Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Behind The Screen Episode I

This post will include spoilers for Hoard of the Dragon Queen! It will also assume some familiarity with the adventure.

After more than a decade away, I had a group ready to play D&D! I had heard great things about fifth edition, and after picking up the books I was not disappointed. Until now I had never ever ran a pre-generated adventure, but the idea was appealing these days (oh, if only we could get another day in the week!).

I picked up Hoard of the Dragon Queen and sat down to read through the entire book so I could be prepared. I didn't read the reviews until I was done with it and already committed to running it, but my own thoughts aligned with the general public (I'll write a proper review soon!). The adventure was very rail-roady, frequently makes little sense, and would require a lot of effort to make into something memorable. Initially, I was a little bit upset about how much time I would need to spend making each episode tense, memorable, and fun for my players. In hindsight (We just wrapped up Hoard of the Dragon Queen), having the skeleton of a story to work with was quite helpful, even if I did change up quite a bit.

No Hoard of the Dragon Queen article is complete without mentioning these two excellent sources: Sly Flourish's thoughts on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and Hack and Slash: HotDQ. Both of these were invaluable during my run, and while I only used a handful of their suggestions, they helped solidify the thought in my head that this adventure was mine, and the book only provided a framework. In further hindsight, my group was mostly new to D&D (more in a bit), so in some ways the rail-road worked for us.

More after the cut!

So, quick run down on the players before I talk about how I ran Episode I.

Lydia (my awesome wife who was excited to try D&D and is now all in) playing Ennis Naïlo the high elf cleric.
Sean (my best bud and a veteran RPer but relatively new to D&D) playing Danaeron the wood elf ranger.
Raven (Sean's wife who had played a few sessions of the D&D starter set) playing Nithbis the Tiefling druid.
Nathan (Our friend who was new to D&D) playing Yenorin the Half-Elf fighter.
And finally Jeff (A friend who has played D&D for longer than anyone I know) playing Sallos the Rogue.

My wife has gotten into D&D in a big way.

As this was my first return to DMing since the early 00's, I made some rookie mistakes. First, I should've done a full session 0 to entwine the character backgrounds a bit more. The classic meet on the road before becoming BFFs is difficult to pull off. It worked, but barely.

If I were to run this again, the characters would absolutely NOT see the Blue Dragon attacking Greenest. He would show up later. There isn't much of a hook besides "Hey- are you heroes or are you going to run? If you're going to run, roll me up a new character who IS a hero." which... is the beginning of the railroad!

When you get to Greenest itself, the early Kobold fights were great for teaching new players the mechanics... but I completely ignored the "roll per 100 feet" or whatever the book suggested. Who wants to fight endless hordes of Kobolds? Snooze-fest. Plus: Those Kobolds with pack tactics can be DEADLY to level 1 characters. So I had a few fights before they ran into the Swift family, and one or two more before they reached the keep.

Speaking of the Keep; I decided that the PCs would only do some of the missions, and in one case they had a pretty major ethical decision. Do they try to save the Temple with people holed up? Or do they keep the cultists from burning the mill with the stockpiles of food before the winter? That made for some great RP.

Finally: The dragon. The book recommends having the players drive it off. That's... a joke. No way in hell could those level 1 characters shoo off a Dragon, so instead I made it be a total jerk. It decided it had had enough of this petty squabble, and before leaving it would be a total jackass. It landed, intimidated the characters, and made the Cleric step on her holy symbol. Content with its own badassery, it left in a huff much to the Kobold's chagrin.

The final one on one fight with Cyanwrath was clearly meant to showcase the death mechanics in 5e, but I think we made it something neat. We introduced a bad guy who wasn't just a mustache-twirling ne'er do well. He had a code and adhered to it, evil though he may be. My advice to a DM is to tailor that to your group- it's a hopeless situation that could very nearly result in the death of a PC.

All in all, the episode worked pretty well. It took us 2 sessions to finish, which was about the cadence the rest of the book followed. It served its purpose: got the PCs right into the action, planted a seed for a major bad guy to run into later (Lennithon will certainly make an appearance later!), introduced Frulam Mondath, and started the ball rolling on the cult activities.


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