Sunday, May 17, 2020

Death in Chult

It's been a few weeks since we checked in on my Tomb of Annihilation game, and what the players have been doing.  The short answer - they've been dying!  The game is 5E, so character death is much rarer than OSR games, especially when the group is 9th and 10th level.  Despite us playing 5E, they managed to get two founding members killed last week.

The Tomb of the Nine Gods (the erstwhile Tomb of Annihilation) is a creation of the lich Acererak, with green devil faces and all the Acererak stuff you'd expect.  Hidden somewhere in the tomb is a corrupt relic that's causing a "death curse" in the Forgotten Realms.  The campaign has seen the players explore a massive jungle hex crawl, a ruined city deep in the jungle, and now a trap-filled dungeon, seeking the source of the death curse.  The 3rd level of the tomb, where our action occurred, also happens to be the lair of a Beholder, "Belchorzh the Unseen".

Many of the walls across level 3 are covered in purple mold, which can sprout small eyeballs to watch the adventurers... or zap them with an eye ray if they try and destroy the mold.  It's similar to a "lair effect" for the beholder.  As the players carefully made their way across level 3, defeating puzzles and traps, fighting the tomb's guardians, the beholder was there, watching from the purple mold eyeballs.  When they collected the 10 "eye gems" needed to unlock the vault door to the beholder's lair, it knew their personalities and capabilities well.

Belchorzh lairs in a 50' diameter vaulted room, with a 50' domed ceiling overhead.  The polished, reflective marble of the floor was treated to be like ice, causing unlucky characters to slip and fall.  The beholder had another unfair environmental factor, a floating metal sphere (6' across) with a powerful magnetic effect that sucked all metal-wearing characters to stick to the sphere.  The magnetic field also caused missiles to veer off-kilter, making ranged attacks against the beholder suffer disadvantage.

Besides it's eye rays and anti-magic cone, the beholder also had the gift of invisibility.  He is called Belchorzh the Unseen, after all.  Acererak had granted the beholder a permanent invisibility effect with a wish spell; dispelling the invisibility was not a guarantee unless the players got lucky.

Tracking an invisible flying monster, that can move 3 dimensional, is challenging, but managing the beholder's tactics is compounded by needing to consider the cone of anti-magic out of it's main eye, which nullifies it's own eye rays.  I developed a notation for the beholder's turns of tracking which clock setting the beholder was closest, where it was looking (for purposes of the anti-magic) and it's current elevation, in case of area attacks.  In this way I could leave the beholder off the field of battle while it was undetected and invisible, but still track it's location in case someone got lucky with an area attack, like a fireball.  As a rule, the beholder would suppress part of the group with it's anti-magic cone, leave some character's unaffected, and then assault the characters outside of the anti-magic zone with eye rays.

Two of the heavy hitters (the warlock Osric and the dwarf cleric, Stompy) both got stuck to the magnet ball, which the beholder levitated up the ceiling on a future turn with its telekinesis power, putting them out of the way.  Because it never looked up with the anti-magic cone, they were good targets for random eye rays, and the dwarf would have been killed by a death ray if not for wearing a "death ward" spell.  As the beholder used eye rays, the players could triangulate it's position for area fire and place it in a vicinity, even if they couldn't see it.

A beholder laying the smackdown

After a session and a half of battling the beholder, the group suffered crippling losses and eventually made a run for it.  Reed, their halfling rogue, was disintegrated to a pile of dust; Emporo the Mighty, their fighter, was petrified and abandoned to his fate.  The other characters had been experiencing a wide range of deleterious effects, such as paralysis, sleep, and the worst - being charmed.  Beholders are no joke.

Here's a question for fellow referees - how much do you consider it the dungeon master's role to coach and train your table of players to play well?  I don't mean "in the moment", they need to make their own choices during tactical play, otherwise you're just playing the game for them.  But I'll give you an example of coaching - before we started this final chapter of the campaign, now going back a few months ago, I suggested they make it a habit to talk (as a group) about spell preparation whenever they finish a long rest - it encourages group problem solving and awareness of each other's capabilities.  Plus our two spell casters, the cleric and wizard, are both casual players and could use the help with spell selection from the power gamers.  I insinuated that a trap-filled puzzle dungeon requires different planning considerations than a combat-heavy dungeon crawl; they should reconsider detection spells, locate object, dispel magic, and similar utility spells.  "What got you here won't get you there", as they say; the game is changing.  It's one of the truly great or terrible things about Tomb of Annihilation; the different campaign arcs require different stylistic approaches to succeed, providing distinct arcs and experiences. Hex crawling wilderness travel doesn't prepare you for Tomb of Horrors style misdirection and stakes.

Their first blunder in the beholder's lair was not having (enough) dispel magic on hand.  The warlock had it prepared, but he used his first spell slot to summon an elemental, and he failed his dispel magic roll on his one shot to dispel the invisibility.  The cleric, wizard, and sorceror could offer nothing, and were punished for it - they couldn't deactivate the magnet ball, save their friends from charm spells, or deal with the beholder's invisibility, which even limited the use of their spell repertoires.  You can't magic missile something you can't see.

There were other issues with their all around play, too.  Several characters had access to at-will magic abilities that could let them identify if they were in or out of the anti-magic field just by checking if their items were working - simple stuff, like making their magic weapon glow.  Some of the casters sacrificed spells trying to cast while standing in the anti-magic zone and watching their effect fizzle.  The fighter forgot he was an expert bowman for part of the night.  The metal-armored guys could have cut the straps on their armor to escape the metal magnet globe, or tried to destroy it (especially the dwarf cleric, who wields a non-metal staff of striking).

Despite bad tactics and a poor plan, they still escaped with only two deaths out of six players, and the beholder was down to less than 30 hit points when they finally fled; it had been offering them terms of surrender in the lead up to their departure.  You'd expect a beholder to "own" a party of unprepared characters, so if there's one silver lining, it reiterated that even mid=level 5E can be deadly if the player aren't on top of their game.

We arranged new level 9 characters for the fallen, and inserted them into the dungeon as survivors of an earlier excursion, lost in the mirror dimension (a copy of the tomb accessible on level 2).  Having had enough of invisible beholders, the party rested far away from the beholder's lair, and completely bypassed level 3 on their next trip down.  When we pick up with the next game report, it will be with their explorations on level 4.

Back to the topic of coaching, though, last week's session triggered me to reflect on the role of referee as "good gameplay teacher".  I believe we have an obligation, particularly early in a campaign and with new players, to make sure they understand the rules and their character options.  Friendly reminders of overlooked abilities are appropriate, at the start of a session, for instance.  The reminder that they collaborate on spell selection and planning is of that nature.  Beyond that, however, we have to be willing to let player choice and the dice dictate the outcomes, untroubled by DM interventions.  Our stories of Belchorzh the Unseen, the beholder that bested them and from whom they barely escaped, will be better for it.  Sadly I don't think Tomb of Annihilation is that popular with the typical 5E crowd, they seem to want the heavily plotted adventure path type scenarios.  They're perplexed by how to run a wide-open sandbox game.  It's a pity, because it'd be interesting to read more game reports on how players fared with Belchorzh.


  1. I think that adventures should offer a learning curve. Low-level parts are the tutorial stages where players are taught the ropes of the genre or scenario. In that regard, I guess you’re right about ToA that the hexcrawl doesn’t prepare the players well enough for the tomb. Sly Flourish has a few posts about that genre shift as well.

  2. We are just finishing up our ToA game that has been running for two years now. We are currently opening the five locks on the green door in the Sewn Sisters' room. I'm expecting trouble on the other side!

    We got trounced by that beholder, who attacked us by surprise. Our cleric got petrified and we had no way of restoring her, so the player rolled up a new character (which is interesting because her old PC is not technically dead!). We fled without even landing a single blow on the beholder. It didn't really seem like there was much to be gained by risking that fight.

  3. My group is really enjoying ToA, although I think we are all pretty old school in background. After this I am planning to run Curse of Strahd for the same group (the DM of ToA becoming a player), and I think that campaign is also more of an open sandbox, although more of a roleplaying one than a hex and dungeon crawl.

  4. In play, I don't offer even rudimentary advice. I will correct mistakes - like the guy who wrongly took too-high of a "to hit" penalty or the guy who miscounts range or distance of movement. But otherwise, if you choose to do things ineffectively or inefficiently, that's on you. I'll ask confirmation questions if they're doing something really odd - like taking an identical path through an ambush-filled area they'd passed before, etc. but I don't insist.

    Between sessions, I'll offer advice on how to leverage what they have, I'm happy to discuss with the players things to do. I've sent them page references of rules information to read, and suggested ways to organize themselves better. But in general, I don't offer that much. I want them to learn by doing, and I'll only point out things that I feel like you can't get elsewhere except from the GM's mouth. The current game I play is so non-linear it doesn't matter if you lose a few PCs making mistakes.

  5. Another possibility is to have NPC's offer their words of wisdom ... "there war' six o' us that entered the Tomb ... you're lookin' at all what survived. Five mighty warriors, cut down by evil ... it not be fair, the way they fight in the Tomb. Nay, I'll not be goin' back, and from the looks of ye, none of you will be comin' back, neither." Give as much advice as you want, and make it as accurate or inaccurate as you want :)

  6. Hey! I played in a ToA game for 5e. It's been fun and the bloody invisible beholder fight was a particularly lethal and memorable one for our group too. Due to a bit of friendly fire from a misplaced fireball and the incredible danger of that thing's rays we lost two companions to disintegration and some other effect. I couldn't quite manage to save either one in time as the defacto party healer (the only one with cure light wounds). We did manage to barely slay the beast though. I'm honestly shocked that was our only casualties in the game thus far or since! Especially considering we got way over our heads infiltrating the Snakeman base and then fighting Ras'nsi and nearly had a TPK. I personally really like ToA and I think our DM does too, but nearly all of the group is pretty new to D&D and felt pretty lost when it came to traps and puzzles which were everywhere. All of them built characters for pure combat (or RP) excepting me (a Artificer and resident trap-wrangler) so it was a bit of an expectation shift for sure. I can't wait to punch Acerak in his skeletal face when we make it to the final battle coming up.

    I hope this post makes it's way to you.

  7. The beholder fight was a highlight for my group. We have only three adventurers: a ranger, wizard, and bard (you know you are in trouble when a bard is your tank). I run the bard, and immediately cast Faerie Fire to illuminate the monster after shrugging off a charm ray. My Find Greater Steed took my never-dry inkpot (loot from an earlier level of the tomb) in the same turn and doused the beholder with ink, eliminating the value of his invisibility even after I face-tanked a disintegrate ray and dropped concentration on faerie fire.
    Due to a mishap with the deck of many things earlier in the campaign my PC was a vampire with a cloak of invisibility (drew eight cards from the deck and survived!) And so it became a cat and mouse came of trying to find the invisible, wall running vampire with the anti magic field to nuke him before he regenerated which freed up the wizard to burn down the beholder with magic while the ranger pincushioned it and my griffon continued to douse it with ink, shutting down some of its eye stalks as they were inked over. Eventually I was able to dive from the ceiling and grapple and life drain it with my bite and it died. Very fun encounter.
    We get around the difference in player skill by having my PC (I will admit to being a big time power gamer) having to yell instructions in game to someone instead of just it happening at the table. Since he relies heavily on invisibility to survive, and that negates his stealth, it adds a fun dynamic to the theme of these rookie adventurers following an ancient vampire on a mission into the tomb of nine gods. And we couldn't retreat because I hadn't eaten in a full day and it was drain the beholder or drain one of them!