Comic Review: Legends of Baldur’s Gate #1

At long last, the first of the new Dungeons & Dragons comics has been release. Legends of Baldur’s Gate #1 sees Jim Zub (writer), Max Dunbar (artist) and Jon-Paul Bove (colorus) telling the tale of Delina, a moon elf wild mage, who begins the story fleeing from gargoyles who have been sent after her for an unknown reason. In her attempts to protect herself from the gargoyles, whom seem little concerned about any collateral damage they might cause, her magic goes awry and summons Minsc, the addled ranger first introduced in the Baldur’s Gate computer game of 1998.

Minsc mistakes Delina for Neera, a wild mage introduced in the Enhanced Edition of the computer game, and immediately starts protecting her. From there, the two are pretty much lined up for more adventures, although this issue doesn’t go all that much further than that.

This is very much an introductory issue, although it hits the ground running and doesn’t bother too much with exposition. We’ve got a mysterious opponent who wants Delina (probably alive), and she’s trying to find out what’s happened to her brother, who is apparently somewhere in Baldur’s Gate and in some danger. As far as first issues goes, all of that is quite sufficient. (I’m aware that it’s actually about 100 years since Minsc was last active in the Realms, but I’m sure that will be mentioned in later issues).

What makes it really worth reading is the depiction of Minsc; Jim Zub has a great deal of fun with the ranger’s speech patterns; although we’re yet to see a “Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!”, we do get great Minscisms like “If there is danger, then I shall dange it!” and “We are very halted, good sir.”

The artwork is very good, although the magnification available from my digital copy occasionally displays a lack of detail on some panels (there’s a couple of faceless citizens that really look odd). Delina is drawn especially well, with an excellent range of expression.

The comic is part of the Tyranny of Dragons story arc, which I’m also experiencing through the D&D RPG adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It seems likely that there’ll be some connection to the Cult of the Dragon. It’s a pity the comic wasn’t available when my players passed through Baldur’s Gate a couple of weeks ago; I could have incorporated a couple of ideas from it into the session!

One interesting note: upon Delina entering the Wide, the great market square of Baldur’s Gate, I immediately recognised the area (and the stage) from our play of last year’s adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate. It’s nice when the artwork matches your vision of the area.

All in all, it’s a nice, entertaining start to the series, and I look forward to reading the next issue.

Posted in Comics, D&D, D&D 5E, Legends of Baldur's Gate, Review, Tyranny of Dragons | Leave a comment

Adventure Review: Wanted

The latest adventure product to appear on DriveThruRPG’s virtual shelves for Dungeons & Dragons 5E is Wanted by Assassin Games, subtitled as “A Collection of Short Adventures in an Urban Environment”. The adventures are written for low-level adventurers – levels 1-2 in particular, it seems. There are ten adventures in all. The product also includes rules for chases that a number of the adventures use, as well as a selection of hazards that can be found in the sewers.

The adventures are very short, either one or two pages each, and include the monster statistics as well as a synopsis of the adventure, notes for the Dungeon Master, notes on individual encounters and suggestions for the aftermath of the adventure. They typically require expansion by the Dungeon Master, and some would be better served by role-playing out the investigations required rather than just short-circuiting the process using skill checks. For instance, the first adventure sees the players attempting to find a master thief. The adventure suggests following her as an option, with Perception and Stealth checks being needed, or Survival rolls for tracking her if she evades immediate capture. On a failed Survival roll? There isn’t any suggestion of what then occurs – somewhat of a problem in the adventure’s structure! The James Bond 007 RPG had a set of interesting encounter tables for when the trail went cold in order to get the players back on track; this product would benefit from that, or at least a table of general random encounters for a city.

The adventures are as follows:

  • The Raven – catch a master thief
  • Mrs O’Learys Basement – clear giant rats out of a cellar
  • A Vermin Problem – defeat wererats and their rat allies
  • Dweller in the Dark – defeat a ghoul lurking in the catacombs
  • The Unfinished Tower – a Lord hires the group to deal with an imp infestation in the tower he’s building
  • Grapes of Wrath – hunt down the culprits responsible for stealing crates of wine
  • Farmer’s Lament – hunt down and defeat monsters killing farmers’ cattle
  • Death from Above – seek a mysterious murderer (a gargoyle)
  • Lingering Regrets – help a merchant who is being haunted by a spectre
  • A Knight’s Blade – recover a stolen blade

The adventures present a nice selection of challenges for the players, and are not always as obvious as they may originally seem. They do vary in quality; the weakest by far is Dweller in the Dark where the major part of the adventure – searching for the ghoul – is not detailed. The adventure notes that it could become tedious searching the catacombs, but then doesn’t actually detail any section of them save the final encounter! The adventures are particularly weak on these middle stages – the beginning and end of Death from Above are really good, but there really isn’t enough attention given to the process of finding that a gargoyle is responsible. They work much better when the players just need to turn up and get attacked by the enemy.

The rules for chases are problematic. I’m not entirely sure how they’re meant to work; the rules indicate that everyone makes an initiative check, with characters winning the initiative able to engage with the pursued character. I guess this check is meant to occur each round, although it isn’t stated (and thus goes against how initiative normally works in D&D 5E). Each round, the DM selects an obstacle for the players to overcome – generally by making an ability check of some kind. If everyone fails the check, the pursued character goes free. Honestly, I’ve seen worse systems, although chase rules in RPGs are always problematic. Once more, I come back to the systems used in the James Bond 007 RPG as the baseline that new systems have to exceed. These don’t, especially as the relative speeds of those involved in the pursuit are not counted, and any range between the participants is ignored entirely.

The sewer hazards are amusing, but again have problems. I’m particularly amused by this description of what happens when the players wade through a corrosive liquid: “The PC’s should be alerted to the presence of the liquid by hearing the hiss of their clothing and equipment disintigrating.” (Unfortunately, the spelling and grammatical mistakes are in the actual text; there aren’t too many of such constructions, but there are a few editing mistakes). Only six hazards are given; I would have liked a bigger range of encounters.

The product ends with a small number of player handouts, which are well-presented. In fact, the formatting of this product is pretty good. There is very little art, but that which is used is well executed.

Although the adventures in this product are underdeveloped, the core ideas are strong and there are some excellent suggestions for what might happen after each adventure ends; it’s very good indeed to see these plot hooks – it’s a pity some weren’t developed into full adventures. The product is a bargain at the price ($2 at time of writing) and I could well see myself using some of these adventures in a city-based campaign. So, although Wanted isn’t without some major problems, it’s worth having a look at for inspiration.

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AD&D Review – C3: The Lost Island of Castanamir

The third module in the Competition series was The Lost Island of Castanamir, a 32-page adventure by Ken Rolston for 5 to 8 characters of levels 1-4. As a competition adventure, it gives guidelines on how to score various teams playing through the adventure. I wonder if they were ever used by anyone who bought the adventure?

Ken Rolston is a significant game designer. His work on the game, Paranoia, is influential and well-regarded, and he was the lead designer on both Morrowind and Oblivion, titles in the Elder Scrolls series. The Lost Island dates from his very early days in the industry, and is his first published work for TSR.

It’s also plain weird.

The Lost Island is set in the home of a planar-hopping wizard who went missing a couple of hundred years ago. His island also vanished, but a few years ago it appeared again and a local wizard has hired the party to investigate and loot the place. Unfortunately, they get shipwrecked on the island (and lose most of their supplies). The adventure then concerns them exploring Castanamir’s residence, trying to get enough food to survive, dealing with the monsters, tricks and traps, and looking for the way out.

This is complicated by the wizard having set up his home so that each room so that each door works as a one-way teleporter; going back through the door they just passed through will not lead back to the room they originally came from! The doors are consistent in how they work, so a group can eventually make a map of which door links to which room, but it will likely cause a lot of confusion in the beginning, but eventually the group will be able to map the dungeon.

When you add the contents of the rooms, which tend to the unusual and bizarre, you have the makings of an inventive and enjoyable adventure.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. The challenges feel very tournament-y, which isn’t all that surprising given its original use. A lot of the challenges are just frustrating for the players, based on logic that is opaque to them. The tone of the adventure is also problematic; the juxtaposition of this strange, dangerous residence with a lot of whimsical or downright silly encounters isn’t something I enjoy. The biggest offender here are the gingwatzim, creatures from the ethereal plane that Castanamir was experimenting with, where quite an interesting concept is undermined by the silly naming conventions Rolston used. There are two pages devoted to these creatures, and their use in the adventure is underwhelming.

I guess if you like frustrating the players with the strange (and humorous) behaviour of unknowable creatures, you’ll enjoy them.

The adventure does have good encounters in it, but I find that a lot of the ideas are good inspiration for the DM but not so good in actual play.

Structurally, the adventure is mostly stand-alone challenges, with two ongoing problems: how do the doors link up, and where is the exit? As once the group exits Castanamir’s residence, there’s no way back (something they don’t know), it reads very much a disposable, one-shot adventure: characters have one chance to get as much loot as they can.

The interior artwork is really good, as Jeff Easley provided a number of smaller and larger works to illustrate the adventure. Several of these illustrations got reused in later hardcover books in the AD&D 1E and 2E lines. The maps, by Diesel, don’t come up so well; they’re adequate but they tend to be quite cluttered.

One thing worth mentioning is the entire adventure, despite being in a 32-page book, feels quite short. Eight pages are devoted to eight pregenerated characters, there are four pages of full-page art, and two more pages detail tournament information. Some of the rooms are very detailed – the library gets over one page.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the adventure comes down to a mismatch of expectations. Castanamir was an 18th level magic-user, and his dwelling-place is being explored by a group of apprentice adventurers? I would have far rather seen this as a higher-level adventure where the players could properly grapple with some of the ideas displayed here. As it is, it doesn’t really reach the potential of its ideas. It’s a disappointing adventure, although there are a few encounters that can prove enjoyable for the players.


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Hoard of the Dragon Queen, session 8

There’s a lot of creativity required from the Dungeon Master when running this stage of the adventure, which is aided by preparation. I’ve been a bit distracted of late, so I haven’t been able to prepare as much as I really should be doing. Thus, for this session, I kept things fairly simple as the adventurers continued to accompany the cultist’s wagon up the Sword Coast towards Waterdeep.

It doesn’t help that running enjoyable wilderness adventures is hard. The typical way of presenting one – as is done in this adventure – is to provide a random encounter table and a few set encounters. However, rolling on random encounter tables for each day of travel (the adventure actually notes that rolling every hour is overkill) tends to not give the most memorable game experiences. These days, I find it better to select encounters with an eye for building excitement and pacing.

What happened this session? I rolled a few random encounters.

The session was elevated by the players, in particular by Lewis, who was back after being absent last week. We determined that his ranger had been hired as a bodyguard of one of the other merchants in the caravan, and he quickly set about destroying the relationship between the two of them. Merchants, when they hire bodyguards, rather want their hirelings to follow their orders (and protect them). It gets a lot more difficult when the bodyguard is a player character doing exactly what he wants to.

The first random encounter was an attack by spiders and ettercaps. In a random forest. Which wasn’t on the map before this encounter, and probably won’t be there ever again. It’s actually a perfectly fine encounter, but as someone who thinks of the Forgotten Realms as an incredibly detailed setting, that kind of hand-waving details feels wrong to me. (It isn’t; it’s totally reasonable; it just feels wrong). We’re not using miniatures at the moment, so I wasn’t faced with the problem of setting up a path through a dark, tangled forest with spiders and ettercaps coming out of the foliage. All I had to do was describe it. I had the attack come from both sides of the path, although some of the players thought it was all coming from the one side. (I’m not sure if that was me describing it badly, or the players not paying attention). In any case, what we got was a tough, entertaining fight. Both Tim and Michael got webbed, Paul’s rogue spent his time running from one side of the caravan to the other, taking advantage of the cover to sneak attack the spiders, and Josh discovering that he was being attacked by all the remaining monsters after Danielle used misty step to get out of there and Tim created a globe of darkness centred on himself and ran off. Thankfully, Josh has a really high AC, so he was able to withstand their attacks.

During the attack, Lewis had his panther accompany his merchant towards safety. Lewis has a completely different view of the intelligence of his panther than my own. In Lewis’s world, the panther is probably more intelligent than most of the other party members. (This, it must be said, is probably not that high a bar to reach). Meanwhile, in my world, Lewis’s panther is an animal that knows a few tricks. At some point, I probably should work out exactly what it can do, which would include reading the rules, but it hadn’t previously been that important. This looks like it is changing.

Anyway, with the ettercaps dead, Lewis and Paul went on a scouting trip to discover their lair and get any loot from it. This they were able to do, but they discovered even more ettercaps and spiders in the lair. So they came back, and the players had a short discussion about clearing it out, eventually deciding not to abandon the caravan. Just as well!

And then Lewis returned to his employer, who was furious with him for abandoning her. Lewis tried to explain that he’d left the panther, but she wasn’t having any of that. Why hadn’t he asked permission before he walked off into the forest? This was the moment when I expected Lewis to apologise to his employer. He didn’t. Instead, he tried to intimidate her. This didn’t work very well; she ended up sacking him. Every so often, it’s nice to have a few NPCs that will stand up to the players!

This led Lewis without an employer in the caravan. Paul came up with the answer: he’d hire him as an extra guard for the cultists. Cultist Bob was fine with this, continuing on with the relaxed relationship between the cultists and the adventurers. The group considered whether or not Lewis would be known to the cultists, but as his ranger had been absent for the session where they infiltrated the camp, it was reasonable to use him as a guard.

A couple of days later in the journey, the group got attacked by Perytons. The Peryton is a strange beast, and one that I’m not really familiar with. Which, of course, led to a fairly forgettable encounter as basically Jesse spotted the Perytons as they were still airborne, then everyone used ranged attacks to take most them down before they reached the group.

It wasn’t completely forgettable though, thanks to Danielle using ray of frost to slow down one of the Perytons so that only one actually made it to attack Jesse (and then missed him). After that, the last one tried to get away, only to discover that long bows have an astonishing range, especially when you’ve got a longbow-wielding ranger wielding one. That’s Lewis, by the way.

After the Perytons were dead, Lewis wanted to track them back to their lair. I’m beginning to detect a theme here. Unfortunately, flying stag-birds don’t leave much in the way of tracks. (And Lewis realised that leaving the caravan for a day or more might be a bad idea). There are lots of times when tracking monsters back to their lair is a really, really good idea, but those times haven’t come yet in this adventure.

The last encounter of the session was a role-playing one, when the group met a gnome that wanted to join the caravan when they reached a wayside inn. This is actually one of the set encounters in the adventure, but it was slightly complicated by my having lent the book to another DM who hasn’t been able to get a full copy of the adventure yet. So, though I knew there was a gnome joining the group, little unimportant things like his name were sadly forgotten.

That said, I have a lot of trouble with names in any case. There are reasons I’m referring to everyone by their actual names rather than their PC names. (Even that is often an achievement. Just ask Sondra how long it was before I managed to get her name right!)

So, I managed to run an encounter where the gnome completely failed to introduce himself to the party. He did buy drinks for everyone, allowing us to have some amusing role-playing. Lewis was pretty active here, but the bulk of my attention was taken with Josh and Danielle.

Danielle is playing a tiefling sorcerer, as far as I remember, but her previous character was a gnome rogue. And, for some reason (probably related to character names), I have continued to think she is a gnome rogue, despite the fact that she casts spells and stuff. Thus, the gnome talking to her as a fellow gnome doesn’t make all that much sense in retrospect.

However, he did manage to ingratiate him with the PCs. (It’s amazing how players like their characters being bought alcohol, even when there’s no “real” drinking going on). So, for next session I’ll find out what his name is and have him properly introduce himself. He’s proving a lot more memorable to role-play than the rest of the NPCs on this trip, let me tell you!

So far, the journey has encompassed about 12 days of the 60 days it’s meant to take. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll need to up the pace before the group lose track of what the real storyline is.

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Starting a new 5E campaign: The Onnwal Rebellion

This Friday, I’m beginning a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the first homebrew campaign with the new 5E campaign system. As with my other homebrew campaigns, this will be set in the World of Greyhawk. However, I’m going to run the campaign in an area of the world I haven’t visited before: Onnwal. I’ve already written about a few of my early thoughts for the campaign, but with the campaign so close to starting, I’d better actually get my act together and start designing some adventures!

The first session is likely to consist of a fair bit of character creation and detailing of the background for the campaign. I’m hoping to run a game that involves a fair bit of role-playing, and I believe that the best way of encouraging that is by having the characters be invested in the setting: they have connections to each other and to the NPCs around them. Will there be action? Certainly there will be – I’m the DM, and this is a D&D campaign – but I’m hoping for a more role-playing and story-based campaign than some of my other “find the nearest dungeon” campaigns have been.

Back when I ran a Serenity campaign, I structured the campaign like a TV series: 13 episodes, some single episodes and some double-parters, with episodic plots and an underlying campaign arc. I’m going to see if that structure works for this campaign. I’m not going to insist on following the structure if the campaign isn’t working, but it’s an interesting method of telling a story in a role-playing game.

So, the first session that is actually an adventure (which might be this Friday, if character generation goes by quickly) will see me introduce the home village, have a few interactions, and then bring in a raid by the Scarlet Brotherhood for a good “action” start to the campaign, and likely bring up a couple of plot hooks that will drive action into the next session.

Onnwal is primarily Humans (Oeridian), Dwarves, Gnomes and Halflings, so to give some differences to the regular D&D campaign, I’m going to limit character choices to just those races. Character classes are also likely to be restricted – Warlocks and Monks, in particular, give the wrong feel to this game. (The monks will appear as major enemies).

I’m going to spend a little time writing up some brief capsule descriptions of some major NPCs before Friday, and then we’ll see what we can brainstorm into being then.

Onnwal has languished under the Scarlet Brotherhood’s thumb for a generation – but a rebellion is brewing!

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen, session 7

With this session, my group left the safe harbours of the D&D Encounters program and wandered into the murky waters of Casual play. All of which means that I’ve stopped ignoring the pacing guidelines of the D&D Encounters version of Hoard (which would have had us going for a few more weeks in any case), and are now working from the adventure text directly. And probably ignoring parts of that instead. The actual sessions remain at 90-120 minutes in length, as we’re still doing them in our Encounters slots. Other groups were still completing Episode 3 (or still in Episode 2). We had about 36 people taking part in the game overall.

This session was rather unusual in that a large part of it dealt with the transition from the first stage of the adventure (Greenest and the Cultist Camp) into the second major stage of the adventure – the road trip north. The group needed to travel to Elturel to meet up with Leosin and his friend, Ontharr Frume, learn the details of what they needed to do, and then get to Baldur’s Gate where they could join the cultist’s caravan and head north, trying to track down the location of the heart of the cult.

All of which meant that a large part of the session saw the players not really making many choices, but instead just sitting there listening to me talking at them. It’s by far my least favourite way of running D&D sessions, and there were time for a few good character moments (Josh’s PC has a wife in Baldur’s Gate, so they had enough time for a visit there), but those moments were few and far between. The role-playing between Onthar, Leosin and the PCs as their mission was described was really flat – a problem I often have with these scenes. The players recognise that they’re about to have something necessary explained to them, and their interaction with the NPCs won’t do all that much, so they just sit back and listen to it than properly interacting with their patrons.

This may, of course, be a flaw in the way I run games, for certainly I’m not the strongest role-player out there. (Story and Rules Knowledge are my strong points). However, it’s also hard for players, especially when they don’t have a great grasp of the game world and their places in it. The fourth episode of Hoard is designed to – as much as anything else – introduce the variety of the Forgotten Realms to the players, so over the next few sessions I hope to improve the role-playing opportunities for the group, particularly in ways that the group finds relevant to the development of their characters.

So, the first half of the session saw the characters get some new equipment and better armour. They were also charged with the duty of catching up with the cultists’ wagons and infiltrating the caravan so they could accompany the cultists north and discover (a) where it was going and (b) what the cult wanted with all that treasure anyway.

The cultists attached their wagons to a greater caravan with two or three other merchants also travelling north, as it’s much safer in the Realms to travel in numbers. The players gained positions as guards with the other merchants in the caravan, except for Paul’s character, who, in his first session, was unknown to the cultists. (Paul has been gaming with me for several years now, but he’d been on holiday for the last couple of months and this was his first session of Hoard). Paul’s character instead joined up as a guard for the cultists directly. The adventure gives a nice amount of detail on the merchants, but doesn’t really detail the leader of the cultists accompanying the caravan that well; we ended up calling him Cultist Bob. A few of the players probably thought the name was a reference to Blackadder (it’s been one I’ve used before), but actually it was more a Doctor Who reference. (Angel Bob, from The Time of Angels in particular).

A couple of days after the caravan set out, it came across a pair of women setting up camp beside the road. Both were stunningly beautiful, and Cultist Bob was quite taken by them; he got Paul to see what they wanted, and the two women soon set themselves about ingratiating themselves with both the cultist and Paul.

No, this wasn’t suspicious at all!

That night, Paul was summoned by Cultist Bob to investigate something happening outside the camp; which proved to be one of the women lying unconscious on the ground. Paul investigated, only to discover that she was merely feigning her unconsciousness. She leapt up and attacked, and soon rendered Paul unconscious. The other players, having been alerted that something was going on, were prevented from helping Paul by a sudden attack from Cultist Bob – and he was proving himself strong and dangerous in combat!

A couple of the players were able to avoid Cultist Bob, and ran to help Paul, who was making death saving throws (mostly successfully), and were surprised to find that Paul was coming towards them – and even more surprised when he attacked them! Soon there were two combats underway, and Cultist Bob and Paul were doing some serious damage to the characters. However, it wasn’t all going their way – eventually the players were able to overcome them, at which point the real Cultist appeared out of his tent, wanting to know what was going on, and the other characters found Paul unconscious hidden near a log.

Yes, the entire business was the work of two doppelgangers!

I’m actually rather pleased with how it played out; the players were kept confused and guessing at what was going on. Was Paul dominated? What was Cultist Bob up to? And it ended with a good explanation as to what had happened – good closure, which I appreciate.

The next session I’ll be giving more definition to the NPCs accompanying the group. Jesse, Tim and Michael have been hired by Lai Angesstun, a gold dwarf who is very interested in money, whilst Josh and Danielle have been hired by Edhelri Lewel, a moon elf who is transporting fine wood. Preparing more for those characters to do in reaction to the events that will occur is going to be important to bringing this part of the Realms to life!

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An Ethical Dilemma in Dungeons & Dragons – the Cyanwrath Challenge

At the climax of episode 1 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the weary players may see the champion of the enemy, Cyanwrath, come out before them and issue a challenge: Either the defenders of the village send out a champion to defeat him in mortal combat, or he will execute a family that he has captured.

As he does so, one of the militia-men who has been defending the village realises that it’s his wife and children who have been captured. Despite the fact he’s completely outmatched, he wants to go and duel the enemy’s champion.

If the characters send out someone, that person will likely die. If they let the militia-man go out, he’ll die. If they send no-one out, or try to cheat, the prisoners will be killed.

Yes, Hoard of the Dragon Queen has its very own version of the Kobayashi Maru test.

And, yes, it’s making some people very uncomfortable.

“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario” – James T. Kirk, The Wrath of Khan

We’re not used to having such situations in Dungeons & Dragons. We’re even less used to it these days, when the rise of the Adventure Path format has become so prevalent. In such adventures, you should be able to defeat or avoid every challenge, because otherwise you won’t be able to complete the adventures. Even the idea of challenges you should avoid has become depreciated. It still exists (Ropers are used in both Hoard of the Dragon Queen and the 3E-era adventure Forge of Fury to demonstrate an enemy you should avoid or negotiate with rather than fight), but such challenges are used rarely.

However, it isn’t the first time that such a challenge has come up within the context of D&D. The first time does not occur in an adventure, but within a book: Dragons of Winter Night, the second book of the Dragonlance Chronicles. The characters are faced with a situation where they have the chance to defeat the Dragonarmies attacking the High Clerist’s Tower, but they just need time to prepare.

And one of the heroes goes out, alone, to give them that time.

No! Sturm got hold of himself. Everything was gone: his ideals, his hopes, his dreams. The Knighthood was collapsing. The Measure had been found wanting. Everything in his life was meaningless. His death must not be so. He would buy Laurana time, buy it with his life, since that was all he had to give. And he would die by the Code, since that was all he had to cling to. – Dragons of Winter Night, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

The adventure version of this part of the book, DL8: Dragons of War, does not mention this scene, although Sturm does have a dream foreshadowing the possibility in one of the earlier adventures (DL4: Dragons of Desolation). Unusually, for a series famed as being a railroad, it doesn’t railroad a hero into that situation!

Of course, a situation in a book is a long way from the experience at the game table – and that’s a long way from the experience in real life. D&D does things that allow us to do things we could never do in real life. Sacrifice my character’s life for others? That’s a lot easier than sacrificing my own life!

I don’t want to trivialise it. The fact is that many of us become very attached to our characters. Even if we’ve only been playing a character for a few short hours (as is likely when this encounter occurs), losing that character can be painful.

Other players might just shrug it off. It’s fine if a first-level character dies! I can always roll up another one!

Why are you and your friends playing D&D? Are you playing it because you want to have a fun time? Are you playing it because it allows you to act as another person? Are you playing it because you enjoy solving the in-game problems? Are you playing it because of the story you create? There are a myriad of reasons we play D&D. And they’re certainly not all the same.

A mistake (from my perspective) that many people seem to be making is assuming that every situation in D&D should be “fun.” If my ambition is to have nonstop “fun,” I’d be better off playing Lego Star Wars or Whack-a-Mole. D&D can also be thrilling, frightening, inspiring, maddening, depressing, frustrating, immensely gratifying — name a reaction on the human emotional scale and there’s probably a place for it in D&D. The match against Cyanwrath was never meant to be “fun.” It was meant to trigger an emotional response — anger, even hate, and a desire for revenge against the Cult of the Dragon. I haven’t seen much to indicate that it isn’t doing that. – Steve Winter, designer of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, on EN World.

The basic truth is that no adventure can really cater to everyone’s tastes. Hoard of the Dragon Queen goes to places we haven’t seen in a long time – if ever. It is hampered by the fact that the rules were in an incomplete state when it was being written, so there are sections where encounters are far more difficult than they should have been. It also has other problems, but the Cyanwrath encounter plays out pretty much as intended by the authors.

Despite that, it doesn’t mean you have to include it in your game or even run it exactly as written. That is the joy of D&D: it has a Dungeon Master.

McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.

Saavik: How?

Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship. – The Wrath of Khan

In D&D, the players don’t have to rewrite the scenario – although players can be incredibly inventive, and thus bypass the situation – but the Dungeon Master always has the ability to change things so that the game is more enjoyable for all involved. If you don’t like something, change it! The writers of adventures don’t have the luxury of knowing what your group is like. Your privilege and responsibility as a DM is to know your group, and change things to suit it. Of course, when an adventure requires too much changing, it isn’t then worth it for you. (It’s just hard to know that ahead of time!)

The possibility I find more disturbing is that adventure writers should never put in such scenes. I would much prefer to see the boundaries of storytelling with Dungeons & Dragons expanded; for writers to explore the limits of what is possible within the format.

Personally, I very much like the Cyanwrath Challenge. It gives the players a real chance to explore how they approach the game. (And each group will approach it differently.) I hope that if you use it, your players find it a stimulating experience.

(Yes, I know that technically the challenge isn’t actually a dilemma, as there are more than two options for the characters. I just couldn’t come up with a better word. Then too, the challenge does boil down to “Do I go to my death, or do I let innocents die?” That’s a dilemma.)

(There are alternative interpretations of the encounter, that have the challenge not being mortal and Cyanwrath being more reasonable; I’m looking at one particular interpretation of the encounter, albeit one on which I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion).

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice, Tyranny of Dragons | 16 Comments