First I am going to go over what's in the book, then I'll further expound on what I feel is the good and bad of this adventure. This contains tons of spoilers! Please, if you are a player, don't ruin it for everyone.
This review took me so long partly because I just can't get excited about this adventure. It is such a chore to read through. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of fun D&D in here. But the early level stuff and the way this book is organized are killing me. Anyway, we'll get to that.
You can buy this adventure on amazon here:
Princes of the Apocalypse (D&D Accessory)
The foreword by Mike Mearls is very informative. I'm going to include it here as an image.
The backstory to this adventure is complicated, but boils down to this: Four prophets of elemental evil have formed cults and dwell in a complex underground area in the dwarven ruins of Tyar-Besil. The cults are gaining power and threatening the region.
Each cult is detailed. The leaders of the cult are really cool villains.
(Earth) Marlos Urnrayle: A vain man who tried to preserve his good looks with a magic ring, but it instead turned him into a medusa. He went insane and began to have visions, which caused him to form the earth cult.
(Water) Gar Shatterkeel: A man who fell overboard at sea and had his arm bit off by a shark. A current saved him from the shark attack, and Gar was certain the current was actually a water elemental. He began to worship water, and now has a crab claw in place of his arm.
(Fire) Vanifer: A tiefling woman who grew up poor. She became a dancer and was taken as a concubine by a wealthy pasha. She resented being a "trophy" and burned the pasha's place to the ground.
After this, there's a massive pile of character hooks which, IMO, should have been in the player's companion.
Chapter 2: The Dessarin Valley
The bulk of this chapter details the starting town, Red Larch. It is a very dull place best known for crumblecake - a bland combination of bread and "wildfowl scraps". And yes, this information on crumblecake is given to us in a sidebar.
There's a ton of NPCs who have descriptions like "...a kindly old dodderer, but she is sharper than she appears". There are so many NPCs with adventure hooks and secrets that it is completely disorienting and difficult to figure out how to handle.
A Sidebar About Sandboxes
This adventure is very "sandbox-y". The authors want to plop your PCs down and let them stumble on whatever they stumble on.
My problem with that is that there is so much material for the DM to have a handle on, that allowing the PCs to free roam in that manner means I'll need to have read and prepared a vast selection of material that is scattered in different chapters throughout the book.
It is one thing if I'm running a sandbox adventure that is 22 pages long and has a hex map with 15 encounters all meant for characters of a certain level. It's another thing entirely when it's a 250 page book and some of the stuff the PCs might stumble on is meant for much higher level characters. It means a couple of things:
- I need to prepare a ton of stuff, know where it is ahead of time, and have it all firmly lodged in my brain at game time.
- I have to have players who can handle a situation where their 3rd level PCs stumble into a 6th level dungeon. As many of you are aware, there are quite a few players who will be absolutely enraged if this were to happen, and your session/campaign will be ruined.
Red Larch needs a half-page summary that details all of the essential information of the town (like they did in 4e products). You're not going to know that the town is run by Constable Harburk and a bunch of Town Elders without doing a lot of digging, and that info is essential to the adventure. They do list the main town NPCs on page 20, but it's not laid out plainly enough for my liking.
The rest of the chapter details all of the other locations in the Valley. There's a ton of them. My favorite is the stone bridge, a massive, high bridge that is only 6 paces wide. It crosses the Dessarin River and has a very cool piece of art. I can imagine all sorts of encounters on this thing.
Chapter 3: Secret of the Sumber Hills
We get the opening flavor, which describes Red Larch and the fact that an important delegation from Mirabar has gone missing (Get ready to dig to find out where all the delegates have been taken to. I saw it earlier and I can't find it now). Then we are given a collection of flavor text for various things the PCs might investigate.
I just saw something. Bear with me, here. As of this writing, I just finished running Rivergard Keep, the second of the four haunted keeps in this adventure. The heroes just battled a person named Shoalar Quanderil.
In the Rivergard section on page 56, it says to refer to "chapter 7" for details on Shoalar. Finding Shoalar's stats isn't easy because the NPCs in that chapter are not listed in alphabetical order. It's page 208.
Flipping there gives you Shoalar's stats and a bit of a description. I changed Shoalar to a female on a whim when I ran this. There's also a mention on page 56 that Shoalar is in the "Womford Rats section earlier in this chapter" but gives no page number. The Womford Rats thing is not listed in the table of contents.
If you can find the Womford Rats scenario (page 44), you will see that this mini-encounter contains an entire paragraph on role-playing Shoalar and cool treasure on his person that is not detailed anywhere else!
I have to refer to three separate sections to get details on one NPC. Why are they making this so complicated?!
Early on, you will run into a quandary. While investigating the air cult at Feathergale Spire, our heroes might explore the surrounding valley. The valley, by the way, is described after the spire, just to throw you off a little bit, I guess. The heroes could very well find a tunnel in the valley that leads to the temple.
The entrance is guarded by three hurricanes (spellcasting air cultists who can catch arrows fired at them), which is a very tough fight for level 3 PCs, but still... there it is. Your PCs will either have a TPK or kill these tough dudes and wander into a level 6 dungeon.
Rivergard Keep is the water cult outpost. This place looked dull on paper but came alive in play - my players snuck in at night, had all sorts of shenanigans and had an epic battle on the boats.
There is an entrance to the temple in a confusing location on the map - a secret landing with an underground stream. I just omitted this, as I don't want my players to march into a level 7 dungeon.
There's two more outposts/"haunted keeps":
The Sacred Stone Monastery: Home to earth cultists posing as monks. Things I am noticing as I read through:
- The cultists wear "...hooded robes and gargoyle masks made of gilded tin", which is awesome.
- There is quite a bit of material that anticipates PCs entering the place in disguise or through subterfuge. Many of the rooms are dull areas with a few cultists in them.
- Beyond an arcane locked door is.. a lich! He doesn't want to waste time with the PCs. If they try to provoke him, he says things like "I am not your enemy. Now go." If the PCs insist, the adventure is kind enough to just have the lich cast time stop, drop a cloudkill spell, and then leave (his phylactery is in the next room.. I assume he takes it with him?). This seems like a fascinating encounter, So many groups will do so many different things here.
- There's a mine underneath the monastery that contains slaves and an ogre: "...a flabby simpleton called Drool". There's few things players love more than tricking dim-witted NPCs, so this should be fun.
- Another captured brown bear (whats with this adventure and imprisoned bears?)
- A druid and two sprites who are hanging out, unaware that this is all a front for the fire cult. I can do a lot of cool stuff with this.
- A spy from another cult!
- A potential fight on burning scaffolding.
Chapter 4: Air, Earth, Fire and Water
|The throne room of Marlos Unrayle|
Then we get into the four temple dungeons, which are the heart of the adventure. From what I understand, once the PCs kill one of the prophets, the other 3 flee to the fane and the nodes.
Temple of Howling Hatred:
Tons of cool stuff in here. This is a great dungeon. Stuff that stuck out to me:
- The classic "prisoners endlessly pushing the rotating wheel" thing - massive stone pillars with crossbeams that form spokes pushed around and around by humans being whipped.
- A minstrel and his band playing horrible music on bone flutes. My party bard and jester will love this.
- Kenku using their mimic ability that I always forget about.
- A pyramid guarded by a skyweaver (spellcasting cultist) riding a wyvern.
- A moat patrolled underwater by a 12 foot tall statue of a dwarf.
Portions of this dungeon are on a river or underground lake. Tons of cool stuff:
- A knight riding a shark.
- The "Troll Hole".
- A dwarven brewery with vats that water weirds come out of (beer weirds?).
- A dragon turtle that attacks boats.
Temple of Black Earth:
This one is pretty good. Some cool ideas:
- A battle with gargoyles on a walkway over a chasm.
- A mud sorcerer (!) who worships both Ogremoch and Olhydra.
- A priestess with a black pudding under her command.
This one looks mostly like rooms full of monsters, with a few interesting traps and a forge.
Chapter 5: Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye
The Fane of the Eye
Long ago, drow built this place in tribute to the Elder Elemental Eye. It's a common ground for members of each cult. Things that grabbed me:
- The PCs might get stuck in a whirlwind while flying swords attack them.
- PCs playing hill giants in a game of tic-tac-toe.
- A fire-breathing minotaur.
From the fane, there are entrances to four elemental nodes. These nodes are locales infused with elemental power that give the cults their powers and are causing natural disasters in the region.
The Howling Caves
This is the air node. Some cool stuff:
- There's a crazy encounter on a frozen lake that I don't want to spoil.
- A chasm that may have to be crossed that has an unpredictable, raging storm going on in it.
- If Aerisi was previously slain, there's just two elementals in here.
- If Aerisi escaped the final battle in the temple of howling hatred, then she is here and she battles the heroes while trying to summon Yan-C-Bin, the elemental prince of air.
- If Aerisi escaped and she is the last surviving prophet, then she actually summons Yan-C-Bin! The PCs will have quite a fight on their hands.
The Plunging Torrents
The water node has some neat encounters:
- This entire place is partially submerged, so our heroes will need to use a boat or swim.
- There's hovering globes of water and an aboleth reaching into the minds of the PCs.
- A battle with a hydra among wrecked ships.
The Black Geode
The earth node. It is a cavern lit by luminous violet crystals. Things that stick out to me:
- There's a bunch of great random encounters that could really enhance a battle. Stuff like a ceiling collapse or a fissure opening up in the floor under a party member.
- Glowing crystals that can enchant those looking into their light.
- As the PCs cross a bridge over a chasm, boulders animate and roll through them! What a great idea.
The Weeping Colossus
- Lava rain!
- A roper made of molten magma.
- A room with walls lined with skulls
This chapter is full of fantastic stuff!
Chapter 6: Alarums and Excursions
First off, there's three level one adventures, involving bandits, a haunted crypt and a necromancer, respectively. I ran them all. They were fine, but in my opinion a lousy way to start off an elemental evil campaign.
Tomb of Moving Stones: This adventure exposes the weird goings-on in Red Larch and the dungeon right beneath people's feet. The dungeon has a very cool hallway trap and a great final room.
New Management: The heroes take over an inn and the Zhentarim cause shenanigans. This adventure really doesn't look good to me.
Iceshield Orcs: A really cool scenario where the heroes defend a compound against rampaging orcs. It could have used more detail, but I like it enough that I'm running it next week.
The Long Road: Anyone who played Tyranny of Dragons will run screaming from this scenario that involves the heroes riding in a caravan, protecting it from bandits.
Curse of the Fire Witch: A weird scenario involving barbarians attacking people that may lead to the heroes doing nothing but watching.
Vale of Dancing Waters: A trip into some dwarven ruins with a few monsters in it.
Dark Dealings in Yartar: An awesome scenario where bad guys are auctioning off a devastation orb to the highest bidder.
Rundreth Manor: The heroes go and check on a shadow dragon to see if it has joined the cult. This one looks really cool.
Halls of the Hunting Axe: This one involves a quest for a magic item known as Orcsplitter and even has an encounter on that giant stone bridge! Looks fantastic.
Chapter 7: Monsters and Magic Items
The magic items are really great. There's the 4 artifacts, a few dwarven relics, and then really cool elemental gear like a weird tank ( A tank of liquid that you strap to your back that contains a water weird that will pop out and fight for you!) and claws of the umber hulk (claw gauntlet weapons that let you burrow 20 feet per round).
I don't want to give too many details, but the magic items are top notch.
Appendix A: Genasi
Not much to say here. This is the genasi race - humanoids infused with fire, water, air or earth energy.
Appendix B: Spells
The spells are great. There's a ton of them and they're used a lot in the book. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of a few of them already, especially tidal wave.
The last few pages of the book are a sketchbook, featuring a lot of cool designs. I especially like the razerblast fire cultists.
It is amazing how much content they fit into this one book. It feels like more stuff than what they put in the two books of Tyranny of Dragons combined. Somehow Tyranny felt like it needed more pages, and this doesn't.
Now we're going to go into my overall thoughts.
The Bad Things About Princes of the Apocalypse
This is by far my biggest bone of contention with this product. The way it is organized is completely ridiculous. Material is literally spread out all over the book. You, the DM, must sit down and spend so much time putting all the pieces together.
Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? Paizo adventure paths are linear. It's all right there, in logical order. It works. If a DM wants to pull it apart, he or she can still do that. I do it all the time.
As a sandbox, this is a hot mess. Good luck flying by the seat of your pants while trying to figure out what page the hooks are on (I swear to you they are in at least two different sections of the book), what page the scenario is, bookmarking the Dessarin Valley map, managing random encounters and handling the fact that your heroes are likely to be facing off against monsters too powerful for them, especially in the early going.
I can't fathom a new DM running this adventure successfully. If this was the first campaign a new DM tried to run, he or she is likely to run screaming from the table. I mean... the level one adventure that will begin the entire adventure for most groups is in chapter 6. Chapter 6! Why?!
The Adventure is Lame Until You Get To The Temples
From what I have seen, most people's campaigns don't make it more than a handful of sessions. Maybe that is changing with 5e. But what that means to me is that the beginning of your adventure needs to be really exciting to grab people and get them off and running. Hopefully you can propel them with thrills that will catapult them through months of gaming. At worst, at least the few sessions they do play will be fondly remembered.
Scales of War started off with an awesome encounter. The town is under attack. An ogre pulling a cart full of bomb-throwing goblins turns the corner and heads right for our heroes!
Skull and Shackles kicks off with our heroes waking up on a pirate ship stripped of their belongings. They are assigned tasks and given rum rations. They need to get good at their duties and begin to plan a mutiny against the pirate scum that forced them into labor!
Princes of the Apocalypse starts with the PCs going to investigate some bandits who have nothing to do with anything. Or, if you're sandboxing it, your heroes show up in a town known for bland crumblecake.
I can picture so many new people getting bored with this adventure by the time they get to the crypt scenario (which is in chapter 6).
No Demon Lord
When you think of Elemental Evil, chances are the first image that pops into your head is the iconic cover of Gary Gygax & Frank Mentzer's Temple of Elemental Evil. That cover depicts a temple with piles of demonic carvings on it.
This adventure has shed the entire association with a demon lord (it was Zuggtmoy in TOEE). I can see why, as the four princes and prophets are more than enough villains for one adventure.
But to me, TOEE has to have a demon lord in it. Zuggtmoy's area in the original TOEE was in my opinion the best part about the whole dungeon. Zuggtmoy was pretty much the final villain. She was weird and gygaxian.
To drop the demonic element feels weird to me. It's not the end of the world or anything, but the exclusion of a demon lord makes this feel less "D&D" to me.
It's Not Set in Greyhawk
Again, not a big deal, but I'd have preferred if this was set in Greyhawk. There's just something about the Realms that rubs me the wrong way. Elemental Evil should have Hommlet, Nulb and the Circle of Eight involved in some way.
The Shiny Paper
I'm literally the only person who cares about this, but they used shiny paper for this book. I wish they had stuck with the more crusty paper they used in Tyranny of Dragons. My man-fingers smear the ink on these shiny pages.
The Good Things About Princes of the Apocalypse
As I mentioned earlier, this adventure has a ton of stuff. It feels like much more material than in the two Tyranny of Dragons books combined. There's a ton of adventures, piles of great new spells, cool monsters and really great magic items. They somehow even squeezed in a few pages of sketches and designs!
There's a ton of magic items for me to hand out. That was a big beef I had with Tyranny - no magic items. This adventure is full of cool items. You've got the four artifacts, and then major dwarven relics like Orcsplitter and The Lost Helm.
Once you get your players to the elemental dungeons and nodes, they are really good. Each area has a pile of cool ideas. I really admire the creativity that went into each place. I don't know why, but I really get a kick out of the idea of a water cult knight riding a shark and trying to run a PC through with a lance.
Tons of Art
Another complaint I had with Tyranny was that there wasn't much art. Princes is absolutely overloaded with art. It is much appreciated! It helps me describe stuff and get a clear picture of what is going on.
The drawback here is that while there is much more art in this book than in the Tyranny of Dragons books, the Princes art doesn't match the quality of the Tyranny art. There's a lot of really bland depictions of stuff, like the brown depiction of Red Larch on page 23. It's not bad, but it's not inspiring at all. It looks more like an old west town than anything. Compare it to the picture of Xonthal's Tower in Rise of Tiamat.
They made elemental nodes! The biggest disappointment to me in the original TOEE adventure was the fact that the elemental nodes were "do it yourself" kits. The nodes are the coolest idea, and it was annoying that they didn't bother to detail them. Each of the nodes in this adventure really use the associated element to the fullest. The authors did a great job.
Princes of the Apocalypse is a good adventure organized extremely poorly. The lower-level scenarios are really dull, but ultimately the good ideas in the main dungeons make this one worth running. This adventure is especially useful to those of you looking for material to steal for your home-brewed campaign.