Princes of the Apocalypse

by: A lot of people
Levels 1 through 15

The first signs are always small: bandits on the roads, pirates on the Dessarin River, monster sightings throughout the Sumber Hills—all too close to the lands of civilized folk. To top things off, a delegation from the dwarven city of Mirabar has gone missing. Are these events all some bizarre coincidence, or is there a deeper reason behind them? Working through its prophets, the Elder Elemental Eye has emerged to spread chaos across the Forgotten Realms. How will the adventurers prevent absolute devastation?

Life is seldom black & white. This adventure is neither good or bad. I think it’s work, a lot of work. More work than I would prefer, by far. That work could have been minimized with better organization. The grand scope of a single book adventure spanning 15 levels with dozens of locales, the very definition of a sandbox, works against the adventure because of the organization issues.

This is a sandbox adventure, a combination of locations and events that attempt to work together to present a dynamic environment for the characters to adventure in. It is largely successful in what it is trying to do, being roughly equal in quality, and style, to Phandelver but with a much larger scope. As with Phandelver it could use better organization, more DM resources, and less genericism. There is good, solid imagery in this, but there is not nearly enough of it. I’ve seen every version of the Temple of Elemental Evil this one is the best. Probably by far, from what I remember of the others.

Clocking in at 250 pages, it provides an adventure path from levels one through fifteen. It contains some serious background information on the factions and the cult, a section that describes the general region the adventure takes place in, and then three separate bases/dungeons/locations for each of the four elemental cults, finishing up with some side-trek events and cult retaliation events as well as the seemingly required “new monster & new magic items” section. Essentially: background, the region, and locations/events.

Dull Genericism vs. Exciting Imagination
A sandbox needs to have a more expansive view of things. That is, after all, what a sandbox is. But it can’t fall into the trap of confusing that expansive view with being generic. A sandbox has to present many ideas/themes/events/locations VERY strongly in very few words. By cementing core ideas in the DM’s mind the DM can then run with them. If instead a generic environment is presented then the designer has added no value. In other words: I know what a kitchen is like … what’s special about THIS kitchen? While this adventures IS a sandbox, it doesn’t go far enough in adding value to the sandbox.

Let me cite a few positive examples from Princes of the Apocalypse. I’m going to center, specifically, on the air cult. First, the cult gets a great name: the cult of howling hatred. It’s like wearing an athletic shirt that says “Miskatonic University Athletic Department”. If you know then you get it. Otherwise … just another snake cult. Compare this to the Cult of the black earth, crushing wave, or eternal flame. Those SCREAM elemental cult. Howling Hatred? That’s style. More concretely, page 34, in the region section, has a paragraph on the “first” air cult base. It’s Feathergale Spire, a private retreat used by a rich Waterdhavians flying club and their hippogriffs. They are dashing “and given to drinking, singing, wearing fashionable clothing and general revelry.” Just those two sentences are a wonderful description. Given that, and a rough map with room names I could probably fill in everything in their base with almost no effort. Rich, spoiled, preppie, slightly condescending but jovial polo club of 20-26 year olds. That’s the kind of very solid quick hit that I’m looking for. It’s one of the best examples in the book. There’s another example later on where three new cult initiates have been assigned kitchen duty and are found over a steaming cookpot, breathing in deeply trying to “be the steam.” That is GOLD. It’s concrete. You can hang your hat on it. You can build and build and build on it.

On a similar note, some of Adventurer League factions come to life in way they never have before for me. The Emerald Enclave is a great example of this. There are two paragraphs on them. The very first sentence starts: “A widespread group of wilderness survivalists …” Holy Shit! They are the American militia movement! I never realized that before! Now, forever more, the Emerald Enclave has been brought to life in my mind. Not just generic druids, rangers, etc. They are, to a certain degree, nuts. Spider holes. Birthers. Crazy, almost alien ideas that you can barely get a grasp on. Wilderness Survivalists is such a strong idea. The Harpers? They are Anonymous. No real organization and self-declared with a variety of motivations.

The adventure doesn’t do this enough though, and it doesn’t tend to follow through when it does. The Emerald Enclave presented are not given strong survivalist tendencies that would reinforce the initial concept. The swagger found with the private flying club overview is not followed up on in their headquarters. These are lost opportunities to present a consistent, reinforced, strong idea. Instead the adventure falls into generic location and room descriptions. Take this example, which is actually a cut above most:

Ancient Silos
There are two of these rooms, both identical.
“This room is strewn with crumbling masonry. A dry pit lies in the middle of the floor, ringed by a five-foot-wide walkway.”

These two rooms were once granaries for the dwarven citadel, but any food stored here rotted away long ago. The siloo spaces are each 30 feet deep. Other than the possibility of a nasty fall, these rooms provide safe places for the party to rest.”

So … it’s an empty room? If you change the room name to “Crumbling & Ancient Grain Silos” and eliminated all of the additional text then nothing would be lost. There’s nothing special about this room then why is text being wasted on it? There are extensive read-alouds in this adventure, one for almost every room. Almost none of them add any value. They describe generic kitchens, guard rooms, barracks, etc … all in generic minutia. The adventure needs to focus. “Be the steam!” is value. Poncy Flying Club is value. Generic minutia is not value.

One of the bases is a wicker-man type festival. Promised is some kind of hippie festival … I imagine the hippie pilgrims in Conan. That’s one throwaway line that promises that, and it’s a VERY good line. But then what’s presented is far far less than that. Six small groups of people camped out. Where are the farmers & peasants? Imagine the chaos of a hoard of people, an an evil wicker man! But alas, it’s not to be. The monastery base is just a boring generic fantasy monastery that’s actually evil. For the party to think better of the locations there have to other things about it, otherwise anything special is obviously evil. Monks travelling doing good deeds. Their special brews famous in the villages. The lord repairing the keep showing good deeds and protecting things/people. You need build up. The build up is not present.

A special shout-out here to a couple of magic items … which of course i can no longer find in the text. I’m thinking specifically of a dagger, a sword, and a greataxe. The dagger has moon motifs, a night-blue leather handle, and is covered in dried blood. It doesn’t make any sounds when it hit or cuts and can glow blue by saying the word “Rezsu.” This is a great item, the kind of item that a player has their character hold on to long after the +2’s and +3’s come around. This is the sort of magic item I’m looking for. It inspires wonder and feels magical. The sword is less vivid, but is made of dragon bone and glows red when near a dragon, while the axe helps you find the nearest tunnel to the surface. These are not the generic “sword +1” or ring of fire resistance that permeate the rest of the adventure, and other adventures in general. This is the sort of content you should be expecting, that you are paying for.

The Organization of a Sandbox
Published adventures require a very specific form of technical writing. The content must be imaginative, to be sure, but it must also be organized and laid out so the DM can take advantage of the content. This is the long tail of the adventure being a Play Aid for the DM. A superb NPC is of no advantage to the DM if you can’t find it.

The adventure is 250 pages long. There are at least thirteen main bad guy bases, and it feels like two dozen other smaller locales to visit. Dozens of NPC’s. Factions within factions. Motivations. Content. It’s all laid out linearly, making it difficult to find what you need. Dull room/encounter descriptions are something that many DM’s would fix on the fly. Uninspiring content? “A Good DM” to the rescue! The disorganization is solved in another way: a LOT of front-end prep work. Notes. Notes. Notes. I’m sure everyone who has ever run a published adventure is familiar with the prep work that is generally required. WOTC has done a shit job in organizing the adventure … the expansive nature of the sandbox is not working against itself. It makes me wonder if whoever organized this has ever played D&D, not to mention run a adventure from a published work.

What it’s lacking are summaries, notes, and overviews. I’m not looking for twenty thousand words on the cults background. I’m looking for something that tells me how the entire thing is put together. There IS a general overview, and a couple of chapter overviews, but it is, in general, laid out … wrong. I know that’s a strong word to use to describes another’s vision. But it’s also the correct word. The wrong choices were made and as a result the product is hard to run.

Let’s take the Adventurer’s League factions. There’s a quick write-up in the front of the book. In the sandboxy region description setting, which covers all of the minor locations, some have notes like “Boojie Boy, who runs the spud farm, is a contact for the Emerald Enclave.”

Ok, pretty nice. Our factions contacts are scattered throughout the region and the party can get in touch with them. Let’s imagine how this goes in actual play. You’ve met your secret society contact in a confession both. “Ah”, they say “You’re on your way to the town of Red Larch. You can find help at …” … hang on, let me look at the book. Flip through the pages, find a map. What’s on the road from the Dallas Fort Worth water gardens to Red Larch. Broomfield. Hmmm, let me go look up Broomfield. Nope, no Emerald Enclave there. What else. Dragonsden. [Flip through more pages.]

You get the idea. Page flipping, looking for information, hoping it’s where you think it is. Now comes the prep work. Print out a map, mark the faction contacts on the map. Maybe also mark the cult outposts. Write out a page of notes to help me run it. This is what a DM’s prep work looks like, after you’ve read the 250 pages twice through. And that’s for the AL factions. How about the cult factions, which have factions within factions. Key NPC’s? Rumors & foreshadowing? After all we we wouldn’t want to repeat one of the original sins of game design: Lareth the Beautiful syndrome. You know that one, right? In Village of Homlett, a lead in adventure to the FIRST Temple of Elemental Evil adventure published, you end up in a dungeon. At the end of the dungeon, in the last room, you find an evil cleric, Lareth the Beautiful. In all likelihood you stab him immediately. But he’s the evil bad guy. EVerything is on him. He did it all. And you never know. The solution? Going through the adventure and taking copious notes, so you can reference NPC’s during play.

Imagine capturing one of the nameless cult members. You interrogate them. “Who’s your leader!” you scream in their face, threatening fire & torture. “Hang on, hang on, let me go look it up …” L.A.M.E.

One page. One miserable, rotten page. It could have solved all of this. A brief summary of the cult leadership, where they are, and their relations to each other. That’s what I’m going to have to do if I ever try and run this. This is what I mean by the above implied incompetence insult directed at the person who organized this. Pages of meaningless backstory that will never be relevent to play or inspire the DM are included. Meaningless room detail are included. But key reference and summary data to help you run the adventure is missing. Have they EVER run a pre-published adventure before?

Monster stats? Go look it up in the Monster Manual, we can’t be bothered to provide a 1-page summary sheet. Maps? They are ¼ of a page, or worse. If you want to take notes on a map you need to go google/pirate it or figure out how to blow it up on your office photocopier. The examples are endless. Key data is scattered throughout the book, forcing you to look in multiple locations to find everything you need for single locations.

This is a shame because buried inside of the book is the foundation of a great sandbox. Truly open, events scattered in, lots of NPC’s, factions, factions within factions. Almost every one of the locations does not assume combat. Imagine that. A WOTC product that does not force you into combat. You can sneak in. You can bluff in. There are enough NPC’s to make either at least a little interesting. Some of the locations even tell you how the fortress reacts to intruders, or who comes to the aid of who. That’s wonderful. That’s the kind of details that shows someone paid attention to what a sandbox is and how it works in actual play. There are even some evil folk you can ally with. That’s great. That’s roleplaying gold. Far too often they are directed to betray the party, which is lame and reinforces the idea that you should stab evil on sight, but that’s easily overlooked. They TRIED.

In conclusion … I don’t know. I want to like it. It’s better than Rise/Tiamat and I LUV D&D and want WOTC to succeed. I disclose that because I’m not sure if that’s coloring my opinions. The quality of the adventure is not quite what I’m looking for (inspiration & imaginative detail) and it’s going to take a lot of prep work to run (poor sandbox organization/play aids.) If I had to run a WOTC 5E adventure I’d pick this one. If I had the time to “fix” a WOTC adventure I’d fix this one. It’s a solid middling effort with occasional highlights in a grand scope.

This is available on Amazon.

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19 Responses to Princes of the Apocalypse

  1. Chomy says:

    Great review… I never started DMing Hoard/Tiamat (and don’t intend to), but this adventure I like. Too bad you are absolutely right about the organization. One must take a lot of notes before kicking off the game.

    What I really like in this one is the illustrations appendix. It adds a lot to the feeling and is quite inspiring. Would trade that for some full-page (fold-out?) maps and an NPC/locale summary anytime, though.

    What makes me really mad is the naming convention of NPC’s. Red Larch, for example, is full of NPC’s, all of them quite dull and generic – even though we receive a lot of (mostly useless and uninteresting) information about them, there is almost nothing to remember them by – not even their names. Typical, awfully long and ridiculous Faerúnian names that are hard to remember and hard to distinguish.

    Lareth the Beautiful is cool. It’s simple and talks volumes about the person. Theodirosius Gleamglutter (I made that one up but they are all like that) is just a pain.

    I pray that the next official apocalyptic event will wipe all the overcomplicated naming culture of the Forgotten Realms into oblivion, so that they’ll have to start over with Bob the Brave and the like.

    • Lareth the Beautiful, Guyal of Sfere, Vecna, The One Who Watches from Below, un-named goat-head demon from space who offered your adventurers limitless power if you’d just take up where the vanquished wizard left off — all of these evoke some sort of powerful imagery or feeling.

      Snuffbladder Gempalmer, Korkin Thursiprundle, and Chorf Turnbuckle all make me seethe, though.

      I’m fine with compound names for places, and the occasional PC or NPC, but when it’s just a forced mashup of two words completely unrelated except by their overuse in fantasy settings, it makes me hate the publisher/product just a little more.

  2. Wayne Rossi says:

    I ran this for 3 long sessions, ending in a TPK by the elemental in the Evil Burning Man scenario. I started with the introductory Red Larch material, which is really strong, but terribly organized.

    Red herrings in this sandbox are powerful – the level 3 PCs shouldn’t have gone to the fire encampment. But it’s where a random encounter led them. I kind of hoped the fireball-throwing priest would discourage that, but he didn’t. So something to be aware of. (There was a moment, with the hippy-dippy druid with the sprites, that got close to your Fantasy Burning Man concept. There was also a problem with timing, in that it happens “after the adventurers arrive.” But I agree, it would’ve been better if it was bigger.)

    Chomy’s comment above is right about the names. I mean, the names are HELL on a DM at the table. You have to spit out these random awkward name-like things by the dozen, usually two to three times each, and spell them so that the players will get them right the next time.

    All the organizational problems you mention are even worse in play. I had a prep sheet and it was still extremely difficult to run most encounters. The book literally needed a 48-page book of charts and diagrams explaining everything going on. Also they should have made the monsters section print-on-demand so that you’re not constantly flipping back to it. Just to name one of the problems: there’s a lot of time spent on describing the tavern in Red Larch, but no clue who will be in it aside from the snowflake encounters that give adventure leads. Each location should have had a “regular visitors” section at the end. Boom, radically easier to run.

    The underlying adventures are strong and nonlinear. Like, Rivergard Keep is a really solid invade-the-castle adventure with a lot of potential. And you could just rip the whole thing out, change the theme of the cult of the Crushing Wave to a group of reavers without elemental ties, and it would be an excellent thing on its own. Several adventures in this book would be good that way as well as in their context.

    The shame is that there are heaps, even scads, of roleplaying potential in the thing: because the cults are human, the module basically follows your rule of substituting humans for humanoids. But it’s really hard to information manage, especially since the book is hardback-only.

  3. Camila Acolide says:

    I’m really impressed, and really shocked to see this review so soon after Rise of Tiamat! You must have devoured the book! This is a great review, more focused on the organization of the adventure than in the adventure contents like the previous WotC reviews you did.

    Even though, your comments about the strong imagery are spot on and these are responsible for a great boom of quality in my games recently. Your insistence on the exciting, and on not wasting words on generic fluff, is almost burned in my mind after reading so many of your reviews. I loved your thoughts on the Air Cult and the Emerald Enclave paragraphs!

    Also, allow me to comment on the quality of the writing. I believe you wrote Rise of Tiamat before Google Docs spellchecking, and this one after it. The writing here is very clean, making it a very enjoyable and fluid reading. Keep that up, it’s so good! 😉

    And… as some of the previous DCC adventures you reviewed, this review tipped the scale of my decision; I am definitely going to get this one. Thanks!! ^.^

  4. Baz Stevens says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been using published adventures for years now. Initially it was to learn how to do my own, then it was for speed and convenience. Recently though, with adventures like this, and most of Paizos APs too, I’m not getting any benefits with my costs! I reckon I’d be as well off reading the back cover of the book and just making up my own stuff from there.
    And yes, the formatting is rubbish. I don’t know anyone who has really solved the problem of presenting a scenario well at this point, and given the amount of tech we have at our disposal nowadays, that’s bizarre.

    • Nevermind Me says:

      I’ve been DMing for 20 years now, and I have always created my own stuff. This is the first time in my life that I am using published adventures (started with Hoard of the Dragon Queen), and that’s because of speed and convenience too, since real life really takes its toll.

      Since I don’t have any previous references, I find these modules fulfill their purposes well, which is to give me the structure of a story and its encounters, basically cutting my prep time by a lot. As such, I considered them a really good investment.

      But I keep reading about these organization issues and I wonder how much I missed by not having started using these products earlier. In terms of published adventures, I am a complete newbie. Maybe the newcomers to D&D share this same feeling? They simply don’t know what they are losing, and so consider this kind of quality to be the norm.

      • Quasar says:

        You’re not missing much, the overall quality of older modules is pretty crap too. The very best of the early stuff typically gives you a location with enough flavour and working parts that a story should develop naturally through play with a little improvisation and addition by the DM, which sidesteps the issue. 2E adventures tend to be useless railroads, but even the good ones tend to bury the important information in walls of text. 3E is even more long-winded. I’ve never met an adventure that didn’t at least need liberal use of a highlighter, and the vast majority need heavy rewriting before they’re usable.

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          Quasar is correct. Some older stuff is nice, but the nostalgia machine often confuses “we had a good time” with “it was a good supplement.”

          There are many adventures you can use without a highlighter, old and new. But they get lost in the dross.

          • Most of the old modules are kind of like the way the Princess Bride book started out: You finally pick up that awesome adventure you ran through when you were younger, and find out the GM basically just had the book open on the table while you all made a way better adventure.

          • krebizfan says:

            Many of the classics have an essential difference from current adventures: playtesting. The early convention scenarios started with an extract from an ongoing campaign, mailed to people out of state for blind testing, then given to a dozen different DMs at a convention. The design team has many chances to clean up the design before publishing it for a wider audience. If numerous DMs run it successfully, the DM that rips open the shrinkwrap probably will as well.

            Now, an editor is lucky to get a few hours to glance at the completed document and ensure all the pieces were submitted. No playtesting, definitely no blind testing, just do layout and shove through the printer.

  5. Tazimack the Red says:

    This one sounds like a real nightmare for the DM. But then again, I would never run/play anything as long and structured as these “epic campaigns”, so I had zero expectations anyway =P

  6. Sandra says:

    I agree 100% with this review. It’s such a good sandbox and it’s such a tangled mess.
    The whole “hang on, hang on…” has happened way more than usual.
    I’m really sick of this book by now yet I still really like the good, cool parts of it.

  7. Jackelopez says:

    Having run the Inheritance from Dungeon 26, I’d be curious if this would be a worthwhile extension for that module. You commented on how that was almost a complete adventure if it had a fleshed out town, well here ya go- Red Larch in all its glory. There is also a big green dragon in the Kryptgarden forest as well and a crypt too!

  8. Perhaps a little help for your analogy of the Emerald Enclave to the ‘murrican militia movement. They are more like Earth First! Eco-protectors than wannabe Rambos doing the recruitment work for the National Front or other White Terrorism groups. They aren’t birthers, they are the front line defenders of the natural resources of Faerun, like Tolkien’s Dunedain, silent Rangers of the North working to hide and protect ancient sites from inadvertent discovery or corruption, they are anti-gentrification cabals working to stem the tide of wanton destruction (biggering and biggering as the Lorax suggested) from “civilization” pressing its advantage at the edge of an axe. The people you are comparing them to have zero interest in the land, the resources, or its people for their own sake, they are desperately afraid of their ancestral position being undermined by newcomers and outsiders, they are thugs afraind of change, not because they fear the air, water, soil will be destroyed or stolen, but because they fear anything that does not appear like them, share their ideals, or value violence as a tool to “keep ’em separated.” You’re thinking of the ‘purebloods’ of gama world.

  9. Tom H. says:

    (Brief necromancy: should this get your ‘5e’ tag?)

  10. S'mon says:

    Just started running this. Your analysis is certainly correct!

    Emerald Enclave – they seem intended as straightforward good guys, so I’m going with “Humans/Elves et al should Live In Harmony With Nature” types for their ethos, not genocidal eco-terrorists or “Git off ma Lawn!” ‘Survivalists’. This ‘Balanced’ conservationist approach can contrast with the Chaotic nature of the Elemental cults, who want to wipe out Civilisation, and ultimately return the world to Primordial Chaos.

    • S'mon says:

      I could though imagine individual Enclave members being corrupted by one of the cults and turning against civilisation; Howling Hatred or Black Earth maybe.

  11. Haffrung says:

    The elephant in the room when it comes to published RPG adventures (and rulebooks) is that they’re serving two masters: Buyers who use them at the table to run a game; and buyers who use them strictly as reading material. To the designers those blocks of text aren’t a bug, they’re a feature. A feature aimed at the guy who’s going to be reading the adventure front to back as a leisure activity and then set it back on the shelf. From what I gather, those readers account for at least half of the RPG book market.

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