At the time of writing this, I have been running Tomb of Annihilation for a little over a year. Though it can sometimes feel like a marathon, I can confidently say ToA is an insanely fun module for 5e. The general premise of the campaign is a Death Curse which is plaguing the realm. Resurrection magic no longer works and individuals previously resurrected are starting to wither away. Players are attempting to locate the source of this curse and put a stop to it. There’s a vast jungle filled with booby-trapped temples, savage dinosaurs, and ravenous hordes of the undead. What’s not to like?!
If you haven’t heard of it, you should absolutely check it out.
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With that being said, Tomb is the first “official” adventure I have DM’d and I will admit that it can feel exhausting at times. There’s a BUNCH of information to keep straight, which proved especially difficult for me in the beginning. This campaign has essentially been a cycle of me making up information on the spot (due to being unprepared), and then working that made-up information into the campaign canonically.
Whether you are currently running Tomb of Annihilation 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 adventure as well as my overall impression and tips for the following areas:
- Starting the Campaign
- Port Nyanzaru
- Wakanga O’Tamu
- Acquiring a Guide
- Dinosaur Racing
*Possible Spoiler Alert*: If you are planning on ever playing ToA (rather than DMing) please proceed with caution.
Starting The Campaign
Firstly, I opted to change up the plot hook and general introduction of the story. It’s not that the original is bad or anything, I just went with something that I liked a bit more. In my version, Syndra is not the one afflicted with the death curse but rather it is her father who is affected. Looking back, my primary reason for this was to create a more vivid description of the Death Curse for players.
Her father was presented as completely bed-ridden and essentially incapacitated. His deeply-wrinkled skin was sloughing off, his eyes sunken and yellow, and he smelled of decaying flesh. Naturally he was in no condition to convey the details of the quest, which is where Syndra stepped in. This was a relatively small and easy modification, but I found this suited the world I was trying to portray to players.
After reading advice from Sly Flourish, I was a huge fan of having the players come to Chult by crossing the ocean. Syndra offered the party transportation on her ship which allowed them to have an encounter with Aremag, the dragon turtle. In the midst of chaos when Aremag first arrived, one of my players shot him square in the eye with a mounted harpoon. This lead to a very memorable moment for the party with players still making references back to this instance. Even a year into the campaign, the party’s end-game goal is to defeat the dragon turtle and claim his underwater treasure trove.
Though Syndra described Chult as dangerous, when players docked they quickly noticed the port was surprisingly jovial and thriving: life-sized dinosaur murals, children playing in the streets, merchants, minstrels, and music. This helps to build upon the notion that Chult is a far-away and exotic land that is not well understood. Of course, Syndra is correct about the deadly nature of Chult but I just love the immediate build of expectations-vs-reality in this campaign.
When running Tomb of Annihilation, you can either:
- choose to present the death curse with an immediate sense of urgency or,
- choose to wait momentarily before revealing the time-sensitive nature of the campaign
I think you are seriously missing outif you rush your players through Port Nyanzaru. My players were given time to explore the city in great depth. They were able to meet merchant princes, befriend potential guides, and discover plenty of possible side quests. Although I portrayed the death curse as serious, the port seemed like too much fun to simply gloss over.
In the future, I would have a blast running a quasi-homebrew with Port Nyanzaru as a base of operations.
Port Nyanzaru is such a lively city filled with unique characters who can bring the adventure to life. Additionally, this is pretty much the only area that will feel like a “typical DnD civilization” complete with taverns, an arena, and temples. For the entire rest of the adventure players are essentially either hex-crawling through the immense jungle or trying not to die in fatally trapped dungeons.
Try to use the port as an opportunity for the players to gather as much information as they can about the death curse or where it might be located.
The book is extremely vague regarding this and there are incredibly few NPCs who actually have directly related information. I highly recommend giving the players some sort of clue about one of these characters. This will most likely occur through dialogue with an NPC as players are trying to discover information. This can be as simple as a rumor that “there is a witch living in an ancient abandoned city to the southwest that may know something“.
This accomplishes giving the players some sense of direction, while still preserving the complete mystery as to ‘what is really going on’. They will be lured deeper and deeper into the jungle with hopes of gathering small slivers of information about the Death Curse.
While running Tomb of Annihilation, Wakanga was the party’s first main point of contact to continue the primary story line. Before they departed from the mainland, Syndra instructed them to seek out her friend Wakanga O’tamu for information and any help they may need in their quest. He offered them general advice about Port Nyanzaru (places to stay, what to do, etc), as well as his limited knowedge about the Death Curse.
Throughout conversations I was sure to convey to players that it was very important for them to get a charter of exploration. If the players are caught exploring the jungle without a charter of exploration they will face the wrath of the Flaming Fist. Wakanga also recommended that the players find a guide for the best chances at success.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing-up his cover as a “playboy millionaire”: when first introduced to players, Wakanga was wearing a silk robe with his arms wrapped around two women.
This seemingly insignificant detail came around full-circle when the players decided to return to the Port (about 8 months into the campaign). They had learned the Death Curse was originating from Omu and had determined approximately where Omu was on their map. When Wakanga discovered this crucial information about the Death Curse, he had these ladies come back out and reveal their true identity: Harpers agents. These women joined in the conversation and exchanged information relevant to the plot. It was pretty neat to see the players thinking back to their original interaction with Wakanga and connect the dots.
Acquiring a Guide:
Per Wakanga’s recommendation, the party sought a guide for their jungle expedition. I decided that the guides who payed Jobal also had a charter of exploration which was valid for the entire party. This kept things from getting too complicated since I was already having a hard enough time running Tomb of Annihilation.
In the same spirit, due to the sheer volume of guides, I recommend choosing a handful of guides that you think you would enjoy playing – since you may end up playing that character for a while – and introduce them as NPCs. They could appear in a tavern, they may approach the players,or they may have posters and advertisements around the town that the players find.
If your players do not end up choosing any of the potential guides that they meet, just keep introducing different guides until they either: settle on one, or choose to go without a guide.
Many of the guides are tied to a faction or a personal quest which manifests into their motivations and actions. This motivation will determine how you play your guide. Some of them have hidden agendas and could be secretly working against the players in some manner. Others could have a certain location they are steering the players towards.
If the guide is a traitor, try to give some subtle clues throughout the journey for players to pick up on. This could be accomplished through small actions or phrases.
If the players ask what their guide is doing during a rest, tell them that they actually don’t see the NPC. In reality the guide is nearby and sending a secret message. When confronted you may have to do a deception check if the players are inquisitve.
River and Flask as Guides
This set of Tabaxi siblings stuck out to me because I love cats and always played a Khajiit in Skyrim/Oblivion. River and Flask seemed like the natural choice. Of course, I didn’t want to force the players into choosing them but when the party’s rogue visited the shady part of town (Malar’s Throat) I was sure to lay down some conversational-cues which lead to a meeting with River and Flask. Thankfully, for me, the party decided to go with River and Flask due to their cheaper price.
The duo started off as very quiet, with Flask mostly just repeating the endings of what River says and shaking his head in agreement. However, after being with the party for a while and getting comfortable, they often became a source of comic relief. I always spoke very softly when roleplaying as them and physically leaned in (almost as though as I was crouching) whilst constantly darting my head to look “around the jungle” mid conversation.
Players did end up going to any of the locations that river and flask knew about, and rather ended up using them as general guides to the jungles of Chult. When the players asked them a question / the party came across a jungle anomaly I had them roll a nature check and give relevant information depending on the outcome of the role. For the most part they kept out of combat, except for a single instance or two (this is partially due to me forgetting about them cause I’m focusing on all the other things), and were often the assigned dinosaur babysitters for the party when they went into somewhere that may have been difficult for dino travel (random temples and stuff).
If you are running Tomb of Annihilation, you absolutely don’t want to miss out on this!
Nothing quite separates Chult from “your-typical-DnD-setting” like a fast paced, violent, and chaotic dinosaur race through the city. It was a blast for everybody at the table and was one of the most unique Dungeons and Dragons experiences that I’ve had the opportunity to run.
A super useful resource is the Tomb of Annihilation Companion, (Created by Sean McGovern of Power Score RPG). This companion offers an alternative set of rules for the race – which I prefer to the original rules – and a specific course around the city. This is complete with skill challenges related to the locations in Port Nyanzaru. Honestly, learning the course of this race gave me a better understanding of how the city is laid out. This made it easier to describe while players are going through and exploring. This guide has other useful things such as pre-planned travel days in the jungle, and is worth checking out!
Initially, I introduced the concept of a dinosaur race to the players through small bits of dialogue with NPCs. This could be something as simple as an NPC’s farewell sentence, “I’ve gotta get goin’, need to start getting ready for the race tomorrow”. Specifically, I had Faroul and Gondolo approach one of the players at a pub and offer them an opportunity to race on a dinosaur. You see, due to the intense nature of the race, their previously hired racer had been seriously injured.
It seemed like killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. With these two NPCs you can introduce potential guides to the party as well as plant a hook for the dinosaur race.
Even if not all of the characters race, you should still allow all players to control a dinosaur rider.
This avoids one person at the table having an absolute blast while everybody sits around bored on their phones.
Another method for players to be invested is to include gambling and bets on the dinosaur races. In my game this ended up being possible in one of two ways for the players. The first method was a bookie located in the sketchy part of the Port. Players had an easy enough time finding him through NPC interactions. The second method was private betting at one of the Merchant Princes Villas. One of my players had the noble background and was able to gain an invitation to an upper-class viewing party of the race.
Even if your players do not end up gambling, simply presenting it as an option will help Port Nyanzaru feel like a truly living society.
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