Hoard of the Dragon Queen Review; Episode 6, Castle Naerytar

This is a big section, clocking in at 18 pages. It’s essentially a stand alone episode, as most of them are. The ‘in’ is that this is where the baddies are putting all the loot they’ve gathered (for now), so finally the party can take some kind of proactive action to take the fight to the Cult. The ‘out’ I’ll come to later.

This castle is sat in the middle of the Mere of Dead Men, and it’s seen better days. There’s some history behind the crumbling pile, and it’s all evocative enough, and explains why there’s an old observatory on the top of it. Running around in this episode are at least three factions of bad guys; the Cult of the Dragon, some indentured Bullywugs, and a meek tribe of Lizardfolk. There’s also a big old black dragon lurking around, though mainly in the background. These factions all have bonds, but they’re straining. Now, reviewers tend to love stuff like this. It stops the episode being static, and drives events on spurring parties to action. While that’s all true, it also serves to make the sessions that bit trickier for the DM to handle. Rather than taking things one discreet location at a time, you have to allow for movement, timing and agendas. It’s good to see it allowed for, expected even, but don’t be surprised if a lot of that good reading never really gets the spotlight time it deserves. 

Here’s an issue. Unless I’ve missed it, and I’ve gone back through the text a few times, they don’t tell you where to find the chief NPC in the castle. The other sub-chief is listed. And then there are two big-chiefs that don’t have a home but we are told will run for safety during a confrontation. All that prep text, and all that conditional advice, and it’s let down by the basics of placing the obstacles in the right places in the text. Where are they?!

Also, and this is just odd, rather than a difficulty, only some of the locations get boxed text, seemingly at random. The boxes simply stop half way through the ground floor locations. Again I have to ask, was the editor asleep on the job? Some of these parts would really benefit from a box out, yet they’re strangely abandoned. Odd. 

I say all this because the Castle’s three levels and one dungeon are laid out in the standard keyed manner, and in my experience, that can mean parties adopting a room by room clearance approach. The Castle gives them lots to explore, and some interesting scenes to chew on. Interestingly, not everything is immediately hostile, and it’s largely a judgement call as to when the bad guys wake up to the presence of the good guys and do something about it. There will come a time when there’s a running battle through the castle (again, easy to say, trickier in practice) and as soon as that happens the rest of the castle will be left behind. That’s the ‘out’ I mentioned up-post, the party will head through a portal at the finale which draws a line under their previous movements.

Good stuff? There’s actually loads. The castle is nicely put together and feels like a living. breathing environment that has been affected by the inhabitants presence. Some of the foes are classic D&D fare, and that’s what you want from an adventure. There’s allowance made for various ways to approach this situation, even if the finale is inevitable in a sense. And the maps actually line up with the text for once (the first one is misaligned though, it needs rotating 90 degrees).

Bad stuff? The lack of definition of major NPCs is becoming an ongoing annoyance now. Despite all the good work on factions and background, it’s wasted if you never encounter it. Also, I think this is going to be a serious challenge for any party, purely from an attrition point of view. This is a big location, and it needs solving in one go. The party are likely to take a battering and there are not many places of safety to hole up. With the magic item famine (I mean really? there’s been a handful of potions and we are five levels in at this point) the odds are stacked against the party.

Overall: my interest has been grabbed back to this adventure after a couple of dodgy opening episodes. This seems to be the meat of the adventure, and there’s loads to do here. Without an actual run through I’m just estimating the episode’s quality if I’m honest. Would I run it? Yes. I’d like to see how it goes. That’s a positive.

Next: Episode 7, Hunting Lodge

 

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Rise of the Runelords stopped in its tracks

It’s been a long ride, but Valeros, Seelah and Harsk finally reached the ultimate encounter and put the villain to the sword. Well, I say sword, really it was a runeforged punch backed up by a pair of charmed red dragons, a swipe spell and a bunch of fervent praying for blessings. 20 on 5d10? Bring it.

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen review: ep5 Construction Ahead

Just a short episode, and this one is the ‘espionage’ one, clocking in at only three pages plus art.

Spoil… Oh you know the rest…

So the caravan stops at Waterdeep for a day giving the party a chance to stake out the baddies and plan next steps. There’s some Realms exposition here: the road north has been succumbing to the expanding marshes, but the new boss of Neverwinter has been pushing to build new roads. So, work parties and equipment regularly leave Waterdeep to get to the road-head. This is the parties ‘in’ to get on board the latest leg of the haul to the as yet undisclosed final stop of the loot train.

The single location for the bulk of this episode is a reclaimed roadhouse, run by a ‘burly half-Orc’ called Bog Luck (still not going overboard on characterisation then. Not even an illo). This is where the caravan stops and unloads for the duration, giving the party the chance to put the whole operation under surveillance.

The goods are taken through a secret tunnel by lizardfolk allies at night. That’s the secret, and the info that the party needs.

The episode assumes that this will be done by stealth, with eavesdropping, burglary and ninja skills. Maybe I’m just a jaded old DM but, as with the last episode, I have a feeling you’ll be rolling initiative before too long. In fact, one of the cultists aggressively pursues a showdown at one point. I’m still not sure what it is that’s stopping the whole thing turning into a massacre. To be honest it might be one of those occasions where the DM just has to break the fourth wall and say ‘listen guys, you need to approach this one quietly, just trust me.’ Shame, but there it is.

This episode doesn’t result in a level up, as it’s potentially quite short. That said, it’s also potentially a great session if everyone gets into the right frame of mind and action. It’s probably going to involve some characters more than others, but in the hands of an agile DM this could be a tight and interesting session. I approve.

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Dead tree contains wisdom

Just to see what it looks like, I printed my Conventional Wisdom PDF to a booklet. It looks and feels amazing! Sure, it needs illustrations, more layout skills, and a heavier colour cover, but right now none of that matters.

I’m ridiculously pleased with this.

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen: e4, On the Road

Things are warming up now. Don’t let the uninspiring title mislead you, this is a serious turn for the better.

(Spoilers, as usual…)

The party now have to infiltrate the caravan of goods wagons that the Cult have joined, taking them overland for the next few weeks of travel. Their mission, to find out there they’re headed, and what they’re doing. This is all at the behest of an NPC, or two, and their respective factions.

Now then, factions. I first saw these get a quick mention in Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set where membership was offered as a mini reward. Here the ties are a bit stronger. In the Adventurers League Organised Play the factions are a big thing with mechanical heft. I do wish there was a central reference document for the factions. As a relative Realms newb, a lot of this stuff goes over my head. For me, this is another candidate for a decent overview at the start of the book (or in the appendices).

The party can do what they like to get on board the caravan: hiring out as guards seems simplest. There’s always a danger that their faces will be recognised by now, and the episode reflects that risk. Where the adventure really starts to shine is in the details. So far each episode could generously be described as a mini sandbox. This one is more like a little bucket of Lego pieces. The DM gets everything laid out, and it’s then a task of assembly to suit. For instance, there are two main NPCs to introduce. There are then 20 minor NPCs to interact with. Each of these gets a paragraph of description, along with name, race, sex, profession. There’s a hook for each one. Any of them could spin off into a good chunk of interaction, and by blending a couple together there’s some intriguing conflicts built in.

Then there’s 12 events to either pick from, or roll up. Plenty of variety, and by adding in the NPC relationships each flowers into something unique. Then there’s the mandatory events, just four, each of which develop the overall plot. In this otherwise mundane part of the campaign you see all three pillars of D&D addressed: exploration, interaction and combat. The only area where I think more could have been done is with exploration. The overland journey through the wilderness needs locales and vistas to help me give the players a sense of movement and time. I’m left to my own devices for that.

One other fly in the ointment: I can see parties wanting to be aggressive with the cultists. There’s enough provocation, and plenty of opportunity for an all out assault to develop. If that happens, covers are blown and the adventure really comes to an end. It’s going to be tricky to keep everyone’s swords in their scabbards at times. There’s a fine line here for the group to walk, they need to be proactive, but not too much so.

The thing that really elevates this section is that it’s a good read. As I went through it the potential scenes started coming to life in my head. I could hear what I would say, I could see what the players might do, and I wanted to know how it would all turn out. That’s what any published adventure has to do, get me on board. This section did.

Next: Construction Ahead

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Accepting sub standard product

As I go through Hoard I’ve seen many comments about how it was in joint development at the same time as the rules, and that explains why the adventure and the PHB don’t line up all the time.

That’s the reason, and it makes sense. I get that. What I don’t get is how that is supposed to be acceptable for me as a consumer. I’m not responsible for the decision to write these things in parallel. That’s a business decision made by the vendor in this deal. I’m at the sharp end, with my money, buying a product I expect to be able to use and enjoy. I didn’t insist on getting the book rushed out. I didn’t edit the thing (and I’m wondering if anyone actually did given the errors) and yet I’m supposed to be cool with the slapdash approach taken?

That’s unacceptable. If this book were a toaster I’d have taken it back for a refund. And if the store were to tell me that it kind of gets the bread a bit brown on one side so I should suck it up? Well, they wouldn’t would they.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. The book isn’t “broken” in the sense that it’s unusable, but it does need more work, and more assembly, than the outside would lead you to believe. And saying that is an acceptable price to pay, just because, isn’t enough.

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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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