Hoard of the Dragon was the inaugural campaign for the new Dungeons & Dragons. Part of the Tyranny of Dragons event, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first of a two-part adventure that together take a group of fresh PCs from first through fifteenth level (Hoard of the Dragon Queen itself covers levels 1-7). Hoard of the Dragon Queen sets the adventurers off to investigate the new activities of the Cult of the Dragon, which will later culminate in The Rise of Tiamat.
- Vital Statistics: 96-page, full-color hardcover; retails for about $30
The Spoiler-Free Quick Take: A middling romp along the Sword Coast. The weakest parts are up front, so make sure to look all the way through if you’re skimming in the store.
Warning: Now, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that, hey, the goal of the Cult of the Dragon Queen has something to do with glorifying Tiamat, but be advised that this review is not a spoiler-free zone. While I’m not going to go into the fine details of dungeon layouts or NPC motivations, don’t read ahead if you might want to go through this adventure as a PC with almost no idea what might happen.
The Cult of the Dragon, having switched from its usual dracolich-centric tactics, is collecting treasure that will be used in a ritual to summon Tiamat into the Realms (the titular Hoard of the Dragon Queen). Over the course of this campaign, the PCs will stumble onto this plot, track the cultists, and then(assuming all goes well) will act to deprive the cult of this particular batch of treasure and a significant ally.
Although individual experience can be awarded, this campaign would seem to work best using the milestone system, with the PCs simply gaining a level at the end of each episode (except the super-short episode 5).
Episode 1: Greenrest in Flames – Alas, Hoard of the Dragon Queen opens with my least favorite part of the book. The town of Greenrest is being attacked, and the PCs show up just in time to maybe do a little bit about it (why the PCs show up can be generic, or there is a page of potential background hooks for why the PCs might be interested in Greenrest). The PCs can face up to 8 independent missions during this attack (which lasts one whole night), with the PCs based in the town’s fortified keep. These missions include tasks such as defending a sally port, venturing forth to save a particular structure or group of people, or watching a dragon kills NPC guards. There is a small map, but it isn’t terribly useful, and it was (at least to me) a bit confusing how the PCs were supposed to be repeatedly sneaking all over a city under attack. The final “mission” is the worst of the bunch. With the town outside of the keep essentially sacked, the enemy commander issues a challenge for single combat, which must be accepted or innocent prisoners will be executed. If a PC accepts, they are virtually guaranteed to lose, as the enemy commander far outclasses a first-level character. Of course, you can’t just murder a PC, so the brutal commander who has just sacked this town will magically fail to kill the PC with his coup de grâce. I can only presume that this encounter was added to give a face to the enemy, and give the PCs a grudge that will encourage them to follow up, but this is not the way to do it.
Episode 2: Raiders’ Camp – This episode sees the party following the trail of the departing attackers to find out who they are, and why the attacked Greenrest. They are also asked to search for a monk who disappeared after the battle. Although there is a little combat getting to the camp, this is an infiltration mission. It seems pretty clear that the party is supposed to just walk into the camp and pretend to be stragglers from the raiding party – not only is there a lot of content about how this is possible (including how they’ll be able to escape if caught), any sort of frontal assault would be suicide. The party has a list of informational tidbits they can pick up in the camp, and they may also choose to rescue the monk, who has most of the information anyway (although he does not want to be rescued, because he wants to continue to gather information). To some extent, it feels like the purpose of this episode is to emphasize that D&D is not just about combat.
Episode 3: Dragon Hatchery – Despite having told the PCs that the monk doesn’t want to be rescued, and will only leave if they force him (which they can easily do, because he is in such poor shape), this episode assumes that the PCs have rescued him, and that enough time has passed for him to recover. The monk wants the PCs to infiltrate the camp again but, ultimately, the point of these delays is that the raiders will have left, and when the PCs return to the camp they will find it gone. This then opens up access to a cave (which was there in episode 2, but kept out of reach), which is being used as a dragon hatchery. In this generally unremarkable dungeon, the PCs will face guards of various sorts, a few lurking monsters, and a rematch with the champion from episode 1 (presumably, with two more levels under their belt, and not forced to fight one-on-one, the result will be somewhat different this time).
Episode 4: On the Road – With the characters now having some success under their collective belts, some of the broader good guy organizations encourage/hire the characters to go undercover, serving as guards for a wagon train that includes the cultists and their looted treasure in hopes of learning where they’re taking it and what the cult is up to. There is no “dungeon” in this chapter. Rather, twenty different NPCs traveling with the caravan are presented (descriptions, not stat blocks), along with sixteen event to throw at the PCs over their 40-day journey. Four of these are mandatory plot events, involving one of the NPCs (a member of the Zhentarim) provoking trouble between the PCs and the cultists. The other 12 are optional. Some of these involve combat, and others are purely roleplaying, and generally give the PCs a chance to establish a reputation and develop some relationships in the caravan. They can make for great roleplaying fodder for a change of pace from dungeon-diving, but will require the GM to put a little extra effort into things.
Episode 5: Construction Ahead – Little more than a transition point to Episode 6, this chapter consists of a single roadhouse that is the terminal point for this caravan. The characters will stay here, possibly for only a night, until they figure out where the cultists are sneaking their ill-gotten gains off to.
Episode 6: Castle Naerytar – A tunnel from under the roadhouse leads the character to a swamp. The cultists are living in the eponymous castle a couple of days into the swamp, with less-than-firm support from the local lizardfolk. The presence of multiple factions (the cult, the lizardfolk, and a band of bullywugs), and the multi-racial nature of the cult, will again allow the characters significant latitude to infiltrate the enemy if they so choose. The lizardfolk are ill-treated, and can be negotiated with. Higher-ups in the cult will seek to flee, but some of the mid-level management (whose powerbases are in this castle) will fight fiercely to preserve their positions. Characters who are posing as cultists have a significant ability to wander around the castle, but many areas will be off-limits, and it seems unlikely (although it is possible) that they can accomplish what they need to without getting in any fights at all. The characters must ultimately find a teleportation circle in the caverns beneath the castle, which can take them to …
Episode 7: Hunting Lodge – … where, conveniently, internal bickering means that the higher-ranking half-Dragon cult member who likely preceded the characters through the teleportation circle did not bother to warn anyone that bad news was on the way. The PCs will, again, have the opportunity to pick fights or not, as many of the inhabitants of the hunting lodge are either passive until attacked (kobold minions) or can be fooled into thinking the PCs are members of the cult (the massive four-armed troll). This continues with the ‘boss’ of this scene (Talis the White), a somewhat disgruntled higher-level conspirator who used to be the bearer of the powerful White Dragon Mask until it was recently reassigned. If the PCs are willing to deal, she will figuratively hand them the keys to the next stage of the adventure (she hopes to regain her status after the PCs defeat the new bearer of the mask). The PCs can get even more exposition out of her if they defeat her and her bodyguards in a fight first. If the PCs don’t talk to Talis, killing her before she can surrender (or, I suppose, refusing to accept her surrender), the GM will need to drop notes for the PCs to be able to proceed, and the book has suggestions for that eventuality. The hunting lodge is also where the PCs will rescue some prisoners of the cult.
Episode 8: Castle in the Clouds – The climax of Hoard of the Dragon Queen features the PCs raiding the flying castle of a cloud giant (this may require stealing wyvern mounts to catch the departing castle, if the PCs aren’t on the ball enough when making their way on land). But wait, you might ask, I thought that the giants and the dragons didn’t really get along? Well, they don’t, and so there is the opportunity to play divide and conquer with the enemy forces in Skyreach Castle (I’m sensing a theme here). There is no possibility of escaping this one without combat, however, the flying castle must be stopped from reaching its destination, and steering the castle off of its intended course will eventually attract the attention of the white dragon guarding the Hoard, as well as other cult leaders (the half-dragon, a vampire of long service, and assorted ogre and vampire minions). There are a good number of unique setups and environments here, including potentially having to figure out how to use the castle’s control room.
The quality of the physical book is good, and Hoard of the Dragon Queen shares the same graphic design and art style as the D&D core books. However, there are some editing problems, in particular that several of the maps do not match the descriptions and labels in the text. As GM, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out to make sure you’re dropping the right encounters at the right time.
Overall, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is OK, but not great. The first couple of chapters, especially the first, are fairly weak, and there is no great standout ‘dungeon.’ The campaign makes sure to provide opportunities (and sometimes virtual requirements) for stealth or bluffing, but it sometimes feels forced. The best content is, I think, backloaded, with the set of vignettes in Chapter 4, the castle in the swamp in Chapter 6, and Skyreach Castle.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.