Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Review (It's a little late)

Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first adventure published for the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  Set in the fantastic world of the Forgotten Realms, Hoard of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ) is a throwback to the printed adventure/campaign sets of yore.  It’s built to take characters from level 1 all the way up to level 8, and then segues into Rise of Tiamat for levels 9-15.  We’re covering this book almost two years after its release (and we’re doing that for the sake of completeness), so spoilers are coming.  We’ll discuss some of the major plot elements of the adventure and look at some of the hijinks you’ll encounter.  

Set in the Sword Coast region of Faerun (Toril’s Largest continent), Hoard will have you travelling all over creation in search of adventure, treasure and safety (not necessarily in that order).  Your primary opposition in this quest is the sinister Cult of the Dragon, an order of dragon worshipping villains who’ve decided that dead dragons will rule the world.  To this end, they have formed an alliance with the Dragon goddess Tiamat, and her followers are exerting their influence across the world.  New leadership of the Cult has brought a new focus and a new sinister goal into focus that will change the face of the world forever.  They’re going to bring Tiamat to Faerun.
They plan to do this by amassing a treasury worthy of the queen of evil dragons and bringing a group of five magical artifacts together.  With these two distinct agendas working together, the Cult of the Dragon is poised to free Tiamat and usher in an era of draconic devastation across the world.  Only a brave group of adventurers can stop them from unleashing a draconic cataclysm on the world.
This adventure offers you a new way to track experience and levelling up.  You can use the milestones method of tracking character development.  This means that you won’t have to worry about keeping track of individual experience points, but you’ll level up at pre-determined story points.  Usually these are the ends of a chapter.  For a new DM this is a pretty handy tool that keeps part of the book keeping down.  This adventure is very good at laying out everything you’ll need to do as a new DM with a new group of players, which we like.
The downside is that some of the encounters in the first half of this book are astonishingly dangerous and new players (or players who aren’t ready) are likely to be remaking characters, a lot.  We particularly think the combat with the half dragon at the end of Chapter 1 could lead to some unexpected fatalities.  The DM is going to have to keep an eye on encounter length and duration, because this adventure can run into pacing problems if random encounters keep popping up.
We like that each chapter has its own random encounter table, and that the stats for any monster with a bold faced name can be found in the back of the book.  This means that most DMs can run this adventure after a read through, and most of the adventure can be played with short preparation.  You do need to be ready for when the players decide to make an alteration to the suggested direction of the adventure though.  So let’s take a look at the episodes of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and get you ready for the trouble that’s about to come raining down on you.
Episode 1:  Greenest in Flames
This Episode of HotDQ is focused on a draonic attack on the tiny little town of Greenest.  This is a site based adventure segment with lots of things going on in and around the town for the players to interact with.  There are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of for a DM, but that’s all right, you can certainly manage it.  Keep the pace up, this is a town under siege, and players probably shouldn’t have a lot of time to think between crises.
After an extremely brutal confrontation that’s going to feel like a first boss fight, the players really have their first chance to breath and decide what they want to do.  The town has a request to make, and the threat of more raids looms across the landscape.  What will the brave heroes decide to do?
Episode 2: Raider’s Camp
With the threat of renewed hostilities looming over them, the PCs are encouraged to track down the raiders.  Along the way they are asked to rescue a captive monk, and these two goals, find the raiders and free the captive drive the action of this episode.  A series of interactions with the raiders will eventually lead the characters to the camp the raiders have been staging raids from.  The camp has multiple options for exploring and dealing with its denizens.  You can take multiple paths to success for dealing with the camp’s occupants.  
This episode comes to a close with the rescue of the lost monk and revelations about the camps denizens.  We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again.  Some of the fights in this chapter can be exceedingly dangerous for the new and the unprepared.  We strongly encourage new DMs to familiarize themselves with all of the monsters in this encounter area from the stats in the back of the book.  Certain combinations of things can be extremely lethal.  
Episode 3:  Dragon Hatchery
After rescuing the monk, the characters are offered another interesting job.  This will lead them into the first traditional dungeon of the campaign.  It’s a pretty sweet dungeon, and we think you can have a lot of fun exploring it.  Two things to keep in mind in an occupied dungeon, traps, and ambushes.  Kobolds are the least powerful of the monstrous races adventurers encounter at the beginning of their careers, but kobolds defending a lair that they’ve had time to prepare can be murderous.  They love traps, and they love ambushes.  
This dungeon is a lot of fun, and has a lot of twists, turns, treasure, traps and terrible monsters to overcome.  It’s worth it from both an experience point and treasure pile perspective.  There are several points the plot advances, and a party that has finished this episode should be getting the idea that a bigger crisis is afoot, and they’re going to need to move on in order to deal with it.  
Episode 4:  On the Road
So we’ve had our first major dungeon set, and a couple of exterior sets, now we’ve got an overland travel montage.  This episode does a fine job of showing off the countryside of the Sword Coast region.  It also introduces one of the major factions (The Order of the Gauntlet) and gets the party into the major city of Baldur’s Gate. This episode also shows off one of the best written encounter sets in this book.
The random road events chart details 12 distinct vignettes that can occur as random encounters throughout the lengthy road trip.  Each one has all the story elements to make it a fun, interesting encounter for the players to interact with, and can help immerse them in the travel story they’re playing through.  We like this section a lot.  Between the planned events that occur along the road and the random possibilities, you can have a couple of sessions worth of travel and tribulations.  
Episode 5:  Construction Ahead
Furthering the mystery of what the Cult of the Dragon is up to, the players have escorted a cavern all the way from the fun location of Baldur’s Gate to the City of Splendors, Waterdeep.  Waterdeep, however is not the focus of this adventure (and despite the fact that it’s had sourcebooks written about it) and is a page of information for the DM.  The clues continue to track northward, and the players have to continue their expedition that way to follow the mystery.  
This episode is relatively short, but does culminate in two different movie mashups, if you’re so inclined.  The mystery leads to a Roadhouse that seems ready for an outbreak of violence, so if you’ve been feeling a little  “less talk, more smash” this will give you the outlet for your destructive urges.  

Episode 6:  Castle Naerytar

Another site based adventure, this one is the culmination of the mystery of where is stuff going. Castle Naerytar is in one of the more interesting locations on the Sword Coast, The Mere of Dead Men.  It’s a swampy region full of undead, lizardfolk, dragon worshipping cultists, bullywugs (the cool frog people) and some swamp dragons.  This region could lead to a party murder very easily.  And that’s just getting to the castle.

The castle itself is an interesting interaction of monster motivation and who’s willing to throw whom to the fates.  There is a lengthy explanation of standard tactics for the castle denizens as well as the most likely ways players will try to get themselves into trouble.  The DM should read through these a couple of times, so that he or she can utilize the castle to it’s best expression.  All the monsters showing up at the same time will destroy a party, but a monster showing up every few rounds means that the party might just cut through them with ease.  Finding the balance of when to spring extra monsters (and understanding where they are in the castle) will turn an ok adventure into an awesome one.      

Keep in mind this will be the largest dungeon you’ve encountered in the campaign so far.  It’s going to take time to clear and if you try to rush it, it’s going to cost you characters and supplies.  You are in the middle of nowhere, so replacing both is going to be extremely difficult.  

Episode 7: Hunting Lodge

After an extremely harrowing combat site in the middle of a swamp, the players have an opportunity to follow the Cult of the Dragon to a new environment.  We hope you packed mittens and snow shoes.  This is another site based adventure where the characters are going after at least one of the major bad guys that’s been screwing around with the Cult of the Dragon and access to at least one potentially critical magic gizmo.  

Don’t storm this place like you’re serving a search warrant at a crack house.  Take your time moving through the place or you’ll suffer some unexpectedly difficult encounters that could be avoided.  There’s an interesting idea about D & D that everything you encounter in a game is a hostile to be killed and their bodies looted, (The counterpoint is that you can talk to everything and can avoid combat entirely).  We think you should consider the motivations of the things you are encountering and if you can avoid hostilities, try to.  Don’t be afraid to put boots to asses if you have to.  It is a game of high fantasy adventure, you’re going to have to get dirty somewhere.

Episode 8: Castle in the Clouds

We’ve been playing D & D since 1987, and we are suckers for interesting adventure sights and one of our favorites is the Cloud Giant castle.  As an idea, the fact that giants have enough magical oomph to build a castle out of a cloud triggers memories of Jack and the Beanstalk.  Who doesn’t want to storm a castle built for giants in the clouds?

Take your time.  This episode is a long one, and it will take time for you to finish.  Take your time, don’t rush (that does seem to be a recurring piece of advice).  There are piles of treasure and bad guys to deal with, so you should have your fill of mayhem and loot.  Once you’ve finished this episode, congratulate yourselves, you’ve finished the Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and should gear up for the Rise of Tiamat.


If you’ve spent the few months you’d need to play this from start to finish, (and we are going to say this again.  Don’t rush the adventure), you’ll have a 8th level character who’s kind of a bad ass.  With the loot you’ve been accumulating around the campaign, and access to markets in Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep (you should be able to find just about anything in Waterdeep, but it could cost a lot), equipment should not be a problem for you and your friends.  

One of the things that we really liked about this adventure from its inception is that it’s not a “mega-dungeon” or a “Political intrigue” type of adventure.  It returns to the roots of Dungeons and Dragons where you are going to have to react to the world going to crap around you, be a hero, and try to fix it.  

While you’re doing that, you get to explore a dragon hatchery, save a town from raiders, track stolen treasure across the sword coast and storm a friggin castle built for giants made out of clouds?  We get winded just talking about the amount of fun.  If this is your first game of Dungeons and Dragons, take your time and enjoy it.  This is one of the funnest adventures we’ve played, but pay attention, the monsters aren’t goofing around and will put your lights out if you let them.  

That’s what we’ve got for this week, check back in a couple of weeks for our review of its follow up, Rise of Tiamat. If you like this series, check out our feature on the Adventurer’s League, season 1, and check back in for updates on other D & D related ideas and features.  

Game on, Game Fans

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