Hoard of the Dragon Queen review pt 3: Hatchery

Who doesn’t like a dungeon? (Quiet at the back…). We’ve already had the dragon so we may as well complete the set.

Episode three takes the party back to the raider’s camp, following the assumption that they ever left it. If they did go back to town, they’re encouraged to return. Like episode one, where it was all about getting to the keep, then all about getting back out. Now, I don’t mind a bit of linearity in adventures, I’d even argue it’s necessary, but back and forth on the line and even I get a little motion sickness.

The dungeon is just off the last site, and it’s got the local Cult leadership holed up in there watching over some soon to hatch dragon eggs. The ever minion like kobolds have gotten busy and trapped the place to kingdom come too. Traps are a funny old beast. D20 games never quite seem to know what to do with them. They play havoc with party roles and encounter balance. Should they be used as monsters, as locations, as hazards, or as a mix of all three? Hoard takes the old school route. The traps are there to be found with either player skill (I swear, a 10′ pole gets a straight faced call out), or character readiness (passive perception is never mentioned. Must have been out of the playtest at that point). Failure to spot them equals old fashioned hit point damage.

The dungeon itself is ok actually. I like the layout, the tone, and some details are painted in at last. Is it just me or does this bit of the map not look entirely unlike a grinning Kobold?

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One big detail is revealed and then discarded without ceremony though. The baddie foreshadowed in episode one is encountered in her lair. The by now fabled (but only to the confused DM) Frulam Mondath is found, sighted and likely dispatched without so much as a by your leave. She gets no monologue, no description, no agenda, no character. I predict she will be part of this campaign for no more than 3 combat rounds. Crazy.

Look, I’m not expecting Pathfinder levels of NPC background here. They tend to go massively overboard. In their hands, this NPC would have had a family tree, an inside leg measurement and copies of her last ten shopping lists. But there has to be a middle ground between the two extremes. What I’d love but oh so rarely get from villains statted out in adventures are some pithy one liners to toss out on their actions. Not like Dr Doom or Ultron, but something to give them some life you know? Here’s a suggestion: NPC components, verbal, somatic and material. What they sound like, what they do, and what they look like. Give me something to tell my players!

Sorry. The dungeon. Yeah, it’s ok, good enough, and it has some traditional activities therein.

Next: On the Road!

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Monsters in scenarios

Thinking about the formatting of 5e creatures while reading Hoard… Classic adventures put a short form stat block in, enough to use in a pinch. How easy is it to do that in 5e? Easy as anything it turns out. Compare and contrast.

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The Guard Drake gets full stats in the back of Hoard, though no additional text at all. I’ve included more in this block than I’d use if I were working from notes. I’ve not included Speed, as 30′ appears to be default, so why add it? The six stats are in order, just the mods here. The difference is I’ve added Proficiency (+2 in this case) so that the DM can cross the skill with any stat. That’s my preference, not everyone will share it.

And I’ve not added the fact that the Drake can understand Draconic but not speak it, because, well, just because.

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen Review pt2, Raiders Camp

Spoilers right?

Having weathered the assault of the Cult of the Dragon the party are tasked with tracking the raiders to their camp and infiltrating it. In fact, they are asked twice by separate bodies with similar goals. The characters motivations aside from ‘being goodies’ are unclear, so I’d recommend strengthening bonds here.

Tracking the baddies is easy enough and there are stragglers and rearguard to deal with along the way. The obvious solution to the breaking into the camp problem is to steal uniforms but that could back fire. The camp itself is sketched out in the description, and you’ll have to read all of it to get your head round the layout. Again, the provided map look nice but is no actual use to DM or players.

Interesting to see, the named NPCs from the previous episode get portraits here. Better late than never I guess.

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There’s a specific NPC to rescue in this episode, and he will need working up properly by the DM. You get no stats, or much more in the personality stakes. He appears to be reluctant to leave, and I wonder how best to play him so that a party won’t just get irritated and walk away. Sympathetic NPCs are a must to any plot driven scenario, and this fellow looks like he might be around for the long haul.

This is less of a combat scenario, and more of an info gathering behind enemy lines affair. As such, I’d have preferred there to be more mini events provided to spur interaction. I’d rather that, than the boilerplate skill DCs for climbing and stealth. To be honest, these things annoy me a little. Skill DCs are 10/15/20 for easy/medium/hard. There you are, I’ve memorised them from the rules. Why are these getting book space again and again when the NPCs and creatures are getting nothing extra beyond their name in bold? The adventure assumes you have the Monster Manual, yet repeats basic stuff from the PHB.

What I need from an adventure is to first of all DM me through the game so that I can be the middle man and then DM it to my group. The book has to paint me a clear picture first. Then, it has to be useful in play. What I’m getting from the first two episodes are sketches, that really needed stronger development to make them rock solid.

The omissions are startling (who are the leaders? I see names already, but I know nothing more) and all the more so when you know that it’s standard practice to provide an adventure overview these days. There’s one here, but it’s at too high a level to help me navigate the plot. Given that the possibility of interrogating hostile is so very high, that’s a bad editing choice.

Harking back to 4e, an edition let’s not forget with a poor reputation for it’s adventure material, at least it laid out its encounters in a handy at-a-glance format. You could read ahead three pages and get enough to run a session. This one needs study, and notes, and yes, imagination. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s a steep ask of a time pressured DM who bought this perhaps hoping all that would be taken care of.

The plot is thickening, but my tolerance for the lack of DM assistance is thinning.

Next: episode 3, Dragon Hatchery

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen: reviewed!

Here be dragons? Here be spoilers!

First proper big adventure for 5e arrives (Lost Mines doesn’t truly count in this regard, I think) and it comes in an unusual guise. It was farmed out to Kobold Press, a highly regarded 3pp, and written by Wolfgang Bauer and Steven Winter, both ex of WotC themselves.

It’s billed as levels 1-7, and only the first half of a campaign, Tyranny of Dragons, which deals with some baddies bringing the evil chief dragon Tiamat back from her prison in the Nine Hells. Set in Forgotten Realms, on the Sword Coast, so familiar territory to many.

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It’s hardback, which seems unnecessary, and it’s got hefty rough paper that you could scrawl in the margins of if you were of a mind. It’s a good looking beast, with art that has more action and clarity than the washier PHB stuff. The maps are by Jared Blando and they are quite divine (his stuff was used towards the end of the 4e run, and they really brought some locations to life.) A quick flick through makes this look like good reading, with superb production values. At £20 it’s at the higher end of adventure pricing.

Mike Mearls writes a warm foreword and points put that this book only needs Basic (available for free online) and the free online appendix to run the campaign. That appendix is the monsters and items that are not unique to this book. Interesting, and a move I’m all for, in principle. If I’m going to get more space devoted to the ideas, and can print and manipulate the crunch, then that makes this better value than it’s thickness would otherwise suggest. Though I know that will be seen as a bug for others.

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Instead of the usual ‘hooks’ that you find in many adventures, here you get a similar idea, but wedded to the 5e Backgrounds rule. Characters can add to, or replace their usual Bond and Feature with one specific to this adventure. There are ten alternate Bonds and two features. They go from so-so to super cool, and include the occasional secret. Nice touch.

Part one involves a village coming under attack for a force of the Cult of the Dragon who are looking for loot to stoke the hoard they need to get Tiamat’s interest. The town is presented as almost on a siege footing, with the parties job being to get townsfolk to the safety of the keep. Once done, there are a selection of commando missions for them to perform to see the night out. All of these are interesting, and are rarely pitched battle encounters with equal forces. Tactics and strategy of behalf of the players will be necessary. There’s even a dragon assault, and at level 1 the party is toast if they go for straight confrontation. I like this section for its narrative potential, and can see some really dramatic scenes playing out involving fire, darkness and terror against the backdrop of an invading force.

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On the downside, there are errors, and some of them seem quite basic. The map of the village is next to useless. It’s keyed numerically, though the text doesn’t reference it. One mission is set outside the bounds of the map. There’s an apparently important commander that gets named, and is statted in the appendix, but there’s no other text to support her appearance. Did I miss it, or who is Frulam Mondrath? There are also apparently such things as half-dragons. Are these Dragonborn? I don’t know. If not, what’s the difference? Lastly, the milestone method of gaining XP makes this section enough to get to second level. But, if you want to go traditional on your XP, tot up even a couple of the potential combats (and there are many) and you’ll see you’re getting short changed. My guess is that this was down to the adventure and the encounter rules all being in development at the same time. To see the pacing off in the first game makes me nervous.

In the ‘irritating but not fatal’ camp, the online appendix is a must have as encounters use plenty of creatures from there, but they’re mixed in with ones in the back of this adventure. The online appendix doesn’t include the ones from this book, so you’ll need to bookmark physically, and refer to a third document. That’s unwieldy. And then the thing that as a 4e DM is going to drive me nuts: NPC spell casters have the spells listed in their blocks, but not the effects, not even short hand. I’ll get to know these things off the top of my head eventually, but this is a real throwback from 4e’s innovation to put everything at the DMs fingertips.

Speaking of NPCs, they get very little in the way of characterisation, hardly even a physical description. The episode is 7 pages of double columned text, and reasonably dense, but it could have done with better formatting and use of space. The NPCs needed a portrait and a few lines in a side bar really.

All in all, the first episode reads ok, and I think it will deliver a good session or two. However, it’s an inefficient read, that leaves me as a DM with some book keeping to do, and some extra prep in store. I don’t spend money on adventures to do that.

Next: episode 2

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Come and Get It

Hey! I found some 4e in my 5e!

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5e Options

By my back of an envelope calculations, there are 14 playable races in the PHB. For classes, once the options are unlocked by level 3 at the latest, there are 46 available choices. There are 13 backgrounds.

I make that 8372 possible combinations.

If I post a character a day I’ll be busy for the next 23 years.

Looks like I have an answer to the #rpgaday question about why I’ll be doing 20 years from now after all.

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Subcontractors on Scenario Duty

Wizards of the Coast are subcontracting their adventure design and development out to trusted third parties. So far, Kobold Press, and Saquatch Design Studios. This more has seen rejoicing from fans as by all accounts “WotC have never been able to write decent scenarios.”

Ok.

Who do you think will be writing the stuff at the subcontractors? That’s right, a bunch of people who used to work at WotC.

Look, I’ve got Hoard of the Dragon Queen winging its way to me right now. I’ll review it of course, and if it’s a complete step up from WotCs recent offerings, I’ll be the first to lead the applause. If not, can we stop giving WotC D&D division a hard time because it’s seen as a Corp and not what it actually is, a small collection of dedicated gamers?

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