Thursday, April 9, 2015

Elemental Evil, 5th edition style (D&D)

So, Tuesday (the seventh) was the official release date for the second* mega-adventure for the new Fifth Edition D&D: LORDS OF THE APOCALYPSE, by Rich Baker. I've been looking forward to this since I first learned it was on the way, having (a) been a fan of Rich's work for years** and (b) learned that it was a fifth edition successor/sequel to T1-4. TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL, an adventure with a long and illustrious history. There are some (myself among them) who wd give this the nod as the single greatest D&D adventure of all time. It's certainly Menzter's masterpiece, *** his own 'personal best'. Even a decade after its release it was still selling 5k copies a year, simply by word of mouth, before it was deliberately taken out of print. And of course it had superb cover art by the inimitable Keith Parkinson.

That's a hard act to follow, especially when there's already been a 'Return to' back in Third Edition, wherein Monte Cook created a sequel to the original that's also highly regarded, if not quite the legend of the First Edition original.**** I played through T1-4 as a solo adventure, creating an entire party of PCs and running them through as DM, all through what wd otherwise have been a cold, lonely Christmas break  (I know I was fair because I lost a lot of PCs slogging through all the menaces in that Temple). But for RETURN I got to play in a playtest run by Monte himself. Unfortunately, deadlines being what they are, we didn't have time to play through the whole adventure: just the early parts (those set in the updated Hommlet), and in the mines, before the playtest had to wrap up so editing cd begin. I confess to this day I've never read the rest beyond Hommlet and Nulb, in the hopes that someday I might be able to play through the whole thing as a player. The publication of this new version has me finally admitting to myself that that's never going to happen, or at least that the chances of it are vanishingly slim.

So, given that background I was excited to hear that Rich and his team were going to tackle an old classic and give it a new Fifth Edition twist. I admit to being a bit disappointed when I heard it wasn't going to be an update nor a sequel per se but a new adventure addressing the same theme: Elemental Evil. Now that I've got a copy I need to read through this before I can give it any kind of evaluation about how well they pulled it off. The only things that stand out immediately are

(1) unlike the original, which was set against a backdrop that was officially somewhere in the vague world of Greyhawk but was genericized enough to easily drop into your own campaign world, this new adventure is firmly set in the FORGOTTEN REALMS. And I have to confess that, only three support products into the new edition arc (the Introductory adventure, the Tiamat adventure, and now the Elemental Evil adventure), I'm already tired of the FORGOTTEN REALMS, which I think has overstayed its welcome.  I come from the old tradition where each DM (or all the DMs belonging to the same player group) has his or her own campaign world, either creating his or her own adventures or adapting published modules into it with little regard for which TSR world they officially came from. So while I greatly enjoy some of the TSR/WotC game worlds (Ravenloft, Mystara, al-Qadim, and Eberron being particular favorites), I've never been one to ascribe much of a campaign's success to the world it was set in: the adventure itself has always been more important to me.

(2) I'm glad this is a campaign-adventure, a form I particularly like and think brings out the best in D&D:***** starting with low-level characters (1st level is best) and working them all the way up to 10th level or so by the end of the mega-adventure. The game is at its most challenging, and hence for me its most enjoyable, at 1st level, while it's good for those who persevere to receive the award of seeing that character come into his or her own by the end.

(3) My biggest complaint, and it's a biggie: the absence of author's name from the front cover. Or the back cover. Or the title page. The general impression WotC seems to be trying to convey is that all their products are produced by committee. I think it's an impression that serves them ill. The best adventures, and rules sets, et al, bear the distinct impression of an author's personality. Accurately crediting who wrote what is one of the most important things a publisher wants to convey to its audience. It's simple, it's useful, and it's the right thing to do.

--John R.

current reading: this and that
current audiobook: A History of Ancient Egypt
current viewing: RWBY, Howard Zinn documentary (YOU CAN'T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN)

*we started at TSR the same month (Oct 1991) and I've long considered him one of the best TSR/WotC had to offer: one of the Great Underrated.

**the first having been the HOARD OF THE DRAGON QUEEN/RISE OF TIAMAT two-part mega-adventure by Wolf Baur, Steve Winter, and Alex Winter, which I have but have as yet only skimmed.

***although Gygax's name appears first on the cover, his contribution seems to have been limited to the already-published T1. Village of Hommlet and some notes regarding the subsequent adventure which he turned over to his amanuensis, Mentzer.

****it also ranked in the top ten in the Thirty Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time list, a few steps behind the original, at #4 and # 8 respectively [DUNGEON MAGAZINE #116, November 2004]. The only other 'Return to' adventure that made the top ten was Bruce Cordell's superlative RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORRORS, at #10, which I think far superior to its original S1. (which came in at #3).

*****other exceptional examples of the campaign-adventure model being NIGHT BELOW by Carl Sargent and RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORROR by Bruce Cordell, plus (non-D&D) SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH by Sandy Petersen (et al).

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