An Ethical Dilemma in Dungeons & Dragons – the Cyanwrath Challenge

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.

Saavik: How?

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).


  1. shieldhaven

    I’m really enjoying your commentary on HDQ, and especially this post. I have run I think one published adventure in my 21 years of DMing, but this makes me think I’d like to give HDQ a shot.


  2. JesterOC

    What are the odds the the PC actually dying when the mayor will give a healing potion to the PCs and his/her party members should be able to reach them within 1 round of falling.


  3. Wrathamon

    Depends on “if” they can get to him within 1 round. Depends on where they stand during the fight. It might be more rounds. Also, Cyanwrath CAN instantly kill a player by hitting negative HPs and he does cause an extra death save. It might be better odds then a coin toss if the player lives, but it’s not a given.


  4. Andrew Jones

    I played through that encounter and I think the bit that was frustrating about it was not just that it was an unwinnable scenario (as was the bit with the dragon before) but that nothing really telegraphed that it was going to be unwinnable. We spent a good half hour agonizing over how to defend the keep and considerable time plotting about what to do about the challenge. And then the plot stepped in and said nevermind, you wasted your time.

    I can understand why such a circumstance builds enmity against a baddie that motivates players to be involved with and continue the story. But this particular instance was not very satisfying to actually play.

    I have wrestled with this in my own adventures, I would like to have a TPK that wipes out a low level party and then have them be intercepted on the way to the afterlife and somehow end up in Sigil, later after making their way there and becoming more powerful giving them the option of heading back to generic fantasy land to take revenge on their killer. But I can’t find a way to do it that is not A. a complete plot railroad and B. breaks the contract between DM and player that challenges will be somewhat fair. Killing PCs is super easy, any 8 year old can do it. Making it entertaining is hard.

    If that makes me someone who would rather cheat than lose the unwinnable challenge, I can live with that.


    • merricb

      So much of running the encounter well relies on good communication from the Dungeon Master; you need to be aware that Cyanwrath is dangerous for the encounter to have the proper effect.

      It isn’t like you *can’t* defeat Cyanwrath; it’s just quite unlikely, especially if you’re still first level.


    • reasonfreely

      I like your adventure hook. Have you considered just telling the players in advance that this was the campaign premise, then asking THEM how they would like to get their characters into a TPK situation?


  5. Rhenny/Neechen

    First Merric, I love your article.

    We were 2nd level (playing in our home game our DM leveled us up in the middle of the night when we had enough xp), but the fighter still went down in 1 round. We loved it. Of course, we were lucky that Cyanwrath did not crit or use his breath weapon.

    I think D&D games are more than just fight the monster, win and take its stuff. The way the PC in our group stood up to that Half-Dragon, even going down in 1 round, made him a legend in Greenest (and it made a more interesting story). He felt good because he saved the family and we felt good because we were there to stabilize his wounds and pick up his unconscious body.

    Now, we have a villain that we can look out for in the future. Maybe when we are higher level we can get back at Cyanwrath. We’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Josh

    I have to agree that the idea of an emotional encounter that details quite quickly how deadly the enemy can be is a great thing… I think the biggest issue is the lack of discussion in the adventure (and with no DMG present at this time) about how to portray this or what do do for the characters… I have been looking at games like FATE where there are other effects besides Death when something is a failure.. and this is a great instance for that… if the PCs buck up and go out to face the half-dragon, then maybe he doesn’t chop their heads off, but scars them, or takes their precious family heirloom sword, or knocks them down to 1 HP and then walks over them taunting the rest of the party one by one to come and “finish this”… in almost no situation that I would run this would the end result just be “brave PC dead (really dead, not just mostly dead), half-dragon fine, rest of party staring in disbelief”… but that is me… and my party. And if the author spent more time discussing this encounter, I think it could be a great thing for most games. Great article! thanks!


  7. Darren

    In the days where many people’s exposure to the fantasy genre is most recently Game of Thrones, I think a potential epic death scene is much more accepted than it would previously have been.

    I think the biggest issue with Cyanwrath is his potential to sour the experience for new players, and since this is the first adventure for a brand new edition its quite a risk. If i was running this with brand new first level characters i would probably be fudging things in the players favor (as far as survival goes).

    What CW does do that i like is instill the fear of death into players early. They are reminded that there are consequences and dangers and they are not invincible juggernaughts of doom.

    It is also potentially a great moral dilemma, save the innocents or risk actually losing something. In rpgs, if the charactets are just murderhobos, then their life is the only thing they have that is of any real value or consequence.

    I have worked Cyanwrath into the story on a deeper level using, of all things, the trinkets.

    One player rolled 100, the urn. We came up with a great backstory. It contains the remains of her friend and companion Stawicki, a red dragon born who ironically died in a fire. She is taking the urn to stawicki’s parents, giving her a reason to be sucked into the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.

    Stawickis father will not take the news well, he never aproved of his son becoming an adventuring bard , will blame her for his death, and will leave to join the cult that has been harassing him to join (esp since another PC wears his trinket, a symbol of an unknown god, which will turn out to be the cult of the dragons symbol), and take a new name, Sanguinewrath (his son was a red after all). Guess who he will call out some time later when he returns at the head of an army?

    Investment and tragedy all tied up with a little creative DMimg. She will try to talk him down, but she will realise he is gone and must be stopped, he no longer cares for anything except lashing out at he world that took his son.

    Cyan-i mean Sanguinewrath becomes a powerful focus for the group. He may or may not kill the PC, but damn the players are gonna remember him for a long time. If she survives, i will let her choose what scar she now bears to always remember the incident and how close she came to death. When they meet him again do they try to save him again or become like him and give in to vengeance…

    In the adventure as written, there isnt time to set up this level of investment. Were the Cyanwrath incident to occur later and with much more foreshadowing and PC involvement the incident could easily become an epic tragedy, and the most memorable and emotional part of the adventure.


    • merricb

      In theory, they’re level 1 during Cyanwrath’s encounter. Possibly 2nd level, if the DM is being kind. (Btw, Revivify is a level 3 spell, so the Cleric needs to be level 5).


      • Caleb

        I’m DMing this campaign and decided to implement the optional 5 minute short-rest, 1 hour long-rest rule because of how difficult everyone online said this episode is. They went around killing EVERYTHING. No stealth. Just fighting.

        I mean, they do have a human fighter who deals 10 damage minimum and can basically attack twice (Great Weapon Fighter w/ Great Weapon Master feat), and a halfling druid (turning into a brown bear is CRAZY powerful). Instead of coming up with a plan to save the people in the temple in the “Sanctuary” mission, they just fought all the enemies and sent the wizard with all the townspeople to the secret tunnel. Then they rampaged through town with the monk riding the druid as a brown bear followed by the fighter (now nicknamed the Bear of Steel). Until they ran into Mondath and fled for the keep, barely surviving.

        So now they’re level 3. The 5 minute short rest / 1 hour long rest option was maybe a bad idea, but we’ve all had tons of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing if the fighter or the druid will take on the challenge in our next session…I really want the fighter to though. Cyanwrath and the Fighter are perfectly matched with their greatsword’s attack and damage rolls (though Cyanwrath has multiattack). With some clever thinking and magical buffs (and luck) they might actually win.


  8. valberto

    Not that I want to brag about (lie, I want to), but my players were able to overcome this challenge. Without my help, without “reprogram the computer” without cheating, using only logic and a good plan.
    The group consists of six adventurers: a human warrior, a dwarf cleric, one Duida elf, a half-orc barbarian (female), a rogue halfling and a human warlock.
    What they fizerm? The druid used his powers to locate the kidnapped along with the rogue and managed to rescue the hostages family. Meanwhile the half orc was sent to face Cyanwrath. What did she do? Gained time for the rescue could be accomplished. When the hostages were safe, she not only fought with Cyanwrath, but with the help of others who were hiding out there managed to defeat him.
    For here we do not believe this story “situation that can not be won.” I’m very proud of my players.


    • merricb

      D&D is fascinating because of the different approaches that can be taken to it; with a different DM, everything could end in failure. Enabling the plans of your players to give a memorable experience is everything that you, as the DM, should be doing. Congratulations!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Mike

    I’ve been running this as the Wednesday Encounters session at our FLGS. We have two brand new players in the campaign that came in specifically with he launch of 5e, as well as three more that have only a few months experience with RPGs. Two of these players are kids just shy of being teenagers. Everyone had enough experience to level up to 2nd at the end of the previous session.

    Of course it’s one of the brand new players who decided to have her warrior step up to Cyanwrath’s challenge. Due to good rolls on her part, and bad rolls on the part of CW, she lasted three rounds before falling. She was crestfallen thinking she had just lost her character. The rest of us explained that she was unconscious and on her way to dying. She was allowed to live, but I made sure CW mocked the party mercilessly as weaklings before walking off. I’m specifically trying to NOT ruin the experience for these new players with an early player kill. After the session she asked “Was I supposed to be able to win that fight?” I told her “No, you were supposed to lose, and hate that guy until you can track him down later.”

    If this was our regular weekend game group, I’d have handled it differently. They are all experienced with several years and multiple RPGs under their belts. Then again, that group’s more likely to cheat the enemy and figure out a way to break the encounter as written. Different groups definitely call for different handling.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. alexandresystema

    I had an interesting experience with this one : in my group a Drakeid Paladin took the challenge.
    Cyanwrath attacks… Natural 1 ! I state that he slips in the mud in front of the player.
    Instead of using this as an opportunity to attack the player said “I let him get up”, acting as an honorable paladin (yeah, instant Inspiration gain)

    Cyanwrath attacks again and… natural 1 again ! I state that he’s so angry that he manages to loose his sword. The paladin just point his sword to him and says “that’s enough, you lost, no go back to your men and let these people go”.

    I never want to play or run a diceless game again ^o^

    Liked by 3 people

  11. peternbiddle

    One of my guys didn’t even let CW finish his sentence – he just charged straight in at him. The rest of the party said “they clearly are going to kill the hostages anyway” and they went in right behind him.

    End result was all the hostages died in the first round and the party managed to kill CW. After the battle I gave them a Persuasion roll even though the book says it’s an automatic fail because they did a particularly admirable (and highly risky) job rescuing townsfolk.

    The high-charisma Persuasion character then rolled a natural 20 so I let most of the town accept the deaths of the hostages as a cost of war. I’m probably going to use the families of the dead hostages later as part of a revenge sub-plot, but I can’t really fault the parties approach.

    Now I have to deal with the fact that they refused to infiltrate the camp which resulted in Leosin dying. They treated it as if they were guerrilla fighters and the camp was organized military. With all that open grassland terrain to run and hide in that made them very hard to deal with for the cult, who ultimately just nailed a note to Leosin’s forehead and packed up camp and left while the party was resting during the day.

    Liked by 1 person

      • peternbiddle

        This particular group has been playing together for nearly 30 years. As a party they bitch, complain, argue, talk over and completely ignore each other (all at the same time) while half of them read things on their phones and the rest quote new 5E rules as if they’ve been canon for decades… They do this up until it’s show time and then they become a perfectly oiled killing machine without really talking things thru at all.

        The main combat issue I have with them now is that at 4th level any monsters with enough HP to endure them for more than a round or two can kill them with one or two good rolls. It’s a delicate balance because they put out so much efficient hurt but only a couple of them can really eat a lot of damage.

        I added an ex-child-sex-slave Gnome NPC to support a sex-slavery sub plot (the cult is trying to move in on the Zhentarim organized crime with a sex-slave business that involves kidnapping gnomes and halflings and passing them off as human children for perverted sickos) that is working well to move things forward. She showed up in an encounter on the way to Greenest. I was worried they wouldn’t be upset enough about dragons (scared yes, but they might not take dragons *personally*) so I added that. I think it will have legs as a plot device outside the dragon story arc. The NPC keeps killing (and torturing) every cultist they capture as an act of revenge and that’s keeping things interesting as well.


  12. m.kelter

    I actually took this guy out. I was level 2 and freshly rested, and playing as a paladin of Torm, I had to fight! So I went out and me and my DM faced off. Open rolls for him as we sat across the table from each other. His first roll missed me, so my first attack was a holy smite, it was a critical hit. I roll max damage for both my attack roll and the smite damage (36 total!) He blew his lightning breath on me and I saved for half. Then another critical smite, only this time it was a few points under. A few more misses from him and I finished Cyanwrath off.
    Now my DM has the lower cult members run away from my Paladin when they see me and hear my characters name.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. BarbelGray

    When my players went up against Cyanwrath, the blue dragonborn warlock (Reik) stepped up because the other players weren’t willing to. Cyanwrath downs him with one blow, begins to release prisoners and take his leave when the tiefling fighter (Xerakos, bound to the warlock’s service) challenges Cyanwrath. I play Cyanwrath as a man of his word and tell the fighter that his dominance has already been established and defeating the teifling as well would not be honorable or necessary. The tiefling begins taunting him, calling him coward, weakling. Cyanwrath commands him to stand down or he will pay dearly. Tiefling doesn’t heed him, proceeds to pull his swords.

    Cyanwrath commands the family slain by the kobolds and the blue dragon to topple the keep, killing everyone inside. As the keep falls, Cyanwrath downs each member of the party. The paladin lasts the longest. Cyanwrath stabs the greatsword he was using into the ground and walks off with his platoon of kobolds. The tiefling saves from his incapacitation, second winds, and crits on Cyanwrath. Cyanwrath turns to him, dex checks to catch the tiefling’s scimitar, strength checks and snaps it in half, then lightning breaths, incapacitating the tiefling again. Cyanwrath leaves then, the defenders and townsfolk of Greenest dying in his wake. The other party members stabilize and carry the tiefling with them as they leave what’s left of Greenest behind them.

    My players very dearly want to take Cyanwrath down.


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