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Posts Tagged ‘princes of the apocalypse’

I had to do it. I can’t even say that I was reluctant or hesitant. I know this sounds serious doesn’t it?  like some kind of important life change. Am I talking about filling for divorce? Changing careers? Vasectomy? Switching deodorants? No no no, I am talking about something even more serious. I am pairing down Princes of the Apocalypse. I have to do it; I feel my sanity is at stake. It’s not that it is a bad adventure, but there are some definite problems that I wish I was more cognizant of from the get go. I might outline some of my issues and what I would do differently in hindsight. Looking around social media and the blogosphere it seems that others have had some similar issues with the adventure, and likely why it is ranked near the bottom in peoples favorite WOTC hardcover adventures.

One of the things I am struggling with, which probably isn’t the adventure’s fault, is the glacial pace at which we are moving through the book. The problem is that we only play every 3 to 4 weeks so it is hard to get a good flow going as well as keeping the plot/motivations front and center. One of the players commented that they were going after these cult strongholds for some reason that he couldn’t remember (more on that next blog, I mean come on I don’t have a lot of ideas and you can’t expect me to blow my wad in one post). This appears to be exacerbated by, at the core, the adventure is a series of dungeon crawls: 4 above ground keeps for each elemental cult, 4 underground temples for each cult, 1 sub dungeon, 1 final node/dungeon.  the above ground temples had some nice variety in terms of setting and features, but I find the underground temples a bit of a slog. Granted my players are a kind of a “storm the keep” style adventurers, I keep trying to telegraph that there maybe be other ways to bypass sections, and I definitely try to be very clear with NPC’S that they don’t need to fight. I kind of just want to get onto something else, like maybe Planescape or that Ancient Blood adventure I have been converting.

My solution to the pacing has been, like a surgeon with a scalpel, to pare down the underground temples something fierce. I had the idea of going back to 4th edition style delves where you had 3 to 4 combats plus some kind of exploration. I have tried to keep the key features of each Temple that make them unique to their respective elements. The challenge rating of the encounters/scenes are pretty stiff, as they are my ace in the hole. If we hit the 3rd tpk I am pulling the chute. I also switched to milestone leveling at the end of each session. It was fairly successful the last time we met, as they wiped out the air cult and their prophet. No fuss no muss. By my calculations we are about 5 to 6 sessions from completion, god willing. They are 7th level now and well on their way to a final confrontation with one of the elemental princes, except for Yan-C-BIN because they dropped the air prophet like a bad habit. I played Aerisi like an annoying valley girl that sounded like Jocelyn from Bob’s Burgers. My players were well satisfied when she got her comeuppance. Should I steer them to a final confrontation with Imix given the evocation wizard is essentially a pyromancer and most of his spells would be ineffective? Naw, they need all the help they can, as I don’t see how I don’t mop the floor with them using one of those elemental princes.

Look out Mike Schley I am coming for your job!

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Human beings are funny things. I don’t mean in a Joe Pescie “funny like a clown” way, but more like a quirky mishmash of personality traits and idiosyncrasies. My wife, for example, frequently states that I am like a fungus in describing how people often initially find me off-putting but over repeated exposures I tend to grow on them until they are quite fond of me. With things like the projective hypothesis and interpersonal dynamics on display, I feel that that there is no place quite like the gaming table to shine a light peoples quirks. For example, I remember running this convention game one time and this kid’s action during a 4th Edition skill challenge was to roast and eat a dead bandit in front of the townsfolk (uhhh…I guess maybe roll Intimidation?). Additionally, I don’t think we have to dig too deep to get an understanding of my penchant for dick, fart, and masturbation jokes at the game table.

Aside from the walking manifestations of our juvenile and delinquent self’s, I like how hard choices at the game table can bring out conflict or drama between players, between characters, and even between a player and his character. In a recent session of my Princes of the Apocalypse game I was absolutely ticked to be able to put the players in a situation where they had to make a tuff decision with some potential negative consequences.

Here’s the “sitch”, once upon a time four brash and wet behind the ears pc’s stormed the Earth Cult temple at the Sacred Stone Monastery in the dead of night and found themselves resource depleted and fighting the 2nd in command. In the end, two of the players tip-toed over their dying companions as they fled into the night (it was the rpg equivalent of the movie “A Bridge too Far”). Cut to last session where the party, after clearing out the other surface temples and gaining 2 levels, returned to the Sacred Stone Monastery to let the Earth Cult know what time it was. As they confronted the 2nd in command in the altar room he giddily sent one of his minions down the stairs and into the dungeon with instructions to kill one of the pc’s they left for dead.

Well this certainly came as a surprise to my players and much debate ensued. Further complicating the scene was the fact that the cult leader hit them with a slow spell on his first turn, perhaps the perfect medicine for a too big for his britches ranger but I digress. I love when they talk aloud in pseudo-questions while looking at me for subtle tells as to what the deal is. It was interesting to watch. The conflict arose around whether they should fall for the obvious trap with the former party member also likely being dead. I summarized their thoughts and concerns and asked them what would their “characters” would feel and do. The ranger told the barbarian (the two original survivors) that they should act heroically and try, even if it is in vain and a trap, to save their former companion, assuaging their guilt and making amends for leaving him to die and, apparently, to be tortured in captivity. The cleric then casts dispel magic on the barbarian and he flies off down the stairs to what we all know was quite clearly a trap. With a pull of a lever the stairs became a slide into a room with a loosed Umber Hulk. Yes the bad guy also sacrificed one of his minions. Now we are switching back and forth between scenes. The barbarian gets a little irked because the rest of the party leaves him down there to fight for his life alone while they slowly finish off the rest of the bad guys. He sarcastically reflected the ranger’s comments about being heroic back to him, which caused a little bit of tension. I also couldn’t resist needling him a little. His actions were just so inconsistent with his role-playing rhetoric it was hilarious. It seemed he was reluctant to put himself into a potential tactical disadvantage despite advocating that course of action and inducing it in a fellow pc. In the old days we would have had him change his alignment.

Unfortunately I was unable to capitalize on my advantage and the players triumphed without anyone dying. After a leisurely battle with the cult leader, the rest of the party joined the Barbarian and they wiped the floor with the gimped Umber Hulk. IRL their Dragonborn Bard companion is still alive, locked in a cell with the rest of the slaves. The Barbarian’s decision to rush off into danger did save the Bard’s life and they can now reap the rewards in the form of valuable information. If they didn’t go after the minion they would have found the bard dead with is throat freshly cut.  How do your players handle tuff choices?

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I have been running Princes of the Apocalypse for what seems like an eternity. We only play every 3 to 4 weeks which I am sure contributes to what seems like a glacial pace. For those not in the know, Princes of the Apocalypse is one of the official hardback campaign adventures put out by Wizards of the Coast on a somewhat annual basis. It can take characters from level 1 to 15, as they attempt to thwart the 4 elemental cults from opening a portal for one of the elemental prices to stroll through—sorry spoilers. My players started the adventure at 3rd level (thank god) after sacking the Sunless Citadel.  I think what has made it a bit of a grind is that under a sandbox premise; the main action is a series of dungeon crawls. My player’s tactics have mostly been variations of a frontal assault on the various fortresses or temples. The sandbox element of the successive dungeon crawls has been the freedom to tackle any of the cult strongholds both above and below ground in any order they choose after uncovering their location through exploration. Each outpost/dungeon has a suggested party level.  I choose not to gate access to any of the areas and just tried to telegraph how dangerous the area they were entering was. Each surface cult outpost has access to the deeper underground cult outposts which are typically meant for much higher and powerful characters. This freedom of exploration has led to one TPK and 3 other deaths (not wholly unsatisfying if I am being honest).

The first TPK of Princes of the Apocalypse (there was also one in Sunless Citadel) happened after they cleared out River Guard Keep and continued down into the Water Cults main underground temple. This created some story “issues” since they unfortunately wanted to continue with the adventure. We were suddenly faced with an absence of hooks or ties to the adventure. Now I can hand waive things with the best of them out there, but we decided to buckle down to try and create something that would narratively work for our needs. They came up with the concept of their characters running an organization for wayward children. Essentially it’s an orphanage that takes in kids and grows them up. Each player character would have grown up through the organization to become the leaders. This had the benefit of giving them a stake in the area and a desire to prevent its destruction. It also, narratively, allows for a pool of back-up characters that can be drawn on when I invariably kill one or all of them again.

That was a fairly long preamble to get to the point of this post, which is how I dropped L2 Assassin’s Knot into my game to break up the monotony of successive dungeon crawls. Assassin’s Knot was a 1st Edition AD&D module that consistently gets ranked on the list for top adventures of all time. I won’t go into detail about the module as there are some good synopses out there, but it’s essentially an investigation style adventure trying to uncover who killed a known NPC and why.  -Spoilers in advance this time- An assassin’s guild is behind the murder with the aim of destabilizing regional politics so their benefactor can take over territory. There is a time pressure in terms of more assassinations and failure to prevent the destabilization. I paired the adventure down quite a bit and used it as a loose structure. I had the assassin’s guild begin targeting members of the player’s organization. The guild was hired by Thurl Merosska, a Lieutenant in the air cult. This was my way of tying it to Princes of the Apocalypse with the benefit of steering the players to a more level appropriate challenge.  Thurl also talks in a Southern aristocrat accent which I really enjoy, so a win all around. Princes of the Apocalypse does have some side quests in the module, but I found them problematic on a couple of levels. What I have found is that once the cult activity was discovered exploration, in terms of other towns, of the many locales in the adventure setting (the Desserin Valley) essentially stopped, leaving most areas never visited as the players laser focused in on destroying the cults. Additionally, side treks that don’t involve the cult in some way seem frivolous to the party, as they feel they have identified the real threat to the area and themselves, particularly after a few of the “cult reprisal” encounters were run.

Overall, the module went very well, the players were engaged and really enjoyed themselves. I seemed to evade some of the cliché pitfalls of mystery/investigation adventures that I have made in the past such as cagey NPC’s that shut down or stymie interaction or having only one solution or specific clues that needed to be uncovered that would lead to dead ends or stalled play. I aimed at providing amble evidence or clues while also incorporating player theories to push the investigation forward and leading to the uncovering of the guild. If things seemed to stall I would have the guild make a hard move against the players to generate more clues/suspects and drive the action forward. There were some decent surprises in terms of who or who wasn’t in the guild, with reveals mostly occurring during a combat encounter. I felt it was a really great adventure that you can drop into most campaigns. It also really highlighted the ease with which you can convert material to 5th Edition D&D. the adventure also has a wide array of interesting NPC’s that the players can interact with. My favorite is the High Priest of Osprem (I changed it to Umberlee) who is suffering from dementia. I had the priest meet with the players in the nude and cast geas on the party wizard, commanding him to go to the local bar and get him some pickled eggs.

I always forget and am reminded just how omnipresent magic items were in the earlier editions of the game. In Assassin’s Knot, literally everyone has some kind of magic item and usually multiple items. When I say everyone I mean literally everyone, like the gardener is sporting magic weapons and armor. It’s a stark comparison with my Scrooge McDuck mentality in handing out magic items in 5th edition.  I feel my encounter building skills appear to need to some work as the combats were fairly easy, but that was okay because my players needed a win after being repeatedly curb stomped by me.

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