While its title means that I cannot get the Queen song out of my head, Princes of the Apocalypse has nothing to do with rugged men in kilts cutting of heads, but rather is the flagship entry in the Elemental Evil story that is being rolled out for Dungeons & Dragons this spring. Princes of the Apocalypse is an epic campaign book, taking characters from about levels 3 to 13 as they discover and then thwart the plans of four elemental cults, all inspired by the Elder Elemental Eye.
Warning: This review contains information on the outlines of the plot of the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign, and some illustrative maps. If you might be playing the campaign, and don’t want any information going in, turn away now!
The Elemental Evil Event
Just as a nice breather for anyone who wants to avoid spoilers, but can’t resist looking down, I’ll take this spot to note the scope of the Elemental Evil event. In addition to Princes of the Apocalypse, there’s are more miniatures for the D&D minis lines from WizKids, a module for the Neverwinter MMO, an Elemental Evil season for D&D Expeditions, and a Temple of Elemental Evil entry into the Adventure System board game line.
Those who have not been around D&D for the last 30 years may want to take a peek at the original Advanced D&D Temple of Elemental Evil module from 1985, or the Return to the Temple Elemental Evil (for 3rd Edition D&D).
Princes of the Apocalypse is a 250-page, full-color hardcover book that retails for around $50. The graphic design, art style, cartography, binding, and so forth are all consistent with the high level of quality found in the three Fifth Edition core books (although the sharp-eyed reader may detect a few more typographical errors this time around). The core of the plot will take characters from third level to around thirteenth level, although the looser nature of the campaign may result in PCs ending up at a higher or lower level. Princes of the Apocalypse is set in the Forgotten Realms, and there are hooks in the story for characters of the five factions rolled out along with Fifth Edition and that have been included in supplements such as the Starter Set and the two Tyranny of Dragons books.
The General Plot
The Princes of the Apocalypse campaign proceeds in three stages. At each stage (especially the first) the characters are given a good deal of freedom – not only to encounter the “dungeons” of a particular stage in different orders, but also possibly to skip ahead to something from the next stage. Really, it’s about as much lack of railroading as one could hope for in a published adventure. However, because every “dungeon” is designed as an appropriate encounter for a particular level of characters, it will require some adjustments on the part of the GM to make things work if the characters get too far out the most likely order – refining the challenge level of the encounters to an appropriate level or making sure the characters have sufficient opportunity to realize they’ve stumbled on an area where they’re outclassed so they can retreat.
In the first stage, the characters end up with the general mission of locating a lost delegation of notables (who have, of course, been captured by cultists of elemental evil). The characters know where the delegation was last seen, and then have a valley to sandbox in, with most of the action concentrated in a central area of hills. In these hills are the above ground strongholds of the four cults of elemental evil (Black Earth, Crushing Wave, Eternal Flame, Howling Hatred). The character’s investigations may take them to the cultists most directly responsible for the delegation’s kidnapping, or they may find other oddities around the valley that lead them first to one of the other cults. Each of the cults’ bases presents as some sort of legitimate organization, opening up the opportunity for the characters to talk their way into a lot of information (indeed, there are places where the characters will almost have to talk or sneak, because a frontal assault is effectively impossible). Some of the cults are not terribly friendly with each other, and so diplomacy can reveal additional information on the other cults (or different information may be found if an outpost is wiped out). Plus, each cult’s stronghold has access to the Temple of Elemental Evil lurking underneath the hills. Taken together, it is possible – even likely – that the characters will discover the Temple before clearing all of the above-ground enemies (although they may not rescue all of the members of the delegation if they do not).
The second stage is the Temple of Elemental Evil (in what used to be the halls of a Dwarven Kingdom), which is broken up into four quadrants. Each of the quadrants connects to others but, because the cults are not on friendly terms, they are fairly self-contained. Each quadrant is the residence of that cult’s leader/prophet, but after the PCs kill the first leader, the remaining prophets will flee below, with different leadership elements replacing them in the “boss” location in the temple. As with the outposts, the four quadrants of the Temple of Elemental Evil also each include an access point to stage three. Again, there is a lot of flexibility here in what the PCs will do, although the preferred option (from the campaign’s point of view) would be for the PCs to clear each quadrant one at a time, returning to the surface each time. This allows the GM to inflict various retributions on the party, their base of operations, and their allies, to add a little more malice to the cult. But the campaign does not force them. Indeed, it includes such contingencies as how the deployment of cultists will change based on partial assaults by the party (for example, if the party kills the gate guards of a quadrant and then departs, those guards will be replace by a particular group of enemies who were previously at another location deeper in the Temple). These contingencies even go so far as to discuss how much damage the PCs have to do in order to permanently disperse the cult – the prophets are not the only leaders each cult has, and so long as certain named NPCs are left alive, they will hold the cult together.
The third stage is the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye – a deeper facility originally occupied by the drow. The characters will always enter this stage in the Fane of the Eye, which includes access point to all four quadrants of the Temple above, and to all four elemental nodes. The Fane is the one place the cults (sort of) live together. If the characters choose to clear out the Fane, then here they will kill the second of the prophets. Finally, the characters must clear at the nodes. Because two of the nodes are without their prophets, these will end with fairly standard fights. The first node that does have a prophet will end with a fight against the third prophet, who will be enhanced with Lair actions. The second node that has a prophet will end with a fight against one of the titular Princes of the Apocalypse, one of the Princes of Elemental Evil (potentially a CR20 nasty, depending on what order the PCs handle things in). While this gives the PCs freedom, it may also mean that there will be a bit of an anti-climax, as the PCs may very well choose to first clear out the two nodes that actually have prophets left (and therefore pose more of a threat to the surface), thus leaving the two “normal” node fights for last. As with stage two, further torments await the PCs who return to the surface between “dungeons,” allowing the GM to show further devastation to the surface world that is being inflicted by the cults.
A note on levels: the four outposts of the first stage assume the characters start at level 3, and the four outposts are optimized for characters of 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th levels. In the second stage the four quadrants of the Temple of Elemental Evil are optimized for characters of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th levels. In the third stage, the Fane of the Eye is intended for a 10th level party, and the four elemental nodes are intended for 11th, 12th, 12th, and 13th level characters (that isn’t a typo, two of them are for level 12). The campaign notes that, in general, the characters should be gaining a level for every section they have cleared (except for the third stage, where completing the second node doesn’t grant a level). I found that, in Tyranny of the Dragons, this milestones method worked pretty well – I as GM don’t have to do as much bookkeeping, and you as PCs get an appropriate amount of experience whether you completed a particular section of the story the easy way or the hard way. I do not think the milestones method will work well here – different parties may have substantially different experiences progressing through this campaign, and it does not lend itself to easily quantifiable story chunks. It is a clear possibility that characters will begin a particular “dungeon,” and then leave in midstream (either because they think they have completed their objectives, or because they realize they’re outclassed), possibly to return later. And they may or may not be doing the side treks. So I think that even the lazy or time-strapped GM (you know, the one like me) will need to do standard xp-per-encounter tracking.
Rise of Elemental Evil (~15 pages) – In addition to a general introduction, this section includes encourages the players to choose a faction and a specific adventure hook from this section. This will give the character extra ties to particular NPCs and side quests.
The Dessarin Valley (~20 pages) – A primer on the valley where the adventure takes place, this chapter gives extra attention to Red Larch, which is intended to serve as something of a staging ground for the PCs. Red Larch is especially important for level 1 characters, as they will start in Red Larch and need to do some adventuring before hitting level 3 and being ready to take on the campaign proper.
Secret of the Sumber Hills (~35 pages)/Air, Earth, Fire, Water (~35 pages)/Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye (~35 pages) – These three chapters correspond to the campaign plot discussed above.
Alarums and Excursions (~40 pages) – This chapter is effectively divided into two sections. The first 10 pages are for those 1st or 2nd level characters who need to level up a bit in order to really begin the campaign. The final 30 pages are to give a bit of a breather to players working through the campaign, involving them more in the life of the Valley and just letting them take a break of continuously delving further into the Temple. There are 4 mini-adventures in the former category, and 8 in the latter.
Monsters and Magic Items (~40 pages) – Most of this section covers the various foes the PCs will face over the course of the campaign, including various sorts of cultists and elemental-themed monsters associated with each cult (the Monster Manual is also necessary, as Princes of the Apocalypse does not reprint monsters already contained there). The remainder is, unsurprisingly, magical items that may be found by, or wielded against, the PCs.
Appendices (~25 pages) – The three appendices presented cover rules for Genasi (like Tieflings, but with elemental lineage) as player characters, some new spells, and suggestions for adapting the campaign to other official D&D worlds (including Greyhawk, where the original Temple of Elemental Evil was set). Note that the first two categories (plus several other PC races) are available in the free Elemental Evil Player’s Companion PDF.
Although none of the individual “dungeons” in Princes of the Apocalypse soar to the heights that the best “dungeons” in Rise of Tiamat reached, most of them are quite good, and the overall freedom given to the characters in how to approach tackling the elemental cults will please many players/GMs who feel that published adventures too often “railroad” the PCs into certain courses of action. The PCs cannot just hack their way through the entire campaign, and even though it is almost always an option, there are frequent situations where stealth, deception, or negotiation is the “correct” choice. In general, parties who can take advantage of the frictions between and within the cults will have an easier time of it. I particularly liked the unique spread of environments and foes used to capture the flavor of each of the elemental cults – even the names are evocative. Who doesn’t want to find out what a one-eyed shiver, burrowshark, flamewrath, or fathomer is? The writers even recognize the potential drawback of a campaign like this – player fatigue at delving back into the same places repeatedly – and make sure to include the side treks so players can immerse their characters better in the valley they live in.
If you couldn’t guess from the fact that this review is being published before Princes of the Apocalypse is released, be advised that promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Also, seeing as how I got that review copy at the end of last week, this review is based on me reading the book, not on me playing through an 11-14 level campaign in one weekend.