Running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, episode 8

The finale of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is exceptionally challenging to run. You’ve got competing factions, a big sprawling castle to explore, and a dragon! All of which means that things can go very well or very badly indeed.

Each of the episodes in Hoard is really an adventure unto itself, changing up the challenges and providing different ways for the players to be heroes. Episode 8 has quite a few similarities to Episode 6, where the PCs are able to get aid from other factions in the location, but it doesn’t provide those options up-front. Instead, the PCs have to find them.

The cloud giant Blagothkus is the key to the players’ chances. Can the party complete the adventure successfully without his aid? It’ll be tricky, that’s for certain.

One potential structure to this episode has the player characters disguising themselves as cultists and sneaking aboard the castle. Then, while it’s flying, they’ll discover the location and identities of the various power groups, likely come to an agreement with Blagothkus, then end up fighting the remaining cultists and Rezmir. Or they might not make alliances and just crash the castle. As with Castle Naerytar, there are a wide range of options here, and your objective is a DM is to present information to the players so that they’re aware of those options.

Of course, if they choose to disregard them and just wade into combat after combat, that’s their prerogative. It’s also your option to just let them have it!

Although this section of the adventure resembles a “keyed” dungeon, it works best if you consider each of the major characters as mobile forces. If the kobolds get killed, the cult is going to eventually notice and Rezmir is going to start investigating herself.

So, let’s have a quick look at the major NPCs and factons:

The Cultists

The chief of the cultists is Rezmir, the half-black dragon who has been one step ahead of the party throughout the adventure. This is the end of her planned storyline; she could appear in Rise of Tiamat, but you’ll have to insert her. The story makes no assumptions about her survival from here in. Rezmir is, by this stage, really pleased with herself. She’s gathered a large hoard of treasure, she’s concluded successful negotiations with the giants, and she’s taking a flying castle to aid the cult. Life has never been better!

As a result, she’s not going to be that happy to find the PCs meddling once again. (“Those meddling kids!”) If they’ve managed to track her so far, what’s happened to the previous stages of her organisation?

One of the key questions to consider about Rezmir is whether she’ll wear the Black Dragon Mask into battle. In my game, she didn’t: keeping it safe was more important than defeating the adventurers. If she wears it, then the final battle against her will likely to be more difficult.

Rezmir is aided by Sandesyl Morgia, a vampire. Sandesyl doesn’t like Rezmir, she hates the new cult, but she’s helping them. Could the party talk her round to aiding them against Rezmir? It’s entirely possible, but I do think it unlikely. Sandesyl does present the DM with one problem, however. When the adventure was written (before the Monster Manual was finalised), a Vampire was a fair (if difficult) challenge for a 7th level party. The final version of the Monster Manual made them a lot tougher. You may want to alter her statistics if the players fight her without additional aid; otherwise it could go quite badly for them.

In my own campaign, I had her sleeping in her tower during the day. The players learnt of her location from Blagothkus, defeated her two Vampire Spawn attendants, and then staked her while she slept. This preserved her potential threat, and allowed a little side-quest in the middle of the main action.

The general cultists are in the barracks, and – as they’re not needed during the flight – tend to remain there, only coming out when battle erupts.

Finally, you have Glazhael, the white dragon. White dragons are notoriously stupid – there’s a great description of thought processes of one in Dragons of Winter Night, where it comes up with a plan of freezing a ship and pushing it into water, not realising that the ship is quite likely to sink. Planning ahead? Not a strong point of the breed. I ran him as wanting to protect the treasure above all things, so he wouldn’t be drawn into a fight “upstairs”.

The Giants

Blagothkus is the owner of the castle, and he is very unhappy with the cult. He’s actually playing a deep game: he wants the giants to unite (probably under his rule), and the best way to get the giants to do that is to threaten them with dragons. So, if the cult manages to summon Tiamat, then the dragons will be enough of a threat that the giants will rise to fight them. (There’s a long-standing rivalry between giants and dragons that stretches back into ancient history in Faerûn). A bit Machiavellian? A little.

The ogres follow Blagothkus, and will do what he tells them. (They’ll take the players to him if they ask nicely).

Blagothkus is worried that the cult might betray him. (With good reason!) The castle flies because it is powered by the spirit of his long-dead wife. She’s not happy with the intruders aboard her castle, so her spirit could be a useful ally if the party manage to encounter her before Blagothkus.

So, if the players get to see Blagothkus, they may well be able to persuade him to start fighting the cult. His main concern is protecting his castle, and after that uniting the giants. The two don’t go together that well. Although the book suggests that he doesn’t help the players directly fight the cult, I changed that in my own running of the adventure, which saw the final fight have the Red Wizard, Rezmir and the cultists fighting Blagothkus, the ogres and the party. Adjust this to best fit your assessment of the party’s capabilities.

The stone giants aboard the castle don’t like the cult, don’t trust Blagothkus’s judgement, but are trying to work out a way through this situation that will cause the giants to come out on top. They might be receptive to the players, but are far more likely to sit things out if allowed.

The Red Wizards

The players have been following one of the Red Wizards, Abjara Jos, since Episode 4. This is still not his time; the Red Wizards are tremendously important at the end of Rise of Tiamat, as they’re the ones to perform the ritual to summon Tiamat, but at the moment they’re just foreshadowing. It’s worth noting that they’re rebels, seeking to gain power by aiding the cult. The Red Wizards in general don’t support this venture.

They’re unlikely to want to lay down their lives for the cult, but Rath Modar (in particular) wants to protect the treasure. Their level of involvement in fighting the characters is very much up to you.

Ways the adventurers can succeed

Ultimately, the goal of this section of the adventure is for the players to stop the treasure and castle reaching the Cult. There are basically three ways to do this:

  • Defeat everyone aboard
  • Persuade Blagothkus to aid them
  • Kill Blagothkus

The last is interesting: If Blagothkus is slain, his spirit replaces his wife’s as the motivating force of the castle, and – his dreams now ruined – he crashes the castle. If this happens, then the party will need a way to escape. (Or perhaps someone able to raise dead, possibly from one of their factions…)

The party aren’t probably high enough level to just fight everyone, so stealth and negotiation are likely to be more successful strategies. Luckily, the cultists won’t realise the players shouldn’t be there unless they draw attention to themselves.

Errata and Clarifications

As noted above, the vampire stats are likely too dangerous for a party; consider altering them so they reflect a CR 7 foe rather the existing foe. Or not.

The village of Parnast map has areas 6 and 7 listed on the map but no keyed encounters in the book. Just ignore the extra numbers on the map.

Thoughts from Steve Winter on the adventure

Steve posted on the Wizards forums recently about the adventures in response to a question about encounter balance, but his answer also illuminates a lot of the philosophy behind the adventure. It seems a fitting way to end this series of articles.

And yes, parts of the adventure are extremely dangerous, especially to rash adventurers and for players who’ve gotten cemented into bad habits. I’m not talking about accidental danger like Cyanwrath’s berserkers or those darned assassins on the road to Waterdeep, but places where traps were intentionally set to test the players, not their characters. This is another decision reached in concert with Wizards. At its most fundamental, D&D is about presenting players with challenges that they must think their way through. Only sometimes will the answer be “roll for initiative.” Other times it will be “talk nicely to the big monster,” and occasionally it will be “everyone back up very quietly.” Every case requires the players to gather information, assess the situation, and weigh the risks and rewards against their characters’ strengths and weaknesses to come up with a viable plan. Sort of like real life. That’s the kind of D&D I enjoy, it’s easy to manage with 5E, and we were happy to get the go-ahead to take that approach with the RoT adventures.

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