Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 17 February 2018

An Elemental Improvement

Since 2014, Wizards of the Coast has published just eight adventures for use with Dungeons & Dragons. This does not sound like much, but where in the past both Wizards of the Coast and TSR, Inc. before it published scenario after scenario, now Wizards of the Coast releases whole campaigns, all in one go, twice a year. The first campaign, ‘Lost Mines of Phandelver’, part of the most recent Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, was really more of a scenario in the traditional sense, but what followed was Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, which together formed the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. Sadly, the underwhelming nature of the campaign not only delayed the review of The Rise of Tiamat after Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but also delayed any return to review titles published by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons. Yet there lingered a curiosity that wondered if the subsequent campaigns were any good, but to answer that, it was necessary to turn to the next one published, Princes of the Apocalypse.

Published in 2015, Princes of the Apocalypse is a campaign for characters of First Level through Fifteenth Level, which returns to the Forgotten Realms after the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. Given that it concerns the return of Elemental Evil to the world, it should be no surprise that Princes of the Apocalypse is a sequel of sorts to T1 Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign written by E. Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer and published in 1985. It is not a true sequel though, like Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition published in 2001, but rather a thematic sequel, in that Elemental Evil can work from one world to another and this time it is Forgotten Realms as opposed to Greyhawk.

Specifically, Princes of the Apocalypse takes place in and around the Sumber Hills at the heart of the Dessarin Valley many days’ travel to the East of Waterdeep. The hills are not only dotted with ruins and towers, but also hide the sundered ruins of a Dwarven city below their surface. Of late, these ruins have been occupied by four cults—the Cult of the Howling Hatred, the Cult of the Black Earth, the Cult of the Eternal Flame, and the Cult of the Crushing Wave—the members of which serve a prophet dedicated to one of the Princes of Elemental Evil. These princes are Imix, the Prince of Evil Fire, Ogremoch, the Prince of Evil Earth, Olhydra, the Prince of Evil Water, and Yan-C-Bin, the Prince of Evil Air. These four cults have staked out their part of the ruins and now compete to spread terror and their influence across the region. Initially, this will be through deception and subterfuge, banditry and theft, but as the campaign progresses, they will unleash air, earth, fire, and water elementals upon the region as well as lightning storms, firestorms, earthquakes, and floods. Besides the obvious chaos this causes, in some cases it actually drives the inhabitants of the Dessarin Valley into the arms of the cults, seeking answers and solace when their gods seem to fail them. In this way, each cult aims to prove itself greater than its three rivals in its devotion to Elemental Evil and so be worthy of serving the Elder Elemental Eye when it is brought into the world.

For the player characters, Princes of the Apocalypse begins with the search for a missing delegation from the city of Mirabar which was passing through the Dessarin Valley. Pleasingly, hooks aplenty—probably too aplenty—both personal and with both the major and the minor factions of the Sword Coast are given to pull the adventurers into the region and the campaign. Primarily of course, this includes the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Emerald Enclave, the Lord’s Alliance, and the Zhentarim. As well as motivating the player characters, their inclusion also works to establish some competing objectives within the party. One of the several things that the adventure does well is make use of the player characters’ allegiances to provide them with information and further hooks into the campaign’s various side treks.

Once in the Dessarin Valley, clues as to the fate of the missing point towards a monastery, a river keep, a spire, and a tower and more. The party though, is free to explore and go where it will in its search for the missing delegation, following up this clue and that is because is where the Tyranny of Dragons campaign was linear and all about the dragons, Princes of the Apocalypse is a sandbox and all about the dungeons. All of these lie beneath the Sumber Hills, below each of the outposts established by the four cults and each seemingly a legitimate front organisation. Gaining access to these and their secrets present the players with plenty of roleplaying challenges. In fact, together with several of the sidetreks, they make up the bulk of the opportunities for roleplaying in the campaign, there being less involved in the dungeon delves to be found later on.

It should no surprise that the dungeons occupied by the cults are heavily themed around the Princes of Elemental Evil they worship. So the dungeon occupied by the  Cult of the Howling Hatred is air-themed, the dungeon of the Cult of the Eternal Flame is fire themed, and so on. Each of these dungeons is self-contained, roughly thirty or so locations, and this is for story reasons as much as it is design. The four dungeons are connected, but the rivalries between the four cults means that in effect, each remains isolated from the other. This does not mean that incursions by the party will go unnoticed and once the player characters have confronted and killed the first of the prophets, the cult will respond, as will the other prophets, the latter seeing the death of the first as a sign of weakness. Of course, the party will have to go after them, first down to the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye and then on to the elemental nodes that are each prophet’s stronghold where the challenge is as much physical as it is combative. Each of the steps, the cult dungeons, the temple, the nodes, and so on, represents a major stage of campaign, each ending with a confrontation with one of the prophets, essentially an ‘end of level (or stage)’ boss.

Structurally, the flow of the campaign will see the party first investigating sites of interest above ground across the Dessarin Valley before delving into the first of the cults’ dungeons and then coming back to the surface. The player characters will repeat this process again and again, each time plumbing the depths to explore a more challenging dungeon. In between times, the Dungeon Master is given a slew of side treks and other adventures—all presented in the chapter pleasingly entitled ‘Alarums and Excursions’—with which to draw the party further into the campaign and show how the cults react to the party’s incursions below.

Besides presenting the campaign itself, Princes of the Apocalypse gives the background to each of the cults and a full description of the Dessarin Valley, its environs, and several of its settlements. Besides the chapter of extra and beginning adventures, ‘Alarums and Excursions’, there are chapters and appendices providing details and stats for all of the campaign’s monsters, enemies, and other NPCs, magical items, new elementally themed spells, and a new race, the Genasi. The latter are planetouched humanoids infused with, and have an affinity for, the power of their elemental parent. Their inclusion is interesting, but not intrinsic to playing or meeting the campaign. In addition, there are notes to adapt the campaign to other official settings for Dungeons & Dragons—Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron—as well as a Dungeon Master’s own campaign, and so bring Elemental Evil to them.

So far, so good, but Princes of the Apocalypse is not perfect. The most obvious and immediate problem with the campaign is that the starting Level for player characters is not First Level as the book suggests. It really begins at Third Level, so players and characters leaping straight into the mystery and the action of the campaign will quickly find themselves outclassed, if not facing the possibility of a Total Party Kill. Princes of the Apocalypse provides a means to avoid this problem with a series of introductory adventures in the ‘Alarums & Excursions’ chapter that allow the characters to attain Third Level. Yet, there are two issues with this. One is that these mini-scenarios are dull and unengaging. The other is that because the campaign starts at Third Level, it is too high a Level for player characters who have completed the ‘The Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. If the players want to use their characters from ‘The Lost Mine of Phandelver’ in Princes of the Apocalypse, then the Dungeon Master will need to make some adjustments to the early parts of the campaign.

The second issue is the sheer amount of information that the Dungeon Master has to marshal in order to run Princes of the Apocalypse. The clues to be found throughout the campaign will lead the player characters hither and thither and the Dungeon Master will need to take notes to keep track of the clues the player characters have found and where they lead (likewise the players will probably need to keep notes too). This is exacerbated by the problem that although the campaign is designed as a sandbox, many of the various dungeons and side treks are designed to be played, if not in a set order, then at least, at certain Levels. Again, although this is described, it could have better presented and summarised for the Dungeon Master. 

Another issue might be the lack of magical items across the campaign and barring potions and scrolls, it does not feel as if the player characters are rewarded all that much. Lastly, some of the dungeons are not that interesting, in particular, the temples occupied by the cults. None of them are unplayable, but they look a little bland compared to some of the side trek adventures. In particular, an encounter between barbarians and a Halfling farmstead is very nicely done and presents some excellent opportunities for roleplaying by both the Dungeon Master and the players.

Physically, Princes of the Apocalypse is an attractive, full colour hardback. The writing is generally clear and the artwork is superb. The illustrations of the prophets—Aerisi Kalinoth, an Elf princess with a fascination for wings who leads the Cult of the Howling Hatred, Gar Shatterkeel, the mutilated sailor who leads the Cult of the Crushing Wave, Marlos Urnrayle, the male Medusa leader of the Cult of the Black Earth, and Vanifer, the Tielfling leader of the  Cult of the Eternal Flame—are excellent and it would have been fantastic if these and other illustrations had been better placed for the Dungeon Master to use them as illustrations as part of running the campaign.

The biggest omission though, is the index. The fact that book as dense and as information rich as Princes of the Apocalypse beggars belief.

Princes of the Apocalypse is a huge campaign and represents months and months of play. It really works hard to present the players with freedom of choice and their player characters with the freedom of movement and investigation. Likewise, and although the contents of the book could be better organised for ease of use, it presents the Dungeon Master with the means to nudge the player characters in the right direction and keep them away from encounters which will be too challenging for their Level as well reflect the reactions of the cults to the party’s actions. Above all, it is this combination of sandbox and cult reactions which ensures that the actions of the players and their adventurers matters in Princes of the Apocalypse.