Review: Princes of the Apocalypse
The second storyline (read: Adventure Path) for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is called Elemental Evil, which focuses on the cults of several elemental princes and their efforts to take over the Forgotten Realms and further the will of Elder Elemental Eye. The major details of the adventure take place in the recently released super-adventure Princes of the Apocalypse.
What Is It
Princes of the Apocalypse is a 256-page hardcover book that encompasses all the relevant story for the Elemental Evil arc (excluding whatever is happening in the Neverwinter MMO or D&D Expeditions adventures, which are ostensibly related, but only in name and theme).
Of the 245-page book, 76 pages cover the actual adventure, which takes player characters from level 3 to level 13, a full 11 levels of play. There are also 22 pages describing the region where the adventure is set, with a good dozen pages on the town of Red Larch. There’s also 33 pages of magic items, along with a small section for players with the genasi race and spells. Curiously, after the main adventure there is a chapter of other mini-adventures that can take a character from level 1 to level 3 along with some sidequests to tuck between events in the main story.
Princes of the Apocalypse sets itself apart as a sandbox adventure, which is very different from Tyranny of Dragons and thus a nice change of pace from recent plot-heavy WotC adventures. The adventure provides a lot of hooks to quickly get players involved in the story and directed towards Red Larch; lots of clues to follow are important in a self-directed story. Sandboxes live or die based on adequate motivations. And there are several NPCs in Red Larch that can further motivate PCs to get involved in local affairs or reiterate hooks.
The starting town of Red Larch is very useful as a detailed starting town for many campaigns, although it is predominantly human (I counted two half-orcs, a half-elf, and a halfling). If you need a town and don’t have time (or the creativity) to make one yourself, Red Larch can serve that purpose and comes complete with maps and inhabitants. There is a nice gender mix of male and female NPCs, with not all the women fit into traditional (read: stereotypical) feminine roles in the town.
The location of the adventure was well chosen. It’s set near the famous cities of Neverwinter and Waterdeep, situating events close to familiar territory. And it’s easier to incorporate characters who started near those locations – such as PCs who were involved in Lost Mine of Phandelver from the D&D Starter Set. The region hasn’t seen much prior attention or been the location for previous adventures, despite having been on the maps since the early days of the Forgotten Realms. It was loosely described in several earlier products during 2nd Edition, and many of those details are incorporated into this product. It builds on the past, which is nice. It also feels like the adventure could take place in the era prior to the Time of Troubles as easily as the post-Sundering timeframe.
The adventure itself is comprised of lots of several smallish dungeons with a few side encounters, making it an easy source of inspiration for homebrew adventures. There are essentially thirteen independent dungeons, each giving a single level of experience (more or less). Even if uninterested in the Elemental Evil storyline, the book is useful for a zero-prep water-themed crypt or magma cavern.
I like how each dungeon or encounter locale begins with a summary of the area’s features, such as illumination, type of doors, height of ceilings, etc. This is very useful information to have singled out.
Most of the evil NPCs are given surprisingly lengthy roleplaying notes, even if they’re likely to be killed on sight. Lots of the mook NPCs are given names and not all will fight to the death. These are nice additions because you never know who the players are going to talk to or try and interrogate or convince to change sides. And it’s often nice to know how a villain will react in combat or how they will act while fighting.
The inclusion of the genasi race at the end of the book is also cool. While available in the free player PDF, it’s nice to have a hard copy, and the genasi are a fairly iconic D&D race. Plus there are several genasi NPCs in this adventure, so having racial information here is useful.
Speaking of free PDFs, there is a support document for the adventure on the Wizards of the Coast website that contains all the monsters, spells, and magic items used in this adventure that were not included with the Basic rules. This allows you to run this adventure with only the Basic rules document, so the only purchase required to play this adventure is the adventure book itself. It’s a nice, cheap way of getting into D&D and playing for many, many months.
Princes of the Apocalypse is another cult adventure, just like Tyranny of Dragons. I imagine this is to allow the same threat to be present in multiple regions at the same time, to accommodate story overlap between the MMO and organized play. Even ignoring the “evil faith-based organization” aspect of the story, the motives of the cult are even identical: take over a region and open portals to bring their extraplanar master into the Forgotten Realms. This makes Elemental Evil feel samey and unoriginal. But if you didn’t play Tyranny of Dragons this is easy to ignore.
While the adventure can be played with just the Basic rules, the associated free PDF not mentioned in the book. This is a very foolish oversight. This is a totally nitpicky complaint, but something WotC should be aware of for future adventures.
The adventure is short. Including the set-up, there’s something like 100 pages of actual adventure. 160 if being generous and including the town and starter adventures. And the adventure barely covers 10 levels of play. With the additional side-quests and starter adventures, the adventure does run for 13 levels, but these are only tangentially related so it’s not really fair to call them part of the adventure.
Despite the short length (or possibly because of it and the related unforgiving experience requirements) there are a lot of random filler encounters. Rooms that just contain a monster for reasons of there being a monster. This does allow a lot of the iconic creatures from the Monster Manual to make an appearance, but most don’t really serve a purpose.
The text reads easily, as a monster’s statblock are called out through bolded text. So when the book says ogre it’s apparent that the DM should use the ogre statblock. This reads fairly inoffensively and naturally but does not make things easy to reference as no page number is given. Similarly, rooms are just described naturally with no game text to denote challenge or experience awarded. If you want to know if a room is Hard or Deadly you have to build the encounter yourself.
The adventure includes the five factions used for the Adventurer’s League, which feel tacked-on. These are there for the fraction of people running the adventure for organized play and stand out as odd for anyone else, especially those running the adventure in six months or two years or a decade. It stretches credulity that all five factions are operating in a small frontier town of six hundred people that is in the middle of nowhere on the long road to more nowhere. I would have prefered less attention on the factions and a conversion document for organized play detailing the factions and assigning them to NPCs.
One of the big hooks is the “Mirabar delegation”, a group of travellers that were heading south and passing through the valley. This whole hook is problematic. The distance between Mirabar and Red Larch is some 300+ miles, comparable to travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This is a two-week journey pre-automobile. The delegation is missing and a month overdue, so the PCs are somewhat tasked with finding them. Except when someone is a month late following a two-week trip, you don’t dispatch adventurers to rescue them, you send people out to find the bodies because they’re almost certainly dead. This whole plotline is dragged out far, far too long. You rescue the final delegates in the last couple dungeon levels, ten levels after you started out trying to save them and potentially a month or two after the campaign started. Saving some travellers is a job for lower level adventures, not ones working to prevent an elemental prince forcing their way into the Realms. Saving all the delegates in the first chapter would have provided a nice mini-end (especially for people playing Organized Play) and groups could either have continued out of personal desires to save the world rather than the high level heroes still being tasked with rescuing people they’ve been trying to save since 3rd level. That said, beyond continuing to look for the delegates there are few solid hooks driving adventures into the lower tunnels. The players are really expected to care a heck of a lot about finding a couple missing people who haven’t been seen for 90 days.
It’s also very possible to find a lower temple before finishing the surface temples and for the party to wandering into a much higher level area. Such as 5th level characters wandering from Sacred Stone Monastery into the Temple of Black Earth or stumbling from the 6th level Temple of Howling Hatred to the 10th level Fane of the Eye. It’s not incredibly obvious that they’re “changing zones” and facing deadlier opponents. Let alone having to backtrack to progress in the story, or remembering the entrance to the Fane was in a tunnel you passed three dungeons ago.
For a dungeon crawl, the adventure is solely lacking in traps and puzzles. The only puzzle I recall standing out was in one of the side quests and was solved as much by Intelligence checks as player cunning.
The absence of online maps is irritating. This is most frustrating for regional maps, which are needed as player handouts in a sandbox adventure like this one. Wizards of the Coast has not provided art galleries for this adventure or Tyranny of Dragons. The maps are available from the artists’ web stores here and here, but these become pricey quickly and it’s easy to spend almost as much buying digital maps and the physical book.
Despite having a lengthy description of the town, I can’t find a reference to the population of Red Larch. This is a frustrating omission. Thankfully, there’s an article on the Forgotten Realms wiki puts the population at 600, but this is pre-Spellplague and thus two Realms Shaking Events out of date.
Princes of the Apocalypse ends with 5 pages of concept art, which feels like a waste of pages. Originally, this book was going to be paired with a second book, the Adventurer’s Handbook, but this was cancelled; it’s assumed some of the content of the latter book was moved into this PotA. I imagine these pages are literal filler to hit the proper page count necessary for printing.
Similarly, the pre-adventures are all kinds of awkward. They’re positioned curiously in the book, being after the main adventure when many are set prior. Many would have been better if they were positioned between chapters or folded into the main plot. I suspect this content was a late addition, added to expand this book and make it more worth the $50 price tag or to insert material written for the Adventurer’s League. Still, if the product was always to begin with higher level PCs, it would be easier to assume level 4-5 PCs and direct people to the Starter Set and Lost Mines of Phandelver for those levels, freeing up several pages for more relevant adventure material or monsters or the other PC races.
None of the NPCs is the book use personality traits (flaws, bonds, ideals, etc). Given the focus on roleplaying as “the third pillar” in this edition, it’s problematic to ignore the keywords designed to accommodate and assist RPing. This is especially problematic with the wealth of NPCs in Red Larch, who often don’t have a detailed personality.
Red Larch is flawed and incomplete. The book give everyone a one-sentence description but many have no motivation or aspirations being just “grumpy” or “idealistic”. Far more time is spent on providing adventure hooks to the optional pre-adventure adventures than is spent on the townsfolk’s personalities. This leaves Red Larch feeling a little flat and static: it’s not a living town, it’s a settlement that doesn’t really exist when not being interacted with by the PCs. No one in Red Larch has a relationship with the other townsfolk. There are no love triangles, failed romances, rivalries, feuds, and the like. If the PCs bond with the local innkeeper – Kaylessa Irkell, the “fortyish matriarch of her family and a pleasant, sturdy woman” – they can’t help her take over Mother Yalantha’s Boarding House, or convince Nahaeliya Drouth to lower her prices for Irkell, or helping Irkell work up the courage to woo Feng Ironhead.
The earth cult were the group who captured the delegates, setting events in motion. The cult set them to work in their mines, despite the Cult of the Black Earth viewing “mines, quarries, and tilled fields as insults imposed upon the living rock”, which seems akin to having a group of evil Rabbis kidnap people to work on a pig farm. There doesn’t even seem to be a reason for the mine. No ore is referenced and the monastery is right atop the Temple of Black Earth so space isn’t an issue. And the earth cult has a bond with burrowing creatures like ankhegs, bulette, and umber hulks. Why in the name of almighty Odin did they kidnap a dozen commoners?!
Which really leads to the biggest complaint: the plot of the adventure is ass. Really, there is no plot. There are characters running around doing things and stuff happens but there’s no unfolding story. A drow named Vizeran DeVir – aka Sir Does Not Appear in this Adventure – created four elemental magic weapons. Then he just left them lying around and buggered off. Why? No idea. Where? No idea. The weapons call four elemental prophets who then come to the region and form elemental cults that proceed to cause problems with the weather, abduct people, and drawing all kinds of attention to themselves for no real benefit. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the prophets not to just keep quiet and open their portals to summon their elemental princes into the world. Unlike the Cult of the a Dragon, there’s nothing witten into the adventure stopping them from opening portals it in day one, weeks before the campaign started. There’s not even a flimsy handwaving excuse.
The adventure includes an assortment of adventure hooks to motivate the PCs. There are a good 21 hooks provided that tie into various parts of the adventure. These have the interesting mechanic of granting inspiration for completing key tasks, which is a love use of the inspiration mechanic. It’s a nice way of rewarding the completion of a person quest without awarding more experience or giving an unbalancing or permanent boon. (Although, 21 is a LOT of hooks, likely too many, even for a campaign with high PC turnover. And such an odd number too; stopping at 20 and numbering them would have made it easy to randomize with a d20 roll.)
The book ends with some solid advice on converting the adventure to Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron. This includes suggestions on where to situate the adventure, how to adjust the story and villains, and even includes replacements for the five factions. These were very well written and really seemed to focus on the tone of the settings. Some effort and world lore was put into this section. It’s a great way of offsetting the criticism that WotC is only focusing on the Realms. And it’d be easy to move PotA to Greyhawk and run it as the third part of an Elemental Evil trilogy (following Temple of Elemental Evil and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil).
The adventure includes statblocks for four of the elemental princes, who range in challenge from 18 to 20. It’s always nice to have more end bosses and higher level threats.
I adore the adventure’s use of quickly modified monsters, such as an eyeless umberhulk with metal claws or the various monsters with variant weapons. Rather than a completely different monster with revised statblock the adventure just includes the different attack entry. It’s a very elegant method of adding variety, but also provides enough information that you don’t need to work out the math or attack numbers yourself. There are also the environmentally tweaked monsters, such as the magma roper or the aquatic ghouls & ogres who can breathe underwater and gains a swim speed. They don’t create a seperate monster statblock for the lacedon (aka the aquatic ghoul), choosing not to fill a quarter of a page when a single half-sentence does the job.
5e has long advertised that it is going to be a lower magic game. This adventure demonstrates this. While there are various magic items spread throughout the adventure, many are consumables or what was formerly known as “wondrous items”. There are all of 5-6 magic weapons in the adventure (excluding the four evil plot items) and all of a different types. There aren’t, for example, five magic longswords. A far cry from awarding a half-dozen magical items each and every level.
The evil elemental cult are presented as reactive and don’t just sit in their dungeon waiting for the PCs to come and thwack them. Text is provided for how the cult reacts to the PCs once they’ve earned a reputation, and there are replacement encounters for slain defenders, and there are a number of responsive actions for the cultists to make. Between delves there might be small encounters as the surviving cults try and start some trouble. Once one of the four prophets has been slain the others change location and move elsewhere. And the final prophet – the cumulative Big Bad – depends on the order the PCs assault the cults.
I enjoy the encounters of varying difficulty. Not every monster is exactly at the party’s level providing the precise expected challenge and the party isn’t just going to play through the regimented 3-5 encounters each day of appropriate difficulty. There’s a lot of lower challenge monsters that might wear down opponents or are given the opportunity to be challenging in ways other than their statblock.
The book also features the return of 4th Edition elemental archons, now called “myrmidon”. These elemental people were pretty key during 4e. While 4e was not my favourite edition, I don’t like all its creations being shoved to the side, especially when they filled a niche (similarly, I would have liked at least once reference to the elemental prices as “primordials”).
Princes of the Apocalypse is simple. The adventure is a kinda-sorta sandbox. The players can wander wherever they want, and the all-in-one nature of the book really helps it be a complete sandbox. However, the challenge of the dungeons really assumes a linear progression, but this isn’t obvious and there’s little accommodating players wandering into higher level territory. The adventure is only a sandbox in that the players get to choose the order of the dungeon crawls as there’s precious few overland encounter areas and no reason to explore the wide open map.
There’s some small plotlines strung throughout the book but, really, the story comes down to “bad guys in dungeon need to be made dead.” The characters might have lengthy backstories and villains personality but no one is really doing anything. Not really. The villains don’t have a larger scheme or an end goal beyond being evil. The adventure feels… amateurish. The design mistakes feel like ones a rookie DM would make. The “story” is really just a series of encounters that lurches towards a conclusion and the NPCs are a bunch colourful characters that exist in a quantum limbo until adventurers interact with them and then they vanish until needed again.
However, the problems of the adventure aren’t insurmountable. Random encounters (from the provided tables) can fill in the vast gaps in the overland map, and some handwaving can justify the lack of an end goal/ plot. And the book provides a dozen complete and independent dungeons complete with read aloud descriptions separate from the monsters that can be mined for ideas. It’s basically Dungeon Delve with thematic ties between the series of otherwise unrelated dungeons. All the heavy work has been done, and the adventure can largely be fixed on the fly. And if your players are the sort to like a series of back-2-back dungeon crawls they’ll likely be happily oblivious to the static NPCs and ineffectual villains, rendering most of my criticisms moot.
One last criticism of Princes of the Apocalypse stands out, but it feels unfair to mention this with the other complaints, as it’s unrelated to the adventure itself. But it’s still worth noting.
On its own, Princes of the Apocalypse would just be an unremarkable adventure. A simple series of dungeon crawls. In tone it’s arguably classic or – dare I say it – old school.
However, WotC is currently on a story kick, really emphasising their storylines and promising a renewed focus on adventures. But there’s not really any story here. There’s almost certainly no story connections between Princes of the Apocalypse and the Elemental Evil storylines in the Adventurer’s League or the Neverwinter MMO beyond the shared bad guy. But that’s like saying Batman and The Dark Knight are part of the same storyline because both feature the Joker. It doesn’t inspire confidence with their future efforts.
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