Monday, September 2, 2019

Tomb of Annihilation is an Old School Delight

I'm 12 sessions into running the 5E Tomb of Annihilation campaign and enjoying it greatly.  Depending on the day, I'd place it as the best or second best hardcover campaign published for fifth edition (Curse of Strahd competes with it).  Why do I rate it so highly?  Let's explore.

The campaign is a sprawling jungle hex crawl covering a large island/peninsula, sprinkled with ruined cities and adventure sites, with a capstone consisting of an epic dungeon.  It's an amalgam of several classic adventure modules from the 1st edition days, Tomb of Horrors, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and perhaps thematic nods towards The Isle of Dread.  There's an overarching plot about discovering the location of a corrupt relic and stopping it's baleful influence.  How the players prosecute the campaign to find the relic is extremely open ended.

As a game master who prefers old school styles of play, Tomb of Annihilation has been very satisfying.  The players have launched multiple excursions by river into the foreboding jungle, deftly guiding canoes up sluggish rivers through the oppressive heat of Chult.  They've had to manage resources (food, tents, insect repellents, and especially clean water) while dealing with hungry predators, packs of undead, and jungle-born disease.  The campaign caters to gaming styles where good planning and time management are important.

The wilderness encounters don't care about character level, nor do I advise scaling them down; it's not uncommon for low-level characters to discover locales or meet creatures that over-match them, shifting it to the players to respond accordingly and play smart - another throwback to earlier styles of gaming that test player skill.  (Though I will say, 5E characters are quite resilient and powerful).

Record-keeping behind the screen has been important.  I've leveraged calendars, procedural generators for encounters and weather, and helper tables to keep the action crisp.  I'll embellish them in a follow up post.  From the player's side, they've created a lot of "standard procedures" to speed play - what a standard camp looks like, what jobs the characters perform to set up camp, how they prepare enough water each day, and the overnight watch schedule.  We've also used the encumbrance rules (laughingly, they are listed as "optional" in the PHB) so that any overland excursion through the jungle drives tough choices.  Food and water is heavy.  Heavy armor is a liability in the jungle.

Wizards published an alternate experience approach called "Three Pillars"; I've been using that exclusively for this campaign.  5E "by the book" rewards combat only, although more and more the game seems to be shifting towards "milestone leveling" which is basically "level up because I said so".  The "Three Pillars" approach rewards exploration and recovering treasure, along with combat and winning important social victories.  It ties in better with a holistic experience.  I'm not deluded into thinking that any experience system isn’t flawed and arbitrary; I just don't think the 5E default assumptions support XP for gold the way I'd like.

I've been doing a ton of game mastering, both for the home campaign and some "Adventurer's League" at a local game store, so I plan to get back to semi-regular blogging. It seems the blogging landscape has changed quite a bit.  No more G+, so it's not clear where old schoolers hang out to discuss games.  Don't I need to turn in my OSR card now that I'm pretty much a 5E gamer, anyway?  Otherwise life has been good, the kids are all teenagers, my career is doing well.  I've missed talking about gaming. 

12 comments:

  1. Cool. Good to see that you're blogging again 😀

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  2. I tried to do the whole 'Resource management thing' when running Storm Kings Thunder but after the early levels their magical resources, Create Food and Water, Leomunds Tiny Hut, etc, etc, completely trivialised it and I stopped bothering.

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    1. I completely with you agree that 5E characters can trivialize the resource management as they level up. I'm viewing it this way: there would be no contrast between the low levels, where they've had to manage food, water, and disease carefully, and their higher level abilities that minimize the impacts of travel, if they didn't have to deal with the low level issues to start. There's still a choice if they're going to preserve spell slots each day for things like Create Water or Tiny Hut (and deal with the consequences when they can't use magic).

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  3. Oh, also. Seconding nice to see you back.

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  4. Great to see you posting again! Yeah, lots got lost with g+. I miss a lot of people as well. I think a big part of them is hiding on Mewe, it's just not a replacement. Yet. But if you miss the mingling, it might be a good place to start :)

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  5. Are you using 3 pillar XP as published? I always wanted to tinker with the balance or ratios, or ran into bits I was unsure of...

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    1. I've been using "Three Pillars" as written. In practical experience, only about 20% of the XP (or less) is coming from social - things like convincing the Order of the Gauntlet not to conscript them, or dealing with various powerful factions exploring the dungeon. Exploration experience for discovery and treasure shines in Tomb of Annihilation. The split for me has been running 40/20/40, but I've been happy with it as a replacement to the defaults.

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  6. Yes! Write more about your gaming here!

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  7. We'll be reading along with whatever you write next dude. Good to see you back in action!

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  8. I noticed that Dungeon of the Mad Mage seemed to rely more on leveling up by benchmarks, rather than by monsters.

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  9. Welcome back! I was just referring back to some of your old Black City posts and am so glad to see that you're blogging again.

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