Tag Archives: Out of the Abyss

Tomb of Annihilation (2017): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 9

Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11.

Chris Perkins approach to adventure design seems to start with a collision of classic influences. Out of the Abyss mixes the Underdark with Alice In Wonderland. Storm King’s Thunder crosses Gary Gygax’s classic giant modules with King Lear. And Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them.

The story lands characters in tropical jungle land of Chult, a place with dinosaurs, volcanoes, pirates, and, well, frost giants. The players work to stop a world-spanning curse that blocks resurrection magic and wastes away anyone who returned from the dead.

“By far and away the ‘best bit’ of Tomb of Annihilation is the inclusion of some of the most fantastic and exotic locations seen in fifth edition so far,” writes Simon Yule for Geek Dad. “Most of these are stumbled upon as the party explores the thick jungles of Chult. They include the giant mud shrine at Dungrunglung, home of the frog-like grungs; the epic 300-foot-tall spire of Firefinger, patrolled by ferocious Pterafolk; the floating cave the Heart of Ubtao, complete with lich and zombie gorilla monsters; and the carnivorous garden of Nangalore.”

J.R. Zambrano from Bell of Lost Souls writes, “There’s a sense of adventure that pervades each of the book’s 5 Chapters. Everywhere you turn, there’s a cool location or a unique NPC or some sequence of events that makes you excited to get out there and play.”

Part of that flavor stems from the best, most evocative art of any D&D book. Pictures depicting the Port Nyanzaru street scene, the flametongue-wielding, snake-tailed villain Ras Nsi, and especially the overgrown first level of the tomb all make unforgettable calls to adventure.

The players’ quest leads to lost city, and then a multi-level deathtrap created by Acererak, the architect of the Tomb of Horrors. “Careful thinking, genuine puzzle-solving skills, and thorough trial-and-error exploration is something players will need to get through it all,” Jonbolds explains for Critical-Hits. “The dungeon beneath the city is a living environment with awesome links between areas requiring strategy and tactics from the players to overcome.”

Shawn Ellsworth reviewed the adventure for Tribality. “This is my favorite adventure to come out for this edition of D&D. Many of my favorite adventures have my players exploring deadly wilderness, searching ancient ruins full of puzzles and traps, and battling some mysterious lost people. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, and Tomb Raider, this adventure brings a real pulp adventure feel to Dungeons & Dragons.”

“From beginning to end, this is a masterclass in adventure building,” writes J.R. Zambrano. “Tomb of Annihilation takes players into the forgotten lands of Chult and really brings it to life. If I had to pick the one thing this book does best: it captures the character of the setting.”

Next: Number 8.

Start at 10

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

How to Start a Sandbox Campaign

Dungeons & Dragons players don’t love sandbox adventures as much as they think, but such adventures can still offer fun. After I took aim at sandbox adventures, some dungeon masters running thriving open-world campaigns offered counterpoints. Michael S has run such a campaign for 9 years, outlasting the West Marches campaign that inspired him by 7 years.

Sandboxes can work. This post and my next will reveal the secrets. Once you read all these requirements, you may decide a fully-realized sandbox demands more time and energy than you can spare. Michael’s “crazy” world uses a database just to track NPCs and a “big” wiki for bookkeeping. (Of course, rather than filling your sandbox in advance, you can cheat. More on that next time.)

The hardcover adventures published for 5th edition have all tried to include some of the freedom of sandbox adventures. None of the hardcovers check all the requirements on this list. If the hardcovers proved frustrating to run, the missing requirements explain why. If they played fine for you, then you, as a good DM, improvised and reworked to fill in the gaps. You may have enjoyed the extra effort or, like me, you may have done it reluctantly. I have a D&D blog to write.

The sandbox archetype casts characters as explorers on the verge of a unmapped frontier, perhaps the shore of The Isle of Dread or descending from the Yawning Portal into the Undermountain megadungeon. When Out of the Abyss stranded the party in the Underdark, the hardcover followed the exploration model. The authors of the other hardcover adventures touted sandbox-like design, which ranged from player-led tours of the Sword Coast to simply including dungeons that could be visited in different orders.

My advice starts with this exploration model in mind, but these requirements apply to campaigns that stray from the prototype.

Set long-term aims

In the sandbox archetype, players start with a incomplete hex map like the ones in The Isle of Dread or Tomb of Annihilation and explore to fill the blanks. Such games can become unsatisfying grinds. The Angry GM explains, “The only rewarding part of the exploration is when you actually find anything. And the vast majority of the hexes have nothing to find. There is nothing interesting about yet another forest of hexes. And random encounters—dinosaurs waiting to jump out of the forest and kill you—are interesting, but they are the painful, dangerous kind of interesting. That’s not a reward.

The 5E hardcovers all avoid this pitfall by setting a campaign objective from the start. In Tomb of Annihilation, players seek the source of a world-spanning curse. In Out of the Abyss, players explore to find an escape from the Underdark. The other adventures reveal some overarching menace in the opening scene.

Most players want to aim for an ultimate campaign goal. Throughout the game, they want clear options that take them closer to achieving their long-term aim. In Curse of Strahd, the players start far from defeating Strahd, but they can explore Barovia and gather the magic items they will need.

Not every campaign leads to some ultimate villain. Instead, for instance, a party could aim to find a lost heir and put her on the throne.

D&D adventures either set an ultimate goal for characters or assume they quest for treasure. (An adventure that omits any goal becomes a campaign setting.) Players seldom mind adopting a goal so long as they get to do D&D things like collecting treasure and smiting evil. When I ran Murder in Balder’s Gate though, my players rebelled. The adventure assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. My Murder In Baldur’s Gate became something entirely different from the book.

If you introduce a long-term aim before character generation, your players can craft characters tied to a chosen aim. For example, Princes of the Apocalypse suggested players tie their character to an adventure-specific hook.

In a homebrew campaign, you start with the players’ characters and invent a long-term aim just for them. Perhaps a someone wants to play a member of a hiding royal family. Who can say how close she is to the lost heir?

Give enough information to start

Imagine a party shipwrecked on the coast of a lost continent. If they know nothing, they can only trudge inland and explore aimlessly. Perhaps a wandering monster will interrupt the drudgery.

Robert Conley’s Bat in the Attic blog focuses on sandbox play. He writes, “Picking one of the six surrounding blank hexes is not a choice with meaning. So work on the initial situation so that it is interesting and give the players enough information to make some valid decision of what to do.

If that shipwrecked party has an explorer’s letter, a ciphered treasure map, rumors a lost city on a plateau, and so on, then the group knows enough to plot a course. Once you tie the lore into the characters’ goals, the clues will inspire action. Remember though, if you give one player a clue, they might not share it. Spread any secrets that you need players to share.

You can also launch a sandbox with a conventional adventure that starts with a patron in a bar. No one said your campaign requires a consistent model.

Out of the Abyss launched the characters’ explorations by pairing them with Underdark natives to serve as guides. See The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide.

Next: Running a sandbox campaign

The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game session fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. To me, the practice seemed dodgy. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world Mary Sues let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot at pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

Lately, I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet other several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but now they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom boy.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds.

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. He reminds players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide reveals more power than than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.