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.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:
- The adventure proper starts when characters are level 3, which makes it somewhat easy to begin play after finishing the "Lost Mines of Phandelver" adventure that comes with the Starter Set. Alternately, the book includes early side-quests that can get the players from level 1 to 3, and that serve as excellent, low-stakes "tutorial" sessions for easing new players into the game and the 5th edition rules. I started my campaign this way, with a group of players of all levels of D&D experience, and found that these early adventures worked admirably well for learning the game (or just the new edition).
- Wizards of the Coast has provided free supplementary material (as a PDF download) that allows players to choose four new races: the Aarakocra (birdmen), Genasi (elemental genii with sub-races for each element), the Colossus (a giant race built for tank characters) and the Deep Gnomes or Svirfneblin, all drawn from various phases of Forgotten Realms history and lore. While they're all shiny, they're also a bit "special snowflake-y" and could be a roleplaying strain for both the players and for the DM, as their presence will consistently raise questions from NPCs. That's not necessarily any different from the Dragonborn and Tiefling in the main rules, however, who present the same difficulties. There are also dozens of new element-specific spells.
- There's a completely new Elemental Evil-specific season for Wizards of the Coast's Adventurer's League system, which goes from now until fall. The League — a very smart creation on WotC's part as it creates an instant community for D&D fans and vendors—lets players officially register their characters so that they can take them to game stores and conventions, and play in exclusive adventurers that are related to the overall Elemental Evil storyline. While characters made for League play have to be constrained to certain parameters, players also get the option to modify or even wholesale re-create their characters as many times as they want (and also keep their XP and treasure) until they hit 5th Level, at which point they're locked in. I played this way in the Tyranny of Dragons season, and it worked wonderfully — the result is that nobody feels frustrated with his or her character.
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.