Like Gus, I thought that TOA was one of WotC's better offerings. I've written before about how trap dungeons strain my credulity - if the traps represent a serious attempt to kill intruders, why do almost all of them have built-in escape systems which are accessible from within the traps themselves? Are we supposed to believe that Acererak cares about playing fair? - but if you want a dungeon full of traps, there's plenty here to borrow ideas from. The ruined city isn't as good as the 1981 original, being marred by a silly CRPG-style collect-all-the-magic-keys quest, but the yuan-ti temple is pretty well-done. My favourite bit of the book is actually the jungle section, which features a bunch of good locations and random encounters: I liked the sheltered princess being raised in isolation by bird-men, the delusional medusa living in her ruined garden, and the floating rock inhabited by an elf who claims to be a normal wizard but is actually a lich with cupboards crammed full of animated corpses, while the undead tyrannosaurus which vomits up zombie warriors in battle looks like it would make for an especially memorable encounter. But the jungle? That jungle is just too fucking big.
I know I've written a lot on this blog about the potential advantages of long distances. I am totally on board with the idea of making a party of PCs slog for weeks or months through the jungle in order to reach the Forbidden City. What I can't see the point of is having hundreds of miles of monster-infested jungle between the main adventure sites. Putting two hundred miles between the starting city and the bird-men is fine: but the bird-men live fifty miles from the medusa, who lives seventy miles from the floating rock, which is almost two hundred miles from the ruined city itself, all in an environment where the standard movement speed is ten miles per day, and where you'll have an average of two random encounter every three days. I haven't counted the exact number of ten-mile hexes in area covered by the adventure, but it can't be less than two thousand, across which are scattered thirty-odd adventure locations.What's the point of that? Quite apart from the sheer drudgery of playing through an interminable jungle trek every time the PCs leave one location for another, it makes it much harder to get the inhabitants of these various areas involved in one another's lives: instead, each of them functions almost like an isolated little world. (Compare and contrast Curse of Strahd, where the whole campaign takes place in an area that would fit into just two hexes in Tomb of Annihilation, meaning that everyone is constantly up in one another's faces and events from one area can easily cascade into another.)
If you're going to do a hexcrawl, especially one which covers a huge area and involves long journeys from place to place, I really think that the percentage of hexes with stuff in them needs to be quite high - that, or you need a random encounter generator robust enough to fill all those blank spaces on your map with genuinely memorable encounters. The locations in TOA are good, and the random encounters are pretty good as well, but there's just not enough of either of them to prevent the journey through this two-thousand-hex map from dissolving into either tedium or abstraction. (And once you reach the stage where the GM just starts saying 'OK, after twenty days in the jungle you reach the ruined city', why are you even running a hexcrawl?) I find it very hard to believe the module was actually run as written by the playtesters. No group would tolerate forty random encounters with wandering monsters on their way to the actual adventure.
|Tomb of Annihilation campaign map. Imagine trekking through all that with a 66% chance of a random encounter every single hex.|
If I was going to run TOA, I think I'd split it into three: the 'home base' city on the coast, a month-long but largely-abstracted journey through hundreds of miles of jungle, and then a single 'adventure zone' for hexcrawling, with all those thirty-odd adventure sites packed into a grid of, say, forty-nine ten-mile hexes. That's still a huge amount of territory - over three thousand square miles of jungle! - but it means that every time the PCs explore a new hex, they have a better than 50% chance of finding something interesting in it, and that it's much easier to get all those interesting things to interact with one another. Rally the bird-men against the goblins. Get the lich to adopt the princess. Trick the medusa into making a surprise visit to the yuan-ti temple. It's much easier to make all those things happen when all those groups are living quite close together, rather than being separated by an entire Amazon Basin's worth of impenetrable jungle. The large distances still matter, because safety and resupply are a month's travel away and the PCs have to plan accordingly, but they no longer get in the way of entertaining play.
Otherwise, even encounters with zombie-vomiting undead dinosaurs are going to get boring pretty fast...