The fourth episode of Hoard of the Dragon Queen sends the group off on the quest that will continue for the rest of the adventure. It’s just a little bit important the players understand what they’re in for, and that’s the purpose of the initial meeting with Leosin and Onthar in Elturel. Both of these characters will be tremendously important in The Rise of Tiamat, but they’re not going to get that much more screen time this adventure. Try to make it count!
So, what points do you need to hit here?
- Leosin is a member of the Harpers, and wants the group to join the Harpers
- Onthar is a member of the Order of the Gauntlet, and wants the group to join the Order of the Gauntlet
Both want the group to discover two things:
- Where are the cultists taking the treasure?
- Why do they want the treasure?
The structure of the rest of the adventure is important to understand at this stage. The players are going to be following the caravan all the way up the Sword Coast to the ruins of Castle Naerytar, which they should have learnt about from the instructions to Mondath in the previous episode (although it’s quite possible they think that Naerytar is a person, not a place). After that, they’ll continue to follow the treasure through the portal to the flying castle of the cloud giant, at which point they need to realise that they’ve reached the end of the quest; hijacking the treasure rather than continuing to follow it to the Well of Dragons is the best policy.
And this causes problems with the structure of the adventure. The solution comes in episode 7, but it isn’t spelt out as what needs to happen when the party reaches that point. It’s in episode 7 that the two questions should get answered, and the hijacking or crashing of the castle comes as a coda to the main plot. However, for the adventure to work properly, Leosin and Onthar have to emphasise that the goal of the party is not to bring down the cult; they’ll be unable to. No, it’s about gathering information. Once the group know where and why, they need to get back home and tell everyone what they’ve learnt.
Most of the running of chapter four is concerned with the road trip the party (and cultists) are on. From Elturel to Baldur’s Gate to Waterdeep. As much as anything, this is about showing the Forgotten Realms to the players as forwarding the plot. The cultists escorting the treasure are hardly developed in this chapter; their leader doesn’t even get a name! We called him Cultist Bob in our game – which is actually a reference more to Doctor Who than the Simpsons.
Although the adventure gives a random table for determining encounters on the Trade Way, you almost certainly shouldn’t be rolling on it. Although this episode may feel something of a relief after the tense adventure of the first part of the adventure, this should be a temporary state. This is your opportunity as a DM to build tension, to build up the adventure, and bring in themes and characters that will be important later on. And one of the ways to do that is to select the encounters the group face.
Not all of the encounters need to be linked into the major quest. There are plenty of opportunities for encounters that give you a view of the world. However, the best encounters are those that allow the players to interact with NPCs and each other. (During one of the attacks in my campaign, a merchant became very annoyed that the person they’d hired to guard them was pursuing monsters into the woods instead of remaining at their post!)
Steve and Wolfgang have given you a lot of options when it comes to the merchants and guards of the caravan. You’re very unlikely to use them all. (In fact, the caravan might not be that big!) Even if they are with the caravan, pick and choose a few to fully bring to life; a few well-realised characters will be far more memorable than a lot of briefly mentioned ones.
There are four planned events that should happen along the road. The first one (Recognised!) is much better handled by role-playing than just the roll of the die. This encounter sets up tension between the cultists and the characters, and it’s a good one to play fairly early. If you handle it right, you may be able to set up a low-level of tension and suspicion between the cultists and the players.
The second, third and fourth events, “Unwanted Attention”, “Who’s your Friend” and “Murder Most Foul” introduce Jamna Gleamsilver, an agent of the Zhentarim. The Zhentarim, traditionally one of the big foes in the Forgotten Realms, are now one of the major player factions. They’re not nice people, but they’re very results and profit-orientated. The Cult is causing trouble for them, so – for the time being – they’ll be helping the group. This is one of those relationships that can be a bit tricky to run; it’d be good to have the party uneasy about working with the Zhents, but you don’t want them categorically refusing their aid.
Jamna has an interesting arc in the adventure: she has a few rather major acts in the next chapter or three, but then disappears out of the text altogether. This is not a mistake! Instead, by now she’s fulfilled her plot duties and is entirely a NPC under your control. You can have her continue to accompany the party, or to head off home afterwards. I’ll talk more about this transition later. For now, Jamna should be fun for you to play and for the players to interact with.
By the end of this episode, the players should have new allies, but have likely raised the suspicions of the cultists.
Errata and Clarifications:
The Trade Way Encounters table has a couple of errors: “The Golden Hind” should be “The Golden Stag” and “High Holy Day” should be “Payback.
No Room at the Inn erroneously lists “assassins” for their stats. This is likely to prove a bit too challenging for the party at this level (although I know parties who have managed). The stat-block for assassin changed between writing and release. Instead use Veterans or any Challenge 3-5 monsters, giving them disguises as necessary.