by Mike Shea on 17 December 2018
This article is one in a series of artices I wrote for running the D&D hardcover adventure Tomb of Annihilation. You can find links to all of the articles below:
The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Tomb of Annihilation has an interesting and wonderous structure. It begins as a city adventure in Port Nyanzaru, expands out into a large overland exploration sandbox as the characters travel through Chult, narrows down to the exploration of the city of Omu and a potential trek into the Fane of the Night Serpent, and then drills down deep into the dungeon crawl to beat all dungeon crawls, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.
In today's article we're going to focus on the characters' exploration of the city of Omu. How can we dungeon masters get the most out of running this section of the book? Let's find out.
When the characters journey to Omu they will be going from a large sandbox—the journey through Chult—into a more refined sandbox style adventure. Like Chult itself, Omu has a nice defined boundary to it but multiple ways characters can travel within and through it. To begin with, they can enter from either the south-west corner (a grand staircase) or the north east (down a large waterfall) so even their entry into Omu is their own.
Side tip: When creating sandbox adventures, include two entrances. If you, as the DM, don't know how the characters will enter a dungeon or other area, you're a lot less likely to railroad them overall.
Design two entrances.
Once in the city, the characters can choose how they want to approach the city and accomplish their goals. They won't be the only ones.
Here at Sly Flourish we like to steal the concept of "fronts" from the game Dungeon World. A front is a driver of the story of our game. It's an actor, often a creature but sometimes an environment or even a whole planet, that has its own goals and leaves indicators to the characters. These indicators are called grim portents. They show the progression of a front as it heads towards its goal.
In the city of Omu, we have two main fronts working alongside the characters. The first is the Red Wizards of Thay. Like the characters, they are trying to acquire the puzzle cubes from the nine trickster gods to get access to the tomb of the nine gods. The Red Wizards might be sending mercenary forces out to the various tombs to collect what cubes they can.
The second front are the yuan-ti from the Fane of the Night Serpent. Their leader, Ras Nsi, seeks the cubes as well because the death curse is eating away at him. His second, a nightmare speaker named Fenthasa, might not have the same goal as Ras Nsi and this can become a fun complication for the characters to explore.
Both of these factions offer opportunities for conflict within Omu but they offer something more interesting too. Their goals are not necessarily in opposition to the characters. The Red Wizards, led by Valindra Shadowmantle, seek to end the death curse but they also want to learn about the Soul Monger. It is possible the characters can work out a deal with them instead of just fighting them.
Likewise, Ras Nsi might be willing to work out a deal with the characters since he too wants to stop the death curse. Of course, Fenthasa might not like that idea which gives us multiple factions within the yuan-ti to work through. If the characters are willing to kill Ras Nsi, Fenthasa might be more willing to work with them.
This offers up an interesting observation for our D&D games. When we have fronts with motivations that can be potentially turned to fit the motivations of the characters, we can build in ways that the characters can use all three pillars to interact with these fronts. In this case, we can see how the characters might use subterfuge, stealth, careful conversations, or violence to work with these fronts. The characters have lots of potential paths and options to take when dealing with this front that aren't just combat. That's awesome.
Give players the option to interact with fronts using roleplaying, exploration, and combat.
Beyond the Red Wizards and the yuan-ti, there are other actors in Omu that can come into play and bring some fun with them. The big one, both figuratively and literally, is the King of Feathers. This epic t-rex can be a continuing threat in Omu for the characters. In my game, I modified him a bit. First, I gave him legendary actions so he can have one action between characters' turns. I also gave him legendary resistances as well. I increased his hit points to 200. Finally, I gave him some psionic abilities unique in Chult. He had misty step and invisibility as actions he could take. This let him disappear from combat, shift to a new spot, and attack with advantage. As the characters traveled through Omu they learned more about his abilities and how dangerous he was. When finally faced, he was a real powerhouse villain.
Other actors include the three tabaxi hunters: Bag of Nails, Copper Bell, and Hooded Lantern. These are wonderful NPCs whose history, backgrounds, and motivations you can change for your own game. In one of the two Tomb of Annihilation games I ran, Bag of Nails was a fellow assassin to one of the characters who served Prince Jessamine in Port Nyanzaru. In another, the three taxabi were former companions of the taxabi rogue player character. Reskinning NPCs like these is a great way to bring some relevant stories to the characters as they explore Omu.
There are lots of other actors in Omu worth bringing up such as the kobolds in service of Acererak and the strange vegepigmies conducting a grung sacrifice at the lava pit. Read fully through the chapter and highlight the encounters you want to bring up in your game.
The primary goal of the characters in Omu is to acquire the nine cubes required to open up the doorway to the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Each of the nine cubes rest in one of the nine shrines to each of the Trickster Gods.
As the adventure states, the characters need not be the ones to collect all nine cubes. The Red Wizards may have recovered some. The yuan-ti might have some. Other random adventurers may have some.
This is a great opportunity to ensure that the characters interact with these other groups and they get to choose how. Maybe it's negotiation. Maybe it's theft. Maybe it's blinding violence.
You can choose how many of the cubes have already been recovered or decide that, as the characters uncover one cube the other fronts acquire another. One good way to choose this is to read through each of the shrines in the adventure and if any of them don't resonate with you as a DM, you can make that one a shrine whose cube has already been pilfered. How may cubes have been recovered also shortens the time spent in Omu so it's a nice dial to turn if you want things to move forward faster. You'll have to ensure the characters learn that the cubes have been recovered before they waste a lot of time trying to get them.
As the characters travel through Omu, it's likely they'll want to explore some of the notable ruins of Omu, either to take a rest, escape a pursuer, or just take in some of the dead culture of Omu.
Here is a list of twenty notable ruins the characters might encounter while exploring Omu. If you're not running Tomb of Annihilation, you can use this same list for other ruined cities as well.
The Collapsed Cellar. A floor of one of the buildings has collapsed into a strange cellar. The cellar contains a small shrine to a trickster god (roll to randomly determine the trickster god), a sacrificial stone, and scrawlings in old Omuan begging for the life of a sick child.
The Ashen Family. This ruin contains bodies of ash still standing with looks of horror on their face. An ashen body of a mother cradles her doomed child. All of them appear to have been hit with a disintegrate spell.
The Noble Treasure Vault. A house of nobility has trapped bronze door in the cellar guarded by two animated armors. The door has two DC 15 glyphs of warding including a fear glyph and another glyph that animates the statues. If the trap is defeated, the adventurers find the noble house's treasury. The treasury includes 832 cp, 3490 sp, 2087 gp, 28 pp, 2 x Chalcedony (50 gp), Citrine (50 gp), Jasper (50 gp), 3 x Moonstone (50 gp), 5 x Sardonyx (50 gp), 3 x Zircon (50 gp), Potion of Resistance (thunder) (uncommon, dmg 188), Spell Scroll (Sleet Storm) (uncommon, dmg 200), Potion of Water Breathing (uncommon, dmg 188), and a Rope of Climbing (uncommon, dmg 197) Use the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide to determine the treasure instead if you prefer.
Desecrated Shrine to Ubtao. This ruin contains a shrine to the god Ubtao. The statue's head has been removed and lies in the corner covered in rubbish. Dark sigils have been etched into the statue's surface. Examining the glyphs begins to fill the examiner's visions with the people of Omu destroying effigies of Ubtao after he turned his back on them two centuries ago. The cacophony of blasphemy fills the investigator's head with madness. The character must make a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or suffer a short-term madness effect.
The Crystal of Calling. The basement of this ruined building contains an arcane circle. In the center of the circle is a large violet cracked crystal. A DC 14 Intelligence (Arcana) check reveals that the crystal was used by arcane spellcasters to call across the multiverse to help find a god who would save them from their downfall. Any creature that touches the crystal can see visions of the Omuians using the crystal to call out across the Astral Sea and then later witnessing the arrival of Acererak.
Access to Underground Sewers. Deep cracks in the basement of one of the ruins reveals access to narrow sewer passages that lead to various areas of Omu including the palace, the flooded rivers to the east, the amphitheater, and the enclave to the south-west. Traveling through the sewers has a chance to encounter monsters. Use the random encounter table for level 1 to 4 swamp monsters in [Xanathar's Guide to Everything] re-rolling if the monsters make no sense for Omu.
Altar to Dendar the Night Serpent. The ruins of this building contain a carving depicting a massive serpent eating its own tail surrounding a globe that looks like Toril. The rotting remains of a female dwarf lie on a bloody stone altar, her ritually dissected innards in a series of clay pots surrounding the altar.
Abandoned Red Wizard Refuge. This ruin contains the remnants of a campsite for roughly one dozen people. The signs of a conflict litter the area including the bodies of Thayan mercenaries, mercenaries of Port Nyanzaru, and dead yuan-ti purebloods. A cracked silver mirror with arcane glyphs surrounding its edge used for scrying remains in the area. The broken mirror is worth 200 gold pieces.
Ruin of Grasping Vines. Thick yellow throned vines fill this ruined house seeming to come from a central stalk in the center that throbs like a heartbeat. The stalk itself (a yellow musk creeper with double the normal hit points and a reach of 15 feet) grows from the ruins of the basement below and only there can it be truly destroyed. The remains of a dead adventuring party lay within the ruins possessing a Philter of Love (uncommon, dmg 184), a Potion of Animal Friendship (uncommon, dmg 187), and two Potions of Growth (uncommon, dmg 187). 1d2+1 yellow musk zombies rise from the thick vines when someone enters.
The Trapped Incubus. The characters fall into a ruined pleasure den where an incubus has been trapped for nearly a century within a summoning circle. The incubus begs for its release and will give the characters a clue about Acererak's arrival and the building of the Tomb of the Nine Gods in return for his freedom.
Tomb of Annihilation is an amazing adventure for a bunch of reasons but one of them is because it contains all sorts of sandboxes within sandboxes. Omu is itself a full sandbox adventure packed within Chult, a much larger sandbox adventure. And, of course, Omu leads to the Tomb of the Nine Gods which is its own evil sandbox.
Above all, keep the options open and let the characters interact with the forbidden city however they wish.