Things are happening differently over at Wizards towers. The tide of source-books which characterized 3E and 4E has been stemmed. Latest in its new line of story-driven mega-adventures, Princes of the Apocalypse is a hardback adventure module featuring exploration, investigation, and a whole lot of dungeon crawling.
Advanced word on this one was very good, so I expected to be impressed. For £30 or thereabouts, it didn't disappoint. Quality is evident inside and out: 250+ pages of terrific art, cartography, and writing. There's a hundred or more hours of role-playing in this thing, and that makes it great value.
I did have to carefully separate a few pages near the front and back of the book, something of a tradition on new WotC hardbacks these days, but that was only a minor inconvenience. Thankfully there was no colour or ink bleed evident, something which affected my DMG to a minor extent but seems to have been rectified here.
Sitting down to skim the book, a few things jumped out. First, it's surprising how much of the book isn't actually adventure material. Several chapters of new races, spells, magic items, monsters, and NPC's make up a significant page count, and it's all relevant to the adventure, sure, but most of it's already available in the free Player's Companion PDF. I would rather have had another chapter to the adventure than all of this material, and I suppose it's convenient not to need another PDF or print-out nearby when running the thing. Still, that's a mighty big slab of book that isn't adventure.
For the adventure itself, if all you do is skim the relevant chapters, it's easy to walk away with the impression that this is just a massive dungeon crawl. Take a few minutes extra, though, and the sandbox opens up a bit. There's exploration here, and a wealth of clues and information to find. The forces arrayed against the heroes are not simple blunt instruments. They might welcome the PC's, try to turn them, lure them in with false promises, or try to sacrifice them to their gods. The vale has other creatures, other factions who might throw their lot in with one side or the other, all affecting the party's progress. This is not stuff for the first-time DM, and will require a modicum of preparation and care to get right. Whether that's a boon or a flaw with the adventure, only you can decide.
Significant care has also been taken to ensure that the PC's have stuff to do (and threats to deal with) between dungeons, using a set of "reprisals" reflecting the villains' attempts to deal with the upstart adventurers making a mess of their plans. A neat addition. It's difficult to get a sense, just by reading the pages, of how much downtime the PC's will actually get between dungeons, but if the ratio of corridor-crawling to outside adventure and intrigue has been done right, this will be a rich experience for the players.
The locale is extremely well-described. Contrary to the recent Tiamat line, and much like Lost Mines of Phandelver before it, the book takes pains to construct a detailed location which might serve as a home-base for the PC's while they're battling the emerging evil. Getting the PC's invested in their surroundings is a vital ingredient to any large adventure, and Princes also offers a ton of hooks, organizations, and NPC's to weave into the proceedings (including hooks relating to those characters who completed LMoP). This is legitimately gazetteer-level content and a welcome inclusion by the authors.
In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of the book is the grab-bag of resources on offer. Quite apart from the dungeons, which are self-contained and could easily be dropped into any campaign, Princes offers dozens of other hooks, minor encounters, and side-treks designed for the DM to drop into the game wherever he or she sees fit. They're not mandated, and they're not part of the critical path; they're just there, to use at the DM's discretion.
Not only does this pay great respect to the needs of the DM, but adds huge value to the product and makes it a potential purchase even for DM's who don't fancy running the Elemental Evil story-line. Add in an unexpected and quite awesome section on adapting the adventure to other campaign settings (Oerth, Krynn, etc.), and it's obvious how much effort has gone into making this thing attractive to a wide range of DM's.
Very impressive then. Much has been made of WotC's limited D&D 5E output and what this might mean for the long-term health of the game, but Princes of the Apocalypse amply demonstrates that a limited, story-driven product can still offer the kind of supplemental content and rules expansions that will keep the game fresh, all without burying its players in a treadmill of splat books and adventures...products that, for me at least, rarely saw use at the table.
First Impressions, Final Words: Wizards have a winning strategy here. This is an excellent product with something for most DM's, even those who have no interest in the Elemental Evil story-line. It's a confident step-up from the lackluster Tiamat books, and sets an exciting precedent for what is to come. While the format will never satisfy gamers pining for a 5E Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide or Monster Manuals 2, 3, and 4, for me this product really hits the spot.