Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 2 - It's only a model...

And we're back with more adventures from the Sword Coast and the fifth edition of the current epic saga that is dungeons sprinkled with dragons. The last time we left our heroes, they had completed the first chapter of the newly released AP; "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" – Seeing the town of Greenest in flames and raiders from an unknown, shadowy organization has kindled the flames of justice, and the heroes were hired by governor Nighthill to track down the culprits and hopefully rescue the poor half-elf monk Leosin.

At this time the party consisted of Madam Ursus the human druid of the moon; 'Twelve' the half orc barbarian, Reed the halfling fighter, Cirion the half elf sorcerer and Connor the half elf bard. The party was second level at the start of the adventure. As usual, my GM comments are in blue and there will be more than usual this time around, seeing how I had some reflections about this.

Bad adventurers, bad adventurers; what you gonna do when they succeed their survival skill check?

The first part of the adventure is mainly tracking down the cult, and there isn't very much going on here, except for some possible random encounters and two predetermined events that the heroes can interact with. The first is the sighting of a straggling group that fell behind and now made camp to eat. Second one up, is a scouting party that stayed back to make sure there were no followers, and the heroes need to circumvent this somehow. As written, the best idea is to simply skip both encounters, provided the heroes are perceptive enough.

In my case, the heroes decided to go for infiltration early on. I like this idea; it provides the players with a new angle, so I even had the master of the keep suggest this right from the start. So they simply marched up to the stragglers, consisting of some mercenaries and kobolds, and before they could reach for their weapons, they introduced themselves as new recruits who got lost on the way. With Connor's background as a former member of the cult, he was able to provide accurate details about its doings, which granted them a much needed advantage on their roll. Eventually, the mercenaries warmed up to them and one of them introduced them as members of the Black Talon company. 

(As written, there is very little spice in this chapter about neither the mercenaries nor the cultists. So, I decided to expand a bit on it. Luckily, someone else had already done an amazing work on this, over at HackandSlashmaster: – In a nutshell; it splits the mercenaries up into two factions – the black talons and the blue boars, which of course house an unhealthy rivalry, allowing the heroes to take sides. You can flesh out both factions as you please, just to make sure they're represented properly in the camp. There is also a lot of info about the cultists, but more about that in a moment).

Going Lancelot on both of these encounters is perfectly viable too, and only the second one should pose much of a challenge for the heroes.

Of all the bandit camps in the world....

The heroes were escorted with the group to the bandit camp. (In game this takes some time, and you can potentially drop as much exposition as you feel like during that time. I used it to confirm that they were dealing with 'the crazy dragon cultists' and some of the rumors presented in the book. At this point in time, there is no harm done in the players getting the feel that the cultists are up to something big involving Tiamat).

Upon arriving at the camp, the heroes have the opportunity to enter and play it stealthily. The adventure is very specific in this regard, letting the heroes know that they could easily sneak inside due to all the confusion and all the raiders returning from the plunder. The main objective from here is pretty simple, really. The camp is roughly split into three section: the entrance with the kobolds huts; the mecernary area and the cultist area. Of other points of interest there is the tent of the leaders, a mysterious cave entrance that has a lot of attention, and a monk tied up to a pole. Sadly, the heroes are only allowed to interact with one of them.

The heroes need to get Leosin outside, which can be speed-runned pretty much by keeping a low profile, wait till nightfall, knock out a guard, free the monk and replace him with the guard and either climb or slowly make their way out. Thus completing the chapter. (Still slow, compared to the fact that you can complete chapter one in half a minute by simply stating 'we wait till it's all over'..)

...It's only a model...

As written, the bandit camp is a great setup. On paper. The heroes make charisma checks to see whether they're recognized, which makes for some really interesting, dramatic opportunities. From there, they can go explore and mingle with the cultists and the mercenaries.
The only real problem is how this camp suffers from the 'rainy theme park syndrome' – you can enter, sure, but half the rides are closed and the rest are just forgettable. There is a huge tent that houses the leaders of the cult, but as written, the players have next to zero chance of entering it. Same counts for the old cave, which is reserved for the third chapter, when the heroes have dinged to level three. Problem is, a lot of players, I imagine, will want to check these two things out, so you NEED to be prepared for this as a GM. Simply making invisible walls or bashing their heads in with the (too) strong monsters of the cave, just because the heroes didn't follow the hidden railroad is just not good enough.

Rescuing Leosin can be as easy or hard as you want it to be as GM. When the players do, it becomes more or less obvious that they simply must go back to Greenest with him (because the camp needs to clear out for the third chapter to start. Plot device, you know!). Alternatively, everyone will become too much on alert and the heroes may be spotted. I suppose this is the default explanation for “Seriously guys, go home and come back later” but it's lame.

There are some suggestions I'd like to make, that can make the cultist camp much more interesting.

First, take a look at HackandSlashmaster's blog and do what he does:

  • Portray the various sub-groups of Tiamat as described in the link. How far you want to take it, is up to you. The light option is to make them all equal cultists, but flesh out the daily life a bit. Being a cultist or simply religious isn't just about evil and gloom. These people genuinely believe, so let the heroes partake in rituals, chants, prayers, gatherings, sermons, maybe even confessions or sacrifices. Just don't force too much strain on the poor paladins. Two players from my group actually ended up going through the initiation to become acolytes, meaning they for the rest of the campaign are at disadvantage resisting mind-effects from cultists, but on the other hand will have special access and results when interacting with other entities who can sense their allegiance.
  • Let the two mercenary companies be in a bitter struggle all the time. They know they can't just start slitting throats, even though the trigger fingers sure are jumpy. Allow the heroes to join up with one or the other. In my case, the heroes joined the black talons, wore uniforms and started provoking the blue boars into a fight one night. This resulted in a huge brawl, during which the heroes rescued Leosin.
  • Allow the heroes to at LEAST see the big names of the cult. I hate it when adventures do this shit and keep the bad guys in the shadows for so long; the real bad guy hasn't been revealed anyway by this time, so why not let them see the lady in purple, cyanwrath and Rezmir? Fuck it, maybe even have them bid the “new recruits welcome”if that's the approach the players take? Exposition; use it well, at the right time, and it does wonders!
  • Here's an idea: Say the heroes faked their way in as mercenaries or the like; suddenly they are approached by a dragon claw who tells them to come with him. Allow them to be uneasy as they're brought into a tent in which a familiar citizen from Greenest is tied up. He's beaten, and the claw explains they've tried getting information out of him for hours; since they know him to be a wealthy merchant yet didn't find a single coin during the raid. They want answers now, and the new recruits need to pass the rite of passage. The claw leaves them alone to sort it out; go player creativity.
  • Set up a plan for the cave. Chances are very good that your players will want to enter it, because that's how things are usually done. The camp, the top level, the cave, the lower levels. It's almost a fantasy convention, so you can't blame players for thinking such. They WILL be interested in entering and taking a look around, and what you'll do depends on your current setup. If your group consists of five players that are rested, chances are okay they'll be able to hold their own in some of the fights. Only, it just takes one raised alarm and things are pretty much over. A stealthy or talkative approach is much more viable, so consider letting them talk their way through it all, and actually explore into chapter 3. If they have the information and return to Greenest, let the governor be concerned and Leosin travel north, while asking the heroes to go back and see whether they can capture any of the leaders. In that way there is at least a hint of choice.
  • There are many ways to enter the caves or get a letter of recommendation around the camp. Such power is usually reserved for senior members, who can be persuaded in exchange for goods or perverted wishes (provided your group can handle such aspects).
  • One of the two mercenary companies has a good sport of releasing the hounds on running prisoners (not on Leosin, of course, due to strict orders) These dogs hunt down the commoners and flay them for the amusement (and foor as far kobolds go) of the crowd. Will the players intervene and be able deter further of such actions?

I had the chance to involve almost all of these, and with Hackand Slash's post, you should have plenty to flesh out your own awesome Cultist Summer Camp!

What happened here?
The heroes arrived at camp and hooked up with the Black Talons, who were brutish and spat in their direction at first, at least until they started bullying back and cracking some skulls. The leader, Mershan, took heart to the heroes and explained a lot about what had gone on. They noticed Leosin on the post, and also the cave.

Two of them joined up with the cult and drank from the cup of blood (yes, some things you just can't avoid) and took up the cultist mantle, allowing them to enter the cave.

After a quick spelunking in the caverns, they sadly managed to trigger a trapped stairway and were kicked out by the other cultist for being such noobs. So they waited till nightfall, provoked a fight with the Blue Boars and rescued Leosin from the camp. 

There wasn't much time to talk, in fact they more or less just kicked him out of the place and told him to go home. Thus they waited till dawn and I decided to simply let the rumor go that the camp was moving out and going west, allowing the heroes to volunteer for staying back to 'guard the caves' (at this time, they were so frustrated about not getting to enter that they instantly took it). So the camp departed and the heroes prepared for the dark descent.

The general opinion...
The second chapter is really short and you can make it as exciting or plain as you wish, which I ultimately think is a perk for the GM. I know some people have bashed this part of the adventure quite hard, and yes; as written there is not much to go on at all. If you're a busy GM and just want to pick something up that's interesting right off the bat, you're going to get disappointed with this. The good news is that all of the above options are easy to integrate, but I still recommend you read both the third and the second chapter in one go, seeing as they're so closely related.

And with that being said, we're moving on to the third chapter, in which the heroes finally get to see what's in those awesome caves! Stay tuned!

1 comment:

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