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The Saving Throw
Princes of the Apocalypse 2015
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Overall Review
published by Wizards of the Coast reviewed by Scott Wachter
256 pages, 2015, $49.95 Print
Game Setting 3
Art 5
Story 1
Game Rules 2
Intelligibility 2.5
Overall
1
Review Scoring

Princes of the Apocalypse is a new epic-length adventure from Wizards of the Coast and Keith "Eberron and Gloom" Baker's Sasquatch Games that riffs on ideas from the classic Temple of Elemental Evil module series from the grand old days of first edition AD&D. Set in the Forgotten Realms, the book sees four new evil elemental cults arise in devotion to the Fane of the Elemental Eye and hatred of each other, and the Players wander into their schemes and disrupt them in the typical PC ways...for justice.

The covers of the book would have Dungeon Masters believe that it is for characters at level one, but the core of the adventure assumes a third level party with a pair of brief 'feeler' adventures to get up to level and introduce the locale. I feel misled about this, since it's more annoying that these two starter chapters are stashed away in the side quests section rather than the adventure proper.

The story starts very strong - players arrive in the sparsely populated Sumber Hills only to slowly discover that the region has been infiltrated by four feuding cults up to nefarious domination schemes. Each town has active agents and most of the supposed benevolent adventurer's associations are fronts for one cult or another, usually with an infiltrator from another to stir the pot. It’s a paranoia-laden exploration of a land on the brink of chaos.

And then that all stops dead in its tracks.

Halfway through the adventure players stumble into a network of ruins that serve as the headquarters for the heads of these cults and their nefarious elemental masters. What follows is more than one hundred pages of ‘check the door, kick the door, clear the room of monsters, loot, rinse, and repeat.’ Sometimes the bad guys in the next room will show up as reinforcements, sometimes the room is empty, but there’s very very little in terms of traps or environmental hazards to mix anything up. The composition of the encounters is pretty similar too, because the cults are elemental-themed each encounter has a similar mix of creatures, mooks and caster specialities. The air mooks with their air sorcerers and their air monster pals wear out their welcome long before the games moves to the water section of the ruin. There are also a few excellent sidequests and diversions presented in the appendices to break up all the elemental evil but there’s little reason to go back to them after the underground lair has been discovered.

The book also adds a hefty list of brand new spells, mostly for enemy wizards and druids to hurl at players. New tricks for DM are nice to have, and if the players pick them up and turn these on their foes then more power to them. The book does introduce a handful of magical items, but most of the loot is boring old +1 swords and rings of protection. Another new shiny are character stats for Genasi, scions of elemental creatures and humanoids, who make their welcome appearance for NPCs and player characters.

This book could be considerably more friendly to Dungeon Masters. Parenthetical cross-index notes never give page numbers, just the chapter number, even in the case of the Monster Manual and DMG. Another baffling disorganizational choice is to order monsters and NPCs by factional allegiance, rather than alphabetically. One point in its favour is that it provides notes and ideas for adapting the module for other published settings (in most cases hinting at forthcoming products), including a homebrewed world. The notes are actually useful and well thought-out guidelines.

The manual is festooned with detailed and aesthetically pleasing maps of dungeons to crawl through and wilderness to traverse, but it also takes moments for some truly great location, character and mood illustrations. This might be a better coffee table artbook than it is an adventure. The last few pages have some annotated concept art, so it is an interesting look at the creative process and a handy option for holding up and showing to player without any spoiler-ish text reveals, but maybe those pages might have better served as an index.

The original Temple of Elemental Evil is a classic of the genre and a showcase of Gygaxian puzzle and trap design, a punishing course for all but the most clever players which included a richly detailed micro-setting in the form of the village of Hommlet. This spiritual sequel is a dry, dull slog through samey encounters in samey environments that also manages to be unwieldy to run.



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