Saturday, January 25, 2020

Play Report of Descent to Avernus Chapter 1

I wrote a review of Descent into Avernus last fall when it came out, and I don't believe I was kind to it.  I recently finished running the first chapter, and my opinion remains unchanged.  The first chapter (which covers character levels 1-5) has problems.

It's fair to ask, if I knew it started as a train wreck, why would I run it?  Two reasons - player empowerment, and I'm still expecting the epic second half of the campaign, rumbling around hell on Mad Max infernal machines, will pay off as gaming bliss.  By empowerment, I gave my Adventurer's League regulars a list of the 5E Campaigns I owned, and they all voted on their top adventure choice - Descent into Avernus was the winner.  My players can all go to hell.  (That joke never gets old).

So what's egregious in Descent and how do we improve it?  The background is that the nearby city of Elturel has completely disappeared, and refugees have swarmed to Baldur's Gate.  Chapter 1 starts with a railroad-like press gang forcing the characters into the watch, which launches them into a series of scenes (picture a flow chart) that guides them from site to site until they claim a key MacGuffin (an infernal puzzle box).  Along the way, they learn that the city of Elturel has been dragged to hell, and the actions of the players avert a similar disaster happening to Baldur's Gate.

Once the players have the infernal puzzle box, they learn it can be opened by a sage in distant Candlekeep.  You have to hope the players are curious about the contents of the box, or make a "pretty please" style request from an NPC authority figure; there's not much "what's in it for me" for the players to go to Candlekeep.    The box holds an infernal contract which confirms their suspicions - Elturel is sitting in hell.  The sage offers to send the player characters to hell, too, just to check it out.  There's no discussion about whether the city can be saved, undoing the curse, or finding a way back to the world.  How do we get back?  "Good luck with that, maybe you'll find a way while you're in hell".

In hindsight, the player characters need starting motivations that predispose them to care deeply about Baldur's Gate and the missing Duke, Ulder Ravenguard, who was in Elturel when it got dragged under.  Knowing what I know now, I'd start a future version of this campaign with a session zero "social contract" conversation.  First, let everyone know this is an adventure path, so you're signing up to follow clues so you can experience the author's story - don't go off script, it's not a sandbox.  Second, your characters need to have intrinsic motivations - you are either deeply, personally loyal to a beloved noble in the city (the missing Duke Ravenguard), or you are strongly motivated by "doing the right thing at great personal cost".  This is a fine adventure for heroes and goodniks.  Mercenaries, rogues, and typical power hungry self-interested D&D characters, maybe not so much (but see Snake Plissken, below).  Adventure paths can work fine as long as everyone is on the same page at the outset and you set good expectations for the table.

In addition to starting with the right type of party, I'd also provide a stronger clue to the players that the beloved Duke is alive (once they find out he's in hell with the city).  Maybe some type of divination, Commune or Contact Other Plane, or similar lore-based magic can indicate the Duke is alive, so a rescue mission is not a blind shot in the dark.  The players should also have access to some kind of way back, so they're not undertaking a suicide mission.  I'd either give them a Plane Shift scroll, or have the arch mage that took them to hell promise to return them (even if he ditches them in hell, at least they agreed to go with a faint hope of return).  Getting back is never addressed in the book.  I'm a big fan of Escape from New York, doesn't Escape from Hell sound even better?  That's another way to level up your Descent into Avernus chapter one - once you realize it's going to be a "rescue the MacGuffin leader", get your players to channel their inner Snake Plissken:

You better hope I don't make it back.
Despite the plot issues, we did have fun.  There are murders happening in Baldur's Gate to start the game; I embellished the murder sites into ritual killings (like the zodiac killings, Manson murders, and Jack the Ripper all mixed together) and gave the players the opportunity to join the watch as deputies in order to find and stop the killers.  It was a more indirect way of getting them onto the clue path.  There's an opportunity to fight some pirates early on in a tavern; not only did they win the tavern fight, they scouted the pirate ship in the harbor and took it from the other pirates, too.  As they continued to follow the chapter 1 path, they fixed up the ship, hired a crew, and turned the ship into an ongoing base; it became a great source of engagement and running jokes.  Then when it became time to leave the city and go to Candlekeep, they set sail on their ship instead of leaving the city on foot.  Wind in your sails and sea spray off the bow - even a railroad is great fun when you get to blow the whistle, make choo choo sounds, and look out the window.

We're still going (every other Tuesday), I'll be back in a few months with observations on how the chapters in hell are turning out.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Can 5E Play Like an Old School Game?

Answer:  It can get most of the way there, but is the juice worth the squeeze?

I prefer to run site-based adventures like hex crawls and dungeons, and let the story of the game emerge organically from player choice.  The referee provides enough information or opportunities to get information that the players can boldly plan their own adventures.  You also need an experience system that's transparent, and a way of telegraphing danger and relative risk-reward so the players can make smart (or at least informed) choices.

This play style I just described is what pulled me back to 1st edition AD&D and away from 4E or even Pathfinder.  Along the way I discovered the OSR and games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Now I've spent the past year throwing myself exuberantly into 5E.

Since running the campaign Tomb of Annihilation for 25+ sessions now, I'm wondering whether the issue with 5E and the old school is more about the types of adventures being delivered, versus how much "system matters".  Tomb is very much an old school style campaign - a sprawling hex crawl filled with adventure sites and mini dungeons, followed by a ruined jungle city, a Yuan-Ti dungeon lair, and a multi-level high level dungeon.  It's certainly proof positive that an old school site-based adventure works under New D&D.

That all being said, there are some issues with 5E that curtail it's ability to be an apples to apples replacement for an OSR game; there are pinch points where system does matter.  Here are my observations:

As a whole, 5E "seems" less lethal.  It's no joke that 1E Magic Users can be killed by a house cat and a good roll.  Healing is freely available through short rests, total healing happens each long rest, and several classes have healing capabilities within combat.  Furthermore, many Save or Die monster effects have been softened.

That all being said, I've had a fair amount of deaths in Tomb of Annihilation, and we haven't gotten to the hard part yet.  Plus, it seems like the referee can either toughen the monsters, or apply a simple house rule like "gain a level of exhaustion each time a character drops to zero hit points" to make the 5E hit point Yo-Yo more challenging

Combat Duration
Combats in 5E are typically long and intricate.  Hit points are inflated, which reduces some variance.  Monsters stick around long enough to use their cool tricks because they have more hit points... but they do stick around, extending battles.  We play 3 hours per week, and usually only get in 1-2 real combat per game, maybe a third if it's a wandering monster or simple challenge.  Adventurer's League is a little better, with 4 hour sessions.

Combat duration is probably the biggest hurdle to wanting to run a 5E-style megadungeon or large dungeon.  I'd love to hear observations from readers who have tried running one.  For instance, has anyone run the Dungeon of the Mad Mage?  Please drop a comment how it's going.  At 2-3 combats per game session, it seems like it would take forever to explore large dungeon levels - or the ideal 5E dungeon level should be smaller?  Potentially a GP=XP rule would give players reasons to avoid fights.

Resource Management
I've seen a lot of comments that 5E undermines resource management.  It's true that many classes have light cantrips (obviating the need for torches).  It's unlikely that torches and lanterns will be the party's primary light if you don't house rule anything.  For out Tomb of Annihilation campaign, managing food, water, insect repellent, and weight, was a huge issue for the first few character levels.  The players were constantly hiring porters to help haul stuff (and then struggled to keep them alive in the monster-filled jungles of Chult).  As the players leveled up, some of the resource issues lifted - for instance, when the cleric gained the ability to Create Water, life became a little simpler as left over spell slots each day got converted into fresh water.

My experience was there's enough resource management in 5E, and it starts to fall away naturally after it's served it's purpose.  Referees just need to use the rules that exist.  Note:  encumbrance is technically an "optional" rule, so I guess there's that.

Gold for XP
5E should've had formal rules for GP = XP.  Not only does it directly support site-based exploration play, it naturally creates resource management challenges (hauling treasure back to town).  After my lost post, I now think it's not too hard to house rule the XP approach and  keep the existing XP tables intact.  I'd make domain ownership part of any such campaign as there needs to be some meaningful things to do with character wealth.

Player Skill or Character Skill
Isn't there a meme where a little girl asks "why not both?"

The Darkvision Problem
I've complained about how many non-human mutant races are in the game.  It is the Mos Eisley Cantina level of weirdness out there, friends.  But it's easy enough to create a human-centric campaign world and establish campaign reasons why there aren't a lot of screwball mutants running around.

I'm a little more chill about Darkvision once I learned (by reading the rules) that it only lets the user see a gray-scale and dim version of the world (which gives disadvantage on finding all the things adventurers care about, like secrets and traps).  I haven't had a party yet rely on Darkvision for exploration once I pointed out how the rules work.

Anyway, those are the "problems" I've seen with 5E.  After talking through them, it seems they're mostly easy to resolve other than the length of combat.  That particular topic warrants further discussion - there are variables like the pace of leveling, the XP system, how many encounters should players deal with before leveling, how big should a dungeon level be, how much ground should a party cover in an evening, that kind of stuff.  All important questions for home-brewing adventures , building dungeons, and running games.  I'm sure smarter people than me have trod this ground.  I'll see what I can find.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

5E: Make Treasure Great Again

I like point-based experience systems.  Viewing it in terms of indicators, they're both predictive and performance measurements, leading and lagging.  They work best in a game setting where the players have enough information to make meaningful choices about the level or risk they want to undertake.  "We're only level 2, but last week we found the stairs down to dungeon level 3.  Should we try it out?  We may score a lot of experience".  There does need to be a story side to the game, too, to supplement the gaming side of play.  There should be quests and story-based reasons to explore the aforementioned level 2 or level 3 that provide additional enjoyment.  This combination of enabling player choice and story rationale is the alchemy that made old-school gaming fun.

Last post I railed against milestones and 5E's default approach to point-based experience, which is based on combat victories.  Treasure is a more elegant measure because it opens up a greater range of player options and tactics than kick in the door, fight the monster, loot the bodies.  (Although I do love me some Munchkin).  Several commenters asked why not try treasure as the point-system for 5E, and some also pointed to online resources where folks have tried it out.  As a thought experiment I decided to take a look at treasure for XP for the Fifth and see what implications it could have for a campaign. Spoiler:  I think it can be fairly workable!  Thank you for the ideas internet amigos.

Some Wealth Comparisons
One of the issues with treasure in older editions is the exorbitant wealth that player characters bring back to civilization, straining credulity.  I did a comparison of expected money for an old school game versus a 5E game sometime ago (old school to 5E treasure comparison), the old school party will accumulate some 3 million gold pieces in value by 10th level (600,000 gp per character).  By comparison, a 5E party using "horde-based treasures" from the DMG will only have only gained about 20,000 gp per person.  That's no small difference, and underlines how "cash poor" 5E characters are compared to the expectations of other editions (or said another way, how bonkers was the gold expectations of 1E and BX).

How about if we were to substitute XP for Gold for your 5E game?  Cumulative experience requirements for a party of 5 to reach 10th level is in the neighborhood of 425k experience (425,000), so that corresponds more or less to 425,000 gold.  On the one hand, that's a lot less "money" than the 3 million required for your BX characters to reach level 10.  It floods your 5E game with a bit more money than the modest 20,000 gp a single 10th level character is expected to accumulate.  Poor Adventurer's League characters get hardly any money at all - the 10th level "Season 9" character will officially only have 1,760gp.

I put these in a simple chart for comparisons and highlighted level 10:

The big take away for me:  Converting 5E to use a GP-based experience system represents an increase in character wealth, but it's should be more manageable in-game than the equivalent wealth (millions of gold pieces) an old school party will recover.  So let's assume your 10th level party now has 400-500,000 gold pieces.  How can they reasonably spend their money?

Spending the Money
Old editions provided several "money sinks" for wealth that ensured characters donned their armor, hoisted their backpack, and trudged once more into the dungeon or wilderness.  The cash outlets were stronghold construction, magic item purchase, training costs, and taxation.  Let's see how these fare under the Fifth.

Strongholds are covered in the DMG.  A small keep or castle costs 50,000gp, a large one can cost up to 500k.  Monthly upkeep ranges from 3k per month up to 12k per month !!!  Plus there's the potential need for standing armies.  Considering a single level 10 PC will have 80-100,000gp, they'll have enough money to establish and staff their own stronghold.  As long as the referee is willing to have a consequential domain-level side game, strongholds will take a big chunk of player cash.   (Ideally you'd also have some kind of land income to offset the maintenance and upkeep costs, and potentially fund standing armies.  Dust off the ACKS or BECMI Companion Rules).

Matt Colville's book (Strongholds and Followers) is a little friendlier for mid-level characters to get started with strongholds, with costs down in the 6-10,000gp range for starter models.  Players can embellish their strongholds over time up to that 50,000gp range.  After recently running Dragonheist and seeing how much lower level characters enjoyed having their own place (Trollskull Manor), I submit 5E referees should encourage more of this style of play as part of "downtime".

Magic Item EconomyXanathar's Guide to Everything included suggested costs to buy and sell magic items for 5E - by popular demand, I presume.  Here are a few sample costs of items, ranging from uncommon up to legendary (costs shown are the max for that category):

  • Bag of Holding (U) - 600gp
  • Boots of Speed (R) - 10,000gp
  • Flying Carpet (VR) - 50,000gp
  • Cloak of Invisibility (L) - 150,000gp

5E is notoriously strict on magic item disbursement compared to older editions, and I've seen many online discussions scoff at the notion of making magic items for sale.  I'm not sure buying magic items is the "campaign wrecker" of the accusations.  I would not put a 24-hour Ye Olde Magic Shoppe on the village corner.  But couldn't there be an exclusive auction in distant Byzantium or far Carthago where rare and sundries are sold for exorbitant prices, reached after a long journey?  How about the local lord who is losing the manor due to misfortune and needs to forfeit an heirloom that was enchanted in a gentler age?  (Even Sam stole his family's Valyrian sword to fund his stay with the Maesters in Old Town, GOT fans).  Maybe the Collegium of Wizards takes commissions and puts students to work on long term enchantment projects to offset tuition (plus they'd require the players to collect any dangerous ingredients their item required).  The point is, I'm sure there are discrete and narrative-friendly ways to allow occasional buying and selling of rare objects without devolving into 4E's residuum and shopping trips to the Magic-Mart.

I don't think I'd implement training as a requirement for leveling up, 1E style.  Players hated it as much as being taxed to oblivion.  (With apologies to Gary). Since we're only dealing with a hundred thousand extra gold pieces, and not several million gold, I don't think we need to pursue such extreme measures.  But you can have the characters tithe 10% to the local church, as it's good for them (even in D&D).

Let's not forget living expenses from the PHB.  Before the players have those strongholds, living comfortably costs about 60gp per month for food and board.  It all adds up.

A Proposal
Older editions assumed 75% or 80% of a character's advancement came from treasure XP, the rest was from monsters.  These are easy to calculate numbers if the referee still wants to award some experience for defeating monsters; you'd just divide the monster XP by 4 or by 5 respectively.  In this way, you can seed your campaign setting with treasures - guarded by monsters, guarded by traps, forgotten and hidden, where ever you want to put it, and separate treasure XP and monster XP close to the earlier games.

A procedure for stocking a level would go something like this - using the experience table above, you'll see that a party of 5 needs 3,000 XP to go from level 2 to level 3 (600xp per character times 5 = 3,000xp).  You'd build your dungeon with enough encounter experience to provide the 3,000 XP worth of combat challenges (monsters).  Ideally, you'd include more monsters than required, and assume some wandering monsters, too.  You can disregard "game balance" concerns for encounter building, because the XP system no longer mandates that the players engage and win every combat to advance - fleeing and avoiding combat are now sound options that don't penalize advancement.  After stocking monsters, you'd then populate the dungeon level with enough treasure to deliver 3,000 XP or close to it.  When it comes time to award experience points, the treasure points are worth 1GP = 1XP, but the defeated monsters are 1/5 Monster XP = 1XP.

This shifts wandering monsters from a windfall of extra experience back to being a low value irritant.  In old school games they are to be avoided.  By minimizing the experience you get from combat, fighting in general returns to being a sub-optimal use of the player's time from an advancement perspective, and we get back to more of that Sword & Sorcery or picaresque vibe of the old school.

I no longer think it'll be hard to switch over to a treasure-based XP system and be worried about the implications; I just needed to run the numbers and reflect on whether there are meaningful opportunities to spend money.  It looks to me like it will work.  If I'm being dangerously naive, please let me know in the comments.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

5E's Biggest Fail: Experience and Advancement. (And a Poll)

Character advancement has been an underlying objective in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning.  The players maneuver their characters on adventures, they accumulate "experience points", and the characters gain levels and become more powerful.  It's a strong incentive model and a big part of D&D's enduring appeal.  Regardless of the "story" elements present in any individual campaign, character advancement is a default goal that informs the action at the table.  Unfortunately, the experience system is the weakest part of Fifth Edition and my least favorite thing in the new edition.

Traditional D&D awarded experience points primarily for treasure, with a fraction of the experience awarded for defeating monsters.  Depending on the edition, 75% or 80% of the player's experience was gained by recovering treasure.  "Treasure as XP" had profound implications for how players and referees approached old school D&D games.  Dungeon Masters established their campaigns to involve significant exploration, with dungeons, lairs, and hex crawls as popular structures for organizing campaign information and presenting challenges to the players.  (We use the term sandbox play to describe this overall method of presenting a ready-made setting seeded with adventure opportunities; in the video game realm I've seen the term "open world").

The sandbox approach has implications for the players.  Information is their currency to proactively plan their adventures, balancing the perceived risk and reward and making choices regarding which opportunities to pursue.  As players cleared lairs and dungeons, their characters earn experience points by successfully returning to town with treasure.  Treasure is an easy-to-use abstraction for keeping score, since it it's assumed the players explored, overcame traps, used their magic, and outsmarted or defeated monsters through combat or stealth in order to win the day.  Treasure provides transparency that enables player planning.  D&D is a game, after all.

Fast forward to 5E.  I've seen it affectionately called a "nostalgia edition", but the experience system actually hinders the type of game play I described.  By the book, 5E only incentives players to fight and kill monsters, gaining experience solely through combat.  Whereas old school D&D rewarded smart play through exploration and planning, 5E rewards killing everything in sight. Sneaking, stealth, and carefully avoiding fights is actively discouraged by the advancement system.  It is not generally in the player's interest to avoid combats.  Why is "kill them all, let god sort them out" style of gaming the default?

Alternatively, many referees have adopted an arbitrary approach called "milestone experience" (and since I've been running some of the official hardcover adventures in Adventurer's League, I've become a reluctant co-conspirator in the milestone travesty).  Milestone experience is somewhere between a "participation award" for showing up, and outright manipulation - do what I want you to do, little puppets, and I'll give you your cookie.

The reason this topic is important is I'm trying to figure out how I want to move forward with developing homebrew adventures in the land of the 5th.  The lure of returning to proper OSR games is strong.  But 5E is the game system my local players enjoy; they play it at conventions, they own the books, they like the powerful PC's and the unusual races.  There's a crazy number of people that play at the local Adventurer's League nights in the area.  I don't know if my readers are OSR people or 5E people or somewhere in between, but the popularity of "New Dungeons & Dragons" is through the roof.  These are all good reasons to stay the course and figure out how to bend, fold, and mutilate 5E to support a more satisfying play experience.  I honestly don't think of myself as one of those "get off my lawn damn kids" grognard types, clinging to the old ways like a reactionary 1950's apologist, but maybe there is an actual generational thing at work regarding my antipathy towards storytelling and milestones - newer gamers may not mind being told what to do and how to conform to someone else's plan.

I've done some poking around, it doesn't look like any internet brethren have made a good way to replicate treasure as experience points and implemented an old school style sandbox with the 5E; there are some tries.  I believe the vitriol driving this screed is that I'm not terribly interested in rewriting the experience system; the game as written should support the styles of play that made D&D amazing.  Complaining and then claiming to be too lazy to do anything about is not a good look, granted.  I own my turpitude.

Of the 10 or so published adventures, a few of them do present open worlds built on a hex crawl or megadungeon premise.  They expect the players to kill everything in sight.  For instance, Dungeon of the Mad Mage provides just enough experience for a party of four (four!) to advance if they clear the entire level.  Picture a group of "heroes" tromping through the dungeon corridors like The Terminator, blasting monsters from behind.  Suffer not an orc to live.  Wipe them out, all of them.  Exterminate.

Nonetheless, in the next post I'll take a look at the 5E sandbox books (Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and discuss their approaches to XP.  Maybe it's not as bleak as I'm presenting and I need to embrace the ultraviolence.  I've been using an unofficial XP system for my Chult game called "Three Pillars" (from Unearthed Arcana), so I'll talk about how that's been going, too.

In the meantime, I am curious - if you stop by the blog from time to time, do you play 5E or older versions of The Game?  I've posted a poll on the right - let me know!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Checking in with Chult

It's been a few months since I mentioned my weekly home game, playing through Tomb of Annihilation with the old guard.  The players are just finishing their exploration of the Forbidden City, Omu, so it's a good time to check in.  By way of reminder, Tomb of Annihilation is loosely divided into 4 exploration arcs.  The first arc is a hex crawl across the continent of Chult, trying to find the Forbidden City.  The second arc is exploring the sprawling, ruined jungle city itself.  The third arc is infiltrating a Yuan-Ti dungeon beneath the city, the Fane of the Night Serpent.  The final arc is the assault on the Tomb of Annihilation, one of Acererak's death trap dungeons.

As the game has shifted to Omu, the danger curve has gotten more intense, and we've lost several player characters and NPC's.  The ruined city sits at the bottom of a rift valley, overgrown with jungle vegetation and partially flooded.  The characters are not the first explorers to find the city; the Red Wizards of Thay have a force there, and the players can discover the remains of an earlier adventuring camp.  Between Red Wizard stragglers, ruined camps, and city graffiti, they learn the "game" of the ruined city is to explore various shrines, survive the gauntlets within, and emerge with puzzle cubes which will ultimately grant access to Acererak's hidden tomb.  There are nine cubes, and it becomes a race between the players and the Red Wizards to collect all of them.  A showdown is inevitable.  Meanwhile, the ruined jungle city is home turf for the Yuan-Ti.  The blend of lush jungle, exotic diseases and giant insects, dinosaurs, murderous Yuan-Ti, and scheming evil wizards has made the Omu chapter great fun.  Plus each shrine contains a small trap or puzzle that's offered different challenges than a wilderness hexcrawl, forcing the players to flex new mental muscles.  Great stuff all around.

One of the party's magic users died during a Yuan-Ti ambush.  A fighter (Josh) was killed in one of the shrines by a clay gladiator in a brutal pit fight.  Their guide was swallowed whole by a Froghemoth and eaten, muhahaha.  Their two NPC sailors, Flotsam and Jetsom, who traveled inland with the party from the coast (acting as porters and camp keepers) were frozen alive by a Cone of Cold when the surviving Red Wizards scryed the party's encampment and attacked. Orvex, a survivor they found in the city, was impaled in a shrine.  With this kind of death toll it's like we're not even playing 5E!

Here are the surviving characters:  Stompy, a forge priest dwarf cleric (level 7); Prism, an evoker wizard (level 6); Osric, a hexblade warlock and their "tank" (level 7); Woodson, an Aasimar sorceror (level 8); Reed, halfling rogue (level 8); Emporo the Mighty, fighter sidekick (level 7).

We've stopped worrying as much about supplies and book-keeping.  The characters and their henchmen hauled enough rations and supplies to the ruined city to last several weeks, and the cleric can generate enough fresh water each day with remaining spell slots to keep everyone hydrated.  Once you get past levels 5-6 the available magic off-sets many logistical issues.  I've had to remind them of time pressure to resist the "five minute workday" syndrome.  The guys have played well, though; they used a Commune with Nature scroll early on to map out several places of interest in the ruins, so they didn't need to slog building by building.  They tried aerial reconaissance but flocks of gargoyles overlooking the rift valley made that a bad idea.  The step increase in difficulty in Omu has forced them to develop cohesive tactics and better planning.

We try to play every Sunday night, 7-10pm, and I keep a notebook for experience totals and a session log - we just finished session 25.  The jungle hex crawl portion of Chult lasted sessions 1 - 17, with several trips back to the port city, tussles with pirates, and a long ocean jaunt to the south of the continent.  Omu has covered sessions 18 to 25.  At this point, the players have vanquished the Red Wizards and hold 8 of the 9 puzzle cubes; they know the Yuan-Ti are holding the last puzzle cube in the Fane of the Night Serpent, so I expect them to plan their assault on the Yuan-Ti next session.  I expect the Yuan-Ti dungeon will only be a few sessions, and then it will be on to the large dungeon that concludes the campaign.

Overall this one's been really good.  Tomb of Annihilation starts a little bumpy in chapter 1; I can see newer players feeling a bit overwhelmed by choice when starting a hex crawl.  For an exotic locale with storied cultures, I would've also liked to see more Chultans involved in the adventure; they're mostly limited to Port Nyanzaru.  There are some "colonization themes" in the setting a referee can emphasize if they want that dynamic in the game; the Flaming Fist make good continental villains and bullies.  But those are quibbles; Tomb of Annihilation has been great fun, and joins Curse of Strahd as an excellent 5E adventure that supports a classic D&D experience.  I'm hoping to start the 5E Undermountain (Dungeon of the Mad Mage) this winter with Adventurer's League to round out the old school homages.  In the meantime, Happy New Year everyone, and feel free to ask me anything.