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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.


Anonymous said...

One thing to note, when you roll a crit you double all of the damage dice you roll. So shouldn't the superiority die also have been rolled for a total of 8d6 + 2d8 + 6?

Sean said...

Anonymous: You are right! I will correct the text. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

No problem! I really enjoy reading your adventure logs of your group. I really like the fact that it is a youthful group and they are having such a fun and creative time playing. It makes me happy to see such young people still getting into D&D. I remember setting up to my old man and my uncle playing some AD&D, trying to comprehend THAC0

Sean said...

Anonymous: Right now it is a very fun group. I hope I can keep it just like it is for a long time. I told the fighter about the 2d8 tonight and he was very happy.

Evans Family said...

Get the evil sword to tempt him into bad acts. Have it promise to unlock secret powers if he betrays the group, slaughters innocents, or commits an evil act (though it can be lying about the extra power). If he is getting too powerful with the sword, but not complying with the sword's plans, have the sword start calling out when he is trying to be stealthy, contradicting the player when he is trying to bluff or negotiate, etc. The sword is evil and talks, but it is not limited to just talking to the PC, it can talk to the PCs enemies also. He might want to give the sword up - or at least his party mates might want that. Good roleplaying opportunities.

Philip said...

Regarding sparsity: that's where DM privilege comes in. Add in details, side quests, change personalities a little, have the flying castle appear overhead at times, have rumours on the road about attacks in other villages with the castle. It can't be everywhere. Remove the lodge if it isn't a good point, and find a way to connect the Neathyr Castle to Parnast and deal with Talis. I would suggest all DMs treat these books as a template that can be modified (heavily if desired).

Great breakdown of the goods and bads.

Unknown said...

Thanks. This was a really good and balanced review. I am currently in the middle of DMing (halfway through Chapter 6). Personally I have been very frustrated with four aspects of the adventure: Quantity of errors (particularly in maps); Inbalance (and often muddling up) in the text between useful DM info (monster/NPC tactics/Descriptions) for DM's to read to players i.e. those little yellow/green boxes) and the walls of "background" text that is not for PC's but doesn't do much for the DM either (in other words is interesting but unnecessary); the lack of diversity in challenges to PC's (it's either hack and slash, or sneaky sneak - I would love to see more RP challenges, more puzzles/mysteries to solve); and finally I agree there are some great NPC's scattered throughout but to a degree to many (Episode 4 is a classic example of this) with too little information and only play a bit part for a single Episode. e.g. if the party doesn't choose to team up with Gleamsilver she disappears out of the adventure altogether. I think the basic concept, the opening setting, some of the NPC's (including the baddies - I agree with you I loved Cyanwrath, BTW what a great name!), and the large expanse of Faerun it covers all gave this Campaign so much potential. I believe it had the potential to be as great even as the Hand of Vecna. But the clear rush to get it printed and out the door, and its severe lack of editing and game testing has led to a product that is disappointing in so many aspects. The irony is - my players are loving it. Why, because I am now putting literally hours in a month to reshape it, correct errors, add third dimensions to certain aspects (I added a Vampire Spawn into the Necormancers Crates in Episode 4, which led to a fantastically fun mystery for the party to solve, and I have taken the advice from another DM blogger and added the Shambling Mound in Ep6 as a grateful rescued creature, and as an overwatch character for the party. But I am a 45yo DM with a young family and a busy day job. I find it tiring and frustrating, after forking out considerable Aussie $$ to find out it is lacking in so many areas. But... I am very very grateful to so many other DM's (like yourself) who have shared their ideas for improvements and corrections to errors. It's kind of been the silver lining to it all. The last time I DM'ed in the 1990's the Internent was in its infancy, so there wasn't this new shared resource. I am finding it absolutely fantastic! So thank you once again for your review.

Unknown said...

I should just add that there are two themes to comments I've read across numerous reviews and articles.
1. "There are so many problems with this campaign such as... X.Y.Z";
2. What are you complaining about? There is great potential in this campaign, you just need to be creative and add/delete/modify etc. (I even read one criticism of the criticism that any DM that complained about the HotDQ campaign was just bone lazy, and shouldn't be a DM).

I would contend that peoples perspective on this very much depends on their DM style (narrative vs tactical); how much time they have to prepare for play (e.g. enough to re-write entire section, enough to barely read the next Chapter before the next game); and therefore what they expect when they fork out A$55 for a campaign.

So I think this campaign very much suits the time rich, experimental/creative, and/or perhaps the more free-form narrative DMing style. But I think it is very frustrating for the time poor, let me pick up a module and run it as is, and/or tactical/mechanical style of DMing.

Some people have praised the artwork. And I agree it is beautiful to behold (even the lovely quality paper), and sure that adds to the DM's experience, but rarely does it add much for the players (apart from when you hold the book up in the air for them to see for a brief moment :-). And I am all about trying to improve my players experience.

The maps are perfect example of this - beautiful to look at, but from a cartographic viewpoint - shockers (full of errors, often missing cardinal points - fail for any 15yo Geography Test - no legends, too small, different scales). So to hang on my wall - yes agree wonderful. To assist in the tactical game play (which is the style we like), just a constant frustration.

Anyway, my general point is the very wide range of views of read (on Amazon from 5 stars to 1 star!) I think is very much dependent on the style of the DM and his/her playing group.

I personally wish I had read more reviews on it before I bought it (but I have to admit to being suckered in somewhat by it's fantastic artwork and its outwardly professional look, but then again I suppose style over quality is the way of all our world these days ;-).

Sean said...

Damien Hills: Thank you! I also DMed in the '90's and wow was it different. I don't think younger people have any idea how information wasn't always so readily available. I remember learning about errata at a convention. It was on a piece of paper that I just stumbled on. It altered a class that had been causing some problems in my campaign. I didn't even know it existed, and I'd never even seen errata before. I totally agree that the whole point of a published adventure is supposed to be that you can just run it right out of the book! We shouldn't have homework! Looking back, I still like this adventure, but it is very flawed. If I could pick one to run out of the adventures so far, it would probably be Curse of Strahd. Thanks for the kind words and good luck with your campaign!

Unknown said...

Hey, I've been running HotDQ and have found your blog immensely helpful.

Above you mentioned that you liked that tapestry in The Lodge: Our fighter accidentally went through it and missed the battle with the armor in that room trudging back. After our cleric used "locate item on some candles that he threw through the tapestry, they roughly figured out the mechanics. My party has taken it with them. First they used it to sneak the prisoners in the basement of the Lodge out without being seen, and now that we're in Skyreach, they have plans to, worst case scenario, just start tossing treasure through to deny it's use by the cult.

You were right about fun ideas.

Sean said...

Joel Pennie: Locate item! That is really clever. That tapestry is pretty awesome. It's funny though, that treasure is going to be sitting there out in the road. Thanks!