D&D Encounters: Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Report Card

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 13, 2014

hoard-of-the-dragon-queen-cover-2This was the new beginning for D&D. It may have been season 19 of D&D Encounters, but this was the first adventure that used the official new 5e rules so in a way it was like season 1 again. We had high expectation for 5e, especially after participating in the D&D Next playtest for so long, and we had high hopes for the first adventure that used the new rules. It was a lot of fun and there were plenty of memorable encounters at the tables I ran.

Today I’m going to take a long, hard look at Hoard of the Dragon Queen. I’m going to identify the good and the bad and then judge it on its merits. Was it a good adventure? Did it work as a season of D&D Encounters? Read on and find out.

The Good

Welcome to 5e

For the past few seasons we used the D&D Next playtest rules, but this season was the first season to use 5e. It was similar enough to D&D Next that we didn’t have to waste a lot of time learning completely foreign mechanics, but it was refined enough that there weren’t any broken builds. The exceptionally positive reviews of the new D&D brought a lot of new players into the stores. This season we had more new players than any previous season other than season 1. It was a chance to try before you buy. People could sit down, play 5e D&D, and then decide if they wanted to buy the books and keep playing. We had over 50 different players and 7 different DMs participate this season, and for a few weeks we were running six full tables. So long 4e, goodbye D&D Next; 5e is here and made a strong first impression.

Welcome to the Adventurers League

With the new edition came a revamp of the D&D public play program. Now there are official coordinators who are getting paid by Wizards to keep things running smoothly. There are a lot of volunteers who are going above and beyond to do their part and get materials in the hands of new and experienced players at cons and game stores. D&D Encounters is now one of three branches of public play. It represents the casual introductory game with an ongoing storyline played an hour or two at a time each week on Wednesday nights. D&D Expeditions is the new version of Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) and Living Greyhawk (LG). These are self-contained 4-hour mini adventures. And finally there are D&D Epics. These are massive battle interactive run exclusively at conventions and coincide with the launch of a major new story arc. The best thing is that you can use the same character at any of these three kinds of games and earn XP in each one.

Lots of flexibility for players

This adventure had plenty of great examples of the three pillars on which D&D is built upon: Role-Playing, Exploration, and Combat. Although there is a big picture story arc happening, the players are presented with tremendous freedom to do what they want. In Episode 1 there are eight missions that the PCs can undertake to help Greenest. They can do as many of the eight missions as they want and in any order. There’s plenty of combat in Episode 1 so new players can get an immediate sense of the combat mechanics. Episode 2 focuses more on role-playing as the PCs have to infiltrate the Dragon Cult camp. There is no set way to do this, they have complete freedom to do as they want. In Episode 3 we get a more traditional dungeon crawl through the caverns. Although there is a linear progression, the PCs don’t have to enter every room or face every monsters. They can fight, talk or stay out of sight. In short this season offers a lot of flexibility and freedom.

Lots of flexibility for DMs

To echo what’s above, there is just as much flexibility for the DM as there is for the players. The DM can throw in random encounters as they deem appropriate. If you like minis and 1-inch grids you can use them, but you certainly don’t have to. The DM can use maps or just play it as theater of the mind. There are plenty of great opportunities for the DM to role-play the NPCs in Greenest and in the Dragon Cult camp. This adventure is fun to run and fun to play.

Just a taste

This appears on both my good and bad list for different reasons. From a marketing perspective I think that making D&D Encounters simply the first three Episodes of a longer story was a great move. It’s like the trailer to a great movie. If you like it, there’s plenty more where that came from. And if you really like it there’s even more where that came from in the form of a sequel – The Rise of Tiamat. Finally, we got a season of D&D Encounters that you can actually play as an ongoing story all the way to the game’s highest levels.

The Bad

Too much too soon

Although I really liked the way Episode 1 was designed, it was quite deadly for a typical party of level 1 adventurers. For brand new players it certainly gave them a chance to fight a lot of monsters, but at my FLGS we saw a lot of low level PCs die in the first few sessions. There’s just too much to do, too many monsters to fight, and not enough time or resources available to keep the party going. I had to resort to NPC Clerics and lots of healing potions just to keep everyone on their feet. The new 5e is great for a lot of short combat sequences, but in this case each combat was a big combat and now it’s 4e-like without the increased starting hit points that 4e had.

Just a taste

Episodes 1-3 are clearly not a full, self-contained, standalone adventure. Wizards was very upfront about this. DMs knew that this was just a taste of the bigger, grander adventure in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. But, at some point Wizards decided that for D&D Encounters they were just going to use the first 3 Episodes of their new book, and at that point they should have made some changes. Episode 3 does end the first story arc, but there are a lot of unanswered questions and threads left hanging. Which brings me to my next point.

Poor ending

If your intent was to play through to Episode 4 and beyond then the ending may not seem like a problem. You don’t need nor expect a satisfying conclusion mid-way through the adventure. But if you’re just doing Episodes 1-3 at your FLGS and moving on to something different this ending was weak. All I needed was a 1-page (or even ½ a page) epilogue that explained what happened next. Give the DM something to work with. What happens back at Greenest? Where did all the cultists go? Are they coming back for the Dragon eggs? I wasn’t expecting much, but I did expect something.

The dead zone

Based on the play at my FLGS and from what I’m seeing on the blogs and forums, most groups completed episodes 1-3 in about 12 weeks. This is faster than the adventure recommends, but it is about the same length most season of D&D Encounters have been in the past. That leaves a lot of time in which there is nothing official running at your FLGS. Sure D&D Expeditions can fill the void, but they’re not designed to be completed in 1.5-2 hours, which is how long D&D Encounters usually run on any given week. If everyone at your FLGS wants to just keep on playing Episode 4 and onward, that’s great, but when you do that you’ve moved beyond D&D Encounters and now it’s considered casual play. What happens if new players walk in the door and want to play. Sorry, this is the level 5-10 tier, we’re not running any introductory games. Come back in March. This extended dead zone between the end of Episode 3 and the beginning of the next D&D Encounters season will really hurt some stores by alienating their potential new players and new customers.

Monsters not included

OK, a few monsters were included, and the rest were available to DMs in the accompanying supplement. But I miss the way the 4e adventures were set up with all the monsters you needed for that encounter located in one place. I accept that we don’t do things that way anymore, but in this case I think things would have worked better if the monsters were grouped by Episode. After a few weeks of flipping back and forth I just created my own down and dirty monster reference grouped by episode. It made things so much easier. It’s a small criticism, but I felt it was noteworthy.

Where’s the treasure?

This is broken into two categories: magic treasure and monetary treasure. Let’s talk about magic treasure first. There was none. NONE. Not a single magic item in Episodes 1-3. I realize 5e is magic-lite, especially compared to 4e, but this is a bit ridiculous. Once the players at my FLGS found out that magic items were being awarded during D&D Expeditions they all made a point of playing those as well to get some swag. From what I see in the remainder of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen there are magic items up for grabs, a lot of good ones, but not during the D&D Encounters part. As for money, there was minimal physical swag to go around. And what the party could find clearly belonged to the good people of Greenest so the PCS had to return it. So no magic and almost no money. It’s a good thing there was XP.

XP Cap

Really? You’re going to limit my loot and my XP? That sucks! Any party that completed more than half of the eight missions in Episode 1 hit the XP cap. And then in Episode 3 none of the six tables at my FLGS came anywhere close to hitting the cap. Just let the PCs earn what they earn, screw the cap.

Where are the factions?

If your FLGS signed up for D&D Encounters early enough you got five wonderful faction packs to hand out to your players. Obviously a lot of money and energy was put into making these kits look awesome. Everyone wanted one. And then as you play through the adventure there are absolutely no references to any of the five factions. Talk about dropping the ball.

What I believed happened was that the Hoard of the Dragon Queen hardcover adventure was written long before the details of the factions were finalized as part of the 5e public play program. When Wizards finally decided what the factions would be all about the book was off to print. I don’t know for certain if this was the case or not, but it’s a reasonable assumption. What surprised me the most was that this wasn’t addressed in the digital PDF available to DMs. It had notes throughout the adventure specific to running it for D&D Encounters so why not add a few sidebars about how to incorporate the factions? Another opportunity for an easy fix that was missed.

Final Verdict

Overall this season had a lot of good things going for it. It was bound to have a few missteps since it was the first adventure for the new edition, and I was able to accept these issues as the game found its legs. The new edition drew a lot of new players and the quality of the adventure kept them coming back. At our FLGS at least 1/3 of the players bought the Hoard of the Dragon Queen hardcover once they’d played a few sessions. They felt it was a strong enough product that they wanted to own it. I can’t say the same for the last four seasons of D&D Encounters which arguably put out just as strong a product (albeit for 4e/D&D Next).

When looking at the big picture and seeing how Wizards hoped this season of D&D Encounters would be a springboard for more home campaigns I have to admit that it looks like it was an enormous success. The adventure was fun for everyone. It has everything a good D&D adventure should have and the players could interact with the story as much or as little as they wanted.

However, if we look at just Episodes 1-3 as a complete season of D&D Encounters is does have some problems, the most glaring of which is the abrupt ending with no guidance for DMs on how to wrap things up.

Final grade for Hoard of the Dragon Queen

  • D&D Encounters, season 19 (Episodes 1-3): 8 on a d10
  • Full adventure (Episodes 1-7): 9 on a d10

What did you think of Hoard of the dragon Queen? Did you play it or run it? Do you think that it works as a standalone adventure or is playing Episodes 4-7 a must in your eyes. What was your favourite part of the adventure? What else would you add to my good and bad lists?

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1 Joe November 13, 2014 at 10:29 am

What were your thoughts on the complete lack of magic items in the first 3 episodes? For D&D Encounters, I know that got a lot of folks feeling like they weren’t being rewarded. I realize 5E has a different magic item distribution expectation than 4E did (though what that is we will not know till the DMG is released), but the restrictive (or mostly non-existent) treasure, both magical and mundane, made many of my players feel like this was “not really D&D”, which is the opposite of what all the “let’s make this edition iconic” discussion of the playtests seemed to be going for. Also the fact that no monster items are at all usable or sellable. Maybe that’s more of a critique of Adventurer’s League play as applied to HoDQ, but still, they fed into one another in a bad way.

2 Ameron (Derek Myers) November 13, 2014 at 11:12 am

Thanks for reminding me about the treasure issue. I’ve added 2 new sections to my original post, one about the lack of treasure and one about the XP cap.

3 Mike November 13, 2014 at 11:28 am

The factions show up in chapter 4 of the adventure in the book… When the party goes to Elturel to need with Leosin and his contact, they get recruited into the Order of the Gauntlet or the Harpers. The Emerald Enclave is also mentioned, and the Zhentarim faction shows up before the end of the chapter.

4 Matt November 14, 2014 at 10:10 am

I thought the Hoard episodes were memorably distinct. Switching from the mission-based, sandbox-ish Episode 1 to the espionage-type, undercover episode 2, and finally the classic dungeon-crawl episode 3 meant that there was something to challenge and engage each character type and play style.

However, the dearth of treasure was notable. I’ve never invested so many hours in a D&D PC without picking up a permanent magic item. Although I suppose it had the intended effect of making me really, really value the item once I got it.

5 Vobekhan November 14, 2014 at 5:58 pm

As most of my table of players are new to D&D they have nothing to compare it to with regards the balance of treasure. However the feedback I’ve been given so far is that they are enjoying the new edition (evidenced by them wanting to come back each session and to continue through the rest of the adventure now we’ve finished chapter 3).
I must admit I’m not a fan of the XP capping here and in the Expeditions adventures but if that’s the framework we need to work within we’ll do so, hopefully it may be amended when we finally get an Adventurers League update (after Christmas most likely).
Our other table was late starting the adventure and are only a couple of sessions in, I’m looking forward to seeing how they fare in comparison.

6 Fire Brand November 16, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I don’t know. The Bad list contains huge ones. New edition and new season or not. You should have also mentioned Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws, Backgrounds didn’t seemed to come into play and that element is a huge deal for WotC 5e. How many players actually liked the non-combat role Playing that also Wotc touts in 5e? I’m surprised so many liked it and actually bought the book. And that you rated it so high. I unfortunately didn’t get to play. It’s true the experience is different than reading excellent recaps and the book (which I did). The adventure and the game play recaps (not the way it was written – it’s incredible how much detail you remember) – the actual sessions themselves didn’t sound as exciting as 4e Encounters. It seemed too deadly up front for new players. Low HP isn’t fun. Good idea using the NPC Clerics and healing potions. But I doubt a new DM would even consider that to be an option. There were some interesting creative ways the PC’s addressed some challenges. I guess the sandbox approach relative to 4e rail road Encounters is variety. How many players didn’t come back? (Once again your Encounters recaps are second to none).

7 Spykes November 21, 2014 at 12:05 am

I thought your analysis was fairly spot on. I thought you were a little more forgiving on the “Bad” side than I would have been. I shared your opinions, but I would have given the Episodes 1-3, as an Encounters season adventure, a 6 or 7/10 at best for the same reason you cite. I agree with the 9/10 as an overall adventure though. It allowed for a huge amount of creativity on the DMs part, and that’s goes a long way. The adventure was fantastic. It’s implementation into DDAL program was less than spectacular.

I agree with you with regards to the faction folders. There was no reason to dump that kind of printing expenditure into something that never gets mentioned in the story text. DMs and players would have been better served with some poster sized maps of Greenest and The Raider Camp. I’m not talking about tactical maps, I mean reference maps that would have added a ton to the theater-of-the-mind experience as the players moved around the town or camp, giving them a reference for their imagination. That’s only two maps that would have made a huge difference in the experience at the table. I get that they didn’t want to include tactical maps as they are trying to make TotM the default play mode, but maps have always been a fundamental attraction to the adventure that sparks the fires of imagination. Remember how Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth came alive as you read through the books? Imagination works better when given a frame of reference. Maps are critical for this in D&D in my opinion.

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