A DM’s Guide to Tomb of Annihilation: Chapter 3
As usual with this article teaser, I’m going to make sure not to say the name of the place where Chapter 3 of Tomb of Annihilation takes place. For those of you DM’s out there, you know where Chapter 3 happens, and I’ll stop circumlocuting around the name in a moment, once I’m sure that none of my non-DM readers are reading further. Anyway, the problem with Chapter 3 is that it tries to be a smaller version of Chapter 2… and in my experience, it just doesn’t play well when you try to manage it that way. Besides, if you read my guide to Chapter 2, you’ll recall that I don’t even recommend running Chapter 2 the way the book says you ought to, and you consequently won’t be surprised when I suggest that running Chapter 3 my way is just about the same as running Chapter 2 my way. But, enough vague introductory blatherings. Let’s get down into Chapter 3 and see how to actually keep the adventure moving, in spite of the hardcover designers’ best efforts to bog it down terminally.
The Lost City of Omu
That’s right: the legendary lost City of Omu, the name I’ve been avoiding saying where hapless players might read it in the teaser text and get some sort of idea of what’s coming up next in their journey through Chult. Chapter 3 is all about being in Omu, and moving around in Omu, and meeting people in Omu, and finding things in Omu. There’s plenty to do in Omu, but I’m going to tell you up front: if you try to run the city the way that the book says you should, you’re going to make everyone miserable. That’s a bold statement, and now I’m going to back it up with some solid reasoning.
Size Does Matter
The huge, glaring problem with running Omu the way the hardcover lays it out for you is that Omu has been designed to run like a miniature version of Chult. So, the things that worked when you were adventuring around in Chapter 2 throughout the entire continent of Chult are expected to work pretty much the same way now that you’re adventuring around the City of Omu, even though Omu is much, much smaller. And they don’t work pretty much the same as they did at the continent scale. They don’t work much at all, and a big part of the reason is size.
A Walk in the Park
For the sake of the discussion here, let’s pretend that you didn’t run Chapter 2 the way that I suggested, which as you might recall involved taking extreme liberties with the map of Chult to make sure that your players got to experience the Chult content that they would like the best. Let’s just say for the moment that you ran Chapter 2 more or less how they say you’re supposed to: start at this point, choose a destination, travel towards the destination while having random encounters, arrive at the destination or perhaps someplace that happens to be along the line of travel, have an adventure, rinse and repeat. It’s not a horrible way to handle the broad-scale exploration of Chult, after all; it just leaves a lot to chance as far as what the party discovers, and whether they enjoy the gameplay of what they find. Maybe that chance is something that you and your group value, and there’s nothing wrong with playing Chapter 2 that way.
Playing Chapter 3 that way, however, is very wrong, because Omu is not a mini-Chult. Using the city-scale map of Omu, along with a scaled rate of travel and a system for generating random encounters, just as you would with the continent-scale map of Chult, is a terrible idea. For one thing, you’re shifting from a map that measures its travel times in days or weeks to a map that measures its travel times in… well, what, exactly? The city isn’t exceptionally large, and even in a large city you can generally get from where you are to where you want to be within a day’s walking.
A Stroll through the Real World
Because I’m a typical egocentric American, let’s take a look at New York City, which is the most obvious example of a really big city that I can think of, and also is a city that I’ve walked around in personally. Also, my friends and readers from elsewhere in the world have definitely heard about New York City, so it’s a relatable example all the way around.
Let’s imagine taking a stroll through the Big Apple. A very long stroll. You might like to pull up Google Maps or somesuch if you want to see the route I’m describing. If you were to start in the Bronx, near the zoo and Yankee Stadium, and then walk south, straight down Manhattan Island, down into Brooklyn, and then all the way south until you hit the water’s edge at Brighton Beach, you would have walked just short of 25 miles. That’s a long way, but let’s put it into D&D terms, using the travel pace chart in the Player’s Handbook. Long story short, if the party travels at a normal pace for the standard day-of-travel length, then they can travel just about 24 miles that day.
So, in one of the world’s largest cities, D&D adventurers could walk from one end to the other in just one day of travel. Normally I try not to relate D&D directly to the real world like I’m doing in this example, but I’m doing it here anyway, because I want you to have a good conception of how long it takes to walk around in a big city. It’s a worthwhile notion to carry in your head when we get back to Omu… which is not a big city. Not even close.
The City of Omu is nowhere near as large as New York City, although it’s probably more of a challenge to get around in, due to the whole being ruined situation. If you take a look at the official map found on page 98, you can measure Omu as being about 3/4 of a mile by 1/4 of a mile, which is very small.
Hearkening back to New York City, where a city block is about a tenth of a mile long, Omu measures about three by eight blocks, which is tiny. If we’re going to continue to use NYC as a source of examples, Omu is about 15% of the size of Central Park, measuring acre for acre (sorry, dear international readers, but using non-metric systems of measurement is a bad American habit of mine). Bad travel conditions notwithstanding, getting around this place is not going to be time consuming.
But enough real-world comparisons. Let’s get back into Tomb of Annihilation and find out what the designers have in mind for adventurers moving around their legendary lost city.
If you measure Omu in feet, which makes it easier to work with the travel pace presented on page 95, the city is about 4000 feet by 1500 feet. The official travel pace for moving around Omu is defined as about 200 feet per 5 minutes, no matter how fast the party would actually prefer to go (yes, the book says that travel conditions are so bad that hurrying isn’t going to be possible), which means that the party can traverse the entire long dimension of Omu in something like an hour and a half. Again, not time consuming.
Nevertheless, time will need to be consumed, because you will be rolling for random encounters throughout each day, in exactly the same way as you were rolling for them in the jungle: same 3 rolls per day, each involving a d20 roll to decide whether an encounter occurs (except you need an 18 or higher for an Omu random encounter as opposed to a 16 or higher in the jungle), and then a roll on the percentile table if the d20 tells you a random encounter is called for. Dealing with those random encounters will be a very important means of gaining the XP that the party will need in order to stand a chance when they get to Chapter 4 and have to take on the yuan-ti in their own stronghold.
According to the suggested character levels on page 7, PC’s should start out in Omu at 5th to 8th level, and should advance to 7th to 9th level by the time they’ve completed the various challenges in the ruined city. That means that each character needs to gain between 16,500 XP (to go from 5th to 7th) and 25,000 XP (to go from 8th to 9th), roughly, to keep up with the curve. If you multiply that out, you need to present 66,000 to 100,000 XP worth of enemies in encounters in order to sufficiently advance a standard 4-character party. For those who really love the math, if you take a rough average of the XP to be gained from a random encounter generated by the Omu percentile table on page 204 (approximately 1500 XP, rounding off), and then calculate how often a random encounter should pop up (a 15% chance each for the morning, noon, and evening rolls), the party should be earning about 675 XP per day on average (remember that on fully half of the days, there probably won’t be any random encounters at all), which means they should be spending 3 to 5 months wandering around Omu in order to level up as indicated. Of course, you can shave off a bit of that because there are some non-random enemies out there in Omu, but the point here is that random encounters are emphatically insufficient to boost the party’s level to the extent required. One wonders why any random encounters are being included at all… perhaps it’s because we just have to have random encounters, because D&D has random encounters, so there.
Interestingly, the hardcover doesn’t really give any information about any other ways that the PC’s can gain experience while in Omu except for winning battles, aside from a brief statement way back on page 7 that tells the DM that ad-hoc experience awards are something that it’s OK to do, and how to decide how much the award should be worth. We should all be glad it’s OK, because that’s the only way that the party is going to level up in Omu. Unless, of course, you want to take the other option in the very next paragraph on page 7 and just hand out levels when you think it’s appropriate, in order to keep the party in line with the suggested levels.
Seek and Ye Shall Find
Aside from the logistical problems involving travel and movement through Omu, and the mathematical problems of gaining experience while adventuring in Omu, there are also a formidable set of problems that come up when we try to figure out how the players are supposed to interact with the city as designed. It all comes down to the player map of Omu, the one you’re supposed to give them to look at. I recommend narrating that the party approaches Omu from the north, near the waterfall at area 17, and then have them skirt around the cliffs to the city entrance at area 1. That route will give them a really good view of the city, and having gotten a really good view makes it easy to justify giving them a very complete map of the city right off the bat. (You can probably even get some gargoyle battles in there for some extra action during the journey, because the gargoyles are definitely distributed around the top of the cliffs.)
The problem with the player map is that it doesn’t have any marked locations. The numbered points of interest that are on the DM map aren’t on the player map. This isn’t surprising, and is in fact de rigeur for D&D maps, but if you take the DM map and the player map and set them side by side, you’ll see that the numbered areas on the DM map actually look like maybe there’s something unusual or noticable there on the player map. Use Kubazan’s Shrine, area 3, as an example. You can see the rectangular pool out front, courtyard and all, so presumably the players should be able to look over that map of theirs and notice the important locations and decide where they want to go.
Unfortunately, DM’s, we’re getting a form of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy here: the Texas Sharpshooter fires his rifle at the side of a distant barn, and then goes up and paints a bulls-eye around the bullet hole… what an amazing shot! We can recognize the important locations on the player map of Omu, but that’s mostly because we’ve seen the DM map with the points of interest clearly labeled, and we’ve also read the descriptions of the various locations. Think about it: if you hadn’t read the description of Kubazan’s Shrine and learned that there’s a big rectangular froghemoth pool in a walled courtyard out front, would you really have noticed the tiny building with the tiny grey rectangle out front with a tiny bluish rectangle in the middle, and decided that it was worth a look? It’s doubtful. We DM’s see the important features on the player map because we already know what we’re looking for and where to find it. So… what do the players actually see when they look for themselves?
There are exactly six items on the player map that look like something important, and many of them actually require looking closely to notice: the city entrance with stairs (area 1), the lava lake island (area 6), the amphitheater (area 13), the waterfall (area 17), the royal palace (area 20), and the main north-south road (no area number, but it’s the thick grey bar in the middle of everything). That’s it. When you ask the players where they want to go on that map, so you can start figuring out travel times and random encounters, they will tell you one of those five places to head for, or else that they want to travel along that road. The only other possibility is that the players will decide to start a systematic search right off the bat, but that’s not something that most groups are going to come up with. Exploring is more fun than searching, and picking something that looks interesting to go and check out definitely sounds like more fun and action than immediately breaking the city down into a grid and checking it square by square.
More Fun with Math and Maps
Because I really can’t help it, and because I have a certain background with planning and conducting systematic grid searches, I decided to figure out how long it would actually take a D&D party to carefully search Omu and make sure that nothing got left out.
I’m starting with the estimated size of Omu as 4000 feet by 1500 feet, and pretending that it’s a proper rectangle (it is pretty close to one, after all). And since we’re dealing with a rectangle, let’s figure that a search of the area will involve traveling the width of the area (a path that runs along the east-west axis), then turning north to offset for a short distance, and then making another pass along the width of the area, followed by another north turn, and so on.
If we want to be sure that nothing gets missed, then the distance traveled north after each sweep of the city will matter a lot. Let’s assume that if you pass within 50 feet of something notable, you will see it and recognize it as being worth checking out more carefully. That means that we’ll start the search 50 feet from the south edge of the area, and each of our north turns will measure 100 feet. And we’ll start at the south and sweep the whole city and make sure nothing gets missed.
Remembering that this is just an estimate, and that the city isn’t actually a proper rectangle, and that the city is also not totally homogeneous (that lava lake would wreak havoc on a grid search), we would end up making about 40 east-west trips, with a corresponding number of north turns to offset the search tracks properly. The grand total distance is going to come to just about 65,000 feet traveled. And according to the Omu travel guidelines, that will take a solid 24 hours or so of searching. So, if the party puts in an easy 8-hour day of searching, they’ll have covered every bit of Omu within 3 days of arriving.
Again, I’m not saying that I would actually expect a party to take this approach. The reason I’m even bringing this up at all is that the DM might just as well say to the players “you arrive in Omu and start searching the city very carefully, over a period of 3 days,” then roll for 9 random encounters, and then start feeding the party the shrines one by one because they will have found them all in virtue of just having looked everywhere. And that is an exceptionally boring way to do it… but it’s also a way to do it that makes perfect sense based on the Omu instructions, which should help to illustrate how senseless they really are.
But, of course, most parties would never think of a grid search, and those that would think of one would probably also recognize that doing a grid search would be boring as hell. Instead, they would head for one of those six obvious destinations, which brings us back to the way that Omu exploration is actually likely to go.
Only two of those six notable places have anything to do with the nine shrines that the party is supposed to find as they explore the city. Moa’s Shrine is in the middle of the lake of lava, and I’Jin’s Shrine is easy to find by accident, because it happens to be along that main north-to-south street. If the party is going to find any of the other seven, it’s pretty much going to have to be by lucky stumbling, or else as the result of a time-consuming and tedious search (the time consumption and tedium of which we have already tangentially discussed).
Investigating Ruined Buildings
I’ll toss in one more item concerning exploration of Omu here, because it’s something you might use once or twice, although I would advise not using it at all. Page 95 provides some information on how to explore ruined buildings, complete with a percentile chart to tell you what the PC’s find.
Basically, they can take 5 minutes to check out the interior of a ruined structure, and 40% of the time they will find nothing. 10% of the time they’ll find something good, although by “good” we’re talking about some possibly useful exotic plants, or maybe some treasure valuing between 25gp and 150gp. The rest of the time they’ll be attacked by killer plants, swarmed by disease-bearing insects, surrounded by insanity-inducing mist, and other charming outcomes.
It should be pretty clear to the players that searching a ruined building is a bad idea: lots to lose and nothing much to gain. We also need to be asking ourselves why the party would choose any particular building to search, or whether they’ll be searching every building on the street, or why they’re bothering to search unimportant-looking ruined buildings in the first place. After all, they’re in a race to find and plunder lost shrines, which will presumably look like, well, shrines, when they see them. Wasting time sifting through someone’s old house or shop is worse than useless.
By the way, how much time would it take to search every building in the city? I’m estimating about 50 eight-hour D&D work days, based on a rough estimate of 5000 buildings, an estimate in turn based on a building taking up about 100 feet by 50 feet and by lining the search paths from the previous bloody-minded search plan with those buildings. What’s the point? The point is there is no reason to even have a provision for searching random ruins and getting random results. And there’s especially no reason when mostly the random contents of random ruins try to kill you.
So, essentially, if Omu is going to work the way it’s written in the hardcover, the players are going to have to come up with some kind of plan to explore the city and find the shrines, and we’ve already established that the plan has to take one of two forms. The first is going to be heading for one of those six notable places, and we’ve already discussed how much good that’s going to do as far as finding those shrines. The other is going to be a systematic, street-by-street and building-by-building dragnet of the whole city, which will of course eventually find all of the shrines, but will also be time-consuming (in game time) and extremely boring (at the table).
The Ticking Clock
While we’re still talking about exploring Omu, we need to address the issue of how much time it will take to do all of this exploring, on the small scale. We’ve already talked a bit about how certain travel routes or plans of action might take hours or days, but those times were all calculated using a basic length of time that has been designed right into Omu, and that basic length of time causes problems. The designers seem to have decided that all of the exploring here in Omu will be done in time chunks of five minutes each. It will take 5 minutes to travel 200 feet. It will take 5 minutes to investigate one of those pointless ruined structures. Unfortunately, D&D doesn’t deal with 5-minute time blocks very well at all, which means that there’s not a very good solution for a DM who’s trying to keep track of the passage of time in Omu. And you do have to keep track of time, at least a little bit, because there are random encounters to be rolled three times a day, and because there actually is competition and therefore time pressure to find and loot the nine shrines.
D&D pacing is good at handling combat situations, where each round is six seconds long, and therefore you get 10 rounds per minute, and it’s easy to keep track of how long your spells last and that sort of thing (actually, keeping track of how long spells last is possibly the only reason to keep any accurate track of time in D&D, but that’s another whole article). D&D can also handle periods of hours and days pretty well, just as long as you’re spending those hours and days in fairly limited types of action. If you’re traveling, resting, sleeping, or otherwise occupying your time with activities that take at least one hour, D&D pacing is good to go.
But this whole five-minute time-chunk system is completely unsupported by the 5E system. DM’s get two choices: either keep some kind of wretched tally sheet, marking off each 5-minute period as it happens, or try to fudge the time from Point A to Point B using the map and scale. The tally sheet is a no-go from the beginning, because the period of time during which the party is not actually sleeping for the night contains almost 200 of those 5-minute chunks. Fudging the time isn’t a great option either, because in order to make it work you have to have an origin and a destination, and we’ve already discussed how the map and overall layout of Omu makes it less than likely that you’ll be able to specify both an origin and a destination. Without both, you can’t measure distance, and without distance, you can’t calculate (or accurately estimate) the time elapsed.
Throw It Out the Window
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that running Chapter 3 the way that the hardcover seems to think you should is a losing proposition, and that trying to deal with Omu the designers’ way is going to make everyone miserable. And both of those things are true, but you need to really believe that if you’re going to even consider taking my advice on how to actually run your Chapter 3 in a sane and enjoyable manner. Because my advice is extreme, and unpalatable, and against all of the conventional wisdom concerning proper gameplay and DM conduct that you’ll find in the books, and the blogs, and the YouTube videos. You’re probably not going to like it, but it will work. I know it will work, because it has in fact worked, and this is how you do it:
Put the adventure on the rails. Write a script to plan out what the party will encounter and when, before they even start on their exploration of the city. Don’t tell the players you’re doing this. In fact, do some things to deliberately bluff them into thinking that they’re actually directing the exploration.
There you have it. If you want your players to come out the other side of Omu feeling like they had a great ruined-city experience, and also for them to be at the appropriate level for Chapter 4, and also for them to not miss out on some of the really great stuff that’s in Omu because of fickle fortune, railroad them. If you think railroading is always unforgivably evil, you can stop reading now and go back to your ruined building percentile tables and your 5-minute tally sheet. Or you can keep reading and maybe get a new perspective on things. If you’re conflicted on the issue, read the next blue box, and if that doesn’t convince you, then go and read the last section of the article, which might sway your opinion, and then come back and start reading from here.
If you have philosophical objections to things like “railroading”, or “metagaming”, or any of those game-design-and-theory snarl words, you need to get over it. Your job as the DM is to create an enjoyable game experience for everyone at the table. If that means you need to compromise your lofty ideals of how roleplaying games ought to run, so be it. Choose your friends’ enjoyment instead of your own intellectual vanity, because that’s the right thing to do. Period.
Okay, now that I’ve told you straight out that I’m going to tell you how to railroad your way through Chapter 3, and that it’s going to be a better solution than doing it the book’s way, we’re going to break down the railway journey piece by piece and make sure that we do a really great job building it. After all, if we’re going to spit in the face of conventional RPG wisdom, we’d better come up with an excellent product in spite of it all.
Managing Player Beliefs
The first rule on my railway is that the players must not know that they are on the rails. They have to believe that they are making choices about how they’re going to conduct their search and their exploration. And, frankly, they will be making a lot of their own choices, even if this is technically a railroad adventure; the difference will be that they will be making those choices in response to a series of prompts or hooks that will be presented to them in a predetermined order and manner. Yes, there will be obvious choices that we fully expect them to make, and that will keep the adventure on the rails, but we aren’t actually forcing them to follow the script. We’re just manipulating them into following it. Which is totally different.
Step one is to show them the player map of Omu, being sure to explain that this is the view of the city that they got from the top of the cliff. Narrate a bit here about descending the stairs, possibly running into Orvex (more on him later), and then ask them to point out on the map where they want to go. Remember the six places we talked about before? It’s a very safe bet that they’ll choose one of those. Now tell them that you’ll take care of plotting a good path through the streets for them, and that you’ll let them know what happens on the way to the destination they chose. And they can trust you to do that for them, of course, because you’re a good DM and you’ve built a relationship of trust with your players.
In fact, offering to navigate a path for them to their selected destination is the first lie in this whole extravaganza of mendacity and dissembling: they might think they’re going to the base of the waterfall, or to the amphitheater, or wherever, and that they’ll be moving along the map to get there, although they won’t actually see their location plotted on the map as they move along. In fact, they just think that they chose a meaningful destination… what really happened is that you got them to climb onto the rails without realizing it.
Step two is to start running “the script”, but be sure to roll some dice behind the screen periodically just to create the sound that means random things are happening. They aren’t, of course, but we want the players to think they are. Narrate their path through the city, but without mentioning any specific landmarks that might indicate where on their map they are. Wide streets, narrow alleys, climbing over fallen stone roadblocks, cutting through wrecked courtyards and overgrown gardens, but nothing that stands out from the general ruined-city environmental schema. Eventually, you’ll tell them that they have reached their selected destination, at which point you can present them with some adventuresome activities, and then ask for a new destination, which will probably be another one of those six things from before. Keep doing this, bouncing them around the city, until the script runs out and it’s time to transition to Chapter 4.
Now, as we’re going to get into in the next section, you’ll actually be presenting the players with a series of obstacles, encounters, and various detours (this is what I’ve been calling “the script”) that will bring them into contact with the elements of the adventure which make Omu an exciting and productive place to be. While all of the script activities are going on, remember that the party is hypothetically moving towards that selected destination, and be sure to tell them that they have arrived at their destination before they get irritated at all of the problems that are keeping them from getting there. Because it doesn’t matter much how many destinations they actually reach; the destinations are only there to give the players a false sense of control and agency, and eventually getting to the places they want to go maintains the fiction while you continue to run the script.
Building the Script
There will be three primary factors that contribute to the script, and as long as you cover them all, you can write your script however you want. I’ll give some suggestions, but ultimately the details are up to you. Just make sure that you cover the necessities, and your script can go however you want it to. And you definitely should come up with your own script, because you know your players, and the whole point of the script is to make sure that they have a good time in Omu, as opposed to the miserable time they (and you) would be having if you listened to the hardcover authors. If you need to give yourself a little remotivation, just imagine that time-keeping tally sheet with the 200 five-minute tick marks: that’s one of the things you’re avoiding.
Before we get into the three important things, there are a few generalities to clear up. First, I recommend that your script not exceed ten days of in-game time. There are nine shrines, as well as some other interesting things to do, so ten days gives you enough time to do one or two interesting things per day, which is just busy enough. Second, when you write your script, try to break up each day of the Omu adventure into several parts; I used midnight, pre-dawn, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, evening, twilight, and night. You shouldn’t have something happening at each of these times on each day of the script, but spreading the script events throughout the different times of day will help you narrate things happening more easily. You can have an attack on the party’s campsite in the wee hours of the morning, or see smoke from a burning building just in time before sundown, or make the flickering light of flames glow above the nearby rooftops as they get ready to bed down for the night.
The hardcover specifies that all of the inscriptions that give instructions and clues in the various shrines are written in Old Omuan, which can be a problem if the characters aren’t able to read that language. Figure out a way to ensure that they’ll be able to translate any Old Omuan text they come across, because the nature of the script means that arriving at a shrine and then needing to come back later when they’re able to read the inscriptions is not an option. In the script, they visit any given shrine only once, so they’d better be able to handle it right away. This shouldn’t be a problem of motivation, because in light of the competitive atmosphere, it’s unlikely that the party will choose to abandon an unsolved shrine, as long as they feel like they can handle it; showing them important clues that they can’t read messes around with their sense of competence and makes them feel like they can’t handle it. Don’t let that happen: figure out a way for them to read Old Omuan, or make the clues written in Chultan instead, or even in some strange archaic dialect of Common. It doesn’t matter how they can read the inscriptions, as long as they can read them first try every time.
Page 96 introduces Orvex Ocrammas, who is an incredibly useful NPC. Talking with him is probably the best way for the PC’s to learn what’s going on in the city. He can tell them the legend of the Trickster Gods, which they’ll need to know in order to open the tomb in Chapter 5. He can make sure that they know about the nine shrines, the puzzle cubes, and why they want to collect said cubes. He can also clue them into the fact that the Red Wizards and the yuan-ti are already out there in the city mounting their own efforts to acquire the puzzle cubes. I would limit his involvement as an NPC to providing information, and not actually tagging along as a translator, although his knowledge of Old Omuan can be tempting to take advantage of. It’ll probably be easier for him to just supply them with the means to translate Old Omuan inscriptions, rather than coming along himself to translate them in person.
Finally, remember that the ending to Chapter 3 has already been written by the hardcover authors, in such a way that it doesn’t truly matter what the PC’s do or how well they do it. On page 94, it’s made very clear that the party is not supposed to obtain all nine of the puzzle cubes. At least one of them is supposed to be snatched up by Ras Nsi at the last minute, and used to lure the party into the Fane of the Night Serpent, which is where Chapter 4 happens. If you’re feeling badly about the whole scripted adventure and deceiving the players, you can comfort yourself by knowing that the people who actually wrote the book decided that the players would have no chance of achieving the goal of claiming all nine puzzle cubes in Chapter 3. So maybe you’re not as evil as you thought.
First in The Script: Getting the Puzzle Cubes
Finding the nine shrines of the Trickster Gods and defeating the challenges therein to claim the puzzle cubes which will in turn open the final dungeon is the main purpose of Chapter 3, and that’s where we’re going to start the script. It’s already been established, for good or ill, that the last puzzle cube will be snatched up by Ras Nsi in order to propel the story into Chapter 4. That means that a maximum of eight cubes are up for grabs, but the PC’s aren’t the only ones trying to get them. The Red Wizards and the yuan-ti are also out and about in the City of Omu, likewise trying to locate the shrines and claim the puzzle cubes, and it makes sense that they will manage to get to some of the shrines and loot their cubes first. Page 94, in the “Race for the Puzzle Cubes” section, gives instructions for how to obstruct the party as they find more and more of the shrines. But you should ignore that section, and do it my way instead.
The players will know that there are nine shrines, because you’ll find some way to tell them and also read them the lovely little story about the trickster gods. But they should also know that they will have competition in reaching them and claiming the cubes, and so they’ll realize that they won’t get to all the cubes first. As mentioned just previously, Orvex is a great NPC for making all of this very clear up front.
The next step is for you to decide how many shrines your PC’s need to find, solve, and claim the cubes from. Your mileage may vary, but I decided that my players wouldn’t be really happy unless they were “winning” the puzzle cube race, which meant that they would need to claim five or six out of the nine cubes (of course, they didn’t know yet that there were really only eight up for grabs).
At this point in writing the script, I looked at all of the nine shrines, and decided which of them my players would like the best. This is something you’ll have to personalize for your group, because different groups and different individual players like different types of challenges. My group, for example, loves a good combat, so I made sure that Shagambi’s Shrine with the gladiatorial pit would be in their script. They aren’t so keen on logic puzzles (it’s not that they can’t solve them, but that solving them doesn’t rate high on the fun-times meter), so I decided that Wongo’s Shrine would be one that would already have been pillaged when they arrived there. You should decide for yourself which shrines to include in your script, and then just assign each one a day and a time of day in the script for the party to discover it.
If you want, you can include the party discovering shrines that have already been looted as part of the script; this does help to establish that there’s a competition going on. You might need the party to actually encounter all nine shrines, pillaged or intact, if you’re going to satisfy them that they have adequately searched the city and collected all of the cubes that were possible for them to collect; that will also be something that depends on the temperament of your players. Mine needed to be able to see all nine shrines, including the already looted ones, in order to rest easy in their minds that they had done as well as it was possible for them to do.
Try to come up with some different ways for the party to arrive at a shrine, for the sake of variety, and also because going to the different shrines are actually “detours” from the route that the players think that they are taking to the destination that they chose. Presumably they want to reach that destination, so anything that will divert them from that goal needs to be pretty interesting. Smoke rising will do the trick, because everyone likes to see something on fire, and sounds of battle will also work well. It is of course possible to just place a couple of the desired shrines along their path to be noticed; remember that you can narrate finding a shrine as the party makes their way through a shortcut or around a road blockage, even though neither of those things actually exist as far as being part of the party’s journey to that destination that they don’t know they actually aren’t going to. It should go without saying that the “actual” numbered locations of the shrines are completely irrelevant to where and when the party will find them, because the map (including the DM map) is only a convenient fiction at this point anyway.
You may want to involve the Red Wizards or the yuan-ti more directly in the hunt for the puzzle cubes, by actually staging a battle with one faction or the other in order to gain the opportunity to attempt a shrine. It’s also possible for happenstance encounters (which we will cover below) to result in the party being able to loot a puzzle cube from a defeated Red Wizard or yuan-ti malison. Remember that it doesn’t matter how many cubes they end up with, as long as Ras Nsi gets at least one in order to bait them into the Fane of the Night Serpent. As long as the players feel like it’s a close battle but that they are winning, the script is going well.
Second in The Script: Doing Fun Stuff
While the shrines and the puzzle cubes are of primary importance, and have to be dealt with successfully in order to progress the campaign, there are other exciting and fun things to be done in Omu. In fact, having non-cube adventures is good for the script, because it provides some variety; even though the different shrines each have their own challenge, it’s easy to get into the find-shrine-solve-puzzle-get-cube cycle until tedium sets in. So, the rest of this section will go over the best of the extras, including how to work them into the overall puzzle cube hunt. You don’t have to use any of these, of course, but they are possibilities that you should consider when you’re writing your script.
The King of Feathers. Getting into a rumble with this legendary feathered tyrannosaur is a must-have experience in Omu. Officially, his lair is at the amphitheater in area 13, but I highly recommend paying attention to the sidebar on page 106, and building up some mystery and suspense about the big guy. I’m going to assume that by now everyone has seen the original Jurassic Park (it did come out 26 years ago, after all) or one of the four sequels they’ve made so far; basically anything startling or ominous that any carnivore in any of those movies does is great inspiration for stuff that the King of Feathers can do to make his presence known without necessarily engaging the party in combat immediately. When they do get into battle, make sure to use the King’s ability to breathe out clouds of wasps early and often. Also, I will never forget our sorcerer’s reaction to the legendary rex using misty step to go after him… “He used misty step? The t-rex did? What?” It was great.
Hooded Lantern. This tabaxi hunter wants to die in glorious combat with the King of Feathers. If you need a way to get the party into the aforementioned rumble with the feathered rex, meeting Hooded Lantern and agreeing to help him with his special deathwish is a good way to do it. You can also use him to provide the location of a shrine, or some special tools or weapons, as repayment for heroes who help him in his final fight.
Bag of Nails. This is the tabaxi hunter who has gone completely senile and basically considers all living things in Omu to be his rightful prey. My players had a great time with Bag of Nails, because they kept running into him, foiling his plans to kill them, feeling sorry for him and accepting his apologies, and then letting him go his way, until the next time he tried to kill them. This probably happened three or four times. Bag of Nails is a very endearing recurring enemy, and is also challenging enough to be a meaningful obstacle when you run into him.
Kakarol’s Kobolds. Kakarol is the kobold leader who has a full-blown dragon complex (he sits on a miniature treasure hoard and demands to be addressed as “Great Wyrm”), and can make for some pretty hilarious dialogue. The kobolds have taken over the ruined bazaar in area 15, and I enjoyed having the party bowled over by a swarm of kobolds who stole a puzzle cube in the confusion and then had to be chased down and dealt with. It should be noted that my players have a soft spot for kobolds and goblins and are usually very hesitant to harm them, so this encounter could play very differently for parties who are less sympathetic towards incompetent evil.
Red Wizards. It’s possible for the party to make an alliance with the Red Wizards, but I would recommend that any agreement be just the precursor to a betrayal, hopefully at a really awkward moment. I recommend waiting for the moment when they need the Red Wizards to help them overcome the yuan-ti, and then having the Reds just run for it. Not all players are going to be comfortable with being friendly to the Red Wizards, who are definitely evil in temperament and intention, but the option is there.
The overall takeaway here is that you should include events in your script that don’t directly relate to shrines or puzzle cubes. And you should definitely have a battle with the King of Feathers… just find a way to make that one happen, because it’s a classic.
Third in The Script: Leveling Up
The last part of the script is the really utilitarian and somewhat boring part, but it’s definitely important. If you’re going to go with the recommended levels for starting Chapter 3 and for starting Chapter 4, you’re going to have a significant amount of XP to generate while the party is exploring Omu. We briefly touched on this before, and established that random encounters will not come anywhere near to providing the amount of XP needed to level up the party. You can, and should, award XP to the party for obtaining a puzzle cube from any shrine, and there are obviously places for additional XP from non-random enemies (the King of Feathers, for example, and maybe a separate award for every time they defeat Bag of Nails without killing him), but there will need to be plenty of combat encounters to make the math work.
Fortunately, because you’re using a script, you can include just as many battles as you need, with whatever assortments of enemies you like, to make the numbers come out right. These are what I previously referred to as happenstance encounters, although they’re actually fully planned out and there is no happenstance about them. It just seems like happenstance to the players, who still don’t realize that you’re running a script for them. They hear the sound of dice, and they think that all of what’s happening is excitingly random. And even though the randomness isn’t real, the excitement still is, and it’s worth having.
There’s plenty of variety available to you when you’re creating these encounters, which is good, because there will need to be rather a lot of combat encounters, and it can be easy for them all to get the same feel due to being against the same enemies. You want to mix your available baddies in different combinations, and hopefully give them different tactics (a discussion of how to develop tactics for groups of enemies is way beyond the scope of this article). As far as yuan-ti, you have three types of malisons to work with in addition to purebloods (although I would recommend against using the malisons with snakes for arms; they seem to get more mockery than respect). Red Wizards are mages who go around with skeletons and various guards and thugs, and also make fine opponents. In short, you can build all kinds of combat into your script to make sure that the party ends up at an acceptable level to start Chapter 4.
Adding combat encounters is the final step in getting the script written. Figure out which shrines you’re planning on visiting, how you’re going to arrange for the party to find them, and any additional adventuresome activities you have in mind, and distribute them throughout the script. Again, I think ten days or so is a good overall length of time, because one or two major events per day feels active but not busy. Once you have the important parts figured out, sprinkle your combats throughout the rest of the script. It can be useful to develop some different tactics for the attackers based on the time of day, because you’ll be needing to assign a time of day to the combats anyway. Twilight ambushes from abandoned alleyways are exciting, and everyone knows that getting jumped at dawn by evil wizards and undead is the Breakfast of Champions.
Ending The Script
No matter how everything else goes, and presuming you don’t have a TPK while adventuring through Omu, Chapter 3 always ends with Ras Nsi in possession of any puzzle cubes that the PC’s don’t have, and he always has at least one cube. This means that the party is going to have to go into the Fane of the Night Serpent, which is actually Chapter 4, so there’s really no way out of it.
Although the adventure is essentially on the rails throughout Omu, don’t forget to watch for player boredom. I honestly don’t think you’ll have trouble keeping the action going for as long as you like, but be ready to bring the train ride to an end if you realize that it is for some reason no longer entertaining. Remember that the chapter ends with Ras Nsi in possession of puzzle cubes that the party needs to get from him, no matter what else the PC’s might happen to do, so it will harm relatively little if you need to bring the chapter to an end sooner than expected.
There are only two ways for the party to start Chapter 4: either they’re sneaking into the Fane on their own terms, and hopefully with some sort of plan, or else they’re being brought in as captives. When you bring the script to a close, you need to have some idea as to which of these you’d prefer to go with, and as with most things it will depend on your players.
If you have a group that likes to confer and discuss and strategize, then allowing them to manage their own entrance into the Fane is preferable. Just make sure that Ras Nsi or his underlings leave a really obvious trail leading to the Fane. They could even leave a note, frankly. As long as the PC’s are aware that the Fane exists, that its entrance is in Omu, and that they need to go in there to get the puzzle cube(s) they lack, you’re good to go. They’ll probably know that it’s a trap, but it won’t matter, because they’ll have to go in anyway. Just make sure that the yuan-ti are the obvious culprit, and it’ll be fine.
If you prefer to have the party brought into the Fane as prisoners, arranging for them to be captured by the yuan-ti is fairly simple. With enough purebloods casting suggestion, combined with some pretty potent poison damage from yuan-ti weapons, it’s not hard to disarm and subdue even a fairly powerful party. Again, this will depend on your players; for some groups it’s much easier to figure out an escape than to plan a break-in, and Chapter 4 actually comes pre-made with some options for progressing the story with the PC’s as captives.
And, of course, there’s no guarantee that any plan to infiltrate the Fane will be successful anyway. In fact, without reliable information as to the layout of the complex or any idea as to the personnel and procedures of the place, it’s more likely than not that even the best plan for getting into and out of the Fane undetected and with the cubes will result in the party getting a few rooms in before making a mistake or having some ill luck, and then being captured anyway.
But, that’s all Chapter 4 material, which will of course have its own guide. All you need to know to finish your script and bring Chapter 3 to a satisfactory end is whether you want the party to have a chance at sneaking into the Fane of the Night Serpent or whether you prefer to have them brought in as captives.
A Last Gasp of Justification
I’ll conclude this article by repeating my earlier statements about how turning this entire chapter of Tomb of Annihilation into what is essentially a railroad wrapped in deception is not such a terrible thing. Yes, it would be better if the City of Omu were playable and enjoyable without having to put the whole thing on the rails, but I think I’ve made a pretty good case that the way it’s written in the hardcover is not a good way to run this part of the adventure, and that some extreme and unorthodox measures are justified.
The problem put briefly: Chapter 2 has the party exploring the whole continent of Chult, with distances measured in miles and time measured in days, and with various local guides and other opportunities to find productive and profitable things to do. When we move into Chapter 3, we suddenly have the party exploring just the City of Omu, with distances measured in feet and time measured in 5-minute chunks, and with no local guides to hire (this is a lost city, after all), but otherwise attempting to work just the same as when we were at the continent scale. And the fact is that the system doesn’t work very well at the smaller scale, and that makes the game fail to run smoothly.
Fact: everybody has a better time when the game runs smoothly, and having a good time is a reason for playing D&D that we all have in common. Everyone contributes to the enjoyment we get from the game, so if things are going well, then everyone is responsible for the good time we’re having. If things aren’t going well, then the blame mostly gets placed on the DM… it might not be fair, but anyone who told you it’s easy to sit behind that screen was lying.
If you’re reading this article and thinking that I generally approve of railroad adventures, and that I feel like manipulating and deceiving players is good conduct, and that I think that player agency isn’t important, and that I enjoy lying to my friends and making dice noises to keep up the sham… well, you’re wrong. I can see where you might think that, because I’ve just given you about 4,500 words of solid advice on how to do those very things as effectively as possible to run Chapter 3 of Tomb of Annihilation.
The point here is not that I think that all of the above advice – advice specifically given for the purpose of running one chapter of one hardcover adventure – constitutes good general philosophy on game design and implementation. I’m not writing a puff piece here on how to best conceptualize the proper role of choice and consequence in tabletop roleplaying games. We’re not talking about what makes for good theory and virtuous practice… not in this article, at least. In this article, we’re talking about pragmatism, and we’re specifically talking about a pragmatic way to run Chapter 3 of Tomb of Annihilation. None of this is intended to generalize.
When I ran up against Tomb of Annihilation’s Chapter 3, I didn’t like what I was seeing, and so I considered my options very carefully, and then chose to plan and run it just the way I’ve outlined in this article. I did it that way because it was simply the best way I could come up with to manage the adventure, and I was the one responsible for keeping the game running. That’s the DM’s job, folks, and sometimes you have to suck it up and do all of the things that the books and the blogs and the YouTube DM’s say that you should never do. And why? Because the real DM’s, the DM’s sitting at the actual tables and taking responsibility for what happens there, don’t have the luxury of nobly keeping the faith with feel-good principles and catchy bits of intellectualism when there’s a game to run.
And you know what? I’m not just giving you theory here. You’re getting the actual process that was really used to run a game just as described. And the game did run, rails and scripts and all, and it was fine. Better than fine. It turned out great. Everyone had a good time, and adventures happened, and there were excitement and terror and laughter and rejoicing all in their just proportions. Perhaps it was a moral travesty and a grave abuse of the most sacred philosophical foundations of roleplaying games… but it ran, damn it, and we all had a good time. That’s enough.