So, two Sundays ago, I sat down and DMed the first session of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign. Succinctly, it went very well. Less succinctly, there were some relatively minor audio-visual quirks we need to work out, but the game itself went very smoothly and everyone seemed to have a good time.
As a heads up, there will be spoilers in this post for the early parts of the campaign. If you’re planning on playing it and want it to be a total surprise of exploration, then you should probably not read this. If, however, you’re going to DM the campaign, you may find some of these insights helpful.
When the campaign kicks off, the party is in the town of Baldur’s Gate (sound familiar?) and must meet with Syndra, and elf who tasks them with going to Chult. Really, this encounter is pretty cut-and-dry as she tells them, “Yeah, go here, figure out this mystery, and I’ll give you some cool shit from my stash.” Of course, the first question out of two of my players’ mouths was, “why don’t you just give us the cool shit now to help us in our quest?” Oddly enough, WotC did not anticipate this question, even though it is super obvious. This kind of weird oversight seems to plague the ToA hardback, and takes some clever (and fun) DMing to overcome.
Now, before anyone thinks that I’m being overly critical, keep in mind that I think this is a really solid campaign, and we had a lot of fun with it.
Overall, the first session started a bit slow. Indeed, it was about three hours before they even left Nyanzaru and managed to go adventuring. Until then, there was some mingling in town with various NPCs, an extensive and elaborate shopping trip, and a bit of sightseeing. Though we had heard rumors that dinosaurs would be a key aspect of the campaign, we did not realize that they were going to quite literally meet you off the teleport. I had to spend a good fifteen or twenty minutes explaining that there were dinosaurs everywhere doing various jobs as beasts of burden. Most of my players found this awesome, though one couldn’t stop his eye rolling. It is a neat bit of flavor for the region, but I would encourage DMs to make it absolutely clear that these are not a cherished animal protected from danger or kept as special pets. They are bred to work, they are skinned for leather, and they are butchered for meat. These dinosaurs are a pivotal resource for the local populace, and it’s important to emphasize that. Don’t let your players get all Dr. Grant in Chult.
Another thing the book tells you to emphasize is the rain. Here’s how that’s handled:
ToA Book: Oh my god, it rains all the time.
Me: How often?
Yeah, but how often?
It’s a rare day that it doesn’t rain.
Okay, right, but what number of days?
Like, every building has a water wheel because it rains so much.
Right, but if I had to roll a die to figure out if it’s raining, what should I roll and what results would be rain?
The streets are lined with super deep rain gutters to collect the rain.
Yeah, I get it, but tell me how to figure out if its raining.
And, if it’s raining hard, there’s a 25% chance that it’s raining really hard, and makes travel tough!
Ok, 25% chance during heavy rain. What’s the percentage chance for that?
People in Chult don’t even care if they get wet because it rains so much.
For fuck’s sake, I’ll ask WIkipedia.
And that’s what I had to do. Yes, the DMG has rules for weather, but they are sparse, and offer a precipitation roll which figures a temperate, deciduous environment. It makes no consideration for a jungle at all. So, I looked up a rain forest on Wikipedia, found out it rains something like 275 days of the year, did a quick calculation, and figured out that rolling twice per day on the precipitation table from the DMG is about right. Thanks WotC! You know, I didn’t buy your campaign book just so I’d have to do actual work and research and stuff!
One of the important things your players will have to do before heading into the jungle is hire a guide. Well, technically they don’t need one, per se, but they are helpful to them for navigation and helpful to you as adventure hooks. There’s lots to do in Chult, but aimless wandering is unlikely to get your party to any of it. It’s important to let your party know (I outright told them) that there are a bunch of guides to choose from. This helps them realize that their choice matters in this regard, and they can have some fun with it. The easiest way to put a lot of choices in front of them is to get them to talk to the merchant prince Jobal, who will happily introduce them to six separate guides.
The book doesn’t give any guidance (hehe, get it?) on how to introduce these guides to the party, but just says to give them the associated handouts. Well, that’s no fun. So, what I did, and I think this may be the best way to do it, was to say that Jobal’s assistant arranged a little “dinner” wherein the party could meet all six of them in the same place. Then, I handed one of the handouts to each of my players, and we went around the table reading them aloud in fun voices/accents appropriate to the pictures on the cards. It was a lot of fun, and when it was time to pick a guide, each of the players felt an attachment to the one they read, which provided some nice discussion fodder. Of course, my group chose the down-and-out same-sex interracial couple with the pet triceratops. Yay, Millenial gaming!
As a tip when exploring the jungle with your party: prepare ahead of time! If you do it at the table, each day of travel requires these rolls:
- 2x d20 for rain
- 1x d100 if heavy rain
- 3x d20 for random encounters
- 1x d100 per random encounter
- 1x ability check for navigation
- 1x d6 if lost
Assuming the weather is beautiful, no random encounters, and true trailblazing, that’s a whopping six rolls per day. And the closest landmark to Nyanzaru is a seven day hike. That’s 42 rolls assuming nothing happens to the party. It takes a little bit of prepwork, but here’s what I suggest:
- Get a Forgotten Realms Calendar printed out or drawn on some graph paper
- Mark this calendar with the days that important NPCs die of the Death Curse (Namely Syndra and Jessamine)
- Roll out rain ahead of time and mark it on the calendar
- Using some software (roll20 or anydice) roll a bunch of d20s, group them into threes, and note which ones are above the random encounter threshold
- For each d20 above the limit, roll a d100 and note that (you can’t pregen the actual encounters because the party’s location determines which random table to use)
- Roll another group of d20s and keep them for the navigation check (these are sometimes made with advantage and disadvantage, so just keep a big raw list)
The final thing I want to discuss is the map. For this adventure, I forked over some dough to print out two 3ft by 4ft maps of Chult. One was the player map with the blank hexes. The other was the full map with all the hexes filled and the landmarks noted. I then taped the full map on the table and taped the player map exactly over top. So, my players come in to see a huge blank map for them to explore. Neat! However, they practically pooped themselves with excitement when I gave one a piece of cardboard and an XACTO knife. By cutting out the hexes that they explored on the top map, it revealed the map on the bottom. It was totally baller!
It also made a great visual for our stream of it.
To wrap up, I’ll just again reiterate that we had an awesome time of this adventure, and will continue to do so (our next session is October 21). I also want to mention that I used DnDBeyond as my only copy of the rules, and it worked amazingly.
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