D&D 5E Princes of the Apocalypse: New DM bouts about progression and late dungeons

Roombueno

Villager
Hi, i'm new here in the forum I started dming dnd 5e again in the quarentene and we played Lost Mine of phandelver and started Princes of the Apocalypse last month. I was reading in advance the rest of adventure to think about how the cults works and how to make the sandbox work ,but I got quite confused about the game design of the elemental nodes: the dungeons sounds too short or even trivial in difficult with no challenge at all. I also get confused about the progression system:

First the progression: they say to gain one level after each dungeon, but it sounds they forgot to account the scarlet hall and all second and third portions of the adventure should be one level above. Did I miss something or it is an error? It one not that hard to fix I guess but quite annoying

The nodes are a bigger problem: The air node and the water node looks what I would expect in size and complexity but almost all encounters are too easy to that level, I madesome calculation and almost any encounter is easy or trivial in difficult beyond the boss. The fire node has a more balanced challenge but is too short. The earth one is a mix of both, bigger than the last one but not as big the last two, has more challenge than the air and water at some points but still feeling too soft.

To be sincere they almost are not worth the milestone +1 level they give in my opinion and I’m worried the players get disappointed there, the nodes sound quite underwhelming and anticlimactic to be the finals dungeons, even if I get they are full of exploration obstacles and probably are designed not to allow long rest ( maybe not even short est) when he players get inside one.

As am I quite new to dming 5e and never dmed beyond 5th level I’m not sure what I need to change to fix it, I fear making then too hard but I also don’t anna my players to get bored or disappointed.
I would love hearing from someone that played or dmed the adventure how the elemental nodes went and how did you approached that problems.

Thank you
 

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ECMO3

Hero
Hi, i'm new here in the forum I started dming dnd 5e again in the quarentene and we played Lost Mine of phandelver and started Princes of the Apocalypse last month. I was reading in advance the rest of adventure to think about how the cults works and how to make the sandbox work ,but I got quite confused about the game design of the elemental nodes: the dungeons sounds too short or even trivial in difficult with no challenge at all. I also get confused about the progression system:

First the progression: they say to gain one level after each dungeon, but it sounds they forgot to account the scarlet hall and all second and third portions of the adventure should be one level above. Did I miss something or it is an error? It one not that hard to fix I guess but quite annoying

The nodes are a bigger problem: The air node and the water node looks what I would expect in size and complexity but almost all encounters are too easy to that level, I madesome calculation and almost any encounter is easy or trivial in difficult beyond the boss. The fire node has a more balanced challenge but is too short. The earth one is a mix of both, bigger than the last one but not as big the last two, has more challenge than the air and water at some points but still feeling too soft.

To be sincere they almost are not worth the milestone +1 level they give in my opinion and I’m worried the players get disappointed there, the nodes sound quite underwhelming and anticlimactic to be the finals dungeons, even if I get they are full of exploration obstacles and probably are designed not to allow long rest ( maybe not even short est) when he players get inside one.

As am I quite new to dming 5e and never dmed beyond 5th level I’m not sure what I need to change to fix it, I fear making then too hard but I also don’t anna my players to get bored or disappointed.
I would love hearing from someone that played or dmed the adventure how the elemental nodes went and how did you approached that problems.

Thank you
If you are worrying about leveling switch it to an XP game. How trivial it is depends largely on how many players you have.

I DMed it early in 5E with 3 PCs. I felt it was pretty balanced for a party of 3, although that was when the players were new and there were fewer and less powerful PC options.

Where I thinked the campaign is weak is the story and links. It is a sandbox that plays like a railroad - "Well we can go anywhere but if we don't go to that fire fain the Dwarven delegation is going to die and those bombs will wreak havoc on Faerun.
 


MockingBird

Adventurer
Yeah, I would watch some YouTube videos on how to run it. I finally picked it up and skimmed over it. From all the videos I've seen I think it's just a victim of poor organization. If you have the time you can definitely make it work. The first chapter is definitely interesting.
 

Nebulous

Legend
PotA is a great adventure, but it is not good for a starting DM. It needs some work from you and online guides to bring it together. Still, if you want the challenge, study up and read walkthroughs.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
One of the big challenges for running the adventure is the layout of the dungeons compared to how things are organized in the book and the expected level milestones. I strongly suspect that once a PC group makes it into a dungeon level, they're going to stay and explore there rather than leave and explore one of the other surface locations for the cult. A group that explores multiple surface sites before delving in to the dungeon probably overlooked the dungeon entry at the first site.
My recommendation is to not worry about that aspect of it too much.
 

Staffan

Legend
I've been running this adventure, nearly to completion before the pandemic hit and we started playing online for a while. It's the adventure I credit with finally killing off my enthusiasm for big dungeons.

The early part is fun, when you travel around the Dessarin Valley trying to gather hints about the missing expedition. The Haunted Keeps are also interesting little dungeons, although the Earth one is still too big for my tastes.

The problem comes when you hit the actual Temples. Those sections are way too big, and at the same time too small. Let's start with the "too small" bit first. The Temples, collectively, are supposed to be the once-mighty dwarven fortress of Tyar-Besil. Parts of the dungeon are the former city gates in multiple directions, so what we see is the actual extent of the city. And... it covers an area of 860 x 660 ft. Which, coincidentally, is about the geographical size of Red Larch (although granted, Tyar-Besil is significantly more dense). It would have made more sense to have Tyar-Besil itself be a much larger area that is largely ruined and treated as wilderness, and have the temples set up in those ruins but quite far apart. That would have made them feel more like separate dungeons. Even better would have been to actually make them separate dungeons, and put them in entirely different locations.

At the same time, each individual Temple is too big. Each map covers 430x330 ft, with 20-30 locations. That's huge, and will likely take multiple sorties to deal with, but at the same time there's very limited information on how they deal with incoming attackers. In some cases they say things like "If these guards are slain, the ogre from room X moves here instead", but that's very limited.

On the plus site, the Fane and the Nodes are pretty cool. The Water node is a bit confusing though, but having access to water breathing and water walk made it significantly easier to handle.

Another problem is that there's too little information about what the elemental cultists are actually up to. There's nothing in the adventure that actually tells the PCs that the Prophets are working to summon the Princes of Elemental Evil, that they are doing so from the Nodes below the Fane, and most importantly, that the way to close a node is to throw the associated weapon into a portal. That's information you probably want to seed somewhere. I eventually had one of the PCs' factions send them to talk to the Dark Lady in Rundreth Manor and had her lore-dump on them, but it would be better to have things seeded in the adventure itself. Perhaps archives in Tyar-Besil describing how they found the Fane and learned of its history.
 

jeremypowell

Adventurer
I’m running this right now and I love it—but it definitely requires a lot of work from the DM to make it work. That is partly because the book is very light on information about various key locations (what is Summit Hall actually like? Make it all up! Or go read the novel “Thornhold,” where it is described in detail. What is Beliard like? Make it all up! Or read “The North” or “Volo’s Guide to the North”—and so on).

But it’s mostly because the book’s organization is awful.

There is only one explanation that makes sense: I have read that PotA was originally planned as two separate books, one being the main adventure and the other a setting guide with player options and the various side quests and level 1-3 material. When the decision was made to combine these two products into a single book,* very little reorganization was performed.

[*Actually, it remained two books in a sense, because the Elemental Evil Player's Companion, available as a PDF or DM's Guild Print-on-Demand, presents all the new player options as well as the new spells (which were also printed in PotA and were then reprinted in Xanathar's Guide to Everything). But the majority of content of the two originally planned products was (poorly) combined into the one main book.]

A DM using the print version really needs to spend an hour or two pencilling in page number cross-references throughout the volume, because information on all kinds of things is split between two or three sections, often with no indication in any of those sections that the reader should consult the others. If WotC had put a little effort into reorganizing the module after the decision was made to combine the two books, the final product would be much improved.

The other big problem is this:

As others have mentioned, there’s a tension between the sandbox nature of the campaign and the fact that each area is designed for a specific party level. Now, many have argued that sandboxiness and encounter balance are simply noncompatible virtues in general, and there's something to that argument—but with PotA, the design of the module brings these virtues into even greater conflict than is usually the case.

Here's what I mean. The four Haunted Keeps are each balanced for a level from 3 through 6 and are meant to be encountered in any order. Similarly, the second "tier" of locations is keyed for levels 7 through 10, but also can be confronted in any order; and the same is true for each of the nodes with levels 12 through 15.

I agree in principle with the notion that encounter balance shouldn't always be the same—it's OK to have players confront both easy-peasy and very difficult challenges over the course of a campaign. But the way PotA is structured, we're talking about whole, large areas, not just one-off encounters. It's one thing to throw a CR 7 encounter at a level 10 party; it's a very different thing to expect a level 10 party to enjoy plowing through session after session of too-easy encounters clearing out a large level 7 dungeon.

The ideal solution to this problem is obvious: each of the Haunted Keeps should be provided with suggested adjustments for each party level from 3 through 5, and so on for the temples and for the nodes. This way everything within a tier really could be confronted in any order and yet still pose an appropriate challenge. You're still stuck with the problem of whether or not to let the party into a new tier of dungeon prior to confronting all four locations in the previous tier—I lean toward "locking" the access points as Sly Flourish recommends.

(Of course, Sly Flourish states in the same breath that "the world shouldn't shift itself around to suit the level of the PCs, and again, in principle I agree, but in this case it makes perfect thematic sense since each cult is supposed to be trying to build its power over time, recruiting new followers, etc., and because the cults are in competition with each other, so while the PCs are damaging one cult, the others would be able to strengthen themselves.)

Adjusting the area level is especially important when it comes to the temples and nodes, because the PCs are likely to stay in each of these areas until it's clear, and that means session after session of potentially quite difficult encounters followed by moving on to an area consisting of many sessions of quite easy encounters (or vice versa). I think it's much better to have either consistently baby-bear porridge, or else a nicely varied mix of temperatures. And of course, if you run the finale of the adventure as written, then the question of which Prince you confront is determined by which node you confront last, and yet, again, the nodes are balanced in a particular order of difficulty.

As with the organization problem, it's totally possible for a DM to make these changes. But it would have been even better if they didn't have to do that work.
 

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