The Alexandrian

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wizards of the CoastMeh.

The primary arc of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is disappointingly linear. Disappointing because the concept is so delightfully ripe for a non-linear approach: The Cult of the Dragon has abandoned its previous plans of turning dragons into dracoliches and has allied itself with a variety of living dragons and their half-breed offspring to free Tiamat from her infernal prison. In order to do this, feuding factions within the cult are seeking out five powerful artifacts which take the form of dragon masks (one for each of Tiamat’s chromatic heads).

Five masks lost in disparate locations? Multiple cult factions simultaneously pursuing semi-compatible goals?! When I first read the background I was absolutely convinced I was about to read the D&D equivalent of Masks of Nyarlathotep and have my brain blown at the prospect of node-based scenario design being used as the introductory campaign for an entire generation of gamers.

Sadly, not to be.

Instead, the campaign is a pretty rigid “go to X, then go to Y, then go to Z” affair. Hoard of the Dragon Queen makes up for this, however, by designing most of the individual scenarios along its path in a delightfully non-linear fashion: Enemy strongholds are set up to reward frontal assaults, physical stealth, and clever infiltration. Fractious factions can be turned against each other using a variety of methods. Alliances can be forged and broken in myriad ways. Enemies surrendering and being questioned (instead of fighting bloodily to the death) is gloriously well-supported. Token guidance is even given for PCs who go wandering off the intended path on wild goose chases. And all of this goes hand-in-hand with a very utilitarian presentation which is starkly at odds with the overwritten-to-useless style which has afflicted a lot of published adventures in the last decade.

Which makes the scenarios where this liberal and refreshing approach is supplanted by a rigid railroad all the more puzzling.

This really only afflicts a couple of the scenarios, but unfortunately one of them is the first scenario and it’s laughably atrocious: There’s a lengthy sequence where the PCs are besieged in a castle (after getting railroaded into it, of course). The PCs are then supposed to go to the local duke (who basically has a yellow exclamation mark over his head) and get a quest to fight their way out of the besieged castle and accomplish some goal in the town. Then they fight their way back through the respawning kobolds on the drawbridge, return to the duke (who the adventure literally says waits for them in the same spot on the castle battlements), get their next quest, and then fight their way out again.

And if they do that two or three times, they’ll unlock a dialogue option where the duke tells them about a secret passage leading out of the castle so that they can bypass the respawning drawbridge encounter going forward.

It’s kind of astonishing that I kept reading the adventure after that.

Can I also take a moment here to point out that the campaign hook for Hoard of the Dragon Queen is absolutely ridiculous? The PCs are approaching a random town, crest a hill, and discover that it is being attacked by a dragon. Okay. That’s fine. But then the campaign assumes that the 1st level PCs are likely, when confronted with that sight, to decide that their best course of action is to walk into the town.

(Did I mention that the dragon is also accompanied by an entire army?)

Maybe I’m just spoiled by having players who aren’t seriously brain damaged, but I literally cannot imagine a scenario in which that hook would work.

But what kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not its inconsistent design. Nor its occasional absurdities. Nor the plentiful continuity errors. Nor the horrific editorial shortcomings. Nor the completely inadequate maps (some of which appear to be missing entirely, some of which don’t match the text, and many of which lack keyed entries they’re supposed to have).

No. What kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is that it’s so incredibly boring.

And I’m not talking about one of those adventures that’s just boring to read on the page. I mean that the contents of this adventure, basically from top to bottom, are generic and dull and trite and uninteresting: There is no kobold that isn’t a generic kobold. There is no bedroom that isn’t a generic bedroom. There is no swamp which isn’t a generic swamp. And there is absolutely nothing fantastical or wonderful or unique or memorable.

(The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.)

To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions to this general dullness. (Flying stolen wyverns to intercept the flying castle of a giant is the most notable one.) But for a campaign which I’m assuming will take at least 40-60 hours of table time to complete, those slim exceptions are wholly inadequate.

Which, ultimately, brings me back to the reaction I had most consistently and finally to Hoard of the Dragon Queen:

Meh.

Outside of a few truly awful sequences in the first scenario, there’s nothing here that’s really terrible. But there’s also nothing to be found between these covers to justify spending $30 on it (let alone another $30 on the essentially mandatory second volume). Most damning, however, is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen also lacks anything which will reward the countless hours of ponderous and forgettable playing time that you would languish upon it.

Grade: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Go to Remixing the Hoard of the Dragon Queen

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12 Responses to “Review – Hoard of the Dragon Queen”

  1. Atmosk says:

    I actually did just throw the book on the shelf after reading the introductory chapter.

  2. Kinak says:

    That’s a bummer. I had high hopes for this, coming from Kobold.

    Better than Keep on the Shadowfell, though? I mean, presumably?

    Cheers!
    Kinak

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    That’s an interesting question and one I actually gave considerable thought to while reading Hoard of the Dragon Queen. To some extent, of course, you’re comparing apples to oranges because Hoard is half of a campaign and Keep on the Shadowfell i just a single adventure.

    Looking at my book log, however, I see that I gave Keep on the Shadowfell the same grade I gave Hoard: D.

    And that’s probably pretty accurate: Hoard is structurally superior to Keep, but is also considerably less interesting. It’s also horribly crippled by the inadequacies of its first scenario (between the unusable hook and the World of Warcraft-style iterative quest giver). Keep had its own issues with cardboard, but had a much stronger opening (via the kobold ambush) and a higher density of interesting ideas.

    Beyond that, it’s actually hard for me to compare them at a distance because so many of my memories of Keep come from running my heavily remixed version of the module. And I obviously think that my remix was pretty nifty. :)

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for the review. I thought it was spot-on.

    This adventure really let me down, and I was looking forward to it. What I have a hard time grasping is that this was written by professional adventure writers with a lot of pedigrees and experience. You would think they would know better than to give us a railroad adventure with unusable hooks and boring content. And I’m not trying to be mean. I truly have a hard time understanding how that happened.

    I wanted to get Part II of this campaign, but now I am going to wait and see if it can be run without needing Part I and if it is considerable better.

  5. Sir Wulf says:

    I suspect that the linear aspects of the adventure are an attempt to steer the characters toward encounters well-suited to the party’s likely power level. When running Masks of Nyarlathotep, the investigators’ abilities are unlikely to change enough to make repeated frontal assaults against cult strongholds particularly survivable. (“Walter, I’ll shoot down the high priest while you go grapple the shoggoth…”)

    On the other hand, a 5th level D&D character is drastically more powerful than he was at 1st level and can entertain plans that a weaker PC would never contemplate.

    It is disappointing that the hook wasn’t stronger. I can picture a party that MUST somehow get into the town or suffer some awful doom. (“The duke will evict Uncle Clem and his 20 illegitimate children from their hovel if the taxes aren’t paid by midnight!”) That might motivate the party to evade the beseiging army and get into the place…

  6. Mr. Junk says:

    Any good DM worth his dice can take this adventure and tweak it to suit his needs. I personally ran the beginning of this and my group of long time players really liked it. So far as the hook, I used a Dragonlance sort of opening where 2 or more of the heroes have friends they want to see in town, it seemed to get them motivated well enough. So far as the WoW-like quest structure, I just had a low level mage project a message to the group while they were out and about around town. I always treat any written adventure like a rough draft, its completely neutral to MY group’s interests so I gotta shape it to fit most of the time.

  7. Justin Alexander says:

    @Mr. Junk, from the review: “The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.”

    @Sir Wulf: I haven’t actually done any sort of analysis or playtesting with 5E, but my understanding is that its tolerance range is supposed to be much larger due to the bounded accuracy stuff. Even pre-4E, my experience is that you have at least a 3-4 level range of tolerance. So what you need to do is design around funnels that refocus the investigation. (Or, alternatively, layer cakes while accepting that occasionally they’ll backtrack and roll over some easier material.)

    Having a bulkier initiating node to build up a few initial levels isn’t a bad way to go: So if you kept the same general idea of “siege on Greenest, followed by investigations at their camp” you’d then seed clues to three different nodes into the camp: Leads to wherever they’re transporting the stuff; perhaps an envoy from another faction of the cult; and maybe reports spying on a third faction of the cult that somehow threatens this faction’s interests. Pursuing those leads might lead to a funnel like an “all-faction meeting” of the cult. Hitting that meeting might give the PCs clues into 2-4 dragon masks (ongoing expeditions, expeditions that are about to begin, fortresses where already obtained masks are being kept, etc.). Then close the funnel again by having those locations lead to Tiamat’s Prison where the final ritual is being performed (or whatever).

  8. S'mon says:

    It sounds like a return to typical form for WoTC after the Starter Set’s nice Lost Mine of Phandelver, and the (rules-less/downloadable) Legacy of the Crystal Shard, which is as much a campaign setting as an adventure.

  9. S'mon says:

    “typical form for WoTC ” – Although WoTC’s crapness at adventure writing was supposed to have been solved by hiring Kobold Press… hmm.

    Someone needs to put a sign in big red letters over every adventure author’s desk: “NO LINEARITY!” You can get away with a lot of rough bits, just as long as the players always get to make choices.

  10. Don Esteban says:

    Isn’t the linearity a result of the need to serve the organized play format? A non-linear campaign is much more difficult, if no impossible, to do for a format where you might have a different set of players every week. It’s in fact much like running an Open Table, where you would also accept certain compromises. Although this doesn’t explain the other apparent shortcomings of the module.

  11. Flames says:

    Not to nitpick, but the adventure straight says that you don’t have to do all the set-pieces and you are free to accomplish them in any order with the first chapter. In fact, other than the initial and necessary episode, my players went through the rest of the episode without having a single fight. Using the Milestone experience system and telling them I wouldn’t fudge a single roll for or against them made them play the game super cautious and creatively because they didn’t need to kill anything to move up in level and power. In fact, playing like clever cowards netted them better rewards all in all and having them think outside the box really made my time as DM more interesting.

    Really, it has so far been a very flexible adventure and pretty darn epic in scope, although, the second part with the council score card appears to be a lot more demanding of my time.

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    Flames wrote: “Not to nitpick, but the adventure straight says that you don’t have to do all the set-pieces and you are free to accomplish them in any order with the first chapter.”

    The “you” in that sentence, however, is the GM. Not the players. You can certainly modify the adventure to change that, but you’re modifying the adventure.

    When I review a book I review the actual book, not a modified version of the book.

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