I’m currently running two campaigns – Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation. I have to confess, as a DM I’m enjoying the former way more than the latter. This is nothing to do with the group or their play style but rather with the adventure itself.
You see, all of things that drew me to Tomb of Annihilation in the first place, I am now starting to see as a hindrance. Initially I loved the different cultural aspects of Chult, the navigation elements and the need to ward off thirst and disease.
Very quickly though, these “features” become wearing. Culturally it’s too much of a mish mash. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be African inspired, Mayan inspired or some kind of mish-mash of the those two plus other cultures. While I wholeheartedly support the need to expand the cultural elements of D&D beyond the usual Medieval European cliches, it would have been helpful if they had chosen one inspiration and stuck to it rather than try to include all of the remaining world cultures in one adventure.
Tracking food and water consumption has already been handwaved in my game (because it’s painful and boring) and I didn’t even bother tracking the insect repellent. These were all things that made the adventure different from anything I’d ever run before, but ultimately they have ended up being as much of a pain in the ass as tracking arrows and torches.
These are minor irritations though, and ultimately are easily handwaved. In fact, I’ve already done so and the adventure hasn’t suffered for it. The bigger challenges in the adventure come from it’s core adventure style, which is a hex crawl, and the abundance of powerful NPCs who end up tagging along with the party from time to time.
I’m going to deal with the latter issue first. Powerful NPCs are not a problem unique to Tomb of Annihilation. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I am also running Curse of Strahd. This has powerful NPCs in the form of Ezmerelda D’Avenir and Rudolph Van Richten. Ultimately, these NPCs can unbalance the encounters throughout the game but particularly in the final confrontation with Strahd. However, they are not guaranteed to tag along with the party for the whole adventure.
The concept of ‘Guides’ on the other hand does mean that the party has an NPC tagging along right from the outset. While these NPCs are great for prompting the party to investigate certain places in Chult due to them having their own motivations, they are another body for the DM to run in a combat and in social encounters.
Recently, I read an article by Mike ‘Sly Flourish’ Shea about handling “Tag Along PCs”, basically outlining all of the issues I’ve highlighted above and more. I recently adopted one of his suggested approaches (Make Them Background Scenery) in my Strahd campaign and it didn’t negatively impact the player’s experience but it did improve my experience as the DM considerably. They didn’t disappear completely either. In fact, Ezmerelda popped back up with a utility spell when needed so I was able to maintain the illusion that she was still with the party to some extent.
The biggest problem for me is the hex crawl. It’s such an important part of the adventure but is ultimately such a pain to run. Firstly, the random direction of travel of a lost party can result in them stumbling over practically any major location on the map, meaning that advance DM prep becomes much more in-depth and stressful. Furthermore, there is a need for the DM to prepare random encounters en-route to prevent the travel segments becoming nothing more than a dull trek. The reality of course is that it just becomes a dull trek with random encounters. Players feel like they are killing random adversaries who are simply a distraction preventing them from getting to their main goal timeously.
This feels even more apparent in my game as we play over Fantasy Grounds. If the encounter takes place on one of the maps I created as opposed to one of the beautiful, official Mike Schley maps, then the players immediately know that it’s a random encounter. Now while these encounters may be enjoyable on some level, there is still the feeling that I’m just throwing things at them to slow them down. Hex crawl adventures feel like they belong in D&D’s past, where players were more than happy to smash up endless groups of random Zombies. When you have an intricate and in-depth story like Tomb of Annihilation, throwing a random selection of wandering monsters at your party seems wasteful of game time.
Even without the encounters though, navigating hex by hex is just plain dull. It’s nothing more than an endless series of Survival checks which feel like some kind of tedious board game. I’ve been giving my party advantage on these checks because one of my players has a parrot familiar which flies above the trees and has a view of the surrounding jungle. Normally a player creating that kind of advantage for themselves would bug the life out of me but I’m secretly grateful in this case.
Tomb of Annihilation is no doubt a great adventure with some memorable locations and story threads running through it but it requires either a lot of handwaving or a lot of DM preparation and creativity to link them all up. I’d be very keen to hear your experience of running this adventure and how you handled the problems I’ve raised. Please do feel free to comment.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.