How to Run Tomb of Annihilation Dungeons and Dragons Adventure for Children
Tomb of Annihilation is so difficult, quite often in the adventure, the text suggests on how to include new characters in the most likely case that one or more characters die. This is especially true in the end adventure, within Acerak’s tomb.
Nevertheless, besides the meat-grinding playground that the temple is, this adventure provides an amazing setting for jungle adventures.
I plan to show how you can customize Tomb of Annihilation for your kids tabletop roleplaying games. May your story continue.
Running Games for Children
There are tons of “how to DM for kids’ ‘ videos and articles, but the best single piece of advice I can give you is this: The best way to DM for kids is to DM for your kids. Remember that for children, love is spelled T-I-M-E. It doesn’t really matter the techniques so long as you show up as a loving family member or friend and tell a great story. I know this because my kids were my first players and they watched me struggle through my first games and they didn’t care, so long as dad played with them and gave them attention. With that being said, here are a few tips I have for running the game for kids!
I have found that character death doesn’t matter to children so much as character failure. It may come as a surprise, but if a player’s character dies, they simply scratch up a new one, but if that character fails, that’s when the tears start to form. So, be more attentive to “failure” of tasks in game. Anything from falling off a horse, to breaking a sword. Be careful when describing failure and remember to empower the player by allowing them to partake in the description of the failure.
Another point, remember that pets and things mean more to kids than their characters do. Each of my kids take on some animal companion. My advice is to not risk the player’s losing their pet or pet item (sometimes kids will adopt a thing as a pet instead of a cute fluffy animal). Instead of drawing up stats for this creature, simply have them run in the background for flavor text only. Bring the pet into the interactions and descriptions, but when conflict occurs, wave your hand over any damage the pet would incur. I would leave it up to your discretion on whether or not to put the pet’s life in jeopardy to further the plot. For example, if the player wakes up and discovers their pet is gone, please believe me, they will move heaven and hell to find that creature before the hour is up. This can be useful, but use with caution. Avoid overdoing it and make each interaction meaningful by bringing the relationship to the forefront of the plot.
Another point to remember is that kids love to collect items. They love crafting and building and this in of itself can be the point of playing the game. The main plot in ToA is to shut down the Soulmonger, an item. Along the way, they can gather a collection of powerful items, build robots, adopt animals along the way to aid them in accomplishing their goal. Able to collect and store items propels interest in the game.
The Adventure Overview
So, now that we have those tips out of the way, let’s look at the adventure.
A long time ago, an ancient kingdom made the chief god, Omu mad. So Omu left the people and they were adopted by 9 trickster gods who led the people into destruction. An evil lich named Acerak saw that he could take part in this destruction so he built a giant battery called the soulmonger. This battery sucked up any soul when someone died and has been working for the last 20 days. This means that no one has been able to pass onto into the afterlife but have been stuck in the soulmonger battery, charging up for Acerakt to selfishly keep all the soul power for himself, so he can live forever.
Surefire Story Hooks
So now that the main plot is expressed, I would accomplish this in the hearing of the players for the first session. The best way to make sure they stick with the mission is to tie their characters into the person, places and things of the adventure.
Acerak – while I wouldn’t tie in the players to this villain, I want them to oppose everything he stands for. Acererak is selfish, takes, is greedy and will taunt the players.
Syndra Sylvane – make sure that each player has some connection with her. She is described as a wizard, but what I would do is learn your player’s classes and decide Syndra is one of their mentors. If your player picks a fighter, then she is a fighter. If your player picks a druid, then she is a druid. That way, she acts as a mentor to the younger adventurer and the hook is firmly set to finish off the story. She is sick from the soul curse, having died once in battle and then raised. So the soul monger’s effects eat away at her, prompting a call to action.
Liara Portyr – Liara works with Syndra and hires a flaming fist member to accompany the mission. Tie in one of the characters into the Flaming Fist and give them a glorious cause to protect Chult. Again, this doesn’t have to be class specific, only find out what class the player takes and adapt it to the Flaming Fist. Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Paladins work easily into this faction.
Sewn Sisters – built into the final battleground, this group of hags could somehow be related to the characters. The character on a previous mission acquired a skeleton key that they can use in the tomb to unlock the skeleton gate. Having this item will ensure the player sees the adventure though to the end. For some trickster reason, one of the hags visited the player and gifted them with the key in exchange for helping the hag cross a busy road. The player was told to visit Syndra and “do what she tells you!”
Guide – consider choosing an appropriate guide for the players that sits in Syndra’s office. Along with that guide is another player character who is commissioned to ensure the mission is successful. Kids often will enjoy guides like Shago, River Mist (keep the guide down to one person) and Eku (especially if he reveals his true identity as a couatl). Tie in one of the characters as an assistant to this guide.
While the book has the adventure beginning in Chult, there are many other places this story can kick off. Jahaka Anchorage could start off the players in a pirate adventure and learn of the death curse from a pirate captain. While pirates are usually evil, children enjoy twisting tropes with elements of purity. So, there can be a kind hearted pirate that “robs from the rich and gives to the poor” and wants to see Chult restored. In this adventure thread, consider having most if not all of the player characters of Omu or Chultan descent.
Another place to begin the adventure is Camp Vengeance with Niles Breakbone. While fighting off undead, the Flaming Fist could learn of the death curse and the party be sent to find the soulmonger and destroy it once and for all.
As long as you tie in the people into the characters and clearly state the mission to destroy the soulmonger, you are guaranteed to have a good time.
The SoulMonger is by far the easiest item to link the characters in the adventure, but it is a villain that needs to be destroyed. Consider having each of the players desire to obtain one of the powerful items within the Tomb at the end of the adventure. This ensures they always have a personal goal to reach along with saving the world.
Staff of the Forgotten One – good for wizards, sorcerers, warlocks or anyone who knows them. Currently in Acerak’s possession, so it should be difficult to obtain.
Ring of Winter – consider hiding this in the Tomb giving every a desire to search for it.
Relics of the Past – page 189
Consider assigning each player to desire one of these rare items. Possible motivations for searching for them include restoring family honor, impressing a god, returning it to it’s rightful owner, delivering a people from an outstanding debt, forgiveness from a rival.
There you have it! Use these persons, places and things to tie in the players into the adventure.
Game Play Suggestions
Now that you have established clear motivations and connections for the players, they can begin the adventure. Remember that when playing an rpg with children, most sessions will last between 45 minutes to just over an hour. If you do play for more than an hour, include a break during that time.
During the break, have the kids go to the bathroom, go into another room to get a snack or play outside. The break lasts 10-15 minutes and then you can resume the game.
While I wouldn’t play games with my kids for more than 2 hours, I would recommend a 15 minute break every hour.
If you are playing rpgs with children and you plan to occupy their time for more than 2 hours, consider having the kids perform a craft to space out the game time. Between sessions, they can build maps, paint terrain, build miniatures out of clay, draw pictures of their sessions, update their character sheets, read books or play actively outside.
You can brew your very own healing potions with this recipe
- Clear seltzer water
- Juice – various colors
- Mix the ingredients 3:1 ratio
- Place them in bottles with stoppers or simply juice cups and serve
The adventures in Chult provide plenty of outdoor survival. Assign one of the players an inventory log by which they can keep track of supplies, rations and water. Some children will enjoy this greatly and enjoy planning for their travels. You can use paper and pencil to help the player keep track of supplies.
Players enjoy the rule of cool, but children absolutely love their ideas coming to life. As you progress through conflict within the story, consider using dice rolls and DC’s for resolutions, but allow the children to describe the results. For example, if the DC is 10 and the player rolls a 2, state that this idea doesn’t work, so why not? Rather than describing an outright failure, consider describing a complication instead. So that means a low dice roll would not stop the game, but rather complicate the success. Then look to the player to describe the outcome. This can occur with your help, of course. Now, you can pull in the other players to “notice” the complication and generate their ideas on how to resolve it.
Using the Rule of Cool
The Rule of Cool can be applied to boost morale at the table. If you notice the players waning in energy, rather than relying on the dice to decide success, allow the players to go around the table and describe their contributions to resolving a situation.
For example, if their canoe springs a leak, have each player describe their contribution to fixing the problem. They might decide to pull over the boat and camp, repair it using an interesting supply, or completely scrap the boat and hitch a ride on that hippopotamus they befriended.
Use the rule of cool to bypass risky dice rolls and keep the story moving.
My own Adventure Outline
On page 7, the book describes the adventure as a “ticking” clock. Part of the fun of Chult is the expiration, and while there is threat of all of the world absorbed into the soul monger, I would not use time as a pressure. Instead, lay out the adventure in a way that allows for the players to explore each module in a linear fashion. Here is how our story progressed.
- We began in Chult, had a dinosaur race, received the quest, a random urban encounter, a shopping trip and plotted a course to Camp Righteous
- We travelled down the river, had 2 random encounters and 3 campsites. During these 5 encounters, the players discovered wildlife such as plants and animals as well as hints of the Omu people.
- Arriving in Camp Righteous, the players then discovered Camp Vengeance and were guided to go to Camp Vengeance.
- Arriving in Camp Vengeance, they met Niles Breakbone the players discovered Vorn and the Biting Ant Tribe
- Arriving in the Biting Ant Tribe, the players discovered Nanny PuPu (hilarious name) and Mbala.
- Now the players have had encounters with interesting wildlife and hints at the Omu ruins via conversations with explorers, the hag, and old stone work showing the history of Omu.
They returned to Camp Vengeance with Vorn, satisfied the goblin tribe with a relic from the hag, defeated the hag and freed her flesh golem, and leveled up their characters. I plan to have them explore the jungle, searching for Omu until they reach a level appropriate for the forgotten city. I will then keep the story confined to the city until they discover the tomb of the nine gods. After they reach a certain level, they will gain enough information to enter the tomb with surety of the location of the soul monger. They will navigate the challenges of the tomb until the final showdown with Acerak.
That is as far as the game play has progressed, stay tuned for more!
Death and Difficulty in D&D
Killing in D&D can be morally conflicting. When playing arcade games, minions have no story, and therefore are not personable, but the power of TTRPGs is that even a goblin can have a backstory and if that’s true, then has a personality, soul and destiny and who are you to quench that spirit?
That’s the beauty of RPGs, so what I propose with combat and killing in the game, here are some tips when playing with children.
- Realize it’s just a game and sometimes it’s fun to blast the bad guys
- Allow for silly ends for villains (embarrassment is worse than death).
- Allow for off screen death (falling down a hole, blasted in fire, underwater).
- Clearly state the villains as those who kill, steal and destroy and therefore need to be stopped.
- While some children will go to great lengths to describe gore, you are still the DM. Gently announce to everyone (not singling one out) that we won’t be describing evisceration, beheadings, organ removal, torture, dismemberment…etc. You know which kid I am talking about and you have a good read at the tolerance for violence children have.
- Have the villains be monsters rather than humanoid.
- Have the villains be predators in the wild, or undead that have no hope.
- Be careful with the Yuan Ti themes of morphing, cannibalisms, sacrifice and sadism. Generally, I would say the yuan ti all be abominations and bloodthirsty, but never appearing human. Don’t delve into the morality of transitioning from one species to the next, but keep it simple. They are evil snake monsters that want to rule the world.
- Acererak is selfish and takes all of the cupcakes for himself. While the concept of soul might be heavy for some, children I have found treat it simply, like part of their body and therefore precious but not mysterious. Children understand selfishness and this theme can help them identify themes of selfish acts from themselves, with the hope of maturing to selflessness.
- 9 trickster gods can be an easy segway into personality concepts such as the enneagram. For more conceptual children, this can provide a healthy role play of personality virtue and vices.
- Reiterate that Omu fell because of greed and will be saved through generosity.
- To keep things simple, have the players identify NPCs as either greedy or generous.
When a player dies and that might happen, describe the characters soul as now trapped in the soul monger. This will ensure the party continues on the adventure to now “save their friends from eternal prison”. I have had more of my kids’ characters die in the game rather than adults that I have played with. With that being said, children assume there will be some level of sacrifice required of their characters. If death is to be the end, allow them to make it meaningful, and drive home the theme of greed vs generosity. RPGs are great ways to influence morals, and display character traits as living people in the game. Children can do this splendidly and will often sacrifice their character for the good of the party. If a player’s character is at risk for death, do not allow the death to be the result of a stupid accidennt or worse, a player failure. Let them drive the narrative and navigate the risk assessment of losing a character. Unlike life, with RPGs we often have an ample amount of time to consider our options. Allow a pause to discuss the outcome of the story as you talk about it around the table. Then you can get back to the game.
To achieve the reward, the players must collect skeleton keys and puzzle cubes. Space these items out appropriately throughout the adventure. Consider starting the adventure by giving the players one of each and directing them to the last known location of each. ToA is a great adventure for a scavenger hunt leading all the way into the final battle in chapter 5 Tomb of the 9 gods.
Tomb of Annihilation can be a graphic resource for harsh violence. When playing with children, simply substitute any violence or gore with gross. Boogers, Slime, and Puke are great descriptors to engage child players. Children can be grossed out, but not frightened of creatures with multiple appendages, or appendages in the wrong location, such as a flesh golem with a giant hand for a head, or a chattering skeleton hopping on 1 leg.
Throughout the adventure and well into the Tomb of the 9 gods, puzzles are a major part of the adventure. Children may or may not enjoy the puzzles depending on their personality. Puzzles can be incredibly frustrating if this is the only way to solve the encounter. The same can be said for social interactions for shyer and more reserved children. The main point is to include more than one possible solution in any encounter, whether it be combat, social or puzzle.
A possible idea for puzzle solutions is to have a real life puzzle placed before the players that they must solve together before their characters can press on to the next part of the adventure. This can be a jigsaw puzzle, a hangman riddle, a game of jenga, a color by number painting, a game of tic tac toe, a memory concentration game of cards, or even a simple math problem.
Clearly, the puzzle should be age appropriate and in the case you have a wide range of ages within the party, use the puzzle to divert attention to one or two children of the same age group and state to the other players to provide support alone in the puzzle encounter. Allow the players to roll for hints if they get stuck with 10-20 being a success and 1-9 being a success, but with some sort of setback.
Setbacks can include a monster arriving, poison gas or water filling the room, one of the characters falling asleep, or a trap encasing one of the characters. Keep with the method of low dice rolls providing complications, not determining success.
Increasing Difficulty and Adding Encounters
To further complicate the adventures, the characters develop sickness, dehydration, and injuries. My kids love their characters coming down with sickness and injury and this is a great way to incorporate humor into the game…I’m looking at you dysentery.
Spend as much time as you want going through the locales of Chult. Remember that unless the players have access to your master map, you can place the encounters anywhere on the island. Firefinger statue, the Heart of Ubtao and even Jahaka Anchorage can occur at any time, anyplace in the adventure. My advice is to prepare the top 3 encounters and place them close by.
To keep the player on track, have each encounter end with a conversation with the NPC or some discovery that reminds the children of the SoulMonger’s threat. Another great way to reiterate the adventure is to have a friendly NPC ask the players about their adventure so far. Have the players tell their characters’ story around a campfire, while holed up in a mine, or waiting in a prison cell.
My own History with my Children Players
I have run Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat for my 3 children ages 5-9. My 7 and 9 year old provided most of the gameplay, but my 5 year old chimed in with social interactions (seriously, she is a genius when it comes to negotiations). Regarding combat, damage dice and clever use of spells, I relied on my other two children. I have to say that even by level 16 in stopping the summoning, I didn’t pull any punches regarding monster AC, HP and overall battle tactics. I’m mostly a storytelling DM and don’t like to have TPKs that don’t serve a story. In fact, I don’t like anything to be an accident in my games. With that being said, I’m impressed that my kids successfully ran through the entire adventure and did a great job!
Now with them being ages 7-11, Tomb of Annihilation provides a great challenge! To highlight my knowledge of my own children’s interests, here are some things I notice.
My 11 year old son enjoys leveling up his character, gaining access to feats and spells, and performing well in combat. With social interaction, he cuts to the quest and does a great job keeping up with the party’s inventory. I allow him to provide a lot of guidance to his younger sisters in order to optimize the party, as long as he roleplays the interactions. I also allow him to play his youngest sister’s character sheet in combat. He also has been the only child to completely read through the player’s handbook and monster manual. He’s memorized most of the 5e spells statistics, class abilities and feats.
My 10 year old daughter enjoys leveling up her character, gathering pets, collecting items, and heavy amounts of exploration. Her game would be enjoyed if she simply got to explore rich locations and make discoveries. She enjoys combat strictly from a simple point of view, and does not like to use spellcasters in battle. Even as a bard now, she only wields a rapier in battle. She will cast spells outside of combat and has to be reminded of bardic inspiration, and song of rest. She fidgets quite a bit in game, so I usually allow her to play with clay, draw, or even look through a light book during game.
My 7 year old daughter does not level up her character, but leaves it to me, or her siblings. She enjoys heavy amounts of social interaction in game, memorizing the NPCs names and motives, is incredibly immersed in worldbuilding and sure to bring the players back into the plot. For most of the game, she plays with clay, draws, and speaks (in perfect character) her sentiments. When called upon for descriptions, she excels since her linguistic style is higher than the older two. She also has been the only child of mine to show interest in being a dungeon master.
Right now, they play a balanced party of a dwarven warlock, human bard, and githzerai cleric. These characters were all randomly generated and I had them select the sheets for themselves. I was surprised that they have enjoyed the game as much as they do, even without creating their own race and class. My son loves oozes so his patron is the Lord of Slime, but to override him making a pact with a demon lord, we decided that his warlock discovered a “leak” in power and has been making good use of it without the patron noticing (yet). My daughter loves animals, particularly birds as of now, so her parakeet sits on her shoulder as her spellcasting instrument. The bird sings and casts spells. This feature keeps her engaged with her character. My youngest daughter plays the cleric of the God of Life. As a githyanki who left her homeworld, she now serves the Life God and Flaming Fist. She also has two mice, a white and black one that live in her armor, representing good and evil, light and darkness, her idea, not mine.
This is a general overview of How to Run Tomb of Annihilation for Kids! Stay tuned for more details into each chapter on how to make a memorable storytime with your children. And as always, sojourner, may your story continue.