Although it is presented as a continuous adventure, Tomb of Annihilation feels like it has more in common with the next-most recent Dungeons & Dragons book, Tales from the Yawning Portal. The second half of that book had some high-level blast-from-the-past ‘killer dungeons’ and Tomb on Annihilation is centered around a killer dungeon of its own (indeed, the central dungeon in Tomb of Annihilation is inspired in parts by Tomb of Horrors, which was the highest-level dungeon presented in Tales from the Yawning Portal). Although the Tomb of the Nine Gods (the name of the dungeon itself differs from the title of the book) is not a complete meatgrinder in the way that those classics are, I think my proviso from that discussion applies here – the Tomb of the Nine Gods is good at what it does, but not everyone is going to think that what it does is very pretty.
The Quick Take: There is more to Tomb of Annihilation than the Tomb of the Nine Gods, but I’m pretty sure that opinions of the book overall will rise or fall based on opinions of the Tomb of the Nine Gods (there is a reason, I think, that Tomb of Annihilation is described as an adventure, not a campaign). The tomb is about exploration and puzzle-solving and trapfinding and a willingness to have your character replaced mid-stream because of bad rolls or because your group just couldn’t figure out that clue in time. If that is an appealing idea, I think you’ll enjoy the Tomb of the Nine Gods (and maybe some of the prefatory material). The Tomb of the Nine Gods covers 65 pages, so it is a big dungeon (and that doesn’t count things like monster stat blocks and treasure descriptions that are tucked in an appendix). It’s a rough ride, but it often actually gives the characters a chance to figure out how to avoid the worst (maybe not a great chance, but a chance). Its layout is not a senseless series of traps, but a more organic whole, with a thematic tie-in and functional elements (don’t get me wrong, part of the purpose of the dungeon is to kill people, so there will be plenty of murderous traps, there are just other things going on as well). So, while the idea of Tomb of Annihilation is not for everyone, I think it will be a blast for the people it’s for.
If you’re a potential player, not a potential DM, you may wish to refrain from reading further.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
The Tomb of the Nine Gods draws on the Tomb of Horrors for inspiration, although it goes way beyond that classic. This can be seen right before the players even enter the tomb proper, as it has the same false entrance shenanigans as the original. Also like the original, it was constructed by the archlich Acererak for the purpose of drawing in and killing adventurers. However, while the Tomb of Horrors was pretty much a pure meatgrinder (you go in looking for treasure, you die a lot, rinse, repeat), the Tomb of the Nine Gods has more plot and flavor and player-thought involved.
The tomb is there to do more than just kill random adventurers, it also houses an artifact that has shut down all resurrection magic worldwide and is in the process of killing anyone who has ever been brought back to life. The souls drawn to the artifact are consumed by an atropal who will, in time, become a god that owes its existence to Acererak. The PCs enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods with the purpose of destroying this abomination.
The tomb is also really the tomb of nine gods – or, at least, the tomb of nine potent spirits who once pretended to be gods. Each has its own individual tomb, where it will attempt to inhabit one of the PCs. Each of these spirits has a distinct personality, and will provide guidance to the character at designated points in the Tomb (although this guidance may not always be helpful). They have a history and rivalries, and their story is the biggest part of what gives structure to the Tomb (the other part is that there are elements of the Tomb that are clearly part of the care and upkeep of the structure, so the PCs may end up navigating some parts of the dungeon from ‘behind the scenes’). Being inhabited by a spirit is also pretty much necessary to be able to survive the final confrontation at the end of the Tomb, so PCs probably shouldn’t get too excited if they manage to resist being inhabited.
There are also a lot of tests and encounters where the characters are given some information and the possibility of figuring out the right way to handle the situation. Not that these clues provide anything resembling a certainty that the PCs will figure things out, but there’s at least a chance. Don’t worry, there are still some save-or-get-smacked-around situations, and some sheer guesswork, but the players are given a bit more agency than in the classic.
The Tomb of Nine Gods is also just much, much bigger than the Tomb of Horrors. The Tomb of Horrors, as recreated in Tales of the Yawning Portal (so the same rule set, graphic design, etc. as the Tomb of the Nine Gods) is 16 pages with 22 locations. The Tomb of the Nine Gods stretches 81 locations over 65 pages.
While Tomb of the Nine Gods is much longer than Tomb of Horrors, it is less of a meatgrinder on a room-for-room basis. As noted above, there are actual clues that might help the PCs avoid disaster. But there are also fewer instant death situations. That isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t plenty brutal consequences. Characters will routinely get whacked for 40+ damage when they mess up (and there are traps that deal 100+). Solving one puzzle requires maiming a character. Characters may get effectively removed by teleportation traps. Some situations are not instant death, but will result in death if the characters can’t figure the way out in a certain number of rounds. So there’s still a good reason for that section of the adventure on how to introduce new characters in the middle of the dungeon.
Additionally, the Tomb of the Nine Gods is not linear in the way a lot of dungeons are. It’s entirely possible for the PCs to go from the (real) entrance to almost the end of the dungeon almost immediately. However, in order to go that last step, the characters will have to explore almost the entire dungeon. Passing into the last area requires five keys, which are not at fixed locations. Rather, there is one per level of the dungeon, and each level has multiple possible locations for the key – and the key is, of course, in whichever one of those possible locations the characters explore last. This isn’t the only ‘you have to collect all of the items in order to pass’ situations.
What sort of puzzles and dangers will the characters face across this dungeon? Some of them include:
- figuring out object placement based on knowledge of the nine spirits;
- situations where the right thing is to do absolutely nothing while staring at a blank wall and the equivalent of a big red button;
- being teleported inside of a locked chest;
- attempting to calm the spirit of a young girl so that she doesn’t panic and attack (here’s an example of one of the clues, which at the entrance of the tomb tells the characters to “speak no truth to the doomed child” – the girl panics if she realizes that she’s dead and all that’s left of her is a skull, so the characters have to lie to her about the situation);
- a wind tunnel complete with spinning blades;
- a different puzzle that requires characters to volunteer to get stuck in trapped chests;
- seemingly sealed rooms filling with wine;
- visual sensors that the characters can cover up to stop enemies or traps;
- a dangerous, permeable wall that can be bypassed if the characters can figure out that they need to be holding a certain object;
- multiple rotating crawlspaces and rooms;
- a special peephole that will enable one character to guide another across a trapped floor;
- floating platforms to jump across;
- several situations where the characters have to pantomime actions depicted in imagery in the tomb (including the aforementioned maiming, where the character has to remove half an arm in order to achieve the proper pose);
- an invisible beholder that the characters will really wish they didn’t have to deal with;
- bribing statues;
- a series of elemental-themed rooms that will kill if the puzzle isn’t solved, with the character teleported from one to the next in succession;
- a series of shape-themed puzzle rooms;
- needing to stay very, very quiet;
- the cover and the dice set aren’t lying to you – at one point there is a sphere of annihilation in a face on the wall;
- a mirror of life trapping (and inhabitants to deal with);
- a cursed necklace of fireballs (big bada-boom);
- a rolling stone ball of doom;
- invisible doors;
- levels that change their function after pulled;
- a control panel with various buttons and levers;
- an epic confrontation with the not-yet-death god … and then Acererak himself
- a whole lot of pit traps and poison gas.
But what about the material outside of the Tomb of the Nine Gods? Unfortunately, a lot of it is difficult to use in this context. Tomb of Annihilation bills itself as being for levels 1-11, but the Tomb of the Nine Gods is for levels 9-11. There’s general hanging around Chult for levels 1-6, getting the first eight keys to the tomb in a lost city from levels 5-8, and then the more involved effort to get #9 from levels 7-9. The first six levels are, in this context, basically throw-away. From a story standpoint, there’s really no reason why first-level characters would be engaged for this sort of epic quest. The exploration of Chult is fairly removed from the Tomb – you just have to find the lost city at some point. There isn’t something like a lot of story build-up as the characters level up that then pays off in and after the Tomb (if you want that, go check out Curse of the Crimson Throne). On top of that, with a tag of levels 1-6, the DM can’t let the characters just wander around Chult anyway – it will requires a lot of advance work and shepherding to keep lower-level characters alive. And even if you did develop wonderful, rich story for the early levels, there’s a good chance it will come to an end once the Tomb proper is entered, given the relative lethality. I would be inclined to reduce this part of the adventure to one distinct session of “finding and getting to the lost city,” then one in the city, one dealing with the yuan-ti to get the final key, and then into the Tomb (starting at level six and handing out one level each for the search, city, and yuan-ti stronghold). One could theoretically get rid of the lead-up entirely, as the most significant aspect of the adventure to get to the tomb is to lay the thematic history of the place, which could simply be done through pre-game exposition. After all, there’s a good chance that quite a few characters will need to be replaced during the Tomb of the Nine Gods anyway. But that thematic history is important for in the Tomb of the Nine Gods, so it cannot be skipped, and exploring the lost city is a much better way to introduce it.
So, as I mentioned in the quick take up at the start, Tomb of Annihilation is a particular sort of adventure, and the Tomb of the Nine Gods is really the heart of it. If your group is interested in that sort of adventure (and you don’t mind buying a book where you might be inclined to ignore most of the 75 or so pages that cover levels 1-6), I think Tomb of Annihilation will be a blast for your group.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.