Even though they have been out for a while now, I wanted to give a bit of a wait before I wrote anything about these two adventures from Wizards of the Coast for the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Firstly, I have had a few opportunities to run a fair amount of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, seen much of it being played and have a good grasp of how some of it works out in play. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of how Rise of Tiamat actually works in play, but it does have some truly great ideas even if you don’t intend to run it. The core of that adventure, the wonderfully thought out Factions system and how it ties into the players decisions, is actually being actively used in my current Dungeons and Dragons game, Curse of the Black Pearls.
When doing this review I debated if I would split the two books up into separate reviews alone or if I would simply consider it as one large “adventure”, then review the entire thing as a whole. Obviously from the title of this post, I decided that I would go with reviewing both adventures as one entity and give my overall opinion on the campaign it ultimately produces. The way this review will work is that I shall consider how both books stack up individually, talk about some of the individual strengths and weaknesses, then recommend if I feel it is worth running the entire campaign, or just going with one or the other.
In part one of this review, we’ll talk about Hoard of the Dragon Queen. In part two, we’ll consider the follow up adventure Rise of Tiamat. Finally in the final part I’ll give my overall judgement and then recommendation of what I feel is worth your hard earned gold.
Hoarde of the Dragon Queen
So Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first of the two adventures to have been released after 5E came out last year, but it is also sadly somewhat problematic in both its encounter design and unfortunately, its editing. It’s also a fairly linear and railroady feeling adventure, given that a lot of it occurs on traveling around directly from place to place for the vast majority of it. At the same time there is a lot of good material or ideas in this book to work with, it has the obvious strength of building into Rise of Tiamat perfectly, some absolutely fabulous cartography and the books construction (feel, paper etc) is top notch plus the new artwork it provides is just terrific. Check out this scene of the Blue Dragon attacking the town from the initial chapter:
Before I continue, it’s also worth pointing out this adventure and Rise of Tiamat are both set entirely in the Forgotten Realms. As someone who personally quite likes the Forgotten Realms in general and doesn’t have a problem with it, this isn’t much of an issue. You should bear in mind that there isn’t a lot of guidance provided in this book for running this campaign in any other particular setting. I do feel that it’s not going to be terribly difficult to convert this into another setting like Eberron without that much issue, but do bear this in mind if you absolutely hate anything Forgotten Realms orientated.
So let’s get the big complaint I have out of the way first, which is that the book does not have any statistics blocks for monsters in it, except for the handful of creatures created for the module itself. While Wizards have released an online supplement for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which does have many of the missing statistics blocks or references the ones in the basic rules, you’re going to be looking into multiple places to figure out what the creatures stats actually are to run the encounters here. Obviously there is some give and take here, as by not including any stat blocks they save page space for other things like more detail in the adventure or similar.
In my opinion, making the DM have to look through multiple books or sources to run an encounter is contrary to why I want an adventure like this, which is to pick it up and then easily run it with a minimum of prep time/looking things up required. Being forced to look up the monsters myself and then make my own notes/references to use at the game is somewhat running contrary to that idea. Most importantly, I would be happy to pay slightly more for some extra pages and make sure I had that convenience of easily referenced stat blocks – at least in the same book.
This is probably one of the biggest reasons I find this adventure somewhat unwieldy and it can lead to some nasty surprises, such as when you notice the monsters in a later encounter are much stronger than you thought they would be (we’ll get to that later). In any event, with this out of the way, let’s discuss what the book actually offers!
Summary of the Adventure
Hoard of the Dragon Queen is based on a lot of travel, with the player characters moving from a small town called Greentarn and then by caravan again up to some iconic cities in Forgotten Realms such as Baldur’s Gate and later on Waterdeep. The campaign opens with a considerable bang, with the city of Greentarn under siege by a marauding blue dragon and the associated cultist forces. From here, the characters engage with the cultists main camp, travel hidden in a caravan up to Baldur’s Gate, navigate a swamp to find a hidden castle and then finally teleport to a different place to finally infiltrate a Flying Fortress.
Based on this you should prepare to deal with a lot of tables for random encounters, with associated troubles encountered on the roads from place to place and not giving the players a tremendous amount of “down time” between adventures. This is because the pace of this adventure is generally pretty high, because the players are chasing down their enemies for the most part or moving around with them. Additionally, while it’s difficult it is also possible for the player characters to derail portions of the adventure by getting particular artifacts or killing certain named antagonists early on.
Thankfully the book suggests some ways around it, including such classic tricks as “This character wasn’t really that important” or that the item was a fake in the first place. Much of these decisions don’t have a huge impact until the second adventure in the series, Rise of Tiamat and can arguably be corrected there in the case of the players getting certain artifacts. Overall the adventure is fairly straightforward with some light dungeon crawl elements at various points.
The book is split into 8 episodes, which if you use the milestone system means it covers levels 1-8. It also has some campaign specific information for backgrounds PCs can take to fit into the campaign, some extra monsters and magic items specific to the campaign. It’s worth noting that as this adventure was written before the DMG or MM were released, many of the elements of those books in here were released as free supplementary PDFs, which was very handy of Wizards to do.
The Guild’s Opinion
Hoard of the Dragon Queen is an okay adventure, but has a lot of individual errors and confusing editing that I feel ultimately let it down considerably. For example it has several very basic errors throughout the book. In one particularly egregious example, the players are ambushed at an inn by 4 assassins and subsequently need to defend themselves. The problem is that the CR 8 Assassin is an incredibly strong creature, attacking twice per round getting sneak attack and a hefty amount of damage from extra poison. With their accuracy, coming in with surprise (often) and incredibly high damage potential they can easily wreck a standard level 4 party.
While by far the worst of the errors in the book in terms of murdering the PCs, it is very disappointing to see such things manage to creep their way into a published adventure. Especially one that serves as the basis for a very long term campaign and one of the first full adventures Wizards has published for this edition. Other errors are generally just minor confusing things like a description of one room saying there are certain creatures in another room, whose description contradicts that. Another minor example is when one of the maps hasn’t been labelled 100% correctly and has a region marked on it not detailed in the description.
These typos and errors are fairly obvious and make the initial part of the adventure feel a little rushed as a result. Thankfully it improves considerably as it goes along and there are some great moments towards the end, such as a rush to get onto a flying castle and infiltrating a fortress surrounded by a swamp. One of the decisions in this module is of special importance to a DM who is wanting to go into the next part Rise of Tiamat, where the fate of the flying castle is quite significant to the different factions.
Possibly the main issue I have with this adventure is the opening parts and some of the sections that occur while traveling. The adventure opens with the town of Greentarn under siege by a cultist army with a blue dragon and the level 1 PCs are expected to heroically charge right into it. Obviously that’s because it’s where the adventure is, but it gives several parties I’ve seen and ran it for a little bit of pause with “What, we’re supposed to fight a dragon and an army? Really?”. The first chapter is especially difficult on a default party, with a particularly lethal encounter with a pair of rat swarms and a fight against the half-dragon general of the cultists army.
The battle against the half-dragon general seems almost set up to kill a PC a good chunk of the time. He far outmatches a 1st level character, combined with a greatsword doing decent damage, two attacks a round and a 19-20 critical range he can very easily drop a low HP Fighter/Paladin to their absolute negative HP in damage to give that player a new character sheet. Of the groups I have ran this encounter for and of the 3-4 times I’ve seen others run it, this encounter has never come off well or with the presumed intent of giving the players a “grudge”. It just feels really blatantly unfair for the sake of it and the fight is basically never interesting or exciting – just punishing.
Similarly, the second chapter has the PCs infiltrate the cultists camp and then kind of wander around in it for a while not doing a whole lot. Even the guy they are there to rescue kind of chastises them for it and this chapter rather loses any real focus. A common thing I’ve noticed with this portion of the adventure is that it needs to have some more things for the players to do: Maybe some gambling on drake fighting, further interactions with other NPCs in the cult, perhaps some other prisoners to rescue and so forth. It feels like a rather empty space and especially with how the way it’s written the guy the PCs have to find deals with his own escape.
The first real traditional dungeon crawling is in Chapter 3 and this is another place where a non-careful DM might run into a trap. A particular fight in this chapter, involving the Half-Dragon champion from earlier and a couple of barbarians is especially brutal for its supposed challenge (players will be level 3 normally at this point). Unfortunately these fights with very whacky over-lethal difficulties are quite common early in this module, especially another encounter in the same cave with a roper that can similarly wipe out the party. I do actually like this part of the adventure and the party gets an interesting decision as to what to do with some dragon eggs towards the end. I find such moral quandaries make for some intriguing roleplaying decisions.
As mentioned in the summary above, once past the early setup the bulk of the middle part over Chapters 4-7 are basically traveling from one place to the other. Chapter 4 is all on the road as a part of a caravan heading to Baldur’s Gate, then into the city itself and then it’s back on the road again immediately after. This felt a bit disappointing because there was a tremendous amount that could have been done with the iconic Forgotten Realms city and it is sort of just moved through incidentally. It felt a little bit like “Here is this really great iconic city of FR that was in that one video game, now we’re moving on!”. Expanding out and giving some more flesh to this part of the adventure and things to do in the city would have been great.
Especially because a lot of the roadside and traveling based encounters in Chapters 4 and 5 especially are just random encounters, or aren’t really all that exciting. There are some interesting dynamics with the caravan and certain NPCs in Chapter 4, but overall it does feel like something the DM can trivially handwave and just skip ahead on without losing a lot to the overall adventure. Chapter 5 concludes with the PCs finding where the cult unloads all of their stuff and then heading deep into the swamp to reach an old castle.
Chapter 6 offers some interesting approaches to the PCs and has some great potential for inter-species conflict starting (as the Bullywugs and Lizardmen do not like one another). Likewise it’s also pretty large and offers a substantial dungeon crawl. DMs who allow their players to do so can also let the PCs murder a couple of really important NPCs in Rise of Tiamat at this point, which can really make a big difference on a couple of chapters in that adventure (so you should bear this in mind). I actually really liked this part of the adventure and felt it gave the players plenty of interesting choices and decisions on how to handle it.
The castle though is another way point along the traveling theme, with a direct link to the Chapter 7 at a mountainous hunting lodge. Again there is more potential for wrecking future plots in Rise of Tiamat by murdering NPCs, but this chapter is similarly quite good for the PCs to approach in a wide variety of ways and that’s a great thing. It also gives the players some intrigue in how they deal with inter-cult personalities and conflicts, such as taking a side to gain some interesting but potentially treacherous allies. It’s also an important part of the adventure, because not getting the right info can have a pretty tough consequence in missing their chance to get on the flying fortress.
The final part of the adventure, Chapter 8 details the PCs attempt to sneak onto or possibly steal some wyverns and fly onto the cults floating castle. I personally think that the way I would run this would be to have the PCs miss the castle leaving, so they then have to fight their way through the cultists in the town and steal the wyverns to get onto it. This just gives me the best imagery and has a ton of potential for dramatic moments! How the PCs conclude the adventure here, notably by choosing to spare the castle, keep it in the storm giants hands or just crash it entirely into the dirt has major ramifications for Rise of Tiamat (which is a good thing). Overall I liked this part of the adventure the most and felt it had some of the best potential for interesting roleplaying, notably in convincing the giants to betray their cultist allies.
Overall you’ll have noted that this adventure is extremely linear. Every chapter moves directly into the next one in some way, such as traveling with a specific caravan, being teleported directly to the next area and so on. It’s worth mentioning how linear and on rails this particular adventure is, because Rise of Tiamat is entirely the opposite in its approach (as I will discuss). It does justify itself pretty well in the end and I don’t view this as a major problem, but it might bother some DMs (as the whole caravan thing is a little on the nose).
In the end this is a decent adventure, but I feel the very variable difficulty in some early encounters and the editing of the early part being off in places are a big let down for a starting effort in “This is our first big published adventure!”. It’s also worth noting that it’s immensely stingy in handing out magical items to the players across the initial 8 levels of play it covers. It’s especially notable how little magical items the PCs acquire if you’ve run Mines of Phandelver, which only goes from levels 1-4 (or so) yet hands out significantly more items. Of course, 5E isn’t that inherently tired to PCs having magical items and so this isn’t a huge issue, but it is notable.
Next up: Rise of Tiamat.
Disclosure: I bought both books myself from a FLGS.