Hoard of the Dragon Queen, pillaged.
Note: For those of you that pretend that you don’t read anything online about adventures you’re playing, this is the “required” alert that this post contains spoilers. So be prepared to take notes. If you are the only person left in the universe that actually avoids information about adventures you’re an active player in, I’m going to talk about the content of the adventure so leave now.
I ran Hoard of the Dragon Queen at my local game store the past several months. Last night my players closed it out. Run as a public play adventure, I had a revolving cast of players week to week, with a core of 3 regulars. Here’s a brief chapter by chapter synopsis. I’m going to assume that anyone reading this has a general idea of the adventure’s content.
1) Greenest in Flames – A town under attack by dragon cultists and a blue dragon. This was an easy chapter to run. The style reminded me of 4E in its setup in that there were “encounters” described for the DM that were easily inserted into the session. It was a great method to get into running the new system. I didn’t use every available option provided as I have a 3-3.5 hour window and I didn’t see the need to drag it out beyond one session. The first combat my group had was against a group of kobolds and that was an eye-opener. One PC was knocked unconscious in the first round and the rest of the group was under pressure. There were no fatalities but it was a quick education into the fragility of a 1st level character. I appreciated that tension greatly.
Encounters that I ran; Seek the Keep, The Old Tunnel, Save the Mill, Sanctuary and Half-Dragon Champion. I didn’t use the Dragon Attack and Sally Port options. The Sally Port was just another fight and due to time constraints I left it out. The Dragon Attack has been written about elsewhere ad nauseam. I just didn’t care for how iI believed it would work out and left it out. The players wisely tried to be stealthy and avoid unnecessary risks after the first fight. It made them much more cautious and it also affected how I ran the rest of the session. I did not work in any wandering encounters at all as it would have left them terribly weakened. A long rest would have been impossible for this chapter since it was over the course of a single night. Four combat encounters were about all they could handle. The last encounter; Half-Dragon Champion was more of a story-centric encounter despite the dice-rolling. It made for some dramatic flair and a memorable ending to the night. A worthy opponent (Langdredrosa) was born out of it.
2) Raider’s Camp & Dragon Hatchery – Ran these two chapter over the course of 3 sessions. These two chapters ran together naturally and proved to be a fun challenge for me to plan for the PCs actions. I added in a bit of content in the hatchery to extend a session. This involved Myconids, a trogoldyte lair and a Giant Solifgulid. Despite this being officially “Encounters”, I reserve the right to alter/expand the adventure beyond what is written.
The PCs ran into Langdredrosa once again and he took the party down hard and fast. It was stunning how fast the players dropped and it set up a “split the party” situation for me the following week as the half-dragon captured most of the party. The escape from captivity was believable and touch and go. Just the right amount of difficulty.
3) On the Road – Leaving the Greenest area behind, the group headed north to Elturel to meet up with Leosin. I put together a short encounter for the journey to Elturel that involved a group of bandits and a tomb. It gave me an opportunity to provide a morale boost to the group in the form of a few magic items as by then they hadn’t acquired anything of worth.
Elturel was a brief interlude where the party was directed to Baldur’s Gate to become caravan guards. This chapter was a challenge to plan for time-wise as it was truly wide open in its potential. The players embraced the spirit of it and proved my worries were unfounded. There was interactions aplenty with the NPCs in the caravan and I sprinkled in only a few of the suggested scenarios presented in the book. Animal Abuse was resolved peacefully, Stranded was straight forward enough and let them roll some dice after a lot of role-playing. Jamna the gnome made an appearance and led nicely into Murder Most Foul but for me the highlight of the session was the Golden Stag. The book presents several options for the DM to use here and I opted for the cursed elven prince in need of an escort to Waterdeep. The group used all of their creativity to make it appear that the stag was a manifestation of a deity and the roleplaying involved was entertaining.
4) Construction Ahead & Castle Naerytar – 3 session for these two chapters, with the Construction Ahead only taking about an hour to be truthful. Easily the weakest chapter in the book and could have just been rolled into the previous chapter. The Castle however was a classic attrition type of situation. Lots of enemies and not a lot of options on where to rest. It was a good test of the ability of the players to conserve their strength against large numbers of foes. Thankfully they befriended the lizardfolk and that offset the numbers of enemies slightly for them.
Some adjustments and additions of note. I gave Pharblex and Dralmorrer their full compliment of spells for their listed levels. Dralmorror in particular was short-changed in the book. Boosting him made for a longer and more intense fight. I also added two black dragon wyrmlings for Pharblex to command as pets. They were quite beefy and did a fair amount of damage. DMs be aware that Fireball is a game-changer, (as it should be).
5) The Hunting Lodge – Relatively short as the players picked up the pace of exploration considerably. Only a single session was needed here.There was no big battle with Talis as that became a brief mexican stand-off and then the group hustled off to Parnast and the Skycastle. This session ended with a fight in the town square between Captain Othelstan and friends. The wyverns in particular proved to be fearsome foes. We closed with the group in sight of the Skycastle but worn down and in need of a good rest.
6) Castle in the Clouds – I was terribly worried about how this chapter would unfold. Realizing that I had a weakened party about to enter a practical death-trap encounter with a pair of Stone Golems without discovering a means of safe entry was a puzzle for me to solve. I decided that I would have a wagon ride up as a last delivery of treasure. As it passed them the group spotted the gnome, Jamna waving them on from the back of it. The players took the bait and caught up with the wagon as the driver shouted out the password. I was fully prepared for a battle royale situation at the gate if the group had not been as wise. I spent a lot of time measuring out the distances between the locations that reinforcements would arrive from and how long it could realistically take for them to reach the gateway. The amount of time provided in the book itself is far too short. This was not needed and through a smart methodical approach, a well-placed Silence spell and a convenient means of body disposal, the group took care of Rezmir, and the red wizards. Blagothkus proved to be a willing ally after the group were given an audience with him and treated him honorably and boldly opted to declare their purpose. This set them up nicely for the much anticipated first dragon encounter.
Armed with the knowledge of the layout of the dragon’s lair, the group took down the beast through good planning, (Bluffing a group of kobolds into bringing an offering to the dragon. This caused the dragon to use its breath weapon prior to the combat). Good saving throws, (Frightful Presence failed to land in the two rounds it took to bring down the dragon). and the breath weapon never recharged. I gave the dragon it’s Lair Actions as listed in the MM for only one round. In retrospect I should have not held back on one round but I was not as merciful with the rest of the dragon’s combat. When she took down the group’s paladin with her bite, I had her also use her two claw attacks on him despite him already being unconscious. It was a close thing in the end, with two characters unconscious and the fear of her breath recharging or Frightful Presence landing on the group looming. In the end, the dragon was slain and it felt legitimately a struggle.
I love the level of difficulty that dragons are in 5E. Lair actions and legendary actions are terrific features that keep the combat vibrant. By vibrant I mean, the dragon has actions that take place when it’s not it’s actual turn. This feels right in ways that I can’t easily put in words but it makes the fight less static? Less, I act, the 6 players act, I act, etc.
So overall did I enjoy running Hoard of the Dragon Queen? Yes. What would have made it better? A bit more fleshing out some of the content/chapters. The Raider’s Camp, Construction Ahead and the Hunting Lodge were all of poor quality. The Dragon Hatchery and Castle Naerytar were two favorite chapters for me. Skyreach was memorable mainly for the dragon fight. In the end it took 10 sessions averaging 3.5 hours each to complete the book. Content that I added in total probably amounted to about half a session or 2 hours in total.
If you decide to run this one, don’t hold to the each chapter is a session mantra. It doesn’t work. Also, since the first four levels of this is considered “Encounters” there is a suggested number of sessions noted that’s completely unrealistic. I don’t want to play for 2 hours. I get one night a week to roll dice. I put in hours of prep and people drive and allocate time for this. 2 hours is a joke. I always set a goal of 3 hours and if you do that, the content should fly by much faster than what is prescribed.
Having said that, I love this new public play format. Levels 1-4 is Encounters and then you can continue on all the way to level 15 provided you buy the book. I have no issue with this. I’d rather be able to play out an adventure path over the course of 6 months that allows the players to level up past 4th than short, 1st thru 4th adventures every 2 months. That got stale for me after a year.