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:


DMing Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Episode 1, part 3, Session 3: Return to Sanctuary, Dragon Attack, and Half-Dragon Champion

After narrowly escaping the overwhelming force attacking the Temple of Chauntea, the party has handed their prisoner, a Cultist Leader, over to Castillan the Red for interrogation. On hearing that there is still a remaining force threatening to slaughter the innocent people inside the Temple, Castillan implored the party to go back without hesitation.

The party has been able to use the old tunnel which leads into the cellar of the keep from a hidden entrance near the river to the south. The cellar has since turned into a makeshift hospital where townsfolk have been brought for refuge and security.

Castillan sent one of the younger boys to fetch the Cleric for the healing and health potions. This is where I changed my plan a little between the sessions.

At the end of the session, I was planning on having the Cleric heal the party for a Prayer of Healing at 3rd level (3d8+4) and 2 health potions each in an effort to convince them to return to the temple immeidately. Between sessions, I decided to have the boy come back with a good news, bad news type of situation.

The boy returns with a heavy bag of rattling potions, but no Cleric. “Good News: I found an extra potion of healing for each of you, Bad News: the Cleric was last seen at the Temple of Chauntea.” This added some much needed urgency to the situation at the temple.

Sanctuary, Part 2

This time, the party took a more strategic approach. I did not add any more enemies as I felt there were still enough from last time to keep the fight challenging. I simply took the remaining kobolds and cultists from group B (the group circling the temple) and had them pick up the battering ram. Group C was still at the back trying, and failing miserably, to set fire to the back door. Because of the open environment, this fight heavily favors ranged weapons and classes, as the Order of the Soul Knife Mystic found out while he was trying his best to chase down things all over the place only to have them shot down by the Ranger, Artificer, Wizard, of even the Rogue first.

The party uses ranged attacks through the slits in the wall surrounding the Temple as two of the members try to remove the firewood stacked up at the rear door and the Artificer snipes targets from the roof.

The Wizard did get points for being creative with Mage Hand and pulling a kobold off the 15 foot wall I put around the temple to die from falling damage, and extra points for not meta-gaming when a group of 3 kobolds were sneaking up around the back. Although he, the player, knew the kobolds were coming around back and he asked if he could roll an insight check to see if his character might think to check behind him before he took off after another enemy. I allowed that and he ended up failing it anyways (rolled so low he didn’t even tell me what he rolled).

After the last cultist (Cult Fanatic) was killed, the Cleric of the Temple (NPC inside) opened the door from the inside and, after giving the party’s Cleric the most epic Dutch-meets-Dillon Predator arm wrestle handshake, invited the party in.

I turned this into a small roleplay encounter while the Temple Cleric, Tim, cast his 3rd level Prayer of Healing. Casting time here is 10 minutes, so I had various NPC’s inside the temple ask the party questions. “Where are you from?” “What brought you here?” and so on. The party’s Cleric asked me, as DM, “Do we get any loot for saving these people?” I replied with an in-game, “Half a dozen of the villagers come to you with the arms full of their family’s only posessions they were able to grab from their homes before they were set ablaze, and they offer you some coinage as thanks.” Doing the right thing, he and the Wizard, and then the rest of the party, turned down their offer with a “Your thanks is enough, now we need to get you to the keep.” This was great for our party because we’re still trying to do more RP in our games and this turned out very well.

We took a short snack break here, and after the healing the party decided it’s time to head to the keep. They decided to sneak back to the keep through the forest to the Temple’s south, which sat directly north of the riverbank. They had 20 villagers and Tim, the Temple Cleric.

Dragon Attack

I should mention that during the party’s entire time in Greenest, I kept the party aware of the Adult Blue Dragon’s location, who was flying in wide circles around the town swooping in randomly or tromping through the streets. Before making any actions or moves, the party would often ask the whereabouts of the dragon and make plans based on that in an effort to avoid it.

I played this one a little differently than was written in the book, which has him attacking the Keep and slaughtering the defenders on the wall. I felt that this encounter, again, was too favorable for the ranged classes and I wanted to add more urgency to the encounter. I had the dragon attack the party as they were trying to safeguard the 21 villagers they just rescued from the temple and bring them to the keep through the secret tunnel. This turned out to be amazing.

The party was on the northern riverbank, heading west towards the secret tunnel. The Rogue scouted ahead to find 6 kobolds poking through the dead bodies of their fallen compatriots from the first encounter out of the tunnel in session 1. She reported her findings to the party, who was waiting behind with the villagers.

The dragon circled around overhead in a wide, lazy, clockwise circle where the Keep would be at 9 o’clock. The party hid with the villagers in the woods and waited for the dragon to continue its wide arc past them, and then it perched itself atop the Keep, interested in whatever was inside.

The Cleric and Mystic stayed with the villagers in the woods while the Rogue, Ranger, Wizard, and Artificer planned their attack on the 6 kobolds. Between the 4 attackers with the Ranger’s Hordebreaker, they were able to quickly dispatch 5 of the 6 kobolds in 1 quick volley. The remaining kobold shit his pants and dashed away as an action. It was the Artificer’s shot with a crossbow that took him out after all the other missed.

This got the dragon’s attention, and they decided it was now or never. They decided to run for it as soon as the Rogue unlocked the secret door. I made them roll 1d20 to find out how many villagers made it from the woods to the tunnel without the dragon noticing. NAT20. So, the villagers were at the tunnel’s entrance as the dragon lept off the roof of the Keep and dove towards the party.

Shit was getting intense.

“Is the dragon in range?” the Ranger, Artificer, and Wizard were all asking. “What’s your range?” I asked them all back, planning to have the dragon at the shortest range given (within reason).

  1. Ranger: Longbow at 150ft.
  2. Artificer: Thunder Cannon at 150 ft.
  3. Wizard: Firebolt at 120ft.

“The dragon is 120 ft. away, and closing fast.”

The Ranger, Artificer, and Wizard all begin to attack, and the Cleric joins in with a Guiding Bolt cast at Level 2 , damaging the dragon over 2 rounds. The dragon’s fly speed was 80 feet and I didn’t have it dash as an action, so round 2 had the dragon 40 feet directly overhead as the party let off a few more shots.

For each of these turns, I had the villagers attempting to pile into the narrow tunnel. I didn’t allow for dash because of the chaos and confusion, saying the villagers were all tripping over eachother and panicking. In turn 1, 6 villagers made it in, basing this on the speed of 30 feet and nobody could get past them or end their turn on a shared space. Turn 2, 6 more made it in and the dragon began its descent. Turn 3, dragon was 40 feet over, 6 more made it in. Turn 4, the last of the villagers, the Temple Cleric (who was waiting until all of his people made it in before he went in), the Rogue, Mystic, and Party Cleric got in the tunnel. The Ranger and Artificer were stuck outside to face down the dragon.

I had a few lines prepared for this because I wanted it to be awesome and I am terrible at improvising lines.

  • “Who do you think you are that you can meddle in the affairs of dragons?”
  • “I have been watching your… feeble attempts to save this miserable slum from its inevitible doom. Do you really think that your pitiful heroics can make a difference?”

I had a few other lines ready that I didn’t get use because the party is yet to grasp that “if an enemy is talking to you and the odds are stacked against you, you should probably try talking your way out of it.” Instead, the Ranger and Artificer shot it in the face.

The dragon leaped into the air and smashed down onto the Artificer, biting him and clawing him to unconsciousness. He then changed targets with his multiattack and clawed at the hunter – not doing any damage but instead pushing his massive claw down onto his body and grinding him into the earth, saying “I am… disappointed. So mch killing, and barely any treasure to show for it. And worst of all, this ragtag troup of miscreants is the best the town can come up with…” He pushed off into the air and began to fly away, saying “If you wish to meddle in the affairs of dragons, then allow to demonstrate the true power of dragons!”

Not sure what that meant, the Ranger got up and carried the Artificer into the secret tunnel, locking the door behind them.

Short Rest in the Cellar

The party collapsed in the cellar, which has grown cramped with the number of wounded townsfolk huddling inside. Tim, the Temple Cleric, tended to some of the people from the temple and then sent one of them off to fetch Governer Nighthill, saying that he would want to speak with the heroes who saved them from the attackers.

The party basically said “Yeah, we’re not going off to look for anyone. We’ll wait here until he comes to us.”

I gave them enough time for their first short rest in 3 sessions. They earned it.

Half-Dragon Champion

After an hour, Governer Nighthill came down into the cellar to seek out the party, offering many thanks and apologizing that he could not be more rewarding for their deeds. “But.. there’s something you need to see.. follow me.” he said as he began to ascend the stairs out of the cellar, not waiting to see if the party was following. Suspicious of his behavior, the party carefully followed him out of the cellar and into the ward.

As they ascended, they began to hear chanting in Draconic “Cyanwrath, Cyanwrath, Cyanwrath!” coming from outside of the keep. In the ward, about 60 soldiers of Greenest stood in formation, frightened.

Governer Nighthill continued his ascent up to the battlements at the top of the wall, and the party followed. At the top, the could see over 200 kobolds in a loose formation on the killing fields outside of the keep, continuing their chant. Again, the Ranger asked “Are they within range?”. “They are”, I replied. “Do not attack them, dude” the rest of the party told him. “Oh, I was just curious” he said.

Nighthill explained, “I have no idea what they are chanting. They have stopped attacking the town and have been assembled here for at least 20 minutes.”

“It’s a name… Cyanwrath…” the Rogue told him. She spoke draconic (half the party does, almost as if they knew what they’d be going up against) so she recognized it as a name, although didn’t know who the name belonged to.

After a moment, I read the box text to the encounter, adding only that the Champion “is disappointed he has not come across a single warrior that could stand up to him.” Unfortunately our Barbarian couldn’t make it to this session because this would have been ideal for him.

After some discussion and some convincing from Governer Nighthill, the Artificer stepped up. Nighthill offered his sword to whoever fights, which was a Sword of Sharpness straight from the DMG, Tim the Cleric blessed him, and some random villager inside the keep gave him a ring “to protect him.” Although he was suspicious of the ring, he accepted it. The pressure was on. (Remind me to tell you about how I fucked this up.)

Our bloodthirsty Monster AI friend was hanging out for the night and took control of Cyanwrath. I had him and the Artificer roll their initiative. Cyanwrath wins and goes first.

The Artificer has his epic standoff with Cyanwrath, the Half-Dragon Champion, as the rest of the party watches from the battlements.
  1. Artificer had readied Dodge as he began to approach, even before rolling initiative.
  2. Cyanwrath critically fails the first attack and slices into his own leg, and then Artificer dodges and slashes Cyanwrath for 11 slashing damage.
  3. Cyanwrath attacks, Artificer activates the Ring of Shield to block the attack. Cyanwrath attacks again and misses. Artificer readies Dodge again.
  4. Cyanwrath attacks two times, Artificer dodges both and slashes back for another 11 slashing damage.
  5. Cyanwrath attacks once with his greatsword, missing once and hits the Artificer with his Lightning Breath for 12 lightning damage, blocking the Artificers next attack.
  6. Cyanwrath cuts the Artificer down to unconciousness.

The army of kobolds go into a cheering frenzy, and then Cyanwrath hefts his greatsword into the air, chopping down at the unconcious Artificer two times immediately causing two failed death saves. He lifts his sword again, ready for a third strike, and then lowers his weapon saying “… disappointing.” He tells his kobolds to let the human prisoners go as they begin to leave. The prisoners run and pick up the Artificer’s limp body and carry him to the Keep as the two Clerics run out to get him.

That is the end of Chapter 1, and the end of this session. They still have the prisoner to interrogate and certainly some rewards from the townsfolk and the Nighthill and Castellan.

Remember how I said I fucked up?

I did not notice every detail in the stat block for Cyanwrath before our Monster AI friend took him over, and completely missed the fact that he has Blindsight. I wanted to help the Artificer, so the ring that the villager gave him originally before heading out was a Ring of Blur, allowing him to use Blur for free once per day.

This completely backfired on me when Artificer activated Blur on Cyanwrath’s first attack, and Monster AI pointed out that Blindsight should negate Blur. After a table discussion we agreed on that decision. I admitted that it was completely my fuckup and I added it in there to try to actually help out the Artificer but had overlooked that stat for Cyanwrath, and called a do-over.

What really sucked for the Artificer was that his first roll was a NAT20 in the initial fight, but Cyanwrath also would’ve taken him down in the first hit or two because of high rolls (and Monster AI was rolling in the open, so there was no fudging on my part).

Looking back, I probably could’ve said Cyanwrath doesn’t have that ability, but we went with the do-over and it all turned out alright. I really don’t know how any Level 1 PC would stand a chance against Cyanwrath, but it looks like that’s intended.


DMing Princes of the Apocalypse. Non-Spoiler Character Adventure Hooks.

One of my parties decided on running Princes of the Apocalypse for their next campaign after Lost Mine of Phandelver. While researching character bonds and background hooks, I made this newby DM mistake:

While I really appreciate Sly Flourish’s rewrite of the hooks and think he did a fantastic job summarizing them, I didn’t realize how many names of people and places were shared. I thought it felt like a little too much information to give away to everybody in the party, so I rewrote them to take out names. I do plan to give the names the players who choose those hooks. I am having the players choose 2 hooks and keep them secretive from the other players, and I will decide what happens in the event of multiple players choosing the same hooks, as some may work like that while some may not.

I have put this in a pdf with Faction summaries here: PotA Adventure Hooks at homebrewery.naturalcrit. (Ink-Friendly version)

Princes of the Apocalypse

Character Adventure Hooks

Best Served Cold: A silver-tongued bard murdered your sister. You seek revenge against this murderous minstrel, who was last seen in the area of the Dessarin Valley.

Dangerous Information: During your travels you overheard that a group of murderous bandits are planning a terrible raid somewhere in the Dessarin Valley.

Dangerous Secret: A mysterious circle of druids supposedly know of a ritual magic unknown to other druids. You have been sent to infiltrate these druids, now residing somewhere in the Dessarin Valley, and learn of their secret.

Dark Omens: The signs and portents are clear. Nature is out of balance. You have apocalyptic dreams of fire, floods, tornados, and earthquakes swallowing up the towns of the Dessarin Valley. You travel to the Dessarin Valley to seek out and remove the reason for this imbalance.

Defeat the Skyraiders: Viscous raiders mounted on hippogriffs have laid waste to several small hamlets and merchant caravans. In the process they murdered your closest friend. You have arrived having heard word of their activity in the Dessarin Valley.

Feathrgale Rebel: Nobles of Waterdeep hired you to retrieve a Waterdhavian noblewoman who was last seen somewhere in the Dessarin Valley.

The Fugitive: You are on the trail of a wizard who murdered his fellow mages and stole their arcane knowledge. His last recent sightings are in the lands of the Dessarin Valley.

Hired Hand: The homesteaders who raised you as their own and were often kind to itinerant workers are now missing. You now seek to rescue the members of your adopted family who still live and seek revenge for those now dead.

Madman at Haunted Keep: Brigands you used to travel with took a dark murderous turn, andd you just happen to know a secret entrance to their keep.

The Mud Sorcerer: Months ago you were robbed by an earth genasi who killed several innocent bystanders by tearing open a rift in the ground and swallowing them deep into the earth. You must find him and make him pay.

Ominous Dream: Your dreams are filled with nightmares of the earth swallowing thousands while a male medusa stands atop a rock etched with a strange symbol. You know that this dangerous villain must be stopped before this disaster comes to pass.

Recover Your Sword: Thugs broke into the workshop where you apprenticed and murdered the master smith who taught you. They stole a beautiful sword she made and carved strange symbols into the walls of the shop.

Rescue Your People: Raiders have abducted members of your family and must be rescued at any cost. They left behind only a strange symbol burned into the wood of your home. You’ve heard that similar signs have been seen around the Dessarin Valley.

Seeking Revenge: Your home village had been put to the torch, killing dozens of your friends and neighbors. Your investigations have led you to the Dessarin Valley.

Settle a Score: Your family has been robbed and you were left for dead by marauders wearing armor that looked like stone. You have heard of similar raids in the Dessarin Valley.

Stormbringer’s Trail: Your ship has been sunk by an unnatural storm sending many of your brothers on the sea to their watery deaths. Your investigations have uncovered a stormbringer that he resides somewhere in the Dessarin Valley.

Strange Map: An ancient map showing a forgotten dwarf stronghold beneath the Sumber Hills has come into your possession. Though incomplete and faded, it has a name written on it in dwarven.

Suspicious Fellow: You have been sent to investigate a suspicious activities of a knight of the Feathergale Society who now resides somewhere in the Dessarin Valley.

Undercover: You have been tasked to break up a smuggling and piracy ring taking place somewhere on the Dessarin River.

Walked Away: While working as a freelance mercenary you fell in with a group who began an unhealthy association with fire as their weapon of choice. You left the group after the began to burn their victims alive. You now worry that these mercenaries are responsible for troubles in the Dessarin Valley and must be stopped.

That’s it! I hope somebody else may find this useful, and am looking forward to the elemental adventures that await the party in Princes of the Apocalypse.