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5E's Premiere Adventure Book: What's Up With Hoard of the Dragon Queen?

Friday night. A group of adventurers approaches the farming village of Greenest, prepared to stay at the local inn for a night of merry-making. But alas, as they crest an especially high hill, they spot Greenest under attack! From the dark, cloudy skies above, a terrifying blue dragon swoops low, breathing electric death upon the village’s militia. In the village’s streets, vagabonds dressed like devout cultists defile any building they see, steal any materials they find, and kill anyone they happen upon. Knowing this is their time to become heroes of the Sword Coast, to become Saviors of Greenest, the adventuring party charges down the hillside and into the devastated village.

Wizards of the Coast’s first fifth edition adventure book was Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The adventure assumes the characters wish to be heroes of the Sword Coast and Faerun as a whole, as they fight to stop the vile Cult of the Dragon and their plan to release Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells.

The above description is how the adventure opens; the party is walking down a road when they happen upon a village under attack. They’re expected to help these poor villagers, which kick starts their quest against the Cult of the Dragon.

I hold the opinion that HOTDQ was a lackluster premiere adventure book. It assumed too much, preferring players to follow the direct narrative and NOT roam the Sword Coast, as players often have their characters do. Thus, following the adventure as written leads to a poor experience for both the dungeon master and the players. However, there is a fantastic story buried beneath the book’s sturdy rails.

Today, we’re briefly discussing HOTDQ, how to run it well, and four amazing pieces from fifth edition D&D’s first adventure that can be utilized in your own campaigns!

Reskinning the Adventure

HOTDQ has the potential to be an incredible adventure that takes a group of adventurers from the farmlands surrounding Greenest to the floating Skyreach Castle. However, it assumes they’ll follow a format.

As anyone who’s played D&D knows, the players rarely do this.

If you would like to run HOTDQ, I suggest that you read through the adventure, and then use the basic storyline to inspire you to mold your own adventure. If you want to run a published Wizards of the Coast adventure by the book, I’d run Curse of Strahd, Storm King’s Thunder, or Tomb of Annihilation instead (we’ll talk about these soon enough). Each of these are far better adventures than HOTDQ and set up absolutely amazing adventures for your group to go on.

Back to HOTDQ. So, how can we fix this adventure’s issues?

For example, HOTDQ’s beginning is jarring. The adventure assumes that the PCs happen upon Greenest under attack by the Cult of the Dragon and their blue dragon ally. I find that regular players will not be too attached to Greenest, and will not want to step in to save these poor people. Thus, I suggest starting the adventure off in a different way.

Instead of travelers, all of the PCs are residents of Greenest or have been in the village for a few weeks. They’re attached to certain people and places. They understand the layout of the village. Thus, when Greenest is attacked by the cult, they are bound to leap into the action and actually care about the destruction wrought by the evildoers.

That’s all it takes to make HOTDQ a good adventure. Take the main story beats and slightly alter them to make the adventure better and less on the rails. In the end, you’ll have a far more interesting adventure and far more invested players.

Reusing Awesome Ideas

A myriad of awesome ideas populate the pages of Hoard of the Dragon Queen that can be used in campaigns around the globe.

I’m not afraid to say it: The main reason I pick up Wizards of the Coast adventure books is to lift ideas from them. Therefore, as I pored over HOTDQ, I made notes of the best encounters, villains, and story beats I saw, and am sharing them with you all in this article.

1: The antagonist is a group, not a singular entity.

It’s quite common to use a singular antagonist throughout the course of a campaign. Whether you’re pitting a cold, calculated vampire lord, or a maniacal, bloodthirsty demon prince against the party, having a single villain that everything in the campaign leads up to is usual. It’s expected. However, HOTDQ surprises us. The adventure sets up the big bad evil folks to be the Cult of the Dragon as a whole, from their lowest warlord to the greatest wyrmspeaker among them.

This is a great idea. In your own campaigns, pit the party against a cult or other organization with many different moving parts and ranks. At first level, the fight low-ranking members of the faction over menial matters, but by eight, ninth, or tenth level, they’re on the verge of breaking the organization apart or seriously shaking its foundations.

It allows the players to slowly build antagonism against not just the individual villainous characters, but an organization as a whole.

2: The villains are unique.

This isn’t the craziest revelation, but most of the villains in HOTDQ are distinctly different from each other. This should be the standard in D&D.

It’s not too fun to fight the same villain archetype twice in a campaign. Going against the vengeful daughter of a nobleman who’s pursuit for power has gone awry is interesting the first time, but then fighting her brother who is EXACTLY the same might put some dents in your campaign.

The villains of HOTDQ, while most are a part of the Cult of the Dragon, do not have this issue. Each villain has unique characteristics, a distinct personality, and individual motivations.

Make sure this is the same in your campaign. Each villain, and even NPC should be unique. I’m a strong believer that characters are the greatest part of D&D, not the plot. The players will care about the plot somewhat, but they’re far more likely to become attached and invested in individual NPCs, whether they’re allies or enemies.

3: Skyreach Castle is a great base.

Including the absolutely incredible Skyreach Castle was a fantastic idea, especially since it can be used to the party’s advantage in the next adventure book, Rise of Tiamat, and all future adventures that they go on. In general, there needs to be more floating fortresses in D&D.

4: All facets of D&D are explored.

Being the first D&D adventure book, Wizards did ensure that the adventure hits every major pillar of the game, something I believe most campaigns, especially those with first-time players, should do.

HOTDQ provides big battle scenes, dungeon delves, stealth missions, iconic locations, and interesting antagonists. Everything that makes a great D&D campaign is in the adventure.

However, as I stated before, the book relies on the PCs going from quest to quest, with no room for roaming or changing up the story. The book provides a skeleton for you, the dungeon master, to explore and use. It’s up to you to make a compelling campaign uses these various pieces.

In Summary

Wizard of the Coast’s premiere adventure book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, was a lackluster adventure, but:

Once a bit of work is done to reskin the adventure, HOTDQ can turn into a compelling story for everyone involved.

The adventure contains a plethora of great ideas that can be used in your own D&D campaigns, such as the floating fortress of Skyreach Castle, or the fact that the villain of a campaign can be an entire organization.

That’s it for this week, folks. I hope you enjoyed this little discussion about Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

I’m not sure what’s in store for everyone next week, but I’ll talk to you all then. Cheers!

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