Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons: Princes of the Apocalypse

The backlog gets even smaller! I managed to finish reading Princes of the Apocalypse cover to cover, took a whole lot of notes, and now it's time to hammer all of that into a review.

Princes of the Apocalypse has a long lineage. While it's not a direct sequel to the Elemental Evil stories of Dungeons and Dragons editions past (it's not set on the same world, for example), it is clearly inspired by those previous adventures.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is probably one of the best known adventures to ever be published for Dungeons and Dragons. The first version of the adventure was published in 1985, and to this day makes all kinds of lists for being one of the top D&D adventures of all time. It's such an iconic D&D adventure that it got it's own video game adaption in 2003.

When Wizards of the Coast wanted to stir up nostalgic feelings in prospective customers buying Dungeons and Dragon's 3rd edition, they published Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil in 2001. Not only did it manage to get respectable sales numbers, but Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil also shows up on a lot of those top D&D adventures of all time lists.

While there wasn't a full blown adaption or sequel published for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, there was a Village of Homlet adventure that was given out as a DM reward for Dungeon Masters that ties into the history of the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Given that history, it's probably not too surprising that when the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons launched, eventually there would be some version of the Elemental Evil storyline surfacing. That version turned out to be Princes of the Apocalypse. The book came out in 2015, and is a 256 page hardcover adventure. Just to get this out of the way, the artwork in this book is stunning, including the concept art in the very back of the book, and the maps are top rate, so the book looks really nice.

Rumors and Shadows

When the adventure was first mentioned, there were rumors floating around about an Elemental Evil Player's Handbook. A full-blown handbook never came out, but there was a free Elemental Evil Player's Companion that was released. The Elemental Evil Player's Companion didn't just give a free sample of what was in Princes of the Apocalypse, it presented some material not available in the hardcover.

All of the spells introduced in Princes of the Apocalypse are duplicated in the Player's Companion, as well as the information on introducing Genasi as a player character race. In addition to that material, the Player's Companion introduces Aarakocra, Deep Gnomes, and Goliaths and player character races.

Mystery Cults

As a side note, the Cult of Elemental Evil is connected to an entity known as the Elder Elemental Eye. In previous D&D products, this entity has been associated with the Greyhawk deity Tharizdun, the Forgotten Realms deity Ghaunadaur, and as a separate entity in its own right. In this particular adventure, set in the Forgotten Realms, the Elder Elemental Eye seems to be its own entity, as Ghaunadaur is mentioned separately in the adventure and the connection between the two entities is never made.

Chapter One

Chapter one is an overview chapter, giving a quick sketch of the adventure and how it should play out, where in the Realms it plays out, what the factions that the PCs might interact with may be. It also details how the adventure proper interacts with the side treks later in the book. There are several hooks in the introduction that players can chose for their characters. These don't just serve as a reason for the PCs to participate in the adventure, but it gives them a few specific times and actions where their character might be granted inspiration, which is a nice way to remind players and DMs of the new mechanic in this edition.

Chapter Two

Chapter two serves as a gazetteer to the Dessarin Valley region of the Forgotten Realms. It is a pretty extensive look for a book that is mainly an adventure, but while there are a few interesting places in the region (such as the Stone Bridge), the Dessarin Valley is, in many ways, the most tame, outer region of the area known as the Savage Frontier. The most interesting places in the valley are going to be the places detailed in this adventure, meaning that this gazetteer is good for this adventure, but may not be as appealing as a base for other campaigns in the future.

Chapter Three

This chapter starts the adventure proper. While there are side treks later on that allow you to start the adventure in Red Larch at 1st level, the "official" start of the adventure assumes that the characters are at least 3rd level. There is a mystery involving missing delegates that were traveling across the region, and investigating the missing delegates is what causes the PCs to encounter the various outposts of Elemental Evil.

The adventure hooks and the factions that the PCs may be allied with are going to be important, because without them, the drive to investigate the missing delegates doesn't feel all that compelling. Sure, adventurers might want to find lost people in the wilderness, but without some prodding, how many people get lost in a region like the Dessarin Valley at any given time? What makes this disappearance special? Without the hooks and factions, it's less organic.

There is mention that bad weather has been plaguing the region, and it's probably important to remember this and to illustrate it to the players from time to time, because until later in the adventure, there isn't much in the encounters to reinforce the weird weather patterns that are suppose to be one of the reasons the elemental cults must be shut down.

The four cults inhabit fortresses and the PCs will follow clues and rumors to each one. Nearly all of the initial fortresses have a legitimate "front," and the PCs may be able to bluff their way in and investigate a bit before they decide to wipe out the threat of the cult. One thing that starts to show up in this chapter is that each cult doesn't just have an elemental theme, but has it's own personality as well. This goes a long way towards making what could be a lot of generic cultists into something a little more memorable. There is even a little bit of fun interaction where some of the cults might aim the adventurers at the other cults. While they are all seeking to set lose elemental havoc on the world, they don't mind weakening each other so their element appears stronger.

Despite the personality of the cults and the fact that the PCs get to investigate false fronts and potentially have a bit of roleplaying to do instead of just clearing out dungeons, the sandbox set up of the adventure makes it feel as if these cults are all just kind of sitting there, being evil in a limited radius. Sure, they are bad, but the encroaching doom doesn't really come across in this chapter at all.

Also, as a recurring potential issue, this being a sandbox style setup, it is possible for the adventurers to go from the first cult hold to the next dungeon, to the final dungeon, and right to the boss areas if they get very lucky, and since most of the elemental cults just tend to sit in one place being evil, the meta-knowledge of "this will all be waiting for me while I level up" might break the suspension of disbelief a bit if they do get ahead of themselves.

Chapter Four

A pattern starts to emerge at this point. Air is always the lowest level dungeon in each chapter, fire is always the highest level one. The fact that three chapters all have four elemental dungeons, and all of those dungeons are "properly" approached in the same order, might start to create a little bit of both elemental and dungeon delving fatigue.

Thematically, the fact that all of the dungeons are linked creates a few oddities. The air cult having a tower makes perfect sense, and a tower still works as a dungeon, even if the players are heading up instead of down. It makes less sense for a dungeon underground to be the home of an air cult, and the air cult loses their thematic elements more than any of the other cults as the adventure progresses.

This chapter allows the players to interact with the prophets of Elemental Evil. Thankfully, a lot of work went into making those prophets have personality and memorable appearances, and there is also quite a bit of artwork allowing the DM to show his players exactly who they are dealing with.

There is a mechanic for the DM to keep the characters from taking a long rest in this dungeon, in order to keep the PCs in touch with the outside world. While I like the idea, I wish that the "hit squads" that the prophets send after the PCs were less mundane. If the prophets are getting visions of the PCs in the dungeon, and they are zeroing in on the PCs when they rest for too long, sending summoned elemental creatures seems like it would make more sense than having armed mercenaries showing up.

While many of the rooms have notes on what areas draw help from other areas if the PCs make too much noise or if a fight goes on too long, the various conditions have the potential to make things a bit confusing for the DM to run. Triggering the next room over and/or a random encounter makes sense, but having notes on three different areas with different arrival times starts to get to be a bit much to track.

For a an abandoned dwarven kingdom that has been re-purposed, some of the details and monsters not associated with the cult seem a bit out of place. How long would dwarven ghouls stick around without a food source, and wouldn't wights make more sense? Why do dwarves have sculptures of dancing merfolk on their fountain?

Finally, perhaps it's just me. There is a section where a tunnel to the next set of dungeons is bounded by a "skeleton" of a purple worm. I mean . . . I know purple worms aren't quite like your garden variety earth worms, but I'm pretty sure worm and skeleton don't go together. Maybe it bothers me more than it should.

Chapter Five

This chapter starts to set up the idea that as branches of the elemental cults are shut down, reprisals happen in the real world that only the PCs can stop. Some are set up as elemental phenomenon, like a bad storm, but others are manifestations of elemental creatures. I would have rather had the option of either elemental creatures or elemental phenomenon affecting an area, for some variety.

There is also a really bad cliche that comes up the closer the PCs get to defeating the bad guys. One of the prophets actually sends a dream, taunting the heroes, and telling them the town that they are planing on destroying, because the PCs have "no chance" to stop it, assuming, of course, that the PCs will at least attempt to get there and stop it. It really makes no sense, and seems to be an artificial means to remind the players of the world beyond the dungeons they keep exploring. It seems as if some kind of celestial being or even a diviner associated with one of the factions warning the PCs would have make much more sense.

Two of the delegates that the PCs started looking for are still missing, and they are mentioned again as motivation to keep going. This seems like it lost it's impact as soon as the PCs realize there are four cults working together to do something bad. It also seems a bit strange, because in a sandbox style adventure, it could be months later, and the delegates are still just waiting there, alive, to be rescued, long past time that they would be useful to the cults.

This chapter follows the same pattern, where air is the easiest elemental node to take out, and fire is the hardest. Any prophets that the PCs haven't killed yet are waiting for them in the nodes, and the very last prophet you attempt to take out manages to summon their Prince of Elemental Evil. The explanation of this almost makes it sound like the prophet doesn't get the final inspiration from the Elder Elemental Eye until all of the other cults have fallen, but if that's the case, wouldn't it have made sense for one of the cults to overtly off the other prophets so the last prophet standing could summon their prince? I guess elemental forces that just want to do evil don't always have the clearest of plans, other than evil that involves elements.

All of the potential confrontations with the elemental princes (all are detailed, but only one will happen, depending on what order you take out the prophets) have some element of the environment changing, to make it feel as if time is ticking away, however, as described, the Ogremoch encounter sounds like it could just outright kill the PCs even if they win, since it says the whole cavern collapses and kills everybody still in the caves in five minutes. There isn't really a mechanic for finding out how fast the PCs get out, other than just measuring movement rates against the map and applying rough terrain penalties, but that feels kind of tedious for a scene that should be tense. The fact that the elemental weapons are keys are mentioned briefly by the prophets when they summon their prince, but translating that into what to do with the weapon to deal with the node might be fuzzy (but see the side treks in the next chapter).

It also feels a bit odd that the other nodes can remain open, and the adventure is still a success if you just close the one that actually had a prince come through. It feels as if maybe a bit more emphasis should be put on making sure all of them are closed, even though it's mentioned in passing as something the factions "might" ask the PCs to do so after they clear the dungeons.

Chapter Six

This chapter details the optional side treks that players may undertake. Most of them are given out as rumors or are assigned to PCs if they are faction agents. The first thing that strikes me looking over these side treks is that so much of the adventure deals with the elemental cults, that the few side treks that don't might bewilder the PCs as they keep trying to find the cult angle in the side trek.

There is a side trek that involves the corruption of Red Larch by the earth cult that does a really good job of making the elemental threat feel more like a looming corruption, instead of a series of stationary fortresses of evil, and I'd recommend that if you really want your PCs to feel like there is a reason to go after the cultists, this helps out even more than the factions or the missing delegates.

Some of the side treks feel like they try to do a little too much with the space and word count that they have, like the mystery frame job investigation in one of the Zhentarim related side treks, or the siege of a farmstead by orcs that amounts "make them feel like they will lose until you have reinforcements show up."

The Dark Lady side trek seems like one you will want to run just to give the PCs a chance to find out some of the backstory of the cults and get some better clues about what the elemental weapons do and potentially how to close the nodes, instead of hoping they guess from the phrase that each of the prophets use when summoning their prince.

Chapter Seven

This chapter deals with monsters and magic items expressly created for this adventure. One of the things that jumps out the most in this chapter is that they went to a great deal of trouble to give some distinguishing features and personality to each cult so they each felt a bit different, and so they all had something memorable about them. There are visual cues hint at the psychology behind each cult, and while they are subtle and may never get zeroed in on by the PCs, the fact that even the lower level cultists have that much thought going into them makes them more exciting to use than "generic crazy cultist" would be.

The Elemental Princes are all really scary, which makes me really hope people running this adventure give the PCs a chance to defeat them with the proper keys rather than just trying to slug it out toe to toe with them. Imix's numerous ways to cause exhaustion may not seem that impressive at first, but given that enough levels of exhaustion can kill a character, Imix may stop their hearts way before he ever whittles down their hit points.

Most of the elemental magic items are kind of quirky, like backpacks that carry water weirds, or magical base jumping suits or personal hot air balloons. The Devastation Orbs in the adventure text read like they are tactical nukes, but in actual game terms aren't really as nasty as the adventure makes them out to be. The Elemental Weapons are are nice, dangerous, powerful weapons that bestow a flaw on the character using it. Given how flaws work, this doesn't mean that anyone using the weapon will be compelled to do anything, but it might be a nice way to hit the "inspiration" button for a PC with one. Given how powerful these are, and how they are destroyed when used to seal the portals, it does make me think that it would be very important to emphasize that these weapons be used in that manner just to clear them out of the campaign.

Appendix A

This appendix introduces Genasi PCs and . . . everything in this chapter and more is free in the Elemental Evil Player's Companion. However, if you don't feel like downloading that resource, the Genasi are a nice addition to other PC races. Makes sense to introduce them in this particular adventure as well.

Appendix B

This is a selection of mainly elemental themed spells added to 5th edition D&D, and again, all of these spells can be found in the Elemental Evil Player's Companion. For the DM, it's nice to have them listed in this book, for the NPCs that have spells from this section in their spell lists.

This section does reintroduce some well known Realms spells to 5th edition, like Aganazzar's Scorcher or Snilloc's Snowball Swarm, and they all seem to be in line with existing spells from this edition, so they give some variety, but none of them are must have, or obviate the use of spells from the Player's Handbook.

Appendix C

I'm torn on this one. I like the nod to adapting this adventure to other settings, but I feel like some of the settings presented need a lot of adaption just to port them to 5th edition to begin with. Giving ideas of how to adapt the adventure is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. It may not take much, mechanically, to adapt this adventure to Eberron or Greyhawk, but there are a lot of questions when it comes to using Athas or Dragonlance concerning how the quirks of those settings interact with 5th edition's core assumptions.

Positive Energy Planes

This book's art is amazing, and the detail that went into the look and psychology of the cultists, as well as the personalities of the prophets, is really impressive. The cartography is also a thing of beauty, and not only do the maps look good, but it's easy to use them when reading the text to figure out what is going on.

The side treks make the area feel a little more alive, and the detailed chapter on the region means that there will be very few times that the DM won't have an answer for something when the PCs wander off in a given direction.

Negative Energy Planes

Other than saying the weather is bad up front, there isn't much that makes it feel like the cults need to be defeated right this moment, and even the set up of the initial Haunted Keeps feels like they could have been sitting out there, being elementally evil for months, years, or decades. Yes, they are bad, and should be stopped, but it feels more like a matter of keeping the roads safe for travelers, not keeping the entire region, and possible the Sword Coast, safe from catastrophe.

When there are "timing mechanisms" that come up in the final chapter, they feel heavy handed, and some key information on the cult, what its doing to corrupt the region,and how they will accomplish those goals, is hidden in side treks that are, by default, optional.

The repetition of four elemental dungeons, moving from air to fire in difficulty, in all three chapters, has the potential to be tiresome and predictable if the PCs pick up on that particular pattern, and even with the interesting spin on look and psychology for the bad guy cultists, they may wear thin after a while.

Summoning Up An Opinion

This is a very well put together book, with a lot going for it. It looks good, has lots of content, and taken one encounter at a time, that content is crafted well. Taken as a campaign, that content can start to feel a bit repetitive. If you are a fan of sand boxes, you may not appreciate the omnipresent theme and attempt at feeling like impending dread is hanging on your ability to clear dungeons faster, and if you are a fan of story driven adventures, the forward momentum may not be fast enough for you.

Still, there is so much in this adventure to like, and there is so much that is well done, it's hard to picture a fan of D&D 5th edition being too disappointed with how this adventure turned out, even if it isn't a 100% must have title.

*** (out of 5)

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