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Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Demise of Tiamat

The fact that I have waited so long to review The Rise of Tiamat, the sequel to Hoard of the Dragon Queen cannot be seen as a good sign. Launched as the first part of Tyranny of Dragons, the inaugural signature campaign for the relaunched Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Hoard of the Dragon Queen was disappointing for many reasons. It was repetitive, it felt flat, and it did not provide enough support for either the DM or the players, making it ill suited to play by those new to Dungeons & Dragons. Nor was it an interesting read and all together, it did not bode well for its sequel and concluding part.

The Rise of Tiamat follows on from the events of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and takes the players from eighth to fifteenth level. Their efforts in uncovering the activities of the Cult of the Dragon have brought them to the attention of the Council of Waterdeep. The Council wants to make use of both their skill and their expertise, asking not only their advice, but their aid in performing mission after mission. These include infiltrating a dragon’s lair, investigating the Cult of the Dragon’s attacks, seeking alliances with the great, the good, and the devilishly evil, and more, all before facing Tiamat herself as the Cult’s plans come to fruition. For the most part, the player characters will be interacting with the Council of Waterdeep before being sent out on these missions, so potentially with the politics and the negotiating there should be plenty of opportunity for both roleplaying and action in the campaign.

All of which sounds fantastic. This then is a campaign on an epic scale, presenting Dungeons & Dragons on a grand stage. Unfortunately, The Rise of Tiamat is never allowed to live up to this potential for it is handicapped by one problem after another.

The Rise of Tiamat is poorly organised. The campaign is undeniably linear with one mission presented after another. Yet two of the campaign’s episodes are ones that the player characters will return to again and again, the Council of Waterdeep and the Cult of the Dragon striking back at the heroes, both of which have problems of their own (see below). Yet parts of these episodes are interspersed throughout the campaign, so why have these parts actually placed between the other episodes when they occur during the campaign? This would make it easier to run, especially for the less experienced DM.

The Rise of Tiamat lacks grandeur. There is no lack of scope to this campaign. After all, it involves the heroes working directly with the Council of Waterdeep to save Faerûn, fighting dragons, parleying with dragons, negotiating with necromancers of Thay, and of course, fighting Tiamat. Yet many of these encounters, such as the parleying with dragons and the negotiating with an island of necromancers is dealt with in just three pages each. These are fantastic situations, but they never feel really fantastic, the writing never brings out the sense grandeur that these encounters should have. This applies to individual locations too, because no location or encounter is longer than twenty-five locations—and that includes each and every one of the campaign’s dungeons. Too many of these encounters and dungeons just feel small.

The Rise of Tiamat constantly undermines player agency. The player characters are working throughout the campaign to thwart the Cult of the Dragon’s plans to summon Tiamat. There is absolutely nothing that the player characters can do to stop the summoning from being set up or from making it more difficult for the Cult of the Dragon to set the summoning up. It does not matter if the player characters manage to kill any of the high ranking members of the Cult of the Dragon or their allies because the book’s advice is to simply replace them. In other words, it has no effect upon the end result. Further, the heroes are sent out twice on missions that would appear to attempting to stop the summoning—in both cases to try and get hold of constituent Dragon Masks that combine into the Mask of the Dragon Queen needed to summon Tiamat. In both cases, the heroes cannot obtain either Mask… (Although an editing error in the finale suggests that this might have been a possibility that has since been removed). Arguably, both scenarios are a waste of time.

The Rise of Tiamat is constantly undermining player agency even when the player characters have it. What the heroes are actually doing in the campaign is attempting increase the number of forces that can be arrayed against the Cult of the Dragon and its allies. This is done by performing the various missions presented in the episodes and if they are carried out to the satisfaction of one ally or another, then the player characters will have won their support towards the assault on the Cult of the Dragon’s summoning ritual. Yet when the heroes are sent out on a mission, they only know what their objectives are, rather than both their objectives and what any of the attendees at the Council of Waterdeep might want them to do. The result is that the campaign’s primary activity—influencing the forces that will be arrayed against the Cult of the Dragon—is a reactive activity when surely it should have been both proactive and reactive. Not for each and every mission, but certainly for some of them.

There is no price to failure throughout The Rise of Tiamat—except if the heroes actually fail at the end. At the climax of the campaign, if the player characters do not prevent the summoning of Tiamat, then she and her cohorts rampage across Faerûn  and essentially the campaign has become Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight. Until then though, the only real price to failure is the possibility of player character death, but since  the Harpers or their allies can simply cast Raise Dead, that is moot anyway...

The treasure in The Rise of Tiamat is terrible. Part of the plot to Tyranny of Dragons is that the Cult of the Dragon has been collecting treasure from accross Faerûn in order to have enough tribute to Tiamat. So understandably treasure has been somewhat thin on the ground, but throughout the campaign the treasure rewards rarely amount to more than scrolls and potions and the occasional Arrow of Dragon Slaying. The one single item of colourful treasure in the book is a pair of goblets that grant a bonus for Saving Throws versus poison. Yet not once is there an opportunity for this to be used in the campaign. Except that there is and it is completely ignored.

The Rise of Tiamat lacks subtlety. For example, the Cult of the Dragon soon wearies of the heroes’ activities and strikes back at them. Not once, not twice, but three times, and each time, the cult sends forces to physically attack the player characters. Each time an attack fails, there are survivors or watchers who get away to inform their masters of their failure and when one band fails, the cult sends another band—only stronger, and then it does it again. Essentially the cult learns nothing from these failed attacks. Why does the cult  resort to the same method of attack again and again? Especially when the player characters attend the Council of Waterdeep, not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times! So why does the Cult of the Dragon not infiltrate the Council? After all, it would be a perfect opportunity to attempt to poison the heroes. Especially when it has the treasure to spend on such an attempt. Especially when there is one good magic item doing nothing…?

The Rise of Tiamat does not reward good roleplaying. The campaign uses the milestone system of advancement, where the heroes are rewarded with an advancement in level every few episodes when it is significant. The problem with this is that it does allow for rewards for good play. For example, the heroes may encounter and interact with a ghost. They may even find a way for the ghost to move on. Yet there is no reward for this and thus no incentive for the heroes to take such actions, and this despite there being a mechanism—that of Inspiration—present in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition that would be perfect for this.

The Rise of Tiamat does not show, it tells. Throughout the campaign, we are told again and again that the Cult of the Dragon and its dragon allies are laying waste to the Forgotten Realms, rounding up prisoners, and sweeping up treasure. Most of this becomes apparent to the player characters as they travel from the Council of Waterdeep to an encounter and back again, but whilst the heroes get to investigate the aftermath of such an attack, why not have the heroes involved in such a situation? That would reinforce the terrible effects of the events that the player characters are trying to stop and it make this second part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign not feel as if it was removed from the everyday effects of the Cult of the Dragon’s campaign.

The Rise of Tiamat has poor descriptive text. Now no-one wants the dreaded ‘purple prose’, but The Rise of Tiamat never comes close to this. Indeed, it is often banal in its descriptions. For example, “Once your eyes adjust to the stunning chaos of Tiamat’s Temple, you see its interior is a single, cathedral-like space that towers far overhead.” What exactly does ‘stunning chaos’ look like? Nowhere is a description given. Yet this occurs at the climax of the adventure, it is a set-piece, and it should be memorable—and so it is. Yet for the wrong reasons, because it is so immemorable.

The Rise of Tiamat undermines player agency because it limits both their options and their involvement in the campaign’s climatic scene. As hard as the heroes have worked to bring a strong alliance of disparate forces to the summoning of Tiamat, these forces are really only used to distract the Cult of the Dragon’s forces away from the player characters’ efforts to fight Tiamat. Since their characters have the respect of the Council of Waterdeep, the players are free to assign the forces they have arrayed as they wish, but then all of the action that might involve such clashes is waved away without any player involvement. Instead the heroes are tasked with making their own way in and striking at the summoning directly. So riding in on the back of a dragon or leading forces into the field, just sneaking in as almost nothing else matters.

Now The Rise of Tiamat is not wholly without merit. Two of the early episodes—mini-dungeons both—are actually good, possessing flavour and feel. The first involves sneaking into a White Dragon’s lair within an iceberg where the great beast holds its minions in an icy grip. There is actually quite a lot going on in this adventure and by working with some the minions, the player characters may gain advantages that simply running in and hitting things would deny them. The environment and its difficulties are also reasonably detailed. The second is episode is more of a traditional dungeon, the tomb of an ancient diviner, which contains some nice little details. Some of its encounters are not as realised as they should be—arguably the encounters with a band of devils should be made more of than they are—but when the dungeon is good, it is really quite good.

Other dungeons are not as good. Notably, there is a tower that the player characters need to get to, but the only way is through a maze. The limits of the maze are actually quite constrained and what the player characters really have to do is work out how the puzzle that will get them through the maze works and then handle each of the subsequent encounters. There is actually some nice invention going on in some of these encounters—for example, a giant rock throwing competition with a pair of Cyclops—but the maze itself will be more than challenging because not every player likes mazes and this may end up as an exercise in frustration.

Physically, The Rise of Tiamat  is cleanly and neatly presented. Certainly the maps are much, much better than in Hoard of the Dragon, being detailed and easier to read. Whilst the illustrations are good, there could be more of them and they could be a bit easier for the DM to use in the game. The writing has its own issues, of course, many of which the DM will need to overcome in order to get a decent game out of the campaign.

The Rise of Tiamat really has one single problem. It is not campaign. It is a campaign outline, one that the DM will need to work up with further details to add depth and direction to. Arguably, it feels as if the designers wrote and developed a much longer, more detailed campaign and were forced to cut much of it to fit the ninety or so pages of the final book. Ultimately though, there is a one-hundred-and-ninety-two page campaign in The Rise of Tiamat, a ninety-six page book.


Finally, there is the matter of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign as a whole to consider. Beyond the core books of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide, this campaign was the intended to showcase Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. After all, it is set in the game’s primary campaign setting of the Forgotten Realms and it is does pitch the player characters against the game’s original signature villain—Tiamat. Yet as a showcase for anyone new to Dungeons & Dragons, this campaign can only be regarded as a failure, because fundamentally, there is not enough advice or help for the neophyte DM, let alone his players. In addition it does not explain enough and it does not present either the campaign or the setting of the Forgotten Realms in the colour or with the scope it demands. There is still a great campaign for Dungeons & Dragons to be had in the player characters preventing the summoning of Tiamat, but the Tyranny of Dragons is not that and the campaign is going to remembered more for its potential than its execution.