A Really Late Look at the Tomb of Annihilation
I recently read a comment on one of my blog posts where the commenter complained that I had to disclaim who I was at the beginning, because why does everything have to be about social justice all the time. So I guess I shouldn’t start this by saying that I’m a white male that has always lived with a certain amount of privilege, which means that I may not see every side of an issue from critical points of view that people in marginalized communities may, and that I hope people in those communities will feel free to point out where I have blind spots. Oops.
It’s been a while, and there have been two more adventures, as well as several official products, since the release of Tomb of Annihilation, but I’ve still got some thoughts on Chult, and how the setting was utilized. There are way better takes on this, so just as an example, you should read these articles:
I’m going to go into a little about my perspective back in the AD&D days, now, and what I really wished we would have seen.
The Olden Days
The Ring of Winter was not a perfect novel, and I’m sure there are way more problems that I’m going to remember with the book. First and foremost, having a northern Faerun hero show up and help plays into the White Savior trope, and having the adventurer’s society in Cormyr look so much like old English explorer’s clubs where rich white men traveled to exotic and uncivilized lands doesn’t help much.
What I liked about the book, however, was that Mezro was a powerful nation with plenty of magic. It was a city enchanted in a way not unlike the elven cities in the setting, with wards to protect it that defied normal magical practice, and had a council of Chosen as it’s protectors.
I didn’t get the feeling that this nation was less advanced than Cormyr or Waterdeep when I read the book. I didn’t get the feeling that they needed the white savior to show up because they were too unsophisticated to understand the dangers they were facing.
I even liked the subtle danger of Ras Nsi taking using necromancy to adopt some of the practices of the northern nations to potentially make Chult more prosperous, at the cost of surrendering the morals instilled in the people.
What I’m saying is, I think there were flaws in the narrative, that mistakes were made, and unfortunate clichés reinforced, but there was also the basis of a much stronger story to be told without making it the story of a point of view outsiders saving this new and “strange” land.
People that tried to do the “right” thing in the 80s and 90s often screwed up badly by not fully thinking about the consequences of the story they were telling. Phase one of most white creators trying to “understand” the perspective of people of color is usually realizing that colonization actually is bad!
The problem is, to show that colonization is bad, people of color in a setting are colonized, and in the 80s and 90s, that often meant that “heroes” not from that region had to come in and save these poor people that had no agency in their own survival. Colonization is bad, but then the narrative becomes, “only a white person can defeat a white person.”
I was a stupid high schooler in this time period, and I admit, I had my players fighting off slavers to defend Chult. I was very proud of myself, and didn’t once think, “why do the PCs have to be the heroes here? What is this narrative saying, overall?” Even when I thought Mezro was a cool setting element after having read The Ring of Winter, I didn’t have the PCs interact with NPCs that were their equals (or betters) when it came to advancements and magic.
The setting itself moved in this direction as well. Later 2nd edition AD&D products set Amn up as the primary evil colonizing force. While it’s not a perfect analogy, this was also somewhat akin to saying that all colonization and slavery was distinctly Spanish in character, because while that parallel was driven home, analogies for French or English colonizers never materialized (for example).
This meant that Amn, which was already portrayed as a greedy, overreaching nation, was the only real bad actor in modern-day colonization in the Realms. Sadly, Cormyr’s “benevolent annexations” were a much more nuanced and interesting exploration of colonization that got downplayed, sacrificed on the twin altars of “make the Realms generic D&D land,” and “turn this region of the Realms into an exact replica of a historical culture.”
Oh, Fourth Edition Realms
If you read the articles I linked, you have a much better summary of where the wheels REALLY come off regarding Chult. Third edition largely ignored Chult, despite all the protests about how “every part of the Realms is super detailed and you can’t write anything about it that hasn’t already been done in great detail.” Fourth edition destroyed Mezro, and made Chult into savage jungle explore land.
Blundering the Sundering
I’m still kind of torn on the Sundering, because I think a lot of damage was done to the Realms in trying to make it conform to the “Points of Light” assumptions of 4th edition, but just saying that the conjunction of planets ending just “fixed” everything, up to and including restoring some NPCs that weren’t all that magical and shouldn’t still be alive, was unsatisfying. Heck, there was a ton of stuff implied in the Sundering novels that never went anywhere, because the default explanation was “it’s like 4th edition never happened, but it’s a century later–but we may still throw in some old NPCs too.”
Among nations that were definitely destroyed, but yet, apparently weren’t definitely destroyed, we had nations like Lantan and Halruaa, which just blinked back into being fine and functional in the setting.
The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide doesn’t revive Mezro. It’s still referred to as a ruin in that book. Chris Perkins, on the official D&D podcast, hinted that Mezro may not have been destroyed, and when Tomb of Annihilation came out, I was excited, because I was sure Mezro would figure into this prominently.
Nope. Mezro isn’t destroyed, but it may never, ever, ever come back, and your primary source for learning about it is by talking to the white savior that showed up over a century ago to save the place back then. So the narrative is that Artus Cimber, a white man from northern Faerun, is the gatekeeper of information about the most advanced Chultan civilization, and it’s beyond the scope of the adventure to talk to anyone from Mezro directly about the city.
Ras Nsi, the villain from the old days, who was a powerful necromancer trying to convince Chult that they needed to adopt the ways of outsiders and viciously exploit their own resources in order to make them a world power, lost all his powers and became a Yuan-Ti. Almost as if the point of this character was completely lost, and his name was assigned to a random Yuan-Ti leader as an Easter egg instead of for any meaningful reason.
So, what is the “safe haven” in Chult for PC outsiders coming into the nation? Port Nyanzaru, which was colonized, kicked out the colonizers, and is now prosperous because they adopted the mercantile ways of the colonizers. If Ras Nsi wasn’t a snake person that had lost all of his powers and existed mainly as a proper noun, he would be proud.
Where the Effort Went
It’s pretty clear that the “point” of Tomb of Annihilation was to do a slightly less “gotcha” version of the Tomb of Horrors, build a campaign around it, and add in jungle exploration and lost world elements. Chult has jungles and dinosaurs are really lost world feeling, so Chult “won.”
Ras Nsi can’t be a powerful necromancer, because the adventure is importing Acererak as the main villain. Mezro can’t return, because it might distract from all of the ruins that are seeded into the exploration portion of the adventure, which tie into the actual main ruin location where the climax of the adventure takes place.
Chult was just one more Forgotten Realms element that was the right size and shape to connect to a generic D&D adventure concept. The difference is, I can get upset all day long about losing the nuance of a country regarded as lawful good relying on a secret police force to keep it safe and secure, but at the end of the day, Cormyr isn’t going to be the only shot at representation I have being pissed away by the overriding concerns of a generic adventure being placed in a setting that has a lot more potential.
What Would I Have Wanted (Which Isn’t the Most Pressing Question)
First and foremost, what I wanted out of this adventure is nowhere near as important as what people who have missed out on representation would have wanted. And I would have to say that the thing I would have wanted most was for WOTC to have had any people of color working on this adventure. It did come out after the adventure was released that, no, there were not any people of color working on this, even as freelancers.
This is a huge problem for the company that is publishing the most widely known RPG in the industry. In a time of unparalleled growth and visibility, a product that is set in a region of the setting with people of color, had no people of color working on the product.
The other glaring issue from the start is that the adventure assumes that you aren’t “from” Chult. People are getting tired of the Sword Coast? Hey, let’s have them make people from the Sword Coast that go visit an “exotic” land.
The real problem, in retrospect, is that this adventure was probably always going to disappoint me. The design priorities were “Tomb of Horrors-esque” first, setting way down the line. I really wanted something that was built from the ground up as showcasing Chult.
I would have loved something that played with the old lore in more consistent ways. Maybe Ras Nsi drove out the Amnians, and has done some good by doing a lot of bad behind the scenes. Opposing Ras Nsi then becomes a little bit of a moral quandary, because it might hurt Chult in the short term.
Let the PCs find out that Ras Nsi has been keeping Mezro from materializing on the prime material plane to keep them from interfering with his plans, and also reveal that some other force has been playing to Ras Nsi’s biases, and may be an even greater evil. Give Ras Nsi a chance to redeem himself and rejoin the Barae of Mezro to fight this greater evil, as Mezro is brought back to Chult.
In this case, you could still have your reframed Tomb of Horrors with Acererak as an outsider tricking Ras Nsi as the end point of the campaign, but with fewer mini-dungeons, ruins, and random wandering.
And the most important part of all of this–make it really clear that the default PCs are assumed to be from Chult. This isn’t outsiders coming in and saving the place, this is about local adventurers doing what they need to do.
I’m not even sure you need the Death Curse to hang over all the Realms. Beyond the fact that you have a lich from outside the setting using an artifact and a godling to trump how the entire cosmology and afterlife works in the setting, using the Death Curse as the reason things need to be fixed in Chult sends a different message than the other adventures. If the Sword Coast is in danger, it’s worth doing the work to save it. If Chult is in danger, the rest of the Realms have to also be in danger to make it worth showing up.
Additionally, having native characters changes one element that I saw repeated over and over again at various Adventurers League tables. Because PCs are outsiders, and because the adventures called out the adverse conditions in the jungle, people constantly referred to Chult as this terrible hell hole where no one should live. That is not the narrative you want to reinforce in the only setting that is primarily populated by people of color in the official products you have published so far.
Credit Where Credit is Due
I am not saying that people should not enjoy Tomb of Annihilation. I do hope that people will examine and take care when they present the people of Chult when they run the adventure. I am sure that many people were attracted to the adventure as a full campaign based around the Tomb of Horrors, and others wanted a jungle hexcrawl, and like the designers, they are thinking of those elements primarily.
The adventure, as written, has some great moments. I would list them, but I’m also biased and many of them would include the word dinosaur. The death curse is even an interesting plot element, though it’s applied a little too broadly, quickly, and punishingly to allow some of the elements of the adventure as written to flourish.
I also don’t want to make it appear that I think WOTC has done a terrible job with inclusivity. WOTC has had some missteps and some garbled ways of expressing it from time to time, but I’m not going to claim that hasn’t happened to me either. I’m glad that they are trying, and I hope that they listen when people point out where they could do better.
We aren’t getting the sheer volume of sexist images, and we have a lot more people of color represented in the artwork of the books as well. WOTC as an organization has make several gestures towards marginalized communities that just a few years ago, very few in the RPG industry had done, and not with as much weight as the industry leader brings with it. Tomb of Annihilation presented a same-sex married couple, and Waterdeep, in the most recent products, is depicted as a progressive society in regard to many social issues.
I also want to make it clear that this didn’t seem, to me, to be the tone-deaf series of issues that plagued Goodman Game’s modern rework of the Isle of Dread. Unlike that product, which seemed oblivious that problematic content could even exist in RPG material, Tomb of Annihilation tries in some places, and fails in others, but at least seems aware that it’s not okay to write adventures like it’s still the 1980s and every gamer looks exactly like you. Of course, WOTC still approved that product, so there is plenty of blame to share in that case.
When mistakes are made, and when marginalized voices speak, it is still very important to listen to them, and to do better. And one of the best ways to do better is to actually hire them to work on your product.
I’m Probably Wrong
When I laid out what I would have liked to have seen, I’m sure some of the expectations I laid out are still filtered through the lens of someone that had privilege in the gaming space for decades. I have blind spots. Please feel free to point them out to me. I want to learn.
I haven’t written a standard review of Tomb of Annihilation, because I know that I had a lot of expectations that drowned out a more detached analysis of the content of the book. Having played through sections of it in Adventurers League play, I’ve got opinions, but I also know that a lot of people enjoy it on its face as an adventure, setting concerns aside.
So, let me know what I got wrong, and if you are someone who has always had representation in the RPG industry, maybe spend a few moments thinking about why the depiction of marginalized cultures may not the last thing you think about when evaluating a product.