A DM’s Guide to Tomb of Annihilation: Chapter Two

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A DM’s Guide to Tomb of Annihilation: Chapter Two

Chapter Two of Tomb of Annihilation is truly massive: as massive as the entire continent of Chult, and that’s saying something. I’m not going to even attempt to cover every single location where your players might choose to travel, because I couldn’t do it justice even if I had all of the time and pixels in the world. Besides, I didn’t use all of those locations when I ran the campaign, and I really try to avoid giving advice about things I haven’t actually tried. So, this guide to Chapter Two is going to focus on three main topics. The first is going to be a three-step process on how to use locations to shape the adventure as a whole, including the benefits of some creative cartography. The second is going to be how you can tweak and adjust some of the adventure locations to avoid an early (and permanent) TPK, because that’s a very real danger in Tomb of Annihilation. The third is going to be about bridging the gap between Port Nyanzaru and the place I’m not going to say the name of right here, but which is where Chapter Three starts. If the characters don’t come through their jungle wanderings at the appropriate level and with the necessary knowledge to find that location (which will be named in the main part of the article, where players won’t accidentally be reading) and succeed there, you’ll have a very difficult Chapter Three. Hopefully by the time we’re done, you’ll have a good idea of how you’ll guide your Chapter Two along, no matter what paths you and your players actually take.

The Map Shapes the Story

The map of Chult is very large, and it has a lot of different locations on it, some of which can be quite complex. I shouldn’t have to say this, but as a DM running this adventure, you need to read through Chapter Two in its entirety at least once. You should get a pretty good idea of where your party is heading during their jungle adventures before they actually arrive there, but you need to have at least seen everything that’s possible for them to run up against. Don’t get caught trying to figure out a location on the fly as you’re presenting it to the players, because there are quite a few locations where lack of preparedness will jump up from behind you and bite hard.

If you decided to take the advice about mapping that I proposed in the article about the Introduction and Chapter One of Tomb of Annihilation, then you’ll have two maps by now: one that’s the DM’s map, comfortably scaled to fit on one or two sheets of paper, and one that you’ve photoshopped most of the locations out of, for use by the players. Remember, I’m using “photoshopped” as the verb here, but you can do it without the actual expensive software. I used good old MS Paint to doctor my player map, basically by copying a little block from a nearby section of the map and pasting it over the portion that I wanted to blot out.

Even if you’ve decided to use the nightmare-inducing map with all of the blank hexes, what I’m about to talk about still applies, and it’s actually more important when you’re using the blank-hex map instead of the edited-DM’s map. The idea is that you need to provide points of interest in the jungle, so that the players have someplace that they want to go. Once you’ve got them started off in a particular direction, they can start having adventures along the way. We talked in the last article about how different guides can lead the party to interesting locations, and that’s a pretty good way to get the adventure moving. The party chooses a guide, and then the guide can offer them a few places they might want to go, and it gets them out of Port Nyanzaru and off into the unknown.

The trick is to keep providing decision points with definite options as you move the adventure along, because the last thing you want to happen is decision paralysis. When your party is out in the wilderness, having too many options as far as where to go next can bog down your game in a hurry. And, when they’re looking at a blank map (either empty hexes or just terrain with no landmarks), there are too many decisions and too little motivation for any of them. Shall we go north, or south, or in some other direction? Is there actually a reason for going in any of those directions, or are we just wandering at random? How far can we go into this huge jungle before we have to start worrying about running out of supplies and provisions, and how far are we willing to travel away from civilization and safety?

It’s a daunting prospect, and you’ve probably seen it play out in other settings: the party that stands at the hallway junction in some dungeon, debating whether to turn left or right, is in this same situation. And they only have to choose left or right! Where to go in a vast wilderness is much worse, and that’s why you have to begin to populate your map with points of interest early on.

This is actually very easy to do, if you’ve read over Chapter Two and seen what kind of locations are in there. Choose some of them that should be visible above the treeline, or would show a noticeable clearing of the treeline. Here are some to try:

Tall structures, like the ziggurat at Orolunga, or the Firefinger.

Breaks in the terrain, like the Aldani Basin, or the Nsi Wastes.

Things on or above the treetops, like the wreck of the Star Goddess, or the Heart of Ubtao.

High natural formations, like the plateaus at Mbala and Kir Sabal.

That’s the first step. You only need to choose two or three of them, and three is actually the maximum that I would recommend using. You can use character abilities to give more detail, based on size and distance, so you might narrate “some kind of structures built into the side of the plateau” at Kir Sabal, for example, if you had a character with sharp vision or a spyglass or some kind of appropriate magic. But, that’s optional, and just giving a very non-specific description is fine. Narrating that the Heart of Ubtao is “some kind of object that seems to be floating above the treeline” works just fine for our purposes.

Once you’ve picked your locations, all you need to do is get your party up above the treeline so that they can see the locations that you chose. Again, there are plenty of options here, and a lot of the best ones are actually places that the guides know how to find in the adventure-as-written. Any of the tall structures or high natural formations from the blue box above make excellent places for the party to see some of the other landmarks that you’ve chosen. That’s the second step: describe some of the above-the-trees landmarks, and mark them on the players’ map. Now you’ve created additional destination choices, and the players get to feel good about that because they got those landmarks as a reward for finding someplace tall and standing up there and looking around. True, that’s not a really mighty accomplishment, but it’ll feel much warmer and fuzzier than just being given some locations to choose from by a paid guide.

Step three is where people are going to start to cry foul, and I’m going to be accused of “railroading”, whatever that even means. Step three is still a great idea, and it’s an idea that I wish I had figured out while my players were still mucking around in the jungle. I didn’t figure it out until they got to the City of Omu, when the gameplay changed dramatically and I had to figure out something just to make it all work. Anyway, when I ran the exploring-the-jungle part of the adventure, I just figured out distances and days and rolled for random encounters. You could do it that way if you wanted, or you could take my suggestion for how to do it better.

Once you’ve established some destinations, the players are going to choose one that they want to travel to, and they’ll set off into the wilderness on their way to whatever interesting thing piqued their fancy. As the DM, you should be asking yourself whether they should have an extra adventure along the way. I’m not talking about random encounters, either, because random encounters are not adventures. We’ll get back to them, but for the moment I just want to establish that when I say “extra adventure” I don’t mean something that just pops up as they travel along due to dice rolls. When your party is moving through the jungle, you need to put interesting things along their route. And, you need to do this even if those interesting things would not actually be along that route if you followed the map strictly.

I’ll say this straight out to get it out of the way, so the haters can start hating, and so that they’ll know exactly what they’re hating on. You need to change the location of things on the map so that your players will encounter interesting things as they travel. The players will never see the official DM map, and therefore they will never know that a particular location was “supposed to be” on the other side of Chult from where they actually found it. You need to choose the locations from Chapter Two that you think your players will have the most fun with, and rather than hoping that they’ll run across those things by accident as they randomly criss-cross the jungle, you need to put those locations in their way.

That doesn’t mean that they need to have their journeys interrupted every time they set out for some place or other. They can definitely reach their destinations without incident, and most of the time they should. Just realize that reaching your destination without incident every single time doesn’t make for exciting adventuring. Think about real-world road trips: the thing that makes them fun, instead of just being hours and hours of driving, are the stops that you make along the way. You try a new restaurant, and they have something so amazing on the menu that you’re disappointed you can’t eat that closer to home. Your kids have an improvised game of tag, which also somehow involves a frisbee and a hacky-sack, with some random other kids they meet at a rest stop. The World’s Second Largest Ball of Twine is along your route, and you go there and get your picture taken with it. Those are the things that make a trip exciting, and memorable, and worth taking.

As to random encounters, I will also say flat-out that random encounters are not the kind of thing that makes a journey interesting. They are gas stations. They are a really complex interchange between two highways. They are a traffic slowdown due to an accident that has already been completely cleared away by the time you creep up to it. Yeah, that stuff happens on trips, but it doesn’t make them interesting, and that’s your random encounters. Stop and fight some monsters that jump out from the trees, grab a soda, reset your trip meter, and get back on the road.

So, think about your players, and try to anticipate the sort of things that they would find fun in Chapter Two, and see if you can arrange for them to run into those things. Granted, you can’t do much with geographical features; the canyon with the beautiful fossilized sea life in the walls is something that they’ll either happen across or they won’t. But, if you think that your players would get a kick out of visiting Dungrunglung and meeting the crazy grung king and figuring out how to deal with him and his weird obsession with Nangnang the Froggy Goddess, then put that in their way. Give them a chance to investigate it, or have them kidnapped and dragged inside. They’ll figure out something to do, and it’ll be fun, and they’ll end up continuing their journey afterwards (unless they die, but this is a dangerous world, and you might as well die doing something interesting). Maybe your players would like Nangalore, or Kir Sabal, or any of the other fascinating places in Chult… and you have the power to send them to those places! So just do it. Use your DM powers to create fun and enjoyment for your players.

That’s the creative cartography I mentioned. You can totally change where things are on the map of Chult, to make sure that your party runs across them. Does it count as “railroading” the adventure? That depends on your definition of railroading, and everyone seems to have a different definition, and most of them are inconsistent or nonsensical. I’m not going to play definition games here, because it’s a pointless exercise in fruitless debate.

If you’re worried that offering specific adventures to your players, rather than letting them run across adventures at random, is somehow depriving them of their agency to choose what their characters will do, consider this: the characters are going to end up in adventure locations in the jungle whether you steer them there or not. If it’s going to happen anyway, what difference does it make to the players which particular locations they end up in? The only difference it makes is that if you choose the best locations, they’ll probably have a better time than if they just bumped into whatever happened to be on their official route on the official map, which was designed arbitrarily by some cartographer at WotC in the first place. There isn’t a real Chult that sets a factual basis for real Chultan locations, and as far as I’m concerned, my imagination and yours are at least as good as the game designers’ imaginations. Better, in fact, because we know our players and they don’t. So go ahead and do it your way.

That’s the third step, and I should have done it myself all through the jungle exploration. There were things in that jungle that my players would have loved encountering, but all I did was measure distances and roll random encounters three times a day until they arrived at wherever they had decided to go. If the line of travel happened to cross one of those points of interest, then they were lucky and got to experience it. It was a stupid and boring way to run the game, so don’t make my mistake. And don’t listen to the self-proclaimed D&D experts who want to pontificate about how putting interesting things where the characters will find them is somehow wrong and evil. Create a fun experience for your players, and let the railroading accusers be damned. Something was going to happen out in all of that jungle, and all you’re doing is making sure that what happens is something interesting and fun.

Don’t Kill the Party

This is kind of a departure for me, because normally I’m happy to let the characters suffer for the bad decisions that are made by the players. I have to get off that hard-line train for this part of Tomb of Annihilation, though, because the jungle exploration phase is full of opportunities for TPK’s that are not earned or deserved. I started my Tomb of Annihilation campaign by running the Sunless Citadel from Tales from the Yawning Portal, so my PC’s were not starting out into the savage jungle at first level.

Tweaking Your Random Encounters

Even so, survival was a dicey thing. The random encounters are not scaled for difficulty; they’re pretty much the same throughout the whole jungle, although in certain areas (like the really undead-active zones) you’re more likely to get harder encounters from the d100 table. Be prepared to modify random encounters on the fly, because you’re going to have to do it all the way through the campaign. At first you’ll be decreasing the number of enemies or replacing higher CR’s with lower CR’s, and then after a brief sweet-spot period you’ll be increasing the number of enemies and throwing in higher-CR reinforcements for them. Eventually you may just decide that random encounters are a waste of everyone’s time and enthusiasm and just let the party go where they want to go without all of the pesky interruptions.

In the beginning, though, you’ll need to go easy on the party with the random encounters. Remember that the randoms have only two functions: providing XP and providing tone. The XP is its own problem, which will be handled a little later in this article, but tone just means making the dangerous jungle feel like a dangerous jungle. You can create that anything-can-happen feeling without anyone needing to die from some random monsters they stumble on. Let them die from actual adventures, which are plentiful.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter

Quite aside from random encounters, the jungle is well stocked with opportunities for the characters to get themselves killed. Remember, in Tomb of Annihilation, people who get killed stay that way, because of the Death Curse which is an essential part of the overall story and why the characters are out in the jungle risking their suddenly very fragile lives. Because of the open-sandboxy nature of Chult, adventures tend to be keyed to locations, and a party can potentially stumble onto any location at any time. It’s possible to try to place more deadly locations deeper into the jungle, so that it’s less likely that a low-level party will come across them, but even that is not a guarantee.

In the last section, I openly advocated changing the location on the map of adventure sites in Chult, so that the players can experience the adventures that they will enjoy the most even if they wouldn’t actually run across them by accident. People will be angry and call me a railroader and a lot of other filthy names, but I don’t care about that. What we do have to think about now is how to handle it when the party stumbles across a location which is much more dangerous than they can reasonably handle, and there are really only three ways of dealing with that eventuality. The first way is just to let some or all of the characters die. The second is to just move the dangerous location out of their path of travel, so they just continue on and never know that they dodged a bullet by DM fiat. The third is to tweak the location so that the party can cope with the dangers there at their current strength.

I’m a staunch advocate of the third choice in this case, and as usual I have reasons why, and they’re good reasons. First off, killing any member of the party is a particularly miserable thing to do in this campaign, because that character will not be coming back, except maybe to say hi-thanks-for-ending-the-Death-Curse at the very end. Besides, killing off a party member really early on is demoralizing in any campaign, especially if the player is more sensitive to that sort of thing than others. If you have a group of seasoned and experienced players with a devil-may-care attitude and a lot of already-made replacement characters, go ahead and kill them off. If you have newer players, or players that invest a lot of creativity and emotion in their characters, or players who don’t have a high level of gameplay in the mechanical sense, you’ll probably want to avoid killing anyone, at least at first. Why? Because you will make people miserable, and I would have invited Kierkegaard to the group if I wanted to find deeper meaning through suffering. We all play D&D to have a good time, not to find more reasons to be sad or angry.

I’m also against using that same creative cartography that I advocated in the last section of this article to keep characters out of harm’s way by just moving the harm out of their way. There’s a distinction to be made here: putting enjoyable adventure experiences in locations where the players will get to find them and enjoy them is far different from relocating unpleasant adventure experiences so that the players won’t have to deal with adversity. There will be good times and bad times in the adventure, because that’s how adventures work. As DM’s, we need to make sure that the good times happen, and that they’re good enough to outweigh the really bad times. Remember, “good times” doesn’t mean easy and risk-free; it just means that the difficulty and risk are of the kind that the players enjoy. That means that the “bad times” are the ones full of difficulty and risk that the players don’t like, and you have to have that in your campaign as well, because everything always going great isn’t how life really works, and your players know that. If you take all of the difficulty and risk that are not enjoyable out of the game, you might as well just call it a night so everyone can go back to their separate homes and play Candy Land solitaire. Try not to get stuck on the gumdrops.

Adjustment from Impossible to Improbable

The thing that really cinches the issue on dangerous locations is that the characters are going to have to deal with at least some of them, and they won’t be ready to deal with all of the ones they find their way into. The only way to handle this kind of thing in general is to modify the situations to make them not impossible for the characters to handle. Notice that I didn’t say “easy” or “hard”, but “not impossible”. For example, the wicked hag of Mbala has a flesh golem at her beck and call. Low-level characters, who generally don’t have magical or adamantine weapon attacks, will not be able to dish out enough damage onto a flesh golem to kill it before it kills them. The numbers just don’t work. That doesn’t mean that low-level characters need to stay away from Mbala (and remember, they could actually have chosen that destination and be heading there on purpose), but it does mean that the DM is going to have to adjust for the fact that Mbala wasn’t designed for very low-level characters. Fortunately, we DM’s are good at that sort of thing. Just be prepared to use the elements that are already in an adventure location and adjust them to make victory possible for the party. Again, not easy, but possible. If you want to get that experience of dignity through certain death, go watch Rogue One again.

That having been said, there’s a difference between situations that should be adjusted and situations that need to be left alone. The difference often hinges on the player judgement involved. When that low-level party gets a look at the dragon that they can’t handle, they need to walk away. If they don’t, they deserve to get killed, because it’s not the DM’s job to protect the players from stupidity by somehow adjusting a dragon so they can beat it.

However, stupidity is not the same as blundering, and as a DM you need to know the difference, and you need to decide how much that difference matters to you. It’s possible for people to get into trouble even though they were doing all of the right things to avoid it. Accidents happen, mistakes are made, and some lessons just get learned the hard way. Think about this beforehand, and decide where you stand on letting bad things happen to good adventurers. And, once you’ve thought about that, because this is Tomb of Annihilation, think about how that changes when “bad things” means “permanently lethal things”. I’m not going to tell you where to draw the line between irresponsible player foolishness and innocent player misfortune. Just recognize that there is a line there, because you’ll be balancing on it all through this massive jungle, and you ought to think about where you stand before circumstances force you into a snap decision. Enough said about that.

Up the Long Ladder

If you look at the introductory material in Tomb of Annihilation, you’ll find a little chart on page 7 that tells you that the City of Omu is appropriate for characters between 5th level and 7th level. Depending on what level you started with, you’re going to need to account for as much as 6,500 XP per character before they’re ready to move on to Chapter Three. The unfortunate thing is that the primary means of gaining experience in Chapter Two seems to be random encounters, and the problem with counting on random encounters for the bulk of your XP is that random encounters are random, which means you might not get enough of the right kind to generate the XP that you need.

Fixing the Statistics on Random Encounters

The quick fix for this is adjusting the frequency with which you roll for random encounters. The hardcover tells you to roll a d20, and generate a random encounter on a result of 16 or more, which comes out to about 25% of the time. You’ll probably want to increase this frequency if you’re planning to generate enough XP from random encounters. I would suggest generating a random encounter on a 15 or higher on that d20 roll, which is fairly significant as far as the odds go. What might actually be more entertaining is to add an additional random encounter roll to the daily schedule. The book says to roll for a random encounter three times per day, so basically morning-noon-evening, and then everyone gets a long rest, and the same thing the next day. If you also rolled for a random encounter for midnight, you might get some interesting raids on the party’s camp while they’re resting. Just bear in mind that the 6,500 XP per character will get you to the minimum level for Omu, so if you overdo the randoms to give yourself a safety margin, you probably won’t run over the level suggestions by mistake.

Making XP Opportunities through Creative Cartography

The more sophisticated fix is to try to anticipate how many location-based adventures you expect your party to have, and this isn’t something I can give you specific directions on how to do. In general, figure that your party is going to find a guide, and they will go with the guide to some location with which the guide is familiar. If you took my advice from earlier about providing travel options based on overlooking the jungle from someplace high up, you can start to figure out how the jungle expedition is going to proceed based on which destination the party chooses. If you try to envision the route between adventure locations as being comprised of long trips and short trips, you can estimate the number of enjoyment-for-the-players locations that you can fit in the middle of some of the long trips. It’ll take some on-the-fly management, but using creative cartography as previously discussed makes it possible to interject more adventures, that then generate more XP, that then gets your characters to the right level for Omu.

The best thing about this is that you can look at an adventure location and work out how much XP is available from it, because you have the specifics of that location all laid out before the players ever get there. Maybe they’ll get all of it, or maybe just some, or maybe they won’t jump at the adventure at all, but at least you have some solid numbers to work with, instead of whatever the d100 chart might hand you.

Remember that you can give out ad-hoc experience awards when the players do something good, like dealing with a difficult trap, or solving a riddle, or recovering a MacGuffin; make it clear that killing things is not the only way that they’re going to get XP. Using the XP that would have been given for defeating an enemy whose CR is equal to the party level is a good starting point for ad-hoc XP awards. Bear in mind that the ad-hoc award goes to the entire party, so you should be dividing that amount equally among all party members, rather than giving the full amount to each of them.

As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t occur to me to use this strategy until I had already gotten the party into Omu, so I was stuck trying to fix the statistics on random encounters, and we had less fun than we would have had otherwise. You live and learn and then do better next time, and you can do better than I did. Use the creative cartography method and make a great campaign on purpose, rather than hoping it will turn out great by accident. If you’d rather scream about “railroading” and “DM fiat” and “player agency”, then you should probably just count travel days and roll for random encounters, because your purity of DMing is obviously more important than providing your players with the most entertaining and rewarding game you can.

Motivation and Direction

The final thing you need in order to get ready for Chapter Three is for the party to figure out that they need to go to Omu to further investigate the Death Curse, and then to learn where Omu is located in the first place. There is some information given on page 6 of the hardcover concerning who knows that Omu is the source of the Death Curse, and about who knows how to get there. I suggest that you pay only marginal attention to what page 6 has to say, and work the reason and the location into your story as it progresses.

The basic idea here is that after the party has had a couple of adventures in the jungle, you should start looking for a plausible NPC who can tell the characters that they need to seek the Lost City of Omu if they want to find the source of the Death Curse. It doesn’t really matter who you choose; what matters is that you choose at the right time. Pretty much immediately after the party learns that the Death Curse is somewhere in Omu, they’re going to start trying to find their way to Omu, and you then have a limited amount of time to get them up to 5th level before they get there.

Remember when you’re choosing NPC’s who can help reveal the location of Omu that any creature with an aerial view of Chult is fair game. All of your dragons, aarakocra, sky ship sailors, earth mote inhabitants, and the rest should all know where to find a city in the jungle, and you can expect your players to argue that point. Finding the right NPC to know about the Death Curse is trickier, but essentially you’re looking for an NPC who has some kind of attunement to the jungle. The Death Curse is something new, and different, and rather violently wrong in Chult. The people (and creatures) who are really in touch with the land of Chult are going to be able to feel the wrongness, and there are plenty of NPC’s out in that jungle who can fit that description. Remember that those NPC’s don’t need to know all the details of the Death Curse, or even any of them. “Something is very wrong around here lately, and it’s centered on the ruins of Omu,” is all that needs to be said. Let the players make the obvious deduction.

Once they know where they’re going, the players will probably think of their own way to discover the location of Omu, but if they don’t, I recommend steering them towards Kir Sabal. Helpful folklore and rumors of royalty amongst the bird-folk can do that job easily. At this point, be willing to scrap most (if not all) of the random encounters, because your players will probably have their eye on the prize by now. Random encounters will stop being exciting and interesting, and instead be a series of annoying roadblocks between them and their goal.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

A final word on the opportune moment: as always, be on the lookout for signs of player boredom. The first few jungle adventures should be no problem, and if you choose the right location-based adventures to throw into the party’s path, things should go along happily for a while. Just remember that Chapter Two is one of those variable-length chapters that D&D designers seem to like throwing into hardcovers lately: as long as the characters level up, discover that they need to find Omu, and then find Omu, Chapter Two can go for as long or as short a time as you want. Make sure to drop the information that they need to go to Omu before the players get sick of mucking around in the jungle; it’ll give them a motivation kick, because now they have a solid goal, and aren’t just wandering around cheating death.

A Brief Conclusion

One way or another, the party will find its way to Omu, and we’ll move on into Chapter Three. If you liked the creative cartography idea from this article, then you’re probably going to like the way I’m going to suggest that you handle Omu. If, on the other hand, you think I’m a dirty railroader already, you should probably skip the next article and pick the series up again when we get to Chapter Four. Either way, we’ll be leaving the huge sandboxy jungle, and gradually narrowing the focus of the story towards the source of the Death Curse.

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