The 2017 Tomb of Annihilation module shares a few things with Gary Gygax’s 1985 Isle of the Ape. The two adventures are both set in monster-infested jungles, Lost World-type settings. They’re both centered towards finding a powerful artefact. They both use an hexcrawl map with random encounters and sparse set locations. And finally, they both feature an archmage as the adventurers’ employer.
And it’s about that latter part I want to talk about now: the treatment in the introduction of how the employer convince the adventurers to accept the job, which couldn’t be further apart and IMO is very revealing of a certain design mentality nowadays…
Tenser the (Verbose) Archmage wants to hire the adventurers:
Adventurers: high-level, 12-15 (depending on classes) or higher, fully equipped with magic items
Premise: Back in the days when Tenser was himself an adventurer, he and his group got inadvertently stuck in a terrible jungle-world. In desperation they used a magical device to teleport themselves away. It worked but it had the unfortunate effect of leaving all of their stuff behind! Now, years later, Tenser wants the adventurers to go over there and retrieve one particular item, the Crook of Rao, a powerful artefact that will be necessary in the upcoming battle of good vs evil.
Reward: Everything else that Tenser and his co-adventurers have left behind, they can keep, it has been “written off” anyway. And believe me it’s a very long list of magic items, everything that a high level party could get their hands on over a whole career of adventuring.
Getting started: After meeting the archmage and agreeing on the mission, the adventurers accompanies Tenser and get aboard a magic ship all the way to the “demi-plane” of the Isle of the Ape. At sea, in shore’s view, they are left with their own smaller magical boat and have to continue from there. Tenser then leaves, telling them “glory is yours to be had”.
Syndra Sylvane (the Penny-Pinching) Archmage wants to hire the adventurers:
Adventurers: level 1, starting equipement + 50 gp from Syndra if they insist (!)
Premise: A terrible curse has been unleashed three weeks ago. The victims are slowly and painfully withering away and no amount of healing, magic or otherwise, can prevent their eventual demise. It’s been happening all over the world and all of the victims share one thing in common: they all have had the misfortune to be resurected at least one time in their lives. Syndra Sylvane is among them. The Harpers told her that the origins of this “Death Curse” is a powerful artefact that is somewhere in the vast jungles of Chult. She wants you find it, wherever it is, and end the curse
Reward: one uncommon or rare item of their choice per adventurer
Getting started: After meeting the archmage and agreeing on the mission, Syndra Sylvane teleport herself and the party into Port Nyanzaru, the only city on Chult. She then goes wait at her friend’s house.
So let me say first that Isle of the Ape is not really a good adventure, D&D + King Kong + evil black-skinned natives have not aged that well we might say. But old Gygax knew his trade for sure. Tenser is not just some random NPC, in his diatribe pitch to the characters he feels like a potent actor in this imaginary world, one that makes sure to explain what’s at stake and what the characters have to gain from it.
In contrast, Syndra Sylvane is pretty much the opposite. We know she’s direly afflicted by this curse and not much else. The reward part is one lazy bit of design. You will have a magic item of your choice… You’ll go to the magic shop with the archmage in tow after you have saved the world, she’ll open her purse and buy you a candy, is that it?
But then, there’s also the major disconnect that she asks to be saved (and every one else afflicted in the world) by level 1 rookies. Their frikkin curriculum vitae are empty, what do you expect of them!? The ToA designers are somewhat aware of the problem and say to the dungeon master that if asked why she doesn’t send more experienced adventurers to do the job she replies: “I already have”. And that’s it. That’s what they came up it. So… Does that mean that the veteran adventurers died? Or went missing? There’s no more experienced adventurers to be found anywhere? What the hell does that mean? But that’s the crux of the matter: the laziness of game designing of WotC. Sure, sure, they’ve got top notch art but why should we care about a good hook, or a story that make some kind of sense? The players want to play, no? Let them swallow any lazy ass hook and be happy with it.