At the climax of episode 1 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the weary players may see the champion of the enemy, Cyanwrath, come out before them and issue a challenge: Either the defenders of the village send out a champion to defeat him in mortal combat, or he will execute a family that he has captured.
As he does so, one of the militia-men who has been defending the village realises that it’s his wife and children who have been captured. Despite the fact he’s completely outmatched, he wants to go and duel the enemy’s champion.
If the characters send out someone, that person will likely die. If they let the militia-man go out, he’ll die. If they send no-one out, or try to cheat, the prisoners will be killed.
Yes, Hoard of the Dragon Queen has its very own version of the Kobayashi Maru test.
And, yes, it’s making some people very uncomfortable.
“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario” – James T. Kirk, The Wrath of Khan
We’re not used to having such situations in Dungeons & Dragons. We’re even less used to it these days, when the rise of the Adventure Path format has become so prevalent. In such adventures, you should be able to defeat or avoid every challenge, because otherwise you won’t be able to complete the adventures. Even the idea of challenges you should avoid has become depreciated. It still exists (Ropers are used in both Hoard of the Dragon Queen and the 3E-era adventure Forge of Fury to demonstrate an enemy you should avoid or negotiate with rather than fight), but such challenges are used rarely.
However, it isn’t the first time that such a challenge has come up within the context of D&D. The first time does not occur in an adventure, but within a book: Dragons of Winter Night, the second book of the Dragonlance Chronicles. The characters are faced with a situation where they have the chance to defeat the Dragonarmies attacking the High Clerist’s Tower, but they just need time to prepare.
And one of the heroes goes out, alone, to give them that time.
No! Sturm got hold of himself. Everything was gone: his ideals, his hopes, his dreams. The Knighthood was collapsing. The Measure had been found wanting. Everything in his life was meaningless. His death must not be so. He would buy Laurana time, buy it with his life, since that was all he had to give. And he would die by the Code, since that was all he had to cling to. – Dragons of Winter Night, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The adventure version of this part of the book, DL8: Dragons of War, does not mention this scene, although Sturm does have a dream foreshadowing the possibility in one of the earlier adventures (DL4: Dragons of Desolation). Unusually, for a series famed as being a railroad, it doesn’t railroad a hero into that situation!
Of course, a situation in a book is a long way from the experience at the game table – and that’s a long way from the experience in real life. D&D does things that allow us to do things we could never do in real life. Sacrifice my character’s life for others? That’s a lot easier than sacrificing my own life!
I don’t want to trivialise it. The fact is that many of us become very attached to our characters. Even if we’ve only been playing a character for a few short hours (as is likely when this encounter occurs), losing that character can be painful.
Other players might just shrug it off. It’s fine if a first-level character dies! I can always roll up another one!
Why are you and your friends playing D&D? Are you playing it because you want to have a fun time? Are you playing it because it allows you to act as another person? Are you playing it because you enjoy solving the in-game problems? Are you playing it because of the story you create? There are a myriad of reasons we play D&D. And they’re certainly not all the same.
A mistake (from my perspective) that many people seem to be making is assuming that every situation in D&D should be “fun.” If my ambition is to have nonstop “fun,” I’d be better off playing Lego Star Wars or Whack-a-Mole. D&D can also be thrilling, frightening, inspiring, maddening, depressing, frustrating, immensely gratifying — name a reaction on the human emotional scale and there’s probably a place for it in D&D. The match against Cyanwrath was never meant to be “fun.” It was meant to trigger an emotional response — anger, even hate, and a desire for revenge against the Cult of the Dragon. I haven’t seen much to indicate that it isn’t doing that. – Steve Winter, designer of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, on EN World.
The basic truth is that no adventure can really cater to everyone’s tastes. Hoard of the Dragon Queen goes to places we haven’t seen in a long time – if ever. It is hampered by the fact that the rules were in an incomplete state when it was being written, so there are sections where encounters are far more difficult than they should have been. It also has other problems, but the Cyanwrath encounter plays out pretty much as intended by the authors.
Despite that, it doesn’t mean you have to include it in your game or even run it exactly as written. That is the joy of D&D: it has a Dungeon Master.
McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship. – The Wrath of Khan
In D&D, the players don’t have to rewrite the scenario – although players can be incredibly inventive, and thus bypass the situation – but the Dungeon Master always has the ability to change things so that the game is more enjoyable for all involved. If you don’t like something, change it! The writers of adventures don’t have the luxury of knowing what your group is like. Your privilege and responsibility as a DM is to know your group, and change things to suit it. Of course, when an adventure requires too much changing, it isn’t then worth it for you. (It’s just hard to know that ahead of time!)
The possibility I find more disturbing is that adventure writers should never put in such scenes. I would much prefer to see the boundaries of storytelling with Dungeons & Dragons expanded; for writers to explore the limits of what is possible within the format.
Personally, I very much like the Cyanwrath Challenge. It gives the players a real chance to explore how they approach the game. (And each group will approach it differently.) I hope that if you use it, your players find it a stimulating experience.
(Yes, I know that technically the challenge isn’t actually a dilemma, as there are more than two options for the characters. I just couldn’t come up with a better word. Then too, the challenge does boil down to “Do I go to my death, or do I let innocents die?” That’s a dilemma.)
(There are alternative interpretations of the encounter, that have the challenge not being mortal and Cyanwrath being more reasonable; I’m looking at one particular interpretation of the encounter, albeit one on which I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion).