Thursday, February 23, 2017

Princes of the Apocalypse Review and Prep Advice

So, we’ve been through the entire second season of Adventurer’s League and have seen the power and the capabilities of the Cults of Elemental Evil and the horrors they seek to unleash on the world.  There is a companion hardcover adventure that ties directly into this theme and takes the adventurers on a journey into the heart of Elemental Evil.  That book, Princes of the Apocalypse, is our feature for today.

This adventure plays on themes from the earliest writings of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and is a thematic successor to The Temple of Elemental Evil, published way back in 1985.  That adventure, set in the world of Greyhawk, leads adventurers into a ruined temple dedicated to demons, elemental powers, and some seriously heavy bad guys.  The culmination of that adventure can whisk adventurers into portions of the Elemental planes where they’ll have to work quickly to try and fix problems before succumbing to the powers of Elemental Evil.

There is a later module, aptly titled Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil that was released for the 3rd edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules set, and it is an interesting middle ground between the original and Princes of the Apocalypse.  (Though not intended as a series, i’m going to make this claim just this once because they share similar story elements and themes.)  If you’re interested in the history of The Temple of Elemental Evil, check out the Wikipedia page (which you can find here )

Thematically, Princes of the Apocalypse is very different from the previous hardcovers, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat.  The Cults of Elemental Evil are not an over force of chaos and destruction in the world, like the Cult of the Dragon in the previous books.  THese cults are much more subtle, and are corrupting influences on the world around them.  

The adventurers who seek out the Cults of Elemental Evil are going to have a long, winding road to follow to confront their foes.  They are holed up in a variety of interesting and out of the way locations and will have to be rooted out.  This adventure isn’t as big in scope as Hoard or Rise, and focuses almost exclusively on the Dessarin Valley and its environs.  As the characters explore more of the valley and find more going on, they are going to be confronted by more serious dangers and threats, finally culminating in a series of confrontations with the Cults.  

Let’s take a look at a couple of the chapters, and then dive into the adventure.

Chapter 1:  The Rise of Elemental Evil

Chapter 1 covers a lot of background details, including a ton of information for the Dungeon Master on how to run this adventure, the background, the key players, and how the cults operate.  If you’re playing this adventure as a player, you should probably have just put it back on the shelf to begin with and found something else to read.  Key things to watch out for in this chapter are:
  • Background (and the historical context that the adventure comes from)
  • Synopsis (The quick and dirty version of how the adventure is supposed to go)
  • Elemental Cults (These are the feature bad guys, so take some time and get to know them, their leaders, and their tactics)
  • Running the Adventure (A reminder of the major power groups in the area, Adventure hooks, How to get started, Prepping for the adventure, how the monsters work, and how to use the side trek adventures in the game).  This is by far the most critical section to get familiar with in terms of being able to run the game.  

Chapter 2: The Dessarin Valley

This chapter is a rundown of the Dessarin Valley and its immediate environs.  Since this is the setting for this Hardcover adventure, take your time and get to know this area extremely well.  Make notes about the NPCs that are going to come up a lot and make sure you know who’s who, why  they’re important, and how they fit into the larger puzzle.  You’re also going to want to familiarize yourself with the areas listed and what adventure sections or side treks they fit into.  Get familiar with the Map (also, chuckle hilariously to yourself later when you realize that this is a layover point on the way to Storm King’s Thunder).  If you’re feeling extra preppy, prepare some of the random encounters from the random encounter table and file them away for a rainy day.  

Chapter 3: Secrets of the Sumber Hills

The adventure finally begins in Chapter 3, and the adventure starts in Red Larch ( Remember, Player Characters are supposed to start at level 3, so you might need to run them through a couple of Adventurer’s League adventures for season 2, or you could start them off at level 3).  This chapter jumps and hops around a lot, and if you didn’t do your prep work about Red Larch from Chapter 2, it’s going to be a nightmare.

The adventure at this point is an open-ended (ish) investigation.  There are a lot of potential leads to follow and directions the adventure can take.  I would take some time and plan out the “Which leads go to which encounter sites” and write it down so you know which sections of this chapter to use.  This might not be a bad time to color code some tabs so you can flip to those sections.  (Make sure you use the same color coded tabs for the whole adventure, because a lot of these points tie back to each other in successive chapters).  

Once your players have got their clues sorted out and are ready to start their first out of town session, make sure you have all the maps for those areas ready if your group uses maps (Minis can be helpful, if you are using maps).  

There are a lot of threads in this chapter, and characters who are working hard, trying their best, and doing good work can continue to explore the threads and dig out some corruption.  Encourage them to do so, because the challenges in chapter 4 are serious, and underleveled adventurers are just going to end up in shallow graves.  

Chapter 4:  Air, Earth, Water, and Fire

(Character level expectations  starting around 6th level)

This chapter doesn’t ramble quite as far and wide as Chapter 3 does, but there are a lot of things going on.  The key villains that characters will have to start dealing with in this chapter are the prophets of the cults of elemental evil, and that requires them to attack the primary temple of elemental evil.  Now, if you thought the cults were just going to sit around and wait to be killed off, you’re sadly mistaken.  There are a lot of interactions between the various groups, and things going on, so make sure you read through this chapter and take notes.  Some things are timed to occur at specific points, but others are a little more free wheeling.  

This is a throwback to a classic idea that doesn’t necessarily come up very often anymore.  Adventure sites that sprawl like this temple, and its intellectual predecessors are just too big to take in one go.  There are too many enemies, too much ground to cover and not enough resources to get them through everything.  The adventurers are going to have to leave and come back, probably multiple times in order to effectively clear the stronghold.  

This means that there are opportunities for other things to occur, (like the cults blowing giant holes in the world) and the characters will have to react to things as they come up.  This also gives them time to rest and recover, gather more information, and finish up some side treks they may have intended.  It also means that the dungeon environments will change up as the denizens react to the adventurers actions.  

Again, the best advice i can give you for prepping this is to take notes and write down the sequence of events that are supposed to happen, and start checking stuff off as the players do stuff.  Color coded tabs are your friend, and you should definitely read up on the monsters and magical items that come up in this chapter, and re-read the sections on the elemental cults from Chapter 1.  The players are effectively moving into their house and taking their stuff, they aren’t going to just lay down and die.  

Chapter 5: Temple of the Elder Eye

(Character level expectations:  Starting at around 10th level)

Buried deep beneath the temples the adventurers have already raided is an older temple dedicated to ancient sources of power and the magic of the elemental planes.  This is where the Cults make their plans, and their leadership has retreated to after the incursions by the adventurers.  Three prophets of Elemental Evil remain, and if the valley is to be saved then each of them will have to be dealt with.  
As a DM, you kind of get to set the tone of which one of these encounter areas the players encounter and when.  In order to close off the elemental nodes forever, the characters will have to enter each node and perform all sorts of crazy elemental magic and survive the battles with the denizens of each node.  Characters have to encounter the Fane first, and if they complete that, the nodes are accessible.  Pay close attention to the level suggestions for each dungeon as the characters prepare to embark on this section of the adventure.  

Read, take notes, plan accordingly.  You’ve prepped like this before, but make sure you research the higher level magics that are accessible to some of the combatants in this area.  This is a level you might not be familiar with, so prep and plan.  

Chapter 6:  Alarums and Excursions

Not essential to the main story, this chapter is a collection of side treks, short adventures, and encounters that can enrich the game experience, and give characters the opportunity to pick up additional resources along the way.  If you plan on running one of them, by all means, but prep it just like you have been for the rest of the book.  

There are also several optional encounter/adventures to get characters up to 3rd level so you can kick off the adventure as it’s intended.  If you feel like this is your best option, read through them and find some encounters you like.  Remember, the journey from 1st level to 3rd level is only 900 experience points, and that can go by in a flash.  

Chapter 7: Monsters and Magical Items

This chapter focuses on the new monsters and magical items found in this book.  It also provides full monster profiles for all of the Elemental Evil monsters that you can encounter in this book, and getting familiar with these monsters will save you a lot of time.  Plan around them, note their strengths and weaknesses, and see how much trouble you can cause for your players.

Magical Items are one of the greatest treasures you can find playing dungeons and dragons, and this chapter features every single one of the new magical items you can find in this adventure.  There’s a lot of cool stuff to be found in here, and you should familiarize yourself with the things your players are going to be fighting over later on.  

Everything else, and some closing thoughts.

That closes out all of the official chapters, but there are 3 Appendices featuring additional resources, including a new race, the Gensai, some new spells, and ideas for adapting the adventure to other worlds of adventure.  

Is this a perfect adventure?  No, but i don’t think perfection is attainable.  It’s certainly a wonderful adventure, and as a campaign is a wonderful story to tell and play through.  I love the return of the old familiar feeling of Elemental Evil (I actually wore the binding out on my copy of the original).  It’s such a fun adventure to play through, and i enjoy the mystery aspect of it.  You’ll spend sessions investigating the cults and figuring out what’s going on.  

There are some structural elements i have a problem with, (Chapter 3 is a mess of overlapping plot details and disconnected areas on the same page) but i respect that the idea that the investigation can take you all over the map, and so areas are not presented in a linear fashion, because your party may not follow that line.  

The bad guys are responsive and reactive in a way that’s refreshing.  They’re not going to sit around and wait for heroes.  They’re active and extremely destructive with the elemental energies they’re capable of unleashing.  It’s got some neat bad guys, and the villains feel like they inhabit their roles very well.  

If the other callbacks to classic ideas and adventures are like this one, then i feel very comfortable with this direction that Wizards is taking with their reimagining of the old classics.  Tales from the Yawning Portal is going to be amazing.  Those are our thoughts on Princes of the Apocalypse, and we hope you find it as much fun as we did.  

Game On, Game Fans

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