Welcome to the Jungle!
“Tomb of Annihilation is a story about death and the lengths individuals will go to avoid it.”
-Chris Perkins, from the Foreword
“Rest assured, your [playtest] characters didn’t die for nothing.”
-Also from the Foreword
If the above two quotes don’t make the point, Tomb of Annihilation looks very dangerous. It also looks like a heck of a lot of fun. Let’s see what it’s all about!
You can watch the video review or read the blog version below. Don’t forget the image gallery at the end of this post!
In Tomb of Annihilation, an intrepid (likely doomed?) party of adventurers quests on behalf of a powerful yet dying mage and soon finds themselves embroiled in deadly adventure in the forbidding jungles of Chult and ultimately the deadliest of dungeons, the outcome of which could affect death itself worldwide! And oh yeah there’s dinosaurs.
- Cover Price: $49.95 (hey, support your FLGS!)
- 256 pages
- 5 chapters
- 6 appendices
- 2 character backgrounds*
- 8 new flora and fauna
- 7 magic items (including 2 artificacts)
- 59 monster & NPC stat blocks**
- 9 trickster gods
- 24 handouts
- Fold-out map of Chult
- Lots of rampaging dinos
- A whole bunch of undead
- 1 killer dungeon designed to attract foolish adventurers to their dooms like flies to honey
- 1 extremely ill-tempered archlich who designed a killer dungeon to attract foolish adventurers to their dooms like flies to honey
*Although there are 2 new character backgrounds (Anthropologist, Archaeologist) , there are no new classes, spells, feats, etc.
**Several monster stat blocks are reprinted from Volo’s Guide to Monsters
A Little Small Print
In my reviews of D&D adventures I attempt to strike a balance between getting information out quickly and giving a good idea of the tone and quality of the adventure without giving out too many spoilers. That way both potential DMs and players can read safely.
There has also not been time yet to run Tomb of Annihilation (as of this writing it is September 14, 2017 and the book doesn’t actually street until September 19) so this review is based on reading through the book and gathering observations of how I assume it would be to run or play it.
A Tomb with History
Like Curse of Strahd took Ravenloft and ran with it, Tomb of Annihilation takes the story of the classic module Tomb of Horrors and creates an entire, jungle + dinosaur + undead infested campaign around the archlich Acererak, his foul plans and his new killer dungeon.
If you’re not familiar with Tomb of Horrors, here is a summary courtesy Wikipedia:
Tomb of Horrors is an adventure module written by Gary Gygax for the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game. It was originally written for and used at the 1975 Origins 1 convention. Gygax designed the adventure both to challenge the skill of expert players in his own campaign, and to test players who boasted of having mighty player characters able to best any challenge.
It’s considered one of the most lethal adventures ever created and is fondly (and not so fondly) remembered by many gamers of yore.
Obviously, the perfect inspiration for a full campaign length 5E adventure…
What Levels Can Be Annihilated?
This adventure is intended for 4-6 1st level players, with them advancing to 11th level by the end should they survive – er – succeed. Some notes on starting at 5th and 9th level are included, but nothing as specific as Curse of Strahd or Storm King’s Thunder where a chapter was included to quickly advance characters to level 5. Tomb of Annihilation is truly designed to play all the way through from 1st level, while the two other just mentioned adventures were actually minimum 5th level adventures pretending to be 1st level and up.
It’s worth noting that the Introduction includes a table showing suggested character levels for each chapter, which is appreciated.
And is Advancement on the Level?
Regarding advancement, Tomb of Annihilation discusses XP acquisition as the default level advancement method practically exclusively. While there is a note about advancing characters at whatever pace the DM prefers, the term milestone itself is never used and there are no notes or guidelines as to when one might advance a character level apart from the XP they acquire in their adventures through Chult.
This struck me as a bit odd given highlighting and even encouragement of milestone levelling in Storm King’s Thunder. Has there been an internal course reversal at D&D?
A Chult Classic
The peninsula of Chult itself is practically a character itself in the adventure, like the jungle in a Tarzan novel or movie, or the island in Gilligan’s Island (Yes, I’m a Gilligan’s Island fan, Skipper). It’s beautiful yet dangerous, enticing yet forbidding. Surprising delights and deaths are equally abundant, with both sharing a similar beauty on occasion. Tomb of Annihilation actually adds eight new flora and fauna to the DM’s toolbox, much like Out of the Abyss offered a wealth of new vegetation of various properties to the Underdark.
The people and cities of Chult also have their own rich and exotic atmosphere. Tomb of Annihilation truly would not feel the same were it placed in a more traditional area of the Forgotten Realms. There is true (I cry your pardon for the corporate buzzspeak) synergy here, with the energy of Tomb of Annihilation feeling cooler than the sum of its already cool parts.
I have to say I absolutely love the artwork and imagery in this book. It has me more excited and fired up with the atmosphere than the previous 5E adventure books, with Out of the Abyss being a somewhat distant second. My imagination really got going after just flipping through Tomb of Annihilation and before even sitting down to read it. I really, really want to take players there.
Tomb of Annihilation is, in its own words, a “time-bomb adventure.” Time is very much of the essence, with the players under constant pressure both from the ticking of the clock and the deadly nature of the many dangers they will face. Not just challenging nature. Deadly nature.
Some players will thrive on this. Others will actively dislike it. Definitely take it into consideration when choosing whether to run this adventure.
How Sausage is Made
As if it wasn’t already dangerous enough, Tomb of Annihilation includes (I am not making this up) an optional meat grinder mode. In this mode, death saving throws require a roll of 15 or higher to succeed rather than the usual roll of 10 or higher.
Meat grinder or not, the Introduction also includes a section on how to handle replacement characters.
Get the point? Tomb of Annihilation wants to, well, annihilate characters.
Stuff That Gives Me Jungle Fever
I need some heavy duty aspirin pronto, because Tomb of Annihilation has a lot of cool stuff that has me feverish to run it. Check this amazing madness OUT:
- Jungles FILLED with dinosaurs AND undead
- Pendleton Ward from Adventure Time consulted per Chris Perkins’s foreword
- Dancing monkey fruit. You read that right. It’s a fruit called dancing monkey fruit.
- Dinosaur racing. I will say that again. DINOSAUR RACING. Dinosaur. Races. Racing with dinosaurs. Like, the DINOSAURS are RACING. Against each other. WITH JOCKEYS.
- A handy table for placing bets on said DINOSAUR RACES
- An undead tyrannosaurus rex that SPEWS ZOMBIES FROM ITS MOUTH
- A magical battleaxe named Bob
- A big fold-out map of Chult that has two sides, one filled in for DM and one with blank areas for players
- A stat block for that world renowned, somewhat reliable scribe Volo
- Trickster gods that can INHABIT THE CHARACTERS
- An entire appendix (not just a table or two) dedicated to random encounters. These encounters are not adjusted to character level… running may be required on behalf of the player characters.
- A table with story hooks for select character backgrounds. Very nice.
- A Dramatis Personae table with (and I love this) a pronunciation guide. For example, Acererak is pronounced ah-SAIR-ak. So now you can address him properly right before he annihilates you.
- An excuse to jump up and scream “You’re in the jungle baby, you gonna dieee” in your best Axl Rose impression at any given moment
Oh man, I’m sweatin’. Forget the aspirin, if this is being sick I don’t wanna be well.
Tomb of Annihilation has quite a lot going for it, but to be fair here’s a couple of negatives. They have more to do with the current D&D line than this adventure itself.
So, again, we get a Forgotten Realms adventure for 5E. I’m not the only 5E fan wondering when this will change.
I’m reasonably certain Wizards of the Coast from a corporate perspective is all in on the Realms as their main setting / IP, with major story lines rolling out across multiple platforms such as tabletop D&D, Wizkids minis, the Neverwinter MMO and the like. So I get the branding and coordination required, and the safe bet on investment in a known qauntity.
As a fan, none of this matters to me. I’d like to see some official D&D 5E, non-Forgotten Realms books and adventures. D&D has a rich history with many settings and the Forgotten Realms, as large and popular as it is, is not D&D itself. Acererak and the original Tomb of Horrors were actually on Oerth of the Greyhawk setting, yet here we are with the sequel of sorts in the Forgotten Realms. It’s getting to the point where it’s starting to become the elephant in the room between D&D the corporation and D&D the players. What is an annoyance at this point has the potential to become a rift if this goes on too long.
Another quibble: Tomb of Annihilation has no index (neither do the other 5E adventures). Aaaargh! I don’t get this. An adventure book like this is basically a reference book, and a reference book should have an index. I’ve already found myself flailing around a bit wishing for an index just researching for this review. I imagine it will be worse actually running the thing. Fail.
Tomb of Annihilation: Should You Buy It?
For these reviews I try not to offer a one-size-fits-all answer that potentially sells the product short as well as fails to acknowledge the wide spectrum of gamer types and interests that exist in our hobby.
So here is a spectrum of recommendations:
If you like jungle movies, dinosaurs, undead and “player character survival optional” adventures like Tomb of Horrors or Dead in Thay, Tomb of Annihilation is straight up your cup of strong tea.
If you and your players are open to something different (adventurous in their tastes, one might say) and can handle a higher than average degree of pressure and lethality, pick it up.
If you or your players don’t enjoy high lethality adventures with constant pressure, or the prospect of having your head bitten off by an extremely rude archlich at the last minute after working their butts off to get to the end, Tomb of Annihilation isn’t for you. Let me put it another way: if your players get highly upset when their characters get gooshed, give this one a pass or else have them sign a waiver absolving you from therapy costs.
If you like more traditional D&D type adventures (your garden variety medieval-inspired high fantasy with kings and knights and princesses, which I personally enjoy very much by the way) and are most comfortable in that kind of adventure, I would recommend giving this one a pass. Let’s face it, as cool as dark jungles teeming with dinosaurs and undead are, it’s not the fantasy everyone wants or can get into. And that’s cool, baby.
If you are looking for a Chult sourcebook rather than an intense adventure, Tomb of Annihilation probably isn’t for you. There is a lot of good information about the jungle peninsula, but make no mistake this is not a sourcebook like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. In fact, many of the monster stat blocks included are reprinted from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
If you want something different from the standard Forgotten Realms (cough Sword Coast cough cough) or you are yearning for a more offbeat setting like Dark Sun, Eberron or Planescape, then Tomb of Annihilation MIGHT be for you. It’s not a complete new setting, but it is just different enough to maybe scratch that itch. And it sure ain’t the Sword Coast, Chuckles.