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:
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.