by Steve Winter, Alexander Winter, Wolfgang Baur
Wizards of the Coast
The Cult of the Dragon leads the charge in an unholy campaign to bring Tiamat back to the Forgotten Realms. With the race against evil moving from Waterdeep to the Sea of Moving Ice to Thay, the situation grows more perilous with each passing moment. The heroes must succeed, or Faerûn will succumb to draconic tyranny. In the end, the world will never be the same.
How hard do you want to work to run an adventure? How much do you want to pay to do so? Rise of Tiamat is a 10,000 foot outline of an adventure that is not organized to effectively support a DM during play. There are a few specific instances of the adventure providing gameable content, advice, and structure, but the overall assertion remains: this is not an adventure. It is an adventure outline that is 94 pages long. Those 94 pages lack, to the major extent, gameable content and structure for a DM and instead provide extraneous generic information.
I’m not talking about this being a sandbox. I know what that is. At the other extreme, I’m not talking about holding the DM’s hand or providing too much information; I’m well aware of that from my 50-ish Dungeon Magazine reviews. This adventure fails by confusing detail with gameable content & advice. That is, while it has 96 pages it uses those 96 pages for the wrong kind of words. Let’s take for a theoretical example a meeting between two sometimes-friendly rivals and the party. Telling us that NPC1 has blue eyes and a grey cloak adds nothing to the encounter. It’s not gameable; it’s just superfluous detail. Telling us he has a cloak of owlbear feathers that he treasures & grooms subconsciously is a little better. He has now some non-generic detail that the DM can leverage and use as a springboard. By this I mean it has, hopefully, sparked something in the DM’s own mind that helps them grasp the scene and individual; implanting a powerful trope/idea in their head that they can fill in the details of. A grey cloak and blue eyes doesn’t do that. In this example though we have two people, rivals who sometimes work together. Even better than the owlbear cloak would be something like NPC 2 needles NPC 1 over the cloak while 1 makes snide remarks about 2’s gambling debts and how he did his husband 30 years ago. And even better than that would be a couple of sentences of remarks/suggestions/examples of the needling. (I envision something like Sean Connery in the Jeopardy SNL skits, needling Trebeck.) Now we have something that brings this encounter to life. Both individuals now have personality. In just a few sentences we have provided the DM with a strong internal image of the encounter. This is direct gameable content. A description of blue eyes, red hair, and a grey cloak add nothing to the players enjoyment or in helping the DM run the encounter. It’s trivia that anyone can fill in. We don’t pay $30 for trivia. We pay $30 for a play aid; gameable content.
Rise of Tiamat confuses trivia with gameable content. It provides background and context. Frankly, the background and context is not interesting at all in almost every instance. I forget which review it was in, but I cited a good example once. The room description went on and on about how this room was trophy room. It had banners of several wars and trophies of war and swords and shields from fallen opponents. And then it ended with something like: but was all looted long ago and now nothing remains but dust. Uh … Great. The purpose of the adventure is to aid the DM in helping the players have fun. How did that help? It didn’t. And neither does the vast majority of the content, the trivia, in Rise.
The dichotomy of the adventures “detail & outline” failures are then highlighted by its aggressive genericism; the outline. In examples too numerous to cite the adventure says things like “maybe they rest at an inn and have an encounter” or “make up your own dragons hoard” or “the party meets some humanoids. Maybe they are hunter or slavers or farmers.” It’s trying to be a sandbox but it doesn’t know how. The sandbox gives the DM tools. These are not tools. I would suggest that they don’t even rise to the level of “ideas”, since I would assert that an idea must have something non-obvious about it. Aggressively generic trivia.
The highlights of the adventure are when it forgies this. When it adds a unique magic non-book magic item … that doesn’t even have mechanical effects! Bits and pieces of specific advice that bring flavor in a gameable format. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about holding the DM’s hand. We’re not talking about provide absurd levels of detail or railroading. We’re talking about supporting the DM during actual play … through gameable content.
This thing is … disorganized. I’m going to strongly suggest that WOTC, or Kobold, or whoever put this together go off and hire … I don’t know. An editor? Proofreaders? Someone to tell them that their writing is a disorganized and needs to be better organized? What’s that job called? You know, the one person in an organization that has some Common Sense? You have to fight this product to get the adventure out of it. You have to fight the text, you have to fight the repetition, you have to fight the disorganization and the seemingly complete lack of playtesting that went in to it. How do I know this? If it were playtested by someone outside of the wiring group then it would have been organized differently with better tools/aids for the DM. It’s a damn play aid. It an AID to PLAY for the DM. You’re supposed to be making my life easier, not harder. There’s a song lyric (lifted in a sample, I believe) that goes “‘Reality’ is the only word in the language that should always be used in quotes.” I’m going to steal that tactic.
The following is going to sound a bit petty. I think it provides a solid example of how the adventure is not “organized” to support the DM in preparing, or during, play. The adventure is “organized” in Episodes. To me, the word Episode has a certain meaning. Episode one happens before two, and two before three, and so on. The text does make a good point that the this adventure can be approached non-linearly. Except … it’s a mess. You see, while they labeled “Episodes” they are not actually episodes. They are sections. The very first episode details the Council of Waterdeep AND THE FOUR MEETINGS THEY HAVE THEY FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES DURING THE ADVENTURE. So, not an episode. More of a section heading for a series of events that the DM can cause occur at some time in the adventure. Likewise episode 5 is The Cult Strikes Back, which details three events that happen at three different points in the adventure. The introductory text attempts to clarify this, but it’s still not very clear. The choices made seemingly confound explanation.The level advancement scheme is tied to this. That section notes that the party should level after episode 3, episode 2, then episode 5, then episode 4, then episode 5 again, and then episodes 7 and 8, and then again after episode 5 again. Uh…. you can imagine my confusion when reading this. So, not “organized”. Not “organized” at all. It’s pretty clear what they are trying to do with this adventure. They want a series of things that can happen to the characters and that will happen in the world. They are just completely disorganized in getting that idea across and presenting it. The idea is a good one. The Scourge of the Demon Wolf attempts to do something like this and generally succeeded; presenting people, places, and events as well as a rough summary/background and suggestions on how things could play with advice on what to do otherwise. This doesn’t do that at all.
Let me cover two more things about the sections of text that appear before the episodes do. First, the factions and personalities are not “organized” in any real way for play. The run-up to the first chapter presents no fewer than 16 people who the party will interact with … a lot of them in the very first event. These are complex people, representing different factions with different goals and motivations. The bulk of them will be encountered at least four times, usually in a group environment. The information is presented to you, the DM, in Wall of Text form over about seven pages. No one thought to include a brief NPC handout? Sure, they are stat’d out completely and include a metric ton of information that will never be relevent in play, but they didn’t make it easy to actually run an encounter with the NPC’s. What ever happened to that? To making the adventure easy for the DM to run? TO including summary tables? Is that my job, as a DM? Really? After I just paid your ass $30? You can find a great play aid in “The Lower Caves”, an adventure in Fight On! magazine issue #6. The author, David Bowman aka Sham, is one of the best adventure writers. His adventures show an understanding that the adventure is a play aid for the DM and exist to help the DM run the game.
Then, of course, there’s the moronic railroad. The very first paragraph on the second page of text tell you that if the party kills one of the NPC just resurrect them or replace them. The spice must flow and the railroad must not be stopped! I try not to get personal in these review. Ideas suck or are poorly implemented, not people. I’m going to make an exception for this. Shame on you! Screw you and your advice! This is absurd! The Story! The Story! Will no one think of The Story! Of course, it’s also suggested that resurrects be freely available to the characters well. Wouldn’t want to derail this nonsense. This bullshit makes inconsequential any decision the players make. Any sacrifice, and idea you have to advance your goals, no matter the cost, is irrelevant. In the final event Tiamat is being summoned and her buddies need to be next to her. As an alternative, the writers might have TRIED TO WRITE A BETTER ADVENTURE. If your adventure hinges on little Billy not getting killed in event number two then you better not put him in that position in Event 2, or, better yet, not make the rest of the adventure contingent on little Billy being there. Yeah, yeah, Epic Scope, blah blah blah. That’s no excuse. Do a better job.
The rest of the review covers the adventure episode by episode. There are specific examples, good & bad, as well as a smattering of suggestions for improvement. If you are running the adventure, or interested in adventure design, then read on.
Episode One – The Council of Waterdeep
This chapter presents four council meetings that take place in Waterdeep. The purpose here is two-fold: hooks & finale. The council presents opportunities for the party to get missions to complete, AKA: the rest of the events in the adventure. This is where they are fed the information they need to figure out what they can do next. In essence, this is the portion of the adventure that allows the rest of it to be generally non-linear. Well, except for the scaling. I mean if event one is written for level eights and event four for level thirteens then …. well, you get the idea. The second purpose if setting up the finale. As the group completes missions, and negotiates in council, they will earn the favor and ill favor of the various factions that make up the council. Get the support of the arch-devils and the Order of the Gauntlet might not be happy. Kill someone instead of interrogating them and the Harpers might not be happy, and so on. There’s a convenient scorecard for the DM to keep track of the goals for each faction provided for the DM at the end of the adventure. That’s the kind of play aid I expect to see. It’s a very nice little mini-game, and should bring the diplomacy home to the players, if only …
There are three major problems with this section, two in “organization” and one in Quantum Ogres/player agency. The first I’ve already covered. These four council meetings are role-play encounters. The lack of any kind of summary of their goals and personalities means you get to do it yourself or you get to flip back and forth while trying to run this. If you know you need the notes to run the section then why weren’t the notes provided?
I’m going to cover the agency as the second part. In order for the players to make meaningful decisions they have to know they are making those decisions. “Do you want to support the rebels or the king” is a far sight different than just wading in and killing folk and then at the end finding out you were supporting the rebels. Well hell, if you’d known that then maybe you would not have done it? There is some place for this sort of thing, but generally as a hook or complication. In the council meetings the factions react to you based on your actions … and yet you don’t know what those actions are. Do you kill the NPC or bring them back for questioning? What you do will move the faction-o-meter but you don’t know what it is you are doing. You move the meter by accident. Yes, that can be amusing. But it’s far more fun for the players if they know the consequences for their actions. That way they are a part of world and the events are not just spinning out of control around them. They can directly influence the world. None of this is brought out in this section. For example, if you kill or capture Varram, one of the baddies in one of the first encounters, the factions react to you in different ways. But there’s no indication at all that this will happen. No “and get me some prisoners!” or “Kill them all and let Thor sort them out!” Without that, you can’t make a decent decision. A fun decision. With the players trying to decide what to do.
Finally, the council meetings are “organized” for shit. It tries, a bit. There is a brief section “The setup” as hooks for adventure and then another called “Follow-up” to deal with what you just did – the adventure right before the council meeting. IE: the Setup form the last meeting. The information for the hooks is scattered all over the chapter. For example, here’s some direct text:
Setup – The Sea of Moving Ice
The sounding of the Draakhorn weighs heavily on all th leaders of the Sword Coast. Seeking more information on the horn and its whereabouts leads the party on an expedition to the frozen North and episode 2.
That’s it. There are four other general paragraphs about the first council meeting. There is also another setup/hook and a brief Follow-up (dealing with the outcomes of the lead-in adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen) but there’s nothing more in this section about the horn. The four paragraphs describing the meeting, overall, are just general nonsense like “you’re lead in” and “too much mistrust still burdens the factions.” Elsewhere in the chapter there is a section called The Draakhorn Sounds. It describes, in read-aloud, the disturbance in the air that happens when the horn is first sounded and a couple of generic details, like cats being skittish. There’s also a section of read-aloud that says NPC #13 relates in the first council setting. It’s two sentences long. I hope you can see where I’m going here; the information is scattered throughout the section and not well organized” at all. This makes it VERY difficult to run the adventure. The other council meetings are similar.
Episode Two – The Sea of Moving Ice
This is a ‘traditional’ adventure, and one of the better parts of the campaign. The party is ostensibly looking for information regarding the Draakenhorn by exploring its last known location: an iceberg. That’s home to a dragon. You’re following up on a missing NPC who set off to find information about it. In the course of events you’re introduced to a tribe of humanoids, some factions, and of course, the dragon. It’s overly long for what it’s trying to do, but in the end you get a passable adventure.
It starts with background on the horn and your mission briefing. A hard ass, such as myself, might comment that the adventure would be better served by including this in the Council chapter, since that’s where you’ll encounter it, instead of in the introduction to the adventure chapter. If I were in a generous mood I might mention that it doesn’t really matter; the DM is provided the information. A hard ass you is complaining about the general lack of “organization” in the adventure would not however that spreading the hook information out over the entire book is pretty lame and causes the DM is flip back and forth through the book when trying to run the council setting.
On to the meat. You’re provided some decent wandering monster tables for both the journey through the sea (by ship) and in the iceberg. In particular, you get a hint of what is to come. This sort of thing is critically important for the players to be able to gauge their approach to the challenges ahead. On the sea, for example, there are some of the typical things you would expect: a giant octopus attack and so on. More importantly there are encounters with the local natives. These set the scene for what is to come. Nervous, not overtly hostile but certainly not the usual shyness that the local usually display. When reaching the actual iceberg, and the main local tribe area on it, the players then know something and can adjust their play style accordingly. This sort of thing is generally not done enough in modern adventures.
It leads into one of the strongest portions of this episode: the faction play. There are several groups living on the iceberg, each with their own motivations. The local tribesmen are cowed and afraid, interested in scaring off the party because of fear of retribution from the dragon. The ice toads minions are intelligent and have their own speech with their own motivations for doing the work of the dragon. The kobolds are slaves and even the trolls present, which are generally hostile, have a mechanism for winning them over and getting to at least ignore the party. This is so, so important in a good adventure. You can sneak, disguise, parlay, and negotiate, in addition to a pure frontal assault. Suddenly the party has options, and because of that the play is much more interesting. The faction play could be summarized better at the front of the chapter, but it IS present, and faction play is always a highlight.
The environment, proper, is also interesting. There’s a decent attempt at providing a dynamic 3d environment, with differing levels, ramps, chutes, and so on. This adds possibilities, again, for the party to pursue their objectives. It also adds complications, such as the slipperiness and steepness of the ice ramps/slopes, and the possibility of people slipping, chases, etc. The map could be better in displaying the height, slopes, etc, but it does make an attempt through shading to portray the information. A “diagonal” view may have been quite helpful in portraying the environment better. In any event, there’s a few ways up and down through the levels and you do get the sense, though roughly, of a kind of ice cave.
There are some downsides as well. The environment is not really well described, a problem that runs throughout the entire book. You don’t get good imagery conveyed through the text and instead it comes off as just slightly better than generic. This extends to the magic items present, which suffer greatly from a lack of detail. Potions & scrolls, a magic ring, and arrows of dragon slaying all come off as just generic objects. “2 arrows of dragon slaying” is boring and not what I would expect. There’s also a bit of a 1-way ride in the adventure. Everyone you meet advises you that only way to travel is forward; there can be no retreat. “The dragon will know”, etc. In all likelihood it won’t be an issue, but it still rubs me the wrong way. Allowing the players to retreat … and face the consequences of their actions, is far better than not allowing them the option to retreat. That strikes me as more of the Ye Old RailRoad. For example, you find the NPC you’re looking for on the first level, and then have all of the information you need and came for. But alas, no, you must then go forward and face the dragon. No doubt the designer wanted an epic battle, but then, that’s the problem with this entire series. You’re railroaded into what the designer wants you to do.
Let me note also a problem that carries forward from Horde of Tiamat: the lack of treasure. The “hoard” of the white dragon is 800gp, 1000sp, and a few gems. This misses out on one of the strongest themes of dragons: avarice and greed. For forty years now, since The Hobbit cartoon, we’ve been bombarded with dragon hordes and the themes of greed and avarice that run through most dragon stories. This adventure had an opportunity to embrace that and at the same time repudiate it. What use is riches when Tiamat arises and lays waste to the world?
Overall though, a pretty strong adventure. Not top tier, but solid enough.
Episode Three – The Tomb of Diderius
Ready for the seeming impossible? This is a great episode. I know, right? It’s framed like hell but the core of it is quite good. The idea here is that the council has heard that the White Dragon Mask (that the adventure asserts, incorrectly, was so large a part of Horde) has been stolen and that the cult leader who formerly held has gone to recover it … and is therefore vulnerable to attack. Again, this information is present in Revenge of the Sith rather than in the council meeting chapter, and isn’t really setup for anyone other than the DM. The adventure proper tries really hard, and gets close several times. It almost presents a nice location to visit, in the form of an inn. It wants the inn to be some kind of seedy wild west Deadwood bar set up in a big tent. It’s supposed to be rowdy. It then uses the word “pavilion’ to describe the place and, in a travesty of role-playing justice, does nothing with the place. An opportunity lost. Well, almost lost. It also presents the evil NPC you’re after as a kind of hero, since he stabbed a disguised yuan-ti in the face while he was at the inn. (ok, not in face. I added that.) This has the guy you’re after presented/treated as a local hero. Almost! almost! Just a little more and this could have been an epic little encounter. What’s unusual is that the adventure, as a whole, almost always avoids even this little amount of detail. When you encounter little bits of greatness, like the tent/inn and the local hero bit, it stands out from the background genericism that the rest of the adventure provides.
The tomb proper, likewise, gets quite close to being a great adventure. There are some giant statues outside, defaced and parts of them broken off, that turn to you and speak when you approach. Shades of Ozymandias there. (Oh God. You don’t think it’s copyrighted?) An avenue of statues inside also turn and look at you when you pass, their darkened faces spewing secrets man was not meant to know. This part, in particular, is wonderful. Advantage on Int checks for the next little bit! Also, Insane for the next little bit! That is wonderful. Fantastic, mysterious, magical, weird. Those two encounter exemplify exactly what D&D should be.
There’s another part where you meet five devils sitting at a table, making sure someone doesn’t come out of a certain door. Oh the delights to be had with such an encounter! It’s presented in a generic and dull form. Sitting at a table? Really? You couldn’t give them something interesting to do? They have no names and no personalities, another lost opportunity. The ability to talk to creatures, especially those allied with the evil NPC, in a joyous thing to see. Give the party a choice. Have the devil’s doing something mildly, or a little more than mildly, despicable. Make them interesting. Provide just two more sentences, one for activity and one for names/personalities, and this could have been a rock-star level of encounter. The CORE is good, even if the implementation is lame.
That then is the tomb. The first half of the tomb, in particular, is very good. The second half tends to break down a bit when you meet the yuan-ti. It then transforms into a “the room has 2 yuan-ti who attack” standard – boring as all hell. The final room is a hostage stand-off, so its inherently got a little more going for it. But the language used throughout is on the dull side. Some really good ideas that suffer from being starved for about two more sentences each. Not to say the rooms are short. They are long on nonsense that you don’t need and short on the all important imagery.
Take for example two rooms in particular: a campsite outside and a room with a well. They are linked by a sewer and trolls live in the sewer. The trolls have killed the folks camping at both locations. Quite recently also. And yet … there’s no description of the scene. No bloody mess indicating action just missed. Why tell us the cultists were in the campsite and just killed? What’s the point of doing that? It’s meaningless backstory that adds nothing. If you instead show us the results of the trolls raiding the campsites then you add flavor, setting the scene in the DMs head for them to then describe and relate to the party. The party can then use this information to make decisions. But it’s not done here. And as a result, when the party camps out in the same trolls attack they will have lost the opportunity to make an informed decision. (Or, to regret ignoring making an informed decision.)
Also present is the mania to describe magical effects via the rules. What’s weird is that it stands in direct contrast to other rooms that are present in this episode that appeal to the looser form of magic that I find more refreshing. For example, the mysterious status that speak to you … the effects are just stated. There’s no attempt to explain the Why’s and How’s of how the effect was accomplished. But in other areas there is an attempt to explain. Programmed illusions and magic mouth spells. Bleech. Why do this? Why attempt to explain how the effect was achieved? There’s some mania to explain how magic works. It’s magic. You’re the DM. You ain’t gotta explain stuff. Gods, demons, and devils walk around the planet routinely meddling. Wizards and sorcerers conjure up arcane might. And YOU, the DM, architect of it all, need to figure out which series of spells in the PHB are needed to make a statues head move and talk? Please … If you think Im magical cause roses bloom at my touch, that’s mathematical and I think you think too much. If observing a particle changes what it is, then attempts to explain magic destroy the mystery and wonder that magic conveys. Don’t do it. Don’t pave paradise.
This one breaks my heart in the way few adventures do. It’s so close. The ideas are strong, but poorly related. The overwhelming genericism, broken by the talking statues, etc, wins out. The adventure, just like Hoard, seems afraid to provide this little more bit. As the first entry on the wandering monster table says: You meet humanoids. They might be escaped slaves, or treasure hunters, or scouts. Uh … .thanks for inspiring me?
A Special Award for Magic Items. There’s one present in this episode which is truly magical. No mere book item, or “new magic item” described like a book item. This gets a text description and no name, just an effect. Two goblets that when you pour from one to the other they become listed by mist and drinking from them gives you a bonus save vs poison. While in the end I would have prefered that hey do something other than just give a +3 save vs poison, the journey to get there is a good one. This sort of thing is what magic items in D&D should be. Screw the mechanical bonus. Make it wonderous.
Episode Four – Neronvain
What do they say about the exception making the rule? Welcome to the rule. The sucky, sucky rule.
The elves at the council want you to track down a dragon in the misty forest. It’s killed all of the elves in all of the villages it’s attacked, except for one. They want to start there. This information is related in plain facts that do nothing to bring it to life or help you run the adventure.
At the village, generically described, you get to talk to generic villagers who related generic facts. The one highlight of the village is a shrine to a elf ranger. That’s it. That’s the extent of the text of the shrine. I’m not making this up. That’s all there is about the shrine and the shrine is the only detail of the village described in any meaningful way. This is the epitome of generic drudgery. Soulless and lifeless. In the village there’s one elf, the leader, who is described as nervous. From this you & Dirk need to track down where the dragon’s lair is. There is a clever bit about using Speak with Plants/Animals to find out more information, which really is clever. It’s also the only way to actually find out what is going on. It’s the only lead and the only clue. This is akin to “if you walk in to the forest 23.5 paces and dig down 90 feet you will find a metal box with a map to the lair.” That’s not a clue. That’s not a lead. You have to then confront the elf with his treachery to get the lair location. But if confronted he resists and he works against the party. The only way is to confront him with sympathy for his wife’s death during the dragon attack. That’s it. If you don’t guess the secret word you don’t get to continue the adventure.
This nonsense continues in the forest. A druid want to help the party but first she wants to test them to make sure they are truly heroes. “Tests” are bullshit. It does have a nice folklore ending, with her presenting magical garlands to the party and then turning in to an owl to fly away, but the whole “test’ thing is so abhorrent that it’s clear the writer didn’t even try to come up with a decent idea.
The dragon’s lair is probably just a running battle. If you sneak in you might get a chance to mess with some ettins or face auto-combat with scared elf nobles. Really? Scared elf nobles that work for the dragon? That’s the best you can do? That’s akin to saying you have to fight paladins who are scared; it goes against every trope. I’m supportive of busting a trope, but not in a throw-away sentence in a crappy room encounter.
You ready for this? The big give-away, the thing the whole episode is built around, is revealed in a journal. Not a gloating evil NPC. Not a bitter NPC. A journal. Bryce Lynch Pro Tip: If you need to do a reveal using a journal/notes then you did a bad job with your adventure. Go back and edit it again.
This is nothing more than a boring generically described snooze-fest that ends up just being one big battle in a cave. The only good thing about this episode is the magical garlands that make you invisible to the dragons animal spies. (It’s mentioned, I think twice, that the dragon has animal spies that inform him of the parties whereabouts … unless you wear the garlands. That’s the extent of the information about the animal spies.See Also: Lack of atmosphere and/or Giving the Party Choices/Quantum Ogres/Agency in Play.)
By the way – The asshole evil NPC in Episodes four & five supposedly have dragon masks, providing some additional motivation for going after them. Of course they don’t actually have them because then the party might get them and the railroad would have to stop.
Episode Five – The Cult Strikes Back
This is the worst of the worst. A true low point of modern adventure design.
This episode attempts to describe three attacks that the cult organizes against the party. The idea is that while pursuing their other missions that the DM will toss in one of these encounters. Essentially, they are hits. The cult sends a force after the party to kill them. There are three provided: the first a lightweight attempt, the second a medium attempt, and the third a murderous onslaught. The idea, in and of itself, is not bad and there is a bit of advice or two sprinkled in that helps the DM set up a memorable encounter. Things like the cult attacking in a crowded square with breath weapons without regard to the bystanders. There might be two of these useful tips in the entire chapter. Not enough to provide the sort of visual imagery I’m looking for.
Instead everything comes off as generic. Build a point based encounter and attack the party. Maybe at an inn or on the road. I’m serious, that’s the encounter. There are a lot of words wrapped around it but it is not hyperbole when I say that the extra words are meaningless; they provide no gameable content.
Let’s cover the Original Sin: Agency. In each of the three encounters you are told to build an encounter, via points, to meet specific conditions: an easy encounter, a hard encounter and a deadly encounter. If I squint hard I can call this “scaling the adventure.” But then … you are directed that, if you judge the party great than the sum of te parts to then bump the encounter up more and make it harder. Hmmmm, a group that works well together being judged harder breaks the wall of player contract with the DM. Then, further, you are directed to ensure that some of baddies get away, or, if none do, then to ensure that the characters understand that there were actually more baddies, watching from afar, who have escaped. Hmmm. That’s not cool. So the players actions are meaningless? Further you are directed when to hit the party. While they are fully rested. While they are nearly depleted, etc. I don’t have any problems with players using metagaming. I do have a major problem when the DM metagames. That smacks of adversarial and “cheating”, if a DM can be said to do so in a game where they control everything. Certainly, perhaps, breaking the contract between DM & player.
Finally, we get to the peak: the battles are meaningless. This goes goes to great lengths to repeatedly make the point, as several of the earlier episodes did, that it’s ok to kill the players. If they die, even if it’s a TPK, the council will just bring them back to life. Go back and read that again. Nothing the players do matters. If they do well it’s meaningless. If they do poorly, even to the point of a TPK, it’s meaningless. The scene is a cheat. If I was a player in this game I would walk out if that happened. Seriously. What’s the point? There’s no risk. Without risk there’s no tension and nothing you do is meaningful. I flirted briefly with Indie rpg’s back when the first wave came out. I had the same revelation, twice (because I’m thick-headed.) The first was during Lacuna, a dream-world game. I realized that the game was meaningless because there was no challenge … you could do anything and thus there was no buy in. This happened later, again, at an Origins game of Fiasco. Both Fiasco & Lacuna might be great games but they offer a different experience than a traditional RPG. This is why many indie RPG’s are now called story games. If you want to play a story game then I fully support you. But to have a crunch heavy system (even in 5E, in comparison to many Indie RPG’s) and then to take away the choice and consequences of the players? Not even story games do that. Here’s an idea. At the start of an adventure someone, elected by the party, rolls a d6. On a 1 through 5 you win the adventure. Yeah you! On a 6 you reroll. Then we all dig in to a case of Little Kings and play Baron Munchausen. And/or invade Belgium. There’s more choice in the Baron, and more consequences, then there is in this adventure. Screw your story. Write a goddamn novel next time.
Episode Six – Metallic Dragons, Arise.
Whenever one of these evil dragon adventures comes up there’s always the same question: what about that asshat Bahamut and the good dragons? Bahamut is still AWOL but the good dragons make an appearance in this episode. It seems they are having a meeting of their very own and they want the characters there.
Oh, where to begin, where to begin. The adventure refers to the dragon council as some of the wisest creatures in all Fareun. You get to convince them not to help, for they’ve already decided to do that, but rather in how they will help. Specifically, will they join forces with the humanoids or will they go it alone and attack the Well of Dragons on the own. Yes, the wisest creatures in all of Fareun, which from now on I shall refer to as ‘the fuckwits’, are trying to decide if teamwork is better than going it alone. I swear to the non-existent god that I don’t believe in, if I were playing this and the fuckwits put the question to me … I don’t know, I guess I would troll the hell out of the fuckwits. “Go it alone? Seriously? Uh, sure. You should totally do that. Nope, I’m being serious. You’re right, Mr Gold Fuckwit, you should not trust the humans or the elves. Have at thee Tiamat! Good luck guys!”
*Snark Off* 600 miles away you get to talk to five good fuckwits, one of each type, and try to convince them to team-up with the humanoids and KO Chaos. Each one has a starting attitude, some concerns, and some kind of specific ass kissing that they need in order to get them to join your side. Do enough ass kissing and get three of the five fuckwits to join your side, and none of them actually hating you, then you get the fuckwits support.
Yeah You! (More on this later.)
This is a very short episode but I would mention problems with the fuckwit chapter. (Yes, the above text is the positive part of the episode.) First, another summary page would have been nice. Otherwise you’re flipping around the book again, trying to run a social encounter with five different beings. They also don’t really have personalities. There’s some little … history? backstory? attitude? for each fuckwit, but they don’t really convey a personality. That’s too bad; this would have been a great opportunity to provide the DM with some guidance on dragon personalities. Perhaps other aspects of avarice, such as vanity or gluttony?
The second is overall crappiness of the … guidance? in the adventure. This is a problem in most (all?) of the episodes, was a problem in Hoard, and stands out very well in this chapter. The fuckwits are having their council about 600 miles away. A fuckwit will fly if you leave right now. If you wait or do another adventure then you have to get there on your own. (What is that, 30 days at 20 miles a day? Hope Tiamat’s not on a schedule …) Anyway, if the party travel overland then they “might pass through some ruined settlements, or encounter cult marauders, brigands, refugees, and chromatic dragons bent on destruction. Use your own discretion when choosing how many combat encounters the journey should encompass.”
Well Golly Gee. Looks like someone is not even trying at all, are they? I mean, you did railroad the party in to three specific combat encounter designed to kill them, but providing a modicum of detail on a month long journey overland would be infringing on the DMs creativity I guess. This is such nonsense. Just as i cited in the wandering monster encounter earlier Humanoids. Maybe slavers, etc) and, in other places, where the DM is encouraged to create their own treasure parcel, it’s like they don’t even care. Somehow someone has decided that the adventure must be generic. That specific and detail must be avoided at all costs, but of course it’s ok to ram a story down the players gullets. It’s incomprehensible to me that someone thought this was a good idea. This isn’t the whole “and this passage can lead to a dungeon of your own devising” that some older adventures included. This is outsourcing to the DM major portions of the adventure. It’s a shame. Literally, a shame. Wolfgang, and whoever at WOTC oversaw this project, should be ashamed to have done this.
Episode Seven – Xonthal’s Tower
Rumors of another dragon mask draw the characters to a wizards tower that the cult has taken over. I’m sure you already know where this going: you don’t get the mask. Or, rather, you do, but it’s a fake. Same thing. No exiting the railroad. Tiamat is coming and the writers are too lazy to let the pesky players interfere with their story. It’s lazy design.
The tower episode has four parts. There’s a village, a hedge maze, the tower proper, and the dungeon. That’s about twenty-one rooms in all. The village is abstracted with only one feature: a couple of rumors. A blue dragon seen in the air, and rampant speculation about the recent lights seen in the tower after it being dark so long. The hedge maze is … a mixed bag. The core concept is that the tower (and maze) is magically protected and the only way to get to the tower is through the maze. The central concept is a sundial that display a puzzle. If you figure it out … five times, you get to go to the tower. Otherwise you get to face one of the eightish challenges in the maze. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles of this type. The individual maze challenges are where the mixed bag thing comes in. Some are forced combats. Some are maybe combats. Each othe them have one solution and only one solution. One of the best is a boulder hurling contest with a couple of cyclops. There’s an opportunity lost by not giving them personalities; they only explain the rules. There’s also a nice example of alternative monster rules. Some carnivorous plants, for example, are run as if they were an otyugh. A nice change of place to show the value of borrowing rules and mechanics and making them your own. Perhaps the worst encounter is one with suits of armor. You fight a suit of armor and then two more, and then there are three on you … and if the room runs out then more form from the ruined armor on the floor from the fallen suits …. until the DM rolls a 6 on a d6. Then you get the key to leave the room. I think it was an old April Fools issue of Dragon magazine that had the Wandering Damage table. Same thing. Just take damage until the DM’s actions result in your passing. How someone thought this was a good idea is beyond me. It runs counter to everything I know as a being a good DM.
The tower proper is just a series of boring combats until you meet the leader, who has the keys to the dungeon. Enter a bedroom, kill some cultists. Enter a barracks, kill some cultists. Finally find the top floor, kill the leader, and get the key to the dungeon. There is maybe one nice encounter feature in one room: a couple of skeleton dragon arms that animate to attack. Disembodied skeleton dragon arms are cool. heh. [Ed – How does one imitate the vocal styling of Beavis & Butthead in written form?]
The dungeon is better. Some of the descriptions/dressing are better (signs of battle, bloody footprints and trails and so on.) In addition, the freaky “We’re in a wizards tower!” that was absent from the tower is present in the dungeon. A bridge to the stars with a micro meteor shower to knock you off, a whirlwind of papers that attack as a swarm of ravens. (This is the second time I’ve seen this; the first being at a haunted house at Universal Orlando. Is there some Poe reference I’m missing?) Overall, the ideas in the dungeon are nice, if not always well executed. The adventure finishes up with a dragon attack in the village; perhaps an opportunity to get revenge on the blue dragon from Greenest in Horde.
I do want to call out the completely bullshit tactic of forcing the party in to the maze. You can’t fly. You can’t tunnel. You can’t hack your way through. The writer said you go in the maze and so you go in the maze. The standard excuses are offered: the wizard wants to test people/avoid visitors, he used a lot of wishes, you can’t teleport or scry. Uncool. The maze should have been saved for lower level adventurers if you can’t otherwise challenge a higher level party. By forcing the idea then the concepts of fairness, towards the players, is stretched. If you can’t write the adventure without gimping the players then you have made a mistake. You need to adjust the adventure to a lower level or you need to modify it to accommodate the powers and creative techniques that the players come up with. That’s one of the strengths of the cyclops boulder encounter; the players are given carte blanche to get their boulder farther than the cyclops. But not with the tower. Not there. THUS SPAKE THE ADVENTURE WRITER. Bad design.
Special Award: There’s a decent magic item present. A series of diamonds that allow you to teleport within line of sight, once per diamond. Very nice. The D&D world needs more items like this.
Episode Eight – Mission to Thay
Lame! Lame! Lame!
There is potential here beyond compare and yet it is completely squandered by … a 4e skill challenge! It’s not called that, but that’s what it is. This episode is only three pages long. It contains no specific window dressing and just generic descriptions. What could have been a truly wonderful journey into an alternate society, abhorrent practices and What Price Victory/Means To An End is instead reduced to a modicum of roleplaying modifying a couple of skill checks. Cleric or Paladin? Get a -. Worship death? Get a +. Hmmm, what’s that? Your roleplaying is having no effect? The only way to get a, active bonus during the encounter (as opposed to “get a bonus because you a human” nonsense. Ie: things you can’t modify) is to not lie and call the leader by her title. That’s it. And it’s not a bonus; you don’t get a penalty. You make a series of skill checks (succeed at 5, or after 8 overall checks) and if the party rolled well then you win Thay as an ally. Otherwise, no soup for you!
This is so, so, so disappointing. You’re in an evil empire. You’re meeting with a vampire. You’re doing the Enemy of my Enemy thing. And there’s no detail. No window dressing. Nothing to convey to either the DM or the players the strangeness and evil of this place. You meet with a vampire. Oohhh! Scary! Don’t tell me they are evil. Show us why they are evil. What happens while the players are there? What kind of things can be done to make the characters/players … uneasy, or maybe even queasy at the thought of allying with Thay.
You do get a finger bone that, if broken, acts as a protection from undead scroll. Nice reimagining of an otherwise standard magic item.
Episode Nine – Tiamat’s Return
This is it boys, this is war! The president is on the line. 99 red dragons float by!
Up until this point in the adventure the parties actions have had little to no effect. Theres no hope of ever getting a dragon mask. You can’t stop the adventure before this point. Not even a TPK can get you out of the adventure. This is it …
The conclusion of the mess. Which is a mess. Using your handy dandy Council meeting scorecard you will determine who joins … well … no, you won’t. Nothing you have done has any real impact. Everything leading up to now has, essentially, been an aid to the DM in describing the final mass battle. Do the good dragon fight in the skies? It’s just flavor text. Thay on your side? Just flavor text. IMPLIED flavor text, at that.
Instead you’ll be doing just another mission: breaking into the dragon temple to stop the summoning of Tiamat. There are a number of hidden victory conditions that can help you in your final fight against Tiamat, when she finally shows up. You don’t know any of them, and so can’t impact your own fate, except by chance. All of them are related to episode nine/the temple, so nothing you’ve done earlier in the book has had any impact. (the flavor text states, erroneously I believe, that you’ve had the chance to take the black dragon mask. I think that’s an editing mistake. In fact, strictly speaking, it means you probably can’t defeat Tiamat as written. We’ll ignore that though.) Instead, you’ll almost certainly feed the players information via the Council and the Harper spies to make up for the bad episode design. Ah, long expositions, there’s nothing like them when you’re playing, eh?
In reality there are only two things you can do: save some prisoners from sacrifice and kill everyone involved in the ritual. No sneaking allowed! The adventure explicitly rules this out, because the designer didn’t think that creative play should be allowed, I guess. The main summoning chamber has ten or so red wizards in it, as well as Severus. Killing/incap’ing at least 6 wizards will disrupt the ritual and keep Tiamat from showing up. Messing about, killing Severus Snape (who is also present), destroying the temple, etc will not stop Tiamat from showing up, only weaken her if/when she does show up.
I don’t have a problem with a finale, and it’s almost certain that the party will lay waste to everyone anyway, but it would have still been nice to have the specific goals known up front. A larger overview of the battlefield, better impact of your allies you’ve won, a desperate battle plan developed that allows the party to know what they actually need to do and come up with one of those zany party plans to infiltrate … Oh well. Just another boring tunnel crawl. It’s a shame too, there’s a nice NPC wraith down there. His story/room is actually pretty well done. He’s fanatically loyal, so there’s not going to be much roleplaying going on with him, so all of that will be lost as becomes just another guy to get slaughtered.