The Princes of the Apocalypse 5th edition hardcover is a re-telling of the classic Temple of Elemental Evil adventure. I recently ran the "introductory" adventure "Trouble in Red Larch" with three friends, and this post is my review of it, and tips for running it.
Like several of the major 5e adventures, Princes of the Apocalypse doesn't start characters at level 1. Instead, it leaves it up to the Dungeon Master to either tell players to skip a few levels, or else to run some introductory material until everyone's leveled up a few times. As I often observe, 5th Edition is nothing if not "organizationally inventive", so it's no surprise that adventures to get characters up to level 3 are found not in chapter 1, not in chapter 2, not in chapter 3, not in chapter 4, (I'm getting there, I promise), not in chapter 5, but in chapter 6, "Alarums and Excursions."
Just to be clear: it's not in chapter 1. Not in a section labelled "Introduction." Not in an appendix called "Level 1 adventure." It's in "Alarums and Excursions," chapter 6 out of 7.
Anyway, the adventure is referred to as "Trouble in Red Larch," after the small town it begins in.
The town of Red Larch has about 22 locations, and I kinda think it's one of the best towns in any 5e adventure yet. I don't mean it's necessarily the most unique or the most fun, it's just exactly the right size, it's clearly mapped out, it has plenty of mundane locations that make it easy for the Dungeon Master to manage.
Every proprietor and resident in Red Larch has just enough personality and backstory to give you a foundation to build upon. Named NPCs can provide rumours and quests for players, and many of them have some interesting secrets related to the start of the main storyline. I loved running an adventure in Red Larch, and I anticipate using it as the starting town for future adventures.
I was a little surprised by the lack of structure of Chapter 6. As it turns out, "Trouble in Red Larch" isn't really an introductory adventure at all, but a collection of story hooks for minor adventures, and two small dungeons, you can send players on to level them up.
It's mostly useful stuff, but a lot of it's pretty minimal. For instance, there's a haunted tomb near the village that turns out to be haunted. That's one of the adventures: there's a haunted tomb near the village.
That's not an adventure, that's almost a requirement for a D&D town. Heck, you're not a village in the Forgotten Realms if you don't have a nearby haunted tomb. What's next? There's a necromancer camped out in a nearby cave? (Actually, yes, that's one of the quests, as well.)
There's also some needlessly confusing plot points that lightly interfere with one another. There are two dungeons in Chapter 6 that have actual maps, and both are the lairs of evil magic users. One's not connected to the main plot, and the other is, but neither are connected to one another. It just so happens that two magic users have camped out near the same village.
And then there's an apparently major plot point, in fact the main plot hook to get players into the book, of a missing caravan. Few details are given about this caravan, but as far as I can tell, it's the one plot hook to get players to discover the magic user (no not that one, the other one), which exposes some deep dark secrets about the town and leads into the actual plot of the book. Seems pretty important. Is there any way to identify this caravan? Any information on what kinds of goods they were carrying? No, it's just...you know, a caravan, and you're supposed to find out what happened to it.
OK. Well, there's a bandit cave for players to discover, and they've been raiding travelers and caravans lately. Have the players found the caravan? Nope. Differenty caravan, totally unrelated.
The first dungeon in Chapter 6 features a room (T3) full of dead bodies. Obviously this is the lost caravan, right? Nope. This is not the lost caravan. Just a room full of dead bodies.
Bizarrely, the second dungeon also has a room (T5) full of dead bodies. Surely this must be the missing caravan. Actually, it is this time, but there's no way for the player characters to determine that.
As a player and as a Dungeon Master, I have to confess I'm not great with sandbox adventures, and Chapter 6 is essentially exactly that. I get impatient and lose interest. I want to solve the puzzle, fix the problem, and get on with the next adventure. And anyway, I don't tend to run games with no end date. I schedule games to last a certain number of weeks, and then the gaming group dissolves so we can all move on to something different (even if that something different means that the group reforms for another adventure for a few weeks further.)
I realize that this is a very particular play style, and not for everyone, but that's the kind of game I prefer and it's generally the kind of game I run.
To give Chapter 6 a little structure, here's how I strung the disparate quests together:
This got my players up to level 4, ready to start back at Chapter 1.
Of all the adventures in this chapter, the necromancer's dungeon at Lance Rock is genuinely quite good. It has a nice story around it, some deadly surprises and a few macabre oddities, and a clear resolution. I'd run it as a one-shot, maybe starting players in a tomb, with a secret passage leading further in to what turns out to be Oreioth's dungeon.
The introduction to this adventure wasn't at all what I'd expected, but I have to admit that it ended up being just enough raw material to make for the easy assembly of a coherent adventure. The pieces of stories I used were only the most prominent ones in the chapter, but there's a lot more material here, including side quests you can use later in the book. I'm not sure I love the format of this chapter, but I do acknowledge that levels 1 to 3 can go really fast. Throw a few problems at your players, they'll level up, and they'll be ready for the main adventure of the book in no time.