an NPC who will likely pose a number of problems for you as you run the adventure. You can, of course, choose to leave him out entirely, and the story won’t suffer because of that. But, because he can also be a very useful NPC, he’s getting his very own blue box in this article.
The short story on Artus Cimber is that he’s a tragic hero searching for his lost wife. He has an extremely powerful magical artifact, the Ring of Winter, and it keeps him from aging while he continues his search to be reunited with Mrs. Cimber.
The problem with Artus Cimber is that you have a bit of a quandary as to when to add him to the story and to what extent. The fact is, because of his high stats, magical equipment, and the Ring of Winter (check pages 207 and 208 to learn about how crazy-powerful it is), he makes a very poor addition to the party, because if he uses the Ring of Winter, he’s game-breakingly powerful. Of course, being a good guy, he wouldn’t let his friends die by refraining to use the Ring of Winter when he really needed it.
Also, there are a lot of people in Chult who are there specifically to find Artus Cimber and take the Ring of Winter away from him. These people include liches, frost giants, and all kinds of nasties who are way out of the PC’s league. So he’s also a danger to the party if he travels around with them: powerful enemies who might just ignore the party may decide to kill them instead if they’re with Artus Cimber.
Of course, if you only want to use him a little bit, you run the risk of having him be forgotten entirely by the players, because they go so many places and meet so many people in Chult. My players met him at Orolunga, but by the time they ran up against a frost giant search party asking about him, they had completely forgotten about him. The players had forgotten, that is.
So, what good is he? Well, if you want an NPC to play yourself, as the DM, over a long term, Artus Cimber has definite possibilities. I found him most useful to interject into situations where the party needed a boost, and I’ll note in future articles where those situations occurred and how well using Artus Cimber in them worked.
Dealing with Cartography
This is one of the more daunting issues for DM’s who want to run Tomb of Annihilation, and it takes about five seconds looking at pages 39 and 243 to realize that there are some significant challenges to overcome as far as mapping the land of Chult. You can also look at the two sides of the tear-out wall-sized map of Chult to get this same idea. Essentially, there’s a map of Chult for the DM that has everything on it, and then there’s a map of Chult for the players that has some stuff around the coast and then a blue million blank hexes in the middle.
When you start reading on pages 37 and 38 about all of the procedures and mechanics dealing with map-making and navigation, it becomes clear that handling where the party is located and how they’re going to find their way to wherever they’re going (presuming they know enough to have a destination in mind) is going to be a challenge. And it’s a challenge that I chose to dodge around entirely.
I completely understand that part of the campaign is the uncertainty of exploring a wilderness of jungle. You might get lost, you might think you’re in one place but really be in another, you might wander in circles for a few days while you gradually run out of food and water (which you can cast spells to take care of) and insect repellent (which you had better buy enough of or you’ll be sorry). There will be survival checks to roll. You will have to figure out distances in hexes or distances in miles based on the party’s chosen travel pace. And some poor soul, probably a player, will have to be in charge of filling out those blank hexes with some representation of whatever they found there. Also, you DM’s should be aware that while you’re doing all of that stuff I just mentioned, you’re also going to have to roll d20’s three times per in-game day to figure out whether you need to roll d100’s on eight different random encounter tables to figure out which dice to roll to decide how many of what sort of creature the party encounters as they plow through the jungle.
Yeah, that’s a lot to do. So I decided to get rid of the navigation stuff as-written and go with something easier. I still had to figure out all of the random encounters and travel distances and times, but that map of blank hexes and all of those survival checks never entered my game.
I decided that there was no reason for the party to ever get lost, as long as they had hired a competent guide in Port Nyanzaru. If even low-level PC rangers have the benefit of never getting lost in their favored terrain, I figured it was reasonable to assume that professional jungle guides wouldn’t ever get lost either. So, unless the party managed to get their guide to abandon them to their fate, getting lost wouldn’t be an issue, and I would deal with that if it ever came up (and it didn’t). Besides, why would players be rolling checks to navigate if they had a guide?
Then I made some scans of the DM map of Chult and plugged them into the good old free generic Paint app on my computer. If I had Photoshop, I would have used that instead, but I didn’t, so I used Paint. What I used it to do was to erase most of the landmarks and locations from the scanned in DM map to create a player-safe map of Chult: no more blank hexes. Sure, they might not have known where any interesting things in the jungle might be, but at least they didn’t have to fill in a bunch of hexes (and erase hexes if it turned out they were lost when they filled them in). And, when they found interesting things, we marked that on the new player map. Pretty simple. I even marked some mystery locations on the player map when they got up above the treeline and could see some possible points of interest out there in the jungle, but not closely enough to firmly identify what might be there.
Then I had to figure out travel time, and that turned out to be the simplest thing of all. I just used a ruler that I bought at Staples, measured the size of the hexes on my DM map, and ballparked how many centimeters represented how many days of travel. When I scaled my scanned-in map, it turned out that about 1 centimeter per day was reasonable, when I figured for varying types of terrain, not being able to take a straight-line route all the time, and all the rest. So when the players said “we want to travel from Place A to Place B,” I just measured the centimeters and said, “okay, that’s going to take you X days to get there.”
I’m going to get into this now, although it’s really more a part of Chapter Two. I’ll probably talk about it there as well, but for now, you need to understand that there are only two types of things that your party will be doing in the jungles of Chult: travelling from place to place, and exploring points of interest that they find out in the wilds. The thing that makes travelling interesting (kind of, but we’ll get there) is random encounters.
Appendix B is all about random encounters, complete with d100 tables and descriptions of each type of encounter. Basically, while the party is travelling through the jungle, the DM rolls a d20 three times a day for morning, noon, and evening random encounters. If you get a 16 or higher, then you go to the appropriate d100 table and see what pops up. Random encounters are important in this campaign, because they’re an important factor (perhaps the most important factor) in the characters gaining enough XP to level up.
That having been said, I would really caution you against sending your PC’s out into the jungle to grind out XP. The suggested levels by campaign area are given on page 7, and you don’t want to throw the party into an area too early and get them killed (remember, the Death Curse means that when a character gets killed, they stay that way). The suggested level to start in the City of Omu is 5th level, which means that your characters need to go from level 1 to level 5 by doing stuff in the jungle.
There’s plenty of stuff to do, though, not just random encounters. Even so, I recommend using 15 instead of 16 as the d20 roll to generate a random encounter; I found that my players were behind the experience curve all through the jungle, and a 25% chance of a random encounter rather than a 20% chance probably would have helped. As far as other jungle adventures, I’ll get to more about those in the Chapter Two article. For now, just understand that you’ll be figuring out a lot of random encounters, and that they’ll be an important source of XP for leveling up.
One more thing: you’ll notice that the random encounters in Appendix B are not balanced for party level. If you start out with level 1 characters, expect a lot of balance problems, because most of the random encounters will straight-up TPK a first-level party. It might be good to tell the players that the jungle is unforgiving, and that they won’t be a match for everything they might meet. I honestly don’t think telling most players that will do any good, but you might as well put it out there, so they aren’t surprised when they fight to the death and get killed.
Starting at Higher Levels
If you look at page 8, the book talks about starting players at level 5 or level 9 instead of at level 1. Don’t do that. I have personally never started any adventure or campaign with characters higher than level 3, and even then it’s only been with experienced players who can stay ahead of the learning curve for their class abilities. The fact that you get your class features a few at a time is important, because it provides time to learn to use all that stuff gradually.
That being said, you really do not want your characters to head out into the jungle at level 1. They will almost certainly do poorly, up to and including dying tragically. I recommend using a short adventure that’s designed specifically for 1st-level characters, and that will advance them to level 3 or so. I used the Sunless Citadel out of Tales From the Yawning Portal, but you have a lot of options when you include some of the Adventurers’ League modules you can find at DM’s Guild. They aren’t free, but they’re pretty cheap, and I would say that a few dollars’ expense is worth it to not send complete neophyte characters into the jungle to die.
The Death Curse
This should go without saying, but it needs to be said anyway. The whole premise of Tomb of Annihilation rests on the Death Curse, and the Death Curse means that people who die stay dead. Be prepared to kill PC’s and not have them come back (except maybe for a joyful reunion after the campaign is over). Tell your players about this, and make sure they get the idea. Have replacement characters lined up beforehand. Also, at the risk of encouraging you to play favorites as a DM, be aware that there are players who deal less happily than others with losing a character. I’m not saying that you should go out of your way not to kill that character: that’s playing favorites, and you shouldn’t. Just understand that some players are going to take character perma-death really hard, more so than others, and be ready to deal with that.
Chapter One: Port Nyanzaru
Port Nyanzaru is an interesting location to start the adventure, but it’s not exactly the most useful location to get a party of new characters off to a good start before sending them out into the jungle. In this section of the article, we’ll go over some of Port Nyanzaru’s unique features, point out some important things to notice, and finally figure out how to transition adventuring parties out of the city and onwards to death or victory.
Chapter One presents a number of side quests, but only a few actually happen inside the city, and only a couple of those are actually manageable to run. Some of the others send the characters out to different locations in the jungle, and these can be useful in providing the party with a destination, rather than just saying, “well, you’re going into the jungle, so pick a direction.”
The side quests that keep the characters in the city are “Collect a Debt” and “Save an Innocent Man”. “Hunt Pirates” might also qualify, but the hardcover contains no information or maps on the pirates or their ships, so either be ready to homebrew something or just don’t bring that one up. Of the others, “Collect a Debt” is probably beyond the combat capabilities of a low-level party, and the description of “Save an Innocent Man” pretty much says that doing the quest will get the party in trouble with the law.
Side quests that are good for setting a jungle destination are “Create a Distraction”, “Escort a Priest”, “Explore the Aldani Basin”, and “Seek Wisdom at Orolunga”. I would recommend choosing one based on the descriptions on pages 17 and 18, as well as looking up the locations in Chapter Two and seeing which ones you like. I was an Orolunga fan, myself. While you’re passing out side quests, you might as well toss in the “Help the Lords’ Alliance” quest; it’s something that might help to encourage some exploration, and it won’t break the game even if the party ends up delivering the map and getting a sailing ship in return.
Also, bear in mind that “Help a Dyeing Man” has far-reaching political effects within the Merchant Prince social structure of Port Nyanzaru. These effects aren’t obvious when you read the side quest description, and if you weren’t paying attention to all the lore in the introduction, you might have missed it. Don’t get your players involved in this side quest unless you like politics-and-murder drama.
And, of course, anything to do with Artus Cimber is its very own problem. I tried to cover most of that in the blue box above, and I’ll add more as we go through the adventure.
This immediately sounds like a lot of fun, so it’s getting its very own section early on so we can get it out of the way. There’s betting on races, and jockeying in the races.
The betting chart on page 32 is fairly broken. If you have any knowledge of how one bets on horse races, you’ll see the problem with the way they’ve set up the odds on the races pretty quickly. If you don’t know how horse race betting works, but you understand the difference between multiplication and division, you can easily see that if you bet on any dinosaur that pays “Wager divided by X”, you lose money even if that dinosaur wins. I would recommend either not offering dinosaur race betting, or else fixing it somehow. I actually plan to homebrew a fix for it, but that’s a project that is low on my list of things to do.
If you have characters that want to be jockeys, the system on page 33 will serve you pretty well. Enough said about that.
Outfitting Your Expedition
This is one of the more important things that needs to be done in Port Nyanzaru. The party will need supplies, and also a guide. We’ll hit supplies here, and then talk about guides in the next section.
Food and water are pretty self-explanatory: follow the rules in the PHB, and remember that everyone needs double the water. There are things like water collectors that provide drinkable water from rain and dew. You can also find certain edible plants out there in the jungle; Appendix C is full of them, and they show up as random encounters as well. I suggest making them available a lot more often than the chance random encounter, because they’re useful and also a good splash of local color.
Insect repellent is something that you need to beancount as a DM, or at least assign a player to be the beancounter for. Essentially, you can get insect-borne diseases in Chult, either by getting bitten by giant insects or insect swarms, or else by getting bitten by normal insects. The repellent will keep away the normal insects, which means that you don’t have to roll saves every single day for every character in the party to see if they get the “shivering sickness” from insect bites. As D&D ailments go, it’s a day-ruiner. Of course, as a DM, I love it, and I’m even using it in non-Chult settings. Apparently some disease-bearing bugs came across to the Sword Coast in the hold of a ship or something…
I would also encourage you to point out to your players that dinosaurs are available as pack animals. They can forage for their own food and water in the jungle, and having some animals to carry gear means that the weight of all of the jungle-survival supplies is less of an issue. Start multiplying one pound of food and sixteen pounds of water per PC per day of the expedition, and you’ll see that a few duck-billed hadrosaurs are a really excellent investment.
Finding a Guide
Guides are important for two reasons. First, they make sure you don’t get lost in the jungle, especially if you’re using my “guides-are-rangers” navigation hack from earlier on. Second, many of them provide an initial adventure hook to get the party out into the jungle. There are several guide options, and the hardcover encourages the DM to hand out little printed blurbs or ads for the different guides and then let the players choose which one they want to hire. That’s what I did, and I wish I hadn’t. It turned out fine, but as the campaign went forward I realized how close I had come to possible disaster if they had chosen poorly when they selected their guide. So, let’s talk good guides and bad guides.
Azaka Stormfang: A good choice, overall. She knows the location of Orolunga, which is a good place to go at the start of the campaign, and she doesn’t have any dangerous hidden agendas. Watch out if you let her fight with the party, because her weretiger damage immunities will become extremely obvious when she gets hit but never damaged. Having an unkillable ally is a game-breaker, so either make her something other than a lycanthrope, or else give her some philosophical reason not to fight, like religious pacifism.
Eku: Also a good choice, if you have only good-aligned characters. Eku is a couatl in polymorphed human form. She probably knows the most locations to travel to, including the city of Omu which will need to be located eventually. The players won’t know that she knows about Omu, through, and there are other ways to locate Omu for them, which will be in later articles. Like Azaka, Eku is a powerful creature in disguise, which might make combats awkward.
Musharib: Has an agenda, namely liberating Hrakhamar. Even so, he’s a reliable guide and can assist in combat without complications. Also, helping him with the Hrakhamar situation is within the capabilities of most parties, and gains them a bunch of dwarven friends and a secondary base of operations on the southern end of Chult.
River and Flask: Can be fun to roleplay, if you’re into that kind of voice-acting thing. They have a hidden agenda concerning Artus Cimber, but it’s not going to have destructive consequences unless you want it to. And Artus Cimber is basically a big ball-o’-problems, as we’ve already discussed, so what’s one more?
Shago: He has some personal problems involving Merchant Prince family politics, and he doesn’t have a list of destinations available. He is, however, probably the best companion for fighting stuff, and that might be a big draw for a low-level party. If you start off with one of the side quests that involves a destination, Shago’s lack of a destination menu isn’t an issue. Or, you could decide to give him some destinations to choose from, because you’re the DM.
And, of course, there’s the flip side…
Faroul and Gondolo: These guys are know-nothing idiots who are probably going to get your party killed. I would even recommend removing the “guides-are-rangers” modification for these two, and get everyone hopelessly lost within a couple of days in the jungle. All the same, I would offer them as choices, because making bad choices is part of D&D. Also, players like recognizing bad choices and then not making them.
Hew Hackinstone: His personal agenda is to take the party to Wyrmheart Mine to fight a young red dragon, and he’s going to take them there no matter where they tell him they want to go. Fighting this dragon will in all likelihood get your party killed. It’s a very long way to Wyrmheart Mine from Port Nyanzaru, but it’s nowhere near long enough to gain enough XP from random encounters to level up to face a dragon, even a young one. The only way Hew Hackinstone works out well for the story is if the characters realize his deception before they reach the mine, at which point they have some tough decisions to make regarding how they’re going to get back to civilization without a trustworthy guide.
Qawasha and Kupalue: These guys will basically lead the party into areas full of dangerous undead, because apparently undead need exterminating from the jungle. I think offering these guides as an option is a crap move for a DM, because you’re increasing the party’s risk of death without providing them any way to know that they’re being placed at additional risk. After all, they don’t know what parts of the jungle are more infested with undead. At least with someone like Hew Hackinstone there’s the possibility of realizing that he’s putting them on, but with Qawasha they’re basically being screwed over unto death without ever knowing. If you insist on making Qawasha an option, you might like to have him deliver some glassy-eyed monologues about “undead abominations profaning holy nature”, just so that the players have some clue that he’s psychologically unbalanced.
Salida: She’s a tricky one, because having her along when you get to meet the yuan-ti later on creates a lot of problems for the party. If you, as a DM, are open to those problems, offer her as an option. If you don’t want to deal with deceit and betrayal, leave her out of it. Also, remember that she’s willing to tag along for free if they’ll let her, so you can always add her to the situation along with another guide whose options you like better, and still get the betrayal bit later on.
So, ultimately, I recommend that you pick and choose which guides you offer as options, based on how you want the jungle exploration to go. Your safest options are Musharib and Shago, especially if you have a low-level party that could benefit from a strong, tanky companion. Azaka and Eku are also pretty safe choices, as long as you have a good idea of how you’re going to keep them out of combat, and how dire things need to become before they intervene. Also, remember that you don’t have to place the guides geographically where the book says they’re supposed to be. If you want Shago to be available at Port Nyanzaru, just do it that way. You’re the DM, after all.
There’s a whole list of Chult rumors on page 36, and they have the virtue of not all being completely true. Often, when you have rumors, or bits of lore, or secrets, or whatever applies to a particular hardcover adventure provided therein, they’re all quite accurate. This leaves sadistic DM’s like me in the position of having to come up with some that are only partly true, and some that are outright lies, and adding them to the accurate ones, and not telling anyone which are which. That’s not necessary in this case; Wizards of the Coast have already muddied the waters for you. I would recommend that you not use this as a d100 table, but instead give out the information that you think will appeal the most to your players, or will guide the party towards a jungle encounter that you think they’ll enjoy. Whatever you do, make sure they get the information about the blue mad-monkey mist from somewhere or other. And then, have them encounter it in the dark where they can’t see it to avoid it. Good times.
To wrap it up, figure out how you want to work the maps and navigation issues before you even come to the first session. I think the way that I did it worked well, with the possible detriment of removing some of the uncertainty of exploration.
Random encounters are a big thing. Be ready to roll a lot of dice if you’re going to make them random like the book says to. You have to develop and use a system that will keep the action moving. I used a boatload of index cards, with all the stats I needed for any particular random encounter on each one. Maybe you can use computers or something; I’m pretty old-school and I love my card files.
Have fun in Port Nyanzaru, but make sure that the party has the right supplies (remember that insect repellent) before they leave, and make sure that they have a guide as well. Present the guides who you think will enhance the adventure as options, and leave the rest out of it. Toss some of the finding-stuff-in-the-jungle side quests into the mix before you leave town as well.
And, finally, make sure that the party has an intended destination when they leave the city. Even if they get sidetracked and don’t make it there, they need to not just go out and wander. My favorite first destination is Orolunga, but we can get into more of that when I write the article for Chapter Two.
Until then, have fun, and try not to bet on the dinosaur races.