Dungeons & Dragons has returned with a 5th edition of the classic fantasy RPG. TGN’s Enrico Nardini shares his adventures and experiences in this newest rendition of the Forgotten Realms.
Spoiler Alert! This article contains spoilers for Chapter 1 of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. If you are planning on running or playing in these adventures and you wish to remain surprised, you will want to play through that chapter first and then return here to read this article.
Dragon attack! I’m not kidding; the first chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with a dragon attack. Our heroes approached the village of Greenest along the sword coast and found it besieged by an adult blue dragon.
This is a continuation of a trope I first noted in the 3rd Edition of the game - one that seemed to become increasingly more frequent in 4th Edition. I’m talking about the use of lesser dragons in low-level adventures.
The first time I experienced this in a published adventure was when I ran The Sunless Citadel. A portion of the adventure took place in a kobold warren in which a juvenile white dragon was being kept. At the time, I thought this was a novel approach to adding the titular creatures to a low-level campaign. Now, I have begun to feel that this trope is overused.
I fully recognize that dragons are the iconic enemy of the game. Playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in my youth, we stood in dread and awe of a dragon encounter. I dare say we’d have rather faced a god’s avatar then an elder chromatic dragon. Newer editions of the game have pushed the idea of the leveled dragon encounter (though it has always existed in some fashion). It may be my status as a hoary old goat of gaming, or simply the way my groups played, but I can’t help but feel the frequency of use has diminished these legendary creatures in some way. By dint of repetition the battling of a dragon has lost some of its inherent cool (even the white dragons).
On the plus side, it can be difficult in our modern world to ever dedicate the time to attain sufficient level to ever fight the great wyrms. I guess a lesser dragon is better than no dragon at all. This is also a dragon-centric adventure, so some deference has to be granted based on theme. Additionally, the dragon encounter turns out to be a bit of a tease, but that will have to wait until Part 3.
PCs and NPCs give their lives to defend the sanctuary.
“Siege, Party of 5 Please!”
My players needed time to get in some initial roleplaying and explore their characters. I used the proposed merchant caravan to get them to Greenest, but I inserted some travel time to allow the characters to interact. This ate up a fair bit of our game time but was worth it in terms of character development and investment. Some of the best character building moments in a game happen when the Dungeon Master (DM) isn’t actively involved, and the characters are just acting out what their characters say and do around each other.
Once they made it within sight of Greenest and the dragon was revealed, the player characters (PC) rushed to their aid. One may question the point of a group of 5 low-level PCs rushing to defend a town from a dragon, but I would present 2 important counter-points:
- The PCs don’t know what level they are. They’re adventurers and heroes. They seek deeds of derring-do. The fact that they don’t run in terror, marks them as such.
- The players must trust that you will provide a reasonable challenge and follow the initially presented narrative. The reality is that most published adventures have (by necessity) aspects of their plot that are “on rails.” It’s part of the social contract of the game that the players will follow the initial plot thread to get the story started.
The adventure provides for some player choice in the first chapter. There are a number of crises that can happen, but it is up to the players to triage them and determine their approach (with a nudge or too from non-player character (NPC) Governor Nighthill). Many of these are set piece encounters based around a certain scenario.
Hoard of the Dragon Queen was written for 4 PCs; I was worried that the initial encounter involving a group of kobolds pursuing a family from Greenest, would be too easy with an additional PC (our playtest group numbers 5). I added 2 kobolds to the encounter to balance it. I was wrong! A combination of poor PC dice rolls and the number of adversaries made this encounter challenging, and I was actually worried at one point that our game would end then and there.
The players did survive, but I decided to play the rest of the chapter as written (at least in terms of the number and type of monsters in the encounters). That did not make it much easier. The difficulty of the encounters gave me the sense that the writers may have still been designing with a 4th Edition mentality. PCs in 4E were considerable more heroic (discussed further below) allowing them to endure more back-to-back encounters and the minion rules allowed them to battle more adversaries.
There is an encounter at a sanctuary that is particularly lethal. It involves the possibility of having to fight 3 distinct groups of enemies at once. Our group came up with an excellent plan, ambushing one group with an area effect spell, while scaring another group off temporarily with chicanery and a good intimidation roll. Despite this, our rogue still died an ignominious death at the hands of kobolds. We had completed our first session (though not the first chapter) and had our first PC death.
Civilians rush out of the temple!
Death and Axes
Establishing the threat of death is important for combat oriented RPGs like D&D. If there is no threat of PC death, then there is little at stake personally for the players. I had to learn this the hard way. In my youth, I was one of the first game masters in my group, and I often fudged a roll here or there to ensure the safety of a PC for the greater good of the story. Unfortunately, even when this behavior is not obvious, it still (possibly subconsciously) establishes a feeling of invulnerability in the players that can encourage nonsensical/genre busting play and general boredom and disinterest.
Of course, a game that is too lethal has its own problems as well. It can really bog down gameplay with PCs stopping every 5 feet to search for traps, actively avoiding situations that call for heroism because they will likely be killed, and a lack of character investment because they may be making new characters every session.
Fantasy games fall somewhere on what could be described as a “heroism spectrum” - characters will start their careers as useless nobodies, world shaping demigods, or somewhere in between, depending on the game’s style. More heroic games tend to have more durable PCs.
The evolution of D&D has favored increasingly heroic starting characters as editions progressed. This peaked with 4th Edition, in which players began the game as established and powerful heroes. Your 1st level PC certainly could perish in 4E, but they were far more durable than in any previous edition. 5E has rolled back the starting power level of the characters to near 3.5E levels. The 5E PCs are slightly better off due to their ability to recover hit points during a short rest and the removal of the d4 as a hit die for some classes, but they are still no where near the powerhouses they were in 4E, making this a grittier game that will be more appealing to some and turn others off.
I can get behind almost any level of heroism in a game. I’ve had fun playing lowly commoners in Dungeon Crawl Classics and potent exalts in Exalted. The 5E starting level character takes a fairly balanced approach, not as lethal as “old school” games, but less forgiving than many modern ones (excluding the resent flood of retro-clones). I’m enjoying it, but scaling your encounters may be more important than ever.
Are you playing D&D 5E? Leave a comment about your experiences!