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I'm playing Tomb of Annihilation(ToA) with my group right after playing Waterdeep Dragon Heist. The group have met powerful characters like Vajra Safahr, the open lord Laeral Silverhand, Mirt, Artus Cimber and many more while in the jungles of Chult. These NPCs have high challenge ratings (17, 13, 9) so they are pretty strong: high level magic users, influential and rich people, some of them even have access to armies, mercenaries, spies, and so on. When you are playing ToA, the main quest is to

stop an evil Death curse who is affecting the whole world

and is a really important matter. The party have already very good relations with the NPCS, they've also received the quest and some money and magic items from them in order to complete said quest.

My DMing Problem

The players always try to get these NPCs involved in the quest by asking them for more money, more powerful magic items, asking them to go kill an important Boss, to give them an army, free healing, free lodging, free spells like, scrying, greater restoration. They are constantly trying to get Artus Cimber into the band and enter the Tomb of Annihilation.

I can't blame the players on this as I think it's very reasonable to ask this kind of things to the NPCS. For example, Artus Cimber wants

to retrieve Mezro, Kill Ras Nsi and he really likes to get into tombs

so, why shouldn't he help the party or just kill Ras Nsi himself? Even the guide says the only way to get Mezro back is to kill Ras Nsi, and even if he didn't trust the characters, (which he does, and also is family with one of the characters) why shouldn't he just go do the job himself?

On the other hand we have Laeral, Vajra, Wakanga o'tamu: they are very influential people, they all want to end the death curse, why shouldn't they? They are all good aligned characters who want the best for humanity. Why if the characters ask them to go with them to kill the evil Lich, or give them an army to kill the red wizards of Thay, or give them the super powerful magic sword or else everyone would die - wouldn't they, if they have such a good point? Also Laeral is an awesome adventurer, she actually doesn't care that much for politics she could end up the death curse Herself, kill the atropal and probably kill Acererak if teamed with Vajra Safahr, Artus and the team.

Why wouldn't powerful NPCs get involved to help the players?

I think the death curse is important enough to get everyone involved, it's a countdown threatening to kill everyone. Same would go if they were to face an evil Demon Lord or a terrible forgotten God, why on earth shouldn't the most powerful characters, and mighty adventurers go and help?

Laeral, come kill the atropal with us

Laeral: No

GIRL WE ALL GON' DIE.

Laeral: I'm a very busy person.

You'll be busy dying in a few hours.

What does a DM need to do to avoid this NPCs somehow getting involved and say No, so that the players can enjoy a challenging, meaningful and rewarding adventure without an NPC railroading them?

What's so important to them that they need to bargain for a magic item, or a little 6 lvl spell more than the death curse threatening to kill everyone?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Tomb of Annihilation indicates it's D&D 5e. I think this question is fine and on topic—it's a concrete answerable question based on experience of what works and what doesn't. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 28 at 10:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very good question. It might be worth remembering that the Tomb of Annihilation is supposed to be a stand alone adventure, and the Waterdeep Dragon Heist was published after the Tomb adventure. By running them in reverse order you have (with good intentions) brought part of this problem into play as you try to engage in a rational case of world building that the game designers did not implement - since those two adventures were published in a different order and are independent of each other. (Good for you as a DM for your coherent world building efforts). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 28 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ If a powerful NPC does most of the heavy lifting, shouldn't they get most of the XP and treasure? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29 at 14:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @xLeitix Please don't answer in comments - we try not to do that here \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Oct 1 at 18:39
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The world is always about to end

From the players' point of view, sure, this adventure is the end-all and be-all of saving the world. Folks like Laeral Silverhand, though, have a lot more on their plate since they are worried about problems all over Faerun and in adjacent places in the multiverse. When you're working with a secret, continent-spanning organization like the Moonstars, you learn the world is always on the brink of destruction; Faerun has multiple countries that basically exist to come up with world destroying/conquering plans. You've got a dozen different things on your plate, and adventurers claiming they're trying to save the world are a dime a dozen.

If you, as a high level NPC, spent your entire resources on every such claim, you'd be tapped out on money and magic, Waterdeep would have no army left to defend it, and whatever threat they defeated would be pretty minor relative to the ten other threats you allowed to grow unchecked (and that's assuming you believe they're both honest and chasing the right lead; imagine how quickly they'd lose their resources if they threw all their money/resources at morons and con artists).

And remember, the death curse isn't all that bad. 99% of the population was never raised from the dead. A wasting disease that affects those raised from the dead is terrible for adventurers, but the average person doesn't die an untimely death, and can't afford to be raised even if they do. Heck, there are some who might consider pulling someone back from death a violation of morality and/or the natural order (historically, in older editions of D&D, druids were often of this mindset), so the curse could be viewed as a positive, even if "the good guys" would never admit it publicly.

In short:

  1. The perspective of your players is blinkered. They see one great threat (and overstate its importance because resurrection magic is super important to them), but miss the many more subtle threats the heavy hitters are keeping from growing out of hand.
  2. The heavy hitters can't afford to expend all their resources on supporting one specific adventuring band.

If your players have a personal relationship with old Uncle Moneybags, sure, let them get basic resources (healing potions and the like) "at cost" (some reasonable discount). Maybe even a token magic item, out of sentiment. But old Uncle Moneybags didn't become Uncle Moneybags by showering money on all their relatives; your adventurers are adults and should be able to handle their own needs most of the time. He needs the rest of it to fund that expedition to Mount Doom to see about a ring, interrupt the war between Thieves Guilds that's spilling into the streets, look into the latest plot from <Insert Evil Country of the Week #23>, etc. The world is far bigger than your party, and they need to accept that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps also of note: The "evidence" the party has as to the cause of the death curse is some contacts their patron has with the Harpers and, importantly, she's already sent other groups to Chult and they have disappeared. So from the perspective of powerful NPCs, the PCs aren't just chasing a tenuous lead (If they are involved, Laeral, Vajra, and heck, maybe even Elminster may have determined that the 'cause' of the Death Curse is Acererak, and they are trying to deal with him not what he made), but they also aren't the first group to show up in Chult chasing it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 28 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ "There's always an Arquillian Battlecruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!" - K, Men In Black \$\endgroup\$ Sep 28 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty: "Other groups sent to Chult have disappeared" isn't all that unexpected really. Chult is a friggin' death trap. Savage beasts, actual dinosaurs, violent tribes of savages, etc., etc. The FR Wiki (admittedly unsourced) describes it with "It was said by many that the jungles of Chult were the most dangerous places in Faerûn", and that's a pretty good summary of the environment there. If the adventure doesn't indicate they know how they died, they could died from running into a T-rex, a field of slimes, a pack of trolls, etc., no malevolent forces required. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 28 at 22:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I played and then ran this module, and while I agree with much of your analysis, there's a few things missing or mistaken: 1. I don't remember the curse affecting liches, it was a lich who was patron/master to other liches behind it after all, he wasn't committing suicide. 2. The curse wasn't just killing off the resurrected, it was waylaying the souls of those who died (though the question there becomes does anyone know about this effect at that point, particularly the PCs or the NPCs in question) \$\endgroup\$
    – Andrew
    Sep 29 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Andrew: Huh. I pulled the bit about liches being affected from something in the question or the comments; must have been deleted since then. I'll remove that note since it's apparently not accurate. And yeah, on "waylaying souls", that only matters if the NPCs know it's happening, believe it, and believe it's worth stopping and only the party knows how to do it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29 at 18:25
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Powerful NPCs deal with Tier 4 Threats

As a parallel answer to @ShadowRanger's excellent treatment of where the NPC's attentions are directed, this answer is broken down into two parts: (1) meta and world building concerns, and (2) how to weave this into your commendable efforts at coherent world building so that your plausible denials - "No, Party of Adventurers, I cannot spare any more resources for you" - resonate somewhat better with your players.

In your players' defense, it never hurts to ask - but they are the problem solvers and the DM / world can tell them "No!" with good in-world reasons.

The conversation can go something like this (thanks, @RBarryYoung):

PCs: "Can you help with this problem?"
Powerful NPCs: "We are helping; we are sending you to deal with it."
PCs: "Can you provide any {additional} resources?" {Beyond the potions or item already provided)
NPCs: "You are the resources we are providing."

I'll offer special treatment of Artus Cimber, who is a walking anachronism: he (and his best friend) are AD&D 1e characters (from a Forgotten Realms novel) who are alive and well in D&D 5th edition thanks to a magical device1.

The World Building Piece and Sequencing

For what it's worth, ToA was published before Waterdeep Dragon Heist, and they were both published as stand-alone adventures. Running them out of order is fine, as a DM, if you take the adventures through level 5 in Waterdeep and send them off to Chult. But the two of them were not put together as a coherent 'world building' exercise by the publisher: that's the old "we leave it to the DM to fold this all into their instance of the Forgotten Realms."

Rule 0 of FR DM'ing: there is no continuity without holes large enough that you could sail a galley through them unless you, the DM, patch them up.2

Your ToA PCs deal with Tier 2 and Tier 3 threats

Your party has already handled a Tier 1 adventure.

  1. The high level NPCs deal with global threats to their own domains, their own factions, and their own interests as well as with higher order (Tier 4 and beyond) threats to both the world and the multiverse. The ToA adventure winds up as a late-Tier-2-to-early-Tier-3 adventure by the time it is over (per the guidance published in the book). Let's look at adventure tiers to see what's going on here.

In the second tier (levels 5–10)... characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms.
In the third tier (levels 11–16)... mighty adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents.
At the fourth tier (levels 17–20)... the fate of the world or even the fundamental order of the multiverse might hang in the balance during their adventures. {Basic Rules, p. 12}

As you have correctly diagnosed, the adventure tiers are muddled somewhat by Acererak's aims. The potential negative effect (beyond Toril) of him achieving his aims possibly hit Tier 4 (fate of the world or multiverse) in their implications. The PCs can stop him within the lower Tier and level constraints of the published adventure, however. His schemes become more important

  • if you use the ticking clock for a thing to happen before they confront him in the ultimate battle and

  • in the near term for just those NPCs who have had the benefit of 'raise dead' or other resurrection magic, which is expensive and well beyond the reach of most of Faerun's population.

    This means that there is a small population who care but who may or may not have a clear idea on just how big this problem is. To complicate matters for these high-power NPCs, most of them have lots of other problems to solve - and then this gets added to the mix. That's why they delegate this task to adventurers - they are out of time and resources.

  1. If the PCs can handle this late-Tier-2-to-early-Tier-3 challenge (levels 10-12 as suggested by the adventure) they have made powerful allies for future adventures. If they fail, and die - well, it's no longer their concern (in-world).

The problem in Chult is one problem out of dozens

You can posit (in your own mind, and by spreading rumors of big happenings in distant parts of the Realms) that, beyond the urgency that the local leadership in Chult feels,

  1. The Storm King's Thunder adventure is also ongoing at roughly this time (there's a related hook involving some Giants in the ToA adventure) - this itself is a non-trivial, world-sized threat that the same NPCs likely will be aware of. Drop hints and rumors about this threat to the Sword Coast.
  2. There are Kingdoms all over Faerun that are not on any map published to date in 5e (Thay, Kara Tur, other continents, Maztica, et cetera) each of which can pose threats to the slice of FR that your PCs are familiar with: The Sword Coast. The Sword Coast's problems, versus those of Toril, are in proportion to the United States East Coast, and its problems, to the real world and its global problems. The High Level NPCs have to address world-level problems as well as local problems. The PCs are handling a local problem (as seen from the capital city of Chult, or from Waterdeep, anyway).
  3. Extraplanar Problems Abound - this ToA thing is just one of them. If you also position the Avernus Adventure ongoing in parallel with this one, and consider "continuity wise" the mind flayer incursion in the related product (Baldur's Gate 3, CRPG) and any high level aspects of the Elemental Evil, Out of the Abyss, and Rise of Tiamat adventures, these also pose some serious threats for the Sword Coast and regions beyond. Rumors of these calamities need to crop up no matter where your players are when they hit a tavern, city, public square, etc. Every other part of Faerun on all of its other continents has something similar going on, or does potentially.

Resource Management: PC parties are a great value to a leader

Most of the NPCs you mention were once adventurers who know the high 'bang for the buck' value that adventurers offer. The NPC's have world-encompassing, and extraplanar, problems to cope with, of which the ToA is just a piece - and they have finite resources. An adventuring party represents a high value proposition to these NPC's, who know from personal experience that they can apply their other resources to a myriad of problems before they are tapped out.

Why?

For a modest cost (the items and gold you mention) they get huge benefits from the PC party while they handle their already sizeable load of problems.

Yes, these high level NPCs are using the PCs! That's the harsh reality of the adventuring life. Someone always wants to get as much done as they can, as cheaply as possible! When you treat the high level NPCs as politicians first, not as adventurers, it becomes clearer. Beyond that, these high-powered NPCs may underestimate how dire the threat is. They don't know what the DM knows, or at least they don't know all of what the DM knows.

NPCs are not omniscient!

Being politicians, they may also have perception and priority problems vis a vis "what's the biggest problem I need to solve right now?" 3

A modest example at Mid Tier 2 (level 7-8 at present)

My current Saltmarsh party (that I DM for) keeps running into the regional political problems - they more or less trip over them as they undertake various adventures, and they are beginning to get caught up in the inter-faction conflicts as they conclude the Final Enemy arc. (One player kvetched about getting tied up in politics, and my response was "That's a part of this campaign, and it's not going away!" He has adapted pretty well.) These regional problems have been alluded to since the first session (level 1) when the Sorcerer was kicked out of Monmurg (Sea Princes area) as part of why he ended up meeting up with the other adventurers. The druid PC (at level 4) heard rumors of a war (Lizardfolk were arming) and he came west to try and prevent one. The cleric was assassinated (at level 4; the player had to drop out in RL; we worked out that decision together).
And so on.

The party has discovered that local political tension with Seaton informs the constraints on local NPCs, as does the limited budget from the King of Keoland for any risky operations, and they have also learned that the Night Hag (Granny Nightshade) threat from the Dreadwood limits the assistance of the powerful druid near Burle.

They also tripped over a regional / world-level threat (though I am not sure if they appreciate that yet) as they concluded the Isle of the Abbey adventure.

The bottom line is that the PCs are asked to solve the problems that are roughly within their scope.

NPC's Line: "Solve this problem, I've got bigger ones"

That's your theme. Repeat it ad nauseum if need be to get the point across. The PC adventure party can't handle the whole world's problems, plural; that's what the high level NPCs try to deal with - with some successes and some failures. I have wargamed, on the side, a few related 'what if' scenes as a result of player success in Salt Marsh and have kept track of the results. That also has informed play. (@Shalvenay helped me with one of those scenarios.) The PCs handle one (significant) problem so that the NPCs can handle (or try to) the rest with their limited resources.

I can't stress this enough: the high level NPCs have limited resources compared to their responsibilities and challenges. They may appear to PCs to have infinite resources, but they do not. PCs are a cost effective way of spreading the NPCs resources out to best effect in order to solve multiple problems at once.

And for that matter, returning to FR, the Zhentarim are always causing problems for everyone on the Sword Coast, right? They are a never-ending resource drain for most of the high level NPCs along the Sword Coast.

Artus Cimber: the special case

Artus is very much a fish out of water, as are those hunting him to a certain extent. My suggestion to you is to play him as being obsessed with one goal to the exclusion of all else:

Find Mezro and find his lost love.

Play Cimber as being 'stretched' due to his long association with that artifact: from a narrative sense, this is sort of like Bilbo telling Frodo how he didn't feel old, but stretched, by his long association with the One Ring. He lived well beyond his expected life span, as has Artus. The longer Artus lives, the more obsessed he gets with recapturing that one, overriding goal (in the spoiler box up there). Call it tunnel vision, call it the madness that love brings to us, call it what you like, but he's become eccentric enough to become a liability to himself and anyone around him until he finds what he's looking for.

Anything the PCs ask of him is barely going to resonate. Before the story is over, he may just wander out of Chult if he gets a lead that takes him where he wants to go, or, as @nitsua60 (from RPGSE) had happen in our ToA campaign (I was a player), he gets captured by some giants and exits stage left in their custody.

Both of those options are plausible narrative ways for Artus not to become a DMPC who overpowers the party. The "Bilbo gambit" is what a friend of mine used for Artus when he ran this last year; he came to me for advice and this is what we worked out. His comment was, after the fact, "it worked but it still felt clunky - Artus being in that adventure was not necessary".

One last example from an old campaign.

Our party made the choice to try and crack down on the Slavers of the Under City. (AD&D modules A1 - 4). Our sponsor had alluded to other problems with the Temple of Elemental Evil, and a couple of related (homemade) bad things happening up north. We got back from taking the slavers down to discover that Verbobonc had been flattened by a hill giant raid, and our sponsor was taken captive. He was in no position to provide us with our reward for shutting down the slave ring. Freeing him was the hook for us to go after the Giants (G1, 2, and 3 modules) - in that case, his larger problems got the better of him. You can apply this to your ToA campaign similarly, given the wasting-away nature of Acererak's overarching plot. The NPCs can die, or fail.

NPCs are not guaranteed plot armor unless you, the DM, give it to them. 😊


1 It's a little like The One Ring from LoTR. That item Artus has gets its own sub arc in the published adventure that you can use to remove Artus from play, or, to have him lead the PCs on a wild goose chase due to being pursued while he tries to achieve the one goal about the one thing he cares about.

2 This answer does not address Adventurers League attempts at continuity, but covers your problem with your world building and plausible motivations for NPCs to say "No!".

3 No digression will be undertaken to RL parallels vis a vis politicians.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @RBarryYoung I plugged that in, if you don't mind. 😊 Thanks. (attribution to you) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like your changes. I did a few more which you are of course welcome to roll back. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Sep 29 at 15:05
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You are looking at this from the wrong angle. Do not forget that this is a living world and the NPC have no clue that the PC are anything 'Special' - for everyone in the world they are only other 'NPC' living their life.

Treat this the same way as if a lower NPC would ask the PC for help - they would definitely ask for a large reward and likely keep most of the treasures and magic items found. Make the powerful NPC treat the PC as merely their own 'hirelings' and they could even ask the PC to just stay behind while they make the trek and come out with the rewards (which they mostly keep for themselves) while merely giving a few gold pieces for the PC as a thank you gesture.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ -1 Please don't just generate generic ideas. If you've run this campaign and done this, you may be able to add an experienced based answer on what you did or have seen. Alternatively, if you've done this in other campaigns, that should work as well, but please support why you did what you did with what was going on with those specific NPCs. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Oct 1 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do this all the time. This is very common player reaction when something is tough, most players will they seek help to make it easier. Adventures should be either easy and unrewarding or tough and rewarding. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add details on what you've done and how it went that is directly applicable to the NPCs in this module. But please remember that we accept a plethora of playstyles here. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Oct 3 at 13:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did not know if was specific experience for that specific module. i never played ToA specifically. Why must it absolutely need to be the same module ? player behavior is the same whatever the module right... \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13 at 20:00

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