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Friday, 12 September 2014

Board of the Dragon Queen

Hot on the heels of the Player’s Handbook comes the first adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. Written by Wolgang Baur and Steve Winter—the ‘Kobold-in-chief’ for Open Design LLC and TSR and Wizards of the Coast veteran designer respectively—Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign that will be completed with the publication of The Rise of Tiamat. It comes as a slim ninety-six page hardback that in eight chapters takes the adventurers from First Level up through Seventh Level.

At the time of publication, with just the Player’s Handbook available, it might seem that it would be impossible to play or run Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This could not be further from the truth. To begin with, the rules presented in the Player’s Handbook are more than sufficient to run the campaign. After all, if the rules presented in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set were enough to run ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in box, then those given in the Player’s Handbook will more than suffice for Hoard of the Dragon Queen. One thing that the DM will need is the campaign’s online supplement—available here because whilst some are given in the book itself, the online supplement contains all of the magic items, monsters, and spells referenced in Hoard of the Dragon Queen

The setting for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sword Coast, thus in keeping with recent releases from Wizards of the Coast, including the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. The Cult of the Dragon, ever a pervasive and pernicious influence in the region, has decided that it has tired of skulking in the shadows and is in the process of bringing an audacious plan to fruition. Drawing on its alliances with its draconic brethren and the Red Wizards of Thay, it seeks to free Tiamat from her infernal prison in the Nine Hells and bring her to Faerûn. 

Which is fair to say, sounds awesome! After all, this looks like a campaign that throws the adventurers up against the signature bad guy (sic) of Dungeons & Dragons—Tiamat herself. She was after all, the villain of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, and thus will be familiar to many players of the game. The other villains of Dungeons & Dragons are probably the devil Asmodeus, the demon Orcus, and of course, Count Strahd von Zarovich of Ravenloft fame, but going up against a villain like Tiamat should whet the appetite of any Dungeons & Dragons player. Of course, that will not happen in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but will no doubt be saved for The Rise of Tiamat, but investigating her cult should set everything up for a confrontation of memorable proportions. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Hoard of the Dragon Queen, getting to that confrontation may not be as memorable as it should be…

The campaign begins with a cliché as its solution to how to get the characters involved—the party is working as guards for a caravan that is travelling to the starting location for the campaign. Which is the same set up as that for ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, but fortunately, this is countered somewhat by the first of the book’s appendices, which gives options to adjust any Background that a player chooses for his character to fit the setting. These can be rolled for, but it would make as much sense for the GM to assign these to the player characters according to suitability and their Class. Had much more this been done to involve the characters in the adventure in this way, it would have greatly strengthened the start of the campaign.

Once they get to the outskirts of Greenest, the characters discover that it is under attack. Fighting their way in, they are given refuge in the town’s keep, but being the town’s best hope, the governor asks the adventurers for help. This sets up a number of mini-missions that will see them help protect and rescue the townspeople and begin learn what the attackers want. These are nice way of getting them involved, sneaking out of the town’s keep again and again to help save the townsfolk, but it culminates in rather a disappointing encounter. The problem is not the encounter itself, but rather its effect—or lack thereof—upon the campaign. In this, one of the player characters has the opportunity to face the leader of the raiding party in duel, arguably a rousing climax to the chapter. It is a tough encounter, but if the player character is particularly successful, the campaign has the leader either ferreted away or simply replaced by with another NPC with exactly the same stats. Surely this undermines the players’ agency by making their efforts have no effect?

In the days to come, the adventurers will be asked to follow the raiders and scout out their nearby base, first to conduct a rescue mission and then return again to investigate what turns out to be the first dungeon in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It is an unimpressive affair that feels flat and featureless, but whatever they find in the dungeon, the adventurers’ information will bring them to the attention of interested parties opposed to the Cult of the Dragon and they will be asked to undertake increasingly dangerous missions in the name of the safety of Faerûn.

In some ways, the first of these marks the highlight of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Working for their patrons, the party is tasked with joining a caravan train that is travelling north along the Sword Coast and which is suspected of having been infiltrated by the Cult of the Dragon. The DM is presented with plenty of material to work with—numerous NPCs and encounters, both random and planned. There are opportunities aplenty for roleplaying and interaction throughout this section, but its primary purpose is to bring the adventurers to the attention of the cultists—and then earn their ire. One question not addressed is what would happen if the adventurers managed to stop this, another incidence of player agency being stymied. 

Whilst there are opportunities to roleplay later in this first part of the campaign, they grow fewer and fewer in number as Hoard of the Dragon Queen drives towards its climax. There is a marked shift in emphasis upon roleplaying and interaction towards infiltration and combat—typically with the adventurers disguising themselves in cult clothing—as the party follows the trail of the cult’s loot. The best of these opportunities is the potential for the adventurers to turn the various humanoid groups at the cult’s base in a swamp against each other. Which works in the one instance, but the campaign returns to it not once, but twice more, and once in mufti, the adventurers are expected to do no more than sneak in amongst the cultists, salute them, and then with a cry of “Surprise!”, draw their weapons and attack. It becomes all too one-note. Only the scenery changes…

In the last part of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the party needs to board a Cloud Giant’s castle—before it flies away! The opportunity to do so is fleeting and the DM may well need to make some adjustments if the adventurers are in danger of missing their flight. Which is a distinct possibility given that it comes down to some difficult skill rolls involving the handling of wyverns… The consequences of failure are not really covered either. Once aboard the castle, the design never quite comes alive, again expecting the player characters to sneak in and divide the factions found therein. A  Cloud Giant’s castle should be amazing, a memorable experience, but again it just seems to fizzle out. 

Some players maybe disappointed at the dearth of treasure available in this campaign. Indeed, the adventurers may well rise through several levels before they acquire any magical items. The clue though lies in the title—Hoard of the Dragon Queen, for in truth, this is intentional. The point is that the villains of the campaign are hoarding the treasure—hence the title of this first part—rather than leaving it lying around for the player characters to find… What treasure there is though, is often generic and uninteresting. Indeed, the hoard itself is little more than a pile of coins.

Physically, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is unimpressive. The writing often feels flat and the tan colouring throughout does not help. In particular, all too many of the campaign’s minor NPCs are left for the DM to develop and bring to life, which although allows him to add his personal touch, does him more work to do and as written, hardly serves to make the campaign memorable. The illustrations are decent enough, but whilst pretty enough, the cartography thoroughly undermines the book. Too often the maps are murky and featureless, but worse, in they lack a key to their locations, whilst in others, they are too small, switch scales, and even orientation. Worse, in places, they do not have places marked upon them that are discussed in the text, leaving the DM to place them. Essentially, the book’s maps force the DM to do an awful lot of unnecessary work when they should be aiding him.

Although Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not the first scenario to be released for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition—that honour goes to ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set—it is the first to be released in the wake of, and to require the use of, the Player's Handbook. It is thus Wizards of the Coast's flagship campaign for the RPG, showcasing how the new edition of the game should be played, what a scenario looks like for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, and  of course, how much fun it offers.

Unfortunately Hoard of the Dragon Queen does none of that. The truth is that it is not a good scenario, it is not a well written scenario, and it is not a well presented scenario. The scenario is just not exciting, it lacks atmosphere—though not tone, which is grim; it fails to bring the NPCs to life or give the player characters enough options; and it just does not provide enough support for the DM despite the fact that he really, really needs it. Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not a scenario suited to first time DMs, whereas ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is and it is also much, much more fun. There is no doubt plenty of material for the DM to work with in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but he will have to work unnecessarily hard to bring it out.