On Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode IV Remix: Part I

Episode four is where a lot of awesome is found.

When I'm writing an adventure for someone, I've got to assume that they have the skills to pull things off. There are these points in this adventure (A blue dragon attacks the town, you've got to walk into the enemy camp, a half-dragon leader who far outclasses the party challenges them) where if handled by a poor Dungeon Master, can lead to player disbelief, disengagement, and dissatisfaction.

That's what this series is—simply my take on how I would present and run things to prevent that. Steve Winter has faith in me (and you) that we can move beyond his page count constraints to do that.

There are a lot of unfair comparisons being made. What are some of the best adventures and most memorable modules? Caves of Chaos? Elemental Evil? Phandlever? Thracia? Each of those are these giant environments with many moving parts that players can manipulate. That was not the directive for this book. I run linear non-jaquayed dungeons all the time, but I run them as sites on a hexmap or quest options for players to explore or ignore as they please (with the appropriate consequences of course).

What we are talking about here is what makes a good adventure for a player to buy? What makes a good adventure for a DM to run at encounters? What are the assumptions of each and how do we negotiate those? How much does the module require of you to do that?

One of the biggest issues that has come up is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the players seeing a blue dragon attacking a town. How players react to this has to do with their expectations and previous play experience. The problem with 5e groups is, you have grognards playing with Type III series people playing with Type IV series people and each group has wildly different expectations of what occurs during play. Some expect that they are heroes and should go to the town because they are the ones to save it. Others expect that they are playing people who recognize that they are mortal and choose to stay away from dragons at all costs!

A 4th edition blog I've been perusing recently about the realms, called appropriately enough "My Realms" had this to say about Phandelver:
"From reading the reviews of Lost Mine before I had it in my hot little e-hands, it seems the presence of a 16 hit dice green dragon in the Ruins of Thundertree clearly presented a problem that few level 3 parties would be able to overcome. In fact, it would appear that its breath weapon alone, by virtue of its size and average damage, would be sufficient to wipe out many a level 3 5E party.
While the obvious solution is to make the dragon a younger age category and thus more level-appropriate (and the green dragon has to be left in the adventure because it's depicted in the cover art), the purpose of this post is to suggest some other ways to make the dragon encounter still work but have it involve negotiation because it seems the dragon has a problem." - Starter Set Sandbox 3: Ruins of Thundertree
I feel it's completely ok for players to run across creatures they can't kill (because sometimes they can). It's not that one of these styles is correct and the other is incorrect. It's that if you're not running a certain type of adventure, then your skills as a Dungeon Master come in at making that type of adventure work at the table with your players.

A lot of groups have looked at the Blue Dragon in Hoard of the Dragon Queen and gone—"We go save the town!".  This doesn't mean that the table has a good Dungeon Master. The skill of a good Dungeon Master is solving the root of the problem: Are you able to collapse previous play experience, expectation, and the adventure in front of you in an entertaining way while causing as little cognitive dissonance as possible?*

There's a key, crucial, insight here that what makes a tabletop adventure good isn't some narrated moment, it's when the players feel that their actions have meaning.

Episode 4: On the Road.

The core of this situation makes a lot of sense. They have to track the caravan, because they don't know what the plan is, where the dragon cult is based, or what's going on. Tracking the stolen goods is a great way to find this information out.

There's a throwaway line about making the 200 mile trip from Greenest to Elturel in six days with optional encounters. At D&D encounters, this should be quickly handwaved. But for a home table, it's a great opportunity to break out the calendar, whether tables, and random monster encounter tables to give the characters an opportunity to feel like they are part of a living, complex, and dangerous world. There's no pages available for that information in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. 

There's a bunch of really important balls to juggle in the air here.
  • The whole land of Elturgard is bathed in undead killing light that shines night and day.
  • Did you mention Ontharr Frume and Elturel when the monk was talking earlier? This whole adventure goes down much easier if you make it clear at the start of part three that adventure 4 begins by going to Elturel to fine Ontharr Frume. 
  • Player's hate hoop-jumping and wasting time. That's how the adventure in Elturel starts.
I hate when players hate things. When they arrive in town, they are directed, as per the adventure to the "A Pair of Black Antlers Inn". Once there, if they try to talk to Leosin or Ontharr, they are told ears are everywhere and preparations are being made for a meeting on the night of the morrow. This means they have all day today and tomorrow to engage in whatever they want. This both explains why they are having to screw around and also frees them to follow up on things that interest them. 

Elturel has a population of 17,000 in 1479. This is a large city, which means it has a lot of stuff for sale. Any item in the range of 8-10,000 gold can be found within it's walls. So shopping is a possibility, as well as someone willing to buy dragon eggs or wyrms.

I would create a schedule of events, much like a convention, along with the standard shopping and city encounters and present it to the players. The key factors here being that A) they can't attend all the events and B) various small bonuses are acquired for engaging in or participating in the events. Ontharr already seems to be running a small festival.

I've done things like this before and they are a lot of fun for the players. Simply create a schedule of events like so:
Time Events Events Events
8:00 AM Feast & Speech
9:00 AM Foot Race Archery Contest Horseback Riding
10:00 AM Archery Contest (cont) Horseback Riding (cont.)
11:00 AM Pie Eating Contest Archery Contest (finals) Horseback Riding (finals)
Midday Lunch Festival Lunch Festival Lunch Festival
1:00 PM The Concubine of Sass Tam (Play) Arm Wrestling Dancing Contest
2:00 PM The Concubine of Sass Tam (Play) Arm Wrestling Dancing Contest
3:00 PM The Concubine of Sass Tam (Play) Drinking Contest Dancing Contest (finals)
4:00 PM Talent Exhibition Drinking Contest Wrestling Contest
5:00 PM Talent Exhibition Drinking Contest Wrestling Contest
6:00 PM Dinner/Open Mic Dinner/Open Mic Dinner/Open Mic
7:00 PM Open Mic/Socializing Open Mic/Socializing Open Mic/Socializing

And so on. The next day could have sparring/weapon training/a cook-off/ whatever.  Note that this timing will also conflict with their ability to go shopping or accomplish other tasks in the town.  I'd resolve contests with a series of d20 rolls, however you wish, contested, against target numbers, etc. Providing some color to competitors could also provide possible recruitable henchmen. Placing or winning in a contest would provide a small bonus. Examples for winning or placing in the archery contest might include: Here is a 1d6 you can roll to add to any damage from a ranged weapon, or you may choose to make 1 ranged shot at advantage, to even giving out 1-10 magical +1 arrows or a mildly enchanted bow, with a minor enchantment like whoever uses it has proficiency in it.

The important thing is you have fun creating the table and the contests, and the players get two days of game time to mess around and do fun things.

At the appointed time the characters can meet with Ontharr and Leosin, and receive the quest to catch up to the caravan headed to Baldur's Gate.

The Mission

The only thing I have to say here, is I really like the costume change bit. It's suggested that the characters alter their appearance, and now being third or fourth level it is a good time to do so. This is a pretty common trope and works well in a visual sense, for those players who focus on RPG's that way.

Part II examines Baldur's Gate and the various ways to manage travel on the road.

*An example of this is casting in armor. I never had any problem creating good in world reasons for casting in armor—or even just saying, "Them's the rules of the game we are playing." But enough people did and it created enough of a problem that the current version of the game just says "f&*% it. Everyone can cast in armor." This is a correct solution. 

Hack & Slash 
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  1. "if handled by a poor Dungeon Master, can lead to player disbelief, disengagement, and dissatisfaction"

    That, too me, is the biggest problem with HotDQ. It is written such that you have to have an experienced DM _and_ players for the first several parts. In fact, just about every part in HotDQ has 1-3 TPK opportunities.

    IMO, that is too high of an expectation for an initial adventure path for 5e. I'd like to see a bit more DM hand-holding for the first 1-5 parts. And a bit more linear path for the players. Sure, online nerds like us would complain a bit, but it makes it far more inviting for noobs of both 5e as well as D&D in general.

    If you want to bring in the serious RP (politics, alliances, etc.) for part 6+ that's great. But to have it being a requirement for Part 1, scene 3 is a bit too early IMO.

  2. Thanks very much for this latest installment. I'll be putting some of your ideas into practice soon. My group will begin tackling Episode III next Friday night. I imagine that two weeks from then, we'll be here on Episode IV. Great stuff - thanks for your work here.

    Tony, I hear where you're coming from with regard to general product appeal but I'm not sure I agree. I like the opportunity for TPK. Danger is what makes the game real and compelling. Remember the early Slaver series (A1-A4)? Lots of opportunities for death there.

    My first D&D experience - a friend and I bought the blue box way back in 1970 whatever. Worked all day to make characters, bought mules, spent hours equipping them with everything we might need... Went out into the wilderness and faced a dragon - which promptly incinerated all of us. I was completely taken - best thing I'd ever done.

  3. I borrowed your Festival schedule for the home game I run for my daughter and her two friends. It worked brilliantly. Thank you so very much.


  4. I wanted to say thanks as well for your festival schedule! I used it with a few modifications and flavor in my game yesterday and it was very successful. :)

    1. You're welcome! It's been used before to great effect.

  5. I ran the festival idea with a bunch of changes here and there, not sure what to expect. It turned out to be one of the most fun (and funny) sessions we've ever had! It certainly makes a lot more sense than 'the characters need to impress Frume with some random contests.'


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