DMing Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Episode 1 review: Unbalanced, difficult, chaotic, and a lot of fun

How do you get a party of PC’s drawn into a campaign and give them agency in defeating the BBEG? Beat them down mercilessly at Level 1 and slaughter innocent NPC’s in front of their very eyes. At least that’s what Chapter 1 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen would have you believe.

Chapter 1 is unbalanced, difficult, chaotic, and can easily result in a quick player kill or even a TPK if the party is not careful. Especially for a level 1 party. It is designed to give the players a real reason for hating the Cult of the Dragon by showing them the raw power they possess, and I think it does a pretty damn good job at that.

I read a lot about running Hoard of the Dragon Queen before starting it. Mainly, “Run a different campaign” seemed to be the resounding recommendation. But, nearing the end of Lost Mine of Phandelver, the party decided that’s what they wanted to run and one of the players even bought the campaign book for me, so I was going to run it and make it as awesome as I could. Upon completing Chapter 1, I can see why it has such negative criticism. However, I think it was pretty damn awesome and it worked out very well in the end. The party is pretty pissed at the Cult now that they have seen what they do, so Chapter 1 did its job getting the players invested.

Random Encounters

The random encounters aren’t bad for level 1’s I guess. I feel like they’re pretty well balanced. But, my party was level 3 and there are up to 8 active players during any given session, so I’m constantly having to beef things up. I started by simply doubling the CR of each encounter and ramped it up as needed.

I always like to try to make things more interesting by adding other environmental hazards such as fire or hostages to the mix, and the burning town under seige was perfect for this. For example, instead of simply “You see 6 cultists on the street” it’s “To the north, you see 6 cultists looting a house, 2 of which are viciously beating a man while 2 others hold back what looks to be his wife. To the south, you see 3 assault drakes tearing the flesh from a corpse in the middle of the road, and you notice a young woman hiding under a wagon close by. What do you do?”

Upgrading the Cultists

If you start at a higher level, upgrading the Cultists (CR 1/8) to Cult Fanatics (CR 2) and cultists using the Bandit Captain (CR 2) stat block worked really well for me. The Bandit Captain cultist wasn’t a challenge for ranged PC’s, but dealt some serious melee damage with his multiattack if he was able to get in close. I am a huge fan of taking existing monster stat blocks straight from the Monster Manual and modifying them to fit my needs. By doing that, any humanoid in the MM can be a cultist.

As usual, use any spells that your monsters have quickly instead of holding onto them for the right moment. In my experience, you usually won’t get that right moment before the party takes them out.

The Old Tunnel and The Sally Port

I feel like these were pretty well balanced. For my large party of level 3’s, I basically doubled the CR of each of the encounters which still didn’t seem to be enough of a challenge. But, this is a game of attrition and it did whittle the party’s resources down somewhat, and they are not really able to take any rests until the end of Chapter 1 so I guess it’s ok.

The thing I didn’t like about the locked door at the end of the tunnel is that there are no alternative choices to going through the door. You either make it through, or you turn around. My party had no problem getting through due to the mending cantrip, but my opinion is that there should be other options if you can’t make it through the door. Anything aside from ‘turn back’. I added a trap with an underground river for this reason. The trap wasn’t so much of a trap, but rotten wooden planks that fell apart beneath the feet of one of the party members, which dropped down 20 feet into an underground river that they could have used to get out. But, as I mentioned, the door wasn’t an issue.

Save the Mill

I didn’t end up running this encounter as it took us 3 sessions, each lasting at least 5-7 hours. It takes a long time to run a big group and, although we aren’t rushing, I could tell the party simply wanted to move on. This encounter seemed a little dull I wasn’t inspired with it like I was Sanctuary and the others, so I skipped it.

Dragon Attack

The Adult Blue Dragon has a CR of 16. Its average bite and claw attacks could easily bring a level 1 PC, or in my case a level 3 PC, to 0 hp in one hit, and some attacks could outright insta-kill a Level 1 PC easily. Don’t even ask about its Lightning Breath.

I get that its heart isn’t in the fight and it can ‘easily be driven away’, but c’mon. And the idea that it’ll be floating 25 feet away from the battlements and just using its lightning breath every once in a while on soldiers is silly to me. That’s why I completely changed that encounter, as you can read about in my session 3 notes.

Half-Dragon Champion

Another encounter that simply is not meant to be won is the Half-Dragon Champion. With its multiattack or Lightning Breath, it could take a level 1 to 0 hp in 1 hit and with its bank of hit points, I would find it hard to believe any Level 1 PC that tells me they beat him, unless they were up to some pretty serious shenanigans.

Closing thoughts

I thought it was great, but I’m also the guy who created Death March, a homebrew campaign designed to kill at least 1 PC per session.

My advice is to a new DM running this is:

  • Know what’s going on in the town (chaos).
  • Keep tabs on where the dragon is.
  • Adjust difficulty as needed.
  • Utilize environmental hazards such as fires, ambushes, and hostages for all random street encounters.
  • Warn your players that ‘if something seems like instant death, it probably is, so be careful”.
  • Remember that the Dragon and Half-Dragon Champion are not meant to be won by the players.

If you read this far and haven’t read about the sessions that took place in chapter 1, here they are: