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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World: Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax 1938-2008
This is the fifth entry in my series on the greatest dungeon masters of all time, and it features perhaps the most legendary name in RPG history: Gary Gygax.

In this article, I will go over the basics of Gary's campaign and then in the second half I will offer up some stories from the original Castle Greyhawk campaign, some of which were taken from Gary's dragon magazine articles, others taken from online posts by Gary and his former players.

I am no expert on Gary Gygax. Most of this information came to me while I was planning out a Castle Greyhawk campaign that I never actually ran a few years ago. So please forgive me if I've overlooked something or made an error on a detail.

Back in the early 70's, Dave Arneson got the ball rolling on the whole concept of role playing games with Castle Blackmoor, and once Gary Gygax got wind of Arneson's game he rolled up his sleeves and refined it with his own Castle Greyhawk.

Both men were members of a miniatures wargame society, so the game's rules grew from those. Gygax's Castle Greyhawk campaign refined and defined the rules of the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons.

Gary's players were people he played miniature wargames with, as well as his neighbors and his kids. Many of the characters in his campaigns have become a part of D&D lore, with many of their names stamped on a spell or magic item.
Jon Peterson wrote a fantastic article on how Gygax lost control of his own company here. Basically, TSR had a lot of money coming in during the early 80's and made some bad choices (buying a needlepoint company being the most infamous). Gary and the Blumes had a hard time managing a company that expanded at an insanely swift rate. Tensions boiled over and shares were sold.

My focus in these columns is on the work of the DM rather than their life or style. This is a blog about Dungeon Masters, and there is nothing more fun or insightful than hearing about a great DM's games, especially when it is a game that literally shaped Dungeons & Dragons and role playing games as a whole.

The Campaign World

Greyhawk is just south of Nyr Dyv
The world map was based on the real world Lake Geneva region. The planet was known as "Oerth", which a lot of people pronounced similar to "Earth". Apparently Gary actually pronounced it: "OY-TH".


His games featured a lot of mapping of dungeons. As the heroes explored, one player had to draw what Gary described on graph paper. Part of the game was trying to figure out when a passage was gently sloping. Ideas like pouring some water on the ground and seeing where it trickled help, until Gary started having water seeping into the floor's many cracks. It was up to the players to get it right based off of Gary's descriptions. Getting lost in Castle Greyhawk was a very real possibility.

How Gary Ran His Games
According to a former player named Mike Mornard, they played in Gary's office. Gary would open cabinets and drawers so that the players could not see him, just hear him. One player was the designated "caller" - he'd announce what the group did. The other players weren't supposed to talk or chatter among themselves. Doing so was tantamount to character suicide. Apparently it was a very tense experience. I don't think Gary ran his games "behind a curtain" for long, but apparently he did do this for a period.

Also, kobolds were no joke. They had a habit of keeping the magic items of the characters they killed. How cool is that? Due to the regular influx of characters into the dungeon who died, the kobolds had considerable loot to use against future PCs.

Castle Greyhawk was run in a very interesting way. There was a pool of about 30 players, and whoever showed up to play that day went in the dungeon. Usually a group consisted of 12-20 players, although it eventually became "cool" to play solo.

Player Skill

Here's a great anecdote from the Blog of Holding:

"As Mike Mornard DMed us through a brown-book OD&D dungeon crawl, he told us a little about player skill. Apparently, among the original Greyhawk players, Rob Kuntz was good at D&D. He was good enough to adventure solo, not even bringing henchmen, and survive threats that would threaten whole parties of less skilled players. Once Kuntz started going on solo dungeon delves, it became the thing to do, even among other players who didn't have Kuntz's player skill.

Mike told us the story of one of Gary's lesser players who decided to go adventuring alone. He encountered a room filled with gems. Apparently, he didn't suspect that Gary was trying anything devious: he ran into the room and started reveling in his treasure. 'It's great!' said Gary (from behind his file cabinet, presumably). 'You're in gems up to your ankles!'

The player showered himself with gems like Daffy Duck. 'I'm independently wealthy!' (As a one-time recipient of a cache of random gems, I can relate to the player's joy.) 'It's great!' said Gary. 'You're in gems up to your knees!' The player shoveled gems into his pack. 'It's great!' said Gary. 'You're in gems up to your waist!' I'm sure you can see where this story is going. When the player tried to leave, he found out that he was sinking in quicksand covered with three inches of gems."

Castle Greyhawk, the Greatest Adventure That Never Was

People have always wanted Gary to publish Castle Greyhawk as an official D&D product. There were a number of efforts:
  • Castle Greyhawk: Published by TSR in 1985 just after Gygax was ousted from his own company. This adventure was a parody, featuring stuff like The Pillsbury Dough Golem and The Amazing Drider Man. Some believe this was an intentional slap to the face to Gary, while others believe it was just a really stupid idea.
  • Greyhawk Ruins: This was a dense boxed set published for AD&D second edition by Blake Mobley. This is an adventure that some enjoy and others feel is pretty dull.
  • Expedition to Castle Greyhawk: This is a 3rd edition version featuring some great maps that many think quite highly of. The dungeon is not complete, this book just details certain sections. I personally love the detail on the city of Greyhawk.
  • Castle Zagyg: Before Gary passed away, he began publishing his dungeon with the serial numbers filed off. Sadly, he passed away before it could be completed.
  • Gord the Rogue: Gary wrote a series of novels featuring Gord the Rogue, which is set in Greyhawk. You get quite a few details on Castle Greyhawk and all sorts of other D&D-related stuff that Gary had intended to make material for, including the Shadowland (Gary apparently had given Skip Williams notes to make a Shadowland adventure to be published by TSR, but it never happened.)
  • Bottle City: Rob Kuntz was the co-DM of Castle Greyhawk. He has published a few versions of his areas of the dungeon. Bottle City is a pretty awesome old school adventure.
Gary's Characters

Gary himself ran characters when Rob Kuntz would DM. Rob would sometimes run Castle Greyhawk and also his own dungeon, El Raja Key, set in his world of Kalibruhn. Rob's castle was immortalized in the official published D&D adventure "Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure". A revised/expanded version of the castle was published in issues of Dungeon Magazine as "Maure Castle".

Gary's most famous character is the magic-user Mordenkainen. His henchmen included: Zigby (a dwarf), Rigby (a cleric), Sigby Griggbyson (a fighter), Nigby (Bigby's apprentice) and Digby.

Gary had his characters and NPCs form a group known as "The Circle of Eight". In official D&D products, there is a Circle of Eight, but there are different members. The real life Gary Gygax Circle of Eight (+1) includes: Mordenkainen (who owns two red dragons named "Gorky" and "Porky"), Bigby, Yrag (A fighter, Gary's first character), Riggby, Felnorith (A fighter who collects swords), Sigby Grigbyson (fighter), Ziggby (the leader of Mordenkainen's 300 dwarf followers), Vin & Vram (elf twins). They lived in a place made of obsidian called the "Citadel of Eight". This information was gleaned from dragonsfoot.

The Heroes of Castle Greyhawk

Lord Robilar
Many of these names are very recognizable and have been featured in all sorts of different official products. This is a partial list of some of the more famous names. They started out as regular old characters just like yours or mine:

Erac's Cousin (Ernie Gygax)
Melf Brightflame (Luke Gygax) Leader of the Knights of Luna. Likeable, naive, loves ladies.
Lord Robilar (Rob Kuntz) Claims to fear nothing and no one.
Terik (Terry Kuntz) Robilar's brother, enemy of Mordenkainen.
Murlynd (Don Kaye) A wizard who ended up taking a trip to the old west
Tenser (Ernie Gygax) Likes melee combat.
Ayelerach (A Mark Ratner) Fighter, companion of Erac's Cousin, accidentally helped to free Fraz-Urb'luu.
Monk with No Name (Terry Kuntz) - Burns and steals for greed, has squirrel messengers. Had an elaborate blackmail scheme going against Ayelerach.
Lessnard (Mike Mornard)
Rary - (Brian Blume) On the Dragonsfoot forums, Gary Gygax wrote: "Rary was a low-level PC of Brian Blume. He wanted him to make "Medium," so he could be Medium Rary. That's how the character was played...if one can call it that."
Leomund (Len Lakofka)
Drawmij (Jim Ward)

The Dungeons in Castle Greyhawk

Old Greyhawk Castle had 13 levels, and many side or sub-levels:

Level One: A simple dungeon full of introductory rooms.
Level Two: Had two special locations, a nixie pool and a fountain of snakes.
Level Three: A prison with torture chambers.
Level Four: Crypts and undead.
Level Five: Lots of gargoyles and a font of black fire.
Level Six: A repeating maze full of wild hogs (???). Also, wereboars.
Level Seven: A labyrinth and a massive street full of ogres.
Levels Eight-Ten: Caves and caverns with trolls, giant bugs and a teleport nexus guarded by an evil wizard.
Level Eleven: The most powerful wizard in Castle Greyhawk lived here. He had balrog servants. There were also lots of white apes from Mars (the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars).
Level Twelve: Full of dragons!
Level Thirteen: This is the bottom of the dungeon which has a very amusing slide in it. In later products, this area has a "god-trap" that a mad wizard named Zagyg used to siphon power off of deities with.

Obmi the Dwarf
Gary wrote about Obmi in Dragon Magazine #287. Obmi was a villain, a dwarf with boots of speed and a dwarven thrower. He also had this machine that shot a beam of light that forced those struck with it to run in the opposite direction. The heroes came after him and were repelled twice. The third time, they destroyed his machine but were enraged when he used his boots of speed to flee.

The heroes swore to hunt him down, and he became Castle Greyhawk's first arch-villain. Gary would end up using Obmi in his Gord the Rogue books and in the "Against the Giants" module series.

The Jeweled Man

Sometimes the heroes would run into this man made of gold, encrusted with gems. He was clearly worth a fortune. And don't forget - in this version of the game, gold gave you experience points! Treasure could literally make you gain levels!

The greedy players would  hunt down and chase the mysterious man, but inevitably would be led into a trap or a horde of monsters. The heroes started to get paranoid and possessive:

"To reflect the attitudes of the PCs, it was natural to use innuendo to suggest one or another character was planning to capture the Jeweled Man alone. Solo adventures among the most able players were rare thereafter, as their peers were loathe to allow one of their number a chance to catch the Jeweled Man alone."

Erac's Cousin

First there was Erac, a wizard who ended up trapped alone in a room in the dungeon. There were no exits. The ceiling was painted like a starry sky. He never figured out how to get out, and died of starvation.

The player then made a new character, Erac's cousin. He never told anyone his real name. He looted his cousin's corpse and figured out the room (secret words in the stars). He'd later be tricked by a fellow PC named Bombadil into handing over powerful magic items.

Back in Castle Greyhawk, he fell through a portal to Wonderland. He traded Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum some stuff in exchange for the first D&D vorpal sword. He ended up finding a second vorpal sword in Castle Greyhawk. From then on, his strategy was to summon monsters, fire off some ranged spells, and then wade into melee with his dual-wielded vorpal swords.

Gary finally had enough of this and concocted an elaborate scheme to get rid of these powerful magic items. The demon lord Fraz'ub'luu tricked the heroes into freeing him. The adventurers summoned Zeus.. yes, ZEUS.. to help them fight the demon lord. But to their dismay, Zeus ignored them. Fraz'ur'bluu took them to a prison, drained the magic from the swords and tortured them until they somehow escaped.

He is maybe most famous for going to Mars. At the time, Gary wanted to test out some sci fi rules. Erac's Cousin found that magic didn't work there, so he started gaining levels as a fighter as he battled cannibals and green martian. He was most dismayed when he returned to Oerth naked, with none of the awesome treasure he'd obtained on Mars. Once he returned to adventuring in Castle Greyhawk, he'd declare whether he was adventuring as a fighter or a magic-user and use those rules.

The Slide to China
The God-Trap
So what's at the bottom of Castle Greyhawk? A slide that brings you to the other side of the world - China! Don't ask me. Only three characters reached the bottom level - Robilar, Tenser and Terik. They had to travel back from China (which may have been re-named "Cathay") via the "outdoor adventure" rules. Gary talked a bit about this here:

"Hoist by my own petard! These three, separately, had attained the nadir (pinnacle in terms of success) of the dungeons, and thanks to Zagig were sent "clean through the earth" to a distant land. Having sown the seeds of my own undoing, how could I complain? So I was faced with major works of improvisation as one after another of these PCs (for the record Robilar, Tenser, and Terik) made their separate ways around the globe, seeking to reunite as they quested for their own homeland. While I was 
pleased with their enjoyment of the adventuring fare, it was less palatable to the DM. As it happened, each character decided on a different route for their trek. My capacity to invent interesting, different, and exciting material on the spot was stretched to the limit by a long series of one-character adventures, and I determined never to go through such a trial again. So as the triumphant trio of PCs who had penetrated to the lowest level of Castle Greyhawk and survived being sent as far from there as the world allowed received their well-earned laurels from their less enterprising fellows, as DM, more world building was feverishly in progress."

Rob Kuntz says:

"Robilar was one of the first to make it around the Oerth. By entering the lowest level in Greyhawk Castle, he was propelled by a magical slide to what would be modern day "China." Teric and Tenser followed, as they missed his return to the first level of the Castle, which, as a team, this trio held sway over. They caught up with him by scrying and they finished the adventure together. They all split later - Teric visited the southeast area around the Sea Barons (he was looking for Voodoo-type areas), Tenser went home, and Robilar trudged down into the southern jungles, far past the reach of Sea Prince slavers."

The Temple of Elemental Evil

When Gary was writing the classic adventure "Temple of Elemental Evil", he invited Rob Kuntz over to playtest it. Rob's character Lord Robilar was pretty high level, and he thoroughly destroyed the monsters in the dungeon, to Gary's dismay. Gary apparently got revenge by sending out a massive army chasing after Robilar, who fled to the desert.

Rob wrote about this in Oerth Journal #7:

"In CY 575, Robilar traveled with his henchmen Quij and Otto the Mage to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Robilar traveled on his flying carpet and Quij and Otto followed on griffons. Robilar entered the temple complex with Otto, leaving Quij behind to guard the griffons and flying carpet. 

While other adventurers raided the temple and then withdrew, Robilar entered the temple and fought his way through it. For two days he slew all he encountered. Eventually Robilar freed the demoness Zuggtmoy, who was imprisoned beneath the temple complex. (Artifact of Evil states that Mordenkainen was present and purposefully assisted in "freeing" Zuggtmoy in some scheme designed to preserve the Balance. This was a later literary addition by E. Gary Gygax.) 
Why did Robilar free Zuggtmoy? Robilar purposefully released the demoness, because too much good was going on around the place. In a manner, to balance the proceedings. Alerted by the "freeing" of the demoness, a Force of Good rushed to the temple complex in an attempt to recapture the demoness and to punish her liberators. Tenser and his associates arrived, with Burne, Rufus, Otis and a great force of elves, paladins and unicorns. Upon seeing the destruction of her temple complex and the gathering Force of Good, Zuggtmoy departed in great haste. Robilar and Otto fled back to his castle, with the Force of Good in hot pursuit. The druid Jaroo, in falcon form, followed Robilar and Otto over 200 miles back to Robilar's castle. After they were informed of his whereabouts, the good war party eventually rallied outside of Robilar's castle. Robilar and Otto abandoned the castle and it fell to the Forces of Good."

Campaign Outline

This is Rob Kuntz's remembering of when the major events happened in the original campaign, as reposted on the canonfire forums:
  1. Adventures into Greyhawk Castle by Teric, Robilar, Murlynd, Tenser, and Elise Gygax's cleric (whose name has been forgotten)
  2. The Wight Adventure--all a dream--by Tenser and Robilar
  3. Other adventures--Otto Captured by Tenser (Otto was a denizen of the castle that would eventually join the heroes)
  4. 561 CY  Mordenkainen and Bigby lay the foundation of the Citadel of Eight. 
  5. The Orc Level of Greyhawk Battles: Quij Slays a Troll and is raised in level (Quij was Robilar's favored NPC henchman)
  6. Otto joins Robilar out of distaste for his captor
  7. The first level of the dungeon is sealed and fortified by the same three. "Building of the "three" 3 Keeps (the three towers are part of official D&D lore, noted even in Expedition to Castle Greyhawk).
  8. The Solo Adventures of Robilar.
  9. Robilar in the Troll Dens.
  10. Robilar and a gargoyle against a black dragon and Purple worm in level 6 of the dungeon.
  11. Robilar goes to "China".
  12. Teric and Tenser follow Robilar to China. All 3 heroes had ended up wandering down a sloping corridor right to the bottom of the dungeon, to Gary's shock. Gary wrote about this in Dragon Magazine #295.
  13. Trip back homeward. Journey to the City of Brass with flying carpets, rocs and the gems
  14. Three different routes: Tenser heads home, Teric looks for forces of voodoo in the southern isles and Robilar adventures into modern day Hepmonaland where he is captured and his +1 bow left behind when he escapes.
  15. Solo Adventures by Teric into Castle.
  16. Heavy outdoor adventures begin.
  17. Tenser Acquires red dragons.
  18. Teric acquires a black dragon.
  19. Robilar acquires three green dragons but loses his efreeti doing so.
  20. City of Greyhawk has grown 4 fold with wealth flowing out of castle.
  21. The White Dragon and the Wizard of the Tower Adventure by Robilar.
  22. 569 CY Battle of Emridy Meadows, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure.
  23. 570 CY Loosing of the "Nine" by Robilar in GH castle (Robilar stumbled on a magic prison containing nine demigods, each trapped on a different magic platform. Robilar tried to free the most powerful-looking one to kill it, but things went horribly wrong).
  24. Strange Way and Odd Alley adventures by Robilar, finds a ring of spell turning.
  25. Tenser finds the Magic-User's Crown.
  26. Robilar turns evil and kills some of his retainers, but one escapes to tell the tale. 
  27. 571 CY Robilar completes the Tomb of Horrors. Gary constructed the dungeon to challenge and kill his high-level characters, but grew increasingly frustrated as Robilar survived. Robilar used his orc henchmen as canon fodder to survive the opening death traps. He did not fight Acererak the demi-lich. He stole Acererak's treasure and fled! Rob says: ""Robilar went with his equipment as per the Rogues Gallery. Plus 5 orcs, no more, no less. One orc refused my order to enter the entry corridor that I was suspicious of. So I immediately killed him, which warmed the other orcs to obeying similar orders forthcoming." Tenser and Terik fled the dungeon. Jim Ward had a character named Ren o' the Blade survive as well.
  28. 572 CY Erac's Cousin turns to evil after being tormented into swearing a pact with Baalzebul.
  29. 579 CY Sacking of the Temple of Elemental Evil by Robilar.
  30. Robilar's castle is sacked by the forces of good. He goes into hiding.
  31. Adventure to the City of the Gods, Robilar and Mordenkainen (I believe Dave Arneson himself ran Gary and Rob through this published adventure.)
Other Sources

There's a lot of fun sources for Greyhawk stories out there:
If you want to read more Castle Greyhawk stuff,  check out this follow-up article where I detail a bunch of cool Gary Gygax Castle Greyhawk encounters.

Check out my articles on the other Greatest Dungeon Masters of All Time:

Dave Arneson
Ed Greenwood
Chris Perkins
Monte Cook

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Best and Worst of Hoard of the Dragon Queen

We finished Hoard of the Dragon Queen on Sunday, so I figured I'd run down my final thoughts on the adventure. It seems like a number of people online don't like this book much at all. While I don't think it's perfect, I certainly didn't think it was bad.

I am going to list the things I like the most about the adventure, and then follow up with the things I liked least. Overall this was a very enjoyable scenario for me and my players. My players show up every week, exactly on time or early, eager to get back into it. I think that says a lot about Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

The NPCs

I loved quite a few of the NPCs in this adventure. I think they could have used just one more sentence in some cases to flesh out their personalities more, but in general we had enough to go on. In particular I liked:

Linan Swift: The mother fighting off kobolds in Greenest. This was a great way to kick off the whole adventure. she is a very heroic character, and there's a lot of fun things you can do with this.

Langdedrosa Cyanwraith: A blue half-dragon who may duel/pummel a PC in episode one and then face the heroes again in episode three, this guy is actually more interesting than his boss, Frulam Mondath. You can get a lot of mileage out of this jerk. The only problem is that he is meant to die so early in the path.

The Caravan NPCs:
  • Edhelri Lewel: The moon elf who loves animals and hates people.
  • Green Imsa: The woman who has green skin and hair, is searching for a cure for he condition and does not want anyone to know what happened to her.
  • Losvius Longnose: The halfling who wants to know everyone's business.
  • Samardag the Hoper: The extremely optimistic guy with the incredibly fragile cargo.
Pharblex Splattergoo: He's the leader of the bullywugs and he has a fish on his head! What's not to like? You could make him into a very memorable and loathsome NPC.

Trepsin: This four-armed troll is a very cool and formidable villain. He's got his pack of drakes, he's a hunter, this is a pretty scary and memorable dude.

Blagothkus: This is the giant who is flying Castle Skyreach. The place is powered by the spirit of his dead wife. His reasoning for working with the cult is pretty flimsy (he wants to summon Tiamat so that he can unite the giants to kill the dragons..?!) but I like the whole concept of this giant who can be persuaded to join the PCs' cause, aided perhaps by the spirit of his wife. There's also potential for the PCs to enrage this guy if they mess with his dead wife's bones.

The Encounters

This edition isn't like 4th edition, where a good encounter can be a really good encounter (Scales of War had a bunch of truly epic, memorable encounters). That said, this adventure has some good stuff:

All of Episode 1: The entire scenario is fantastic. A town is under siege by an army and a blue dragon! And you are right in the middle of it. That is really cool, what a great way to kick the whole thing off.

The Stirges in Episode 3: My group really liked fighting the stirges in a cloud of shrieking bats. The cloud of bats made it impossible for the PCs to see more than 5 feet and also gave the stirges +2 to their AC. Very clever and creative encounter, I thought.

Roadside Hospitality: There's a number of cool encounters in episode 4. There's the growing fungi and the guy buried up to his neck in the road. But the one I liked the best is the one I didn't even run. It involves "two buxom twin sisters". I don't want to spoil it, but with the right group all sorts of hilarity could have resulted. I didn't run this one because I felt that my players were too young for anything involving the phrase "buxom twin sisters".

Certain Areas in The Lodge: For a fairly useless location, this place had a number of cool things in it. The suits of armor with magical effects were very cool, and I personally loved the magic tapestry and all of the possible outcomes that could result from it.

The Ogre Ballista: It fires javelins! Nuff said.

Castle Skyreach: The flying ice castle itself is a very cool location. I liked it, though I think it could have used one extra-magic room in it (I like random charts and I'd have liked it if Escarlotta's hidden tomb could grant magic effects/punishments or something). I think the dragon's lair in particular was very cool.

Breath of Fresh Air

I loved 4th edition. Loved it! But wow, this edition is so nice. The game is so wide open again. Combats don't take an hour. Magic items feel like "magic" rather than a math necessity. And this adventure is such a pleasure to read and run, because it feels like a sprawling story. We're back to what D&D should be - an epic saga. This adventure doesn't pull it off perfectly, but it gets us off to a very good start.

The Actual Book

I love the paper it's printed on, I love the design, and I greatly appreciate that they put a healthy amount of art in the book. I still would have liked more art, but maybe I am being greedy. The fact that they even had magic item art is a very nice touch.

The Adventure Path Concept

This makes me so happy. Paizo has a good thing going with their adventure path systems. It's a nice way to keep fresh products coming out. I like that Wizards of the Coast is following suit in their own way and tying it in to their encounters program. I love adventures and I'm very happy that there will be adventures for me to buy and run for the foreseeable future.

Lack of Magic Items

I think they should have included more treasure in this adventure. They were extremely stingy throughout. Basically, some of your PCs will get their first +1 item at 7th level after they kill a white dragon. Maybe the idea in this edition is to scale back on items in general, but that feels very jarring. I do like that +1 and +2 items are more of a big deal and don't feel like "trash" in this edition, but I think players might get a bit frustrated by the lack of rewards.

Let's go on a little tangent, here. I am a little perplexed by the inclusion of the evil sentient sword, Hazirawn. Any PC would want to keep this thing. But I am having a hard time figuring out how to play the sword. It's sentient. It's evil. It has detection powers. Would it want to trick it's good owner into a suicidal situation? Is it loyal to the cult's cause?

The party fighter is doing some serious damage with this thing. Check this out:
  • 2d6 damage (because it is a greatsword)
  • +2d6 necrotic damage (a property of Hazirawn)
  • +2 damage (Hazirawn is a +2 weapon)
  • +4 damage (the PC has an 18 strength, I believe)
  • +d8 superiority die (the fighter can spend a superiority die to feint, which means he gets advantage on his attack roll and if he hits, he does +d8 damage)
So we are looking at a guy who can do this damage at 8th level: 4d6+d8+6 (and he re-rolls 1's and 2's due to great weapon fighting).

He can only use his superiority die 4 times, then he has to rest, but even without that die he is doing a lot of damage. And he attacks twice per round!

Consider that the white dragon had 200 hit points. This fighter rolled a critical hit, which means he rolled 8d6 +2d8 +6! You can see going in why I was worried that the dragon would end up being too easy.

But I followed the adventure's advice and kept the dragon in the air, at least in the beginning. Frightful presence absolutely decimated the party, as did the breath weapon. If I had rolled one more recharge, I'm pretty sure the entire party would have been dead.

The Scale of the Maps

Jared Blando does some cool maps. There's some errors on some of these (Castle Naerytar has a few numbers in the wrong spot), but that kind of thing happens in most RPG products. I loved his map of Castle Skyreach. The thing I don't like about the maps in this edition is that they are not to miniature scale. One of my favorite things about 4th edition was that I could blow up the maps in photoshop, bring them to office depot and make a black and white poster map for $3. The players loved it. It added a lot to the game.

In this edition, the maps are not to scale. Sometimes a square equals 15 feet. I could still blow these maps up and make poster maps, but it will lead to a lot of confusing situations. A character moving 25 feet on a map with 15 foot squares might be more trouble than it's worth.

The Plot

The overall idea is good - an army is attacking and looting settlements and stealing people's stuff. But somehow this adventure almost entirely involves the heroes following the trail of the loot, and that trail is completely ridiculous. The bad guys are putting the loot in a flying castle. Why are they spending two months transporting it in carts? Why not just have the castle hover above the army as they attack, then lower it to the ground and fill it with treasure?

I think this adventure would have been much better off if more episodes dealt with the cult's attacks. There could have been a whole episode where the PCs went to a town in advance and helped fortify it against an attack. There could have been another episode where the PCs are part of a small ragtag army that makes a counter-attack. I always wanted to see an adventure where the PCs are on a battlefield in the middle of a mass combat.

Episode 7
When I read episode 7, I hated it. It felt like filler. The hunting lodge itself is cool. But it is a useless locale, one place too many for the PCs to stop off at en route to their ultimate destination.

Sometimes a scenario that looks bad on paper ends up coming off great when you run it. That was not the case here.  While there are cool things in this building, it can't overcome the fact that the lodge is one stopover too many on the journey to Castle Skyreach. I think they'd have been better off making this episode all about Parnast, with the castle hidden up in the clouds. We could have gotten a whole episode out of stealing wyvern mounts and flying up into the castle.

This and the roadhouse were the low points of the adventure.

The Lack of Detail

This whole adventure felt too sparse. I think this was done for space considerations. The authors had to cram 8 scenarios into 94 pages! But certain things could have been done. For example, during the journey in episode 4, why were none of the cultists given any personality, names or details? The tension with the cultists was supposed to be the focus of the whole chapter, and the DM could have used some help making it happen.

So there you go. I think over the course of these last few months I have really gotten my money's worth out of this adventure. I suspect subsequent adventures will be much better, just as Age of Worms improved on The Shackled City. Hoard of the Dragon Queen isn't perfect, but on the whole it is a good way to kick off the new edition.

Thanks for reading! Check out my Guide to Tyranny of Dragons, which contains helpful DM notes and ideas on each episode of Hoard and Rise of Tiamat.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Glazhael the Cloudchaser

We've been playing Hoard of the Dragon Queen on Sundays, because we usually play on Wednesday but Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve both fall on that day this year. We only have until March 11 to get all of Rise of Tiamat done. Time is of the essence!

The heroes began exploring Skyreach Castle last session. This is the location of the final episode of Hoard, a flying ice castle that is home to a wide assortment of bad guys. As fate would have it, this week their exploration took them directly to two of the major villains of the adventure - the vampire and the white dragon.

The adventurers came upon another tower, partly crumbled. The only working entrance to the interior was on a balcony 75 feet up. Dark the Dragon Sorceress loves casting spider climb and used it to get the party up there.

On the other side of the door is a single room containing a coffin guarded by two vampire spawn. This is the lair of Sandesyl, a vampire complete with legendary actions.

A huge fight broke out. Dark, played by a 4th grader, wanted to be a vampire really badly. It was very amusing. We also have a running joke that the party's gnome thief lives in garbage. I'm not sure how it started. But Dark's player did a hilarious cute-sy drawing of him in her notebook (which is full of drawings). He was a trash can with a smiley face.

The vampires are very deadly, and this was the toughest fight in a while. Basically, the vampire can grab you and drink your blood, dealing 7 regular damage and 10 necrotic. The necrotic also lowers your maximum hit points (!) until you take a long rest. Worse, Sandesyl can use 2 legendary actions to bite again at the end of a PC's turn!

Two characters were hurt very badly. The heroes defeated the vampires and needed a rest. It turns out that this tower is a pretty great place to rest in Skyreach Castle, because it's very inaccessible.

During the rest, I could have had enemy NPCs mobilize and go on patrol, alerted to the PCs' presence (the heroes had left the red wizard Azbara Jos alive, locked in a room). But I did this in the hunting lodge and it actually made that episode less fun to play, so I decided to make this place more "static" (aka rooms full of monsters that don't move around the dungeon) and see how that went. It went fine.
Fully rested, our heroes descended the tower and decided to investigate the ice tunnels. These tunnels all lead to the monster on the cover of the module, the white dragon: Glazhael the Cloudchaser!

I made a simple, massive map using a blank poster map grid and a bunch of dungeon tiles, just a giant room split in half. The tiles represented the "ledge" that was 30 feet higher than the section of the cave where the treasure was. The PCs emerged on this ledge. The treasure below was covered in a thin sheet of ice. They could spot magic items - bracers, a sword, armor, piles of gold. They were excited, as magic items are very hard to come by in this adventure.

The dragon is hanging upside down on the ceiling as the heroes enter. The heroes tried to talk with the dragon. The dragon has strong feelings about food. If you have food for him, you're a friend. If you don't, you're an enemy. The PCs picked up on this and tried to give him rations, but rations aren't going to cut it!

Glazhael let out his frightful presence power. Every single PC failed their saving throw! That means none of them could come closer to him, and they all had disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws! The PCs get to save again at the end of each of their turns, but they kept rolling really low on their saving throws.

We rolled initiative, and the dragon went third. The dragon breathed ice on half of the party, doing 54 damage! A few PCs went down. On the character's turns, they couldn't do much because they couldn't get close to the dragon due to being frightened. It was actually looking like a TPK.

On the dragon's next turn, it landed in front of a few PCs and dropped one PC with a claw/claw bite, and then used it's legendary actions to drop another PC with tail attacks, each doing 15 damage.

There was a point where only one PC was standing - the gnome thief.
A party thief actually failed his death saves and died. This is the first time that this has happened in this encounters game. I had given the PCs each a tear of bahamut a few sessions back, which could bring him back to life. Someone used their tear to bring the dead thief back to life with one hit point.

Somehow the heroes rallied (I was wondering if I needed to fudge some rolls, but it turned out I didn't). The paladin probably saved the entire party with a spell he'd never cast before - aid. Aid healed three dying PCs and brought them back up. Suddenly, the entire party was standing. The hero who wielded Hazirawn, the evil magic sword, tore into Glazhael with a series of attacks. He rolled a natural 20 on one of them and killed the dragon!

The players were very happy as they split up the loot. We talked about how this was one of the toughest fights they've been in (as it should be, IMO). They immediately brought up the last fight that felt this hard. I wracked my brain trying to think of the last deadly fight. I don't pay attention to that kind of thing, so I couldn't guess. They said it was... the stirges. The stirges in episode 2! I was very amused. I hate stirges, but that was a cool encounter, with the stirges and the bats flying all around. Who would guess that the two toughest fights the party would ever have would be against a dragon and a bunch of stirges?

Going in to this, I was very concerned that the dragon fight would either be too hard or too easy. I decided to just run it as written and see what happened. It turns out that it was absolutely perfectly balanced. It was exactly how a "boss fight" should be.

Next week, we will start The Rise of Tiamat!

I've prepared the first few chapters, and updated my Guide to Tyranny of Dragons accordingly.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Castle in the Clouds

For the next few weeks, we will be playing Hoard of the Dragon Queen on Sundays. D&D Encounters is usually run on Wednesdays, but because of the holidays, the store will be closed for the next two weeks (Christmas eve and New Year's eve). I am obsessed with making sure we finish the Tyranny of Dragons path by March.

The heroes are level 7 and I am noticing a big difference now. The heroes are getting multiple attacks and doing a lot of damage. Dark the Dragon Sorceress has access to some pretty powerful spells, including greater invisibility. The party has three rogues, all of which have evasion - which means that on saving throws instead of taking half damage on a save, they take no damage. It is extremely effective and will really help the party against the dragons in the path.


The deal in Parnast is that the flying ice castle is landed here. The heroes have about an hour before it takes off. I was wondering if they'd try to sneak on right away, or explore the town first.

It turns out that the players have been waiting a very long time to do some shopping. They bought everything from flasks of oil, to full plate armor, to potions of healing (I let them stock up, as the party doesn't have a healer). They took so much time shopping that the castle took to the sky.

The heroes found the wyvern stables. The idea here is that the heroes can ride the wyverns to the flying castle, and wave the banner that they found in the Hunting Lodge to prevent being attacked. To put a saddle on a wyvern, a PC needs to make an animal handling check. This was interesting, because not many players pick animal handling as a skill. If this check fails, the wyvern stings the PC for a huge pile of damage: 11 damage and 24 poison!
Of course, Dark rolled really high and climbed on a wyvern and was riding it in no time (once on it, you need to make a couple animal handling checks to understand the different commands it responds to). The rest of the party had a harder time. A rogue got stung, but in the end they took flight.

Skyreach Castle

I printed out some maps of the castle for the players. In retrospect, I should have given them maps with room numbers, as without them it was very difficult to indicate where they were or where they wanted to go. The heroes parked their wyverns and wandered around a bit.

They ended up heading right to Rezmir's room, completely by chance. The lock on the door is very tough to pick (the DC is a 25). They ended up going to the room with the two red wizards. Dark immediately charmed them, twinning charm person (sorcerers can spend sorcery points to "twin" a spell, which allows the spell to affect a second target)! I rolled terribly on both of my saves. This was completely unexpected by me.

I had to make a snap decision. Charm Person says that if the spell is cast during a battle, then the victims have advantage on their saving throws. Technically, exploding into the room and casting that spell might be the beginning of a combat - a surprise round. Azbara Jos has battled the heroes before, and as soon as he sees them, he knows the deal.
But if there was to be a combat, the other red wizard Rath Modar just tries to flee, leaving Azbara and a gargoyle to battle the PCs. It's not much of an encounter. I liked the idea of the PCs using the wizards to lure out Rezmir, and then leaving (which would allow Rath to flee with ease) so I let it happen.
After a bit of discussion, Dark convinced her new friends to go lure out Rezmir to show her Dark's pet black dragon, Sparky. They agreed.

A big fight with Rezmir broke out. Rezmir created a globe of darkness which really messed with the party. Still, Rezmir was hurt bad right away from the surprise assault, and stumbled into her room. A rogue raced after her, but was jumped by the rug of smothering which blocked the doorway. The drakes dropped the rogue, and Rezmir yelled out that she would kill the rogue if they didn't leave at once.

The party was in a tough spot. The doorway was blocked by the rug, technically a monster. It was the paladin's turn. I figured he'd slash at the rug. He's a handy guy, always keeping close to an ally and blocking attacks with his shield. I did not expect him to misty step - teleporting behind Rezmir and stabbing her in the back, killing her! It was awesome.

The Treasure

The PCs wanted that black dragon mask that Rezmir has. It's in a locked chest in her room. If she dies, all the contents of her chest are teleported away. That's kind of a bummer, right? The PCs killed the big villain and got no treasure. If a party wants that treasure, they'll need to sneak in while she's alive somehow, pick the trapped lock of the chest, and steal it.

The Icy Tower

The adventurers headed to the upper courtyard and told the ogre guards on the roof that they were "inspectors". The heroes rolled well. The deal with this tower is that the interior is hollow, and the only way to get to an above room is to speak a magic word. The heroes didn't know this word, but tricked the ogres into saying it. The word was "Esclarotta", the name of the giant spirit that powers the castle.

The heroes appeared in the secret room, which held a sarcophagus holding Esclarotta's bones. That's all that's in there. The only way out is to say another magic word: "Blagothkus", the name of the giant steering the castle (and the husband of the dead giant). We had ourselves a problem: The PCs were trapped in this room and had no way of knowing the exit password!

So what did they do? They cast fire spells to escape, melting their way out.

We had to stop there. The heroes still need to battle Glazhael the Cloudchaser, a white dragon. This will be the first time the heroes will ever fight a dragon. It should happen next week, and I think it will be awesome.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons Expeditions Defiance in Phlan - The Meeting at Deepnight

I wrapped up my Shadowrun campaign a few weeks ago and have assembled a group for a new D&D 5e campaign. I will be running the Dungeons & Dragons Expeditions adventures for them. Expeditions adventures are meant to be run in a game store or at conventions in 4 hour slots. They are set in the Forgotten Realms and deal with the Tyranny of Dragons storyline.

I am running these at home in an unofficial capacity to get familiar with them in case I need to run them at the store, and also so I can write about them in this blog.

In the first half of this post, I am going to present what I think are the essential notes on Phlan that you need to run a proper fleshed-out session. In the second half, I will report on what happened when I ran "Defiance in Phlan".


As I started preparing this campaign, I saw that all of the lower level Expeditions adventures are set in Phlan which apparently was where the classic "Pool of Radiance" computer game/novel took place. I'm not a Forgotten Realms guy, so I wasn't very familiar with it. Finding details on Phlan was not easy.

The Adventurers League site has a history of Phlan, but it doesn't give town details.

There's a great rundown of Phlan in a 4th edition adventure called "Monument of Ancients" in Dungeon Magazine issue 170.

I went through the Expeditions adventures released so far and noted the NPCs and locations to try to build a 5e Phlan.

Ruler: Phlan's previous ruler died in a mysterious "construction accident" last year. Phlan is currently being run by Ector Brahms, who also runs the "police" - The Black Fist. Phlan is under martial law.

Black Fist: A band of corrupt individuals, worshipers of Bane. Members include:
  • Aleyd Bural: A woman in her 40's with fading blonde hair. She is one of the few non-corrupt members, and she pops up in a bunch of Expeditions adventures.
  • Hurn: An old fellow, broods a lot, very bribe-able.
The Welcomers: The thieves' guild of Phlan, actively hunted by the Black Fist. Most members of the guild are missing an ear, which is a trademark of the guild or something. The Black Fist captures, tries and hangs the thieves. The corpses of many dead members are hanging at the Stojanow gate. Members include:
  • Glevith: A guy with slicked back hair.
  • Allar "Blockjaw": A big, tough, thug kind of guy.
  • Trunkey Lighttouch: A female halfling who is a bit of a softy.
  • "Dark" Linsa: A grey-skinned half-elf who is a very cold person.
Merchant Guilds: There's four guilds. There's not much information on them: House Sokol, House Jannarsk, House Cadorna, and House Bivant. Sokol has a keep on Thorn Island, which is detailed in the second Expeditions adventure, "Secrets of Sokol Keep".

Locations in Phlan

Podol Plaza: Where merchants sell wares. Children sell scraps of parchment with the day's news on them for 1 copper.

Mantor's Library: This location comes up in a few different adventures. The head curator is Master Openrael, a meticulous and excitable fellow. He's assisted by an awkwardly shy halfling named Cassra Brandywine.

The Laughing Goblin Inn: This is apparently the most popular place to drink in town. It's located at the docks and draws a rough crowd. There's a carved totem of a laughing goblin. The place is run by Imizael, a no-nonsense kind of lady. A waiter named Markoth is quite popular among adventurers, as he always knows what is going on in town.

Zelhingen Graveyard: This place is actually located outside the city, just across the river. It's accessed by a bridge. This place comes up quite a bit in the Expeditions adventures. It's maintained by priests of Kelemvor, and overseen by Doomguide Yovir Glandon. Brother Keefe, a solemn fellow, keeps records. Cassyt is a very happy, chatty acolyte who has a role in one of the adventures.

Other Inns: The Cracked Crown, Nat Wyler's Bell, Madame Freona's Tea Kettle, The Bitter Blade.

Places To Shop: Brice Vang (armor), Randolph Tzintin (leather), Alero the Smithy (weapons), Cockburn's Grocery (adventuring gear. Seriously. "Cockburn"?!) and there's a fence named Jerome who can buy stolen goods.

There's also a "festhall" (which is Forgotten Realms-code for brothel) called The Velvet Doublet which I have found almost no details on.

DDEX 1-1 Defiance in Phlan

This adventure starts in Madame Freona's Tea Kettle, an inn run by a halfling and her five daughters. The scenario is broken into five "missions"/mini-adventures. Each mission introduces one of Freona's five daughters, which I really got a kick out of.

As this was a home game, I made especially sure to give the PCs ample opportunity to use the downtime rules. I was hoping for some rolls on the Carousing table. I kind of wondered if they'd try to set up a stall in Podol Plaza to sell their ill-gotten gains. I was really struggling with trying to decide how much it would cost to set up a stall. Do they need a permit for that kind of thing? I guess all it takes is a bribe, as that is how the Black Fist seems to handle everything in Phlan.

Mission 1: The Meeting at Deepnight

In this scenario, the heroes are hired by a member of the Harpers to go and impersonate a merchant. The adventurer's job is to buy a red dragon egg off of these mysterious sellers and plant a magic pin on them. The pin will allow the Harpers to track the sellers (who may be part of the Cult of the Dragon). The Harper gives the PCs a sack of fake diamonds to buy the egg with.

When the heroes go to make the sale, members of the thieves' guild show up to try to steal the egg.

I was wondering how this would go. The heroes were clever. They got an elaborate hat from the bard's costume kit and dumped the diamonds in it. They planted the pin amongst the hat's feathers and just handed the whole thing over. Pretty good!

The buy went down OK. The heroes wanted to inspect the egg (it's actually fake, but the PCs need to roll very high to realize that). The thieves showed up. The thug leader is really tough. He has two attacks and 32 hit points! Seems too dangerous. But I rolled really poorly, so the heroes did just fine.

The PCs handed the egg over to the Harper and collected their reward.

Downtime and Lifestyle

I decided there would be five days before the second mission, so we could mess around with lifestyle and downtime. Two of the PCs have the performance skill, which means they can perform in Poldol Plaza and earn 4 gp a day to live a wealthy lifestyle.

Another PC decided she wanted to live a wretched lifestyle, because it was free and she is a barbarian. She also wanted to spend her downtime days picking through garbage looking for stuff to sell.

This, uh, is not covered in the downtime rules. So I had her roll to search garbage, and then I rolled on the trinket table in the player's handbook to see what she found. She actually found a bank note someone discarded, from a bank in a nearby town.

Mission 2: The Screams at Dawn
In this one, a woman comes to town and is in a panic. Her family was abducted by goblins. The Black Fist guards explain that they can't investigate because her farm is outside their jurisdiction. One of the PCs took offense to this, and tried to shame the guards into going out there. The guards got into it with the PC, and slapped him with a promissory note. The PCs would get 50 gold if they were able to save the family.

This was more of a standard dungeon crawl. I was really taken aback by the map to this place. It's hand-drawn on blue graph paper. It's pretty nice, but still, this is a Wizards of the Coast product! I am guessing there's 50 people who would jump at the chance to make a really nice map free of charge just to get their foot in the door with the company. I know these adventures aren't going to be seen by many people, but still...

The dungeon has a hallway with goblins firing arrows though holes in a wall, then a tripwire (cleverly avoided by our wretched trinket-gathering barbarian), and a large chamber with goblins who can release wolves from cages to attack our heroes.

The bard really wanted to "keep" a wolf. She cast animal friendship on one, and was successful. The wolf is charmed by her for 24 hours.

So much time had been spent on hijinks, that this was as far as we got. We had to stop here for the night. We'll do more next week.

I really like this adventure, particularly the next mission, which has a very neat little dungeon. I really like how this is broken up into five smaller scenarios.

So far, everyone loves it.  I'd like to have seen more Expeditions adventures with this format.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Talis the White

Talis the White
We finished up Episode 7 tonight. The players, mostly kids around the age of 13, were exceptionally hyper-active this evening. I assume it is because of Christmas.

Usually they are fine, but I had to tell them to be quiet quite a few times. Not a big deal, though. It was another good night of D&D.

Tear of Bahamut

This is a special magic item included in the DM pack, one for each PC. I decided to hand them out tonight wherever it felt like they'd fit in the story. These items have a real-life expiration date of February 2015, so I want to get these items to the PCs now so they have time to use them. The tear is a consumable that brings a character back to life, basically.

Hero Points

I tried using Hero Points from the DMG tonight. Basically, a PC gets 5 + their level in hero points. The points can be used to give a player an extra d6 to a roll. This felt like it made the game way, way too easy. I probably won't use them again.

Chaos at the Lodge
We left off last time outside the Hunting Lodge. I had decided to run this section as a "living dungeon", and in retrospect I might have been better off making it more video-gamey. The players could not focus when it was time to make a decision.

In general, I've found that in real life there aren't many players who want to step up and take a leader role in the party. It is pretty interesting.

The heroes battled two gargoyles, and ended up drawing out a troll and three drakes, too. Two of the thieves in the party like to do "team maneuvers" which usually consist of the elf throwing the gnome at a monster.

In this case, the elf overshot the troll and the gnome landed on the roof of the shed behind him. The gnome made some rolls and was able to avoid falling through the moss roof and actually jumped on and stabbed the troll.

Dark decided she wanted to get in on this too. She wanted the black dragon wyrmling, Sparky, to carry her up to the troll. I had planned to make Sparky's first time flying a big deal, so this was good timing. Sparky made a good roll, and actually was able to take flight for the first time in his life. He dropped Dark on the troll, who commenced to stabbing. Dark has a very high strength, you see.

It was also noted that our gnome has a set of bagpipes. He had bought them some time back. We were talking about where he could carry the bagpipes - his pack is undoubtedly overflowing with Trepsin's Mossy Cape as it is.

Exploring the Ground Floor

With that battle dealt with, the heroes decided to park their three freed prisoners in the shed and continue exploring. I made sure they visited the stables and learned that there were once wyverns in there.

The heroes went through the lower floor of the lodge and battled the helmed horror. It summoned Evard's black tentacles and was a decent challenge.

The evil sword Hazirawn is extremely powerful in the hands of the party fighter and I am starting to get worried it is doing too much damage. The sword did do less damage than normal against the helmed horror, due to the horror's many resistances.

There was a lot of exploring and chaos at this point. The players were having a hard time staying focused. There were simply too many doors to choose from. One of the rogues looted the banner, which may come into play in Episode 8.

They found the magic tapestry that teleports those who step into it one-way to "a random location within 5 miles". Seeing how Parnast, the town in episode 8, is five miles away, I decided that they'd just appear outside of Parnast. This would be a nice way to just get to episode 8 and be done with this lodge, which feels a lot like filler.

But what happened was that the PCs went through the tapestry, saw Parnast, and decided to walk back to the lodge. D'oh.

Talis the White
Wand of Winter
Eventually the adventurers headed upstairs and stumbled right in to Talis the White's room. She was there with her three guards, and wanted to cut a deal.

The story with Talis is that she is angry that she wasn't given the white dragon mask, so she wants to recruit the heroes to mess with the cult. The party eventually agreed, and she dumped a bunch of information.

The bad part to this is that Talis has some cool magic items that the party will miss out on, simply by not killing her. Talis has a "Wand of Winter" that Dark would have liked.

Basically, the cult has a flying castle controlled by a storm giant parked at Parnast. Talis swooned as she talked about the white dragon, Glazhael the Cloudchaser, who was lurking in the flying castle with Rezmir and Azbara Jos.

Our heroes geared up and headed through the tapestry again, at last ready to tackle the climactic final episode of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.