This review branches out a bit from the typical Opinionated Gamers fare. Planet Apocalypse originated as a board game from Petersen Games in 2020. This year the board game expansion has been Kickstarted along with the subject of our curiosity – a Dungeons and Dragons 5E compatible sourcebook based on the Planet Apocalypse setting. If you have no interest in role playing games, 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, or nightmarish forces from places darker than the hells or abyss, you can safely move on.
Sandy Peterson is the role-playing legend who brought Call of Cthulhu to the hobby forty years ago. Call of Cthulhu innovated the sanity mechanism and role playing based more on investigation and discovery, where combat is less frequent, more chaotic, and more dangerous. When the opportunity for a free review copy of this source book was made available, I immediately volunteered. I have been running D&D campaigns since 1981 myself and am currently running two active groups. I was intrigued to see what was billed as “Dark Lords always seem to threaten the world. This time, that threat becomes real. Your fantasy world is about to get destroyed by the Hordes of Hell!” would add to my campaigns and volunteered to receive and review a preview copy.
The Planet Apocalypse is a hardback sourcebook. The publisher describes the substantial contents as a 350+ page tome which includes new subclasses, new feats, new spells, new magic items, three adventures, a complete guide on what it means to bring the apocalypse to your fantasy world, 15 Arch Lords whose Shadows literally manifest their own Hells, and a bestiary boasting more than 70 monster stat blocks.
As a sourcebook there are many ways that this could be used by a DM or player. It could be the basis of an entire campaign, new player subclasses, spells and feats, a specific adventure, or even just a source of new monsters. It will work best for groups that just want to see the world burn – and then do something about it.
There’s quite a bit of content here, so I’m dividing my reactions by broad categories.
The production is beautiful with ample art, quality pages and construction and a ribbon for keeping your current page. The art is excellent, if grim, throughout. They clearly leveraged the knowledge and assets from the board game. The front and back end-sheets are printed with a “Demonology of the Apocalypse” which sets the tone well, and if you can read the small to microscopic print, helps identify the various foes which will be referenced throughout.
My one complaint with the physical product is that the shade of the layout background color is simply too dark. It conveys the gray tone of the setting but offers too little contrast with the text to easily read, especially in low light. If there was ever a campaign type that suggests running in a dimly lit room it is this one, yet I would need a book light to do that with this book. Of course, that is not an issue with the digital version which I also briefly reviewed and is laid out identically to the book.
New subclasses are offered for Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Rogue and Sorcerer. There are 18 new feats, and 20 new spells. Thematically they are all linked to the apocalypse, but most could be used in other adventures with DM permission. There is a system for harvesting demon parts related to the required components of some spells, so pay attention to whether that system is intended for use if you are using these classes in other campaigns.
My overall impression of these player options is that they exhibit significant power creep. The subclasses offer options and flexibility to several character types that simply go beyond what that class can normally do. They are filled with abilities which can be adjusted during the adventure to leverage the class feature bonuses in every context. I would be comfortable allowing a player in a small group with two or three characters this level of power flexibility to help fill gaps, but I think in a larger group it may overshadow many options from more traditional sources. Thematically these options range from the neutral (a ranged oriented monk) to the very grim (a barbarian who makes armor from the skin and bones of fallen foes).
Likewise, the feats all have a bit more power to each of them than I would expect from comparison to base source feats. For example, one feat to gain resistance to both necrotic and poison damage. Or a feat which increases your crit range against celestials, fey, finds and undead to 19-20 and gives a chance to banish them on every hit that results in them having fewer than 50 hit points! My final example is a feat which gives the bestow curse spell cast at a 3rd level of ability. All exciting options for the player but requiring careful DM review and consideration.
The spells are harder to judge without seeing them in action. I will comment favorably on the fiend parts spell components aspect of this section. Certain spells require parts and specifically list the fiend type and Arcana DC check required to harvest the part – an action which must be taken within 1 minute of the fiend’s death to have sufficient magical potency. This is the sort of connection and interaction between player opportunity, risk, and reward I like to see. It does require the DM to be aware and provide opportunities for the player to fight, defeat and harvest appropriate fiends.
For the DM – The Campaign, Adventures and World
Planet Apocalypse takes a different approach than I have generally seen in a source book. It not only expects, but essentially demands that the DM either be running, or plan and run, a campaign setting with elements not included here. Then, the DM can adapt the contents of Planet Apocalypse and essentially have it become a series of events which impact that larger campaign world. I’m not going to spoil exactly what happens, and how, but I do note that it means that everything is written more as guidance about how to integrate the material than as a direct set of adventures.
There is certainly a lot of content. The three provided adventures would all take at least two sessions with my groups, and there is guidance on how this could extend into the major part of an ongoing campaign, and tie these pieces together. However, I am struck by how much work it will demand of the DM. From what I see, it still falls to the DM to identify and develop nearly all the friendly PCs which form the framework of the setting and gives the most structure to the delve and conflict parts of the adventure. Personally, I almost always adapt published adventures to fit into my campaigns – so this is an interesting approach. I think it will be most readily used by the more experienced DM and may overwhelm the novice.
Of the three, the middle adventure provides the most unique narrative and is the one I would be the most excited to try to adapt if I were looking at bringing this in for a brief impact in my campaigns. With that said, the broad arc of the product is really set up for this to be the heart of play for an extend portion of a prior existing campaign and stretching through many levels.
The impacts of the Apocalypse on the world, and the particularly of the fiendish legions the party might face are extensive and detailed. I recall the satanic panic around D&D of the 1980s, and the excision of Devils and Demons from 2nd Edition AD&D. The foes in Planet Apocalypse (though many named from real world cultures and references) are less symbolic feeling and rather portrayed as truly alien. They are evil, relentless, and exemplify that not only in their stories, but in the way the bend the rules of the game in their presence. This is a good thing. If you are going to play this setting, it will require more attention and complexity – but will also set the players off guard as they should be in the face of an invading force from Underhell.
For the DM – Monsters and Magic
This is where the book really shines. Apart from any of my other misgivings, there are 130 pages of monsters, divided into categories of undead, corrupted creatures, damned souls, and fiends of the Underhell. The fiends bring with them Nephilim Engines of war, which can further raise the danger and interest to encounters. There are then another 50 pages on 16 Field Lords, each of which will bring a unique feel to all the legions who follow them.
For any DM who has the board game and wants engaging game rules to quickly bring those minis into their 5E adventure, I think this sourcebook is an easy choice (and I noticed that some additional miniature blister packs are available on the Petersen Games website). Likewise, if you find the traditional depiction of the evil planes a bit too lacking in true horror, strangeness, and underlying fear. The beasts here are haunting, dangerous, and harbor secrets the players must unlock to reliably defeat them. It is a relatively narrow but deep trove of foes for your party. It is easy to justify this book for the well-illustrated and extensive bestiary alone.
Finally, I come back to the magic items which are delightfully thematic. They do tend to revolve around combat powers and spells, but there are a few items that also help set the mood or connect to the past and future of the campaign, which is a nice touch.
This is a well put-together product which will be most useful to two groups: players and DM who are all on board with blowing up their current campaign and letting the players try to put some pieces back together from the resulting horror, or the DM who is looking for a variety of otherworldly evil to leverage into other adventures – with a bonus use of miniatures if available from the board game. I have noted throughout the review that there is the sort of power creep often seen in role-playing expansions, but I suspect that within the context of its own campaign it is all reasonable. I would expect that it may require more conversation and coordination, both in terms of power and theme, to integrate these player options into an unrelated campaign