Tomb of Annihilation, Final

Wow, we finally made it through.  Great DMing, great PCing, all around a pretty damn good adventure.  I joined in shortly after the PCs started making their way through the Yuan-Ti dungeon.  We’ve had maybe 18 sessions since then to put it away.  We spent about 2-3 hours on the final boss fight, The Soulmonger/Atropal followed by Acererak.  This session was the sort that begins immediately with rolling initiative and then the fight is on.

I was ready to bolt by the 2nd round.  The adamantine struts supporting the soulmonger turned out to be immune to magical damage, thus far I’ve never seen anything immune to magical piercing/bludgeoning, force damage.  It had a nasty habit of plucking us up and throwing us into lava, but that only really seemed to affect our party Slaad.

The main reason I wanted to bolt was the Atropal, the giant fetus baby god.  It dealt necrotic damage each round in an aura which means if we can’t do this in 11 rounds We Fucked.  It could deal a level of Exhaustion to the entire party as an action every round which in three rounds means We Fucked.  It was dealing just gobs of necrotic damage each rounds and I gotta say I was panicking.

Exhaustion is a weird mechanic in 5E.  It’s like Cover, it just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the game’s elegant way of “as few fiddly bit mechanics as possible.”  I really think Exhaustion is meant to be The DM’s Finger of God mechanic to kill players.  PCs have a million ways to dodge attacks, make saving throws, raise the dead, and get advantage to every goddamn thing.  There is not a good way to deal with multiple levels of Exhaustion.  At a certain level, PCs are nigh-invincible demigods but they cannot handle a tired.  With three levels, a character becomes basically unplayable in combat, with disadvantage to all ability checks, attack rolls, saving throws, and half speed.  Compare this with the 7th level spell from Xanathar’s, Power Word Pain, which deals similar effects to one person with a 100 HP restriction.  Or Foresight, the 9th level spell which inflicts disadvantage on everyone and is sort of the reverse with advantage to everything.  This is a lot of conspiracy theorizing to say, “Wahh, this is too hard” I just don’t think you’re actually supposed to use the Exhaustion rules unless you’re trying to kill the PCs for the wrong reasons.

I came pretty close to dying but the Druid was kind enough to give me the powerful Heal spell.  Ironically, I didn’t take anymore damage for the rest of the night.  The Necromancer was the MVP of the first half of the night by dealing loads of radiant damage to the Soulmonger (Look, he knew Sunbeam what do you want from me?).  MVP of the Acererak fight had to be The Slaad, a creature we adopted earlier in the temple who managed to tackle Acererak and drown him in lava.  It was very much like the Ballad of Fallen Angels in Cowboy Bebop.  It would’ve been poetic if the Slaad had died here but it actually managed to survive the lava.

With the Exhaustion, Waves of Necrotic Damage, and tentacles the first half was way way more scary than Acererak.  It turns out we got a regenerating 50 temp hit points to fight the lich and +3d6 damage against the Lich.  This did not however, prevent him from killing two party members with Power Word Kill and Finger of Death.  The Sphere of Annihilation did not really enter into the fight, he just lobbed spells at us.  Much Counterspelling ensued.  I wonder what this fight would’ve been light if Acererak had been given multiple reactions or Counterspell as a legendary action.

With the three bosses dead it really did feel like the rest of the night was hitting the gift shop on the way out the door.  There are a couple last traps and foes to kill the PCs but they don’t seem like they’re meant to be that hard, kind of more like the cheap jump scare at the end of a horror movie.  We found and slew the Arcanaloth, Mr. Fox, who provided us with black rocks to trigger the Leave the Tomb portal.  I wonder if it is possible to miss these and be trapped forever in the fucking place.  On the one hand it would be very much in the spirit of the adventure.  On the other hand it would be completely bad DMing to do that.  If it is possible to miss these things, the adventure better tell the DM “Your players need these to complete the adventure” otherwise that’s a plot bottleneck and that’s bad writing.

I do have to call myself out for two sins.  There were a host of appropriate-inappropriate comments hurled at the Atropal because we were essentially fighting a giant baby.  Inevitably, I took it too far into inappropriate-inappropriate territory.  I should not have done that.  Also, since it was our last session I brought wine, and as I’ve discussed with my therapist, I really wanted to demonstrate to the group that I could drink responsibly after I had too much to drink during an earlier session, which is not healthy behavior and I’m working on it.  But this time I went too far the other direction in announcing loudly that I was cutting myself off voluntarily which is the stupidest phrasing possible and my subconscious has already added it to my “Dumb Shit You Said Volume 43” set.

So where do we go from here?  I wish we could do more adventures with the same characters.  A blank page is tough to deal with but I do like to work from a good prompt and this adventure left us with a few.  For one thing, auctioning off the loot we took out of Chult.  For another, Mr. Fox’s spectacles are apparently a portkey to take you to Sigil.  And most obviously, Acererak is still out there waiting to regenerate in 1d10 days.  While we definitely can’t find his phylactery by then we can sure as hell get our shit and get the fuck out of town before he comes looking for us.

When I think of what would Tando Tossbottle do (WWTTD) I think his immediate priorities would be the auctioning of their treasures.  As a courtier, he would be the person you’d ask to sell that kind of high-end shit to wealthy buyers.  Then probably retirement after buying his way into the nobility, his life’s ambition.  With the money from the tomb and DM rewards Tando would be able to afford a wealthy lifestyle for about 27 years or more likely, 10 years of aristocratic living combined with some investments to support it.  But Tando is familiar with Order of the Stick, he’d be looking over his shoulder worried about liches.  I think that’s a great, archetypal adventurer’s story.  He has this great fortune but he can never rest comfortably with it knowing there’s an immortal spellcaster out there who considers him an enemy.  Now he’s locked in.  Think of other protagonists like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Walter White, whatever the reason they left home and began their story, there comes an event horizon moment where they realize they can’t go back home, they can’t set down the plot, they are on a path and they have to see it through to the end.  If Tando wants a family or a good night’s sleep he can’t stop hunting this thing, he has to find Acererak’s phylactery to put a stop to the motherfucker once and for all.

This kind of speaks to the biggest problem I have with Tabletop RPGs in general.  This isn’t specific to D&D, this is just kind of how I’ve found they all go.  And its that, the groups always break up or move on to another story before one story really feels finished.  And I know that’s just life (prepare for heavy shit).  That is actually how life goes.  Someone somewhere in the world is going to die today not knowing how Song of Ice & Fire ends.  And they won’t.  We die with unfinished business.  Maybe Tando never figures this shit out.  In Order of the Stick, Eugene Greenhilt, gives up his quest to slay the lich Xykon to focus on career and family, in that order.  In a way, I think the ending to something like Song of Ice & Fire will have to be unsatisfying in a way because one of the themes of the series is that nothing truly ends.  The two D&D hardcovers I’ve played through, Curse of Strahd as a DM, and Tomb of Annihilation as a player, both have epilogues where evil is vanquished but they do want to inspire you to continue playing D&D so they still have hooks dangling at the end.  Curse of Strahd ended with a great sequel hook, we have to find and bring back Tenebrous.  The sequel I envisioned didn’t have to take place in Eberron, it actually would’ve made a dandy Planescape adventure.  I could’ve just started running The Great Modron March or Dead Gods and I did take a lot of inspiration from those books for what I wound up writing.  But real-life prevented us from having that epic finale where the party has to stop Orcus and Strahd from marching their blue dragon army on Tiamat’s prison in the Pit of Five Sorrows and ending the multiverse.  And Tomb has the same sort of ending, the Forces of Evil have suffered a temporary setback but Acererak is still out there, one of the Sewn Sisters is still out there, what kind of crazy shit will they get up to next?  These adventures intentionally end with hooks for other adventures but we just never follow through on them.  I think part of my problem is I set my sights too high, when I say “finish a story” I’m envisioning this level 20 encounter with dragons and gods.  There are plenty of smaller stories I could finish quite easily.  I guess, just, the one feather in my cap that I’d like to achieve in my tabletop career to really finish that level 1-20 campaign, to have the characters finish their arcs and truly feel that there are no more mountains to climb.

For any player character you occasionally need to ask yourself, why is this person an adventurer?  Why are you not just, an innkeeper, priest, or cobbler?  There are easier ways to make a gold piece than risking your life fighting hags in some shithole.  Now sometimes the answer to that question is “because on Thursdays I play D&D with my friends.”  But I think to really get to know a character and make them seem like a real person you have to ask these questions.  I am going to work tomorrow because I need the money to pay rent.  Tando needs to start hiring wizards and sages and traveling the planes because he is a muggle and he’s going to need a deep bench of support to kill Acererak.  Nymeros Mutawassit has been tasked with killing The Xanathar beholder.  That one is not as life changing a goal as others, but you cross one off then you ask the question again.  Why are you here?