Tabletop Review: Princes of the Apocalypse (Dungeons & Dragons)

coverPrinces of the Apocalypse
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Release Date: 04/07/2015
Price: $49.95
Page Count: 256 pages
Get it Here:
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I have to admit, I might have groaned a bit when they first announced what the next official campaign was going to be after Tiamat‘s completed. Part of this was because my group has run the original Temple of Elemental Evil twice with different characters and DMs, I’ve blown through the computer adaptation before, and I’m currently running an adaptation of the Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle that I tied into the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar after blowing through the Starter Set last year, and that also deals with the Elemental Evil, even if it’s not the Evil directly. I was lukewarm on the Tiamat set, mainly because one of my players picked it up and read it because he’s a DM as well, so I couldn’t really use that, and on top of that it looked really linear. My players hate moving in a straight line, and after the rather large amount of freedom they had to tackle things in the Starter Set, that didn’t seem like the way to go. After a quick look on reddit about the new campaign and someone’s brief write-up on it, I decided to grab it and run it from the ground up for my players as our next campaign, after I was done with Haunted Halls. There’s some good and bad, I have to say, in running this from the start, but there’s a lot of neat ideas in here that really make this stand apart from the original run of The Temple of Elemental Evil and what they did with Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle while still tying into those adventures as well.

While the original Temple of Elemental Evil was set in Greyhawk, over the years, the Elder Elemental Eye has made its way through many of the D&D campaign settings, and this time its landed in the fan favorite, and mine, Forgotten Realms setting. Set in the lightly populated Dessarin River Valley area, a spot known for its farming and brief stops along the trade routes from Waterdeep to Mirabar more than anything else, bandits, pirates and monster sightings have begun to alarm those who’ve taken the responsibility of keeping the Realms safe. Things escalate when a Dwarven delegation from Mirabar goes missing and it begins to look like things are tied together. Unknown to the people who live in the area, Dessarin Valley, in ages past, had a rich and ugly history that’s buried underfoot. The Elder Elemental Eye has old temples built to empower it there, with shrines to the four gods of the elements, and they’ve finally gotten the pieces in place to act. It all starts in what amounts to the farmlands of the midwest between two major cities, with only the players in the way to stop things.

0-1This may not sound like the most original take on things, but the way the campaign is designed, it gives your players free range to not only explore, but to tackle the different temples as they choose, and of course find them on their own. Each of the elements has a distinct look and feel to it, as opposed to just simply being cultists running around in robes worshiping the elements. My favorite example are the Earth cult members using Bulette, burrowing land sharks for the uninitiated, as mounts when going into combat. If that thought doesn’t terrify you, you should take a closer look at the picture. The overall plot for the campaign is pretty good, and they’ve broken it down into smaller chunks that are much easier to manage and to help the DM with their players. The actual campaign in the book runs for about one hundred and seven pages. That’s just the main campaign that includes the start at level three, instead of level one. There are thirty-nine more pages that detail out the actual start at level one for beginning characters, as well as eight more side quests they refer to in the book as side treks for your players to stumble into, or not, as they move through the campaign. The starter section covering around two levels is only eleven pages.

Unfortunately, this set-up is my biggest issue with the campaign book. It’s advertised as being a level one to fifteen adventure, which it is, but they basically set this up where the main adventure starts with level three and goes to fifteen. The starter adventure you run if you choose to start at level one, which gives your players more immersion and involvement, is in the sixth chapter, and the starter information for your player characters is in the second chapter, so for the first few sessions, a dungeon master is going to end up flipping between pages twenty and one hundred and forty or so to relay that information instead of just having it there within a few pages of each other to start. They do give some options for running this right after the Starter Set adventure Lost Mines of Phandelver, but ultimately you’ll end up having to scale up a good portion of the campaign, as players are around level five when they finish up the Starter Set adventure and not at level three. So the only way to make it easy on the dungeon master running this is to start at level three, which means your players aren’t nearly as invested, which is not all that great.

0-2If you’ve already printed out the Player’s Companion for the book, I have some good news and bad news: most of it is reprinted in the campaign book. The Genasi player race option is included, as well as all the spells and even the artwork. So fifteen pages of this book they’ve already given out for free, but hey, at least it’s in hard copy this way. Why they didn’t include the Deep Gnome race option along with the Goliath and Aarakocra within this to go with the Genasi, I have no idea. So if you download the Player’s Companion, you only need to print out those options if you already own the book. This leads to a minor quibble with some of the player creation options. I don’t mind players picking which faction they end up with in the Realms. They give new players that option here, whereas in the Starter Set they approached you. The Adventure Hooks section they give to kind of give player characters far more involvement in the adventure needed more work. The ideas for the hooks are great, but they’re written with the dungeon master in mind for most of them, and aren’t really ready to give to the players ‘out of the box’ as it were, as they contain some pretty heavy spoilers about where people are located and solutions to mysteries presented through the campaign.

They do include a nice bestiary and list of minor and major magic items related to the campaign specifically within the book, and it weighs in at a nice thirty-eight pages. They include a handy chart listing off the challenge rating for each, but they grouped up the NPCs and monsters based on the different cults they’re in instead of going straight alphabetical with it, which would be a pain if you’re including them outside the campaign, but grouping them here within the campaign severely cuts down on the page-flipping I’d mentioned earlier. If the NPCs aren’t tied to a specific cult, they have their own section afterwards before they delve into the four evil elemental gods themselves.

0-3Aside from the first two chapters, which detail running the campaign along with establishing the setting and the different areas around the starting town, one of the most useful chapters for a dungeon master who might not like the Forgotten Realms setting or wants to run this in a campaign setting of their own is the Appendix in the back, aptly titled, “Adapting to Other Worlds.” They’ve gone all in with this, and the only few I think I’d have liked to have seen mentioned that aren’t are Planescape and Ravenloft. As it stands, they do touch on running this campaign in Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron. They give a rundown on some of the more obvious changes, especially the factions involved versus the ones present in the Forgotten Realms, as well as the different planes as Eberron that don’t have actual ties to a specific elemental plane in its cosmology. I think I’d change up one or two of the planes they did pick, as they’d work but don’t make as much sense as a few of the others, but overall these are a nice solid set of starting notes for converting the campaign over to another world.

0-4I do have to say, I like the overall layout and look of the book. It fits right in with the other Fifth Edition books and materials and the presentation fits with what we got with the Starter Set. The artwork on the interior and the outside cover is also fantastic and is really nice to just flip through and look at. The photos here don’t do it near enough justice as I’ve had terrible lighting and my main camera is dead. First world reviewing problems with hard copy books. They go into the designs and thoughts on the different factions in the Afterword with several pages of great sketches and write-ups of alternate creatures to use with the factions as well. I do have to bring up something I’ve read about and that’s quality control with the book itself. It’s very hit and miss with the printing on this one. I’ve read about several stores that had to send their stock back because of binding issues and that there are some serious glue issues. My own copy had the last three or four pages that were given a bit of extra adhesive from the outside corner but it was pretty easy to clean it off so they’re not sticking nearly as bad.

Other than that I have to say I really like this take on the Forgotten Realms getting involved with the Elder Elemental Eye. It’s a great take on the different elements and all the different options they thought up just to deal with what the players might came up with is nice. To top that off, the different ruined keeps and areas within would make nice map fodder to use over again for something different if you were so inclined. There are a few things I’d have done a bit differently, but I don’t think anyone has ever run a module or campaign straight up as it’s written. I’m not unhappy with what I paid and what I got with the book and my players are already making up new characters and I’m really excited to run this one right after we finish the one I’m currently running.

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