Running Tomb of Annihilation: More on Wilderness Adventures

There’s a lot of wilderness in Chult.

You’re likely to become very familiar with it in the early levels of Tomb of Annihilation, as the adventurers search for clues.

It’s easy to become distracted by the rules given on the adventure: Roll three times each day to see if an encounter occurs, then determine what it is.

The problem with this is that it eats up time and can lead to very boring adventures. It does depend on the group. I was very happy when younger to kill them randomly generated monsters. If you’ve got a group who enjoys a variety of combats, then the random encounter plan can work very well for you. It’s not good with groups who are more interested in the story; having sessions of combats that don’t advance the story tends to be frustrating.

However, it also depends on the situation. What are the group trying to achieve in the jungle?

Three situations come to mind:

  • The adventurers are exploring blindly, looking for something of interest.
  • The adventurers are looking for a specific location, but they don’t know exactly where it is.
  • The adventurers are travelling to a specific location and have directions.

It’s the first situation that makes the best use of the random encounter tables. I’d prefer it if Chult had more keyed locations in the jungle to investigate – in a home game, I’d fill it with ruins and other items of interest – but the random encounter tables do allow you to have something happen as they travel. As an alternative to rolling three times per day, you could determine one encounter for each new hex they enter that doesn’t have a keyed encounter. You could also alter tables to give a chance of finding random ruins or a settlement. Finding such fleshes out the map with permanent features, which the adventurers can revisit later.

The third situation has directed travel through the jungle: you use the jungle as an obstacle between the players and their destination. Using too many random encounters in this situation is most likely to frustrate the players. The first few encounters are fine, but playing eight hours of encounters before they reach the destination is probably too much!

There’s a reason Order of the Stick describes how there is only ever one random encounter during travel!

When the players know where they’re going, you want them to have a few encounters to demonstrate that the jungle is dangerous, but not too many to detract from them getting to an interesting area. Depending on the time you have and the length of the journey, between one and four encounters seems appropriate.

The second situation I’d handle with a combination of the two techniques: only a few encounters on the way to the area the adventurers wish to search and then you roll one encounter per hex explored.

You can use these techniques in any adventure with a lot of travel – Out of the Abyss also comes to mind – but they are very useful in Tomb of Annihilation. You should also look to the advice on page 106 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide on running travel montages and hour-by-hour travel.

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4 Responses to Running Tomb of Annihilation: More on Wilderness Adventures

  1. alphastream says:

    I use a different approach. I see random encounter tables, honestly, as something from a bygone era. Perhaps just my perspective, but I don’t see why a DM would get great results with them unless they are truly amazing at improvising. Think of the movies or novels we love… none of those “chance beast encounters” are random. They are the results of countless hours of scripting, design, and development.

    My approach is to look over random encounters and find monsters that sound fun. Then I concoct a very simple premise and add to that some interesting terrain. Two beasts tracking each other through swampy fern-covered terrain. The party has a chance to avoid one or both, turn them against each other, save one, etc. I write up my outline, print out stats, and put it in my binder. I do that 3-5 times in one sitting. (I was going to list another idea… but I started liking it and it may now end up in Jungle Treks 2!).

    Anyway, once I have my 3-5 ideas in my binder, I’m ready. During play, I watch the pacing of our game. I may also roll, but only if the pacing works. When I roll a “random” encounter or decide I want one, I pull one I think will work well from my binder. Undead country? I use an undead one.

    The end result is fantastic for play: the party sees exploration as rich, interesting, and awesome. The DM is prepared (and can improvise around the outline). The play is engaging and fun. This was the mentality we had when we crated Jungle Treks – to provide a number of those encounters, ready for dropping in during such moments.

  2. A says:

    I have been running more hexcrawls lately, and it is an area where 5e is very weak if you want to run it like the TSR era editions, and the random encounters show it. In the old version, you only got at most 3 HP a day plus whatever extra cure spells your divine casters had leftover at the end of the day. On top of that, at higher levels, your casters may not be able to fully recover their spells slots (since you needed 8 hours of rest plus 10 min per spell level of study/prayer after you rest), due to random encounters coming in and the need to press on. In such a system, the random encounters work in the wilderness the same as they do in a dungeon – a way to reduce resources and make players think about how much more they want to press their luck before turning around. In 5e, players can come close to nova (or nova) in basically every hex battle since they know they only will have at most 3 fights before they can get a long rest, and its not a big deal to short rest between each fight. I have been considering using the optional rules for longer rest during a hex crawl, so that players have to martial resources more.

    • says:

      Yes, the way hit points work in 5E does change things a lot!

    • alphastream says:

      They will have to deal with the limit on how many hit dice they regain every long rest. On a long trek that could add up.

      At the same time, I didn’t have a ton of fun with the AD&D model. Turning back to town was consistently a big let down and it didn’t feel in our control. It was seldom about how we did… it was pure luck that the DM rolled up something insane and our big plans to go defeat the evil was instead a quick trip back to town after an unusually large pack of wolves caught our scent. Fun? Nope.

      I favor today’s plot-centric approach. The heroes want to get to their destination, and they want to feel like the jungle is cool, dangerous, interesting. As a DM, I want to feel that way too. I don’t worry about using up their resources unless they want a gritty campaign. When we are playing Dark Sun, we want that, so we use encounters that sap resources (sandstorm will destroy their supplies… it’s just a question of how many!) and threaten their survival (no food or water… what will you do when you reach what looks to be an oasis, but probably isn’t?). ToA doesn’t strike me as a campaign where it’s fun to have to turn back. Most DMs aren’t even sure of how to make the travel interesting and are short-cutting it (which is a bit of a shame), and probably aren’t looking to have one trip take 3 tries.

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