Friday, October 10, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 1 - A Ko-Bold move!

Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Chapter one: Greenest in Flames

So, we're at it again. Heading down that old, adventurous road that we've come to love so much. But this time it's different; we're off on our very first public campaign to D&D 5th. Edition, namely “The Hoard of the Dragon Queen”.

Besides being the first of its kind, the structure of this campaign is also a bit new, especially if you're used to the Paizo approach. Instead of throwing the usual six books at you, what you get is a compact narrative of eight small chapters that work intertwined to tell a larger story; sort of what you did with Shackled City back in the day. (Let's just hope the story is slightly original and interesting this time around, though).

My group picked up this book right after finishing The Lost Mine of Phandelver, even though we technically have half of Wrath of the Righteous to go. I'm really the one to blame for this, seeing that 5th edition is a ton more fun that Pathfinder in its current state.
So you know the drill; we go over the chapters one by one, GM comments in blue and all that shit. Have fun and hope to get inspired!

Some preparation...

My party consists of five players and me as the GM. We play every Wednesday from 19:00 till around midnight, meaning we're usually quite speedy at things. This time around, the party consists of Madam Ursus the human druid (who lives right outside the starting town of Greenest), the half-orc barbarian “12” (who had his tribe butchered by a dragon and now makes a living as a travelling gladiator), the halfling fighter Lee (who pretty much just woke up on the road outside of Greenest and doesn't remember a single thing about himself, excepts his name and that he's good with weapons), the half-elf bard Connor (who used to be working with the cult and has a double identity there; currently living with Madam Ursus), and Cirion the human dragon-sorcerer (a truly gifted scholar living in the Greenest keep; an expert on dragon lore).


The entire adventure is set on the Sword Coast and generally pits the heroes against the notorious Cult of the Dragon. One thing that really shines, in my opinion, is how the adventure stays true to the cardinal importance of backgrounds, and offers a small spectrum of new backgrounds and various affiliations with the cult and the NPC's that actually makes it plausible that they're there in the first place. Some of these are really interesting, even though I kind of miss a more elaborate column in which the general structure and organization of the Cult is described. This is mostly something you have to pick up as you go along.

(Mind you, even though this adventure is written for four players; even with five in my group they had a really hard time catching up with the challenges of the first chapter. As per se; the initial chapter is always hard as fuck, so I doubt there is no need for you to adjust any of it, even though your group outnumbers it.)

As the heroes progress along the sinister plot, they soon realize things are much more dire than they appear, and that it's once again time to go out and save the world. It's classy, it's stylish, it's D&D as we love it. So let's dig right in.

Also, if you've followed my blog before, you know I love changing shit. I'll make sure to mark those properly, hoping to inspire some other GM's.

Now, hold those horses!

There is one huge change I recommend right off the bat. The adventure is, like its predecessor, pretty much right on and into action from the very second it gets off its chair. The heroes arrive at Greenest, for various reasons, and see it in flames, under attack by raiders and a blue dragon. I found this to be a tad bit aggressive, especially if your group is into immersion play and want to get to know their comrades in arms before bashing cultist-skulls.

Yes, it's a rip-off. I don't care. It works.
So, what I did was taking the Neverwinter Nights 2 approach, and let the heroes arrive during the harvest festival. I know this is an aged mechanic, but it works so well; just look at the town of Sandpoint in Rise of the Runelords. While the heroes may be eager to search for cultists and the like, allow them to hear some rumors and ask around while enjoying themselves. Set up some competitions for them, in which they can try out the new rules in 5th. Here's what I used.

  • Ring the bell or lift the weights at the smith (STR, athletics)
  • Guess the name of Gobbles the Turkey at the butcher (INT, investigation)
  • Pick-a-package-from-the-box (WIS, perception – get a trinket from the trinket table in PhB)
  • Perform on the open stage at the 'Grassy Gnoll' inn (CHA, perform)
  • Dunk the “ogre”; a guy dressed as an ogre, hit the bell with five balls to dunk him into the water. (DEX, ranged attack, AC 9)
  • Rope pulling in groups (STR, group challenge)
  • Present the most impressive livestock to the judges (Here I made a simple quest, where the nearby farmer, Greenberry, had used illegal potions to augment his animals, which sadly made them intelligent and then kill him. The heroes go there to slay the animals, and can take the huge pig and win the competition. It's also great for you to try and build an encounter for yourself, just make sure to include one giant animal of some kind.)
  • If the heroes manage to win every single competition, I grant them an Inspiration point. (I prefer to use these for impressive deeds and very clever ideas, since my players don't need motivation to roleplay).
  • For more ideas for a festival, see my earlier blog post:

Let the heroes have fun and get to meet some of the characters they will interact with later. The most important ones would be:

Governor Nighthill
The governor will greet them early on and tell them to make themselves home. He is a good man with a weary look, who tends to get very chatty and perhaps a bit amorous towards female heroes, once the wine starts flowing. Don't make him obnoxious, rather let him be an appealing character, seeing how he's the main quest giver for the first couple of chapters.

Escobert the Red
The Master of the Keep; mainly keeps to himself and his drinks, but is a great chance for the heroes to socialize; perhaps try out those drinking games and a CON, athletics check? He's one of the only persons around who is genuinely worried about the recent cult activity on the Coast. He may even mention the secret tunnel to the heroes, if he's had one too many drinks.

Leosin Erlanthar
The half-elf monk is not one to indulge in such festivities, but he is occasionally seen mingling a bit with some of this friends from the church of Chauntea. He is sober, serious and very interested in talking about the rumors of cultist activities; one almost has the feeling that his interest is more than academic? Leosin won't be important till chapter 2, but it's good to let the heroes get to know him as a good guy.

When the day is done, allow the heroes to rest at the inn after much celebration, and then fire away with Chapter One as written. (There is an additional benefit to this; as written, it's actually possible for the heroes to set a world record in reaching level 2 in a public adventure. All they have to do, is sit down and watch the world burn; the raiders will leave and they will ding level 2, if you're going for milestone leveling. If they're already in town, they're much more inclined to do something.)

Our town is under attack!
The heroes were resting well in their beds, when a savage roar and a chorus of yelling voices from the outside broke the silent veil of night. Soon after, fires illuminated the night and windows were shattered while people ran in panic into the streets. Above it all, the occasional thunder dragon-wings echoed.

Quickly getting into their gear, the heroes opened the windows and saw several raiders in black and blue battered armor, pillaging and plundering left and right. People were cut down where they stood by impish little kobolds and strange dog-like reptilians stalked the streets. (As written, these are just mercenaries, but with inspiration from Hackslashmaster, I've fleshed them out to be sellswords from the Black Talon and Blue Boar http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.dk/2014/09/on-hoard-of-dragon-queen-episode-ii_10.html – His guide is really great, if you want to detail your generic cultists and raiders a bit.)

Cirion tried shouting out to the dragon in draconic, making it turn its head and blast the inn from afar. Half the party made it out in time, but the other half had to suffer through a collapsed ceiling and broken walls. Just as they got into the streets, the enemy was upon them. Two raiders and three kobolds stormed them, with sadistic glee.
Kobolds. They WILL fuck you up.
(There are a lot of fights to be had in Greenest, but stealth is rewarded. If the heroes just head out, chances are they'll be overwhelmed quickly, as you roll a lot for wandering monsters. Also; they don't get any long rests. Once they head down that road, the plot pretty much solves itself and they skip out on a lot of stuff. So the biggest challenge is beyond doubt the resource management.

Also, a lot of the challenge at low level is still the burst damage. If your heroes seem to make it a little too well, consider letting your monster dual wield weapons, which seems deadly at lower levels.)

The heroes smashed in the head of the raiders, but poor Lee was struck down by the ganging Kobolds (pack tactics is a crazy good ability now). They had time to get him back to his feet and decided to head for the keep and have a low profile. On the way they managed to encounter a few villagers, who were about to be killed, and take them along.

(I allowed my players to declare whether they wanted to stealth or search for prisoners as they went along. The more villagers they took with them, the higher the chance they would be detected by wandering monsters, and they had to defend said villagers in battle. This again allowed the heroes to have a say in how the odds were scaled. In the end, they gathered up a group of around 10 and led them off to the keep.)

What the hell is going on down there?

The heroes arrived at the keep, which had its gates shut shortly after. Nighthill was furious and demanded an explanation. The militia was holding its ground, but it was clear that the raiders just wanted for them to sit tight and wait for it to be over with. Not something the governor would accept. He instructed the heroes to take the secret way out of the keep and out into town, and find out more about this attack. Apparently, the enemy was about to put the torch to the old mill west of town; which would be catastrophic, seeing how much food would go to waste.
The heroes prepared themselves with a few supplies and set out through the old tunnel. On their way they encountered two rat swarms, who happily devoured them and once again instilled the good ol' notion of fear of swarms. (While swarms aren't as devastating as they used to be in Pathfinder, they're still extremely annoying to a low level party with little to no access to magic attacks.)

They arrived at the end of the tunnel and noticed a party of raiders scouting right outside, near the small brook. (By the way, one thing that annoyed me immensely, is the fact that the chapter comes with a great map of Greenest; only there is no legend to it. You can pretty much work out much of it by your own, and I imagine this is also why there is so very little description of the actual town; you need to find out by your own. But still, it wouldn't have hurt with a few directions.)
Using illusion magic, Cirion managed to lure off the raiders with a voice calling from the distance, allowing the heroes to slip by unnoticed and approach the mill from the stream.

Sneaking closer, they realized that there were indeed flames around it, but they weren't meant to burn it down. Rather, a couple of kobolds kept it lit and a guard drake lay in ambush on the roof, alarming the heroes well in advance. Though they didn't get the surprise round on the draconic imps, they managed to avoid the drop from the raiders that were waiting for them inside the mill, and the fight took place on the outside. 
(At this point the party is likely still going strong on resources; that's okay. It's a perfect opportunity for them to capture a raider.)

They dragged on them into the mill and started questioning him, learning that he was a hired sword by the Cult of the Dragon-something. A proud member of the Black Talon, he had no loyalty to his employer, but could only reveal that they were hired to plunder the town and bring it all back to the camp to the south. He also mentioned a dragon-lady and some nasty bitch in purple. Satisfied with this, the heroes cut his throat and threw the lot into the river (yup...)

Approved!
Dragon!
They made their way just back to the keep and reported to Nighthill, who was deeply troubled by the news. There was no rest for the wicked, however, as the alarm was raised soon after. The dragon was attacking the keep, and all hands were needed at the parapet.

Making their way up there along with a good handful of men, the heroes spread out and faced the huge, flying monstrosity. It roared with thunder, lightning crackling from its throat, and blasted a score of soldiers, sending them screaming off the wall.

While the troops stood vigilant against it, the heroes held back and attacked with ranged weapons with a feeble attempt of driving it off. Eventually, Lee scored a critical hit with his crossbow, piercing the beast's eye and sending it howling to the skies, cursing in ancient tongues.
(This encounter is kind of weird; it's mostly a dps race in which the heroes are safe. I was kind of wondering how they were supposed to even overcome its frightful presence seeing as it's so high? Still, it's not much damage the dragon needs, but it seemed kind of odd to them that it just left after one critical hit.)

Smoke rises from the temple of Chauntea...

The battle with the dragon was fierce indeed, and at this stage, the heroes were starting to feel the effect of the depleted resources. And to make matters worse, a shout from the parapets warned them that something was going on down at the temple of Chauntea - it looked like the raiders were trying to bash in the doors. Judging from the amount of people in the keep, several more were bound to have sought refugee in the sanctuary. If the the raiders broke through, it would be a carnage!

As they watched, Lee looked down and noticed a stern woman in purple gowns staring back up at him. He had a strange feeling that they'd met before... 

 With a sigh of displeasure, the heroes gathered up their gear once more, but confronted Governor Nighthill that they were in a banged up shape and needed some supplies. Though Nighthill had been saving such supplies for later, he gave up some potions of healing and a first aid kit to the cause (The heroes have the chance to win the potions later on, anyway, so that's a possibility if you want to be nice on them. The governor wants them to succeed, after all).

So off they went to the hero-cave and set out for the temple.

Once they arrived, they noticed the overwhelming amount of raiders and beasts. A group led by a Dragonclaw was battering on the front door, while a huge patrol made slow circuits around the building, trying to keep everyone away. And then, at the back, a puny group of kobolds had lit a fire and was trying to smash in the backdoor with frustrated growling. 

The heroes considered this for a short while and waited till the patrol had passed; stormed in and had the jump on the kobolds before they could raise the alarm. Connor knocked on the door and managed to persuade the guy on the other side of their sincerity, so they were let in and found the temple in chaos. The high priestess almost cried out what sight for sore eyes they were, and that they needed to get people out before the front door collapsed.

(If you want to put more pressure on this situation and play with a battle grid, let the group at the front door hammer away and roll a dice for the HP of the door, while slowly moving the group of raiders outside; watching the miniatures move closer to the backdoor and the now lost group of kobolds will surely stress the urgency of forming a quick plan!)

People were panicked in there; the very notion of running out of the temple was just as terrifying as staying, so the heroes had to do some persuasion (really, of course people would usually try and make a run for it, but at least try and make the heroes work for it, I say). They insured the townsfolk that no harm would come to them, if only they would get off their ass and move NOW! There were some lucky rolls, and in a small huddle, the group left the church. On their way out, however, the high priestess asked the heroes if they'd seen Leosin, the half-elf monk? The last time she saw him, he left the church during the raid, in order to get help. But from the window, she noticed he was captured and put up surprisingly little resistance, which wondered her?

(This is more of a red herring or interesting thought for the heroes, which bodes of what is to come in the next chapter!)

This is one of those passages that can turn out really well or really bad. If the heroes are dim they may even try and go Lancelot on the church, which will end badly. It doesn't take many failed stealth checks either, and just one of the kobolds needs to survive the drop and run and call for help. In that case, the best the heroes can hope for is to flee and watch the massacre of the church. Then again, it's also one of those situations that leave a lot of room for improvement, and a smooth talking player may have some clever way of making it inside.


Cyaaaaaanwrath is ready!

They returned to the keep with the villagers, and the heroes settled down a well deserved hour to rest. They were well on to dream land from exhaustion, when a roar flew through the night. A hoarse voice called out the surviving villagers of Greenest, proclaiming the raid had come to an end, and that they could finish this off without any problems, if only the town would send out its best fighter!

Joining the assembly on the parapet, the heroes noticed a towering half-dragon in the midst of a huge group of raiders. Next to him were a battered woman with two children, who one of the guards immediately recognized as his sister and nieces. About to burst through the gates in a daring rescue, the heroes restrained him and decided to talk to the half-dragon. The blue giant introduced himself as Cyanwrath, and that he would only face their best fighter. After some thinking, they decided to send out Twelve the barbarian.

Cyanwrath was pleased to see this, and the battle immediately broke out. In the first round of combat, the half-dragon attacked twice and had some...good luck. In fact, he rolled two natural twenties.


With a small whimper, Twelve went down for the count, almost died, but Cyanwrath dealt nonlethal damage and instead knocked out the barbarian with the pommel of his sword, laughing fiendishly as he cut off the half-orcs ear as trophy. Hailed by a chorus of cheer and laughter, the raiders departed and left the heroes who quickly attended the hostages and brought their comrade inside for rest.
They barely had the time to sit down and breathe, before the outside world and its commotion evaporated as they drifted slowly into sleep...and their second level!

Conclusion:

I've spent some time reading up on the general opinions of this adventure, and I'm kind of surprised how much hate it has received from the fans. Some of it is more or less warranted, so I'll try and keep it to the point.
I like it how they've remained true to the fact that the first couple of levels are about earning your wings. This chapter is brutal and challenging, truly putting a strain on the heroes' resources. There are plenty of encounters, they seem relevant and the adventure doesn't really waste much time getting people involved; likely because this is supposed to be easily picked off and fired away at the gaming club. I can understand that.

I'm very annoyed by the fact, however, that there is so very little introduction to Greenest; neither is any information conveyed to you as the GM. Improvising is always fun, but there is almost nothing to go on here. In addition, the random encounters aren't that creative at all; most of them are simply a handful of monsters thrown at the heroes without any context. Wouldn't it be fun to include some interesting scenarios for the heroes to encounter them in? Say, watching a gang of kobolds robbing an alchemist and some of them were high on some kind of drug, making for some very interesting combats? How about an old safe in the middle of the road, with four dead raiders mysteriously around it? There are several opportunities here and they seem missed most of the time.

The missions are okay, especially the mill and the temple rescue. The dragon attack is an interesting thing, but it just seems odd it takes one critical hit for it to flee – still, I can live with that.
What truly grinds my gears, is the introduction of Cyanwrath around the end; he's a CR 4 as far as I remember, put up against a single level 1 character, which is basically an invitation for carnage. It's very likely he will outright kill someone, which pretty much smells like “Oh, look at this awesome evil protagonist we've made!”. Speaking as a former player, in which such a villain was introduced (Yes, looking at you, Xanesha, Rise of the Runelords...) isn't that much fun, unless your players have built for that kind of shit. Just like the level 90 who challenges your new level 11 rogue in Goldshire to a duel – what's the point? Is it for the small egos? Why the fuck would it be fun for anyone to have their character killed off by something they have next to no chance of defeating? And just to add insult to injury; the adventure even states that if the heroes, despite all odds, down the monstrosity, he' simply replaced by another of his kin later.
But no. No he fucking isn't. That's pure bad writing, Wizards. Sorry.

I suggest including him, because he has potential to become an important villain (ironically, he's killed off rather early in the adventure...) but let him knock out the player instead and allow them to hold a grudge.

Chapter one is pretty generic across the board and mainly a way for you to get into the story, which isn't that special overall. I wasn't impressed by it, but we had fun; so let's move ahead in the next chapter and see how it goes, once the heroes set out to infiltrate the raider's camp.