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.
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.