Full Tomb Of Annihilation Review – D&D 5e – The Hex-Crawl Sensation

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I am writing this Tomb of Annihilation review after leading a group through the entirety of the adventure. This is a very popular adventure based on the classic module, Tomb Of Horrors. Players start this adventure expecting to go into a harsh tomb that will test their very wit and skill, but is this all there is to it?

Tomb of Annihilation is a false name. Most people play this adventure hoping to test out this fabled tomb. The problem is that the tomb is at the very end of the adventure. The meat of it is a randomly generated hex-crawl preceded by a wondrous port city. While this is a fun adventure, there are definitely aspects that need tweaking.

In our Tomb of Annihilation review we will go over what is good, bad, needs fixing, and more so strap yourselves in for a comprehensive analysis!

What To Expect

At the start of this Tomb Of Annihilation review, we stated that the name is false. The tone is set right from the beginning with this lie. Everything is to be distrusted, and once you are outside of the starting city the world itself is out to kill the players.

Port Nyanzaru is where the players start out, and the time spent here is brief. Too brief. The city is full of wonders and potential, and seems like it could contain three levels worth of content. Sadly, the players are kicked out of the town after only one or two levels.

After leaving the port, they enter into the great hex-crawl. This is where most of the game is played. Just look at the number of hexes!

Each hex takes a full day to traverse, and each day there is a random encounter. If you zoom in, you will see that it takes weeks reach Camp Vengeance. And this is only the first major stop in your journey. This indicates just how ridiculously long the hex-crawl will be.

The long journey can either be fun with a creative DM, or a slog since every day is a random encounter. These random encounters need to be planned out to make them seem coherent and not just annoying one-off battles that are only meant to drain player time.

While the locations in Chult are somewhat interesting, the real goal is the ancient city of Omu. Here the players must get back on track to open the tomb. Getting in involves the players learning about the land of Chult, the ancient culture, and the gods who once ruled here. This should be a cherry on top if the hex-crawl is done correctly, or it will jolt the players back into the story.

There is a section that no one really talks about. The Fane of the Nightserpent is just best to skip. Aside from almost universal agreement from D&D forums, here is a great video depicting why you don’t want to have this section in your game. We will not cover this section in our review, because we skipped it just like you probably should.

Lastly, there is the Tomb. The Tomb is a deathtrap that was devised with the same caring and coddling that was given in the old school Tomb of Horrors. This is to say that your players will die. Not that they might – they will. In order to get through this section, everyone will need a lot of luck and skill.

The Hook

There are two ways that players are drawn into this campaign. Either they have heard of the old school Tomb of Horrors and wish to play in something similar, or they are drawn in through the fantastic setting that is Port Nyanzaru.

In order to start the campaign, the players are given a quest by a mysterious magic-user. Everyone who has been resurrected is dying, and resurrection isn’t possible anymore. The problem has been isolated to Chult and needs to be taken care of by whisking you there via teleportation magic. At first glance, you are blasted by an array of colors, dinosaurs, and fantastic sites. You are then dropped off to take care of the issue.

From the start, you are nobodies who are hired as plan G. Unfortunately, resurrection isn’t an option here. Every death is permanent, and the setting is like this for the entire game.

First come the distractions in Nyanzaru with gladiator rings, merchant princes, hiring guides, getting information, gear, and more. There is so much to do in this place that the players might linger here forever if they were not given a strong push out the door.

You can choose to change the initial hook by taking away the death curse (what keeps everyone from resurrecting), introducing the death curse later, or altering how they arrive at Chult. However you do this, there will need to be a push to get the characters into the wilds and continue on their journey.

This approach allows the players to explore more of the port’s wonders and gives them their own sense of agency. We did just that in our campaign, and I must say that this worked out really well.

Port Nyanzaru is so vast and open that you can make up just about anything for your players to encounter. This will be the happiest and most enjoyable section in our Tomb of Annihilation review since the rest of the adventure is filled with dread.

The Dreaded Jungle

This is where most Tomb of Annihilation games end, or are greatly sped up. In our campaign, we went through the dreaded hex- crawl at a regular pace, but added some variation to our random encounters.

Each day the players have one encounter that usually pertains to combat. To make things more interesting, I added an extra table to roll on. This table has augmentations to the environment, monsters, or situations.

Here is the extra table I came up with:

  • 1-10 – friendly base
  • 11-25 – friendly encounter
  • 26-35 – cult
  • 36-45 – open field
  • 46-60 – organization
  • 61-67 – (unique to your campaign’s plot OR something pertaining to Acererak)
  • 68-75 – fortified defenses (such as a barricade, fort, or ambush)
  • 76-81 – shrine (generally to the nine gods, but could be to other ones that tell of Chult’s history)
  • 82-85 – ruins
  • 86-91 – dungeon
  • 92-96 – horde of creatures
  • 97-100 – greater threat (boss, or something extremely difficult)

This table made random encounters more interesting. Imagine instead of just encountering and killing zombies, the players find a zombie cult. What does that look like? Can the zombies make a cult and be intelligent about it, or is it a cult of people wishing to be zombies? You can have a lot of fun here and use your imagination.

If there is anything to take away from this Tomb of Annihilation review, it is that you need to make the hex-crawl fun. This is meant to be one of the meatiest parts of the adventure. The players will spend in-game weeks and possibly even a few months in the jungle exploring all of what Chult has to offer. This is the major exploration bit of the adventure and can be the best or worst part. It is entirely dependent on the encounters being fun instead of a chore.

One other option is to make the jungle be so uncomfortable and aggressive that long rests are not possible unless the party is in a safe location. This adds to the deadly feel of the jungle and furthers the idea of survival. We made every sleep count only as a short rest which made any safe harbor extremely special.

Omu

After a long trek, your players have finally made it to the lost city of Omu. There is a lot of content to go over in this city, including many puzzles, cubes, and strange inhabitants to either fight or make peace with. Since there are nice puzzles to solve, you have a few ways that this can be done.

Either the players are fighting against another group to get all the puzzle cubes (which will lead to a confrontation) or the party has to solve and gather each puzzle.

Your game could go either way. This Tomb of Annihilation review highly recommends cutting out the Fane of the Nightserpent section, thus we had the players get each puzzle cube on their own. To make a confrontation happen there should have been some setup in the hex-crawl section of the adventure that ramps up in Omu. This requires careful planning but can be done well if you make a cool mini-boss section that replaces the Fane of the Nightserpent.

If you chose to go through getting all nine puzzle cubes, it gives an eerie sense to the adventure. The players are not racing against others and all the inhabitants think the party is crazy for going into a place that no one has ever returned from. The puzzles are almost all interesting and are quickly solved. Furthermore, going for all nine puzzle cubes will give the players a chance to level twice in Omu, making up for the skipped content in Fane of the Nightserpent.

If possible, this is the time to give your players their last merchant. They no doubt have gold and wish to spend it, so give them an opportunity. This place should feel like the final area with no hopes of turning back. They should be preparing mentally for the endgame, because the Tomb is exactly what an endgame section should feel like.

The Tomb of Annihilation

Remember that in this Tomb of Annihilation review we are skipping the Fane of the Nightserpent and going straight into the Tomb. Just have the puzzle cubes open the tomb entrance if you want to skip the Fane section.

Now that we are here, be ready for the players to die.

Yes, your players will die in here. There is no avoiding it.

With that in mind, you have two choices. Either let them go through the Tomb naturally and possibly get total party killed (TPKd) or give them “loads” like in a video game. I gave my players the option to choose. They could either naturally go in and brave the adventure as intended, or get three loads and two auto puzzle solutions.

The loads work like an autosave in a video game. The party can load right before they entered a room, and the auto puzzle solutions tell the player how to solve puzzles. These benefits disappeared on the last level of the Tomb to make the final confrontation final.

Why did I do this? I’ll say right now that I definitely don’t use this sort of concept on the regular, and generally speaking I am not a fan of it in games like D&D.

The reason why I included it here is to give the players more of a chance. There is such a high likelihood that they will die that it frankly seems unfair. To go through all that work only to have a 95% shot of TPKing is a tad unreasonable, in my opinion. Not to mention, some of the puzzles in this adventure are extremely difficult (and not skippable). While some groups might love the hardcore difficulty, it won’t be enjoyable for everyone.

While I decided to give my players three loads, there are far more than three sections that can TPK the group. If you use this option, your players will most likely want to load the first time a character dies.

Puzzles are used in Tomb of Annihilation to withhold content. In our article on how to make D&D puzzles we discussed why puzzles can do more harm than good when they are required to learn necessary pieces of information. To avoid this frustration, I gave them the option to auto solve some really REALLY annoying puzzles.

Lastly, you will need to adjust the nine gods’ benefits. The players are given some minor buffs from the nine gods, but they are not going to be enough for a group of level 11’s to kill a Lich. That would simply be ridiculous.

Luckily, you have a few choices. You can take out the Lich, make the nine gods’ buffs stronger without possessing the characters, or do a combination. In our game, the players got major buffs that made them godlike, had to kill the creature left behind that was consuming souls, and then would have to portal hop after the big bad lich. This is a great setup for another adventure that can take your players wherever you wish!

In this section, you must always consider that the Tomb is downright unfair. But it is supposed to feel this way. The traps and rooms are meant to be solved in a specific way with little room for creativity. Creative players may find a way around some puzzles, but this will be the true test. If anyone can get through here, they deserve it. That, or they have found the service stairway which the inhabitants use to safely clean and re-arm the Tomb.

Conclusion To Our Tomb of Annihilation Review

The Tomb of Annihilation adventure has many cool and interesting aspects to it. If run well, this can easily be a top tier adventure. The problem is that you can’t just run the adventure as is. The dungeon master needs to do a lot of homework, figure out what works, and come up with ways to fix sections that are lacking or just outright bad.

The hex-crawl, Fane of the Nightserpent, and the Tomb itself are all sections that need to be re-worked or cut out. This is sadly over 50% of the adventure, which is a lot of work for a dungeon master.

A group will either go through this adventure and state that it was terrible, or absolutely love it. All without seeing the work done behind the scenes. This is a truly divisive adventure for the fanbase, but it can be something special that resonates with you for the entirety of your D&D career.

I hope that this Tomb of Annihilation review helped you decide if this adventure is right for you.

If you need help running any other D&D adventures, here is an article on how to run adventures in D&D 5e.

This has been Wizo, and keep rolling!

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