Reflections on Curse of Strahd Part 2

Themes and Concepts

I had an incredibly good time running this adventure.  The limited sandbox structure gave the party a good deal of freedom without having to deal with a huge open world where your players might potentially go way outside the lines with little to no warning.  The book itself gives some really good advice about running a horror adventure which I will expand on slightly here.  I went into the campaign with the following ideas:

  • Keep things moving.  In order to maintain a level of suspense, it should feel like there’s always something urgent that needs to be done.  (or in some cases avoided)  Down time should be sparse.
  • Force the players to make hard choices.  You can only focus on doing one thing at a time.  Even if you make a “right” choice it’s going to mean that you’ve opted to neglect some other plot element that may develop negatively as a result.  True horror isn’t just about what the characters have happen to them.  It’s about the terrible things that they convince themselves to do.
  • There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity in Barovia.  The characters may need to ally themselves with people that they might not otherwise trust.  Even many of the “good guys” have significant character flaws which should be emphasized.
  • Make the NPC’s active participants in the world.  They shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for the player characters to come interact with them.  They all have their own goals and motivations so they should be acting on their own when they are “off stage” and spurring the party on where needed.
  • Strahd should feel omnipresent.  This isn’t some dragon sitting in a cave at the end of the adventure that you only know by reputation right up until the final session of the campaign.  He is the land.  He has ways of finding out what the group is up to.  They should interact with him on several occasions prior to the culmination of the adventure.
  • Try to divide the party.  Give them reasons to be suspicious of each other.  Have the bad guys play them against each other.  Try to create situations where Strahd or other enemies get to speak with part of the group alone.  Offer some of them gifts while tormenting the others.

Other Advice

  • Start your party at 3rd level.  They’re going to need the help and it won’t detract much from the sense of danger.
  • Make it clear to your players that not everything in this campaign is designed to be “fair” with regards to game balance.  There are things in here that will completely destroy if you if you approach them cavalierly and that’s how it *should* be for this style of gothic horror adventure.
  • Use Strahd early and often.  Remember that he doesn’t particularly want to kill the party, at least not at first.  He’s sadistic and bored.  He wants to toy with them.  He wants to torment them.  He wants to see if he can get any of them to give into their baser instincts and become just as evil and corrupt as he is.  This will evolve over time, but his plans should always be more complex than “OMG I’m gonna kill those guys!
  • Use the hags to their full potential including all of their coven spells and their ability to go ethereal and escape if they get into trouble.
  • Try to get the party into the castle by the middle of the adventure.  Let them get in way over their heads and barely escape.  It’ll set the stage for their eventual return at higher level when they are better prepared.
  • Telegraph the fact that the Amber Temple is a BAD PLACE.  Nobody should be surprised when it turns out to be extraordinarily dangerous and that the vestiges are beings of utter and complete evil.  If characters want to accept the dark gifts, they should do so with the understanding that they are risking serious consequences.

Conclusion

This was probably the best published adventure that I’ve ever run.  It took about a year to run it to completion and I relished every session.  I feel like I grew a lot as a DM during the course of this adventure and I hope to carry over that growth into Tomb of Annihilation.

Reflections on Curse of Strahd Part 1

I’ve just recently finished running Curse of Strahd, a module where I’m credited as a playtester even though my involvement was *extremely* minimal.  It took my bi-weekly group a total of 20 sessions and about a year of real world time to complete this campaign.  In hindsight I wish that I had blogged more about this as I was running it, but I will do my best to summarize the highlights here.  I’ll try to avoid making this an exhaustive retelling of the tale because I don’t think anyone wants to wade through a campaign summary spanning thousands upon thousands of words.

The Party
Canis Lupus – The wolf-obsessed druid who interacted better with beasts than with other humanoids at times.
Daveak – The hurdy-gurdy playing bard who was consistently “that guy.”  The guy that constantly gets everyone into trouble yet who never seems to suffer the consequences of his own actions.w
Edred – The cleric of  Selune who wanted to do the right thing but insisted on keeping his own secrets.
Imnek – The urban barbarian who stuck by his pal Daveak through thick and thin no matter what horrible choices Daveak made.
Yaro – The rogue swashbuckler with a great love of wine, women, and eventually power.
Wilril – The fighter who came to Barovia seeking his hero Van Richten only to find that maybe it’s best not to meet your idols.

The Story
I drew my party into Barova with an investigation into strange happenings in the woods near Daggerford. (werewolves, mists, disappearances) A nighttime werewolf attack drew them into the forest hastily and from there the mists had them.  When werewolves ambushed them, Edred was bit and Daveak fled screaming into the night, leading the players further and further into the mists.  This led them to the Death House where they very nearly met their demise.  As they stumbled out into the streets bloody and exhausted there was a kindly old woman there to offer them some pastries that would give them a much needed night’s rest.  Several of the decided to indulge in the dream pastries before later discovering their secret ingredient.

The following days were spent in the exploration of the village of Barovia and the surrounding area.  They were horrified by the presence of Doru in the church basement, but left the situation unresolved.  One other player had to drop from the campaign at this time for scheduling reasons, so his dream pastry addicted paladin was left behind in the care of the village priest.  He’ll pop up again much later.  They had their fortunes read by Madame Eva and eventually made their way to the Old Bonegrinder.  They quickly sussed out that the hags were up to no good and quickly started a fight that they were unable to finish.  They were forced to make a blood pact with the hags and flee without having killed a single hag.  This proved to be an ongoing problem.  The hags continued to torment them in their dreams for much of the campaign, sapping hit points with every visit.  The dreams were designed to cultivate suspicion and dissent between party members, which slowly took its toll on group morale.  Around this time Edred began his involuntary transformations into a werewolf whenever he entered a stressful situation.

Vallaki seemed like a glimmering beacon of hope at first, but it quickly became apparent that there were issues here as well.  They happily turned Ireena over to the Burgomaster’s care then quickly regretted it after seeing what else was happening in town. They dealt with the bones of St. Andral and the vampires in the coffin makers shop only to have things come to a head during the Feast of the Blazing Sun.  Yaro went off on his own during the festival to try and rescue Ireena.   Meanwhile, Daveak instigated trouble with the Baron after the “blazing sun” failed to blaze.  This led to the Baron and Izek returning to the Baron’s manor just as Viktor killed Ireena and knocked Yaro unconcious with a well-timed cone of cold.  Yaro was captured and charged with the murder of Ireena to cover for Viktor’s crime.

The rest of the party, not knowing Yaro’s plan, took this opportunity to take their leave of Vallaki to do some exploration of Argynvostholt (where they were promptly beaten up and expelled) and Van Richten’s tower.  They met Ezmerelda in the process and received a message via wereraven to let them know that their friend back in Vallaki was in trouble.  Thus began the “Festival of Infinite Justice.”  The scene consisted of Yaro, beaten and drugged, placed inside a wicker ball repurposed from the Festival of the Blazing Sun.  A brief trial was held, Yaro was sentenced to die, and a rescue attempt commenced and eventually succeeded with Ezmerelda’s help.  The Baron and Izek were slain and Yaro was freed, but Ireena remained quite dead.  Edred, upon reaching level 5, managed to remove his curse of lycanthropy.

After recovering from this experience the party set up to find the Abbot in Krezk with the hopes of having Ireena raised.  They were turned away at the gate which led to a foray to the Wizards of Wine and then Yester Hill.  After clearing the winery of intruders, disrupting the druid ritual at Yester Hill, and surviving their first direct meeting with Strahd, the party finally returned to Krezk only to discover that Ireena’s body had been stolen by Strahd.  After meeting briefly with the Abbot they managed to instigate fights with two different sets of mongrelmen which infuriated the Abbot to the point where he took his true form and smote Daveak into unconsciousness.  Further help from the Abbot was not forthcoming.

This led to the party’s first foray into Castle Ravenloft, whereupon Yaro and Wilril triggered the elevator trap and the divided party did their best to both find Ireena and each other in an episode taken straight out of Scooby Doo.  The werewolf Emil was freed in the process.  Ireena was eventually recovered and the party reunited just in time to use the magical brazier to teleport out to Tsolenka Pass.

From there they split up with Yaro and Canis making their way to the Abbey to please with the Abbot for mercy and the rest of the group following Emil back to the werewolf den to help him reassert control over his clan.  This was done successfully and the party reunited at Krezk.  Ireena was raised in exchange for a favor to be done for the Abbot to be named later.  When the party took Ireena to reunite with her brother at the shrine of Krezk where he had been sitting and praying, the spirit of Sergei appeared.  Sadly, the party did not trust this apparition and pulled Ireena away from her eternal love.  However, some of her memories of her previous lives returned to her in that instant and she was distraught as a result.  She proclaimed her hatred for the party for doing this to her and her and Ismark parted ways with the group.

With no obvious next step in mind, the group decided that it was time to return to the Old Bonegrinder and settle a score with the hags.  Along the way the party learned that the Vistani girl Arrabelle was missing.  They successfully rescued her but Bluto was killed in the process, so they quietly left town and continued on their way.  Upon arrriving at the Bonegrinder  the hags were expecting company.  One of the hags was killed (breaking the coven) but the other two escaped into the ether to plot their revenge.

The party returned to Vallaki to plot their next move.  They were disturbed to learn that Bluto had been a much loved member of the community.  The Vallakians were furious about his death.  Daveak, with an offhand comment, implied that the Vistani may be to blame for Bluto’s death.  The Vallakians (with some prodding from Rictavio) formed a mob to storm the Vistani camp and drive them away from Vallaki once and for all.

The party snuck away from this genocide in process and continued on their way.  They received a message from the Abbott calling in his favor and insisting that they restore the light of goodness to Argynvostholt.  They spent a few hours exploring the mansion, more carefully this time, and learned that it would be necessary to retrieve the skull of Argynvost from the Castle.  This was an unfortunate development because they had walked right past it during their previous foray into Castle Ravenloft.

They also found Savid the Vistani in the haunted mansion and agreed to escort him back to Vallaki.  The Vistani camp was a smoking ruin when they arrived.  Arrigal emerged from the shadows and nearly assassinated Daveak for his role in the genocide before Daveak’s companions could put the Vistani leader down.  Arrigal cursed Daveak with blindness with his final breath.  They also met the dusk elf Kasimir who agreed to escort them to the Amber Temple and told them the woeful tale of him, his sister, and the dusk elves.  Daveak, blind and helpless, was abandoned in Van Richten’s tower “for his own safety.”

The Amber Temple nearly proved to be the death of the party.  They were at death’s door on several occasions and were unable to identify a strategy for dealing with the temple’s main guardian, the arcanaloth.  Wilril was killed during one of the first attempts to enter the temple.  They skirted around the main chamber and began consuming dark gifts like they were candy.  Canis took on the apperance of a demon lord with skeletal wings and dark black fur.  Yaro and Canis both failed their saving throws and became corrupted by the evil.  Wilril was restored to life by one of Yaro’s dark gifts.

Meanwhile, Rahadin and Morgantha paid a visit to Daveak.  They offered to restore his site and take him to his friends in exchange for a favor to be named later.  Daveak gladly made this deal and him and Rahadin went galloping towards the Amber Temple.  They snuck past the rest of the group as they explored and Rahadin accepted the dark gift of the Vampyre.  He emerged from the crypt to come face  to face with the party and Kasimir, his mortal enemy.  This was not an accident and the party helped Rahadin to fulfill his dark gift by striking down his mortal form.  Yaro, unbeknownst to the rest of the group, also accepted the dark gift of the Vampyre at this time. (but needed to either kill or die to activate it)  Imnek was also slain in this battle and restored to life.

Upon exiting the Amber Temple, the beaten and battered party was met by a wereraven messenger informing them that Strahd was to be wed to Ireena in a day’s time.  After recovering their wounds, the group hustled back to Vallaki to find that this was in fact true and that they had barely arrived in time for the public ceremony.  Ireena and her brother stood with the priest in the center of the town square while Strahd and his entourage proceeded in from the east.  The characters quickly tried to gather information and come up with a plan.  Yaro, in a fit of murderous rage, attempted to rush the stage and slay Ireena where she stood but he was thwarted by Ezmerelda.  as the ceremony proceeded, the true Ireena revealed herself with the sunsword in hand and attacked Strahd.  (it was later revealed that the false “Ireena” was Vasilka disguised using Van Richten’s hat of disguise)

Yaro made his way close enough to wound Ireena and disrupt the ambush long enough for Strahd to escape to his nightmare mount Bucephalus.  Yaro pursued the vampire into a fog cloud, was struck down, and carried away into the night sky.  The rest of the party was assaulted by zombies, Rahadin, vampire spawn, and two hags that had done well at blending into the crowd of wedding guests.  Finally, the ground rumbled and Baba Lysaga entered the fray with her hut in tow.  The Abbott observed serenely from a balcony until he was provoked by a lightning attack by Daveak, adding yet another enemy to the battle.  The day was eventually won, but the hags, Rahadin, and Strahd had all escaped.  The plot hatched by Ireena, Ismark, Van Richten, and Ezmerelda had been foiled.  The Wachter family, recently asceneded to the rule of Vallaki, was also killed in the combat.

It was clear to everyone now that things must come to an end soon, for good or ill.  Ismark and Ireena, refusing to trust the player characters, chose to stay behind in Vallaki and see to its defenses.  Ezmerelda and Van Richten agreed to accompany the group but to go their own separate way upon entering the castle.

The rest of the party wasn’t aware at this time that Yaro had been killed by Strahd in the wedding melee and returned to life as a vampire.  Strahd, assuming that Yaro was a thrall under his control, placed him in the dungeon as bait for the rest of his friends.  He also destroyed the servant’s entrance to the castle, forcing the intruders to enter through the gauntlet that is the main entrance (dragon and gargoyle defenders) or another similarly guarded point of access.  They chose to go through the front, suffering the flames and running immediately down to the lower levels.  There they found their captive friend but were immediately attacks by ghouls lurking in the water and Strahd lurking behind them.

This was only a hit and run attack intended to bleed the party of resources and attempt to misdirect them through the rest of the castle.  They proceeded then to the catacombs, opening many of the tombs along the way. They discovered Sergei’s armor to great joy but continued to use spells and hit dice.  While many of the party members rested, Canis became possessed by a ghost and proceeded to climb to the top of the high tower and fling himself from it.  He miraculously survived the fall and Edred was able to restore him to some semblance of life.

It was becoming clear now that they would find no rest inside Strahd’s lair and that escape may be unlikely, so they headed to the Father’s Tomb where Madame Eva had predicted that their final conflict would take place.  And indeed it did.  Strahd kindly offered the party one last opportunity to turn aside from this quest and leave Barovia forever.  The party declined this offer, although some did so for different reasons.

A large battle ensued versus Strahd, his iron golem guarding, spectres conjured from the coffins, and an earth elemental summoned by Canis that had found a new master.  After the party was engaged, Rahadin attacked from the rear.  Edred was picked up by a telekinesis spell and nearly flung out a window to his certain death.  Imnek was held in place by magic and the sun sword taken from his grasp.  It seemed that all would be lost until Ezmerelda and Van Richten appeared at the rear of the room, providing enough reinforcements / distraction for the characters to get back on their feat.  All but Daveak, who suddenly found himself being stabbed in the back by Yaro, the would-be new dark lord of the realm.

At this point in the fight Canis had taken on the form of a massive carnivorous lizard and then fallen for Strahd’s charms.  At the vampires direction, he had eaten the unconscious form of his ally Edred, killing him. Van Richten had also been slain. Edred’s body was expelled when the polymorph spell ended, but he was still quite dead.  Ezmerelda, thinking quickly, retrieved Van Richten’s scroll of reviving the dead and used it upon Edred.  (Van Richten had previously expressed on many occasions that he had lived long enough already.)  Edred conjured guards of Selune who dealt the killing blow to Strahd, who dissolved in the sunlight of the Amulet of Ravenkind.

A standoff then ensued between Canis and Yaro on one side and the remainder of the party on the other.  They had all been battered and bruised by this fight.  Yaro and Canis had both accepted that they were now tied to this land and would never be able to leave.  They demanded that their former companions leave and never return.  After some tense conversation this was agreed upon.

Wilril, Ezmerelda, Daveak, Imnek, and Edred recovered the skull of Argynvost and as their final act in Barovia they returned it to its rightful place, lighting the beacon for all to see.  They walked through the mists and found themselves back in the woods near Daggerford nearly a year after the originally departed.

Canis and Yaro divided the realm between them, with Yaro ruling the castle and Canis ruling the wilds.  The hags continued to look on with great amusement as new adventurers and would be vampire slayers gathered to plot against the land’s dark lords and the cycle continued.

Is this thing on? Also, Tomb of Annihilation!

Greetings, random internet people!

It has been some time now since I’ve joined the ranks of the ever expanding army of lapsed bloggers.  This is something that I’m going to try and remedy.  I’m posting to this to declare my intent (to myself just as much as to anyone else) to begin capturing my thoughts on the Tomb of Annihilation along with the details of my own ToA campaign once it starts.  I’m excited about this one.  My 5 year old is a total dinosaur nut, so when I told him about all of the dinosaurs in Chult he was pretty excited too.  He’s already offered to loan me parts of his extensive dinosaur collection to use as minis should my party happen to encounter some dinosaurs.  (spoiler: they will)

After wrapping up my Tyranny of Dragons campaign in Spring of 2016 we did a few one-off games as a palette cleanser prior to diving into the madness that is Curse of Strahd.  I’ll probably write a separate post summarizing my thoughts on Curse of Strahd down the line somewhere but for now let’s just say that it was basically my favorite adventure that I’ve ever run.  In addition to tackling Curse of Strahd,  I began running a second group that started off with the idea that it’d be fairly casual but quickly became a very regular thing.  The second group is a huge change of pace for me because it consists of my wife and my son in addition to two of my regular players and their daughters.  The kids range from roughly 10-12 and are super fun to play with.  My wife and the kids were all first time players so that group has a very different feel and very different challenges compared to running a game for a group of old hands.

With my original group running every other Friday and this new group running on the alternate Fridays, that means that I’m typically running at least one game a week.  I’ve found myself occasionally scrambling to keep with my game prep.  I’m getting better at it as time goes by which will hopefully allow for more time for me to post here.

Future posts may include such topics as:

Running D&D for kids
Recapping my Curse of Strahd campaign (spoiler: it was great fun)
My thoughts on Storm King’s Thunder so far
What we know about Tomb of Annihilation and how to prepare ourselves for it
Random terrain projects that I’ve completed in the last year and that I have in progress now
Using 3D printing in y our gaming terrain projects

What else would people like to hear about?

Tyranny of Dragons – Adding Continuity

As you may know, I’ve been running the Tyranny of Dragons campaign with my home group.  We left off partway through Episode 8 (Skyreach Castle) and I anticipate that we’ll wrap up Hoard of the Dragon Queen during our next session.  I’m still loving D&D 5E and the campaign has been a good experience overall.  The broad strokes of the storyline are interesting and it covers a lot of different areas of the Sword Coast.

Having said that, there are plenty of criticisms to be made.  I have to say that I’ve had to put far more work into this published adventure than I would normally put into developing my own material.  Most of the problem areas fall into one of two broad categories.  First, the material was written while the 5E rules were still under development and many of the monster statistics hadn’t been finalized.  This results in some of the scripted encounters being highly unbalanced if you don’t adjust accordingly.  A DM running this campaign should perform a careful sanity check on the difficulty of encounters and make sure that they’re not setting themselves up for a TPK.

The second category of problem is a little more insidious.  It’s the lack of continuity between episodes as well as a lack of continuity between HotDQ and Rise of Tiamat.  I attribute this partially to the production timelines put on these products and partially to the requirement that they fit into the D&D Encounters 2-hour format.  The episodic format seems well suited to an Encounters program where the membership of the group may shift from week to week and the inclusion of too many “callbacks” to previous episodes would prove confusing to players who weren’t there for previous events.  However, while running the campaign as a home game all I can see are a lot of lost opportunities for continuity between episodes.  There are lots of scenes that serve as great set-ups for future development but that never come to fruition.

Here are some of the areas that I found unsatisfying as well as my recommendations for modifying them for your home play Tyranny of Dragons game:

  • Frulam Mondath: One of the first high-ranking cultists identified by the party.  She’s supposed to be a cunning villain and  the adventure text specifically states that Mondath doesn’t want to die for the cult.  So what does she do if she manages to escape?  (a likely scenario given that there are two possible exits from her quarters)  The first part of Episode 4 of HotDQ is lacking in the action department, so it would be appropriate to have Mondath make her appearance there along with some additional muscle.  Use her to spice up the journey from Greenest to Baldur’s Gate.  Mike Shea (@slyflourish) used a disfigured (acid-scarred) Mondath as a repeat character several episodes down the road, which I think is a great idea.
  • Baldur’s Gate: One of the truly iconic cities of the realm, Baldur’s Gate warranted a whopping half page of content in HotDQ.  While it’s unfair to expect a full city supplement within the limited page count of an adventure, I wanted to give my players a little more here.  I created a side adventure involving one of the prominent leaders of Baldur’s Gate that put the party in a position where he might owe them a favor down the line.  This gives the party some attachment to Baldur’s Gate and creates an opportunity to have this same leader appear at the Councils of Waterdeep during Rise of Tiamat.  Depending on how things go in Baldur’s Gate, your group may end up with an ally or enemy among the representatives of the Lords Alliance.  The supplement “Murder in Baldur’s Gate” is an excellent source of information and inspiration for running an adventure in the city.
  • Jamna Gleamsilver: She plays an important role in Episode 4 of HotDQ.  She’s the party’s introduction and connection to the Zhentarim.  She goes out of her way to ingratiate herself to the party in the “Who’s your friend scene?”  She’s on essentially the same mission as the party, tracking the movement of the cultists and their treasure.  When everyone arrives in Waterdeep in Episode 5, what happens to Jamna?  The answer is: NOTHING.  She sticks with the party through the Carnath Roadhouse and then there is *no further mention* of her in the module.You’re left with one of two options here.  She can either remain with the party as a semi-permanent NPC through at least Skyreach Castle OR she can mysteriously disappear at some point to pursue her own interests.  I didn’t want a long-term NPC following the group for no specific purpose, so I had her disappear in Waterdeep before the group ever left for the Carnath Roadhouse.  I intend to use her again later during Rise of Tiamat as the Zhentarim’s representative at the council.  I don’t see the need to introduce another Zhent when I already have a perfectly good one available to me.
  • Waterdeep: Similar to Baldur’s Gate, Episode 5 fails to capitalize on a visit to one of the major cities of the Realms.  Episode 4 was a long slog up the Sword Coast, both for the characters and their players.  They were excited to finally reach their destination only to be rewarded by… more traveling to the north after a very brief stay in Waterdeep.  In this instance I hustled my group through the city as written in the adventure (because *I* was ready for the whole traveling segment of the campaign to be over with) but the disappointment was palpable.I will again refer you to @slyfloush in this instance.  Mike writes here about this episodes and proposes a miniature Council of Waterdeep to set up the second half of HotDQ.  I think that this is a great lead-in to the events of Rise of Tiamat.  It’s also a good opportunity to clarify the party’s goals as they continue to pursue the cultists up the Sword Coast and give them a little bit of a break from a very long stretch on the road.  This would also be a good opportunity for a side adventure involving Jamna Gleamsilver that would explain her removal from the party.
  • Voaraghamanthar: There is some great lore available about this deadly black dragon.  A hidden lair in a swamp?  Clues about the dragon’s true nature left at Castle Naerytar?  A magical observatory that can be used to find the dragon’s lair?  Awesome!  So where does Tyranny of Dragons go with this material?  Well, nowhere.  After dropping some great hints, there’s no payoff.I plan on adding a mission to Rise of Tiamat whereupon we return to the Mere of Dead Men and have some “up close and personal” time with one or both of the dragon brothers.  Should Rezmir happen to survive Castle Skyreach, this seems like a perfectly rational place for her to run and hide.
  • Talis the White: I love how Talis is used to illustrate the internal divide among the different factions of the Cult of the Dragon.  One of my players used the optional background for his PC that involved arriving at Greenest in search of Talis, his lost childhood friend.  He’s playing a goodly character, so it was a pretty dramatic moment when he realized that she hadn’t been *taken* but the cult but was *part of* the cult.  In any case, let’s take a look at what happens with Talis if the party strikes a bargain with her at the Hunting Lodge. That’s right: nothing!  Her name doesn’t even *appear* in Rise of Tiamat.Making a deal with Talis should feel like making a deal with the devil.  She’s clearly not a good person.  She doesn’t have the party’s best interests in mind.  If they decide to accept the benefit of working with her, they should eventually have to make some hard decisions related to that choice.  I haven’t decided yet how I’m going to use her in Rise of Tiamat, but I’m sure as hell going to use her.  You could consider her and her allies within the cult as a possible addition to the list of potential allies at the Well of Dragons.  That’d be pretty damn cool if the white dragons suddenly turned on the rest at the final moment.
  • Glazhael / Aurathator: One of the culminating encounters of HotDQ is a confrontation with Glazhael, an adult white dragon.  That’s a pretty cool moment in your campaign.  One of the first big moments in Rise of Tiamat is a fight with… an adult white dragon.  “What, *another* fight with a white dragon?” isn’t something that I ever expected to find myself saying, but here we are.In my campaign I decided that Glazhael and Aurathator are in fact one and the same.  Having a party of 7th level characters fight a CR 13 dragon seems like quite the stretch anyway, so I had Glazhael go a little easy on them by being dumb and cocky.  She also wasn’t so thrilled about dying to protect someone else’s horde, so she headed for the hills once reaching about 50% of her total hit points.  This was still a great victory for the party, but it lets me use that dragon again in Rise of Tiamat.  Next time she’ll be better prepared and she’s going to be *pissed*.

    If you really want to use two different dragons, establish a relationship between the two.  Allies, cousins, rivals, etc.  Just don’t make it two completely arbitrary encounters with the exact same solo monster within the spam of a couple sessions.

  • The Longest Road: By the time you reach the end of HotDQ, most astute players will realize that the Cult just transported their treasure a couple thousand miles north only to bring it almost exactly back where they started from.  Why?  Probably because the Well of Dragons was an existing place and the authors wanted to use it.  This doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense to rational characters, so set the stage early with the idea that the Cult is heavily into misdirection.  That and the general inaccessibility of the Well of Dragons area are the only possible theories for why they cart their stuff all over the Sword Coast only to have it end up back at the beginning.  Either that or just move the Well of Dragons scene somewhere else in the north that makes more sense.

    If you *are* going to keep the finale at the Well of Dragons, it may be fun to create a little prologue where the party returns to Greenest to save it one more time.  Imagine a wounded Tiamat and some of her dragons fleeing the onslaught at the Well of Dragons and the heroes in hot pursuit mounted on the backs of their allied metallic dragons.  The final conflict just *happens* to occur in or near the newly rebuilt Greenest where it all began.  Now *that* is a finale.

Have another idea for expanding on the ideas in Tyranny of Dragons?  Leave a comment or tweet me @dungeonleft.

Initiative Tracker Mk. 2

Initiative tracking is one those thinks that DM’s never seem to get tired of tinkering with.  I don’t generally fiddle for the sake of fiddling, but if there’s something that I can do to save myself time during a game then I’m willing to give it a shot.  I’ve tried a few different methods for tracking initiative over the years but generally go back to just scribbling it down on a piece of paper.  If I’m playing away from my home table, that’s still what I’ll do.  However, game time is a precious commodity so if there’s anything that I can do to speed along the bookkeeping parts of the game I’m going to try and do them.

When I run D&D 5E games at home, this is what I’ve settled on.  Please don’t be too overwhelmed by the spectacular craftsmanship and production value.  I originally tried using write-on magnets on my whiteboard so that I could write down the name of each PC and creature involved in the combat.  This had a few problems.  Mostly, it took too long at the start of combat.  The names tended to wipe off when I handled them.  They were flexible labels so they were difficult to peel off the board when moving creatures around in the order.

My current system involves some Alea Tools magnetic markers that I purchased during 4E that I don’t have a lot of use for these days.  I labeled them with stick-on letters from the home office section of Whatever Big Box Store.

Green = Player Character.  The letter is the first initial of the PC’s name.

Red = Enemy or Enemy Group

Blue = Ally, neutral party, or environmental effect that gets its own initiative

When initiative is rolled, I grab tokens at random, call for that character’s initiative count, and place the token in the correct spot in the order.  No writing down numbers.  No re-sorting the initiative into order after writing everything down the first time.  One less piece of paper to keep track of during the fight.  Everyone can see exactly when their turn is coming so hopefully they’re ready to act when I call their name.

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On the Road 2 – DM’s Notes

This session was essentially a detour from the main plot of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.  The module as written calls for the party to arrive in Baldur’s Gate several days ahead of the cultists with the assumption that they’ll simply pass time waiting for their targets to arrive.  This seemed like a wasted opportunity for exploration in one of the most iconic cities of the Sword Coast.  I’ve been enjoying the Tyranny of Dragons story line overall, but one of my few complaints is that there are large portions of it that lack supporting details.  I would’ve preferred to see a bigger book at a higher price that included more information (or ANY information about the cities that the adventure passes through.  For example, I believe that the journey from the Dragon Hatchery all of the way to Baldur’s Gate covers 2-3 pages of the book.  As such, I came up with this week’s adventure largely using material from the recently published Murder in Baldur’s Gate sourcebook.

I used the city material as my setting but decided to pass on the whole “return of Bhaal” story line.  One “evil god tries to return to the Realms” story line per campaign is plenty for me.  Anyway, I took them through several of the more interesting areas of the city and tried to highlight some of the disparities between rich and poor in Baldur’s Gate.  I also wanted to emphasize the influence of the Guild so they seemed like the perfect villains to use in this case.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll show up later in the employ of the Cult of the Dragon.  I’ve been mostly using published material since starting with this particular group, so it was slightly nerve-wracking to put together an investigation-based adventure of my own.  It took me several revisions to get to the point where I felt like I had left enough bread crumbs to follow but in the end it came off as I had hoped.

Overall, this was an enjoyable romp through the city and a nice break from dealing with potentially world-shaking events.  Next week: back to stalking the Cult of the Dragon as they carry their ill-gotten treasures northward.

On the Road 2 – Emmerik’s Report

Arriving in Baldur’s Gate after some few short days of river travel (with Caelum still ill – this time mostly from snake venom) the group found Pry in a riverside tavern while they shared a drink with Captain Mailk (of the barge they had traveled on).

But the time of relaxing was not to last.  A large explosion rocked the docks and the squad, rushing to see what had happened, found the Captain’s vessel at risk due to the fire ravaging the ship docked in the next slip.  Swinging into action the squad members prevented the fire from spreading to the dock and neighboring vessels.  Just as swiftly the squad made itself scarce, after learning that the captain of the damaged ship was of the litigious variety.

Traveling through the city, with a porter to push a wheelbarrow full of Caelum, the squad met with Aeckyn Selebon to discuss caravans and “infiltrating” one. The matter of determining which caravan the cultists were in, however, was not resolved.

The squad took up accommodations at an inn frequented by traveling guards and mercenaries, where they were approached by a functionary of one of the city’s Dukes.  The Duke, it turned out, had had some of important cargo (a type of amber) stolen from the vessel which had earlier exploded in the harbor. There was quite a bit of reward, and prestige, at stake if the squad could recover the goods.

So the squad went about questioning sailors, low-level criminals, fireworks makers, and old grannies drinking tea, before they got a lead to an abandoned weapon store.  Upon entering the (seemingly) abandoned building the squad was set upon by thieves and an animated set of armor.  A hard-fought melee resulted in Dag, Faurgar, and Starag all unconscious and a few thieves dead, with one thief prisoner.  Dag and Pry again coordinated their interrogation and learned that the “client” who had hired the thieves was a Calamshite healer (witch doctor to the locals).

As Captain Malik happened to be a Calamshite the squad asked if he would accompany them to the “Little Calam” village outside of the city, to which he eagerly agreed.  The squad quickly was in the presence of the healer but, when the topic turned to the amber, the situation became tense.  Apparently the healer had hired the thieves to steal the amberdyne because it was a necessary ingredient in a remedy to cure an otherwise-fatal disease that had infected a pair of men.

The squad negotiated for the unused portion of the amberdyne, in return for their silence in the matter, and returned that amount to the Duke.

On the Road – DM’s notes

As you’ve seen, I’m running the Hoard of the Dragon Queen as my first campaign using the release version of the 5E rules.  Up until this point I’ve stayed fairly close to the script since Episodes 1-3 all tie pretty closely together.  Moving into Episode 4, there was a long stretch of travel where minimal detail was provided.  Since I’m running this as a home campaign and not as public play, I decided that this was a missed opportunity and created some material to fill in some of the gaps.

The player running Pry was unable to attend the last session, so that seemed like a good chance to tie up a loose end with Frulam Mondath.  The module as written doesn’t make any further use of her down the line and gives no direction as to what she might do if she managed to escape the party in Episode 3, so I left it up to the player to decide how things would play out.  You can see the results in Emmerik’s write-up of the last session.

A journey by boat seemed like a good chance for a combat encounter and I was pleased with how it played out.  Caelum’s player had to call in sick at the last minute, so he was the lucky one to be attacked first by the swarm of venomous snakes summoned by the lizardfolk shaman.  The humorous part about that aspect of the encounter was that the ranger (Dag) critically failed his nature check to identify the snakes, so he repeatedly assured the group that they were harmless and that Caelum would be totally fine.

The farm encounter was inspired by a simple flip through the incredible new Monster Manual.  Again, it was mostly about doing something other than deal with world-conquering dragon cults for a little while.  I started from “ankheg attack” and worked my way back to why the ankhegs might be a problem.  It was a lot of fun to play and the farmers sort of spontaneously morphed into characters from the Dukes of Hazzard somewhere along the way.

I have a little more home-brew material ready for when the party arrives at Baldur’s Gate.  It’s such an iconic city within the Realms that I’d like to try and give the group a little taste of it before they’re hustled onward to deal with the whole “Tiamat taking over the world” issue.

 

On the Road – Emmerik’s Report

The squad, having taken a good night’s rest, left Greenest to follow Leosin.  Pry had left separately – and secretively – to hunt the escaped dragon-cult leader.

Following the trade route north the squad passed through the farmed countryside, stopping at farmsteads along the way to sleep in the hay barn. The group entered the town of Berdusk where they found signs of Pry’s passing – he had been handing-out crudely-drawn “Wanted” posters for the cultist leader.  When the group got to the city of Scornubl they found more of Pry’s handiwork – there in the square was the cultist leader, pinned to a tree with an arrow and a note stating “Got her”.

After a few more days of uneventful journey the squad arrived in Eltuvel, a walled city on the riverbank with much barge traffic.  Inquiring with the city guard they learned that the Unther had set-up the Order of the Gauntlet at a tavern called “The Black Antlers”.  The squad found Leosin being inconspicuous amongst a bustle of burly, thick-armed and hairy-chested drinking louts (representing a number of various holy orders) and they collected the sum previously promised to them – paid in platinum coins.

Before any other business with Unther could be attended to, though, there were various “rituals” to be done.  Dag ingratiated himself to the paladins, besting them at games of arm-wrestling and axe-throwing (and Faurgar made a good sum of cash betting on his companion’s prowess).  Starag showed himself less than capable, though, when it came time to race horses through the city.

The following morning the squad accepted a mission from Unther to travel to the city of Baulder’s Gate and there meet up with an informant named Ackyn Selebon, who would give the squad information about which caravan the dragon cultists would be using to transport their captured booty from their rampage in Greenest and its surrounding communities.  The Order opened up its armory for some re-equipping of the squad before sending them down-river on a barge.

Caelum, who had been sick for the duration of the journey so far (although the other squad members think he was faking it so he could spend time, undisturbed, to devote to the dragon poetry found in the caves), turned out to be “sea-sick”.

The barge was captained by a veteran of the river – one who knew all the sand bars and snags but wasn’t foolhardy with his speed.  Fearing attacks from river pirates the squad set up a watch outside of the small shack that was built onto the deck of the barge.

This caution was not unrewarded – on the first watch Emmerik noticed some humanoid figures creeping up onto the deck.  A group of lizardmen, led by one of their shaman, had boarded the ship for some nefarious reason.  A swift and brutal melee ensued, in which the sick Caelum was bitten by many snakes magically summoned by the shaman.  One of the lizardmen was thrown from the barge by Starag’s magic while the others were slain under the assault of Faurgar, Dag, and Emmerik.

The captain wasn’t one to spend the remainder of the night anchored in place after that assault – he explained that there were likely additional parties of raiders out.  So, running cautiously at night, the barge proceeded downriver for the rest of the night and the better part of the next day.  Nearing dusk the captain docked at an unnamed village on the riverbank for some relative safety.

At the village’s inn the squad learned that one of the farmers – Darren Darren – had run afoul of a traveling wizard who had cursed his farm with a series of curses, culminating in the invasion of huge insects.  The hale members – Emmerik, Dag, Faurgar, and Starag – made their way to the farm.  At the farm they fought several Anhkegs before discovering that a magical “beacon” was causing seismic vibrations that attracted them.  The group had quite the puzzle as to how to deal with the beacon since the object seemed quite indestructible and, wherever it was taken to, the anhkegs would surely follow.  At last the squad took the beacon to a nearby quarry – trailed by a large number of the creatures – where they threw the beacon, to attract the anhkegs away from the village and its farms.

The squad then returned to the nameless village to rest before continuing on their journey.

The Dragon Hatchery – Emmerik’s Notes

After the squad had safely returned to Greenest with the monk Leosin and villagers-turned-temporary-slaves Ned and Paul the group was rewarded by the Governor and took a few days to rest and recuperate from the hectic 48 hours previous.  Emmerik and his companions also used their time to practice their skills and learn a few new tricks.

Having made a full recovery from the injuries he had suffered at the hands of the Dragon Cult, Leosin told his rescuers that he would be leaving to meet with an associate of his – a paladin who belonged to the Order of the Gauntlet – in a city to the north to share what information he had already gathered on the Cult. However Leosin asked the squad if it could return to the cultists’ camp and recover any information possible about the army’s next move; the squad readily accepted the charge (it didn’t hurt that there was a promise made of a cash payment when the group delivered the information).

Donning the assortment of cultist robes the squad members had acquired in their earlier encounters with cult members the squad made directly for the location of the cultist army’s encampment but, when they arrived, they found the camp nearly deserted and destroyed.  In every direction from the camp small parties (with roughly a score of soldiers each) had issued forth, after having burned their former facilities.  Only a few of the hunters remained, setting up their camp near the mouth of a cave (which had been under heavy guard during the squad’s earlier visit – it reputedly being the headquarters of the Black Wyrmspeaker and housing dragon hatchlings).  With their disguises the squad openly moved into the cave to find what they could.

Shortly after entering the cave, which had been worked to create a subterranean complex, Pry was knocked unconscious during an ambush by cultist fanatics – but Starag magically healed him.  The cleric then proceeded to blunder around which resulted in the squad suffering attack from swarms of bats and stirges, but the parasites were defeated and the bats driven off without causing any serious damage, which Starag used his magic powers to heal.

Then passing through a series of traps the squad came upon a room with a number of kobolds – they had most likely laid the traps.  A brief fight ensued, with Dag hewing many of the mongrels.

With the trap-makers dealt with the squad moved down a flight of stairs and came to a large room, with a shrine dedicated to the evil five-headed dragon goddess – Tiamat.  Guarding the shrine was the half-dragon general, Cyanwrath, and two berserker bodyguards of his.  Itching to repay his loss in their earlier duel, Dag rushed into combat against Cyanwrath while Caelum and Starag used their magical abilities to hamper the general and Pry moved into position to aid Dag’s assault (and take a few shots at the general’s back). Emmerik took a stance to engage the berserkers and keep them off Faurgar while the sorcerer unleashed a torrent of energy attacks against them. Eventually the general fell, and the squad finished off the berserkers. Investigating the shrine Caelum had a premonition of danger, but Emmerik triggered a trap of poison gas when he moved a lockbox and the group retreated up the stairs from whence they had come, all except Starag, who pushed further into the complex.

After the poison subsided the squad caught up with Starag, who had discovered a room with dragon eggs guarded by a pair of dog-like lizard beasts, some kobolds, and a roper (looking like a stalagmite).  After defeating the kobolds and dog/lizards in combat the group was able to convince the roper that they would bring it more food if it would allow them to leave alive.  After an agreement was reached the squad proceeded to destroy the dragon eggs and exited quickly.

With the rest of the compound explored the squad climbed up a ladder and into what appeared to be the room of a high-ranking cultist (the garments found indicate it may have even housed the cult’s black wyrmspeaker).  Proceeding to the next chamber the squad encountered a group of cultists, prepared to face an attack.  While the cultists were mostly made quick work of, one of their number, protected by magical wards, guarded a passage down which the cultists’ leader had fled.  By the time that guard was finished off the leader had long since fled from the cavern and had stolen a horse from the hunters’ camp.

So, with a bitter taste in their mouths, the squad returned, once again, to Greenest before leaving to bring their information to Leosin’s paladin associate.