Thursday, July 16, 2020

Setbacks in the Tomb of Annihilation

We're a year into our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, and the players are closing in on the final level of the actual Tomb of Annihilation (after previously exploring the jungles of Chult as a hexcrawl, and the ruins of the Forbidden City).  Past installments of the campaign reports are here (Tomb of Annihilation recaps).

Last update involved character deaths at the hands of a Beholder.  The Tomb isn't done with our heroes, and there is more death in today's update.  This update covers sessions 40 through 46 of the campaign, in which the intrepid characters plumb the level 4 "Chambers of Horror" and the level 5 "Gears of Hate".

First, some new faces appeared to replace the fallen.  Emporo was petrified by the Beholder (and ultimately disintegrated) and Reed the Halfing was also disintegrated.  Their respective players returned to the game with Vera, an inquisitive rogue, and Zook, a gnome trickster (rogue arcane trickster).  Vera in particular proved to be a godsend in the Tomb of Annihilation, with a ridiculous +12 or +13 perception score; her passive perception is high enough to notice most secret doors.  I let them start new characters at 9th level, the suggested minimum for the Tomb.  This rounds out our group, which includes survivors - Stompy (dwarf forge cleric), Osric (aasimar hexblade warlock), Woodson (aasimar sorcerer / celestial warlock), and Prisim (human evoker wizard).  By the end of these vignettes, most of the group is 10th and 11th level.

Rather than recount a dreary play-by-play of every session, here are recollections of some high and low points from the past two months.

Can I Get a Hand Here?
A section on level 4, Chambers of Horror, includes a maze of death.  To enter the maze, you raise your hand and mirror an otherworldly shadow figure etched on a stone block.  The block descends allowing passage into the maze.  When the trap at the heart of the maze triggers, the block raises and the party is sealed in.  The malign figure on the reverse side of the stone block also shows a raised arm, except the hand and forearm are missing.  Who would be willing to maim themself to mirror the figure on the block?

I'm getting ahead of myself.  First the party discovered the Opal Crown, a rare treasure at the heart of the maze.  The trap was sprung, and a pair of Bodaks slithered out of the mouth of a Green Devil Face, playing cat and mouse with the characters in the maze, allowing their death auras to whittle the party down at range.  Everyone avoided their deadly gazes and the Bodaks were destroyed.  It was at that point they discovered they were completely trapped.

The mouth of the Green Devil Face was a black void; they experimented and learned it acted like a Sphere of Annihilation.  Forlorn there was no other choice, Prisim volunteered to thrust his arm into the mouth, disintegrating it above the elbow and forcing them to bandage the stump.  Now he was able to mimic the figure on the stone block, maimed arm and all, and the block retreated, allowing the party to escape.

He's now the One-Armed Prisim.  No one escapes Acererak's Tomb unscathed.

The Saga of Woodson
In order to understand Woodson's plight, you need to know a bit about the 9 Trickster Gods.  They were 9 "false gods", actually just powerful jungle spirits, that masqueraded as gods to the citizens of Omu during its twilight years, before it fell and became the Forbidden City.  Each trickster is associated with a specific alignment and a totem animal.  They were slain by Acererak and imprisoned in his Tomb of Annihilation.

Each trickster's spirit inhabits a signature magic item where it lies imprisoned in the dungeon.  Picking up the magic item gives the spirit an opportunity to possess the person touching the item.  Once inside, the spirits coax their host into certain actions, and grant special abilities.  If a host touches another possessed item, the two tricksters fight for supremacy over the host.  Over the course of the campaign, all of the characters have managed to become hosts, in some cases gaining amazing abilities and acting symbiotically with their trickster spirit.  In other cases the alignments of spirit vs character are opposed; several of the good characters have been hosting evil spirits and treating their minds like a prison, suppressing the spirit's urges with grim resolve.  The trickster mechanic has been great for roleplaying opportunities.

Woodson had spent 9 months as a nervous, asthmatic, scholarly sorcerer lurking timidly in the back of the party.  He accidentally became the host to the bold and courageous spirit of Kubazan, whose totem animal is the mighty Froghemoth.  Now puny Woodson has strength 23, strong as a frost giant, and he leaps into the fray, "Get out of my way, weaklings".  "Let me get that door for you".  "Lift the heavy portcullis?  Don't mind if I do".  The other players have been calling him "the Hulkson".  To top it off, he gained a temporary charm that made him immune to sharp weapons for several days.

After traversing a dangerous elemental gauntlet and almost dying in a vacuum, Hulkson was teleported into a burial chamber where dozens of terracotta warrior statues silently observed a central tomb.  Pottery shards littered the floor.  Hulkson doesn't do stealth, nor any quiet magic.  You can picture him trying to take a careful step but crunching down on pottery shards, the noise echoing in the hollow chamber.  50 clay warriors came to life and assaulted him with hardened clay swords.  They should have massacred him.

Imagine Hulkson's glee to discover his charm made him impervious to their weapons.  Programmed only to attack and strike, the clay warriors swung with increasing futility while growing mounds of broken pottery shards piled up around Hulkson.  The scene ends with him practically moon-walking to the center of the tomb after wrecking everything in the room.  "That was awesome", remarked the other players.

Sometime after looting that particular tomb, the players were feeling their oats and yearned to revisit the Beholder on level 3 that dealt them such a great setback a few months ago.  They prepared methods to detect invisible monsters, as well as ways to alert them to the anti-magic field.  Osric now had True Seeing, too.  The Beholder would not bedevil them with its invisibility this time.  They also ditched their metal armors; it's giant magnetic ball wouldn't nullify their frontline fighters, either.

The battle was one-sided and quick.  The party slaughtered the Beholder in just a few rounds.  (What a difference a few levels of experience and a cohesive plan made!).  One of the treasures the Beholder claimed off the dead characters last time was the staff of Moa, the item of a trickster god.  The instant the fight was over, Hulkson's player called out, "Woohoo, I'm grabbing my staff of Moa again!"  (We all have a player like that, right?  I grab the magic sword before anyone else can react).  The problem is that Hulkson forgot that the Moa staff was actually inhabited by the spirit of Moa.  The hulking sorcerer thrust it into the air above his head, and then reacted in horror as the two trickster gods began to battle for supremacy.  Kubazan was driven out, and with it, the gift of frost giant strength was completely gone.  Hulkson was no more.  Wheezing 8 strength Woodson was left in his place.

Furthermore, Kubazan's receptacle was destroyed, disintegrated by the Beholder.  After being ejected from Woodson, the spirit had no place to return, and wailed as it went into the void.

Woodson's story eventually turns happy again.  He was able to coax the spirit of Shagambi to drive out Moa.  Shagambi grants an extra attack action, and with Woodson's ability to cast 3 eldritch bolts per attack (as level 11) this has become 6 bolts an attack with Shagambi's help.  He's gone from Woodson to Hulkson to the Machine Gun-son.  Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

(5E is a little nutty, more like a super hero game much of the time.  Dungeons and Vigilantes, or Villains and Dragons, one of my players calls it).

Mission Possible
The next level, Gears of Hate, has a very challenging layout.  Several of the rooms are pentagons with limited ways in and out.  However, the players noticed some of the hallways between the rooms have gaps in the sections, as if they were modular tunnels.  The players caught glimpses into a larger cavern outside the tunnel junctions where they didn't align perfectly.  They squeezed a familiar through the gap and into the surrounding cavern to fly around.  The pentagon rooms were sitting on giant gears, apparently floating on an underground lake in a vast cavern.  The lake stank of putrid slime, it's viscous water twinkling with strange phosphorescent globs.  From above, using the familiar as eyes, the party was able to see that there were other tunnel connections around the lake.  If the gears beneath the pentagons could be rotated, the rooms would re-align and grant access to new places on the dungeon level.  Eventually the players would find the control room, and through trial and error, begin to gain access to these unavailable tunnels by learning how to manipulate the position of the gears.

One of the more dangerous locations they discovered involved a long sloping hallway.  At the high end of the hall, a rolling Stone Juggernaut lurked behind a concealed wall.  Of course the players triggered the trap that released the rolling construct and got promptly flattened, although a few made it out into the side passage before being crushed.  Vera was able to roll aside as the juggernaut rolled past, and quickly looked up the slope where the juggernaut had been lurking.  A glorious spectacular jewel gleamed on a shelf in the juggernaut's hiding place. 

Vera sprinted to the top of the slope as the juggernaut rolled back into position, swiping the jewel, and then climbed up and out of reach before the juggernaut got her.  It was a cool bit of maneuvering, and earned the party the fabled Eye of Zaltec jewel.

Death of a Hero
One of the new areas they were able to reach after rotating the "gears of hate" was a trap room with a golden mastodon.  The room was an homage to a Chultan hero who had harried Hell itself.  When the trap was triggered, the room sealed shut, hellfire raced across the floor, and the players were assaulted by escalating waves of devils - starting with spiny devils, then bearded and barbed.  The fight started to feel desperate when a pair of horned devils joined the fray, topped off by the Erinyes.

Several of the characters discovered they could fight from the back of the giant mastodon statue, and avoid the hellfire on the floor.  Stompy, the cleric, had a gift (from his trickster god) that let him walk on walls and ceilings; he cast an aura spell called "Spirit Guardians" to damage the devils, and one of the wizard characters made him invisible so the devils couldn't disrupt his concentration.  In this way, he could wander the walls invisibly, positioning himself above the hellfire, while inflicting maximum damage with the spirit guardians effect.

The party was holding their own until the horned demons materialized.  They are fearsome, over-sized enforcers. the Malebranches, and the devils quickly started dropping characters to zero hit points, threatening to make them fall off the back of the mastodon and immolate in the surging hellfire on the ground.  Other characters would use their reactions to grab their fallen comrades before they slid into the flames.  Several characters were beginning to do the 5E yo-yo, dropping to zero hit points and unconsciousness, then healing and back into the fight, but the party was being ground down by the devilish onslaught.

That was when the erinyes made an offer.  "Hello boys, you're all going to die, but we could make a deal.  One of you could give up your soul, and I could call this whole thing off".  A gruff voice called out from nearby, where the invisible dwarf had positioned himself near the big devils.  "I'll do it, lassie, to save my friends".

And that's how Stompy the Dwarf died.

Full disclosure, Stompy's player, Mike, is about to move, and needs to miss the next 4 weeks of the game anyway.  It was clear we were headed for a near-TPK or full on TPK if nothing changed in the devil fight.  So he made a rational calculation; by the time he's ready to return to gaming, the Tomb of Annihilation will be done or wrapping up and we'll be off to the next thing anyway.  He sacrificed Stompy so the rest could live.

In the aftermath of the devil battle, the players took stock of the party composition without their cleric, and how they'd manage healing without their cleric.  It all seemed manageable until they considered rations.  Food and water.  Stompy had been reserving a daily Level 3 Create Food and Water to supply the party for as long as they could remember, their walking commissary.  "Exactly how many days of rations do we have left?"  One.  Without Stompy, the party has enough food for one day.  They get one more "long rest" to finish the Tomb of Annihilation, and then they begin starving.  Next week should be interesting.


  1. I lost my ranger's animal companion (a velociraptor) to that golden mastodon. Four of us went in, knowing that two of us had Dimension Door and could get the rest of us out. Tragically, I forgot that the little dinosaur chicken counted as a separate person. He heroically sacrificed himself, leaping into the flames to battle the devils, so that the ranger would flee. It was quite a tearjerker moment ("Artax!"). We never dared try again with that statue.

    I loved ToA - lots of moving parts that can really change things up long term. (I still have that stupid golden skull following me around messing up all my ability checks, even after we "won".)

    1. Watch out for Dimension Door - if you try using it in the Tomb, there could be a surprise for the players.

  2. All of this was awesome to read.

    The sacrifice of the arm and then of the dwarf cleric was really impressive, too.

  3. very interesting, i wonder how the rations will play out.