Wolfgang Baur & Steve Winter
In an audacious bid for power the Cult of the Dragon, along with its dragon allies and the Red Wizards of Thay, seek to bring Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells to Faerun. To this end, they are sweeping from town to town, laying waste to all those who oppose them and gathering a hoard of riches for their dread queen. The threat of annihilation has become so dire that groups as disparate as the Harpers and Zhentarim are banding together in the fight against the cult. Never before has the need for heroes been so desperate.
This is an 8-episode adventure that is, generally, not very good. It’s not the episodic nature, that I can accept. WOTC wants to run D&D at game stores every week and to do that they need episodic content. I get that. I might quibble that they could do better at the episodic nature and making it feel less railroad, but I get it. No, the adventure is of lower quality because it feels like a 4e episodic adventure. Here’s a monster. Go fight it. Next! A potentially exciting and dynamic environment is introduced! And then they screw it up with the details … or lack thereof. As a DM & player you have a lot choices in what system you play and which of the tens of thousands of published adventures you play. There is no reason to play this except for “it’s what everyone else is playing at the game store on Wednesday night.” That’s a shame.
I see a few major issues with the adventure. First, it’s generic. It’s very non-specific, so much so that it seems like the designers are actually afraid of offering details. They will provide reams of data on the over-arching story and plot but then when you get to the actual adventure there are words like “throw a couple of encounters at the players” … with nothing else present. Or they clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, like with the lizard man allies in episode 6, but are terrified of being accused of railroading. This extends to the descriptions, which are almost universally uninspiring. They feel flat and boring. The magic items are completely generic “ 1 sword”, and the titular HOARD of the Dragon Queen is actually abstracted throughout most of the adventure. The text does not inspire you, the DM, and that may be the most important sin.
It is very rare for me to complain in a review about formatting I care much more about the content and the imagination present in the adventure, but this time I feel I need to. They have chosen a very conversational style that contributes to a Wall of Text issue. There is not enough use of offsets and bullet lists and the like to allow the DM to reference important information quickly. This conversational style confusion tends to mix with some some poor choices for organization of text. In episode 8, for example, the first part involves getting in to the castle, but this information is scattered throughout the text of the first part.
Three ARE issues with railroad, with lack of player agency, with villain monologues and “pass a skill roll if you want to go on the adventure”, but these are minor and more easily fixed, both by the DM and by the designers in the next adventure.
Episode 1 – Town under Siege
While pursuing the most generic hook known to man: caravan guard. In the first 2 D&D products that’s twice now that it’s been used. Time to maybe branch out and try a hook with some life to it? And both times it’s been a complete throwaway. The hook is literally “maybe the players are caravan guards.” That’s pretty lame. So lame that it makes me think they are pushing some kind of agenda. Idle speculation is idle though; in the end the hook is lame and reflects badly … but accurately foretells what it to come. Generic Lameness. You come upon a town being looted by monsters! Mercenaries, kobolds, and a dragon zoom about through the streets! Oh’s No’s! You’re then presented with 8 little encounters to run, one of which should be done first. The first is a family being chased by kobolds. The goal is to rescue the family and then they’ll tell you to take them to the central keep, where in you can pick up the rest of the missions. The kobolds ignore you, thinking you are their allies. If you escort the family to the keep then you are the last ones through before the gate is barred right before the keep is surrounded by enemy forces. It all smacks me as a little … forced. Look, yeah, I know why. You want to give the players missions to do. But there should be LOTS of ways to do that without forcing them in to the keep and setting up some kind of EPIC MOMENT when the gates are barred behind you. What about the same thing in the church? Or a family in a cellar? Or any of a dozen other things that could have been added? But no, rather than the thing being run as a dynamic environment with brief suggestions it instead has to be run as a railroad. BULL. SHIT.
Like I said earlier, I could quibble with the nature of how the episodes are done, and make comments on how they could be less railroady … but … ok, I guess I just did. The GENERIC content though is what breaks this. There is something that quite literally looks like a skill challenge. To sneak through town you need to make stealth checks. For every two you have a random encounter. Ok, that’s not bad. It even makes sense! But then the encounters … ug! 6 kobolds. 6 cultists. 2 cultists and an acolyte. That’s what passes for CREATIVE CONTENT from Wolfgang & Winter. Seriously? You get exactly one interesting option: 1d6 townsfolk being hunted by raiders. That’s it. That’s something a DM can work with. But just a generic list of monsters? Why the hell did they even both? Give the thing some life! How about those 6 kobolds have a wagon piled high with bed frame and dressers? Of the bandits are rolling some kegs of ale down the road? It wouldn’t kill you to add a single sentence each and it would do WONDERS to help bring the scenes to life.
This same thing is the problem with the rest of the first episode. The encounters are presented as generically as possible. Yes, the DM must bring the encounter to life, we all know and accept that. But the designers job is to give the DM the tools to do that. To help them. This don’t do that. The vast majority of the text is spent on bullshit superfluous text instead of communicating an evocative and dynamic encounter. “The Cult of the Dragon led by dKJSDFKHD KDFgwkDGF the high K:WDH:KE:H of K@WGKEGKE@ is …” Ug! How about instead you tell me that the encounter with the dudes at the stream bank has them about to drown a group of townsfolk? That would be cool! That create something to work with! The issues extends to the maps, or lack thereof. The church, mill, stream bank, are all supposed to be exciting encounter locations. I can understand not want to enable the tactical miniatures boardgames crowd, but it wouldn’t kill you to provide a small map of the environment with some interesting shit on it for the players to key off of. Reeds to hide behind! Slippery bank! Steep dropoff! Pile of hay, smoldering!
If you put “the party will encounter 3 groups of kobolds on the way to the inn” in the adventure then that is exactly what is going to happen in AP. The asshat DM is going to say “ok, you encounter kobolds, Roll init” and then they are going to say it twice more. I know the rules can’t cure stupid, or a bad DM, but you can at least give the tool something to work with. “You encounter a group of kobolds rolling ale barrels down the road.” That provides SO many more options!
You get glimpses every now and then that they are trying. The Governor, wounded, trying to marshall a desperate defense … but it’s just a glimpse and then it’s gone. Rather than coming across as a desperate town under siege with a beleaguered leader instead you get generic-ville, population YOU.
I don’t get it. Standards & Practices maybe? I’m not asking for full on gore mode but there’s hardly any flavor here at all.
Oh, wait, wait, I forgot. Governor MORON gets pissy at you if you’ve done something that caused the death of one of the townsfolk. Jerk moron NPC. I suggest gutting him.
Also, what’s with the duel? You put a solo PC up against a monster that they can’t possibly win against … and then if they actually manage to do so they are rewarded by the creature just reappearing later on. “Replace him with another 1/2 dragon warrior if the party manage to defeat him.” So …. The parties actions have no consequences … is that the message you are trying to send?
Episode 2 – My, grandma, what a generic camp you have!
This has the party gathering some information about the raiders base camp, after dealing with a couple of rear-guards. The problem with the content here is much the same as the first episode … the lack of it.
The mission is not bad, just a brief synopsis from THE GOVERNOR, but then it quickly spirals down with the multi-paragraph exposition from a monk who wants you to do something for him. How they decided what to bore the players with and what to generalize is not clear. The governors paragraph is written as DM text and points out the particulars he’d like you to follow up on. But the monks text is all read-aloud. “We fought a particularly savage battle against the raiders.” Uh huh. Nobody talks like that. It’s too long and feels stilted. SHOW, don’t TELL. “I lost sight of brother Maltese while Brother Carl was being gutted by these two mercenaries in purple.” See how much better that is? The governors text is straightforward and fact-based, without ANY embellishment at all. No “sitting at his camp table, surrounded by aides” or “speaking to the players while getting gangrenous arm removed.” That’s the entire problem with this adventure. No Soul.
The first of the rear-guard action is with some stragglers. This isn’t too badly done. Cultists and kobolds cooking some stolen chickens over a fire, the humans bullying the kobolds …. So the designer tried, and does better than usual with this, adding some specificity to the encounter to allow the DM to visualize it and bring it to life for the players. But even then … “bullying.” Wouldn’t it be better if the scene was cemented more in the DM’s and players head? The humans grabbing a bird from the kobold and kicking over the stewpot, laughing while the kobolds scrambled to pick up the pieces from the dirt to eat?Look at how few words that took and how much better it is.
The actual rearguard is lame as all get out. It could use a little map and some extra life, like they chuck boulders down on people, or there’s a streamed to follow or ALMOST ANYTHING AT ALL. The content is “make a DC check based on what you know. You see the ambush from X distance away,.” Screw. That. I’m being totally serious. There is NO creative content at all in this section. It’s just presented as a boring and mundane fight with no details beyond who is fighting you. It is one of the lamest things I have ever seen from a big name publisher. They should be ashamed of themselves for asking for money for this.
The raiders camp, I hate myself for even typing something so uninspiring, has brief flash of things going on, but they quickly dissipate in a mess of WALL OF TEXT. There’s this great thing they do where every time they are communicating info that a cultist would know they say something like “the cult of dragon – blessed be her glory – is on the way to destroy the world! The whole ‘insert the crazy catchphrase” thing is fun, as is the silly cultist salute of wiggling fingers. And … that’s it. It’s clearly written to be explored exactly one way: pretend you belong there. There is a lip service sentence or two about other options, but the VAST VAST majority of the text assumes you just walked in and they don’t recognize you don’t belong. There are references to a cave with hatchlings in it … but no details. There are references to a leader … but no details. In fact YOU ARE EXPLICITLY KEPT FROM INTERESTING The leaders tent is guarded by some guards who do not let ANYONE in. They do not fall for tricks. Period. It says so EXPLICITLY. We put this totally interesting thing on the map, this thing that is totally relevant to your adventure/mission, and then explicitly do everything possible, including fiat, to keep you from it. What planet are the designers from? Again, flashes of brilliance “maybe one of the officers assigns you to a few hours of food prep”, but not NEARLY enough of it. And, “peel potatoes while carving Tiamat heads in to them” is much more fun than “food prep.”
The conversational style of the text also stood out in this section. I don’t usually complain about formatting issues, but the style chosen here is crazy. There are details buried all throughout the text of the sections, buried in long paragraph descriptions. You’re going to have to pull out a highlighter and ready it several times and take notes in order to run the thing effectively. I don’t see how it’s possible to refer to the text effectively during play at all. I don’t get this choice at all. It’s like they are purposefully obfuscating what’s going on in order to comply with some design directive to be “conversational.”
Episode 3 – The Return of the Suckitude
Back in town the guy you were sent to rescue (you did rescue him, didn’t you? I mean, if you didn’t then the hook is not possible, so I hope you rescued him …) wants you to go back to the camp and look around some more. He’s got some cash. Uh … are the designers even trying? It’s like they just slapped down the first thing that came to mind and didn’t give any thought to this at all. Why are you going? Because that’s the adventure we’re playing tonight and if you want to play then say “Yes.” That can be valid sometimes but there’s a spectrum here and the hook for episode 3 is WAY down at the “bad” end of it. Here’s a quote: “If the party accepts …” Uh … what if they don’t accept? It’s the combination of a lame railroad that isn’t trying at all that is asserting it’s NOT a lame railroad that’s not trying at all that is frustrating for me.
The game is generally abandoned when the party returns. There’s a neutral encounter in camp, but it’s written in such a confusing way that you don’t realize the opportunities at first. There are some SCOUTS hanging around at the abandoned camp site acting as hunters. It turns out that the evil cultists hired some woodsmen to go bring in game meat for them and they are still there, brining in game meat for the dudes in a cave. They are gruff and taciturn unless you have a ranger, etc. They are just dudes doing a job and don’t give a shit what you do to the camp. AND THAT’S IT. That’s the description. This could be a knock-it-out-of-the-park NPC encounter. The designers have introduced a faction, and factions mean social opportunities and social opportunities in D&D mean FUN! Another two sentences, with a name or a quirk, or something idiosyncratic, could have turned this in a rock-star level encounter. But instead the general trend of “no detail” is continued. I don’t get it. I don’t understand. WHY? Why is there such a lack of ANY detail that would make the adventure stand out and be memorable? I’m not asking for an epic set-piece. Those are forced and generally suck. But why not give enough to INSPIRE the DM running the encounter to greatness. That’s your job as the designer. Why aren’t you doing it?
You learn that the only people left in camp are the hunters and the dudes in the dragon hatchling cave (Ah! So that’s where it is! In episode 3! Now I know why the area was completely locked and unavailable in episode 2! Because it wasn’t on the railroad yet!) The thirteen or so encounters in the dragon hatchling cave are some of the worst that I have ever seen. Ok, maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s not factually correct. But that’s how I feel as I sit here typing this, the book next to me. I am absolutely crushed that they suck so much. I can recall one, maybe two, being interesting. “The cavern below is carpeted with a profusion of fungi ranging from a few inches high to nearly as tall as an adult human.” That’s what suffices for a description of one of the more fantastic of all D&D environment: a fungi garden. Think of all of those WONDERFULLY evocative images … and then think back to that sentence. Go ahead, do a google image search on D&D fungi garden. Then go back and read that sentence again. There is NONE of the magic from those images in that sentence. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the FANTASTIC? Where the magic of D&D and your imagination? Not here. The designers can’t be bothered to communicate that.
Oh, wait wait! Here’s a good one! You know that moron dragon warrior that killed on of your dudes in that TOTALLY set up and LAME duel in the first episode? Here’s in here again! If you killed him, then it doesn’t matter, there’s another replacement dude in here! BECAUSE YOUR ACTIONS AS A PLAYER DON’T MATTER. Oh, and let’s say you didn’t fight him. Let’s say you snuck through camp in episode 2. Dude don’t really know you at all. “You look familiar …” he says “I’ve seen you around camp” Hey! This is going well! We might be able to bluff, or get some info! Uh … no. That’s not the STUPID RAILROAD you are on charlie! “If you came looking for trouble then I am the trouble you seek!” and he attacks immediately. Yup. You’ve taken the time to be thoughtful and careful and sneak and bluff and get in good with the enemy and you’ve even gotten on the dental plan and … and you are rewarded by him attacking you outright. BECAUSE YOU ACTIONS AS A PLAYER DON’T MATTER. This is SO insulting. I am so disgusted. Et tu, Wolfgang?
Again, there are bits and pieces of greatness here. There’s he standard “swarming bat room” but this time it’s got some stirge mixed in. All Hail Discordia! Wonderful. There’s also a nice trap that seems right out of 1973: a curtain of fur strips, much as in a meatlocker, but with a lot of small fishhooks in it covered in poison. That’s AWESOME! It has started with an idea: “wouldn’t it be cool if …” and then someone has attached some mechanics to it. That’s SO much better than saying “I need a trap. How about 2d6 … let’s see, a pit with spiked in the bottom.” The imagineering is clearly coming first in the fishhook curtain and I LOVE it.
But the rest? It’s like it’s been run through the generic-izer, or that it’s been outsourced to someone else who is just going through the motions. Like the fungi cavern, it’s as if they just don’t care at all about an evocative environment. I’m not talking about reams of text being present, but rather inspirational text. The dragon hatchery is just … I don’t know … not present? “The chamber that opens at the bottom of the stairs is immense. WA wide ledge runs along the left wall and drops away in to a pit on the right. Many stalactites descend from the ceiling.” Congratulations; you’ve said nothing of consequence. You’ve stated boring and mundane facts without any inspiration or imagination behind them. Ad this is the dragon , one of the core focuses in this episode!
Episode 4 – Frustrating Potential
This episode may have more potential energy than anything I’ve seen in a great while. It’s also extremely frustrating in it’s ambiguity. And it’s outcome. At issue is the design guidelines they’ve chosen. They’ve tried to lay out a very non-specific adventure with specifics for you, the DM, to liven things up. When combined with the conversational style of the writing it comes across as “Hey, maybe you could have a farmer go to bed one night.” I think I get what they are trying to do. They are trying to lay out a general adventure and then suggest things that could happen. Kind of like the OLD MERP products. Here’s this cool awesome keep and maybe in third age the ghost of a gully dwarf attacks. But then that’s the problem. It’s like this product is trying to straddle the line between two different type of products. Is it s a module an/or guidebook? A product describing a general place very generally and then suggesting, in very grand and remote terms, some adventures that could take place there? Or is it meant to assist the DM in running a 2-hour D&D game every Wednesday night? The former implies that I, the DM, has to spend 6 hours preping the game with maps, creating monster encounters, making notes, highlighting, filling in details, and all of that. The second implies that a decent amount of the work has been done for me. Both are valid. But the product is clearly MEANT to be the second while instead doing the former … and not very well at that.
Remember that the cult was gone from the camp in episode 3? In this one the party chases the cult to track down where their wagons of stolen loot are going. You take a river journey to “catch up” with them in Baldur’s Gate and then join a massive wagon train/caravan, which happens to include the cult along with a lot of others non-cultists, on their way to the next major waypoint. There are lots of NPC’s provided and lot’s of general ideas provided on things that could happen along the way. Ultimately though, the entire point of this episode is … for an NPC to kill another NPC so the cult can think negatively of the party. Yes, it’s a movie. Nothing the party does is important. Oh, sure, you can fun watching the stuff unfold, but it’s just a Disney ride: sit in the car and watch the events unfold. THAT’S NOT D&D! How much time & effort online has been spent debunking these grand epic movies? It’s can’t be foreign to Kobold Press, Wolfgang, and Steve, that is is just about the worst possible thing that can happen in an adventure. “Oh look, the DM’s pet NPC is fighting the DM’s villain NPC. My, aren’t they awesome. YAWN” And I don’t want to hear anything about how it needs to happen to set up the encounters in the next episodes. If that’s the requirement then you’ve done a pretty piss poor job of designing an adventure, episodic or not.
This episode runs about ten pages. The first three or so are a total waste of space. They detail you coming back to town from episode 3, getting horses to ride ahead to another town, and then having a god-aweful adventure in an inn. In the inn you meet a boisterous tool who wants to test you. If he’s favorably impressed then, after day or so of this, he takes you a back room to talk to two faction bosses. This is quote from one of the faction bosses: “thanks to you we know double what we knew a tenday ago.” Yeah? Then why did we put with that NPC shits antics in the inn? You’ve been back here the entire time in your room letting us screw around with your lackey tool when you’re about to send us on a urgent & time-sensitive mission? Oh, hey, what if we didn’t partake or your reindeer games? What if we don’t favorable impress your NPC lackey? I guess he never takes us to the backroom so we can play D&D tonight? Is that it? This kind of inane design is all over the adventure, in most of the episodes. It’s written exactly one way. Again, I understand it’s episodic, but that’s no excuse for the poorly written content INSIDE of each episode. Ok, still screwing around … dude sends you downriver to Baldur’s Gate where you’re to hire on to a massive caravan that will also include the cultists, in disguise. There is reams of detail in these three pages, almost none of which contribute to an interesting adventure or an evocative environment. Just reams of intentions and why’s and histories in an attempt to explain absolutely everything that is happening. A little of that may be fine, but even better is when it’s done in such a way that the party can impact things. That is relevant to the interactions the players characters will have. Content needs to SUPPORT actual play, not be full of useless detail that or detail that will never come up. “But it could come up!” So could the dietary requirements of the present king of France, but that’s not appropriate for the designers to burn words on either.
The maddening part is … there’s some good stuff in here! There’s an actual open-ended encounter or two in this, such as The Golden Stag , that inspires the imagination, is not forced on the party, and is open-ended. It’s one of the best encounters in the episode, and in the first four episodes. There’s something like 26 or so NPC’s presented for the party to interact with. There are a dozen or so encounter ideas for the party to have in their journey along the road. It’s all GREAT. There’s more content here than you could ever use in a 2 hour D&D encounters game session. You could easily work this shit for four or 6 or eight hours before it got old. The NPC”s are great, the encounter suggestions are great … well …. I mean … except for the fact that nothing happens. To over summarize, the NPC’s are described in some words like “taciturn but treats his horses well.” or “friendly but aloof and mistreats his draft animals.” This is then supplemented by some road events. “Someone tries to buy something from a PC at far too low a price. It goes missing that night. A third party stole it.” There’s actually a paragraph or so for each PC and a paragraph or two for each encounter. But then generalizations of the encounters are accurate: SOMEONE is interested and SOMEONE else stole it. It’s up to you to decide who. This is where the whole “here’s a bunch of parts. Enjoy putting them all together” thing comes in to play. The lack of any specific inspiration for these encounters makes them poor encounters. “It’s D&D! You can do anything!” is all fine & great, but a persons mind works better to fill in the details when you given a little constraint. IE: too much open-ended-ness does not lead to imagination but rather to generic dullness. This is further exacerbated with statements like “go ahead and insert a monster encounter or two along the way.” Hey, Wolfgang, I’m paying YOU for YOUR imagination. I could come up with own adventure if I wanted to do the work. That’s not the point of me dumping you, Kobold, and WOTC the $35 I paid for this. How about YOU use YOUR prodigious skills to add some life & flavor to things?
It’s also a bit frustrating that the cultists are portrayed as faceless villains. They are just referred to a “cultists” instead of “Bob the cultists who loves Tiamat and has a daughter in Baldur’s Gate.” This is notable in two regards. First, there are SO many naked personalities in this episode that the lack of names/personalities for the cultists really stands out. They become the faceless and generic enemy. “Kill them and take their stuff.” I’m fine with murder hobo’ing, but that’s not what this episode is. It’s one long social encounter. A mini-village on wheels. To not provide the cultists anything close to a face in an environment in which you are forced, over several weeks, to socialize with them, is a grave mistake. If I recall correctly, the cultists in … Against the Reptile Cult, all got a sentence of personality, and that’s part of what made the adventure fun. Again, it was a social adventure, in a village.
Finally, the railroad aspects are really bad. I guess they wanted some kind of epic story arc where you hit all of the wonder of continent, and thus had to get the PC’s on the road from place to place and away from the sleepy, destroyed, town they started in. But there’s no impact you can have. Two days before town is reached one of the NPC’s kills a cultists. Nothing can be proved, but the cultists believe it was one of the party members. That’s the goal of this episode. Want to kill the cultists? Want to loot their treasure wagons? Want to get friendly with them or convert? Want to do good and strike a blow and defeat the cult, like a goodey goodey adventurer? woah, Woah, WOAH! That’s not the railroad pal! A few sentences on this, and how it would fit in to the longer arc, would have been much more welcome and supported play much better than the bullshit ’test’ at the inn.
Episode 5 – Of Mice & Mensch
In contrast to the last episode this one is feels very light. It weighs in at three or so pages and details a roadhouse. Once arriving in the destination city the cultists hire on to a DIFFERENT wagon train going north to a way-station/roadhouse. It’s being used by crews rebuilding the road to Neverwinter. But the cultists are also using it to offload their treasures. They stash their loot there and in the middle of the night some lizard men sneak in to fetch it. The party is still on the “find out where the loot is going” mission, and thus they need to figure out where the is and where its going … and thus how its getting out of the roadhouse.
The introductory text here is not very strong. It’s supposed to communicate that the cultists “hire on” to another caravan going north, the Road Crew. This entire section is confusing in relating that information. That’s really just a matter of some better editing. More serious is the ten-day journey to the roadhouse. There are supposed to be a few encounters with creatures along the way, but they belong to the throw-away category of adventure design. “1 troll” or “2 ogres” or “8 giant frogs.” Stunning design guys, really stunning. “But that’s not the focus! It’s an investigation in the roadhouse!” Then why’s it in the adventure? If it’s in the adventure then it needs to contribute to the play. If it’s not doing that then it needs to be changed and/or removed. <— Period. I refuse to put up with encounters being abstracted away like this. Why not just tell them to roll on the table in the book? Why not just roll a d6 and on a 1-4 announce that the party won and had a good time? (On a 5-6 you get to re-roll.) There IS a nicely abstracted mechanism to handle the NPC guards also along for the trip. Roll 1d4-2; that’s the number of NPC guards who died in the encounter, while fighting their own batch of monsters. That’s a nice simple abstraction.
Speaking of abstraction … this is now the THIRD time the party will have seen the exact same cultists. The same nameless, faceless cultists with no personalities. Again, during another SOCIAL adventure in ANOTHER caravan during an investigation which is, by it’s very nature, SOCIAL. The height of this absurdity in design decision-making comes at one of the major events in this section: a duel. The cultist killed in episode 4 had a good friend. The good friend calls someone in the party, insults them, and attacks, out for blood. There’s supposed to be some build-up to this. Bad looks, stink eye, slights, and so on. But the villain here is just totally unnamed. A VETERAN (i.e.: use the veteran monster stats.) The pronoun used indicates it’s a woman. That’s it. No Name. No personality. NOTHING. This is what is supposed to inspire the DM to run a great encounter? And RIGHT before this encounter is listed there’s another one, a little throw-away thing, that DOES finally give one of the cultists a personality: a 1/2 elf who’s is stealing from the cult. Holy Smokes! Not all of them are blood-thirty fanatics?!? Look, I wouldn’t mind if they all were 1-dimensional, I’d just stab them in the face anyway, but if you’re going to force the party to interact with them over 6-8 hours of real time then support the DM in that endeavor. That’s your job, to support the DM.
This sort of thing is maddening. There’s a captain of the guard listed by name but with no other details. (What, there’s a captain of the guard?! Does he like the boss of the roadhouse, who’s secretly a cultist? I mean I’m certain that the players are VERY unlikely to appeal to him if they find out the boss is cultist … they’d never do that …right? Appeal to the authority who has a lot of guards at his disposal? Waaaaiiiittttt….) There’s a treasure room. Getting in to it is going to be one of the major goals of this episode. Elsewhere it EXPLICITLY says this is where ALL of the valuables in camp are stored. The rooms makes no mention of that at all. NONE. That’s not on the railroad. That’s not what the designer wants you to do. If you pay REALLY close attention you get the impression these are rough and tumble laborers in the roadhouse. Mention is made several times of how certain party actions could result in the loss of face, etc, with the people there. They “humiliate” or “treat badly” the people they think are cowards, weak, thieves, etc. But that’s all we get. No “they bump in to you at dinner, spilling your food. The cook says he’s out if you want more.” or “Someone has pissed in your bunk” or anything like that Just a few sentences like that would have made all the difference between a generic adventure and something memorable that the players will remember. Give me, the DM, a cue. One sentence: piss in your bunk. I can work with that. I can work it in. I’m inspired and my mind can fill in the rest. The EXTREME lack of specificity leaves things too open-ended, and thus too generic.
There is a good part here, better than your average bear. There is a one column bullet point list of actions/reactions. IF the party does this then this thing could happen or they can learn this. There are six or seven of these and they do wonders for this episode. It’s terse, imaginative, the reactions are more evocative than most … it’s the GUIDANCE for the DM that I’m talking about in most of the rest of this review that is generally missing. It’s perfect and fits well. Further, the bullet-list format makes it each to recognize and track down. This is in contrast to the rest of the episodes where this sort of information is generally buried in some kind of wall of test paragraph format. It conveys a lot of information, quickly, and it’s easy to recognize. The form+Function here is a perfect fit.
Episode 6 – Something good. Something bad. A bit of both.
The tunnel under the roadhouse leads to an exit near the swap where you find an obvious track taking you deeper in and leading to an old keep. From here you will somehow find out that the treasures are being taken through a portal in the basement to somewhere else. The keep, with it’s 40 or so rooms over four levels, lacks some focus. It looks like you’re supposed to sneak in and start an uprising amongst the three factions present. Given the IMPRESSIVE number of enemies present (hundreds) that’s really the only option. But they are trying to not write a railroad, so they have to present the entire scenario a little more open-ended. IF the party does this and IF the party does that.
For example, after tracking the cargo through the swamp some lizard men show up. They attack immediately. The text gives every impression, up to that point, that this is just another monster hack. And then the text goes on for at least a column about how one of the lizard men is totally looking to rebel and wants to join the party, etc. And this lizard man is referenced time and time again in the episode, assuming you’ve allied with him. It is COMPLETELY written from this point of view. And yet … they attack immediately, don’t converse with the party, etc. The designers have done something excellent here in creating factions within the dragon cult. The lizard men, the bullwugs, and the cultists. But then they’ve written the thing in exactly one way: you ally with the lizard men. Instead of doing that you could make the entire thing a little more dimensional and make the bullywugs less one-dimensional as well. The lizard man thing is REALLY good. The bullywugs are also REALLY good … even if they are not an ally. Picture lizard men going on a murderous rampage killing bullybugs at every turn while the party explores the keep, grinning at the party while they commit their slaughter. It’s a WONDERFUL opportunity. It’s just combined with some nonsense words at the beginning about how they attack on sight and how the bullywugs can never be allies.
One way or another, allied or not, the party is likely to end up in the keep. Maybe they pretend to be cultists. That’s HEAVILY implied as well, even though the party will face multiple combats outside the keep, pretending or not, so they are unlikely to believe they can pretend once INSIDE The keep. IE: patrols and guards, mostly outside, are suspicious, but inside the folks mostly assume you’re a cultists and let you go about your business. It’s just not clear that any party is going to make that leap after they’ve been attacked multiple times outside.
The inside of the keep is fairly boring. The descriptions and locations don’t lead to a lot of interesting things. There is an exception or two, like a tentacle monster in the garbage that can drag you in to his pit, or a section of rolling mist, but otherwise it’s a pretty uninteresting place. “Action shots” of fleeing bullywugs and the lizard man massacre will liven it up quite a bit.
I would like to point out that the episode does several things right, more so than in many of the others. First, there IS faction play possibilities. Faction play should be mainstay of any adventure with multiple parties. The creatures have their own goals and motivations and the party should be able to take advantage of that. The fact that they’ve included it, even in the goofy “attack but friendly” way, is a real bonus and shows a good understanding of the how’s and why’s of multiple-humanoid play in a dungeon/environment. D&D is a social game and, just as in the villages and the caravans, you must provide those opportunities for strong play to emerge.
In contrast to the many other episodes, the wandering monster encounters here are on the right track! There are 12 or so and they each have their own little paragraph expanding the one-liners in the table. A spiders web in misty fog. Frogs with sticky tongues. “the weed that walks.” and so on. They could use a little more to reach greatness. In particular, they need to be focused on PLAY. Giant frogs shooting out sticky tongues … in a cattail filled reeds? A spiders web in misty fog … along some downed trees? Or a section of destroyed cypress forest, logs floating … mixed with crocs? The Weed That Walks (which has a nice little bit if you have your lizard man ally) encountered in a bramble patch? In other words, they are all on the right track but need just a little more to ground them in your imagination … which then allows your mind to run wild.
There’s also a nice little bullet-list section on how the keep occupants react when the party invades/is finally discovered. This is a great section that allows the DM to better free-form run the adventure. It’s from this section that the the best idea comes from: “(the lizard men) then hunt the bullywugs on the castle & grounds and murder them mercilessly.” This is one of the few sections that grounds the action with strong language. It’s notable that it’s from this strong user of language that I hooked on to a great way to run this section. More of that strong language, creating evocative scenes through terse language, is what most of this product badly needs. The imagery of an ogyugh at the bottom of a destroyed tower in a pit of refuse, using its tentacles to pull people in who are trying to get past the garbage, is a strong one also, and it also is one of the few images that has stayed with me and was cemented strongly in my mind. More specifics, without going overboard in to paragraph mode. Another nice bit: you’re actually allowed to kill the NPC’s this time around. No “his brother shows up” or “his minions drag him” away nonsense.
There’s another glaring omission here: how the keep reacts. There are some VERY general guidelines in the bullet points “Bob tries to escape if it looks like the party is winning” and things like that. There are also at least two rooms that mention who else responds when they hear sounds of combat. In episode three this was a MAJOR factor. It was noted how far you could hear in the caves and how the sound traveled in the main parts of the cave. But in the keep there’s none of this. It’s very important, in any intelligent monster lair, to pay attention to how the creatures react. This is a curtesy to the DM running the adventure. The bullet list “goals” in this episode is a good start from a very general standpoint but it needs more. This could be as simple as ensuring the map is printed with the summary of who’s in the room. Is the next room full of creatures? DO you want to dig through the (conversational) text to figure out who is in that room? Maps in RPG products are not utilized very well for conveying almost anything beyond the dimensions and this sort of “intelligent monster lair” is a perfect place to note zones of hearing, or at least “which rooms have monsters in them.” This is part of what I mean when I say the adventure must support the DM in running it. It’s a play aid. So … aid the DM in play. If lizard man massacre breaks out then you can use it one way. If you are sneaking about you can use it another. If all hell breaks loose with the entire castle arrayed against you … well .. .the DM is going to need to know, EASILY, who is coming at you when.
Finally, I think there’s a leap of logic here that’s hard to make. The party sneaks in to the keep. They have to do this, and find the papers in the commanders office, in order to go to the next episode. It’s not clear to me that they WILL sneak in to the keep. I guess that’s an AP thing. The ties to the hook and plot (“find out where the treasure is going”) don’t exactly lead me to believe the party would “invade” an evil fortress to find the next part of the plot. Those could/should/need to be strengthened in the initial plot hook set up in (episode 4?) as well as in this one. Something is missing here that is needed for the party to figure out what to do. Sure, as the DM you could tell them what to do. You could also play Connect 4 instead. Or a better adventure.
Episode 7 – A Waste of Time
In this episode you are teleported from the castle in episode 6 to a hunting lodge. In that lodge you find a sub-luitenant from the the cult who, and I quote “the classic scene where the villain explains herself if the players are willing to pause.” Remember, they didn’t say it was GOOD scene, just a classic one …
The hunting lodge has 22 rooms. If you just walk in and poke around a bit you’ll face a couple of combat and then meet the lieutenant. She’ll give you directions to a cloud castle full of the cults treasure and ask that you go mess it up. It would help her out a lot by forcing one of her fellow lieutenants to fail and loose face.
The encounters here in the lodge are a bit more evocative than many of the others in the adventure. Trophy rooms, human servants with some personality that you can learn things from, prisoners to free and a weird thing tor to to deal with. But it’s mostly empty and devoid of content. Just go upstairs and listen to the monologue and hit episode 8. I will note, in another bit of excellent railroading, there is no real option for the party if they kill the lieutenant. Two sentences at the end say “if they kill her there’s no one to tell the party about the cloud castle. Consider leaving a paper trail in her personal effects.” Uh … if you can say that as, literally, the last two sentences in the episode then why can’t you put two sentences about the cloud castle paper trail in her quarters instead?
It does have something in one of the rooms that I’d like to point out. There tends in this obsession in D&D with explaining how things work. This seems common to most versions past 0E and I find it completely bizarre. In the lodge there’s a suit of black armor that is actually a helmed horror, disguised by an illusion that has an Evard’s black tentacles spell stored in it to use. I don’t understand this chaining of stuff in order to explain what’s going on. It’s magic. How about just a suit of armor that transforms and attacks with stats X and can do some power once a day? Why the need to EXPLAIN it by chaining effects together? It’s bizarre and I’ve never understood it. It turns something magical and wondrous in to something ponderous and grey and dull. I touch roses.
There’s really not a lot else to say about this section. The NPC’s could use a little more description, although they tend to get far more than usual. Again, if you’re going to interact with someone then give them a name and a quirk and maybe a motivation if you want some faction play.
The rooms are also described in the typical “expansive nothing” style that we’ve come to expect. The bathroom describes what a bathroom has in it. The pantry describes what a pantry has in it. The armory describes what it has in it. How about just saying “Armory” and “the usual weapons” or “Pantry” and then devoting your word budget to how the pantry supports play in the lodge? Note what’s cool and interesting and unique and what would support creative and interesting play, instead of telling me that the BEDROOM has BED with BLANKETS and a DRESSER with LINENS in it. Ug. I can make that up. Tell me about the black void of nothingness that pukes paisley flower, or something like that. Or just leave it blank with the word “Pantry” on the map.
This is really a nothing kind of episode, existing just to have the villain give the monologue and give the players the castle plans. In other words, filler. After all, episode 6 could have directly led to the cloud castle, eh?
Episode 8 – My only friend, the end.
You storm the cloud castle that is hauling Teh L00ts. Inside you find cultists and a second faction, the giants, that you can perhaps negotiate with. At the end, one way or another, you arrive at a site in the frozen north so you can play the next 8 episodes. Either the cloud giant in charge drives it there or it goes uncontrollable and eventually crashes there. Oh, and you didn’t escape beforehand. One the wyverns you rode there. Or through a spell. Or any of a bunch of other ways. Because then you’ll not be in the north for the next set of episodes. Errr, sorry, I forgot I’m not complaining about the episodic nature.
The beginning is a mess. You get to a village, completely controlled by the cult, and the sky castle is parked there on the ground. The cultists don’t attack you. But they do when the adventure says they do. It makes no sense. There’s this pretext about staying at the inn even though you’re not allowed and the adventure doesn’t want you to. I guess you are supposed to sneak in to the castle while it’s on the ground, but then if you don’t you could also grab some wyverns from the stables and fly to the castle. But to do that you need to make some skill checks. So, just to be clear: you need to roll high in order to go on the adventure. The adventure is clear: the castle flies off and the wyverns are trouble if you roll low. DC 15 animal handling, twice, or you don’t get to go on the adventure. This is bad bad bad design. The whole village scene and getting in to the castle is a confusing and muddled mess. It’s not clear or laid out well at all. There’s too much emphasis on a traditional keyed encounter format instead on personalities, timelines, and the objective of this part: getting in to the castle.
The castle works better as a keyed encounter, but could again use a kind of order of battle for reactions. In some of the encounters it’s explicitly mentioned who shows up and what the reactions are. A few bullet points on how the castle mobilizes to meet intruders would go a long way. There’s also a a very clearly meant to be some faction play between the cultists and the giants in the castle. Given the importance of this it seems unusual that so little attention is paid to “how to meet the cloud giant lord.” He’s got minions here, he’s got other giant allies here … but there’s not much at all on how this plays out from his standpoint … until you get to this throne room. THEN there’s words on how he talks rhetorically to his moron guards about what to do with the party. The other faction consists of a dragon, a vampire, a couple of red wizards, and the cult leadership. They are written almost totally independent of each other. Much in the same way that the cloud giant only gets significant write up in his room, the others generally only get written up in their areas. That’s too bad. This place doesn’t feel alive at all. This should be the one place where you WANT a big climax, where you could justify putting in some cool shit and forcing a few things. The players want the payoff for sitting through 8 episodes of this! I will note, however, that the threat level of the creatures in this section seems to have ratcheted up significantly.
But that is not to be. It’s more of the same. Generic descriptions devoid of life and interesting content. The entire place is powered by the dead wife of the cloud giant lord and even THAT is handled in the most boring way possible. The entire place is quite disappointing and continues the trend of Cloud Castles not living up to their hype. I don’t think I’ve seen a good one yet, but, then again, I actually have standards.
There’s also, finally! Some treasure here! It all belongs to the cloud giant. He’s got something like $20k in gold in one room. The stupid hoard you’ve been chasing? It’s abstracted to 500k in cp, 100k in sp and 5k in gp, along with 21 blue sapphires. Talk about anti-climactic …
The creatures here are pretty uninteresting. As a beginning adventure using the data published for free, I guess that’s to be expected. It’s all standard monsters presented in a pretty boring fashion. I’m particularly disappointed the imagery used to portray them. I want descriptions and imagery used that make them interesting and exciting in your mind, so you can portray that to the players. I don’t want to tell the players “its a ghoul”, I want to DESCRIBE it to the players. SHOW, don’t TELL. I want the adventure as a play aid, to assist in that, to help bring it to life for me so I can do that for the players.
ARGGGG!!!!! THIS STINKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! The vast majority of the treasure in this adventure is some of the most boring and uninspiring I have ever seen. Too much of the treasure is abstracted out, although not to the horrendous degree of “a treasure parcel worth 250gp.” The name is HOARD of the Dragon Queen, but nothing is done to bring to life those treasure. Recall that for most of the adventure you are chasing the treasure, with many opportunities to view it, steal it, etc. In all of those cases the hoard is merely abstracted. It’s like you are playing a computer RPG and find an object titled “massive treasure hoard” … But you can’t actually spend it or do anything with it. In fact too many cases, the overwhelming majority, the treasure is glossed over, or non-existant.
The magic items may, possibly, be worse. There are only a handful of interesting ones presented, and I would argue that even those are not actually interesting. There is a magic great sword, unique, that is wonderful. It’s sentient & NE and therefore deserves to have a personality and goals, which are completely absent, but the tradition of unique swords is at least alive. Other than that, the only real magic I recall are a couple of very generic +1 sword type items and several other, book items, in the same vein. And there’s really not much of that for a party at 8th level. It’s all boring and uninspiring, generic and not conducive to the type of D&D I want to play. I want magic that is ALIVE and FANTASTIC, that doesn’t just mirror effect mechanically but that seems WONDROUS.Ready for this? One of the largest concentrations is: +1 longsword, +1 longbow, +1 leather armor, bracers of defense. You feel like you live in a world of wonder and imagination yet? No? In some adventure I reviewed I recall a bag of holding that was actually a toad who’s mouth opened WIIIIIIIIDDDDDEEEEE, and you needed a little magic fly to activate. That’s a magic item. The stuff in this adventure ain’t nothing but mechanistic garbage.
In spite of the general lameness, there is a decent hook or two for the players, just as there was with the rogue in Phandelver. Most of the suggested player hooks are the usual moralistic and tripe nonsense, but one or two are great. “You were once a gold dragon serving Bahamut.” Cool! Or, you used to be a cult member with your family until another cult faction wiped you out. Now your out for vengeance, with only three names on lips to go on. Or, grandchild of a renowned dragons layer, you’ve been hounded by ruffians beating you. You flee to the starting village looking for a little rest … Those are great. That’s the kind of non-generic and specific thing I’m looking for in an adventure. Any player can work with that and create some magical RPG moments.
A good DM could …
Inevitably someone will comment “Yes, but a good DM could …” or perhaps “but it’s the job of the DM to add …” Both statements are correct, and meaningless in this context. You’re right, a good DM could, and will, fix it. But we’re also looking for the designer to INSPIRE the DM to greatness. To give them little bits of flavor seeds that can explode in their minds to full fledged sensory scenes to be communicated to the players ad-hoc and ad-lib. Likewise some folks seem to confuse my statements around flavor and INSPIRATION to mean “a lot of text.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Those long & lengthy descriptions rob the DM of their imagination. We’re looking for JUST. A LITTLE. MORE than bare bones. We need to know what’s SPECIAL about this person, place, thing. The thing that makes the NPC or encounter come alive. The imagination is a powerful thing. You just need to suggest something and it will do the rest.
Hrumph. I edited my liberal use of profanity out of this for eventual posting on ENworld. I feel the review has now far less impact. That was a mistake.