Fun Jungle Romp or Cursed Expedition?
Tomb of Horrors was released way back in 1978 as a Gygax original. Fast forward to the Tomb of Annihilation release date in 2017 and that old-school influence is still clear in this classical adventure of dangerous exploration and downright suicidal dungeon crawling. How does this reimagining from AD&D make the transition to 5th edition? Stay with our Tomb of Annihilation review for just a minute and learn everything you need to know.
What’s the Adventure About?
A particularly powerful lich has set up something particularly nasty somewhere deep within the heart of Chult, a land of dark jungles, dinosaurs, wild adventure, and more recently, a metric ton of undead. This lich’s machinations have cast the world in a terrible but subtle aura, creatures who have cheated death (such as from resurrection spells) are slowly rotting away. And it seems quite clear that something in the deepest heart of Chult is pulling souls of the departed away from their intended afterlife towards some dark purpose. The PCs must adventure through the undead ridden jungles (that were none-too safe to begin with), topple a serpent cult, learn the mysteries of the forbidden city, and brave the legendary tomb that has already lured countless adventurers to their doom.
What’s in the Book?
The Tomb of Annihilation levels out at 260 pages, which is very slightly longer than the norm for these official adventures. The bulk of it is devoted to the setting/adventure path, but it’s also got a couple extras. It includes:
- The Tomb of Annihilation adventure path / Chult Setting, progressing from 1st to 12th level (final cap is debatable)
- 2 new character backgrounds
- 15 new magic items/magical consumables
- 59 new monsters/NPCs with lore and stat blocks
- 26 Tomb of Annihilation map / other handouts
The Adventure Path / Setting
The adventure path can be cleanly divided into two halves. Chapters 1-3 are the exploration half, and chapters 4-5 are pure dungeon crawling.
The first half takes the players through 1st level to 7th level (or thereabouts) and revolves around the PCs first finding and then unlocking the titular tomb. This half of the adventure is very freeform, and very sandbox, though it has the ticking clock element that is needed to bring focus back to the main plot when needed. Players are going to have a blast riding/fighting dinosaurs, solving frog politics with fake gods, battling fire newts above lava gorges, and generally surviving the adventures they stumble across in this richly populated world.
Then we get to the second half, which goes from level 8th level to 12th level (or thereabouts) and it switches into some of the hardest, grindiest dungeon crawling I’ve ever seen. It starts at the snake cult and only gets harder from there as players endure an onslaught of difficult combat, potentially TPKing traps, and try to survive a dungeon literally created for killing adventurers. The first half of the adventure is at a high difficulty already and the second half will be a complete meat grinder for newer players.
Now it might sound like I didn’t like the second half, but I did, I adore the classical high stakes of this no-holds barred dungeon crawl. I especially loved the “god” spirits that can inhabit the players and the ingenuity of the traps. It just needs to be stated how different these halves feel to play and depending on your playgroup one of the halves can be more suitable than the other. These two styles of gameplay have such a clear dividing line within the adventure path, many groups will just get turned off by one half or the other.
If you’re a newer group, I feel like you’ll enjoy the first half and despise the second. I recommend that newer playgroups plan this out ahead of time and write out the titular “Tomb” entirely. Instead of the lich’s machinations, make the serpent cult the primary antagonists. It’ll take a bit of reworking, but you can easily place a vault of treasures in place of the tomb and play up the yuan-ti’s threat to the surrounding area. Chapter 3 ends with a climactic fight (and a pretty nasty dungeon as it is) and you can simply plan on ending the adventure at 8th level.
If your group loves a good dungeon crawl, I feel like you’ll adore the second half and get a bit scattered in the first. You can easily skip all the lead-up to the titular “Tomb” and start the adventure off with the PCs delving through its many traps and tribulations. The numerous Tomb of Annihilation maps are filled with goodies and encounters that will challenge and thrill the most jaded D&D veterans. Simply hand-wave away how the PCs actually got to the tomb and go on from there.
Now, if your group loves the sandbox style games, and also loves lengthy super-dungeons, then this will be perfect, I just don’t know how often that Venn-diagram is going to line up correctly.
2 New Character Backgrounds
So that you can live out your fantasy of becoming Indiana Jones, we get in this book the Anthropologist and Archeologist backgrounds. More than just flavor wins (which they are), they also fill some needed niches that were missed before and can find their place in any adventure. The anthropologist background’s ability “Adept Linguist” is an absolute godsend for this adventure. Language barriers are a major issue in Tomb of Annihilation and having an anthropologist in the party solves SO many problems. I highly recommend that you keep this in mind when the party is coming together.
15 New Magic Items / Consumables
These cover a wide range including magical monkey fruit that makes you dance to unholy artifacts crafted by an archlich. Several of these are quest items, but I really appreciated the addition of the flora/fauna consumables the PCs might stumble across in the jungles. It’s a type of element I often include in my own games and I plan on stealing these for future campaigns.
59 New Monsters/NPCs
This number is slightly inflated since a few have since been reprinted in other books, but it’s still a whopping number of unique stat-blocks. They range from innocent monsters like an undead T-rex, to the insidious horror of the Zorbo, a small koala-like creature that I REFUSE to throw at a party… It’s just too mean. With all that said I was a little sad that we didn’t get player race stats for several creatures here, like the grungs or the pterafolk, but c'est la vie.
26 Maps / Handouts
The map exploration was key here, and I really appreciated the detailed maps. I hadn’t expected the trove of other handouts though, even including some visuals for the trickiest of the traps. An early encounter involves the important decision of what guide to hire and I loved the ability to hand out pictures of all the guides with all their shifty mannerisms. I’m glad I got the Tomb of Annihilation PDF and was able to print all the handouts with ease.
What’s Good About the Book?
Chult is just flatly an excellent adventure setting. Dinosaurs and ancient temples, magical monkeys and tiny frog kingdoms. Then, after a long sprawling sandbox, players are challenged to their limits with devious and ingenious traps along a massive super-dungeon filled with unforgettable encounters. Tomb of Annihilation swings right past many of the pitfalls that drug down some of the other 5e sandbox adventures and keeps the players on track while allowing them to explore.
What’s Bad About the Book?
This is a DIFFICULT adventure, and even the sandbox portion is going to be very challenging to new and even intermediate players. Player deaths and TPKs are not only likely, they’re expected. This only gets worse in the second half of the book, and players who aren’t used to high stakes adventuring are likely to go through several characters.
Tomb of Annihilation gameplay feels cut in half, and I think very different types of playgroup will enjoy each half. I’ve played in very “gamey” groups that I know would love the second half, and I’ve played in very “narrative” groups that I know would love the first half. I think that the groups where both styles really overlap are rare, and most will only get half an adventure’s worth of enjoyment out of this book. Before picking this one up, take a long time to consider what style gameplay your players really enjoy, and if half an adventure is worth the price of admission.
Final Score: 6 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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