D&D 5E Princes of the Apocalypse Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
Each time a campaign ends, I try to learn from it. This will be about my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign

Note: this campaign was played with the same group of players who played in the Waterdeep Dragon Heist campaign, featured in this Post-Mortem:
D&D 5E - Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Post-Mortem (Spoilers)
One exception to the roster is that one of the players brought his teenage son along to play several sessions.
This campaign took place before that one and in-person.
I think this was the introduction to 5e for all the players, except me.
This was a very unusual campaign for us, as we hadn’t started playing online yet. We would get together for “gaming weekends” a few times a year. One of us would host, and we’d play all weekend, eat unhealthy food, etc. - just like in college. This time we thought it would be fun to do a “campaign” over the course of a year’s worth of gaming weekends.
I picked out Princes of the Apocalypse because it seemed relatively straightforward and would be “beer and pretzels” enough for the mood of the weekends.

Preparation

My preparation for these games was literally looking over the chapter in the book while the players made their characters. Then we were ready to jump in.

Format

Each session we’d handwave things like story, background, exploration, etc. and start them at the “dungeon of the session.” This allowed for quick, bite-sized highlights of the campaign.

The Climactic Showdown

I put it up to a vote for the last part of the dungeon about which of the Elemental Princes they wanted to fight. They chose Imix. We had a high-power, epic climactic battle that ended in a thrilling encounter.

Lessons Learned

There’s not a lot to say about this one. It was straightforward to run without a lot of prep outside the game. It had a classic D&D "beer and pretzels" feel.

What Came Next?

For our next series of Guys' Gaming Weekends, one of the other guys tried a Viking/"Game of Thrones" inspired 5e game with gritty rest rules. (It didn't match the same kind of casual game feel.)
 

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aco175

Legend
I ran this one as well and agree with the 'beer and pretzels' feel. It was ok using the side quests and NPCs around town and developing the BBEGs. I also found time to make a few side quests for that book that fit in with some player background to make it work.
 

pukunui

Legend
I have not actually run PotA as a campaign, as when I first read through it, I felt it was a bit too repetitive and that we’d get bored of it before the end.

I have, however, made great use of numerous set pieces from this book in other campaigns.

The “Trouble in Red Larch” opening adventure has been my “Village of Homlet” starter for a few campaigns now. I love it!

I’ve also used the air cult tower, the fire cult “Burning Man” party, the fire cult dungeon, and some of the side quests (like the one involving defending a ranch against an orc attack). Those were all great fun.

That said, as much as I didn’t like the idea of running this adventure as a full-on campaign when it first came out, it is starting to look more attractive to me now when compared to some of the clunkier more recent offerings, like Descent into Avernus and Rime of the Frost Maiden.
 


S'mon

Legend
I tried to run it more as the sandbox it's presented as, which in hindsight was a mistake. Just starting at the entrance to each dungeon skipping all in-between time would have worked better I think. Even better would be stripping it for parts within a real sandbox campaign.
Like most/all WoTC adventures, it is incredibly light on treasure. The amounts in there bear no resemblance to the 5e DMG recommendations. It should at least have had a discussion - "This is designed with very few magic items & nearly no wealth. If you would prefer a Medium or High magic game, do X or Y..."
I was overall disappointed, but most of my players seemed ok with it. I think they are enjoying my new actual-sandbox campaign (scattered with a bunch of short adventures) more though; they balked at training-to-level but they enjoy finding & crafting magic items and having real freedom of direction.
 

Staffan

Legend
I was running POTA before the pandemic hit, and we were coming pretty close to finishing it (the PCs were entering the fire node in the last session before we switched to online). I would not give the campaign a very good grade.

First off, it's way too dungeony. The early part is great, where you explore the Dessarin Valley (though I would have spread the cults out more), but once you start entering the actual temples the whole thing turns into a megadungeon, and quite a boring one too. I'd rather have seen the temples be smaller and more spread out, and having the Fane and the Nodes as a different location. This would also allow for some outdoor adventuring in between the temples. This kind of thing would have been more useful than the side treks, which were a good idea but hard to incorporate (particularly since my PCs decided to set up camp in Rivergard Keep and got the Knights of Samular to help with guarding and maintaining the keep).

Second, the background stuff is not well presented to the PCs. There's no info presented that lets the PCs know what the cults' plans are, or what purpose the elemental weapons serve. I had to use the Dark Lady as an info dump. There's also not much info about Tyar-Besil, which is bad because that's where the meat of the adventure is. Tyar-Besil is also tiny – it's a fairly big dungeon, but it's a tiny kingdom or city. By my count, each of the temples fit on a 35x45 square grid, with each square being 10 ft across. That means that the whole city fits in a 700 ft x 900 ft rectangle – and that has to be the whole city, because each of the temples connects directly to one another and have clear outward borders. As a comparison, Red Larch is about 1000 ft across (though more concentrated along the actual road). You could have made the realm of Tyar-Besil a more spread-out affair, with the temples being places of particular importance in the former kingdom.

Speaking of the elemental weapons, they could definitely have had more juice. Significantly, none of them was a bow or a great weapon, meaning a lot of martial characters wouldn't be interested in them. And their actual benefits were pretty meh. Take Windvane, for example: it's a spear +2 with finesse, +d6 lightning damage, providing lightning resistance and the ability to once/day dominate an air elemental. I mean, that's not bad, but it's not something a fighter or paladin with great weapon style and great weapon mastery will abandon their greatsword +1 for. They could at least have given them some of the abilities of a ring of elemental command or something like that. Or let them have some special moves that use an attack instead of a full action – for example, Windvane could have worked as a javelin of lightning once per short rest that returned to your hand once thrown. Ironfang could have been a maul you could use to strike the ground with as a small AOE that deals a bit of damage and has a chance to knock people back/over.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I was running POTA before the pandemic hit, and we were coming pretty close to finishing it (the PCs were entering the fire node in the last session before we switched to online). I would not give the campaign a very good grade.

First off, it's way too dungeony. The early part is great, where you explore the Dessarin Valley (though I would have spread the cults out more), but once you start entering the actual temples the whole thing turns into a megadungeon, and quite a boring one too. I'd rather have seen the temples be smaller and more spread out, and having the Fane and the Nodes as a different location. This would also allow for some outdoor adventuring in between the temples. This kind of thing would have been more useful than the side treks, which were a good idea but hard to incorporate (particularly since my PCs decided to set up camp in Rivergard Keep and got the Knights of Samular to help with guarding and maintaining the keep).

Second, the background stuff is not well presented to the PCs. There's no info presented that lets the PCs know what the cults' plans are, or what purpose the elemental weapons serve. I had to use the Dark Lady as an info dump. There's also not much info about Tyar-Besil, which is bad because that's where the meat of the adventure is. Tyar-Besil is also tiny – it's a fairly big dungeon, but it's a tiny kingdom or city. By my count, each of the temples fit on a 35x45 square grid, with each square being 10 ft across. That means that the whole city fits in a 700 ft x 900 ft rectangle – and that has to be the whole city, because each of the temples connects directly to one another and have clear outward borders. As a comparison, Red Larch is about 1000 ft across (though more concentrated along the actual road). You could have made the realm of Tyar-Besil a more spread-out affair, with the temples being places of particular importance in the former kingdom.

Speaking of the elemental weapons, they could definitely have had more juice. Significantly, none of them was a bow or a great weapon, meaning a lot of martial characters wouldn't be interested in them. And their actual benefits were pretty meh. Take Windvane, for example: it's a spear +2 with finesse, +d6 lightning damage, providing lightning resistance and the ability to once/day dominate an air elemental. I mean, that's not bad, but it's not something a fighter or paladin with great weapon style and great weapon mastery will abandon their greatsword +1 for. They could at least have given them some of the abilities of a ring of elemental command or something like that. Or let them have some special moves that use an attack instead of a full action – for example, Windvane could have worked as a javelin of lightning once per short rest that returned to your hand once thrown. Ironfang could have been a maul you could use to strike the ground with as a small AOE that deals a bit of damage and has a chance to knock people back/over.

I kind of like the fact there's no +2 great weapon, now or hand cross bows.

A lit of the adventures lack those weapon types or only a +1 bow or something.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I’m running it now and the biggest challenge my players are presenting, given the structure of the campaign, is one of focus. They’re tightly focused on smashing the cults and haven’t really explored the Dessarin Valley. I’m also currently looking at ways to entice them to explore further at the main cult levels rather than explore downward as far as they can go and into the nodes.
 

Retreater

Legend
I’m running it now and the biggest challenge my players are presenting, given the structure of the campaign, is one of focus. They’re tightly focused on smashing the cults and haven’t really explored the Dessarin Valley. I’m also currently looking at ways to entice them to explore further at the main cult levels rather than explore downward as far as they can go and into the nodes.
Since we did this adventure as episodic, each episode just "ended" at the end of the level. I don't remember even running the dungeons as connected. I know that's not helpful advice if you're running this a regular, on-going campaign.
It might feel artificial, but you might be able to put in some sort of barrier, like "you can't proceed past this elemental wall until you retrieve the elemental gems from each cult leader?" I know that seems video-gamey, but I think it's also traditional dungeon design (a similar feature was used in PF2's Abomination Vaults to keep characters out of high level areas).
 

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