D&D Diary – Tomb of Annihilation – Session 3

Enroute to Chult, our heroes sit through a grim eulogy, ram a sea monster, and try to crash their ship before it sinks.

Tomb of Annihilation thumb
I’ve seen that ship before, a long time ago, when I was very young.

When last we left our heroes, they had been given a quest that would take them on a life-altering journey to the primordial Land of Chult. They even have passage on a boat, the Narwhal II, to get them there, but first… a shopping montage!

Their patron had given them an advance of money to specifically fund their jungle excursions. Instead, they spent it on some pricey kits and armors, before they even knew what they actually needed in the jungle. It was like giving your kid $20 to run to the store to get some milk and bread and he comes back with a bag of Doritos, a 6-pack of Coke, eight Slim-Jims, an enormous sack of gummy bears, and no bread or milk!

ToA Journal pages
At least they kept this journal and didn’t pawn it for pennies. ToA Journal Alucius Alphonse

After blowing through Daddy Warbuck’s warchest, they board the Narwhal II, talked only to the captain, picked up a fellow adventurer named Undril who is also heading to Chult whom they promptly ignored, got stuck in a windless phenomenon called the doldrums, then fought off an invasion of sahuagin.

These sahuagin exist for only two reasons. To get the players to 2nd level and to kill a little girl. Yes, I’m a monster. The little girl, Jeanette, exists for three reasons. To show the players that this campaign is dangerous and capricious, to get the players a new magic item, and to test the group’s morality.

Fortunately, the group’s moral compass was never in question. They gladly and readily gave up one of their valuable Revivify scrolls to save poor Jeanette. Unfortunately, the players insisted (playing rules as written) that the cleric should roll to determine his success. He failed. And I was unprepared for this failure. Good thing the session ended here.

In the battle aftermath, these plaything cards that belonged to Jeanette were given to Martic, since he was the only one who interacted with her. And yes, they are important.

My intent was to have the girl live, give the group a reward, and finally arrive in Chult to start the official adventure. Aside from one minor interaction in the Bay of Chult, I wanted to have today’s session take place in Port Nyanzaru. But in light of Jeanette’s tragic demise, that didn’t seem fitting. There should be something to make her death more impactful. And as a DM, you should always find ways to escalate the drama. So, we had a funeral.

I had never run a fake funeral before and it was surreal. I’ve run odes and toasts to fallen PC comrades and might have to run a few in this campaign, but here I wanted to roleplay a heartbreaking sendoff to a fictious child and I wanted it to feel real. I tried to write the speech before hand, but it never felt sincere. Instead, I played it raw, from the heart. I’m no Matt Mercer, but I did my best to portray the grief, dismay, and barely concealed fury that the scene deserved.

Matt Mercer old

Captain Balthasar read the eulogy for his dearly departed daughter. “Today, I say my final goodbye to my baby girl, Jeanette. She was my shining angel and the best thing I ever did in my wretched life. She likes,… liked to draw and invent little stories. She loved mermaids and butterflies. Despite a lonely life at sea, she never lost her smile. I miss you, Jeannie. No parent should watch their child die. I am lost without her. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

The speech lasted longer than written, filled with stumbling words, uncomfortable pauses, and real tears which affected the timber of my voice. I’m not saying you need to cry on command to do a scene like this; I didn’t know if I would when the time came. You can just say the speaker is distraught and read it normally. Your players will still appreciate the effort.

Afterward, my son said he was moved by my speech and he couldn’t believe that I really cried. I didn’t tell him that the emotions came from imagining that I was reading his eulogy. I don’t know if any of the other players were impressed with my acting prowess, but no one interrupted and they sat in rapt attention. Except for Raven, who was looking up spells for her new level and I assumed was not paying attention, which almost took me out of the moment.

5e Books 3pack
This is why books should be banned at all funerals. Hey, that guy in the middle book looks familiar.

It was at this moment that the eulogy took a sinister turn. “Jeanette lost her poor mother to goblins while I was at sea, and I swore I would keep her close and keep her safe. I have failed to keep that promise. She was nothing but joy and love. She didn’t deserve this. It should have been me. What kind of arrogant thoughtless gods would allow this to happen? There are no gods; they don’t watch us, guide us, or care for us. I defy them all! To hell with Umberlee, Kelemvor, and whatever pathetic deity you pray to. My only child is dead and they did nothing! I curse them all.”

That woke Raven up. Her character, Scath, may not know who Umberlee is, but Raven did, and she knew that they were screwed. In the Forgotten Realms, you do not curse Umberlee, the evil and vindictive goddess of the sea, especially while standing on a boat in the middle of the ocean. That just ain’t a smart thing to do. Raven got very excited and explained these ramifications to the other players. But Umberlee did not claim her revenge just yet. As soon as Jeanette’s body was put to sea, the winds restarted, filling the sails and resuming the cursed voyage to Chult. Captain Balthasar stayed at the stern, looking toward her baby girl long into the night even after she was well beyond the horizon.

Who are you, puny mortal, to question the will of the gods?

For the next 15 days the players waited with baited breath for me to unleash Umberlee’s vengeance upon them. But nothing happened. The captain, once portly and jovial was now gaunt and sullen, he hasn’t eaten since the funeral. At long last, the first sighting of Chult appears to the south. A tall rocky spire gleams in the distance, a lone peak that is the head of the Mistcliff Mountains to the south.

Had my players asked, this mountain is called Phoenix Peak in my game, so named because of the way it catches the sun as it appears to rise out of the sea. This would have been a clue to inquire further about the Phoenix Horn, mentioned in the lost Alphonse Journal. But they didn’t, so I’ll need to have this moment occur some other time.

Chult Map Phoenix
In my twisted sensibilities, the land of Chult looks like a phoenix, with the two main rivers marking its wings and the northern peninsulas as its beak.

Our group has finally arrived in Chult, but they are not safe yet. It is still two days to Port and they have to traverse the treacherous Bay of Chult and have our first encounter that is actually from the book: Aremag. Aremag is awesome; first introduced in the inspiring Ring of Winter novel, so his inclusion here is appropriate.

But due to the nature of the adventure and the speed in which the players are meant to explore the jungle, this awesome encounter is easy to skip. But not in my adventure. BTW, the book lists that, in addition to his milky left eye, Aremag has a piece of shell missing but doesn’t mention where. Canonically, this chink is just above his left front flipper and he was injured by Artus Cimber over 100 years ago when he arrived in Chult aboard the original Narwhal.

Artus Cimber thumb
I love foreshadowing charcaters that might never show up in the adventure.

Initially, I was going to run the scene from the book: Aremag blocks the ship, demands gold, uses his steam breath above the ship to show he means business (and not kill any squishy characters), and once he’s paid, leaves them alone. But this doesn’t give Captain Balthasar a proper finale to his character arc, nor does it put the players in any real danger. And we all know how much I like escalating problems.

As the boat steers into the Bay’s shipping lane, you notice that there is another vessel about 1000 yards ahead following the same course. Just then, the sailor in the crow’s nest cries out, “There’s a ship coming fast from behind and she’s flying no flags!” The players immediately guess that these are pirates and begin making plans. Of course, real pirates would raise a false flag to avoid suspicion, but you must give players the chance to see through such ruses. My group smartly asked what flag the first ship is displaying. It flies the flag of Baldur’s Gate. This is intended to raise questions about why the pirates didn’t target the first ship, but my group didn’t make that connection yet.

Elok Pirates
More vague foreshadowing for pirates they might never meet.

The captain cries out for full sail to outrun the pirates, but the other ship is faster and is still gaining. Thames the artificer asks if he can send his newly constructed homunculus in the shape of a miniature griffon to spy on and maybe attack the pirates. Of course, you can! The little metal robot flies of toward the unknown pirate ship. The rest of the group readies their weapons and armor.

As you probably expect, the scene goes from bad to worse, when the ship that is ahead of them suddenly explodes. Thames claims that he is an expert in artillery and asks he can identify the cause of the explosion. I say that there was no combustion, the ship seemed to rise up out of the water before it was blown apart by something beneath it. Unsure what to do and overwhelmed by unanswered questions, the captain decides the next course of action. He says, “Damn it. It’s him. I can beat it,” and attempts to steer his ship past the exploded vessel before they suffer the same fate.

Ship Explosion
 I couldn’t find any good “fantasy ship explosions” on the web. This one from Subnautica will have to do.

I ask where everyone is. Gwen’s player, Ian, couldn’t attend this week, so she is below deck avoiding the captain after failing to save his daughter. Roland, Miche, and Martic are on the main deck. Scath and Thames are on the quarterdeck with the captain and the ship’s wheel. Thames is watching after his robot and the pursuing pirates. Scath is preternaturally waiting for the captain to do something stupid.

Scath’s player, Raven, is one I need to be wary of. She plays like an RPG Deadpool, fully aware that she is in a roleplaying game and all its tropes and conventions. She will also become a rules lawyer if I decree something detrimental to her character, but will gleefully ignore them if she wants to do something cool. This is not a criticism; I act the same way as a player. But I will need to be on my A-game and on my toes. Of course, she is correct. The captain is about to do something stupid.

Moby Dick
You ever hear about Moby Dick and Captain Ahab?

A veritable tidal wave moves away from the destroyed ship heading directly toward our ship. There is no way we can escape and the wave will overtake the ship. The captain mutters under his breath, “So be it,” and turns the wheel to head straight into the wave. Scath tried to intervene. “Before he can do anything, I stop him.” How? “I jam my hands into the ship’s wheel to keep it from turning.” Okay, roll an athletics check. Pass.

You’ve managed to get your arms stuck in the wheel. The wheel jolts to a stop and your arms are pinned in the spokes, but the wheel cannot turn any more. The captain yells at you, “What are you doing? Are you mad?” and punches you in the face. You take 3 points of damage. You are no longer on a collision course with the rouge wave, but are moving slightly toward it on an angle.

Great Wave Hokusai
If this was truly a rogue wave, you must turn into it or be broadsided. Scath may have just doomed the ship, but Raven knew this wasn’t a wave. Making her following argument a little disingenuous. BTW this is my third favorite painting of all time.

Here Raven attempted to debate with me. “No. I stopped him before he could do anything!” This is a common lament from players. They always want all their actions to avert every disaster. They expect to react to everything faster than anyone else. But this is not how reactions work, in real life or in the game. You can only react to something after the other person has done that thing first. You can attempt to slow them such as with an opportunity attack, or affect the outcome as with a counterspell, but you cannot stop the initial action from occurring.

Raven also attempted to argue that the ship would not turn on a dime. This is true, but the ship still turned a little, enough to intersect with the wave at an angle. Of course, Raven’s real goal is to save the ship. She is not satisfied that her actions save their lives, but not the ship. There was a chance to save the ship. If they had killed the captain or knocked him away, they could have commandeered the vessel. But as it was, they were locked, literally, on this current course.

ToA Bay of Chult
I’ve been teasing this guy for weeks, and he finally shows up!

Just off the portside bow, a monstrous creature rises out of the churning sea. It is an enormous dragon turtle, larger than the entire ship. I read the box text from the book (about time I got to use something from the book), and ask what everyone is doing. Roland runs to the forecastle and holds, waiting to attack if need be. Martic readies his bow. Thames holds. Scath is held, stuck in the ship’s wheel. And Miche climbs up the ropes into the riggings of the main mast. Inside, I am screaming. No! What are you doing? That’s where the instant death breath weapon is going. Nope, into the doomed riggings he goes. Now I have to scramble to save this fool’s life.

I have Miche roll a perception check. The DC is 5 because I need him to succeed. He does. He sees that the dragon turtle is rearing his head back, in a motion that looks like he is about to exhale something. You are 20 feet off the deck and it is another 20 above to the crow’s nest. What do you do? I expect him to drop the 20 feet to the deck and take a little damage, but far less than the blast from the beast.

Dragon Turtle attack
My favorite picture of a dragon turtle. What are you doing little tiefling? Get off the deck!

He elects to Dash up the ropes and dive into the crow’s nest. I have him roll a DC10 Athletics check. He passes, and at the last second, he hauls himself into the crow’s nest where there is a very shocked sailor that Miche pulls down into a crouch with him in the nest. Everyone else takes what cover they can. Roland hides behind some nearby stairs, Martic hides behind the center mast. Thames, Scath and the captain have no cover but they are not the target. The same cannot be said for the rest of the crew.

The monstrous beast hammers the deck and sails with a massive blast of steam in a 60-foot cone. The damage is a whopping 52 points. Even with a dexterity save and half damage this would outright kill every member of the party! Both Martic and Roland make their save (with advantage due to the cover) and take ¼ damage. It hurts, but doesn’t kill them. But every sailor in the sails is dead. I drop a bunch of minis on to the battle mat of the dead sailors falling from the riggings. Some land on the deck while others bounce into the ocean for the sharks to feast on. Before anyone can get their bearings, the ship and turtle collide!

ToA Aremag start
I’ve been hiding this turtle stuffty in my bag for weeks. And it is the proper scale in size.

If the captain had steered the ship head-on, the ship would have been destroyed and we would play out an abandon ship scenario. But due to Scath actions, the ship takes a glancing blow as the side of the hull slams into the turtle’s shell. A massive gash is carved out of the ship, right at the waterline. The ship is crippled but not sinking. Yet. There might still be time. Thankfully, no one fell overboard during the collision. Well, a few nameless sailors did, but nobody cares about them.

Roland grabs one of the harpoons, collected from the sahuagin’s corpse last session, and hurls it at the turtle’s injured left side. An excellent idea, but a horrible execution as he rolls a three and the weapon bounced harmlessly of his thick shell. As the turtle and ship pass by each other, the turtle takes a swipe at the three figures on the quarterdeck. As written, the dragon turtle can make one attack on a single target with its clawed front flipper. This makes no sense. Each flipper is the size of a tree! A swinging tree doesn’t make a targeted strike; it hits everyone in its path. My dragon turtle swings at the two players and the cursed captain. If any strike hits a player, they’re dead.

Dragon Turtle
I’m running out of good dragon turtle pics. Stop antagonizing this guy.

Since we’ve officially arrived in Chult, I promised to make all my attack rolls in the open, intending to pull no punches, which is a dangerous proposition for this encounter. First up is Thames. I roll a 4. Miss (phew!) The next roll was a Nat 20. Thank God I didn’t say anything first and could attribute this hit to the captain. Balthasar takes 32 points damage, sweeping him right off the back of the boat, never to be seen again. The last roll goes to Scath no matter what. A three, yes! Unfortunately, with a +13 To Hit, the dragon turtle still connects. Scath is doomed. Except…

Thames’s character is based off Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. As such, it has the draconic feat Protective Wings which allows him to shield himself or an ally with spectral wings, giving the recipient a +2 to Armor Class. Exactly what Scath needed to save her life. I was initially hesitant about all the variant characters I have in this campaign. Not one comes from the base rules, they all come from the supplementals, and I have not read them all. But I trust my players to play honestly and this was a terrific, and welcome, surprise.

Fizban Cover full
You guys are all falling prey to WotC’s ploy to make you buy more books. It’s a trap!

The dragon turtle is turning around to come back after the group, but they have a few seconds to debate what to do about the floundering ship. Some argue to stop the ship, but others point out that this is what sunk the Titanic, so they opt to charge ahead as fast as they can and hope they hit land before they sink. A few run below deck to inspect the damage, Thames hopes to solve everything with his Mending spell (I hate this spell), and is dismayed to see it is a 20-foot jagged hole that cuts through two decks right at the waterline. Water is constantly sloshing in, but the ship isn’t swamped. Mending ain’t gonna fix this sucker.

Back on the quarterdeck, Thames sends a magical Message to the giant beast, “Oh great dragonkin. We mean you no harm.” When Aremag doesn’t respond, Thames is convinced the spell doesn’t work, but it did, and justified allowing me to use the original extortion encounter that the book suggests. Of course, we have it while at full sail so that the ship doesn’t sink. In draconic, Aremag demands for “zoloto!” Fortunately, the dragonborn and, surprisingly, Martic the half-elf ranger both speak draconic. I translate “zoloto” to mean gold. I use Russian as my substitute for dragon-speak, it has a stern, unique vocality that I bet dragons would enjoy.

ToA Aremag end
I think it was James who placed the dead captain riding Aremag, but it was good for a chuckle.

There is a mad scramble to find gold. They have 1500 in useless platinum coins which Aremag refuses. But each person only has no more than ten pieces of gold, less than 50 gold total. Miche and the sole surviving sailor come down from the crow’s nest. That sailor, Carlos, tells them that the captain “has a sack of gold to deal with this thing.” Martic and Roland run to the Captain’s Quarters to ransack the room.

The only item of note is the locked desk. This proved to be too much of a challenge for our two half-elves. Roland couldn’t muscle past the DC5 Strength check and he only managed to wrench his wrist. Then, Martic couldn’t crack the DC10 lock despite his unspoken proficiency in thieves’ tools. Ultimately, they smashed the desk apart with a crowbar and were rewarded with a sack containing 250 gold.

Gold Horde2
They could really use this gold in Chult. Too bad they can’t keep it.

Back on deck, Martic negotiates with the behemoth. He tried to low-ball the turtle with 100 gold, but he failed his Persuasion check. Aremag demand for “bolshe zoloto”! More gold. Martic upped it to 150, and failed again. He took out 200 and everyone added what little gold they had. It came to about 237 gold. “Honest, this is all we got.” Rolling this time with advantage, since others “helped”, Martic passed and Aremag demanded that the sack of gold be tossed overboard. With a few parting words, the giant sea turtle sank beneath the waves.

Several players were convinced that there was no real way to beat the encounter. Or better yet dominate it. They wanted to keep the ship and the gold and show that dragon turtle who’s boss! But sometimes just surviving the encounter is reward enough. I know that players all want to be bad-asses and kick butt all the time, but I want them to earn it. And there was a way to solve the encounter and keep the gold.

I told you these things were important.

I had done my best to make these six cards significant. It has a physical prop. I have mentioned several times that they are stored in a waterproof pouch. They even cast detect magic on them, and they have an aura of illusion around them. Of course, no one ever takes Identify as a spell slot, so they don’t know what it is. But there was no discussion about what these were or what they might do.

I’m sure that some players may have guessed that these cards are from a Deck of Illusions and are roleplaying that they don’t. But I’m surprised no one pondered, “What happens if I get these cards wet, say by throwing one in the ocean?” In this scenario, it would activate the illusion that would distract Aremag long enough for the party to get away. But alas, as it played out, it has cost them all their gold.

Spirit Tarot deck
BTW These cards come for a tarot deck printed by the Spirit Halloween stores. They use D&D monsters in most of their imagery and make a terrific practical prop.

Except that Martic is more devious than they thought. He claimed that the sack only had 200 gold when in fact it had 250. Considering the fact that all this was played out in the open, and most of the players didn’t realize this fact, I’d say that James’ deception would work and this will definitely help the group if they ever arrive in port, since all the platinum they are carrying in basically worthless too.

With Aremag behind them, literally, they can only look forward to their imminent demise. The ship is sinking, they have no idea where they are, or if they are near land. They are afraid to steer in any direction, lest they take on more water. Directionless, they sail full steam ahead into oblivion, hoping to beach the ship before she sinks. They use the previously mentioned lumber cargo amd a few doors to hobble together a patch to keep the ship afloat for as long as possible. Scath has been keeping the course steady and they try to pinpoint their position.

Chult Bay Map shipwreck
So close and yet so far.

I never intended to have the adventure begin by stranding the players, but when the opportunity presented itself, it seemed like a perfect introduction to Chult. It was also an interesting parallel to the Alphonse Expedition (ToA Journal Alucius Alphonse) which ended in a shipwreck while their journey begins with one. It allows me to illustrate just how dangerous and unforgiving the jungle can be in a quick and dramatic way. It shows the importance of planning out their future expeditions, instead of me just telling them.

I want them to feel lost and afraid but I need to make it quick. This little prequel was supposed to take a single session, but now it’s going to take four, if not more. I plan to crash the boat at the point marked on the map which is a single day’s hike to Port Nyanzaru and salvation. But as with all my good intentions, they are ruined by contact with the enemy, I mean, players.

ship beached
This is it! My last boat pic. Like my players, I don’t ever want to see another boat.

Scath still insists that it should be possible to pinpoint their exact position. This sparked a pointless debate about sightlines, the distance to the horizon, and a sudden proficiency in cartography. I fear that this is going to become a growing issue, as the player insists upon applying real world physics into this fantasy world. Just go with it, you’re lost, you don’t know where you are, and you’re lucky to be alive. No, you don’t get a roll.

I should have sank the ship right here in the bay, but it was getting late, I didn’t feel like making up a bunch of rules that would be debated endlessly, and I wanted to reward the players for all their efforts to keep the ship afloat. Is it feasible or realistic? Probably not. But it was dramatic and the group didn’t complain since it benefitted their characters when I let them harvest a bunch of stuff from the dilapidated ship. The ship beached itself on a sandbar about 100 feet from shore. They were going to live. For now.

ToA Inspiration Coins
These are the inspiration coins I use when I hand out as a bouns for good play. I like that they look like a maze, which is Ubtao’s symbol. I gave one to Raven since all of her slightly meta-gaming moments were actually true to her character. James got one too.

We wrapped up for the week, with the players electing to sleep on the beached ship versus sleeping on land next to the deadly jungle. There are two other survivors, Undril, the eventual quest-giver/ally, and Carlos, the sole surviving sailor/probable sacrificial lamb. They discuss their plan for next session regarding which way to travel. I want them to head over land so that I only need to prepare one day’s worth of travel and can get them to port. Of course, they chose to go the long way around the horn with the rowboat (a 4 to 5-day journey), ’cause they just don’t want to get to safety apparently.

Next week, our heroes embark on an unexpected and unprepared expedition, and pray they can find port before they succumb to exhaustion, disease, starvation and a couple of hags.

Don’t forget to check out my Tomb of Annihilation Resources Page, filled with all the stuff I use to make this epic campaign even more epicier: My full Campaign Diary, plus Handouts, Maps, Charts, PDFs, Images, and more to use, abuse, or ignore at your peril.

And written specifically for this adventure, read my Explorer’s Guide to Chult to delve into all the legands, lore, history, religion, and culture that I used to bring even more life to this adventure.

Explorers Guide to Chult ToA
No need to get your feet wet or your hands dirty, I’ve done all the research for you.

As always, look to make every situation worse for the players, but allow for ways for them to weasel out of it, and Game On!

Udachi v smerthyh! – Aremag, roughly translated to: Good luck, puny mortals!

13 thoughts on “D&D Diary – Tomb of Annihilation – Session 3

  1. Just saw the latest session report. It’s the start of the workday here in Australia so I will look forward to reading the report tonight for a solid fix of D&D.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My players encountered Aremag with 7-8 levels characters and it was still a parley-or-die situation…
    And I must say, knowing your dming style by now, I would have been SHOCKED if your prequel would have been shorter than 3-4 sessions ha ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t know, letting the players work out where they are seems a lot more likely to lead to them hiking to the city and not wandering around endlessly in the woods before even getting to the Port, but I suppose it’s up to you.

    I would have it require some navigation tool proficiency or Survival checks, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe. But I even stated that they are convinced that they are here (at the point on the map). Several players tried to argue that (looking at the map) it should only take 1-2 days to walk to the Port Nyanzaru side of the peninsula. But Raven, a self-professed expert in real-world survival tactics, shot them down, stating it would be foolish and suicidal to walk into the jungle over following the shore line for 4-5 days. And she should know because her character is THE apex hunter with advanced knowledge of morden alchemy, navigation, and survival. I’m trying not to make a big deal about this and I’m hoping once I tone down the survival aspects of the game and focus more on exploration, this will resolve itself.


      1. Okay, to be fair, this isn’t entirely wrong IRL. It’s a lot easier to get turned around and start heading on a divergent course or fall into crevice hidden by plants in the jungle and a lot harder to be found by rescue parties. The issue that comes up is if you have enough food and fresh water for the longer route because the ocean isn’t drinkable.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. That said, if they’re just following the beach you can probably do some large timeskips, since the terrain doesn’t change too much, random encounters are probably less likely, and as I mentioned the chances of getting lost are practically nil (provided they picked the right direction to set off initially).

            Liked by 1 person

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