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TGN Feature – The 5E Diaries Part 3: Blue Dragon Blues

TGN Feature – The 5E Diaries Part 3: Blue Dragon Blues

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.

Our intrepid Player Characters (PC) attempted to move forward, nursing the injured and unconcious party members and burying the dead. Toby the halfling rogue would forever rest on the sanctuary’s holy ground. There was little time to mourn however, there were many civilians who fought bravely to defend the sanctuary that now lay dying in its shadow.

I mentioned in my previous installment that this was a particularly lethal scenario. The threat level is quite high, even with the perfect plan. In addition, part of the experience reward depends on the party’s ability to save the civilians inside. As the heroes faltered against the overwhelming odds, Mirian, the paladin, rallied the commoners to battle in defense of their temple.

From a tactical stand-point, this was a wise decision. The commoners bought the PCs valuable time by whittling down their numbers. This was not good for the survivability of those the party sought to defend. The commoner stat-line is anything but robust, allowing the kobolds to make short work of them.

An All Too Common Fate

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) introduced the concept of minions. A minion was a creature that died if it was hit with any damaging attack (but immune to “miss effects”). Minions could be scaled up to be more effective, but the increased danger was mitigated by their lack of hit points (HP).

Minions allowed for cinematic moments in properly planned encounters. Using the correct abilities would allow the heroes to mow through these opponents in a fashion similar to action scenes in some high fantasy stories.

The PCs are ambushed by kobolds at the mill!

5th Edition D&D handles this in a more traditional way, harkening back to previous editions. Creatures with a low challenge rating (CR) will simply tend to have fewer hit points (HP). For example, kobolds are a common low-level threat in this adventure; they have 5 HP. This means that many (if not most) of the attacks the 1st level characters can muster will kill them in one hit. Similarly, the commoners that the party mustered to their cause would generally die to one hit from any of the opposition. It’s just not a great world to be a commoner in.

All these kinds of adversaries function like minions, but on a lucky damage roll they might survive. I’m not really sold on either method, but I am interested to see how 5E will scale at higher level (if this is addressed at all). Minions in 4E scaled effectively with PC advancement, by increasing defense and damage output, while retaining the epic feel provided by the one-hit death. 

Contrivance Be Thy Name

The players earned enough experience to begin the next session at 2nd level. It was the right time – the adventure had proven challenging enough that a mid-chapter level-up was justified. I was also aware that two “epic” encounters were still on the way, and a few additional HP wouldn’t hurt.

My assertion in the second installment of The 5E Diaries was that the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen were writing a 5E adventure while maintaining a 4E mentality. This is, of course, complete speculation, but I did see more evidence to support it in this chapter. Two critical encounters in Chapter 1 rely heavily on contrivance to insert “epic” encounters that are not supported by the mechanics of 5E and how they relate to 1st level characters.

The first is an encounter with an adult blue dragon. This dragon is loosely aligned with the dragon cult and helps them to lay siege to Greenest. At some point, the dragon will attack the keep, and the PCs can rally the guards to repel it. The problem is that an adult blue dragon can one shot the PCs like minions in a 4E game, and you kind of have to play around that. The adventure gives some advice on this, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing it stupid. Especially when the PCs started casting spells. The dragon will flee on a critical hit, and with the number of NPC attacks, it’s totally possible. But, once again a critical hit from even the PCs conjures the classic “pissing in the ocean” analogy. The dragon would likely just target them next.

By the look of the cover art, more dragon encounters are on the way.

The second contrivance-reliant encounter is the duel with Cyanwrath; the half-dragon champion leads the dragon cult raid. He craves one-on-one combat and offers to free a number of slaves if one of the PCs will duel him. The PCs do not stand a chance. The die rolls necessary for even a 2nd level PC to win this combat are phenomenally out of the ordinary.

Run as written, I cannot see this as anything but instant death for a PC. Cyanwrath has multiple attacks – each dealing considerable damage. Our party’s paladin accepted the challenge and had been a tank up to this point. Cyanwrath dropped her to zero within the first round. Had I finished his multi-attack and delivered a final blow (as the adventure instructed) she would be dead from accumulated damage. This did not sit well with me; no amount of good play could prevent this. Even with buffs cast in secret by the other PCs. So I had him cease his attack when she dropped, believing she was dead.

These encounters have some positives. They definitely raise the stakes and are have the effect of “baiting the hook”  for the rest of the adventure. But, these are encounters that play better via the 4E mechanics. A party of first level characters could fight an adult dragon with some chance of survival. It could be forced to flee when bloodied (a keyword for being at half HP or less). A duel between Cyanwrath could play out the same way. The PC would be more durable, and the duel could be till “first blood” aka bloodied.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think 4E is a better system, or that 5E is not good. I’m loving the 5E rules! This is more a criticism of the way this adventure is written (at this point) than the new D&D system. 5E at low-levels is considerably more gritty, and the encounters in an adventure need to reflect this. Some encounters in Hoard of the Dragon Queen don’t seem to reflect these new/old (depending on your perspective) sensibilities.

Are you playing D&D 5E? Leave a comment about your exper