/ Jason Louv / 6 am Fri, May 15 2015
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  • Princes of the Apocalypse is D&D’s killer app

    Princes of the Apocalypse is D&D’s killer app

    Princes of the Apocalypse is a campaign about clearing dungeons, killing monsters and getting treasure, and the result will satisfy ardent hack-and-slashers to the very core of their being.

    There is no more iconic role-playing experience than the dungeon crawl. It’s the DNA of all RPGs, tabletop and electronic: Your party enters a dungeon, kills the monsters, disables the traps and makes off with all of the treasure you can find, hopefully leveling up in the process. Dungeon crawls defined role playing -- and while Tolkien may have foreshadowed the dungeon crawl in the Mines of Moria sequence of The Lord of the Rings, exactly one D&D module was responsible for defining and perfecting the dungeon crawl: The Temple of Elemental Evil.

    Written by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer and released between 1979 and 1985, Elemental Evil began with the players traveling to the Village of Hommlet, where they established a home base and proceeded to adventure into the gargantuan Temple of Elemental Evil itself. Like most 1st Edition AD&D modules, it was heavy on the hack-and-slash, and light on the roleplay. It’s consistently ranked as one of the best D&D modules of all time, and inspired a novel, a computer game and a 2001 sequel.

    With Wizards of the Coast now well into their publishing schedule for the triumphant 5th edition reboot of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s only fitting that they would resurrect Elemental Evil. Re-imagined as Princes of the Apocalypse, the new mega-adventure isn’t a direct translation of the old adventure to 5th Edition rules, but instead builds upon the original ideas and structure of Elemental Evil to create a completely new campaign that improves markedly on its predecessor. It’s an absolutely massive module, built to advance characters from level 1 to 15, that feels like the “killer app” for the new edition of D&D -- a marked improvement over Wizards of the Coast’s railroaded and somewhat generic Tyranny of Dragons campaign.

    Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for anybody planning on playing through the adventure.

    Porting the adventure from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms, Princes also replaces the Village of Hommlet with Red Larch, a trade stop on the road between Waterdeep and Triboar in the Dessarin Valley (while DMing Princes, I described Red Larch as Barstow). As the adventure opens, the characters arrive in the outpost, which has been subjected to desertification, bandit attacks and supernatural omens. It’s the classic Western opening: a small, dusty town threatened by outlaws. The PCs soon find themselves roped into exploring exactly what’s causing trouble in Red Larch -- lo and behold, it’s four elementally-themed cults dedicated to Elemental Evil, now re-cast as a multiverse-threatening force led by four corrupt prophets and seeking to gain a toehold in the Forgotten Realms.

    The PCs are soon adventuring into dungeons and castles inhabited by the cults of the Black Earth, Crushing Wave, Eternal Flame and Howling Hatred (representing Earth, Water, Fire and Air respectively), led by the titular Princes of the Apocalypse, who each wield a legendary magical weapon dedicated to the corrupted element they serve. As the PCs discover and clear out Elemental Evil’s bases in the ancient hills near Red Larch, the cultists counterattack the town, using “devastation orbs” to create natural disasters throughout the Dessarin Valley, ratcheting up the stakes and forcing the characters onward in their quest to break Elemental Evil’s hold on the Realms.

    While there is a natural progression to the dungeons (characters cycle through dungeons dedicated to each element and then progress onwards to harder and more complex dungeons, again taking them one element at a time) Princes of the Apocalypse is built as a sandbox adventure. This is a massive improvement over the Tyranny of Dragons campaign, which suffered from heavy railroading (the bane of all tabletop role-playing) and single-outcome adventures.

    Instead of that, we get an open map of the Dessarin Valley that contains not only the main dungeons — which can be taken in any order, although they are designed to be level-specific —but lots of extra locations, random encounters and a whole chapter full of optional side-quests full of role-playing opportunities that can be undertaken if the players get tired of dungeon crawling. This is great, because it allows the Dungeon Master to run the equivalent of a Rock Star game — the construction of Princes of the Apocalypse actually reminds me substantially of Rock Star’s triumphant Wild West sandbox platformer Red Dead Redemption.

    As the game progresses, the players will be racking up a list of quests and side-quests they can complete in their own order, giving the players a tremendous amount of freedom. More freedom is always good in RPGs, because more freedom makes the game feel more real — like a fully realized world that the players are free to act in as they choose, instead of being hedged where the DM wants them to go.

    Photo of Jason Louv’s Princes of the Apocalypse session by Joshua Reynolds (a.k.a. Gor the Barbarian).

    Photo of Jason Louv’s Princes of the Apocalypse session by Joshua Reynolds (a.k.a. Gor the Barbarian).

    I’m currently running Princes of the Apocalypse for a group of four players in my co-working office. It’s been a steep learning curve for them — because of the sandbox nature of the game, they’ve realized that they have to pay very close, strategic attention to their decisions, because they’ve lost important opportunities or ended up in dungeons that are way over their heads by taking wrong moves. This, in my opinion, is much more exciting and challenging than just assuming the game will carry you along from event to event on its own schedule, because it means every decision and action counts. The sense that your in-character behavior actually matters is an immersive illusion that platform games have struggled for decades to maintain (a la the Mass Effect games), but something that a creative, fast-thinking DM with the right module can always provide, and which is easily provided here.

    Beyond this massive improvement in mechanics, Princes of the Apocalypse also provides some extra goodies that will keep players particularly happy:

    Overall, Princes probably won’t win any awards for writing. The plot depth really doesn’t go beyond “evil cults of evil want to do EEEVIL and must be stopped” — which, uh, was also the exact same narrative that drove Tyranny of Dragons. But, then again, does it really need to be Tolstoy? Like its 1st Edition predecessor, Princes of the Apocalypse is a campaign about clearing dungeons, killing monsters and getting treasure, and the result will satisfy ardent hack-and-slashers to the very core of their being. The book is likely massive enough to keep even a regularly meeting game group going for half a year to a year, and could easily be expanded even further by an industrious DM (particularly with all the Adventurer’s League excursions that Wizards will be introducing).

    Of course, the real challenge will be keeping a game going that long before busy schedules and electronics pull people away. But over the last year, I’ve been roping my friends back into playing D&D with me — and watching how happy people are when they’re forced away from their phones and computers and actually get to interact around a real-world game has convinced me how much traditional RPGs still have to offer us. Princes of the Apocalypse, if you get a committed group together, will keep that fun going for a long, long time.



    Notable Replies

    1. PoA is pretty much being universally hailed as far as fun, interesting, and character driven APs go. I would love to either run or play it, but my group is stuck on Pathfinder (though I managed to start a RuneQuest 6 game with them).

      I still really, really like 5e and I have high hopes they won't ruin it with ill conceived splatbooks like 3.5 (and 2e to a degree).

    2. There is no more iconic role-playing experience than the dungeon crawl. It’s the DNA of all RPGs (...)

      Yeah, right. Say that out loud to pen & paper enthusiasts, and you'll be taught different. The dungeon crawl is widely assumed to be the most boring role-playing experience, because it's very little about role-playing, and mostly about killing stuff and loot. It's so infamously not role-playing, that there's Munchkin, designed by one of the most famous role-playing game designers, to parody how not to role-play.

      It would be funny to read this if that same attitude wasn't reflected in everyone who's never really role-played much.

      [None of which is to say that dungeon-crawling cannot be fun. Of course it can be.]

    3. For the record, my son and I regularly play Munchkin and its sequel Star Munchkin. The cards are worn out and the game is still fun, more so because he's old enough to get all the references.

    4. No, "iconic" is absolutely the correct word. The hobby originated in dungeon crawling, and the sales figures suggest that it remains the most popular activity by a solid margin. "Iconic" is not the same thing as "objectively most fun," and I can certainly appreciate a political LARP or a Dogs in the Vineyard session as much as the next guy, but "bashing orcs in a cave and taking their stuff" is indisputably the origin of the tabletop roleplaying hobby.

      If you prefer a more narrative-oriented experience, that's fine! But I do get tired of the Real Roleplayer types who are too smug to admit how much they loved bashing orcs as teenagers, or how much they owe to Gygax and Arneson rolling funny dice and making stupid puns in the basement.

    5. I'm in agreement that "bashing orcs in a cave and taking their stuff" is the root of role-playing (roleplaying? role playing?). With only the least bit of source material to go on, a good DM can weave a story behind it all, and interested roleplayers (er?) can stray as far as they like from the bashing and still get back to in time for pizza. Role playing doesn't have to be three hours of description without a die roll along the way. I think a mix of hack and slash with some storytelling keeps it light and fun. I've played games where the DM just put a dragon at the end of a hallway, rolled everything on the treasure tables and told the party "There it is, see if you can kill it." It was fun, players died and those that didn't barely made it out alive. None of the treasure ended up being permanent for our characters (stupid DM), all those who died were 'rewound to the start', free heals etc. Good times.

      In fact, I kept a transcript of the dragon battle, and I'll share a bit of it here:

      Tim: There he is!
      King Arthur: Where?
      Tim: There!
      King Arthur: What? Behind the dragon?
      Tim: It is the dragon!
      King Arthur: You silly sod!
      Tim: What?
      King Arthur: You got us all worked up!
      Tim: Well, that's no ordinary dragon.
      King Arthur: Ohh.
      Tim: That's the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered lizard you ever set eyes on!
      Sir Robin: You tit! I soiled my armor I was so scared!
      Tim: Look, that dragon's got a vicious streak a mile wide! It's a killer!

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