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After a nine month campaign across over thirty sessions, we are finishing the final confrontation in Tomb of Annihilation - but the adventure seems to have set up the adventurers to have a unique advantage in combat.

The advantage seems so significant, it seems as if it might sap the epic nature of the final conflict.

Here is how it starts:

In the final scene of ToA, players face Acererak, the archlich. Players who have allowed one of the Nine Gods to possess them have the advantage when facing Acererak that players gain "50 temporary hit points" at the beginning of every round. Every player in our party is currently possessed.

The result is that this advantage causes some unusual difficulties for the final antagonist.

Most of Acererak's spells do on average less than 50 hit points of damage and thus won't even penetrate the 50 temporary hit points per round. (Excepting Power Word Kill.) Here is a list of spells and their rough approximate damage.

  • Ray of Frost 18 dmg on average

  • Ray of Sickness 9+ dmg

  • Staff 18 dmg

  • Shocking Grasp 18 dmg

  • Phantasmal Killer 22 dmg/round

  • Sphere of Annihilation 22 dmg

  • Cloud Kill 23 dmg

  • Ice Storm 23 dmg

  • Circle of Death 24 dmg

  • Disrupt Life 42 dmg

  • Chain Lightning 45 dmg

  • Finger of Death 61 dmg

  • Disintegrate 75 dmg

The result of this damage mitigation is that:

Only Finger of Death and Disintegrate, on average, do more than the 50 temporary hit points that PCs gain each round. Add to this the PCs own healing ability and the spell slot limitations of Acererak limiting the number of times these two spells can be cast it seems difficult for Acererak to damage any PC significantly beyond their 50 temporary hit points each round.

This seems to limit the strategy in the final scene to only one path:

If Acererak is to penetrate the 50 temporary hit points to reach PC's actual hit points and get any PC in any for of life threat, Acererak must use his Staff of the Forgotten One to Invoke Curse to make a PC unable to heal. Then, assuming that succeeds, Acererak must use Disintegrate and/or Finger of Death to chip away, round by round, 10-25 hit points on average, at that particular PC's hit points.

The challenge of that strategy is that:

Acererak must do this while also fending off all of the other PCs. Given that the PCs as a party can deliver over 100 hit points of damage in a round - it is unclear Acererak will have any chance to thin the party through Maze, Frightening Gaze, or Paralyzing Touch to ever get a chance to even begin to penetrate the 50 temporary hit points per round of any player.

This situation seems to not only give the PCs great advantage - but almost make the final conflict trivial as well.

Is the final scene really that trivial for PCs? Have we missed something about the final conflict and the strategies that the antagonist can use to better balance the odds and? If so, what? (within AL rules)

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    \$\begingroup\$ It won't make any difference to your question, I'm sure, but I don't think that your Ray of Frost damage can be correct. Cantrip damage scales with caster level. I don't have it in front of me but I'd assume that Acerak is a fairly high level spell caster. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Sep 25 '18 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tiggerous Thanks - scaling per level added \$\endgroup\$ – Praxiteles Jun 27 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm very curious about the answers to this question - we recently finished ToA and did the final boss fight without remembering that particular advantage even existed, yet we had very little difficulty in the fight. @Yvihs's answer below addresses the only thing that gave us any trouble at all, but neither fight was especially hard. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Jul 17 at 23:45
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I'm very interested in this question, I'll be running ToA soon so the way you present it makes it sound like the final boss is pretty trivial. I think the a correct answer would be to shed light on the fact that the dungeon itself also poses serious risks for the party, which can affect them later on.

After looking through the book I had one specific risk to mention:

The

Atropal

must be defeated

before Acererak is summoned.

This creature is far from a piece of cake, especially considering on of its legendary actions

Wail: (Costs 3 Actions). The atropal lets out a withering wail. Any creature within 120 feet of the atropal that can hear the wail must succeed on a DC 19 Constitution saving throw or gain 1 level of exhaustion

Although this is costly to use, I believe the primary point of this action is to make the party more susceptible to the final challenge. It is also worthwhile to note that this foe is highly naturally protected by the final area it is encountered. Battle map link, big spoilers

Considering the area, the fact that this foe will

Hover throughout the entirety of the fight, making it hard for melee characters to output a lot of damage.

And that this foe will be particularly tanky because it

Has magical resistance, is immune to two damage types and many conditions, and a negative energy aura that directly cancels out party members buffed by the trickster god (if they are within 30 feet).

Not to mention the fact that it also has a

Life Drain attack which has a range of 120 feet with a DC19 Constitution saving throw

This foe will no doubt stay alive for a couple of rounds to get in some devastating

Wails

Also, consider the

Summon Wraith action. The wraith itself has a CR of 5, a life drain attack and can raise a party member that goes down to fight against them as a Specter. If the Atropal manages to get two wraiths onto the board, this encounter can tip very quickly against the players.

After getting through all that, only then can the players face the final challenge, and I don't think they'd all come out without

A couple of levels of exhaustion. If any character gets to at least the 3rd level of exhaustion, they'd be truly in trouble for the final fight.

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It's intentional.

The difficult climactic battle is the one before the final battle. If you did the work, the last battle is supposed to be a cakewalk. If you didn't do the work, you can easily get murdered. But since your players did the work, they get the payoff of having the last battle be a fun little grandstanding moment.

The alternative would be having the final battle be totally unwinnable if you didn't gather the spirits.

If you really want to, you could halve the effect the spirits have, but even then it's a really huge benefit that makes the final battle all but a foregone conclusion.

By the way, just as a side note:

I'm not sure if you were saying this or not, but gaining temporary hit points isn't the same as healing and wouldn't be altered by curses or exhaustion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this answer from a story and adventuring experience point of view. Apart from the anecdotal evidence based on the design - is there any other evidence from the text, interviews with the designers or elsewhere to support this interpretation? \$\endgroup\$ – Praxiteles Oct 1 '18 at 17:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, not that I know of; it's just the implication from reading the adventure and knowing how the game generally works. Most sources of temporary HP are either a sizable one-time pool, or a handful that refreshes every turn (as in Heroism). A massive pool that refreshes every turn is unheard of and ridiculously powerful to the point of broken -- so much so that it's obvious this isn't meant to be even remotely balanced. It's pretty clear they intend that to act as effective immunity to the lich. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Oct 1 '18 at 18:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP has since clarified that they're playing in AL. You may want to update your answer accordingly as needed. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 28 at 21:57
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The final encounter was trivial for our party. Here are some tweaks to consider.

We ran the final encounter. It did turn out to be both trivial for the final encounter but felt non-trivial for the players along the way. Here is what we mean.

One strategy that made the combat easier for the PCs was this:

PCs hid in the Sewn Sisters layer - then ran down the stairs for ranged attacks - then used their movement to go back up the stairs.

This strategy caused the following problems:

The tentacles on the Soulmonger could never reach the PCs because they were always more than 30’ away. The tentacles couldn’t reach the stairs. Additionally, the PCs targeted the struts which only had 100 hit points. As a result, they were never in danger from the SoulMonger and no PC ever got pulled into the lava.

Additionally, because of that range:

The Atropal’s necrotic aura was also ineffective. The aura only has an effect if the PCs start their turn within 30' of it. Because the PCs were running into and out of the room, they essentially never started a turn in range of it.

The actions of the initial opponent that did cause some growing concern in the party were these:

Wail: The Atropal used it Wail effect every round. Before the combat was over, every PC had 2-3 levels of exhaustion. This was highly concerning to the party - but resulted in very little effect in combat because the SoulMonger's tentacles never reached them and there were otherwise no Ability checks they needed to make.

The result of this setup was that when the final opponent arrived, the party was fully healed, and though they had on average two levels of exhaustion, the final opponent was dispatched trivially:

Acererak appeared, lost initiative to most of the party and took heavy ranged damage in the first round. His first spell, Time Stop was countered by the two mages in the party. (The second mage countered his Counter spell.) Acererak was damaged by the fighter and hurled into the lava. Ranged attacks killed him before he even had another chance to cast a spell.

Here were a few details we observed that could make the combat less trivial for the PCs and perhaps a bit more dramatic without making it deadly:

  • Ready Actions: If the PCs are hiding in the Sewn Sister's room, the Atropal could spend a lot of time floating around with no opponents in site. Have the Atropal use a Ready Action for its Life Drain - so the moment a PC runs out to attack with a ranged shot - it can attack them. Also stay out of melee range near the ceiling or floating over the lava.

  • Use Longer Soulmonger Tentacles: To give the SoulMonger any chance to defend itself, extend the length of the tentacles to 45' so it can reach into the stairwell. That way if PCs run down into the stairwell and shoot the struts, the Soulmonger can still try to grapple them and pull them into the lava.

  • Counterspells: When Acererak appears, if there are two mages in the party, be sure to use a higher level spell slot for Counterspell - otherwise a simple Counterspell of a low level Counterspell can shut down a high level spell.

  • Acererak Strategy: Here's a spell strategy for Acererak. TimeStop is cast which gives him time to cast Shield, a Wall of Force sphere to isolate a group of PCs, followed by Power Word Kill on any mage that would counter his spells. Of note, in our game Acererak was killed by the party before he got a single spell off.

That said, it might not matter to try to balance the final battle - balancing the pre-battle may be all that is necessary. As noted in one answer above, making the final battle "trivial" might have been intentional by design. The result might be good for story reasons. For this game, the players were ecstatic and laughing that it went so quick in spite of their terror. The encounter seemed to feel epic for them. One player even asked to save the chat transcript because they thought it was so cinematic.

So you may be in good shape as a DM either way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Given your own edit to clarify that you're playing in AL, is the "use longer tentacles" suggestion an AL-legal modification? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 28 at 21:59
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I just got done DM'ing ToA with some friends, here's how they dealt with this encounter...

First of all the party consisted of: 1. 12th Level Cleric (Unkh) 2. 12th level Wizard (Papazotl) 3. 12th level Paladin/Warlock (Kubazan) 4. 12th level Sorcerer/Warlock (I'jin)

They all had a spirit helping them as I showed above.

They did not have a ridiculous amount of magic items with them, mostly what is found in the adventure.

They arrived and decided to deal with the Atropal first. They killed it in two rounds. It managed to use its summon wraith ability, however that wraith got turned by the cleric (even with advantage on the saving throw). It also used its yell/scream twice which gave one player 2 levels of exhaustion and another player 1 level, the other two passed both saves.

So basically they nuked down the Atropal, turned the wraith, and then Acererak shows up...

As it says in book all the players gain 50 temporary hit points if they are inhabited by a spirit (they all were).

Acererak rolled low on initiative so some of the players got to go first.

The Sorcerer/Warlock Used Hex and Eldritch Blast, then twinned it, so thats 6 Eldritch Blast rolls...some of them hit some of them missed. The Paladin/Warlock misty stepped to one of the balconies to get closer to Acererak and shot eldritch blast at him. The Wizard I believe tried to cast a 5th or 6th level spell (I cant remember which one) but Acererak counterspelled it. On the ends of these turns I used Acererak's legendary actions to move the sphere of annihilation into people and use the invoke curse from the staff.

Then it was Acererak's first turn, it states in the book that he will use all his power to slay the characters, but it also leads you to believe that Acererak will underestimate his enemies because of how powerful he is, so going off this I decided to have him simply cast Finger of Death at the incoming paladin that would surely be trying to get into melee with his pesky smites and staff of striking (found off the goatman earlier in the tomb), the paladin failed but the 50 temporary hit points left him not too bad off. (I kind of roleplayed this as Acererak realizing that the spirits were helping the characters).

Now its the clerics turn, here's where things got interesting. Who would guess that this arena plus a second level spell would trivialize the fight? As it turns out, Silence has a 120 ft range but counterspell only has a 60 ft range, even if Acererak still had his reaction to cast counterspell he could not have counterspelled the Cleric's Silence because the Cleric made sure to cast from about 70 ft away anyway. The other important thing to note is that literally every spell on Acererak's spell list requires the verbal component. Lastly, Acererak enters the room on that balcony by the mist gate, so he is literally stuck there unable to cast or move out of the silence zone.

Rolls back around to the Sorcerer/Warlock who again, Eldritch Blast + Hex attacks Acererak and twins it, 6 more eldritch blasts. The Paladin/Warlock Misty steps from the balcony with the phylacteries to the mist gate balcony and attacks Acererak twice. He used his highest level spell slots to get 4d8 radiant damage, he also used charges from the staff to add 2d6, and because of the spirit he did 3d6 pschyic plus the die from the weapon, and of course 2 attacks so it ends up being a total of like 8d8 and 10 or 12d6, I can't remember exactly. Regardless, it was a lot of damage.

The Wizard I believe then cast Sphere of Invulnerability this turn hoping to protect himself.

Because of Silence the only thing Acererak could do with his legendary actions is to move the sphere and use the paralyzing touch on the paladin (which failed)

Acererak's 2nd turn...he was already below 100 hit points at this point I believe, however because of Silence he could not teleport away so I decided to keep going. If you use the spell list that is in the book for Acererak, the only way he can get off the balcony is to jump and then cast Teleport mid air (Why the F does he not have misty step?) So I had Acererak teleport on top of the Soulmonger, now this sucks because it took an action, (misty step would have been a bonus action).

As you can imagine, the Sorcerer/Warlock again eldritch blasts him and twins it, however this time he reacted with shield to block more of the hits.

The paladin on the balcony was kind of stuck because of the silence zone so he missed a turn.

The Wizard I believe cast Ice Storm on Acererak which was almost negligible but still did some damage, however this hit the Soulmonger, the tentacle then reacted and hit the wizard and threw him in the lava, however the 50 temporary hit points and the Abjurer's shield blocked all of this fire damage.

Acererak could have cast teleport to leave at this point but I instead had him cast time stop and then Circle of Death, they all failed their saves and took ~40 damage but the guy who got cursed took 80, however the 50 temporary plus the fact that they hadn't been injured much meant everyone was alive.

By the time it rolled back around to Acererak he was killed by the cleric ending silence and and the paladin and warlock shooting him with more eldritch blasts

The wizard took 55 fire damage but also gained 50 temporary then misty stepped out of the lava to safety and used a spell to finish off Acererak. (its exactly 30 ft down from the edge of the balcony to the lava)

The cleric almost died from the wraith getting a critical hit when it broke out which was funny but they killed it and then simply stood 30 ft away from one of the struts and shot it til it broke and won.

So in summary: Your player's will have a REALLY hard time if they do not cast Silence or if they do not have a lot of Counterspells, also if they can't get into melee range or if they do not have the spirits helping them. If they attack the Soulmonger right away and get thrown into the lava and don't kill the Atropal quickly they could also run into trouble.

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I'm about to run the final encounter tomorrow! My group has been playing in ToA since last March, so let's just say, the build up to this final fight is at its peak.

Something I haven't noticed in any online discussions is Acererak's use of minions, which is surprising. There are alcoves in the Cradle of the Death God specifically for summoning skeletons to fight the party. I plan on incorporating at least 12 skeletons and like 6-8 cultists of varying difficulty into this fight. My players also had the eye and hand of Vecna from an earlier encounter, which Acererak stole from them in the jungle on the way to Omu.

Suffice to say, the final fight is going to be much harder than the book anticipates. I rolled the stats for the two Vecna artifacts and have added them to the Atropal's stat block, making him a very formidable opponent. I'm using a modified stat block for Acererak as well, giving him access to misty step and a few other fun spells. My players are level 15, so I needed to give them something of a challenge for this fight. I don't think I'm going too crazy with the modifications, but I'll try to let people know after the game tomorrow. :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. You should come report back on how the encounter went and how your plans affected the difficulty of the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 24 at 5:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP has since clarified that they're playing in AL. You may want to update your answer accordingly as needed. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 28 at 21:59
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I am currently running ToA and my characters are in the Tomb of the Nine Gods. So for the Atropal fight, I am going to have the hag sisters involved heavily (as our cleric's mission is to rid them and free one of the children's souls for a noble in Baldurs Gate).

The final fight, I found a homebrew version of Acererak that is more befitting the lich that gods want dead, but can't find his phylactory, nor deal with him...it kind of makes him OP, even with the spirits help, so I plan on holding nothing back. Just like the lich wouldn't. Which means that most likely a good portion of the party might get taken out, but with the soul monger gone, that wont be a problem.

I changed a lot in the campaign, but to keep it relatively shorter, I added primordial pieces or stones that have special magic properties, playing up the whole amazing background of Chult. The primordials play a huge part in Acereraks plan...as written I felt like acererak didn't have a clear intent for his mission, I just made him operating in Chult because the regular gods cant interfere with Chult in any way because of the deal struck in the war of the primordials. Ubtao betrays his fellow Promordials, he gets this land without interference. Only catch is protecting Dendar.

Enter Acererak who is using these souls to siphon into what I dubbed the unborn god, a god who was killed before the primordial war. With this god born in Chult, he/she can intervene in Chult, which means unleashing Dendar and the Primordials and waging war on the gods.

However....gods do what they want, and was already born again. He's currently with the party masquerading as Orvex. This stops any chance of Acererak TPKing the party, while letting them feel the unrelenting wrath of the lich. The god...I havent 100 percent decided what he is going to do, but he has been floating the cosmos for a millennium...so he wants to experience the world, (spoiler he may end up becoming someone they need to fight end endgame).

This allows them to stop the death curse, interrupt Acereraks plan (kind of), technically he succeeded...but they get victory with dozens of possibilities for future campaigns.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 27 at 2:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP has since clarified that they're playing in AL; I don't think homebrew content is allowed there. You may want to update your answer accordingly as needed. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 28 at 22:00

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