5e Review: Tyranny of Dragons
The premier adventure for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is Tyranny of Dragons. I held off reviewing the product until I got a better grip of the edition. More than other adventures, the first one has the risk of having design problems and system quirks due to unfamiliarity with the rules. Plus, y’know, I was busy reading and reviewing the Core rulebooks….
What It Is
Tyranny of Dragons is an adventure told across two 96-page hardcover books written by Kobold Press under the supervision of Wizards of the Coast. The first volume, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, was released in August 2014, alongside the Player’s Handbook, a month prior to the Monster Manual and two-and-a-half months before the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The second volume, Rise of Tiamat, followed two months later.
The adventure takes characters from level 1 to around level 15, where the party has the opportunity to face off against the evil dragon goddess, Tiamat, preventing her from entering the campaign setting of the Forgotten Realms.
The adventure is an excellent introduction to the factions that form the spine of WotC’s 5th Edition adventures. However, only three factions are introduced in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and it takes several sessions to meet those three. But, for anyone unfamiliar with the Realms and its organizations, it’s a solid introductions.
The adventure is firmly set in the Realms. While there is no conversion advice for other settings, it would be easy enough to move the adventure elsewhere, especially HotDQ. Rise of Tiamat is a little trickier to transplant, since the Masked Lords of Waterdeep play a larger role. It wouldn’t be that tricky to move it to any dragon-heavy world with a large city, such as Dragonlance or Greyhawk.
Driving home the location is the overland map that begins HotDQ, which is lovely. The cartographer hired certainly knows how to make a breathtaking world map. Most of the maps in the book are works of art, with lots of little flourishes, but especially the overland and town maps.. The encounter maps are hit-and-miss (more on this later) but are all well drawn and beautiful.
The adventure is presented as series of episodes, each of which fill a session or two of play. These episodes are often based around a location or quest, a set-piece for events. This design is often criticized for being a railroad, with the plot firmly established. This is true, however, the actions of the players are not pre-determined and there’s often some flexibility in how the players can approach an episode: stealth, deception, or crossbows blazing. Many groups enjoy a stronger plot or adventures with some rails, and need a little extra direction. So this is a nice option, a counterpoint to the sandbox that is Princes of the Apocalypse. Plus, the order of many of the episodes in RoT can be shuffled, with missions chosen by the players.
Because each episode is largely self-contained – its own little story – it is easy to pull out an episode for independent use. Each volume is a half-dozen smaller modules: the swamp castle, the hunting lodge, the caravan ride, the iceberg lair, the forest cave, etc. It’s a good source for inspiration or a quick adventure location.
The adventure is crammed with NPCs. HotDQ has an entire caravan of potential background characters, and the Council of Waterdeep in RoT has a lot of interesting NPCs. The latter partially make use of a form of NPC statblock, including personality traits (albeit with a different name for no good reason). The patrons and quest givers in the Council also have their own motives and respond differently to the PC’s choices in episodes, with some reacting positive and some negative. It’s an interesting idea, as is the tracking sheet for tallying the collected reactions of the council. It’s certainly confusing at first, but is easy enough to understand after reading the description. I’ll certainly steal the idea if I ever need to track reputation between groups.
Despite being the first adventures for a brand new version of the game, Tyranny of Dragons is very old school. Many of the encounters are challenging, not as conducive to the straight-up fights of the past couple editions: 3e-4e thrive on “balanced” encounters, where so long as the players do not do anything foolish, they gave good odds of success. More thought is needed to survive the adventure, which just presents the challenges and leaves it up to the players to find a solution… or die. I like the dangerous old school feel. Success depends less on tactics or skill building characters, and more on the cunning of the players and their strategic plans.
The story of Tyranny of Dragons is much better than the paper thin Princes of the Apocalypse or the series of unrelated events that is Lost Mine of Phandelver. It’s large but fairly cohesive, with most of the episodes having some purpose or connection to the main plot. However, so much of the tale feels like a retread of Dragonlance. Evil human followers of the Dragon Queen -one for each colour- are bringing the goddess into the world in a hideous temple, while raiding cities and employing dragon-men. And they are opposed by a council of assorted factions who enlist metallic dragon. There’s even a flying castle.
The story doesn’t *really* fit the Realms. Tiamat was never a deity in the Realms, and only had a single appearance back when she was a common monster. The motivation and activities of the Cult of the Dragon are completely changed, shifted from creating dracoliches to worshiping live dragons. The plot of the adventure involves letting Tiamat escape from the Nine Hells, but why she’s trapped in the Nine Hells is never quite clear and is a huge retcon. It feels less like a Forgotten Realms adventure and more like an adventure that happens to be set in the Realms.
The adventure has a lot of logic problems. First, there’s no reason for the Big Bad to spread his dragon masks among his lieutenants. That just risks them being lost or taken by adventures. This is the innate flaw in designing a plot centred around a “get ’em all” MacGuffin: it’s really easy for the PCs to derail this entire plan by just getting one mask and hiding it really well. The plot circumvents this, meaning at points the player’s actions just do not matter. Another flaw is how the caravan centrepiece of HotDQ heads far north to reach a teleportation circle, which is needed to send them far to the east, so they can take a flying castle to the south and close to where they started. Why not just go straight to the flying castle? Or have the caravan make a B-line for the Well of Dragons? It’s a curious move. Heck, all the gold gathered at the start of HotDQ doesn’t seem relevant to the plot. The real schemes of the Cult don’t start until RoT, so the entire first adventure is largely superfluous. It could be replaced by a single episode or series of encounters.
The beginning of HotDQ doesn’t direct PCs to the relevant tasks. There’s no easy way to guide players or tell them what to do, without actually telling them what to do. It really requires a skilled DM to read between the lines and point the PCs in the right direction. Railroad adventures are least offensive if the plot hooks are good: if the players want to follow the hooks and do the logical thing then they don’t notice the rails.
Much of the action in the early parts of HotDQ takes place in the Keep in the town of Greenest, which serves as the PC’s base for the first three episodes. Except there’s no map of the Keep. Greenest itself is sparsely detailed. The adventure really seems to assume the PCs won’t try to go shopping, or check out what’s left of the inn, or interact with the townsfolk.
Too many of the encounters are just rooms with monsters. There’s precious few chambers with interesting terrain or features. Often combat is just a handful of monsters thrown into a room or in a random undetailed locale. A lot of fights just seem to be filler. Which is ironic, as there is not enough experience in the later parts of the adventure to gain a level. Many episodes are highly under xp-ed, and the milestone rules are required to run without adding fights. In RoT it even suggests letting a character level after each of the “Cult Strikes Back” episodes, which are a single encounter! And a few role-playing episodes can also result in level gain. The experience gained is also not apparent. Monsters are called out with bold text but summaries of experience are not included. This would be nice at the end of each episode.
There are a lot of NPCs present in HotDQ, but none use the bonds/ideals/flaws system that is the highlight of 5e roleplaying. And despite all the myriad NPCs on the caravan sequence, the cultists the PCs are trailing are not named nor described.
The cities in the adventure are not well detailed and not mapped. The PCs pass through Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep, but neither city sees much description text. Again, the PCs are apparently not expected to shop or drink or socialize.
During the “Cult Strikes Back” episodes in RoT, the adventure doesn’t even build encounters for you, just suggesting monsters for the cultist attacks. While some flexibility is okay, a suggested configuration of opponents would have been nice.
The start of Hoard of the Dragon Queen has a severe lack of a beginning. The adventures are just expected to be bold heroes and rush into a fight involving a powerful dragon they cannot best. There’s little motive to get involved.
The beginning of Rise of Tiamat starts with a white dragon fight. However, the PCs *just* defeated an identical dragon at the climax of the last adventure. Meanwhile, The dragon is still much higher level than them and they no longer have the advantage of terrain. Ending HotDQ in a fight with a young red dragon fight might work better, and still be an acceptable challenge, and mean a non-included dragon type gains an appearance.
While I like challenging encounters, there are several unnecessarily hard fights. The white dragon boss at the end of HotDQ is Challenge 13 compared to the player’s level 7. This seems fine if going by 3e/4e Encounter difficulty guidelines, but doesn’t work as well in 5e. This is repeated in RoT with level 10 PCs fighting a CR 15 green dragon. This isn’t including the accidental TPK errors, like the infamous “No Room at the Inn” fight, where the original monsters were cut from the MM, and the replacement monsters received a significant Challenge boost between the publication of the adventure and the Monster Manual. (I wonder how many fights are unbalanced because the encounter building tiles or final Challenge of the monsters were still changing.)
The location of many NPCs is uncertain. For example, Dralmorrer Borngray, the boss of Episode 6, is nowhere to be found. If the DM is meant to place him according to the events of the campaign, this should be made clear. He’s certainly not the only wandering NPC that might be overlooked.
The final battle really wants to be a mass brawl, but isn’t. It wants to be this struggle between allied forces, like Dragon Age: Origins but it just doesn’t work. The final pre-Tiamat encounter is more bookkeeping and villains being defeated by NPCs off stage. The absence of the mass combat rules might have hurt this section. A re-write could be interesting.
One of the final missions is to forge an alliance with Thay, which just seems odd. Thay is on the other side of the continent and the effects of this mission have no impact on the final fight, as they brings no assets to the team. It’s honestly a trap, causing potentially more loss of reputation than gain.
The art and style doesn’t match the look of the rest of the 5e books: no inksplatters behind character illustrations, no torn illo borders, no stylized font for first characters in a chapter, no dropshadow on headers, no boxes for monster statblocks, etc. It looks less like an official product and more like a high quality 3rd Party Product.
The maps are lovely to look at, but not always useful. Many maps are cluttered with lots of extraneous details and flourishes throughout the negative space. Meanwhile the chambers and corridors lack detail. I wish more time had been spent making the rooms of the map look less barren and less adding stylized names and texturing. The labelling of maps is sometimes hard to read in HotDQ, and the size of squares varies, which can catch unwary DMs by surprise if they expect the 3e/4e standard of 5-foot squares.
For example, iceberg of Oyaviggaton not drawn, just its dungeon. And this map is unclear and a multicoloured mess. (Heck, this whole episode is so-so, with no real feeling of actually being on a large iceberg, such as rocking or a risk of flooding.) The map of Neronvain’s stronghold is muddled, as the artist opted for creative design over usability. The climactic encounter takes place at Tiamat’s temple, which is presented as a handful of squiggly shapes with no identifying details. Removed from the text you’d have no idea what you were looking at. Compared these with the maps of Princes of the Apocalypse or Paizo’s APs where you can print the maps out as a poster and use with minis (or throw into a VTT) many of these are severely lacking.
These adventures emphasise the associated free PDFs and the fact that all you need to play is these books and the Basic rules. This is great. There is even an extra PDF, with the Council reputation tracker also being available as a download.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen ends with a flying castle the PCs (potentially) get the keep or borrow. More adventures should end with property being claimed.
The final adventure ends in a fight with Tiamat, who seems like an actual challenge. A big difference from many of the high level foes in the game, which feel a little weak
The cover of Rise of Tiamat is amazeballs. Like all the D&D books it’s unfortunately cropped, though.
The adventure introduces scrags, aquatic trolls, and ice trolls by just slightly modifying the monster in-text. And makes quick half-dragon NPCs by adding a breath weapon and resistance. Overall, the adventure has a lot of custom monsters that add flavour without requiring a unique statblock. Such as the tile monsters. Good stuff.
Speaking of monsters, the books include a few assorted NPC statblocks and brings backs drakes. I like drakes for some reason. Rise of Tiamat also has ice toads for some reason. But they seem different.
This adventure was heavily playtested, but it feels like more feedback was aimed more at the rules and less on the adventure itself. There was clearly more time spent adapting to the continually changing rule set than polishing the adventure, and it shows. It is not for a DM who doesn’t want to customize or adjust an adventure to fit their party.
Like Princes of the Apocalypse, the bad guy’s downfall is really the cult doing lots of unnecessary evil things, giving allies time to muster, while not summoning their extraplanar patron from the beginning. There’s little reason for the delay in bringing Tiamat into the world. It’s a little better than PotA as prisoners are needed as sacrifices and other handwavy justifications, but Severin draws a lot of attention to the cult prior, which results in his downfall.
For anyone unfamiliar with the design of more old school dungeons, it can be an interesting template and a learning experience. It’s nice to see adventures try to do something different and break the mold of the past couple editions, even if they were not entirely successful.
There’s a lot of problems with these adventures, and a lot of screwiness that a DM will have to work around, but there is some good stuff in here. It might work better as a source of inspiration than played straight, the framework for a campaign that weaves in and out of the larger story. Plus, with the limited experience, there’s lots of room for sidequests and personal stories, which are not always possible in an Adventure Path style campaign.