Wizards of the Coast enlisted more playtesters to try the Dungeons & Dragons Tomb of Annihilation module than any adventure it has released before. Why? Because they were afraid no one would survive it.
"We wanted an honest appraisal of how tough it would be and if the traps were too mean and whether the monster encounters were too mean," game designer Chris Perkins told us last week at Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. "There have been a number of fatalities, but some groups have prevailed. So it’s not impossible."
The adventure is inspired by the classic Tomb of Horrors, a lethal dungeon made by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax himself. It was recently updated for the game's 5th edition ruleset as part of the Tales from the Yawning Portal, a collection of classic modules released in April.
"Tomb of Horrors was just literally telling players, ‘You’re standing at the edge of the tomb. What do you do?’ This one says, ‘Hey there’s a bunch of stuff going on. Meet all these characters, do all these fun things. By the way, there’s this tomb over here that’s going to kill you.'”
The new book places the titular tomb in Chult, a remote and largely uncharted portion of D&D's signature Forgotten Realms campaign setting that hadn't been visited at all since the game’s second edition. Perkins describes the setting as "pulp noir," resembling Indiana Jones or the Eberron campaign setting that D&D employed in its last two editions.
"It will be scary, a sort of gradual build up of dread, mixed in with little moments of humor to sort of lighten things up from time to time," Perkins said. "What I tried to do with the story was paint this big, bright picture of the city of Port Nyanzaru where you can meet all kinds of colorful people and do all kinds of fun things. Once you set out into the jungle, the deeper you go, the farther in you get, the more dark and claustrophobic and terrifying it becomes until finally you end up at the tomb, and that’s going to be the darkest most horrible place ever."
Port Nyanzaru is ruled by seven merchant princes, each with their own agenda, and offers plenty of entertaining diversions such as a market where you can purchase items not found anywhere else in the game world. One of the city's most popular pastimes is dinosaur racing and players can bet on the events or even become riders themselves.
"Dinosaurs have always been part of Chult," Perkins said. "Once we decided to go there we knew that we’d have to deal with dinosaurs and that they’d be all over the place. It was just about trying to show them off in weird and wonderful ways."
To further explore Chult, adventurers need a guide. Choosing the right one will be very important to a group's survival.
“If they chose a guide that can speak some of the ancient languages that are in the tomb, that will help them," he said. "If they chose another guide, one of the incompetent ones or one of the treacherous ones, they could be [shit out of luck]. Unless things go badly and the guide dies — or gets eaten, or the characters kill the guide, or the guide sells them out to somebody — they could have a guide that’s following them all the way to the tomb and beyond."
Guides also have their own agendas and might lead players to areas of the world like the summer palace of a Chultan queen who fell from grace, or a village populated by poison arrow frog-like humanoids whose chief is trying to summon a goddess so he can make a marriage proposal.
"Some of the places have nothing to offer but your doom, or they offer maybe the promise of an alliance or just another mystery you can solve," Perkins said. "Some lead to weird dead ends, which are designed to waste your time because you’re on a ticking clock.”
That clock comes in the form of a wasting disease afflicting anyone who's been raised from the dead. One of the adventuring party's benefactors is sick and parties of higher-level characters might also have one of their own members fall ill.
“One of the conceits of D&D is that once you get up to a certain level characters just come back from the dead," Perkins said. "This is saying 'Not now.' It’s not without its risks. When you say in a game death is final, if you die you have to roll up a new character, that creates a different spirit in the game than has existed before.”
Taking resurrection off the table means the stakes are even higher in the trap-filled tomb of the demilich Acererak.
"Some of (the traps) can be solved through ingenuity, some can be solved through good rolls, some can be avoided entirely and some are there in plain sight," Perkins said. "Others are hidden and will catch you by surprise. Some will feel like they’re just eating away at your resources, others will be quite calamitous if you don’t find them or you don’t pick up on the hints or the clues or you misread the riddles. Acererak likes to taunt adventurers so he has littered the tomb with clues to help them in order to bait them further in. He’s kind of nasty that way.”
Players will have a chance to face the villain, though Perkins wouldn't say how a party of level 12 adventurers can defeat one of the most powerful creatures printed in the 5th edition Monster Manual.
"Your characters may not be the same, but there is a way," he said. "I can’t wait for everybody to experience what that’s like.”