Greetings and welcome to what I hope is the first of many updates on a game I am running for some friends. These are friends I met online a year ago in a Curse of Strahd game another friend ran for us, plus another new friend that came from another game with the majority of the players. While COVID clearly sucks, it did introduce me to some great people from across Canada and the US.
If you know much about the official adventures published to support the 5e roleplaying system, you will likely recognize the word Chult in the title and assume that "Adventures In Chult" is a campaign based on Tomb of Annihilation.
While that assumption is mostly true, Adventures in Chult is not completely true to the hardcover adventure. The basis of the story and main characters from Tomb are absolutely in Adventures in Chult, but the Chult I created extends and expands on the hardcover. To do this, I heavily utilized the wonderful online community that exists to help gamemasters enhance and customize Tomb to a campaign that works for the GM and the players. I hope to add to the community with these updates by providing my customizations and ideas in the hope that someone can take some nugget of wisdom or inspiration and apply it to their own games.
If you are any of the players in my group, that should be the last spoiler you get from these updates. My intent with these updates is to highlight what happened in the last session and give some insight into the game design process. There will be no "boy, my players will sure be surprised when they find out next session that Darth and Luke are related" moments.
That said, if you are not one of the players in my game and you want to play Tomb later, YOU NEED TO STOP READING NOW. While every Tomb game, and any role-playing game for that matter, should be unique, the major characters, faction, locations, and plot elements of the story will be revealed on these pages.
Our Session 0 started online in a Discord server I created for our game. That gave us the ability to discuss which characters everyone wanted to play and with the Avrae Discord bot, we even rolled them in Discord. It also gave us a chance to discuss any optional rules that might be of interest to the group. I created a channel for house rules, general chat, session notes, player-only chat, and of course a video chat channel for our actual game sessions. We were quite prepared going into the in-person Session 0 as a result. I highly recommend setting up a Discord server for your group.
Since we knew each other already, it was pretty easy to come together but there were still a few questions to review. After some quick introductions since two people had not previously met, we covered topics like party composition, out-of-character player roles, character death, and "nope card" or "X card" areas. I wanted to ensure we were clear on areas that we do not want to have in our game. Nothing came up in this area until one player mentioned he was opposed to sexual violence, and then everyone chimed in with complete agreement and one player mentioned that seemed obvious but was glad it specifically mentioned. As our roleplaying hobby matures and becomes more inclusive, discussing RPG Safety Tools in a Session 0 can really help make the table a safer place for everyone.
The last step in our Session 0 was for me to hand out the Player Config Incentive Coins. These are a coin that I homebrewed in D&D Beyond to provide the players with Inspiration for completing some tasks to make sure they were ready for Session 1. The tasks included creating their character, filling out a backstory, logging into Foundry, and selecting their token color in Foundry. I found this to be a helpful way to get everyone to get a base level of familiarity with Foundry since we had only ever used Roll20 before.
The players all had wonderful ideas for their characters, with backstories and motivations that made them unique and interesting. There was Anemin, the insular and bookish scholar Elf Cleric from the library in Candlekeep; Burgell, the gnome tinker and artificer with a mother with a background in archaeology; Del, the half-elf cartography prodigy with no knowledge of his father; Isa, the dhampir barbarian noble with the exaggerated sense of self-importance; and Arco, the wood elf who has fended for himself since his village was destroyed. These are all great characters, but there is no obvious reason for them to be together. What is going to pull Anemin out of the library, and why would Isa stoop so low to trek through a tropical jungle?
In the three-and-a-half years I have been playing 5e, one thing I have learned is the importance of teamwork. That team is the collection of the players and the GM, and the teamwork is focused on collectively creating a memorable story. An essential element in building the team is an effective Session 0. Mike Shea lists critical success factors in a Session 0 on his Sly Flourish site. One of his points that I wanted to focus on the campaign was having what Shea calls Character Integration. Why is this party a party? What pulled them together? What makes them want to work together on a common goal?
For help with that, I turned to the great Tomb supplement available on DM's Guild, the "Cellar of Death" adventure by James Introcaso.
The character integration hook in Cellar is that the team (but primarily the players) create a common NPC that they all have a connection to. And then you kill him.
Well, in my game we did not kill the common friend off, but we did make him gravely ill. Laying on his death bed in Athkatla, the NPC we named Nelison greeted the party and with his next-to-last breaths, he gave the party gifts from his past adventures.
Here are the gifts each character received and the narrative text I used to describe some of the items. If there is no text, the item came from a rollable table:
With that done, Nelison fell asleep, and the party left his room. They were greeted shortly after by Remallia Haventree, a major character in Faerun lore and the Cellar adventure. Remallia implored the party to come to her aid as her forces would be preoccupied by the frontal assault on a lich and needed a party to scour the lich's dungeon for her phylactery. Remallia had intelligence that this lich would provide valuable information on the source of the disease that was killing Nelison and many others across Faerun. With the imperative of helping their common friend to bind them, they struck out and headed for the dungeon.
Cellar is a great supplement to help provide the party with a sense of Character Integration and a suspenseful and realistic dungeon for first level characters. Unfortunately, Cellar as sold on DM's Guild does not provide a map of the dungeon suitable for playing online. For that, I turned to the great community I mentioned in the opening paragraphs and found this link on Reddit. While I did not use most of the ideas the author suggested, I did find the map to be particularly nice. One issue is that some of the passages are quite narrow, making it was difficult for the players to navigate their characters through. That could be solved by more careful placement of the walls and adjusting the Grid Size for the Scene.
Here is a picture of the map in use in Foundry showing the walls, terrain walls, Journal Entries, party, and a couple of skeleton corpses. Session 1 finished near the start of the dungeon crawl, and this picture is of them leaving with the phylactery.
As they proceeded through the dungeon, the party was extremely cautious, befitting their Level 1 status. At one point there are a couple doors along a hall that sounds of chewing could be heard through. Del had the idea to tie the doors shut together so that they could not be opened and whatever was making the chewing noises could not come out. This worked well because now the ghoul in the one room was out of commission for any future combat.
At the next room, the party tried to sneak by two other ghouls but made too much noise. The ghouls were quickly dispatched, leaving the party to investigate some barrels along a wall. I had not paid them any attention, so of course the players would want to know what is in them. I said they were filled with wine and was pressed for details on how good the wine was. Based on the quality of the oak barrels, I said it was a fine wine. At this point, Anemin says that he wants to take a cask of the lich's wine. The things players come up with!
The player interaction with the wine barrels is important for two reasons. First, as a gamemaster it is important to be flexible so that they players know they can make decisions about how their characters interact with the world. Second, the wine barrel became a key story point for how the players got the phylactery.
After the combat with the ghouls and getting the wine barrel, the treasure room with the phylactery was quickly found. The party quick assessed the room and recognized that the pillars and chest were trapped. So like any sane party, they emptied the wine barrel, put Burgell into it and positioned him in front of the chest. The idea of putting Burgell into the barrel is that he would be protected from the magic embedded in the pillars. While this might not have been completely consistent with the level of magic a lich would use to protect her phylactery, it was a great story element and we all had a lot of fun with it.
Once in position, Burgell then guided Anemin's Mage Hand in opening the chest. Once the chest was opened, Burgell again guided Anemin to get the phylactery and a bag of 20 platinum coins. Next up, run like hell out of the dungeon and signal for Remallia.
On the beach, Remallia yells to the lich telling her to negotiate for the return of the phylactery. The lich is seriously injured but is still powerful. She wants her phylactery back and therefore does provide information about a Death Curse emanating from somewhere in Chult. She also tells the party that the only apparatus that could consume that many souls is a Soulmonger, but she had no idea what would require a Soulmonger. Clearly there is a great evil somewhere in Chult.
The lich gets her phylactery, the party leaves the beach and regroups on a ship. Remallia asks the party to investigate Chult for clues to the location of the Soulmonger while she attends to related business on the Sword Coast. The party agrees, and Remallia lends them the ship for the trip to Port Nyanzaru.
Deviations and Similarities to Tomb of Annihilation:
Up to this point, there has been little connection with the actual Tomb hardcover adventure. But now, the party is en route to Port Nyanzaru and the official material can start to be applied to our game. Remember that we are in Session 2 with about five hours of game time so far. The party knows nothing about the Soulmonger other than it is somewhere on Chult, but they have bonded in combat and have a common friend that needs to be saved.
It should be noted that another deviation from the hardcover adventure is the mechanic used for the Death Curse. As written, characters inflicted with the Death Curse lose 1 HP per day, meaning that low level characters will die within days of being cursed. This time element adds immense urgency to the game, but then takes away from any story development or exploration opportunities. To remedy this, I picked up the great alternative Death Curse rules, "Chultan Death Curse: Revised!" by Teos Abadia.
This is another supplement available on DM's Guild and it provides a solution to the ticking timebomb Death Curse as presented in the official hardcover adventure. By progressing the Death Curse to match the player progression, I can give the party a chance to explore and learn about Chult, with distinct timing points to ratchet up the urgency. They can have fun in Port Nyanzaru, figure out where they want to search, and which quests they want to take, without having to be concerned with everyone around them immediately dying.
The way I played the common NPC friend the party created was to put him at Stage 3 of the curse. He is very weak and cannot move without pain. The effects of healing are limited, and it is clear the individual will soon die if the curse cannot be lifted. This also gives the party some ability to save their common friend, rather than just having to avenge his pointless death.
If you are looking to run a Tomb game that allows the players to interact and explore Chult in detail, I highly recommend picking up this supplement.
With that deviation noted, the game started to focus on the similarities to the official hardcover adventure. Before parting ways, the party asked how they would contact her. This was another unexpected point from the party. I quickly came up with the idea that the Merchant Prince Wakanga had means of communicating with Remallia, which gave the party a reason to interact with Wakanga. I also provided a hook to the pirates in the adventure, but instead of having an interaction with them, the ship's crew noticed a pirate ship sailing away from them. Plot hook provided without a need for ship-to-ship combat.
The trip to Port Nyanzaru would take a few days, so the party had time to heal, and it gave me time to encourage some roleplay between the characters.
As the ship approached the Bay of Chult, the party encountered Aremag, a massive, cantankerous dragon turtle. Many sources helping gamemasters prepare for Tomb suggest that the party come in by ship to make this encounter possible, and I am glad for the advice. The party was unimpressed with the encounter until I showed them the above image directly in Foundry. The size and ferocity of Aremag definitely got their attention.
I also used Foundry to advantage in this encounter. The Polyglot module for Foundry allows for chats to be made in specific languages and to be readable only if the character knows that language. I worked with the players to ensure they all had one language that only they knew to provide for opportunities that only their characters could participate on. In this case, Isa knows Draconic so when Aremag demanded tribute, only he knew what was being said.
Aurix ui rigluin ekess dolruth. majak ve usv loreat. (Draconic)
I used an online Draconic Translator to great the words Aremag said. I tried to voice Aremag with a very rough and gruff bassy voice. Once Isa realized that only he could read the words in chat, he quickly relayed the information to the party. This was also a good learning moment for the party that they had languages that were unique to their characters, and how the Polyglot module worked.
The party quickly responded to Aremag's demand for tribute and threw the 20 PP they pilfered from the lich's dungeon overboard. Burgell also wonder if a flesh sacrifice was required and threw his mule into the water. Aremag did not care, but the circling sharks were appreciative. I cannot help think of this scene and not laugh! Poor mule!
Arriving in Port Nyanzaru:
Quickly after the mule-death scene, the party approached Port Nyanzaru, and Session 2 ended. I read the following text to the party as the session ended, readying us for Session 3. The text is meant to describe what the players see as they travel east to west from Tirikyi Anchorage to the royal harbor.