A DM’s Guide to Tomb of Annihilation: Chapters 4 and 5
This will be the final article in my series of guides for Dungeon Masters running the Tomb of Annihilation campaign, and I’m combining two chapters into this one article because Chapter 4 doesn’t need its own article. In fact, Chapter 4 could easily have been left out of the adventure entirely, so I’m not planning on spending a lot of time discussing it. I don’t think I’ll be spilling the beans too badly by saying that the final part of the campaign will be a venture into the incredibly dangerous Tomb of the Nine Gods; after all, the very title of the hardcover makes it pretty clear that there will be a Tomb somewhere in this story, and that plenty of Annihilation will occur therein. We’ll go over some of the good, the bad, and the ugly concerning the Tomb, although I don’t plan to even attempt a room-by-room analysis. I’ll also give you some recommendations on handling boss encounters, as well as a little number-crunching to help make things a little more dangerous right at the end. So, DM’s, let’s finish this up, and bring this epic campaign to a close.
Chapter 4, Briefly
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Chapter 4, because it’s essentially bonus content. As far as the plot of the adventure, there isn’t any need for Chapter 4 at all: the only reason for the party to venture into the Fane of the Night Serpent is because they don’t have all of the puzzle cubes they need, and therefore they must go into the Fane to claim the missing cubes from Ras Nsi. Of course, we could have eliminated all of that by simply not making Ras Nsi stealing the last cube explicitly part of Chapter 3.
That having been said, I suppose it is somewhat convenient for Ras Nsi to be in possession of all of the puzzle cubes that the party needs, because at least it gathers them all in one place so they can be reclaimed all at once.
Nevertheless, having an entire chapter in order to accomplish this is overkill, so I’ll be hitting the high points and then moving on.
First, as mentioned at the end of the Chapter 3 guide, the party will either be infiltrating the Fane on their own, or they will be captured by the yuan-ti and brought there as prisoners. Realistically, even PC’s who manage to get into the Fane undetected will probably not get very far before being caught by the veritable swarm of yuan-ti who are milling about the place, so they will probably end up as prisoners anyway, although they will have at least some idea about the layout of the complex.
There are two main characters among the yuan-ti: Ras Nsi, the leader of the cult, and Fenthaza, the high priestess. They have conflicting agendas, but both of them have an interest in sending the party into the Tomb of the Nine Gods, so it doesn’t really matter whose side the PC’s end up on. Ras Nsi is a victim of the Death Curse, and wants the party to go into the Tomb and end the curse before he dies (note: if you look at his stat block on page 230, you’ll see his HP is supposed to be reduced each day of the campaign, which might result in his being dead or nearly so when the party finally meets him, so just ignore that and give him either full or half HP and be done with it). Fenthaza thinks that having the Black Opal Crown will help her hasten the coming of Dendar the Night Serpent, and she’s under the (correct) impression that the Crown is in the Tomb, and she wants the party to go and bring it back out for her. So basically, either Ras Nsi or Fenthaza will give them the rest of the puzzle cubes and send them on their way.
It’s also possible for the party to fight and kill one or both of them, grab the cubes, and make a daring escape from the Fane, although this is obviously a riskier proposition than being released voluntarily by one of the cult leaders. When I had to deal with the situation, I brought Artus Cimber back into the story to help the party escape from the Fane.
Remember Artus Cimber? He’s the guy with the Ring of Winter, and I placed him in the yuan-ti prison along with the party (who made a pretty decent attempt at infiltrating the temple complex but eventually fell prey to bad luck and an insufficient grasp of yuan-ti culture). Fortunately for everyone, Artus still has the Ring of Winter, which wasn’t confiscated from him when he was captured. I didn’t say so, but I know we were probably all thinking of Christopher Walken’s monologue from Pulp Fiction. Anyway, Artus wants to kill Ras Nsi for reasons of his own, and as long as the PC’s are willing to help out, Artus is happy to help them snatch up the puzzle cubes, and then they can all escape together. Having a magic ring that can throw up ice walls and create areas of intense cold (which presumably are a problem for yuan-ti, who are snake people, and therefore probably cold-blooded and sluggish at low temperatures) makes the escape exciting but not very susceptible to failure.
The rest of the content in Chapter 4 will give you a pretty decent background for whatever battles and negotiations end up happening, and it also provides a lot of good tone elements for inspiration while roleplaying yuan-ti, who have a weird vibe of evil combined with disgusting that can be hard to pin down. I would like to mention that there’s information on pages 112 and 114 about how audiences with Ras Nsi and Fenthaza should work, and it’s fairly good information that provides a pretty accurate picture of how yuan-ti plan and plot. The problem with both sections is that there’s the possibility that Ras Nsi or Fenthaza will have the PC’s executed if things go poorly, or even if things go well. Remember that you’re in Tomb of Annihilation, and that you’ve come a very long way through the adventure, and you should not let enemies just execute the player characters. Because then they will be dead, and they will stay dead, and your campaign will be over. Avoid that.
Any way you slice it, you need to get the party out of the yuan-ti’s clutches and send them on into Chapter 5, and I just gave you three perfectly good ways to make that happen. That’s all I’m going to say about Chapter 4, and now we’ll get into the long-awaited Tomb of Annihilation.
Chapter 5: The Tomb
I don’t have the time or the space in this article to go through the entire tomb room by room, nor would it be super helpful even if I could and did. Instead of an exhaustive treatment, I’ll just break down the tomb by level and go over the parts that are likely to cause the most trouble.
Before we get started, you need to realize that part of the inspiration for the Tomb of the Nine Gods is none other than the classic Tomb of Horrors. And, because of that lineage, this tomb has a lot of the same crap in it that made Tomb of Horrors a lousy adventure. Yeah, that’s right… Tomb of Horrors was awful. Really, really terrible, and some of the same horrible stuff is here in this new tomb as well, and we need to take care of it and make it dangerous but not automatically fatal.
Why I Hate Tomb of Horrors
Yes, I just talked some serious trash on one of the most famous and allegedly beloved adventure modules ever to come out for D&D, and now I should probably give you at least the short reason why I have such a hate on for Tomb of Horrors.
Tomb of Horrors got me punched in the stomach by my best friend back in my earliest days of DMing. We’re talking back when I stole my mom’s backgammon dice, back when we didn’t have books or references except for a few photocopies here and there. But I heard about Tomb of Horrors, the deadliest dungeon ever, and I really wanted to run it, and finally I managed to get my hands on a copy of a copy of the module, rusty staple holding it together and all, and we all buckled down to do this awesome and incredible dungeon.
So the party manages to choose the entrance that wasn’t immediate and certain death (and there are two other possible entrances, one of which crushes you with rocks and the other which traps you inside to die slowly), and they make it down the hallway of hidden pits (which even high dex characters fall in three-quarters of the time, and which all have spikes with poison that just kills you immediately if you fail your save, and you might need as many as three saves whenever you fall in), and they come to that first classic green devil face. This is before there was a lot of read-aloud text, so we kind of had to describe things based on the descriptions that were in the module. So I’m giving the description, based on what’s in the module text, and pretty much all there is in the module text is how the mouth of the devil face is about 3 feet across and just the right size for someone to crawl into. So that’s how I described it, and of course any reasonable player would think that crawling into the mouth is what you were supposed to do, because why would the DM tell you that you would fit if you weren’t supposed to try it?
And one by one, my friends sent their best characters, the cream of the crop that were selected to take on this killer dungeon, into that green devil mouth, which of course was an immediately fatal trap. No checks, no saving throws, no opportunity for resurrection: just dead. And I announced to the players, my geeky comrades, that they were all dead. The Tomb of Horrors got them, because they fell for the old “you’ll fit in there so you should give it a go” trick. Ha ha, right? And that’s when my buddy socked me in the stomach, and they all stormed away, leaving me wondering what the hell had happened.
I eventually figured it out, though. Dungeons are supposed to be dangerous, even deadly. You need to have the constant possibility that you might get seriously injured or killed if you get stupid or make too many bad rolls, or else there’s no sense of risk, and without real risks, there can’t be any worthwhile rewards. The problem with Tomb of Horrors is that it’s very arbitrary, right from the beginning: there are three possible ways to enter, and two of them can get you killed right off the bat. There’s not really even a way to figure out which is the right one to use; you just sort of get lucky. And so it goes, right down to the very end, where if you finally dodge all of the traps and fight the lich skull and make it out alive, it’s possible a demon shows up at the last minute as you’re exiting the tomb to kill you if you looted certain items.
The problem with Tomb of Horrors is that it just isn’t fair. It doesn’t reward good planning, and quick thinking, and creative problem solving, and leveraging your character’s strengths… in other words, it doesn’t reward good D&D playing. Gary Gygax, may he rest in peace, had the outright gall to call this “a thinking person’s module”, when in fact it’s mostly a lucky person’s module. My friends came to pit their best skills and their best characters against this famous dungeon, and I didn’t give them the chance to use their skills or their characters. I just killed them off by daring them to crawl into a hole of instant death, and that’s what sucks.
The fact of the matter is that the Tomb of the Nine Gods has a lot of traps and other challenges that are just not possible to overcome, or that can only be overcome in extremely specific ways that players probably won’t hit on immediately when they need them. There are rooms that you basically walk into, but you’ll never walk out again, because the dungeon designers have made it so that you can’t help but die. Often, they make sure that you’ll die by making some special exceptions that might have given you a way out of the problem, like saying that magic doesn’t work in this trapped room, or that even creatures who don’t need to breathe still suffocate or drown or are poisoned by gas.
I don’t see the point of having traps that can’t be beaten, enemies that can’t be defeated or circumvented, or any sort of challenge that is both unavoidable and impossible to overcome. Because of this, I adjusted a lot of the rooms in this tomb so that there could be a chance of survival and success. Even if I don’t get punched for it, I still don’t kill players by fiat, and letting them walk into an unbeatable trap without any warning or chance of escape is tantamount to saying “suddenly the passage collapses and you all are crushed by rocks and die”, except it’s dressed up a little more to conceal that the only reason that the PC’s died was that you, the DM, decided to kill them and that’s that. Ask yourself whether you could justify including a certain room or trap if this were a homebrew dungeon of your own devising, if you need to conceptualize the notion that death by unbeatable trap is tantamount to death by DM fiat.
I’ll get down from the soapbox now. Let’s take a look through this tomb, and hopefully I can help you figure out some of the tricky parts; when we get to those rooms and traps that are instant death, I’ll give you some ideas as to how that can be fixed without making the dungeon easy. We’ll go level by level, right down to the bottom and eventually out, but first there are some general things to be aware of.
The Tomb in General
First, you need to read the part on pages 126 and 127 about the Skeleton Keys, and make sure that the party gets the idea early on that they need to find one of these malformed skeletons on each level of the tomb. They don’t have to know what they’re for yet, but they have to understand that they’re going to be important for something and are worth seeking out. I recommend letting them find the first one, the triangle, very soon after entering the tomb for the first time. When they get to the second level, let them find the square one fairly easily as well. Now that they’ve found two of these weird skulls, one on each level so far, they’ll realize that searching out the rest of them is important, and you can make the next three of them a challenge to find, catch, or kill, because the players will know they’re looking for them. You don’t want the party returning to earlier levels of the tomb, because then you’ll have to keep track of how long the tomb dwarves have had to reset the traps, and that’s miserable. Better just to press onward, and find the skeleton keys in order on the way down.
Second, the players need to understand that being inhabited by one of the Trickster Gods is not a bad thing. It will seem to them like it should be avoided, and that’s a pretty natural thing to think when you’re being told that a mysterious spirit with an unknown agenda is trying to lodge itself in your mind, and would you like to make a Charisma save to not let it in? As it turns out, characters who don’t have a Trickster God on board have pretty much no chance of surviving the final battle with Acererak, but the players have no reason to suspect any such benefit. Also, they have no way of knowing that being inhabited by one of these spirits isn’t detrimental, and they’re going to justifiably assume that resisting the spirit is the best thing to do, because that’s how it always is when you have to roll a Charisma save. I recommend just letting them know that the Trickster Gods aren’t going to harm them or take them over, and that they may in fact be glad to have one riding along at some point. It’s just a bit of friendly advice, and giving it freely is going to make everyone’s life easier, metagaming or not.
Third, the players are going to know that this is the Tomb of the Nine Gods, and they’re going to realize very quickly on the first level of the tomb that each of those nine gods will have a personal tomb somewhere in the overall tomb. However, it’s not necessary to find each one of the nine tombs and get them open. Sometimes it’ll be best not to search too thoroughly for one, like Nangnang’s, which can really only be accessed by secret doors and passages. Sometimes it’ll be best to just leave one alone, like Wongo’s, which just isn’t worth the risk of death and dismemberment. If your players are hardcore completionists, there isn’t much you can do or say about it, but it might be helpful for everyone to make it clear up front that clearing out each Trickster God’s tomb is not necessary for success. Again, you might call this metagaming, but it’s also going to make things easier overall. There’s enough going on here that the players don’t need to be breaking their backs over entering and conquering each individual room.
And, fourth and shortest, don’t worry too much about encounters with those armored flesh golems or the tomb dwarves. This place is exciting enough without adding combat encounters that aren’t needed. If you need combat to keep the players happy, consider using some different monsters, because the ones that come with the tomb are pretty dull. I’m a big manticore fan, myself. Chimeras are also fun, and who doesn’t love a gelatinous cube? There’s always room for Jell-O…
Level One: Rotten Halls
Finding the Entrance, Areas 2 through 4. This is tricky right off the bat, but alert players will notice that the false trapped entrance has only eight openings for the puzzle cubes, even though they have nine cubes in total, which pretty much gives away that it isn’t the real way in. Figuring out the right configuration for the cubes shouldn’t be impossible, provided that you’ve told them the legend and that they were listening at least enough to get the idea that some of the Trickster Gods are enemies of each other. Read them the story again if they need you to, because sitting back and telling them that they probably should have made notes the first time is a dick move. While we’re talking about dick moves, the skull with the ominous timer and the lever that you’re not actually supposed to pull is standard Tomb of Horrors fare, but the pit trap probably won’t actually kill anyone who falls in, and establishing that this is a dungeon with the kind of traps that try to fake you out is a lesson worth learning early.
The Wind Tunnel, Area 15. This is one of those traps that doesn’t really have a good solution except to stay away from it. Unless the party happens to have an immovable rod, they really can’t do anything about the propeller other than stay back, and that means not being able to get into Wongo’s Tomb. Which might not be that bad, because…
Wongo’s Tomb, Area 16. This is the first area that has traps for which there are no good answers, and which give no warning of their true level of risk, and which can’t be circumvented. In order to open the sarcophagus, the three buttons have to be pushed. In order to make each button appear, a character has to climb into the corresponding chest and lock himself in, and then suffer whatever fate awaits him when the button is pushed. The silver chest can be survived, and the rusty chest just disintegrates your gear, which is inconvenient but not fatal. The onyx chest is quite likely to disintegrate whichever hapless PC is inside when the button is pushed; an average damage of 75 is plenty to reduce most characters at 9th level to zero, at which point they are unrecoverable dust, Death Curse or no Death Curse. And, of course, you can’t get the onyx button to appear without locking someone in the chest, and you can’t get the sarcophagus open without pushing the onyx button. It’s a no-win situation, and the best to really be hoped for here is that the players decide that locking their PC’s into mysterious chests isn’t worth the risk, which of course it isn’t.
Level Two: Dungeon of Deception
Gravity Ring, Area 19. This is where the party can unintentionally make their way into a demiplane mirror-image of the actual tomb, which they will have no way of knowing isn’t the real tomb, but which will put them through the same deadly dangers. Except in the mirror tomb, the dangers are risks without the possibility of rewards. Ask yourself how long you would be willing to let the party wander around in the fake tomb, all the while knowing that they’re not making any real progress. Consider that eventually the players are going to figure out that they’ve been wasting their time, or else their beloved characters are going to die for nothing. Then decide which one of those players you’d most prefer to punch you in the stomach when they find out, because you’ll have deserved it as much as I did all those years ago running Tomb of Horrors.
The Wine Room, Area 20. This is a tricky one, but not necessarily fatal. The players have 12 rounds to figure out something to do, and they are able to use whatever magic or other skills they can muster to solve the problem of the wine pouring in, or to arrange to survive long enough for the room to drain. It’s unfortunate that crawling through the pipes that the wine flows through is the best way to reach Nangnang’s Tomb, but at least it isn’t the only way to get there.
Nangnang’s Tomb, Area 24. I’m putting this room in the guide because it is a possibility that the party will retrieve the slaad’s control gem from Withers’ office, and will then have a grey slaad at their beck and call. This is a potential game-breaker, because a grey slaad is a pretty formidable ally; at this level that one slaad is enough to give the entire party a worthy battle. My solution to this problem was to require an Arcana check any time the party wanted to summon the slaad to help them. On a 17 or better, the slaad would arrive and serve them obediently for 10 minutes, after which they would need to take a short or long rest before attempting to summon it again. If the check was between 12 and 16, the slaad would arrive and act as it wished, except it would not be able to harm the gem handler, who could then attempt another check to gain full control or dismiss the slaad instead. On a check of 11 or less, the slaad would arrive just as the control gem fractured permanently from incompetent use, leaving the party with a very angry slaad to deal with in addition to whatever enemies they intended it to aid them against. Under this system, the players made very sparing use of the control gem, pretty much saving it as a last-ditch effort because of the possible dangers, rather than summoning up the slaad whenever a fight looked tough.
The Maintenance Shop, Areas 26 to 28. The party really isn’t intended to find their way into here, but if they stumble upon it they can really wreak havoc on the tomb as a whole. This is where they can find the control gem for the slaad in area 24, for one thing. For another, busting up the area or destroying Withers will stop the various traps and other hazards in the tomb from being repaired or reset by the tomb dwarves, who would then have no tools and no leader. Also, the ability to get “behind the scenes” on the lower levels provides some easy fixes for some of the worst traps; killing the golem that pulls the lever to start the rotating drum is a convenient thing to do, even if it happens by accident.
Level Three: Vault of Reflection
Rotating Crawlways, Area 32. Just to clarify what’s going on here, there are two tunnels, A and B. When the party first comes to the area, Tunnel A is connected and leads between areas 31 and 34. As soon as someone reaches the middle of Tunnel A, the whole thing rotates, and now Tunnel B is connecting areas 31 and 34, and anyone who was in Tunnel A when the rotation happened is now trapped there and waiting to die from suffocation. But, when someone reaches the middle of Tunnel B, the whole thing rotates again, so anyone in Tunnel A is now free to go, but whomever tripped the mechanism in the middle of Tunnel B is now trapped there and waiting to die from suffocation. Essentially, unless the PC’s somehow traverse the tunnels without pushing down in the middle of either one (maybe because for some reason they’re flying), someone is going to be trapped permanently in one of the tunnels or other. Also, if that wasn’t enough, one of the crystal eyes of which you need to collect all ten is located in Tunnel B, which you have to lock someone in Tunnel A to even get access to. Catch-22, anyone?
My suggested fix is to put the crystal eye in the middle of Tunnel A instead of in Tunnel B, which at least gives the opportunity for a character to grab it and back off without triggering the trap. Also, the presence of a corpse in the tunnel will probably encourage approaching the center of the tunnel with caution instead of just barreling on through as one might do with an empty tunnel. You can go around instead of through the tunnel, and dead bodies in the path are often a good indicator that one ought to find another route.
Revolving Drum Trap, Area 38. This is one of those rooms that you enter but never leave. It’s rigged up especially so that you can’t do much of anything from inside the trap except die there. The flesh golem that turns the trap on can see into the revolving drum through a window, but you can’t see the window from inside the drum because it’s invisible from that direction. Of course it is. The description does say that if you can open up the door that leads into the revolving drum, the trap will stop, which of course doesn’t matter because if you can open the door you can just leave. But wait, the door is locked, and what’s more, the designers made it so that the door locks can’t be picked. You could open them up with knock spells, but you’ll need to cast three of them to open up all of the locks, and honestly how would you even know to start casting knock spells when the locks are already hidden so that they can’t be picked? Really the only way out is to try to wrench the door off its hinges or else beat on it until it breaks open. This, too, is problematic, because while you’re trying to figure all of this out, the whole room is rotating and everyone is being thrown around and bashed against the walls, which are springing out spikes, and sending out knock-out gas, and spewing sparks that make everyone go blind, and gushing out flammable vapors that fill the whole rotating mess with roaring flames. Again, this is one where you walk in, but you don’t walk out. It’s a death sentence.
The fix here is to make the three locks exposed and obvious, so that the players know that they need to get the door open in order to escape, instead of wasting time doing other things. Maybe they’ll try to break the door, and that’s a good plan. Maybe they’ll try to disengage the locks, which should be possible with brute force, magic, or thieves’ tools, and they’ll even know how many locks there are. The inside of this trap is still going to be extremely dangerous, and dealing with locks and doors while being spun to death won’t be easy, but at least the players will have a good idea what they need to be doing.
Obnoxious Golden Skull, Area 40. DM’s who enjoy mocking their players while they try to deal with a series of difficult and dangerous situations which the DM is actually inflicting upon them will love this room, because the golden skull floats around behind any character that touches it and makes fun of her. Forever, unless she figures out how to bribe it to go away. And who actually does the making fun of people? Why, that would be the DM! So, again, if you really want to endear yourself to your friends, the ones who are playing the heroes and actually making it possible for you to sit there and run this adventure and screw with them for hours on end, this magic golden skull makes it your solemn duty to ridicule them for the rest of the campaign. Lovely addition, am I right?
Vault of the Beholder, Area 44. Well, the party has finally collected all ten of those crystal eyes that are scattered all over this level of the tomb, and now you can open up the door that lets you into the secret vault with the invisible beholder that kills you. It’s not enough that the beholder is invisible, though. There’s also a big spherical thing with a drape over it that’s enchanted to make you think that the beholder is underneath it. Of course, when you pull the drape off, there isn’t a beholder under there at all… instead there’s a magnetic ball of iron that pulls in all metal weapons and ammunition, and also any creatures wearing armor with metal in it, and all of this stuff sticks to the iron ball and can’t be pulled loose. All the while, the invisible beholder is tearing the party to pieces, because regular beholders aren’t nearly dangerous enough. Also the floor is slick and people tend to fall over and lose their chance to do anything useful on their turns.
But, if you brave the dangers and slay the monster, you get… treasure! Useless money and art objects that you’ll never get the chance to spend or enjoy. When I ran this encounter, I chose some magical items of general usefulness to be part of the reward instead. I also made up a set of clues for Level Five of the tomb, because there is no plaque or player handout for that level, unlike all of the previous ones. That’s much better than a lot of coins.
There are a lot of things that can be tweaked to make this room actually survivable. Let’s start by saying that when I ran this room, the party got a really lucky shot out of I’jin’s wand of wonder and lit up the invisible beholder with faerie fire, effectively rendering it visible. That having been said, my recommendation for this room is to let everything in it work as described, but in a more limited way. Let the magnetic ball pull everyone’s armor and weapons in, but then have it drop them all right away. Falling damage, everyone lands prone, but they don’t stay stuck up in the air and helpless for rounds and rounds. The beholder starts off invisible, but follows the normal rules for the greater invisibility spell: dispel magic can end the effect, the beholder’s anti-magic field will end the effect if activated, the effect ends if the PC’s break the beholder’s concentration with damage or magic, and so forth. The slippery floor is just adding insult to injury, and I would advise just leaving it out entirely.
Level Four, Chambers of Horror
Gargoyle Guardians, Area 45. It’s pretty easy to figure out that you need to feed coins of the right sort to the gargoyle statues, considering that they each have a coordinating metallic color and an obvious coin slot. Figuring out that everyone has to feed each of the slots is far less obvious, and of course the gargoyles don’t give you a second chance to find that out. Well, it’s not an impossible battle. I’d be inclined to let the party pay each gargoyle once and call it solved.
Elemental Cells, Area 47. This is another one where you go in alive but you don’t come back out that way. There are four cells, for fire, water, air, and earth, and each cell requires you to do one particular action in order to escape it alive. But, you have to figure out what that action is while you’re busy burning, drowning, suffocating, and possibly being blinded in darkness. Also, the designers have decided to decree that spellcasting, ongoing spell effects, and all magic items do not function in these cells. But, if you just so happen to do the exact right things prior to dying, you end up in Shagambi’s Tomb, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The first fix here is to remove the ridiculous restriction on magic for the cells. Magic is an important ability, magical items are powerful tools, and there’s absolutely no reason to cripple characters by denying them the opportunity to use the skills and gear that they have fairly earned throughout the campaign.
The next fix is to make the actions needed to escape each cell either far less specific, or provide clues that indicate what to do. Essentially, if the character needs to eat a snail or oyster, there needs to be a reason to try that: a wall carving, maybe, or empty shells. Including a useless and meaningless candle as a shill in each room is questionable, especially when the book says (direct quote, here) that “the candle can’t be lit without air, but let characters waste time trying.” While they are suffocating to death with mere seconds to live… let them waste time trying to light a candle that can’t be lit. And who knows that aarakocra bones are full of breathable air, anyway, and even if they are, why should breathing out of one let you out of the cell?
Honestly, this is the worst thing in the entire book full of horrible dangers and often questionable game design. If you want to try to modify the cells to actually be survivable, consider the previous two paragraphs. If you want to know what I think you should actually do, the first thing is to just remove all four cells from the tomb entirely. Replace them with a riddle, or a monster, or a door with a trap. Replace them with nothing and just let the PC’s get into area 48 without all the fuss. This is too broken to fix.
If you really want to leave the elemental cells in the tomb, it might be a good idea to go into them without a clear idea of what the PC’s need to do to defeat each cell, and just see what the players come up with. If they come up with a really good idea, then just declare victory over that cell and move them onwards. In other words, forget about the murderously specific way they’re written, and adopt a non-specific attitude towards solutions, where anything clever and plausible will work.
Shagambi’s Tomb, Area 48. This tomb is full of terracotta warriors that come to life and kill you if you make any noise, and the floor is conveniently covered with broken pottery to make it easy for you to make some noise. There are four dozen of these terracotta warriors, so if you awaken them, they will kill you. They would probably kill the entire party, but of course probably not the entire party is in this room anyway, because they either died in the Elemental Cells, or else never went in them in the first place and are wondering where everyone who went into the fire cell ended up. It’s worth pointing out here that the magic item to be gained for successfully dealing with this tomb is an instrument that only bards can use, so if you managed to get all the way past certain death four times over and also sneaking past an army of angry pottery soldiers, but you aren’t a bard… well, hopefully you had a fun time, because you won’t be getting much use out of Shagambi’s mandolin.
Okay, first fix is to change Shagambi’s treasure into something that whomever makes it to the sarcophagus will want and can use. If that character isn’t a bard, I recommend a +2 version of whatever weapon they are currently using; it goes great with Shagambi’s extra attack.
The next fix is to remove the skill check for moving quietly among the warriors. If the players say that they’re creeping along really carefully, gently shuffling their feet to stop from stepping on shards of pottery, going on all fours, or whatever, make that good enough. Death by four dozen enemies swarming you because someone in the room rolled a lousy skill check is a prime example of letting complete success or total failure ride on just a die roll. Don’t do that.
Eventually, of course, the PC’s will want to leave this charming room, and it turns out that you can’t get out of this room without teleporting out, and all of the teleportation runes conveniently drop you in front of…
Mirror of Life Trapping, Area 50. … in which you get trapped. And you stay there until you’re either released at random, you’re released using a code word that none of your friends will have any reason to connect with this mirror in the first place, or someone manages to destroy the mirror without getting trapped in it. If this last bit happens, then you’ll all find yourself in the center of a melee of dangerous former prisoners of the mirror, most of whom will be trying to kill each other and also you and your friends.
This is really simple to fix. Either teleport characters into area 50 facing away from the mirror, or put a shroud or something over the mirror, or change something so that the very first unavoidable thing to happen after teleporting isn’t getting stuck in the mirror. Or, you know, have a normal exit from area 48.
Remember, now, that the last three sections are all connected. You get into Shagambi’s Tomb through the elemental cells, which are certain death. If someone in Shagambi’s Tomb rolls a low stealth check, everyone in the room dies. And to get out of the room, you have to get stuck in the mirror of life trapping. This is the kind of sadistic garbage design that gets well-meaning DM’s punched in the stomach, and I really hope that whoever came up with this mess got plenty of giggles while writing it so as to be essentially impossible to survive. Do not subject your players to this. Be strong, and don’t let a book intimidate you into making bad decisions for your game.
Maze of Death, Area 49. Another area where you go in, but you don’t come back out again. At least not without chopping off your arm at the elbow. There’s also a sphere of annihilation hiding inside one of those devil faces here. At least it gives you a nice, clean way to get rid of that pesky forearm so you can go about your business.
Throne Room, Area 52. Okay, this one is actually cool, because there’s a tyrannosaurus zombie hiding in here and waiting to attack anyone who messes around with the painters. Frankly, I think you ought to have that zombie rex attack even if the PC’s leave the painters alone, because it’s an awesome fight. The rex actually spits out regular zombies to join the battle, and more zombies will crawl out of his carcass when you finally beat him down. He’s not as cool as the King of Feathers, but you’ll be cheating your players out of a great battle if you don’t spring the zombie rex on them, deserved or not.
Oubliette, Area 57. This is where you end up if you violate any of the spell restrictions listed on page 128 that involve magical travel. You might want to tell the players about those spell restrictions as they’re entering the tomb. Or you could just let them cast the spells that will land them in this pit of carnage to be eaten by an otyugh. It is possible to escape from this room, so that you can wander the tomb all alone until you meet an unpleasant end. Don’t split the party…
Level Five: Gears of Hate
This is a challenging level to get your head around, because it’s made up of three moving gears that line up with each other and with the surrounding dungeon in different ways depending on how often a lever is pulled. The map showing the three gears and the rest of it is on page 171, which also helpfully refers you to Handout 24 so you can figure out how the cogs are supposed to line up based on the control panel in area 61. The problem is that Handout 24 is meant to be handed to the players so they can see what the control room looks like, and consequently the diagrams for each of the five configurations are somewhat cryptic.
If you’re going to pull this off, you’ll need to make yourself five diagrams clearly showing what connects to what for each configuration. The easy way to do this is just to make yourself five copies of the map in black and white, and mark the opened and blocked exits on them in the color of your choice; the top-down view of the gears always looks the same in any configuration, and all of the exits are located at vertices of the pentagons for each gear. Using the verbal description of the cog configurations will probably serve you better in this process than trying to squint at the wall etchings on Handout 24.
Clues for Level Five
As I briefly mentioned in the previous section, I came up with a set of clues for this level, much like the clues provided for the previous levels as Handouts 17 through 20. These clues were part of the “treasure” I provided as a reward for defeating the invisible beholder: information is always more valuable than money, especially when there’s nowhere for you to spend that money anyways.
Here are the clues:
“When the behemoth turns, lose a soul to gain the cup.” Refers to area 67, which is a death trap as soon as the mastodon begins to spin. I’ll discuss this room in more detail below, but suffice it to say that this clue is meant to cause the party to think twice before charging into the room and setting things moving.
“Only the exposed one shall seize the circle.” Refers to area 68, where gear gets disintegrated until the ivory ring is removed from its place. Getting your gear disintegrated is mostly inconvenient, but this is a decent low-risk clue. It avoids some harm, and figuring it out provides a good sense of having dodged misfortune by clever thinking. Both good things.
“Who aligns the orbs shall spin fortune’s wheel.” Refers to area 70, which involves a d100 table of random results if the PC’s align the armillary spheres. It’s not exactly clear what the party is supposed to do with the whole apparatus, and this clue at least gives an indication as to how to proceed, and the notion that lucky and unlucky outcomes are possible here.
“The traitor always lies thrice.” Refers to area 62c, where correctly interpreting the gargoyle’s clues results in getting gassed and run over. This is kind of a counter-clue, because rewarding solving a puzzle with betrayal and death is kind of a cheap shot, and at least this lets the PC’s know that all might not be as it seems.
You can always make up more or different clues, or even go with what the book does and not provide any, but giving these served two good purposes. First, it meant the party did not go blindly into the worst dangers. Second, and more importantly, it gave the players some more clues to decipher, because they had really been enjoying figuring out the ones on the previous levels.
There aren’t many areas on this level, but some of the ones that are here are notable, and not in a good way. Let’s hit the high points, so to speak.
Control Room, Area 61. The control room is where someone has to be pulling the levers to rotate the cogs, and unfortunately the control room is also one of the places that can be cut off from the rest of the level depending on how the cogs are aligned, so in three of the five possible configurations, the control room is completely cut off from area 59 and everything else. You can get between area 70 and the control room, but you have to get into area 70 and find the secret door first, and that means fighting all of the baddies in the wardrobes in area 60. But, you can’t get into area 60 unless someone stays back in the control room to pull the levers to let the rest of the party move around.
The first fix option is to have someone or something do the control room tasks for the party, so they don’t have to leave someone behind. Candidates would be an NPC like Orvex, although it would be difficult to get one this deep into the dungeon alive, or perhaps a tomb dwarf that was charmed in some way into aiding the party. You might even consider having the aboleth rotate the cogs for the party, either because it’s the happy friendly aboleth and it wants to help, or because it’s the ancient hateful aboleth and it has alien motivations we don’t need to understand.
The second option isn’t really something that you have to fix, but it is something that you have to notice and point out to the players, and then they have to decide to try it: in some cog configurations, you could actually get outside the cog rooms themselves and out into the aboleth’s lake, and swim or climb around the outside of the cogs and get back in to a different one using another one of the doors that currently open into nothing. It’s a pretty dicey plan, but it could work; the problem is being able to explain to the players which openings in the cogs open onto the lake and when, because the diagrams on Handout 24 are not drawn in such a way as to make that very clear. Probably that’s because staying out of a pitch black subterranean lake with a psychotic aboleth in it is a really good idea… but, staying out of this whole tomb would have been a good idea, and yet here we all are.
Cog of Rot, Area 58. This isn’t actually a very dangerous room, but I’m including it because it has a feature you need to remember. The map shows the cogs in Configuration 3, where you’ll notice that area 63 is not connected to area 58. However, in Configurations 1 and 2, area 63 and area 58 do connect. If the gears are ever aligned in either of Configurations 1 or 2, then shambling mounds form in area 58 and wait there to attack the party next time they pass through. So, make a note if the PC’s ever align the cogs that way, so that you’ll be ready with the ambush. I will offer the friendly advice that you shouldn’t worry about any temporary connections between area 63 and area 58 while the gears are in the process of turning, because you’ll just give yourself a massive headache even deciding which gears are turning clockwise or counterclockwise.
Stone Juggernaut, Area 62. This isn’t as bad as it might be, because at least PC’s who are knocked out by poison gas or run over by Napaka the Juggernaut have a reasonable chance to survive. It’s area 62c that’s really notable here, because properly following the instructions for retrieving the Eye of Zaltec using the gargoyle actually results in extreme danger. So much for solving puzzles and riddles resulting in an actual reward instead of betrayal.
If you gave the players a clue like the one in the previous blue box, that might be enough of a fix; at least they’ll be expecting treachery if they try to solve the gargoyle’s riddle. You might also consider giving them some warning before sending the juggernaut after them if they do the whole gem-crushing exercise, or at least leave off the knockout gas.
Hall of the Golden Mastodon, Area 67. Another room that is entirely unfair, and is pretty much guaranteed to either result in a TPK or else permanently remove one PC from the party just as they’re getting to the final challenges and the end of this whole unforgiving campaign. As soon as the golden mastodon is sent spinning, a new group of devils is introduced into the room (and the ongoing battle) every round. And, of course, each group of devils is more dangerous than the last group. The general effect here is that by the end of a few rounds, the party is completely overwhelmed with devils, and more are arriving all the time. Did I mention yet that a giant stone block traps them in here with no way to escape? Yes, this is both literally and figuratively a death trap.
But where were we… ah yes, spinning mastodon. Finally, at the end of the sixth round of spinning, an erinyes devil arrives with a terrible bargain that the players will be forced to agree to: if the party gives the erinyes the soul of one of the PC’s, the rest of the party will be spared certain death at the hands of the swarm of devils that have flooded the room. Nevermind that an erinyes, at CR12, is probably more than a match for the party all on its own at this level, even if they weren’t already running low on HP and spell slots from the inundation of devils. And that’s assuming they survive long enough to get to the arrival of the erinyes. But, that’s the choice for this room: everyone dies, or else the players get to decide who’s going to lose their character permanently this close to the end.
My players managed to survive this room by pouring a pot of sovereign glue into the mastodon’s gears, gumming them up permanently; I decided that breaking the room would give them the skull chalice and open the door, instead of just leaving them blocked in there forever.
If you want to keep the battling with devils aspect intact, I suggest sending one wave of devils at a time, and giving the party time to heal up or even rest before they summon the next wave. There are 6 rounds, so I recommend describing the room as a hexagon, instead of the half-circle that’s in the hardcover: that means that each wave of devils will come out of a different section of wall, so the players know how many total waves of devils they will need to defeat. You can also have etchings or carvings of the specific types of devils for each wave as part of their section of wall. The last two waves will be difficult even with a fully rested party; a horned devil is CR11, and the erinyes as already mentioned is a CR12. Difficult is fine, though. Make the party fight for this one, but give them a fair chance to succeed as well.
Armillary Sphere, Area 70. This isn’t such a bad room for the party, but it has some undesirable possibilities for the DM, and it’s all because of the d100 table for what happens on a conjunction of the rings. Five percent of the time, PC’s inside the sphere disappear to some creative but random location from which they can’t be recovered, so basically permanent death for those characters. And, of course, on the dreaded 00, a player gets to have a wish… which is a problem for the DM anytime. My suggestion? If you roll something lower than 5, or that 00, fudge the roll and try for something else. Yep, that’s right: cheat, and keep the adventure on track.
Level Six: Cradle of the Death God
Even though there are no clues given for this level of the tomb, my players didn’t have much trouble figuring out the trials in areas 72 through 76. There are a couple of things worth mentioning, though, as far as getting the party through the skeleton gate.
The first thing is that you should not let the hags steal a skeleton key and then take off into the Border Ethereal with it, unless the party can chase them into the Border Ethereal and get the key back. Strawbundle’s charm can help with this, but I would recommend just having a straight-out fight with the hags. They’re a formidable enough enemy that you shouldn’t need to resort to extra trickery to screw up the party’s chances.
Second, when dealing with the magical feast in area 74, I recommend a little amnesty for characters who don’t eat anything. The crippling hunger effect is rather more severe than it needs to be, and burning up spell slots to end the effect (providing someone in the party has the spells to cast in the first place) isn’t a very equitable solution. If the PC’s want to end the hunger effect by going back into the room and eating something, and of course suffering the benefit and detriment of whatever they eat, I think that’s a fair way to handle the situation. If they stick to their decision not to eat anything, knowing what the penalty will be, so be it.
Third, when you get to the Trial of the Octagon in area 76, make yourself a prop. I love using index cards for just about everything in my games, but any kind of notepad or loose paper will work. Make a model of the nursery rhyme book, so the players can actually flip the pages as they read them, forward or backward. Also, make sure that at least one of the characters can read the nursery rhyme: if nobody reads Infernal, then change the rhyme into some language that can be read. Finally, I narrated that a complete and intense silence fell within the room as soon as one of the players started reading out of the book, just so that they would know that they had better read it just once and the right way, rather than reading it through and triggering the trap when they’re just trying to discuss the situation. Handing the prop around for each player to get a look at is also a good way for them all to read the rhyme without anyone actually saying anything until they’re ready to try for the solution.
Finally, make sure that the party gets their hands on at least two of the black marbles that will let them leave the tomb when used in area 81. They can get them from the hags, or Mister Threadneedle, or wherever you like, but don’t let them press forward and into the boss encounters without first gaining the means to escape the tomb. Even if they don’t understand what the marbles are for, make sure they get them, and make sure they get two of them in case they screw up the process at the ebon pool. I highly recommend that you write down some adjectives to describe the marbles when they acquire them: I think I used “oily, inky, black, and slimy”. When you describe the ebon pool in area 81, use those very same adjectives to describe it… we don’t want to be too coy at the very end of it all, so be sure to make the connection between the marbles and the pool fairly clear.
Atropal and Soulmonger
This is the first of two boss fights here at the climax of the story, and there are two enemies to deal with: the atropal, and the Soulmonger itself.
The atropal is actually a fairly straightforward enemy, although the stat block is complicated. Even so, it’s not hard to figure out how to use it in the battle. Remember that the negative energy aura is both an ongoing damaging effect and also prevents healing for characters in melee. The obvious winning strategy for the atropal is to use the Life Drain action every single turn, but you may want to mix it up for variety. Also, because the life drain is high damage with a high save DC, and also does healing to the atropal, I think it’s a little overpowered for something that can be used every single round. It might be better if it were an ability that recharged on a 5 or 6 (or even just a 6); that would be much more like dragon breath weapons, which do similar damage with a comparable save DC.
The Soulmonger is a little more unusual. Make sure you narrate clearly that the cylinder is being held above the pit of lava by three struts, because breaking one of the struts is the party’s best chance at destroying the whole thing, and if they don’t understand the situation, they won’t be able to make the right tactical decision. The tentacles are another thing to consider, and the instructions on how they can be used are not entirely clear. They can apparently be used to attack any creature that deals damage to the Soulmonger or its struts “once per turn”. What exactly “once per turn” is meant to mean is a bit confusing, because the Soulmonger isn’t in the initiative order and doesn’t have a turn per se. The book also doesn’t tell you how many tentacles the Soulmonger has available, which is also confusing to manage.
I would suggest putting the Soulmonger into the initiative order, either by rolling or by assigning it to initiative count 20 (like a lair action). Assume that the Soulmonger has as many tentacles as it has possible targets, but that it can only take one or two tentacle actions on each of its turns, and only against a creature that has damaged it since its last turn. The obvious tactic for the Soulmonger is for it to grapple its enemies and then drop them in the lava; to make this not such an instant-kill, I recommend letting the Soulmonger grapple a victim on one turn, but not allowing it to throw the victim into the lava until its next turn, providing a chance for the victim to break free of the grapple. After all, the atropal is the real danger here, and the Soulmonger is much more like a lair effect than it is like a normal enemy or magical object.
Once the atropal has been killed, the adventure calls for Acererak himself to show up and take revenge on the heroes who fouled up his plan for cosmic evil. Again, Acererak isn’t a particularly difficult enemy to run, although you’ll definitely want to brush up on his major spells and on how to control his sphere of annihilation. Important to note is that he can cast counterspell at will, but that he can only do it once per round, as it counts as a reaction; this will drive spellcasters nuts but will also not make them totally useless. You may find yourself using power word kill if any of the PC’s are going to actually die, but more on that in a bit.
Normally the party would have no chance at all of defeating Acererak (he’s listed as CR23 in his stat block, and these characters are maybe level 10 or 11), but the Trickster Gods throw a wrench into the works, granting any character who is inhabited by a Trickster God 50 temporary HP at the beginning of each of their turns. This makes it possible for lower level PC’s to survive Acererak’s assault, but it actually can make it too easy for them to not be killed by the archlich. Essentially, in order for Acererak to do any meaningful damage to a character, he has to exceed 50 damage per round to that character, and he has to do it before that character’s next turn.
The best ways to manage this are using disintegrate and finger of death, each of which deliver an average of about 80 damage, or by using chain lightning, which will deal an average of 60 damage to any four creatures. This sounds like a lot of damage, but when you factor in those 50 temporary hit points, there’s a definite drop in effectiveness. Figuring that an “average” character (and that’s a very big abstraction, I know, but bear with me) probably has in the neighborhood of 75 HP at tenth level, even those high-damage spells are only spilling over into the character’s actual HP at less than half power. And, of course, there are generally four or five characters to deal with, and chain lightning and the Disrupt Life legendary action are the only ways to hit more than one of them at a time, at least for significant amounts of damage.
Power word kill is something to remember here, especially if PC’s aren’t dying. I hate to be as cut-and-dried as this, but if Acererak doesn’t manage to kill at least one of the PC’s during this battle, it’s going to seem watered down to your players. The trick is getting a character down to below 100 HP, counting those temporary HP, by the time Acererak’s turn comes around but the targeted character’s turn has not. The best way to do this is to use ray of frost as a legendary action against that character, dealing 4d8 damage (or an average of 20 damage) each time, as many times as there are rounds between the end of that character’s turn and the beginning of Acererak’s (a maximum, of course, of 3 times). With decent rolls, you should be able to deplete that character’s 50 temporary HP significantly or even completely, and even the highest-HP character possible at tenth level (a barbarian with 20 CON) will have only 125 HP of her own. So with decent rolls and luck, and with characters who are not all max-CON barbarians, you should be able to make sure you get a kill during this fight. And now the PC’s can use spells that bring the dead back, because the Death Curse has just ended.
I have not actually play-tested this numerically, and I probably should, but I would say that providing 30 temporary HP instead of 50 as the Trickster God benefit would make the dangers much more relevant, if you wanted a tougher final battle. Of course, if the party fared less than well against the atropal and the Soulmonger, maybe softening up the Acererak fight is a good idea. If you have experienced players with powerful characters, or a larger-than-normal party, it’s probably better not to plan on reducing the difficulty. Ultimately you don’t have to tell the players how many temporary HP they’ll be getting until the time comes, and I assure you that they will welcome the news that they’ll be getting the HP boost no matter how many points are involved. Besides, Acererak runs away from the battle at 30% of his HP or so, which also increases the party’s odds for success quite a bit, especially as the PC’s will be doing extra psychic damage as another Trickster God benefit.
Through the Mist Gate and to Freedom
There’s not a lot more to talk about here. The nothics and even the arcanaloth are anticlimactic enemies after the atropal, the Soulmonger, and Acererak. Following the tiled paths on the floor in area 79 is a mixed bag, considering that none of them leads out of the tomb. And, after all, there’s a charred skeleton pointing at the place they really need to go to get out.
Remember to use the same adjectives you used to describe the black marbles when you describe the ebon pool in area 81. Kind of a lot has happened since the party acquired those marbles, and you may actually be in a different game session than when they looted them from the night hags, so drawing a strong connection between the two things is important. If they really can’t figure it out, have the arcanaloth tell them how to do it, or something like that. At that point, they can drop the marbles in the pool, touch the familiar-looking obelisk, and escape from the tomb. Done and done.
One Chance For Redemption
I’ll throw in one more tidbit for you, since we’re dealing with a dungeon that specializes in PC kills and even TPK’s. If you need a reason to give the party another chance at a room or trap that finishes them off, you can use this trick… once. Think of it as an extra life, but it won’t work twice. One chance is all you get.
If you have a TPK, you can turn it into some sort of paranormal precognitive vision that one of the PC’s has just had, in which she saw herself and all of her friends being killed by some monstrous and diabolical trap. Now, she gets that flash of deja vu as they approach the fateful location, and signals her companions to wait… “I’ve seen this before. We’ve been here before… haven’t we? But when we were here, we all died. Didn’t we?” And then they get to try it again. Or not try it again.
But you can only do this trick once. And when I say once, I mean once ever. Not once per campaign, but once per group of players. Maybe you could try it again in a year or two, when maybe people would have forgotten about the last time and wouldn’t suspect you of going soft. Still, there you are, and I hope you don’t need it.
Pages 189 and 190 provide some suggestions for events to close out the adventure, and I don’t feel the need to add much to them, as they mostly relate to experiences that the party might have had during Chapters 1 and 2, or how they plan to deal with any enemies they made along the journey, or what to do with any of those legendary treasures that were hidden in the tomb that they might have found.
Just to cover my own guides’ suggestions, be aware that if the party was released from the Fane by Fenthaza in Chapter 4, she’ll probably be waiting with a heavily armed contingent of yuan-ti to claim the Black Opal Crown from the PC’s as they make their way out of the temple. Even if it was Ras Nsi who released them, or if they escaped on their own, Fenthaza might still be aware that they went into the tomb, and be ready to accost them and perhaps gain the artifact that she believes will summon Dendar the Night Serpent and bring about the end of the world. If they don’t have it or won’t give it up, overwhelming lethal force is a completely reasonable reaction for Fenthaza, and a creative escape might be called for. As always, keep an open mind.
One final piece of advice: when the book starts talking about rolling d20’s to figure out whether any particular person’s soul was devoured by the Soulmonger and can’t be recovered even after the Death Curse has ended… ignore that part. Have a little happy ever after. After this campaign, you have all earned it.
And remember… end of the campaign, the DM has to buy the first round of drinks, right? That’s what the players said…