The lifeblood of Dungeons & Dragons flows from two places: the creativity of its players and a slow, but steady, stream of new books from the game’s developer, Wizards of the Coast. We’ve gotten two of those books this fall. The first is a campaign called Tomb of Annihilation, and the second is a grab bag of tools for players and dungeon masters called Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Both are engaging and exciting, but they do different things, and in this short dual review I’m going to tell you what you can use the books for and how they might positively impact your game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Like last year’s Storm King’s Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation is meant to be an all-in-one experience. While you need the trifecta of Dungeons & Dragons base manuals (Dungeon Master’s Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Monster Manual) in order to truly use the book, everything else that a group of players might need to experience the adventure is fully contained in it. Taking place in the jungles of Chult in the official D&D world of the Forgotten Realms, the promise of Tomb is that it is a fully unique campaign that is unlike most of the offerings that have emerged from the game’s designers over the past few years.
There are some twists and turns in the main plot that players might experience if they play through the campaign for the first time, so I will be as spoiler free as possible. The short of it is that Chult is a dangerous, jungle-covered place where death could appear from around every corner. Think about every book you’ve ever read about the rainforest and the flora and fauna that might kill you there; that’s what this book is trying to go for.
People are going missing in Chult. This is impacting the trading post there, and players need to explore the jungles and defeat whatever might be there in order to fix this little corner of the world. Like all adventures, this one isn’t necessarily what it seems, and there is a lot of potential here for creative or by-the-book dungeon masters to use the setting, the dungeons contained within, and the various species of turtle people, bird people and snake people to set up some truly engaging encounters that will have their players talking for months.
However, it is important to note that the jungles and dangers also have a slight feel of “darkest Africa” to them, and the Chultan people are dark-skinned. The narrative beats in Tomb pull heavily from familiar sources like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jules Verne, and those works have a long racialized history that is not often grappled with. This crops up in places like the design of the Batiri, a culture of goblins who wear massive tribal masks and literally stack on top of each other to make a “totem pole” for warfare. There is also a Lost World-ish thing going on, since Chult has both tame and wild dinosaurs roaming around. While the literary and visual content Tomb borrows from makes for interesting design and visuals, I think Wizards could have done more to interrogate those texts that they borrowed from and how they have a complicated past with general representations of “Africa” writ large.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, named after a beholder who just knows a lot of things, forgoes the designed adventure and is instead a huge book of things to add to your game. New character backgrounds, specific transformations for each species of character, and a huge set of new options for how to build your characters are contained within. Guide is a book that is fundamentally about making your D&D game better in as many ways as it can. It is a toolbox that you can use to augment any given part of the design process of your game (for a Dungeon Master) or the actual play experience (for both DMs and players alike).
Dungeons & Dragons is a rules-heavy experience, and that can be a strength or a weakness depending on what the DM and her players want to be doing at any given time. Guide’s power as a toolbox is that it helps you bridge the gap between “crunchy rules” and “narrative freewheeling.” If you need rules for exactly how a Sphere of Crushing Doom (aka Indiana Jones) trap might function, including what the saving throws should be, then this book has you covered. If you need ideas for the “down time” between campaigns when the players are just off doing their own thing, then this book has a wealth of information and tips on how to use that opportunity to make players feel interested and engaged with their world.
These fall offerings from Wizards of the Coast are meant to help Dungeon Masters and their players create interesting and engaging experiences, and both Tomb of Annihilation and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything are excellent at doing what they are intended to do. While the latter is mostly intended to help you grow your game, you could always use Tomb to do something similar. Dungeon Masters should never be afraid to borrow, take influence from, or straight-up rip off things that they like from the published adventures. Does a jungle tomb full of nightmares seem right up your alley? Grab the Tomb book, strip all the important characters out, and send your players through it. I have no doubt that they will have an excellent time. Just make sure they bring a machete.