Quick Look: Planet Apocalypse
Original Concept: Sandy Petersen
Developer: David N. Ross
Publisher: Petersen Games
Year Published: 2021
Find more info on https://petersengames.com/the-games-shop/planet-apocalypse-5e/
From the Publisher:
Dark Lords always seem to threaten the world. This time, that threat becomes real. Your fantasy world actually gets destroyed as it becomes another Planet Apocalypse!
A unique new product for 5e Fantasy, the Planet Apocalypse book provides rules and guides to turn any fantasy world into a post-apocalyptic landscape where the heroes fight alongside surviving remnants to merely stymie the fiendish hordes.
When we begin a longer TTRPG campaign, even if we are not sure where the plot is going or the twists and turns it is going to take, most of us have an idea of generally what is going to happen. We’re going to face an issue with the giants, or challenge a vampire lord, or uncover the machinations of an evil cult. There is a form and style we are expecting.
And sometimes as dungeon masters, we just want to break that, all at once, and break it beyond recognition.
This is what Planet Apocalypse from Petersen Games is going to do. It’s going to interrupt your 5e campaign with a literal rift from hell and overrun your players with creatures from nightmares.
Planet Apocalypse is a campaign that will take your fifth level players through 14-24 sessions of world-breaking pandemonium that they are not going to forget.
I was provided a copy of this campaign for purposes of this review.
What is this?
It would be greatly oversimplifying to say that Planet Apocalypse is simply a TTRPG based on a board game. To a degree that is true – it takes the imagery and concept of that game (also from Petersen games) and makes it into a campaign. We see the same sort of dark Lovecraftian monsters coming from the rift as in the board game with a similar Doom-like feel.
But this campaign takes things quite a bit further and makes a full campaign out of it. And not simply a campaign, but a campaign-interrupting-campaign.
This is the book you drop on your characters when they think they know where things are going and are perhaps getting comfortable in their roles. This is the book you turn to when things need a good shake up, and a new side quest just isn’t going to do it.
This is what you do when you want to rattle your players in the sort of way that only destroying their base of operations, and the town around that, and the countryside around that, and everything else beyond that, will do.
This is essentially a plot twist of the highest magnitude, one that changes literally everything. When things are going swimmingly in your normal campaign, suddenly a gate into hell itself opens up and your players are going to have to deal with the aftermath.
So to back up just a little bit. Planet Apocalypse can be played on its own with no prelude. It will run characters from about level 5 to about level 13 with several major sections. The book suggests the campaign will run about 14-24 sessions, so this should be looked at as a full campaign and not simply a quest in an existing one.
Of course you can start a game letting your players know this is the sort of game we will be doing. Roll up some fifth level characters and get started. But that does lose a bit of the emotional impact of the event itself, which is why I agree with the book that it is better used in the midst of something else. This campaign works best in the middle of a completely different adventure.
A portal into a hell-like plane opens and an attack is mounted against an unsuspecting people and unsuspecting players alike. In the opening salvo their home town, one they have probably gotten to know well over the course of several adventures, is destroyed, and their mission is to navigate their way through that as best as possible. This is the real punch of the adventure – this is not a location that the DM tells the players, “This is your home. You know these people.” This is a place that the players have been playing in for a while now. They have interacted with the same NPCs multiple times. They know the names of the shops without looking them up. They know whether they can haggle the shopkeeper and have hit on people at the tavern. They perhaps even have a house here. They don’t need to be told this is their home because the players already feel it. And if they feel that, then they are going to feel it when it gets destroyed.
This first adventure is fascinating just to see what the players will do. They won’t be able to stop it but they don’t know that, so when do they figure it out and turn to flee? Who do they help? How do they get out?
There is a town map here, but unless this is the map you previously inserted in your game (perhaps planning for this very moment), it shouldn’t be the one you use. This is your players’ home, and what they know about it should be what is there. The NPCs they know are the ones they can save.
And whoever they are able to save becomes an important part in the next phase as the players must find a place to start over, something defensible. Those NPCs will help, and more refugees will come in.
It is in this section of the campaign that I think is perhaps most interesting. First of all, we have a complete sandbox to make civilization how you think it should be formed. The players will build their new town from the ground up. Secondly, it invites battle-lines to be reconsidered as longtime enemies have the chance to become allies. Can you picture this happening halfway through Curse of Strahd and suddenly Strahd himself is a new ally who lives in the next settlement? Or perhaps Jarlaxle has become a trusted confidant in the outskirts of the ruins of Waterdeep.
Once settlements are established, at some point the party will start looking to purging the demonic forces from their realms, and two further adventures are included that will really test the players and eventually bring them to the rift itself to attempt to close it. These adventures are both good and unpredictable, and even at times draws on the Doom-like feel of the product as waves of demons come at you from all sides. Most importantly, these are memorable, and are the sort of adventures that will likely be talked about in war stories for some time to come.
The rest of the book
Besides the set up and three lengthy adventures, the book includes new spells, plenty of monsters, backgrounds, feats, and even diseases, curses, and traps. Of these the monsters are the most fun, and the magnificently macabre artwork in this book fits the mood perfectly. These creatures are going to serve you well in this new world you have created and will provide your players with a new cadre of fiends they were neither expecting nor have seen before.
As for character options, these have varying degrees of usefulness for us. Since we are likely bringing existing characters into this campaign at level 5 or so, having new subclasses (which are picked at level 3) is not overly useful. The text suggests either using them for replacement characters (if characters die along the way) or if you know you are steering this game in this direction from the beginning, you can offer them before the apocalypse even happens. The former option is the more likely one to be used, but I feel that the latter option sows too much of your hand to the players. “I know we are fighting giants in this campaign but I have a lot of really dark subclasses with kind of a demonic / hell-like theme going on.” This is where my players would look at me funny and start wondering if something is up my sleeve.
The spells present another issue. They can be simply added in to the characters’ spells as they progress like normal, but I am using them in a slightly different way. Most of these new spells require components harvested from the corpses of the new monsters. During that phase 2 downtime, consider adding a character into your new settlement who is working on studying these monsters to figure out what they are. This NPC asks for the remains of the demons and starts researching their otherworldly properties and how to use those properties. The emergence of the new spells now becomes part of the plot itself as strange power is discovered from these remains.
Planet Apocalypse is the D&D version of flipping the game board over and dealing with the chaos, and as such it is a campaign that is going to be memorable, dangerous, and exciting. It would be best used with characters who enjoy not only facing off against the minions of hell, but also who are active role players and enjoy world building This is a game where the players are going to build their new society from the ground up, much like a settlement forms after a zombie apocalypse.
It is also something that should be considered carefully, because it’s not a side quest that your players defeat and then return home. There is no going back once the rift opens. Home will never be the same again. A DM considering this game should realize this and know your players well enough to know whether this is going to be something they will appreciate.
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TechnoFunkBoy is a podcaster, musician, and author. Both he and his music can be heard on the actual play podcasts Dice & Dreary, Order of Podcasters, and Tales from the Rusty Speeder. His music is available on Bandcamp, Amazon, Apple, and Spotify, and ranges from electronic video game covers to soundtracks. His latest album is called The Wolves and is an energetic collection of synthwave instrumentals.