Firstly a few things to note. Firstly, I paid for my copy of POA with my own gold, I’m super not important enough to get stuff for free so you can rest assured that I haven’t sold out to “Big Roleplay”. Secondly, this is not going to be an exhaustive page by page review, that would go on forever and be super boring. This is more a collection of thoughts and observations on my experiences with this module.
Thirdly SPOILERS AHEAD!! If you are not a DM and don’t want to ruin your in-game experience go away now. Likewise, if you are any of my players and I catch you reading this I will make sure your character dies of dysentery, explosively and publicly, in the most unheroic manner possible, and then pinch you really hard in the real world. I mean it, Adam!
For those of you not in the know, Princes of the Apocalypse is a D&D adventure module based in Forgotten Realms. It pits the players against four cults dedicated to the titular Princes, in this case, Olhydra, Yan-C-Bin, Ogremoch and Imix, the princes of evil water, air, earth and fire respectively. These cults have chosen the sleepy Dessarin Valley to set up the base and have recently attacked a trade caravan from the city of Mirabar. Enter your players, searching for the caravan, fighting the cults, righting wrongs and doing general daring-do. (if you’re thinking Temple of Elemental Evil then yes, yes and yes it is awesome)
Having read through the book I got a strong impression that this module was meant to be played sandbox style, that is to say, that your players are dumped in the middle and given the opportunity to deal with the situation how they may. It’s a great idea if done properly, but it does have inherent drawbacks. So the first real question is do you sandbox or not?
I guess a big part of the answer is it depends on your party. My guys and gals are all pretty new to this (as am I), and dropping them in at the deep end and shouting swim is more kittens in a bag than Michael Phelps. “But Bro” I hear your shout “what about the intro missions?” Well firstly don’t call me Bro, I’m clearly not wearing a Livestrong Wristband, and I’m British. Secondly, the intro missions are part of the problem not part of the solution. Charmingly called “Alarums and Excursions” this scattering of low-level missions is clearly put in to advance your players to level 3, because if they tried to tackle anything else they would die, immediately! The problem is that there is no connection between these missions and the wider troubles in the Dessarin Valley, sure they are well written but they are the fairly standard fare of bandits, necromancers and troublesome goblins. It’s not until you hit level 3 and “unlock” the Tomb of Moving Stones that you actually get some connection to the cult activity. And this is the crux of the problem, you’ve dropped your players in at the deep end but then you’re carefully shepherding them back into the shallow lest they drown in a tide of cultists. Not very sand box is it.
So what are your options? Well, you could start your players off at a higher level, which is of course lame. Weakness builds character, makes you perceive your own (fictional) mortality and gets players to think with their heads, not with their blades. Or you can do what I did and give a certain structure to the module in order to even it out a bit. When it became clear that my lvl 1 Nubcakes could toddle out of Red Larch, into the nearest Haunted Keep, fall into the Cult Temple below and potentially die horribly in the Fane of the Eye all in game one I decided to change things up a bit. The player would still have their perceived free will and it would still seem sandbox but I would pull a discreet shroud over the entrance to certain places until such times as the party was ready to visit. “But Bro” I hear you call, clearly having not listened the first time “learning to retreat is a lesson every party needs, you should let them experience defeat” and this is to some extent correct. But being thoroughly F’d in the A before you can shout Expedious Retreat is no fun and the dreaded Total Party Wipe lurks around every corner in this game.
So how does this change your experience of playing POA? Well as a player is doesn’t, with the appropriate smoke and mirrors you party can bumble around being heroic without ever realizing they could have taken the wrong door in Riverguard Keep and ended up as Dragon Turtle poop. As a DM it increases your work load considerably, now I have to keep tabs on what they shouldn’t know from the sections of information they should know, it’s a lot of info to juggle.
This leads me on to my second point, there is too much info in this damn book. A wise old dice shaman once told me to always do things in threes: three things about a town, three important NPC’s, three side quests etc. Did you know that Red Larch has two Wainwrights and two poultry houses? Did your players give a shit? mine didn’t. But there they are complete with owners, staff, children and second cousins, all with full names, ages, races and inside leg measurements. Should your party stumble in Waelvur’s Wagonworks how do you give the impression that it’s just slightly more budget version of Thelorns Safe Journeys and will you get the time before they realize there are no +1 Dragonbone swords in here because it’s a bloody wheel makers and skedaddle.
This overload of information is also not universal, my party decided to visit Amphail for no particular reason and if we’d have done it by the book they would have discovered one tavern and a horse statue. As it happens I whipped up a kick ass encounter involving a shape shifting Oni murdering the towns folk that was totally not lifted from the plot of a Supernatural episode I was watching (thanks, Sam and Dean). All this extra paperwork rather grinds my gears because I chose POA because I didn’t want to have to put that much work in (to clarify my other group is currently running through an incredibly complex homebrewed campaign set in Kara-Tur and I didn’t think I had in me to run two homebrews at the same time)
So to recap it’s not that sandboxy, there is too much info except when there is not enough and I’m lazy. We’ll round out with my third major gripe and then we`ll get on to how this module is actually pretty awesome.
So last but not least this mother is hella badly laid out, look at the picture, see that bookmarking (super neat I know, I’m totally a post-grad bro) there are actually three rows in different colors and if it wasn’t for those I would be lost. Despite its quite linear progression, this book has info all over the place. Characters are dotted about the book appearing several times and never with accompanying stat block. The “alarms and excursions” which, as we’ve discussed in actually not really optional at all is on page 148 and it’s the first damn thing you run. The Temples are set up in a linear fashion but all the stat blocks for the monsters are grouped together at the back of the book. The sidebar telling you the recommended player levels for each dungeon, which is important, is on one page, just one and doesn’t cover all the dungeons. As an academic, this book rather riles me up, the urge to take a red pen to it and send some snippy emails to the editorial team is almost overwhelming.
These snags are by no means little or inconsequential but here’s the thing. They don’t stop this campaign being awesome. If you’ve stuck with me this far I’ll do you a favour and bullet point the good stuff, and there is a lot of good stuff.
- With a little effort on the Dm’s part it can hit the right balance between feeling like the players aren’t being railroaded and being unstructured and aimless.
- The Temple of Elemental Evil is awesome and the Princes of Elemental Evil make great villains.
- The Elemental prophets are well described, well thought out and are great role playing opportunities.
- Gar Shatterkeel is the coolest name ever.
- Most of the locations are beautifully described and, especially if your using narrative combat, is a great way to spice up some of the encounters.
- The list of Elemental trinkets from the Wizards website is awesome.
- The section of side quests includes some well thought out and interesting encounters to run through.
- The book itself is well made, the art work is good, the writing is well done, there is a minimum of spelling mistakes, the editor should be shot.
- Active bad guy participation. It’s so important, some of my best memories are of the party riding into the sunset, feeling all cocky cause they rolled over Feathergale Spire when BAM, Griffon riders to the face (as mandated by the book), one character dead and then BOOM the cults wipe one of their best favorite towns off the map with a devastation orb and the players are on the ropes. They loved it, good times all round.
- The dungeons are well thought out, grueling, interesting and full of character.
So where does this leave us? Well in summation this campaign does have its faults, but importantly they aren’t faults in the setting or the storyline *cough* Tyranny of Dragons *cough* they are editorial faults, some pacing and structure issues and they require the DM to put in more effort than you really should for a pre-built campaign, but in the end it is worth it because the whole thing is fun from start to finish. My players loved it, what more can I say.
TL; DR = Its good bro. It puts the mental in Elemental Evil, it’s all up in yo grill. Just don’t expect to open the book and start playing. Spend some time before hand learning your different Wainwrights or suffer the consequences.