Tomb of Annihilation is a big book, isn’t it?
It feels really heavy. I mean, it should weigh about the same as Storm King’s Thunder, but for some reason it feels heavier to me.
Guess what I start running this Saturday?
I tend not to overprepare published adventures; giving them an examination to understand the underlying structure and then examine various encounters with more detail as time permits. My first examination of ToA gave me this insight: This is going to be a tricky adventure to start. The task the player characters are given is very simple: Find and stop the Soulmonger. Unfortunately, there isn’t any strong lead from there. It’s just “explore Chult until you find the Soulmonger”. This is going to be challenging for many parties, who prefer more direction in their quests.
As my fellow blogger, DM David, explains, sandbox-style adventures can overwhelm the players with choice. And the first half of ToA is one big sandbox. My job as a DM is going to be to survey the options available to the players, and present them with a limited selection so they can still feel like they have choice, but to point them in the right direction.
Honestly, this is really an adventure for levels 5-11, with a sandbox in front. And the player characters need to wander around that sandbox until they find where the Soulmonger is. This can be very frustrating, so I’ll have to use the Guides, Rumours, Side Quests and various NPCs to craft a structure that makes the players feel like they’re accomplishing something.
This is made more tricky by the fact that I’m running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League. An adventure like Shawn Merwin’s Return of the Lizard King would be great to replace the first half of the adventure and provide a more structured opening, but I can only use DDAL-legal material, and the accompanying DDAL adventures aren’t out yet. So, instead, I’ll just have to sculpt things that appear in the book into an attractive form.
One of the techniques I’m using with this adventure is to have a Session 0, where the players will create their characters as a group and we can discuss their backgrounds and motivations for being part of the adventure. It’s likely that we’ll be making a lot of use of the factions in the characters’ backgrounds, as they provide ready-made connections to power groups in Chult. The suggested hooks in ToA that tie to various backgrounds are pretty anodyne; we should all be able to do better. Giving the characters a personal stake in the adventure is better than just “you’ve been hired to do a job”.
What happens to the game if one of the characters has a history with one of the commanders of the Order of the Gauntlet’s expeditions in Chult? Is it a good relationship, and they want to save them? Or is it a bad one, and thus you get all this tense role-playing when they discover each other in the jungle?
What secret orders might the Zhentarim have for their agents? Might they say, “Yes, look for the Soulmonger, but while you’re here, there’s a little job we’d like you to do”? Those Side Quests in the first chapter are all seeds to begin expeditions into Chult, and you can use some of the details to inform the choices made during character creation.
If a PC is fleeing to Chult to avoid people back home, which NPCs in Port Nyanzaru might be affiliated with his pursuers? He’ll have to avoid them, or possibly, buy them off!
There is a limit to how useful these background details can be with a published adventure. At some point, the backgrounds of the characters become irrelevant to the main action, as everything focuses on the main questline, but for the opening of the adventure, they could be very useful.
Three days to go before we start. I can hardly wait!