Welcome to the jungle!
A death curse has befallen everyone who’s been raised from the dead. Its victims are rotting away, and all efforts to reverse the decay have failed.
The souls of the dead are being stolen one by one and trapped inside a necromantic artifact. Only its destruction will free the trapped spirits and allow the dead to be raised once more.
All paths lead to Chult, a mysterious land of volcanoes, jungles, and the ruins of fallen kingdoms. Below them all waits a deadly tomb. The trap is set. Will you take the bait?
I once called Chult “the most forgotten of the Forgotten Realms.” And if that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, then you’ve probably never played Dungeons & Dragons.
The “Forgotten Realms” is the default setting for most D&D roleplaying games. It is Middle Earth on steroids—an imaginary world where pretty much every fantasy trope and monster exists to maximize gaming possibilities. Chult is the “lost world” of the Forgotten Realms, being a jungle-covered peninsula where dinosaurs still roam and home to a human society loosely based on African culture. Chult was first described in 1992—a year before the first Jurassic Park film—in the novel The Ring of Winter. The roleplaying supplement The Jungles of Chult, released the following year, expanded on the setting. Since then Chult has largely been neglected by D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, but that changed in late 2017 with the company releasing a series of products as part of a new Tomb of Annihilation campaign set in the region. What players got is a vast improvement of what came before, although the setting will appeal more to fantasy fans than people seeking dinosaur-centric adventures.
There are multiple ways to play Tomb of Annihilation (abbreviated hereafter as ToA). Players can go the traditional pen-and-paper route and pick up the campaign rulebook. They can purchase the board game version or its digital implementation. Or they could download the campaign setting for the online roleplaying game Neverwinter. I played the digital version of the board game and read the pen-and-paper rulebook, so that’s what I will focus on here.
In ToA, the players are a group of adventurers hired to learn why resurrection magic is fading in the Forgotten Realms. See, any time a character dies in D&D, they can be resurrected. The problem is the magic to bring back the dead isn’t working as it should and people who had been previously resurrected are beginning to wither and die. The cause is a magical artifact called the Soulmonger, but how it is draining resurrection magic and who is behind the sinister scheme are mysteries the players must solve. The players know the Soulmonger is somewhere in Chult, but that’s pretty much it.
Chult is a gigantic wilderness sprinkled with ancient ruins and inhabited by tribes of stone-age goblins, evil snake-people called Yuan-ti, and ravenous pterodactyl men. The previous human civilization, detailed in The Ring of Winter, disappeared after a worldwide disaster called the Spellplague. As a result, Chult has no kings or queens but is instead ruled by merchants based in Port Nyanzaru, the largest center of civilization on the peninsula. It is from this city that players will launch most of their expeditions into the interior, although they can take a break from exploration to bet on dinosaur races or involve themselves in the Byzantine scheming of the port’s rulers.
The ToA campaign book and board game follow the same storyline, although the campaign book contains more adventures provided in greater detail. Players will spend the first part of the campaign exploring Chult’s jungles before ending up in one of D&D’s more traditional dungeons. Along the way, they will meet bird people, cat people, frog people, lobster people, evil apes, and lots of undead things, including a zombie Tyrannosaurus rex that vomits human zombies. They will also meet Artus Cimber, hero of The Ring of Winter, and his dinosauroid companion Dragonbait, a character first introduced back in 1988 in the Finder’s Stone trilogy of novels. In the board game, Cimber and Dragonbait are two of the five playable characters.
The campaign book is for dedicated roleplayers willing to spend months building up their characters and exploring the mysteries of Chult. The board game is probably the option the rest of us will choose, given it is less time consuming. It is based on the game system first introduced in Castle Ravenloft, in which players build a dungeon by randomly drawing tiles. Most tiles have symbols on them representing monster encounters and traps. Monster actions are dictated by instructions on separate cards, so there is no need for a “dungeon master” to oversee the game. I won’t go any further into the rules here but will link to reviews below so you can learn more about how the game plays. That said, you should know are three versions of the board game. The first is a deluxe version with painted miniatures priced as high $160. The regular retail version with unpainted miniatures sells for $80. By far the cheapest is the digital implementation for PC and Mac. It sells for $16, although you will need to pay an extra $5 for a fifth playable character included with the physical copies of the game.
Enough with description. What did I think about the game? As I said, ToA is a major improvement on the previous campaign material about Chult. The Jungles of Chult always struck me as a lazy effort. As I said in my review: “the authors (didn’t) bother going into any real detail about the setting, places to explore, or its wildlife.” This time the campaign book is stuffed with details about the land and its inhabitants. Perhaps the largest improvement is its depiction of its African-inspired culture, whose people are no longer depicted as spear-wielding “savages” but as merchants and traders. (Not everyone agrees D&D made much progress in that regard.) The adventures are interesting and don’t always involve players hacking their way out of danger, although they will probably end up fighting more often than not. However, what I really like about the setting is instead of the typical elves, dwarves, and halflings found in most games of this type, players encounter far more exotic beings. Characters may stumble upon a monastery full of bird people, hire a cat person as a guide, or fight giant four-armed apes or jaguars with snakes sprouting from their shoulders. Don’t get me wrong: Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy races are still around. It’s just that they take a backseat to the more interesting stuff.
As for dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, they’re present and play a starring role in a few adventures. That said, dinosaurs are not as central to the setting as some other roleplaying games. The board game comes with three Velociraptors and two “pterafolk” miniatures, but remaining figures are fantasy creatures. The campaign book also emphasizes fantasy creatures, only providing game statistics and profiles for a few dinosaurs. Chult is a setting with dinosaurs but not necessarily one about dinosaurs. It is a great change of pace from more traditional fantasy settings, but die-hard dinosaur fans may be left wishing for more.
- Chult has had a tumultuous history since the publication of The Jungles of Chult. The peninsula’s backstory was revised in the 2004 gaming supplement Serpent Kingdoms to become a base of operations for the villainous Yaun-ti. A few years later Wizards of the Coast decided to reboot the Forgotten Realms setting by introducing a disaster called the Spellplague, which transformed the planet’s geography and turned Chult into an island. The move proved unpopular with fans, so in 2013 the company introduced another magical disaster that transformed Forgotten Realms back to what it was before the Spellplague (more or less), with Chult once again becoming a peninsula.
- Dinosaurs are also known as “thunderers” and “behemoths” in the Forgotten Realms. They apparently ruled the planet before the first intelligent races came into existence. The animals are not the products of evolution, as the world of Forgotten Realms was created several thousand years ago through magical means. They have their own god named Ubtao (“the father of dinosaurs”) who rules Chult.
- Forgotten Realms is not the only D&D campaign setting to feature dinosaurs. The terrible reptiles are also present in Eberron, a setting that combines high fantasy with elements from early 20th-century adventure pulp fiction. Many species of dinosaurs in Eberron have been tamed by halflings, which are essentially Hobbits.
- In my opinion, while ToA is better than The Jungles of Chult in most respects, the latter does have better cover art.