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Friday, 21st September, 2012, 05:10 AM #1
Review of The Apocalypse Stone (by Wizards of the Coast 2000)
The Apocalypse Stone (Wizards of the Coast 2000)
By Jason Carl and Chris Pramas
D&D 2.0 edition for 4-6 characters of 15th level and above
The end times approach...
To everything there is a season. Every campaign has to come to an end sometime, so why not go out with a bang? The Apocalypse Stone is an epic adventure to challenge high-level characters, but beware-it will destroy your world!
The adventure is 96 pages long, cover price of $16.95 American.
- 2 pages of credits/legal/advertising
- 10 pages of background
- 13 pages exposition
- 32 pages of dungeon adventure and combat(in 2 castles)
- 24 pages of event-based encounters
- 13 pages of suggestions for playing end-of-times
- 2 pages detailing an artifact and armor
Depending on how thoroughly your party explores or how mission oriented they are, some encounters will be bypassed. In my estimation, there are:
- Approximately 8 passive exposition encounters
- Approximately 19 combat encounters
- Approximately 6 negotiation/role-play encounters
- Approximately 12 encounters with things to examine or discover
- Approximately 3 trap/trick encounters
The adventure "Apocalypse stone" is meant to end a campaign, possibly by ending the game world. The book discusses why a GM may want to end a campaign, such as to start a new campaign with new rules. This product was written for the 2E version of the rules, and the 3.0 players handbook was be published just 5 months later. The book has some really interesting suggestions for the types of things that could happen when the world is ending, from plagues, mass extinctions, great wars, destruction of cities. Unfortunately, the adventure doesn't have any of those things.
The overall plot is that an artifact called the stone of Corbinet anchors the prime plane to the rest of the multiverse. If the stone is removed from its proper resting place, the world shifts out of alignment, losing contact with the rest of the planes. Without access to the outer planes, the souls of the dead cannot leave the world. Without access to the inner planes, the world suffers horrible weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, etcetera. A great number of spells and magic items cease to function, from bags of holding to summoning spells. In this adventure, the players inadvertently remove the stone of Corbinet, hand it over to a villain, the world goes haywire, then the party tries to get the stone back.
Prince Garloth, a 20th level wizard with god's blood, plots to take the stone of Corbinet. He would normally have been granted guardianship of the stone, but instead he was passed over and his younger brother was put in charge of the stone. This makes Garloth upset. Garloth used magic to turn all of the guardians of the stone into monsters. Then Garloth used magic to make his brother insane. Garloth cannot take the stone himself because of his bloodline, but he can convince someone else to steal the stone for him. The adventure doesn't give Garloth any reason for taking the stone, especially considering that it will destroy the world. I'd propose that at this level of power, Garloth should have a good reason for destroying the world, perhaps the stone will let him create a new prime world, or something like that.
First Garloth hires a minstrel to tell the party about a stone guarded by monsters, that whoever gains the stone will be king. Then, Garloth shows up in disguise, pretending to be an old rival of the party that is also looking for the stone, presumably to make the party jealous? Then Garloth leaves and comes back, pretending to be an avatar of a god, asking the party to prove their worth by stealing the stone and giving it to him. Most players would balk at this, but Garloth has special armor that "protects the wearer from all attempts at scrying, detection, or mind reading", including things like true seeing. This is a heavy-handed approach to prevent the adventure from being short-circuited when the players try to figure out why a god is asking them to steal a stone that makes the possessor king.
The party investigates the castle where the stone resides. Since Garloth turned everyone into monsters, this part of the adventure is a dungeon crawl through a 26-room castle. The different rooms have completely random creatures... trolls, harpies, beholders, iron golem, spirit naga, aranea, dragons. This is a slug-fest with no rhyme or reason. There is nothing anywhere in the castle to indicate the importance of the stone, no family histories, no books, tapestries, or monuments. This castle is the anchor point of the world where generations of defenders have protected the stone on behalf of the gods, but there is nothing here to indicate that this place is special. I might have expected some sort of books explaining the importance of the place for future generations. Perhaps some records of commandments from the gods regarding the stone, a family history, some monument to the burden of keeping an artifact that the entire world depends on. Anything like that would short-circuit the adventure, and so this castle is a random monster bash. The residents of the castle also apparently left dangerous magical items unattended, such as a mirror of trapping in a dressing room and a scarab of insanity in the pantry. The last room of the dungeon has the mad king protecting the stone. The moment the king is injured, the castle starts to collapse. Presumably, the party will grab the stone and leave the mad king in the rubble. After that, Garloth shows up to claim the stone. If the party doesn't hand it over, he steals it from them.
This chapter starts with outstanding suggestions for things that might happen when the world ends. With the world out of alignment, a lot of magic starts to fail, and elements are going berserk. It would have been great if any of these were actually implemented. (Some of these types of ideas were explored in the 3E sourcebook "Requiem for a God" published by Malhavoc Press in 2002).
The GM is encouraged to run some other adventure, just so that the party doesn't immediately realize that stealing the stone has disconnected the world from the multiverse. Chapter 3 has an arch-devil, trapped on the prime plane with the removal of the stone, pick a fight with the party, so that he can berate them for ruining the world. Instead of attempting to correct the situation himself, the arch-devil attacks the party. First he has some toadies use an illusion to try to feed the party human flesh. Then he kills the dearest relatives of the characters and sews them into flesh golems. Then the arch-devil shows up in person for a fight, at which time he tells the party that they removed the stone and caused all of the problems in the world. It perhaps would have been more interesting or logical for the arch-devil to try to fix the world, instead of just blaming them. And if events in the world really are spiraling out of control, the party should have had ample opportunity and means to discover the truth for themselves. I think chapter 3 could have been improved by developing some of the end-of-the-world events that are suggested, and let the players have some agency to do their own research, instead of using an NPC to spring more exposition on them.
An avatar of a god of justice, (also trapped on the prime plane) steps in and decides that maybe the party can fix the situation, but first they have to prove themselves by passing some tests. The god transports the characters to a distant region to test them. The party only needs to pass 3 of 5 tests to "succeed". If they fail the tests, the GM is encouraged to change the tests so that they succeeded anyway. It is a good thing that the adventure has such a lenient grading policy, because at no point in the adventure are the characters told they are being tested. This is probably a good thing because the "tests" are ridiculously arbitrary, and knowing that it is a test of some sort would only aggravate players. The entire sequence of tests is linear - the party encounters each test in succession. Any actions the party takes on one test have no bearing on the other tests. A less generous reviewer might say that this is a railroad.
In the first test, the party hears of a monster loose on the land wrecking the countryside. If the party promises to help defeat the monster, they fail the test. If they leave the monster running loose, they succeed.
In the second test, a group of 50 centaurs and 50 wemics are about to battle because there is not enough food for all of them. Each side offers the party increasingly tempting treasures if the party agrees to intervene on their behalf... they offer a vorpal battle axe +3, a rod of lordly might, a staff of the magi, elixir of youth, and much more. If the party intervenes or takes any loot, they fail the test. I am not sure why a centaur or wemic is willing to give the loot to the party, instead of just selling one of the items in order to buy 10 years worth food for all 100 of them. I am not sure why the party wouldn't just take the loot and say "you can have it back when you've learned to behave".
In the third test, the party meets a humble, non-aggressive, death knight kneeling in prayer. If the party can avoid killing the non-aggressive, praying death knight, they pass the test.
In the fourth test, the party finds a town accusing a woman of witchcraft and kidnapping a village boy. The woman didn't kidnap the village boy, (he is stuck in a well), but she kidnapped and killed a boy from a neighboring village. This fourth test would make a decent low-level side-quest, but for epic characters it is kind of a joke. The witch wears an amulet of proof against detection and location, which might just trick a low-level party into making this an adequate mystery.
The final test is a test of "generosity". The party is asked to sacrifice some magic items in order to keep 2 behir imprisoned. Apparently, every few months this small town must sacrifice a magic item to keep magic wards operating. To pass the test, the party must sacrifice magic items. If the party simply kills the behir so that the village will never have to worry about sacrificing magic items ever again, then they fail the test. This seems especially problematic to me; if the characters allow a problem to fester, dooming a village to always be begging for magic items, they succeed, but if they solve the problem permanently, they fail?"
Assuming the party has passed the tests or the GM has fudged as suggested, the party then can return to the castle that had the stone, at which point they see all of the innocent people they killed, and they can cure the king of his madness. The king tells them to try to get the stone back from his brother Garloth. Then the avatar of the god of justice gives the party access to all spells and abilities. The spells that didn't work because the world is still no longer connected to the multiverse start working now, even though the world is still cut off. At this point, the adventure is no longer following its own logic. The world is still cut off, so the spells shouldn't work.
The party attacks Garloth's keep. This is a very small 9-room castle, with mid-high level NPCs loyal to Garloth in most rooms. There is an illusionist, transmuter, priest, elven thief, fighters, etcetera. Apparently none of these people, including Garloth, care that the world is ending and that planar spells don't work. There are no suggestions for role-playing here, with the exception of some negotiating by Garloth as he buys time. There is an excellent suggestion here that if the party has rival NPCs from earlier in the campaign, that they could be here at the final castle, just to wrap up all of the loose ends as the campaign comes to an end.
The last few pages of the book contain suggestions for ending the world. The characters could retire, they could switch to another setting (Planescape, Ravenloft, Dark Sun). There are rules for letting all of the players become death knights and letting them continue to adventure in a changed world.
Strengths of the Adventure
An epic campaign-ending adventure is a worthy goal, though poorly executed in this case. Some of the suggestions for events that happen at the end of the world are really intriguing and could have been developed more. The general concept of a prime plane getting disconnected from the multiverse is also pretty interesting. The writing style strikes a tone that is at times conversational, and at times slightly pretentious, but it works well. The adventure was a genuine pleasure to read.
Weaknesses of the adventure
There are huge stretches of exposition, and numerous encounters in which the party just listens to exposition without being able to take any meaningful actions. There are also a number of places where the adventure explicitly railroads the party. (At one point the party finds some magic healing water that may come in handy later on. The adventure suggests that the GM needs to make sure they take some water, and if they don't an NPC should intervene or the GM should fudge some dice rolls so that they know to take the healing water.)
There are a lot of encounters that are explicitly not-fun for the players. The old "the person who hired you to do his dirty-work is really the bad guy", is a clichÚ, and characters at this level will obviously know better, but the adventure still trots this old dog out and prevents the players from stopping it with the rule-breaking magical armor. Killing the loved ones of the characters is often considered in poor taste (a GM can threaten them occasionally, but players work hard to establish connections in the game world, and killing the relatives or friends is not something that GMs should do lightly). At the end of the adventure, one suggested ending is that the GM at the very least strip them of their magic and several levels or even all the way down to 1st level. The adventure says "Of course the players will complain no matter how many levels they lose, but reducing them to 10th level or so is about right." This to me shows a remarkable contempt for the players. But then again, if my GM ran this adventure for me I'd complain, and probably never allow the GM to run a game again.
1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (2/5)
There is an encounter in an illusionary inn that seemed interesting. Most of the remaining encounters were combats with random monsters in the castles, or else "tests" that completely defied logic. If you ignore the "test" part of the encounters, some of them had good potential. The non-aggressive death knight makes for an interesting NPC with good role-playing possibilities. The investigation of the witch could make a good low-level side-quest.
2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (1/5)
The motivations for most monsters and NPCs was non-existent, or surprisingly petty considering the power of the characters involved. at least one of Garloth's loyal followers was a doomsday worshipper, so her motivations seemed reasonable.
3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that clever players can use to their advantage): (1/5)
This adventure starts well, the loss of planar spells as the world becomes disconnected from the multiverse is an outstanding idea. The initial execution of it with certain spells losing potency and clerics losing spellcasting power is really intriguing. I liked the various suggested events that could take place, like plagues, extinctions, undead spirits unable to go to the afterlife. Unfortunately, the adventure completely throws this out the window at the end. The tests are ridiculous. There is an over-reliance on gods (and devils) railroading the characters actions.
4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (2/5)
There are some places where the writing is very good... in particular the description of the illusionary inn. There are some "signs from the gods" here and there that provide some quality atmosphere. There are a lot of ridiculous things that are almost funny, such as the advice on how to pronounce king Alain [ah-LAYN]; or when investigating the witch, the party can discover a mutilated goat, and if they make a spellcraft check, they can discover that something is wrong, "first, the goat's throat was cut open. Second, the body is missing a lot of blood. Lastly its missing some internal organs." I am not sure what to make of this, because the world is ending, the prime plane is cut off from the multiverse, dead spirits cannot go to the afterlife, there are plagues and horrific natural disasters, and the party is able to discover that a goat with its throat cut has lost a lot of blood? Another unintentionally funny spot is when the adventure suggests that death-knight thieves are unable to use the pick pockets skill, because it is too hard to pick pockets when your fingers are just bones.
5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (2/5)
The maps of are small, and many locations are not mapped at all. The adventure is very railroady, so maps are not as necessary. There are no player handouts or illustrations. There is boxed read-aloud text, but in many cases it is excessive and and long-winded. Here is an example of some read-aloud text when the party is interviewing a sage to learn about the stone in chapter 1, "Hmm, yes, let me see... yes, here we are. Bear with me: My handwriting isn't what it used to be, you know. Ahem. [exposition follows]"
There are bits of really good GM advice on how to run an end-of-the world adventure, and there are bits of really terrible advice on railroading your players and making sure that they have no agency other than to follow the tracks laid out in this adventure.
This is one of the worst adventures I own. It was an entertaining read, but there is absolutely no circumstance where I would consider running this for a group of players. The awfulness of this adventure came as a bit of a surprise to me, because Chris Pramas would go on to write the wonderful and award-winning Freeport series of adventures.
You can see my other reviews on the forums at GrippingTales
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