In my last article I explained why I reckon Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition should be pretty good, a rush of surprise optimism from someone who fell out of love with Third Edition and the 3.5 version. I started suspicious with Fourth Edition and it became the representation of everything I wasn’t keen on in RPGs. Then Fifth Edition came out and actually sounded pretty cool.
I bought the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and the printed adventure at the same time. The PHB is the main book necessary to play, only Wizards of the Coast made a free basic version so really you don’t even need that anymore. That’s pretty cool. I’ll cover the content of the PHB soon, possibly with too much booze and/or caffeine to encourage me through the whole damn thing. Yes, six or seven sessions in and I’ve not read all the rules. Shh… don’t tell my players.
The adventure is, “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” which is actually eight episodic adventures designed to show the full gamut of heroic life and push players through the first seven levels. It’s the first of three such books which make one massive storyline. Other companies (better companies?) have made whole imprints of similar ideas. I wasn’t willing to start this game in my own campaign world or make a whole new one instead.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen is set in the Forgotten Realms. It’s the most high fantasy of all the high fantasies. You may have played Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Lords of Waterdeep or read one of roughly eighteen billion books. I never bothered with the tales of the ubiquitous Drizzt Do’urden and Elminster. I played a game of D&D Third Edition in the Forgotten Realms once but that was about it.
Luckily most of my players knew the world, specifically the area this adventure was set in, from other media. The generic, ‘kitchen sink’ nature of Forgotten Realms made it easy to figure things out or not even bother that much. A dwarf is a dwarf, no matter where you toss it. Hoard looked pretty good from a preliminary skim; it started with a town under siege which was so much better than the usual caravan guard/rat-killer origins most groups go through in D&D.
At Dragonmeet 2014 I bumped into an old GM of mine, Benny F. He said that he’d been loving Fifth Edition, but he heard terrible things about Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Uh oh. Like what? Apparently there was no balance put into it, the encounters were fairly generic. There were some people online who hacked it, but his group played (and loved) the D&D Starter Set adventure and then stuck to doing their own thing.
I put off running it for a bit because of this demoralising news. I checked out a review or two online, I won’t post them here as my players may see and there are a ton of spoilers. They weren’t good.
After a little while curiosity got the better of me and I looked at the review at Ten Foot Pole which was even worse. Then I saw a site which promised to fix Hoard of the Dragon Queen, found here (I won’t link to the articles as hopefully my players will be too lazy to actually go that one step further and search the site for them).
I was spurred on by the reports in the articles. The adventure had issues, but it had some great moments. It was rushed out, it was missing some mechanics and elements of flavour. I started collating the ‘Fixing Hoard of the Dragon Queen’ articles into four-page booklets for each episode. The front page had notable NPCs, questions for the group and then any necessary fixes for that and the middle pages. The last page was an index of where to find the monster and NPC stat blocks as well as something big.
Kobolds were all over this adventure. We all know kobolds, right? Little dragony-looking guys. They are the generic first level monsters, often seen as harmless irritants and not really flavourful enough. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual showed them with a scorpion on a stick as a weapon, which is a tactic only likely to kill the scorpion. One of the early fixes provided on the site was to replace the kobolds with slightly more thematic creatures called dragon-dogs.
In the text they used daggers but I replaced that with claws as it’s slashing damage either way. They spit acid, some of them fly and they’re all awful. There’s a TV show called The 100 which I’m a big fan of and TV.com has a series of photo recaps of episodes which colour some of the characters as far creepier than they actually are, especially the family Cage, as shown here:
I took the useless-but-creepy behaviour and templated them on the dragon-dogs. They would try to collect tears from prisoners, have weird fixations with collecting things like fingers or hair. They are an iconic monster of this campaign but not part of the book at all.
The fixes weren’t all great though. The writer of the articles balances some elements of the story but is generally fine if the players die doing something foolish rather than redirect them. Mainly there are good fixes; he gave character traits to any named NPCs and added several more, as well as creating a cause & effect for each side mission in the first episode (you’ll see that in my first three AP articles). There’s a lot of good and some iffy elements, I guess your mileage varies depending on your storytelling style and your group.
I wrote up the first two episodes in their booklets, made templates for the next ones and promptly forgot to fill them in, something which would bite me in the arse soon enough. I was ready, but what about the players?
My gaming group have been mentioned a couple of times but I’ll go into the group’s make up in a little more depth here. There are a few PHBs in the group, so we all did character creation together in the first session, without any actual gameplay.
Characters start off as a concept, a choice of which high fantasy race you are (human, elf, dwarf, etc), which class you are (fighter, wizard, etc) and in this edition your character’s background. This is something I love, giving players some story depth and a little something their class might not normally have. The Hoard of the Dragon Queen book has some options in the back which can be tacked on to existing backgrounds. All but one of the group took direct links to the story.
GATT, GNOME ROGUE (STEVE)
Steve if the most experienced role-player in the group and was a drama student back in the day. It shows. He’s less about the rules and more about being pointed at a situation, explaining what he wants to do and asking what to roll. He’s one of the better players at suiting my GM style.
There’s a gnome cartoon in D&D Fourth Edition, I think it might be the best thing about 4E. Since then no matter how people draw gnomes, it’s how we imagine them. Steve previously played one of the most annoying gnomes ever as part of, “The Brothers Gnome,” with one of our ex-group members, Josh. This gnome was going to be very different.
Gatt is a horrible little creature with sharp teeth and daggers everywhere. His background of “Spy” gave him character prompts like: The best way to get him to do anything is to tell him not to do it, he puts people first, he has a debt to Mablung Raventree’s noble family which he has to pay off and is a terrible liar.
As a rogue he gets a backstabbing ability and can specialise in a skill above all others. It’ll be the best bump the group gets. He picked stealth, so he would be a little bundle of death who would spring out of shadows to disembowel his enemies.
His link to the overall story is that he dreamed of a village burning, a village attacked by a dragon. He didn’t know what it meant but is following landmarks to it.
MABLUNG RAVENTREE, HALF-ELF WILD MAGE SORCERER (ALEX)
Alex loves rules, he is rules incarnate. He wants to know how to be good at the games we play and that means instead of typecasting him as the group’s rules lawyer, I like to use him as the rules minder. Alex looks after initiative, he tends to have a book to hand. When I’m learning a system I’ll throw knowledge at him as he’s a good, responsible person for it for the most part.
He had been very tempted by the Wild Mage because… well, he’s played something similar before and the idea of a table of random spell effects which could go off by accident appealed. One of the things I like with my players is that they’ve been getting the idea that characters should be linked for a while now. It makes a good bit of backstory. Alex and Steve decided that Gatt would be the manservant of Mablung, who had picked “Noble” as a background. His character prompts are: He thinks all people are equal, he has to prove himself to his family, as the bastard son his words & deeds bring shame to the family.
His link to the story is the half-elf daughter of his mentor; Talis. She went missing around this neck of the woods and he’s hunting for her. Mablung’s family wanted rid of him so they gave him a substandard servant (Gatt) and sent him on his way.
Lee plays human fighters. That’s his general stance for everything. You notice patterns with groups. Alex normally plays elven archers or snipers. Vinnie is a mess (in the game). Lee plays the tank. This is his first attempt at a nonhuman character, which is pretty awesome. He was torn between fighter and paladin, either way it would serve the personality he wanted for the character. In the end fighter won out because in this edition you can become an ‘Eldritch Knight’ who uses magic. The idea intrigued him so he went down that route and picked a shield-based fighting style to tide him over.
He was a holy protector for the temple of Tyr, with the background of, “Acolyte”. His character prompts were: tolerant of other faiths, charity helps those in need, he will do anything to protect his temple and he is blindly trusting.
Lee was the only one to not take an in-book link to the story so he said that he’s heading to the Greenfields region to provide aid to clerics of Tyr. His link to the group is that he met Joggi Hvolner on the road.
WILLEN AKA MOCKINGBIRD AKA FATHER BENJAMIN, HUMAN “PRIEST” (JACOB)
Jacob is the other GM in the group. He often ends up being the smart person in the party, he also often ends up creating quite extreme personalities for his characters. Coming from a wargames background, he is closer to Alex than me, but often strikes a happy medium between the two. He is also known as, “The Foghorn of Brighton” for the amount of noise he makes.
Willen is a dodgy crook who wants to be known as a famous conman named, “Mockingbird.” The players around the table decided the moment he said it that they would do their best never to use that name for him. He wasn’t Willen to them though, or even Mockingbird. He was, “Father Benjamin,” a kindly priest. Apparently he was a “Charlatan” whose cons always involved being priests. His prompts were: he carried tons of holy symbols of different faiths, he is fair in his thievery and he is a coward.
Willen’s class was rogue, which he and Steve tried to make different for their characters. There was a lot of polite back and forthing about who might change their mind but we decided to test how differently they could be made. Willen was all about cons and Gatt about backstabbing. Steve offered to be the cleric but like me, he always ends up being the cleric so I was keen on him to stuck to his guns.
Mockingbird’s link to the story is that his grandfather was a famous dragonslayer and the Cult of the Dragon found this out. They have been shaking people down round these parts so he’s in disguise full time at the moment, lying low until the cult goes away.
JOGGI HVOLNER, DWARF MONK (VINNIE)
Vinnie is the newest of our players. His frankly obscene Fiasco character was a sign he was a good match and his post-apocalyptic VW-driving transvestite in Apocalypse World was probably the moral centre and lead character of that game. He’s been… interesting. He knew two things going in; he wanted to be a dwarf and he wanted to be a monk. I think the main goal was punching people’s knees out.
Joggi is more of a martial artist type monk than a mystical one, a worshipper of Ogma. As an outlander, his prompts were: he has no social decorum, he believes that there’s always good somewhere, he wants revenge on dragons and believes that it takes 1,000 steps to reach the top and only one to fall back down. The players rolled their height & weight… Joggi is a bit of a mess with his. I forget the exact BMI, but he’s fat, even for a dwarf. He’s like an alcoholic barrel who punches things. His home was wrecked by the Cult of the Dragon and he’s looking for a new place to live. On the road he met “Father Benjamin” who he doesn’t know is a conman.
We have a group, we have a (rough) reason why they’re wandering the Greenfields district of Faerûn’s Sword Coast. We have some quick fixes for the interesting-but-broken campaign: Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Next time, we join our group as they’re thrust face-first into the drama.