D&D Encounters: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, session 1

It’s been a busy week for me. On Tuesday, the Player’s Handbook got released in Ballarat, and I spent the afternoon and early evening helping people understand it and running short adventures. On Friday, I ran a session of Lost Mine of Phandelver for my regular group. On Saturday, we had the first session of the new season of D&D Encounters (as well as more D&D afterwards), and I’m just back from seeing the new episode of Doctor Who at the cinema on Sunday morning.

In fact, I had a little nap between getting back from seeing Deep Breath and writing this. I needed it. It’s been busy!

We had 35 people at Good Games Ballarat last night for the kick-off of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This is our largest turnout so far. About six months ago, I was ecstatic that we had 18 people for the first night of Scourge of the Sword Coast. We’ve almost doubled our numbers – and there were people who couldn’t make this session! The number may yet grow, although we’re beginning to reach our limit for the number of players the store can accommodate.

The trickiest question I had to field during the night was from players who can’t make it every week, but still wanted to play at the same table each week. I explained to them that it was going to be difficult, as it’s very difficult to run a table where most of the players might not turn up each week. The DM needs to be there and DMs are at a premium. We might have to shuffle some of the players around from table to table each week. For the time being, I was able to put friends together at the same tables, but we’ll see how it develops. Given how this season works, keeping the same players together is something I want to encourage if possible.

My biggest worry related to the faction folders. Wizards of the Coast kindly provided us with gifts for those playing in D&D Encounters: a folder, magic item certificate, sticker, character sheet and adventure log, as well as a welcome letter. These were themed to faction. We had enough for 8 DMs and 8 of each faction. (8 DMs, 40 players). I ran around like a crazy person as people arrived at the store, getting them to nominate the faction they wanted to play. By the time everyone had arrived, we had eight players wanting to join the Harpers, eight players wanting to join the Zhentarim, eight players as part of the Emerald Enclave, four in the Lord’s Alliance and three in the Order of the Gauntlet. (The numbers add up to more than 30 as we had one player who had to leave before the event started due to an emergency, and one player who kindly DMed because the person who was going to DM was ill). A couple of players may have changed their faction because they noticed the faction they wanted was getting crowded, but mostly everyone got their first choice. Phew! (Unfortunately, there are no Harpers folders left for my PC, Taliesin Brightwood, assuming I ever get to play him!)

I took some time to welcome everyone, describe the factions, get everyone settled at their tables, and give a few notes on how the Adventure Logs worked. More time than I (and the players) really wanted to spend, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew how the season would work. I handed out pregenerated characters to the three people who needed them, reminded everyone that they could rebuild their characters as much as they liked in the first four levels, and finally was able to sit down to play.

While I was busy attending to everyone, the players at my table were working out how their characters knew each other. I didn’t catch all of it, but Lili’s paladin, one of the few characters belonging to the Order of the Gauntlet, had apparently officiated at a wedding of relatives of some of the other PCs. It’s nice to see them working together in that way; I hope to bring it out with the role-playing in upcoming sessions. We were a little pressed for time here, and also by the urgency of the situation. I got three of the players to roll on the “Bonds” section of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen appendix to determine their reasons to go to Greenest, the town where the adventure starts. One had run afoul of the Cult of the Dragon and was going to Greenest to escape their clutches, another had had prophetic, apocalyptic dreams that indicated that Greenest was the place to find answers, and the last had a father who confessed on his deathbed that he’d helped the Cult of the Dragon smuggle things and wanted the PC to go to Greenest to put right his misdeeds.

And so we entered the Forgotten Realms. With the evening approaching, the travellers came in sight of Greenest, a small town on the Uldoon Trail, mostly unremarked upon in Realms lore. (It gets a mention as a newly-founded palisade town in the 3rd edition Campaign Setting; check Western Heartlands, Green Fields).

There was more smoke than they expected as they came in sight of the town. Were the townsfolk having a strange festival that involved burning their houses? But then it came into view, a huge, dark shape over the town, a dragon! The town was under attack.

My group had no hesitation at all about what to do and led by Elena, Lili’s paladin, they charged into town, seeking to aid the townsfolk from what soon turned out to be a fully-fledged attack, with men and kobolds also participating in the attack against the town. A townswoman carrying a spear ran into view, protecting her children and husband from a gang of eight kobolds, taking hits as the party rushed to her aid. Battle was joined!

Elena and Mordekai, Josh’s tiefling fighter of the Lord’s Alliance, were in the front lines, taking a number of hits from the kobolds, despite Mordekai’s excellent Armour Class (17); the advantage the kobolds had when working in packs was telling against them. “Music”, the tiefling bard played by the other Josh at the table, used the Vicious Mockery cantrip against the kobolds a lot and discovered that it wasn’t all that effective – while it’s great against big, dumb foes (like ogres), against kobolds it doesn’t do enough damage and giving one kobold disadvantage on an attack doesn’t really help when there are seven others just like it!

Guldan, Floyd’s half-orc warlock, was being wildly inaccurate with his eldritch blasts – hitting walls, stray pigeons and cobblestones – and seemingly anything but the kobolds. As he got more and more inaccurate, Jesse helped Floyd understand exactly how to calculate his attack bonus, and his accuracy miraculously increased later in the session, although he still had a goodly run of low numbers.

Danielle was playing a halfing Sorcerer, with the improbable name of Vanilla Ice. Well, that’s what my notes indicate she was playing – I had a lot of memories of her playing a gnome rogue over the past six months. I’m not really sure how much she was using spells, in fact – a light crossbow seemed to be her preferred weapon, and there was a lot of skulking in the shadows.

Finally, Lewis was playing Adran, a wood elf ranger, whose accuracy with his bow far outstripped Guldan’s, who was happily picking off kobolds. It took about three rounds to deal with the first lot of kobolds, and Elena hurried to heal the fallen woman, who was very close to death.

The group were joined by the husband and the children; greetings were hastily made, and the party learnt that the townsfolk had no idea of what was going on – all of a sudden their town had come under attack! They were making for the keep in the centre of town, when the kobolds had caught sight of them and pursued them. Our heroes offered to escort them to the keep, which they gratefully accepted. Adran and Music scouted out in front, and it wasn’t long before more trouble found them: four more kobolds and a pair of humans dressed in leather and wielding scimitars!

One more band of raiders came upon the group as they made their way towards the keep, but both bands were defeated, although not before Gudren found himself attacked by a kobold with wings when he thought himself safe far from the action, and Music was knocked unconscious by the raiders. Elena used another point of her lay on hands ability to get Music moving once more, and the group stumbled into the keep with some relief, with the guards closing and barring the doors behind them as the raiders began to surround the keep and began to attack it in force.

The group were escorted up to the parapet of the keep to the governor of the town, Tarbaw Nighthill, pictured in the adventure book holding a goblet – obviously from happier days. He was now wounded and scarred, with blood and scratches down the right side of his face and he had one arm in a sling.

He thanked the group for their aid; very grateful to have extra aid in the town’s hour of need.

As they conversed, the group became aware of the town’s militia rallying nearby, with a red-headed shield dwarf commanding the soldiers. All were quite agitated, and it soon became obvious why: from the dark sky above, a great blue dragon was heading towards the keep!

And, at that point, we ended the session.

My group probably achieved less than most of the other groups in play, mainly because our start was delayed as I dealt with administrative issues. This won’t be an issue next session, I hope! All the groups reached the keep, some spending more time hunting down raiders, others beginning on the other missions. XP awards for the session were between 100 and 200 for each group in general. This brings us towards one of the odd things about running Hoard as part of D&D Encounters: there is a cap on how much XP can be awarded for each episode. It’s quite likely most groups will hit the cap long before the episode ends. I’m going to leave in the DM’s hands how they deal with this: either ending the episode early without doing every mission, or by continuing on and just not awarding XP. We’ll see what happens.

However, this excess of XP does have a bright side: It will help any players whose characters meet untimely ends, which is not entirely unlikely in this portion of the adventure. We’ve only just begun, and the group is already low on resources. The episode is pretty relentless in its threats, and this is all to the good: we really, really want to impress on the players how scary the cult can be. Will anyone die during the dragon attack? It’s entirely possible.

We’ll find out in a week’s time!

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