Saturday, September 28, 2019

Assault on Chult

Note:  the map below has spoilers

My home campaign is 15 sessions into the player's assault on Chult (the Tomb of Annihilation campaign).  I'm estimating we're a third of the way through the campaign, about to finish the first of three campaign arcs.  The first arc is exploring the jungles of Chult, and trying to identify the locale of the Forbidden City.  The second arc is exploration of the Forbidden City itself and learning how to open the lost tomb.  The final arc is exploration of the tomb itself.

I'm not going to do detailed campaign recaps, as we're already 15 sessions in.  I'll do a survey of the player's progress with exposition on tips and referee choices that have worked out well for us.

The most important suggestion I have for starting a new Chult game is to adjust the urgency of the "Death Curse".  By the book, the campaign starts in the Chultan city of Port Nyanzaru under pressure to find a corrupt relic lost in the jungles.  The relic is affecting the whole world; Raise Dead and similar clerical magic has stopped working.  People brought back via Raise Dead or Resurrection are dying.  Both effects together are being labeled "The Death Curse".  The character's patron, a retired adventurer and recipient of a Raise Dead, is dying, and hires the characters to find the source of the Death Curse (quickly).  They are one of several similarly hired adventuring parties.

The problem is that Chult is a sprawling hex crawl with many interesting side quests and adventure opportunities.  Perkins and the WOTC team created a great hex crawl.  But if the players are under too much immediate pressure due to the Death Curse countdown, they'll focus solely on the Forbidden City, missing out on a lot of the fun discovering lost ruins in the jungle.  I bifurcated the effects of the Death Curse; the corrupt relic starts the game blocking souls from Raise Dead and Resurrection.  It's important to find the source of the curse, but the player's patron isn't dying by the minute.  I marked a time on the calendar (60 days) where the corrupt relic has absorbed enough souls from the recently dead that it's ability evolves, and begins to leech once-dead souls brought back via Raise Read or Resurrection.  It gives the players a more relaxed entry point into exploration of Chult, while setting a countdown later when the relic begins unraveling recipients of Raise Dead and providing a time clock when it's appropriate.

Expedition 1 (Right of Map)
The first arc starts in Port Nyanzaru, a frontier city squatting on the edge of the foreboding jungle, nestled between sluggish jungle rivers.  The players hire a guide, buy equipment, and set off on their first forays into the jungles of Chult.

My advice:  first, use the encumbrance rules (a "variant rule" in the player's handbook) and let the players know you'll be enforcing rules around heat exhaustion, daily water intake, and the difficulties of logistics in the jungles.  There is a fair amount of bookkeeping during this phase, creating inventories of food, bug repellent, tents and camping gear, canoes, and developing hex crawl "standard operating procedures" such as how to set up camp, daily jobs, canoe assignments, night watch schedules, etc.  Once they have all of this in place, the hex crawl procedures run smoothly.

I get the sense many modern referees ignore encumbrance and requiring the players to plan.  My players learned to hate and respect the jungle - the storms, the oppressive heat, the difficulty of bushwhacking overland and having to leave behind things like armor because carrying food and water was more important.  Plus the presence of dinosaurs and bands of undead, the remnants of an ancient army.  "I hate the jungle" became a running theme with the party's paladin, forced to leave behind heavy armor in order to hack through vine-choked jungle on 10 mile marches.  5E's encounters typically challenges the characters, but table top planning challenges the players.  Now that the characters are reaching mid-levels, they appreciate the way they can avoid the worst of the jungle because their wealth or class abilities afford them better options.

Their first expeditions (sessions 1-4) took them to a place on the map called Firefinger and then back to the city, moving from levels 1-3.

Expedition 2 (Center)
After their first major expedition, they spent more time in the city looking for rumors and learned about a storied oracle at Orolunga that might provide a clue to the resting place of the corrupt relic.  On this expedition, they went with more canoes and hired local porters, so they'd have hirelings to carry extra food and water (and potentially lug armor and other heavy gear).

I worked in themes from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now on this river trip, with distance equating to regression into horror for those that didn't respect the jungle, culminating in their visit to Camp Vengeance, where the paladins and crusaders of the Order of the Gauntlet were on the verge of madness (and the commander, Niles Breakbone, was my own Colonel Kurtz).  There's also a fine DM's Guild adventure called Hunter, an homage to the Schwarzenegger movie Predator, that I worked in as a side-trek on this expedition.  I'll probably write a review, we enjoyed Hunter quite a bit.

This expedition also took the players on to M'Bala, and then out to Orolunga, where they did get insights on the corrupt relic and a locale for the Forbidden City (Omu).

I'm not a fan of the over-powered NPC characters that traipse around the Forgotten Realms, and Chult has it's own - the immortal Artus Cimber and his holy sword wielding sidekick, Dragonbait.  Artus, who went by the name "Sam", was encountered in Orolunga as a surly adventurer seeking his own answers from the oracle.  He and the players learned they may have a common goal, the defeat of a legendary jungle warlord Ras Nsi, but the two sides parted amidst mutual insults.  Later, the players ran into a hunting party of Zhentarim assassins on the trail of a wanted fugitive, Artus Cimber, and the players connected the dots between "Sam" and Artus.  Artus is now "in the game" in case I need a high level helper NPC at some point during the end game, but there's a bit of a rivalry so I don't feel obligated for them to team up because they're both "good guys".  He can act as a provocateur or rival.

The other recommendation from this arc was to threaten the hired help.  5E characters are notoriously tough to put down; my game still doesn't have a fatality, although we've come close several times.  NPC's don't have plot immunity and the guides and porters are critically important if you're running the hex crawl with encumbrance and logistics.  It's been great fun having monsters choose the easier targets and stressing the players about such important resources.

This expedition covered sessions 5 - 12, and saw most of the party hit levels 4 and 5 before returning to the city.

Expedition 3 (Ocean-based)
By this point, the players knew a lot about Chult and had many targets for their next journey.  However, the jungle ruins don't provide a lot of cash and their pouches were getting light.  They learned about a lucrative pirate hunting opportunity in the city dock ward, and hired a ship to go pirate hunting.  Drink up me hearties yo ho.  This allowed me to introduce the dragon turtle in the Bay of Chult, and we had a great time running an intricate ship-to-ship combat when they intercepted a pirate ship by trailing a loaded merchant vessel - the pirate ship was called "The Stirge" and they ultimately captured it and sailed it back to port to collect a heavy reward.  I also ran a pirate-themed lighthouse encounter from one of the DM's guild supplements, Encounters in Port Nyanzaru.  When all was done, the characters were flush with cash, owned their own sloop, hired a captain and quartermaster, and planned a long voyage to Shilku Bay to begin their trek to Omu, the Forbidden City.

My advice if you try something similar is to leverage the ocean voyage rules from Ghosts of Saltmarsh for 5E.  Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a nautical campaign, and the appendices cover detailed vehicle rules for ships, downtime on long voyages, sea hazards, ocean borne encounters, the works.  It's a great resource to put some nautical flair into your Chult game.  One of the Unearthed Arcana articles had additional ships (I think I got "sloop" from the UA article).  I have irrational love for pirate adventures.  The Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign is in my future, along with grog, sea shanties, and a bunch of pirate movies.  (In fact, I'm currently streaming Black Sails with my wife).

Expedition 4 (South)
When the characters set out for the south of Chult, they were loaded up for a long journey.  They used the wealth from pirate hunting to buy some magic items, many potions, and sufficient food and gear to stay in Omu several weeks.  Their patron had been tracking them via Dreams and Sendings magic; now they learned from her the Death Curse has entered a new phase, and recipients of Raise Dead that predated the Death Curse are beginning to unravel.  She's dying.  Suddenly there's a time clock!

Their new guide for the expedition is an albino jungle dwarf named "Musharib"; he waived his fee if the characters would help him explore Hrakhamar first, so they've been clearing that mini-dungeon - a dwarven forge overrun by Fire Newts.  They learned of the dragon in Wyrmheart Mine and plan to assault it next, then head for Omu and the next leg of the campaign.

I'll post another set of observations sometime after they've explored Omu and are entering the final arc, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.  Feel free to generate a discussion in the comments about your own Chult game and how things went by you, I'd love to hear it.


  1. I picked up ToA just to cannibalise it for ideas but your run through seems really fun - I'd love to see a Campaign Report if you ever felt like doing it.

    How did your players respond to your extensive jungle rules pre-game? How did you pitch it? Groups I've played with in the past always preferred a rules-light model for encumbrance and survival and some players found planning expeditions frustrating.

  2. My home group is dads and their sons, and we formed a decade ago playing 1E AD&D and OSR games. With old school roots, they know that dealing with logistics is part of the package. In 5E, it falls away quickly as characters get magic to offset the mundane travails of adventuring. For instance, even 1st level characters rarely need torches in a party with light cantrips.

    In Chult, though, I'd argue that referees who skip all the logistics do a disservice to the setting. The write up for Port Nyanzaru provides for players to buy rain catchers, canoes, bug repellant, and food; overland adventurers can buy pack-animal dinosaurs in lieu of canoes. Expedition planning is expected. It only took a little bit of time before their first journey to lay out all their hex crawl procedures so we could resolve travel quickly, and it's gone smoothly since.

    The most controversial thing I did was require encumbrance. The base rule says characters can carry strength x 15 all day long - it's beyond ridiculous. The encumbrance rules drop the limit to strength x 5. A 13 strength character can carry 65 lbs before being encumbered (versus mind-shattering default 195 lbs !!!).

    I'm not a pedantic realist, but anyone that's gone hiking with even a 40lb pack for a day knows how exhausting that can be.

    On the other hand, now the players really appreciate having a cleric that can make food and water with magic, and being able to zip around Chult in their cool ship. The payoff has been fine and offers a nice contrast with mid-levels. (BTW, nice handle, looking forward to next season of The Expanse! Or maybe you just like Cervantes)

    1. Both!

      I've recently moved and therefore changed groups. I had a strange experiment in wilderness survival with my old group who passionately argued that they wanted that and a West Marches style game but in play they bounced off it in favour of the more heroic games I'd ran before - always in 5e which perhaps effected things. I endeavoured to make the rules as simple as possible throughout : - I was quite strict on encumbrance but pack animals and hirelings were cheap to encourage they to bulk out their expeditions. Players were very prepared and seldom dared travel very far from base - they were very risk averse. Perhaps my mistake in that game was that everything they heard of the deep interior of The Gloom was terrifying and I needed something to tempt them out there.

      I haven't felt out the interest from the second group (it's a pirate themed campaign so travel occurs by ship) but I'll offer some 'map the uncharted island' style quests from NPCs to see if they bite at the idea of a jungle expedition.

      I go wild camping with my partner (ex-army) fairly often and my players do not believe me when I say how heavy 4 days of rations and a sleeping bag is. Or that you can need 5 litres + of water a day if you're hiking. And I'm not lugging chainmail or a spellbook and the wilder parts of Britain don't hold a candle to a jungle.

      I feel vanilla 5e totally rejects this pillar and I'm glad ToA did some work to expand on it.

    2. Players need information to make informed choices. It's unusual to expect to plunge blindly into the wilds. A big part of why Tomb of Annihilation works well as a hex crawl is the setting puts information into the player's hands at a good pace.

      For instance, the first guide the party hired wanted to retrieve an item from Firefinger; the guide knew how to get to M'bala, a place the party heard about, so the deal was struck: "You accompany me to Firefinger, then I guide you for free to M'Bala, so we can find Orolunga." They knew Orolunga was a place where they could consult an oracle. Both Firefinger and M'Bala are high altitude locales with commanding views, which open the next set of interesting destinations.

      To me it's essential that their are interesting locales right on the map, or places that are known about but only vaguely located (so they still count as a viable destination). Having several intriguing plot hooks out there keeps the hex crawl going.

  3. This was very interesting and helpful to read. I miss your game summaries - the way I write mine owes a great deal to the way you write yours.

  4. You are well ahead of the curve of the group I play in. We have been playing for about two years, spending every other week in Chult, and we are still in phase one. We have been obsessed with pirate hunting, starting a new settlement on M'Bala, and clearing both of the mines. Even with all of that, I feel like we are missing out on some much of what is there.

    We've had a druid and my ranger PC for most of the campaign, so some of the survival elements haven't been as pressing. I know that some find that spells like good berry "break" elements of the campaign but it has been a real trade off from my perspective. My more utility spell selection has resulted in my PC not being the strong combatant that rangers could be.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. One convincing criticism I've read regarding TOA is that Chult feels empty - there are too few locations and too big distances between them, so the sandbox feels boring. Haven't you encountered this problem in your campaign? I've also found random encounters provided quite bland, mostly just a list of monsters. Do you solve this by creating your own unique and meaningful random encounters or some other way (reaction rolls, tables of abstracts)?

    1. Tthaar, I had a recent post called "Techniques for Hex Crawling through Chult" that laid out my strategy to make Chult random encounters interesting. The key thing is to have good procedures. Ideally the referee has calculated weather, encounter chances, and so forth in advance (I use Excel and random number functions).

      The players should have standard procedures for marching order, camp, jobs to set up camp, watches, etc - no matter when an encounter happens, the referee can quickly adjudicate the action.

      I also spice up the local terrain and activities with my own random tables - it's not "jungle", it's a small clearing with several large fallen trees covered in moss blocking the path. That kind of thing.

      I guard against the sandbox getting boring by moving quickly through the daily procedures and keeping the encounters interesting. I also don't mind when the players are smart and avoid fights with sensible plans.

      Also see my reply to Rocinante on this thread - blind hex crawling is dull, the guides and people they meet need to be helping them with tales of destinations. Hope all this helps

  7. Thanks for the answer John! I've read the post and I will test this solution. For years I've been running plot-based campaigns and I guess sanbox improves a lot with GM's experience - especially important is the ability to "connect the dots" to build miniplots on the spot using available NPCs, locations, objects, monsters etc. Without that things get boring.

  8. Great read. I look forward to seeing more of this unfold.