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The Newest Storyline for Dungeons and Dragons: A Review of Princes of the Apocalypse

The article title is simply meant to be descriptive to draw you in. The body of this article exists to make you fall in love.

Princes of the Apocalypse is the standard-bearer in the Elemental Evil storyline for Dungeons and Dragons, and was unleashed upon our corner of the multiverse in Spring 2015. It is a campaign book that takes characters from levels 3 to 13(ish) as they uncover and thwart the plans of four elemental cults.

Evil cults want to do EVIL! They must be stopped!

The Dessarin Valley 1086 x 1379
Cartography by Mike Schley. Click to embiggen.

For those who have lived under a stone golem for the last 30 years, Gary Gygax first took us to the Temple of Elemental Evil in 1985. Although Temple of Elemental Evil is undoubtedly a classic, when you pause to consider the original’s sprawling, million room dungeon, you realize that it just doesn’t play for a modern audience.

So Princes of the Apocalypse (PotA) is no simple retelling of that story. Instead, PotA preserves those great core ideas, yet spin them into entirely new adventures. PotA is a wink and a head nod to adventures of old, while still being an entirely fresh and modern story suitable for D&D 5e.

The story is set in the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sumber Hills region of the Dessarin Valley, a sparsely populated area that in ages past had a rich history, and now hides old buried temples dedicated to the Elder Elemental Eye.

In D&D there is always a cellar under that cellar.

Four cults – one each to air, water, earth, and fire – have shrines to the four gods of the elements and it’s up to the PCs to stop the cults and their big bad prophets. Sure, for the second storyline in a row we get kooky cults, but what PotA lacks in overall originality, the campaign more than makes up for in fantastic variety, while giving PCs free range to explore and find the different temples as their merry, adventurous hearts allow.

[divider]Review of Princes of the Apocalypse: 3 Stages of Adventure[/divider]

1. To begin, the characters are asked to locate some delegates, which should be hook enough to lead them to oddities around the valley which point to the outposts utilized by the elemental cults.

Each of these outposts tries to pass as a legitimate organization and that opens up opportunities for PCs to role play their way into a lot of situations where a full frontal (assault, that is) is ill-advised. The four outposts – air, water, earth, and fire – are optimized for characters of 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th levels, respectively, so PCs take them out of order at their own peril.

one-eyed shiver fathomer
Beware the one-eyed shiver!

But each of the elemental outposts has a distinct look and feel. For example, the air cult has the flavor of a bunch of fratboy hippogryph enthusiasts, while the earth cultists ride burrowing land sharks. Nothing in Princes of the Apocalypse is bland. There is some real creativity here and a definite attempt to give the story depth, nuance, and interest.

2. The adventure continues with the Temple of Elemental Evil, which is underneath the outposts and broken up into four quadrants. The quadrants are interconnected, but are self-contained and optimized optimized for PCs of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th levels.

3. Finally, adventurers reach the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye, an even deeper facility that was originally occupied by the drow. PCs enter this stage in the Fane of the Eye, which is intended for a 10th level party, then by the time all 4 elemental nodes are cleared, characters will be around 13th level, and will have had a heck of a good time getting there, being that they would have had at least half of the Monster Manuel thrown at them by this point and would have battled 4 princes of elemental evil.

[divider]Review of Princes of the Apocalypse: Book Contents[/divider]

Chapter 1:Rise of Elemental Evil (13 pages) – This contains a general introduction, as well as background, faction information, and adventure hooks.

The fire cult, like you didn’t already guess.

Chapter 2: The Dessarin Valley (21 pages) – This chapter details the valley where the adventure takes place, giving extra attention to the town of Red Larch, home base for the PCs. Red Larch is especially important for level 1 characters, as they will need to do some adventuring before hitting level 3 (or you could just begin PotA as a follow-up to the Starter Set).

Chapter 3: Secret of the Sumber Hills (29 pages) – Here the missing delegation is detailed, as are the 4 elemental outposts, my favorite of which is Rivergard Keep.

Chapter 4: Air, Earth, Fire, Water (29 pages) – Going one level below ground, the four temples are detailed here, as well as some notes on how adventures can eliminate the cults once and for all. A solid chapter, but doesn’t quite match the high bar of the previous haters in my opinion.

Chapter 5: Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye (34 pages) – And here we conclude our campaign, deep in the Temple of the Elemental Eye, far beneath the Sumber Hills. It’s time to take the Princes of Elemental Evil down for the count.

Chapter 6: Alarums and Excursions (32 pages) – This chapter provides side quests for 1st or 2nd level characters who need to level up in order to be able to hold their lunch during the campaign. There are also mini-adventures to give PCs a palate cleanser before delving further into the Temple. Many are quite fun and the chapter is a great add to an already strong book.

Barnacle Bob, of the water cult.

Chapter 7: Monsters and Magic Items (36 pages) – Monsters! NPCs! Magic items!

Appendices (24 pages) – The three appendices provide rules for using the new Genasi as player characters, add some new spells, most of which are elementally flavored, then finally give suggestions for adapting PotA to other official D&D worlds, such as Eberron or Dark Sun. Even more is available in the free Elemental Evil Player’s Companion PDF.

The book ends with 5 pages of sketchbook and concept art for things that didn’t make it into the adventure, but are really, really cool (like a walrus mount).
[divider]Review of Princes of the Apocalypse: Quibbles[/divider]
Ironfang, one of 4 legendary weapons.

I LOVE this book, but this is the internet, so I feel contractually obligated to complain about something in the most dramatic way possible. Here goes.

Imagine you are a DM and PCs take the adventure an unexpected direction or you need to recollect the name of one of the cult leaders.

Uh….let me go look it up…sorry….uh, hang on a sec…” [flip pages]

A one page summary of all the cult leadership and a one page chart that chronicled the flow of the missions would have solved all that. It felt like reference and summary data would have been a helpful inclusion for the DM.

Luckily, the D&D community is brilliant and wonderful, so we have fan-created tools like this: Guide | Flow Chart

[divider]Review of Princes of the Apocalypse: Final Thoughts[/divider]

It’s doubtful that any of the individual pieces of Princes of the Apocalypse will make and “best of” lists, but darned if they aren’t fantastic when taken together. Each individual piece is solid, and when added together, it creates a fantastic whole.

NOE_DnD_PrincesoftheApocalypse_070615_200x300Players can’t just hack their way through this campaign. It’s a wide open adventure where choices need to be made, and sometimes running is the best choice.

There is a diversity of enemies. Over 15 levels you’d get mighty sick of only elemental-themed enemies, so there are loads of other baddies tossed in as well, and most, if not all, are placed in logical ways.

Finally, there is variety of environment and location, and the flavor of each of the elemental cults was captured beautifully. The structure is good and the story scales believably. There is a tarasque-load worth of content, both main story and side questing.

As for the book itself, it’s beautiful, and sturdily made. In fact, should you need to whack a kobold with it, I suspect it would deal 1d4+2 damage.

The art, graphic design, and cartography are all top notch. It’s a full-color hardcover coming in at 250+ pages and retailing for around $50. (Although I often buy from Cool Stuff Inc. They are the plucky little guy who offer great discounts and customer perks.)

I can’t recommend it enough. Princes of the Apocalypse is worth it even if you don’t run a single adventure and own it simply to read it. It’s a beautifully told adventure.
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