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Friday, August 8, 2014

Tyranny of Dragons - Hoard of the Dragon Queen: The First Official Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Adventure

After years of playtesting, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition products are finally hitting the shelves. Today I want to take a look at the first adventure - Hoard of the Dragon Queen.
  • The first portion of this article is about the authors, the concept of "Downtime", and Adventurer's League stuff. 
  • Then we'll get into a brief synopsis and examination of each episode of Hoard.
  • At the end, I will address some common criticisms of the adventure.
You can buy this adventure on amazon here:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen (D&D Adventure)

The first thing to notice about Hoard is the fact that this adventure was "farmed out". Wizards employees did not write this. It was handed off to Kobold Press authors Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter.
Wolfgang Baur wrote some epic 2nd edition stuff, and was heavily involved in Dungeon Magazine way back when. He was one of my favorite authors. He did a lot of Planescape stuff, and wrote one of my favorite Al Qadim boxed sets - Secrets of the Lamp.

Steve Winter is a guy who had been involved with D&D for eons. He worked on Star Frontiers, the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set, and even the old TSR Marvel Superheroes game. I love the color chart system.

It is fascinating to me that Wizards' new approach is to go to big name "outsiders" to make their adventure stuff. Did they consider having Paizo write an adventure path for 5e? How insanely awesome would that be? Would Wizards of the Coast ask Monte Cook Games to write an adventure? Imagine that - 5e adventures written by Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell. That would be epic.


I am going to cover how downtime works in an official Adventurers' League game. If you are running this as part of the Encounters program, you should check out page 5 of the Adventurer's League Player's Guide (found here) and page 3 of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen Encounters pdf (which is obtained through your game store).

At the start of an Encounters session, players must declare if they are spending any downtime, which is recorded on their logsheet. In the Encounters program, you can use downtime to craft, practice a profession, recuperate, and train.

Downtime is a new concept for this edition. It is an abstract way to handle stuff the PCs do in town in a simple, swift fashion. You could run this and hand-wave the days in town, or if your players like, you could play it out and you will probably end up with some interesting stuff.

Downtime is discussed on page 68 of the basic rules. Here are the things you can do in an Encounters game:

Crafting: If you have artisan tools, you can make one or more items worth up to 5 gold per day, expending raw material worth half of its' value. So, you spend 2.5 gold to make a 5 gold item. You can take days and months to make a single valuable item, like plate mail. It costs 1500 gp, so you'd pay 750 gp and take 300 days to make it.

There are rules on having other people help you with crafting, making the time speed up. Immediately I wonder if it is allowed to have a bunch of NPC allies do it for you. It is things like this that probably caused Shawn Merwin to write this blog post about players who try to "break the game".
Practice a Profession: You can work at a temple or thieves' guild. This allows you to live a modest lifestyle without paying for it. (Lifestyles are a whole other thing - basically, you pay a set cost that covers your characters' living situation and how fancy their home is).

Recuperating: After 3 days of downtime, make a DC 15 CON save. Make it, and you can do one of two things:

1. End an effect that prevents you from gaining hit points. Judging from Dead in Thay, there are a ton of monsters that reduce your maximum hit points. This will probably come up fairly often.

2. Gain advantage on saving throws versus one disease or poison currently affecting you.

Research: This is all pretty much determined by the DM. Each day of research costs you 1 gp.

Train: Learn a language or train with tools. Find an instructor and then spend... 250 days and 250 gold. Wow! I like this, as it makes campaigns take years and years in game, and provides opportunities for the characters to get into hijinks in the city during the months they are spending downtime.

How odd is this: at the end of each "episode" of this adventure, the PCs are awarded 10 downtime days, which "can be spent immediately or saved for later use". So.. some PCs spend 10 days making armor, and others spend none doing nothing? 
In the Adventurers League version of this game, XP is tracked individually. PCs do not auto-level at certain parts of the story. One thing that won't go over well is the concept of Maximum XP. PCs have a cap on how much XP they can earn in each episode.

Remember, DMs, you may hear this classic refrain come from your players' lips: "It's not fair". Resist the urge to remind them that they are getting emotional about numbers on a piece of paper in an elaborate game of Cops and Robbers while people all over the world are struggling to find food and a safe place to sleep each day. Do not, under any circumstance, scream at them "Life is not fair!", partly because you will look like a psycho, but mainly because it will not sink in. That's the 20% of your player pool you just have to make the best of.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

Now we get into the DM stuff. If you are a player, there's spoilers in here. Don't ruin your own fun. If you want to read about more player stuff, check out my run-down of the player's guide here.

There's these 5 dragon masks. If the bad guys get them all and combine them, they form a single mask that can free Tiamat from Hell. The leaders of the cult are called... uh.. the Wearers of Purple. Like Prince, I guess.

The Cult and it's dragons are now attacking places to get the masks and to assemble a treasure hoard worthy of Tiamat. That's pretty cool.

Episode 1: Greenest in Flames

The whole adventure starts off with a bang. The heroes are heading to a town called Greenest, which is under attack by a blue dragon and the cult!
Here is where we see just how loose this whole thing is. Basically, we DMs are given "missions" to give the PCs. Some are short, some are long. One session should contain either one long encounter or two short ones.

This is such a radical departure from previous seasons. I kind of wonder if newer DMs will be able to roll with this.

This whole scenario is pretty awesome. The heroes help defend the town and even have to drive off the blue dragon (once it takes 24 damage it flies off - it will probably take down a PC or two before that).

Episode 2: Raiders' Camp

This chapter is only supposed to take 2 or 3 sessions (it took us one!). Our heroes track down the enemy camp and, if possible, recover stolen valuables. The heroes are also asked to rescue an abducted monk.

Once the heroes deal with a rear guard encounter and an ambush (which my group avoided entirely), our heroes come upon the dragon forces' main camp. Creeping around the enemy camp isn't hard, but if they are recognized, the PCs will be outnumbered. There's about 180 cultists there total.. not exactly a place that the adventurers can just attack.

There's this monk prisoner here that is meant to be freed, though he oddly begs not to be freed. It's a little awkward. The monk plays into The Rise of Tiamat so... yeah.

The camp is pretty cool. I think wizards is doing a great job delivering interesting, "pure" fantasy scenarios for their published adventures. Nothing too out there, just classic fleshed-out fantasy tropes.

Episode 3: Dragon Hatchery
What player doesn't love dragon eggs? The adventurers return to the camp. Most of the army has moved on, but a few enemies remain. They can explore a dragon hatchery in a cave populated with some of my least favorite monsters - stirges and troglodytes. Stirges suck! Pun intended. But seriously... they're lame.

This dungeon was very well-received by my group. It has a lot of different rooms, including a fungus forest (which I always love). There's some tough battles in here. Frulam Mondath may give the heroes some trouble, depending on how things play out.

There are also some cool traps in this place. And there's the eggs! The eggs are black dragon eggs. "If an egg is simply cracked open, the infant dragon struggles for breath, cries and squirms like a human baby for a few minutes, and then dies." That's, uhh... let's just back away slowly and close the door on that little scenario.

Episode 4: On the Road

In this section, our heroes go undercover and sign on to a caravan that the cult has also infiltrated. The cult is using the caravan to smuggle the stolen loot to their headquarters. Our heroes' job is to go along for the ride and find out where this hoard is being taken to.

It is a ridiculously long journey (60 days!). There's some cool NPCs, a fun "work for a caravan boss" gimmick, and some very good encounters (my favorite one involves sprouting fungi).

But this episode needs to be run with care. I can see players getting really bored with this if it feels like it is dragging.

Additionally, the whole scenario doesn't make a lot of sense. The bad guys have a flying castle! Why not just have the castle come to the loot? Right?

Episode 5: Construction Ahead
We get to Waterdeep, an iconic Forgotten Realms city, and there are no encounters there. It definitely feels like the authors needed more pages to flesh out this adventure.

Believe it or not, our heroes must continue to follow the cult and their treasure even further north. The adventurers will likely sign on to another caravan.

The journey ends at a roadhouse, which is pretty forgettable. Ultimately, our heroes discover a tunnel.

The trail of this treasure, the titular Hoard of the Dragon Queen: It goes through a hidden caravan, into a roadhouse, through a tunnel to a swamp carried by lizardfolk, through the swamp to a castle, through a portal in the castle to a hunting lodge, lugged 5 miles north of the lodge to Parnast, and at last from Parnast to Castle Skyreach.

Episode 6: Castle Naerytar

The adventurers have to figure out how to get through a castle which is inhabited by the cult and two factions - bullywugs and lizardfolk. It can be handled many different ways. It is complex, but much better than the previous chapter. There's a lot of fun to be had in the swamp and in the castle.

Episode 7: Hunting Lodge

We come to a hunting lodge which many PCs might just skip entirely. The lodge has a disillusioned cultist inside. There's also a very cool four-armed troll. Ultimately, though, this feels like a side-trek.

Episode 8: Castle in the Clouds

The flying castle! A very fitting finale, full of major villains to defeat - red wizards, Rezmir and a dragon. There's a cheap gimmick that makes it likely that the PCs won't get their hands on the black dragon mask, which I didn't appreciate. Our heroes finally get some magic items, though. This adventure is very stingy when it comes to magic items.

That's it! From there, our heroes continue on into the second adventure - The Rise of Tiamat.

Criticism of Hoard of the Dragon Queen

I am reading a thread on ENWorld called "Why is Hoard of the Dragon Queen such a bad adventure?" and I feel the need to address some of the criticisms. I've run the entire adventure, so I feel that I can speak from experience.

It's a Railroad

This is true, but that is the case with most published adventures. Your players have to be willing to run into a village that is under attack by an army in order for this adventure to work.

The Adventure Puts PCs in Impossible Situations

There are a few instances of this:
  • Dueling Cyanwrath: This is meant to make the PCs hate him and relish taking him down in episode 3.
  • Fighting the Blue Dragon: The PCs are not aware that it will flee. I'd encourage DMs to place a ballista on the wall.
  • The Roper: In Episode 2, this guy looked tough. He's meant to be fed.
  • Episode 4's Assassins: In Episode 4, there's an inn with disguised assassins who are way too powerful for the PCs to fight. This was an error by the authors due to the changing nature of the rules as they developed the product
  • Assault on Castle Naerytar: Your PCs might be doomed if they try to just rush the Castle. With dozens of lizardfolk and bullywugs outside the castle, it should be obvious that they'll need to be cautious.
  • Talis the White: In the lodge, the PCs might end up fighting Talis and almost all of the monsters in the Lodge at once (though she'd likely throw the PCs in the prison rather than kill them)
  • Attacking Castle Skyreach: If the PCs try to rush the front gate of Skyreach while it's on the ground at night, they're fighting 6 ogres, Rezmir, 2 drakes and a vampire.
The PCs Won't Get Enough XP To Level Properly

This is true. If you don't auto-level your PCs after each episode, there will be issues. The PCs will likely get a metric ton of XP in episode 1, but will get very little in episode 2. Episode 5 is light on XP, and Episode 7 theoretically could net them 0 XP. Episode 8 is not easy. You don't want your heroes showing up at the castle one or two levels lower than they should be.

The Adventure Requires a Lot of Prep Work

True! This partly depends on how you prep your games. Just the fact that the monster stats are not in the book will likely lead to some amount of prep work on your part.

You'll also need to plan out episode 4, and you'll need to have a very good understanding of Castle Naerytar in order to run it successfully.

The Villains Aren't Memorable

This depends on the DM. I think that Rezmir is a great villain. Rezmir's awesome evil sword alone makes her cool and threatening. The PCs can spot her in episode 2, walking in slow motion in the camp, drooling acid. They might get a shot at her in episode 6 amidst the chaos of lizardfolk slaughtering bullywugs, and then finally go to war with her in episode 8. Azbara Jos makes a good flunky, though he could use some fleshing out.

The Cult of the Dragon is pretty cool, too. They have their own little hand signal and catchphrase. They have cool titles for different ranks of officers. Heck, their gear is even depicted in their artwork. I've seen some people further flesh out the cult, by having the cultists devote themselves to a different color of dragon, which is an awesome idea. So some cultists wear red, some wear green, etc.


When our game store ran 4e encounters, attendance started high and dropped off quickly. Same with other events like the Pathfinder Society. Since we started running Hoard in the store, we grew from 2 tables to 4 and the expansion continues.  The players all love Hoard of the Dragon Queen as well as 5th edition. I can't think of a more clear indicator that this adventure is worth running than that.

I like that the first adventure for the new edition features dragons, as well as a dungeon. Tiamat is one of the best D&D villains. Overall, it feels like they are getting off on the right foot.

Check out my extremely detailed review of the sequel to this adventure, The Rise of Tiamat, here.


Jeremy "frothsof" Smith said...

Wow, i love that artwork

Venger Satanis said...

Nice write-up. The wearers of purple, eh? Interesting...

Isn't Lost Mine of Phandelver the 1st official D&D 5th edition adventure?

Sean said...

Frothsof: Yeah, they did a pretty good job. Each episode has a nice big "painting" as a header, they are very good. Also.. no page rips or coffee stains like in the basic rules.

Venger Satanis: Well, dang. You're right. I guess I should have called this "..The First Stand-Alone Adventure...". Yeah I don't know what the hell the wearers of purple are. Maybe it's some forgotten realms deal.

jim9311 said...

Does anyone have links to the online materials to play this as an encounters adventure?

Matt said...

I have read the whole book and don't see anything about downtime described anywhere in the book. Where are you seeing this?

Sean said...

Matt: I wasn't clear enough in the article - the downtime stuff is from the adventurer's league pdfs. I updated this article to clarify. When I wrote this, the rules were brand new and I wanted to help get Encounters DMs up to speed on how downtime worked when you run an official Adventurer's League game. Sorry for the confusion!