Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tommy's Take on Hoard of the Dragon Queen

So almost immediately after getting the D&D Fifth Edition Player's Handbook, I zipped back to my FLGS and picked up Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the first part of the first 5th edition campaign, Tyranny of Dragons.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Hoard of the Dragon Queen is published by Wizards of the Coast, in conjunction with Kobold Press, and is an 8 episode campaign for characters of 1st level, up through around 7th level. It retails for about $30 for a 90 page hardcover, which excludes most basic monsters, directing you instead to a web-based appendix on the Wizards website. The adventure is set in the Forgotten Realms, on the Sword Coast, in the general vicinity of Neverwinter and Waterdeep.

WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!!



SERIOUSLY! TURN AWAY IF YOU ARE PLAYING THIS CAMPAIGN!!



NO LIE!!  BACK OFF!





The adventure has one conceit at the beginning, which is: The PCs are heading in the direction of the village known as Greenest. What's awesome is that there is a template at the back of the book that can be applied to each PC's Background, giving them all a personal Bond to this adventure, in addition to (or replacing) whatever Bond they already had from their background, as well as a couple of optional, campaign specific Features that can be used to replace your background feature to tie it in with the campaign better. You also have the choice of using standard XP advancement, or Milestone advancement, which is where the PCs gain a level after important events. The method you use can have a very stark effect on the feel of the adventure.

The adventure acclimates you with kobolds and cultists and rat swarms, before throwing you headlong into a keep that's under attack by a blue dragon which needs to be fought off...at level 1! Personally, I like this as an example of the PCs being in way out of their depth, but victory is totally achievable with enough hits (or a critical hit), as the dragon doesn't really wanna be there anyway...and this leads into a presumed duel with a half-dragon commander in which the PC that accepts the challenge is probably outmatched, but if the PC(s) DO get the win, it makes later scenarios a tad easier as the half-dragon probably recognizes anyone he duels in episode 1.

Episode 2 is a search and rescue mission, made easier by complete victory in Episode 1. The XP awards here also reward you for creativity and ingenuity in problem solving.

Episode 3 is a mini dungeon crawl, and includes a space for the GM to really expand the adventure if they see fit, as well as at least one encounter that is waaaaay out of the PCs' depth if they try to tackle it head on. Once more, how the encounter in Episode 1 was handled dictates how this one goes: If a PC stepped up to the half-dragon and they both survived, the half-dragon will issue a challenge for a one on one rematch. If not, the PCs get to face him (or his replacement, if he died) and his bodyguards.

Episode 4 sends the PCs to Baldur's Gate and is largely a "travel adventure". Nearly two pages full of NPCs are provided to interact with, as well as a slew of random events (and the perfect time to add your own if you want to tweak the adventure a bit), plus a few planned events. One of the encounters is downright scary, and that's the printed version! The original playtest version, which someone wrote about on the Wizards of the Coast forum, sounded even more awesome, but more frightening.

Episode 5 is the shortest and weakest of the adventures, as the PCs arrive at Waterdeep and face some consequences from the previous adventure's ending.

Episode 6 plunges the PCs into the Mere of the Dead Men, with a random encounter table and info on the daily travel challenges. All kinds of swamp appropriate beasties are here, from crocodiles and bullywugs to a Shambling Mound and yuan-ti. There's some great stuff here about the internal politics of the Mere of the Dead Men, including the black dragon(s) who lurk here (but who the PCs are not likely to meet). This turns into a full on raid on a castle filled with bad guys, but the PCs have the opportunity to make things easier or a lot harder, depending on what they do.

Episode 7 is another raid, featuring a four armed troll and a Cult of the Dragon member who can turn into a tenuous ally for the PCs if they play their cards right (or a tough fight, if they don't).

Episode 8 takes the PCs to a Storm Giant castle and a big time set of fights with some powerful baddies...as well as the opportunity for more diplomacy to make or break their efforts. The promise of the cover is paid off as well, with a "white dragon boss fight", then teases what's coming in "The Rise of Tiamat".

As noted earlier, the first appendix provides various opportunities to link the PCs and their backgrounds to this story up front. Major NPCs appear in this book, as well as a handful of magic items.

WHAT WORKS: The experience system rewards ingenuity and problem solving from the players. Dragons are made to appear absolutely terrifying, especially at first. That cover kinda rocks. Lots of little things can be done early on that alter how easy or hard the later adventures are. Most of the game stats are not in the book, so you get a LOT of gameable content (and the stats are free).

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The milestone system really doesn't reward ingenuity and problem solving. Unsuspecting groups will get MAULED by some of the encounters. There's not a lot of room for customization on the DM's part, without a decent amount of rewriting, aside from Episode 4-5. Not noting on the cover that the download is required is unfortunate.

CONCLUSION: While certainly not perfect, I do think it reads like a nice adventure. While the story is very directed (and the extra Bonds help with that), the adventure wants the players and their PCs to find different ways to tackle things. In many ways, it feels a lot like a Savage Worlds Plot Point campaign, just without the built in downtime for your own adventures, which I'm not sure how much of a fan I am of that. On the surface, I preferred the Milestones approach to level advancement, but I really like how much effort is put into the experience rewards to encourage PCs to do more than just stab their way to victory. The book is pretty rules-lite, making it easy to adapt to your favorite version of D&D (or whatever system) without feeling like you are only getting half a book. Sure seems like a fun campaign, and it'll get us rolling until the trifecta of core rulebooks is released, at least.