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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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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