In the previous article on ToA I discussed how to start off the campaign, as well as Dinosaur Races and acquiring a guide. After your players have geared up, you are ready to begin running the hexcrawl portion of Tomb of Annihilation. There’s a lot involved in running the hexcrawl, but I tried to fit as much as I could into a single post.
Whether you are currently running Tomb of Annihilation’s hexcrawl or on the fence about buying it, this article will act as an initial campaign guide. You’ll find a glimpse of what to expect within the hexcrawl as well as my overall impression and tips for the following areas:
- Running the Hexcrawl
- Travel Days
- Survival Challenges
- Using a Map
- 4 Unique Homebrew Items
*Possible Spoiler Alert*: If you are planning on ever playing ToA (rather than DMing) please proceed with caution.
It felt like there were so many god damn factions thrown towards me at the start of the adventure; I didn’t know what to do. So rather than diligently spend my time learning about the differences and minutia of each faction, I simply got rid of a large majority of them. Others got combined into a funky conglomeration of a faction. In addition to the time aspect, I also chose to do this because I wanted to have a solid grasp on realm of Chult (or at least my version of it). I didn’t feel like making up the specifics of factions on the spot. They seemed too important for that type of general shenanigans.
Here are the main factions that I ended up using:
- Flaming Fist
- Red Wizards of Thay
The flaming fist ended up as a combination between the actual Flaming Fist and the Order of the Gauntlet. The values of the organization were based off of the Flaming Fist (looting ruins and whatnot), but my version also had control of Camp Vengeance and Fort Beluarian. This meant when my party came across the camp – without a proper charter – there was heck to pay. Heck I tell ya! Be sure to keep in mind whether the party has a charter of exploration when they’re coming across any traveling bands of other explorers.
The pirates came up at two different points in my campaign. First, they appeared as a sudden impromptu adventure during one of the early traveling days. The party was following the shore line and, on a whim, I decided that there was going to be some boats on the shore. About two sentences later and this had evolved into a band of pirates unloading their loot into a secret underground stash. So of course the players tricked the pirates and stole their shit. There was even a few heads that got kicked off.
The second time the pirates showed up was when the players decided to take on Jahaka Anchorage as a side-quest for Wakanga O’Tamu. The players sailed a smaller boat nearby, then pulled off some Jesus walking-on-water magic to set some homemade explosives. After a lot of fiery explosions and a battle against 3 full pirate crews, the party had safely eliminated the threat of pirates and gained some insight to the location of Omu from a captured Red Wizard.
Red Wizards of Thay
The Red Wizards were probably the biggest rival group to the party during the hexcrawl and as the players got closer to Omu. The party first learned of the Red Wizards during their time at M’bala with Nanny PuPu. The party was there to learn about the location of the death curse, and so was a Red Wizard.
The next bout with the Red Wizards came about when the players stumbled across the Heart of Ubtao (and Valindra). Valindra and the party fought for a bit, but she decided it was time to escape and to rally some troops. Later, when the party had returned to Port Nyanzaru there was an attack on the city by Red Wizards riding dinosaurs (controlled with a mind gem). These Red Wizards were searching for the party and attempting to kill them – to no avail.
The relationship between Red Wizards and the party continued to escalate well into Omu, as both groups were fighting over control of the puzzle cubes. The large majority of members perished, with one managing to use a teleportation circle to return to the mainland. All in all, the wizards were a fun group to play as against the party and I was able to turn them into the mid-campaign antagonist without much hassle. After my players finish the tomb – if we continue playing – there will most certainly be a reappearance of the Red Wizards.
As the players got closer and closer to the lost city of Omu, I would start sprinkling in some scouting parties of Yuan-Ti to get them acquainted with the fact that these are going to be enemies involved in the larger picture. Honestly I was kind of disappointed with the strength of the Yuan-Ti leading up to the Fane of the Night Serpent. Within the Fane, they proved to be a fairly formidable foe, but any of the encounters that happened outside of it ended pretty quickly in the party’s favor.
During the hexcrawl, all that you really need to know about the Yuan-Ti is that they are scouring the jungle (and the city of Omu) for the puzzle cubes which act as a key into the actual tomb.
Running the Hexcrawl
This can be a crazy fucking long process, especially since the players really have no idea where the Death Curse lies starting out. I think it probably took my party a solid 8 months from leaving the city to arriving at Omu.
Though I may sound like I’m complaining, the hex crawl was a bunch of fun. It just seemed to go on a little longer than I’d prefer. I recommend speeding up the travel in one form or another. I’m not saying to gloss over all the details, but maybe skip some of the “in-between” days, and have the party cover a lot of ground and arrive at points of interest more quickly.
When starting off the hexcrawl, I described each of the days in great detail. This allowed the players to get an understanding of the dangers lurking in the jungle, as well as a general understanding of the atmosphere. To run Tomb of Annihilation’s hexcrawl, the book has you roll randomly for weather and encounters. I opted to just come up with certain things ahead of time, but if you DO want it to be completely random you should at least consult the random tables before running the sessions. This will help save face when running the game so you don’t have to think of details on-the-fly.
Later on, as I mentioned earlier, I tended to “fast travel” from location to location for two main reasons. Firstly because I was getting a bit bored as a dungeon master, and secondly to speed things along so we didn’t end up taking a couple of years to finish the campaign (since the hexcrawl is really only Chapter 2).
The book presents the jungle as being a pretty deadly place if you’re not prepared. My players had some insight into this and were able to buy plenty of insect repellant to fend off those pesky skeeters. Two of the other main survival challenges are getting fresh food/water and navigating where they need to go.
As it turns out, these two other main survival challenges did not prove to be much of a challenge at all. My ranger always knew which way north was, and thus the direction they were headed; the barbarian had an outlander background so they were always able to find clean food and water. This was some of the reasoning why I was okay with fast traveling at a certain point in the campaign. There were 2 very experienced wilderness explorers in the group. Of course, the jungles of chult are exotic, dense, and deadly. For these reasons, I still had them make survival checks for certain things, but it really only affected how long it took them or whether they got turned around a few times before finding their bearings.
Be sure to take advantage of all the different Chultan diseases and oddities that are presented near the start of the hexcrawl chapter. I really enjoyed the blue fog of madness, and was able to tie this back into some of the people from Port Nyanzaru who had wronged the players previously.
The coolest thing about the hex crawl is being able to stumble upon new places and to get a feel for what the jungle contains. The players are certain to come across a TON of encounters when traveling, and this is the perfect place to “give a feel” for the jungle.
Check the DMs map for information as to the level of undead activity. Be sure to present hordes of undead when traveling through areas of heavy activity, while other areas are a perfect place to present the dangerous flora and fauna contained within the jungles of Chult.
Running the zombie T-Rex is an absolute must. He’s a god damned T-Rex that fucking pukes zombies, how could you not want to run this guy?! There’s a place later within the actual tomb where a zombie t-rex can appear, but you’re not guaranteed to come across it, so you had might as well run it during the hex crawl. Plus, if they come across another one, that’s just a zombie-puking-undead-carnivorous cherry on top.
Additionally when traveling, try to have the players come across all the different animal versions of the 9 trickster gods. It may seem like a long ways off, but eventually you’ll need to know about all of them and I believe the characters should have seen most of them by the time it becomes relevant. They’re all pretty fun and unique, so don’t miss your chance to try out some new monsters. I didn’t find most of them to be too challenging, but it all depends on your specific circumstance.
Using a Map
Give your players some form of map for them to use. I cannot stress this point enough! I started off giving my players a hand-drawn replica of the “starting area” on a large dry-erase grid. Though I thought that this was super cool and interactive, it was also incredibly time consuming and wasn’t really the best long-term solution. There’s a map within Tomb of Annihilation that you can rip out and give to the players. I wish I would have done that, but the book I was using to run the adventure was somebody else’s and I didn’t want to tear it out for them.
We eventually started using a digital copy of the players map on an iPad. This was an awesome solution and I would 110% recommend it, if you have the available tech. The players could mark notes on it including: points of interest, their current location, and where they are planning to go.
4 Unique Homebrew Items
Out of nowhere, I decided to introduce a long-term side quest to the players. The gist of this is to gather the 4 ancient items of Ubtao and become the master of dinosaurs. These items are based on the large statue of an ancient Chultan warrior (which they passed when arriving at the port). Naturally my players asked Wakanga about the statue and he explained some of the history behind the statue, but also (more importantly) that the items worn by this ancient warrior supposedly exist and are insanely powerful.
Having a long-term side quest like this helped to keep the traveling / locations interesting as it could act as an additional reward that I could put anywhere that seemed to fit. This will hopefully keep your players invested in the campaign for a long time to come. Some of the most excited I’ve seen my players is when they almost died, but ended up acquiring a piece of this set.
“Once owned by a grand king of Chult, these items have been lost to the sands of time. Rumor says each item is incredibly powerful, and when all 4 of the set are worn, the wearer is said to have complete control over the dinosaurs.”
- Dinosaur Tooth Necklace
- Advantage on all Animal Handling checks
- Feather Headpiece
- Contains max of 3 charges of the Command spell (DC 15). Auto succeeds on dinosaurs. Regain 1d4 charges each dawn.
- Ubtao’s Spear
- Functions as a magical +2 spear. Once per long rest you may deal 1d8 additional thunder damage (auto max damage against dinosaurs)
- Chultan Chestpiece
- +1 Studded Leather, and gives the user resistance to all non-magical bludgeoning/slashing/piercing damage
When all 4 are together: Dinosaurs regard you as friendly. Can cast Speak With Animals at will. Command spell duration increases to 8 hours.
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