Running Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Episode 1

Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first of two adventures written by Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter set in the Forgotten Realms. The two adventures have the players coming up against the fresh plans of the Cult of the Dragon, a long-standing villainous group in the setting, to summon Tiamat from the Nine Hells.

The designers of the adventure are experienced. They’ve been working in the industry for many, many years. Unfortunately, they were also working with a set of rules that weren’t quite finished yet, and so there are times when the balance of the encounters isn’t quite right. Or the rules aren’t as you expect them. At times, some encounters got changed significantly, but kept part of the text of the previous version. As a result, Hoard of the Dragon Queen can be a little difficult to run out of the book as written. It works best when the DM changes pieces of it to better suit their group.

This is the first of a series of posts on the structure of the adventure – aided by posts that Steve Winter has made – that may help you better understand how to run the adventure.

Episode 1: Greenest in Flames

To say the start of the adventure has been a shock to players and DMs is something of an understatement. The players ride into a town under attack and attempt to save it. And they can’t. That’s what you really, really need to know about the first episode: It’s meant to be overwhelming. It sets up the Cult of the Dragon as a group to be absolutely feared and respected. Here are Steve’s thoughts:

The first episode is brutal. 1st-level characters don’t get to swoop in, defeat hundreds of cultists, and win the war on their first day on the job. The DM needs to make players understand, through descriptions of what’s happening in town and through NPCs at the keep, that they can’t tackle these raiders head-on. Their job is to survive the night and to help as many townsfolk as possible do the same. But even if PCs perform brilliantly, the town will be sacked and innocent townsfolk will be murdered and abducted — Welcome to the Cult of the Dragon’s new vision for the Sword Coast.

The first episode is structured so that it has an opening encounter, several optional missions, and a closing encounter. The opening encounter is fairly straightforward and allows the players to be heroes by rescuing villagers and escorting them to the one good defensive position in the town: the keep. There, they get to meet the two major NPCs who are responsible for the town, the Governor and the Castellan.

These two NPCs are quite important because they provide the main way the DM can inform the players about the situation the town faces. The Protector acts as the early authority figure that provides structure to this part of adventure; he’s also going to provide the impetus that moves the characters into the next part of the adventure.

One of the chief problems facing a DM of this episode is how to properly balance the encounters. There is one basic problem: the encounters are, as written, almost entirely too dangerous for the players to face. It might be that this actually supports the style of play you wish to promote: stealth, ambushes and avoiding direct confrontation are some of the techniques players can use to reduce the threats of the town. However, for more heroic play, there are two basic strategies I suggest. Reduce the number of monsters faced, and increase the healing available to the party.

That last I accomplished in my own run through the adventure by placing a NPC healer in the keep with the Healer feat; this feat allowed each character to be healed once during the night. It wasn’t enough – the party were still pretty much spent by the time they’d done only half of the missions – but it proved a step in the right direction to allowing more of the challenges in this episode to actually be faced by the players.

It’s worth noting what the cultists want to happen: they want to get in, get all the gold and valuables they can, and then get out. They’re not actually there to kill everyone, just make sure that no-one tries opposing them. That’s what the dragon is there for: its presence (and dragonfear) will keep the defenders holed up in the keep. Running all the cultists so they want to fight to the death is probably a mistake, which is another way you can adjust the adventure to allow a better chance for the defenders to survive.

Lastly, it’s a very, very good idea to give some of the characters motivations from Appendix A of the adventure. Smart players might just avoid Greenest, and though we want to encourage intelligent play, we also want them to play the adventure!

Seek the Keep

The opening encounter of the adventure introduces a way the players can be heroes: by rescuing villagers threatened by the raiders. A battle against eight kobolds is going to be tough, but manageable – especially as the kobolds are likely to be surprised by the heroes.

One thing to emphasise in this early part of the adventure is that the raiders (cultists) are not dressed in uniform – they are indistinguishable from the player characters. This is something that is actually quite important, and will come up again in Episode 2. It means that initially, the players should not know that the raiders belong to any organisation; this will become apparent through later encounters.

Once the characters reach the keep, they need to meet Governor Nighthill and Castellan Escobert the Red, who can give them a description of what happened from their point of view, as well as lay out the challenges ahead.

From here, the order of missions is up to the players and the DM – the DM will generally lay out the situation and the players will choose what they do. It is almost certain that the players will not be able to do everything the adventure suggests, and you should feel free to invent additional situations to give the players more choice as to what to do. Adding additional missions to rescue more villagers is a very good idea. The Sanctuary mission is just one example of how you could run one.

The Old Tunnel, Prisoners

Both of these scenarios allow the players to be active in their choice of missions. It’s a good idea to let the Governor bring up them in his initial conversation with the players, especially if you have a group that will be more proactive in how they do things: these missions can be run at any time the players want to trigger them.

Prisoners is very important to run so that the players learn the motivations behind the attack.

Sanctuary, The Sally Port

Conversely, these two missions are reactive: the cultists have done something, and the players need to respond to it. These are good missions to give the players when they’re not sure what to do. Both raise the tension of the session. In the case of the Sanctuary, it can give rise to a real dilemma: do we go and help, or do we keep safe? Given how dangerous this episode is, it can lead to some interesting debates between party members.

Dragon Attack, Save the Mill

Although these two missions are basically reactive, they’re distinguished by actually being triggered by the cultists to eliminate the characters; thus, the cultists need to be aware that the characters are present and actively resisting the cult. These two missions are quite brutal, both with a high chance of player character death – and Save the Mill might easily end in a TPK, so you’ll have to be quite alert when running them as to how they play. Personally, I’d allow the players a chance to escape if the Mill starts going badly for them.

The Dragon Attack is particularly interesting as it penalises those characters who don’t have ranged attacks. (Demonstrating that most characters should have missile weapons is a very good thing in my opinion). When I ran the encounter, I made sure that the characters were aware that the dragon was half-hearted about the entire thing; I was aided in this in having a ranger whose favoured enemy was dragons.

Half-Dragon Champion

The final encounter does a few things: first, it demonstrates the cruelty of the cultists. Cyanwrath is only interested in showing how much better he is as a sword-fighter than everyone else, and so challenges the keep to bring out a champion so he can grind them into the dust. (In my opinion, Cyanwrath, a Lawful Evil character, has a very twisted definition of honourable, and won’t use his breath weapon to win the duel, but will absolutely kill them otherwise). It also gives the characters yet another moral dilemma: do they let the prisoners be killed (or the guardsman), or do they march to their own death?

Note that a rules change means that this encounter is more deadly than intended: the text states that Cyanwrath hits the character one more time to inflict a failed death saving throw on them, but the final rules mean that this counts as a critical hit and two failed saves; I’d go with the adventure text in this instance and just inflict one failure, or not have the final blow at all.

And yes, there’s nothing “fair” about this encounter at all. It’s not meant to be. By its end, the characters should absolutely hate Cyanwrath and the Cult. If your group has less tolerance for unbalanced encounters, don’t have Cyanwrath perform that extra attack and allow the group to reach the downed character before he dies. However, running the encounter as written is going to be pretty memorable.

Errata and Clarifications

The Map of Greenest has numbers on it that aren’t referred to in the text. According to Steve Winter, 1=The Keep, 2=Where the Tunnel emerges along the stream, 3=The Temple and 4=The Mill.

Steve’s Thoughts on only running a couple of missions:

If that’s all the characters can handle, that’s fine. If they fought their way to the keep plus a couple battles more, Governor Nighthill will happily say they’ve pulled their weight. By midnight, the keep should be full of wounded who can’t take any more. Anyone who’s heavily wounded can join them without shame. My experience with 5E in general and this scenario in particular is that characters can handle more than players new to the system think they can. Once everyone is wounded and spells are gone, the only tactic that makes sense is avoiding as many fights as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean hiding in the keep, however. Once the old tunnel is cleared out, some missions can be handled very stealthily. Others can’t. It’s up to players to decide what their characters can handle.

Key Points of the Episode

The characters reach Greenest and discover the cultist attack. They then act heroically, drawing the attention and gratitude of the Governor of Greenest. Along the way, they discover that the attack is by the Cult of the Dragon and they’re more interested in collecting loot than anything else. They also discover that the cult is extremely dangerous; by the end of the episode, very little of Greenest remains, despite their best efforts.

Articles in the “Running Hoard of the Dragon Queen” series: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6

This entry was posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice, Tyranny of Dragons. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Running Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Episode 1

  1. Kyle Maxwell says:

    I really appreciated this, as my group will finish Episode 1 tonight and I have an overview post coming out as well. You picked up on several things that I missed, though, and now I’m thinking about how to handle those problems in Episode 2.

  2. ilpalazzo64 says:

    Awesome article! I’m getting to run this in a couple of days and you’ve really pointed out some tweaks I can make to let go a little more smoothly.

  3. Wrathamon says:

    I feel starting them IN TOWN might be better than having them ride into town. I also think the motivations are needed.

    Steve Winters also posted this on google from a question that was posted about the two difficult encounters (Delete if this is too spoiler-ish) …

    “Why? — They’re horrible situations, but they give characters who aspire to be “Heroes” with a capital H the chance to step between someone else and death. No one gets to be a hero by risking discomfort and inconvenience.

    How? — Neither encounter is as deadly as it appears. NPCs bear the brunt of the dragon’s attacks. It’s up to the DM to decide when the dragon starts targeting PCs instead of NPCs. It shouldn’t happen until PCs have inflicted significant damage on the dragon — otherwise, why would the dragon care about them? Smart players will declare ready actions while the dragon circles. They can launch their readied attacks as the dragon swoops in, BEFORE the dragon attacks, and with any luck, put it over the 25 damage threshold. A DM with an eye for drama would also let them dive for cover behind the parapet as part of their reaction, even though it’s unclear whether that technically within the RAW. (Hugging some stone is easily possible without leaving your 5-foot square, so I’d allow it).

    There’s no reason Cyanwrath should kill anyone, if the PC’s friends are on the ball. Cyanwrath wins the fight, he strikes what he thinks is a death blow, and then he dismissively turns and leaves. The PC’s friends should reach the fallen character ASAP and get him stabilized. Everyone in the keep watches this play out, including Nighthill and Escobert, and the DM can offer the smartest advice possible through them. “ Steven Winter Oct 3, 2014

    and he followed this up with this on enworld

    “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

    this is probably the toughest thing for the DM to “sell” to the player. The motivation of the dragon and why it can be driven off, the hopelessness of the town, the hope that the only thing to help save the town is to sacrifice a hero. That is tough for a DM, but if they can do it, it could pay off.

  4. Wrathamon says:

    “When I ran the encounter, I made sure that the characters were aware that the dragon was half-hearted about the entire thing;” This is also difficult. You want the dragon to feel powerful and scary but it has a weakness. It can be driven off. I think understand WHY it doesnt have a wing in the fight so to speak is important. Dragons in D&D do talk, given players “clues” without beating them over-the-head with what they need to do. They could easily just hide but their should be ramifications for these actions. In our session, we aren’t getting aid from Governor and the town hates us, because we let his guards die, and were not honorable in the fight with cyanwrath and got the prisoners killed. I missed that day 🙁 shows me for not attending. Now we need to redeem ourselves in the next arc.

    • merricb says:

      Oh, dear… alienating yourselves from the townsfolk does make things a bit more difficult!

      • Wrathamon says:

        A dragon we arent going up there!? And, the DM told me that when the 1/2 dragon defeated the town’s champion, two of the other players attacked him seeking revenge. This is a great post to help DMs out.

  5. zmeirinhos says:

    Now I’m really glad me and my player haven’t managed to get together to start playing 5e.
    Thank you very much for this article, lots of good ideas and tips 🙂

  6. Roland the Red says:

    I added a NPC healer in the keep (4th level cleric – but overlooked the Healer feat, nice one!). I also changed up the Temple to Chauntea a bit:

    Rather than have Nighthill give them th mission, I had a plant grow suddenly in the middle of the keep with a pod that opened dropping a pixie. The pixie pleaded that peopl were trapped in the Temple. For now, Chauntea’s magic was keeping them at bay, but she cannot intervene directly (nobody asked why, but I had some BS in mind about the Directives of Ao or some such). The pixie promised chauntea would bless them this night if they only touch her statue in the temple (and free the people trapped). Then, I gave them a boon if they touched the statue depending on their “prayer”: DC 5 Religion – Gain 5 temp hps until sunrise, DC 10 – Gain benefits of a short rest and the DC5 boon, DC 15 – Gain the benefit of a long rest and the DC5 boon.

    I actually a character refuse to pray since he is an atheist (or rather, Gods-are-not-special-and-do-not-deserve-worship-ist)

  7. Thank you for the article, I have been mighty tired of seeing post after post bashing the start of the adventure and I have felt it has been entirely unwarranted.
    I feel that maybe people need to look at their DMing from a more flexible standpoint. I come from a homebrew background so I suppose I have an advantage there. But still.

  8. Edwin says:

    Great overview! In your experience, how long does it take to 1) run every episode, 2) level characters up, and 3) run the full Hoard of the Dragon Queen (leaves characters at level 8, right?) ?

    • merricb says:

      It took us 18 sessions of 1-2 hours each; so it probably is in the ballpark of 30-40 hours in total, but this can change greatly depending on how much role-playing you do and how much you cover.

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  15. Greg says:

    Was wondering if you have DM Princes of the Apocalypse and how did it go? also if you have a write up like this for that module? or know of a site that does, i ma going to be running it soon and wanted something like this for it. your notes and changes have helped alot with my Horde of the dragon queen i been running.

    also thanks for this right up like i said its helped alot!

    • merricb says:

      Yes, I’ve been DMing Princes – you should be able to find the first 4 reports here. I don’t yet have dedicated guides to running it, but each report has DM notes which you may find of use.

  16. Hákon Pétursson says:

    Great article!

    First-time poster. I know it’s already a bit old, but I just started running HotDQ, as our entry into 5E.

    We began with 6 PCs (may go up to 8). Decided not to increase difficulty of most encounters (although I sometimes had a single thug in encounter groups), as it seems the heroes will be worn down slowly but surely anyway. Also decided to drop the random encounters more or less. The adventure as written has plenty of combat already, and enough XP to get everyone to level 2 (assuming you will use all of the missions). Having an encounter every 200′ or so will simply take too long, and slow down the storylinre.

    The episode needs someone to offer healing, if you don’t want to have too frustrated players on your hands (or dead PCs). I decided to make the cleric of Chauntea an acolyte (with the healing feat), enabling him to provide some healing once rescued from the temple.

    The adventure requires a bit of work on behalf of the DM (and was evidently rushed into publication), but I like the intense intro, and the fact that the adventure offers alternatives to the hack’n’slash approach. When I read the intro to the players, explaining Greenest was being attacked by a dragon, one players said “eh… you sure you got the right book?”. I think that says it all 🙂

    I’m also sure my players will love-to-hate Cyanwrath after the final encounter.

    Will continue reading the rest of the articles. I also recommend the Sly Flourish articles by Mike Shea: http://slyflourish.com/greenest_in_flames.html

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