Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tomb of the Nine Gods - Game Reports for Levels 1 and 2

It's been a couple of months since we checked in on my weekly home game, using the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover campaign.  Previous installments are here (Tomb of Annihilation).  This is WOTC's best published campaign, full stop, especially if you grew up playing 70's and 80's D&D.  This campaign is a giant sandbox, pure and simple.  There are some overarching objectives, but how the characters get there is up to the players.  My guys ended up as privateers at one point, sailing around Chult and hunting pirates!  Overall, WOTC has done a nice job of writing most of their hardcover campaigns to feature open world sandbox adventures - Princes of the Apocalypse, Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and Tomb of Annihilation are all open structures, while Tales of the Yawning Portal and Ghosts of Saltmarsh feature reprints of classic dungeons (many from the AD&D catalog).  I'd just like to see a Greyhawk Sourcebook, please.

The Tomb of the Nine Gods is the capstone dungeon for the campaign.  It's a sprawling death trap dungeon filled with puzzles and traps (6 levels, covering 80 or so rooms).  There were 9 "trickster gods" slain by Acererak, each representing a different alignment, and their crypts are scattered throughout the dungeon.  Each crypt is basically a heist, with puzzles and traps.  When the characters succeed in opening a sarcophagus of a trickster god, they gain a useful magic item, and the character has a chance of being possessed by the trickster spirit, which then goads them to try and act in accordance with the spirit's alignment.  It's created interesting roleplaying, as some of the good aligned characters are hosting evil spirits, and frequently admonishing the spirits that "my mind is now your prison and I will never give in to your evil urges".  We've got at least one Lawful Good spirit in the mind of an evil character, "Ew, your mind is like a bathroom that's never been cleaned.  I can't unsee what you're thinking", and there are couple of character/spirits that are well-paired with each other.  From time to time, the spirits also pass useful information or lore on to their hosts.

We've played 7 sessions in the Tomb so far, covering dungeon levels 1 and 2 (sessions 28-34 of our overall campaign).  It's slow going, but not a slog.  Most rooms have the potential to be very deadly, and a few can be actual TPK's, so the players are being cautious and doing a lot of planning.  One thing I've noticed is that many of the Save or Die type effects have been replaced with "save, or take massive damage" - like 75-100 hit points types of damage.  Plus if you die, many of the traps have a secondary effect - the character is chopped in half, or disintegrated completely.  Because the over-arching campaign revolves around a "Death Curse" that has deactivated Raise Dead effects worldwide, dying in the Tomb is effectively perma-death anyway.  Not even Revivify, a common 3rd level spell to pull someone back from death's door, works in this campaign.  Death's stick.

It's no surprise the players trod slowly and carefully.  I'm expecting the campaign to take a few more months, ending somewhere between sessions 45-50, after a year of play.  Good value returned for a hard back book.

One thing the campaign has improved is my ability to drop innocuous verbal cues in descriptions to foreshadow traps, secret doors, and similar concealed structures.  There are many important rooms hidden on each level and it's easy for the players to devolve into "pixel bitching", the art of searching every 10' square for hidden stuff, at a snail's pace.  I'd much rather describe a scuff mark on the floor (where a secret door rotates out) or a discolored mark (where a hidden trap crushed a previous victim) as part of a broader description, and let the players sift through what's meaningful (if they're paying attention to cues).

Enough preamble, here's our cast of characters and then on to the highlights:

Cast of Characters

  • Stompy, a forge priest dwarf cleric (level 8).  His catch phrase is "Thems good eating!", such as after facing a dinosaur.
  • Woodson, an Aasimar sorceror (level 9).  He's good at one thing - burning stuff.
  • Reed, halfling rogue (level 9).  Their no-nonsense scout.
  • Osric, a hexblade warlock and their "tank" (level 9).  The party's megalomaniac conqueror.
  • Emporo the Mighty, fighter sidekick (level 9).  The super competent sidekick (if Osric is Dr Venture, Emporo is Brock Samson).
  • Prism, an evoker wizard (level 8). Was once a Wizard of Thay, now support Osric's schemes.

Level 1 - Rotten Halls
The entrance to the tomb is in the north of the ruined city.  There's a false entrance and a hidden real entrance.  The jungle surface has invaded the first level, draping the walls in vines and dappling the floor with sunlight; the traps include walls of darts and spiked pits that make it feel like an Indiana Jones excursion.  The crypts on this level were fairly easy for the group to navigate; the hazards were manageable, and there were several battles with the undead.  The most difficult death trap involved getting past an adamantine fan, into a room that required a character to enter a box in order to turn a key-nob that can only be turned when the box is closed; closing the box and turning the nob inflicted a terrible effect on the character.  Woodson went into the first and second box (wearing a Death Ward spell) which kept him from disintegrating after taking lethal damage in the black box.  Osric dealt with the final box by summoning a minor demon and compelling it close the lid and turn the nob for him.  Since that experience, the characters have been leaning hard on Death Ward.

Misty Step has helped the magical characters get out of harm's way several times, but apparently Dimension Door is prohibited.  The one time Reed activated his Cloak of the Mountebank to bypass a hazard with Dimension Door, he landed in a horrible oubliette piled 6' deep in corpses.  The real horror began when a tentacled monstrosity, an Otyugh, stalked him through the filth.  Reed had to evade the monster's groping tentacles by hiding beneath a corpse, using it as a shield, and scooting carefully towards one of the ubiquitous "green devil faces" on the wall using the corpse as moving cover (he called it his "Walking Dead" maneuver).  He pulled a lever in the green devil face, which created a vacuum, sucking all the contents of the room into the devil face's mouth (to be disintegrated by a sphere of annihilation).  This got rid of the Otyugh, but Reed had to succeed at 6 consecutive saving throws to avoid getting pulled into oblivion by clinging to the outside of the devil face.  After a minute or so, the suction ended and he was able to flip a second lever, which teleported him out of the room trap.  The players have learned through trial and error certain magical effects are denied by the power of the tomb.

The layout of the tomb is easily navigable, with a 50' wide spiral staircase surrounding an open vault that descends across the top four levels of the tomb.  In addition, there are hidden stairs up and down that can be found, there are pits that allow descent between levels, and even a waterfall down to level 5.  It's a well-designed layout with lots of interaction and mobility.  The players sent a flying familiar down the vault to begin scouting the other levels and the bottom of the shaft - t least until it was shot by an undead dwarf with a crossbow down on one of the lower levels.

In addition to running into "tomb dwarves", undead workers with green devil masks, they also ran into "tomb guardians", misshapen flesh golems in heavy plate armor and bucket helmets ("Gregor Cleganes").

Level 2 - Dungeon of Deception
An interesting features on level 2 is a gravity ring - a looping passage that makes a complete vertical circle.  As the players walk the circle, they inadvertently enter a demi-plane where a mirror copy of the tomb exists, used for testing new traps.  At first, the players didn't realize they were in a mirror tomb, but when they did figure it out they realized it could be used to "practice" defeating the puzzles and traps of the crypts before doing it for keeps in the real world.  Along the way, a few of the characters attuned to a magic item that cursed them with turning into man-goats.  Lots of bah-bah-bad jokes incoming.  Stompy and Prism are both furry goat-man hybrids now.

One of our entertaining bits was when the players stumbled into a workshop area where the tomb dwarves assembled new tomb guardians.  They ran into "Withers", an undead wizard tasked by Acererak with keeping the traps running.  Withers thought of himself as the "branch manager" in charge of guest services.  I love megadungeons, or in this case a large dungeon, that account for maintenance and expansion of the environs.  Withers viewed himself as responsible for presenting an entertaining experience for the "guests".  When the players stumbled into his office, he asked enthusiastically about their exploits - which traps and hazards were harrowing, which ones were too easy, if they ran into the owner would they be leaving a good review?  Of course he admonished them for straying into the "employee-only area", and that he'd be forced to notify the owner if they didn't comply with guest policy and return to the guest areas.  Alas poor Withers, he may be Acererak's employee of the year, but they ended up killing him anyway.

Next up, they'll be exploring level 3.  The past two weeks of gaming online (via Zoom) have worked out well for us.  Hopefully you've given it a try with your own gaming groups as we all stay indoors.

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